Violence as the Order of Things and the Logic of Extermination (2003)
“I have always dreamed,” he mouthed fiercely, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity — that’s what I would have liked to see.”
- Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
The Great Disillusionment
The epochal break of 1989 promised — of this a victorious West was thoroughly convinced — the beginning of an age of peace. In a world unified under the banners of Democracy, Human Rights, and Globalized Markets, war and violence would become as obsolete as yesterday’s newspapers. With the aim of becoming their unifying synthesis, this hope grabbed hold of two of the hoariest, bedrock assumptions of Enlightenment thought. On one hand, it repeated the widely held notion, in circulation ever since the eighteenth century, that under the sway of the founding principles of modernity — reason, freedom, and the rule of law — there could be no real place for bloodshed. Wars, if they did occur, were anomalies resulting from the actions of agents of states ungrounded in these principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality. With the final victory of the West, such forms of power supposedly vanished, transforming the world into a garden of peace. The ongoing process of globalization, on the other hand, was itself understood as a guarantee of pacification, since, with the triumph of an unbounded market totality, the state as a potential war-making power would increasingly find itself left behind by the market as a supposed force for peace. Since politics and the state increasingly lose individual significance, and are, nolens volens, subordinated entirely to a logic governed by the market and by one’s relation to it, the argument runs, wars are becoming more and more unlikely.
The assumption that the guns fall silent where the market and its laws are the order of the day and that the triumph of economic logic is in itself the road to nonviolence has deep historical roots. Ever since Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, this notion has belonged to the standard repertoire of liberal economics and the philosophy of the Enlightenment: “The spirit of trade cannot coexist with war, and sooner or later this spirit dominates every people.”1 It fell to Thomas Paine to give liberalism’s warranty of universal peace its classical configuration. In The Rights of Man (1792) he not only praises the peacemaking ideals glittering in the new dawn of abstract bourgeois principle, but in the same breath also salutes the market as “a pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other.”2 “The invention of commerce has arisen since those governments began, and is the greatest approach toward universal civilization that has yet been made by any means not immediately flowing from moral principles.”3
But developments since 1989 have effectively frustrated the expectation that, as a result of the final victory of the West, the world would become a less violent place. This frustration can of course not solely be understood as the result of an overly optimistic prognosis resting on otherwise valid premises. It is the basic premises themselves, rooted in the deepest stratum of Enlightenment thinking, that have in fact now become untenable. They stand the real relations on their head. For a start, Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality do not, after all, form a rhyming couplet with Peace and Reconciliation. The unpleasant, sickly-sweet smell rising from these principles turns out, if we really hold our noses up close, to be an effluvium of intermingled death and murder, more overpowering and all-pervasive today than ever before.
Moreover, to equate the free market with peace and nonviolence is itself already a false step. To be sure, the initial phase of commodity-producing society was marked by an increasing tendency to turn violence and war exclusively into matters of state. But from this it scarcely follows that the processes of state disintegration currently under way are going to make war and violence disappear. In the age of capitalist crisis that is now bursting onto the scene, they merely undergo a change of form. Within the framework of globalization, what we see flourishing across wide swathes of the world is, more precisely, an outright marketization of violence itself, as the latter becomes a stage for dramatis personae of an entirely new type. With the turn to warlordism and mafia rule in vast areas of the Third World, war-spawned commercial enterprises reminiscent, in a European context, of the age of the Renaissance and of the Thirty Years’ War, are staging a comeback. But in the Western metropolis as well, the state as a form of regimented violence is undergoing a metamorphosis in which, rather than dissipating, the potential for violence is simply given a freer rein.
This essay starts in the manner of an exploratory excavation of intellectual history. Via critical interrogations of Hegel, Hobbes, and Freud, here proposed as exemplifying the more general trend, the following thesis is developed: that the canon of Western values popularly called to mind by the slogan of Liberty, Fraternity, Equality is ultimately predicated on a merely temporary suspension of expressly homicidal violence. The very form of the commodity subject is built around a nucleus of violence. The essay’s second part analyzes the process of bringing war and violence under the sway of the state and understands the rise of the state as sole legitimate agent of violence as a two-sided process of implanting and taming this violent nucleus. In part three the dissolution of a state-governed regimentation of violence is described. The homicidal logic underlying the modern, commodity-generated process of subject constitution that has given us Western values, having once been displaced, is now thrusting itself back into plain sight.
Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality and the Violence at the Core of the Subject Form of Commodity-Producing Society
According to its own self-understanding, the canon of Western values is essentially a programmatic antidote to arbitrary rule, tyranny, and murder. Notions of contract, legality, and morality derive their legitimation from the fact that, under their rule, bloodshed and all lawless, unregulated relations are prevented. Examined more closely, of course, another picture emerges than the one painted by Western ideology. The disease that Western values are supposed to remedy is, as a rule, the product of the cure itself. Destruction, murder, and chaos are themselves constitutive of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. What these principles represent is in no way the opposite of destruction and violence, but rather the result of the latter’s partial suspension and sublimation — the result of processes that, with the decadence of commodity-producing society, could prove themselves to be everywhere subject to reversal. Where lawless, unregulated conditions take over from the day-to-day norms of commodity-producing society, the decadence of the latter serves, if anything, only to lay bare the ugliness underlying such norms.
