Dec 15, 2004

Responding to Stan Goff's, Debating a NeoCon

Goff’s positions are refreshing given what is often presented as radical. I agree with him that the war in Iraq is “…symptomatic of a much deeper global crisis”. I agree that the difficulties facing capital will not be automatically transformed into possibilities for a “more sensible” alternative. But that’s about as far as my agreement goes.

Of course the ruling class isn’t completely organized and self conscious, but it is a mistake to treat it as dumb and blind. Notwithstanding the polemical limitations of his particular debate partner, Goff is wrong – the position of the so-called neocons and their opponents in the ruling class is about something.

Ruling class policy is the end product of competing ruling class estimates and strategies. This process, as Goff notes accurately but fails to take into account, is far from transparent because many of the players don’t have “arguments that they can state”. Sometimes the process can end in policies that don’t advance ruling class interests. But whatever the specific policy direction, and whether or not it turns out to be a strategic error, it is the resultant of arguments and positions of different ruling class factions that “matter”. There is a “there there”- and it is, or should be, important to us.

I take Goff’s version of the parable of the scorpion and the frog to mean that there is nothing particularly new about the current political scene. It is just more of capitalism (or imperialism) doing what its nature requires it to do.

“The war in Iraq, while deeply morally repugnant, is not a failure of morality, but the action of a system that can’t help it, because like the scorpion, it is that system’s nature.”
For Goff, our tired first principles supplemented with a dose of apocalyptic fossil fuel determinism (something to be dealt with elsewhere) can explain what’s going on – both to ourselves and to a potential popular base. All we have to do is hold up the flag. I don’t think so…in fact, positions like this make me fear that it is our side that suffers from having no “there there”.

The global capitalist system is not, as Goff maintains, a simple expansion of late 19th century imperialism - “currently directed by the American state”. As opposed to the past, the defining element in the current situation is not competition between national capitalisms to “redivide the world”. As opposed to a slightly more recent past, the defining element is not a challenge to the capitalist metropolis by a wave of progressive and popular national liberation movements in the periphery with the so-called ‘socialist’ bloc constraining options on both sides.

Capitalism is a triumphant world system exactly because it has dealt with these past points of contradiction more or less successfully. But this triumph exposes a new reality with new problems.

When the “socialist bloc” collapsed, its rotting process had taken most of the momentum out of popular anti-capitalism. Ideologues were again able to argue that capitalism was the only possible form of modern social organization - that history was over. Capitalist labor, capital, and commodity markets, now functioning on a genuinely global scale, would automatically adjust and adapt, solving all foreseeable problems and creating the best of all possible worlds.

It took a few years for this hidden hand to develop severe arthritis. On the economic side: the end of the Asian ‘boom’; the stagnation of the EU; the collapse of the equities bubble, and the exposure of generalized corporate corruption, could not be ignored. On the political side; the problem of “failed states”; the proliferation of genocidal conflicts; the intractability of public health issues; the problem of Palestine, the persistence of underclasses in the core, undermined any notion of long term self regulating equilibrium and stability.

The neocons express a particular ruling class view of these new problems and a tentative political response to them. Their positions have problems, both internal and external, and they are not the only possible ruling class views. Nevertheless, the neocon position should be looked at carefully because, I think, it is winning the ruling class debate and, even if it doesn’t, it marks some changes in the political terrain that are important to the left.

Neocon politics gained momentum as an activist ruling class approach to power, challenging the laissez faire reliance on market economics. The neocons see the vulnerabilities in global capital. Old problems foretold in the Grundrisse are creating new centrifugal social forces. Capital must either expand or decline, and it can only expand, according to the neocons and to some other ruling class ideologues, through the active and efficient exercise of power.

Thomas Friedman probably doesn’t see himself as a neocon. After initially supporting the Iraq war he has moved to a weak opposition to the Middle East and Iraq policies associated with the embedded neocons. However, not so long ago, just before Seattle, and two years before 9/11, he put out the basic argument embraced by every variant of neocon. This is contained in the well known passage from his early 1999 article in the New York Times Magazine:

“For globalization to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is. The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas…the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” T. Friedman, NY Times Magazine, 3/28, 1999.

