Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 6 - No. 1
Spring, 2002


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The Same New World after September 11
by Cindy Milstein

 

Most of us will always remember where we were when we first heard the news, first saw the unreal images, on that morning that can only be called, quite inadequately, a tragedy. There is no erasing the memory of what happened, just as there is no bringing back the dead. September 11 will always be a day to be condemned. It will also mark a juncture in history. The list grows increasingly long by the hour: a lengthy war allegedly sanctioned by, in Bush's words, "the collective will of the world"; racist attacks on Muslims and Arabs; the gutting of civil liberties; patriotic flag waving and media-sponsored jingoism; new subsidies for the rich and further degradation for the poor; and much more.

Glimpsed from a certain angle, the newly altered global terrain after the September 11 suicide strikes is not so different after all. The hijacked planes speeding into the twin symbols of capitalism only helped accelerate political, social, and economic upheavals already swiftly underway. Towers may have tumbled, but the process made up of a constellation of phenomena bundled under the term "globalization" moves forward at a mind-bogglingly renewed pace, forging new forms of domination even as it affords openings. And given the tenacity of barbarism—from terrorism to militarism, from internationally networked fundamentalists to the international "community" of statists and capitalists—struggles to draw out the liberatory potentials within globalization appear even more imperative.

This means assessing not so much the changed world, crucial as that is, but the not-so-changed one that confronts us after the "attack on America." And not simply to reclaim the offensive that had the G8, IMF/WB, and WTO on the run. (As long ago as it now seems, the most powerful governments on earth basically lost the legitimacy to meet in their own cities, much less publicly, after Genoa; the IMF/WB scaled back their fall meetings months before the planned direct actions even came near the streets; and the WTO scurried for cover this past November in a country without much pretense of democracy.) We must size up the same new world in order to regain our voices as antiauthoritarians, as a counterpoint to the cacophony of the doublespeak of nation-states, worn-out rhetoric of most leftists, and patriotism of the populace and media. Only by understanding the complexities of the world, both the heightened sameness as well as disconcerting newness, can anarchists again serve as voices of conscience. What follows are some thoughts, far from answers and further still from solutions, along two intertwined yet divergent paths.  

The Path of Least Resistance
Wall Street shut down, for the longest period in its history. On any other day, in the context of a widespread social movement, this would have been cause for celebration. But it was impossible to feel joy given the circumstances. This is the paradox at the heart of the film Fight Club. The alienation that we in the glittering consumer society of the West feel—at least those of us fortunate enough to have material plenty—can go in either libertarian or fascistic directions. Either may bring transnationals to their knees, but the means are quite different and the ends even starker. As Fight Club implies, a world opposed to or ultimately even outside of capitalism could look equally ugly, equally violent.

No one can really say why the suicidal hijackers of September 11 targeted the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but it's safe to venture that it had something to do, at least in part, with the unease caused by a world in transition. (That in no way justifies the means used, nor in all likelihood, the equally brutal and authoritarian ends.) Yet ironically, rather than slowing or halting the dizzying transformation known as globalization, the one-two punch aimed at the great symbols of capitalism and militarism has only increased its velocity, and from an antiauthoritarian perspective, sent it in the wrong direction.

The tectonic shift known as globalization, still so difficult to define, is in large part about a shift in power relations. It is a shift that is far from settled. As globalization breaks down all sorts of barriers—social as well as spatial, real as well as virtual—it carves out a world just as open to the free flow of resistance as of capitalism. Capitalism's internal compulsion to continually expand is greatly helping to re-map the world as one without borders, but so too are the growing bonds of solidarity between the earth's displaced, dispossessed peoples. The powerful and powerless are both influential in this globalizing process; both are also very much at its mercy. Because as old divides crumble, up for grabs is where and with whom power will ultimately reside once the world is fully globalized—"power" here referring to what and who will ultimately decide the shape of that fully globalized world. Thus is globalization creating a power vacuum.

Authoritarians and antiauthoritarians alike have stepped into this vacuum in a struggle for very different notions of how decision making should be structured. Those presently in command obviously have a greater advantage. But because the power struggle takes place within, not outside, the globalization process itself, everyone is forced to play by the new rules being created by a globalizing world. These rules mandate such strategies as mobility, flexibility, openness, networking, and cooperation. Our old mind-sets, however, haven't caught up to these new rules, and hence it is difficult to see that even the powerful are destabilized. This is the unease of globalization even for a superpower as preeminent as the United States, the nation-system central to creating a globalized world yet vulnerable to being unraveled by the very process of getting there. Two examples from the new "war on terrorism" will hopefully suffice here: the open borders–closed borders dilemma, and the need for international cooperation before launching strikes against, for now, Afghanistan.

