Caught in the desert, hiding in a storm drain, gun in hand, his blood mingling with the waste water, the death of Muammar Gaddafi seems to exhaust all powers of expression. Fellow Cold War veterans, the Ceausescus, were found wandering in a suburban school, having fled by helicopter, and were shot to death, singing the Internationale. Saddam Hussein was pulled from a spider hole, propriety maintained to the very moment of execution, when it became a lynching. Both were late survivors of a wholly different era, a clash of two great forces. Not merely capitalism versus communism, as it is so often thought, but also imperialism versus the Third World, the global multitude, the wretched of the earth.
From the Dublin uprising of Easter 1916, via Shanghai, Hanoi, Bandung, Havana, Selma, Johannesburg, Wave Hill, Managua and innumerable, the new world had to be carved out of the empires. What, in retrospect, looks inevitable was the very opposite. Quite the opposite. For a century, the world we lived in was organised on the basis of race, and notions of natural superiority of one over the others. Those ideas were not discredited simply by an act of thought, but because non-whites stood up and power re-flowed around that force.
The fact that the values of empire, the ideas of race, nation and being held sway before the Second World War appear so alien to us, should be a sign that they could easily not be. The “other world that was possible” was created by those struggles. The world that might have persisted could be seen in remnant forms — the Portuguese empire, held on to until the ’70s, apartheid South Africa, for example.
The process, the making of the modern world, produced its monsters and malignancies along the way — but there were also the grotesques. The monsters died away or changed their form, the clowns lingered on, with Gaddafi perhaps the last survivor. Brandishing his Green Book, declaring that the entire state of Libya had been dissolved into a nation of the masses, yet maintaining his extensive secret police apparatus, he was playing it for laughs from the start. The ex-Sandhurst cadet who had spent a year living in a damp basement in Brixton, hanging around the espresso bars, trying to pick up girls, returned to his country, a remnant of a brutally suppressed Italian colony, to overthrow the puppet-king Idris in a bloodless coup.
But it was 1969, the spirit of the age, and it rapidly became more than a mere shuffling of power. In an era of maydays and cultural revolutions, Gaddafi’s vision was that of world transformation — a pan-Arab movement, an annihilatory push against Israel, and a linking to liberation movements around the world. The Green Book would fuse the collective spirit of Islam with the radical politics of the Third World, Mao meets Mohammed.
There is no question that he was desperately sincere about all of this. Libyan oil money went to everyone, from legitimate groups, to nihilistic terrorists, and all points in between through the ’70s and ’80s. Meanwhile, as the Pan-Arab dream died, he used the country as a place of Rousseauist experiment, trying, in 1985, to abolish money.
That ended in farce of course, and he turned to the ideal of pan-Africanism, looking for a distinctive African expression of a new world order, starting or exacerbating wars, and dabbling in AIDS denialism. There were wins of course — he supported the Palestinians, the ANC, and ploughed some of the oil money back into Libyan society, but it is difficult not to think of Gaddafi as modernity with Tourette’s — every violent, radical, emancipatory idea that the enlightenment has thrown up passed across his face at some point in the past four decades, but as twitch, tic. He took power in the era of Johnston, de Gaulle, Ho Chi Minh and Mao, a world whose preoccupations and preconceptions are, in some way, further from us than the discoursing of the early Church fathers.
Gaddafi was from an era when the idea was to gain state power, and build history from the ground up, to remake human existence, releasing some ideal and uncontradicted human spirit. It would be easy to dismiss such ideas, if the firm conviction in them had not been necessary to the great projects of liberation that made the century, made modernity. But when such things fell away from any mass base, they became their opposite, savage jests. What better image of radical modernity in its absurd form, than a man in the desert in a drainpipe, waving a gold pistol?
Now, as the world shifts, we would appear to be undertaking a clearing of the books. As Gaddafi was hunted down in the wilderness, and the last ghosts of the most recent idea of radical transformation laid to rest, others were settling their scores with history as well. In Spain/Basque country, ETA chose this moment to announce a permanent cessation of armed struggle, in a “war” which had lasted more than half a century.
When it began, General Franco had all but intended to wipe out the idea of Euskara as a nation; at some point after his demise, the enemy had become the opposite — the various extensions of autonomy offered by the Spanish state, which split the nationalist movement and drew the energy from the armed struggle. ETA began in an era of public executions; it persisted into the post-dictatorial period; by the time it concluded, Bilbao, the former industrial town was the place where people flew by Ryanair to look at the Gehry Guggenheim.
In the end, ETA’s lonely, struggle, sometimes bloodily, nihilistically so, was against meaninglessness, against the plain commonsense of being an autonomous zone within an EU that might see the dissolution of the nation-state that held it, through sheer administrative drift — a case of the death of a nation preceding its birth. Yet not everyone from history has been consigned to it.
In Greece, the second day of a general strike saw open conflict between the Communist Party together with PAME, its trade union body, on the one hand, and the black-bloc anarchists on the other, with the Communists forming a barrier around Parliament to prevent the anarchists surging into it. The move looks like a weakening of the Greek resistance to the power elite.
In fact, I would suggest it is a strengthening of it, for it is effectively the moment when the Communist Party substituted itself for the state, as a protector of order, when the capacity of the state to legitimately and effectively impose it, had collapsed. Society and state are peeling away from each other, as the latter’s social functions are crowded out by its subaltern ones — the task of enforcing the will of the markets and the EU on the people who live under its sway. Faced with that task, it cannot even pretend to be in service to the people. The social emerges, fully formed, visible from all angles, distinct from the state that usurped its power for so long.
That is happening all over. Literally all over, as the Occupy movement joins the old Third World to the Third World within the First World. That it can command such attention, curiosity and hostility, is because its message is getting across to a far wider section of the population, not despite the admitted eccentricity of the people there, but because of it. The fact that people can hear its very basic message and agree with it across vast cultural divides, and that the bloke in dreads and finger chimes makes more sense than Michael Bloomberg or Barack Obama, is a measure of the shift underway.
Gaddafi may look like the main game, and he’ll be on every front page of the world today, but he was a relic surviving into the new world from the old. Substantially laced into the Western power structure, rendering prisoners and oil contracts as required, it is difficult not to see objections to his ouster, as as much part of that earlier era as he himself. Now it is a narrow elite who stand exposed, golden guns in hand, hovering over a world of drains. Where they will end up, who knows, but they might want to consider the fate of those who hang on well past their moment in history.