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Is this the end of history? The Iraq prospect.

It has been repeated ad nauseam that, especially for the citizens of the United States, the world changed on September 11. There can be no doubt that it did so, even if this was mainly by way of a profound apprehension that things were not as they had seemed to be.

The destruction of the twin towers forced an awareness of vulnerability into public consciousness. It undermined the security, the sense of normality and the hopes for the future embedded in the way in which so many people had settled into their modern world. They had come to take for granted material improvements, better health and educational prospects which it offered, and with that, relative security within their own national borders.

The dramatic suddenness with which this sense of the normality of 'late modernity' ended, deflected any deeper reflection on the underlying causes of the attack. Indeed, the very fabric of normalized life precluded that. The satisfaction of proliferating individual desires, the end of the larger anxieties of the Cold War, the associated triumphalism of the US way into the future: all of these worked against awareness of there being any deeper transformation at work.

Given that there was only one viable way into the future--the US way--there could be no real grasp that it carried retrogressive consequences for other cultures and peoples. In the short run there could be no capacity to see that widespread despair, along with more organized terrorist actions, might emerge as people sought to resist a far more comprehensive control of their lives and prospects than had ever been the case in the hey-day of colonialism.

Nevertheless, a significant minority within dominant societies are now developing a more comprehensive grasp of the meaning of events. Within that wider understanding they also see that the overall climate of public opinion sets limits to their emergence as an articulate constituency. It restricts the political expression of their own more adequate awareness of, and sympathy for, those whose hopes are undermined by the rush to globalization.

Distinctive though it is, the understanding of this loose-knit new constituency is, on the whole, still marked by an ethical immediacy; it responds to radical upsets of the well-being of individuals: of populations ravaged by AIDS or starvation, or whose rights to chart their own future are denied. It is an ethical responsiveness which has yet to fully take on board the political reality that the conditions it deplores arise by way of that same relation of domination and exploitation which their own home societies impose.

So far as this ethical response does find political expression, the United Nations typically serves as its main mouthpiece in world affairs. Being under constant pressure from those of its members which are also dominant powers, its message is typically compromised. Hence the United Nations search in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction slides towards a search for evidence that Iraq has 'disarmed'. Its independence in the search for weapons of mass destruction is thereby redefined so that a discovery as trivial as the eleven empty chemical warfare shells is close to being evidence of a 'smoking gun'--a trigger justifying an invasion.

Muffled or irresolute as this ethical voice so often is, it is nevertheless highly significant. It expresses the gradually more articulate voice of a world opinion which can draw upon its own sources of information and arrive at interpretations in partial independence from the pressures of the dominant powers.

The key condition for that voice becoming more fully independent is a greater recognition that the US dreaming of the 'American century' is based on the assumption of an open horizon for globalized capital, with its supra-national seat in the United States itself. The only half articulate or independent quality of this ethical response, along with the general climate of opinion which helps to confine it, results from the failure to effectively breach a pervasive sense of continuity and normality. It falls short of being able to chart a different way into the future. Being encompassed by the certitudes of the US way, it does not address the profound character of the shift in practice and values which that thinking otherwise entails.

Both the growing confidence of US governing circles in their own path into the future and the still ill-defined ethical quest for an alternative are in their own ways responses to globalization. The sense of continuity that underpins the US way draws support from a whole complex of conditions. The techno-scientific breakthrough, material prosperity, the passage from being a superpower to being an unrivalled superpower--all these have contributed to a sense of a build up of power and influence. Above all, the conviction that the United States had defeated the USSR in the Cold War excludes the far more significant perception that it had fallen apart from within, had imploded. It had failed to respond to the already active globalizing impetus which was cutting through and across national boundaries and values, and reconstituting the basic forms of social life. Preoccupied with material and technological progress, its implosion foreshadowed a far more widespread crisis of the passage from modernity which, in due course, might well come to affect its Cold War rivals as well.

The slow build up of public concern about the policies of the dominant way concentrates upon how that way undermines the most general conditions of social viability. Anxieties about global warming, water supply and over-population, or more generally the Green agenda, are all part of this concern. But reservations about present practices, or their generalization in the advocacy of sustainability, are no more than a first step towards an alternative. They do not highlight the conjunction of capital with the high-tech reconstruction of nature, which underpins the surge towards a form of globalization which seeks to legitimate itself by vastly expanded material consumption. They do not lead to pointed questions about whether this particular form of globalization not only carries the conditions of breakdown and violence but of transformation towards a different order of social life as well. That is, an order which, while more globalized in the sense of promoting interchange between cultures, might also rein in the unbridled fetishization of material progress.

The whole range of ethical issues, short of a major crisis, only gradually attracts the support of world-wide public opinion which can lend them political force. The shift of the United States away from its earlier readiness to ratify the Kyoto Accords on global warming is a clear case in point. Its withdrawal was quite explicitly related to national economic power and the maintenance of internal normality. While it led to widespread discontent, this was by no means on a scale that could lead to policy change.

The effects of a political crisis, as precipitated by a US decision to invade Iraq, for instance, could be of a quite different order. Such a decision has the potential to bring the deeply felt ethical reservations of a significant minority, with a special capacity for independent interpretation, into conflict with the account given by a supra-national state as to what it is about. The representation of Iraq or North Korea as 'rogue states' depends, in the main, upon the claim that those countries are preparing to use, or would be prepared to use, weapons of mass destruction. It is connected to the further claim that they may have links with and might be prepared to supply such weapons to terrorist groupings, such as Al Qaeda.

