What’s New After September 11? 1
Must the intellectual, or the leftist–who need not be identical–always adopt a critical position, declaring that the glass is half-empty? Must the intellectual, or the leftist, always oppose the government, or the imperial hegemon? Must the intellectual, or the leftist, always take the side of the minority, the underdog, the victim–and in so doing, ignore any responsibility that might fall to that minority, underdog or victim? Is the intellectual, or the leftist, faced with choices that are morally clear-cut to the point that political choice and personal responsibility are superfluous? Must the intellectual, or the leftist, always have a good conscience and opt always if not for the side of the angels at least for that of Historical Progress?
This series of (rhetorical) questions comes to mind in the face of the new political landscape left by the terrorist attacks of September 11th. But they are in fact old (and not just rhetorical) questions, that go back to the origins of left-wing political movements–recall, for example, the polemics between Marx and Weitling, Marx and Proudhon, or Marx and Bakunin; think of the debates between reformists, revisionists and orthodox Marxists; remember the sad end of the promising “new left” that shook the political culture of the established order in the first, then the second and into the third worlds. But those old debates took place in a landscape defined by the dominance of the capitalist economy, and the need to overcome the exploitation and alienation that it reproduced. As I have suggested elsewhere, it is misleading to make political choices dependent on such economic conditions (whose existence, and impact cannot be denied); it is more useful to recognize that modern politics has to take into account the emergence of democratic social relations that represent a challenge to all forms of social domination–as long as those democratic conditions are maintained. 2 If this is the case, then perhaps the intellectual, and the leftist, should be arguing that the glass is half-full–and then show how one can fill it still further.
One further introductory remark leads me back to September 11th. The critic, Harold Rosenberg, once spoke of the engaged political militant as “an intellectual who doesn’t think.” He meant that the militant uses his mind, so to speak, only to try to adjust his vision of the factual world in order to fit it into the already existing “line” of the party. Such a militant is incapable of facing up to the new–indeed, he is comfortable with the old, whose repetition is like a nursery rhyme rocking to sleep the good conscience of the innocent who need never grow up. The terror of September 11th was a wake-up call, for the intellectual and for the left. The first step in facing up to the challenge is to look back at some of the old arguments that have again been recycled in order, then, to see what new issues have emerged. Against this background, the immediate political question facing the left is whether we will confront something like a new Cold War that freezes the possibility of political innovation, or whether the realization that the free market cannot prevent acts of terror will lead to a renewed Social Democratic politics. But that politics cannot simply react to social needs as did the old welfare state; it must recognize that what the terrorists attacked was democracy, and that democracy must not only defend itself but must also take the offensive.
1. Old Arguments
The old arguments are not false; the problem is that they can be used to criticize any action (or inaction) by the U.S. Moreover, they don’t consider arguments that might be made for the choice of a given action. As a result, they are weak because one-sided, based on an either/or, forgetting that politics is based on judgements made in situations that are not defined by rational choice or zero-sum games. The centrality of judgement in politics does not, however, mean that politics takes place in a landscape governed by moral relativism. There clearly are values and moral standards. That is why, for example, members of the Frankfurt School remained anti-capitalist even while they worked for the OSS, forerunner of the CIA: Nazism represented a greater evil and presented an immediate challenge. More generally, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, as one could have learned already before that War, when progressive intellectuals were told not to criticize the Moscow Trials because America still lynches Negroes! This old argument remains valid still today.
The most general of the old arguments is the “root causes” approach. It says that yes, terror is bad, but we have to understand that it is a reaction to something even more serious, deeper, and crying out for attention. Terror must be the expression of that something deeper; it is the root cause. Such a root cause does not excuse the terror, but it makes it comprehensible; and the left and its politics are justified by their ability to pierce beneath the surface to uncover these hidden roots of evil, which must then be uprooted for the good to triumph. This argument can be formulated generally, and then translated into the particular language of international and domestic politics–each level points toward the others, promising a key to understanding world history.
The most basic form of the root cause argument serves to justify an anti-capitalist politics. Capitalist exploitation is destructive of both traditional life-forms and the physical environment. In its advanced form, capitalism leads to freer trade, which has the effect of increasing the gap between rich and poor while what passes for capitalist culture destroys indigenous cultures. This, and more, is all true; but it is not clear how such a universal claim explains this particular terrorist response. One could react differently to each of these “results” of capitalism–a capitalism which brings with it also new social and political possibilities which could, indeed, result in rising expectations that give new hopes and projects rather than fuel an anti-political, nihilistic terrorism.