To the degree that the core values of the West have become, so to speak, the flesh and blood of commodity rationality, to that same degree are such values exempted from all critical reflection. The same is true of the real inner connection between the universal principles of the Enlightenment and the logic of violence and extermination underlying them. But for those whose thinking first paved the way for the values of the Enlightenment, and who produced the ideological prerequisites for their implementation, things looked otherwise. If their theoretical constructions are read against the grain, they blurt out things that their heirs would now be incapable of expressing. Even just a brief test-drilling into the foundations of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality here dredges up such monstrosities that it becomes impossible to draw in any naively positive way on the ideas of 1789 without feelings of nausea.
It would in no way be an exaggerated claim to locate the originating ground of all modern state and contract theory and the legitimation of the state itself in the panic-driven fear of self-created specters of violence. In the case of the progenitor of modern political thought, Thomas Hobbes, at any rate, such fear constitutes both the unmistakable point of departure and a leitmotif. Hobbes’s concern is to legitimate and propagate the rule of the sovereign. But the resulting picture he draws of that sovereign is far from sympathetic. As the biblical name “Leviathan” reveals, Hobbes explicitly calls for the rule of something gigantic and terrifying enough to keep all citizens in check through the threat of its capacity for violence. But if rule by such a generalized and superior power appears unavoidable, this is precisely because Hobbes imagines the human species itself as a motley collection of notoriously antisocial, violent subjects. Only a super monster, according to Leviathan’s ceaselessly repeated axiom, can prevent the little monsters from constantly slitting each other’s throats, and thereby put an end to the supposed state of nature proclaimed to be a “war of all against all.”
The point of departure for all theories of contract is the notion of human equality. Although this idea was already known to the European Middle Ages, human equality in its Western version then referred only to the afterlife, to the equality of all mortals before God. Hobbes gets the credit for bringing the ideal of equality down from the religious sphere of the divine to earth. But this process of secularization only really steps into the spotlight when one considers just how it is that the father of contract and state theory defines human equality. Mortality as conditio humana is replaced in Hobbes by what might be termed the universal capacity for homicide. Men are equal insofar as all are equally capable of killing each other.
Hobbes’s unremittingly empiricist understanding of equality initially rests on an “equality of hope.” But this equality does not join men together in a mode of common action and conduct. On the contrary, it sets them against each other in the pursuit of “the same thing, which neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy.”1 It is precisely such “equality of hope” whereby men, finding themselves on, “the way to their End, which is principally their owne conservation, and sometimes their delectation only” are led to become “Enemies.” In their “Naturall Condition,” however, it is a matter of more than just distrust and the constant suspicion of one another. To the equality of hope there corresponds an “equality of ability,” and this is above all to be understood as the primal ability of men to dispatch one another to the other world. For Hobbes men are equal insofar as “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others.”5
Only the existence of a state power armed with all means of coercion makes possible the transformation of this homicidal primal relation into a relation between equal, contractual, and juridical subjects. The very existence of a state positing such contractual and juridical subjects must spring from the prior consent of Hobbes’s natural-born killers to relinquish their naturally given right to kill each other and to confer it on a generalized super-killer.
Of course, it is not hard to discern the specific historical background from which the Hobbesian approach to Western values springs. The writing of Leviathan bears the imprint of the wars of state formation (Jacob Burkhardt’s so-called Staatsbildungkriege), the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that were to decide to whom would fall the task of sovereign rule over which western and central European territories. In view of the unprecedented horrors that accompanied this process of elimination and selection, Hobbes’s wish to see the number of contenders for rule over England, France, and other countries reduced as quickly as possible to one per territory — no matter which one — has something to be said for it. But insofar as Hobbes simply projected the crimes of the early modern states in spe onto human nature as such, they become more than the ideological inversions needed to legitimize the absolutist states of his day. There are two respects in which Hobbes’s thinking points beyond his own times. First, there is the fact that the results of his efforts at ideological projection were to be widely adopted. Just as he ascribes the brutality of early-modern military absolutism to human nature and expands the definition of an institutionalized Western reason in such a way as to make it the solution itself for all horrors connected with that process, just so has commodity rationality — the spontaneous or common-sense understanding native to commodity society — repeatedly managed to exploit the horrors, past and present, born out of its own historical genesis into means of self-legitimation. Whether it is witch hunts, National Socialism, or al-Qaeda, such commodity thought always misrecognizes as nameless, alien powers sprung out of the abysses of the human soul what are, in fact, its own products. Second, Hobbes’s construct renders visible the basic relation into which human beings enter as a result of capitalism’s “asocial sociality.”6 Contract and law are by no means precipitates of human cooperation but instead grow out of a sublimated praxis of violence, a violence prohibited according to the enforced norms of commodity society, but which is itself logically presupposed by it.
