What was that all about?

The wars go on, interminably, but the ‘war on terror’ is over. Liberties lost have yet to be regained. Secret prisons, kidnapping and torture continue to operate, with the connivance of a post-Bush administration. Still, the war on terror is finished.

Now that it’s over, can we figure out what it was?

Common sense on the Left holds that the war on terror was an adventurist project for reshaping a strategically significant energy-producing region in the interests of the American ruling class. As a corollary, it enabled an authoritarian retooling of participating states in dealing with internal foes, under the rubric of ‘counter-terrorism’ – but the dominant logic was geopolitical, driven by competition between the US and potential rivals such as China and Russia, and centring on the control of energy resources. If the US controlled the oil spigot, then it could reduce the flow of oil to its rivals and impede their ability to grow. However, the wager on military force failed, the argument runs, leaving the US in a weaker position. The termination of the war on terror marks a strategy-shift signposted by the ‘realists’ in the Democratic Party, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, who favour consolidating US hegemony through tighter alliances with the EU and others.

This analysis has its strengths, but I wish to make a slightly different argument. If the war on terror was a bid to advance US hegemony internationally, it could also be understood as an attempt to restructure relations of force domestically, tilting them in favour of business and a stronger coercive state. The same sequence was repeated in numerous advanced capitalist states, notably those that explicitly allied with Bush, suppressing some of the emerging crises afflicting US-led neoliberal capitalism and decisively weakening oppositional forces for a time.

The Bush administration, however, ultimately rested on a narrow and highly unstable bloc, susceptible to the instability unleashed by its own policy gambles. By 2005, the occupation of Iraq was going badly, and the war was beginning to channel multiple sources of discontent with the administration, both among elites and popular constituencies. The administration that departed in 2008 was a lame duck. Even so, some of the political forces mobilised by the war on terror have had lasting effects that continue to operate in the context of the recession and the Obama presidency.

Before the deluge

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, a number of the weaknesses endemic to capitalism in its neoliberal phase had come to the fore. The system was beset by a chronic over-accumulation of capital. Financialisation had resulted in systemic instability, which manifested itself with the collapse of the ‘Southeast Asian Tiger’ economies, the hedge fund bailouts, and the popping of the dot.com bubble. Corporate profitability, which had been gradually recovering since the 1979–1982 worldwide recession, began to slide. A series of recessions in 2001, though by no means a systemic crisis in the way that the crash after the 2007 credit crunch has been, registered the weakness of the system. The legitimacy of capital also came under assault from a combination of global anti-capitalist movements and various accounting scandals afflicting major corporations such as WorldCom.

Union militancy had shown signs of recovery towards the end of the 1990s, with high-profile strikes increasing the profile of labour just as its organisations were embarking on a series of recruitment drives. A major teamsters’ dispute in 1997 had garnered widespread public support, and scabbing was minimal, with 95 per cent solidarity on the picket lines. A series of important stoppages followed, including at General Motors, and in 1998, 5.1 million working days were lost to strike action in the US: low by historical standards but the beginnings of a recovery. The ability of the state to police dissent was increasingly in question. Anti-capitalist protesters in Seattle had successfully obstructed World Trade Organization talks aimed at further institutionalising neoliberal policies across an alliance of capitalist states. Meanwhile, the shooting in Cincinnati of Timothy Thomas, a nineteen-year-old black man, had led to the biggest riots since Los Angeles in 1992. Public opinion on a whole range of issues was moving to the Left.

The Reaganites in the leadership of the Republican Party were finding it difficult to mobilise a viable popular base for their agenda, and were thus compelled to shroud their talons in ‘compassionate conservatism’, and then steal the 2000 election. But this left the new administration with little legitimacy, amid a collapsing Clinton-era bubble, facing a revival of global anti-systemic movements, and the potential for elite dissent against any adventurist projects. The 9/11 attacks cleared many of these obstacles in a series of giant conflagrations.

The neoconservative moment

It is important to be specific about the sense in which the Bush administration can be said to have interpreted and implemented ruling-class interests. No ruling class is a cohesive, corporate entity. Its fractions share some interests but divide over others, and no single strategy self-evidently meets all those interests. This fact undermines any instrumentalist view in which the state is merely a ‘tool’ for a determinate ruling interest: rather, the state, and the parties which compete for control of its executive, are fields of ideological antagonism. Politicians and intellectuals have to argue within the class to which they are organically attached for the strategy they favour.

