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Postmodern War & Post-Capitalist Freedom

President Bush has promised that 2002 will be “a year of war.” The violent pursuit, capture, and destruction of America’s enemies at home and abroad will take precedence over all other concerns–shaping the lives and causing the deaths of untold numbers of innocent civilians around the world. Military tribunals trying and executing prisoners in secret will exemplify the new norm of justice. Immigrants arrested and held without appropriate regard for civil rights will characterize the new attitude toward individual liberty. War planners and security experts dictating the conditions under which the rest of us live our daily lives will characterize the new respect for democracy and political freedom. Tax cuts for the rich amidst continued lack of healthcare, education, and housing for the poor, disregard of workers’ dignity and autonomy, and unconcern for other basic social rights will be the hallmarks of the sort of “patriotic sacrifice” citizens will be asked to make in support of the value of unity.

We believe that this attitude of jingoistic pseudo-patriotism, Ahab-like revenge-seeking and John Wayne-swagger will not go unchallenged.

In 2002, Americans will tire of journalists who celebrate the president for such bold actions as wearing leather jackets and vacationing on a ranch (evidence of his rugged nature). Students and radical intellectuals will recoil from the nostalgic simulation of disappearing patriarchy: As politics becomes increasingly so aestheticized, a new generation of artists and critics will politicize aesthetics, renewing the grand tradition of countercultural struggle that never dies but springs up again and again like a series of oases in a desert. Feminists will denounce the embarrassing and unacceptable renewal of phallocratic belligerence on the world stage, forging ever-stronger networks of international solidarity. Poor people and people of color will ask what are we killing for, why are we spending more on the military and less on community, and what do you mean “we”?

Our “friends and neighbors around the world” will grow increasingly appalled to hear the “plain-speaking” American president applauded for declaring that whatever goes on in those military tribunals–whether people are being executed or possibly tortured, whatever conditions are like for the detainees, whether or not proper rules of evidence are followed, whether or not conducting such tribunals as an instrument of war is advisable with regard to international standards or even unproblematically legal–the victims of U.S. military justice will in any case be given “more of a chance” than Osama Bin Laden gave those who were killed on September 11. The world will start to wonder who are the “civilized” and who the “barbarians.” Meanwhile the flag stickers will fade and peel off, and–just as quickly as neo-jingoism burst unexpectedly into fashion last September, as a manic symptom of repressed grief, disavowed vulnerability, disowned solidarity and alienated species-being–a new more vibrant and more public radicalism will become the norm among all of those who refuse to believe that the proto-fascist neo-orientalist retro-liberalism of the Rumsfelds, the Ashcrofts, the Cheneys and the Bushes can be allowed to go uncontested.

In other words, 2002, we believe, will be a year of intensified struggle for political freedom, economic justice, racial and gender equality, peace and an end to the conditions that give rise so frequently to war. And this will necessarily include–among a host of other efflorescences of the revolutionary spirit, major and minor–a struggle for the soul of the radical left itself. To wit: The authors of the celebrated recent book, Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, are correct, we maintain, in affirming the “immanence” and “power” of radical anti-capitalist forces today, against fashionable despair and unwarranted pessimism (see Politics and Culture #3: 2000). But they are wrong in collapsing “postmodernism” and “postmodernity” in their critique of postmodern theory as a “symptom” of globalizing capital (see Michael Ryan’s riposte in this issue). This rather hackneyed and by now thread-bare complaint is the weakest part of an otherwise admirable intervention that captures many of the relevant aspects of the current crisis. It is not by means of an epistemologically melancholic left-conservative rejection of all things “post-” that a post-capitalist society will be achieved.

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