Notes on the counter-revolution

By | March 21, 2017
I came across these anecdotal scribbles recently. They were written in the context of September 11th, the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq while I was teaching in the US. I was led by various encounters to reflect on whether American society was descending into fascism. The style is partly historical generalization and a sort of ethnography of what I found in daily life there. The obvious reason for posting these pieces now is that they allow us to compare the world of Brexit and Trump with the events of 2001-2003 and to contemplate their relationship.
The period since 1945 saw a revolution in world society which, by the 1990s, had turned into widespread popular emancipation from the repressive state controls installed during the Cold War. The world was becoming more connected and more unequal at the same time, but people in general enjoyed more freedom than ever before. Since the millennium, an attempt has been made, led by but not restricted to the United States, to screw the lid back on. The battle cry of this counter-revolution is the “war on terror”, its theme-song security, security and yet again security. Freedoms that came to be taken for granted after the war against fascism are now being lost. The left is disoriented and impotent. Who is the enemy and what is to be done?
The idea of what I might call the long counter-revolution expresses a sense that since 1945 the world has seen cumulative strides towards greater freedom for many; and this poses a challenge to methods of command and control employed by governments and corporations. The end of the Cold War produced, at least on the surface, a belle epoque in which the balance between freedom and oppression was temporarily lifted in the former’s favor: freedom from nuclear terror, reduced fear of state apparatuses, an explosion of network connection, greater mobility of people, goods and money, the emergence of China and India as capitalist powers.
September 11th enabled the Bush regime to prepare the way for Trump and for other despotic rulers round the world, so effectively that Cheney can now come across as a liberal and some commentators pine for W’s “normality”. Now the economic, legal and political achievements of the postwar decades are being rolled back by a constellation of social forces bent on establishing another thousand year Reich that this time could last, unless progressives around the world can come together with more effective political strategies than we have done for decades now. The roots of Western Fascism Mks 1 and 2 lie in the 90s when Clinton, Blair and the Eurocrats made their Faustian pact with a rampant finance capital. But here the focus is on 2001-2003.

The fragments below reflect the confusion of our era, while I struggled, not very successfully to articulate a political strategy. They were written in two places at different times, in Europe after September 11th and in the US when the Iraq war was launched in 2003. At a time when Trump makes George W look like a reasonable politician, it is easy to forget that the roots of contemporary “fascism”, however inappropriate the label is, were sown in the alliance with the banks made by the Clinton and Blair “center-left” governments of the 90s and by undemocratic European politicians and bureaucrats after the euro’s formation. These anecdotal reflections focus on the seeds of the right wing counter-revolution to that false dawn in the first years of the present century. We have all changed since then, but in many ways progressive politics hasn’t.

An Academia discussion of this post is taking place over three weeks from March 21st.

 

Part One
Paris, December 2001

September 11th and after

We are connected at last, humanity that is. World society is a reality. It has come home to roost in the United States. The reduction of the World Trade Centre to rubble marked this in the most vivid way possible. The world is one. Boom! That unity is violent. Boom! The sudden shock of recognizing that America is in the world, not apart from it. The curious thing about the first decade after the Cold War was that, even as the America Empire completed its takeover of the world, Americans, who come from all over the world, became more insular, more separated from it than before. John Locke once wrote, ‘In the beginning all the world was America’, meaning in a state of nature. Well, now all of our world is America again, but this time it reflects the age of money and unequal property that succeeded the state of nature in Locke’s scheme. The task of establishing civil government, successor to the age of money, awaits us.