It is doubtful whether Bush ever entirely won over the majority of the US ruling class. But within the Republican leadership were condensed fractions of capital – notably, energy, finance, the defence industry and construction – many of whom certainly benefited from the policies that Bush was able to implement as part of, if not by virtue of, the war on terror. And the administration contained a number of politicians and intellectuals who had circulated between the private sector, the state apparatus and right-wing think tanks, and thus had a roughly similar understanding of the historic mission of American capitalism and the peculiar tasks this required.

There were also some dissenters – treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, for example. But immediately after 9/11, they were decisively marginalised. A core of neoconservative and right-wing nationalist ideologues (some of whom had operated in the Project for the New American Century) took the reins, attempting to provide a moral and intellectual direction for US capitalism, centred on the use of military projection to chasten allies and coerce rivals. Were it not for 9/11, it is unlikely that they could have implemented this project. The emphasis would, most likely, have remained on neoliberal ‘globalisation’ – the further opening and liberalisation of overseas markets through the mechanisms of IMF-lending and promises of access to US markets, with military force a subordinate recourse in the range of coercive practices available to the imperial hegemon.

The ‘neoconservative moment’, however, placed military conflict at the centre of a new set of ideological articulations, with their fulcrum on the defence of ‘Western civilisation’ against its ‘totalitarian’ or ‘Islamofascist’ enemies. The US, it was argued, should lead a bloc of liberal capitalist states in a defensive, purgatorial move against ‘al-Qaeda’ and those incriminated by association with it. The ‘West’, constituting the pinnacle of human endeavour, would progress by embracing its enlightened self-interest in maintaining a liberal world order and defeating its enemies.

The argument was not entirely novel. Its basic themes had been stridently outlined by Tony Blair in his Chicago speech in 1999, and Blair duly became a close ally of Bush. Still, the frequency with which such ideas were reproduced, and their sudden resonance, was certainly new. Above all, the strategy sought to reproduce an aspect of Cold War hegemonic discourse in which the express loyalty and cooperation of potentially oppositional forces was demanded as a condition to avoid being labelled treasonous.

Foreign policy was the axis on which the Bush administration’s policymaking pivoted, but it also helped to organise the domestic class terrain. It provided the basis for a revival of the Republican Party’s electoral standing; it facilitated an increase in the powers of surveillance and repression, placing the state in a better position to manage dissent; it provided a handy rationale for the suppression of labour militancy; and, by weakening opponents, it enabled the administration to proceed without opposition with policies that transferred wealth to the very rich.

The Left disarmed

The greatest immediate benefit the imperialist states derived from the 9/11 attacks was an advantage over popular opponents. This was not just because of surging patriotism and, in America’s major allies, the solidarity with ‘people like us’ that Gilbert Achcar dubbed ‘narcissistic compassion’. It was also due to ‘terrorism’ suddenly representing a palpable public threat to which answers, both technocratic and ideological, were sought. The Left maintained a holding analysis (unjust US policies were partially responsible for motivating the attacks) and offered a prudential solution (avoid any course of action which would further the injustice and make such attacks more likely). Noam Chomsky’s powerful interventions did the most to arm the Left with this sort of analysis, one that resonated with growing sectors of world opinion, even if persuading only a minority in the US itself.

Yet the discourse of ‘counter-terrorism’ is perilous territory for the Left, a terrain in which the state, with its immense resources, has a decided advantage. ‘Counter-terrorism’ has a tendency to shade into counter-insurgency, with dangerous consequences for Left movements. And in counterpoint to the Left’s cautious, pragmatic response, the Right offered a ‘visionary’, moralistic answer to 9/11. Asserting the moral superiority of ‘Western civilisation’, the Right claimed – with a certain surface plausibility – that what was at stake was the self-defence of free and democratic countries against violent, ‘totalitarian’ movements. Right-wingers also enjoyed positions in government and considerable space within a sympathetic media to make their case. The early dynamism was thus with the Right who successfully mobilised public consent for its goals. Anti-war movements in response to the invasion of Afghanistan were initially small, easily marginalised and susceptible to challenges about their loyalties.