A variant of the anti-capitalist root cause argument blames capitalism for various forms of imperial exploitation, in particular the control over natural resources needed since the demise of colonial domination. This explains for example U.S. support for corrupt Arab oil sheiks, toleration of the Putin regime’s terror in Chechnya… or the intervention in Afghanistan as ‘really’ motivated by oil and the project of building a pipeline. Not only does capitalist-imperialism seek control of natural resources; it also monopolizes non-natural ones, such as the patents permitting it to sell anti-AIDS drugs at exploitative prices. Again, these general accounts are all true; but they don’t explain this particular terrorist reaction to them. Why not have recourse to the tactics of guerilla war, or the symbolically powerful sky-jackings, as in days gone by?
Capitalism can also be denounced for its imposition of political control that denies democratic self-government and worker’s rights while supporting corrupt oligarchies. While this criticism is also true, and easy to illustrate in the mid-East, the fact that September 11 was also the date of the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile (as well as the defeat of the Turcs at the gates of Vienna in 1683) suggests the need to take into account the broader historical context in which events take place. The US backed coup against Allende took place in the context of the Cold War, when the ‘enemy’ was a geo-political actor which was not simply a passive victim . 3
In short, the “root cause” argument denounces an unnatural inequality marked by the growing gap between rich and poor countries and regions (as well as inequality within the poorer regions). Exploitation in international relations joins exploitation of domestic workers in a diabolical circle in which all the parts conspire to reproduce on an expanded scale the inequalities that were present at the (capitalist) outset. (In an updated version of the argument, proposed for example by Axel Honneth, this produces an asymmetry in which one participant denies to the other the “recognition” that is the natural right of humans and societies; radical politics [including terrorism?] becomes a struggle for recognition. This does not, however, explain the origin of capitalism, the original sin that starts the cycle.)
One difficulty with the “root causes” argument is that it attributes guilt to huge and seemingly impersonal forces over which individuals can have little influence. To remedy this, a modified version suggests: “the terrorists may be bad but we’re worse.” We’re the original sinners, first terrorists, who keep thugs in power while exploiting and humiliating the downtrodden. Worse, we do so in order to maintain an egoistic, drug-infested, sexually licentious society that needs to be made healthy and whole. The irony, of course, is that this is just what the American religious right claims… and it is what Bin Laden also believes. 4 What makes this into a leftist argument is the assumption that the real sin is that capitalism kills more people than died in the WTC and Pentagon–and the assumption that we can, and therefore should (!), remedy our own wrongs. Nonetheless, the weaknesses of the “root cause” argument remain, since it is assumed that once we heal ourselves, they will have no more grievances and we’ll all live happily ever-after in a world that will have no need for politics and judgement.
(A variant on this argument is the so-called “blowback” theory often attributed to Chalmers Johnson which condemns the US for making deals with bad guys [or creating them, as with Bin Laden] who then they turn their skills and resources back on their benefactors when that suits their nefarious purposes. Thus, the attacks are deserved, the pay-back for immoral [or amoral] support of such evil-doers who are now asserting their independence.) 5
A peculiar inversion of the “root cause” theme points to a particular policy option that is said to cause general hatred: unconditioned support supposedly offered to Israel. None of the explanations for this policy seem convincing: sometimes domestic lobbies (AIPEC) are blamed, sometimes refusal of “recognition” to Islam and its civilization are the cause, sometimes a strategy aiming to divide-and-conquer Arab nationalism is imagined. None of these explanations is convincing, particularly since the Bush people (father and son) tend to be pro-Arab (pro-oil), while their allies on the religious right are pro-Israel, and the present Bush administration–despite its passivity (or worse) on the mid-East–has recognized Palestinian rights to statehood.
This leaves a final set of old arguments that goes back to the fear by the democratic left that, because of the unique constitutional status of the President as commander-in-chief, executive power will grow in times of war; and that this growth will come at the expense of individual rights. 6 This is why there was leftist opposition to US entry into both World Wars. Will the post-September 11 experience be comparable? This question takes us to the next phase of the argument.
