Globalization & the Events of September 11, 2001*

In trying to make sense of events that are unfolding at a rapid pace from the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11 to the anthrax scare to the United States’ military operations in Afghanistan we need a framework of analysis.  I take it as given that the framework being offered to us by the corporate media and by our leadership in Washington and New York, namely, that we are fighting a patriotic war against an evil enemy, is both misleading and dangerous.   What intellectual tools can we use to develop an alternative point of view on these events?

I want to suggest one way of looking at things, using the work being done on “globalization.” Globalization as a media term took off in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, when pundits and journalists declared victory for the United States and for our “way of life,” that is, corporate capitalism and democratic institutions. But in economic terms, it also refers to the expansion of investment and manufacturing opportunities for “multinational” corporations to countries and regions where, prior to 1989, they were blocked by the presence of so-called command economies.  Globalization means, then, the extension of the capitalist way of life to all corners of the globe.

Obviously, globalization also means the technological capacity to carry out such an expansion. The availability of computers, and of rapid and cheap transport and telecommunications, gives corporations the ability to do just-in-time production, moving goods swiftly around the globe, producing in the cheapest labor areas, and shipping the products to where they can be sold at the highest possible prices.

But it is a mistake to view globalization as a merely technological development. We can actually trace this phase of globalization back to the 1970s, although this is not the conventional periodization, when, in the wake of the “oil shock” of 1973, the long economic boom of 1945-1970 began to lose speed. This was the time when falling profitability among U.S. corporations first prodded them to begin the enormous counteroffensive against all the factors that they saw as inhibiting their growth. What were these factors?  First, wages: hence the need to move factories outside of the U.S., to Mexico, Central America, and overseas to countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.  Second, corporate taxes: hence the brilliant maneuver to convince the American voting public that high taxes on property, income, and profits were a personal affront to our freedoms.  Third, the expenses attendant on occupational health and safety regulations, affirmative action, and other government-orchestrated requirements: hence, the attack on the public sector.  Too much government!  Too much regulation!1

The ideological offensive encapsulating these ideas appeared in the form of neoliberalism, the return to the free market.  Reversing several decades of Keynesian economics, which promoted an important role for government in maintaining demand via deficit spending, job creation, and a strong public sector, the neoliberal doctrine pronounced a strong public sector to be a drag on the economy.  Hence the need for privatizing government services.  At home, we can see the Clinton evisceration of “welfare as we know it” in the 1996 legislation as the product of this antigovernment ideology.  Abroad, neoliberalism has governed the transition from communist to capitalist regimes in the U.S.S.R., in East Germany, and elsewhere: the public sector has been devoured by private interests, often former Communist cadres now miraculously converted to the profit motive. 

Now, since the events of September 11, it is important to note that the promoters of globalization such as Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times have started to put forth a unified ideological response that frames the issues in terms of globalization, identified with modernity, vs. tradition and cultural backwardness.  Just to refresh the memory: Friedman’s book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree  (New York: Random House, 2000) explains globalization as a struggle between those who wish to be modernized and those who cling to their ancient, pre-modern cultural ways. The Lexus (the luxury car) represents the temptations of developed technological capitalism, and the olive tree stands for the weight of culture and tradition (read: Islamic “fundamentalism,” women wearing the veil, primitive and backbreaking forms of peasant agriculture, and so on). Commentators are fixated on this Islam/modernization dichotomy, recently reintroduced into public debate by Samuel Huntington, among others.2 They explain that we are hated because we are the center of a compelling, popular U.S. culture that represents a tempting alternative.  Thus one pundit on National Public Radio noted that middle class folk in the Middle East want to have cell phones and have access to “Bay Watch,” and this is anathema to their puritanical leaders.  This interpretation leads the educated listener to nod solemnly and say, of course, I understand, there is a conflict here between tradition and modernity.

This interpretation neatly averts our gaze from the history of the world since 1945, when the U.S. emerged from World War II as the dominant economic and political power in the world. In particular, it obscures the role played by the United States as an enforcer. Commentators like Noam Chomsky have thoroughly documented the consistent actions of our government, intervening in every possible way¾militarily, economically, and culturally¾to crush any indigenous movement to establish self-government and economic self-sufficiency.  We acted this way whether these movements called themselves communist, or were merely interested in controlling national resources for the use of their own people. In this effort, the U.S. allied itself with whatever rightwing forces were at hand, and used these allies to destroy both the left and nationalist movements.  “The United States participated in the decimation of the Left in north Africa and west Asia, from the destruction of the Egyptian Communist Party, the largest in the region, to the rise of people like Saddam Hussein to take out the vibrant Iraqi Communist Party, and of the Saudi financier Osama bin Laden to take down the Communist Afghan regime.”3 From Iran to Indonesia, from Vietnam to Chile, our hands are red with the blood of many millions of men, women, and children in this effort.

