Monday, May 09, 2005

apocalypse, still disappointing

Stuart Watkins' review of Joe Sacco's Palestine is really quite good.

On another note, anyone feel like defending Hardt and Negri against this?
But, however misguided it is, some may still feel Empire and Multitude to be on their side, allied to democracy and the left. Susan Sontag wrote that ‘an idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may serve the needs of the spirit.’ But unfortunately, spiritual needs are served here by adventures onto a terrain already occupied by fundamentalists of varying hues, all ready with their own formulae for rapture and ecstasy. Each one has its own multitudes of the faithful, armed and ready for great encounters still to come. Norman Cohn, the historian of millennial thought, traces the idea back to Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who added the idea of a happy ending to previous visions of disaster: ‘a glorious consummation of order over disorder, known as “the making wonderful”, in which “all things would be made perfect, once and for all”’. Later the notion was transmitted via Hebraism to Christianity. In When Time Shall Be No More (1992), Paul Boyer gave a graphic account of how strong this belief remains among born-again Americans, and more recently still Anatol Lieven has underlined the rapport between such apocalyptic convictions and US political identity in America Right or Wrong (2004). Unfortunately, being on our side has in this wider context the sense of carrying our side over to their terrain: we too have our apocalypse, better than the rest.

No we don’t. Globalisation must be about burying such delusions, not reviving them. It’s for the boondocks and the bearers of boundary stones, not for intellectuals avoiding the graveyard of their kind of aristocracy through a rehabilitation of spiritualism.

Update (yet another fun, contextualizing blockquote, sorry): Tom Engelhardt's rhetorical suggestion that the Cold War produced no winners but rather a pair of losers meanders into a useful synopsis of a "new people power":
"'Extra-hemispheric actors are filling the void left by restricted U.S. military engagement with partner nations. We now risk losing contact and interoperatibility with a generation of military classmates in many nations of the region, including several leading countries,' [Southern Command chief Gen. Bantz Craddock told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.]. The void left by the United States after ASPA is increasingly being filled by China, Craddock warned."

More striking yet has been the rise of a new kind of "people power" -- a term we usually associate with Soviet-controlled Poland or the Marcos-controlled Philippines -- throughout Latin America. It could most recently be observed in Ecuador, where popular demonstrations drove the Bush-administration-backed President, Lucio Gutiérrez, who had only recently illegally dissolved the Supreme Court, out of the country; and again, only a week ago, in Mexico City where an estimated 1.2 million people turned out in a "silent march" to support Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, that city's left-wing mayor and the country's leading candidate for president in next year's election, after Vincente Fox's ruling party had tried to railroad him out of the race and into jail on a trumped-up charge. As Danna Harman of the Christian Science Monitor wrote of the march (People power rattling politics of Latin America), while discussing "the weakening of authoritarian regimes [in Latin America] and the growing self-assurance of the people -- including, in the case in Bolivia, the indigenous":

"Chalk up another victory for Latin American people power. In the 1990s, what politicians feared most was apathy. But lately, Latin Americans from Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador -- much like the citizens of Ukraine and Lebanon -- have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers."

Harold Meyerson, writing in the Washington Post in mid-April on earlier Mexican protests over Obrador, commented (Greetings from Mexistan):

"Apparently, there are several kinds of capital city rallies. There are those in Kiev, where multitudes turned out to protest the subversion of a national election and the attempted murder of the opposition leader. There are those in Beirut, where people gathered to protest the murder of an opposition leader and to demand self-determination. These were outpourings that our government encouraged.

"And there was the one last Thursday in Mexico City, where 300,000 protesters filled the Zocalo... And what was the response of our government?... Did we tell the crowds gathered in the Zocalo that America walks at their side?

"Not quite. While Condi Rice waxes eloquent about our concern for democratic rights in Central Asia and the Middle East, the most the Bush administration has managed to say about democracy in the unimaginably faraway land of Mexico has been the comment of a State Department spokesman that this is an internal Mexican affair. Democracy may be all well and good, but Lopez Obrador is just not Bush's kind of guy. As mayor of Mexico City, he's increased public pensions to the elderly and spent heavily on public works and the accompanying job creation. He's criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement as a boon for the corporate sector and a bust for Mexican workers..."

As it turned out, the Mexican people didn't need George Bush's funding or organizational support; nor, it seems, did any other manifestation of "people power" to our south. For what we have been seeing throughout Latin America -- as along Russia's border -- has been a serial revolt in country after country against the Cold War world and the imperial orders it imposed on its near abroads. Once upon a time, an American administration would have put such revolts down serially, using the CIA, military to military relations, economic power, and aid of various sorts; but, though events in Latin America are finally making the Bush administration sit up and take note, its ability to act is more limited than usual. After all, Iraq is proving a black hole for American power and something of a graveyard for the administration's global ambitions and energies -- giving new meaning to that old Vietnam-era word "quagmire."

There can be little question that, in the superpower-funded revolt of the Russian near-abroad and the unsupported revolt of the American near-abroad, you find similar impulses. When imperial power anywhere begins to crumble, it naturally creates space for local and regional experiments in new kinds of power relations. Unfortunately, all our covert (and less than covert) help in "organizing" democracy movements from Ukraine and Georgia to Kyrgyzstan and Belarus gives our leaders the feeling, I fear, that they are actually creating democracies by manipulation in someone else's near abroad.

My own guess is that, given crumbling Russian power and the space it's left open, democracy movements would have developed apace (as in Latin America), even had our help never been offered. Of course when our leaders come across "people power" that has developed without their imprimatur (not always a pretty sight) -- whether in the form of brutal struggles for national sovereignty (as in Iraq) or in their democratic form in Latin America -- they are invariably caught off guard and generally appalled. But it's only in looking at these forms of popular power -- whether violent or peaceful -- that you can see the genuine strangeness of what may turn out to be our loser/loser superpower world.

No one should, of course, underestimate the power of an empire to, as George Lucas might say, "strike back." And yet, let's hold out hope of a sort against empire and its plans for domination. Despite our recent emphasis in "the homeland" on security and borders, what are borders really? What are they actually capable of keeping out? It's strange sometimes how permeable walls and borders prove. As Paul Woodward, the canny editor of the War in Context website wrote recently:

"People power's a fine thing for shaking up Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but as it spreads to the Americas, it could be coming uncomfortably close to home. What if people power caught on in the United States? What if accountability was being demanded not just from governments in Kiev and Beirut but also those in London and Washington? The bread and circuses approach to democracy has so far been an effective guarantor of political apathy across America, but what if Americans in large numbers were to one day wake up from their political slumber and demand that they too deserve a truly representative government?"

What if, indeed. What if we all began slipping out of the imperial orbit?

What if there was nothing apocalyptic at all about such a slipping?

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