Covering the Crisis: American Intellectuals and 9/11

Rob Wilkie



9/11 is a class issue. Contrary to the dominant accounts of the terrorist attack on the United States, it is not a matter of a cultural "clash of civilizations" between the Western defenders of "democracy" and the Eastern defenders of a religious "totalitarianism", nor is it an undefinable event in a post-historical, post-political age as postmodernism argues. It is a moment entirely determined, in both "cause" and "effect", by the fundamental drive of capital to encircle the globe to accumulate higher and higher amounts of profit. September 11th has no "history" outside of the imperialist history of capitalism.

The history of capitalist competition to gain monopoly control of the "free market" is obscured in all discussions of the "cultural" clash of civilizations, which reverses the history of capitalism and replaces the material exploitation of labor with a conflict situated at the level of ideas. Just as the direct colonial rule by Europe of Africa, Asia and the Americas was driven by the need of capital to control foreign markets and natural resources as a means of expanding capital accumulation under the alibi of expanding "civilization", the current "cultural" struggle between the Middle East and the United States in actuality represents the re-dividing of the world after the end of the Cold War. The events of 9/11 represent the consequences of the struggle among the world imperialist powers over who will own and control the vast social resources of the Middle East; a point made clear in the repeated statements by leading transnationalists in their debates over the status ("good" or "bad") of an emerging American global "empire".

Leaving aside for the moment the numerous investigations of what knowledge the U.S. government had of an impending terrorist attack—knowledge openly declared by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice despite her playful attempts at deconstructing "hijacking" [1]—what has been made clear by the response of the Bush administration in the wake of September 11th is that the intentions of the U.S. government in the Middle East were planned well in advance and regardless of an attack on the United States. The 1998 testimony of John J. Maresca, the Vice President of International Relations for the Unocal Corporation, before a sub-committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is an indication of the growing pressure placed on the U.S. government by transnational capital prior to 9/11 to install new comprador states in the Middle East as a means of establishing tighter control over the labor and natural resources of the region. In his testimony on Unocal's interest in building a pipeline across Afghanistan for transporting oil reserves from the Caspian Sea to Asia's growing markets, Maresca testified that, "From the outset, we have made it clear that construction of our proposed pipeline cannot begin until a recognized government is in place that has the confidence of governments, lenders, and our company […] Without peaceful settlement of conflicts within the region, cross-border oil and gas pipelines are not likely to be built" ("Testimony" online).  The interest of Unocal for a "peaceful" settlement to the "problem" of Afghanistan is, like the Bush administration's renewed interest in "liberating" Iraq, a code for installing a political regime more willing to meet the demands of U.S. capital.

Contrary to the "benign" imperialism now being trumpeted by the New York Times—in which middle-class voters are assured "America's empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man's burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas" (Ignatieff 22)—the fundamental basis of the extension of the American "empire" to the Middle East is economic. It is first and foremost about securing high rates of profit for U.S. capital. Unocal's directive to the U.S. government to open the Afghanistan market by any means necessary is only a thinly-veiled version of what former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson openly declared almost a century ago. Giving voice to the interests of capital Wilson argued:

Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused (Lens 220).

Despite their having spoke almost one hundred years apart, what the statements of Wilson and Maresca point to is the fact that the history of the U.S. government's foreign military interventions are determined by the needs of U.S. capital. Even a brief history of recent U.S. action in the Middle East makes clear that the current "war on terror" is in reality a means of fulfilling the interests of transnational capital in "stabilizing" the region by establishing a strong U.S. military presence and installing comprador rulers who are compliant to U.S. corporate interests; a point supported by the rapid introduction after 9/11 of U.S. troops beyond Afghanistan to five of the Central Asian nations bordering the oil-rich Caspian Sea (Kaiser A01). Just as the United States government hid behind the rhetoric of "democracy" while funding and training the Islamic fundamentalist Mujahideen to overthrow the socialist government of Afghanistan; funneled millions of dollars in aid and arms to the Taliban before September 11th; and now continues to support the royal family of Saudi Arabia despite evidence of their ties to the 9/11 terrorists; the Bush administration uses the events of September 11th and the guise of a "war on terror" in an attempt to secure the region for U.S. economic interests. At the base of U.S. capital's concerns in Afghanistan is not fostering "democracy", nor protecting U.S. citizens from "terrorism". Rather, it is the attempt by U.S. capital to secure unfettered access to Middle East oil reserves in order to use this control to drive down the costs of manufacturing (by cheapening the price of oil) and increase dwindling rates of profits. In other words, it is the economic interests of U.S. capital that are now driving the U.S. government's "democratic" pursuit to redefine the boundaries of the Middle East.

Imperialism, as Lenin explained, is the competition of transnational capitalists in their attempts to monopolize social resources and to establish their dictatorship of the "free market" around the world. Just as the development of capitalism on a "national" scale meant brutal competition to gain monopoly control over production and thus take "more or less complete possession of the industry of their own country" (Imperialism 246), Lenin's analysis of monopoly capital explains why the increasing development of capitalism means the inevitable drive of capitalists to control the globe's resources. He writes: 

The principal feature of the latest stage of capitalism is the domination of monopolist associations of big employers. These monopolies are most firmly established when all the sources of raw materials are captured by one group, and we have seen with what zeal the international capitalist associations exert every effort to deprive their rivals of all opportunity of competing, to buy up, for example, ironfields, oilfields, etc. Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee against all contingencies in the struggle against competitors, including the case of the adversary wanting to be protected by a law establishing a state monopoly. The more capitalism is developed, the more strongly the shortage of raw materials is felt, the more intense the competition and the hunt for sources of raw materials throughout the whole world, the more desperate the struggle for the acquisition of colonies (Imperialism 260).

