S11 The Day the Empire Died
Dennis Redmond © 2001
Final version Dec 12, 2001
It’s amazing just how fast, how far, and how completely things have spun out of control for the Wall Street neoliberals. As late as October of 2000, the conventional wisdom was that the rentiers were still the Masters of the Universe, the US was still an intergalactic superpower, and the Bubble was merely taking a breather before Dow 30,000. One year later, the infrastructures of neoliberalism’s allegedly unassailable political, economic, and cultural hegemonies lie in heaps of smoking rubble.
First came the epochal political meltdown of the 2000 US Presidential election: an unelected oiligarchy openly seized control of the US government, despite losing the popular vote by over half a million ballots – all without a peep of protest from a crassly neoliberalized Democratic Party, long ago become just another Party of Wall Street. Thanks to its atrocious electoral college, reactionary first-past-the-post voting system, and deeply undemocratic system of Senate apportionment, the US Constitutional order achieved the rare feat of making the average Middle Eastern theocracy look good.
Next came a steadily expanding wave of the biggest anti-capitalist protests in world history: Paris ’95, Bonn ’96 and Seattle ’99, and then the multinational upsurge of Prague/Millau ’00, and Porto Alegre/Quebec City/Genoa ’01. In less than five years, popular protest smashed the EU’s Maastricht monetarism, tore huge holes in the ideological armor of the IMF and the World Bank, and knocked neoliberalism squarely back on its heels for the first time in twenty-five years. Even more unsettling from the neoliberal point of view, the protest movement was no one-shot deal, but is merely the mediatic tip of an enormous socio-political iceberg: the multinational proletariat spawned by the ferocious marketization of the planet has begun to create new forms of cultural, political and economic solidarity across all manner of traditional national borders, everywhere from promising new forms of Eurosocialism to Japan’s gargantuan bailout of Southeast Asia, and from the rise of feisty developmental states in China, Vietnam and Eastern Europe all the way to the stellar productions of a truly multinational media culture.
Then the multi-trillion-dollar dotcom bubble burst, pulverizing the high-tech manufacturers who were among the Bubble’s main beneficiaries. Northamerican chip equipment sales plunged by more than 45% in the summer of 2001, the DRAM market has collapsed by a stunning 67%, while the global chip biz as a whole is on course to contract by 35%, the worst annual decline in its thirty-year history. To make a long story short, the allegedly perfect, self-correcting, frictionless market so beloved of the neoliberals has self-destructed in epochal fashion; the Age of the Bubble Boom has given way to the age of vast and expensive post-Bubble Bailouts.
Just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the neoliberals, the hijacking operation of the century sent two jetliners careening into the heart of downtown New York City, on a suicide run which pulverized the World Trade Center of lower Manhattan. In less than an hour, twin kiloton-strength detonations reduced the Twin Towers to a ghastly pile of rubble straight out of a WWW III movie, strewn with twisted girders, pulverized concrete and eerily fluttering printouts. A third hijacked plane killed hundreds when it punched a huge hole in the Pentagon building, setting an entire wing on fire, while a fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard.
The sheer enormity of the disaster – two skyscrapers and four jets annihilated, an entire wing of the Pentagon heavily damaged, more than three thousand killed, the heart of Manhattan’s financial district ripped open – blew out neoliberalism’s mediatic circuitry. Commercials and sports events vanished from the airwaves; normal programming disappeared, in the ideological equivalent of a total systems crash. For the first time in US history, the entire US air transport system shut down. On Monday, US citizens went to sleep with visions of endless Intel greenfield sites dancing in their heads; on Tuesday, they woke up inside the shell-shocked ruins of Half Life’s Black Mesa Research Facility.1
Lineages of Catastrophe
What made S11 unique was its status as the first truly multinational catastrophe of the post-Cold War era. Armed with nothing more than knives, the hijackers meticulously turned the system’s own technology, organization and infrastructure against itself, transforming the signature transport vehicles of late capitalism into kiloton-strength cruise missiles, and turning the premier architectural symbols of the multinational era into nightmarish kill-zones. In contrast to the hijackers of the 1970s, who still had the naïvely modernist belief in the power of political manifestoes to disrupt the continuum of Cold War capitalism, and thus merely threatened to blow up their planes, the S11 team dispensed with diatribes, escape routes, and the obsolete heroism of dying underneath a hail of Special Forces bullets, innovating what might be termed just-in-time terrorism. The unruly temporalities of the manifesto, the hostage crisis and the commando action or explosion were abolished, replaced by the endlessly-replayed video clip of the second plane plunging into the tower, or what amounts to the crash of globalization’s medium into its message – at the significant price, to be sure, of signing the event in question that much more fully over to the bane of the video images which constitute the cultural superstructure of multinational capitalism.
