We are entering a period of apparent total power for the United States. Its military dominance is all but unassailable, and the recent increases in military spending will make it more so. Its proposed National Missile Defence system will not render it invulnerable, but may give it an enhanced sense of being such.
Its dominance of the world economy and the international architecture of finance and trade is of a similar order. The ideology of ‘free’ trade is imposed on global demand (whether it be for finance or markets) while supply (whether it be of steel or labour) is regulated at will. The business cycle is regularised, or an attempt is made to do so, by the regularising of global consumption, through the spread of media technologies, their carriage of global branding and the shaping and channelling of personal consumption to an unprecedented degree. The culture is subordinated to the economy, and the economy is subordinated to imperial military power.
The process is completed when a whole series of American commentators and opinion formers who would have been described — by themselves and others — as ‘liberals’, fall in behind the new imperial vision, and confine their criticism to means rather than ends. This is not a matter of personal corruption, though there is plenty of that. It is a collapse of the logic of liberal dissent, of the possibility of imagining a genuine countervailing force that is not totally transformative. The expansion of a global culture industry, and the abolition of the barrier between entertainment and advertising, reshapes the subjects of the world as mirrors of their objects.
The small subclass who work in cultural production develop a distinctive ‘meta-ideology’ as a result of their social practice and formation. The content of this has some continuity with the ‘bohemia’ of old, but it is entirely bound within regulated cultural production and it experiences its own powerlessness and marginality through an addiction to ever more layered and self-referentially ‘ironic’ forms of expression. When there occur real events — such as the Twin Towers attack — that cut through all social strata, the ironic stance collapses back to its real (and in this case, imperial) ground zero.
When people of the South attempt to exclude the process from an actual physical zone, often by recourse to reactionary and regressive ideologies, the response shifts from the cultural-economic to the political-military, and a similar process of regularisation occurs.
The current enormous jump in military spending is designed to make possible armaments that are now only science-fictive — robot ‘troops’ being the most lurid example, routinised use of tactical nuclear weapons the most terrifying. The prescience of Baudrillard’s much derided observation that ‘the Gulf War did not take place’ becomes clear. The encounter between hi-tech disembodied weaponry on one side and actual soldiers and civilians on the other is not ‘war’ in any hitherto meaningful sense of the term; it is not a contest of human forces. To use the term ‘war’ for this process obscures a full understanding of what is really occurring. While wars will continue, they will be overshadowed by episodes of what we might call ‘subordination’ — the encounter between totally hi-tech aggressors and substantially embodied victims. Frustration at this totality drives people to terror tactics, and the increasing numbers resorting to them make their occurrence more likely. The threat or incidence of such terror, to varying degrees, makes attacks on civil liberties possible. Resistance is limited because a sense of citizenship as a dimension of selfhood has been eroded by the extension of ‘advertainment’ to ever greater regions of inner and outer life.
This assessment seems melancholy, but it is also the most likely picture of the next couple of decades. The forces of opposition that such power produces are manifold but still at an early stage of development. Even if we discount the prospect of the crises of the modern period — economic depressions or revolutions — there are new crisis points which could furnish humanity with a rallying point against power. Large-scale events such as a sudden spike in the effects of global warming could throw global food production into chaos. Leaders and movements could arise in the South such as would bring it to a state of global ‘class’ consciousness — although it is possible they would call on chauvinist and nationalist sentiments. The cultural problems created by hyperconsumption — which denies universal needs by feeding particular desires — will become a historical force in their own right. Even if none of this eventuates to a degree necessary to challenge the micro and macro-processes of empire, the period is end-stopped by a confrontation between the US and China. This may be a peaceful process, or it may be an apocalyptic one, but it will occur nevertheless. (In its light we may come to understand Islamic fundamentalism as a relatively minor and specific outbreak of a larger North-South contestation).
New forms and degrees of power appear prior to new forms and degrees of opposition, and the space between can tempt one towards either despair or nostalgia. But optimism and the renewal of morale make it equally important to recognise what is no longer possible as well as what is, and to strive to bring the latter into being.
Guy Rundle is co-editor of Arena Magazine.