Empire of Chaos: How 9/11 Shaped the Politics of a Failing State
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The events made my mind reel. The angry plumes of smoke, office paper raining like confetti, tumbling windows flashing in the sunlight. I could make out jumpers and watched a jet fighter whoosh by the burning towers, bank and disappear. I thought, “This is like a movie.”
It upset me that my only way to comprehend the events was to reference the Hollywood imaginarium. But it was understandable. Where else would I have seen images resembling the war in my backyard – collapsing skyscrapers, gigantic fireballs and thousands of dead?
The need to make sense of the events of Sept. 11 – the plot by al-Qaeda, four hijacked airliners, the demolished twin towers and nearly 3,000 dead – is universal. It is why the state’s first task after 9/11 – before one bomb dropped, one soldier deployed – was to imprint the “war on terror” on the collective American mindset.
Mere hours after the attack, in his address to the nation, President Bush began assembling the ideological scaffolding for endless war: “America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world”; “our nation saw evil”; “the American economy will be open for business”; “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them”; and “we stand together to win the war against terrorism.”
Many of the ideas that have shaped the events and policies of the first decade of the war on terror are right there: American exceptionalism, they hate us for our freedoms, capitalism will triumph, and this war will know no geographic or temporal bounds.
These ideas were bundled into the “New American Century,” the neoconservative dream to extend Pax Americana indefinitely. Ten years later that dream has evaporated as the United States is being battered by an economic depression that shows no end. The only question appears to be how quickly America will be eclipsed by China. So how did we get from the triumphalism of “mission accomplished” to the twilight of American Empire?
In essence, the responses to 9/11 by the managers of the corporate-military state, which were largely shaped by ideology, have accelerated a decline that started decades ago. After World War II, U.S. hegemony was based on its ability to order the world. Today, U.S. power is dominant but waning, and its main effect is that of disorder – internationally and domestically. And that disorder is eroding the military, economic, political and diplomatic foundations of its rule.
While there is no certainty that China will usher in a Pacific Century – in the 1980s it was “the Japan threat” that generated U.S. anxiety – American Empire will continue to decay if for no other reason than its economic base has been hollowed out and new power blocs are taking shape across the world.
After WWII, the United States wielded all manner of institutions and ideology in establishing global rule: the Bretton Woods Agreement ordered the world economy, the dollar was the reserve currency, the United Nations legitimized undemocratic big-power rule, the Pentagon and threat of nuclear weapons served as the instruments of violence, the transnational corporation combined with U.S. government aid opened and created new capitalist markets, and anti-Communism undermined and isolated mass anti-capitalist forces in the West. Finally, the compact between capital and labor provided for social welfare, generous benefits and increasing wages so workers could enjoy the consumer bounty in return for purging the left from unions and helping squelch labor movements in the Third World.
By the 1970s that system was fraying. The wealth held by the top 1 percent was plunging because of economic stagnation in the core capitalist economies. Relatively generous social welfare states in the West combined with demands from radicalized minority groups and women for a share of the pie plus assertive decolonized nations in the Third World were squeezing capital.
Neoliberalism was the solution, and Ronald Reagan sold it with slogans like “government is the problem.” But Americans first had to buy the idea that freedom flowed organically from the market, and that government’s role was to maximize opportunity – by “getting out of the way” – so we could succeed or fail by our own initiative.
For all the talk about the rule of markets, neoliberalism was about an upward transfer of wealth. By 1990 wealth and income for the super-rich was near pre-WWII levels. And government was central to that the wealth transfer by imposing austerity on Third World countries, bombing rogue states back into submission, policing and surveilling the domestic front, and perhaps most important, bailing out capital due to the endemic financial bubbles unleashed by deregulation.
Social welfare drew the ire of neoliberal ideologues, which is ironic because that is precisely what would level a grossly slanted playing field. Reagan, America’s avuncular bigot, traded in stereotypes like teenage mothers, welfare cheats, gangbangers and illegal immigrants. He spun yarns about welfare queens driving Cadillacs, “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps and social programs that were “demeaning” and “insulting” to Blacks and Latinos. His rose-colored racism helped convince a critical mass of the public that hacking away at social welfare was somehow in their interest, not that of the oligarchy.
Similarly, the war on terror needed its own brand of white supremacist ideology. Hollywood did its part before Sept. 11 with hundreds of movies replete with Orientalist imagery, as documented in books like Reel Bad Arabs. One writer observed about the popular image of the Arab, “He is robed and turbaned, sinister and dangerous, engaged mainly in hijacking airlines and blowing up public buildings.”