2. New Questions
In the immediate aftermath, and still 6 months later, the issue of individual rights, particularly for people of Middle-Eastern origin who are held in prison without formal charges, is unresolved. On the other hand, Bush and Ashcroft have had to retreat on the use of military courts, for which final procedures have not yet been established. 7 There were excesses, particularly by Attorney General Ashcroft, whose earlier regular TV appearances have been sharply curtailed. Such excesses were to be expected from this administration, whose penchant for secrecy and mania for control (in domestic as well as foreign policy) should not be underestimated. More striking is the fact that the civil-rights activists, whose protests explain the more cautious approach of the administration, are on their side becoming more nuanced. Racial profiling is seen by some as acceptable; 8 there is discussion of creating national identity documents as well as permitting tighter coordination of FBI/CIA/Immigration/Local Police. An important new political debate can be expected–a political debate, because the issues have not been posed in terms of the now worn-out moral-legal contrast between liberalism and communitarianism. It was the domination of that moral-legal paradigm that explained many of the ills denounced by E.J. Dionne’s Why Americans Hate Politics. 9
Are the place and role of dissent unchanged in times of emergency? There certainly have been grounds for criticism since September 11th. Everyone will have their own list, ranging for example, from HEW Secretary Thompson’s evident ignorance with regard to the anthrax attacks to the many arrests of Middle-Eastern men in order to give the public confidence that the government was alert to the anger, and on to unsavory alliances with Russians, Saudis, Ouzbeks, Pakistanis, as well as the way India and Israel use the “war on terrorism” for their own political purposes. Should these simply be swallowed, like bad tasting medicine needed to cure the new illness? Some journalists have admitted to self-censorship; others criticize government secrecy and attempts to control the press. 10 The early doubts about the appropriateness of the US response were eliminated by the measured build-up that preceded the military engagement (and the well-executed Speech to Congress on September 24h)–and even more by the apparently rapid and painless success against the Taliban that put an end to talk of a Vietnam-like “quagmire.” On the other hand, the apparently unlimited extension of engagement to such countries as Yemen, the Philippines, Georgia–not to speak of the constant refrain calling for war with Iraq (or Saddam)–could lead to renewed doubts.
It may well be the hubris that comes with high poll-ratings and military success that calls forth dissent. An ill-elected President (the “resident of the White House”) has found a quasi-religious calling. The “war” on terrorism justifies his every action–and particularly those favoring his domestic allies, such as tax cuts, “fast track” authority to negotiate free trade agreements, budget deficits, military spending… This will eventually prove too much for even politicians to swallow. But the Republican “patriots” will attack any critic, as was clear in a recent New York Times (March 4, 2002) article, “Daschle Wants President to Tell Congress More About His Plans for War,” which pointed to criticisms that “any sign that we are losing that unity…will be used against us overseas.” It is well-known that the courage of politicians depends on the mood of their constituents.
In this context, the new face of globalization is no longer as simple as it was in Seattle or Genoa; finance capital and ecological destruction are joined in a more complex human tissue.
People are global. The New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief,” published daily for three months after the attacks, shows the human face of globalization as it cuts across classes and nations in what Eli Zaretsky calls a de-reification or humanization of broad-brush categories. 11
But terror is global too, and not just in its transnational reach and composition. For example, economic globalization means open borders, just-in-time-delivery and thus easy passage through customs of potential ABC arms. 12 On the other hand, the openness of democratic societies and their protection of individual rights provides a cover for terrorists (who would be more easily repressed in a dictatorship). In this sense, terrorism is an internal problem to democratic societies, which are themselves de facto global. 13
Is war itself now global? Indeed, what is the new face of war? Can you have war without an identified, and declared, enemy? What are the goals of post-September 11th warfare? The challenge is to give political form to a terrorism that does not declare goals while hiding the visage of its agents. 14
A first model is provided by the experience of de-colonization, in which violent liberation movements were not declared outside-the-law but attempts were made to find points where negotiation could occur. But the al Qaeda group does not have the same kind of agenda as did, say, the FLN in Algeria, which could eventually negotiate de-colonization accords with the French at Evian.
The lack of an interlocutor points to the “failed states” argument. Herfried Munkler 15 argues that modern warfare has been increasingly privatized. Privatized war becomes a self-reproducing industry since the warlords have no interest in stopping it. Hence, it is necessary to strengthen state in order to limit this self-reproducing cycle of war. While this may be true in Sierra Leone, Liberia or Congo, and despite the rapid disappearance of the Taliban “state,” does the picture fit al Qaeda?
Searching for an adequate level of political exchange, some propose an international treatment. Michael Howard cautions against calling the terror an act of war, proposing instead a police operation by the UN to confront a crime against the international community. 16 But reducing the attacks to a simple crime (even if against “humanity”) means one can only react after the fact–you remain defenseless before-hand. However satisfying for the intellectual, no statesman could accept that risk.
However difficult for American optimism, it may well be that the terrorists have to be understood as sheer evil. This would be the inversion of the “root causes” argument and it faces similar difficulties: if true, it doesn’t explain the particular case in question, or give a way of protecting against future threats. Its only advantage is its gigantic claim to offer a total explanation: by the absurd.
