Leo Panitch on 9/11

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 7 15:19:16 MST 2001

			The Meaning of September 11th for the Left
					by Leo Panitch

[Forthcoming in Studies in Political Economy. An earlier version of this
paper was presented to the panel From anti-globalization to anti-war,
sponsored by the New Politics Initiative, Ryerson University, Toronto, Nov
10, 2001]

The unresolved debate about whether the third millennium on the Christian
calendar began with the year 2000 or the year 2001 was settled on September
11th. In political terms, the turn of the century will now forever be
associated with the atrocity of that day -- the most spectacular act of
symbolic violence against imperial power in history - and with the war
unleashed by the imperial state in its aftermath. But no sense can be made
of the appalling predicament that all humanity at the beginning of the 21st
century now faces unless it is put in perspective of the two interrelated
defining features of the last half of the 20th century: the rise of the
global American capitalist empire and the defeat of progressive nationalism
and revolutionary socialism throughout the globe. Opposition to capitalism
and imperialism is inevitable, but the atavistic form it took on September
11th can only be understood in terms of what, on that day, tragically
filled the vacuum of the 20th century Left's historic defeat. 

Whatever responsibility the Left must itself take for this defeat, there
can be no doubt about the major role played by American imperium's
world-wide suppression of progressive forces. One aspect of this was its
cynical sponsoring of reactionary religious fundamentalism as a tool
against the secular left in that part of the world on which it has now made
war, and from which it now stages that war. This is in no sense to excuse
the perpetrators of the terror themselves, neither for the immorality of
their deed, nor for its sheer counter-effectiveness insofar as it was
designed as a response to imperialism. For its inevitable effect was
precisely to stoke the self-righteous flames of imperial power, and fuel
their spread.

The effect that the declaration of war in the name of peace, civilization
and freedom has had in terms of unleashing the coercive power of the state
must be measured domestically as much as internationally. In the USA, the
Republican Party has always been made of a coalition of free marketeers,
social conservatives and military hawks, and the latter are now in the
driver's seat. The increased influence gained by the military, coercive and
security apparatuses in the wake of September 11th could be seen in that
the first victory of the new war was scored at home, ironically against the
US Treasury. It involved breaking the latter's long-standing resistance
(lest it would demonstrate the continuing viability of capital controls) to
freezing bank accounts allegedly connected to terrorist organizations
(arrangements the US state has always known about since it was involved in
establishing them to facilitate money transfers to many of its favoured
terrorists in the past). Of course, the effect has been felt much more
personally and directly by the 1100 people added because of Sept 11th,
without any pretence of procedural justice, to the two million already in
US prisons. And the much broader and longer term consequences of the
enhanced power and resources of the coercive and security apparatuses will
be inevitably felt by the American Left for many years to come. 

The legislative cover for this in the USA is called The Patriots Act, but
the same thing is being replicated in all the states which are known as the
imperial power's closest allies, but are really is most immediate
tributaries. The adoption of new coercive measures reflects considerable
direct pressure from Washington, but it is also fuelled internally in those
states by a disturbing sense of patriotism, not so much to the state in
question as to the imperial power itself, a sense of patriotism emanating
from a very substantial part of the mass citizenry as well as from the
political and media elites. The disturbing phraseology of the Canadian
anti-terrorism law (Bill C-36) is outdone in the European Union - which has
advanced a definition of terrorism so broad that it encompasses 'offences
which are intentionally committed by an individual or group against one or
more countries, their institutions or people with the aim of intimidating
them and seriously altering the political, economic or social structures of
those countries'.  It then goes on to includes vague reference in this
respect to 'urban violence' and to the 'structures' of 'international
organisations.' Talk about 'the local to the global'!      