The credibility of these assertions within the broader population does not only depend upon whether, in the given circumstances, they can be verified empirically. It depends as well upon how the criteria of verification selected are set out and which issues are regarded as salient. These are matters which are integrally bound up with the material cultural assumptions and interests of the national state or states acting as presiding judges. It depends upon the relation of such states to other states, and especially to those on which it proposes to sit in judgement.

Among these assumptions, continuity--the viability of the US way into the future--and its capacity to sustain normality in the sense of fulfilment through the satisfaction of material desires, provide the foundation. In spite of the ethical reservations voiced by an expanding minority, its inability to articulate a positive alternative means that the cultural assumptions of the dominant national states continue to determine the course of events. Those assumptions are still shared, albeit with increasing ambiguity, by the majority of the public. If the empirical sense of ethical immediacy were to be supplemented by a political dimension which asked how the issues which were held to be salient were constituted, a quite different range of concerns would come to the forefront.

Underpinning such a re-orientation would be a readiness to face the question of whether the sense of continuity associated with the US way into the future depends upon the subjugation of other national states and cultures. To entertain a positive answer to that question carries with it a whole complex of consequences. While a positive answer in no way justifies a terrorist response, it does make such a response understandable. It begins to explain its causal conditions. Likewise it suggest why such self-righteous assertions as the 'axis of evil' may have more to do with an unquestioning sense of superiority of one's own way into the future than with a sustainable account of the national state one intends to subjugate.

It is unmistakeably clear now that on ethical grounds the vast majority of people do not support any attack on Iraq, led by the United States, which lacks the support of the United Nations. They ground their view on the proposition that modern national states should respect the integrity of each other's borders. Given that they have so often failed to do so, they look to the United Nations as a superordinate means of support for universal norms.

The United States, with the support of the British government especially, also makes an ethical claim: that it is defending the common interest against 'rogue states' under changed conditions, where national boundaries have become permeable because portable weapons may be moved across them in secrecy by small groups or individuals. It is vitally important to recognize the factual accuracy of this claim concerning changed conditions while at the same time asking whether it supports a genuine ethical position or a particular national interest which--either calculatingly or naively--remains unresponsive to those who think otherwise.

Calculating or naive, the ambiguity arises from the assumption of continuity invested in the US way into the future. When held to as an unquestioned truth and joined to discontinuity in the identity of the nation-states--as illustrated by the permeability of national borders and the associated claim of the right to strike out preemptively--it is grounded in contradiction. A great power is then seeking to justify its own continuity as a nation-state by denying the grounding principle of nation-states generally. It asserts that weapons of mass destruction have cancelled the integrity of national borders, yet claims the right to strike out pre-emptively to protect its own.

Most UN members, and certainly the majority of people, even among NATO allies of the United States, incline to the view that unilateral action, led by the United States, would be an expression of a material interest rather than an ethical concern; that is an interest now coinciding with one particular version of a globalizing impetus. But neither the United States nor those identifying with a UN position, which retains a more typically modern respect for the integrity of national boundaries, seriously entertains a third position.

Such a position would recognize that a criterion of a weapon of mass destruction is that it results from the techno-scientific capacity to take hold of reality and to reconstitute it. In this perspective, both nuclear and biological weapons are simply aspects of a general transformation which also opens up national boundaries and reconstructs the forms of social life within them. Such weapons are one marker of a discontinuity--they signify the emergence of post-modernity. The existence of such weapons signals the pressing need for the powers not only to disavow their manufacture and use but also to allow access to their territories to confirm their compliance with an ethical policy which serves overall well-being.

In short these weapons imply the urgent need to endorse an ethical form of globalized universality oriented towards norms which serve the common good of all people and nations rather than the dominance of any single great power. The widespread support for the United Nations is a precursor to such an ethic, although that view remains deficient so far as it does not question the very notion of the modern nation in a period in which its boundary has broken down. Unless that view is elaborated in such a way as to recognize the subordination of national interest to common interest, in a period when the ways of reconstituting reality have consequences which reach across national borders, it can offer no effective answers to the US way into the future.

That way, with its emphasis upon open borders for commercial exchange, a complementary financial system and a sense of continuity that promotes radical individualism and the predominance of a single great power, is set within a contradiction. It is grounded within the emergence of a different relation to reality, a reconstitutive relation. It is this relation that both allows the building of contemporary weapons of mass destruction and which in trade, finances, extended media and power, reconstructs the modern forms of life. It is the capacity to draw upon information banks and to act at a distance which is most significant front an ethical point of view. Denoting as they do the bypassing of direct interaction among people who share an immediate and tangible presence, they require people to be self-constitutive in respect to their actions. They provide a new level of individuation which, in the prevailing social environment, is readily grafted to the individualism of expanding desire. Individual desire, released front the control of the other--the common good of one's fellow beings--emerges as the criterion of action. It becomes the false ethic of Fukuyama's end of history.

Fukuyama's vision is not in any significant sense a personal one. It is grounded in the hopes for extended material prosperity and democracy of mainstream America. Yet it has, as the dark complement, the doctrine symbolized by Henry Kissinger: the preemptive strike. Without assured access to the world's resources the US cannot be the new colossus. According to Kissinger, the respect for national boundaries as a foundation for international law is outmoded. His realpolitik and Fukuyama's end of history are two sides of the one coin. After Iraq the prospect is that realpolitik will be discredited and the end of history refuted. The way may be gradually opened to a humanism ready to work for a different way into the future.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Author:Sharp, Geoff
Publication:Arena Journal
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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