Terrorism: Normalizing the Global Cop

With the emergence of the age of globalization, war has increasingly taken on a character that may be described as “policing”: that is to say, it has become increasingly normalized. Thus, while systemically necessary, war in the past has generally been viewed as an abnormal event, a scourge to be avoided. The same can be said of violence in general. However, there is one type of violence that in our society takes place as part of the normal social routine: policing. The situation where the police violently disable and apprehend a “suspect” is not generally viewed as problematic or abnormal, and in fact is considered desirable. The war on terror takes up and expands this principle in a process leading to the establishment of a global police state.

The term police state is well known, but it is not immediately clear what specific characteristics distinguish such a state from other possible states. The term is generally associated with a situation in which a policing agency of the state acts outside the law to arbitrarily punish or kill innocent people, in order to intimidate or otherwise subdue the population in accordance with the repressive political requirements of the government. This formulation, however, seems to more closely describe the activity of “criminals” rather than “policemen”. As we shall see, the two in principle cannot be clearly delineated.

Alternatively, we may view a police state as a state in which the laws are excessively repressive and entail gross enforcement activity that violates the rights and freedoms which people would otherwise have. At bottom, though, whether the police state apparatus enforces laws or violates them makes no difference: the essential characteristic is the manner in which the laws are enforced or violated. The defining characteristic of a police state is the use of violence or threats of violence for political purposes. This, not coincidentally, is also what is generally taken to be the definition of terrorism.

The distinction between violent crime and terrorism differs primarily in the purposes for which the violence is used: “personal” enrichment in the former case and “political” enrichment in the latter. The phenomenon of “terrorism” is emerging within the global capitalist system in the role that was previously played by “crime”. For example, the recent efforts by certain segments of the US ruling class to include the copying of copyrighted intellectual property within the definition of terrorism is but one piece of circumstantial evidence that backs up this assertion. That it would make sense at all to seek to expand the coverage of the term “terrorism” in this manner is underpinned by the systemic role which the phenomenon of terrorism is to play in the emerging global capitalist order.

The Capitalist System

For the purposes of this article, a system may be incompletely defined as a set of distinct and superficially independent entities, the behavior of which is determined by essential connections and interrelations between them, which cannot be observed when observing the district entities. A defining characteristic of a system is that it is hidden from (cannot be affected by) the entities which form part of that system.

A living body is an example of a system, comprising distinct elements such as organs. If an observer were to stay within the limits of a living body, observing the various organs, fluids, etc. that can be found within it, it would be altogether opaque what the nature of a living body as such is. A living body becomes recognizable as a living body only when viewed within the context of the broader environment in which it exists, such as the system of nature, or the system of the universe. In other words, a system can be recognized as such only when seen in the context of some greater system of which it in turn is part. Consequently, the greatest system, i.e. the universe, must necessarily remain fundamentally opaque to us. By the same token, we have no way of changing the universe as a whole. The system of the universe defines and delimits the range and nature of actions which we can take or conceive of taking.

The system which we shall consider here is the currently existing system of human socioeconomic relations, frequently referred to as the capitalist system. It should be noted that capitalism here refers not to an ideology or belief, but to a mode of production or a system of economic organization, where by economy we mean the set of practices, devices and arrangements by which people secure whatever is necessary for them to live. The term capitalist is also used to denote a certain set of people within this economic system; for the sake of clarity, such people will be referred to here as the (capitalist) ruling class.

What role does the phenomenon known as the “war on terror” play within the capitalist system? It should be noted that when we speak of the objectives, needs, etc. of the capitalist system, we are not speaking about the objectives, etc. of any group of people. While it may make sense to say that the capitalist ruling class has a certain commitment to, or interest in, maintaining the capitalist system, whereas other groups of people may not have, or may have less of, such commitment or interest, the capitalist system includes the ruled class as much as the ruling class, and is a product of the activities of the ruled class no less (and in certain respects much more so) than those of the ruling class. Likewise, while the interests of the system and of certain groups within the system may appear to coincide in some respects, the interests of the capitalist system are distinct from the interests of the capitalist ruling class.

