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War and Terror in the Age of Global Empire

by Sergio Fiedler  (September 2001)

The images of devastation and human suffering shown by the news reports coming from New York have shocked the world. The number of victims caused by the Kamikaze attack on the WTC and the Pentagon on September the 11th is already in the thousands. Most of those who died were mostly workers of the services industry, not the rich and powerful who hide in their mansions and bunkers. The victims were men and women who worked as employees in offices, doing cleaning or catering. They were fire fighters, janitors and nurses. They were not simply "white Americans" but people from different parts of the world who came to the US with the dream of living a better life. As anti-capitalists and revolutionaries, we express our solidarity with all the innocent victims of this carnage and share with the people on the street our rejection of the use of terror as a political strategy.

However, this is not the first time a terrorist act of such a large magnitude has been perpetrated against disarmed civilians. Despite claiming to defend democracy and freedom, the US government itself has carried out devastating bombing campaigns on civilians, and actively supported political regimes that have violated human rights on a massive scale. Remember Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala, Chile, Palestine, Iraq and the Balkans. The cold-blooded killing of people in New York is as horrifying as the bombing of Iraqi civilians by the US military. With the multitudes of the world we would like to enter into a minute of silence for those who died in the US on September the 11th. But for that mourning to have real meaning we must also pay our respect to all the victims of the terror inflicted by the US government throughout the 20th century; all those millions who have died nameless and faceless as a result of US sponsored violence and oppression, all those whose lives have been of too little value to occupy a place within the spectacle of the global media.

Instead of supporting the belligerent reaction of the US government against an invisible and unknown enemy, this is perhaps the time for the people of the US to reflect upon the political reasons behind the immense hatred that inspired this terrorist attack. Today the main question arising from this tragedy is not who did it, but why it happened. This was not the result of external forces of darkness that have infiltrated Western civilisation from the outside. In the new imperial economy of corporate globalisation, there is no outside. These attacks are not the plot of an archaic religious fundamentalism, but the product and the symbol of the inequalities and abuses of a global system of power within which the US government and corporations have played a major role.

This is the opportunity, therefore, to question US foreign policy rather than rallying behind it. To miss this opportunity would simply let George W. Bush and all of the other powers that have come to his support a free hand to let loose perhaps the most genocidal global warfare and dictatorship ever known to humanity. The US Secretary of State, Collin Powell, pointed out that people should brace themselves for a "long term conflict... fought on many fronts". With the historical record of violent US intervention into other countries, the prospect of this statement becoming a reality is terrifying. The possibility of all out war becomes even more dangerous in a terrain where international conflict has ceased to be the sum of local struggles coming together. Rather it would be waged in a global space as if there were no national boundaries. If there is a generalised military conflict as the one predicted by Powell, this will not mean simply drawing US allies together behind a war to be waged in a "distant corner" of the world. That is simply one element of it. What is in the mind of the imperial policy makers is for each nation state to implement a war within their own borders against real or imagined terrorists as a part of a global strategy of repression. In Australia that would mean even more draconian border controls against undocumented immigrants, more racial vilification of ethnic communities perceived as "harbouring terrorism," and more criminalisation of anti-capitalist activists and all those who oppose the war.

The current crisis in the US is just a concentrated event where the destinies of all countries and peoples of the world are at this moment contained. Over the last twenty years we have seen the globalisation of capital, media images and political power. Now we are confronted with a further drastic advance of the imperial system of power if the main superpowers decide to draw humanity into war. In this new war there will be no visible enemy, everyone is potentially both a victim and a perpetrator. This is truly what a system of terror is based on. The Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has already set the tone when he said that if governments now want to launch a war against terrorism, people must get used to living with less liberty. In Australia, the leader of the Labor opposition has called on Australians from "different cultural backgrounds" to dob in "terrorists" within their communities. The attack on the US has now been constructed as an attack on every power centre of the imperial system. This has been posed as a "barbaric attack on civilisation." On the other hand, the invisible and almost unrepresentable figure of "the terrorist" has been invoked as a symbolic device to further justify the penetration of State terror into the fabric of everyday life. The idea that the terrorist is this elusive being that moves throughout society without restriction is not only a justification for massive suppression of civil liberties and the racialisation of terror, but the fostering of fear and distrust among people as the main tool to divide and disarm social movements. This is the "strategy of tension" that, from being implemented at a national level by many governments throughout the 70s and 80s, now is reaching global dimensions.

