– Jeremy Azrael, RAND Corporation, 1990
For a decade after the Cold War, commentators and sloganeers alike congregated around the word ‘globalization’ and the associated idea that we were entering a new phase of human time. The end of Soviet communism was supposed to have brought with it the end of ideological struggle and even, according to a significant few, history itself. All nations were now part of the same wagon train, en route to the same liberal and democratic destination. Every society would gradually become more like the front-runners in this westward progress. Temporality and geography were finally at one as the American Century began in earnest. We were all going to California.
The future promised by the globalizers, as the French philosopher Jacques Rancière once noted, was to be ‘nothing but an expansion of the present’. Clinton might have taken the Fleetwood Mac lyric ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’ as the unofficial slogan of his 1992 presidential election campaign but from now on tomorrow was to be much like today, only more so. There were to be no more surprises. Politicians would have to adopt a proper modesty before the majesty of the bond market. Not because the bond markets were forcing them to do what they wanted to do anyway, but because of globalization. Workers would have to work harder for less money. Not because that’s what their employers wanted, but because of globalization. Banks would have to be deregulated and allowed to merge for the same reason, so that they could compete globally. The years passed in wild talk about information superhighways, comparative advantage and the Third Way. And while nothing now would ever change, novelty was everywhere. We had New Democrats, New Labour, even, for a giddy moment, a New Economy.
Globalization and its attendant stories had been extremely effective. They explained everything that needed to be explained and crowded out everything that was best kept on the margins. The intellectual culture in America revelled in the excitement and their productions found an eager audience in the rest of the English-speaking world. What was on offer in the work of Thomas Friedman and similar writers was a mix of enthusiasm, delirious phrase-making and anecdote that fell far short of explaining what was going on. The actual operations of the global financial system were considered far too complicated for the general public to understand. For all the talk of economic rationality this was a time of faith in authority. Mathematics assured the laity that someone somewhere was keeping a tally.
While Friedman and the rest were chattering about silicon chips, lobbyists were pushing complicated arguments for capital market liberalization behind closed doors. For a while it seemed that the combination – gee-whizz technology and intimidating technocracy – would convert victory over communism into a triumph for the investing class. While the financial system grew ever more corrupt and unstable we read cover stories in Time magazine about clever men forming committees to save the world. Dauntingly clever people were in charge of a realm beyond mere politics.
But by the late summer of 2001, globalization was in deep trouble. The spokesmen for a new era of limitless growth had tried to persuade us that the problems in Latin America and Asia could be solved if governments tried to become more like America, or more like the version of America peddled by the International Monetary Fund. But the end of the boom in technology stocks in March 2000 made it more difficult to push that line with a straight face. In the United States many people who had been buoyed up by euphoria in the stock market or soothed by Clinton’s hopeful rhetoric were starting to think about tomorrow in a different way altogether. And as consumer confidence in America waned, the world was facing the prospect of a major recession.
The sudden decrepitude of the New Economy wasn’t the only, or even the main, problem. By 2001 the intellectual underpinnings of liberalization were on the verge of collapse. The removal of barriers to international investment had been central to America’s grand strategy during Clinton’s two terms in office. At its most persuasive globalization made what Wall Street wanted indistinguishable from historical necessity, economic rationality and the sheer thrill of being young. But even the graduates of America’s top universities were beginning to notice that the countries least receptive to American policy advice fared best in the financial crises that came with increasing regularity as the decade wore on. The so-called Washington Consensus was no longer as convincing as it had been.
At Seattle in 1999 a protest movement was able to bring opposition to transnational business and finance to the attention of a global audience. Early in 2001 the former Chief Economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, went on the record with a damning attack on the International Monetary Fund and orthodox development economics. Liberals and radicals were beginning to converge on critique of the global economic and political settlement. In July of the same year large numbers of demonstrators confronted the liberal capitalist managers of the global economy at the G8 summit in Genoa. Politicians still tried to exude calm authority but it was becoming more and more difficult for them to meet away from the reek of tear gas.
Once terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, globalization as a collection of legitimating stories was no longer needed. Its imminent bankruptcy suddenly ceased to matter. Everything had changed again. The Bush administration told us that we had entered a new age, in which old ideas and assumptions would have to be cast aside. All the talk of newness was suddenly old. History was back in the shape of militant, medieval Islam. The era of globalization had depended on the prestige of complexity in academic economics and in the software used by big banks to manage their global businesses. That prestige was in terminal decline. Now the Bush administration resorted to the state’s last, best magic, the mystery of war.
The Wall Street Journal explained to investors what the attacks meant in an editorial published on 24 September, 2001:
Remember the anti-trade demonstrators? They were the top item in the news before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. Now they have receded to the netherworld where we have tucked all the things that seemed important then.