There may be some lack of clarity here as to what, if anything, the system per se actually constitutes beyond a theoretical construct. There is no simple answer to this question. The system is not a separate entity that is comparable to the various entities that are components of that system. However, at the most concrete level, the system can be conceived of as the set of relationships that results from the totality of the actions of all the components of the system, and which substantially determine the subsequent actions of those components.

Thus, when a given component, say a person or a nation, takes a certain action which has certain consequences, those consequences of that action which affect the overall status or operation of the system can be seen as being actions of the system. When such consequences in turn cause a member of the system to take a certain action, that action can be viewed as an action of the system. It follows from this that we cannot act outside of the system; however, this does not preclude the possibility of taking actions that will substantially modify the subsequent behavior of the system, even to such an extent that the system could be said to pass out of existence.

Feeding the System

Next, let us briefly (and no doubt incompletely) examine the mode of operation of the capitalist system, particularly with respect to its most recent trends.

The dynamic of competition is a requirement for the capitalist system. The goal pursued by the players in this competition is generally characterized as being the accumulation of capital (that which has value). Since capital itself is the feedstock for further accumulation of capital (“it takes money to make money”), the process of competition for accumulation necessarily leads to increasing concentration of capital.

But since capital is the primary requisite for participating in capitalist competition, increasing concentration of capital reduces the field of players on which the dynamic of competition depends. The increasing concentration of capital consequently threatens the possibility for further competition, and thus the capitalist system itself. This can be seen as being an inherent contradiction of capitalism.

The need for more fodder for the system — more things of value to compete for — has brought about what is often referred to as the process of globalization. However, as the capitalist system globalizes, the sphere of competition — what is available to compete over — necessarily shrinks: the inherent contradictions of capitalism that drive globalization are not resolved by it, but merely expand to a global scale. This process creates pressure on the system to create situations that will promote the dynamic by which the system is sustained.

The primary objective of the capitalist system as such, or of any system, for that matter, is self-preservation: ensuring the continued existence of the system, insofar as possible. To this end, an operative objective of the capitalist system is that it remain opaque to its members. That is to say, the capitalist system, as a system, must conceal itself from any action that could terminate the operation of the system, and thus from any critical insight that could lead to such action.

Insofar as the interests of the capitalist ruling class lie in preserving the capitalist system, they consist likewise in preventing the possibility of any critical insight on the system: the relationships that define and are defined by the capitalist system must be submerged and dissipated in other relationships, the opposition to or overturning of which will not disable the operation of the system itself. That is to say, given its nature, the capitalist system is bound to produce substantial discontent among many of its members.

Such discontent can in turn serve, directly or indirectly, as a motivation to develop critical insight or take critical action against the source of that discontent. The goal of the system is to channel that discontent into some other, sub-systemic sphere, in which it may be dissipated without impinging on the continued existence of the system. As we shall see, the “war on terror” is one such sphere.

The competitive capitalist system necessitates economic growth, either through the increase in the number of individuals living under the capitalist system, or through an increase in the economic needs of an individual. A capitalist system cannot be sustained in a world with a stable population of materially sated individuals.

An inevitable result of the need for growth is that, under the capitalist system, it is essentially a requirement that all persons seek to accumulate capital — given as that is one of the two possible sources of growth. The dynamic of the capitalist system relies on this drive on the part of its participants. While the effort to accumulate capital may not prominently characterize the behavior of absolutely all people today, it is an objective of the capitalist system to make it so. The process of globalization represents an effort in this direction. At a systemic level, it is this requirement of the system itself that underlies the often forced and violent nature of the imposition of globalization measures. This systemic requirement underlies the imposition of policies by the advanced capitalist powers on the “developing” regions (i.e. those where people have not been making enough effort to accumulate).

