An Anthropological Preview of the Post-9/11 World

I accidentally came across this piece by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a Norwegian anthropologist, titled “The Paranoid Phase of Globalisation.” It was published in openDemocracy just a little over a month after the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington D.C., and it was interesting to note Eriksen’s predictions at the time:

Imagine this scenario for 2002 – science fiction a short while ago, exceedingly likely now. The world had entered the paranoid phase of globalisation. Countries were neither at war nor not at war. Detailed surveillance of citizens and quixotic imprisonment of individuals became commonplace. Politicians eagerly elaborated on the imminent threat of terrorist attacks, thereby justifying ever more draconian measures. Radical humanist networks and human rights groups were ostracised for their lack of loyalty and structural similarities to terrorist groups. Yet everybody, including the politicians, knew in their heart of hearts that turning the citizenry into potential enemies would only aggravate the problem.

And so it did. Terrorist attacks did not stop, nor did they escalate to all-out war. They were just frequent enough to keep everybody constantly worried. A plane-crash here, an epidemic there. The fun immediately went out of travelling. Even commuting ceased to be a drowsy and boring affair as people became increasingly wary of their fellow passengers on the tube. Those who entered poor countries from rich countries were screened thoroughly for signs of contagious disease. Many began to let their favourite teams down for fear of stadium attacks. Others felt a lump in their stomach whenever they entered a crowded basement, for they knew that the armed paramilitaries in fatigues guarding them were only impotent symbols of the state.

How close did he come in his prediction? Was the situation better than he predicted, or worse?

Much of the article is developed along the familiar axis of trust–risk, intersected by another axis of globalization–identity politics. In terms of an analysis of world capitalism, geopolitics, and warfare between the national security state and non-state actors, the approach offers some pluses, and some minuses. On the one hand, it is one that affords us a more “intimate,” inter-personal kind of analysis, bringing the analysis down to ground level cultural expressions. On the other hand, it substitutes generalization from various micro-places for a more comprehensive understanding of both imperialism and the capitalist world-system.

With respect to “identity politics” (and I am not sure this framework is adequate for understanding Al Qaida), Eriksen observes:

Many writers see identity politics in general as an anti-modern counter-reaction to the individualism and freedom embodied by globalisation, while others see it as the defence of the weak against foreign dominance, or even as a concealed strategy of modernisation. Some emphasise the psychological dimension of identity politics, seeing it as nostalgic attempts to retain dignity and a sense of rootedness in an era of rapid change; others focus on competition for scarce resources between groups; some see identity politics as a strategy of exclusion and an ideology of hatred; while yet others see it as the trueborn child of socialism, an expression of the collective strivings of the underdog.

That is a pretty good depiction of the state of debate, and he notes that none of these interpretations and judgments tells the whole story. Nonetheless, he feels comfortable enough to provide the following scheme for understanding identity politics — a scheme that I generally agree with, especially for its relational and processual elements, and its astute recording/synthesizing of expressions of identity politics which most of us will have observed or experienced personally:

  1. “identity politics always entails competition over scarce resources” (with a somewhat amorphous, all-in-one definition of “resources”)
  2. “modernisation and globalisation actualise differences and trigger conflict”
  3. “similarity overrules equality ideologically”
  4. “images of past suffering and injustice are invoked”
  5. “the political symbolism and rhetoric evokes personal experiences”
  6. “first-comers are contrasted with invaders”
  7. “the actual social complexity in society is reduced to a set of simple contrasts”

Some will note of course the degree of instrumentalism built into this scheme, not that it should be rejected as a whole or out of hand. But primordialists do make a good point: most people take their culture for granted, and are not conscious manipulators acting on the front stage and in the public limelight. Many attachments are felt personally and emotionally, rather than as calculated politics, built on abstract terms. Indeed, to suggest otherwise would mean that ethnic leaders, most of all, are simply faking it, conscious of their calculated manipulations while pretending they are deep-seated, ancient, traditional…and faking can be exhausting — not too good as a long-term strategy.