Freedom, Liberty, and the Fight to the Death
Hegel repeatedly and decisively stresses the interconnection between freedom and violence. Concerning mind or spirit itself, a well-known passage in the introduction to the Phenomenology states programmatically: “But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it.”7 What this means for the free commodity subject and his self-consciousness becomes particularly evident in the “lordship and bondage” section of the Phenomenology. Here Hegel’s point of departure on the path leading to self-consciousness and freedom is a struggle taking shape as a duel to the death between two configured abstractions, lord and bondsman. This difference here between what are also, respectively, “independence” and “dependence” is referred back to differing degrees of defiance in the face of death on the part of the two contendants. The lord is the first to rise to the occasion of a still incomplete stage of self-consciousness, given his willingness to go to extremes. The bondsman, on the other hand, fearful of risking his life at the crucial moment, is not able to tear away the bars which man must break through in order to attain the conditions both of being recognized by others and of self-consciousness. “The individual who has not risked his life […] has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.”8
But for the bondsman as well, the duel becomes the starting point on his path to self-consciousness. “For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord. In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations.”9 Precisely this quaking makes the bondsman ripe, through the detour of labor, for leaving behind the “natural existence” from which the master had freed himself in struggle. And yet he accomplishes this even more thoroughly than did the master when he directly scaled his way upwards into the stage of self-consciousness. The autotelic activity of labor takes on the function of the fight “to the death” and thereby becomes its heir.
In the primal scene that is the achieving of freedom and self-consciousness, the death against which the combatants must face off appears as something threefold. First, “each aims at the destruction and death of the other.” Achieving self-consciousness is thus bound to the will to make one’s opponent into a dead object. At the same time it includes putting one’s own life on the line, that is, the willingness to turn oneself into a dead object and to adopt an indifferent attitude toward one’s own fate. And finally it means the essential determination of recognition-by-others and of self-consciousness as products of struggle, the devalorizing of all that is not at home and does not discover its own original image on the battlefield. Whatever is not born so as to wager its own life is judged to be inessential and therefore, paradoxically, already dead. For Hegel, freedom and, accordingly, real life are cries heard only on the battlefield — and its surrogates — where citizens indulge in manly virtues. Or as Hegel himself puts it: “But because it is only as a citizen that he is actual and substantial, the individual, so far as he is not a citizen but belongs to the Family, is only an unreal impotent shadow. This universality which the individual as such attains is pure being, death; it is a state which has been reached immediately, in the course of Nature, not the result of an action consciously done.”10
Hegel’s verdict here is aimed primarily against that whose existence he characteristically deems unworthy of mention: dissociated femininity. A masculinized logos-cum-self-consciousness imagines itself as the source of all true life, generating all that is substantive in reality out of itself.11 While the woman inevitably leads her existence completely inside the family and therefore in the realm of the “insubstantial shadows,” the man participates as citizen and warrior in the life born out of confrontation with death. The actual delivery room in which this peculiar birthing ability realizes itself, remains for Hegel on the battlefield. Death and extermination thus by no means end with what is imagined as the primal act of one-on-one combat between master and bondsman. To prevent the regression of the self-consciousness to a creature-like state, the original duel must be periodically renewed. This, then, is the true task of war, the “duel on a large scale” (Clausewitz): “War is the Spirit and the form in which the essential moment of the ethical substance, the absolute freedom of the ethical self from every existential form, is present in its actual and authentic existence.”12
Hegel is an apologist and propagandist for the emerging fabric of commodity society, not its critic; but he is no admirer of destruction as “an end in itself.” The life-and-death struggle is justified for him solely in regard to its successful suspension, in the universalization of the self-conscious labor- and commodity subject. The possibility of “sudden death” in a duel does not shrink before its own aestheticization but rather matures into praise of the “slow death” (Baudrillard), into the self-justification of the commodity subject in its expenditure of abstract labor.
