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The War for Terrorism and Capitalist Globalisation

"Terror is the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain political or religious goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear" - US army manual.

As the bombing continues in Afghanistan, a steady stream of people continue to arrive in Maslakh and other refugee camps. Al-Qaida and Taleban members remain at large. In many countries, from India to Israel, the 'war on terrorism' has become a slogan to justify acts of state terrorism. The laying of anti-personnel mines; the razing of homes and people; the erosion of basic freedoms.

In recent weeks attention has turned to the US's "hit list of countries to target for military action in rogue regions across the globe where it believes terror cells flourish" 1. As the war against terrorism spreads, it is even more important that its broader significance is understood. I will argue here that the war is far from simply about targeting terrorists. It is in fact a war for terrorism; for the re-assertion of the right to use state terrorism to bolster US power and the ideology of capitalist globalisation.

To point to the wider significance of the war is not to underestimate events in Afghanistan, nor to glibly pass over the fact that innocent people have been murdered by the US military, and by their allies of the moment - the Northern Alliance 2. Nor is it to belittle the predicament of the many thousands who have been forced from their homes; who are facing the winter in makeshift camps beyond the probing eyes of the majority of the world's media. Nor is it to forget that people are reported to be starving to death in drought-stricken northern Afghanistan, or that the B-52s also left mines silently waiting to explode. The corporate-owned media would of course prefer to talk of smart bombs and bowed Taliban troops. The war must be seen to be a success. Power must be properly perceived. According to one 'hawkish' US commentator, "the elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again....is that power is its own reward....The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power" 3.

The United States' mission, judged in its own terms, has been far from successful. The multi-ethnic interim "government", dominated by the Northern Alliance and 'led' by a Pashtun, is likely to unravel sooner rather than later. The threat of repeated terrorist attacks by the militant section of the Salafiyya Islamic movement of which Al-Qaida is a part unfortunately remains no less likely now than when the military operation in Afghanistan began. Osama bin-Laden and Mullah Omar are nowhere to be seen, nor are many other Taliban who have fled to the mountains. Even if they are found, their extremist ideology will continue to enjoy significant support. The US military remains in Saudi Arabia. Israel continues to terrorise the Palestinians. Cultures - the way people individually and collectively define and re-define how they will live and how they will interact with the world around them- entwined as they are with economics and politics, continue to meet one another on unequal terms.

This war is about much more than murdered American and Afghani civilians. It is about much more than the Taliban, Al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and September 11th. It is about much more than $5 trillion worth of oil and gas in central Asia, sweeteners for key sections of an economy that is facing recession, or twisting the arm of the Indian government.

It is also about those who took to the streets of Chiang Mai in 2000 to protest against the Asian Development Bank. About the 500,000 Indian peasants who hit Bangalore in 1993 to reject the GATT (the World Trade Organisation's precursor). About those who closed down the IMF and World Bank conference in Prague and saw off a new round of trade talks in Seattle. About the Zapatistas' seizure of San Cristobal de las Casas on the day NAFTA came into effect. About the thousands in Cochabamba Bolivia who stopped the privatisation of their water supply. About those who marched on the Ecuadorian parliament. About those who marched on Bombay to throw the imports that were destroying their livelihoods in to the sea. About the 200,000 who turned the last G-8 talking shop into a military operation. About those who mobilise less visibly but more persistently in slums and villages around the world. About a multitude of struggles against globalisation.

Facing a rising tide of mass mobilisations against its ideology of capitalist globalisation, and by a barrage of different ideas, the US and its allies were presented with an opportunity to reassert their hegemony. That bastion of radical thought the Financial Times hinted at why the 'war against terrorism' is also a war for capitalist globalisation. Shortly before September 11th, it proclaimed that "The protesters are winning. They are winning on the streets. Before too long they will be winning the argument. Globalisation is fast becoming a cause without credible champions". Shortly afterwards (on November 30th) it commented that protests against the post S11 WTO, IMF and WB meetings had been "muted" by "a sharply reduced appetite since September 11th for fundamental attacks on the values underlying the US and other western industrialised countries".

The key to redressing the balance was the renewal of the right to commit acts of state terrorism without too many questions being asked; to commit them for a Cause. During the cold war it was quite acceptable to use force to commit acts of state terrorism. The Cause was freedom, the enemy communism. There was not usually any need to justify intervention overseas. The pretext was a given, and prying eyes were few.