Airborne catastrophes have an extensive history in the annals of 20th century culture, ranging from Nazi Germany’s V-bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all the way to the carpet-bombing of Vietnam by US B-52s in the 1960s. Theodor Adorno had this insightful comment on the V2 all the way back in 1944:
Had Hegel’s philosophy of history encompassed this epoch, then Hitler’s robot-bombs would have taken their place, next to the death-scene of Alexander and similar images, among the empirically selected facts in which the symbolic state of the world-spirit is immediately expressed. Like Fascism itself, the robots are self-steering and yet utterly subjectless. Just like the former, they combine the utmost technical perfection with complete blindness. Just like the former, they sow the deadliest panic and are completely futile. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, “Far from the firing-line”, Aphorism 33.
Like the V2, al-Qaeda’s pilots were in complete control, and therefore completely out of control; like the V2, they sowed the deadliest panic, and yet were ultimately futile. Though al-Qaeda are by no means fascists in the historical sense of the term, i.e. reactionary nationalists bent on imperial expansion through a militarized strain of monopoly capitalism, they were indeed the adherents of a deeply reactionary strain of Right-wing fundamentalism with significant parallels to Fascism, in the sense that both ideologies are no atavistic survivals of the past, but are the purest products of international modernity (and in the case of al-Qaeda, multinational postmodernity). One of the central features of reactionary thinking since the dawn of the capitalist world-system in the 16th century has been the deployment of the most advanced technological means on behalf of the most reactionary political ends. But whereas Fascism’s slave labor camps and military plunder represented the reinvention of primitive accumulation in the semi-periphery, al-Qaeda’s program of maximal violence tied to a minimal politics points to a rather different social constellation, namely the regressions of the Middle Eastern petro-periphery.
Oil Rentiers, Petro-fundamentalists
Unlike the Axis semi-peripheries of the 1930s, the petro-periphery never developed an autonomous industrial base. Saudi Arabia is an excellent example of the social contradictions of the region; thanks to annual oil revenues of $62.4 billion, it maintained a per capita GDP level of $8,200 in 2000, seemingly not too far away from Portugal (per capita GDP $12,000) or South Korea (per capita GDP $9,500). But a closer look shows this wealth is literally and figuratively built on sand. Energy exports continue to account for 35-40% of the total Saudi economy, but the national accumulation structure is heavily weighted towards elite consumption and overseas capital markets, rather than long-term industrial investment. No true Saudi working-class exists; rather, its oil wealth has been used to prop up a deeply reactionary regime, a bizarre postmodern caste society wherein 14 million Saudi citizens live on generous state subsidies, while the service sector is staffed by a population of approximately 6 million guest-workers and their families (for the most part, migrants from the poorer countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia). According to one State Department report, these guest-workers comprise an astonishing 72% of the total workforce.2 The long-term result was that after the boom of the 1970s, stagnating oil prices in the late 1980s and 1990s brought fiscal crisis, torpid growth rates, an increasingly onerous foreign debt (currently $139 billion, or 85% of GDP) and an explosive legitimation crisis for the Saudi elites who continue to mismanage the country’s wealth.
