Roots and Radicals
9/11 was, and remains, a watershed event in the fate of Late Modernity, not so much in terms of the event itself but in terms of our collective responses to it. In those terms, it was indeed “the day the universe changed” and the future stopped being what it used to be.
In the aftermath, we were presented with a clear and decisive choice in our responses: to “address root causes” or “the gloves come off”. The struggle between these two options for what our response should be was fierce precisely because it represented something final and decisive for the fate of Late Modernity. It was the way of law or the way of lawlessness; the way of reason and thoughtfulness or the way of violence and brutality. The propaganda war was ferocious.
The option that succeeded in “winning hearts and minds” was “the gloves come off”, and we are today living with the continuing consequences of that decision. Appeals to reason — to investigate “root causes” before jumping for the gun — were shot down as weakness or (a favourite) “disloyalty”. I well recall a widely-circulated article by The Globe & Mail journalist Marcus Gee: “Stop making excuses for terrorism“. Suddenly, thoughtfulness about “root causes” became “making excuses”. Reasoning was devalued as “disloyalty”. Suddenly, too, thinking had become thought-crime.
What did they fear from thinking and of inquiry into “root causes”? They erected a smokescreen instead because, it seems, deep down they already anticipated what such an inquiry into “root causes” would yield up — evidence of the great disparity between the self-image we project (and even believe about ourselves) and the reality of what we do; the great dissonance between rhetoric and reality, words and acts. The embarrassment of our nakedness in being suddenly exposed like the Wizard of Oz or the emperor’s new clothes, realising that the narratives we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what we are like don’t correspond to the facts of the matter. “Pre-empting” thought became something of a general strategy.
It is often said that the smokescreen, the cover-up, the diversions of propaganda and spin are designed to hide and disguise the actual workings of power, as commended by the late influential Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington,
“The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”
But actually, it is to pre-empt our ever coming to true awareness in self-knowledge. That is why inquiry into “root causes” is anathema and must be discouraged or pre-empted. The “cloud of unknowing” must be sustained. When we are kept in ignorance of ourselves, we are governable, credulous, malleable. The more one ascends in self-knowledge, however, the less is the mystique and force of invisible power. The more one becomes transparent to oneself, the greater is the transparency of the world.
To put that another way, the “Daimon” and the diaphanous arise together. The epiphany of the Daimon is the transparency of the real.
The appointed “guardians” and “watchmen” of our “Western values” are shown to be usurpers, paying lip-service to those values in public even as they negate them in private. But they do so with our deliberate or unconscious connivance, and even with a wink and a nod. It is disloyal and impermissible even to think? Well then, we will defend the Age of Reason by unreason and unthinking. We will save the village by destroying it. The pursuit of “rational self-interest” suddenly becomes indistinguishable from the pursuit of self-destruction. Nihilism. “All higher values devalue themselves”.
Suddenly, today, “the gloves come off” doesn’t seem like such a great response. The original architects of the power response, in their hybris, now fall all over themselves trying to distance themselves from the truth of their earlier stance or continue to make excuses for it. Suddenly, even military men are calling for “more diplomacy” and the need to “address root causes”. It’s quite ironic that it’s now the military men who have to persuade the civilians — especially the politicians and journalists — that “the gloves come off” was, and is, bad policy.
What the military men perhaps now realise in a way the civilians still don’t is that “the gloves come off” is irrational self-negating, self-defeating, self-contradicting response. The blowback effects of “the gloves come off” response is all over the news these days, the consequences of having jettisoned universal standards of law and reason and logic and values for an orgy of “animal spirits” and irrational enthusiasms.
Now, we are stuck with these corrosive irrationalities, which are now being referred to as “quagmire” or “stagnation”. All at sea with no clear logic for resolving the Gordian Knot. The failure of “the gloves come off” as global response is mirrored in another little reported conclusion from a very surprising source. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has concluded that neo-liberalism, alongside “liberal interventionism”, has been a mistake, if not a disaster, in that growing inequality holds down economic growth. That should be a no-brainer. If more and more wealth is accumulating in fewer and fewer hands (oligarchy), it means money is not circulating. If money is not circulating it’s not stimulating economic activity. If economic activity is declining then it is contraction. Yet, the middle classes who benefited most from Keynesian redistributive policies voted for the very thing that was to eventually be their own Nemesis.
In other words “inequality” is irrationality by another name. It means lack of proportionality, loss of proper “ratio”. Yet it is the very thing that has been justified as “rationalisation”. In effect, it has been self-defeating “rationalisation”. It is a very “Orwellian” world.
Drowning, not waving. Success and defeat are beginning to look an awful lot alike at our “end of history”. What does that remind me of? The endgame scenario from The Matrix. Agent Smith is finally victorious over Neo only to realise he has defeated himself also, that the conflict between Neo and Smith was only the system’s “balancing of the equation”. Smith’s destruction of Neo was Neo’s victory over Smith. The terms of the equation were balanced in their being mutually cancelled out.
I often feel that the entirety of the dilemma of Late Modernity is laid out very clearly in The Matrix. A brilliant mythic portrait of our times.