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The Democratic Art of Listening
by William H. Thornton
August 24, 2004

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Resistance of Last Resort

The anti-war upsurge of 2003 confirmed two facts: that the world did not buy the Bush war dance, and Bush did not much care. Civil resistance was therefore futile. The Muslim world had suspected that all along. And being more on the receiving end, its revulsion ran deeper. Even before the Iraq invasion, Saudis registered a 97% disapproval of U.S. policies. [1] Islamic antipathy toward the U.S. was most pronounced, in fact, in areas that have shown a real fondness for McValues. In Egypt, for example, there was a sense of betrayal among the 57 percent of the population that is under 25. The fact that these youth are mesmerized by American culture only makes U.S. aggression a more personal blow to them. Many try to resolve the contradiction by distinguishing the U.S. government from the American people [2]; but eventually the fact will sink in that Americans are quite comfortable with the new imperialism so long as it keeps gas prices low and does not trigger tax hikes.

A Pew survey of 20 countries released in June 2003 revealed that most Muslims admire American democracy and related values. [3] Yet they so deplore U.S. foreign policy that many trust Yassar Arafat or even Osama bin Laden over Bush to “do the right thing.” [4] Neither the White House nor the American public seems to care. Such complacence invites the retrieval of an especially heinous power politics. This is hardly a feature of the Empire celebrated by Hardt and Negri as an innocuous “network power” that keeps cultural space open and “has nothing to do with imperialism.” [5] The Bush Doctrine, as applied to Iraq, vindicates Chalmers Johnson’s far more statist conception of Empire [6], except that the centrality he assigns to Washington obscures what Hardt and Negri get right: their prescient focus on Empire’s “virtual center.”

Virtuality, however, can cut both ways. After the passage of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico’s Zapitistas (rebel peasant farmers from Chiapas) not only took up arms, but also went online, launching what Castell’s considers the “first informational guerrilla movement.” [7] Virtual Empire had given rise to virtual resistance. Conceivably this challenges the power that the transnational capitalist class (TCC) [8] has reaped by virtue of its highly mobile and utterly noncommittal capital assets. For now, however, the contest remains a mismatch. Far from effecting a liberatory diffusion of power, the exile of “place” from Empire concentrates power in the TCC. This nomadic power elite, as I comment elsewhere, is unburdened by any sense of local responsibility. In effect, its bags are always packed. [9] This erodes the ground for bargaining on the part of whole nations as well as labor unions or other resistant groups. [10] No civil resistance has been able to strike such a moving target.

That radical dis/placement removes all imperial constraints, for if no “place” is special for Empire, it is equally the case that no place is off limits. The “openness” that Hardt and Negri applaud offers a license to invade any space and subvert any culture or politics. Such utter boundlessness sets the stage for the full collision of “McWorld and jihad” that Benjamin Barber warned of in the early 1990s. [11] After 9/11 we know too well that Barber’s dialectic is even more lethal than he could have imagined at that time. The fact that its locus is no longer globalization as McWorld, but rather as Empire, raises the stakes immeasurably. What was mere cultural aversion becomes a resistance of last resort.

That exigency brings out the worst on both sides of the East/West civilizational divide. It also reveals the disutility of prevailing theory on this cultural front. Consider the case of the last stand of the French in Algeria. The late French general Jacques Massu finally admitted the shocking extent of French atrocities in that mother of all cultural conflicts. [12] A standard “postcolonial” reading of Massu’s confession would miss the key point by putting the full onus on the West, whereas the real tragedy lies in the dialectical escalation of violence and inhumanity on both sides.

This is the colonial malady that Conrad and Orwell exposed with regard to the Congo and Burma, respectively. Postcolonial regimes have recycled that horror [13], and neoconservative analysts such as Robert Kaplan are quick to declare this outcome inevitable in places like the Sudan and Algeria, where democracy was in his opinion launched prematurely. By contrast he praises the non-democratic peace and stability of Tunisia. [14] His studies of Third World disaster zones provide a useful antidote to naïve idealism, but this realist pendulum too easily swings to the opposite pole.