Hegel’s apologetic reference to war, moreover, in no way contradicts this. If he treats war as something to be honored, what he pictures here is far from an orgy of total destruction that leaves nary a stone standing. War merely demonstrates the nullity of individual existence. While later authors celebrate looking death straight in the eye on the battlefield as an act of self-positing on the part of the individual, Hegel regards this act (and death in general) as the victory of the human species over the individual human organism. In death, freedom conceived as universality triumphs over the narrow-minded particular: “The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, a death too which has no inner significance or filling, for what is negated is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing mouthful of water.”13
On the other hand, an unshackled destruction that not only causes the individual but even the universal to tremble makes Hegel cringe. This becomes obvious in the passages of the Philosophy of Right in which Hegel brings up the internal connection, in relation to the state and politics, between the normativity of commodity society and pure extermination. The content of the “free will” which realizes itself at the end of history in the Prussian state to which Hegel pays homage is positively determined in its content, making reality as a whole into material for the formation of the state and for the valorization of value. Before it can reach this final stage, however, it takes on the form of a negative will that flees “from all content as a barrier.” Freedom appears initially as a freedom
of the void, which has taken actual shape, and is stirred to passion. […] [B]ecoming actual it assumes both in politics and religion the form of a fanaticism, which would destroy the established social order, remove all individuals suspected of desiring any kind of order, and demolish any organization which then sought to rise out of the ruins. Only in devastation does the negative will feel that it has reality. It intends, indeed, to bring to pass some positive social condition, such as universal equality or universal religious life. But in fact it does not will the positive reality of any such condition, since that would carry in its train a system, and introduce a separation by way of institutions and between individuals. But classification and objective system attain self consciousness only by destroying negative freedom. Negative freedom is actuated by a mere solitary idea, whose realization is nothing but the fury of desolation.14
The movement of “absolute abstraction” that, otherwise contentless, finds its content in pure destruction, was historically identified by Hegel with the horrific events of the French Revolution. Although it deeply unnerves him, Hegel ascribes the “fury of destruction” without exception to an epoch that, however necessary, has drawn to a close and that reveals itself to have been a transitional stage since superseded. In the process, the “fury of destruction” is stood on its head and becomes the legitimation of commodity society and its corresponding state form. If one cancels out Hegel’s historical optimism without also deleting the inner connection he establishes between the freedom of destruction and the normality of commodity society, another, more consistent but at the same time more angst-ridden picture appears: behind what purports to be an immature form of the realm of freedom now fully overcome, what the “fury of destruction” and the “freedom of the void” show us is, in fact, the inherent logic of a possibility that is continuously inherent in the “freedom of the will” and the principles of the West. Even worse, what Hegel treats as an alleged period of transition threatens to become the vanishing point of modernity. If the normality of commodity society decays, that is, if the state form begins to deteriorate and the movement of the exploitation of labor as an end in itself loses its bonding power, then an alternative end in itself — destruction and extermination — can take its place. Reified, commodity-mediated “freedom,” which loses its content with the progressive cessation of nation state building and the accumulation of abstract labor, has won for itself, ultima instantia, in the sheer, naked destructiveness that remains, the possibility of another content. Hobbes’s horrific vision of a “war of all against all” threatens to assume reality as what Hans Magnus Enzensberger has called “molecular civil-war.”
Fraternity and Extended Suicide
Hobbes and Hegel have already divulged the fact that labor, as commodity society’s primary relation to nature, traces its origins even further back — to violence. In the fight to the death, furthermore, they had found the source both of self-consciousness and of the universality of the state. The principles of freedom and equality are thus derivatives of that foundational experience. Both as regards its relation to nature as well as its identity, the commodity subject rests on a bedrock of violence, and the primal encounter of this subject with its other, the originating social experience, is anything but peaceful. And yet, wide-ranging as it may already be, the matter does not end here. What remains is the question of the original social bond or, to put it in terms of the holy ideals of the bourgeois revolution: does the last part of the threefold promise — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — conceal the same threat?
The answer given by our third involuntary principal witness, Sigmund Freud, turns out to be quite unequivocal. At the beginning of all civilization stands the collective murder that shapes our thoughts, feelings, and culture to this very day. Initially — thus Freud in allusive reliance on Darwin — the human species had been split into presocial patriarchal hordes that only had space for the chief tyrant and his wives but not for the pubescent sons. Sociality only emerges at the moment when the ostracized brothers gang up with one another so as to undertake the act of murdering the tyrannical father — whereupon, troubled by that original collective guilt, they created a common regime: “Society was now based on complicity in the common crime; religion was based on the sense of guilt and the remorse attaching to it; while morality was based partly on the exigencies of this society and partly on the penance demanded by the sense of guilt.”15
The inner affinity between Freud’s speculations regarding the emergence of culture from the original state of mankind and the world according to Hobbes is obvious enough, if only because both presume a state of radical asociality as the starting point for the development of mankind. While Hobbes’s natural-born killers are able to agree on a social contract that stipulates the transfer of their sovereignty to the state in order to bring to an end the universal threat of homicide, a direct “gentlemen’s agreement” takes on the same function in Freud: “In thus guaranteeing one another’s lives, the brothers were declaring that no one of them must be treated by another as their father was treated by all jointly.”16 As one follows Freud’s arguments in Totem and Taboo it becomes apparent that they increasingly approximate those of the father of state theory and indeed prove themselves to be the reproduction of Hobbes’s thinking, expanded so as to account for the question of the family and the emotional life of the murderer. The development of culture, according to Freud, does not come to a stop with the emergence of the brother-clan. Rather, society and culture represent entities grounded on a posthumous identification with paternal authority. On the level of psychology the murdered patriarch celebrates his resurrection as superego, on the level of religion as the father-god, and last but not least as the secular “father” state with a vengeance. With this last point, however, Freud touches down precisely at the juncture already reached by Hobbes several generations before.
Totem and Taboo and his later writings on culture do not win Freud many friends among more recent generations of readers. The collective murder of the father is nowadays commonly held to rest on the same wild and unfounded speculation that lead Freud to formulate, as literal truth, the theory of a “death drive” in the aftermath of the World War I, which was purported to be the world-historical event in which the drive had itself first become manifest. To be sure, the construct of a primal horde of vengeful brothers appears ridiculous in the face of all that is now known about prehistory. Similarly, the statement that “the aim of all life is death” because “inanimate things existed before living ones” at first glance appears more than a little dubious.17 But are such necrophiliac murmurings therefore nothing but superfluous noise that need only be silenced to rescue the analytical value of Freud’s approach? Or are the death drive and the fraternity of parricides in fact metapsychological constructs essential to the architecture of Freud’s theory? Indeed, are they not, in point of fact, indispensable if Freud is to be able to speak at all about the violence at the core of the commodity subject without revealing its historical specificity as a phenomenon of bourgeois society?
