Last September was the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the 3rd anniversary of the crash of Lehman Brothers, two events that are widely seen as turning points in recent history. Last week, 7 October marked the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. I have been reluctant to take advantage of these dates to write about any of these topics. The Internet and conventional media are full of articles and comments of all sorts. What were you doing on September 11? Was the war worth it? What is the recipe to get out of the current economic mess? When will troops come back home? Should they come back at all? Will the Euro survive? How do we balance liberties and security? Should Greece be expelled from the Eurozone? Does the Eurozone have any future?… And many, many more. Enough, I thought. I was committed not to do anything that could fatten up this explosion of opinions. But one question in the back of my head made me reconsider my decision…
I am convinced that in 10 or 20 years time, analysts and scholars will identify a deeper transformation in the 2010s than in 2000s. 9/11 brought about a decline in human rights (wars, Guantánamo, secret CIA flights over Europe, a neocon approach to international relations, etc.), but the current global crisis is shaking the pillars of both the Westphalian model and the welfare state. Inwards, the post-WWII consensus (coined by John Ruggie as ‘embedded liberalism‘) has cracked, austerity is framed as a new cult and governments share an ultimate goal: to calm down markets and investors. Outwards, the system doesn´t respond to the nation-state paradigm, traders and transnational corporations gain political weight, and the so-called Arab Spring and action networks trespass borders (from #tomalaplaza to #OccupyWallSt, through Greece, Israel or Chile). The question is: Is there any link between the aftermath of 9/11 and the current social crisis?
Andrew Bacevich writes in New Left Review (‘Tailors to the Emperor’, May/June 2011) about the origins of the idea of ‘preventive war’. Bacevich affirms that the roots date back to immediately after WWII. The idea that Americans ought to anticipate any future Pearl Harbour was constructed and discussed among scholars and policy-makers for several decades. However, in the context of the Cold War they seldom dared to proclaim their views (the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 being possibly an exception). The idea that ‘we must hit first’ was rather persuasive. Strategists only needed the right excuse. In Bacevich’s view,
well before 9/11 they had persuaded themselves that preventive war was not only desirable but also feasible. All that was needed was an opportunity to put their theories into practice. On September 11, 2001, that opportunity presented itself.
In a brilliant piece in London Review of Books (‘The War on Tax’, August 2011) Corey Robin argues that the current crisis consistently follows the War on Terror without interruption. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demanded a growing flow of funds, with the resulting increase of public debt, while President Bush slashed taxes for the wealthiest. As a consequence, Robin says,
no one in the United States need claim ownership over anything common or collective: not its wars or debts, not its government, and certainly not its ever more impoverished and precarious citizenry. (…) That’s why the current crisis has served as an opportunity for retrenchment and reaction rather than sparking a democratic revolt on the left. To that extent, it calls to mind similar crises in the Third World over the last three decades, which were used by elites to justify drastic cuts in government spending and the restructuring of social democratic economies. Or, for that matter, the New York City fiscal crisis of 1975, when Wall Street rallied to impose discipline and austerity on the one outpost of social democracy in America, in a move many have seen as a precursor of later experiments in Latin America and elsewhere. Obama’s persistent calls for austerity have been in keeping with the stance of Wall Street Democrats during the 1975 crisis and, in the wake of that crisis, a national party remade in the image of Wall Street.
Both authors, Bacevich and Robin, identify a common theme in 9/11 and the current crisis. Both circumstances constituted strong political opportunities to put certain ideas on the top of the political agenda. The horrendous attacks a decade ago and the subprime mortgage crisis opened a ‘window of opportunity’ for powerful economic interest groups. The notions of free-market libertarianism and Neoliberalism are not at all new. They have been defended by authors like Friedrich Hayek and Robert Nozick for more than half a century now. (Even if both of them fell into clamorous inconsistencies between what they said on paper and what they did in real life; see about Hayek and about Nozick). The beginning of the domination of Neoliberalim dates back to early-1980s (see our own analysis of the rise and hegemony of Neoliberalism here). Yet, we are witnessing now the time when this domination turns into hypertrophic supremacy. The current crisis, carefully cooked on a low heat by interest groups and accomplice government officials, is working as an extremely useful political opportunity for those same groups to present the State as the enemy and the austerity as the inevitable solution. We urgently need a counter-hegemonic movement to frame an alternative.