With the collapse of the Taliban and the entry of the Northern Alliance into Kabul, the first moment of a new global historical phase has been completed. In terms of the stated US ‘war’ aims, it can scarcely be called a total victory. At the time of writing Osama Bin Laden remains at large — he may not even be in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance took the capital before the United States had a chance to begin the process of establishing a centrist-non-religious government based around a king who had last reigned more than fifty years ago. No matter how much spin the US puts on this occurrence it has been a set-back for their plan for the region, as Pakistan was utterly opposed to the prospect of a Northern Alliance government.
The further plans of the US are unknowable, and it is clear that there is a split within the Bush administration regarding a maximum or minimum campaign against global enforcement of US power. The latter prospect is likely since an attack on the two main targets being talked about as prospects in the war on terror — Iraq and Colombia — would demand a financial and human commitment far beyond the capacities of the US public to bear, even in the medium term.
Paradoxically for a war that has taken place in the global South, by far the greatest change has occurred in the global North where governments — especially in the English-speaking countries — have launched an attack on the most basic civil liberties unprecedented in a peacetime era. The US government’s USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism — the willful descent into political kitsch is a sign of where things are at) provides for the indefinite detention of any immigrant or non-citizen, and gives police a virtual free hand for wiretaps; the UK government has suspended the most basic rights of habeas corpus for those accused of terrorism. Canada is introducing similar laws and the Australian government is extending the powers of ASIO to that of arrest and detention.
Such an assault on civil liberties has been under way for a number of years in all jurisdictions. There have been a number of reasons for this, from the increasing complexity of everyday economic life (which has prompted moves such as the Australia Card and aspects of the GST) to the wearing away of state authority occasioned by globalisation (hence the sudden debate and struggle around the notion of borders). But the principal impetus has been a cultural-political one, based around the mainstream ‘tabloid’ style media — press and TV — and their invocation of a consenting silent majority, who want the government to take ‘firm action’.
Firm action against what? It is usually some form of crime wave, and while violent crime has been on the increase since the 1960s (though it is now beginning to decrease again) the distorted media image of such takes it far beyond any real change in people’s daily lives. The ‘war on terror’ has become a new instalment in that cops-‘n-robbers story. Despite the fact that the attack on the World Trade Centre occurred because of a collapse in existing security procedures — several of the suicide terrorists were already on watch lists, and the privatisation of airport security had made a collapse of common security enforcement inevitable — the event has been used as a trigger to gain more intrusive powers for utterly dysfunctional organisations such as the FBI and CIA who cannot effectively use the powers they already possess.
But that matters little, because the new ‘great game’ is all about the extension of executive power into every sphere of life. The more freely that money and goods can be moved around, the more willing governments are to control the movements of people. No-one really believes that there will be any significant success in controlling ‘terrorist money laundering’ because the dichotomy between global commerce and money laundering is ultimately a false one. Any attempt to control it would also slow the velocity of global capital and bring nation-states into conflict with the global financial system. Instead there will be an increasingly rigorous control of the movement of persons — a control all the more easy to impose now that the social democratic parties have abandoned any commitment to the protection of civil liberties. (The ALP’s current attempt to abandon the 60/40 rule can be seen in that light — an attempt to further streamline itself to be purely a party of the executive and of its self-selected political professionals.)
The crime wave at home, the terrorist threat abroad — these ‘just so’ stories sell newspapers and TV shows, and they connect with a deeper level of threat felt in contemporary life, that of destabilisation, downsizing, the fundamental ungrounding of globalisation. They appeal to the worst in the contemporary public — the battered and debilitated mass who will gladly hand over such freedoms as they have to the strong leader. When no major political organisation will stand up and affirm the basic rights of citizenship then the capacity for an actual suspension of liberty — which is what has now occurred in the UK and will happen here — is unmitigated.
The defence of these most basic civil liberties is clearly and obviously the most important task facing the Left in the coming days. It has been hampered in this to a degree by the fact that a Marxist interpretation of the state has always underestimated the importance of the liberal political sphere — in particular the separation of powers (often for good reason).
The powers in the new period want to create a political subject who is wholly governed by fear. Affirming the most basic political liberties is not merely about preserving a social space for political activity. It is about affirming an idea of being human in the modern era — independent-minded, critical, ready to make one’s own life and world — that the polity and the economy are currently conspiring against.
Guy Rundle is co-editor of Arena Magazine.