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Black Pluto’s Door

Tom Nairn: The beginnings of a new and undisguised american unilateralism has led many to suggest global forms of justice. But peace may only be achieved by overcoming the impasse of nationalisms in the region

Aeneas was praying and holding on the altar
When the prophetess started to speak: ‘Blood relations of Gods,
Trojan, son of Anchises, the way down to Avernus is easy.
Day and night black Pluto’s door stands open.
But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,
This is the real task and the real undertaking.’

‘The Golden Bough’, from Virgil’s Aeneid,
trans. Seamus Heaney, in Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96

Demons of yesteryear

As Brendan O’Leary has pointed out in an earlier contribution to OpenDemocracy (18 September), one of the key features of 11 September is that no-one claimed responsibility for the atrocities. They were an ontological statement, rather than propaganda of the deed for a particular nation, or an oppressed class. The world was meant to stand revealed by them: ‘reality’ perceived as God’s ultimate struggle against Satan, exemplified by the martyr-hijackers. In such a cosmic fantasmagoria, a new world war is nothing. The bigger the Satan, the harder will he eventually fall. The perpetrators must have calculated they could hardly fail, in a society already so strongly inclined towards belief in UFOs, moral absolutes and the Christian version of ‘fundamentalism’.

Yet fail they will, for perfectly mundane (and of course profane) reasons having little to do with the atavistic theology of either side. O’Leary is surely right to call for normality: ‘Be normal … think about being normal as a way of standing up for yourself and your values’. Keep your head, in other words. The object of the criminals was socio-cultural decapitation. They will not be allowed to get away with it.

But one should also observe how the silence O’Leary underlines is connected to another absentee from the excitable massed choruses of post-11 September: nationalism, as an attribute of the motivation of the terrorist enemy. In my view the two silences are intimately related. In fact it is possible to argue that one explains the other. The atrocities in New York and Washingtom can also be seen as standing for a new strain of nationalism — an ‘ethno-cosmic’ liberation movement, as it were, so grandiloquent in its goal as to require no apology or explanation. No ‘responsibility’ need be claimed for the Creator’s will: it has simply to be made manifest. However, over-reach also implies futility: blood relations ‘of Gods’ do not exist, and no actual nation is either divine or ‘chosen’.

Less than a decade ago, most ills of humanity and of the coming century were being laid at the door of a more conventional ‘nationalism’. Bosnias were seen coming everywhere, unless Reason (in the Atlantic-Trademark sense) prevailed. Rationality was then thought to be taking up a new logo — ‘globalisation’ — while selfish ethnicity was perceived as getting in its way. For years, no op-ed page was complete without this daily dose of spectral anarchy and pandemonium.

Now the tune has abruptly altered. I suspect most people would be quite happy to have the demons of yesteryear back, rather than these Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There was plenty of real anarchy and pandemonium in the 1990s, as the post-Cold war thaw got under way. It would be shameful to excuse or exonerate any of the ensuing disasters. However, a decade later, it should be acknowledged that many of these disasters have either been resolved, or are on the way towards an answer. The fact is (for example) that at the end of an awful ten years, Milosevic is in gaol in The Hague, while Mladic and Karadzic are on the run in the hills of Serb Bosnia; democratic peace of a sort seems to be holding in Northern Ireland; East Timor is independent; democratic South Africa may be on the way to becoming the continent’s first great success story; Iran is evolving steadily away from the theocracy of the 1980s — and so on.

Exit to the underworld

Actual democratic nationalism leads to actual solutions, in other words, even if these are clumsy, painful and approximate. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ was a particularly noxious side-effect of that kind. Terroristic actions were often involved, and the cumulative ‘body-count’ far exceeded that of 11 September. But none of it meant ‘the end of the world’. An abyss separates it from 11 September, which was intended to signal just that. Humanity was being called through ‘Black Pluto’s door’ into an antique Underworld of theocratic absolutes and paranoid finality. The saintly criminals were seeking to provoke a ‘War against Terrorism’, which would inevitably employ counter-terrorism as one of its tactics, thus setting up an indefinite spiral of outrages. God’s will can then emerge from the ruins. It would be a pity to oblige them.

