The Great Unraveling
The ideological and physical hold of American imperial power, buttressed by the utopian ideology of neoliberalism and global capitalism, is unraveling. Most, including many of those at the heart of the American empire, recognize that every promise made by the proponents of neoliberalism is a lie. Global wealth, rather than being spread equitably, as neoliberal proponents promised, has been funneled upward into the hands of a rapacious, oligarchic elite, creating vast economic inequality. The working poor, whose unions and rights have been taken from them and whose wages have stagnated or declined over the past 40 years, have been thrust into chronic poverty and underemployment, making their lives one long, stress-ridden emergency. The middle class is evaporating. Cities that once manufactured products and offered factory jobs are boarded up-wastelands. Prisons are overflowing. Corporations have orchestrated the destruction of trade barriers, allowing them to stash $2.1 trillion in profits in overseas banks to avoid paying taxes. And the neoliberal order, despite its promise to build and spread democracy, has hollowed out democratic systems to turn them into corporate leviathans.
Democracy, especially in the United States, is a farce, vomiting up right-wing demagogues such as Donald Trump, who has a chance to become the Republican presidential nominee and perhaps even president, or slick, dishonest corporate stooges such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and, if he follows through on his promise to support the Democratic nominee, even Bernie Sanders. The labels “liberal” and “conservative” are meaningless in the neoliberal order. Political elites, Democrat or Republican, serve the demands of corporations and empire. They are facilitators, along with most of the media and most of academia, of what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls our system of “inverted totalitarianism.”
The attraction of a Trump, like the attraction of Radovan Karadzic or Slobodan Milosevic during the breakdown of Yugoslavia, is that his buffoonery, which is ultimately dangerous, mocks the bankruptcy of the political charade. It lays bare the dissembling, the hypocrisy, the legalized bribery. There is a perverted and, to many, refreshing honesty in this. The Nazis used this tactic to take power during the Weimar Republic. The Nazis, even in the eyes of their opponents, had the courage of their convictions, however unsavory those convictions were. Those who believe something, even something repugnant, are often given grudging respect.
These neoliberal forces are also rapidly destroying the ecosystem. The Earth has not had this level of climate disruption since 250 million years ago when it underwent the Permian-Triassic extinction, which wiped out perhaps 90 percent of all species. This is a percentage we seem determined to replicate. Global warming is unstoppable, with polar ice caps and glaciers rapidly melting and sea levels certain to rise 10 or more feet within the next few decades, flooding major coastal cities. Mega-droughts are leaving huge patches of the Earth, including parts of Africa and Australia, the west coast of the United States and Canada and the southwest United States, parched and plagued by uncontrollable wildfires. We have lost 7.2 million acres to wildfires nationwide this year, and the Forest Service has so far spent $800 million struggling to control conflagrations in California, Washington, Alaska and other states. The very word “drought” is part of the deception, implying this is somehow reversible. It isn’t.
Migrants fleeing violence and hunger in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Eritrea are pouring into Europe. Two hundred thousand of the roughly 300,000 migrants to Europe this year have landed on the shores of Greece. Two thousand five hundred have died so far this year in the sea, on overcrowded and dilapidated boats or in the backs of trucks such as the one discovered last week in Austria that held 71 corpses, including the bodies of children. This is the largest influx of refugees into Europe since World War II, a 40 percent jump since last year. And the flood will grow ever greater. By 2050, many climate scientists predict, between 50 million and 200 million climate refugees will have fled northward to escape areas of the globe made uninhabitable by soaring temperatures, droughts, famines, plagues, coastal flooding and the chaos of failed states.
The physical, environmental, social and political disintegration is reflected in an upsurge of nihilistic violence driven by rage. Crazed gunmen carry out massacres in shopping malls, movie theaters, churches and schools in the United States. Boko Haram and Islamic State, or ISIS, are on killing rampages. Suicide attackers methodically commit deadly mayhem in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Iran, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, Mauritania, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Nigeria, Russia, India and Pakistan. They struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and in 2010 when Andrew Joseph Stack III flew a light plane into a building in Austin, Texas, that housed offices of the Internal Revenue Service. Fanaticism is bred by hopelessness and despair. It is not the product of religion, although religion often becomes the sacral veneer for violence. The more desperate people become, the more this nihilistic violence will spread.
