A war against politics?

S Sayyid Barnor Hesse
29 November 2001

Imagine this: it’s 11 August, 2001. The United States, following frustrated covert efforts to secure the capture of Osama bin Laden, sanctions an invasion of Afghanistan with the subsequent agreement of the United Nations Security Council. Once the bombing begins, the UK, followed by the European Union and a number of Muslim states – say, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, possibly Egypt – sign up to a loose coalition of support.

Fast forward to the now familiar scenes of 11 September: hi-jacked planes crashing into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon… If this had been the sequence of events prior to the current conflict, would it make any difference to how we understand its significance? Indeed, which attack would we be discussing as ‘terrorist’, 11 August, 11 September, or both?

The purpose of this story is simply to ask to what extent explanatory antecedents matter as a guide to how we react in the prevailing ‘war against terrorism’.

Watching the phoney war

In the conflict between the United States and Afghanistan, there has been a tendency to take sides first, ask questions later. But the question we wish to pose requires the consideration of causal antecedents: Is this really a war against terrorism? Can there be such a thing? This is not to dismiss the reality of the discourse and technologies of war, nor the atrocities and casualties associated with it; but rather to re-examine the metaphor as a way of understanding the current situation.

The metaphorical phrase, ‘war against terrorism’, carries with it disturbing resonances of a past not quite forgotten or forgiven, the past of the uncontested Age of the West. We hear them in that familiar litany, if not liturgy, which consecrates ‘Us’ over and against ‘Them’: whether described as the Civilised against Uncivilised, Good against Evil, Democracy against Tyranny, Secularism against Islam, Women’s rights against Patriarchy, Liberalism against Despotism, Pluralism against Fundamentalism. Clearly there is more to this war than terrorism alone.

Certainly, ‘terrorism’ is less self-evident than it at first appears. Tying it to the unacceptability of the indiscriminate use of political violence against innocent civilians often says little more than which kinds of violence we abhor, and which sorts of civilians we are prepared to mourn. Does terrorism, however we define it, travel from the West to the Rest, as well as from the Rest to the West? Can the same definition be sustained in both directions? Questions like these suggest that without explanatory antecedents, the ‘war against terrorism’ may simply ignite the very thing it is trying to extinguish.

One way to begin to understand the context of this ‘war’ is as a symptom of the turmoil unleashed in coming to terms with the demise of the Age of the West. Recent disquiet on the Western front has arisen from the combined impact of various globalisations and multiculturalisms. Suddenly, speaking Westernese – the language of Western supremacy – no longer seems so readily synonymous with the authority to speak of the ‘truth’, the ‘right’ or the ‘good’.

In the last one hundred years Westernese has been subject to incessant challenges, and military and civil struggles. Particularly since 1945, social movements motivated by anti-colonialism, civil rights, Black power, feminism, anti-racism, anti-apartheid, environmentalism, Islamism, to name but a few, have radically undermined and decentred its naturalised imperial claims. As a consequence, every time the West is invoked, it is evidently more difficult to do so. We can see this in the way in which the self-image of the West frequently seems unable to avoid its ignoble flipside. In the name of democracy, dictators are befriended, and tyranny supported. In the name of freedom, Western legislators demand the right to curtail those who criticise the current strategy. In the defence of human rights, commentators argue for the use of torture on terrorist suspects.

Making the world safe for cynicism

There are so many well-founded doubts and well-reasoned misgivings about prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, that somehow, even when these are exposed in the media as discrepancies, none of it seems to matter. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk describes this as the modern form of cynical reason. It is the feeling of no longer being ‘affected by any critique of ideology’. In other words, everyone knows that governments lie. Everyone knows that today’s villains were yesterday’s heroes (or is that the other way around?). Everyone knows there is something sinister and absurd in dropping bombs on a devastated landscape at the same time as dropping food packages. Everyone knows all of this, but somehow it does not seem to matter.

Hence, criticism of the ‘war against terrorism’ is not met by real debate. It attracts no more than polite silence, a proxy for cynical reason. By contrast, the discourse of the ‘war against terrorism’ trades almost exclusively on cynical reason. It stimulates the capacity and desire to accept an illusion in the full knowledge that it is an illusion. Consequently, there are many among us who are willing to believe that this really is a war against terrorism.