A case in point is Morocco, where a quasi-enlightened monarch rules in the presumed interest of future (but forever postponed) democracy. After 9/11, and especially after the local terrorist assaults of May 2003, Morocco followed the U.S. example of trading much of its liberty for security. This was supposed to guard against fundamentalist extremism, but its main victim is likely to be civil Islam, which along with the country’s numerous NGOs has been laying a foundation for actual political choice. Democracy, argues Aboubakr Jamai, is the best weapon against terrorism. [15]

In short, Kaplan makes for a better travel guide than political analyst. The reactionary cast of his realism is dated insofar as power politics now depends as much on the communication of social hope as on mere stability. Realism, therefore, is no longer the exclusive property of the Right, just as moral argument (hence Walzer’s “decent Left”) is no longer the exclusive preserve of the anti-realist Left. [16] Left realism, as I treat it in Fire on the Rim, must stake its claim to 21st century geopolitics or face a world divided between the twin terrorisms of Empire and Jihad. This moral realism has its counterpart in Eastern modes of reform such as civil Islam, premised on the kind of alternative Asian values that suffuse, for example, Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s vision of a post-militarist Indonesia. By escaping both colonial and postcolonial patterns of oppression, Pramoedya’s hope speaks for the entire developing world.

That real but fragile hope could easily be snuffed out by the current war on terrorism. Up against Empire, resistance can no longer settle for the communicative strategies of simple protest. The alternatives vary widely, ranging from paramilitary resistance (e.g., the sometimes violent but non-terroristic tactics of the Zapatistas or the Guadalcanal Liberation Front) to the “in your face” but non-violent tactics of Greenpeace or the more political agenda of Brazil’s Acre Popular Front, lead by Chico Mendes’s former associate, Jorge Viana. Unfortunately there is also the terrorist alternative, as surfaced at Bali, not to mention 9/11. So long as resistance worked within the confines of civil counter-discourse, the basic humanity of one’s adversary was assumed. Terrorism, however, communicates nothing so much as the incommunicability that spawns it. Certainly the same can be said for such “conventional” weapons of incommunicability as napalm, daisy cutters and cluster bombs, the staple instruments of state and now Empire state terrorism. Each side dehumanizes the other, reducing it to the status of a contaminant to be expunged by any means.

True to President Bush’s us/them riposte to 9/11 [17] -- which forced a global referendum on U.S. primacy [18] -- resistance springs from a stubborn determination not to be us. Countless millions of non-Muslims share that sentiment, though only Islamic extremists possess the necessary organization and jihadic virulence to transform cultural reflex into militant action on a global scale. In that respect Al Qaeda serves as a proxy for all those who cannot fight back.

The pressing question is not how such hostility could arise, but how globalists could have expected any other response. How did they fail to anticipate that some people would choose armed resistance and even suicide tactics over cultural annexation? Academically popular euphemisms such as “hybridization” and “glocalization” have smoke-screened what globalization does to “nonconnected” peoples and cultures. Despite the clarion efforts of some fine bridge builders—most notably the late Edward Said—admonitions from the Arab world still fall on deaf ears. Is it any surprise that when moderate protest goes unnoticed, resort is taken to a means of communication that cannot be ignored?

Enemy of our Enemy

The best way to prevent this tragic escalation of means is to nurture civil voices of all kinds, even when they seem anathema to “U.S. interests” in the short run. Unfortunately, like the Soviets before [19], the U.S. has habitually worked to silence all forms and factions of Islamism that cannot be put to immediate strategic advantage. Algeria’s democratic Islamism was proscribed by this formula [20], and Indonesia’s is suffering the same fate. Such policies almost invariably come back to haunt—hence the CIA term “blowback.” The ultimate case in point is 9/11, a tragedy made possible by the suppression of civil Islam.

No degree of external surveillance can eradicate the threat of terrorism, but fortunately this job can be done internally. When Osama bin Laden issued a call for global jihad against the U.S. after 9/11, the vast majority of Muslim clerics throughout the world urged restraint. Though they chaff at the material and military excesses of Western culture, they no less deplore the un-Koronic brutality of Al Qaeda. These clerics are our natural allies, though after Iraq many are issuing their own fatwas against America. [21]

Our cities will not be safe from terrorist attack until this pan-Islamic reaction is allayed. The best defense against future 9/11s rests less in the geopolitics of Empire or added layers of “homeland security” than in soft power strategies for prevention. Our best ally toward that end is the foremost enemy of our enemy: civil Islam. The tragedy of 9/11 is compounded by the damage it has done to this crucial ally, and to true jihad.