Osama bin Laden was the direct product of this world: not only was he the son of a billionaire Saudi construction contractor, but he received an MBA and later developed extensive logistical experience in managing complex construction projects. Similarly, the core members of al-Qaeda were not expropriated peasants or downtrodden fellahin, but middle-class Saudis and Egyptian expatriates with some degree of education, who bore the brunt of the petro-periphery’s long-running economic crisis, and thus were in a position to make the link between the corruption and venality of the Saudi monarchy and the Egyptian one-party state, and US corporate power and military influence. There were of course important contributing circumstances here: absent the Gulf War, the punitive and cruel ten-year blockade of Iraq (various UN reports have estimated the death toll caused by the US-led embargo on Iraq in the hundreds of thousands), Israel’s brutal repression of the Palestinian Authority, and the long-running CIA intervention in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would likely have remained an insignificant splinter group. Taken together, these factors formed a lethal cocktail which not only galvanized indigenous discontent, but provided the financial and military means, the ideological motive, and the historical opportunity for a social explosion. This is something chillingly evident in this excerpt from the New York City court case involving the 1993 WTC bombings, ably recounted by Guardian reporter Giles Foden:
Q. And why did al-Qaida want an aircraft?
A. They have some goods of their own they want to ship from Peshawar to Khartoum.
Q. And first of all, who is “they”?
A. Again, I’m referring to Wadih and Osama.
Q. And did he tell you what the goods were that he wanted to ship from Peshawar to Khartoum?
Q. What were they?
A. Stinger missiles.
Many al-Qaida trainees saw videos of such missiles and other weaponry daily as part of their training routine. Showing hundreds of hours of Muslims in dire straits – Palestinians on the West Bank, Bosnians being shot by Serbs, Chechens under attack from the Russian army and (most of all) dying Iraqi children – was part of al-Qaida’s Ipcress-file style induction strategy. Giles Foden. Bin Laden: the former CIA “client” obsessed with training pilots. The Guardian, September 13, 2001. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/wtccrash/story/0,1300,551037,00.html>
Such atrocities were used to justify new atrocities, namely the attacks on the USS Cole and the US embassy bombings in 1998. Instead of taking the hint and moving US troops out of harm’s way, as the Reagan Administration did after the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, Clinton responded by lobbing cruise missiles at what later turned out to be a harmless Sudanese aspirin factory and an al-Qaeda base camp in Afghanistan. Three years later, al-Qaeda returned the favor, by commandeering one of the central mediatic tropes of the US Empire in its late, decadent phase, namely, the celebrated Gulf War video clip of a US cruise missile as it slammed into a hapless Iraqi bunker. An appalling Wall Street Journal editorial in the days following the end of the Gulf War sneered, “For once and for all, force works.” Osama Bin Laden carried out the Journal’s mandate to the letter: on September 11, 2001, ten years to the day the US formally unleashed its campaign against Iraq, the images of cruise missiles slamming into bunkers recoiled, through a gruesome but ineluctable historical logic, into the images of hijacked jets slamming into skyscrapers.
Sowing Dragon’s Teeth
Given this background, it’s safe to say that the minimal political goals and maximal operational audacity of S11 mark it as an act of the multinational petty bourgeoisie, whose fundamentalism was a global spin-off of the Saudi regime’s own notoriously reactionary petro-fundamentalism. These fundamentalists were not fanatics of faith but of energy-rents, the inevitable products of unstable oil monarchies in the throes of irreversible economic decline. As if sensing that those energy-rents were going to dry up in the hydrogen-powered future, Osama Bin Laden, child of the petro-bourgeoisie, rewrote the demise of petrocapitalism into the messianic ciphers of apocalypse.
But whose apocalypse, precisely? And why were US targets chosen, instead of the homes of Saudi princes or Mubarak’s residence? The names of the targets yield an important clue: United and American Airlines were picked due to their obvious relation to the words “United States”; the World Trade Center is the self-evident symbol of global trade and exchange; while the Pentagon is eponymous for the US military. Taken together, they form an unmistakable constellation of the global military, financial and transport superstructures of neoliberalism, bereft of their political, industrial and service-sector infrastructures – the uncanny imago, indeed, of the polarized Gulf economy itself.
