Repeated headlines about a “Clash of Civilisations” prompt an inversion into the “Clash of Barbarisms”. Yet that antiphon sounds as crude as George W. Bush’s asserting the goodness of his America, or the Ayatollah Khomaini’s condemnation of the US as “The Great Satan”. The best of US civilisation is represented by Mark Twain and W. E. B. du Bois, whom both Bush and bin Laden would regard as devilish.

The proponent of the Clash of Civilisations hypothesis, Samuel P Huntington, is no stranger to barbarism. He promoted the strategic hamlet programs in Vietnam in the 1960s. Under that policy, peasants were bombed into urban areas to deprive the guerillas of an ocean in which to swim.

The bombing of civilians has been happening somewhere every year since the militarisation of aircraft, spreading terror from Abyssinia in 1935 across to London in the Blitz. Between 1940 and 1945, all sides abandoned the rule that attacking civilians was wrong, a drift into barbarism which culminated in the fire-storms over Dresden and Tokyo, and ultimately the live nuclear test on Hiroshima. From seeming to be unavoidable, making war on civilians became the point, and remains so, as witnessed in Somalia and Iraq.

The goal of the US leadership in its war against other peoples’ terrorism is not atavistic revenge. Their task is to ensure that the coming century will also be “The American Century”. The prime threats to the US hegemon remain a united Europe and democracy anywhere.

The top priority is to keep Europe in line. European trade and finances were brought under US leadership only after two world wars, through the Marshall Plan and NATO. Since the 1991 implosion of the Soviet threat, the US has used Iraq and the Balkan wars to keep other NATO members from running their own army. Globalisation has intensified competition between European and the US-based capitals. Today, Washington’s task is to ensure that there are more de Gaulles, and no further disruptions to World Trade Organisation agreements.

The wider challenge to the US imperium is popular sovereignty which, inside the US itself, is struggling against the plutocracy. The US Right argues that their system of government was founded as a Republic, not a democracy. That interpretation is true enough for the 1770s, but hopes to reverse the changes wrought since then by generations of reformers, from the suffragette Susan B. Anthony to the Sixties radical Angela Davis.

Huntington wrote the US section of the Trilateral Commission’s 1973 report on the governability of democracies. Any notion that democracy should be self-governing did not suit the Commission’s founder, David Rockefeller, on whose behalf Huntington recommended more apathy. Not surprisingly, in The Clash of Civilisation, (1996), Huntington did not come down on the side of liberal democracy, but in favour of the supposed Confucian model, exemplified in authoritarian Singapore.

Democracy is not prominent in the oil states that depend on the US for their weapons. Its condition in those countries was exposed in the offer of $20m by a Saudi Prince to New York. Why did His Munificence not give his petty cash to the Palestinian Authority? The answer is connected to that other Saudi potentate, Osama bin Laden, who has little affection for radical and secular Palestinians.

The Fundamentalism of bin Laden’s militants flows from two sources. The first was a rejection of modernity by Islamic scholars in the nineteenth century. That strand did not come to the fore until modernising projects had failed a majority of the Prophet’s followers. Since the 1950s, they have endured the defeat of Nasserism, Arab Socialism, and OPEC. The resilience of Zionism and the persistence of the conflict in Kashmir compounded resentment from those reverses. These ruptures to expectations are nourishing anger, enflamed by the horrors that Muslims undergo in Aceh, Bosnia and Chechnya.

In the wake of the collapse of their secular hopes, Islamists have tied their miseries and hopes more tightly to their religion, which, as Marx said, became “the heart of a heartless world”. Segments within Islam are now bound to violence, but Islam is not in itself violent every day of the year. We hear that they were commanded to kill non-believers and to die for their faith. They were, and some are. But they have done so on rare occasions across 1400 years, and then only when they would have killed and died anyway. They have done so no more consistently than Christians or Buddhists.

From the disappointed across the Muslim world, volunteers for the Mojahedin and later the Taliban sped to Afghanistan. More decisive there has been the disintegration of what passed for the Afghan state. Before the 1970s, Afghanistan was like two countries – its urban centres and the rest. The communists extended their reforms, notably women’s rights, into the tribal areas, provoking resistance. Since then, the balance of benign neglect between urban and rural has been shattered. The barbarisms to which Afghans have been subjected in the past twenty years make a civil government improbable.

The Giant Buddhas in Afghanistan represented an earlier civilisation; they deserved preservation as a memorial to the poor who paid for them.

Human labour is still ill-treated in the Third World. Less obvious is the barbaric conceptualisation of life and labour from our centres of learning. According to the market economists who now direct Western civilisation, every human attribute trades at a price. Hence, on their calculus, the Indians who died around the Union Carbide plant rate as less valuable than the US dead on September 11 because the latter owned, owed and earned more.

The crucial difference, however, between the poor who are murdered every week and those who died in New York and the Pentagon is that the latter were killed in the heartland of the one civilisation with the capacity to extinguish life on our planet. That barbarism pervades our thinking more than the coverage on CNN.

The world did not change for most people on 11 September. The balance between civility and cruelty has not been improved. The same number of US children die of malnutrition and disease; the same number US adults remain illiterate and ill-housed.

Talk of a new Marshall Plan for the poor of Africa or the Middle East forgets that the US Department of Commerce tailored the 1948 funds to stimulate the US economy by reviving Western Europe in order to feed back into US trade. Today’s basket cases have almost nothing to offer corporations. If their peoples starve, or die of AIDS, the expansion of capital will not stall.