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September 11


John Gray

Illustration: Peter Till
Illustration: Peter Till

A diverse world would be a safer world.

from Resurgence issue 212



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THE DOZEN YEARS between the fall of the Wall and the assault on the Twin Towers will be remembered as an era of delusion. The West greeted the collapse of communism — a quintessentially Western utopian ideology — as the triumph of Western values. The Soviet collapse was the end of the most catastrophic utopian experiment in history. But it was welcomed in the West as an historic opportunity to launch yet another vast utopian project — a global free market. The world was to be made over in an image of Western modernity — an image deformed by a market ideology that was as far removed from any human reality as ever Marxism had been and just as certain to end in tears. With the attacks on New York and Washington, the conventional view of globalization as an irresistible historical trend has been shattered. We are back on the classical terrain of history, where war is waged not over ideologies but religion, ethnicity, territory and the control of natural resources.

The men who struck the Pentagon using pen-knives and passenger jets as weapons may have been harboured, or otherwise sponsored, by states; but there is no reason to think they acted on the orders of any government. They were soldiers in a new kind of war. As part of the weakening of the state associated with globalization, war has slipped out from the control of governments. A monopoly of organized violence is one of the defining powers of the modern state. Where it still exists, it has been achieved slowly and with difficulty, and in many parts of the world it has never been secure. What is striking is how rapidly and widely it has disappeared over the past decade — the era of globalization. The world is littered with collapsed states. In these parts of the world, wars are fought by irregular armies commanded by political and religious organizations, often clan-based, and prone to savage internecine conflicts. No power exists that is strong enough to enforce peace.

These facts illuminate a dark side of globalization that its supporters have managed to overlook. Rich societies cannot be insulated from the collapsed states and new types of war that are tearing apart much of the world. This has been evident for some time in the flow of migrants from poor countries. The asylum seekers and economic refugees that press on the borders of every industrialized country are testimony to the contradictions of the global free market. Trade and capital move freely across the globe, but the movement of labour is strictly limited — a very different state of affairs from the late nineteenth century, in which barriers to immigration barely existed. This is a contradiction rarely noted by the advocates of the global market, but it is bound to become more acute in the coming years, as travel is monitored and controlled ever more stringently by governments.

With the assault on New York and Washington, the collapse of governmental structures that has been one of the by-products of globalization in much of the world can no longer be ignored. The ragged irregular armies of the world’s most collapsed zones have proved that they can reach to the heart of its richest and most powerful state. Their brutal coup is an example of what military analysts call ‘asymmetric threat’ — in other words, the power of the weak against the strong. What it has shown is that the strong are weaker than anyone imagined. The powerlessness of the strong is not new. It has long been revealed in the futile ‘war on drugs’. The trade in illegal drugs is — along with oil and armaments — one of the three largest components of world trade. Like other branches of organized crime, it has thrived in the free-for-all created by financial deregulation. The world’s richest states have squandered billions on a vain crusade against a highly globalized industry. Rooting out terrorism will be even more difficult. After all, most of the worst effects of the drug trade can be eradicated simply by legalizing it. There is no parallel remedy for terrorism.

The destruction of the World Trade Centre and the damage and loss of life inflicted on the Pentagon did more than reveal the laxity of America’s airport security and the limitations of its intelligence agencies. It dealt a grievous blow to the beliefs that underpin the global market. In the past, it was taken for granted that the world will always be a dangerous place. Investors knew that war and revolution could wipe out their profits at any time. But over the past decade, under the influence of ludicrous theories about ‘the end of history’, they came to believe that the worldwide advance of commercial liberalism was irresistible. Financial markets came to price assets in terms of this belief. The effect of the attack on the World Trade Centre may be to do what none of the crises of the past few years — the Asian crisis, the Russian default of 1998 and the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management, an over-leveraged hedge fund — was able to do. It may shatter the faith in globalization of the markets themselves.