It was what I think is the genius of Pierre Bourdieu (a.k.a. the French social theorist and ethnographer who resembles Tommy Lee Jones — come on, compare this with that), to have worked out a synthesis and ultimate transcendence of both instrumentalism and primordialism:

The habitus comprises a set of generative schemes that produce practices and representations that are regular without reference to overt rules and that are goal directed without requiring conscious selection of goals or mastery of methods of achieving them.

What is commonly interpreted as rational interest-seeking behaviour is in fact largely habitual, an acting out of habitual constraints encoded in unexamined assumptions about what is reasonable and unreasonable (Bourdieu 1977: 72 — [Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.])

Eriksen ends his article on a universalist, humanist, some might even say Christian theme:

The new era must move beyond the paranoid to the more fully human: discovering a “universal” language of recognition and respect while realising that the more fundamental emotions are compassion and love.

It is hard to disagree with love and other good things. In fact, I would have considered ending all my articles on the same note, if my desire was to secure automatic agreement. So I will be a “contrarian” instead: I think the new era/world we should move to is one where you get to leave me alone. I am all for love, just not on command. I am all for relationships, just not the forced encounters that one endures living in the city. And I am all for internationalism, just not the right of anyone to shove his/her muzzle into everyone else’s affairs. (I may even tolerate you disagreeing with me on these ponts.)

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8 thoughts on “An Anthropological Preview of the Post-9/11 World

  1. Angstboy


    Two things:

    1) but Eriksen was wrong. We (I’m going to just talk about the US here, as I’m fairly certain that’s what Eriksen was talking about) did not collapse into a world of despotic rule and paranoia. Although the Bush administration did everything in its power to get us there, they were prevented from doing so.

    2) I’ve always felt that Bourdieu looked more like William F. Buckley

    1. Maximilian Forte

      To be frank, I cannot see any resemblance between those two, but perhaps it’s just me.

      About the first point, I think Eriksen came as near as possible to be considered right. Britain has become the surveillance society par excellence. We have had, in Canada included, extensive domestic spying and secret detentions. The CIA ran “extraordinary renditions” and we had torture take place in legal black zones. Bush, by at least some accounts, violated over 250 domestic and international laws, increased the power of the presidency in ways contrary to the U.S. Constitution, and we saw two wars launched without a formal declaration of war and thus without formal congressional authorization. Paranoia reached absolute extremes, with endless fear of sleeper cells, and even TV programs that fed this fear (24 Hours, The Border, etc.). Paranoia was also enacted through colour coded alerts, urging people to get plastic sheets and duct tape, Fox news warning of possible Iraqi drones spraying weaponized chemicals over U.S. cities, and a whole “Department of Homeland Security” was created, that then pumped out a seemingly endless stream of fake terror alerts. In most cases, whenever anyone was arrested in connection with some foiled “terror” plot, it would be precisely the terrorism charges that would be dropped.

      Prevented from doing so? Domestic spying continues. Indefinite detention without trial continues. The wars continue. Homeland Security was not dismantled. People trained to be paranoid any time they fly, also continues. In fact, the paranoia became so extreme, it almost devoured the persona of Barack Obama himself — the “secret Muslim” who may not even have been born in America, perhaps he “really” is “the Kenyan” (a new Manchurian Candidate).

      If anything, I would have said that Eriksen’s prediction was not as bad as things really turned out.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    As a follow up, this was just published in The New York Times:

    Obama’s Embrace of a Bush Tactic Riles Congress

    President Obama has issued signing statements claiming the authority to bypass dozens of provisions of bills enacted into law since he took office, provoking mounting criticism by lawmakers from both parties.

    President George W. Bush, citing expansive theories about his constitutional powers, set off a national debate in 2006 over the propriety of signing statements — instructions to executive officials about how to interpret and put in place new laws — after he used them to assert that he could authorize officials to bypass laws like a torture ban and oversight provisions of the USA Patriot Act.

    In the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush’s use of signing statements an “abuse,” and said he would issue them with greater restraint.

    More in that article.

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  4. usbennett

    That was an extremely interesting article, thank you. I read “Three Cups of Tea” with my wife a while back, and wondered what the untold story of CAI’s initiatives was. This piece did a good job answering that question, and more.

      1. usbennett

        Yes, indeed I did – don’t know how I got twisted around.

        I’ll blame it on Windows, lol.

        Great writing though.

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