After the catastrophe is a time for rationality. But reason works better backwards than forwards. Rationalization of the past is more effective than attempts to project a rational future. Today’s terrorism has a specific origin in the covert operations of the US government under Reagan during the 80s. Following the defeat in Vietnam, the Americans fought the Cold War through Third World proxies trained to use terror as a means of subduing civilian populations: in ex-Portuguese Africa, Unita and Renamo (supported by the outlaw South African regime); in Central America, the Contras; in Afghanistan, the Mujaheddin and Osama bin Laden, with the Saudis now controlling the purse strings. Meanwhile, the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF opened up the rest to the predations of corporate capital and to the drain of debt interest. When the Berlin Wall fell, Bush the Elder orchestrated the Gulf War for domestic consumption by television and then everything went quiet for a decade. The interventions in former Yugoslavia were minor policing operations in comparison, but not for the victims of Serbian genocide (their price for letting a Croatian be President was to control all the army’s planes, tanks and heavy artillery). The Clinton years now seem like a belle époque. Wall Street contrived the biggest boom in economic history and converted the Democrats into the party of financial professionals. The Internet connected us in a single network and the last checks on American military power evaporated. The bobos of Manhattan, Chicago’s North Side and Hollywood turned inwards to enjoy life at the centre of the world, while the industrial heartland went into terminal decline. The cracks in all this were already beginning to show — mainly as the collapse of the dot coms and telecoms booms — when Hollywood’s perennial images of spectacular destruction were enacted for real on September 11th.

So now we have an unlimited war on terror, waged against the same Islamic fundamentalism that the CIA once encouraged in the Mujaheddin. This Republican regime relishes the opportunity to range worldwide without consultation and without even paying lip service to international law. After 1945, the USA decided to build up Western Europe and Japan as its junior partners in a new project of collective empire. The rules of this collective were set by the American reaction to Suez: the appearance of joint decision-making and participation, but only one active policeman allowed. This was supposed to be different from the European imperialism whose replacement by nation-states was supervised by Woodrow Wilson at Versailles. It is celebrated as such by Hardt and Negri in their bestseller, Empire. It was established practice as recently as Kosovo. Yet now American columnists boast of their country’s freedom to act as it likes, a freedom prepared for by countless international treaties left unsigned.

At home, Bush the Younger’s appeals to “the nation” have produced a stampede to conform; anti-terrorist legislation and judicial practice promise to overthrow hard-won civil liberties; and Americans try to come to terms with estrangement from a world that resents their careless wealth and unfettered power. In the name of anti-terrorism, the satellite governments introduce their own versions of internal repression; border controls and surveillance in general are stepped up; and, while only the British have so far volunteered to be the Yankee imperial bag-carrier, no-one else has mustered serious criticism of the Americans’ conduct of the Afghan war.

The immediate aftermath of September 11th thus looks like a regression. For some time now, it has seemed that the old corporate bureaucracies were in retreat, when faced with the rise of a global network society. Even the capitalist corporations have gone through a frenzy of downsizing and outsourcing during the last decade in a drive to take on a more flexible network form. National capitalism — the attempt to manage accumulation, markets and money through central bureaucracies in the name of a largely fictitious citizen body — has been eroded by a tide of electronic money flowing across borders with virtual impunity, while the ability of corporations to dictate terms to national governments is growing every year. Criminal markets for drugs, arms and bootleg copies of everything dominate trade in much of the world.

Now we have seen a band of terrorists, employing the techniques of informal economy and network society, produce the most dramatic public theatre in memory. And how does the Bush regime respond? B 52s bomb a country, Afghanistan, into a stone-age to which it had already returned. If the fall of the Berlin Wall was a universal symbol of the people’s triumph over bureaucratic power, this is the counter-revolution, contrived by a ruling class threatened for a decade by increased freedom of social connection and reduced popular fear of central power. What is new is the unilateral assumption of this function by the American government. We might call it “capitalism in one country”. But the rest of the world’s unpopular regimes know that it shores up their own powers of rule, even if they are not being given a token role in the action.

It is convenient for the rulers of our unipolar world to focus attention on cultural politics abstracted from history — on the struggle between good and evil, liberal enlightenment and religious bigotry, “the American way” and a recalcitrant Islam. Our task should be to expose the social contradictions that this ideology conceals. For ours is a capitalist world; and capitalism is not standing still while the media hang breathlessly on every minor development in Afghanistan. What democratic forces are emerging to confront a corporate capitalism whose hegemony has never been more universal than now? This question entails another. How might we break up the idea of a monolithic United States, that rhetoric of national unity on which Bush depends for popular support, in order to identify the forces within American society ready to oppose their own government and corporations? This means refusing to equate the US ruling elite with the American people and their instinct for democracy. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism leaves out of the global struggle against neoliberal capitalism many of the elements that are best placed to play an effective part. We must distinguish between the American state and the American people, even if today, in an atmosphere of perceived national crisis. many Americans are reluctant to do so. Against Bush’s version of America as a lawless world bully and the institutional expression of corporate capitalism, there is another living tradition representing America as a self-sufficient federalist democracy, with weak central government, offering a home for the world’s oppressed peoples.