It is worth reminding ourselves how grandiose were the dreams of the globalizers. The entire world was to be remade as a universal free market. No matter how different their histories and values, however deep their differences or bitter their conflicts, all cultures everywhere were to be corralled into a universal civilization. What is striking is how closely the market liberal philosophy that underpins faith in globalization resembles Marxism. Both are essentially secular religions, in which the eschatological hopes and fantasies of Christianity are given an Enlightenment twist. In both, history is understood as the progress of the species, powered by growing knowledge and wealth and culminating in a universal civilization. Human beings are viewed chiefly in economic terms, as producers or consumers, with — at bottom — the same values and needs. Religion of the old-fashioned sort is seen as a peripheral phenomenon, destined soon to disappear, or to shrink into the private sphere, where it can no longer convulse politics or inflame war. History’s crimes and tragedies are not seen as having their roots in human nature. They are errors, mistakes that can be corrected by more education, better political institutions and higher standards of living. Marxists and market liberals may differ about what is the best economic system — but for both, all that stands between humankind and a radiant future are vested interests and human irrationality. In holding to this primitive Enlightenment creed, they are at one.

This Enlightenment faith has an appeal — as is shown by the fact that many otherwise intelligent people continue to profess it. But it also has a dogmatic, missionary side. For market liberals — as for Marxists — there is only one way to become modern. All societies must adopt free markets. If their religious beliefs or their patterns of family life make this difficult for them, too bad — that is their problem. If the individualist values that free markets require and propagate go with high levels of inequality and crime and some sections of society go to the wall, tough — that is the price of progress. If entire countries are ruined, well, "You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs." During the nineties this crudely rationalistic philosophy of market fundamentalism was hugely influential. It had a stronghold in the International Monetary Fund (imf), as it blundered and bungled its way across the world, using its power to impose identical policies on countries with vastly different histories, problems and circumstances. There was only one route to modernity — and the seers who ruled the imf were resolved that it be followed everywhere.

THE ATROCITIES OF 11th September have planted a question mark over the very idea of modernity. Is it really the case that all societies are bound, sooner or later, to converge on the same values and view of the world? This may seem a rather academic question but it is actually of some practical importance. Not only in America but also to some degree in most Western countries, the belief that modernization is an historical imperative that no society can ignore for long made it harder to perceive the growing risk of an anti-Western backlash. Led by the us, the world’s richest states have acted on the assumption that people everywhere want to live as they do. As a result, they failed to recognize the deadly mixture of emotions — cultural ressentiment, the sense of injustice and a genuine rejection of Western modernity — that lies behind the terrorist attacks in America.

What is urgently needed is an attempt to work out terms of civilized coexistence among cultures and regimes that will always remain different.

Over the coming years, the transnational institutions that have built the global free market will have to accept a more modest role, or else they will find themselves among the casualties of this great upheaval. The notion that trade and wealth creation require global laisser-faire has no basis in history. The Cold War — a time of controls on capital and extensive intervention in the economy by national governments — was, in Western countries, a time of unprecedented prosperity. Contrary to the cranky orthodoxies of market liberals, capitalism does not need a worldwide free market to thrive. It needs a reasonably secure environment, safe from the threat of major war, and reliable rules about the conduct of business. These things cannot be provided by the brittle structures of the global free market. On the contrary, the attempt to force life everywhere into a single mould is bound to fuel conflict and insecurity. As far as possible, rules on trade and the movement of capital should be left to multilateral agreements among sovereign states. If there are countries that opt to stay out of global markets, they should not be penalized but left in peace. Countries should be free to find their own versions of modernity, or not to modernize at all. So long as they pose no threat to others, even intolerable regimes should be tolerated. A looser, more fragmented, partly deglobalized world would be a less tidy and more genuinely diverse world. It would also be a safer world. •

John Gray is Professor of European Thought at London School of Economics. His new book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals will be published by Granta in October.

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