In fact, Bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the purest products of the Cold War: Bin Laden served as a significant CIA asset in the decades-long US proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and those CIA-trained and CIA-equipped forces, supplied via Pakistan’s ISI agency, spawned the Taliban. Back in 2000, post-colonial theorist and cultural critic Aijiz Ahmad, one of the savviest analysts of the Southeast Asian scene, wrote this chillingly prescient analysis of the Frankenstein the US was creating in Central Asia:
It was at the Khyber Pass that Professor Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, had stood, an American-made gun in hand, promising his hired mujahideen that this gun would enable Islam to prevail against the godless communists. Osama Bin Laden is only one of the hundreds of thousands who came out of the barrel of that gun; he simply has more money that most others of his kind.
What did the war in Afghanistan mean for Pakistan?
In the nuclear arena itself, the great dependence of the United States upon Pakistan for the conduct of the war meant that Pakistani intelligence services were free to beg, buy, and steal nuclear technologies from the best laboratories of the Western world without getting punished, even as the United States continued to blame China and North Korea for transferring this technology to Pakistan; the Americans had to swallow hard as Pakistan developed its weapons capability.
Then there was the money. Quite aside from the countless billions that came from the United States and the Gulf monarchies, the illegal drug trade alone, which American secret services helped organize for the Afghan mujahideen to finance part of their operations, was said to be bringing in over two billion dollars annually during the early 1980s.
A side-effect for Pakistan was that for a decade or so drug addiction grew in Karachi faster than in any other city in the world, and Karachi became a major hub for gun-running by drug-trafficking mafias; it was in those years that social and political life in the city was first massively criminalized. And the cancer of course spread far and wide.
In other parts of the country, in the Northwest Frontier Province particularly, but also in Baluchistan and Punjab, over three million Afghan refugees poured in, altering the social fabric itself in the regions where they were concentrated; one-third to one-half are said to be there still. Many of the leaders of Afghan Islamic organizations had migrated to Pakistan during the Bhutto period, and the bulk of the ruling class, minus the ones who went straight to Western countries or went to Iran instead, now also converged there. The refugee camps, where military training and Islamic education of the most arcane kind were dispensed in equal measure, became the source of virtually infinite recruitment for the war inside Afghanistan. The combination of military expertise and extreme religious conservativism that the Taliban has displayed is a direct reflection of the lethal brew first stirred up in those camps. We might add that the seven-party alliance that was recognized by Pakistan and the United States as the legitimate soldiers of God, who then fought over the spoils after the Soviet withdrawal until the Taliban threw them out, was only slightly less conservative than today’s Taliban and surely no less brutal. The same applies to the Pakistanis who joined them in increasing numbers and the ones who came from a variety of other countries, from the Sudan to the United Kingdom. Many of those who have tasted blood are now looking to other sources for the same ghastly nourishment.
In the process, Pakistan’s own Islamicist organizations, such as the Jama-at-e-Islami, which had remained politically marginal and militarily inconsequential have made spectacular progress in terms of money, arms, men, and expertise. There has also been an immense proliferation of other such outfits. Furthermore, there is still a huge pool of human beings, not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, not only army regulars and controlled irregulars but also freelance seekers after martyrdom, from among whom guerillas for covert wars can still be recruited. Equally dangerous, perhaps, is the fact that many are men of shifting loyalties and fierce egotism, under no one’s control and largely footloose. Weapons of all sorts and of all levels of sophistication, right up to a handful of Stinger missiles, are spread across Pakistan and among the Afghan irregulars; no effort to disarm this marauding mass can wholly succeed. Aijiz Ahmad. Lineages of the Present. Verso: NY, 2000 (pp 264-265)
Wars of the Second World
Strange as it sounds, Osama Bin Laden’s trajectory from oil rentier to multinational warlord is the uncanny mirror image of quite another petro-oligarchy of a declining realm, namely the Bush family. The involvement of the Bush clan in the oil and spook biz is the stuff of legend; after successfully parlaying a moderate amount of oil wealth into major-league political capital, the elder George Bush served as head of the CIA in 1976, oversaw the CIA’s patronage of Panama’s General Noriega, and was up to his neck in the Iran-Contra scandals of the 1980s, before going on to orchestrate those twin house-cleaning operations of the immediate post-Cold War era, the invasion of Panama in 1989 (launched against Noriega, a former CIA asset gone embarrassingly bad) and the Gulf War of 1991 (launched against the former counterweight against Iran). It is deeply fitting that Dubya, the flyweight governor of Texas who seized power thanks to a crooked electoral system cooked up by 200-year-old slavelords (plus the timely help of brother Jeb Bush in Florida, the Republican majority of the Supreme Court, and the active complicity of the Democratic Party), should end up confronting Osama Ben Laden, a monster created by his father’s CIA.