The fight is on to save the commons of human society, culture and ecology from the encroachments of corporate private property. This is no longer principally a question of conserving the earth’s natural resources, although it is definitely that too, nor of the deterioration of public services left to the mercies of privatized agencies. The information age has raised the significance of intangible commodities. Increasingly we buy and sell ideas; and their reproduction is made infinitely easier by digital technologies. Accordingly, the large corporations have launched a campaign to assert their exclusive ownership of what until recently might reasonably have been considered shared culture to which all have free and equal access. Across the board, separate battles are being fought, without any real sense of the common cause that they embody.

The Napster-ization of popular music, harbinger of peer-to-peer exchange between individual computers, is one such battle pitting the feudal barons of the music business against our common right to transmit songs as we wish. The world of visual images, of film, television and video, is likewise a site of struggle sharpened by fast-breaking technologies affecting their distribution and use. In numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our ability to draw freely on a common heritage of language, literature and law is being undermined by the aggressive assertion of copyright. People who never knew they shared a common infrastructure of culture are now being forced to acknowledge it by aggressive policies of corporate privatization. And these policies are being promoted at the international level by the same US government whose armed forces now seem free to run amok in the world.

In the case of the Internet, what began as a free communications network for a scientific minority is now the contested domain of giant corporations and governments. The open source and free software movement, setting Linux and an army of hackers against Microsoft’s monopoly, has opened up fissures within corporate capitalism itself. The shift to manufacturing food varieties has introduced a similar struggle to agriculture, amplified by a revival of ‘organic’ farming in the context of growing public concern about genetic modification. The pharmaceutical companies try to ward off the threat posed to their lucrative monopolies by cheap generics aimed at the Third World populations who need them most. The buzzword is “intellectual property rights”, slogan of a corporate capitalism determined to impose antiquated “command and control” methods on world markets whose constitutive governments have been cowed into passivity. The largest demonstrations against the neoliberal world order, from Seattle to Genoa, have been mobilized to a significant degree by the need to oppose this particular version of global private property. The events of September 11th have temporarily diminished this movement, especially in America, just as they have added to the powers of coercion at the disposal of governments everywhere. In this sense, the global movement for greater democracy and less inequality has suffered a reverse.

A large proportion of the activists resisting the corporate takeover of world society belong to the western middle classes. This is so whether we are talking about the Internet, software, cultural products, food, drugs, pollution, arms control or the exploitation of cheap labour. Europeans make their own distinctive contribution, but many of these movements have their source in America. The Free Software Foundation is American. The American courts tried Microsoft. Napster was an American invention. American farmers are fighting rents imposed on food varieties by corporate monopolists. American consumers resist being made the guinea pigs of drugs companies. Of course, these activities can be and are represented by corporations, their lawyers and political stooges as ‘unAmerican’. But they are an expression of what is best in America, its democracy.

It is a widely shared and justified belief that the age of money, whose culmination we are witnessing today, is not in the interest of most human beings, that the US government and giant corporations (half of them American, a third European) are indifferent to that common interest of humanity. The rest of the world needs Americans to join them in the struggle for decent human standards in social life. They bring tremendous resources of technology, education and economic power to that struggle, but above all they bring their country’s liberal political traditions. It would be a pity if the effect of September 11th was to obscure that possibility of global democratic solidarity, leaving the world stage to Texas oilmen and Muslim fanatics, with their mutual conspiracy to divide and rule.

