the return of the son of the return of the crisis

This is a critique of the article 'The Return of the Crisis', published in early 2003 on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, in the journal 'Against Sleep and Nightmare', no. 7 [1], the most developed 'ultra-left' analysis of the events of September 11th, 2001. Nearly five years later, a reevaluation of our response, and an alternative analysis, is overdue.

1. What Crisis?

No matter how often you return to 'The Return of the Crisis', you still have the impression that you're missing something, that it has something urgent to tell you about the relationship between capitalism, crisis, terrorism, and so on, but you can't quite tell what it is. It's too vague.

The article begins by saying that maybe, when you read this, there will be a worse crisis than September 11th. The collapse of an energy company, the attack on the World Trade Center, and the Iraq War, all 'merge into one'. The massacre of tens of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis, three thousand New Yorkers, and the ruin of a bunch of suckers who invested in Enron, their own employer, are all pretty much the same thing, says Against Sleep and Nightmare. This is one of the most tasteless aspects of ultra-left ideology: the equating of quite different things. Hitler's anti-semitism is equated with president Nixon's red scare ([1], page 11). But whereas Hitler's ideology was an abomination, Nixon's was merely an exageration.

On the back of 'Against Sleep and Nightmare' no. 7 is a cartoon of the Iraq war whose point is to show that Bush, bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are all on the same side, and we, the workers of America, have the same interests as the proletariat of Iraq and those who join Islamic terrorist groups. This kind of argument has never got us anywhere. Trying to reduce the world's cultures to one simple set of interests is civilization's project. It is the height of arrogance to patronize people by calling them victims of ideology, and trying to replace their culture with the values of the enlightenment. And it doesn't work.

However, we had an explanation for the unpopularity of our ideas:

No it isn't. The reason we said so little about the proletariat is because the American working class has as much life in it as Monty Python's parrot, and we didn't want to admit it. In France, which is also 'in the present world', the proletariat doesn't bat last [2]. The article gives no evidence that the American working class is about to wake up. Given our desperation to believe it, and the amount of work that went into it, you might expect that, if there were any evidence, it would be there.

The next problem is the article's adherence to orthodox Marxist economics. It takes a while to get there, but on page 24, the article abruptly comes to the point and says what it means.

Traditionally, Marxists argued that capitalism would collapse as a result of mathematically-provable contradictions. But it didn't. Capitalism's worst economic crisis was in 1929, and it didn't collapse then. Capitalism was just as much around in 1930 as it was in 1928. The wheels will never stop turning. They will have to be stopped.

The article does make one important economic point: credit is over-extended, and there will be a crash. But this information is useless, because, as the article admits, it can't say when this is gong to happen. The one time it tries to make a prediction, it is completely wrong: 'when you read this, there will probably be a crisis worse than September 11th'. For the inhabitants of Iraq, there has certainly been a crisis worse than September 11th, but the article doesn't mean this. It means a crisis for Americans. Even September 11th, in hindsight, doesn't look as much of a crisis as it seemed at the time.

The fourth problem in 'The Return of the Crisis' is its attempt to use the ideas of the sixties Marxist group the 'Situationist International' to understand the state of America today. Classical Marxism claimed that it is not ideas which drive society, it is material interests. But sometimes - if ideas are 'materialised' - they become 'ideology', which is a material force.

In more detail:

The concrete example given of 'taking an image' and 'painting the future' is not Apple or Nike, but Al-Qaeda. A concept so broad it covers everything from iPods to suicide bombers, explains nothing. I cannot think of a concept less useful and more misleading than 'Ideology'. 'The Return of the Crisis' fails completely to explain what it means. That is because it doesn't mean anything. American support for the war in Iraq is not ideology, it is murder. Israeli aggression is not ideology, it is a group of people benefitting from violence against another group of people. Neither is resistance to this violence. Tony Blair said the suicide bombers in London were under the spell of ideology. It is a word to comfort politicians and their followers.

2. Women in Pink and Black Helicopters

The fifth problem is the article's ambiguous defence of the view that the US government allowed September 11th to happen. Of course the Japanese Red Army, Charles Manson and Tupac Shapur (whoever that is) didn't do it. Is it just as implausible to suggest bin Laden had something to do with it? Of course not - the official story, that bin Laden's network attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, because they hate American foreign policy, is a good explanation. The article hints that this is not so, but doesn't come out and say it, unlike some theorists, such as Michael Ruppert [3] and Indymedia [4], who put their cards on the table: Given the history of Bush and his Iran/Contra cronies and the track record of the CIA it is not only highly possible that they knew and let the attacks happen, but also that they might have initiated the attacks.

'The Return of the Crisis' hints that the reason the ruling class allowed, or caused, September 11th to happen, is because they knew there was a massive crisis on its way, and a 'spectacular' event was needed to pull the country behind them:

If the above passage means anything, it means that George W. Bush and his associates knew in advance of September 11th, and deliberately misled people into thinking he didn't, in order to shock them into agreeing with something or other.

