A global war regime

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By MICHAEL HARDT & SANDRO MEZZADRA*

A global war regime is emerging – in which governance and military administrations are closely intertwined with capitalist structures

1.

It seems that we have entered a period of endless war, which extends throughout the world and disturbs even the most central nodes of the world system. Each contemporary conflict has its own genealogy and stakes, but it's worth taking a step back to place them in a bigger picture.

Our hypothesis is that a global war regime is emerging – in which governance and military administrations are closely intertwined with capitalist structures. To understand the dynamics of individual wars and formulate an adequate resistance project, it is necessary to understand the contours of this regime.

Both the rhetoric and practices of global warfare have changed dramatically since the early 2000s, when the “rogue state” and the “failed state” were key ideological concepts thought to explain the outbreak of military conflicts, which were, by definition, confined to the periphery. This presupposed a stable and effective international system of governance, led by dominant nation-states and global institutions.

Today, this system is in crisis and unable to maintain order. Armed conflicts, such as those in Ukraine and Gaza, are attracting some of the most powerful actors on the international stage, raising the specter of nuclear escalation. The world-systems approach has typically viewed such ruptures as signs of a hegemonic transition. This is how the World Wars of the 20th century marked the change from British to North American global hegemony. But in the current context, the rupture does not portend any transfer of power; The decline of American hegemony simply ushered in a period in which crisis became the norm.

We propose the concept of “war regime” to understand the nature of this period. This can be seen, firstly, in the militarization of economic life and its increasing alignment with the demands of “national security”. Not only are more public expenditures planned for armaments; economic development as a whole, as Raúl Sánchez Cedillo writes, is increasingly shaped by military and security logics.

The extraordinary advances in artificial intelligence are largely driven by military interests and technologies for war applications. Logistics circuits and infrastructures are also adapting to armed conflicts and military operations. The boundaries between the economic and the military are becoming increasingly blurred. In some economic sectors, they are indistinguishable.

The war regime is also evident in the militarization of the social field. Sometimes this takes the explicit form of suppressing dissent and rallying around a flag. But it also manifests itself in a more general attempt to reinforce obedience to authority at multiple social levels. Feminist critiques of militarization have long highlighted not only the toxic forms of masculinity it mobilizes, but also the distorting influence of military logics on all social relations and conflicts.

Several right-wing figures – Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte – make a clear connection between their militarist ethos and their support for social hierarchies. Even when this is not outwardly articulated, we can observe the spread of a reactionary political repertoire that combines militarism with social repression: reimposing racial and gender hierarchies, attacking and excluding migrants, banning or restricting access to abortion and undermining gay rights, lesbians and trans, while often invoking the threat of an imminent civil war.

2.

The emerging war regime is also visible in the apparent paradox regarding the continued failures of recent hegemonic war campaigns. For at least half a century, the U.S. military, despite being the most lavishly funded and technologically advanced fighting force on the planet, has done nothing but lose wars, from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq. The symbol of such failure is the military helicopter carrying the last remaining American personnel, leaving a devastated landscape in its wake.

Why does such a powerful war machine keep failing? One obvious answer is that the United States is no longer the imperialist hegemon that some still believe it to be. However, this dynamic of failure also reveals the overarching global power structure that such conflicts help to sustain. Here it is worth remembering Michel Foucault's work on the perpetual failures of prison to fulfill its declared objectives. Since its creation, he notes, the prison system, ostensibly dedicated to correcting and transforming criminal behavior, has repeatedly done the opposite: increasing recidivism, turning offenders into delinquents, and so on.

“Perhaps,” he suggests, “we should reverse the problem and ask ourselves what the prison’s failure is for… Maybe we should look for what is hidden beneath the apparent cynicism of the penal institution.” Also in this case, we must reverse the problem and ask what the war machine's flaws are for – what is hidden beneath its apparent objectives.