 

Part Two
Chicago, April-May 2003

  1. Mesopotamia’s burning

An article circulated among my academic colleagues, “The Needless Destruction of Iraq’s (and our own) Cultural Heritage”. It was written by the Director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and it protests the looting of the Baghdad museum, while US soldiers looked on with indifference. It was meant for the New York Times op-ed page and was rejected. I can see why it was rejected. Perhaps there were more ambivalent versions available — certainly two others were published. A little irony would not have gone amiss and the author doesn’t seem to recognize that his professional interest might undermine his advocacy. And Mesopotamia was the cradle of all Eurasian civilizations, not just “ours”, one of Jack Goody’s more important points.

I had been mulling over the irony of bombing Baghdad in the name of democracy long before the war broke out. I don’t believe that the battle to displace agrarian civilization (aka the old regime) has yet been won. The Phoenicians, the Athenians and the Carthaginians did their best to establish a commercial civilization in the ancient Mediterranean for the best part of a thousand years and it was the Romans who won in the end, making the place safe for military landowners for another millennium and a half. So if America is exasperated with the Old World of its own origins, what better symbolic way of speeding up the transition to democracy than smashing up Mesopotamia? Except that, in doing so, Bush and Co reveal their own addiction to warfare as a technique of control, just like the old regime.

National capitalism is essentially backward looking. The belle époque of Clinton’s dotcom bubble now seems like the dream that it was and America has since turned to “capitalism in one country” (only one world policeman allowed). It will be the ruin of us all if not checked. Arundhati Roy said recently that the only institution on earth more powerful than the American government is American civil society and I think she is right. We have to explode the ideology of freedom that links them — free markets, free democracy, free to get run over by a tank, free to bury the past.

So when I heard of the cultural catastrophe last week, I immediately wondered if the looters and the lumpen crusaders had a common goal. I haven’t read many interviews with looters. It is assumed that they are just a greedy, undisciplined rabble let loose by Saddam’s fall. Lately there have been whispers of organized crime hiding behind the general turmoil, in which case Saddam’s totalitarian regime was not wholly effective, unless this is state-sponsored crime as in post-Soviet Russia. Saddam’s hangers-on didn’t run away or get to be buried in the rubble as so many remnants of DNA — they stayed to get rich by stealing their country’s heritage under cover of a mob they conjured up themselves. No doubt Syria’s President Assad is already lining himself up to fence the stuff to American billionaires for their private collections. The sack of Baghdad sees the loot going back to America, in a privatized way similar to but not quite the same as how the British Museum was filled.

But I digress. Could there have been another motive for the looting, one that has resonance with America’s historic mission to erase the old regime from the world, by bombing and occupying its source? Maybe the looters, like generations of American immigrants, born again and otherwise, just wanted to wipe out their past. Not just Saddam, but the whole sorry history, including colonialism, back to Sumer for crissake. What good did it ever do them, this revered past? Better to make a new start. This fits with Rumsfeld and his merry men, doesn’t it? A new beginning, at least for Bechtel; a born again Christian ideology of remaking the world from scratch. The ironic contrast with the priority given to safeguarding oil is made by everyone. But oil is the future, not the past — and it’s running out. You say that these relics are priceless? Nonsense, cultural heritage is a creative capitalist industry these days. If it depended on a fixed stock of artefacts, where would the expansion be then? Schumpeter called it creative destruction…Just think of how Europe and Japan bounced back after all that real estate got wiped out. The archaeologists haven’t got the point. And in any case, Baghdad had already been razed to the ground by the Mongols, so it was no more of an antique than Los Angeles really.

Another angle… Most capitalist fortunes originated in theft. How can we disparage the spirit of enterprise in this instance? It’s like when the Serbs asked the western powers, How can you blame us for establishing our nation with the techniques you used on your own neighbours? This is what I find compromising about the American cultural heritage experts who wanted to work with the  Pentagon, gave them long lists of sites “not to destroy” while they went about killing and maiming the Iraqi people, for whom no such lists were drawn up. And now they are outraged that their livelihood has been disrupted. What were they doing in bed with the Pentagon in the first place? Didn’t they think that an American army on the rampage would be as callous and brutal as any other, when it came down to it? Did they imagine that these ill-educated Blacks, Latinos and poor White trash would have anything on their minds beyond self-preservation and the need to get some sleep? Did they buy the rhetoric of surgical strikes, of invasion without collateral damage? Just what is it about clay figurines from 5,000 years ago that makes them exempt from the holocaust? It exposes the hypocrisy of our educational systems that this aberration against humanity could be seen as being susceptible to careful cultural management. All it would have taken was a tank or two, a few shots in the air… And quite a few dead people, more like.

