So to recap: I started off by saying that the Cold War never ended and just let that hang there for a while. I went on to consider the situation that the Cold War introduced to human affairs—the pervading awareness of impending species death. I then wrote about how Norman Mailer considered the Cold War primarily as an event in mass psychology shaped by this awareness. And here I would like to suggest that if you consider the Cold War from Mailer’s point of view, as an existential rather than geopolitical phenomenon, then my thesis that the Cold War never ended becomes a bit more plausible.
Consider our lives in the 21st century. 9/11, the War on Terror, and the attendant expansion of the surveillance state have replicated the same structures of daily experience. In the public imagination, terrorism always took the form of a dirty bomb, bioweapon attack, or some more shapeless horror—always something unimaginable or at any rate unimagined, because that’s exactly what 9/11 felt like. Before 9/11, no-one aside from Tom Clancy ever imagined using airplanes as flying bombs, much less envisioned such weapons bringing down such a vast structure as the World Trade Center. Much of the terror of that day lay in the feeling that no-one saw this coming and that you would never see the next shot coming either. Terrorism is not like conventional warfare, which we might liken to two fighters slugging it out in the ring, throwing feints and jabs and the odd hillbilly haymaker. This was like standing in a pitch-dark room with someone intent on doing violence, waiting for the next blow to fly out from the darkness.
It was not at all the same power dynamic as the Cold War, which presented us with a world divided between two superpowers and two visions of society. On 9/11 we were in the post-Cold-War world and one of those options had prevailed, but a mutant ideological strain had escaped the Cold War and come back to infect our lives with something like the same old fear. The U.S. was again locked in a conflict, not over territory or resources or any other measurable gain, but ideology.* The enemy could not be confronted directly, not because the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction prevented it, but because the enemy was no longer a concrete entity. Unlike the state Communism of the Soviet Union, the enemy was imperfectly embodied in the nations the United States identified as its enemies (Iraq, Afghanistan) and might be just as present in nations the U.S. identified as allies (Pakistan). It called itself Islamic but had nothing to do with the vast majority of Muslims and, in its illiberal and antimodern aims, remains practically indistinguishable from various toxic strains of radical Christianity. At the dawn of this new era of conflict, the U.S. government was reduced to declaring a war on an abstract noun (“terrorism”), which is the kind of war for which victory can never be finally and conclusively declared.
So U.S. citizens had an ideological enemy they could not face directly and so had to content themselves with proxy warfare. And, as in the Cold War, one knew that the real fighting went on behind the scenes, either in dirty and deniable encounters one learned about long after the fact (if at all) or in military actions (drone strikes, especially) so removed from daily life by so many levels of abstraction it was hard to understand what relationship anything that happened “out there” might have to anything “in here.” Unless, of course, something apocalyptic happened, as it had on 9/11, and again, as in the Cold War, one did not and could not know when or if that fateful stroke would land. The peculiar fear born of this condition was the alibi for the abstraction, for the general sense that horrible things were happening to people in another part of the world but that the moral responsibility for these things, like the true enemy itself, was impossible to pin down anywhere. The anarcho-pacifist intellectual Dwight Macdonald wrote about the same feeling in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. I wrote about this in my book:
Macdonald marveled that few of the American technicians who helped build the Bomb knew what they were making, and only three of the plane crew that dropped it knew what would hap- pen. “What real content, in such a case, can be assigned to notions like ‘democracy’ and ‘government of, by and for the people’?” Macdonald asked. The idea of individual agency or consent withered in an age when a hypertrophied scientific rationality, bursting its natural boundaries and set to the organization of society, could separate all the links in a chain of action and assign them to separate individuals, each insulated from the actions of the others and thereby from the moral consequences of the whole. The pilots would never witness the deaths of those they bombed; the scientists and technicians who designed and built the bombs would never know the pilots or the dead, or even one another; the managers would only ever talk to other managers; and the American people, in whose name this killing was carried out, would read about it in the papers.
So that feeling of abstraction, along with the related feeling of unreality, was the shared condition of Americans in both the Cold War and the War on Terror. When asked what ordinary Americans could do about the new War on Terror, George W. Bush suggested they go shopping. He took some heat for that, but what else was he going to say? What were we going to do, save string? Start a bond drive? The state didn’t need us to do anything except continue to consume, because this was no longer that older, WWII kind of war. Consumption is a war aim. What is an American for, anymore? Not to struggle, not to die, not to suffer, not to believe, not to protest, just to feed your little quantum of monetized energy into the grid. Abstraction.
Daily life in the shadow of abstract warfare is marked by the abiding awareness of the possibility that at any moment an act of apocalyptic violence could completely alter the routines of daily life, even as daily life continues on as before, eerily unchanged. The feeling is of being stuck: the irregular drip-drip-drip of terrorist violence prevents any return to sense of status quo ante, but it’s never quite enough to change anything, either.
At a certain point in such abstract conflicts, it becomes impossible to stay quite so scared. I know that there are some people out there, the ones who think Obama is the Muslim Manchurian Candidate, who live in a Groundhog Day loop in which every day is the day after 9/11, just as in the Cold War there were those who lived well past the 1980s in undiminished fear of communism. But for the most part, people move on.
But the strange thing is, the fear did not move on. Has never moved on. Actually, it was never my point to write about the War on Terror. At least, my argument is not that it’s the War on Terror that carries on the Cold War by other means. My point is this: the specific kind of fear peculiar to the Cold War—let’s call it The Fear, to distinguish it from any number of lesser and more individualized fears—carries on regardless of the world crisis it inhabits. It lives in each world crisis like a parasite in a host, and when the host dies The Fear moves on. I guess the War on Terror still goes on (how could it be otherwise?), and while horrible things like the Charlie Hebdo massacre still spring out at us from time to time, they offer us fears, not The Fear.
Actually, it’s not that the Cold War never ended; it’s that The Fear never ended. The Fear no longer really resides in terrorism. It has found a much better host in the global environmental crisis. Here, again, we are faced with a true existential threat, not just to any particular group of people but on the species level. Again, our extinction is threatened in the realm of science, in objective fact, and again it triggers the same collective malaise. We’re pretty sure that our days are numbered, but we just don’t know the number: science deals in probabilities, not forecasts. Time itself becomes like the Cell of Little Ease, in which one cannot find any position to rest. We can’t live it up like it’s the end of the world, but we can’t really give our present actions any meaning from their assumed participation in some larger design. As in the Cold War, our existential absurdity, the absurdity of living on borrowed time, infects every single moment of time. We get that deus absconditus feeling all over again. It’s interesting that the most vehement climate-change denialists are fundamentalist Christians. I wonder if it’s partly an emotional reaction to the possibility that climate change represents: God just doesn’t care anymore. What a horrible thought. Maybe the most horrible thought there is. That’s The Fear right there.
*Not that resources and territory don’t enter into it; obviously they do. It’s just that this kind of quarrel cannot be settled through any particular territorial conquest, because its animating force, an idea, being a thing of information and not matter, transcends any particular manifestation in space and time.