Moreover, this cynicism negates the political. It is no coincidence that one of the main targets of the war against terrorism is politicised Islam. In the third Christian millennium, the spectre that haunts the Western world order is no longer communism, but the transnational politicisation of Islam; in particular, its ability to adapt to globalisation through the articulation of an increasingly assertive global subjectivity, demonstrating the possibility of imagining globalisation in another way.

Similar spectral, haunting, spaces have recently been inhabited in their different ways by asylum-seekers/refugees and anti-globalisers. Through such processes, politics seems exiled. While the centre is re-occupied by a naturalised world order, politics is proscribed from the domain of order itself. Paradoxically, cynical reason becomes a dominant ideology within an apparently post-ideological West. In a Western world apparently deprived of political alternatives to corporate capitalism, neo-liberalism and global social inequalities, what once passed for politics has been exclusively transposed to the space occupied by those discontented with the West, and dispossessed by it.

The surreptitious return of Westernese

To suggest as much is to speak to anxieties underlying recent comments regarding the ‘democratic deficit’. It is often repeated that democracy is something that is fundamental to the Western enterprise. However, this belies the fact that the mature kind of liberal democracy we take to be democracy itself (particularly with regard to universal suffrage) is a very recent, fragile invention. In parts of Europe it is, at most, sixty years old: in the United States, less than forty years old.

This democracy symbolically emerged in triumphalist contrast to the discredited fascism of the Nazi era in Europe, as well as in the contradistinction to Soviet totalitarianism maintained during the Cold War. This account, however, fails to acknowledge that democracy in the United States begins only with the out-lawing of racial segregation during the 1960s, while its inception in Western Europe must be dated from the dissolution of the respective Empires. Nevertheless, since the collapse of the Soviet Union during the early 1990s, we have seen the expansion of democracy – but also its hollowing out. The democratic deficit has grown both in the Western plutocracies and elsewhere, as technology is extended to the political and politics is reduced to the science of electioneering, with its soundbites, focus groups and photo-opportunities. In other words, elections without politics.

The present conflict marks another episode in this process of hollowing out. Popular resistance to the US and its allies is presented and dismissed as a demagoguery of the streets, while dictators are offered up to us as responsible representatives of their countries. These are not just the banalities of realpolitik, but a more profound redefinition of a democracy becoming synonymous with its de-politicisation. The discourse of the ‘war against terrorism’ continues to graft itself on the global mediascape like the mother of all soundbites: reproducing itself in a variety of brands of cynical reason, all of which threaten to close down dissident voices. This process may have begun with the demonisation of political Islam. It threatens us now with a demonisation of politics itself: one which attempts to erase the possibility of any other way of thinking about the future of the planet. Increasingly, we are beginning to hear voices from our chattering classes snarl, demanding a return to the Age of the West, and the restoration of its imperial mandate.

The end of politics?

There is a lot more to the ‘war against terrorism’ than meets the eye. Through the lens of Western governments, the idea of politics has become discredited as a democratic form of idealisation. In the UK and the US it is being dissipated by lifestyle escapisms, subverted as an expression of sociality, and mortgaged to the commodity fantasies of the corporate take-over of the state. In cynical reason, there is no politics, no contemplation of social change, and no ethical alternative to the Western world order.

Outside of Westernese, history does not begin on 11 September 2001. The ‘war against terrorism’, ambiguous in objectives, equivocal in trajectory, represents more than a direct response to those horrific events. It signifies a covert yet strategic embrace of the resurgent imperial context in which 11 September is now being framed. Without cynical reason, it is difficult to imagine how this ‘war’ could have been contemplated, never mind put into fearful practise. How these things will turn out remains far more uncertain than the certainties of its collateral casualties.

The ‘war against terrorism’ may or may not end with the current conflict in Afghanistan. However, unless we begin to invest seriously and critically in a multicultural reformation of the West, the effort to re-impose Westernese may succeed in little more than reproducing the silence of graves. Imagine that.

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