The disaster that unfolded before our eyes on September 11th has generated a number of articles attempting to explain how this event could have occurred. The majority of these articles tended to start with one of two assumptions. The first assumed that the perpetuators of this crime were purely madmen, religious fanatics incapable of comprehension. Consequently, theses articles required little in the form of analysis, relying primarily on code words anchored by a crass nationalism.

The second assumed that the perpetrators while indeed criminals, nevertheless were not simply madmen and religious fanatics but driven to their actions by some force no matter how perverted. Consequently, these articles were less popular with the public given their seemingly non-patriot stance and more difficult to write since they required, to a certain degree at least, some self reflection primarily that of United States foreign policy.

It is this second line of reasoning that I would like to follow in this article, however utilizing the theoretical perspective of historical materialism. Some may argue that Marxism has little to offer by way of analysis, I disagree. In fact, I think historical materialism has a great deal to offer in helping us understand some of the root causes to the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

The Marxist Ontology

Marxism’s starting point in evaluating and understanding social phenomenon is both philosophical and materialist. It is philosophical in the sense that it assumes that all social phenomenon is contained in both time and space. It is materialist in the sense that it assumes that all social phenomenon, in addition to being contained in both time and space is also contained within a particular economic mode of production (e.g., the basis of all human life: the production of food, clothing, shelter and necessities of life).

This is significant for social scientific investigation for several reasons. First, historical materialism acknowledges that no social phenomenon can exist outside of itself thus its meaning is generated by the context in which it occurs. Second, historical materialism acknowledges that all social phenomenon must exist within a particular economic mode of production since human beings make their way in the world purposefully (e.g., confronting and conforming nature to our needs as opposed to relying upon instinct for survival). Third, if all social phenomenon must occur within a particular mode of production then it is the mode of production that gives social phenomenon its context and meaning.

Given this ontological perspective it can be argued that the September 11th terrorist attacks (a social phenomenon) can not be disconnected from the dominant economic mode of production in which they occurred. Furthermore, it becomes necessary to examine the dominant economic mode of production, its logic, the required organization of society based upon its logic, and the human consequences that are a result of its logic if any meaning is to be derived from these acts of terror.

The Logical Organization of Society Based Upon A Capitalist Mode of Production and its Tendencies

The dominant mode of production of our time is capitalism. While some may argue that the capitalism practiced throughout the world today bares little resemblance to that advocated by Adam Smith, it nevertheless approximates it enough. In its most basic form, capitalism is the production and exchange of all the material goods necessary for human life based upon the profit motive (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, health care etc.,).

According to historical materialism, profit is defined as the difference between the wage a person earns and the value they create minus the costs of production in a given period of time. The logic of capitalism therefore requires the creation of two fundamentally different groups in society with two fundamentally different means of survival. The first group makes their living off of wages received in the production process and the second group off of profits. Capitalism, out of its own necessity, creates what can be called a class-based society with competing and conflicting interests between workers and owners. Finally, capitalism is also forced by its own necessity to secure the conditions that are favorable to it. What are some of these other conditions?

Conditions Favorable to a Capitalist Mode of Production

One maybe asking what does this have to do with the September 11th terrorist attacks? Let us follow the logic of capitalism a bit further and perhaps we can find some answers. One way that we can begin to see a connection is by asking and then answering several questions that may at first appear unrelated. What is the relationship between the logic of capitalism and poverty? More important, what is the relationship between the logic of capitalism and the degradation, frustration and suffering that accompanies poverty? Finally, what is the relationship between the logic of capitalism and the eventual reactions against the conditions of poverty?

A professor of mine once told me that people do not cause poverty but rather low or no wages causes poverty. Since capitalism forces all of its citizens to purchase their survival (e.g., rent, heath care, food, clothing etc.,) and that the means to do so is through money derived from wages then it stands to reason that wages are ultimately responsible for the creation of poverty. While there is a variety of ways to make a living, the overwhelming majority must enter this relationship. Defenders of capitalism can come up with a million and one arguments about opportunities to make more money to lift one out of poverty (which I do not disagree with), but they fail to recognize that in the end the same wages that make someone poor is at the same time the wages that makes someone profits. Therefore, as ugly as it may sound capitalism not only causes the conditions of poverty but also requires and relies upon it as an aspect of its production process. Consequently, the degradation, frustration and suffering that accompanies it along with the eventual reactions against it are also logical outcomes of this mode of production.

The Capitalist Mode of Production, the International Scene a Connection to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks

Capitalism is not just a domestic mode of production but also an international mode of production. Therefore, the same principles that apply at home also apply in the international arena. For the United States to maintain a strong domestic capitalist economy it is forced to view and organize the world (as best it can) according to these interests. In fact, American foreign policy is largely centered on achieving this objective and thus must be evaluated on this premise as well. It can be argued that the United States support of dictators in the Middle East like the Shaw of Iran, Sadam Husain and the Tailband (not to mention the numerous dictators created and supported by the United States in other parts of the world e.g., Mabutu, Marcos, Pinochet, Batista, etc,.) were about protecting capitalist interests.

Again, what does any of this have to do with the September 11th terrorist attacks? It is safe to assume that in order to carry out such a brutal act of terror its perpetrators had to be filled with a tremendous rage. Where did this rage come from? In part, it emerged out of the very suffering, degradation and frustration in the Middle East which is a consequence of United States foreign policy. A foreign policy, it must be stressed driven by the need to organize the world based upon capitalist interests.

The targets that the terrorists choose can not be ignored either. The World Trade Center was the ultimate symbol of world capitalism. It was the financial nerve center for the vast transactions endemic to global capitalism. In Marxist parlance, it was the financial heart of world imperialism. The Pentagon, on the other hand is the chief military guarantor of this system. Finally, since the terrorists choose these symbols among a vast array of other targets suggests a political and economic motive to their actions. Does any of this justify what took place on September 11th in New York? No. However, if we are to prevent this from ever occurring again it would be prudent to seriously assess the relationship between capitalism, poverty and reactions against it. Unfortunately, insofar as the conditions of poverty exist, and a mode of production which creates and relies upon it, so to does the potential for terrorism as we witnessed on September 11th in New York City.