20 years ago, the world was watching with amazement as the Republican party chose, as its candidate to go up against heir presumptive Al Gore, the first candidate to fulfil the prophecy of H. L. Mencken: that one day “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron”.
George W Bush, the fauxy Christian ex-alcoholic governor of Texas, set the tone of his candidacy when in an interview by the NBC affiliate in Boston, he was asked to name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan and India. He failed on Chechnya and India, got a pass mark on Taiwan but when it came to Pakistan he showed his true grit.
Bush said: “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected — not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent.”
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Interviewer: “Can you name him?”
Bush: “General. I can name the general. General.”
He couldn’t. General Pervez Musharraf, later to become an important ally and “friend” to Bush, must have wondered what he was in for.
It was a decade since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and then the dissolution of the USSR. China had become a state capitalist one party state. Global capitalism had no limit.
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (a global trade deal) was updated in 1994, and then replaced as the World Trade Organisation was established in 1995. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came in to force a year earlier on January 1. Resistance would not be long in coming; the Zapatista insurgency began in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, the same day as NAFTA, and its new social movement uprising led by a former philosophy professor would seed and inspire the global anti-capitalist movement of the late ’90s.
The challenge appeared to be one of neoliberal capitalism, turbocharged by a lack of major state opposition, expanding into every of social life, comodifying existence.
The Onion became the go-to site of this period, with its wry, melancholic pseudo news-stories documenting the transformation: “New Crispy Snack Cracker To Ease Crushing Pain Of Modern Life“, “Coca-Cola Introduces New 30-Liter Size“, “Cher’s ‘Believe’ Now Faintly Audible Everywhere In America“.
Seinfeld documented the minutiae of the new atomised modern life: were you allowed to break up with someone with an answering machine message? The Simpsons became a clearing-house for a half-century of accumulated mass culture.
An ascendant US began a series of “human rights” wars that extended its visible and invisible empire. The brief hopes of the UK left were dashed by New Labour’s neoliberal tilt, with worse to come.
Towers had begun to rise in Pudong, Shanghai, on the shore opposite the old European Bund, as the country’s economy surged to take-off point. The words capitalism and socialism all but disappeared from mainstream discourse, until about 1997-98.
The question, for those of us on the latter side of that disappearance, was how to revise the most basic sense of political contestation and alternatives, as western societies became a vast squeeze, switch, trade-off: declining wage power, rising inequality, higher necessity costs, offset by a world of cheaper luxury shit that made people feel richer and more prosperous, financed by a world of debt.
Then on September 11, those planes hit those towers, and everything changed. Or seemed to. The western global right — the Bush administration, the Howard government, Blair’s new Labour — abandoned fanciful notions of globalisation and peace-through-trade.
With no effort at all, they returned to a neoconservative state-power model, enforcing civil liberties crackdowns, a bellicose expansionary policy which would culminate in the Iraq war of 2003, and a culture war for the superiority of “western civilisation”.
That seemed to be the great closing down of an era. The great right-left struggle of modernity that had begun, now in its last phase: the October revolution was over, and the crappy old game of nations and empires had returned.
As it turned out, the opposite occurred.
Iraq was the fire into which US supremacy lowered itself, a three, four, five trillion dollar disaster, which not only drained the country at a time when China was recording 10% a year growth, and India not far behind, but also exposed the American elite as incompetent, clueless, lacking in purpose and will, incapable of projecting power.
The brief years of bellicosity inside the US had yielded to a renewed internal focus, as new media and cultural shifts had moved the social revolution of the ’60s onto the next stage. Women had now thoroughly entered the full-time workforce, and people of colour were in positions of power.
As the briefly triumphant G.W. Bush era cratered on Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and a global economic crash set up by the pre 9/11 deregulation, a woman and a black man vied to be the president presumptive of the US.
In Australia, our counter-cyclical right-wing culture war government appeared to be the author of the neoliberalisation of everyday life, but was really doing little more than running the rapids of a greater process, staying afloat and offering a few conservative moves to its base.
Yet what is most significant was the way in which the neocon era created by 9/11 faded with the decade in which it was born.
As Iraq was written off, and President Obama replaced full neocon wars with boutique drone attacks, the Arab world faded as an “other”, even from the minds of the most fevered Fox viewers.
The Iraq war’s decline to quagmire had coincided with the virtually simultaneous emergence of the smartphone and social media, each amplifying the other, and casting the 1991 invention of the modern internet/world wide web as no more than prologue.
As Moore’s Law continued its relentless process of exponentially expanding everyday computing power, a capitalism that had been running out of puff was wired up to what was really a post-internet connectivity not yet named as such, so radically global, total and modular as to constitute a new historical moment.
Simultaneously the central banks of the world began massive “quantitative easing” programming which has now pumped up to $15 trillion into the global economy, most of which has simply flowed to existing holders of finance.
The flood of money, the new mobility of the world, the whirlwind transformation of everyday life finally sewed its opposition — not on the left, but on the right, as a grassroots nationalism rose up, and gained the adherence of millions who had felt de-homed and annihilated by the new world, and excluded by its new operant class.
The knowledge class, whose progressivist movement had more or less replaced the old left, and emphasised the causes of gender, race and other identities, over material class, had both achieved a new degree of liberation, but had also become divided from, and even antagonistic to the old working class.
It had become blind to the degree that it was an advancement of their own knowledge class interests, disguised as the old general interest of humanity that the socialist movement was once held to represent.
Finally, after the drubbings of Trump, Brexit, European nationalism, as real economies withered in the acid rain of quantitative easing, as the “bad” billionaires bought themselves global surveillance systems, and the “good” billionaires bought themselves half-billion dollar yachts, people began to rebel not merely against this vast global inequality, but against the progressivist insistence on the division and privilege of identity politics, beyond the real triumphs of gender, race and other liberations.
The right, suddenly threatened by this, and by the exponential expansion of understanding of global warming and biosphere catastrophe, retreated to pure irrationalism, as a precursor to explicit authoritarian violence and the toppling of such democracy as exists.
So the fight has at least been clarified.
If you want a quick takeaway from someone who has been in the thick of it in the last two decades, it is extraordinarily melancholy to see how far backward we have slid in that time, how exact a copy the 21st century has been of the 20th in some respects.
And yet, how vast the resistance now is — not merely woke but awakened to the way of the world, and how loud untold million fists of flesh are, when they batter against the gold doors of the towers.