The process of globalization thus has two sides: the accumulation of “developing” capital by the ruling classes of advanced capitalist powers, and the furtherance of accumulation efforts on the part of “developing” people. The claim often proffered by proponents of globalization, to the effect that “we just want to make them rich”, is thus not entirely false. However, the dual nature of globalization can often lead to the opposite, but systemically not undesired, result. Indeed, given the fact that capital accrues from prior capital, such a result is to be expected.

By this very same process, globalization, which seeks to expand the capitalist economy, inevitably ends up shrinking the dynamic or motivating source for that expansion. As the process of capitalist competition globally sorts itself out into winners and losers, the excitement of the game naturally dissipates. To reinvigorate its essential dynamic above and beyond what the natural limits to the process of expansion will allow, the capitalist system employs the technique of abnormal conflict, i.e. war.

Shifting Sources of War

Such conflict is abnormal not in the sense that it is unusual, but rather in the sense that it deviates from the primary modality of conflict, i.e. market competition. Traditionally, war was waged by one state actor, or a group of state actors, against another. There are, however, certain constraints as to the sort of war the capitalist system can allow. This stems from the fact that war, while serving to reinvigorate the economic processes of capitalism, can also potentially destabilize the capitalist order sufficiently to create an opening for critical insight and action against that order. The allowable scale of destruction is thus substantially constrained.

We may gain insight to this at the systemic level by observing that, under globalization, with the shrinking dynamic of capitalist competition that it inevitably brings about, the possibility for traditional war likewise shrinks. This is not to say that such a possibility has been eliminated: rather, the point here is that the demand for war under advanced global capitalism exceeds the supply that can be offered by the traditional war model. Thus, the need for new sorts of wars emerges. Most recently, this has manifested in the form of the war on terror.

In the early stages of capitalism, the primary modus operandi in the military sphere was conquest and colonization, sometimes accompanied by extermination of the conquered peoples. The United States itself was created by this very mechanism. With further development of the capitalist system, as more sophisticated modalities of control emerged, conquest per se largely ceased to be appropriate.

The process here is analogous, for instance, to the transition from slave labor to wage labor that occurred in the US domestically around the time of the Civil War. The newer modalities of control are more sophisticated in the sense that they are more difficult to discern or oppose. In this regard it may also be mentioned that any such modality can be effective only for so long, as eventually it becomes identified and opposition to it emerges, for instance the anti-imperialist or anti-colonial tendency that led to the dissolution of the various European colonial empires and the emergence of independent nations states dominated by the various European states and subsequently by the United States and other global players. The liberation here was not a liberation from domination, but a transition from one form of domination to another, just as in the case of the transition from slave labor to wage labor. Whether such transitions constitute an increase in freedom or not depends on the metric that one uses to measure it, and no obvious single metric suggests itself as being particularly appropriate. The overall process, however, can be characterized as a process of the reduction in overt domination and increase in covert domination.

Normalization of Terror

The role or criminals — transgressors against the established social order — is more or less analogous to the role of war as discussed above. In this regard, the police have served the role not so much of fighting and eliminating, but rather of normalizing crime (where “normalizing” can be understood to mean “allowing it to occur within the normal course of social events”, i.e. without fundamentally destabilizing the social order). Crime, in turn, serves to normalize the policing apparatus which superficially fights it. The fact that police forces can and often do themselves engage in crime is, from a systemic point of view, neither surprising nor problematic, as police and criminals both serve the same operative purpose of the capitalist system.

The role of the criminal within this operative purpose is now passing to the post of terrorists, and to be arrayed against them is the global police state. Much as the local police state has served to normalize crime, the global police state will serve to normalize terror. By the same token, it will serve to normalize the “war on terror”, which systemically serves the same purpose as the terror which it purports to fight. This purpose, at bottom, is to sustain the global capitalist order by stimulating the dynamic that is to motivate its participants, providing a controlled sphere into which discontent with the system can be released, concealing the system that is the source of that discontent, and neutralizing any activity that may threaten the continued existence of that system.