The riveting horror of S11, on the other hand, the nerve it touched, was the ghastly thought of wondering just what the passengers on the doomed planes must have gone through, in those last desperate moments when they realized, thanks to their cellphones or just by looking out the window, what was in store for them. The thought has a rational kernel: this is the dawning intuition that we are all passengers of a doomed system, its utopian promise of prosperity hijacked by what Marx called long ago the fanatics of exchange-value – financial fundamentalists who are ready to sacrifice indescribable amounts of human and natural life for the greater glory of “shareholder value”. The neoliberal world-system has condemned four billion human beings to utter misery, while permitting a few hundred thousand human beings to own and operate the vast bulk of the planet’s wealth for the sole purpose of enriching themselves. At present, the global periphery is shackled to 2 trillion euro of hard currency debt, which it has not the slightest means of repaying, thanks to its structural dependence on agrarian and raw materials exports, global unequal exchange, and the toxic effects of IMF and World Bank austerity. The social effects of unfettered, unchecked global accumulation, measured in terms of falling real wages, loss of life expectancy, cutbacks in education and health services, and rising crime and violence, have been the equivalent of a thirty-year world war on the working people of this planet. Entire peoples, cultures and ecologies continue to be sacrificed at the altar of a financial fundamentalism which, since it is perfect in theory, need not be called to account for its colossal failures (twenty years of declining real wages in the US, the Wall Street Bubble, the collapse of Eastern Europe, Mexico, Russia, and Indonesia, etc.). Instead, the social reality is forcibly adjusted to financial dogma, with ghastly consequences for billions of human beings.
The telos of neoliberalism, a.k.a. financial fundamentalism, is global destruction: after the age of the Wall Street Bubble comes the double-barreled Crash, replayed over and over in front of our astonished eyes. The financial fundamentalism of Wall Street neoliberalism has its distorted mirror-image in the religious fundamentalisms of the petro-periphery: both wish to regress to a fantasmatic past, of unquestioned US hegemony and of the unquestioned energy-rents which fed that hegemony, respectively. The dogma of ROE (return on equity) is the rentier jihad; the US dollar is the rentier Allah, and “Neutron” Jack Welch is the rentier Bin Laden (no joke, when one considers the hundreds of thousands of lives trashed by GE’s savage cost-cutting, or the vast swathes of the Hudson River contaminated with its PCBs). That is why the most appropriate metaphor for the Bush bombing campaign is neither WW II nor WW III, but the War of the Second Worlds – a bogus petro-Islam facing off against an equally fraudulent petro-Christianity, a battle between identically anachronistic oiligarchs, rather like the Turkish-Russian wars of the 19th century or the murderous civil conflicts of postcolonial Africa.3
This raises the question of what the long-term effects of S11 will be on a neoliberalism already in the throes of a severe legitimation crisis. It’s probably not an accident that Afghanistan should have exploded into fundamentalism; bereft of Pakistan’s remittances, agrarian and textile exports, and lacking the raw materials and energy-rents of the former Soviet republics turned nation-states, fundamentalism was the only ideology capable of forging a rudimentary state apparatus. It’s interesting that fundamentalism has completely failed to do anything more than inconvenience entrenched one-party states in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere; even Iran, the usual example of a religious revolution, is very much the exception which proves the rule – the mullahs chased out a monarchy and replaced it with the equivalent of a Cromwellian one-party state. Natural geography and Cold War social history seem to have conspired to make Afghanistan the weak link of the Central Asian region, the first fault-line in the tectonic shift away from the US Empire and towards the rule of the EU and East Asia. In the optimistic version of this process, states will slowly adjust to the new situation, assisted by far-sighted UN diplomacy and EU aid; one cannot discount, however, the possibility of a horrendous regional conflagration, if the US is so foolish as to extend its military campaign to other, unrelated countries, or to try to reexert its lost economic hegemony by military means.
