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In the Name of Freedom

John Hinkson Is the legacy of September 11 a global anti-liberal ascendancy?

In the four months since September 11 and the destruction of the World Trade Centre the United States has largely ended the first phase of its ‘war’ against terror. In this it has notched up some definite successes. It has destroyed the Taliban government in Afghanistan and it has dispersed concentrations of terror networks. On the other hand the country is in ruins. The campaign has also triggered a serious crisis between Pakistan and India that may fly out of control at any moment. Much of the Muslim world is smoldering and resentful, while China is becoming suspicious of being outflanked strategically. None of this has yet dented the resolve in the United States for a continuing hard-line campaign.

But these military adventures and outcomes are only part of the story of any assessment of the major effects of September 11. It is also essential to turn to conditions internal to the United States. Certain hysterical states of mind require comment but also, crucially, some basic changes in way of life; for these latter changes tend to become a model for other nations. It would be romantic to think that a State would simply accept an event like that of September 11 without retaliation. But the hysteria and the comprehensive violence of the response goes far beyond simple retaliation. It forces us to reflect on what this crusade in the name of freedom means.

The first aspect of such reflection is the degree of unbridled aggression unleashed towards any person or state that does not agree with the view of the administration in the United States. This can be justified by the shock of September 11, but such a justification misses the point. The present aggressiveness has not simply been called out by the events of September 11. The willingness of the Bush regime to ignore the attitudes of others was first expressed in the violent rejection of limited environmental agreements made at Kyoto. And the lack of concern about throwing the world back into a nuclear weapons race which is implicit in the policy towards missile defence, indicates that our only super-power was already gearing up to assert its dominance in its own interests. September 11 certainly pushed it over the edge and triggered a new fury, but we already had a novel phenomenon on our hands before September 11.

Some of this aggressive behaviour can be explained by the first economic recession in ten years in the United States. The high-tech bubble had burst and the administration was ready to defend its interests. If protection of the environment entails costs to industry in trouble, ditch the protection! However the economy can hardly explain the turn to missile defense. It is more plausible that the recession brought into the open a broad range of insecurities and these had to find an outlet — and September 11 added to these insecurities with a vengeance.

That these insecurities are now intense and able to justify extreme action can hardly be denied. We now have an administration and broad public able to openly discuss and even justify the use of torture upon ‘detainees’ and ‘suspects’ to obtain information. A legal no-man’s-land has been established where there is no legal protection available from civil courts. Nor is there any available from international courts that deal with the rights of prisoners of war. The United States now captures ‘detainees’ who have no rights whatsoever outside of the rules and whims of the administration itself. Execution without right of appeal is only one of these possible outcomes.

In other words, putting to one side nuances and detailed analysis, this aggressivity has pushed past those legal protections that characterise a whole era. This is not a matter of the norms of this society or that generation. It bears on the whole range of rights and liberties that are associated with modernity that date from Magna Carta. They include principles such as Habeas Corpus, the necessity of legal authority for government action, rights of association and rights of the individual generally.

It is, of course, possible to put this down to a temporary phase of excess and to trust in a return to good sense. This may turn out to be the truth of it, but there is good reason to doubt it. Arguably it is not a matter of this government or that politician that needs to be turned around after a temporary phase of excess. After all, the breaking down of legal protections is no more than an actualisation of what has been contemplated and acted out as fantasy in the media for some time. The ‘Clint Eastwood’ representation in film was an expression of frustration with how the legal world could no longer offer justice and manage crime. The pathetic and barbarous solution to such a break-down was typically a return to ground-zero, a resort to direct retribution without legal principle or that absolutely minimal involvement of the law implicit in ‘zero tolerance’.

September 11 has allowed authorities to cast aside caution on these legal matters and achieve a radical reactionary breakthrough. What has been acted out in the media is now the reality of the emerging ‘order’. This reality is also supported by changes in broader social realities such that an imagined return to the liberties of modernity may turn out to be a very painful and costly fantasy.

There are apparent paradoxes in this shift. In the pursuit of freedom major modern liberties are being eliminated. How can this be so? This would make sense if the concept of freedom was cynical rhetoric but the new social realities suggest a different logic at work. There are new forms of liberty and freedom today and these can be contrasted with the broader tradition of freedom with substantial consequences including legal ones. The defence of these new liberties is what the war over terror is about. As this world takes shape the great modern tradition of liberty becomes little more than a memory.