What we discover when we do is not a cabal of military and political leaders conspiring behind closed doors. It is rather what Michel Foucault would call a governance project. The incessant parade of armed confrontations, large and small, serves to sustain a militarized governance structure that takes different forms in different places, and is guided by a multi-level structure of forces, including dominant nation-states, supranational institutions, and competing sectors. of capital, which sometimes align and sometimes conflict.

The intimate relationship between war and circuits of capital is nothing new. Modern logistics has a military genealogy with roots in colonial enterprises and the Atlantic slave trade. However, the current global situation is characterized by the growing overlap between 'geopolitics' and 'geoeconomics', amidst a constant creation and reconstitution of spaces of valorization and accumulation, which intersect with the contested distribution of political power across the planet. .

The logistical problems of the Covid-19 pandemic set the stage for a series of subsequent military unrest. Images of containers stuck in ports signaled that global trade had turned sclerotic. Corporations made frantic attempts to deal with the crisis, reconsolidating old routes or opening new ones.

The invasion of Ukraine and the resulting logistical disruptions followed. Russia's oil and gas trade to Germany was one of the main casualties of the war, especially after the spectacular sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, renewing talks about “nearshoring" or "friendshoring” as a strategy to wean Western economies away from Moscow’s energy supply.

The war also stopped the flow of wheat, corn and oilseeds. Energy prices have soared in Europe; Staple foods have become scarce in Africa and Latin America. Tensions have increased between Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine after limits on the export of Ukrainian agricultural products were lifted. The German economy is now stagnant, and several other European Union member states have been forced to reorganize their energy supplies by striking deals with North African countries.

Russia has redirected its energy exports eastward, mainly to China and India. New trade routes – through Georgia, for example – allowed him to at least partially circumvent Western sanctions. This reorganization of logistical spaces is clearly one of the main stakes of the conflict.

3.

In Gaza too, logistical and infrastructure arrangements are decisive, although they are often obscured by the unbearable spectacle of the massacre. The US hoped that the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which stretches from India to Europe via the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Greece, would strengthen its regional economic influence and counterbalance China's Belt and Road Initiative. However, this depended on the Arab-Israeli normalization project, which may have been fatally undermined by the ongoing war.

Furthermore, attacks Houthis in the Red Sea forced large shipping companies to avoid the Suez Canal and take longer and more expensive routes. The US military is now building a port on the coast of Gaza, reportedly to facilitate aid deliveries, although Palestinian organizations claim its ultimate aim is to facilitate ethnic cleansing.

The fighting in Ukraine and Gaza thus exemplifies the global reformulation of capital spaces. The main places of circulation are being remodeled, under a war regime, through the active intervention of nation-states. This implies the mixing of political and economic logics: a phenomenon that is even more evident in the “Indo-Pacific” region, where rising tensions in the South China Sea and military alliances like AUKUS are influencing economic networks like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Comprehensive and Progressive.

In this period of transition, each conflict or disruption in the supply chain can benefit this or that state or capitalist actor. However, the system as a whole is plagued by increasing spatial fragmentation and the emergence of unpredictable geographies.

In opposition to the global war regime, calls for ceasefires and arms embargoes are essential, but the current moment also demands a coherent internationalist policy. What is needed are coordinated defection practices through which people can radically move away from the status quo. As I write, such a project is most clearly foreshadowed by the global Palestine solidarity movement.

4.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, internationalism was often conceived as solidarity between national projects. This is sometimes true today, as in the case of South Africa at the International Council of Justice. However, the concept of national liberation, which served as the basis for past anti-colonial struggles, seems increasingly out of reach.

Although the struggle for Palestinian self-determination is ongoing, the prospects for a two-state solution and a sovereign Palestinian state are increasingly unrealistic. How, then, can we configure a liberation project without assuming national sovereignty as a goal? What needs to be renewed and expanded, drawing on certain Marxist and Pan-Africanist traditions, is a non-national form of internationalism, capable of confronting the global circuits of contemporary capital.