These difficulties suggest that it would be useful to return to an old concept that fell out of favor after it, too, had served as a global explanation of evil. Totalitarianism is not identical with the defeated regimes of Communism or Nazism; it represents a general reaction to the confrontation with modernity and democracy which did not end with their demise 17 Whether one interprets the Islamic roots of the terrorists from a secular 18 or from a religious perspective, 19 that selfsame clash lies at the roots of their action. That does not make the “war” with the new totalitarian threat a new Cold War (as I will argue in a moment), but it does help explain certain aspects of the behavior of the new enemy–for example, the need for a leader built up by myth (and who, for that reason, is both powerful and brittle); the fact that such a leader needs continued victories, a sort of permanent revolution against a polymorphous enemy; and as a result, that his movement will find constantly new enemies (liberal democracy, human rights, secularism…)–and will be unable to define goals that could open possibilities for political negotiation.
3. The Challenge of the New to Political Theory
We can start with the naîve question asked by many Americans, “why would they do that to us?” The question has several implications.
The first is its sheer naiveté: Americans don’t realize that they affect the lives of others in an increasingly interconnected global world. Loss of innocence can be a good thing–that was why the itinerant peddlers of the Aufklérung classified pornographic literature as “philosophy”–particularly since the Cold War “victory” (i.e., the collapse of communism) has overcome the so-called Vietnam syndrome. September 11th said (brutally) to America, “welcome to the world”; America will have to learn to reply with its own: “welcome to the world.” 20
Second, the naiveté is expressed also in the idea that they were not attacking us so much as they were attacking our democratic values. What is naîve here is not the values but the notion that because they claim to be universal, everyone could, should and would adopt them. The lesson to be drawn from the attack is that these values have to be fought for, defended, and can also be lost. I will return to this point in my conclusion.
As a nation based on values, America is also based on the free choice of its citizens to adhere to those values (hence its relative tolerance of immigrants). But the implication of this free choice is also that those who do not accept American values are sinners who need to be converted, or punished. This of course is reflected in American attitudes toward foreigners, but it is also applied to dissenters, particularly on the left, who are labeled as “Un-American.” A leftist reply to such attacks has to make clear that its criticism is blaming America for not living up to its own values. And one of those values, implied by the very freedom to choose but too often forgotten, is the principle of tolerance and respect for otherness. 21
This stress on values points to the fact that the democracy that is challenged is not simply a system of electoral politics or even the protection of liberal individual rights–although it is both of these as well. Democracy is a mode of life deprived of pre-existing certainties and forced constantly to re-affirm the values that it chooses–and, for just that reason, it can make choices that others may disapprove of. That is why it is a pluralistic form of society, built on tolerance and open to critical debate. Perhaps most important, that is why it is a dynamic society, one that is constantly changing–and change means constantly putting into question, testing the very values on which it is based. As Paul Berman observed in a lucid discussion of “Terror and Liberalism,” 22 what Bush called “the first war of the twenty-first century” resembles in many ways the great wars of the 20th–which were fought against liberal democracies by militant movements and states seeking a return of unity, purity and certainty that are constantly undermined by the dynamism and progress of democratic societies. These modern fundamentalisms were so powerful, moreover, because there were always citizens of the democratic societies (on the left and the right) afflicted by doubt in the validity and viability of self-critical democratic values who hesitated to defend that democracy.
What then is the place of the critical intellectual within a democratic society? This is the problem of the half-empty glass from which I began this discussion. The point can be illustrated by the clash between the American rhetoric of multilateralism and its unilateralist practice. A critic could denounce the rhetoric as simply a ruse seeking to preserve American hegemony (which is not false). 23 Or the critic might argue that this is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and has to be seen as a first step toward strengthening what David Held calls a global civil society, or, as Robin Blackburn proposes, taking the first steps not only toward reforming the UN but also toward dealing with what Jonathen Shell has called The Unfinished 20th Century–namely the problem of ABC weapons. 24 That these choices are not simply theoretical is seen when we return, finally, to the concrete political choices facing a contemporary American left that, for the moment, has had little to say about (and in) the post-September 11th constellation.
4. The Challenge of the New to Contemporary Politic
The promise of a “long war on terrorism,” to be fought on many fronts, with any weapons including those of the intellect (or “ideology”), recalls what were for many in the Bush administration the good old days of the Cold War when there was a clearly defined enemy (who was not always clearly identified, since one always had to fear subversives, but whose implied presence justified whatever actions were taken). This mental universe assured popular political support for governments that could also denounce critics as a threat to the imperative of unity-in-war.