And so it was that in 1954 in Guatemala the social democrat head of state Jacobo Arbenz was bombed into submission, forced into making way for a series of military dictators who killed 10,000s of civilians. And so it was that Oscar Romero was gunned down while giving communion in El Salvador by a death squad led by RobertoD'Aubuisson, who was trained and then armed by the US. That Salvador Allende was murdered in 1973 in Chile to make way for the beneficent Augusto Pinochet.

The script was freedom versus communism. The subscript was more subtle and reflected the US' primary objective to maintain access to overseas markets and resources, and to maintain them on advantageous terms. The enemies of the US were those who threatened that access and the terms of that access. That is why Mussadiq was forced to make way for the Shah in Iran in the 1950s when he nationalised Iran's oil. Why Arbenz was driven from office when he distributed unused land that belonged theoretically to the US TNC United Fruit to landless peasants. Why Sukarno was replaced by Suharto in Indonesia in a bloodbath which, by CIA estimates, left 750,000 dead in six months 4.

When the Cold War ended, the US lost its ready-made pretext for intervention. In the early 1990s its forays into terrorism included the memorable restoration of hope in Somalia. There were few dissenting voices against such interventions, but US actions had been somewhat detached from their discourse. It was not a fight against communism - that much was clear. The United States had - in relative terms - lost its room for manoeuvre, its ability to make power plays. To be seen to be powerful.

It continued with its project of capitalist globalisation. In 1994 the North America Free Trade Agreement came into effect. In 1995 the World Trade Organisation was formed with a mandate to facilitate the privatisation of knowledge about food seeds and medicines, to privatise water supplies and education, and to remove trade barriers so that the small holding maize farmer in Mexico would face multi-billion dollar agribusiness operations on a 'level playing field'. The rules of the transnational economy were being written largely by the governments of the G8 and shadowy TNC fronts such as the European Round Table of Industrialists and the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue which charted the course.

Millions around the world were voicing their objections - to mega-dams and other 'development projects', to structural adjustment, then to GATT and the WTO, but as long as CNN news editors didn't break the habit of a career time to run headline stories such as 'Thousands of Thai farmers have been protesting outside the Thai parliament for seven weeks.....', they remained a nuisance rather than a threat.

But slowly the volume of these scarcely audible voices was increased. News of mass protests in India and the Philippines, of the Zapatista uprising in Mexico and peaceful mobilisations in Ecuador began to spread through the e-mail networks and across the webpages. There were protests at the WTO's second ministerial in Geneva in 1998, and at the Cologne G8 conference in 1999 at the time of the carnival against capitalism in London's financial centre. Then on November 30th, the attempt to launch a new round of trade talks was headed off in Seattle through a combination of disagreement inside the conference hall and mass protests outside.

The proponents of capitalist globalisation were not in control in the manner to which they had become accustomed. The following IMF/World Bank conference in Prague was closed down by 20,000 protesters. News of mass mobilizations in South America and Asia, was by now circulating much further much faster. In a number of countries, including India, there were signs that the anti-globalisation movement was influencing state policy. The dominant discourse of capitalist globalisation was being subjected to a consistent assault of ideas from the wide range of movements that collectively make up the anti-globalisation movement.

The eyes of the media audiences across the world had been watching the wrong images for too long. With September 11th came the opportunity for the US government and their allies to go forth and liberate the world from terrorism, and the Afghanis from the Taliban. In so doing they would seek to neutralize the ideological threat of the anti-globalisation movement. In case they failed in the latter task, anti-terrorist laws were being prepared around the world - from India to the United Kingdom.

The script had changed from the days of the cold war. In place of the communists, there were the terrorists. And there were fifty countries in which terrorists were operating according to US lists. But whereas in the past national governments were in the firing line, now they were invited to join the US in confronting the enemies within. The script had changed, but the subscript was still more or less the same. Of the 50 countries on the US list, some were countries, such as Bolivia, where there are no armed rebel groups or known terrorists but where there are strong social movements who are effectively resisting the process of capitalist globalisation.

Just as with the old cold war, the war against terrorism is ultimately about the pursuit of capitalist globalisation , and the bolstering of US power for that objective. As US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick put it: trade "promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle". Writing in the New York Times magazine, Michael Lewis explained that the traders who died were targeted as "not merely symbols but also practitioners of liberty".