Imperialism, as Lenin outlines, is the direct effect of the necessity of capitalism to counter a falling rate of profit through the exploitation of cheaper sources of labor-power and securing monopoly prices over social resources. Lenin of course was expanding on Marx and Engels' basic insight into the workings of capitalism, especially their theorization of the basic economic laws of motion stemming from private property. As Marx and Engels explained "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere" (Manifesto 487). If it is to increase profits, capital must constantly search for new markets to find cheaper sources of raw materials, increase and develop production, and drive down the costs of labor-power. It is the profit motives of transnational oil companies such as Unocal and Halliburton, as well as "secondary" beneficiaries such as technology and "service" sector companies that would reap tremendous profits from the "rebuilding" of the Middle East market and the reduction of production costs through a lowered price of oil, that is driving the U.S. charge into Iraq with its potential of $3 trillion to $8 trillion dollars worth of untapped oil reserves. It is these same economic concerns that are also behind the hesitancy of UN Security Council nations such as Russia and France to give the United States "unilateral" support for a military invasion, as both have billions of dollars in oil contracts with Iraq that will be voided if the U.S. is successful in its push for "regime change". As a French official recently declared, "In a sense we're trapped. Ultimately, we will want to re-engage in Iraq. We built a strategic relationship there. We have a market. We want the oil and we want to be in the game of rebuilding the country. If there were a new regime and we have not been with the Americans, where will we be?" (Sciolino 1). For the world's imperialist powers, the decision of whether or not to go to war is always an economic one.

The primary issue is that the "crisis" of 9/11, in which the richest nations are now squaring off over the fate of some of the poorest, is a reflection of the fact that capitalism is trapped in a growing systemic crisis. Transnational capital is suffering the effects of a worldwide recession that appears symptomatically in the bursting of the "dot-com" bubble and the accounting scandals of global corporations such as Enron and WorldCom, which have led to failing stock markets and cuts in the accumulated profits of the transnational ruling class. At the core of this crisis is one of the primary contradictions of capitalism, in which the technological advances in telecommunications that increased the productive forces of transnational capital, promised an end to the antagonism between capital and labor, and enabled the world-wide expansion of capital over the past three decades ("globalization"), have now become a fetter to production as the markets grow saturated with unsold commodities and the unpaid living labor, which is necessary for profit, is replaced with the dead labor of machinery. Even the mouthpieces of capitalism must recognize that we have entered a global crisis of overproduction in which the "unprecedented overbuilding" of the 1990's has "created a vicious downward cycle in which price wars beget bankruptcy and bankruptcies beget more price wars, dragging down weak and strong companies alike" (Pearlstein A01). It is this crisis of profitability that is driving the increased competition between transnational capitalists.  In terms of the U.S. capitalist class in particular, which is the primary force in demanding a new global order, the increased competition from the European Union (which is only marginally behind the United States in Gross Domestic Product, $8,000 billion to $8,511 billion) as well as a sagging global economy pressuring the market for U.S. exports has meant increasing global competition among the world's economic powers.  In the words of the conservative Policy Review (the theoretical journal of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which cannot be mistaken for a critic of U.S. hegemony): "In 1950, the United States produced 27 percent of the global GDP. Today it produces 22 percent. Share of world exports? Same story. In 1953 the U.S. represented 24.6 percent of global exports. Today it is down to 16.1 percent" (Judge 6). The increased competition between transnational capitalists over the control of these dwindling profits is the force behind the new imperialist wars in the Middle East.

At the same time, as the social, economic and political system that determines the conditions of life for everyone on the planet, the failure of capitalism to address the material needs of the majority of the world's population has become impossible to ignore. The commodification of basic social resources such as water, food, healthcare, education and shelter has brought about not only an economic crisis manifest in the current global recession but also a crisis in all social levels including the spread of diseases such as AIDS and Tuberculosis, the constant threat of starvation of almost 1 billion people, the potentially irrevocable damage to the environment, and a growing permanent population of un- and under- employed people. As former chief economist of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz argues, "If we continue with globalization as it has been managed in the past, its agenda driven by the North for the North, reflecting the North's ideologies and values, the future will not be bright" (36). Although reformist economists such as Stiglitz continue to defend the "free market" and lay the blame of capitalism on isolated instances of fiscal mismanagement, essentially ignoring the structural contradictions now being felt, current conditions make clear that the growing crisis of capitalism is a crisis that, as Marx and Engels argued over 150 years ago, has placed the entire bourgeois system on trial.


In spite of the voluminous amount of writing on the events of 9/11, the majority of what has been published by American intellectuals in both mainstream and politically "left" and "right" presses is, regardless of their rhetorical (and perhaps "political") differences, remarkably similar in their eerie silence about this crisis. Since the events of 9/11, American intellectuals on the left and the right have rallied together behind a new American fundamentalism to "cover" this crisis and defend the interests of U.S. capitalists in their attempted conquest of global markets. The new American fundamentalism is a mysticism that suggests the world has entered a post-class, post-capitalist, post-imperialist moment. As an apologetics for capitalist exploitation, it seeks to deflect criticism from capitalist relations through a series of rhetorical relays and deferrals that disguise the primary contradictions of capitalist production as merely cultural and therefore erase the possibility of social transformation.

Although most recognizable in the racist rants of right-wing pundits, such as Ann Coulter and Jerry Falwell, who celebrate the way in which 9/11 has given the U.S. the "opportunity" to assert its military and economic primacy over the global markets and Middle Eastern countries in particular, this new American fundamentalism, which obscures the primary contradictions of capitalism in the private ownership of the means of production, has become the dominant mode of analysis because it alibis U.S. imperialism by substituting a multitude of ideological conflicts that reside within the realm of "culture" for an economic analysis of the conflict.

The new American fundamentalism, in other words, is not limited to the traditional right-wing analysis that has attempted to explain the events of 9/11 as a cultural struggle between the "West" and the "rest", the fate of which will determine the future of "civilization" itself. According to this logic, which has been perhaps most popularly advanced in Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, the main source of the conflict between the imperialist nations of the "West" and the post-colonial nations in the Middle East is an irreconcilable division between a culture of "democracy" and a culture of "authority". As the conservative National Review declared in "Why They Hate Us", "Democracy means Us and Them. Yet nothing in the history or the culture of Arabs and Muslims allows them to put this into any form of political practice" (Pryce-Jones 8). The re-writing of the history of "democracy" as the combination of Greco-Roman Law and Judeo-Christian cultural values is a thinly veiled attempt to invest "Western" society with the moral authority to engage in a new imperialist "crusade" to gain control of the social resources and labor-power of the Middle East.