Friedman’s point of reference is what will make globalization “work”. This is extremely important, in my opinion. For the neocons and allied views, the current and projected use of U.S. power is not meant to advance a specifically U.S. national capitalism. Both Friedman and the neocons hold that U.S. power should serve global capitalism, not the reverse. Consider the similar view of T. Barnett, author of the Pentagon’s New Map and definitely an important voice from within the ruling class policy-making establishment:
“When I talk about globalization growing, I'm not talking about the enforcement of US interests on the rest of the world. I'm talking about places with rules replacing chaotic places. Globalization comes with rules, not a ruler.” Dec. 21, 2004, Interview of Barnett by Alex Steffan. This is available on Barnett’s website,

The neocon’s first commandment, the active use of U.S. power to advance “freedom” and “liberty” or “connectivity”, can require national sacrifices and might not lead to national aggrandizement. Many of the policies advanced by the neocons arguably will weaken U.S. capitalism in both the short run and the long run. This is exactly why these policies have stimulated significant opposition within the capitalist ruling class from both the official right and the official ‘left’, an opposition which in either case is essentially conservative. A paradoxical combination of traditional capitalist liberalism with traditional capitalist reaction was clear in the hapless Kerry campaign. In fact, the political bankruptcy of that campaign is itself testimony to the viability of the neo-con view - to the fact that something is “there”.

I think that the crucial feature of the current situation is not the emergence of a militarized and newly aggressive imperialistic U.S nationalism. It is the development of a militarized and aggressive capitalist internationalism that is militarily centered in the U.S. This ruling class internationalism, as advanced by the neocons, finds the existing nation/state institutional framework - the very framework which has contained popular reform movements, including both the economic class struggle and the national liberation movement – to be a source of dangerous inertia, not to mention an expense that might be politically unnecessary.

They question whether the existing state and multi-state institutions and policies are capable of the active exercise of power. For the most part they answer in the negative and propose shifts from traditional methods of rule in both the center and the periphery. These shifts are important, involving a lot more than scrapping the U.N. They bring into question the strategy of neocolonialism and the continuing centrality of white supremacy to capitalist power in the center. This is both much more than, and very different from, a reversion to Mark Twain’s imperialism. (Apologies to Tariq Ali.)

To some leftists like Anatol Liewan this all looks ‘irrational’:

“…the United States, which of all states today should feel like a satisfied power, is instead behaving like a revolutionary one, kicking to pieces the hill of which it is king …just as U.S. imperialism, emboldened by a strong shot of nationalism, is busy undermining the world political order of which the United States is hegemon, so dominant sections of the U.S. capitalist elite are suicidally gobbling up the fiscal foundations of American economic stability and the American capitalist system” Nation, July 7/ 03

Many such commentators undoubtedly expected that a more “rational” conservative ruling class policy, a la John Kerry, would supplant the temporary aberration instigated by the neocons. The fact that it didn’t happen should make them reconsider if it was so irrational. In fact, there is nothing particularly irrational about the neocon position, notwithstanding some mistakes in its implementation. The neocons begin from the premise that capitalism must be universal, as a global economy and political system and as a “civilization”, or it will become moribund. Given the premise, they are concerned with potential and actual sources of instability. Using Friedman as a point of reference again, the general conception is that a zone of ‘anarchy” or “chaos” is counterposed to a zone of “order” where global capitalism is hegemonic. The zone of chaos is dominated by social forces that will not accept the “rule sets” of market capitalism and bourgeois democracy and thus cannot be reliably controlled by traditional coercive and cooptive methods. The worldview of T. Barnett which divides the world between the interconnected “core” and the “non-integrated gap” is quite similar, notwithstanding significant differences concerning the extent to which the “gap” is pre-capitalist rather than anti (or post) capitalist.

In this conception, the opposition between zones, or between “gap” and “core” is ideological and cultural as much or more than ethnic and national. Rather than being embodied in particular states or movements aspiring to statehood, it tends to be expressed in transnational social movements.