Nothing could be more beneficial to Al Qaeda than a war on terror that collapses the distinction between civil and uncivil Islam—unless it is America’s unilateral contempt for other anti-terrorist allies. What is needed is neither a new imperialism nor a new isolationism, but a different kind of engagement. Instead of frontal military campaigns, which will inflame the whole Islamic world, we should assist civil Islamists in their principal jihadic struggle: their search for an effective rapprochement with modernity. Otherwise, cultural exclusivity will fill the jihadic void. Our task must be to avoid the kind of civilizational clash that would inspire thousands of budding Islamists to enter the killing fields of anti-Western jihad. The neoglobalist fusion of neoliberalism and neoconservatism after 9/11 renounced that task. By 2003, with the Iraq invasion, globalization had thrown off its pacifist camouflage to emerge as veritable Empire.

Conclusion: Survival Skill

The intellectual ground for Empire had been prepared on the Right as early as the 1970s as a counter to the “appeasement” policies of Nixon/Kissinger realism. It came of age institutionally under Reagan’s unprecedented peacetime militarization [22], and found its true perch—but also its greatest challenge—in the unipolar world of the 1990s. The imperialist opportunity of the post-Cold War was threatened by the absence of a manifest geopolitical adversary. 9/11 solved that problem, reminding even the most doctrinaire globalists that the world, like it or not, was still mired in “history.” Hence America was still the “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright was please to point out.

By no means was this militant recourse entirely new, or entirely Republican. Anthony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Adviser, was equally at odds with post-Cold War pacifism in the early ’90s. [23] The globalization he favored would keep power politics very much in the game. From there it would be but a short step to the “for or against” line in the sand that President Bush drew after 9/11. Globalists presaged that “moral clarity” by casting themselves as a civilizational vanguard, for whom democracy promotion and self promotion all but merged. What most distinguished them, however, was their newfound sense of security, which put them on the offensive globally. Soon, as Prem Shankar Jha charges, globalism began to resemble “the totalitarian creeds that it vanquished.” [24]

In fact, the seeds of Empire were embedded in globalism from the start. What all globalisms share is a dearth of civilizational dialogue. Huntington’s advice, that we rush back into our Atlanticist shell, is but the flip side of Fukuyama’s determination to Atlanticize the entire world. Both treat the cultural Other with disdain, yet neither takes this philistinism so far as does the Bush Doctrine, which combines the cultural closure of neoliberalism with the unprecedented geopolitical hubris of neoconservatism.

The resulting will-to-Empire, premised on the delusion that the U.S. can go it alone, is a non-sustainable blunder. This fallacy collides with Empire’s major claim to legitimacy: its much advertised support for global democracy. [25] To the extent that democratic values are actually being globalized, [26] unilateralism is going to be a tough sell outside the U.S. [27] Sooner or later, having given no quarter to disparate cultural voices, America will reap what it sows. Before 9/11 the democratic art of listening was promoted, if at all, as a moral imperative. Now we come to realize it is also a survival skill.

William H. Thornton is Professor of Literary and Cultural Theory at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, Taiwan. He is the author of Cultural Prosaics: The Second Postmodern Turn (1998), of Fire on the Rim: The Cultural Dynamics of East/West Power Politics (2002), and  of New World Empire: Islamism, Terrorism and the Making of Neoglobalism (forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield in early 2005).  He can be reached at:  songokt.hornton@msa. Copyright (C) 2004 William H. Thornton.

Other Articles by William H. Thornton

* Apartheid Without Borders: The New Globalism and Its Enemies


1) “A Country of Fear,” The Atlantic Online (April 2, 2003). 

2) Emily Wax, “In Egypt, Anger at U.S. Displaces Admiration,” WashingtonPost (March 24, 2003), A25.

3) “Muslims and the US,” The Christian Science Monitor (June 4, 2003).

4) “American Power,” International Herald Tribune (June 4, 2003).   

5) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, 166-67.

6) Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.  New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000, 7.  Manuel Castells provides a balanced assessment of the role of the nation state in the new global (dis)order.  In that sense he mediates Johnson’s too statist approach and Hardt and Negri’s inordinate virtuality.  See all three volumes of Castells’s The Information Age, e.g., Vol. I, The Rise of the Network Society.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996, 98.

7) Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1997, 72.

8) See Leslie Sklair, The Transnational Capitalist Class.  Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2001.

9) William H. Thornton, Fire on the Rim: The Cultural Dynamics of East/West Power Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, 30.

10) William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism.  New York: Touchstone, 1997, 24.

11) Barber’s seminal article, “Jihad Vs. McWorld,” appeared in the March 1992 issue of Atlantic Monthly, and culminated in his Jihad vs. McWorld.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

12)  “French Algerian war general dies,” BBC News World Edition (October 27, 2002).

13) See Daniel Kruger, “The Case for Colonialism,” Spectator (March 15, 2003).   Regarding this postcolonial reflex in Africa, see Danny Postel, “Out of Africa,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 28, 2003).

14) Robert D. Kaplan, “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” The Atlantic Online (December 1997).

15) Aboubakr Jamai, “Morocco’s Choice: Openness or Terror,” New York Times (May 31, 2003).

16) My term “moral realism” is closely akin to Michael Walzer’s “decent Left,” except that it recognizes the need for strange bedfellows alliances with enlightened non-leftists who subscribe to moral realism on the instrumental ground of “soft power” advantage.  My initial treatment of this concept was in “Back to Basics: Human Rights and Power Politics in the New Moral Realism,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 14/2 (winter 2000), 315-32.  I develop it further in Chapter 8 of Fire on the Rim.  

17) This Manichaean worldview had long been advocated by Bush power brokers such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, but it took 9/11 to package it for broad public consumption.  Its most notable expression came in the September 2002 imperialist manifesto, “The National Security Strategy of the United States,” which openly embraced the tactic of preemptive attacks in the interest of hyperpower. 

18) Andrew J. Bacevich, “New Rome, New Jerusalem,” The Wilson Quarterly (summer 2002).

19) Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, 36-40.

20) Algeria’s pro-democratic but anti-American FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) was overthrown by the army after winning the country’s first multi-party election in 1992.  It is hardly surprising that Huntington considers this overthrow favorable to America’s interests.  See Michael’s Steinberger’s interview with Huntington, “So, are civilizations at war?” Observer (October 21, 2001).   

21) “Country of Fear.”

22) Philip S. Golub, “United States: inventing demons,” Le Monde diplomatique (March 2003).

23) Prem Shankar Jha, “Democracy, Globalisation and War: New Myths to Save the West from the Rest.” World Affairs 5/2 (April/June 2001), 33 (26-47).

24) Ibid.

25) Holding that it was British rule that made democracy possible in India, and drawing on the precedent of America’s occupation of Japan, Stanley Kurtz advocates an unabashed “democratic imperialism.”  John Judis considers this oxymoronic.  See Stanley Kurtz, “Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint,” Policy Review.  No. 18 (April 2003); and John B. Judis, “History Lesson: What Woodrow Wilson Teach Today’s Imperialists,” The New Republic (June 9, 2003).

26) One of the best cases for an ongoing “third wave” of democratization is made by Larry Diamond, “Universal Democracy?”  Policy Review.  No. 119 (June 2003). What Diamond neglects is the undertow effect whereby democratic processes are co-opted by multinationals and other institutions of global corporatism.  This is not to deny the raw democratic potential of Seattle-style grassroots mobilization, or what I have termed global anti-globalism (see Fire 193-97), but its limitations in terms of geopolitical effectivity were graphically demonstrated early in 2003 in the case of the worldwide protest movement against the Iraq invasion.  When up to ten million protesters took to the streets worldwide on a single day, the Bush administration simply ignored them, with no apparent harm to his popularity ratings in the U.S.  See Bernard Weiner, “America Two Years after 9/11: 25 Things We Now Know.” The Crisis Papers (August 18, 2003).        

27) See Michael Hirsh, “Imperialism of Neighbors: A New Paradigm for the Use of American Power,” WashingtonMonthly Online (June 2003).