While the bombs rained down upon Afghanistan, the WTO in Qatar managed to patch together a new trade round of sorts. Another outright failure as in Seattle, and the WTO process just might have been beyond redemption. Blair, speaking to the business community around this time, pointed out that "the battle against international terrorism will also mean victory for the economy" (news.bbc.co.uk). Victory for the arms dealers. Victory for the oil companies.

Victory for the trade liberalisers too perhaps. Although this is far from certain, as the anti-globalisation movement is not about to go away. These movements may also be labelled as terrorist in later phases of the war against terrorism. Could people who organise peacefully in self-defence against the submergence of their homes and land be labelled as terrorists? Could those who organise to gain access to the forest which has been fenced off be labelled as terrorists? Could it be a terrorist act to stop water becoming unaffordable? Is it a terrorist act to mobilise against a foreign transnational company which aims to demand payment for the seeds with which one grows wheat? Or rice? Or maize? To set up non-violent non-party forms of democratic political organization to reclaim autonomy? For people to reclaim the right to define their culture, their economic exchanges with others, their distribution of resources?

Or is it a terrorist attack to carpet bomb Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos? To train people in techniques of torture at Fort Leavenworth in Virginia? To shell a village called Qana? To rape and murder thousands of refugees in Sabra and Chatila? To shoot unarmed civilians dead in Ramallah in 2001? To fund death squads in Colombia in 2001? Death squads who kill week after week.

"Terror", according to US army manuals, "is the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain political or religious goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear". So who are the terrorists?

The CIA at the start of this campaign was worried that it no longer had the appropriate expertise in torture techniques. So worried that it was considering calling up some of its retired experts. Experts in torture. Torture in El Salvador. Torture in Indonesia. Torture in Chile. In Colombia. In Vietnam.

Perhaps, though, the definition given by the US army manual is not right. Perhaps it would be better to widen the definition of terrorism. To think of the bigger picture. To think of the type of violence which makes less noise but takes more lives. Lives lost for want of food made too expensive by, amongst others, the agribusiness TNCs who form the grain cartel. Lives lost for want of medicine priced out of the reach of millions by the patent-holding drug companies. For want of water, a resource that is being privatised across the world. Is this not terrorism of a sort?

As the social movements who gathered at the 3rd international conference of Peoples' Global Action in Bolivia in September 2001 put it in the Cochabamba declaration 5:

"We have seen the horror and desperation in the faces of plain people affected at random in the attacks on New York and Washington. We know this pain; we have daily experience and memory of terror and unnecessary violence".

But perhaps it is a step too far to call capitalist globalisation a form of terrorism. It is to confuse means and ends. The ends are capitalist globalisation. Terrorism is an important means to that end.

Terrorism of all kinds - whether that of bin-Laden or that of the US - can be rejected in a multitude of ways. And it is being - by millions of people and thousands of social movements -womens' movements, peasant movements, indigenous peoples' movements, domestic workers unions, coca producers unions, anti-privatisation movements, anarchist collectives, slumdweller organisations, anti-dam movements - that continue to build networks of solidarity, mutual support and joint action; continue to struggle against the many forms of domination both in their institutional centres and at their extremities - where they become concrete and affect real people; continue to choose other ways of doing, other ways of interacting.

To the arrogance of a single ideology for all human beings, they bring a multiplicity of ideas, and a tolerance of diversity. To the inevitable oppression of political centralism, they bring the long search for democracy - where all those who wish to can join in the collective construction of meaning, and play a direct role in decisions which affect their lives. To the sterility of party politics, and the deadening dogmas of totalising visions, they bring creativity and fluidity. To the dominance of societies by economic systems, they bring the illumination of many ways to forge societies which control economies. They reject domination in all its forms. In their words and in their actions, they are the antithesis of terrorism.

Jonathan Pattenden, December 2001. 108315@soas.ac.uk.


1. Guardian, 10.12.01, p.1.

2. Key sections of the Northern Alliance have been funding their own acts of terrorism for many years by selling heroin. Their record on women's rights perhaps compares unfavourably to the Taliban.

3. The Washington Post, 30.11.01.

4. George, A (ed.) (1991) Western State Terrorism (Polity).

5. http://www.agp.org

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