Farish Noor looks at how the free market and the security industry work together to terrorise the world.
I. Neo-liberal economics and the domestication of the citizen as subject-consumer
The logic of neo-liberal economics operates on one unstated premise: that citizens are universal subjects who are both suppliers of alienable/alienated labour as well as consumers of the very same goods and services they produce. Free-market economics therefore requires the creation and reproduction of such subject-consumers, whose own identities are left vacuous and without any particularities – be they historical, cultural, class, gender or religious identities. It is upon this universal notion that the market operates, and at the same time the market also seeks ways and means to render citizens subject to the law of the market where labour can remain an alienable commodity to be marketed as well, ‘sold’ by ‘free’ individual agents without Society/Culture mediating this process of commercial exchange.
The economic restructuring of Asean, however, can be dated back to the formation of Asean itself 42 years ago when the countries of the region came together in 1967 to create a bloc that purportedly was ‘neutral’ in the Cold War but decidedly ‘neutral on the side of the West’. Economic restructuring and the introduction of free-market reforms came hand in hand with the war against Communism and the overthrow of populist governments including the government of President Sukarno (which was then regarded as being one of the most left-leaning governments of the region, thanks to the prominence that Sukarno had given to the Indonesian Communist Party, PKI). During the Suharto years that followed, Indonesia was one of the countries in the Asean region that led the way in the march towards free-market liberalisation; its economy was privatised according to the advice of the so-called ‘Berkeley mafia’.
Resistance to such free-market liberalisation came in many forms, some of which were couched in terms of a discourse of religiously-inspired ethics and others in the form of ethno-nationalist and/or religio-communalist resistance. Even the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) of the Philippines can be considered as one example of such an anti-liberalisation movement, as it was founded by Moro activists who were on the one hand Islamists and on the other Marxists in orientation and background. Another example is the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement, GAM) that was likewise founded on the goals of national liberation and regional autonomy, rather than Islamisation and religious communitarian politics.
The local populations of the Asean region have therefore demonstrated time and again a conscious and sustained resistance to all forms of economic liberalisation disguised in the form of economic reform or developmentalist ideology. Asean citizens themselves have demonstrated conscious rational agency in the ways and means through which they have resisted these liberalisation tendencies – at times even through active political resistance to both the powers of foreign capital as well as entrenched compradore elites who have served as the agents of foreign capital intervention in their respective countries.
Unfortunately the historian has to note that the popular movements against neo-liberalism have by and large been defeated, co-opted or domesticated throughout much of the Asean region over the past four decades; thanks in part to the superior technical, capital and military-logistical support given to Asean governments by the international community and the West in its war against Communism and Socialism worldwide. The near-total destruction of the PKI in Indonesia (in 1965) was as much the work of the Indonesian armed forces under the command of General-turned-President Suharto as it was the work of the regime’s Western backers, notably the United States and Australia. In the same vein the violent annexation of East Timor in December 1975 was done with the tacit approval of most of the Asean states and their Western allies on the grounds that East Timor might have evolved to become the much-feared ‘Cuba of Southeast Asia’ and a staging post for Soviet activities in the region.
From a discursive angle it ought to be noted that during this crucial period when the forces of the free market were consolidating themselves in the Asean region as the war on Communism was being waged, a particular form of political sensibility emerged that equated all forms of anti-liberalisation resistance with political radicalism that was subsequently defined in negative terms.
Looking at the socio-cultural landscape of Asean today we see how four decades of relentless market-driven reform has led us to a world of the Thatcherite neo-liberal consensus, where there is only the abstracted individual and the market, and where Society (as well as Culture, History and other variable subjectivities) are absent. The rule of the market in Asean today is one which sees everything as commodity and/or potentially so, and where freedom to produce and consume are rendered sacrosanct while all opposition or critique of the workings of the market are presented as being radically outside the discursive economy of accepted social normativity.
This process of abstracting society to the level of possessive individuals took place against the background of a concerted campaign (during the Cold War) to render all forms of political-economic resistance as ‘radical’ and contrary to the principles of individual freedom of choice. And with the consolidation and sedimentation of the two chains of equivalences noted above, such market-oriented sociability has been rendered normalised and deemed acceptable.
II. The business of terror: neo-liberalism and the ‘anti-terror industry’
Since 2001, following the unilateral declaration of the global ‘war on terror’ by the (then) President of the United States of America , we have witnessed the development and expansion of what can best be described as the ‘anti-terror industry’ worldwide. Coming as it did at a time when the world was still reeling from the East Asian financial crisis of 1998 – which demonstrated in no uncertain terms the vulnerability of a global financial system that was operating with almost no legal or institutional restraint or accountable checks and balances – the declaration of the global war on terror by the Bush administration was a godsend to many liberal-capitalist economies in the developed as well as developing world.
In many Asian countries such as Pakistan, further Western penetration was occasioned by the acceptance of the Musharraf government of security checks and the new security regime imposed at the behest of Western security and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and FBI. It should be noted that during this period much of the so-called Western ‘aid’ that was pumped into Pakistan came in the form of joint military and security training as well as the installation of more intrusive surveillance infrastructure, despite the fact that the levels of education and illiteracy in the country remained low and that what Pakistan needed the most was funding for a working national educational system as well as a public health care system.
Looking back at the developments in South and Southeast Asia over the past decade, perhaps one of the most important observations to be made is how religiously-inspired politics of all hues and tenor were systematically demonised and relegated to the register of radical and potentially violent politics. It was during this period that Southeast Asian governments (at the backing and with the support of their Western allies) were most conspicuously engaged in the deliberate and sustained campaign to demonise all forms of religious politics and to target social institutions that were linked to religious movements in their respective countries. In predominantly Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia scores of Muslim religious schools (madrasah, pondok or pesantren) were policed, controlled, regulated and in many instances closed down or even attacked. The same was the case for Asian countries with Muslim-minority populations where the fear of religion in general and Islam in particular was heightened and where there emerged the urban myth of Muslim religious schools as contemporary ‘dens of terror’.