The antitrade demonstrators weren’t the top item in the news before the terrorist attacks, of course. Broadcasters and newspapers didn’t go out of their way to explain what the protests were saying. When they did mention the uproar in Seattle or Genoa they were quick to point out the incoherence and general lack of respectability of those involved. Politicians and conventional economists were on hand to explain to everyone who would listen that the people on the streets outside the summit venues were conservatives, or maniacs, or the dupes of sinister cult leaders.
But demonstrators had clearly been worrying the Wall Street Journal and its readers. They had known full well that the supposedly ramshackle mobs on the streets were winning the argument. But after 9/11 the spectre of a mass movement dedicated to economic democracy and global justice vanished. The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates and postponed recession by encouraging an orgy of debt-fuelled consumption. The Bush administration used the War on Terror to justify the same trade and development policies pursued by Clinton. The upward transfer of wealth continued.
It wasn’t just investors. Liberals could be heard warning the anti-globalization movement to watch its step. Peter Beinart, the editor of the New Republic, explained that ‘the nation was now at war’. It was one thing to demonstrate against the policies of the United States and its allies in a time a peace. Now terrorists had attacked the country and protesters would have to proceed with care; after all, he told his readers, ‘political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity’.
The combination of intellectual argument and spectacular confrontation that had so rattled the leaders of the G8 was, in Beinart’s view, illegitimate. From now on, the security of the homeland came first. And so the moderate and mainstream left loudly proclaimed their patriotism and distanced themselves from radicals who had been rapidly gathering supporters and prestige. Immediately after the attacks much was made of the parallels with World War II. When commentators said that this was the modern equivalent of Pearl Harbor, memories Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor were still fresh in Americans’ minds. Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers mini-series started broadcasting on HBO on 9 September. But, as Mike Davis has pointed out, the better analogy is with World War I. The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 shattered anarchism in Europe. The movement to dismantle monopoly capitalism in the United States was only finally defeated when America joined the war in 1917. In 2001 a global alliance between revolution and reform was, for a while at least, prevented.
The change of register played out across the entire field of things written and read, said and heard, shown and seen. In The Terror Dream Susan Faludi describes how commentators and journalists resorted to the language of the American frontier. Reassuring stereotypes culled from westerns and war movies jolted back into life. ‘Welcome back, Duke!’ as Peggy Noonan put it. Once again men were heroic saviours and women were properly grateful. The rejection of feminism was part of a prevailing mood of illogic, make-believe and bloodlust.
The prestige of the state had been in decline throughout the 1990s. Governments had work to do, of course. But politicians had become managers, a pale imitation of the heroic CEOs that featured so prominently in print journalism and popular culture. Anything the state could do, the market could better and good politics in the era of the entrepreneurial state meant getting out of the way. The Bush campaign itself had made much of his team’s business credentials and of his becoming the first ‘MBA President’. The attacks were used to restore the state’s authority. Distrust of government was trumped by patriotic identification with the armed forces. Borrowing and spending boomed. Bond markets that turned skittish at the prospect of spending on social programmes watched impassively as the Pentagon went shopping. Those whose judgment carried weight knew that there were vast profits to be made in the bedlam of a global emergency.
Before 9/11 the new administration struggled to win over a sceptical and restive press. The 2000 election had ended in deep controversy. By August one of the biggest donors to the Republican party, Enron, was beginning to unravel. Bush’s approval ratings had been declining all year. But after the attacks public support for the president soared. Reporters meanwhile became almost child-like in the way they talked about senior officials. Mark Thompson, a correspondent at Time magazine went as far as to say of Donald Rumsfeld that ‘although he hasn’t told us much, he has been like a father figure’. In Newsweek Howard Fineman defended Bush from accusations that he was behaving like a cowboy with all his talk of smoking people out, dead or alive: ‘If he’s a cowboy, he’s the reluctant warrior, he’s Shane . . . because he has to, to protect his family.’
The flipside of this restoration of the state’s parental authority was a widely expressed longing to inflict violence on those outside the family. David Brooks, with the fierce certainty of the deskbound opinion-former, told his readers that ‘we will destroy innocent villages by accident, shrug our shoulders and continue fighting’. Ann Coulter was only being slightly more disgusting than many mainstream commentators when she told her readers that ‘we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity’.
If the founding text of globalization had been Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, those seeking to make sense of the moment now turned to another bestseller from the early nineties, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. The notion that the world after the Cold War was best understood in terms of a collection of potentially adversarial civilizations had lost out to Fukuyama’s vision during the Clinton administration. But in the final years of the elder Bush’s presidency it had been a serious contender, serious enough to alarm some of the Pentagon’s favourite analysts and planners.
