The Memory Bank A New Commonwealth — Ver 4.0
Home About Keith Hart Curriculum vitae List of Publications Papers Miscellany The Book Prologue — Alvin 1. Money in the Making of Humanity 2. The Machine Revolution Today 3. Capitalism: Making Money with Money 4. Capitalism: The Political Economy of Development 5. The Market from a Humanist Point of View 6. The Changing Character of Money 7. The Future of Money and the Market Acknowledgements Reviews of the Book Forum Press Contact « Alternative currencies at Limehouse 2005 Conversations with Abdul Aziz 6 »
Notes on the counter-revolution 13 November 2008, 2:22 am
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 against terrorism, 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 fragments below reflect the confusion of our era, but they do point to a possible political strategy. They were written in two places at different times, in Europe and in America.
We are connected at last, humanity that is. World society is a reality. It has come home to roost in America. 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 recognition that America is in the world, not apart from it. The curious thing about the first decade after the Cold War is that, even as America took over 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, 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, as we all now know, Osama bin Laden. 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. The Clinton years, in retrospect, now seem like a belle époque. Wall Street contrived the biggest boom in economic history, the internet connected us in a single network and the last checks on American military power evaporated. The bobos of Manhattan turned inwards to enjoy life at the centre of the world, while the rest of America was absorbed in itself. The cracks in all this were already beginning to show principally as a collapse of internet stocks and then of the telecoms boom when Hollywood’s perennial images of spectacular destruction were enacted for real on September 11th.
So now we have an unlimited war on terrorism, 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 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. State capitalism, the attempt to manage accumulation and markets through national bureaucracies, 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? With B 52s bombing a country 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 elite 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 ’state 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 this 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 America, 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 neo-liberal 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 lawless world bully and 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 napsterization 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 American 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 software movement, setting Linux and an army of hackers against Microsoft’s monopoly, has opened up fissures within corporate capitalism itself. The shift to manufacture of 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 neo-liberal 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 North 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 American 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.