A still more effective mode of legitimating US imperialism, however, is the "leftist" mode of the new American fundamentalism, which formally opposes "fundamentalism" as a failed language game while reinscribing its ideological effect to obscure the global class relations. These postmodern critics have attempted to critique the neo-conservatives' overt imperialism by doing what they always do—declaring the impossibility of causality and the autonomy of desire in culture as freedom from determination. By deconstructing history as the materiality of labor relations (class exploitation) and replacing it with a thin network of incommensurable events and relations, postmodernism dissolves the issues in a dense array of rhetorical dissimulations and linguistic traces. The effective consequence of this immanent complexity, which passes for analytical subtlety and deep thinking in the bourgeois imaginary, is the momentary disruption of local logics only to ultimately reinforce the very global conditions it appears to be "questioning".

For example, in the introduction to a special issue on 9/11 of the post-left journal Theory & Event, the editors declare that the more one examines the events of September 11th, the more "it becomes clear that this event [is] too large, too complex in its conditioning factors, its meanings, its implications, and its ramifications, to be captured by one angle of vision, one history, one theoretical framework or one set of inquiries" (Brown par. 5). Central to this logic is the concept of the "memorial". Having displaced through textual play the ground of analysis of the material conditions which led to 9/11, all that remains for postmodernism is a kind of experiential impressionism. One can only "look" in wonder and not ever hope to know except pragmatically through the amalgamation of multiple viewpoints without a center. According to the post-historical logic of this argument, the Bush doctrine is, in the final analysis, representative of an appeal to an outdated theory of "causality" in which one event is the (knowable) effect of another. On these terms, even a progressive politics which seeks to locate the "causes" of terrorism in for example the growing division between the wealth of transnational capital and global poverty, and in turn begin to link the expansion of the market and the inability of millions of people to meet even their most basic needs, only contributes to a political culture bent on locating clear "solutions" and thus cannot be differentiated from the Bush doctrine. Instead, the postmodern representation of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is a textualist "complexity" that erases the existing conditions and as a result reinforces the dominant argument that what is at stake is "cultural" conflict—a religious search for "meaning"—which isolates the fact that all conflicts over "meaning" are "the ideological forms in which men become conscious of this [class] conflict and fight it out" (Marx "Contribution" 263). 

It is in this cultural displacement of economic causes that the events of 9/11 have manifested an uncanny convergence of left and right American intellectuals, who despite their rhetorical differences, have rallied around cultural freedom—the primacy of consumption over production—as the last line of defense of the market at a moment of social and economic crisis. Shortly after the bombing of Afghanistan began, the New York Times proclaimed, as "proof" of U.S. victory, the opening of Kabul as the latest entry to the international global market:

All around Kabul, sales of satellite TV's are soaring. Cosmetics and high-heeled shoes are flying off shelves. DVD's and videocassettes are filling shopping bags. It seems that only burkas, the head-to-toe veils required by conservative Muslims, have stopped selling (Rohde 3).

One might think that this is an easily recognizable defense of the free market on behalf of those who benefit most. Yet, even on the "left", Zillah Eisenstein cites participation in the free market as evidence of freedom. She writes:

In Tehran, Iran, although the law enforces women to cover their hair and conceal their bodies in loose clothing, women still have their individual acts of rebellion. Those wealthy enough have nose jobs and wear their postsurgical bandages as badges of honor. Others work out aerobically in their women-only gyms and wear long nail implants. Others wear their long coats and scarves over their black mini-skirts imported from Italy (88).

The similarity of the "cynical" right and the "postmodern" left on the centrality of (cultural) "freedom" is because culture operates within the dominant knowledges as a metaphor for the "free market". The rhetorical battle between the left and right representatives of U.S. capital is in the final analysis a battle over the extent to which U.S. capitalism will be allowed to dominate the global market. It is, in other words, a debate between a more "ethical" capitalism that "respects" the locality of small markets and a more "brutal" capitalism written in the direct discourses of U.S. imperialism. The effect of both, regardless of their formal "political" allegiances, is to obscure the root causes of the crisis of capitalism in the primary relations of private property and the exploitation of labor. In short, the consequences of this culturalism, whether it is from the left or the right, are the same: to give ideological support for the most brutal exploitation the world has ever known.

This essay argues that the dominant "culturalist" paradigm of contemporary theory, which has coalesced into a new American fundamentalism, works to obscure the primary relations of private property that are at the root of the current social crisis. Drawing upon Marx and Engels' argument that "it is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness" (German Ideology 37), I argue that the new American fundamentalism, like the events of 9/11 and its aftermath, is a product of monopoly capitalism in its imperialist phase. That is to say, contrary to the dominant accounts of 9/11 which seek to understand at the level of ideas the intense social antagonism that has again burst forth on the global stage, the only way to understand the new American fundamentalism and its imperialist actions is by examining the material conditions which are driving the competition between the richest nations in the world in their attempts to control the resources of some of the world's poorest nations. The new American fundamentalism represents a reaction at the level of ideology to the inability of capitalism to solve the contradiction between the advanced development of the forces of production, which now hold the promise to meet the basic needs of the world's entire population, and the increasingly backward economic relations, in which the majority of the world's population does not benefit from the products of their labor. By obscuring the material basis of this contradiction behind a cloak of "culture", it maintains the rule of profit for a few over meeting the needs of the many.


Since the events of September 11th, the right wing of the capitalist class has operated as the cynical mouthpiece of Big Business, barely concealing the interests of U.S. capital in its imperialist drive to control the resources of the Middle East. In its triumphant account of the new American "empire", a concept and account of history not coincidentally championed also by the "post-left" in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire [2], the right is now reviving the concepts of "colonialism" and the "crusades" in an attempt to legitimate the imperialist's warmongering and the increasing militarism of the U.S. economy, while simultaneously severing the economic interests underlying this military interventionism by cynically appealing to a moral interest in expanding "democracy".