As Virgil’s prophetess said, strip-cartoon apocalypse is the easy bit: for that, her dark door does indeed stand ever open. The information technology linked to globalisation makes it more visible, and even more ‘inviting’ (at least in the sense of imaginable). It encourages an inebriation of the collective soul, much in evidence right after the events. The harder part is finding one’s way back into the ‘upper air’ of normality, where the majority can reassert their non-apocalyptic visions of the future.

Yet I doubt if this will prove so difficult. It is simply not the case that any mysterious ‘Clash of Civilisations’ is at work behind this crisis, rooted in immemorially divergent values or world-views. I suspect that something more like the exact opposite may be true. These hooligans of the Absolute were compelled to act because they (or those behind them) know that there is, in the ‘globalising’ world, a steadily advancing majority against fundamentalist or spirit-world politics. Unless they strike now, it will soon be too late. The genesis of 11 September lay in mounting despair, rather than conviction of real political or social victory.

The crux of their dilemma lies in the Middle East. This is the zone in which secular nationalism has worked least well, for a particular combination of social and longer-range historical reasons. The inverse of that failure has been that a pre-modern religious Weltanschauung got promoted into the breach: Islam, linked in collective recollection to a distant era of Arab conquest and supremacy, became the stand-in for both democracy and a positive form of civic nationalism. The fall-back upon this ersatz concoction has been a misfortune for the Muslim faith as well as the rest of us, the infidels. It promised earthly Heaven to the former and humiliating defeat for the latter. Neither delusion has the slightest chance of realisation. But they have already generated vast mayhem on their way to failure.

In his moving account of The Arab Predicament (1992) Fouad Ajami concludes bitterly that:

It is easy to judge but hard to understand the ghosts with which people and societies battle, the wounds and memories that drive them to do what they do … The renaissance of civilizations is used as a weapon because so many in the Muslim world and the Third World as a whole feel they live in a world constructed and maintained by others.

Nation-states have been the main instrument of the real battle, and in the last quarter of the twentieth century democratic nationalism has become its commanding credo. These are the effective means by which people and societies are coming to live in a world ‘constructed and maintained’ by themselves. Civic globalisation stands for the achievement and consolidation of that movement, not for its dissolution.

By far the best overview of its impact upon the Middle East is the one given by Roger Owen in State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Middle East (2000). Owen’s study originally came out in 1992, but his second edition contains a new closing section on ‘The Remaking of the Middle Eastern Environment after the Gulf War’. This makes it startlingly clear why the Wahhabites and al-Qa’eda had to undertake some highly visible counter-action: they are on the retreat everywhere — even in the Afghan redoubt and the Saudi-Arabian citadel. He observes:

In a global economy with a well-educated middle class and virtually open access to information from abroad, it does not seem likely that (the region’s) stick and carrot approach to political management can be maintained indefinitely. Sooner or later, issues which have always been implicit in both religious and secular discourse will be made increasingly explicit. These include notions of citizenship, the rule of law, religious toleration and a regime legitimacy that comes not from appeals to security, ideology or achievement but from popular representation and a consensus among the nation at large.

All this is death and anathema to God-struck super-nationalists like Osama bin Laden. However, the influence of such ideas might be stayed, or even turned, if a suitably aggressive Western crusade could be provoked — a palpably Satanic onslaught which might drive the emergent middle class back into the fundamentalist fold. I agree with Fred Halliday’s account of US imperialism: compared to its European predecessors, muddled (and sometimes well-meaning) hesitancy has been its keynote, rather than the Captain America portrayed in so many left-wing diatribes (Observer, 16 September, ‘No Man is an Island’). This must have worried the Islamicists too. Their foe was falling down on the job, and needed some stiffening. Would a few thousand deaths in the heartland do the trick?

