The Other at the Gates

It is common knowledge that the “end of history” ended on September 11, 2001. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was only one civilization left: The Western World, combining liberal democracy with free market capitalism.

Geopolitically, this correlates with a situation dubbed “The Unipolar Moment” by Charles Krauthammer. Previously, the world had been divided into two large camps: The “West”, led by the USA and organised into NATO, and the Soviet-dominated “East”. With the surrender of the latter, the former became the undisputed hegemon of the world. Being the “unchallenged superpower”, the US was conceptualized as a global government. Viewed from an empirical or ontic perspective, one could point to the fact that military conflicts were still taking place, and infer that world peace had not actually been achieved; this perspective however ignores that the function of Western military activity was, in its essence, nothing but the enforcement of principles that had already won. They were means to achieve a goal that was humanitarian and economic at the same time, to accelerate an inevitable world-process. The Gulf War and the NATO missions in former Yugoslavia were large-scale police actions, and the armies of the West were at no point involved in a life-or-death, or faced with serious opposition.

Regarding internal politics, the Fukuyamaist period was marked by a thorough depoliticization. The fall of the Soviet Union retroactively vindicated Thatcher’s slogan that “There Is No Alternative” to neoliberal capitalism, which was more expressive of wishful thinking than of reality at the time it was formulated. Narrowed down to different shades of free-market ideology, the horizon of the possible dictated that incremental improvements of the existing arrangement were the only form of politics to be taken seriously.

For the left, the '90s were a time of defeat, surrender, hopelessness, and isolation. This experience clouds its ability to properly grasp the situation as it presented itself to the rest of society. In fact, the end of history was, for the majority of Westerners, a time of profound optimism. Witnessing the inevitable advance of liberalism, democracy, and capitalism inspired a belief in the actuality of progress. Despite the prevalence of postmodern ideas among intellectuals, the linear-progressive view of history was alive and well during the 1990s. People felt safe, sharing in the conviction that the world they were living in was both subjectively rational and objectively necessary. Just like the political thinkers of the 19th century, they were fully convinced that history was on their side, that it was, in and for itself, good. The Capitalist Realism of the pre-2001 world was a joyful one, and the lack of alternatives has to be read as analogous to the Marxist belief in the inevitability of communism. It is a testament to Fukuyama’s intellectual abilities that he immediately understood this; only through the lens of a Hegelian framework could the Unipolar Moment be properly grasped.


In ‘Empire’ (published in 2000), Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt claim that there is nothing outside of globalised world capitalism. The world is “politically united”, “the market is global”, and “power is organized throughout this universality”, and the “external standpoint no longer exists”. Despite the Spenglerian insistence on cultural relativity that was (and still is) so popular among academics, the actual consciousness of the ‘90s was monist. There was one culture – American consumer culture – and one civilisation – the globalised West.

Countries and geographic regions were characterized mainly by the degree to which they were Americanized. Progress was linear, but spatially differentiated. The future was unevenly distributed. There were temporally advanced spaces – Western Europe, Japan – and temporally backwards ones, but they were simply occupying different positions on one and the same path. Before 9/11, becoming-america was the universal tendency, the only conceivable political and historical movement. This was a world without borders. Its spatial map was a gradient, a smooth transition from past to future, from the periphery to New York.

The attacks of September 11 were the first contact with something external, something utterly foreign. Osama Bin Laden attacked the symbols of Fukuyamaism, the heart of financial capitalism. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the Twin Towers were built in the style of New Formalism, referencing the universalist tendencies of early 20th century architects such as Le Corbusier. But while such predecessors felt that their work was part of a evolving dynamism which has yet to conquer the world, Yamasakis gothic modernism expressed a confidence that the substantial tasks of humanity are already fulfilled. America is invincible, immutable, eternal.

Precisely because the World Trade Center served as the ultimate symbol of Pax Americana could its destruction by Middle Eastern terrorists effectively signify the end of an era. The counterrevolution was televized. This was the last time that a major historical event was consumed through the medium of television. The whole world was watching the same images, live, at the same time. In contrast to previous blows to modernist aspirations such as the other 9/11 – the destruction of the Chilean experiment in 1973 – or the Club of Rome report of the same year, this event was truly public. Even the most apolitical (“idiotic” in ancient Greek parlance) elements of society could instinctively feel that something mind-shattering had happened, that the world had changed.