In his article in the neo-conservative journal National Review written shortly after 9/11, John Derbyshire seeks to re-narrate the Christian Crusades as the first instance of the West's drive to bring "democracy" to the Middle East, in order to find historical precedent for a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Israeli occupation of Palestine. He asks, "Were the Crusades really such a brazen assault on the integrity of the Moslem world?" (35). After a long recounting of the extreme violence of the Crusaders in their attacks, Derbyshire finds solace in a cultural relativism in which "The massacres [of the Crusaders] though appalling, were not sensational in their time" and concludes: 

If we look behind the cruelty, treachery, and folly, and try to divine what the Crusaders actually said and thought, we see, dimly but unmistakably, the early flickering light of the modern West, with its ideas of liberty, justice, and individual worth […] these rough soldiers carried with them to the East the germ-seeds of modern civil society (36).

Similar arguments are now also being advanced by the right in defense of colonialism.  Paul Johnson writes a few weeks later in the same journal, "The question of colonialism has come up again: How did it fare? What were its advantages and disadvantages? And is there a role for it in the future, or now?" (14). Like the New York Times declaration that the new imperialism has little to do with the nature of capitalism, Johnson argues:

Is there then a case for a reversion to colonialism? There may be such a case, in certain extreme examples, such as Somalia. But colonialism is not the kind of condition that can be artificially restored. It was initially an economic process, in which individual traders sought to do business, exchanging wares […] The building of forts, the assumption of administration and sovereignty, and its extension inward, followed in an attempt to provide the security in which commerce could be safely conducted […however…] Few African countries today offer the economic rewards that once justified the process, and these rewards can usually be secured by means other than occupation (16).

Instead of the "economic" imperialism of the past, like Derbyshire's account of the Crusades Johnson argues for a new "political" imperialism, which rests on the West's "founding" interest of bringing "democracy" to "failed states", and thus separates capitalist exploitation from political domination. He writes, as an example, "The U.N. Security Council would vote to declare a territory, such as Somalia, where government no longer exists and international terrorists flourish, a 'failed state' and direct one of its members to exercise sovereignty there until such time as it became possible to create an effective government from local population" (16). That this is more than just a theoretical hypothesis, and is in fact part of the planning of the U.S. takeover of the Middle East, can be seen in the recently released plans for turning a post-war Iraq into a U.S. protectorate based upon a design drawn from the U.S. governance of colonial Philippines. Under this proposal Iraq would be run by "a hybrid command with an American military commander in charge of security and some kind of civilian administrator—of theoretically equal influence—to get the schools running, the oil fields pumping and the economy jump-started" (Sanger 1).

The intellectual simplicity of these arguments and the lack of any critical reflection on the historical evidence to support such claims of "benign" colonialism is proof of their class interest. The "culturalist" antagonism advanced by the right wing not only erases the truth of the past brutality of the capitalist system, it erases capitalism's present as well. A recent article in the Washington Post reported that even with all of the declarations of the Bush administration after 9/11 of fighting an "axis of evil", the United States continues to form a regular voting block in the United Nations with supposedly "evil" nations such as Iran and Iraq to ensure that no resolutions that defend the rights of people against the dictates of capital are ever passed (Lynch A01). The anecdotes of the West's cultural history of advancing "democracy" have become so popular in the mainstream media because of the way in which they cynically acknowledge the necessity of global expansion that is a direct effect of capitalism's basis in profit production while re-writing this narrative in the soothing tones of "freedom". In these narratives democracy becomes a free-floating entity, disconnected from the material conditions of people's lives. As such, this narrative of democracy's autonomy is an alibi for capitalism. It erases the fact that for democracy to exist, it means more than political representation. Democracy means, in the most basic terms, having the ability to live a life without the fear of being unable to meet your needs. As Marx and Engels argue, "it is possible to achieve real liberation only in the real world and by real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity" (German Ideology 38). Contrary to the narratives of the right, if democracy is to have any but the most cynical connotation, it cannot exist in a system that produces want at the same time it produces so many commodities that they must be destroyed in the interests of profitability.

Capitalism subjects the majority of the world's population to a life of contingency in which the ability to meet their needs is dependent upon their ability to find work in a system that is continually attempting to drive down the cost of labor power—reducing wages through market competition and technological advances—and thus eliminate the only means people have of meeting their needs. What is obscured in the right's account of a "democratic" imperialism is that bourgeois democracy, which substitutes political representation for people having any actual say in the way in which the products of their labor should be used, is the ideological arm of capitalism. What is called "democracy" is, in actuality, the "freedom" to be exploited. As Marx argues in the first volume of Capital, the "freedom" of capitalist democracy means that the worker is "free" in a "double sense" in that "as a free man he can dispose of his labor-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realization of his labor-power" (179). As capitalism spreads across the globe and transforms all aspects of daily life into commodities through private ownership of the means of production, the ability of people to meet their basic needs depends upon their ability to find work. Capitalism's basis in the exploitation of wage-labor means that its ruling class ideal of "freedom" is separated from the actual conditions of necessity for material freedom, and "democracy" becomes the rule of a few against the interests of the many. Exploitation and colonialism are, in short, an inherent part of capitalist "democracy". The return of the concepts of "colonialism" and the "crusades", which have been long considered even by the most cynical bourgeois critics to be moments of "shame" in the history of capitalism, marks the way in which the crisis of capital means that the ruling class can no longer hide behind political niceties. The signifiers of the brutality of the past, although cynically dressed up in the rhetoric of "democracy", have been resurrected because this fundamental brutality, which is central to the capitalist system in which the majority of the world's population is forced to sell their labor power to survive, has become impossible to justify in any but the most cynical of ways.

In what would be a bad joke if not for the utterly devastating effect such ideas have for the working class who are being asked to suffer the consequences of the right's post-9/11 assault on democracy and basic public services, at a moment when transnational capitalism is reviving the most brutal practices of the past, the theoretical left is off wandering in a utopian space of textual slippage, promoting the idea that cultural "freedom" and individual "autonomy" are an adequate substitution for economic and social justice.