In short, the murderous onslaught of 11 September was aimed most significantly at the people of the Middle East themselves. The American and other victims in New York and Washington were made sacrificial lambs for a reconquest of Muslim opinion. From Nigeria to Indonesia, the latter accounts for something like a third of the world. Particularly in the United Kingdom, people are familiar with the concept of ‘democratic deficit’. But there is also such a thing as ‘nationalism-deficit’ — and this same part of the world has suffered from a devastating combination of both. Mundane if mistaken calculation suggested to the perpetrators that big numbers could compensate for these structural failings. Properly led, might they not still ‘bring down’ Godless capitalism, via prolonged and brutal struggle? After all, Muslim insurgency had witnessed Godless communism collapsing in the 1980s (and played a minor part in its fall).

It beats me why anyone should expect anything better from a character like Osama bin Laden. He may look like old images of Jesus Christ, but is the seventeenth son of a crooked construction tycoon. No-one who has encountered him saw a hawk of the desert — rather, a soft-handed fixer and couch ideologist. His slaughter funds flowed from an odious version of Arabian state-fostered capitalism, not from Heaven’s will. Presumably the unfortunates who committed suicide on 11 September believed in the Heavenly vision; whether their backers and organisers did, only time will show — and I presume this would be best shown in a court-room, before the steady gaze of humanity at large. Dubious acts of vengeance in remote corners of Asia will not achieve it. What we do know is that the ‘counter-crusaders’ want to restore or impose conservative theocracy, male-authoritarian hierarchy, the supposed warrior-virtues of antiquity, and sharia law.

Retracing the steps

The great, liberating thaw of modernity will never be turned back by such acts of despair. Another interesting contribution to OpenDemocracy’s debate described the affirmation of American nationalism which has followed 11 September. John Down drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles, reflecting as he travelled on the ‘civic religion’ of a stricken country, and its response to ‘violation by an unseen evil’. I am ashamed to see how bargain-basement anti-Americanism has surfaced in some analyses; but what accounts like Down’s reveal is surely a kind of grandeur — a solidity and humanity of outraged reaction, made up of new vulnerability, determination, and a sense of everyday sacredness. He does end up fearful of the immense power behind such displays, in case it ‘leads the US further down the path of retribution that may well sow the seeds of a future terrorism’.

But since he wrote, these fears have not materialised, though of course they still could. A powerful response was in order after 11 September. It is needed here as it was after the Srebrenica massacre, or after Pinochet’s murderous coup in Chile a quarter of a century ago. However, very many voices have insisted, in the United States itself as well as amongst its allies, that justice is the only true response. After all, it has come (or is coming) in these other two cases. To strike back at once is a natural impulse. But it is surely more important that justice should be inexorable, final, and public. No preposterous ‘War against Terrorism’ could achieve anything like this. It will do little but cast all the proverbial black cats into one indiscriminate bag in a darkened room, and (as Down dreads) provoke further atrocities.

What the extra-American world must fear is not rhetoric of US nationalism but the debility of the American civil state. The constitution linked to their ‘civic religion’ is a crumbling anachronism, as last year’s Presidential election demonstrated. Some sense of proportion must be retained here, I agree: Old Glory is less of an archaism than the United Kingdom, for instance, or the nostalgic debris of Saudi fundamentalism. Still, both George W. Bush’s position and his Texan machismo depend upon it, and might in the event of further disasters attempt to prop themselves up by mobilising appeals to the holy-smoke Christian conservatism which it also embodies.

This is another reason why defence of the positive side of ‘globalisation’ should not be an American prerogative. In an early contribution to the Open Democracy forum David Held called for a new international body dealing with terrorist outrages, ‘modelled on the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals’ and under UN control (14 September). The idea has been amplified by a further essay with Mary Kaldor, ‘New War, New Justice’ (27 September). They argue that this new body should be ‘an International Court (where) the terrorists must be treated as criminals and not military adversaries’.