The anti-corporate and anti-capitalist rebellion initiated by the Zapatistas in Mexico and generalised with the Battle of Seattle in 1999, drastically perturbed the neo-liberal order, and opened the possibility of an alternative globalisation from below. The terrorist attack in New York and Washington and the imperial response to them, is certainly a blow to the emerging movement. We cannot keep engaging in the same type of activism without realising that the entire political scenario has radically changed after S11, 2001. An act of terror of such a scale and the anger and anguish created -at least in short term- will create some considerable public support for a war effort. Our tactics and strategies need to be re-thought. What is not going to be taken away from us, however, are the foundations of our politics: that peoples liberations from oppression can only be the result of their own autonomous organisation and collective self-activity. One of the fundamental assumptions about the politics of autonomy is that our means of struggle are shaped by the goals of our struggle. This means that we cannot fight for an absolute participatory democracy through authoritarian and non-democratic means.

We do not seek to organise a movement simply as the function of a distant achievement or even concrete demands. Rather we see the movement as an achievement in itself, a space where we experiment with new political and social relations based on solidarity and liberty as a fundamental stepping stone for building a society based on cooperation, not private gain and repression. Those are foundations that make the politics of an anti-capitalist activist so drastically different from those who use terror to achieve a political end. Terrorism, even if motivated by genuine demands is based on a desperate action inspired by extreme individual powerlessness. While its operational structures are often decentralised and tend to replicate autonomous and networked forms of organisation, they are bound by a central command that defines actions from the top without any process of consultation and enforcing the most rigid discipline on all of its members. The functional separation between means and ends and the disregard for internal democracy necessarily translates into an absolute disregard for the human and social impact of the terrorist act. The terrorist organisation is in this respect the mirror image of the State it seeks to attack, and therefore, completely dehumanised and dehumanising. By replicating State hierarchies and centralisation within its own body, the terrorist organisation changes nothing and gives the excuse for governments to crack down on genuine social movements.

We are all surprised, however, of the enormous effectiveness of the act of terror against the WTC to damage the system, particularly its ability to create political chaos and massive economic losses for capitalism, accelerating the process towards a new global recession. Nevertheless, the reason that revolutionary activists look at multitudes of people, working class autonomies and collective power in general as the main avenues to change the world is not because these have the social power to do so. The attack on the US proves that social power against capital can often derive from other sources, not necessarily the autonomous action of the working class. The ability to shut the system down is not what makes the working class revolutionary. Any act of terror can do that. What makes the working class a revolutionary class is not only its social ability to be against, but to pose the project of proletarian power positively, by creating within its own collective organisation the possible foundations of a new future and a new life. That is something that no act of political terror is capable of doing; terror is only capable of destroying. Imperialism was a system of international relations where the core nation states of the world economy expanded capital investment and military intervention beyond their own borders. This system generated two distinct but connected types of conflict. On the one hand, an inter-imperialist conflict among the different superpowers competing for greater control of resources, markets and political client States around the world. On the other, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles where oppressed peoples in Latin America, Africa and Asia struggled for the constitution of nation states that were economically and politically independent of the imperialist superpowers. These movements were known as national liberation struggles.

The reshaping of global capitalism over the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly in the neo-liberal phase, has changed this system of international relations. World capitalism has entered into an imperial stage. The creation of regional blocks, the development of multi-lateral agreements, the strengthening of all sorts of global economic and political institutions, and the fall of Soviet Union have meant that the inter-imperialist conflict between superpowers have been substituted by an extended imperial consensus and alliance among the core nation states and multinational corporations within the world economy. A new world war among superpowers is a very unlike possibility. While under imperialism the global domination was mediated by a grid of nation states, the new imperial system knows no boundaries or limits in its process of administration and control, it is immediately global as much economically as militarily. While within the new empire the US plays a dominant position, this position is only possible through a solid network of global alliances involving governments as much as non-government institutions. National liberation movements, finally unable to forge independent projects of economic and political modernisation, have been completely captured and coopted within the new imperial network. In this respect, the emergence of nationalisms and fundamentalisms in the last twenty years are not the expression of the resistance to global capital. It is precisely the decline of the nation states as a sphere of political control that has unleashed the ability of all sort of warlords and tyrants - many of who were once supported by the imperial powers - to cement their own local sphere of power to challenge the empire from within. Osama bin Laden or the Taliban are products of global capital, not the alternative to it as national liberation movements once were. While they might enjoy popular support among the poor and the destitute, that does not transform them into progressive movements. The attack on the WTC was not the result of the violence of the oppressed getting out of hand, it was simply a capitalist line of flight going suicidal.

The war that the US government is planning and preparing with the support of all super powers is a truly imperial war. As the war rhetoric in the US has announced, this will be a war that will know no boundaries and will be waged on several fronts over a long period of time. This wont be a war strictly between nation states, but between the powers of an imperial order and all those communities that are perceived as harbouring terrorism. George W. Bush has already warned that those who oppose this war effort will be categorised as enemies, forcing many governments to intensify repression against their own population with the excuse of fighting terrorism. The next war wont be a war against terrorism; it will be against humanity.

- published on Struggle  (September 2001)

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revised 18 November 2005