The "collapse" of the Democratic party in the 2002 elections, despite the fact that the majority of the people in the United States do not support the policies of the Republicans, is the political reflection of the theoretical left who, having abandoned the concepts of class exploitation and social inequality for the "radical contingency" of language games despite the growing evidence of class conflict, now turns all social questions into meditations on their class privilege. Instead of acting as an opposition to the existing, the postmodern left has emerged as the more effective voice for imperialism. What becomes clear in the current convergence of the right and the left behind a theoretically disconnected "culturalism" is a defense of the market by denying all possibility of understanding the inequality of society today except as expressions of power without consequence.

Stanley Fish—who has risen from Professor, to Department Chair, to University Dean based upon his ability to translate the remaining radical sentiments of postmodern deconstruction into a language more palatable to the ruling class—has tried to situate himself after 9/11 as the voice of reason to assure capitalism that postmodernists are firmly behind the imperialist war drive. Writing in the New York Times, Fish argues that despite postmodernism's seemingly "left" interest in deconstructing all meaning as a means of desedimenting the status quo, this should not be mistaken for opposition to the ruling order. He declares, "Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one. The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies" (19). Leaving aside the immanent contradictions of an anti-universalist discourse which presupposes as its founding assumption the possibility of a decidedly universalist appeal to determine who constitutes "us" and who constitutes "our enemies", the "nuance" of this post-left logic is based upon the textualizing of the existing conditions as a means of demonstrating their intricate layeredness that after many interpretive twists arrives at a verdict that legitimizes the ruling power structures in a new rhetoric. By deploying postmodernism's textual deconstruction of "interpretation" as a radical contingency without consequence, Fish recasts the imperialist drive of U.S. capital, despite its lack of "universal appeal", as the cultural manifestation of a democratic impulse singular to the United States, the "aspiration and accomplishment that makes up our collective understanding of what we live for" (19). In the name of an "anti-essentialist" politics it essentializes the economic conflict over social resources as the reflection of inherent "cultural" impulses—"American" and the "rest"—that are "forever" at odds. As such Fish is able to erase the fact that workers in the North have more in common with workers in the South than they do with their own national rulers; namely, ending the capitalist exploitation that determines the conditions of life for both. The appeal in Fish's text to the idea of the fundamental impossibility of consensus represents the attempt to find a theoretical alibi for the U.S. declaration that it will unilaterally "liberate" Iraq regardless of whether it can convince the other member states of the United Nations of the "correctness" of its position, while simultaneously using "patriotism" to obscure the class interest of the working people in the United States in defending their working class comrades in Iraq from imperialist aggression.

Because it promotes individualist action over collective practices and substitutes pragmatic contingency for totalizing theory, Postmodernism has emerged as the official knowledge of the capitalist state in the wake of 9/11 and has become the primary means by which capitalism can shake off the fetters of outdated ideologies and take on the guise of a more rhetorically sophisticated ideology that appeals to the educated factions of the middle-class by obscuring crude conflicts with blurry ethical paradoxes. [3]

The ideological usefulness of postmodernism to monopoly capital is clearest in the post-September 11th textwares of Judith Butler, whose essays are run and re-run by post-left journals as the supreme manifestation of "deep" thinking. The popularity of Butler's analysis is that despite the growing evidence of class inequality, she erases the material basis of this inequality in capitalist exploitation and replaces it with the idea that social conflict cannot be explained except as the trace effects of overdetermined language games. In her essay, "Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear", which was published in less than a year by both Theory & Event as well as by Social Text, Butler takes a more subtle approach to 9/11 than Fish in defending U.S. interests. In addressing the "crisis" of left intellectuals in wake of September 11th, she argues "The left response to the war currently waged in Afghanistan has run into serious problems in part because the explanations that the left has provided to the question, 'why do they hate us so much?' have been dismissed as so many exonerations of the acts of terror themselves" (par 1). Unlike Fish, who is trying to appeal to a more "pragmatic" audience for whom the rhetorical difficulty of postmodernism seem, in his words, like "a rarefied form of academic talk", Butler is attempting to address a more culturally sophisticated audience who finds the endless deconstruction of the intricacies of discourse to be a sufficient substitute for analyzing the objective reality of social relations at the root of culture.

Butler, in keeping with postmodernism's fundamental premise that language determines material conditions, argues:

The articulation of this hegemony takes place in part through producing a consensus on what certain terms will mean, how they can be used, and what lines of solidarity are implicitly drawn through this use […] The term 'terrorist' is used, for instance, by the Israeli state to describe any and all Palestinian acts of violence, but none of its own. The term is also used by Putin to describe the Chechen struggle for independence, which then casts its own acts of violence against this province as justified acts of national self-defense. The U.S., by using the term, positions itself exclusively as the sudden and indisputable victim of violence, and there is no doubt that it has suffered violence, terrible violence" (par. 2).

The central thesis of Butler's argument is that all cultural statements, whether they are made in the interests of democracy or the interests of imperialism, are part of competing language games. According to this logic, there is always a "gap" between what one "thinks" and what one "does" because of the inevitable failure of any statement to take into account the interests of everyone. As such one can never say with certainty that what one "thinks" one is doing is, in fact, what one actually does. For example, if we accept the terms of Butler's argument, although one might be interested in building "democracy" all attempts to do so will fail in the end because it is not possible to construct a system that can address everyone's interests. This is ultimately to say that although the Bush administration says one thing and does another—it promises democracy and practices "regime change"—it cannot be held accountable for its actions. Rather than analyze the origins and consequences of the Bush administration's actions—which have translated into the locking up of thousands of people of color, the attack on affirmative action, the threatened invasion of sovereign nations, the use of military force to break up worker's strikes for higher wages and better working conditions, the elimination of women's rights…—Butler instead simply uncovers the "complexity" of such textual paradoxes to argue that no one can ever effectively explain social conflicts without imposing their interests over another's. While this sounds "radical" because it deconstructs the basis of declaring "unilateral" agreement, in actuality it supports the class interests of the Bush administration. It blocks the ability of the working class to collectively organize by declaring such organization "oppressive" to the interests of capital. By appealing to an essential indeterminacy at the core of language, Butler presents the violence of imperialism as "unmotivated"—the effect of textual slippage and cultural "differences"—and therefore impossible to end. The limit of this analysis, in other words, and the way in which it does the ideological work necessary to defend capitalism from challenges over the brutal effects of imperialist exploitation, lies precisely in the textualization of material conditions, which separates "cause" from "effect" in a spiraling logic of indeterminacy. It is an alibi for capitalism because it presents the effects of capitalism as unrelated to the fundamental basis of capitalism in private ownership. On the contrary, Butler declares that any attempt at explanation that connects effects to causes is a "totalitarian" thinking that suppresses all utopian possibilities. On these terms, when addressing the (dis)connection between poverty and terrorism, Butler writes:

When President Arroyo of the Philippines on October 29th, 2001 remarked that 'the best breeding ground [for terrorism] is poverty' or Arundhati Roy claims that bin Laden has been 'sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid waste by America's foreign policy', something less than a strictly causal explanation is being offered. A 'breeding ground' does not necessarily breed, but it can. And the 'spare rib' that is said to emerge from a world laid waste by U.S. foreign policy has, by definition, emerged in a strange and alchemical fashion (par. 12).

The similarity between Butler's declarations that "poverty" is not a "condition" of the social anger that is manifest in terrorism and the neo-conservative argument that terrorists do not come from poverty but from "wealthy modernizing classes" is not coincidental. It represents the convergent defense of the consequences of capitalism by U.S. intellectuals on the left and the right. While the neo-conservatives simply want to deny all effects of capitalist exploitation, in Butler's analysis "poverty" operates as a site of "resistance" to the "overdetermined" commodity culture of the West that, if left unchanged, will allow a plurality of global subjects to emerge. To declare poverty a problem of capitalism that must be transformed is, according to this argument, to impose a "totalizing" logic that erases the specificity and uniqueness of the experience of poverty. In the guise of a "radical" critique that deconstructs all "sides", Butler's post-sided, post-political logic is in actuality re-circulating the old capitalist cliché that "life is what you make it". In the end, rather than call attention to the way in which capitalist exploitation is the cause that has ravaged the world and has condemned millions of people to a life of absolute want while their labor produces the social resources they cannot afford, Butler like any other capitalist ideologue, blames the people, not the system, and turns capitalism into just another indeterminate effect of language games. She concludes:

To ask these questions is not to say that the conditions are at fault rather than the individual. But it is to rethink the relation between conditions and acts. Our acts are not self-generated, but conditioned. But we are acted upon and acting, and our 'responsibility' lies in the juncture between the two. What can I do with the conditions that form me? What do they constrain me to do? What can I do to transform them? Being acted upon is not fully continuous with acting, and in this way the forces that act upon us are not finally responsible for what we do (par. 19).

In her declaration of individual "autonomy" from the determination of material conditions, Butler essentially reproduces the most basic ideology of capitalism; namely, "freedom" as "free labor" within the confines of the "free market". Despite a seemingly sophisticated reading of "culture" and the ability to find immanent paradoxes in all aspects of the social, what Butler's analysis ultimately obscures is that the basic condition of freedom is being able to meet your needs. Butler's concept of freedom, however, presupposes the existence of wage-labor.

Under capitalism, workers appear "free" because they are not directly compelled to work for a particular employer. Nonetheless, despite "appearances" this (market) "freedom" occults the fact that workers do not own the means of production and are thus dependent upon the wage paid by the capitalist for their labor to survive. The need to sell their labor power to purchase the means of meeting their basic needs is the economic compulsion behind the "freedom" of capitalist society. As Marx and Engels argue:

in imagination, individuals seem freer under the dominance of the bourgeoisie than before, because their conditions of life seem accidental; in reality, of course, they are less free, because they are to a greater extent governed by material forces (German Ideology 78-79).

Of course, Marx and Engels argument on "culture" in this passage, that "personality is conditioned and determined by quite definite class relations" (German Ideology 78), is not as vulgar bourgeois commentators declare, an authoritarian conclusion which denies the possibility of human agency. On the contrary, what Marx and Engels analysis of culture makes clear is that Butler's declaration of individual "autonomy" is, in fact, a historical product that reflects the social, political and economic interests of a particular segment of society. It is not accidental that Butler's narrative is ultimately a "personal" one. Having eliminated the actual material conditions from the ground of analysis, her constant wondering what "she" can do is essentially an empty mediation. It reflects the concerns of the capitalist class for whom the world appears "open" and "endless" because they are freed from the daily drudgery of wage-labor by the fact that their livelihood is based by the stolen labor of millions of working people. For the majority of the world's population, who are forced to survive by selling their labor power, the "autonomy" that Butler promotes is unrealizable without a transformation from a system based upon profits to a system that is based upon meeting people's needs.


The new American Fundamentalism, which, on both the left and right wings of U.S. capital, preaches as "incontrovertible" the values of the "free market" while also teaching skepticism of the rationality and causality that would enable a revolutionary critique of capitalism and its effects, is a symptom of the decay of the capitalist system that has come to dominate the ideology of capitalism in the post-WWII period.

Capitalism is built upon a fundamental contradiction. It is a binary class system in which a few own and control the means of production while the majority are reduced to being wage-laborers whose ability to survive rests upon their ability to earn enough money in wages to purchase the commodities their labor has produced. The basis of this system is the profit accumulated by the capitalist class from the extraction of surplus value produced by workers. In the most basic terms of the "free market", capitalists hire workers to work for a set period of time, regardless of the value their labor produces. It is thus in the interests of the capitalist to increase the amount of time that goes to the production of surplus value and lessen the time being paid to wages. This is done in two ways; on the one hand, by intensifying production through the development of technology and, on the other, by increasing competition in the labor market through unemployment. According to a recent U.S. census, with the tremendous developments in technology and a continuous assault on worker's living conditions, U.S. manufacturing workers today produce almost 400% more surplus value that they earns in wages—in 1992 the division was $1 trillion dollars in surplus value to $282 billion dollars in wages [4]. This surplus value, of course, does not go to build schools and hospitals and to ensure that no one goes hungry; it goes into the pockets of the capitalists.