The project for the creation of a global police state that is being pursued through the mechanism of the war on terror entails other elements. Notable among these is “National Missile Defense”, i.e. the creation of space-based weapons platforms that would enable the global ruling class to instantaneously neutralize threats within what is to become the normal course of affairs under a global policing regime. Biotechnology or genetic engineering is another pillar in this edifice, which aims to allow the ruling class to shape the genetic structure of beings within its domain in accordance with the requirements of the global capitalist system. Discontent with the global system that cannot be allayed through technologies of psychological control, such as the media, entertainment and religion industries, is to be channeled into and neutralized under the category of terrorism.

Nothing is Eternal

While more can be said about the details and mechanisms of this emerging order, what is perhaps most notable about it is the fact that it is utterly incapable of resolving the substantive problems which people face today. In its advanced phase, the capitalist system becomes most dangerous. Nothing is eternal, and as the capitalist economic system nears the end of its evolutionary potential and its ability to sustain life degrades, it becomes most blinding as to the possibilities of resolving the problems which the system presents. The war on terror is but the latest if not the last manifestation of this blinding effect. It is not inconceivable, given the means of destruction we have deployed to safeguard our “freedom” from each other, that the human race, absorbed in fighting the terror and mass destruction of its own making, will forego the avenues for its continued existence and expire along with the failing system of socioeconomic relations under which it has most recently lived. But neither is it inevitable.

The changes that would have to be made in the human economy, that is, the human way of life, in order to continue living, are substantial and beyond the scope of any individual’s cognitive capacity. While we can reasonably say that such changes would have to be radical and revolutionary, we cannot draw up a complete blueprint of exactly how this process of change should or would take place, nor should we delude ourselves in trying to do so. While social revolution is frequently conceived of as a political or institutional transition, the sort of change that is needed here can perhaps be more aptly described as civilizational. The revolution that transformed the feudal system to the modern capitalist order was a long, tumultuous process that altered nearly all aspects of life. There is no reason to believe that the next revolution will fulfill itself through some quick and painless exercise.

It is proposed here that, in approaching the nontrivial task of our survival in the face of collapse of the system by which we live, we must begin by gaining insight into the operation of that system. If we understand the problems facing us to be systemic, our analysis of those problems must likewise be systemic. While the capitalist system is not directly visible to us in itself, we can discern it by observing it within the context of other systems, such as the system of nature, or the system of human history. Such analysis is significant not as an intellectual exercise, but as a basis for action which we may take in accordance with our findings. Those findings must be substantially correct, as our life depends on them; and thus our analytical approach must be highly reliable.

With respect to the war on terror, we conclude that, for those who value life, this is not the right war to fight. Ultimately, supporting, opposing or otherwise participating in the war on terror is immaterial and can do little to change the reality of terror, the source of which lies elsewhere.

In putting forward the necessity for proper analysis as a basis for valid action, we do not preclude the engagement in actions which, under such an analysis, would not be fully valid. Little of what we do will be fully valid or fully effective in achieving the goals which we should like to pursue. The validity and utility of such actions emerges in what we can learn from them, and in the progress that we can make based on such lessons. Thus, we must engage in such actions, including political actions, in the manner of experimenters and students, not professors and priests. More importantly, we must not, in engaging in such actions, abrogate the search for yet more valid action. In making vague denunciations of the capitalist order as bad, we must not deceive ourselves that we must thus be any better.

While some may see the task before us as being primarily a matter of enlisting enough people in an anticapitalist movement, we conclude here that the primary task is discovering the paths that will lead us toward solutions to the problems of global capitalism. The reason global capitalism persists to this day is precisely because the solutions to its problems have so far not been discovered. The process of discovery of such solutions is in itself a necessary and sufficient condition for resolving those problems.