Long before the eleventh of September, as far back as the mid-1940s and certainly since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the nation-state as a tightly bounded entity has been in decline. International bodies from the European Union to the Hague Tribunal are helping to capture more and more of the "traditional" functions of individual states at the supranational level. Certain states benefit and others lose out in the short run, but all states must increasingly forfeit elements of their autonomy in this new world community. A related, though different breaking down of the national boundedness of capitalism has taken place, and supranational corporations and financial institutions are now the norm. This upward consolidation of governance and economics, to name just two key spheres, has made borders between countries and even continents increasingly irrelevant.

Yet unlike capitalism, which happily assists in tearing down walls in order to grow, borders are necessary for states if they are to remain a distinct set of institutions with powers all their own. In short, if they are to remain a distinct state. As quickly as the globalization process irrevocably chips away at borders, then, states must just as quickly engage in keeping up appearances that they do, indeed, control their own territory. For this patina of control is what makes the difference being legitimacy and illegitimacy for states. When individual countries are forced by a globalizing world to ease border restrictions, they must maintain this illusion of control by promoting and/or signing agreements that ratify what is, to a certain extent, already the on-the-ground reality.

And so seeming paradoxes abound. The U.S. government promulgates an agreement to fling open borders throughout the Americas to trade, and is even willing to consider a quasi-citizen category for Mexican "guest" workers in the United States, but (vainly) tries to stave off border crossings for illegal drugs or immigrants, or for those anarchists who wanted to join the Anti-Capitalist Convergence in Quebec last April. This paradox has only been accentuated since September 11. For instance, it is now much more difficult for U.S. citizens to get back into the States after visiting Canada, but Bush is trying to do an end run around activists by getting Congress to agree to fast-track the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas—to patriotically show those terrorists they can't stop business as usual (which, of course, they haven't). As globalization congeals into a globalized world, however, this contradiction will likely be resolved as borders blur and perhaps even dissolve. Unfortunately, such a "no borders" campaign is a frightening prospect when waged by nation-states—the victor potentially being competing networks of suprastates or even a one-world government monopoly.

But that is the possible totalizing world of tomorrow. For now, another example of the post–September 11 acceleration in this blurring of borders relates to policing. The terror perpetrated on U.S. soil brought the world home. It is, of course, a positive development that Americans now realize they are part of humanity. Yet Bush and company would have us believe that means there is now "no place to hide," neither for terrorists nor us many, lowly civilians. Or more precisely, everywhere is now a potential hiding place, everyone a possible suspect, for September 11 showed that fear and terror know no borders. They don't tell us that states, too, also have no safe refuge. They would rather have us think that if the earth is indeed everyone's home, we must defend it against intruders, and that means calling the police. Anticapitalist activists know full well that "domestic" police like the FBI had already gone global to lend a hand against protesters in Prague; and Dutch and German police in one small region recently built a station that straddles both their countries' borders. What might have been a gradual process, though, has now been telescoped since the suicide attacks. "Homeland security" involves European NATO planes policing U.S. skies; police "wiretaps" will follow individuals across borders rather than staying put on a phone. Enter the age of the supra–police state.

The processes of globalization still place limits even on these new forms of domination, at least for the moment. Cooperation is one of the restraints, for cohabitation on a globalized planet necessitates that we—the "we" running the gamut from police to states to fundamentalists to leftists—get along out of mere survival. Such global "cooperation" could already be seen in relation to flows of capital; national currencies giving way in Europe to a regional one, the Euro, are just one instance. But the war on terrorism ushers in a heightened sense of cooperation, in this case between nations. The U.S. government can no longer get away with being the world's police. As one part of what's becoming a police world, it too must now seek out and actually get moral and material cooperation from a plurality of states, nominally democratic or not. "An attack on one is an attack on all," affirms NATO in a grand subversion of the Wobbly slogan. "Not in our name," chant peace activists in the United States, but "our name" is much larger and more dangerous than simply "America." This global war will involve a consensus much harder to combat in that it stretches across cooperating states, not between competing ones, in a battle against "rogue nations" and stateless "evil."

This is a small, still shadowy part of the world emerging after September 11. It is a changed world, perhaps, but only because the changes already underway were so fast-forwarded as to appear as something completely new. The same new world's novelty, however, lies in its ability to throw everyone and everything off balance. Old assumptions have  been shattered, but they were shattered long before September 11, and unless we carefully shift through the rubble, we will find neither cause nor effect. 

The Path of Renewed Resistance
The Statue of Liberty shut down, for the longest period in its history (other than for renovations or repairs). If we are supposedly returning to "normal," if the U.S. government is allegedly defending the liberties that make this country exemplary, why protect Liberty Enlightening the World, as she's officially called, from the public? It's only one statue, and a contentious one at that, but what better symbol of the irony of the war on terrorism to guarantee "enduring freedom" than its continued closure?

For this statue was intended to stand for "universal political freedom"; it was meant to welcome all peoples of the world into a purportedly democratic society. The fact that unlike the stock exchange, this icon has still not been able to be reopened makes plain the U.S. government's values. And certainly, there are many in the United States who share the government's increasingly nativist, undemocratic sentiments.

