Radical History Review 85 (2003) 171-181
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Reflections and Reports
Cold War Redux:
On the "New Totalitarianism"
Nikhil Pal Singh
America is at the center of world attention. It is the last hope for imperialism and the old democracy. . . . The theoretical interpretation of the United States, its past, present and future has become therefore a truly international task, a part of the international struggle . . . of all oppressed peoples.
—C. L. R. James, "Education, Agitation, and Propaganda," 1944
It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form—and not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.
—Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951
Nothing can mitigate the horrifying devastation and loss of September 11. For those of us with connections to the dead, grief is still close at hand. It is thus difficult to reflect on these events with equanimity and proper ethical balance, while also insisting on situating them within a historical and political context. But it nonetheless seems important to try. With a B-movie resonance that loops through a perpetual media feedback, the images of commercial jets flying into skyscrapers remain hauntingly dissonant, as if everything the postmodern sages have told us about the dissolution of the borders between fact and fiction were true. But as the U.S. government has gotten its own war games into gear with Operations Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom, the blurring of fantasy and reality has intensified rather than diminished. [End Page 171] More worrying still, within this space of insecurity and ambiguity, a heretofore partially paralyzed, quasi-legitimate U.S. administration is discovering and elaborating the principles of action through which it hopes to define international relations for the next generation or more.
To start with the war itself: does anyone believe that the U.S. government currently functions to make our worlds safer? The nightly reports of the fighting in Afghanistan have had an unmistakably Orwellian ring to them—an eerie, stage-managed quality that seems designed at once to reassure us and to prepare us for what we have been told will be a new era of perpetual insecurity. We have been shown maps of territory bombed; we have been told of "networks" disrupted, "infrastructures" destroyed, and "terrorists" incarcerated. Yet, at the same time, little substantive evidence has been presented that any tangible goals have been achieved beyond the devastation of an already devastated land. It is not clear that any living perpetrators of the crimes of September 11 have actually been identified, captured, or killed. Despite the new office of "homeland security," newly delegated powers of "antiterrorism," and daily briefings about public safety, we hear that new and potentially more deadly terrorist strikes on U.S. soil in the months and years to come are more or less inevitable.
There is no mitigating the terrible events of September 11, or the inevitable symbolic, psychic, and material changes they have wrought. Yet it seems desperately important to diagnose and deconstruct the meaning of the open-ended "war on terrorism" that has become the official, dominant response. Slowly and piecemeal, a far more prosaic picture is emerging in which, were it not for the routine failures of a domestic intelligence apparatus—from the FBI field offices in Minnesota to the White House briefing room—the inevitably fragile plot may have been foiled. But this petty tale of CIA/FBI bureaucratic infighting and incompetence threatens to spoil the desired scenario before it really gets underway. It diverges too greatly from the revealing, early response to the events of 9/11, in which George Bush II called for a quasi-evangelical "crusade" against the new "evil" that had been unloosed on the world. And, though it is now cast as a misstep, Bush's opening salvo was arguably both a spontaneous communication and a calculated assurance to his far-right base that the Christian nationalist traditions of U.S. expansionism, military supremacy, and manifest destiny remain orienting coordinates for the U.S. realm of action in the world at the dawn...