Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
Issue No.561
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Global earthquakes

Shahid Alam* wonders what 11 September means for the end of history

I ended up in the United States after I had tried living in a number of countries on four continents. I tried living in Palestine, but I was expelled in 1948, with 800,000 other Palestinians. I moved to Korea, but had to leave because of the Korean war. My next destination was Mosadegh's Iran, but that democracy was overthrown by the CIA in 1953. I tried Congo, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala: but each time, the CIA destabilised these countries. It took me a while to figure out that the only country where I would be safe from the CIA is the United States. Sadly, after 11 September, I am not sure that this is true anymore.

I wish to present for your consideration two verses from the Qur'an: this will explain my locus standi as a social scientist. I am hoping that this is permissible since, I have been told repeatedly, we are not at war against Islam.

O Mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you out of a single living entity, and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. [4:1]

Another verse:

O Mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other, [not that you may despise each other] [49: 13]

Mark the words. God speaks to mankind: not to the Israelites or the Arabs, not to whites or blacks -- but to all of humanity. God speaks to men and women. Mark the words: God reminds us that we carry the same genes because we have the same parents. God says, your differences are a blessing; they offer you opportunities to get to know each other, to learn from each other, and to compete with each other in doing good works.

Twelve hundred years later, we come across another document, The Declaration of Independence, which proclaims the self-evident truth that "all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." It is time to ask again how faithfully we have upheld this self-evident truth in the United States and, more pertinently, in US policies towards Africa, Latin America and Asia.

I will avoid the temptation of exploring the meaning of the 11 September attack in nationalist terms -- in terms of them and us. For me, there is only one morally acceptable framework for examining this question, and that is a global framework that does not privilege any country, race or people. In addition, it is vital that we locate events in time, in the matrix of historical time, and not in the 15 minutes of history that can be captured in media images. This is the only way to avoid the silly line of thinking that says: We were attacked because we are so good, we are so pure; and they hate us because they are evil.

The world we live in was created in two great waves of European capitalist expansion, which eventually created a global capitalist system. The first began in 1492 and was directed at the Indians of the Americas. It ended in their near extermination. The second began around 1800: it was directed against all peoples of colour, and ended in their destruction, enslavement, or colonisation.

This global capitalist system follows a powerful logic, which creates deepening economic, social and military inequalities. The capitalists in a handful of core states -- based in the most advanced capitalist countries -- use their economic power and military might to create and dominate world markets. They do this by weakening, controlling, or colonising the weaker states. This ensures that capital, technology and skills accumulate in the core countries, while the countries of the periphery provide mostly cheap labour and cheap resources.

Now this global capitalist system is not stable. Marx thought that it is unstable because of a class contradiction at the heart of capitalism, between the capitalists (the propertied classes) and the dispossessed workers. He predicted that the workers in the core countries would eventually overthrow the system, expropriate the capitalists, and create a socialist society. This did not happen.

This global system produced two additional contradictions that proved more potent. The core and would-be core countries competed for control over world markets by seeking to acquire exclusive control over markets and resources in the periphery. In addition, the expropriated classes in the periphery were gradually mobilising -- under nationalist and socialist ideologies -- to oppose and overturn imperialism. These contradictions precipitated two "world wars" between the core countries in the first half of the 20th century. In turn, this facilitated the Russian Revolution and, more importantly, the dismantling of colonial empires starting in the 1950s.

The window of opportunity, however, did not bring relief to all the peoples of the periphery. China and India, for different reasons, were among those who benefited the most. They emerged as unified countries under strong liberation movements committed to sovereignty and development. The Arabs and Africans were not so lucky. They were vivisected by the imperialist powers, and gained independence as fragmented entities, still dominated by Britain, France, and, increasingly, the US. In addition, a new contradiction was implanted in the Arab/Islamic world: the creation of Israel, a colonial settler state, established in the epoch of decolonisation, a state founded on ethnic cleansing at the centre of the Islamic world.

The window of opportunity began to close in the 1980s. We entered a new system of world domination when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. The counterpoise to the United States was gone. Equally important, the core countries had now learned to manage their rivalries: they had become partners in imperialism, with the United States in the lead.

The consequences of the new partnership were dramatic: it restored the old imperialism in new forms. The World Bank, the IMF and the WTO were quickly constituted into an international bureaucracy, backed by the core countries, defining and policing the new global economic regime. Increasingly, multinational corporations from the core countries opened up the markets of the former Eastern Bloc and the Third World for domination.

Since the 1990s, prospects for the countries at the periphery have looked dimmer than they were at the height of the old imperialism, in the 19th century. The core countries have forged a united front against the periphery; and their military and economic superiority now is several times greater than it was in the 1890s. The ruling classes of the periphery have been completely co-opted, and in Latin America and the Arab/Islamic countries, they wage open warfare against their own peoples. These contradictions are deepest in the Arab/ Islamic world, which labours under a four-fold burden: it is subjugated because it belongs to the periphery, for its oil, to facilitate Israeli expansionism, and because of lingering historical animosities. We thought that this was a perfect world, of course; as Francis Fukuyama put it, we had reached the end of history. We had finally created a world "completely satisfying to human beings in their most essential characteristics."

The attack of 11 September, painful and disturbing as it is, is a reminder that history has not ended. Far from having been resolved in the 1990s, the contradictions of history have so deepened that subterranean conflicts are being forced to the surface. We are witnessing the first eruptions of global and class conflicts (between the core and the periphery), papered over until now by media and academia that have remained servile to the interests of world capital. Once again, we live in a world whose rules have been restructured to the advantage of the richest, globally and within the richest countries. Globalisation and global poverty do not mix well. A club of billionaires, more visible and more united that ever before, now confronts the growing masses of poor, starved, desperate and angry peoples in every corner of the world.

In conclusion, I wish to invite all Americans to reflect on the conditions that forced them to rebel against the legal and established authority of Britain more than 200 years ago. This is how the Declaration of Independence justified this rebellion:

"... when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpation, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government."

Do the oppressed peoples of the world today have the same Right, the same Duty, to follow the same line of Reasoning, and carry it to the same Conclusion -- their own Freedom?

* The writer teaches at the department of economics, Northeastern University, Boston.

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