The economic incentive of war
Many anti-globalization groups cower in shadow of tragedy while capitalists surge forward

September 19th, 2001

By Fhar Miess
The Alarm! Newspaper collective

The spectacular attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon sent just about every resident of the United States reeling. Priorities were abruptly shifted while personal and ideological agendas were temporarily set aside in the aftermath.

Anti-capitalists and capitalists alike were on agreement on a couple things: this was an outrageous waste of human life and a profound attack on the institutions of capitalism and U.S. military supremacy. While both camps might have found some common ground amid the rubble in deploring the former, their views on the latter quickly diverged as the hours and days wore on. Anarchists, anti-capitalists and anti-globalization activists were quick to condemn this wanton destruction of life, but were wary of having their political agendas—not to mention their tactical practices—conflated with those of the terrorists who piloted their airplanes into the heart, as most can agree, of the symbols of American financial and military might.

This lead to a situation where a number of anti-globalization organizations withdrew their participation in up-coming protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC at the end of the month. Some organizations, like the bellwether environmental group, The Sierra Club, even went so far as to cancel all their campaigns and advertisements and remark, “For now we are going to stop aggressively pursuing our agenda and will cease bashing Bush.”

Some groups became so squeamish about articulating their political and economic critiques that they ended up issuing confusing statements like this one from Friends of the Earth: “out of respect for those who lost their lives and out of concern for the safety of protesters, we have chosen to demonstrate our commitment to peace and justice by not demonstrating.” As Rick Giombetti notes in his recent article “Has the Left Unilaterally Disarmed?”, the sentence “reads like it is comparing holding a peaceful demonstration with blowing up a building.”

Other anarchists and radicals have taken the opportunity to differentiate between their very precise and carefully-planned attacks against property (carefully-planned so as to insure that no lives are lost) from terrorist acts which hold life in such low regard. As anarchist author John Zerzan explains, “I would hope this week helps put the protesters’ acts of vandalism into perspective. How can what they do be called terrorism after this?” Still, the rush to leave Washington DC to politicians and government bureaucrats continues, with everyone from the AFL-CIO to the Ruckus Society to the Mobilization for Global Justice (MGJ) bailing out even before the official announcement of the World Bank/IMF that they are postponing their fall meeting indefinitely.

For the most part, the capitalist class has not remained nearly so circumspect. There were, however, some initial misgivings about consideration of financial profit or loss in the wake of such an immense loss of human life (especially brokers’ lives). In a memorandum to clients, David Gilmore, a partner at consultants Foreign Exchange Analytics in Essex, Connecticut wrote, “Perhaps we are being naive or altruistic, but these are times when taking short-dollar positions in stocks, bonds and the dollar in the wake of [the] horrific news is too much to stomach. Surely the world must go on and markets must discount [Tuesday’s] news, but shame on those who are building positions and thinking profit. Moreover the notion that ‘if I don’t do it someone else will,’ is equally reprehensible.”

However, as the days wore on, “cooler” (“colder” might be more accurate) economic heads prevailed, as evidenced in Brian Wesbury’s editorial in Friday’s Wall Street Journal: “While it may seem crass and uncaring to turn our attention to the economy and financial markets at a time of national mourning, it must be done. After all, free-market democracy and specifically the capitalist system of the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11.” Mr. Wesbury, chief economist of Griffin, Kubik, Stephens & Thompson in Chicago, goes on to share his thoughts on the war effort: “the government must act swiftly with a renewed focus on strengthening capitalism and its wealth-creating abilities. Good economic policy is just one facet of our recovery. Our government’s action to extract a victory in a new war against terrorism is equally important. The indecisive approach of appeasement, negotiation and ‘rules of engagement’ will not win the war and could easily lose the economy in the process.” This may seem a little over the top for some of our more sensitive readers, but, Mr. Wesbury clearly isn’t speaking from the position of the “sensitive guy”, but from the position of the economist, which becomes even more self-evident a couple paragraphs later: “From an economic perspective, the Bush administration’s job in this situation is to reduce risk. And the way to reduce risk is to actively pursue a strategy of eliminating the enemy. Only an aggressive campaign will suffice.” Well, with an article entitled “The Best Economic Stimulus: Victory”, we shouldn’t expect Mr. Wesbury to mince his words. But just to drive home his point once again, he writes, “A tepid response by the U.S. government toward international terrorism at this juncture will have devastating effects to the long-run health of the U.S. economy. Purposeful military action will reduce the economic risk.”

Now, I am not especially surprised at the audacity of Mr. Wesbury in his remarks. I am more surprised and concerned at the timidity of social justice groups in dealing (or failing to deal) with the reality of what countless Mr. Wesbury’s are doing while they decide to put anti-capitalist protest agendas on the back burner “out of respect for those who lost their lives”, as if the reasons that so many of those people lost their lives were not endemic to precisely this variety of capitalism that they’ve been protesting heretofore.

Of course, not everyone has cowered under the weight of the tragedy. The Anti-Capitalist Convergence has maintained it’s commitment to protest and the struggle against hegemonic economies, even in absence of WB/IMF delegates and officials. In fact they’ve just issued a renewed and revised call to action in light of the turn of events.

While blind adherence to any program for demonstration is ill-advised, a terrorist attack and the resultant backlash should not drive us into blind adherence to a national program of manufactured “solidarity” under the U.S. flag. If decisions are to be made to retreat from our commitment to protest in a certain form, those decisions should be made based on material changes in the circumstances, not out of an amorphous and poorly-defined “respect” for the tragic loss of life. To reiterate one of Rick Giombetti’s more salient points, “there is no better time to stand up for principles than when they are deeply unpopular.”

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