In one sense, few would dissent while thinking of this example of ‘terrorism’. But we already have International Tribunals like The Hague, which could surely be adapted to the case at issue. The trouble is that any sweeping new formula takes us straight back to the black cats in the dark room. For instance, would the US Air Force’s mistaken strike at a Sudanese medical laboratory have qualified for a Court appearance? Should the Real IRA bombers of Omagh go there, rather than to courts in Dublin or Belfast? What about the Palestinian human bombs who preceded the 11 September atrocities? And the Israeli counter-terror meted out in retaliation? Tempting as the concept of a single new institutional riposte undoubtedly is, it may be over-influenced by the climate of the moment — the feeling that ‘September 11th is a defining moment for humankind’, as Held originally wrote.

But it was not. A miserable old world near the end of its tether was hitting back, using new technology to amplify a brazenly antediluvian message. The new world — currently paraphrased as Held and Kaldor’s ‘globalisation’ — should not think in terms of short-cuts and overpowering ripostes. Time is on its side, recession or not. That is, the combined forces of development, democracy and secular nationhood are on its side — much more evidently than over the decades of Cold War which concluded in the 1980s.

For example, as far as the mundane configuration behind these bombings are concerned, every news reader and TV viewer over the entire globe has known for decades what the ‘real problem’ is: Palestine. The general malaise of the Middle East, and by extension of other Muslim-majority polities, has been consistently focussed on and envenomed by the incurable abcess of the Israeli–PLO conflict. The Arab failures Fouad Ajami mourns, and the ‘general tone of bitterness and despair’ described by Owen, have in practice constantly returned to and fed off this particularly disgraceful stalemate. There have been of course plenty of other big regional problems as well: the Iran–Iraq war, Kuwait, Kurdistan, the Sudanese civil war, and now the downfall of the Afghan state. But none with the staying power and sheer ideological resonance of the Palestinian war.

It represents an impasse of nationalisms, to which the sole solution will be the formation of a viable, secular and democratic Palestinian state. American power has both imposed and fuelled the conflict, and yet has shrunk from imposing the solution (out of the motives Fred Halliday describes). Yet such an advance was overwhelmingly in its own long-term interest, as well as that of Palestinian Arabs and everyone else (except the Holy Warriors). Had it been achieved sooner, it is doubtful whether the September assaults would ever have happened. Nobody wants a new world order regulated by a US gendarme, but there are other ways of achieving peace. What is at issue here is a poisonous remnant of the old world order, festering on into the more liberal age of globalisation. An acceptable nation-state remains the only way forward.

The current issue of New Left Review (No. 10, July–August) is devoted mainly to Palestine, and Perry Anderson’s ‘Scurrying Towards Bethlehem’ is still another overview and set of proposals for Palestinian nationhood. Writing not long before the September attacks, Anderson concluded that ‘The dismal political history of the Arab world over the last half century gives little reason for thinking (a solution) is likely in the short-run’. He saw small chance then of the Bush Presidency shifting its stance, or of ‘the larger submission of the Middle East’ ceasing to prolong the West Bank paralysis. But since 11 September, something of a new start has been forced. Colin Powell’s State Department has found it intolerable to preside over another round of the interminable feud, while simultaneously struggling to concert its new anti-terrorist strategy. Is there no hope at all of this in turn leading to a more permanent answer?

The general point here is that a meaningful response to Holy Terror lies upon this plane: real undertakings in the upper air of a nation-state world, which is still striving for traditional goals upon the more fluid and ‘liberating’ terrain of the global market-place. As for the latter, the solid will go on melting into air, and bear the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour away with it. Its single unconscionable freedom — Free Trade, however naked and shameless — will continue to nestle, settle and establish connections everywhere, creating still more massive and colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together, and despite itself enforcing the social and political constitutions required by the new empire of civil society. But the true ‘sorcerer of modernity’ conjures up the power of future worlds, not the nether worlds of antique faith and superstition.

Tom Nairn is Professor of Nationalism and Cultural Diversity at RMIT. His most recent book is After Britain.