From now on, everyone was obsessed with the “Clash of Civilizations”. What was previously viewed as a backwards region making small steps towards Westernization now became a cultural and ideological enemy. 9/11 marked a tectonic shift in global politics and perceptions, ushering in a new era of conflict and tension between what was now conceived of as distinct cultural spheres. The monist world made way for multipolarity and pluralism. Linear progress was dead and buried not only for academics and intellectuals, but for ordinary people.


Individual truths derive their force only with reference to a legitimating meta-narrative. When the meta-narrative of capitalist modernism was still alive, conspiracy theories such as those which revolve around the assassination of JFK or the death of Elvis were never taken seriously. They were funny, quirky, interesting, and utterly apolitical. Their existence was not viewed as a threat to society. "Crackpots" who believe that the moon landings were fake had a similar status to New Age spiritualists or pot-smoking Hippies.

All of this changed with 9/11. With the shattering of the Fukuyamaist metanarrative, the idea of truth itself was put into question. If there are many different cultures with incompatible values, and if none of them can claim to have access to universal truth, why can’t there be many different interpretations of what happened on September 11? It is of course possible to identify more immediate reasons for the emergence of conspiracy theories in the wake of the attacks. Some people were simply unable to accept that America was not, in fact, omnipotent; the idea that Middle Eastern terrorists could do such damage to the United States was perhaps too traumatic to be fully internalized. Ironically, the comforting idea of American supremacy could only be upheld through the narrative that the attacks were carried out by America itself…

But to focus on the initial psychological responses that might have contributed to the emergence of conspirational thought means to miss the bigger picture. Postmodernism rejected the grand meta-narrative of universal progress precisely because it locks out the Other of reason in favor of a streamlined vision of (Western, male, colonialist) truth. In his ‘Postmodern Condition’, Lyotard argues that the "desire for the return of terror" can only be countered if we "wage a war on totality" and "activate the differences". Thirty years later, Osama bin Laden waged a war on totality by means of terror, activating the differences through an act of televized hyper-violence. The modernist epistemic regime was broken, and with it the possibility of objective truth.

In contrast to the harmless conspiracy theories of the Fukuyamaist era, the new ideas are deeply political. We take them seriously, even if we reject them. From the 9/11 truthers to Covid denialists, from climate skepticism to QAnon – the emergence of alternative facts is a symptom of an epistemic crisis. It is caused by the absence of the legitimating force that was once exerted by the modernist meta-narrative. The effect is the a fatal weakening of Western democracy, one that leaves Europe and the United States vulnerable to threats that were previously unthinkable.


Why did the US invade Iraq? The intervention in Afghanistan can be seen as a more or less impulsive reaction to the horrors of 9/11. Iraq is different. Why enter another resource-intensive war while already embroiled in a challenging military conflict? Attacking Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was neither economically profitable nor geopolitically sound. The invasion must therefore be read as a symbolic act, an attempt to re-assert the hegemonic status that the destruction of the Twin Towers had put into question. Universal Americanization had to be accelerated in order to disprove the lingering conviction that the West was failing.

While the Americans were initially celebrated as liberators, things quickly went downhill. Unable to solve sectarian violence and endemic corruption, initial hopes turned into resentment. Abu Grahib, the Haditha massacre, and the suspension of civil liberties connected to the Patriot Act further undermined the notion of Western moral superiority. In Afghanistan, the human rights situation improved dramatically, especially for women. But the cost in lives and resources was more than Americans were ready to bear, and Coalition troops could never control more than the big cities. For the West, the first round of hostilities was indeed humiliating.

Despite these setbacks, temporary defeat in the Middle East is geostrategically survivable. But the end of the Unipolar Moment and the death of the Fukuyamaist meta-narrative opened up the space for more serious challengers to the West. In his ‘Theory of a Multipolar World’, Alexandr Dugin argues that the “cultural and civilizational identities” of Non-Westerners can only be expressed once “the pretensions of the West to the universalism of its values, systems, methods, and philosophical foundations” have been defeated. Viewed from the lens of Dugins postmodern relativism, ideas such as freedom, democracy, and equality appear as “West-centric concepts”.

The principal goal of Russian politics is to realize the vision of a multi-polar world. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 was the first step. This was followed by military support for Assad’s authoritarian government, the annexation of Crimea, and the partial occupation of Donbas. In these cases, Russia was allowed to act in direct opposition to liberal values and US interests. The West thereby unwillingly reinforced the multipolar narrative, leading to the full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This latest step in Russia’s quest to challenge the democratic universalism of the Enlightenment brought to Europe brutal conscript-based trench warfare reminiscent of the World Wars.