The Great Game (Oiseau-tempête)

Oiseau-tempête n°9 (summer 2002)
The Great Game (OT9, 2001)

Historical event

The attacks on New York and Washington constitute a major historical event. For the first time in its history, the North-American capitalist superpower was attacked domestically. Its territory is no longer untouchable, invulnerable. The chaos, insecurity, and fear that have followed express this power’s new weakness.

The end of the two blocs and of the Cold War has placed American capitalism in a new situation, that of being a unique dominant power. If earlier it justified its imperialist interventions ideologically by the struggle against communism and the defense of the “free world,” now everything is reduced to the status of police operations. The democratic ideological veil, which drew support from the rejection of communist totalitarianism, has been replaced by more fragile ideologies. The humanitarian cover story, already in bad odor after the Rwandan genocide and the “humanitarian war” in Kosovo, will take second place, behind the fight against “terrorism.

“For the Europe that is coming into being, the end of the inviolability of the “American umbrella” also creates a new situation. Despite the real interdependence of these two capitalist forces, conflicts of interest are apparent among the different national capitals. After fighting for control of oil resources (the Gulf War), after intervening on the European borders of the former Soviet empire (the Balkan wars), it is now the struggle for position in East Asia-in the triangle of conflict formed by China, Pakistan, and India-that is the order of the day. Russian hegemony over the export of Caspian oil is being contested by the intervention in Afghanistan and by the installation of the American army in the former Soviet republics of the region and in Pakistan.

Despite the complicit barking noises made by the European political class, the current conflict has very quickly shown itself to be an American war. European Capitalism is clearly in the rearguard of this geopolitical reorganization, apart from Great Britain, whose imperialist interests and military apparatus are intimately tied in with those of the United States. But, as could already be seen in the two earlier wars, the Europe’s military dependence on the United States reflects its political weakness, which no longer corresponds to its economic power. The new vulnerability of the United States makes this contradiction even more evident. What one could take for “tailism” and submission of the European capitalist centers rather expresses the need not to leave the field completely open to the United States. They are trying to preserve what remains of their imperialist interests with the Arab countries, even while being forced to split the expenses of the new situations that are being created.

Conspiracy Theories

Paranoid-conspiratorial approaches to history have made a vigorous reappearance on this occasion. What is outside our grasp is, however, not always organized in advance, according to a plan serving the interests of the powerful. As if everything that happens could be explained rationally starting from the rational requirements of the system ! In the case of Afghanistan, for example, the American military intervention appears to have been a response to the attack rather than the realization of an earlier plan. While it is true that the oil deposits of the region have long been a subject of oil-company planning, the war has nevertheless created new problems and disequilibria that now have to be dealt with. This is an example of how badly the contradictory movement of capitalism fits into conspiracy theories and police chief logic (Who profits from the crime ?). The rational means of the capitalist system can be employed for irrational ends. We have seen this in the course of the preceding century, and more recently as well, including in the United States itself with the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

Conspiracy theorizing is based on the idea that the state is a unified institution, intelligent, capable of rational planning and of regulating the evolution of capitalism. Such thinking is a caricature of the idea of the autonomy of politics. Perceptive witnesses from other barbaric epochs have already noted that a system incapable of mastering the contradictory consequences of its own reproduction cannot claim to master war and its consequences. Capitalism is an unstable system : war is in fact an aspect of its regulation and of the overcoming of its disequilibria and contradictions. Barbarism is part of it ; it is neither an accident nor an event necessarily provoked intentionally by political institutions.

Disorganization of the State and the New Terrorism

However, the malfunctions, internal divisions, even the complicity of the American secret services are no doubt not uninvolved with the attacks of 11 September. Like the state as a whole, the American state is crisscrossed by divisions and various conflicts of interest. An aggravating factor is the privatization and the subcontracting that have taken over all public services during the last few years, introducing temp work, flexibility, and disorganization. The secret services have not escaped this tendency, reinforced by the end of the Cold War. What is more, in the United States as elsewhere the secret services have connections with ultra-right organizations which, for their part, have for a long time been linked to nationalist Arab groups oriented towards the idea of an anti-American anti-imperialist front.

Terrorism has changed. The collapse of the Soviet bloc brought with it a disequilibration of terror, which had been directed, well or poorly, by rival secret services in a well-established and negotiable framework. What official discourse today calls “terrorism” has nothing to do with the armed actions of groups animated by state-socialist ideology and by anti-imperialist nationalism. It has more to do with the decomposition of the old blocs and the disorganization of states that followed it and with the geopolitical conflicts underway. Its mentors and executors, schizophrenic rejects of the Arab ruling classes, are at once integrated into the modern technological world, inhabited by the frustrations and humiliations accumulated by the Arab world in the course of recent centuries, and captivated by the myth of a perfect Islam destroyed by the West. As the organization of the attack and the chosen targets proves, they share the same symbolic values as their former masters. They treat human beings with the same contempt as the market and its “invisible hand,” symbolic abstractions whose value varies depending on whether the corpse lies near Wall Street or in the ruins of Kabul.The end of nationalist and anti-imperialist terrorism has meant the rise of “blowback terrorism.