Though the intensification of domestic surveillance and repression after 9/11 did not represent a fundamental departure from previous norms – the USA PATRIOT Act, for example (an acronym for ‘uniting and strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism’), legalised forms of surveillance that were already being carried out – they did constitute an acceleration. The standard of proof required for investigations of domestic groups was lowered, the FBI could obtain search warrants far more easily, and the definition of ‘terrorism’ was so altered that anyone who broke the law so as to impact policy or change public opinion could be investigated or prosecuted as a terrorist. Since there was a long history of federal investigations of radical or anti-war groups – from the Bureau of Investigation’s smashing of the socialist and labour movements in 1919, to the illegal targeting of the Central America solidarity group CISPES in the 1980s – those who promulgated the act knew that they were authorising intensified political repression. So it proved, as the FBI engaged in repeated harassment of anti-war groups.

Labour unions also swiftly lost out to the state’s new securitarian posture. For example, the administration blocked a strike by United Airline mechanics in December 2001 on the grounds that it would endanger the airlines industry. Similarly, in January 2002, it invoked a national state of emergency when west coast longshoremen went on strike, and obtained an injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act forcing the workers to end their stoppage. In general, the administration was robustly anti-labour, rolling back workers’ rights on a number of fronts – workplace safety, overtime, and union rights for federal employees. It did not make a dent in the labour movement comparable with that inflicted by Reagan, but union density declined, and the combination of recession and Bush’s post-9/11 crackdowns halted and reversed the brief labour recovery of the late 1990s. As a result, real wage growth was lower in the subsequent decade than during the Great Depression.

Not only that, the administration shifted the tax burden further from the rich to working-class households between 2001 and 2003. Prior to 9/11, Bush had to work against a hostile Congress and engage in an expensive PR campaign involving town hall meetings to generate public support for income and estate tax cuts. After 9/11, his position was secure enough, with Republicans gaining a clear majority in Congress in 2002, to continue cutting higher and middle incomes, investments, capital gains and dividends, even sacking Paul O’Neill when O’Neill joined 450 economists in opposing the cuts.

Crisis and decline

Globally, the war on terror constituted a major setback for the anti-systemic movements that had been developing since the late 1990s. Immediately, momentum was sucked out of the escalating protests. When the Doha world trade talks failed in November 2001, it was due to persisting divisions between the US and EU rather than anti-capitalist militancy. Yet, the worldwide mobilisation against the invasion of Iraq was the largest such movement in history, and it drew upon the rejection of US dominance that had been at the least latent – and usually explicit – in the Zapatista revolt, Bolivian water wars and WTO protests.

On 15 February 2003, 400,000 activists marched against war in New York alone. On the same day, at least 150,000 demonstrated in San Francisco, and tens of thousands in Hollywood, Colorado Springs and Seattle; ultimately, 50 million people protested worldwide. The sheer scale of what was intended for Iraq almost wiped out the ideological advantage enjoyed by the administration.

But even this scale of opposition might have been manageable had the invasion and occupation of Iraq conformed to the ‘cakewalk’ scenario advertised in official propaganda. Indeed, protests died down after the invasion began and, in the first months of the occupation, the administration was temporarily strengthened. Bush won the 2004 presidential election against the uninspiring pro-war Democrat John Kerry with a majority of the popular vote, including a majority of those white workers who cast a vote. This was despite a series of crises arising from the occupation, such as the revelation of torture in Abu Ghraib, and despite the mass opposition evident from an 800,000 strong demonstration at the Republican national convention. It was this electoral endorsement that gave Bush the confidence to throw his weight behind a new assault on the working class – the attempted privatisation of social security. But even there the beginnings of crisis were apparent.

A resistance had been germinating among fragmented nationalist and Islamist groups in Iraq since the occupation began, taking off after 2004, and escalating to devastating levels by 2006. Between 2004 and 2006, the number of attacks on coalition troops and their allies increased from less than 400 to over 800 a week. By denying the occupiers control of Iraq, the resistance helped bring about a serious political crisis for the Bush administration. Public approval of the war in the US slumped by mid 2005, with clear majorities saying the conflict should not have been waged in the first place. The divisions that suddenly flared up in the anti-war movement at that strategically crucial point might have let Bush off the hook but the administration’s reputation was destroyed by its response to Hurricane Katrina, which buffeted Louisiana in the summer of 2005. The lack of rescue preparation, the extraordinary withholding of aid, and finally the imposition of a military solution to the disaster led to a profound ideological crisis for the Republican Right. Attention was subsequently focused on the oppression of African Americans, and the hitherto neglected issue of class – and on both issues, the Republicans were at a disadvantage. The administration continued to service the narrow range of capitalist class interests to which it was affiliated, but could no longer summon popular support.