As in Hobbes and Hegel before him, in Freud the constitutive but buried connection between violence and the commodity subject is brought into view. Like his predecessors, of course, he can only reveal this intimate relation by clouding its specific character and turning it into something transhistorical and naturally given, substituting projection for repression. The projective character of Freud’s phylogenetic myth can, in truth, scarcely be ignored. But the killing of the primal father is only the tip of the iceberg in the formation of a generalized theory subject to continuous ontologization. Initially, this is true of the ontogenetic model of an ominously parricidal primal horde, but therefore just as true of the oedipally constituted male infant. This model, in a process resembling a form of repetition compulsion, reproduces the murderous original event. This, however, inverts the real relationship. The (self-)destructive tendencies developed, in statu nascendi, by the commodity subject do not stem from a “collective unconscious” and from dredging up old memories of even more archaic conditions liable to fall prey to primary repression. What must here be repressed are the achievements of a commodity-governed civilization. Repression is, therefore, not a primary but a secondary act, for prior to any restraint on the violence at the core of the commodity subject stands, of course, that very subject’s (far from archaic) implantation.
Yet such is still not the deepest layer of Freudian ontologizing. The Oedipal problem in no way stands alone. The prohibition the father imposes on the son is imposed as the “reality principle.” It is therefore only the continuation and bundling of a whole range of previously existing prohibitions. On Freud’s account, every human being experiences the world from the beginning as an inhospitable place and any satisfaction whatsoever is an unmistakably precarious and ephemeral affair. For the commodity subject this is, no doubt, entirely accurate. Every enjoyment turns into a surrogate satisfaction, and he or she never reaches a goal that would ultimately be worth reaching. This restlessness and emotional undernourishment, however, appears in Freud as the conditio humana, as a purely endogenous problem, ultimately posited by the biology of man as a being born into scarcity. Already the introduction of the concept of the drive consolidates this false ontologization. By defining the satisfaction of drives as a relief of tension and a form of protection against external stimuli, therefore as an approximation of an inorganic state, Freud must inevitably understand the relation of man to the exterior world as a relation of frustration. Every libidinal satisfaction remains not only provisional but also a detour. Actual satisfaction and the true goal can only lie in finally entering the realm of the inorganic that absolves man of the return of the drive and tension. Although Freud introduces the “death drive” (Thanatos) and its opponent, Eros, rather late, the reason for this introduction rests in the logic of the drive, the concept it rescues theory-immanently. The counterpart of the death drive, therefore, resembles more closely the concept of the drive predicated on the “nirvana principle,” and it is consequently logical that Freud ultimately opposed it drive-theoretically to Eros as the more fundamental and far-reaching emotion.
It would be inadequate to dismiss Freud’s idea of an external world, always hostile to man, and its counterpart, the insatiable drive, as simply false. Social critique, more accurately, must be critical of Freud insofar as he presents a product of “second nature” as one of man’s first nature, and it has to trace the theoretical inversions resulting from this. If one reconsiders Freud’s approach from this perspective, the “archaic heritage,” the patricidal primal horde, appears in a radically changed light. It reveals itself to be a metaconcept clad in mystical garments that encompasses all social institutions involved in the process of implanting the death drive. The homicidal desire of the primal horde with regard to the father on which Freud insists reveals itself in this context as a code for a much more common urge to destroy, and simultaneously as the negation of the actual target. Above all else, the “brother horde” represents, in full accord with the paternal command, the self-sufficient masculine principle and the fear of the woman and, moreover, of the unregulated engagement with reality as such. In the ideal of “fraternity” the commodity subjects commit themselves and everyone else to the program of “emancipation” from the material-sensuous. In the dictatorship of value and logos the aim of transforming this planet into a place that is largely immune to pleasure and satisfaction shows its clear contours. Reality is only permitted as the sensuous form of representation of abstraction. But there remains a second, direct path to complete liberation from uncontrolled reality, pleasure, and satisfaction: the destruction of the world. The alleged starting point of the development of culture, the common killing of the father, represents the only possible endpoint of modernity: the extended collective suicide of patriarchal value society.
