Sharper, not flatter

Posted in black swan, global, identity, politics by Andrew Curry on 17 September, 2011

I don’t fly that often, and I certainly didn’t intend to fly on September 11th 2011. In fact I realised the significance of ‘flying home on Sunday’ only when I checked in for the outward flight on Thursday. As it happened, it was probably the safest day to fly in the past decade, but it still came with a certain frisson. My own view on ’9/11′ is that it will – with hindsight – be seen as a way marker both of the end of the long boom of the second half of the 20th century, and in the re-balancing of the world from west to east. But it wasn’t a neutral event; instead, it was one of those which gave history a push, in particular by accelerating America’s financial, military, and diplomatic overstretch. The article I’ve read recently which best captures this is by the Indian author and essayist Pankaj Mishra. There are some extracts from this, and a couple of other pertinent pieces, beneath the fold.

Mishra’s essay is based around a number of the books which have been written about 9/11. Being Indian means that he has read more eclectically than his Anglo-American counterparts, and perhaps also helps to give him perspective, enabling him to be more reflective and as sceptical about outcomes for both Islamic radicals and American radicals.

The Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf sums up the powerful illusions spawned in the decade before 9/11 in his new book Disordered World: “we believed that democracy would now gradually spread until it encompassed the whole planet; the barriers between countries would fall; the movement of people, goods, images and ideas would develop unimpeded, ushering in an era of progress and prosperity.” … Of this millenarian fantasy of the flattened earth, which informed war-making by western heads of state and innumerable columns by international affairs pundits as well as the average issue of the Economist, you can now only wonder: what was that all about?

If the West’s decision-making was based on fantasy, so were the expectations of al-Qaida’s animators.The combination of the two was flammable, certainly to the notion of the liberal state:

The damage to the west in the last decade has been overwhelmingly self-inflicted. Some of the domestic toll is visible in the draconian restrictions on civil liberties, the vast bureaucracy of “security” and the increased surveillance, electronic eavesdropping and other infringements of individual privacy and dignity that now seem routine and irrevocable. “War,” Randolph Bourne famously warned in the early 20th century, “is the health of the state.” It is now also the health of companies such as Halliburton, Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Lockheed Martin that are embedded with the state.

And yet, and yet: as David Cole points out in the New York Review of Books, many of the authoritarian excesses of the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11 have been rolled back, through a combination of the judiciary and civil society, from which he draws three conclusions:

First, the values of the rule of law are more tenacious than many cynics and “realists” thought, certainly than many in the Bush administration imagined. The most powerful nation in the world was forced to retreat substantially on each of its lawless ventures.

Second, there is no evidence that the country is less safe now that the lawless measures have been rescinded. Bush administration defenders often assert that its initial responses were driven by necessity, but the fact that we remain reasonably secure under a more law-bounded regime refutes that claim. Indeed, even some of Bush’s own security experts now recognize that our success rests on resisting overreaction. …

Third, the choice to jettison legal constraints has inflicted long-lasting costs. … [T]he decision to deny those at Guantánamo any of the most basic rights owed enemy detainees turned the prison there into a symbol of injustice and oppression, exactly the propaganda al-Qaeda needed to foster anti-Americanism and inspire new recruits and affiliates.

In a similar vein, Andy Oram argued on O’Reilly Radar that the changes we have seen over the last ten years have been driven by deeper structural change:

The world has certainly changed in the past ten years, but not in response to the attacks. Analysts do say that investments by the U.S. government in Egyptian democratic groups provided some foundation for the Tahrir Square protests, but much more of a foundation was supplied by long-standing activists such as labor unions. The Arab Spring, the most significant political change of the decade, sprang for the most part from internal ferment. The natural evolution of the computer field, benefitting much less from military investment than in previous decades, created many social changes. Investments in green technologies have been driven not by concerns over terrorism … but by worries over climate change in Europe and the exhaustion of traditional energy sources in China.

And as Pankaj Mishra observes, all of this can be read as an expression of some of the consequences of our long globalising boom, in which differences are sharpened, and where specificity matters:

The world changed on 9/11: so goes the insistent, melodramatic cliché, which stops short of telling us just how, in what ways, and primarily for whom … Globalisation, it turns out, does not lead to a flat world marked by increasing cosmopolitan openness. Rather, it sharpens old antipathies and incites new ones, while unleashing a cacophony of opposed interests and claims.

And the problem with the cacophony is that it drowned out the noise of a lot of other issues which we might otherwise have paid more attention to, especially in Europe and America. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to construct a version of the history of the last decade which has the war of terror as a form of sleight of hand to distract from the more immediate economic and political conflicts closer to home, where the protagonists are not strange, distant, and “othered” but are instead rather too familiar. As the saying goes, you should judge a system by what it does rather than what it says it does.

Inequality and unemployment grow as highly mobile corporations continually move around the world in search of cheap labour, low-tax regimes and high profits, draining much-needed investment in welfare systems for ageing populations. Economic crises, bleak employment prospects and a sense of political impotence stoke a great rage and paranoia, often directed at non-white immigrants, particularly Muslims, or channelled into random criminality.

A final note. The ’9/11′ attacks are often used as an example of a ‘black swan‘ – the utterly unexpected, low probability, high impact event, which transforms our world. Actually, as Sohail Inayatullah and others have observed, the possibility of an asymmetric attack on New York (and specifically on the World Trade Center) had already been identified – and, of course, even attempted. Just because something surprises you doesn’t mean that it should have been unexpected.

The picture at the top was taken by Andrew Curry, and is available to use on a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved. 

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