But there are many others who don't. Witness those moments on 9-11-2001—and there were many—when people didn't fulfill notions of humanity as greedy, xenophobic, or power hungry. When voluntarism along with numerous acts of kindness were as overwhelming, if not more so, a response. When the senseless deaths of that morning made many turn both inward to reflect on the meaning of their own lives, on how they contribute to society, and also outward to explore other cultures, religions, histories. And when many people recognized just how fragile concepts like "freedom" and "democracy" are, even if those notions are hollowed out or often false in these United States.

It will be, and indeed it has been, difficult for people to get back to normal, especially when "normal" is defined as shopping and returning to work. The genuine emptiness of life-before-September- 11 has hit hard for many, particularly in contrast to the genuine community most felt in the days just after the attacks. Millions have (re)turned to religion, others to friends and family; some to a peace movement. They have sought company and values in a world that now seems lonely and valueless, and many long for an ethical orientation that is about a greater good than chasing the American dream.

All that meets the ear, however, is a deafening silence. People are at a loss for words as well as ideas to explain September 11 and beyond. The silence is so deep that it will be harder than ever to break, especially since we too have been quieted. Cries of "U.S. imperialism" or "imagine peace" have just as abrasive a ring as "God Bless America" in the stillness that now engulfs both unity and dissent. It is a silence that must end, but only when we are ready to serve as insightful, articulate voices not afraid to speak truth to the powerful, not fearful of playing with unending contradictions that may defy simple responses, not in a hurry to work through the complexities that are today's scared new world.

For there is a world stuck between the bin Ladens and George Bushes of today desirous of something better. But there must be something better to consider. That means making sense—from a libertarian Left perspective—of fundamentalism, the war of terror and war on terrorism, supranational alliances, and a host of other phenomena connected to and sometimes separate from the process of globalization. It also means taking account of these new global dynamics in our praxis. Such a renaissance of thought within anarchist circles will allow us to re-create the space we struggled so hard to build prior to September 11, for we will have something profound to say and hopeful to offer. Only from this place of critical thought can we again press ahead, even if by baby steps, as educators and agitators.

Since September 11, antiauthoritarians have defied media stereotypes by exhibiting patience, grace, and great sensitivity. Canceling the long-planned direct actions against the IMF/WB in Washington, D.C. during a period of collective mourning is just one of the many recent acts that offer a hint of our ethical orientation and prefigurative politics. It is "diversity of tactics" coming to maturity. Now we must broaden this notion in the days ahead, reaching out to those newly politicized and newly touched by world events in ways we might not have imagined or embraced on September 10.

We know that any move toward peace must understand that peace did not reign prior to September 11, that peace can never be approximated without a struggle to continually root out domination while providing alternatives. We know that a peace movement can't operate as if the world were pre-globalization. The best sort of antiwar movement would be one that sees itself as an extension, indeed an expansion of the anticapitalist, antistatist struggle that preceded it. The best sort of movement for peace would be one calling for a free society of free individuals.

Our project is, and must be, the same today as it was before the horrific acts of violence on September 11 and retaliatory ones since October 7. Cooperation between heads of state in a war against terrorism must be contrasted to mutual aid between peoples in a struggle against authoritarian rule, be it by states or self-appointed martyrs. The evisceration of civil liberties calls more than ever for a libertarian alternative. A widening circle of ethnically motivated attacks begs yet again for a substantive notion of humanity and diversity—from the East Coast to the Middle East. The immiserization of people demands even more that production and distribution be structured around desire not domination. And perhaps most compellingly, the greater consolidation of hierarchical networks of suprapowers in the post–September 11 world must be thwarted by a directly democratic, confederal politics at the global grass roots. Far from over, our project is now more crucial than ever, and potentially bears more resonance in and outside any peace movement.

Nevertheless, we now find ourselves in the rather awkward position of having good ideas under increasingly bad circumstances. In this globalizing world, we too have no place to hide, we too are increasingly vulnerable. Thus we must continue to solidify our own infrastructure, including but not limited to independent media, physical spaces, a material base, and political organizations. We must distance ourselves from positions within our milieu that either glamorize acts of terror, like setting police on fire, or condone it, like supporting the Unabomber's deeds. We must reach out beyond our counterculture, both globally and continentally, yet also by working where we live. It is a good thing that the world is opening up, that borders are blurring and power is shifting, but only if we begin to create living examples of how to organize power in ways that globalize freedom.

Capitalism was not brought down by September 11; it forges on in a macabre though hypocritical tribute to the victims of that morning. Authoritarians from al Qaeda to G. W. Bush retain their power to command, to stir up wars in the name of God, albeit different ones. The WTO went ahead with its fall meeting, shamelessly dangling the newly poor in the wake of September 11 as the reason, without mentioning its own deeper complicity in this impoverishment. The world looks bleak, the good society seems distant. But small openings still appear. It is up to us to raise alternative beacons of light in the coming storm. ~


Perspectives on Anarchist Theory - Vol. 6, No. 1 - Spring 2002