Right and Left seem agreed: the fall of Kabul is a major defeat for US/Western imperialism.
Across pretty much the whole of the Right – US Republicans, most US Democrats, British Tories, most British Labourites, European liberals and former social-democrats – the big story is loss of Western ‘prestige’, ‘influence’, ‘standing’, the erosion of Western ‘values’ (whatever they are), a growing threat to Western ‘interests’ and ‘security’.
But virtually all left commentary shares the same broad perspective, albeit with a different spin: the fall of Kabul is a major defeat for US imperialism and confirmation of the long-term decline of US global power.
The obvious parallel has been with the fall of Saigon in 1975. It certainly looks the same – helicopters buzzing the urban skyline, emergency military evacuation flights, crowds storming compounds and invading runways in a desperate struggle to escape.
But 2021 is not 1975. We are no longer living in the Cold War. The world is no longer divided into clearly defined capitalist blocs, where major corporations, whether private or state, are firmly anchored in developed nation-states; a world where economic/capitalist power and geopolitical/military power are in close alignment.
The fall of Saigon was the victory of a popular liberation struggle rooted in the villages of Vietnam led by an essentially progressive political movement with a vision of national independence, economic development, and social reform. The triumph of the Vietcong was indeed a massive defeat for US imperialism.
The Taliban is a variant of Islamic fascism. We have argued at length elsewhere that a dominant feature of the current world crisis – like that of the 1930s – is the advance of fascism. We have defined this as a hyper-charging of the traditional right-wing cocktail of authoritarianism, nationalism, militarism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc, and its transformation into a mass political force that supports reaction and repression. This is a precise description of the Taliban.
Drawn from the most backward sections of Afghan society, it mobilises the socially dislocated of a disintegrating world and channels their rage against scapegoats – women, minority groups, foreigners/outsiders, ‘the wrong sort of Muslim’. Trotsky, writing in the 1930s, said that fascism was the ‘blood-and-soil’ mysticism of the 10th century combined with the military technology of the 20th. The Taliban is a contemporary equivalent: fascism with Islamic characteristics.
But there are more important differences to be noticed between Saigon 1975 and Kabul 2021 – more important in that they concern not only what happens in that sad, tormented, impoverished place that is Afghanistan – but what is happening in the world as a whole.
The victory of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam was a defeat for world capitalism and a contribution to the destabilisation of the entire global system between 1968 and 1975. The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is no threat to world capitalism at all.
Our colleague William I Robinson has argued that the hegemonic fraction of global capital is no longer national or multinational capital but transnational capital – that is, capital whose production, distribution, and marketing are now comprehensively globalised, typically involving operations in scores of different countries, regardless of where a corporation is formally registered and headquartered.
This territorial de-anchoring of capital – facilitated by financialisation and digitalisation – has transformed the relation between capital and the nation-state. With capital increasingly borderless, mobile, and fluid, the nation-state, irreducibly territorial in form, can appear ever more anachronistic. Yet, in another sense, capital is more dependent on the state than ever.
The global police state
The present cannot undo the past; it carries the past within it. History is the sum of all that has gone before, and the historical process is the eternal reworking of past material under the impress of new conditions. If capital was given a tabula rasa, it might create a new, more rational, more efficient political structure for its rule; as things are, it is compelled to reconfigure the old forms.
Transnational capital requires a globalised apparatus of repression. This is what we imply when we adopt our colleague William I Robinson’s concept of the global police state. By this we do not mean a centralised global police force; we mean the reconfiguring of existing police forces in keeping with the imperatives of transnational capital accumulation.
The global police state combines three ideas: that each national police force acts as the local department of a global apparatus of repression directed against all forms of dissent, protest, and resistance threatening to the rule of transnational capital; that vast demand is generated for uniforms, equipment, hardware, fortified compounds, detention centres, surveillance systems, digitalised communications, etc, such that ‘militarised accumulation’ becomes a major source of transnational accumulation (with the important ‘multiplier effects’ of a ‘permanent arms economy’); and that the increasing preoccupation with ‘security’ implicit in the rise of the global police state meshes with the core ideas and policies of creeping fascism – authoritarianism, stronger police powers, militarised borders, etc.
The US is estimated to have expended $1 trillion on its 20-year war in Afghanistan. This expenditure has generated huge profits for a raft of major transnationals peddling everything from humvees to hamburgers. Total global military expenditure, of which the US contribution is about one-third, is now around $2 trillion per annum.
The permanent arms economy – giving rise to what one US President in the 1950s called ‘the military-industrial complex’ – remains a central feature of world capitalism. It involves recycling wealth from the working class (in the form of taxes) to private arms corporations (in the form of profit) via the mechanism of state contracts.
This militarised accumulation is framed by the global police state, creeping fascism, mounting world disorder, and a rising state of tension and insecurity; in particular, it is framed by the self-proclaimed ‘War on Terror’.
The War on Terror
The effective end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Empire in 1989 created a crisis of legitimacy for the permanent arms economy. More broadly, it created a crisis of legitimacy for the new form of financialised, digitalised, ‘borderless’ neoliberal capitalism that developed from the 1970s and 80s onwards; a crisis of legitimacy that found visceral expression in the mass anti-globalisation protests of 1999-2001.
When Bush and Blair launched the War on Terror – with invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003, following the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 – they provided an ideal framework for the creation of a new permanent arms economy. Militarised accumulation was legitimised by reference to the ongoing threat of a shadowy, alien, terrorist ‘Other’. The archetype was the turbaned Islamist fanatic brandishing a rocket-launcher on the back of a Toyota pickup.
The War on Terror is the ideological lifeblood of creeping fascism and the global police state. It is the essential underpinning of state racism against Muslims and migrants, of militarised borders, of escalating police violence, of the barbarism of leaving the displaced, the destitute, and the desperate to die in an international no-man’s-land.
The Taliban victory in Afghanistan will boost Islamic fascism internationally. If so, that will be good for other kinds of fascist and their fellow-travellers: the ones in suits who build walls and detention-centres; the ones who licence killer cops and racist mobs; the ones whose politics depends on the endless reconjuring of the alien Other.
And the Taliban victory, especially if it encourages other Islamist movements, will be good for business. Good for the slick Washington security wonks. Good for the Israeli surveillance geeks. Good for a slew of giant corporates – Big Arms, Big Oil, Big Tech. Good for the contractors who build fences and compounds and concrete blocks. Good for all the little sub-contractors underneath.
The fall of Kabul has changed nothing of substance. The terminal crisis of the world capitalist system continues – a compound of climate catastrophe, global pandemic, social collapse, and permanent war. A crisis whose victims are either befuddled by one variant or another of creeping fascism, or who, organising to fight back for a rational world, are met by the rubber bullets and armoured cars of the global police state.
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