The article in question starts by asking American readers to imagine a crowd looting the Smithsonian while the police stand idly by. This provoked a thought experiment, which follows. It is 1941. The Churchill government has escaped to Canada. The victorious German army enters London. Derelict buildings are everywhere, some of them still burning. Small arms fire can be heard in all directions. Snipers have a clear line on the advancing soldiers. Public services, including the police, have evaporated. They encounter a mob in the process of pillaging the British museum. Frenzied looters can be seen pushing wheelbarrows stacked with medieval tapestries and Greek statuettes. What are you supposed to do? Tell them to take the stuff back, so that it can await shipping to Berlin? Shoot them for getting to the loot before the Nazis? But if the perfidious Brits want to destroy their own monarchical cultural heritage, it aids the reconstruction of their polity by the Germans, doesn’t it? In any case, the Germans are too tired to react and have their hands full with the snipers. Perhaps an intrepid BBC reporter, one who can imagine collaborating with the new regime, interviews a few looters. Why are they stealing stuff from the BM? They answer that they want to steal anything they can. They have lost everything. Why shouldn’t they grab what they can? People are looting anything that comes to hand — the hospitals, the hotels, the ministries, Selfridges, anything. It’s just that these icons of cultural heritage are more shocking to the educated class than mattresses thrown out of the windows of the Savoy.

Maybe all of this is simply unbelievable. The British are much too well-behaved to become this kind of undisciplined mob, aren’t they? Or are they? What does it say about the nature of Iraqi society that this should be the outcome of its demise? What is the comparative evidence of how people have behaved elsewhere under conditions of abrupt regime change, invasion or war? Doesn’t the outrage of the orientalists express a belief that somehow the American Empire ought to be different, perhaps as nuanced in its techniques of control as its British predecessor? All the really big empires (Roman, Chinese, British and American) are, and have to be, brutal. Most damning of all, a marine is reported by a British journalist for a posh newspaper as phoning in, “Yeah, some guy says some biblical library’s going up…” The shame of it, that our soldiers should have a weak command of the language. The Europeans will be crowing over this example of ugly Americanism for years. Maybe US marine jokes will temporarily displace Bush jokes from the online charts.

Irony isn’t enough. But how do you talk to these self-important academic representatives of American or ‘western’ civilization? I tried yesterday with an archaeology graduate student. He beat a hasty retreat up the stairs. In any case he had an important matter to expose to public view, another urgent plank of the campaign to oppose the infidels who run the White House.

 

  1. Revival meeting

I was contacted by Dan Wang in Hyde Park, a software artist unattached to the university, who had read my Mesopotamia piece on the nettime list. He invited me to a public meeting of a Committee against War and Racism. Always glad to seize any chance to make virtual society real, I squeezed all my jobs into the first half of the day and headed South around 4pm. On the way over, I read a Prickly Paradigm Press pamphlet by Eliot Weinberger called 9/12. He is a writer from New York and the pamphlet is five essays starting with Bush’s election coup, then the day after September 11th and three other ruminations on that and the Bush regime at later intervals. It made a big impact, not least because the journey from Evanston to Hyde Park was a perfect length to read it. It was a day when my dislocation in the world appeared to be redeemed, if only partially. It was so well written, humane and muscular, and incredibly informative.

For most of my time teaching a term at Northwestern, I have affected to be dismissive of the American progressives I have encountered. They seem to be in despair, talking of exile, preoccupied with getting Bush out, insular. When I come round to my line about the American opposition that is built into the country’s history, they talk instead of a popular monolith that is brainwashed by the media and look to Europe for resistance — French intransigence, the English press. Weinberger, with his relentless accumulation of detail, the Curse of the Bushes (cowardice) and all that, tipped me over. I realized more concretely than before what these people were talking about; and the tenacious grip I have on my own vision of America as a force in the world for enlightenment and democracy slipped a little.

