So in the space of the last few days, the protest at Taksim Square has turned into wider protests, with two major Turkish unions coming out on strike in favour of the protesters; across the border, the attempt by right-wing Greek PM Antonio Samaras to shut down the public broadcaster ERT, and the refusal of its staff to cease broadcasting; numerous cities in Brazil erupted in protest as public transport fare rises coincided with a curtain-raiser for next year’s soccer World Cup; as Alliance forces in Afghanistan stood down in favour of the Afghan army, and pre-negotiations with the Taliban began; as the US, Russia and Iran began piling in further on Syria, ensuring the civil war will turn into an unlimited bloodbath before negotiations begin, if they do; the FBI revealed it uses drones on domestic US territory, and Barack Obama attempted to put a spin on NSA spying by making a speech at the Brandenburg gate calling on the shades of Kennedy and Reagan; UK PM David Cameron made a proposal for an international corporate register to deal with massive tax avoidance by transnational companies; WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange announced, certain the US has prepared an indictment against him, he wouldn’t be leaving the embassy for anything less than safe passage to Quito; the entire stock of European data held for Kim Dotcom’s Megaupload was deleted on government orders, even though Dotcom himself remains under threat of prosecution; and the Taliban opened an office in Doha, possibly with branded mugs and T-shirts (“my 13th brother went to Paradise and all he got was 72 raisins!”) …
Nothing for decades, and then decades and weeks, to quote The Big Lebowski. Clearly, there is a relationship between all these things and more. But what?
One point to start is at Afghanistan. What happened this week is something we have known for years, literally years, would happen: full negotiations with the Taliban as equal partners in a future Afghanistan. Now, the former bloodthirsty nihilistic fundamentalists are suddenly revealed as “a different Taliban”. According to Masoom Stanikzai, head of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council secretariat:
“The Taliban is changing … There is a young generation emerging, and some have new and different opinions on everything, even including towards women.”
Well, that would have been good to know a couple of years ago, before the war entered its second decade. The last time there was a prospect of peace talks we were suddenly informed there was no one “Taliban”, and a group called the Hakkani network emerged, who could, we were told, be detached from the Taliban as their aims were primarily nationalist and clannist. All the allies want now is a commitment from the Taliban that they won’t harbour terrorist groups; they could have had that in 2002, after bombing the place once, scattering al-Qaida, and then threatening to do it again, if they were once again hosted.
“… the borders of even the first-tier states are so porous — not through military action, but through markets and media — that any action can potentially be responded to in ways that were not possible even a decade ago.”
That was understood long ago by the Left and by the broad mass of the public. The Right came round to the idea in 2007 in Australia and in 2008 in the US — when the war became Kevin Rudd’s and Barack Obama’s, not John Howard’s and George W. Bush’s. Afghanistan was always power projection for the purposes of domestic consumption. Its wind up, quiet, only half-noticed, is really the wind up of the monolithic West as the uncontested empire, projecting unified nation-state-market power across the globe, using the world as no more than a screen.
Thus, in Syria, there is no suggestion, even from the most gung-ho neocon, of a Western boots-on-the-ground effort; the solution that’s been offered — of supplying weapons to a select list of allegedly secular-democratic clients — is a model of pure clientalism; the old idea that the conflict could be approached from a magisterial overview — as per Kuwait, Serbia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq — has gone utterly. The most human feasible political solution for Syria would be to impose an arms embargo on both sides, and impose a no-fly zone on the north of the country. That is a strategy that elements of the Left are arguing for — see, for example, Peter Tatchell, arguing from an armed neutralist position — and it’s a measure of the transformation that it is the Left arguing for this limited move, while imperial powers go for a piecemeal approach.
Such state powers have abandoned any notion of containment, and resigned themselves to the conflict spreading into surrounding states, since the borders are now more or less vestigial. With extra-state actors like Hezbollah — or are they quasi-states, or hybrid states? — in the mix, dissolving legitimate boundaries at one end, and drone wars dissolving them from the other, there is now a scramble for deterritorialised power. The faster the competition for it, the more the old ensembles dissolve. Violent warfare is not the only way by which this happens, as the plundering of Greece and then Cyprus by a super-state — ie: a non-state — demonstrated. The later stage of such — Cyprus’ destruction of its own banking system and Greece’s demolition of its own national broadcaster — is the fate of second-tier states in this process. First-tier states, what were once called superpowers, protect themselves from such a process, or as much of it as they can.
