The Al-Qaida terror attacks allowed the great powers to justify new imperialist wars to safeguard the interests of global capital, writes Neil Faulkner
On 11 September 2001, Al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four US aircraft to carry out attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
Three attacks were successful: the Pentagon sustained major damage, both Twin Towers were hit and later collapsed, and about 3,000 people in total were killed.
9/11 was an attack on US imperialism. But it was a misdirected attack in which a sinister right-wing network targeted ordinary working people.
Because of this, 9/11 was a gift to the US ruling class: it allowed them to rebrand their own aggression – which has since been a thousand times more deadly than Al-Qaida’s – as a ‘war on terror’. It helped them fabricate the ‘threats’ and ‘enemies’ they needed to justify new imperialist wars.
The War on Terror is the geopolitical correlate of neoliberal capitalism (see MHW 102).
Neoliberalism wrecks economies and destroys lives. This tears societies apart and leads to revolutions and wars. The great powers then intervene to safeguard the interests of global capital. The War on Terror provides their current framework for intervention, and also, since the end of the Cold War, their primary justification for maintaining high levels of arms expenditure.
The new pattern was set by the events of 1989. The glacial geopolitics of the Cold War melted in the popular revolutions of that year (MHW 91 and 103). But all too quickly, politics froze over again, allowing an old elite of party bureaucrats to morph into a new elite of neoliberal oligarchs.
As state-managed capitalism was dismantled, entire economies collapsed. Ten years after 1989, the Russian economy had shrunk by 40%. East German unemployment hit 20% and more. Yugoslav living-standards halved in the space of two years.
The economic and social dislocation was not restricted to former ‘Communist’ regimes. The state-managed model was picked apart on every continent. From Egypt to India to Latin America, state enterprises were sold off, public services run down, and welfare provision retrenched.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), representing global finance-capital, became the supreme arbiters of neoliberal virtue. Those who signed up to ‘structural adjustment programmes’ were rewarded with access to finance, technology, and investment. Those who did not were consigned to oblivion.
Of 76 countries subjected to ‘structural adjustment’ in the 1980s, the great majority failed to restore the growth rates of previous decades. The effect was to leave 55% of Africans and 45% of Latin Americans below the poverty line.
The social tensions exploded in many different ways. Yugoslavia can serve as a case-study in neoliberal chaos. As the heavily-indebted state broke up, Western banks cut off access to further funding, and IMF-imposed ‘structural adjustment’ plunged the sundered fragments into a depression.
Party bosses reinvented themselves as nationalist politicians and rekindled ancient identities. The region was then ripped apart by vicious civil wars marked by genocide and ethnic-cleansing of a kind unknown in Europe since 1945.
This proved a handy testing-ground for a new kind of Western imperialism masquerading as ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘peace-keeping’. NATO, the US-dominated Cold War military alliance, was now recast as the military guardian of a post-1989 ‘New World Order’.
Serbia was attacked by NATO bombers, both during the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the Kosovo War (1999). The purpose of these interventions was to control the transition from state-managed to neoliberal capitalism. The aim was a stable political order safe for foreign capital.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed the new imperial doctrine in a speech in Chicago during the Kosovo War: ‘We are all internationalists now … We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper … We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.’
He continued: ‘We are witnessing the beginnings of a new doctrine of international community … Global financial markets, the global environment, and global security and disarmament issues: none of these can he solved without intense international co-operation.’
Blair exuded the arrogance of imperialists throughout history. His ‘we’ meant the neoliberal bourgeoisie. His ‘international community’ meant the great powers. The major war he helped launch in 2003 laid this bare. It represented the new imperialism’s coming of age.
The principal threat to global peace today is the United States. This is because the US is in decline economically, yet remains dominant militarily.
The US economy grew more than 15% per year during the Second World War. By 1945, it accounted for more than 50% of total world output. This share has declined since, to around 30% in 1980, and around 20% today.
On the other hand, US arms spending has remained relatively high throughout the post-1945 period. Over the last 20 years, it has accounted for around a third of the global total. In 1999, US arms spending was three times that of China, eight times that of Russia, 40 times that of Iran, and 200 times that of Iraq.
It is this contradictory couplet – relative economic decline and absolute military superiority – that explains the belligerence of the US in the world today. Military power is being projected to compensate for declining economic clout.
Control over oil – the single most important global commodity – is at the heart of US strategic calculations. That is why the Middle East, with about 70% of all known reserves, remains a central focus.
The War on Terror is not a struggle between Islam and the West. It is a struggle on the part of imperialist capital for control of oil and other vital interests. But it derives its ideological character from political developments inside the Middle East since 1979.
Islam is a religious confession that can take as many forms as Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism. It can express a wide range of class interests and political attitudes. ‘Islamism’ or ‘political Islam’ is not, therefore, a single, cohesive, organised force.
The label encompasses traditions as diverse as the benighted tribal conservatives of Afghanistan’s Taliban, the present ruling regime in Iran, Egypt’s relatively liberal Muslim Brotherhood, and radical resistance organisations like Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Hamas (in the Palestinian territories).
Indeed, Islamism’s lack of political definition is part of its appeal. It seems able to offer a political home to anyone opposed to imperialism, Zionism, and dictatorship. It has the apparent capacity to unite the young professional, the unemployed graduate, the stallholder, the slum-dweller, and the village mullah in a single mass movement.
That appeal has been enhanced by the failure of other, secular traditions. The Arab nationalist regimes were defeated in the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973. They later morphed into brutal dictatorships, like that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
The old Arab communist parties – following the Stalinist line – led their followers to repeated defeat by subordinating working-class movements to treacherous bourgeois-nationalist leaders. The Palestinian guerrillas – outnumbered and outgunned – struggled heroically but hopelessly against the might of the Zionist state.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 seemed to represent a new way forward. A mass movement of millions overthrew a vicious, heavily-armed, US-backed dictator.
Admittedly, the Left was subsequently smashed by an Islamist counter-revolutionary movement. Islamism thereby revealed its deeply contradictory character: able to bind together disparate social forces in a struggle for change; but then shattering into antagonistic class fragments once in power.
Yet the Iranian Islamist movement, even when wearing a counter-revolutionary face, did not represent a wholesale return to the old order. Instead, under the green banner of Islam, it represented an assertion of Iranian national independence in defiance of the US-backed setup in the Middle East.
That is why the US armed Iraq in the bloodiest war of the 1980s – the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, when a million died in a trench-war stalemate which effectively ‘contained’ the Iranian Revolution.
Then, having built him up into a regional strongman, the US knocked the Iraqi dictator down when he attempted to seize Kuwait’s oilfields. The Gulf War (1990-1991) was a practical illustration of US imperial doctrine in the Middle East: keep the region divided and weak by preventing any local state from becoming hegemonic.
9/11 provided the US ‘neo-cons’ (neo-conservatives: the hawkish advocates of the new imperialism) with their opportunity to go onto the offensive. US military power was to be projected across Central Asia and the Middle East to steal a march on imperial rivals, impose a Pax Americana on the region, and secure a military platform for the indefinite defence of US access to vital oil and gas reserves. The cost would be a million dead.
But the Afghan and Iraq Wars would spin out of control, conjuring intractable guerrilla insurgencies in the occupied countries, and a mass anti-war movement of unprecedented size at home.
In time, this crisis of imperialism would mesh with a crisis of neoliberalism. After 2008, the mass movement against war would feed into a mass movement against austerity as the world’s banks crashed and the global economy was plunged into a Second Great Depression.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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