Internationalism is not cosmopolitanism, which is to say that it requires specific, local, material grounding rather than abstract claims of universalism. This does not exclude the powers of nation states, but places them in a broader context. A proper resistance movement for the 2020s would include a range of forces, including local and municipal organizations, national structures, and regional actors.

Kurdish liberation struggles, for example, go beyond national borders and cross social borders in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Indigenous movements in the Andes also cut across such divisions, while feminist coalitions in Latin America and beyond provide a powerful model of non-national internationalism.

Desertion, which designates a series of escape practices, has been a privileged tactic for resisting war. Not just soldiers, but all members of a society can resist simply by withdrawing from the war project. For a fighter in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Russian Army or the US military, this is still a significant political act, although in practice it can be extremely difficult. This may also be the case for Ukrainian soldiers, although their position is very different. However, for those trapped in the Gaza Strip, it is not an option.

Desertion from the current war regime must therefore be conceived differently from traditional ways. This regime, as we have already mentioned, goes beyond national borders and governance structures. In the European Union, one can oppose the national government and its jingoistic positions, but one must also deal with the supranational structures of the trading bloc itself, while recognizing that even Europe as a whole is not a sovereign actor in these wars. In the US, military decision-making structures and combat forces also span national borders and include a broad network of national and non-national actors.

How can such a variegated structure be abandoned? Local and individual gestures have little effect. The conditions for effective praxis must involve collective refusal organized in international circuits. The mass protests against the US invasion of Iraq, which took place in cities around the world on February 15, 2003, correctly identified the supranational formation of the war machine and heralded the possibility of a new internationalist and anti-war actor.

Although they were unable to stop the attack, they created a precedent for future mass evacuation practices. Two decades later, the mobilizations against the massacre in Gaza – emerging on the streets of cities and university campuses around the world – presage the formation of a “global Palestine”.

One of the main obstacles to this liberating internationalist policy is “campism”: an ideological approach that reduces the political terrain to two opposing camps and often ends up stating that the enemy of our enemy must be our friend. Some supporters of the Palestinian cause will celebrate, or at least avoid criticizing, any actor that opposes the Israeli occupation, including Iran and its allies in the region.

While this is an understandable impulse at the current juncture, when the population of Gaza is on the brink of starvation and subjected to horrific violence, the binary geopolitical logic of campism ultimately leads to identification with oppressive forces that undermine liberation. Rather than supporting Iran or its allies, even rhetorically, an internationalist project should instead link Palestine solidarity struggles to those like the “woman, life, freedom” movements that have challenged the Islamic Republic. In short, the fight against the war regime must not only seek to interrupt the current constellation of wars, but also effect broader social transformations.

Internationalism, therefore, must emerge from below, as local and regional liberation projects find ways to fight side by side. But it also involves a reverse process. It should aim to create a language of liberation that can be recognized, reflected upon and elaborated in various contexts: a continuous translation machine, so to speak, that can bring together heterogeneous contexts and subjectivities.

A new internationalism must not assume or aspire to any global homogeneity, but rather combine radically different local and regional experiences and structures. Given the fracture of the global system, the rupture of strategic spaces of capital accumulation and the intertwining of geopolitics and geoeconomics – which laid the foundations for the emergence of the war regime as a privileged form of governance – the defection project demands nothing less than than an internationalist strategy to remake the world.[I]

*Michael Hardt is professor of literary theory and political philosophy at Duke University. Author, among other books, with Antonio Negri, of Common well-being (All time lap record).

*Sandro Mezzadra is professor of political theory at the University of Bologna. Author, among other books, of The crisis of the global economy (Brazilian Civilization).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the website of New Left Review (Sidecar).

Note


[I] This article owes several insights to the book The Rest and the West: Capital and Power in a Multipolar World, by Brett Neilson and Sandro Mezzadra, published by Verso.


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