But there is another important piece of this puzzle, and that is, the contemporary use of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the other affiliated regional development agencies, to enforce neoliberal policies on the indebted countries of the Third World.  One way to think of this is to realize that the United States has many arrows in its quiver.  If a regime offends us, we can destabilize it, backing the most reactionary elements in the country’s political life, and emerge with a government that suits us, as in the coup we helped to orchestrate in Chile in 1973.  But we can also seek to control the behavior of countries through the economic mechanism of debt, forcing a nation to withdraw funds from local infrastructure and social welfare expenditures such as housing, health care, education, and food subsidies, and instead allocate them to debt repayments and to export-based industries that are friendly to international corporate investment.4 This set of policies is officially designed to oversee the development of these Third World countries into an industrial “take-off,” which will create a middle class and raise the GNP and therefore the per capita income of all.  But in practice the profound side effects are to crush local producers, hollow out any possible safety net, and increase poverty, misery and disease, while creating a small elite that benefits from the profits of farming and/or manufacturing for export.The rise of Islam as a political force in our time is a complex phenomenon with deep historical roots (on this point, see Hamideh Sedghi’s article).  But there are significant ways in which it is linked to the process of globalization.  We have seen that countries under the iron yoke of the IMF/World Bank are forced to direct their revenues away from social services. Funds may not be allocated for public housing, health, education and other services, except in very reduced amounts, and privatization is encouraged.  Ideologically this fits into neoliberal orthodoxy: public sector spending is no longer seen as the way to jump-start the economy. Rather, it is seen as a drag on investment. This set of “conditionalities” (in the jargon used by international financial officials) effectively impoverishes the majority of people in the countries to which they are applied.  To be sure, some of the countries where Islamicist groups are widespread, such as Saudi Arabia, have little or no need of the international financial institutions, given their oil resources. But in other countries where public debt has become overwhelming, the vacuum left by the absence of a welfare sector is filled by the activities of organizations as the civilian arm of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which provide essential services to the population. 

This kind of work produces enormous loyalty among the mass of people. One of my graduate students reported that she is in despair over the growing influence of a restrictive form of Islam in her home country of Egypt.  The requirement that women remain within the bounds of traditionalism goes against her own feminist interpretation of Islam and her activism.  But she notes that the leaders have a strong grip on the poor, because they provide the basic necessities of a welfare state, in the absence of social services provided by the government. Similarly, the New York Times reported that Pakistan “spends about 90% of its budget allocation on debt service and the military and almost nothing on public schools.”  The network of 7500 religious schools or madrassas, which trains hundreds of thousands of young boys, provides not only religious instruction, but also food and shelter to the poorest of the poor.5  In short, the failure of IMF-pressured governments to feed, cloth, and house their people opens a space for Islamicist forces.

The anti-globalization movement of the past few years was beginning to develop a very public analysis of what was wrong with the neoliberal model of development. It had begun to place before a new generation the realities of this global capitalist market, and the destruction it was wreaking on the environment, and on countries unable to feed their own populations.  Activists were bringing attention to the work of trade union organizers seeking to contest the working conditions of factories owned by highly visible trademarked companies such as Nike.  Naomi Klein’s No Logo (London: Flamingo, 2000) brilliantly shows the backlash created by the highly successful branding operation carried out by Nike et al.  By making their brand names so visible and familiar, these corporations ironically have brought young people to a consciousness of the gap between the propaganda of the Nike “swoosh” and the harsh realities of their production lines. Many thousands of activists around the world were steadily critiquing the activities of the IMF and the World Bank, and the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization.  The corporate press and even commentators like the financier George Soros were even beginning to concede that although the activists were tackling too many diverse issues, they might have a point about the excesses of capitalism in a world increasingly devoid of safety nets.

In the wake of the events of September 11, with the U.S. launched on a campaign against terrorism that, according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, could take up to 40 years, we are now on a war footing.  The grief and anguish caused by the destruction of the World Trade Center, and the genuine fear and anxiety produced by the anthrax scare, make it difficult to raise these larger questions.  Indeed, we have already seen that even holding a forum to try to find a way of talking about the larger issues brings with it accusations of being unpatriotic: I understand that some speakers at recent CUNY forums have been receiving death threats.

Yet I would argue that the anti-globalization movement and the analysis that it has developed are more relevant now than ever. We must see the role of the U.S. in all of its aspects simultaneously. The war on terrorism is being used as a continuation of the war on social justice, as waged with the economic weapons of the international financial institutions. The wild swings of what Friedman endearingly terms the “herd,” the financial interests that sweep into and out of the “emerging” economies, are as much a form of cowboyism as is W.’s embarrassing call for bin Laden, “dead or alive,” and for a “crusade.” Our way or the highway!  The events of September 11 dramatically indicate that this system is generating a desperate and violent opposition. If the U.S. stays on this course, we may be careening toward an apocalyptic denouement.  Only intelligent activism, informed by a public discussion of alternatives to this way of being in the world, has a chance to offer us a safe way out of this dangerous moment.


*These remarks were originally delivered at a panel organized by the Social and Political Theory Student Association, Ph.D. Program in Political Science, The Graduate School and University Center, The City University of New York, entitled DISCOURSES AND PRACTICES OF A “NEW (?)” TYPE OF WAR (October 19, 2001). I thank Hamideh Sedghi for her very thoughtful editorial suggestions.

1. For this analysis, see Teresa L. Amott, Caught in the Crisis: Women and the US Economy Today (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1992).

2. See Edward W. Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” The Nation, October 22, 2001.

3. Vijay Prashad, “War Against the Planet,”, 9.17.01.

4. On this mechanism see Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms (London: Zed Books, 1998), and William K. Tabb, The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001).

5. See Rick Bragg, “A Nation Challenged: Schools; Shaping Young Islamic Hearts and Hatreds,” New York Times, October 14, 2001.

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