The meeting in the university church was a bust. I guess the only public culture Americans have is based on a revivalist meeting. Each of six speakers gave their personal testimony — a Palestinian woman missed the plane for her father’s funeral because she was arrested at the airport; an old man told how his prescription drugs for Parkinson’s were unaffordable because money is being diverted from Medicare to war; a Vietnam vet offered some insight into conditions in the army today; a public health professor went on about the damage to people in Iraq and here; there was just one standard leftist rant, OK, but predictable. That wasn’t too bad. It was the discussion that was depressing. Everyone had their own private agenda and no way of making a conversation out of it. So one girl wanted to know about smallpox vaccination because someone in her family (a soldier?) had been made ill by it; some old guy went into a rambling thing about the United Nation; two Spartacists stood up and made incredibly insensitive speeches, calling for a Bolshevik revolution (1917 was the only successful anti-war movement in history – yeah?) and reminding us that Lenin called imperialism the highest stage of capitalism — they were shouted down. I couldn’t stand it any longer, the impotence of the occasion, found my contact, made my apologies and left.

But the journey wasn’t yet over. I still had to take the Red Line to Howard and on to Evanston. This time I was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for a class.  Here is an excerpt from the American edition: “The title is taken from W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘The second coming’ and that for his second novel, No Longer at Ease from TS Eliot’s ‘The journey of the magi’. The choice of titles reflects the author’s awareness of a debilitation that Okonkwo foresees in Things Fall Apart. This comes from the world of Yeats’s cataclysmic vision and how the Irish poet would have appreciated the wild old Nigerian…No Longer at Ease ends not with a matchet swing but a gavel’s tap.” (Eliot: the world ends not with a bang but a whimper).

I once read a book by Stephen Toulmin called Cosmopolis. At one stage he merges two poems by Donne and Yeats, the latter’s being this one — Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold… He claims that they are in effect the same poem, as revealed by the fairly seamless merger. He goes on to say that both Donne and Yeats were radical conservatives, defined as someone who, disgusted by contemporary society, would renew it in the name of a value taken from the past. What they wanted to restore was nobility based on kinship; the Irish peasantry, the fairies, theosophy? I suddenly thought, Hang on! Donne and Yeats are my two favourite poets, so what does that make me? And ever since, I have played with the idea that I too am a radical conservative. Witness the fact that I prefer to read old books. And I know what past value I want to revive the 18th century Enlightenment and its democratic revolutions, perhaps, if only for the robustness of the language, classical English liberalism from Milton and Locke through Smith and Jefferson to Blake and Shelley. This project now underpins my project to write about the Human Economy.

All of this was passing through my mind while the Chicago Transit Authority train made halting progress towards Howard (a place chiefly known as the nearest source of booze and sex for the inmates of that dry Methodist town where I now earn my living). And it came to me then, not an original thought, but original to me. We are living in fascism now. I recall a book of essays about the US between the wars, The Aspirin Age. A major theme was fascism then — Huey Long, Father McLoughlin etc. And I realized what Weinberger’s pamphlet had demonstrated, that the Bush clique were a continuation of that thread, only this time with the corporate state-within-a-state in tow, the Pentagon (fueled by two-thirds of American taxes), with the most irresponsible American corporations in charge and with fundamentalist Christianity as a vision for fixing the world. I understood more fully why my American friends were depressed. I could still hang on to my own vision of the liberal democratic tradition, but I could also now embrace more fully the vision of the American and European left. The United States has come under the control of fascists.

  1. Groupuscule in a community center

Not long after, I went to a meeting of the International Socialist Organization in Rogers Park. It was billed as “Karl Marx’s revolutionary ideas”. I went as part of my fieldwork study of American dissent while I am here. I was invited by a young friend, John Tresch, whom I had known in Cambridge and Paris. The speaker was a cross between a Hell’s Angel and a teddy bear, called Adam. He rattled off a prepared speech, mostly based on the Communist Manifesto, gave a potted early bio of Karl Marx and was careful not to strain his audience (“As a young man he was attracted to left wing circles arguing about the ideas of a German philosopher called Hegel, but I won’t go into that…”) He had one good joke: “He wrote against censorship for the Rheinische Zeitung, but most of what he wrote was censored.” The speech was nothing special.