Limits of Catastrophe
If this is so, then there may well be a sense in which even our most fervid scenarios of catastrophe – colossal destruction and ever more spectacular oil wars throughout the petro-periphery – are missing the point. What such narratives gloss over is the fact that the US is not the center of the world-system. The true Twin Towers of the global economy are not New York buildings, but the abstract, largely invisible infrastructures of the European Union and East Asia, the new global hegemons who have financed the US’ vast current account and trade deficits to the tune of 400 billion EUR annually, and who the US owes some 2.4 trillion EUR on its net international investment account. More importantly, the EU and East Asia are leading the charge towards renewable energy, efficient mass transit and conservation (the EU is on track to generate 20% of its electricity via windpower by 2010, and both regions consume half the energy per capita which the US consumes). To be blunt, the EU and East Asia are cutting the umbilical cord tying their economies to the petro-periphery.
What this means is that one of the fundamental assumptions of the Left – the simple demand, “Peace Now” – needs to be supplemented by a more nuanced set of demands, which might be summarized as “Global Justice Now”. In the year 2001, it is an indisputable geopolitical reality that the US is nothing more than an advanced semiperiphery, a Second World oiligarchy with a Third World electoral system, ruled over by reactionary dimwits who quote the Bible the way the Taliban quote the sharia, only without the Taliban’s incomparable provincial charm. While this decline has triggered increased US juridical and military intervention in the declining petro-peripheries, it’s striking to note how quickly the rising industrial semi-peripheries of Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe are moving into alignment with East Asia and the EU. Both Bush and Bin Laden represent identically reactionary responses to the impending end of the hydrocarbon epoch and beginning of the Hydrogen Age, i.e. the displacement of irreconcilable internal conflicts into murderous but curiously powerless acts of multinational violence.
Three practical consequences come to mind:
1. S11 was a multinational crime, and multinational police action is necessary to both track down its perpetrators, and ensure that similar events do not happen again.
2. Some sort of intervention in long-suffering Afghanistan is necessary, and this must take the form of a long-term United Nations commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan, and preventing future multinational organizations from essentially hijacking nation-states. The closest analogy here is Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia in 1978, which kicked out the genocidal Khmer Rouge. That said, the scope and scale of military intervention must be firmly limited to rooting out al-Qaeda; the Left must firmly resist attempts by the US oiligarchy to transform a global police action into a permanent military occupation of Central Asia.
3. Realistically, the only counterweight to the power of the US on the world stage right now is the EU. The EU must step up and play the role of peacemaker and consensus-builder, in order to end the sanctions against Iraq, provide the nascent Palestinian state with the resources it needs to develop an autonomous economy, and in general permit the Middle Eastern countries to find their own path to democratization and industrial development; if they do not play this historic role, then al-Qaeda will be the forerunner of social explosions too horrible to contemplate.
