The problem

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ARE we witnessing the birth of a new empire, one led by the United States? Ever since four hijacked aircraft crashed, first into the World Trade Towers in New York and then the Pentagon building near Washington, leaving in their wake a stunned nation mourning its few thousand dead, the world seems to have moved into a new phase. September 11 is now etched in global consciousness, not merely as a date when the sole super power was attacked on its own homeland, the first time after Pearl Harbour, shattering forever its feeling of invulnerability, it inaugurated a new global war against terror, one in which the terms of engagement are being defined more or less exclusively by the United States.

Whatever the debate on the significance of September 11, there is little doubt that the processes underway since 1989 – the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War of 1992, and others – all reflective of the ascendancy of a western capitalist vision and military dominance, have received a fillip in recent years. Seen in conjunction with the growing stranglehold of the US over multilateral institutions – both economic and political, the coming into being of the WTO, the falling in line of the United Nations and the post-Bretton Woods institutions, it does appear that the countervailing power of various regional arrangements as also of nation states have suffered a deathly blow.

True, many of these tendencies have long been in evidence, with some analysts even tracing them back to 1945, the end of the Second World War. But most of the last five decades reflected a serious struggle not just between two competing ideologies espoused by the two super powers – the US and the USSR – but a variety of experiments in state and nation building by both older and new states. Each of the debates and efforts to construct supranational, regional and global arrangements reflected a contestation – of ideologies, values, cultures, preferred lifestyles and futures. And while no one would paint a picture of vibrant pluralism (unequal power relations being an ever grim reality), both hope and faith in a people’s ability to build an autonomous future never quite died out.

Is all this now a matter of history? Are we foredoomed to live in a world both dominated and defined by the US, able and willing to exercise its undoubted clout, military and economic, to force dissenting imaginations and actors to toe the line? Much as the extant reality might appear grim, this might represent an over-reading of the global situation. Not only because history has a way of springing surprises but because the vision and the structures sought to be put into place face formidable challenges, both from the periphery and from the centre.

But first the not so good news. If the post-War, Cold War era had the West characterizing socialism as an evil ideology, attention is now sought to be focused on Islam, more correctly radical Islam, as a new enemy, with Huntingtonian formulations such as the ‘clash of civilizations’ finding renewed resonance in popular discourse. That the world of Islam is in turbulence can hardly be denied. Nor can the fact that in a vast majority of Muslim countries, there are substantial groupings seeking to organise on the basis of favoured religious interpretations, sometimes harking back to an imaginary past, both willing and able to use force to alter power and social relations, within and without.

Ever since the formation of OPEC, the Iranian revolution of 1979, the never ending battles between the beleaguered Palestinians and the Israeli state in the Middle East, we are being led to believe that global democracy and civilization are being held hostage by fanatical Muslim terrorists, sometimes aided and abetted by pliant states. (Of course, what is far less stressed is the central role of the US, its intelligence agencies and corporations, in propping up these groups and states, as part of its global strategy.)

Such a characterization has gained strength since 9/11, permitting the US to launch a global war against terror, targeting first the Al Qaeda and associated networks seen as responsible for the bombings at the WTC and the Pentagon. Since the fateful day last year, we have witnessed not only a ruthless bombing of Afghanistan, generating many more innocent victims, there is real apprehension that this new war will soon be extended – to Iraq or other countries named as the ‘Axis of Evil’. Surprisingly, or not so, this global effort has managed support from a wide range of countries – NATO states, Russia, China, Japan as also middling powers such as India, the Philippines and so on.

The use of an ambiguous and overarching category such as terrorism has enabled both the US and different nation states to rework their laws, rules and procedures to classify all dissenters as terrorists and deal with them in ways outside the normal considerations of international law. It is no mere coincidence that country after country has strengthened its anti-terrorist legislations and placed new restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms.

Where does this leave the different dissenting imaginations, the progressive individuals, groups and movements which all through the last five decades, more specifically since the decade of the ’90s, have struggled for values like equity, social justice, cultural pluralism, accountability of regimes, transparency in functioning and participation in decision-making? Has the tilt of history turned against such forces?