Other ideas found new currency after 9/11 like the “clash of civilizations” thesis. Bush could not endorse it outright, needing the support of Arab and Muslim states to wage global war, but he gave it credence by speaking of “a struggle for civilization” involving a fight “between tyranny and freedom.” With Obama in the White House, the right no longer has to worry about the consequences of acting irresponsibly, and many have unabashedly donned the mantle of Islamophobia, the barnyard version of the clash of civilizations.
It has long been a given that the war on terror is a meaningless phrase – how do you wage war on an abstract noun? – but that abstraction is useful. It obscures the concreteness of this war, that it is waged against Muslim people. And warring against an idea rather than a movement, a people, a nation enables the war to continue endlessly. The killing of bin Laden was just another way marker. Hilary Clinton proclaimed, “the battle to stop al-Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden. [We must] redouble our efforts.”
Another pernicious idea is “everything changed.” It assumes American exceptionalism. Everything could have changed only if the United States was the only country that mattered. All at once, it denies history, marks a closing of “the end of history” – the alleged triumph of the market and liberal democracy – and restarts the historical clock anew.
Everything changed really meant nothing had changed except the complete unshackling of state power. The latest renewal of the Patriot Act, until 2015, retains the National Security letters, roving wiretaps, sweeping record gathering and “lone wolf” provisions. Direct military spending now in excess of $1 trillion annually combined with domestic austerity is whittling down the state to purely repressive functions of policing, surveillance, detention and war. The United States is openly bombing six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. It has deployed Special Operations forces to 75 countries as part of “a largely secret U.S. war against al-Qaeda and other radical groups,” according to theWashington Post. And it continues to expand its global network of rendition, secret prisons and torture.
The forces of the state, corporate interests and their propagandists in academia and the media undoubtedly had a tremendous of amount of power to popularize the post-9/11 mindset, especially given how it was underpinned by racist narratives and an imperial system. But it’s easy to forget there was a popular and viable counter-narrative before 9/11.
The mass protests that derailed the WTO ministerial in Seattle in 1999 marked a coming out moment for the alter-globalization movement. It was a true global phenomenon, it proclaimed “another world is possible,” and it had capitalist globalization on the defensive ideologically and in the streets.
The reality that neoliberalism benefited an elite few, while the rest of humanity coped with the social and ecological devastation, was inspiring tens of thousands to nonviolently shut down meetings of institutions like the WTO, IMF and G-8 that regulate the global capitalist order.
The World Bank-IMF meeting for late September 2001 in Washington, D.C., had been cancelled ahead of time (according to an inside source) because it was decided police forces would be unable to control the tens of thousands of people expected in the streets. Organizers were preparing to take the fight directly to capital with a global day of action against multiple stock exchanges in November 2001. Another reminder of elite fear at the time was that the New York Times speculated that anarchists were behind the 9/11 hijackings and attacks.
Thus, 9/11 was a godsend for Empire. It could construct a harsher authoritarian order at home and embark on a “New American Century” overseas. There was nothing pre-ordained about this, particularly the rapid collapse of the U.S.-based alter-globalization movement. But there was a logic to it.
Market fundamentalism is a centrifugal force. We live in a society where profit and cost-benefit analysis dominate social relations – just look at what is happening to public education. Subjecting everything to market forces tears apart the social forces the state relies upon to rule, like nation, community, kinship and spirituality. As the social order started to fragment by the 1970s, a social glue was needed, which is provided by neoconservatives. David Harvey explains in A Brief History of Neoliberalism that the neocons promote a militarized order as the solution to the chaos of the market, and they seek to restore “higher-order values that will form the stable center of the body politics” such as cultural nationalism, family values and Evangelical Christianity. This reliance on a militarized order, argues Harvey, makes the neocons tend to highlight external threats real or perceived, which justifies and expands the corporate-military state.
The Cold War ideology was the free market, democratic liberalism and anti-communism. The post-9/11 ideology updates the militarization and moralism with new categories such as the war on terror, everything’s changed and Islamophobia. It’s remarkably crude – “they hate us for our freedoms” – but it works.
Far from reviving Empire abroad or the economy at home, the war on terror has sapped American power. The obvious beneficiary is China, but it lacks the tools of global rule that the United States still possesses, especially the Pentagon and the dollar, but it is catching up economically.
As evidenced by the global economic rut, China’s hybrid system of authoritarian state-organized capitalism has proved far more resilient than the U.S. system of predatory private corporations. China can enter cutting-edge markets like high-speed rail, solar panel, wind turbine and lithium battery manufacturing and through use of robust state subsidies and planning become the world leader in all of them in barely a decade.