As it develops, capitalism sharpens this contradiction, driving the competition between capitalists to expand their productive capacity at the same time that the relative position of workers in the economy continues to fall. As Marx explains in Capital, Vol. I, "The greater the social wealth, the functioning of capital, the extent and energy of its growth […] the greater is the industrial reserve army […] the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation" (638). At first, when a market is "new" and the competition among capitals has not fully developed, the rate of profit is high because the amount of capital necessary to establishing the production process is low and the amount of labor employed is high. As competition increases, however, the capitalist is forced to introduce new technologies, which although they drive down the cost of labor by intensifying production also have the consequence of increasing the costs of production and introduce the simultaneous effect of eliminating the primary source of value, labor. The anarchy of production, in which capital continues to expand while the position of labor in production continues to decline, ensures that increases in production result in the saturation of the market with commodities that cannot be purchased because of the inability of the very producers of these commodities to afford them. The consequence, as Marx and Engels argue, is a period of economic crisis in which the forces of capitalist production become "no longer productive but destructive forces" (German Ideology 52) by advancing production beyond the boundaries of possible consumption under the limits of wage-labor, dragging down the entire social system and bringing it to a grinding halt. As Marx and Engels analysis of capital's fundamental laws explains, it is this contradiction between the anarchy of the productive forces of capital, which continue to develop solely for the purposes of profit, and its relations of private ownership, which prevent the majority from benefiting from these developments, that result in the inevitability of crisis under capitalism.

The material contradiction of capitalism between the forces and relations of production creates not only economic crisis, but also an ideological crisis in which, according to Marx and Engels:

the more the normal form of intercourse of society, and with it the conditions of the ruling class, develop their contradiction to the advanced productive forces, and the greater the consequent split within the ruling class itself as well as the split between it and the class ruled by it, the more untrue, of course, becomes the consciousness which originally corresponded to this form of intercourse [...such that…] The more their falsity is exposed by life, and the less meaning they have for consciousness itself, the more firmly they are asserted, the more hypocritical, moral and holy becomes the language of this normal society" (German Ideology 293).

In other words, as the contradictions of capitalism become increasingly severe, the ideology that capitalism is for the good of all is no longer able to explain away these contradictions by hiding the fact that it is the stolen labor of workers that is the source of the capitalists' wealth. Instead, the ideology itself becomes increasingly contradictory and begins to decay along with the capitalist system that gave rise to it. The basis of the new American fundamentalism is, I argue, the unavoidable decay of the capitalist system under the weight of its inherent contradictions. Represented by the return, on the one hand, of the most brutal moments of capitalism's past in the revival of "colonialism" and, on the other, of a rejection of causality and a virtual mysticism in the utopian musings of postmodernism, the new American fundamentalism represents the contradictions of an overdeveloped capitalist system that has become a fetter to the development of human society.

On these terms it becomes clear that 9/11 is less an isolated event than a manifestation of the anarchy of production that now threatens the world with global war, pitting the richest nations in the world against some of the poorest. What we can see in the growth of the uneven global development of production is a corresponding relationship between the rhetoric of the compradors in the South and their economic masters in the North. The drive of the imperialist nations in the North to own and control the social and natural resources of the South has resulted politically in colonialism, economically in conditions of extreme poverty, and ideologically in religious fundamentalism which preaches the end of class struggle in a realm beyond history (a trope for the U.S. as the embodiment of a holy destiny). At the same time, as the contradictions of capitalism are heightened in the North by capitalism's own drive to accumulate profits at the expense of the majority, capital must find ways to both drive down the costs of production as well as instill in the working class the impossibility of social transformation. In the United States the tremendous technological advances in production in the post-WWII period which are built upon the labor and resources of the South, has given rise to a technoscientific rationalism which attempts to obscure uneven global development and growing class conflict behind the idea that technological development has enabled the more advanced capitalist countries to supercede class division and enter a "post-capitalist" society. As Ernest Mandel argues, "This ideology proclaims the ability of the existing social order gradually to eliminate all chances of crises, to find a 'technical' solution to all its contradictions, to integrate rebellious social classes and to avoid political explosions" (501). In positioning the development of technology as the "cure" for class struggle, the ideology of technological rationalism reflects the interests of the capitalist class to obscure the material basis of social crisis in exploitation and, instead, to replace it with auxiliary factors which gain the appearance of inevitability because their connection to capitalism's fundamental laws is erased. Technological overdevelopment in the North and the underdevelopment of production in the South is explained not as an effect of the exploitative basis of capitalism, but rather as an inevitable process reflective of the North's "cultural" belief in progress.

The relationship between fundamentalism and technoscientific rationalism thus lies in the material conditions of contemporary capitalism. As production develops and the productive forces of capitalism increasingly come into contradiction with the private ownership of the means of production, the "democratic" ideology of capitalism begins to collapse and the ideology of fundamentalism becomes necessary to silence dissent by presenting "crisis" as determined by forces other than economic ones. In the South, religious fundamentalism is the product of underdevelopment and works in the interests of transnational capitalism by transforming the brutal conditions of life in semi-colonized countries into "ideal" relations, reflective of a non-existent past before imperialist plunder that appeals to exploited people whose lives have been destroyed by the forces of transnational capitalism. If fundamentalism in the South is now coming into conflict with the imperialist forces that previously relied on theocratic rulers in its war on the Soviet Union, as the U.S. did in funding and training the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, it is because capitalism is now forced to develop the Middle East into a new market as a means of turning unproductive capital in the North into capital productive for new profits in the South; a development which threatens the hold of the comprador class that uses religious fundamentalism as an ideological weapon to keep the working class in line.

