Reflecting on the images of a black and gray ashen Manhattan, the skeletal remains of imploded skyscrapers, the survival narratives of witnesses, and the images of the dead and dying, the iconicity of the attack is striking: the date, 911, a shorthand for telephoning emergency services; the airlines, “United” and “American,” synecdoche for the state, and the nation, respectively; the American Airlines plane ripping into one side of the Pentagon, lurching toward its center, breaking what had been a domestically unbroken pentagram of power. As representative instruments of spatial deterritorialization and globalization, Boeing 757s and 767s slammed into two prominent icons of information and commodification, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. As the buildings tumbled into a mix of black smoke and debris that rushed down the streets of West Manhattan, the utopian belief in Market Society also crumbled. As John Lennon sang a generation ago about another rupture, “The Dream is Over.”
The abrupt and violent detumescence of the Twin Towers signals, irreparably, the de facto end of an uncritical faith in Market Society. While markets will always be with us, the universalist prescription of “the market” as a form of social and cultural Viagra, died on the streets of Manhattan, and in the images of destruction dispersed to the rest of the planet. Embedded in the black smoke and in the shredded and spongy mountains of glass, steel and cadavers was the virus of endemic fear and perpetual anxiety, and the incipient prescription and inscription of a nascent security state.
What a virus does, biological, technological or social, is to rewrite a basic instructional set on a cellular, machine-language or cultural level, and then to spread that instruction set, upward from below. That’s what makes it a form of micro-power, low-tech, secretive, adaptive and extremely replicable. What has so quickly spread in the last few days is this virus of terrorism, from the outer spatial and cultural margins of late capitalism (Afghanistan) rewriting not just the mood of the U.S., but also the fundamental stance (national identity and values) of Americans, and the institutional routines of the state. Taken as a whole, the net effect is of the American Empire stumbling through a sharp discontinuity into its third, post-WWII ideological period. Below is a brief mapping of the relationship between the past, the incipient present, and the probable near future.
The first ideological dream, an uncritical belief in government, emerged after WWII. Fiscal policies informed by Keynesian economics had turned the tide against the Depression, and the U.S. emerged as an economically and technologically dominant world power by 1945. Nearly three decades of rising standards of living (for almost all demographic groups), and remarkable technological achievements, lent temporary credence to an uncritical faith in the powers of government.
Durable as that dream was, it was ruptured by multiple and persistent shocks: Assassinations, a morally ambiguous and unviable Vietnam War, urban riots, political corruption (Watergate), and structural changes in national and global economies (changes that led to the “stagflation,” in the post-1973 period). Symbolized by the U.S. government’s impotence in securing the release of 52 hostages, in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the “dream of government” as a universalist panacea for social ills lost its viability. With the election of Ronald Reagan, the post-1945 American Empire entered into its second ideological dream – an uncritical belief in the curative properties of “market society.”
Symbolized by Reagan, and his charmingly simple and nostalgic moral tales about the wonders of “the individual” and a “Mr. Rogers” version of “the invisible hand,” the redistribution of wealth during the 1980s (spurred by massive changes in tax laws in 1981), and the years of economic growth between 1983-1990 led many to conclude that the mix of governmental deregulation and the hyper-redistribution of wealth was the medicine that the country needed. After all, didn’t the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and “The Velvet Revolution” of 1989 herald the triumph of capitalism, and the defeat of centralized statisms?
In the early 90s, the U.S. faced a massive savings and loan crisis, enormous general fiscal debt and an economic recession. The uncritical dream of market society might have died in 1993, but for Bill Clinton’s election. In the eight years of the Clinton presidency, Clinton commandeered just enough governmental resources to buttress the practices and discourses of market society. Informed by Gary C. Becker’s formulation of “human capital,” Clinton found his complement in Al Gore, an avid total quality management advocate who was in charge of “reinventing government.” Concurrently, the religion of Privatization was the buzz word of the Gingrich conservatives. “Whatever you [government] can do, I [the private sector] can do better,” they chanted. And so some of the practices [and much of the discourse] of the private sector came to dominate how the public sector and its workers were viewed, and how work and monies were redistributed.
By the 2000 election, the U.S. economy had lost its momentum, and the shortcomings of an uncritical faith in market society became more evident. Examples include welfare reform that moved people from destitution to perpetual poverty; privatized prisons and schools that were dens of corruption and misery; and institutional scandals, such as an enormous (268 billion dollar) tobacco settlement from firms that had previously shifted the health risks and costs from cigarette manufacturers to the public sector. All of these areas (and many more) demonstrated the narrow limits of the market as universalist prescription and dream.
And then came 911. Nothing in Adam’s Smith’s invisible hand, or in Yahoo’s web directory, or in short-term cost/benefit analyses, or in any dream of the market (equity, futures or derivatives) and its neo-utilitarian and commodified world-view could account for, or prevent Boeing 757s and 767s from crashing the twin towers of the late World Trade Center. No faith in “human capital” or a commodity-based social logic (to run government like a business, taking the low bid for airport security services, for example)could mediate such transgressive violence. of 911. Thousands die, billions are lost, fear reigns, and market society, which requires a socio-political backbone of stability and predictability, loses its patina of magic. As the offices of Merrill Lynch, Smith-Barney and the Solomon Brothers disintegrated into ash, smoke and cadavers, so did the idea of “market society” as a panacea to our woes. No market tool (such as focus groups or surveys) can, by itself, counter those forces that seek the destruction of the very idea of a Western-style commodity market. Mark the date: On 09/11/01, that particular incarnation of Market Society died.
Market Society was the target, not the weapon. It failed to guarantee order. Government did not foresee nor act – it failed to guarantee order. Our third ideological dream may be organized around a more intensive version of what Richard Ericson called a “policing [of] the risk society.” As terroristic violence becomes increasingly dispersed, fluidic and possible almost anywhere, at any time, it does so by evading pre-existent risk-management techniques (as was the case on September 11th). The goal of state-centered responses will be to hone deterrence and policing strategies via intensified modes of militarization. Continuous surveillance, intensified information-collection and analysis techniques, and the honing of rapid deployment of counter-terrorism units may well be prominent, very soon, in the daily routines of American life. The boundaries of American life are in the process of a fundamental and rapid reconfiguration.
Especially if there are some initial successes, the American Empire may be embracing this information-intensive dream of security as a paramount value, at the beginning of the new century. Fear is its engine.