We were in a high school doubling as a community center, along with women’s keep fit classes and black caucuses. The room was small and full (good planning). I was impressed by the range of the audience. In Britain a meeting of Trots would be geriatric, male and all white. Here there was a good mix of age, gender, ethnicity and class. Then we had a discussion. I had in mind my previous experience in the university church, where speakers only had their private agendas and no way of making a conversation, like a revivalist meeting without the holy ghost to keep things communal. This was entirely different. People spoke in an order determined by the chair, a large lady who couldn’t remember Adam’s name, but knew most people in the room. The main speaker waited until the end to get back in. The speeches were relevant and abstract, sometimes relating to each other. Most of all I was impressed by the respect and kindness people showed each other, as well as by that American trick of trying to address the largest number in an uncomplicated way without condescending. It was impressive, like a church meeting of the better sort, sticking to the agenda, but turned outwards to the world not inwards.

I tossed in an oddball comment early on. There had been talk about bourgeois wealth being diverted to the alleviation of poverty come the revolution, about capitalism being on its last legs, old, past its sell-by-date. So I reminded them that a third of humanity still worked in the fields with their hands and a similar number had never made a phone call in their life. Who or what was going to bring them into the circuit of shared wealth, if not capitalism? Who would send up the satellites and lay the cables to bring them all in? Well, this got them going in not unexpected ways. Later I made my pitch for nationalism (and behind that racism) as the main obstacle to a socialist revolution capable of addressing the scope of the world capitalist economy. I talked of nation-states, corporations and transnational institutions as the social relations of production that now act as so many fetters on the development of the forces of production. People responded positively to that. The show ended up with what I took to be the stalwarts of the group making an upbeat pitch — two young Asian women, a Hispanic man, a Jewish intellectual, a Stalinoid white woman at the back who controlled the purse strings and offered a good but irrelevant piece on musical chairs as a way of indoctrinating children with a dog-eat-dog ethos early. Only one person broke the pattern, a gay black man who, much to the discomfort of the others, did the revivalist thing (“I come from Grand Rapids and it was only when I was a teenager that…”)

I came away impressed and uplifted. The art of political conversation is not dead in America. They were a small groupuscule — I learned that they had been thrown out of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain, plus ça change. They were having a potluck on Saturday to raise funds for their big conference here in late June (100 panels… groan!). I thought I might go. They were nice. They said things I hadn’t heard before. Someone asked what the socialist revolution would look like and how do you persuade people it doesn’t have to be like Stalin’s Russia and one guy said you just get on with your life and join in the fights that mean something to you. They had a highly idealized view of the Third World (peons working for absentee landowners), but they wanted to connect with them and some of them knew in detail what was going on in Bolivia, Argentina etc. It gave me a warm feeling. I enjoyed myself and not just because I had spoken, bought a book of Trotsky’s speeches, chatted with someone whose mother was French and so on.

Afterwards, John and I went to his apartment and talked for a couple of hours. It was a very stimulating conversation in the course of which I reached what seemed then to be my clearest ever conception of our moment in world history, of the relationship between capitalism and revolution. A lot of it had to do with trying to explain the relationship between two things: the shift in the social organization of economy from house to city to nation-state to world society; and the idea that virtual commodities, especially money instruments, were not just a house of cards about to collapse, but also a new stage in the rationalization of the world market. I argued that the main contradiction is between national and global organization of the economy, that there are two great camps who adhere to each pole respectively, both combining right and left. I rehearsed my line that this opens up the terrain for a classic liberal revolution in which some elements of capitalism combine with popular democratic interests, this time to break up national capitalism. This might lead to new global Keynesian institutions, but not to socialism in the first instance or soon. Universal markets still have a way to go to complete their mission to bring cheap commodities to the masses and to break down the traditional insularity of rural life.