Of course in the midst of all this hype and paranoia about Islam and Muslims, the ones who have stood to gain the most are the managers of the arms and security industry: the ‘war on terror’ has given them the opportunity to sell more arms and surveillance materiel intended to help oppressive governments worldwide police and control their own populations. The ‘war on terror’ is thus an appendage to the arms industry, and like all wars the ‘war on terror’ has meant enormous profit for the producers of arms, security and surveillance technologies as well as governments and political elites who have benefited from the enormous kick-backs and other corrupt dealings associated with the sales and purchase of these weapons.
III. Muslims at the front-line of neo-liberalism’s ‘war on terror’: Why the defence of Muslim particularity and identity is a defence of all cultural identities
At no point in the history of Islam and normative Muslim life have Muslims been as monitored, controlled, patrolled, policed and suspected as they are today. Across the planet Muslims have been typecast, stereotyped and subjected to a mode of ethnic/cultural/religious profiling that would probably never be tolerated by/of any other community in the civilised world. Even in the safe haven of political correctness in the West, any public articulation of anxiety or suspicion about Africans, Jews or other communities would be deemed intolerable and objected to by liberals of all hues. Yet this intolerance for abuse stops short at the frontiers of the Muslim community, and today it is only in the case of Muslims that slander, stereotyping and typecasting of any kind is tolerated and sometimes even deemed necessary and pragmatic. Why?
The answer may lie in the fact that Muslim identity today has been rendered alterior according to the prevailing logic of neo-liberalism itself. Over the past decade, we have witnessed the development of a vast corpus of literature on Islam and Muslims that has sought to locate the basis of Muslim identity in some form of primordial essentialist attachment to a belief system and moral order that was subsequently posed as being outside the discursive economy of neo-liberal values. Muslims have been scrutinised, studied, pathologised and diagnosed as if they were pathologically, ontologically and even existentially different from the universal subject that is the ideal type of subjectivity within the framework of neo-liberal thought.
Muslims have thus been demonised in the name of both the war on terror as well as the neo-liberal consensus as the antipodes to the values of both the free market and the free world. Having painted Muslims in such a corner, how can we ever expect to see any form of meaningful dialogue with Muslims if Muslims are already handicapped with such demonised stereotypes from the outset?
Allow me to get to the crux of my argument here: The ‘war on terror’ industry that has emerged over the past decade and which was spawned by the workings of neo-liberalism has sought to eliminate all opponents to the rule of the market and the security industry by casting them as fundamentalist, extremist, radical threats to the prevailing hegemonic order of late industrial capitalism. In the process of this struggle to eliminate and silence all opponents, the most fundamental civil liberties of free citizens of the world have been trampled upon by the combined forces of compradore elites and the forces of capital.
At the front line of this assault are the Muslim communities of the world, whose daily lives have been rendered miserable thanks to the ever-expanding scope of security concerns and the manner in which state violence and power has been brought to bear on them: Muslims parties have been banned, Muslim schools closed down and Muslim businesses investigated. As mentioned above, no community in the world has been made to suffer such indignation and the assault on their fundamental liberties as Muslims today; and the last time we witnessed such an orchestrated campaign at demonisation and policing was the global campaign to curtail and dismantle the anti-hegemonic forces of the Left across the planet.
It is for these reasons that we need to understand how and why the defence of Muslim subjectivity from the totalising grasp of neo-liberal thinking is a fundamental part of the global struggle to maintain, protect and restore the dignity of all human beings worldwide, and to forestall the further encroachment of neo-liberal hegemony in all aspects of our lives. For if the campaign to totally eliminate all forms of Muslim cultural resistance succeeds, and if the attempt to domesticate and co-opt other Muslims succeeds as well, then we will be left in a world devoid of one crucial form of counter-hegemonic resistance.
Islam, Islamism and Muslims are today – by virtue of their attachment to a moral logic that is transcendental – one of the few remaining forces of counter-hegemony by default. By simply insisting on their right to be Muslims, Muslims demonstrate that for some people living in a globalised world does not entail the abandonment of ethics or moral values. One may not agree with some aspects of Islamism and some of its manifestations, but the deeper point that has to be made is the defence of any transcendental ethics that transcends the logic of commodification and the free market. In this respect, Muslims share more with progressive Christian liberation theology scholars and activists who likewise insist that Capitalism has to be brought under the control of Ethics. Both communities – and other communities that are likewise guided and determined by an ethical code that is not circumscribed by market laws – are counter-hegemonic communities in their own right, and ought to be recognised as such.
Coming to the defence of Muslim identity in the face of the onslaught of the ‘war on terror’ industry and the forces of neo-liberalism is part and parcel of the Left’s struggle against the hegemony of the market and its totalising logic of domestication and social control. But the traditional Left must also learn to appreciate the fact that while such forms of cultural resistance may be based on the discourse and symbols of cultural-religious essentialism, they are nonetheless important by virtue of the symbolic power they wield as tools of social mobilisation and counter-hegemonic identity politics. Muslims are living proof of the possibility of a radically different social order where Ethics informs and controls the workings of the market, and in that respect they are closer to the Left than any other community today.
This is a summary of a paper by political commentator and Aliran member Farish Noor at the conference Socialism 2009 organised by the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM)
Farish Noor is an Aliran member.
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