	The international consequences of the declaration of war fell much more
directly of course on those people of Afghanistan, who were subjected to
the terror of an aerial bombing campaign as part of an explicit attempt to
scare several of the warlords who have supported the Taliban in recent
years leaders to come over to the American side (at which point the direct
bribery which has worked so well in the past will do its work again). But
this war, even if it gets extended to other states in the region (and
elsewhere), will not end terrorism and the Americans know it. Wesley Clark,
the American general who commanded the NATO forces in the war on
Yugoslavia, in an interview in the Financial Times in early October, said
as much: 'There is an old expression: "I have a hammer, find me a nail."
terrorism were a problem that could be solved by a hammer, we would have
hammered it out a long time ago.' That said, there is one aspect to this
war that is indeed just about 'getting' bin Laden. Nothing is more
infuriating to an imperial power than its own 'operative' having turned
into its enemy. The sheer cynicism, but also the sheer foolhardiness, that
governed strategy at the time bin Laden was used by the US was dramatically
revealed in an interview Le Novel Observateur conducted in 1998 with
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security Advisor  from 1977 to 1981,
Madeleine Albright's tutor, and recent author of the American imperialist
handbook, The Grand Chessboard: 
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they
intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in
Afghanistan, people didn't believe them. However, there was a basis of
truth. You don't regret anything today? 
Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It
had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me
to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I
wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the
USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a
war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the
demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire. 
Q: And neither do you regret having supported
 [and] given arms and advice
to future terrorists? 
Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban
 or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some  stirred-up Moslems or the
liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war? 
September 11th was 'blowback' from this - with such vengeance as could only
have been stoked up over half a century. (The term was first coined in
Washington in 1954 as .. CIA and Pentagon bureaucrats mulled over the
consequences of their decision to overthrow of the left nationalist
Mossadeq government in Iran). Bin Laden will pay for it with his life, and
with that of the Taliban regime. He deserves to, although those untold many
who suffer death from the 'collateral damage' surely do not. But the larger
strategic imperial visions at play go far beyond al Qaeda and the Taliban
regime in Afghanistan. They have much to do with what was still unsettled
after the 'liberation' of Central Europe and end of the Cold War. The
countries that have since the break-up of the Soviet Union been
patronisingly called the 'stans' in the State Department and the Pentagon
have been finally prised from the Russian sphere of influence. The American
bases that are being established in post-Soviet Central Asia will not be
dismantled with this war.  American military bases will now circle the
world from Japan to the China's western border. The Russian resistance to
the building of the National Missile Defence 'shield' - with all this
implies for the militarization of space - has been definitively broken (or
should we say bribed away?). 

The world-wide coalition against terrorism that the US has built is
explicitly designed to legitimate and sustain every state's repression of
the separatist groups (along with other dissident groups) within them. Less
well known than the free hand being now given to the Russians in Chechnya
is the free hand being given to the Chinese Communist-capitalist elite to
act against the Muslim separatists in their westernmost province (where
already 20 groups have been banned and many hundreds of people have been
arrested in the past months) without fear that this will be used by the
Americans against them in their ongoing negotiations over the terms of
integration into the capitalist world economy.  Consistency need not be a
principle of imperial strategy, and this was never more evident than in the
stunningly quick about face the USA has made since yesteryear's war on
Yugoslavia, when the justification for that war was the right of
self-determination in the old Communist world for every ethno-nationalist
group that demanded it.      
	The fact that war this time is not being prosecuted through NATO, much
less the United Nations, but through a loose coalition in which all the
world's states are deemed to be 'with us or against us', is explicitly
intended to allow for maximum unilateralism of strategic and tactical
military action by the imperial state itself. Winning the agreement,
however ultimately craven, of every single NATO state to the war on
Yugoslavia was not easy, but it was worth it as a necessary means of
establishing definitively that the imperial power would remain the
policeman of Europe in the post-Soviet era. As for the United Nations, and
reviving the Pearsonian nostrum that such a war could only legitimately
have been prosecuted under its auspices, one should not forget what Stephen
Lewis, Canada's Ambassador to the UN at the time, had to say about the Gulf

The United Nations served as an imprimatur for a policy that the United
States wanted to follow and either persuaded or coerced everybody else to
support. The Security Council thus played fast and loose with the
provisions of the UN Charter
 In some respects
[this] may have been the
UN's most desolate hour. It certainly unnerved a lot of developing
countries, which were privately outraged by what was going on but felt
utterly impotent to do anything - a demonstration of the enormous power of
US power and influence when it is unleashed.

