The fatal entanglement of capitalism, postmodernism and fundamentalist terrorism

Hobgoblin No.4 2002

“Modern middle-class society, which has revolutionised the conditions of property, and called forth such colossal means of production and traffic, resembles the wizard who evoked the powers of darkness, but could neither master them, nor yet get rid of them when they had come at his bidding.”
[Marx, Communist Manifesto]
Postmodernism, appeared at the end of the 1970s as the new ideological manifestation (as ‘cultural theory’) for the ‘postindustrial’, ‘knowledge’ economy. As formulated by Jean-Francois Lyotard in 1979, postmodernist theory called for a final showdown with the ‘grand narratives’ of modernity and the ‘rhetoric of totality’ expressed in Hegel’s dialectic of human freedom and in Marx’s supposed ‘universalising’ of the proletariat as the historical agency of socialist emancipation. For Lyotard the task had become not the completion of modernity, but rather to recognise that it had been liquidated, and that its lack of ’reality’ had produced ‘the invention of other realities’: hence the association of postmodernism with notions of ‘diversity’, ‘multiculuturalism’ and ‘identity’ politics. Postmodernism therefore, was a timely ideological intervention at a time when three crucial processes were taking place:
Firstly, what passed for ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Bloc was beginning to fall apart and give way to bourgeois nationalism. Secondly, the material and political gains of the working class in the West were being rolled back in response to the structural capitalist crisis. Thirdly, the radicalism of the regimes thrown up by the anti-colonial revolutions was being undermined: from within by their own counter-revolutionary forces and from without by imperialist pressure and intervention, which often took the form of ‘war by proxy’ between the super-powers (e.g. Ethiopia, Afghanistan).
On one level, the terrorist atrocities of September 11th heralded the first truly postmodernist war. The attackers did not announce themselves in the name of any political ‘tradition’ or invoke the names of any heroes or thinkers. They ‘played’, not with the rules of war but with symbols, signs and signifiers, which seem to make more ‘sense’ to fans of Nostradamus than students of Clausewitz. The attack on the Twin Towers was an inhuman, irrational act, carried in the name of anti-humanism and irrationality. It did indeed attempt to dissolve one ‘reality’ in order to invent ‘another’.
On another level however, September 11th was an act of war by a universalist and internationalist force aiming at world domination. In this sense Islamism is following the same path as those other two universalising totalitarianisms of the 20th century: Stalinism and fascism.
In a book, published shortly after the Moro Assassination in 1978, the Situationist, Giafranco Sanguinetti, wrote that in the modern world, all acts of terrorism are either offensive or defensive. As was shown in numerous terrorist campaigns throughout Europe in the late-20th century, offensive urban terrorist strategy always failed sooner or later - if measured in terms of the actual objectives – and in the end only appealed to those Sanguinetti called the "desperate and deluded". If, on the other hand, terrorist actions are part of a defensive strategy, then those behind them can expect some success, especially in the short-term. The twist is that defensive terrorism, in the context of Italy in the 1970s, was only ever effectively carried out by the State, either directly, as shown by the Piazza Fontana bombing of 1969 and numerous others in the ‘70s; or indirectly as shown by the kidnappings and assassinations carried out by the allegedly 'Red' Brigades, during the ‘seventies period of ‘restructuring’ following the 1974 capitalist crisis.
September 11th, certainly, in the ‘Situationist’ sense, was one of the most ‘spectacular’ terrorist atrocities of what Guy Debord claimed to be the epoch of the ‘Integrated Spectacle’. It was also a ‘defensive’ act carried out by the ‘desperate and deluded’ who actually believed in the reality of a ‘fallacious paradise’. BUT IT WAS AN ALSO ACT IN DEFENSE OF A ‘STATE’ BY THOSE CLAIMING TO REPRESENT IT: the state being the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its Wahabist clients and assets elsewhere, especially the military dictatorship of Pakistan and the terrorist state of Afghanistan, ruled by the Taleban in conjunction with the Wahabist Al Queda network. All fundamentalist ideologues, whether in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, know that just as the invention of the printing press and the telescope assured the success of the Protestant Reformation, so the Information and Bio-technological revolutions call into question ALL the religious “isms” in the world. The process was first identified by Marx in the Communist Manifesto:
"A continual change in the modes of production, a never ceasing state of agitation and social insecurity, distinguish the Bourgeois-Epoch from all preceding ones. The ancient ties between men, their opinions and beliefs - hoar with antiquity - are fast disappearing, and new ones become worn out ere they can become firmly rooted. Everything fixed and stable vanishes, everything holy and venerable is desecrated, and men are forced to look at their mutual relations, at the problem of life, in the soberest, most matter of fact way." [Macfarlane translation]
Contrary to what some on the left have argued, there is nothing revolutionary about Islamism (or ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’); nor can there be any revolutionary tendencies within it. Fundamentalism of all stamps can be seen today – hopefully – as the dying kicks of those who are in revolt, not so much against capitalism, as against history, which for them (as the James Joyce character puts it), is a nightmare they are trying to awake from. They are in denial of the revolutionizing role of capital in relation to these old forms and they are incapable of recognizing that the counter-revolutionary, inhuman tendencies of capitalism become all the more the pervasive in the absence of the socialist idea worked out anew for the 21st century.
150 years ago, Marx showed how Lord Palmerston had fooled the public into believing he was the side of those nationalities (Poles, Circassians and many others) who were subjected to ‘Muscovite’ rule even to the extent of going to war with the Czar over the Crimea. Marx exposed the commercial underpinning of the pro-Russian secret diplomacy of the British Foreign Office. His description in the 1850s of Britain’s commercial ally, Czarist Russia bears an uncanny remblance to the modern-day relationships between Islamist absolutists their ‘allies’ such as Britain and the US:
“If the Muscovite Czars, who worked their encroachments by agency principally of the Tartar Khans, were obliged to tartarise Muscovy, Peter the great, who resolved upon working through the agency of the west, was obliged to civilise Russia. In grasping upon the Baltic provinces, he seized at once the tools necessary for this process. They afforded him not only the diplomatists and the generals, the brains with which to execute his system of political and military action on the west, they yielded him, at the same time, a crop of brureaucrats, schoolmasters, and drill-sergeants, who were to drill Russians into that varnish of civilisation that adapts them to the technical appliances of the Western peoples, without imbuing them with their ideas’.”
The Russian Empire never did become imbued with such ideas and never did become ‘civilised’. Sixty years after Marx’s critique the 200-year despoiling alliance between Czarism and British Imperialism ended with the October Revolution.
In the early 1880s, Marx visited Algeria. Writing with great admiration for the Moslems of that land he added, ‘but without a Revolution they’ll be damned’. Now, more than ever, we know that everyone else will be as well.#