No matter how pregnant the possibilities of disaster, and how bleak the present appears, one must never lose sight of the severe contradictions, local and global, that leave space for creative interpretation and struggle. From struggles like the National Alliance of People’s Movements, the Right to Information Campaign against destructive development and the nuclearisation of the subcontinent, to regional coalitions against rampant liberalisation and globalisation or for peace viz. the Asian Peace Assembly, protest and struggle against homogenising the globe in a new neo-liberal frame is far from lost.

Not only is it both incorrect and inefficacious to over-read (and thus be stultified by) the perceived power of the ‘hegemon’, we must simultaneously be appreciative of how individual nation states (like China, Malaysia) or their regional groupings are repositioning themselves to extend space for manoeuvre. What, however, is clear, both in the peripheries and the centres of global capital, is that older concepts and categories have substantially lost their explanatory power and are no longer able to serve mobilisational ends in the way they were perceived to earlier.

In many places, older emancipatory slogans and ideologies have yielded place to cultural constructs based on ethnicity and religion which may turn out to be retrogressive. Thus, even as we work through the underside of modernity and the Enlightenment project, with its valorisation of science, technology and rationality, or of the unfettered and unmarked individual as citizen, we need equally to critically engage with the categories of tradition and communitarian solidarities.

In a more proximate sense, there is need to think through notions such as nationalism and the nation state, at least partly because they have been hijacked by dominant elites to suppress struggles for autonomy, identity and dignity. At one level, the rampaging of global capital and American unilateralism have made a mockery of the notion of national sovereignty, be it in the context of ethnic cleansing or genocide, denial of human rights, or even when considering issues such as global warming.

The issue is not one of a binary or even a fixed ordinal ranking which privileges one principle over another, but being able to evolve structures, forums and modalities of debate and intervention that permit us, in good time, to respond to specific contexts. Even as there is need to construct new regional and global alliances of nation states, it is imperative not to be trapped within these frames. Even more, withdrawal and delinking from the global order is no longer a viable option.

Take the other concept: security. There is little doubt that globalisation and modern technology has imbued terrorist projects with a new potency. September 11 may have targeted the US, but no country, anywhere, can assume that it is immune from the insecurity generated by the fear of random action. What does moving into a new ‘risk’ society imply? Are we in a new phase of war where conventional military strength provides little deterrence or security? Can we give into the demands of a more intrusive state seeking to gather the intelligence to prevent such actions?

And, can we uncritically accept or reject the popular definitions of terrorism, whether as a freedom struggle of the oppressed or as a creative use of violence to overthrow an established order? Above all, how are we to look at the anti-terrorist actions – be they of the US in Afghanistan, Israel in Palestine, or of our different national regimes? Do they too not destabilise and destroy people, communities and livelihoods, all to establish ‘order’.

One can add to the list of questions, both empirical and normative. September 11 has, if nothing else, added to the ambiguity of the terrain on which we think and operate. Be it the calls for justice or revenge, or selecting friends or enemies, the bottom line of intervention remains caught in an ends-means controversy. ‘If we will the ends, we better will the right means. For the means we select may betray our ends.’ Or is it as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin often pointed out: Choosing is hard. It is not just a simple matter of plumping for good against evil, but sustaining a commitment to good ends even when the means adopted may be questionable. Are we surprised that it is so difficult to generate public passion against the proposed US bombing of Iraq, given that Saddam Hussein is hardly the most appropriate candidate as victim/martyr. Or that a country like the Philippines, after decades of struggle to close down US bases on its soil, now has to reconcile to the vast public support behind the decision to invite US special forces in to combat purported terrorists.

Anniversaries have a peculiar way of bringing debates to the surface. In a recent essay in the London Review of Books (11 July 2002), Christopher Hitchens reminds us of another September 11, this time in 1973, the day Salvador Allende, then President of Chile, was assassinated by the generals, with generous help from the US. The imposition of Pinochet’s dictatorship may have brought to an end the glorious experiment of ‘a peaceful transition to socialism’, and re-established Latin America as a US bailiwick. It also, as Hitchens reminds us, contributed immensely to the last great spurt of progressive, socialist upsurges in Europe before the Reagan-Thatcher era and the collapse of the Berlin Wall set back European efforts at socialist democracy. It remains to be seen what 11 September 2001 has in store for us.