“The old is dying, the new struggles to be born, and in the interregnum there are many morbid symptoms,” the theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote.
These “morbid symptoms” will expand until we radically reconfigure how we relate to each other and the ecosystem. But there is no guarantee such a reconfiguration is possible, especially if the elites manage to cling to power through their pervasive global security and surveillance apparatus and heavily militarized police forces. If we do not overthrow this neoliberal system, and overthrow it soon, we will unleash a Hobbesian nightmare of escalating state violence and counterviolence. Masses of the poor will be condemned to misery and death. Some will try to violently resist. A tiny elite, living in a modern version of Versailles or the Forbidden City, will have access to amenities denied to everyone else. Hatred will become the primary ideology.
The attraction of Islamic State, which has up to 30,000 foreign fighters, is that it articulates the rage felt by the wretched of the earth and has thrown off the shackles of Western domination. It defies the neoliberal attempt to turn the oppressed into human refuse. You can condemn the group’s medieval vision of a Muslim state and its campaigns of terror against Shiites, Yazidis, Christians, women and homosexuals—which I do—but the anguish that inspires this savagery is genuine; you can condemn the racism of white supremacists who are flocking to Trump—as I do—but what they are responding to is their similar frustration and despair. The neoliberal order, by turning people into superfluous labor and by extension superfluous human beings, orchestrated this anger. The only hope left is to re-integrate the dispossessed into the global economy, to give them a sense of possibility and hope, to give them a future. Short of that, nothing will stem the fanaticism.
Islamic State, much like the Christian right in the U.S., seeks a return to an unachievable purity and utopianism, a heaven on earth. It promises to establish a version of the seventh-century caliphate. Twentieth-century Zionists seeking to form Israel used the same playbook when they called for the re-creation of the mythical Jewish nation of the Bible. ISIS, as the Jewish fighters who founded Israel did, is attempting to build its state (now the size of Texas) though ethnic cleansing, terrorism and the use of foreign fighters. Its utopian cause, as was the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, is attractive to tens of millions of youths, most of them Muslims cast aside by the neoliberal order. Islamic State offers a vision of a broken society made whole. It offers a place and sense of identity—denied by neoliberalism—to those who embrace this vision. It calls for a turning away from the deadening cult of the self that lies at the core of neoliberal ideology. It holds up the sanctity of self-sacrifice. And it offers an avenue for vengeance.
Until we dismantle the neoliberal order and recover the humanistic tradition that rejects the view that human beings and the Earth are commodities to exploit, our form of industrialized and economic barbarity will collide with the barbarity of those who oppose us. The only choice offered by “bourgeois society,” as Friedrich Engels knew, is “socialism or regression into barbarism.” It is time we make this choice.
We in the United States are not morally superior to Islamic State. We are responsible for over a million dead in Iraq and 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced or forced to become refugees. We kill in greater numbers. We kill more indiscriminately. Our drones, warplanes, heavy artillery, naval bombardments, machine guns, missiles and so-called special forces—state-run death squads—have decapitated far more people, including children, than Islamic State has. When Islamic State burned a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage it replicated what the United States does daily to families by incinerating them in their homes in bombing strikes. It replicated what Israeli warplanes do in Gaza. Yes, what Islamic State did was cruder. But morally it was the same.
I once asked the co-founder of the militant group Hamas, Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, why Hamas sanctioned suicide bombings, which left Israeli civilians and children dead, when the Palestinians had the moral high ground as an occupied people. “We will stop killing their children and civilians as soon as they stop killing our children and civilians,” he told me. He noted that the number of Israeli children who had been killed at that time was a couple of dozen, as opposed to hundreds of Palestinian children. Since 2000, 133 Israeli and 2,061 Palestinian children have lost their lives. Suicide bombing is an act of desperation. It is, like Israel’s saturation bombing of Gaza, a war crime. But when seen as a response to unchecked state terror it is understandable. Dr. Rantisi was assassinated in April 2004 by Israel when it fired a Hellfire missile at his car in Gaza from an Apache attack helicopter. His son Mohammed, in the vehicle with him, also died in the attack. The downward spiral, more than a decade after these murders, continues.
