The 10th anniversary of “9-11” will see a frenzy of commentary. Ten years ago I saw it as the beginning of an end game that will see the collapse of US power, and perhaps of the current version of global consumer capitalism. Recent political and financial events in the US suggest it is still very much on that track. This is from 15 October 2001.
The aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. is developing ominously, and in broad terms predictably. Violence is being met with violence. More innocent people are dead, on both sides, and more relatives are grieving. It seems likely that the U.S. counterattack on Afghanistan will be counterproductive, because for every bomb that drops another young moslem will join the holy war against the U.S.
The U.S. and British leaders have stridently declared “war” on terrrorism, the only kind of response they seem to know. There are clear parallels with Vietnam. The two sides use mismatched methods: conventional war versus elusive opponents who strike erratically. The U.S. has little understanding of its opponents, or of their grievances and how they might be addressed. A long, nasty and ineffectual campaign seems in prospect.
However the stakes are bigger than they were in Vietnam, notwithstanding U.S. hyperbole at the time. U.S. President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair have declared that terrorists are threatening freedom, along with democracy and the Western way of life. Evidently it hasn’t occurred to them that many in the Middle East would just like to be left alone. Even so Bush and Blair may be right, but not for the reasons they think, and not in the way they expect.
The Middle East has become radicalised through a long history of Western interference, primarily by Britain and more recently by the U.S. The reasons for that interference have been, in no particular order, empire, oil, communism and Israel. The U.S. by now has a substantial history of myopic, sordid and amoral meddling, having at various times sponsored the likes of the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and, indirectly, the Taliban militia.
U.S. meddling in the Middle East is merely a modern version of imperialism, continuing a long tradition of Western capitalism and Western colonialism. However the terrorist strike at the U.S. occurred with the world in a uniquely fragile state.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Western capitalist institutions grew in size and in reach, and by now they are globe-straddling, homogenised and highly centralised. They have also escaped, or been released from, many of the restraints formerly, if inconsistently, imposed by national governments. These trends, to greater size and less restraint, have magnified the intrinsic instabilities of markets and the inflexibilities of centralised corporate structures. The forces unleashed by the globalised corporate/financial system are now so powerful and so erratic that financial collapse is a daily possibility.
The infrastructures of developed countries also are highly homogenised and centralised, and therefore highly vulnerable. Many denizens of skyscrapers must be reconsidering their options, but electricity, water, transportation and communication systems are also vulnerable and brittle. Our crops and livestock carry an ever-dwindling gene pool, are raised in monocultures and transported recklessly all over the earth. Any ecologist will tell you this is a recipe for disaster, and the mad-cow and foot-and-mouth outbreaks may just be small precursors to major collapses of industrialised food production. Natural systems, in contrast, are resilient because of their diversity and localisation.
At the same time, globalised capitalism has been undermining its own foundations. Capitalism and colonialism have always been exploitative, but now people on all continents are being overworked, under-rewarded and subtly or blatantly poisoned, and many of the Earth’s natural systems are now so abused as to be threatened at the planetary level.
This global capitalist experiment cannot continue for much longer. The only question is whether its end will be triggered by finance, politics or ecology. Probably all three factors will play their roles, but the destruction of the World Trade Center may come to be seen as marking the beginning of the endgame of global capitalism.
The elites of capitalism will not yield power quietly. Already they are showing signs of alarm. They do not comprehend the forces that are rising against them, and they are responding in their usual way, with violence and the beginnings of repression. Unfortunately they have the power to inflict a much greater level of harm. However the more power they deploy, the more they will undermine their political legitimacy.
The Vietnam war was lost in the U.S. as much as in the jungles of Vietnam. Eventually the war became politically unsustainable, and the invaders withdrew. Many deep cultural changes were instigated during this period of domestic rebellion. Many young people saw through the façade of democracy and freedom, and glimpsed the sordid underlying reality of greed and power. The power elites of the West survived the Vietnam war, but seeds of change were planted and they have since been flourishing quietly in the hearts of millions of people.
Even so, many Americans remain very ignorant of the world, through inclination, systematic omissions by media and politicians, and just because a big, powerful country doesn’t have to pay much attention to what others are up to. They are genuinely bewildered by what seems to be a bolt from the blue. However they are now paying attention.
Perhaps the brutal truth will permeate faster than it did in the Vietnam years. A substantial minority of Americans is well aware of what is done in its name. In fact a recent book reports that a majority of Americans believes that they must soon change the way they live, so as not to leave an impoverished and degraded world to their children. These people have not yet realised how many like-minded friends they have, because the media are busy propagating other, mythical, stories.
We must hope that people soon will withdraw their support for our present unsustainable system. The sooner we do so, the less destruction and misery will be inflicted on this long-suffering world, and the sooner we can start to build resilient, unthreatening, sustainable ways of life. This will require us to localise and diversify our economic and political systems, and to make our economies once again subservient to human values. As we do so, we will become safer from each other.