Towards Global Justice
The objection might be raised that insofar as exploding buildings and crashing airplanes have been a grim reality since WW II, and given that the body-count of S11 pales next to the fearful toll of the wars, famines and epidemics occurring elsewhere in the world-system, we ought not to make too much of the event. In the more extreme versions of this view, the victims of S11 are written off as unfortunate bystanders, complicit citizens of an arrogant, violent superpower which finally got a taste of its own medicine. The objection falls short, however, precisely where it feels itself to be most certain: this is the ideal of juridical comparability, of a common global standard for all acts of violence. No such standard exists. The Cold War version of this argument was the simple-minded equation of the Nazi atrocities of WW II and Stalin’s purges, without any regard for the historical differences between the two regimes; an argument which was subsequently used by the US Empire to justify its savage war on Vietnam, just as Soviet ideologists regularly invoked the horrors of Fascism in order to crush democratic uprisings in Eastern Europe. It is one of the terrible ironies of history that both former superpowers bear a nearly equal share of responsibility for the current misery of Afghanistan. The aporia is that every act of violence is particular, i.e. committed by certain individuals against other individuals or objects, while justice by its very definition must be universal. No application of justice would suffice to fully restitute to the victims what was done to them, and the attempt to do so would only fall back into the same old injustice – an eye-for-an-eye leaves, as Gandhi put it, the entire world blind. True justice can only prevent future violence.
What an authentic justice might be like can perhaps best be grasped from the standpoint of two of the greatest works of art of the multinational era, both of which have a surprisingly direct relationship to the unforgettable imagery of S11. The video trope of the skyscraper was invented by Patrick McGoohan’s magnificent 1967 TV series The Prisoner. During the opening tag which begins each episode, there is a scene in which No. 6, the hero of the story, is abducted by secret agents who knock him out with sleeping gas. Just before he falls unconscious, he looks out the window and sees two office towers in the window; their sheer surfaces are briefly superimposed against his puzzled face. Later, he wakes up in the nameless, stateless Village, one of the great metaphors of postmodern placelessness, thus qualifying the preceding tower shot as one of the first great multinational allegories in media history. On a certain level, S11 was fuelled by the regressive impulse to destroy those towers, instead of understanding why they were built, and how the multinational economy might be changed for the better.
Hideaki Anno’s 1995 anime series Neon Genesis: Evangelion took the skyscraper narrative in a whole new direction, by transforming a futuristic Tokyo-3 into an informatic battleground between giant robots or mechas (the Evangelions) and mysterious creatures called “angels”, who assail the human race from another dimension. In 1996, many Japanese observers felt Evangelion was an uncanny prediction of the Aum sect’s poison gas attacks on the Tokyo subway; nowadays, the battle-scenes in Evangelion read like the most shockingly precise premonition of S11 imaginable, relaying the same sense of a shocking planetary catastrophe which can only be answered for with new forms of collective mobilization – ones which neither lash out against the multinational era with homicidal (and ultimately suicidal) fury, nor reiterate the dreadful cycle of revenge, but reach out towards the horizon of global justice, renouncing the total violence of market competition by new forms of multinational cooperation.
1. For those unfamiliar with the 3D videogame scene, Half Life was the greatest PC videogame of the late 1990s. Created by Valve Software, and scripted by fantasy and fiction writer Marc Laidlaw, Half Life was the first 3D videogame to surpass the blockbuster Hollywood thriller or sci-fi spectacular, by transforming 3D textures, level design and scripting sequences into multinational art-forms. One of the fundamental innovations of the game was its creation of a genuinely post-Cold War narrative scenario set in a mythical Black Mesa Research Facility in Arizona, which ingeniously turns the standard “alien invasion” trope of Cold War science fiction on its head (though the plot is far too delightful to reveal here, suffice to say that your player-character eventually discovers that the worst aliens are human beings themselves). For complete information on the game, see Planet Halflife at <http://www.planethalflife.com>.
3. The limits of the metaphor are the limits of the social decline of the US. This is probably most evident in the figure of Colin Powell, truly the adult supervision in the White House, who has steadfastly refused to expand the war into the global bombing spree which the Far Right of the Administration would like to see, and whose commanding presence has put Dubya and Dick Cheney in the shade. In mass-cultural terms, Powell has played the mythic role of the cool-headed, logical Tuvac in Star Trek Voyager, at a moment when Captain Janeway has been captured by aliens and pinheaded Starfleet admirals are calling for bombing an entire spiral arm of the galaxy into the next dimension. Connoisseurs of the Bush tribe will note that Powell’s role uncannily mirrors that of James Baker in the Administration of Bush Senior, with the qualification that this Bush is dumber, and this Baker is more capable.