It is difficult to believe things would have been much different had it
suited the Americans to follow the UN route this time. Yet the
contradictions of ruling the world are great. They were indeed brought home
to Americans horribly on September 11th, but they are more likely in the
immediate future to be measured in the instability that this war, and the
extended American reach that accompanies it, brings about in places
initially very far from New York and Washington (although its not
impossible that the recession and the brutalities and costs of this war
will eventually bring this to the imperial heartland too). A good deal of
this instability will take anti-American forms, and this will only
reinforce the self-delusion that 'they hate us because we elect our
leaders' we have heard from the Bush administration (a self-delusion only
matched in the immediate aftermath of September 11th by the apparently
widespread credibility in the Muslim world given to the absurd rumour that
Jews were forewarned from going to the World Trade Towers that day).   

America is now requiring all states to restructure their coercive
apparatuses to fit America's strategic concerns. This would seem to
reinforce the earlier requirement set by the imperium that they restructure
their economic apparatuses to fit with what Gowan has called Washington's
Global Gamble. But the possibilities of 'blowback' are visible everywhere,
albeit nowhere more graphically today than in Pakistan. This is a country
where 85-90% of the state budget is devoted to paying interest on the debt
and for the military and coercive apparatus, leaving almost nothing for
anything else. Little wonder, with no public educational system to speak
of, that the poor in Pakistan - who do not vote for fundamentalist parties
in any great numbers - have nevertheless been sending their boys to the
religious madrasas, where they will be fed as well as indoctrinated in
fundamentalism. And little wonder the imperium now worries about such a
state losing control of its nuclear arsenal.   

The consequences are incalculable precisely because the imperium, even if
it has military bases everywhere, cannot rule except with and through such
states. As Ellen Wood puts it in the conclusion to the most recent volume
of the Socialist Register, A World of Contradictions:   

The very detachment of economic domination from political rule that makes
it possible for capital to extend its reach beyond the capacity of any
other imperial power in history is also the source of a fundamental
 This is one of the deepest contradiction in today's global
capitalism: that the nation state is more than ever the point of
concentration of capitalist power, the indispensable medium without which
capital cannot navigate, let alone dominate, the global economy. National
states implement and enforce the global economy, and they remain the most
effective means of intervening in it. This means that the state is also the
point at which global capital is most vulnerable, both as a target of
opposition in the dominant economies and as a lever of resistance
elsewhere. It also means that now more than ever, much depends on the
particular class forces embodied in the state, and that now more than ever,
there is scope, as well as need, for class struggle.
	This has enormous implications for the Left today. Whether opposition to
Imperialist Globalization will take rational and productive forms, as
opposed to destructive and irrational forms, will largely depend on the
extent to which there can be a socialist renewal of the Left in each
country around the world. Into the vacuum left by the failures and defeats
of the old Left have not only stepped reactionary religious fundamentalisms
but also the forces in every country that have fuelled the global
anti-globalization movement. Will this movement now turn itself into an
anti-war movement? I hope it can become that, but at the same time much
more than that. One of the promising aspects of the anti-globalization
movement, compared with the anti-war movement of the 1960s, has been that
this movement has increasingly designated itself as anti-capitalist. This
is also an important advance over its self-designation as an 'anti-free
trade' or 'anti-corporate' movement through much of the 1990s. But the
targets of that movement have still all too often been the international
economic and financial institutions of globalization -- behind which stands
the imperial state itself and the multitude of large and small, rich and
poor nation states through which and with which it rules, or seeks to, the

The dead end that, quite literally, religious fundamentalisms lead to,
whether in North America or anywhere else, reinforces the need for
socialist renewal in each country which can only be advanced by political
forces that have the central goal of a democratic reconstitution of state
power against today's state-constituted capitalist American empire. Our
task is to support those forces - such as the Pakistani Labour Party -
wherever they exist, while throwing ourselves into the process of building
them at home, such as is already in train here through the New Politics
Initiative and the Rebuilding The Left projects to create new institutional
expressions to renew the prospects of an independent socialist Canada. Only
in this way can the impossible options demanded today by Bush, Blair and
Bin Laden, of being either with them or against them, ultimately be
refused. There has to be an alternative for the 21st century other than
what September 11th and its immediate aftermath represent. That alternative
can only be defined in terms of independent but cooperative democratic
socialist states. It is up to us to start now developing the political
movements and organizations that will make such states possible. 

Louis Proyect
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