The spectre that has haunted world politics for a decade and more has now been killed off.
Will ordinary politics now resume?
For those over 30, the memory of 9/11 is pretty stark and its impact was felt harshly as the Bush regime used the threat of terrorism to redraw the map of international conflict. The rule of law, domestic and international, was torn up in the process and new shoots of dissent among labor and environmental groups (remember Seattle WTO 1999) went to ground.
Now, however, the demise of bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan suggests as many have argued that the “global war on terror” was a bit of myth carefully constructed to bolster sagging US power in a multipolar post Cold War world. As Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times said today:
[L]ook at the numbers, and it becomes clear that the threat of terrorism has been seriously hyped. In a book published a couple of years ago John Mueller, a US academic, pointed out that the number of Americans killed by terrorists since 1960 is “about the same as the number killed over the same period by accident-causing deer”. In a report for the Rand Corporation, Brian Jenkins made a similar point: “The average American has about a one in 9,000 chance of dying in an automobile accident and about a one in 18,000 chance of being murdered.” However, in the five years after 9/11, and including the people killed there, “an average American had only a one in 500,000 chance of being killed in a terrorist attack”.
Yet this does not mean we are just back to 1999 with a clean slate as Rachman seems to suggest. Most importantly, the Arab masses themselves have now entered the stage providing a compelling parallel coup de grace to the politics of terror as a way forward for that region.
The US and other major states, including China and the EU therefore will face immediately a new challenge. The US, EU and China all depend heavily on mideast oil, of course, but even more importantly the autonomy of the Egyptian, Syrian, Libyan and Tunisian protestors is evidence of the emergence globally of a new movement that those states cannot control.
This makes the events underway there very different than those that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, as I suggested in the pages of the Guardian in response to such an argument by conservative columnists. 1989 was about a desperate working class and middle class wanting to join western capitalism, naively perhaps but unmistakably. But the MENA events are really a protest against the neo-liberal reforms that capitalism has implemented globally over the last 20 years.
Thousands of strikes by Egyptian workers predated the final 18 days that overthrew Mubarak, despite being propped up by a confused and nervous US government effort. Those workers have had enough of the austerity and corruption that went hand in glove under the joint rule of their country by Mubarak and global capital.
No one was surprised then to hear that China immediately cracked down on possible dissent including the violent suppression of a truckers strike in Shanghai recently. One is tempted to suggest that, in the words of Marx, a new spectre is haunting the world. The “global war on terror” failed to exorcise this class spectre the way it has apparently now crushed the al Qaeda cult.
Thus, we leave one stage of world history and return to another.