Such a basic disjuncture has always existed. But now something has changed, because the borders of even the first-tier states are so porous — not through military action, but through markets and media — that any action can potentially be responded to in ways that were not possible even a decade ago. If you see violence, markets and media as three forms of de-bordering — and hence state dissolution — then you can see one flow as answering another. The first-tier states certainly do, which is why the form of state power has become so totalising. Since violence is the preserve of the state, and the global market that of the transnational corporations with which states are in alliance, it is media and information — the most fluid and potentially democratic of the three — that becomes the site of interference at home.Though reactionaries such as Andrew Bolt bang the drum about swarthy foreigners with evil intent, no modern state is going to close the flows of labour, and such arguments are made solely to create a fictional Right against a multiculti Left. The main game now is the control of any potential or sub-potential threat, or simply dissidence. Ostensibly directed against violent people grouped around old causes — chiefly religious, sometimes nationalist, very rarely old-skool radical Leftist — its real target is the global social class that has been brought into being by the global media and information forms that make a mockery of borders. What this new class reacts to varies, depending on whether it is in a first-tier or second-tier state. In first-tier states what is wanted is more openness and accountability, a de-projection of power outwards. In second-tier states, the accountability and democracy comes from demanding closedness, a re-bordering of the state. That’s why what is really the same struggle looks so different everywhere.
In Greece, people want more openness and accountability within their borders, but they want those borders re-asserted against the European Union/International Monetary Fund/financial markets that have reached in and eviscerated the place. The degree of de-bordering has been such that re-bordering has taken on a violent and hysterical form, like Golden Dawn fascism, who have conformed their strategy to the time — running social campaigns such as food and blood banks for “True Greeks”, thus re-asserting the border within.
“And that is why Obama chose a place of old power — the battle-site of the 20th century — to project the new role for the first-tier state …”
Turkey has been opened to the markets, but political processes closed within to the emerging global class. In Brazil, a far more sympathetic and genuinely popular government has spent a decade trying to tread a balance between a neoliberal world, a complex and large state, and a process of steady improvement for mass classes. The process made it the poster-boy of the global neoliberal elite, because they could compare it to the different leftism of Ecuador, Bolivia or V-v-v-v-venezuela; in other circumstances they would have labelled it dangerously radical.
But as a way of asserting its national development model, and its claim to be a new world player, as the junior member of the BIC countries (hitherto BRIC; Russia has been quietly dropped from the China-India-Brazil trio), the country dived into global sports Keynsianism. John Maynard once said that, absent of any better stimulus, you could just bury bottles full of money and let people tender to dig them up, and the global overproduction of stadia is in that spirit. But the process has been part of a successive distancing between the Workers Party and the masses who elected it, over the same time period as those masses became interconnected with each other by cheap mobiles and internet cafes, and then with the world. That the Brazilian president — an ex-communist urban guerrilla — has both welcomed the protesters and warned against explicit violence. The complex response is a mark that Brazil is the place riven down the middle by the contradiction between the current system, and the dissident masses it is bringing into being.
And that is why Obama chose a place of old power — the battle-site of the 20th century — to project the new role for the first-tier state, reaching into every aspect of its own society and others, attaching the boutique violence of drones to a universal process of deep surveillance (rather than the old way of mass violence with selective intelligence-gathering). It is why the Taliban are suddenly folks we can talk to, while hackers and digital dissidents must be tracked to the ends of the earth — often in the name of corporate powers, fearing lost revenue — and threatened with whole life sentences. It is why the UK government must wheedle and plead with Google, Amazon et al to pay some tax, and then endorse a new system they will never put through — because just as they cannot afford to piss off these ensembles of transnational market and media power, nor can they ignore the widespread discontent fomented by groups such as UK Uncut, using those media/information interconnections in a different way. It is why in Greece, it is no longer as simple as declaring a public broadcaster “closed” — because that it is the one state institution wired into the new global mass class, and capable of speaking directly outwards to the world, and inwards to the bounded society.
It is why things are not going to stop getting stranger, without that guaranteeing that they will get better before they get worse, or at all. It is why a process that, with all its contradictory multiple articulations, could be more easily identified with the Left than with the Right, is setting the agenda. What that agenda is — and this article is in part a prelude to a reply to Josh Bornstein’s piece from a couple of weeks ago, suggesting an exhaustion on that side of things — will have to wait until next week …