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Re: <nettime> Iraq: Ways Backward Digest
Brian Holmes on Sat, 20 Jan 2007 06:23:47 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Iraq: Ways Backward Digest

Michael Goldhaber wrote:

>I agree with most of what Brian wrote, except for his urging us to  
>read  a two-year-supply of books.

Michael, you will have noticed that I always take a keen interest in 
your writing, so please don't take the following as any sign of 
disrespect or animosity.

It is true that few people want to sit around reading for 2 years, and I 
would agree with you that this might be entirely useless if it were to 
mean doing only that, and not at the same time engaging with the world.

However, what I myself realized, just over 2 years ago as the calendar 
would have it - in that ignominious year of 2004 - is that the world 
lives under an Empire, that said Empire is American (and not some 
volatilized network as many hoped it was becoming), and that this 
Imperial condition remained bizarrely unknown in the very place from 
where it emanates, which also happens to be the place I was born.

It seems to me that everyone who works with politics of any sort, and 
especially those born in the USA, now has some kind of responsibility to 
understand the structure of power in the emerging global society. To 
achieve even the rudiments of an understanding requires a certain 
familiarity with history both domestic and global, because today's 
situations always spring from yesterday's. Yet getting there is 
difficult. It takes work, it takes reading and analysis, and it also 
takes public debate, where the point is not to be right but to learn 
something. If not, who will know?

The case of Saudi Arabia which you mention is a case in point. What is 
going on there? To a large degree, neither you nor I know. However, I 
can assure you that our current ruling oligarchy has many ideas about 
it. And not just because Bush receives his Arabian peers for Johnny 
Walkers at the ranch (as, of course, he used to receive the Bin Ladens). 
The reason why is that the entire Arabian peninsula, having acquired a 
great deal of capital subsequent to 1973, is now deeply integrated to 
the US economic circuit. Its ultramodern cities bloomed from the sand, 
the way Europe and Japan's cities were reborn from the ashes of war, 
because of this integration. However, in the case of Saudi, there were 
not generations upon generations of engineers lying around just waiting 
for a job. Instead, American and European companies built those cities, 
in exchange for the currency that national populations of the 
oil-guzzling regions surrendered to the ruling classes of the Arabian 
peninsula (this being, of course, a little less than one might think, 
since the same populations surrendered more currency to their local 
predatory oil-refining corporations - but let's get back to that some 
other day).

What I am saying is that Western capital under American hegemony 
literally built the present-day ruling class of the Arabian peninsula. 
However, the US is as far from controlling the Saudi Arabian leadership 
as the latter are from controlling their own people. If I understand 
correctly, this is because of the tremendous gap in terms of income and 
power between the royalist Saudi elites and the masses of the 
population. To this must be added the desire for autonomy expressed by 
certain fractions of the elite, who apparently are not all in total 
thrall to Western capital. Religion, of course, is the currency of 
dissent under these latitudes. Which means that the Saudi royals, while 
dependent on the US, must play a double game, pragmatically toeing the 
line of the Western consensus while rhetorically espousing some kind 
Islamic purity, for fear, if not, of losing control of their own people 
(Pakistan being the other key nation which is in a very similar 
position). Given that radical Wahhabism originates in Saudi (or more 
precisely, lies at the very origin of the country), given that the 
Saudis sheltered radical members of Muslim Brotherhood in the early days 
after repression began in Egypt and now broadly identify with Egyptian 
Salafism, and given of course that Bin Laden himself is a Saudi, there 
is clearly a lot of deep anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia. For 
this reason, after 9/11 the pressure on the US to withdraw the bases 
that they installed in the Holy Land of the Muslim faith was tremendous: 
it was considered doubtful whether the Saudi regime could survive if the 
bases remained. And the survival of the Saudi regime is now essential to 
US global strategy.

But then again, there was a new place nearby to put military bases, in 
addition to Qatar (and of course, in addition to all the bases installed 
around Afghanistan in the lead-up to the invasion of that country). And 
this new place was Iraq, where the US confidently expected to be staying 
for quite a while, where indeed it expected to finally build up a really 
secure American presence in the coveted Middle East. Yet given what has 
become of that expectation, this does not appear to mean the "Middle 
Eastern" problem is solved, or that the "Saudi problem" is solved, in 
any way whatsoever.

Now, it would be great if at this point, some expert on US-Saudi 
relations would step in and provide a lot more insight. Please, anyone 
who has some knowledge, contribute. But whether they do or don't, I can 
assure you that over the next few years I will learn more about this 
region, travel there, study its history, its internal ideological 
conflicts and its current patterns of integration to the world economy. 
The reason why is that this is a key issue, not only for the world, but 
for what happens within the United States itself. We cannot continue to 
reduce politics to vague calculations about what will or will not fly in 
the dreamt-of media soundbite that is supposed to be the nec plus ultra 
of national discourse. We have reached a state where the American Left, 
not to mention the Democratic electorate, is functionally illiterate 
about the very issues around which the management of the immense power 
of the country revolves. This leaves the elites entirely in charge, with 
no oversight. When you suggest that what has happened in the world over 
the last six years is merely a spectacle for the manipulation of the 
American voter, I am afraid you are simply wrong. The US is the world 
player par excellence. It alone realizes what Habermas idealizes as the 
need for a Weltinnenpolitik - a world domestic policy. But the people 
living there don't know it. They too are exploited, manipulated, walked 
on, like dogs or scorned children in the courtyard, and Habermas's dream 
is actually a nightmare. Given our current powerlessness to do anything 
about it, there is only one word for this situation: it is a shame. 
Really a shame. It may take reading a lot of books, talking with a lot 
of people, engaging in a lot of debates, traveling to a lot of 
countries, but if we cannot collectively learn enough to be able to 
imagine a different course than the one the oligarchy still wants us to 
stay, we will go down in history as a nation of idiots who abandoned 
their democracy to the tyranny of ignorance. I find that idea hard to 
put up with.

But we need you, Michael! You are the nettimer who invented the 
Attention Economy! Don't give up now! Keep paying attention!

all the best, Brian

PS: And thanks to Joseph Nechvatal for the Behan article. I certainly 
agree with its conclusions.

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