Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Nathan Newman is dealing with an interesting and somewhat surprising topic: the connection of the new movie "XXX", and terrorism. It largely deals with the difference between those who use violence as a means (like, say, Saddam Hussein) and those who look at it as an end in itself (like Osama bin Laden and the terrorists in the movie.) Nathan makes several points about the difference between the former group and the latter group and why it's a mistake to try to lump them together, but what really grabbed me was this early paragraph:

The setup is: an anarchist who could have come from the streets of Seattle-- complete with his own webcast of destroying rich folks' stuff-- collides with military-intelligence police state to thrawt terrorist destruction of the world. This could play as straight cooptation, but the hero Xander Cage probably expresses a lot of the ambivalance of global protesters dealing with enemies like Bin Laden. Quotes Cage in one scene to his NSA handler- "Before you send someone to save the world, maybe you should make sure they like it the way it is."
I've often wondered how exactly the protest movement is going to adapt to the new situation on the ground, and have been wondering since 9/11. At the moment there seems to be a split between those whose criticism of the West leads them to argue that the terrorists might have a point (although that grows weaker and weaker, in my opinion) and those who were shocked out of their movement by the brutality of the attack and who have supported the war against terrorism (which also seems to grow weaker.)

The problem is that neither of these things really had that much to do with the political economic critique at the time, whose validity stands or falls on its own, outside of any conflict between secularism and fundamentalistism. Their arguments against trade bodies, trade policy, rising inequality et al retain whatever relevance they had before the attack to this day, and it's pretty obvious that neither the public nor the protestors are going to buy the sort of "we're so prosperous it doesn't matter" arguments that were usually levelled against them previous to the attack, or the "this isn't the right time" arguments levelled shortly after. Sooner or later, it's likely that the protest movement will reconstitute itself, either because the war has become a background element in most people's lives (like the war on drugs) or because the war is basically won, and the rest is the geopolitical equivalent of a mop-up exercise.

The weird thing is that this may mean that western states might end up fighting a war on two fronts. The first is the one that everybody acknowledges and understands- the war between theocracy and secular government. Modern western governments are well equipped to deal with it, and enjoy wide support. The second front, however, is the battle of ideas between western governments and elites and the protest movement. Up until recently the former group had the advantage of ironclad support from most economists, but Paul Krugman's surprising questioning of the "washington consensus" in the national media and quite a few of Brad DeLong's blog entries have shaken that economic consensus. It's especially surprising considering that a lot of Krugman's popular economic work was built around passionate defenses of free trade and economic fundamentals in the face of "strategic trade" and protectionism- if sustained, it's a huge about-face. Such a high-profile change of heart could only bolster critiques of international regimes and bodies, were they to take advantage of it.

And there's the question.... will they take advantage of it? Well, maybe not immediately; too much revolves around the question of whether war will happen in Iraq for activists to get people interested in leftist economic critiques, and the left vs. right division is too caught up in the war. Once Iraq has been decided one way or the other, though, then it's quite possible that the high-profile aspect of the "war on terrorism" will be over and barring new attacks people will start returning to normal issues. Once that happens, I think the protest movement will reemerge, and it'll be a lot harder to explain away than it was during the 90's.

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