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Responding to change

Jason Mueller
Tuesday, Sep 14, 2021

Politicians across the North Atlantic are losing their minds over Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and the subsequent disintegration of the US-backed government in Kabul. This is happening despite there being bipartisan support among the US public to withdraw troops from the region, and over two-thirds of the public believing the “the United States mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.” This leads us to a curious question: Why are neoliberal capitalists having a meltdown over something liberal and conservative citizens actually support – not to mention Afghan citizens, who likely want an end to a 20-year occupation?

I believe we will gain insights on this conundrum by thinking through the concept of neoliberal order breakdown syndrome. Neoliberal order breakdown syndrome – NOBS, for short – is a term coined by Alex Hochuli, George Hoare, and Philip Cunliffe in their recently released book, ‘The End of the End of History’. NOBS describes the fundamental inability for large sectors of the ruling class to do 3 interrelated things: (1) accept, (2) explain, or (3) respond to political change.

Using Hochuli, Hoare, and Cunliffe’s concepts, we can understand the pillars of NOBS in the following way. The inability to accept political change is seen when the ruling class refuses to accept any responsibility for creating the conditions that afflict society. The inability to explain political change is seen when the ruling class swaps out a coherent analysis with either conspiracy theories or refusal to grant agency to aggrieved citizens. Inability to respond to political change can be seen in a variety of ways, including nostalgia for the recent past, catastrophism, moralizing, and the need for repetition.

Now, let’s apply the NOBS theory to the current hysteria over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The inability to accept and explain political change is seen when political leaders refuse to critically reflect on why the US-backed Afghan military and State apparatus crumbled upon the immediate US withdrawal from Kabul. When trying to answer this question, Biden – the one actually responsible for ending the US occupation – boldly proclaimed “So what’s happened? Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight.” This assertion deflects all attention away from US actions, placing blame on people in Afghanistan for their plight.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike cannot accept the ending of this 20-year occupation, lashing out at Bide for a variety of reasons, generally couched in alleged ‘concerns for strategizing’ the withdrawal, or neoliberal (pseudo)feminist discourse. None of these fronts include any self-reflection on other reasons why the US-backed Afghan government might have dissolved, including the support that the Taliban held among many in the region, or the catastrophic toll the US invasion wrought on the region for two decades.

The inability to respond to this sudden change in Afghanistan further illustrates NOBS theory.

Excerpted: ‘Neoliberal Order Breakdown and the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan’

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