The unstoppable recession

Before the attack of September 11, 2001, the growth of the American economy-which by itself was responsible for nearly half of world economic growth-had already fallen to zero. Like a “hole in the air,” the attack brutally stopped the economy for a few days, transforming the slowdown into an official recession. Everywhere in the Western world, capitalists are making good use of the situation to accelerate restructuring and announce massive layoffs. In the U.S. alone, hundreds of thousands of jobs have vanished since September 11.

Current events and their consequences need to be considered in the broader framework of capitalist affairs. Inversely, the acceleration of history always clarifies the contradictory mode of functioning of the system. One of the strengths of capitalism is its capacity to recover from crisis situations. Certainly, as Marx noted, in this system each solution constitutes a new problem. But in the mean time, this capacity for reaction shows that, in its contradictory movement, the system has no intrinsic limits. The only limit is the subversion of the social relationships on which it rests.

Since the second world war, state intervention into the American economy has not ceased. Military expenditure and subsidies to industry and agriculture remain essential to the functioning of capitalism. In this sense, there has never been a break in practice with Keynesian policy. The neoliberal disengagement of the state has been limited to industrial and financial deregulation, and above all to the dismantling of the welfare state. When, following the attack, the American government, directed by ultra-liberals, was forced to take some measures to save the economy-the injection of millions of dollars into financial circuits and businesses in trouble ; the furnishing of military credits and the enlargement of police forces-it did not deviate from this line. Essentially, the measures taken signified a distribution of money to capitalists, a sort of pillage of public funds, favoring concentration in certain sectors (aviation, for example). In contrast, no Keynesian-style measures to stimulate demand-increases in unemployment relief, public works programs, deprivatization of enterprises-were undertaken.

With respect to monetary policy, the capitalists know that lowering interest rates “works only under certain conditions,” when productive investment increases the social productivity of labor, on which a return to growth depends.

There was, finally, the fatwa of the American administration, the pseudo-moralization of worldwide financial life, promising to dry up the flow of terrorist finance, to control “fiscal paradise” and the circuits of “dirty” money. By a return to financial regulation the big governments are attempting to take back control over the gigantic sums of petrodollars that for years have played a determining role in the stock market and speculative boom, before becoming a factor of instability.

However, although enormous quantities of funds have been injected into the economy and interest rates have reached their lowest level in forty years, the recession is still on. If, as seems to be the case, we are entering into a period of deep recession, this will necessarily lead to deflation and to a massive destruction of capital, to an ever greater social immiseration. The growth of temp work and flexibility in the labor market, the fall of wages, and the recourse to an immigrant labor force without rights, the dismantling of social welfare systems will all be insufficient to reestablish profitability. The measures taken by governments, presented as provisory remedies, will reveal themselves to be a foretaste of a new barbaric social order.

The state monopoly of violence

At first, the interventionist reaction of the American state seems to have comforted the reformist sentiments of the leaders of Attac, the new French group trying to rebuild the old left. “It is always useful to remember that we are not anti-globalists. We have always only stated the reasons why we say that the ultraliberal vision of the United States is not the best passport to the future”, wrote Susan George in Libération (19 September 2001). But we have seen that this neoliberal interventionism has nothing to do with a policy of demand stimulus. The projects of “international financial regulation” were reduced to what was compatible with the opposition of the American banking lobby. Only patriotic repressive laws were rushed into adoption, in both the U.S. and almost everywhere in Europe. The strengthening of state authoritarianism is the unifying element binding neoliberals and Keynesians together. Among the members of Attac, for instance, the demand for a return to a regulatory state goes beyond the economic sphere to social life generally. “Republican citizenship” implies a revaluation of the state as a strong and respected protector. Insecurity and incivility call into question the power of the state and must therefore be combated. The state does its regulatory work and in return the citizens ought to respect the rules of authority.

Analyzing the “laws of modern counter-revolution” in 1941, Karl Korsch stressed that in fighting fascism “by means of its own weapons, liberal democracy was evolving towards authoritarianism, the ideology of the conquered thus suffusing the victors. A half century later, in its struggle against the new terrorism the modern state is itself taking on terrorist forms.

Before September 11, 2001, the antiglobalization movement already appeared divided. Its demonstrations left behind a confused message, marked by an increasing division between reformists and the criminalized anticapitalist fringe. The constant recourse to warlike barbarism and the authoritarian evolution of the democratic systems will tend to consolidate this development. The birth of a social movement contesting submission to the “laws of the economy”, starting from the point of exploitation, would be able to unify, in a dynamic of breaking with the past, the energies and potentialities of the anticapitalist antiglobalization networks. Meanwhile, we must insist on the impossibility of reforming capitalism.

Paris, December 2001


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