Those who oppose us offer a vision of a new world. We offer nothing in return. They offer a counterweight to the neoliberal lie. They speak for its victims, trapped in squalid slums in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America. They condemn the grotesque hedonism, the society of spectacle, rejection of the sacred, profligate consumption, personal wealth as the primary basis for respect and authority, blind celebration of the technocrat, sexual commodification—including a culture dominated by pornography—and the drug-induced lethargy that are used by all dying regimes to keep the masses distracted and disempowered. Many jihadis, before they became violent fundamentalists, fell victim to these forces. There are hundreds of millions of people like them who have been betrayed by the neoliberal order. They are a powder keg. And we offer them nothing.
The wretched of the earth increasingly do not believe in the efficacy of nonviolence. They saw how nonviolence failed in Tunisia, which contributes the largest number of jihadis to the fighting in Iraq and Syria, and how it failed in Libya, Egypt and Iraq, a country where the U.S. puppet regime gunned down nonviolent protesters in the streets. The wretched of the earth—including in the United States, where we are seeing a mounting number of assassinations at the hands of police, 23 so far this year—intend to counter state violence with insurrectional violence. They have learned to speak in the language we taught them. Keep shooting unarmed black men and women in the streets of American cities while ignoring the nonviolent protests calling for an end to the state lynching and terror, and guess what will happen?
“Once their rage explodes, they recover their lost coherence, they experience self-knowledge through reconstruction of themselves; from afar we see their war as the triumph of barbarity,” Frantz Fanon wrote in “The Wretched of the Earth,” “but it proceeds on its own to gradually emancipate the fighter and progressively eliminates the colonial darkness inside and out. As soon as it begins it is merciless. Either one must remain terrified or become terrifying—which means surrendering to the dissociations of a fabricated life or conquering the unity of one’s native soil. When the peasants lay hands on a gun, the old myths fade, and one by one the taboos are overturned: a fighter’s weapon is his humanity. For in the first phase of the revolt killing is a necessity: killing a European is killing two birds with one stone, eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed: leaving one man dead and the other man free.”
Do those in power read history? Or maybe this is what they want. Once the wretched of the earth morph into Islamic State, or adopt counterviolence, the neoliberal order can lift the final fetters that are imposed upon it and start to kill with impunity. Neoliberal ideologues, after all, are also utopian fanatics. And they, too, know only how to speak in the language of force. They are our version of Islamic State.
The binary world the neoliberals created—a world of masters and serfs, a world where the wretched of the earth are demonized and subdued by a loss of freedom, by “austerity” and violence, a world where only the powerful and the wealthy have privileges and rights—will condemn us to a horrifying dystopia. The emerging revolt, inchoate, seemingly disconnected, is rising up from the bowels of the earth. We see its flashes and spurts. We see its ideology of rage and anguish. We see its utopianism and its corpses. The more despair and desperation are manufactured by the neoliberal order, whether in Athens, Baghdad or Ferguson, the more the forces of state repression are used to quell unrest and extract the last drops of blood from collapsing economies, the more violence will become the primary language of resistance.
Those of us who seek to create a world that has hope of viability have little time left. The neoliberal order, despoiling the Earth and enslaving the vulnerable, has to be eradicated. This will happen only when we place ourselves in direct opposition to it, when we are willing to engage in the acts of self-sacrifice and sustained revolt that allow us to obstruct and dismantle every aspect of neoliberal machinery. I believe we can do this through nonviolence. But I am not blind to the inevitable rise of counterviolence, caused by the myopia and greed of the neoliberal mandarins. Peace and harmony may not engulf the Earth if we succeed, but if we do not remove the ruling elites from power, if we do not overthrow the neoliberal order, and if we do not do it soon, we are doomed.