When legal institutions move into decline an easy response is to simply dismiss them as useless. A more serious approach to such a decline would study the relation of legal institutions to everyday settings. For it is the changes and the social divisions now apparent in everyday settings that make modern legal norms unworkable. These are the same changes that made September 11 possible.

Globalisation, freedom, surveillance: each of these reference points helps to outline the character of the social world that has so little sympathy for the liberal era. When George Bush announces his strategies for the defence of ‘freedom’, he is simultaneously announcing a defence of the globalisation process. And to manage society in this global era, forms of surveillance are the typical response. How do these three elements hold together?

Globalisation stands behind many of the tensions that erupted on September 11. Some people benefit from it — salubrious Manhattan is a prime symbol of these people — and others are disadvantaged. They are thrown out of work, they have their local economies and cultures undermined. There are many opponents of globalisation. Some are semi-organised in the anti-globalisation movement. But many nations and regions suffer desperation and demoralisation, sensing rather than knowing how globalisation works against them. These processes alone have generated major tensions in the world, between nations but also within nations. In the United States a very large proportion of those who are regarded as in employment, actually exist on the margins on minimal wages and in part-time unpredictable work. In these matters and tensions alone one can find one line of argument about the cause of the new aggressivity in the global world.

Economic globalisation is one thing, but behind globalisation is a global market that is also, as a structure, aggressive. And this market, unlike the market that Marx and Adam Smith knew, carries with it a culture that represents a new way of life. It is here in this global way of life that we can identify a new form of freedom that is especially fragile and is now embattled.

This new mode of freedom has been a long time coming. Beginning last century, but especially since the 1980s, the developed world has begun an experiment with a new type of culture, one where others are mostly known via distance technologies. This has always been an aspect of modern life — the postal service, for example, connects others who are distant — but now the volume and manner of it, i.e. instantaneous global interconnection dominates to such a degree that it has become a qualitatively different thing. This is the culture of the internet, the fax, the telephone and the mass media: where others more and more are only known via technology. It is this culture that supports and relies on the new global market, the economic rationalist market. It is a way of life with much glitter and fabulous wealth for some, but significant levels of indifference towards others at the same time.

This culture, so dependent on high technology, finds it difficult to empathise with cultures — like all of those in the Third World but also to some degree communities and regions in our own context — that rely to a significant degree on face-to-face structures. For such cultures knowing others in the flesh and blood and inter-generational social relations are built into the structure of the everyday. Western liberal freedoms — like freedom of association — were won within cultures of this type. They were always liberties that were a limitation upon the workings of community-based associations that value presence and place. They never displaced those associations except in limited aspects.

In the global culture George Bush is championing, liberty or freedom gains new meanings. For a start, the global market is a market where there is enhanced freedom but also indifference to others. In a broad sense others are needed for the workability of the market, but any particular other is dispensable. As a way of life the global lifestyle is one of constant movement but with no stable place. Freedom to move, freedom to start again, is a central tenet of the culture. An intense form of individualism accompanies this special form of freedom. Freedom is no longer this or that freedom. It is generalised freedom, the right to fleeting social relations, freedom as a way of life.

But this new freedom necessarily has its own limits and these do not feel like freedom at all. Because such general freedom undermines communities that value presence and place, the freedom offered by distance technologies is offset by new means: the surveillance made possible by distance technologies. Freedom and surveillance go hand in hand in global society. They form a social duo.

We have never before experienced a culture that predominantly works at a distance. But this is what George Bush offers us when he calls for the defence of freedom. He offers generalised freedom for global winners, globalised surveillance, and weapons that terrorise by virtue of how they work at a distance. The trade-off is the end of liberal freedom, in the first instance, for all those who are socially redundant — especially for “detainees”, refugees, “suspects”.

The terror of September 11 and the terror visited upon the whole of Afganhistan may yet prove to be the harbinger of a greater and more encompassing terror implicit in this struggle over ways of life. Yes, George, you are right. After September 11 the world will never be the same.

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