But before denouncing this manipulation of public opinion, it should be noted that the old Cold War view was one with which the critical intellectual is familiar, even comfortable: it is a world where demystification, critique of ideology, and a shrewd eye following material profit are useful in deciphering the moves of the enemy. This congruence of left and right comes from the fact that neither takes seriously the autonomy (and uncertainties) of democratic politics, which both reduce to its economic foundations. The result is a shared antipolitics which, in the case of the half-empty glass of left politics leads to the conclusion that the political system itself is corrupt, and is organized to frustrate possible change. This can give rise to a resentful, anti-democratic populism which may even justify terrorism by applying what Robin Blackburn–playing on the old Socialist critique of anti-Semitism as the socialism of fools–calls the anti-imperialism of fools. 25 Blackburn’s point is well-taken: support for terrorism, of whatever kind, has never helped the left.
The September attacks can be seen as marking the end of a different kind of economistic antipolitics: the right-wing version popularized by Reagan and Thatcher, for which the role of the state must be reduced to a minimum while the development of a (supposedly self-regulating) capitalist market society is encouraged. Phenomena as different as the folly of leaving airport security in the hands of private airlines; the selfless courage of firemen and police which contributed to overcoming the stereotype of the self-indulgent state employee; and the recognition that, like it or not, America is now part of a globally interdependent world support the hope for a Social Democratic renewal. Indeed, recent polls show that for the first time since the 1970’s, a majority of Americans now trust Washington! This makes possible a social politics of the half-full glass. 26 But the democratic component, which cannot be identified with the political party wearing that name, remains to be defined.
Electoral politics cannot be spurned–but electoral politics is not the center of democratic politics. Recent focus group studies by Stanley B. Greenberg show signs of a possible Democratic party win on the basis of four strategic points. 27
1. A new pride in national unity has overcome the Vietnam hangover, meaning that the national security issue won’t hurt Democrats, who are no longer seen as unpatriotic.
2. A new sense of community follows from this, suggesting both an obligation to help others and that individual desires are less important than communal well-being. Thus, Democrats will mock Bush’s definition of patriotism as consumerism (which is why Bush stressed in his State of the Union Address and now supports Clinton’s domestic Peace Corps (relabeled, typically, U.S.A. Freedom Corps, which he denounced during the campaign). 28
3. A new seriousness of private and public purpose after the shock of the 11th means that tax cuts may not be so important (which is why Bush yielded on new tax cuts in the March “Economic Recovery Bill”).
4. Finally, the fundamentalism of the terrorists shows the import of the freedom to choose, and works against the republican right and its appeal to the values of a religious fundamentalism that appears intolerant and dogmatic.
While this might bring the Democratic party to power, and would in turn bring with it much needed social reforms (health care, workers’ rights, and environmental policy), what is (small-d) democratic about it? Stanley Greenberg’s four points illustrate changed American attitudes toward the values that are fundamental to a democratic society. But the values of community (point 2) can come into conflict with the value of freedom to choose (point 4). This conflict is not a philosophical contest between liberal rights and community values; it is rather the expression of the dynamic that is typical of modern democratic society–a dynamic that cannot be reduced to a moral either/or. This in turn suggests that the need to maintain civil liberties even while protecting society cannot be reduced to a moral/legal version of the either/or. This is where a democratic left can find its place as the critic who neither insists like Pollyanna that the glass is getting fuller nor revels in ascetic denunciation of a half-empty glass.
During the old Cold War the left could only re-act (since it could hardly defend really-existing socialism); and because it was on the defensive, it denounced the half-full glass. The new Cold War against Terrorism has a different structure: not only can the left denounce terrorism (and its root causes); it can also argue that the roots of terrorism (at home as well as abroad) lie in its anti-democratic values, and that it is the threat to democracy that must be fought–including the threat that comes from those root causes that appeared too simple to explain the terrorist attacks. What the terrorist attacks should have taught the left (as the critique of totalitarianism should have taught it) is that the threat to the established (dis-)order is a democracy whose self-contradictory political dynamic must constantly be refilled if its critical nature is not to become a fatal weakness. The same lesson implies that the left should not consider its successes–for example, a renewal of confidence in a state controlled by the Democratic party–to be an end in itself but rather a means to make more active and self-critical that democratic society. Even the glass that is being filled still remains partially empty; the critic cannot disarm, nor turn into the court jester!
– March 13 , 2002