At the same time, the rise of what I have called a new American fundamentalism in the North has a similar function. In his analysis of contemporary capitalism, Mandel argues that the growing structural crisis of capitalism and the inability of technology to overcome class conflict gives rise to "a pragmatic and apologetic ideology" which attempts to use the "skills" workers learn in the repetitive tasks of mass production to eliminate scientific thinking and train people in "blind conformity and obedience" to rising levels of inequality (505). The emergence of the neo-conservative's cynical imperialist discourse as well as the post-left's attack on causality in promoting history as a "strange and alchemical" set of relations are indications of the inability of capitalist ideology to obscure the basis of the current social crisis in the system itself. The 1990's vision of a post-productive, post-exploitative capitalism driven by technological advancement has given way with the burst of the stock market "bubble" to the reality of capitalist exploitation and the inevitability of the working class bearing the consequences of profit accumulation. Fundamentalism now emerges in the North to "solve" the social conflicts it did in the South. By representing the existing conditions of increasing austerity as "inevitable", and by separating the effects of exploitation from the cause in private ownership of the means of production, it attempts to alleviate the class struggle through ideological alliance of class interests. What is behind the attack on worker's rights and the rights of immigrants is the attempt by U.S. capital to divide the working class and silence all attempts at a collective struggle for economic and social justice while reducing wages and transforming all remaining public services into privatized industries for profit.

This is the real threat of September 11th. The new American fundamentalism's post-class, post-imperialist, post-rational ideology is the ideological precursor to a new fascist regime.  As the U.S. capitalist class begins its imperialist drive in an attempt to stop the decline of profit rates by gaining monopoly control of a global market against the rising economic power of the European Union and the declining profit rates of capital as a whole, there is no room for a working class movement built on the principles of economic justice. The growing fundamentalism on both the right and the left represents the class interests of bourgeois "democracy" and its culmination in brutality, irrationality and fascism. As Marx and Engels argue, the contradictions of capitalism in which the rich get richer off of the labor of the majority will result in a moment when "individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence" (German Ideology 87). As the imperialist world powers now threaten to unleash a global war for profits while increasing numbers of working people can no longer hope to meet their even basic needs, it is time, for those who believe democracy is not a rhetorical gesture or an idealist trope, to organize and defend their interests in the organization of a new society built upon the principles of "from each according to her abilities to each according to her needs".

Work Cited

Brown, Wendy and Bill Chaloupka, Tom Dumm, Paul Patton. "Introduction". Theory and Event. 5.4. (2002).

Butler, Judith. "Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear". Theory and Event. 5:4 (2002). Reprinted in Social Text 72. Vol. 20, No 3. (Fall 2002). 177-188.

Derbyshire, John. "Crusading They Went: The Deeds and Misdeeds of our Spiritual Kin". National Review. December 3, 2001. 35-37.

Eisenstein, Zillah. "Feminism in the Aftermath of September 11". Social Text 72. Vol. 20, No 3. (Fall 2002). 79-99.

Fish, Stanley. "Condemnation without Absolutes". New York Times October 15, 2001. Section A: 19.

Flemming, Bruce E. "What is the Value of Literary Studies?" New Literary History. Vol. 31 (2000): 459-476.

Ignatieff, Michael. "The Burden". New York Times Magazine January 5, 2002. Section 6: 22+

Johnson, Paul. "Under Foreign Flags". National Review. February 11, 2002. 14+

Judge, Clark S. "Hegemony of the Heart". Policy Review. December 2001 & January 2002. 3-13.

Kaiser, Robert G. "U.S. Plants Footprint in Shaky Central Asia". Washington Post 27 August 2002, A01.

Lenin, V.I. Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 22. 1964.  Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977. 185-304.

Lens, Sidney. The Forging of the American Empire. New York: Cromwell, 1971.

Lynch, Colum. "Islamic Bloc, Christian Right Team Up to Lobby U.N". The Washington Post Monday, June 17, 2002. A01.

Mandel, Ernest. Late Capital. 1972 London: Verso, 1987.

Marx, Karl. "Preface". A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 29. New York: International Publishers, 1987. 261-265.

____. Capital Volume I. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 35. New York: International Publishers, 1996.

Marx, Karl and Fredrick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 6. New York: International Publishers, 1976. 476-519.

____. The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 5. New York: International Publishers, 1976. 19-582.

Pearlstein, Steven. "Too Much Supply, Too Little Demand". Washington Post. 25 August 2002: A01.

Perlo, Victor. Super Profits and Crises: Modern U.S. Capitalism. New York: International Publishers, 1988.

Pryce-Jones, David. "Why They Hate Us". National Review October 1, 2001.

Rohde, David. "In Kabul, DVD's and TV's Fill the Shopping Bags; Burkas Sit on Shelves". New York Times 11/18/01 Section 1B: 3.

Sanger, David E. and James Dao. "U.S. is Completing Plan to Promote a Democratic Iraq". The New York Times January 6, 2003. Section A: 1.

Sciolino, Elaine.  "The World: Changing Places; War Talk Hits Its First Target: The Pivotal Ally". The New York Times September 15, 2002. Section 4: Page 1.

Stiglitz, Joseph. "Thanks for Nothing". Atlantic Monthly October 2001: 36+

Testimony By John J. Maresca Vice President, International Relations Unocal Corporation, To House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. February 12, 1998 Washington, D.C.

[1] In a "winking" response to the news that a White House briefing prior to September 11th warned of a possible al-Qa'ida attack involving the hijacking of airplanes, Rice declared, "All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking".

[2] For Marxist analysis and critique of Hardt and Negri's Empire, see Stephen Tumino's "Contesting the Empire-al Imaginary: The Truth of Democracy as Class" (The Red Critique, 4, May/June 2002) and Julie Torrant's "Empire versus Imperialism and the Question of Family Labor". (The Red Critique, 5, July/August 2002).

[3] As a recent article by Bruce E. Fleming in New Literary History on the "value" of (postmodern) literary studies attests, that postmodernism is no longer seen as threatening to the ruling class is evident in the fact that postmodernism is now accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy!

[4] Source:

1949-1984: U.S. Census Bureau, 1985 Annual Survey of Manufacturers. Quoted in Perlo, Victor. Superprofits and Crises: Modern U.S. Capitalism (512-513)

1992: U.S. Census Bureau. 1992 Census of Manufacturers.

 THE RED CRITIQUE 7 (November/December 2002)