In 1990 the Washington Post ran an article by E.J. Dionne called ‘Defense Intellectuals in a New World Order’. Dionne quoted Jeremy Azrael, a specialist on the Soviet Union at the RAND Corporation in California, who warned that there was ‘a terrible danger that defense intellectuals will have to go whoring’. ‘Folks in the service’, he said, might ‘go looking for threats out there’. He explained that as budgets contracted it would become harder for analysts to stay honest; there would be a temptation for people in his line of work to come up with ‘new Shibboleths’, like ‘the Moslems are going to get us’.
By the Autumn of 2001 concerns about intellectual prostitution among state planners had been long forgotten. The headline on an article by John Vinocur in the New York Times published on 13 September famously read ‘The New World Order Is a Clash of Civilizations’. In the article Vinocur wrote that ‘it was no longer reasonable’ for European countries to mock American concerns about rogue nations armed with weapons of mass destruction. Like Beinart, Vinocur insisted that the attacks ‘left no neutral corners’. He continued:
Perhaps most importantly for America’s allies, it would not be possible to attempt to influence the United States, with its thousands of war dead, without accepting the premise that a clash of civilizations had been opened and that the allies must share its risks and obligations in responding alongside the Americans.
The notion of the War on Terror itself was vague and mutable, a cousin of the War on Drugs that had done so much to reconcile Americans to the steady erosion of their constitutional protections. But it was most often described in terms of a global struggle between the forces of reason and modernity on one side and the forces of irrationalism on the other. Writing in 2003 the historian Darrin McMahon noted how ‘one word kept coming up: Enlightenment’. The problem with the Middle East was that it needed an infusion of Western values. America was attacked because it represented modernity and the enlightened values of tolerance and a secular public sphere. Islamic civilization, we were told, had been left to its own devices for too long. That America was continuing to underwrite both fundamentalist Islam and rule by torture in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere somehow failed to register.
Intellectuals railed against religion in general and fundamentalist religion in particular, much to their publishers’ delight. The books of the ‘New Atheism’ sold every bit as well as the hymns to globalization of the previous decade. Energy that might have been more profitably spent exploring the dogmas and mummery of the financial sector expended itself instead on denunciations of a God who was vengeful and petty and didn’t even have the decency to exist. The War on Terror permitted the champions of Enlightenment to ignore the mystifications that mattered and while away the years in theological debate.
The great world-historical drama of a conflict between modernity and the medieval was fun while it lasted. (Fun for novelists and intellectuals hungry for a Big Idea, at any rate. Anxiety about civilizational conflict had murderous consequences insofar as it helped secure liberal support for the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.) But there was always something neurotic about the idea that the Muslims were out to get us. And the so-called Arab Spring finally made it undeniably ridiculous. It turned out that ordinary people in the Arab world had much more in common with ordinary people in the West than with either their own leaders or with the radical Islamists of al-Qaeda. Like Americans and Europeans they were troubled by economic stagnation, corruption and the arrogant impunity of the ruling elite. Smiting the infidels and attacking the symbols of modernity weren’t terribly high on their list of things to do.
H.L. Mencken once let slip that ‘the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary’. It is apt then that the War on Terror lost its much of its power to stupefy when the people of Egypt discovered that they were no longer afraid of that trusted ally of the West, that monster Mubarak. The hobgoblin of Islam’s jihad against enlightened values died in Tahrir Square. We have only ourselves to blame if we allow it to revive.
By the spring of this year, though, the era of war had done its work. Bush had had his two terms. The rich had wrung the last gains from the debt bubble. When the banks collapsed, Western modernity turned out to be as much of an hallucination as medieval Islam. America’s much-praised free market economy stood revealed as that age old racket, a confidence trick run by bankers. In Britain we now know that blackmail and illegal payoffs played a part in keeping the populace harried, vengeful and estranged from the world.
And so we come to the present, to the moment before the next transformation and the shift to another age of the world. Daylight floods the mysteries of both finance and the War on Terror. Yet America’s wars continue and the bankers tell us they must have yet more public money if disaster is to be averted. Aside from the talk of austerity we are without an organizing story. Though shrewd careerists will not say so out loud, both money and war have lost their power to entrance. Nothing now stops us seeing things as they are. In downtown Manhattan, the crowds of protesters that vanished after September 2001 are back, again asserting the primacy of people over finance-as-theft, again risking arrest, again unnerving the powers and signalling to the rest of us that there is an alternative.
This moment, of being outside enchantment, will not, I think, last. Another articulation of time is coming, and coming soon. It will determine how our children and grandchildren judge these last two decades. It will determine whether history will vindicate the maniacs and hucksters who brought us globalization and the War on Terror. In the Middle East something has already changed. In Europe and the United States our future, our hopes for effectual freedom, our survival even, depend on our being the authors of the next inaugurating event.
Photograph © Cheska Cacino