In short, the neocons recognize, better than many radicals do, that global capitalism creates enemies with the potential to screw things up seriously, perhaps disastrously, and they are attempting to develop working responses to these threats all of which can be subsumed under the heading of the “War on Terror”. One of the distressing features of Goff’s piece is that he pictures all of this as essentially meaningless. I certainly have no problems with what Goff and others say about the absurdity and hypocrisy of a U.S. led “War” on terror. However, we must take into account the fact that virtually every state formation, every ruling class faction, and a substantial segment of the “people” and the “movement” have accepted essential elements of this “War”. This signals that the concept is much more substantial than the cartoon, good versus evil, version presented for public relations purposes. We waste effort dealing with this scarecrow.

Friedman is an important reference in this regard as well. Alone with more explicit neocons like William Kristol and James Woolsey, he regularly ridicules the notion of a war on a tactic – terrorism. He and the other neocons specify that the immediate object of the war on terror is not a tactic but a social movement, modern Islamic fundamentalism or, as many of them prefer, “Islamic Fascism”. It is not only a few intellectuals that take this position, it is widely accepted, e.g., it is an argument made in the text of the report of the 9/11 Commission.

Clearly, although the current focus is on Islamic Fascism, the basic conceptions of Friedman and the rest of the neocons, not to exclude Barnett, would apply equally as well to any potential liberatory anticapitalist movement. They are certainly not upset that some features of the War on Terror involve techniques and policies that could be used against a revolutionary left as well as against Islamic radicals. However, it would be a serious mistake, if we thought that the current left was the real target of “homeland security” etc. The more control tools available to the ruling class the better it likes it, but generalized repression is not the best ruling class method to use on us.

This is the segue into my final point. It’s not the smoothest, but I don’t have the energy to do better.

For a period of time after Seattle, it appeared that an anticapitalist mass movement was rapidly developing. Certainly many participants believed that this was the case. Of course, internal weaknesses were obvious. While reformist tendencies were initially on the defensive, the fetishizing of street tactics opened the more militant sections of the movement to state manipulation, rebuilding the credentials of reformist strands. These problems had reached a crisis point by the G-8 demo in Genoa, and, with no resolution and not even serious discussion, subsequent actions began to look more like posturing and street theatre than the first stages of a revolution. An internal examination and reorientation might have gotten the movement back on track, but 9/11 happened.

Bush, Cheney, et al are constantly saying that 9/11 “changed everything”. It’s debatable what was changed for the ruling class, but it is not debatable that it changed a hell of a lot for the movement .

In the first place, it made it clear that there were more than two players on the scene. Islamic fascism is not some figment of ruling class propaganda. We must realize that there are serious and committed enemies of global capitalism that are not our friends in any shape or form. Despite its 7th century mythology and its historic roots in imperialist policies, Islamic fascism is a modern social movement with revolutionary implications that are certainly anti-imperialist, certainly anti-bourgeois; certainly anti global capitalism, and, maybe, even anti-capitalist.

We shouldn’t need the pictures of mass struggles where women are totally absent, to grasp that Islamic Fascism is completely counter to human liberation. Most important, we shouldn’t think that it is a unique development. To the contrary, we should expect the development of other neofascist movements, though possibly without the religious shell, in all of the areas where capitalist development is crushing human potentials and where no liberatory challenge is present.

Not so coincidentally, 9/11 propelled Islamic neofascism onto the scene in a way that helped fragment the antiglobal movement and push many of its remaining elements into reformist postures – looking for alliances with sectors of one’s own ruling class or with fundamentally opposed social forces. This gets to another reason the neocons should not be dismissed. This is a ruling class strategy that will develop a movement face, a left wing version that argues for a movement towards a united front with “liberal” capitalists to fight the “fascism” of Al Qaida, Hamas, Hesbollah, the Taliban et al. This may seem laughable when it is just Christopher Hitchens making his WWII parallels, but would it be so easily dismissed if it came from a grouping with movement credentials like RAWA? – not at all an implausible scenario. And what about the equally problematic alternative to a neocons inspired united front against fascism – this might be a united front against “imperialism” where we link up with movements that actively suppress women, that deify leadership and revealed truths, that function through internal coercion and substitute discipline for open debate and democratic decision-making - because they are enemies of our enemy.

Don H.