The Violent Core of the Commodity Subject
Sexuality — or at least what modernity understands by sexuality — only emerges, as Foucault illustrates convincingly, with the prohibition of the sexual. Nothing already existing was brought under control; rather, the procedures of control constituted their very objects. A similar relationship can be reconstructed for the phenomenon of violence. Officially a peace-loving being, the commodity subject is fascinated, if not obsessed, with what it resolutely rejects in its public declarations. In its actual, masculine manifestation, one can, therefore, indeed accuse the commodity subject of maintaining an intimate relation to reality much like that characterizing the relation of the Spanish Inquisition to lust, witchcraft, and heresy. To be sure, the propensity for violence was well known in traditional societies. As the right of force of all rulers that permeated all hierarchical structures, violence was as self-evidently present as it was a fundamental aspect of gentile order (including paternalistic right of castigation and vendetta). Purified from the medium of oppression to the medium of destruction and extermination, violence in the context of commodity society transformed itself into the foundation of all subject forms. Only the ability to degrade others to the status of object makes a subject into a subject, and this degradation, even if it assumes its sublimated form as competition, remains retroactively attached to its original image: the transmutation of the living other into a lifeless object. Against this background it appears profoundly questionable to celebrate with Norbert Elias the “process of civilization” as a process of drive control in general and the control of aggression in particular. Yet, this is not only questionable because it has failed to control the “natural beast” in man, as culture pessimists such as Freud found necessary to stress time and again. Rather, the mission itself contains a crucial contradiction. The constitution of the subject is simultaneously the implantation and formation of the violent core and its integration into content.
In the breast of the developed commodity-subject two souls emerge: that of the private market subject and that of the citizen. The violent core of the commodity subject did not simply emerge temporally alongside this bipolar structure. Rather, it has to be logically as well as historically understood as the same process. The superiority of military organization founded on “citizens in uniform” as compared to previous forms of the craft of extermination contributed significantly to the triumph of the citizen and the universalization of this figure. The impulse to include previously excluded social groups as equal subjects of law into the state community had a significant impact. From the French and American revolutionary wars to the world wars and the anticolonial movements, the willingness to risk one’s own life for the national cause was the measure of the accomplished degree of citizen consciousness as a citizen. Not only this, but expanding the circle of legally equal citizens and subjects of law to include those groups of people formerly relegated to the margins was in each case a consequence of the necessity to expand the mobilization for warfare — a process, therefore, that was poignantly carried out largely independently of the political auspices under which those wars were carried out.
At the same time — and even more importantly in our context — the profile required of the armed citizen matched precisely the tensions, constitutive for commodity subjectivity, emerging from a willingness to defend that was steadily and simultaneously increased in intensity and tamed. As a result of tailoring the citizen for the virtual or actual participation in wars between states, those inner regimes of violence formed, without which the modern monad of competition and labor could not have developed. The fraternity of the national “we,” the self-integration of the armed body of the people, paves the way for the commodity ego by simultaneously curbing both its self-destructive tendencies and its antisocial affinity toward autonomous, self-orchestrated killing sprees.18 Training for the state of emergency and the identification with the national cause ennobled the participation in optimized exercises of violence and extermination, elevating them to the epitome of virtue and duty, hermetically separating “fields of honor” from the normal activities of commodity society.
Part Two: The Age of Statified Violence
Beyond Law and Contract — Camp and Front
If one examines the victory of commodity society on a macro-level, it reveals itself as unifying two fundamental processes: the successive reduction of all social relations to market relations, and the statification of social existence. The history of violence clearly corresponds to the latter process. The entire epoch of the rise of commodity society, beginning with absolutism and extending into the age of Fordism, was marked by the transformation of violence and bloodshed into an exclusive right of the state. In its developed form, the state no longer tolerates any extrastatist forms of violent practice, with the exception of rudimentary forms such as the right to self-defense.
The primitive accumulation of all legitimate means of violence into the hands of the state is not just any moment within the overall process of statification. The implementation of the monopoly on violence rather constitutes the core around which the state forms itself as abstract universality. As long as it goes without saying that masters across the spectrum of power are able to enforce at times conflicting interests whenever necessary through the use of violence, social life inevitably remains confined to the realm of individual relations of loyalty and dependence. Only the implementation of the monopoly on violence allowed the state to break up the colorful mosaic of traditional customary rights and replace it with a homogenous, universal right, equally binding for all members of society. Without the monopoly on violence, the political domination adequate to commodity society, applied to an abstract geographical space, could never have been developed.
The implementation of the state monopoly on violence — the reduction of the once-broad range of legitimate actors of violence to one new type — and the formation of the violent core of the commodity subject describe one and the same process from two perspectives: first, from the standpoint of the objectified social structure as a whole; second, from the micro-logical standpoint of the singular commodity individual. Therefore, a counterpart to the above-described dialectic of breeding and taming a violent core, constitutive for commodity subjectivity, must be developed on the macro-level. Indeed, the statification of the exercise of violence can be characterized as a double process of potentiation and potentialization. In developed commodity society, manifest physical coercion plays a notably smaller role in daily life than in many other societies. Yet, this is not, as is frequently claimed, the result of reducing aggression and destruction to an insignificant marginal force in the context of the social context of mediation. The development of statified regimes of violence, rather, coincides with the focalization, purification, and intensification of the potential for extermination in its entirety. Only in a state of exception does state power wade through pools of blood and transform the citizen into the human material of the killing machine. Precisely this state of exception, however, allows for the creation of social standards in the first place and indeed, as omnipresent possibility and ultima ratio, constitutes the logical precondition of all standards.