Amid all this, social movements began to experience a slight revival. Labour unions successfully lobbied to obstruct Bush’s attempted social security privatisation and, with outright Democratic opposition and some Republican unease, the administration dropped the plan. The renaissance of popular movements manifested itself with the enormous marches for immigrant rights in May 2006. These were, in effect, highly politicised general strikes by the most vulnerable workers in the US, and they shut down whole industries, exposing areas where workers had potential power. Later the same year, the Democrats took control of Congress, and the uber-hawk Rumsfeld was forced to resign, leaving a broken government to limp along to eventual defeat in 2008.

Obama nation

As the Bush administration entered its terminal crisis, capital decisively swung its resources behind the Democrats and, in particular, Barack Obama. Obama’s single largest donations came from Wall Street, and his services to finance in securing a series of mammoth bank bailouts certainly outweigh any of the miserly reforms he has offered his popular base. Obama, however, could not have won the 2008 presidential election (with almost 70 million votes) had he not channelled some popular demands. The Democrats’ mode of operating can perhaps be characterised in Gramscian terms as ‘transformism’ – that is, they absorb popular aspirations, neutralise their specifically oppositional or class-antagonistic content, and re-articulate them in the politics of the pro-capitalist centre. To workers, Obama pledged to support union rights with the Employee Free Choice Act, end the Iraq war, and reform healthcare with the introduction of a government insurance scheme to compete with private healthcare and thus drive down prices. To the ruling class, he promised to prop up the banks, contain the economic crisis, manage a dignified withdrawal from Iraq, stay in Afghanistan and rebuild US global power. As a consequence, there was a dual mobilisation for Obama in 2008, with his votes highest among the very rich and the working class.

The war on terror was, as I say, over as soon as the Republicans were defeated in 2008. But the political forces it unleashed provided some of the elements for a very traditional counter-subversive Right movement in the shape of the Tea Party. Like its antecedents after the First World War and during the Cold War, this movement is white, male and wealthier on average than the population at large. It enjoys some support from capital and expresses its anti-socialism in a nativist and racist idiom. Where it differs from its forebears is that it lacks the support of the state – something which made classical anti-communism so deadly for its opponents – and its global narrative centres on Obama’s alleged colonial identity (as a Kenyan, or a secret Muslim) that lacks the surface plausibility of Cold War hysteria about the communist threat.

Still, the Tea Party draws heavily on the Islamophobic and nationalist ideologies cultivated during the war on terror – and, in particular, during the disgraceful Republican presidential campaign in 2008 – allowing it to represent its opposition to healthcare reform and other abridgments of private property rights as a component in an authentic Americanism working to inoculate the US against cultural degeneration and backsliding. This has enabled the Tea Partiers to mobilise a significant minority of the population behind a hard-Right agenda – a mobilisation that has, in conjunction with the demoralisation of Obama’s voters, been sufficient to give the Republicans an electoral advantage.

Indeed, the rise of Islamophobia and nationalism has been discernible in all of the states allied with the US in the war on terror, with toxic political effects. If anti-war sentiment has been a potentially radicalising force, Islamophobic racism has worked to draw many workers to the Right – as illustrated by the eclipse of the radical Left across Europe in the latter half of the last decade, the crisis of the anti-capitalist movements and the concurrent rise of the far Right.

Yet, in 2011 new possibilities are suggesting themselves. The emergence of militant, open class war against the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker – a Tea Party apostle – coincided with the electrifying revolutions in North Africa and the waves of protest across the Middle East. If the latter endangers American control of the region, the former threatens to replicate itself across the United States, potentially igniting a Left counterpoint to the austerity agenda now being pushed through Washington DC and state capitals. And this is the problem for the neoconservatives, the Palinites and Tea Partiers. They would like nothing more than a comprehensive war against America’s enemies to energise their base and coordinate a response by the Right to a deep, organic crisis of capitalism. But while wars will continue – Obama’s continued aggression in Afghanistan and low-key intervention in Libya being cases in point – nothing like the war on terror could be repeated today.

Richard Seymour is a socialist writer based in London, where he is studying for his PhD. He is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder, The Meaning of David Cameron and American Insurgents (forthcoming).

© Richard Seymour
Overland 204-spring 2011, p. 89–95

Richard Seymour

Richard Seymour is a writer, broadcaster and socialist based in London. He writes for the Guardian, the London Review of Books, Jacobin and others. His book, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, is out through Verso.

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