What is the great crisis that was coming which necessitated the US government allowing the destruction of the World Trade Center and an attack on the Pentagon? Unlike ideology, it hasn't materialised. How many other rackets are twisting in the wind, ready to collapse? How many Enrons and space shuttles are waiting ahead? ([1], page 24). Not very many, as it turned out - unless you count the hurricane which struck New Orleans in 2005, and the perfect storm of liberal whining which accompanied it.

Contradicting the idea that Bush is clever enough to install his ideas in our heads, the article hints that maybe he isn't that smart. It says (or rather, ambiguously suggests) that we don't know if he is the imbecile he appears to be, nor whether it matters much to the US ruling class if he is (page 24). This is wrong on both counts:

  1. Bush is in fact the imbecile he appears to be, and
  2. It matters very much to the US ruling class.

This is obvious, because the invasion of Iraq is the worst foreign policy disaster in American history. Only the Vietnam war comes close. The USA was much better off with Saddam Hussein in power.

'The Return of the Crisis' attempts to link CIA drug-dealing, the Skull and Bones fraternity at Yale, corruption, credit, the crisis, the spectacle, and ideology. The exposition is so general, it could equally explain America's current behavior, the opposite, and anything in between. This means it is untestable in principle, and therefore meaningless.

I don't think they let September 11th happen deliberately. Big bureaucracies make big mistakes. I work in computing. In the last year, I have had uphill battles to persuade my employers of the benefits of relational databases, benefits which have been overwhelmingly clear for twenty years. They could save billions if they took notice of people like me. Clumsiness is in the nature of large rule-based organizations. It is true that an FBI agent in Phoenix contacted his boss in August 2001 to tell him he had found someone who might hijack an airplane and crash it into the World Trade Center. It is true that the CIA sent Bush a paper entitled 'Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US'. It is true that the air force did not attempt to approach the hijacked planes, as it normally does when even a small aircraft deviates from its 'flight plan'. It is true that no serious attempt seems to have been made against bin Laden. The theories which suggest the government knew about, or caused, September 11th, should not be set aside lightly, but adding up all the evidence, September 11th looks far more like a conspiracy by Islamic militants opposed to US foreign policy than a conspiracy by the US government.

Whose interests do these 'alternative' theories serve, and what consequences do they lead to?

What are we, the Women in Pink? It would be a positive step if the intelligence services made 'a separate peace' with al-Qaeda. We should expose the real interests behind the arguments of the Democrats, and not tail along behind them like Indymedia. The USA is not, by its nature, bound to battle against Islamic fundamentalists, who are not about to annex Florida.

This leads to another problem with 'The Return of the Crisis' - the attempt to avoid confronting the prejudices of the average Joe, in turn a consequence of a type of Marxism which tries to avoid the danger of dictatorship by flattering the workers and worshiping spontaneity. The article's conclusion is a particularly bad example. The alternative is the defence of hard truths which most people don't want to hear. September 11th was war. It's not infrequent for three thousand civilians to be killed in a war, yet we never proclaimed other recent massacres as harbingers of the collapse of civilization. We didn't say "three thousand dead - what's new?". We were no freer of the hypocritical hysteria about '9/11' than the rest of the American population. We even attempted to find something positive in America's impotent rage:

But, as I said at the beginning, the reason I have picked on 'The Return of the Crisis' is because it is the best ultra-left response to September 11th. The 'Blowback' leaflet [6] from San Francisco was even more muddle-headed, with its claim that CIA support for the Afghan resistance somehow 'led to 9/11'. The ultra-left in general was 'spectacularly' wrong about September 11th, and a complete change of direction is needed. Ultra-left ideology, with its vacuous calls for the working class around the world to unite, has been bankrupt for decades. Equating everything we opposed, we opposed it all equally - equally ineffectively, that is. Opposing all states in general is less dangerous than opposing one state in particular.

3. The Elephant in the Room

Ideology, CIA drug-dealing, corruption... and one more thing. 'The Return of the Crisis' grasps at 'neo-conservative ideology' as a cause/consequence of the crisis/spectacle/whatever. This school of thought has been much in the news of late, as the media searches for scapegoats to blame for the Iraq disaster in order to avoid confronting the real enemy within. Neo-conservatism consists of various right-wing bad boys who studied under a certain Leo Strauss, and concluded that
  1. America should be more aggressive in defending its interests, and
  2. Lying is OK

But the irrelevance of neo-conservatism to the current state of US foreign policy can easily be demonstrated. If the Republicans are under the sway of neo-conservatism, the Democrats cannot be to quite the same extent. Yet the two parties have exactly the same policies, except that when it comes to murdering Arabs, the Democrats are a little more aggressive. What needs explaining, is not why the USA became more aggressive, but where its aggression was directed. The incredible stupidity of the particular form this aggression took cannot be explained by neo, or any other, conservatism. The current situation in the Middle East is not caused by America aggressively defending its interests. It's caused by aggressively defending another country's interests.

Even the Rolling Stones weighed in - How come you're so wrong, my sweet neo-con? Can you imagine a rock band having a hit which criticizes the Israel Lobby? Of course not. The recording would be suppressed as surely as the New York play about Rachel Corrie, a peace activist murdered by Israel. Which proves my point. It really isn't that difficult to figure it out. It takes more balls than brains.