I found myself trying to capture in sound bites the glimpses I have had of the high finance capitalist world, mainly through Satya, an Indian mathematician who designs derivatives for Union Banque Suisse. I couldn’t help thinking of the huge UBS trading floor, the multitude of traders locked into their Panopticon on the world, all those screens with moving numbers in lights and televisions showing the weather everywhere, hidden away in an inaccessible place in a huge implacable building on North Wacker Drive with black windows, seeing everything, but seen by no-one. How could this score of Trotskyites in a crummy high school room in a rundown Chicago neighborhood compete with that? We have to find the points of possible alliance with those sectors of capital for whom the Bush strategy doesn’t work. I recalled a factoid about China’s 40% share of world economic growth last year. It reverberates in my skull.  I wonder if I could get into Swiss banking as a fieldworker somehow. I have such a slender grip on this stuff. I have read most of the tell-all books on individual Wall Street banks in the boom years — Drexel Burnham, Lehmann, Morgan Stanley, Salomon Brothers etc. But I want to see that floor again. It has become the symbol of what I am reaching for.

  1. Fascism, then and now

I saw a DVD of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist only recently, while I was spending three months in the US. I have been coming here for thirty years. I am a great fan of this mysterious society and its warm people. Lately, I have been disturbed by a discernible shift to autocracy, even brutality in public life at home and abroad. Much of this is justified as the need for security in response to “terror”. We all depend on impersonal society — call it law, bureaucracy, the market or whatever. And the quality of face-to-face interaction with other human beings is still our measure of the standards we set for personal society. The balance between the two is a thin line we tread daily. Personal society can mean feudalism or criminal mafias and no-one wants that, whatever we may think about the tendency of bureaucrats to trample on basic human interests.

The other day I left my wife crying at the airport where her personal goods had been systematically ripped apart by officials claiming to be just following orders. She said she had never been treated that way in the Soviet Union. There is no question that people who travel through US airports these days expose themselves to harassment and humiliating treatment that would have been unthinkable two years ago — all in the name of security, of course. Black young men have suffered much worse from the police for much longer. But it does seem as if American society could be sliding towards instituted inhumanity of a sort we once called fascism. The present government’s indifference to law, whether in Iraq, at Guantanamo or in the detention of suspects at home and its apparent ability to lie with impunity merely reinforce the impression that we are witnessing something new here or perhaps rather something old that we thought we put behind us after 1945.

These thoughts were brought to life and made relative by watching The Pianist.  The first half of the movie is harrowing. It shows a decent middle class Jewish family shuffling down the slippery slope to annihilation by a fascist society that trained some of its members to behave with the most callous brutality imaginable. At every step, normal people could doubt the plausibility of what was happening to them. By the time they tried to resist, it was too late.  The second half is a chase whose outcome is already known (it wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie if the hero died before the end). This reduces the suspense and contributes to a feeling that the film lasts too long. The main character and his relationships don’t develop at all in a protracted sequence marked by historical events — the Warsaw uprising, the arrival of the Russians and so on. But the movie did provide a useful way of placing disparate phenomena along a continuum we might label “fascist”.

Could I claim that roughing up the belongings of a French woman with a baby at the airport is analogous to picking eight men out of a line at random and shooting them in the head? My answer was and is yes. Nazism started out with the acquiescence of ordinary people in brutality that escalated imperceptibly over time. And all nationalisms are implicitly a racist assertion of superiority over foreigners who lack any claim to human rights. The critique has to start with the inhumanity of normal society — harassed women slapping kids in supermarkets, men in their 50s being thrown on the scrap heap because the terms of trade dictate it, a teenager being strip-searched because she fits a drug runner’s profile. This makes me a liberal, as does the belief that we can’t return to the Warsaw ghetto or the Gulag, not that far. Or can we?  We are witnessing an attempt to put the lid on a popular uprising that was continuous since 1945 and peaked in the 90s. The drive for more freedom is not obvious today because people are fearful about losing more than they think they can afford to. And they are right to be afraid. But I don’t think the repressive classes can get away with as much as they did in mid-century. And here I rely on the classic liberal idea, that people know too much these days.

So I wonder what this fine movie provokes in the minds of its audiences around the world? That this couldn’t happen to us again or that it could, if we forget the history that it brings alive for us?

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