Brian Holmes on Wed, 9 Feb 2011 12:14:48 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> The beginning of the end?

On 02/05/2011 11:49 AM, Martha Rosler wrote:

> hey, brian,
> II'm not equipped to argue this global trend forecasting, but I do have
> some quibbles about how you get there.

Hello Martha, thanks for your curiosity and also for the encouragement 
of those who wrote me on the backchannel. I know the ideas in this 
"Beginning of the End" contribution might sound a bit wild-eyed, but 
they are just an off-the-cuff response based on the much more solid 
research program on "technopolitical paradigms" that Arnim Medosch and I 
are developing. This research looks into the periods of systemic order 
(or at least, dynamic equilibrium) that develop in the periods between 
the great economic downturns and period of political disorder that are 
well known from recent history: 1929 and its consequences; the 1973 
oil-shock and the long recession of the 1970s; and now the meltdown of 
2008, with whatever may follow. Of course, looking at those more-or-less 
coherent periods also means looking very closely at the crises from 
which they emerge. We want to create a better characterization of the 
periods loosely known as "Fordism" and "Informationalism"; but our real 
interest is to understand the present crisis and how to act within it. 
To the extent that this is a research program and not a dogma or a 
finished project, all questions and dialogues are very welcome. I'll try 
to answer your questions, not one by one but in groups. The idea here is 
not to defend the exact wording of my little text, but it is to respond 
to your specific questions and also to explain the general framework of 
interpretation that makes current events look very much like the 
beginning of an ending of the neoliberal or informationalist period.

To start, this seems to be the most problematic of my assertions:

"Beginning with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the focus of global warfare 
and the principle justification for the gigantic national 
arms-manufacturing complexes shifted from Asia (which had occupied that 
role during the Cold War) to the Middle East. US defeat in Vietnam 
officialized the shift."

Of course you are right to point out later on that there never was an 
atomic war between the US and USSR, but there were many proxy wars 
supported by those two powers all over the formerly colonized "third 
world" (the number of those proxy wars actually peaked in the early 
1980s, I believe). But if we try to characterize the geopolitics of the 
postwar period (say, 1945-75), there were two very big hot wars in Korea 
and Vietnam that oriented US military-industrial development within the 
larger, ultimately very stable context of the Cold War. These were big, 
long, deadly, full-on wars, absorbing huge amounts of military 
production and allowing for the pursuit of the continuous mobilization 
that, in the eyes of corporate and State Department planners, had been 
so "positive" for US economic growth and control of the international 
environment. In fact, the Korean War is what really solidified the Cold 
War, after its beginnings in 1947-48 with the Truman Doctrine and the 
formation of NATO. It's important to realize that NATO takes over for 
the Marshall Plan, which couldn't be renewed due to lack of 
Congressional support: NATO and the Cold War were the way to fulfill the 
corporate lobby's plan to circulate US capital through Western Europe 
and Japan in order to create markets for US industrial production (all 
that was planned during the war by the Council on Foreign Relations, see 
the great book Imperial Brain Trust which tells the story). There's a 
lot of research showing that these wars and the huge military 
deployments within the NATO framework were not only motors of economic 
growth, but also the justifying and legitimating factors for the US 
version of the planned economy in that period, where immense military 
budgets were both a way to maintain full employment and a driver of 
technological innovation. To claim that Asia had been the focus of US 
shooting wars in the postwar period is, I think, not only factually 
true, but if you add in the above considerations it also tells a lot 
about what gave structure to that whole period of post-WWII history.

But this is all just background to get to your questions. Let's go further.

The breakdown of the Bretton Woods currency agreement in 1971-73 and the 
oil shock of 73 are considered by all kinds of historians as the end of 
the postwar order and the beginning of something new -- just the 
beginning, because the new period (or "paradigm" as we would say) only 
takes on clear form with the ascent of Reagan and Thatcher and the 
emergence of neoliberalism in late seventies-early eighties. It's 
significant in my eyes that the OPEC oil embargo was a result of US 
support for Israel in the 1973 war launched by Egypt. You're right, it's 
not really a "victory," but they did invade the Sinai by using an 
amazing tactic of basically melting the hardened sand defensive wall 
installed on the banks of the Suez Canal, which really threw the 
Israelis off guard and destroyed the myth of thier invincibility; and 
so, taking the Egyptian viewpoint for once I consciously decided to call 
it a victory (it is very fascinating to visit the 1973 war memorial out 
in the Cairo suburbs just to see how the Egyptian state imagines that 
"victory"; also check the Amos Gitai film Kippur for some insight into 
how the Israelis felt about the whole thing as defeat or disaster). Out 
of the oil embargo came the new economic arrangement with OPEC and above 
all, Saudi Arabia, that Michael Hudson discusses very well in 
Super-Imperialism, and of which John Perkins gives such a graphic 
portrait in his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. More broadly, from 
1967 on the Middle East becomes the site of repeated shooting wars 
involving the US client Israel; and the 1973 war ultimately leads to the 
US support of Egypt with the 1979 treaty, to the tune of approx. $2 
billion a year. At the same time, the figure of radical Islam as the 
great enemy takes form with the Iranian Revolution and then the 
assassination of Sadat in 1981.