Despite the growing Sinophobia, shown by the hand-wringing over Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, China is in no position to challenge U.S. hegemony. Other than Russia, major regional powers like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and India are in the American camp. China is spreading around its currency, the Renminbi, for settling international trade, but it will likely take decades to supplant the U.S. dollar and Treasury securities. The United Nations may be moribund, but Washington can still bend it to its needs most of the time, and China’s military is decades behind the Pentagon. Perhaps most important, China does not offer a social order that differs in how work, public, educational and community life are organized, and in fact has adopted many of the harshest practices of 19th century capitalism.
At the same time, the United States is unable to order the world so that social benefits are disbursed to the middle classes not just the upper crust. It can spread disorder as evidenced by the six countries tormented by America’s video-game bombing campaigns, but it’s ability to conquer and rule on land is minimal given the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires. Its control of the skies, outer space and electronic mediums allows it to disrupt but not to dominate.
This has given rise to new power configurations. Latin America’s left turn had made the IMF irrelevant in that region, undermining the U.S.-organized financial order. The Arab Spring has eroded the U.S. political order in the Middle East and gives lie to the Orientalist ideology that Arab and Muslim nations are irrational, violent and backward. Turkey and Egypt are pulling away from being Israel’s watchdogs and provide a buffer against a U.S.-orchestrated attack on Iran. And the spread of popular public occupations now to Europe echoes the period when another world did seem possible. Another hopeful sign is that more U.S.-based organizing is opting for occupations rather than legal, polite and ineffective protests.
The disorder is felt profoundly on the home front. Beginning in the 1980s IMF austerity was for the periphery – from Latin America to East Asia. The austerity has now moved to Greece, Ireland, Spain, Great Britain and the United States. The ideology is the same here as it is in the Third World: when choosing between the health of bondholders and the health of human societies, the bondholders always win and profits must keep flowing to the banks.
The repression of left and progressive dissent has left the state in the hands of a fanatical right wing and their corporate allies. The U.S. political system is unable to respond to the needs of rational capitalists. On Aug. 26, at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke pointed to the housing crisis, political dysfunction and the “extraordinarily high level of long-term unemployment” as the main symptoms crippling the economy. Warren Buffet has been pleading for the government to raise taxes on the super-rich like him. Influential economist Nouriel Roubini said in August that in the last few years there has been “a massive redistribution of income from labor to capital, from wages to profit … Karl Marx had it right, at some point capitalism can self-destroy itself.”
Bill Gross, a Republican and a chief investment officer of the “giant bond fund Pimco,” recently told the New York Times that to “arrest America’s dangerous economic slide” government currently needs to provide refinancing relief for homeowners, provide loans to small business, which the banks are not providing, and most of all, rebuild the nation’s decaying roads, bridges and airports so the government can create jobs directly because the “private sector is not going to do it.”
So even as some of the chief managers and intellectuals of American capitalism are calling for government jobs, higher taxes on the rich and more stimulus to bail out the economy, the political class is busy force-feeding us austerity coated in trillion-dollar war budgets.
Not that this is entirely irrational. The staggering amounts of money spent on war, spying, the military, mercenaries, policing and all the other security apparatuses creates many millions of jobs. Add to that secondary contracting, support services and economic activity generated by all these workers and you have millions of jobs more. And given all their dependents, this means tens of millions of Americans benefit directly from the war economy. This is a wasteful form of Keynesianism, employing school teachers and healthcare workers is far more beneficial to society and the world than building drones and airport X-ray scanners, but the huge economic base that is the American way of war is part of the reason it’s so hard to dismantle.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed that Empire abroad requires tyranny at home. The post-9/11 police state has proved useful in suppressing “enemies”: the threat within, Arab and Muslim communities; the social threat, the left; and the demographic threat, Latinos. All have come under severe repression in the last decade, Arab- and Muslim-Americans most of all.
Ten years on, ideology has outlasted the relevance of the events of 9/11. Islamophobia serves to mobilize support for an endless war. Suppressing the left has scattered radical social opposition to the dominant order, and the war against Latino immigrants has created shadow armies of fearful workers with few rights that corporations prey on to drive down wages and further impede labor organizing.
As tragic as September 11, 2001 was, it is a historical blip because it only speeded up the process of imperial decline. Shortly after the attacks, the historian Immanuel Wallerstein suggested the American hegemony could go down one of two paths. The first was managing a soft decline. The other was a crash landing. It’s not hard to see which path we’ve been on since 9/11.