Let's try looking at things logically. If two people are pushing a car in the same direction, it is impossible to tell which of the two is the stronger. It is only when they attempt to push in opposite directions that you can decide. When the USA's interests coincide with those of Israel (and they sometimes do), and the USA follows its interests, it is not possible to tell whose interests prevail. It is only when they differ (as they sometimes must), that you can say whose interests take precedence. When was the last time the USA acted contrary to Israel's interests?

Of course, neo-conservatives support Israel. But then, so do all other political factions in America. The degree to which a politician supports the invasion of Iraq and the defence of Israel is completely independent of the degree to which he subscribes to neo-conservatism. In other words, neo-conservatism is irrelevant to US policy in the Middle East.

Israel, a state based on an unsuccessful campaign of ethnic cleansing against some of its 300 million Arab neighbors, can only survive if Western countries support it. The most powerful Lobby in America influences the the government to benefit, not the American population, not even the American ruling class, but the Jewish State. When I argued this at an ultra-left meeting in December 2004, I got a rather cool reception [7]. When Counterpunch said it, it was described as anti-semitic by Anarchy magazine [8]. A year and a half later, two academics at Harvard caught up with Counterpunch and myself, exposing the Israel Lobby as the most powerful force in US politics [9]:

I wish I'd said that! Come to think of it, I did say that. False modesty be damned - I was right, and the other explanations are diversions, or worse, cowardly capitulations to slander, threats, and emotional blackmail.

But Israel might be an even bigger loser than the USA. The latter can recover quite easily, by making peace with everyone else in the Middle East. Despite defeatist talk of the power of ideology, the ruling class has not become completely irrational, and it is possible to influence US government policy in a more self-interested direction. The Harvard paper is the first sign of a sea change. Most of America is not Israeli-occupied territory. The Iraq disaster will lead the USA to reevaluate its relationship to its 'ally' in the Middle East.

Why did Israel make the mistake of trying to use its tame superpower to turn Iraq into a giant West Bank? Israel is good at torture and murder. Israel's troops (most of its population) are highly motivated. Like the paratroop colonel in the movie 'Battle of Algiers' who tells his critics that, without torture, France will not hang on to Algeria, Israelis know that their policies are necessary for the survival of their settler state. A less aggressive approach would only encourage the oppressed. Criticizing Israel's crimes is misleading - they are a necessary consequence of its foundation. Unfortunately for Israel, however, its policies also encourage its opponents. It will take longer for Israel to go the way of Algeria, but Muslims will only take so much provocation. September 11th was a response to this provocation. This is what needs to be said. There are few who will say it. Ideology, the spectacle and the crisis are diversions from this uphill task.

The nature of Israel makes it provoke its opponents and scare its allies with false stories about powerful enemies in the Middle East and anti-semitism in Europe and America. It had to cast PLO leader Yasir Arafat, a pathetic old has-been who capitulated to Israel, as a terrorist. It had to persuade the USA that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a threat which must be overthrown. The lies took on a life of their own. Saddam was never a threat to the Zionist entity, yet George W. Bush claimed he 'sent suicide bombers into Israel'. Neither is Syria a problem for Israel, which is thousands of times more powerful, but is incapable of saying so. It is often pointed out that the only threat to Israel is the one being created by its own behavior. What is less often said is that its behavior is an inevitable consequence of its foundation. 'Poor little Israel' is a necessary lie, and those who lie eventually believe their falsehoods, and act accordingly, even unto their own destruction. I said above that Israel is good at ruling Arabs. This is because it is highly motivated. The USA is the opposite. It is hopelessly incompetent at occupying the Middle East because it doesn't have the slightest interest in doing so [11].

Thanks to successfully Lobbying the USA to do its dirty work, Israel may soon face

We don't know exactly how all this will turn out, except that it won't be pretty. But we can be sure that Israel will be worse off than before the invasion of Iraq.

As long as Israel can persuade Western countries to support it, by mass murder in the Middle East and repression at home [12], it will be able to survive in its current form. But its very nature leads it to gradually undermine this support. This article is dedicated to those who stood against the tide before it turned.

[1] 'The Return of the Crisis', March 2003,
[2] 'Chirac to scrap employment law', The Guardian, April 10, 2006,,1750776,00.html
[3] 'From the Wilderness':
[4] "People's investigation into 9/11",
[5] '9/11 & Bush's Negligence',
[6] 'Blowback', 011020flyer.html
[7] "Anarchists and the Israel Lobby" (or do I repeat myself?),
[8] Review of 'The Politics of Anti-Semitism', Anarchy 58, 2004-2005.
[9] 'The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy', John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, Harvard University, March 2006. This is a PDF file - you can download it from here:$File/rwp_06_011_walt.pdf.
[10] Mearsheimer and Waltrespond to their critics:
[11] 'The Palestinians and the Party Line', Michael Neumannn,
[12] 'Ex-professor gets over 4 years in Florida Jihad case', topNews&storyid=2006-05-01T135839Z_01_B621070_RTRUKOC_0_US-CRIME-PROFESSOR.xml