Now, of course you're right about the continuing importance of the USSR 
in the 70s and 80s. The role of the Middle East as the focus of US 
strategy and shooting wars and radical Islam as the ideological enemy 
clearly does not become central and structural until the end of the 
Soviet Union: but it undeniably has become so, with the Gulf War, 9-11 
and then the ongoing Irak war. This pragmatic fact of the Middle East as 
the focus of war is overwritten by the emphasis on the Islamic terrorist 
enemy and it has led to all sorts of transformations in the US military 
deployment which are really very characteristic of the larger 
political-economic picture, namely the onset of informationalism. Under 
this political-economic regime the key weapons are the guided missile 
and the UAV, both depending on GPS technology and a whole lot of other 
components that are deeply bound up with informationalism (they go back 
to Reagan-era "star wars"). The other big thing is counter-terrorism 
surveillance, using information tech to pre-emptively identify very 
ordinary, unremarkable individuals moving through a more or less "open" 
system of communications and transport. Huge amounts of money go into 
this, it's a growth industry. What we are trying to catch in our study 
is this kind of relation between technology, economics, geopolitics, and 
many other things besides.

You ask whether "neo-imperialism" isn't a better description of the US 
in the Middle East. Well, yes, but you have to pack a lot into the 
"neo." Since the early 20th century the US hegemony has not been about 
colonizing other countries, it has built the paradox of liberal empire, 
where wars are fought to impose "free" trade to the benefit of the 
hegemonic power. It looked to many as though this liberal empire was 
going to collapse after the defeat in Vietnam, and also with the rise of 
Japan as an industrial power: around this time Wallerstein began 
proclaiming America was in decline. But he was a bit too early off the 
starting block with that one, and what happened instead was the rise of 
a new financialized economy that was very big on computers and networks. 
We think there is a link between financially driven globalization, 
just-in-time production, smart-weapons warfare and the rise of the 
Internet: all of that begins in the early 70s, starts to develop 
seriously in the 80s and comes to a peak in the late 90s and early 00s; 
and it's all associated with changes in organizational forms, media, 
cultural values, even the very definition of money. In short, it's a 
different paradigm. Far more than neo-imperialism is at stake in these 
developments, and yet the US still strives to maintain its hegemony, 
often through very aggressive means (which is what Hardt and Negri 
refused to admit in Empire and that's the reason why that book, which 
has so many great insights, has ultimately been a kind of failure). If 
you can allow me to get all geeky on you, I think it's very revealing to 
look at the transition between what the sociologist Bob Jessop calls the 
Keynesian National Welfare State and the Schumpeterian Workfare 
Postnational Regime. The second paradigm is transnational by essence, 
it's networked, it's fast and it's very crisis-prone. I tried to get at 
all these period differences way back in 2002 in my text on the 
"flexible personality." This time around it is getting much clearer and 
more precise, which is normal because we seem to be coming toward the 
end of the whole period of informationalism or flexible accumulation or 
whatever you want to call it.

Finally, you are not convinced by the "causal link" between the 
financial meltdown and China's increasing assertion of its sovereignty. 
Well, this is in process and it's probably too early to tell (not the 
way Zhou Enlai famously said it's too early to tell about the success of 
the French Revolution - I mean, it's just a few years too early). 
There's a great article in a recent New Left Review called "America's 
Head Servant?" which reviews the way that China developed into a 
manufacturing base for the US, continually circulating the capital 
earned from its exports back into the US so that Joe and Jane Consumer 
could buy more at Wal-Mart and the Chinese could continue to develop 
industrially. The author thinks nothing has changed since the crash. I 
am not so sure, because China has done huge public-works projects to 
spend its way out of the crisis and in that way the state has begun to 
take over from foreign capital as the engine of development. In 
particular you can see them trying to corner the industrial market in 
green energy technologies, particularly wind power, and that shows a 
pretty clear understanding of the opportunities presented by a coming 
change in technopolitical paradigms. At the same time they have engaged 
an important internal debate about whether they should keep plowing 
their money back into US Treasury bonds. Meanwhile, everyone is waiting 
to see how low the dollar will slide and to what extent Asia will 
develop consumer markets and also bond markets that will reduce their 
dependence on the West. Of course the US and its allies could still pull 
the rabbit out of the hat and set up some new form of hegemony (and 
"hegemoney" as Arrighi says); but one way or the other, I think the 
present neoliberal pattern of development is one the way out, not in one 
blow but in the upcoming probably quite tumultuous decade, of which 
present newspaper headlines are a part.

Anyway, I write all this because I hope some people might be interested 
in the project, and in fact we are interested not only in readers but in 
collaborators. No one knows what will happen in Tunisia and Egypt but it 
really seems to me that we have entered a period of relative chaos when 
seemingly small things like social movements and artistic inventions and 
philosophical breakthroughs can actually sway the course of events (only 
partially of course but that's much more than usual). The point is to be 
as alive as possible, to be as aware as possible and to try to 
understand what's happening while it's happening, rather than waiting 
for tomorrow to be sure about yesterday.

Hope that's somehow enlightening and not too long or boring or obvious 
or whatever. For those who are interested here are some materials of the 
Technopolitics project, which also goes by the name of Four Pathways 
through Chaos:

The real home of the project is the Technopolitics group at - the site is down right now, but check it out, 
it will be back up soon enough.

best, Brian

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