Swans Commentary » swans.com September 26, 2005  



Military Neo-Liberalism
Iain Boel et al.'s Afflicted Powers


by Robert Wrubel


Book Review



Iain Boel, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts: Afflicted Powers: Spectacle and Capital in a New Age of War, Verso, New York, London, June 2005, ISBN 1-84467-031-7, 224 pages, $16.00 (paperback)


(Swans - September 26, 2005)   Afflicted Powers (AP) is a "deep" exploration of the events of September 11 and its aftermath. It brings Marxist and post-modernist perspectives to bear on an important historical moment that was almost immediately buried in layers of cliché and propaganda. AP asks the question, what was 9-11 really about? Was it the beginning of worldwide resistance to empire? Was it merely "blowback" for previously misguided US policies? Was the Bush administration's reckless, illegal response truly an aberration, or was it a continuation of the main lines of US foreign policy for the past 60 years?

The opening chapter of Afflicted Powers, the framework in which the writers want us to view all the rest, treats "Spectacle," the co-subject of the title. The concept comes from French philosopher Guy Debord, who observes that modern societies have come to control not only the physical lives of their subjects, but their subjective experience as well. AP makes the important point that September 11, 2001 was both a physical event and a symbolic one -- the meaning of which was that the world's superpower was shown to be vulnerable. In many ways, the American response was to the symbolic event, not the physical one, desperately trying to appear strong, while seeming unable to think about the real threat. The "bring 'em on" rhetoric, the showy destruction of two helpless states, the doctrine of "shock and awe" were intended to intimidate, and were a substitute for strategic thought. The battle of symbols was multi-faceted, too, directed both at the "enemy," at the American people (who would have to pay for this), and even at the president himself, who was visibly pumped by his new role as "War President."

The irony is that our response to 9-11 completely failed on the symbolic level. Al Qaeda made spectacular strikes on two icons of American power, and we answered by toppling a statue of Saddam Hussein. We invaded in the name of democracy, but what the world saw were cities turned to rubble and hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The point about "spectacle" is that the state now has to manage it too, and when the state thinks largely in terms of spectacle (or image), it begins not to be able to think strategically (paraphrased from Debord). The issue is not just a problem of public relations, but the deeper one of legitimacy. While America may be able to "manufacture consent" within its own borders, imposing it on others is entirely a different question. US war planners thought they could win the war by "shock and awe," but in fact they assured defeat by producing lasting images of American brutality.

Peering through the haze of "spectacle" ("war on terror", "democracy versus tyranny", "pre-emptive" versus "preventive" war, etc.) what do we really see after 9-11? The consensus on the Left is that really the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were about oil -- its scarcity, assured supply, price stability, future reserves, strategic leverage against China, importance to our monetary system, etc. Afflicted Powers suggests that none of these, separately or together, were worth the risks of war, since all have been much more easily attained over the past 60 years by standard Western practices of puppet rule, bribes, collusion, sanctions, and subversion.

Oil was assuredly at the table in discussions that led up to war, but so was Halliburton, Bechtel, the arms industry, banking and financial services, and myriad private firms that would be invited in to rebuild the ravaged nation. AP's point is that the "convergent interests" of all (i.e., of capital in general) are what led to war. War is simply a heightened state of current neo-liberal policies of bringing a nation to its knees so as to pry open its resources for Western investment.

AP calls the combination of militarism and neo-liberal economics, "military neo-liberalism." In a chapter on "Permanent War," the writers rehearse a familiar chronology of US military interventions for the past 60 years. As the West's superpower in that period, the U.S. has developed its military to an unprecedented level of sophistication, so that it's no longer merely an instrument of war, in the classical sense, but a pillar of the economy, a global police force, and even a part of "spectacle." The U.S. has been granted this role by the other Western powers, which are happy to pursue their own development under its umbrella. Meanwhile, in normal police fashion, the military exerts control by its mere presence (700 bases around the globe, according to Chalmers Johnson), with periodic theatrical displays ("shock and awe") inflicted on weak states like Panama, Grenada, Libya, Afghanistan and now Iraq.

("Every ten years or so, the U.S. needs to pick some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."
--Michael Ledeen, holder of the "Freedom Chair" at the American Enterprise Institute).

On the other side of the equation, Afflicted Powers looks at the implications of "Revolutionary Islam" -- specifically at the question of whether Al Qaeda has the scope and commitment and resources to be considered a "vanguard" of global resistance. The writers find three main reasons for thinking so: 1) Al Qaeda's sophistication with modern communication techniques, like the Internet, as well as its grasp of the importance of "spectacle;" 2) the proliferation of black market arms (potentially including nuclear weapons) around the globe, and the drug money to buy them with, undercutting the superpower's monopoly on violence; and 3) the proliferation of failed states in the wake of neo-liberal economic practices -- the "global slums of the south" providing waves and waves of desperate and alienated young men as potential recruits. It is not clear that Al Qaeda itself is the vanguard of this vast realm of discontent (it already appears to have morphed into something much more decentralized), but the potential is there.

Afflicted Powers draws a complex picture of America at this moment in history as a confused Leviathan, driven by abstract laws of capital into empire by default, breeding inevitable forms of resistance it cannot understand.


· · · · · ·
Iain Boel, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts: Afflicted Powers: Spectacle and Capital in a New Age of War, Verso, New York, London, June 2005, ISBN 1-84467-031-7, 224 pages, $16.00 (paperback)

You can purchase this excellent book directly from Verso.

It can also be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
Simply enter your Zip code and click on "Go" to find all local independent bookstores near you (in the U.S.):

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About the Author

Robert Wrubel is a writer and activist living in Sausalito, California.



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Robert Wrubel 2005. All rights reserved.


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Published September 26, 2005