Commodity thought does not want to know the violent core of the subject of competition and instead celebrates it as the epitome of peace-loving humanity. Correspondingly, commodity thought also remains blind to the inner relationship between statification and the hypertrophy of violence. Although the term itself already signifies the opposite, the emergence of the state monopoly on violence is positively interpreted as gradual pacification. First, according to the narrative that has been circulating since the Enlightenment, the triumph of freedom, equality, and law clears the inner space of the state of violence. In a large second step, this judification, according to this credo, is also supposed to subsume inter-state spaces and to demilitarized international relations. The classical version of this argument goes back to Kant and has been warmed over for more than 200 years now. Violence, it is argued, is an anachronism, which will not be able to resist the advance of market and law.
Already the first part of this pacification process defies reality. In commodity society one can only speak of inner pacification if the word is taken in its Latin meaning as synonym for total subjugation. Such a society is peaceful only insofar as the individual member of society, insofar as he does not act as a functionary of state violence, is tendentially robbed of all means of violence in order to deliver him to a highly developed machine of state violence. The principle of a state of law in no way supplants this fundamental relation of omnipotence and impotence. Instead, the universality of law requires this very relation. As Giorgio Agamben has shown with reference to Benjamin and Foucault, the sovereign as instance that posits and guarantees law himself has the power to reduce human existence to “bare life.”19 The normality of the constitutional state in which all those who break the law have the right to a trial based on the tenets of legality cannot be thought without recourse to the possibility of a state of exception. Only the ability to make reference to this possibility constitutes the sovereign. But this is, of course, not merely an abstract, theoretical threat. By creating an exterritorial space, the camp, it can be absolutely realized without calling the validity of legal and contractual regulations into question for the rest of society. In the twentieth century, it is precisely this localization of the state of exception in compliance with the form of right that has become a gruesome reality on several occasions. The camp, consequently, represents the “nomos of modernity” (Agamben). Yet, one does not have to invoke the death camp of Nazi Germany or the Stalinist gulags to unveil this fundamental contradiction. Already the “normal” Western deportation prisons indicate the peaceful coexistence of law and its foundation, state power exercised over human beings reduced to prelegal biomass.
To confuse the emergence of the state monopoly on violence with pacification, however, does not only mean to ignore the incredible potential of violence on which the constitutional state is predicated and that can become manifest especially in times of crisis. In addition to the camp, the internal space that is excluded from the law, the implementation of the state monopoly on violence generates out of its own logic a second area beyond the validity of law, in which pure violence takes on, in the final instance, the function of a medium of regulation: international relations. The state monopoly on violence is always confined to its own territory. Only there, that is vis-à-vis its own population, can the sovereign enforce the relinquishing of violence and therefore posit law. For international relations the dominance of the sovereignty principle correlates ultimately with the ius ad bellum. Of course there have existed bilateral agreements ever since ancient times and international conventions since the nineteenth century — even martial law (ius in bello) was created. But these contractual agreements among sovereigns have a completely different character from law connected to the omnipotence of a single sovereign. These agreements leave untouched the possibility of international wars as ultima ratio — what is more, they presuppose these wars and their validity. After World War II and especially after the breakdown of actually existing socialism, international tribunals gained a growing importance. But because they can only dispose of borrowed means of power, voluntarily surrendered by single states the basic structure does not change one bit.
In the case of military emergency the counterpart of the camp emerges, a second exterritorial space in which the social relations turn from normal, “peaceful” competition into optimized physical violence without thereby questioning the validity of law and contract in the actual territory of a sovereign. This space is the front. While in the camp human material is administered by the national sovereign, the front covers exactly that territory in which hostile sovereigns attempt to turn foreign citizens into dead biomass. As opposed to the camp, the geographical location of this exterritorial interstitial space changes constantly throughout the course of a war. At the same time, the size of this space expands as the reach of weapons systems increases. The bombing of Guernica, the beginning of modern warfare against civilian targets, marks the moment at which in principle every location in the territory of any given party involved in the conflict could be turned into a front.
Combatant and Noncombatant
The process of the statification of violence and war creates the violent core of the commodity subject, while the corresponding violence and annihilation practices are sequestered from everyday life. This separation is connected to two key characteristics of statified warfare. The state wars between 1648 and 1989 were temporally limited. The line of demarcation between war and peace was explicitly defined. The state sovereign decided, universally and with binding validity, when exactly and for how long the duty to engage in highly efficient, collective murder replaced the obligation of the contract subject to refrain unconditionally from violence. Declaration of war, ceasefire agreements, and surrenders precisely designated the beginning and end of all military action and categorically prevented precisely those abeyances that were characteristic of early modern markets of violence and their postnational epigones. But the clear distinction between war and peace in conflicts between nation-states was not just a matter of unequivocal regulations of international law; it also had an impact on practical life.
Everyday life of people in the Middle Ages was often not greatly affected by whether or not their masters were at war. Early modern wars, which were determined by the logic of markets of violence, were already accompanied by a sudden increase in losses, both material and human. But this pertained mainly to those people who were unfortunate enough to live in those areas that were afflicted by packs of lansquenets and who consequently lost their possessions or even their lives. Compared to the number of deaths suffered by uninvolved civilians, death in battle remained a rarity in the wars of the Renaissance and even throughout the Thirty Years’ War. Because they would run the risk of staking their capital, that is, their troops, the condottieri did not categorically seek military resolutions of disputes. In many cases the goal was to motivate hostile lansquenets to switch sides rather than to kill them.
The wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries broke with this pattern. The statification of war was accompanied by the focusing of the craft of murder and extermination. As the sovereign assumed the direction of a war effort himself, the killing was widely relocated to the battlefield. While the intensity of the military actions increased and war began to be a seriously dangerous business for the troops, the category of the noncombatant emerged. Now it was no longer the civilian who paid for the war effort with his life and property, but the taxpaying civilian who paid for the war effort with a portion of his property but no longer directly with his life.
That state warlords drilled their soldiers, at times with rather drastic measures, to massacre and maraud no longer for their own benefit was, of course, not a result of humanistic impulses. Facing armies that were increasingly supplied via a centralized system utilizing state resources and training soldiers for warfare, troops for whom combat was a secondary profession were at a decided disadvantage, since they were forced to disperse at regular intervals to replenish their resources. Their ability to operate was detrimentally affected by this, and, moreover, autonomous looting and raping did not exactly boost military discipline.
It was not only for strategic reasons that the statification of war sought to assign to the unarmed foreign population the status of noncombatant, thereby allowing for social normality in wartime; above all it turned the maintenance and support of normal commodity society in the home country into a military necessity. When, beginning with the Italy campaign by Francis I in 1494, war mutated from a form of reproduction of war enterprises into a duel of war machines seeking a military decision, military expenses exploded. The monetary valuation of warfare and the recruiting of mercenary soldiers had already made national bankruptcy a constant companion of the early modern superpowers. The introduction of standing armies in particular contributed to the exponential rise of mobilizing resources for destructive purposes. Access to the goods and chattels of the unfortunate vanquished inhabitants of war-torn territories proved itself to be an insufficient foundation for war economies. Vis-à-vis the local self-supply of armies, taxation become more important than ever for states engaged in military conflict. But this required above all the implantation and maintenance of economic normality and the assurance of the abstract production of wealth in the home territory.
For the hitherto main victims — the uninvolved inhabitants of the territories beleaguered by armies — the unleashing of the military potential for extermination meant the taming of destructive violence. This dialectic is also reflected in martial law. After the end of the wars of religion, the clear distinction between combatant and noncombatant emerged. But this differentiation corresponds precisely to the above-mentioned inner regime of violence implemented by statified warfare. The respective coexistence of destruction and normality appears geographically as the antagonism of front and hinterland, and, on the personal level, in the difference between combatant and noncombatant.
The classic manifestation of the noncombatant emerges in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Industrialized war discovered, in addition to opposing armies, new targets of attack, the pursuit of which indirectly influences the will and military power of the opposing sovereign: infrastructure and the working civilian population. This change rendered the distinction of combatant and noncombatant problematic. However, it neither annulled nor contradicted the concentration of warfare into the foundations of state power. Because modern warfare mobilized not only monetary resources but also the majority of social resources, the producers of wealth became indirect combatants. The distinction between civil and military targets became a matter of discretion. At least in the protection of the civil population in occupied territories, limits to the practice of extermination and the difference between combatant and noncombatant continued to exist.
In the twentieth century, limiting destruction by means of differentiating between combatant and noncombatant became problematic beyond the context of industrialized wars between capitalist protopowers. Anticolonial conflicts, the wars of state creation at the periphery of the world market, also changed their classic character. In the confrontation with superior military occupying powers, the only form of armed combat with which anti-imperialist movements were left was guerilla warfare, a form of asymmetrical warfare that consciously forces the enemy into a position in which he is no longer able to tell combatants from civilians. The military goals of both sides, of course, implicitly maintained the distinction, and in this way it continued to determine the progress of war and curbed destructive energy. The theoreticians and practitioners of anti-imperialist war emphasized that the guerilla would be only a transitional stage in the liberation battle whose final stage implied the metamorphosis into a regular army. The guerillas’ need to win the support of the population precluded from the beginning the massive repression of a majority of the population. But the imperial power and its local sub-agents also had to make room for the theoretical possibility of ultimately separating combatants and peaceful civilians in their effort to maintain control over land and people. Despite all cruelties, massacres, resettlements, and carpet bombings, the imperial powers never made full use of their entire potential of destruction. Despite millions of (preferably civilian) victims and despite free-fire zones, the threshold of systematic genocide was crossed neither in Algeria nor in Indochina.
The Totalization of War
Both the development of the state regime of violence in general and the history of the statist wars in particular are to be understood as a double process of potentiation and potentialization. From the beginning of modernity to the end of the short twentieth century — that is, until 1989 — the number of years at war continually decreased. In turn, the concentration of all destructive power on the supportive hand of the territorial state multiplied these powers to an unimaginable degree. Measured by the devastation of the wars of commodity societies, all armed conflicts of premodern societies seem like pub brawls. The logical vanishing point of this development was the precarious balance of the atomic horror between the superpowers. On one hand, the power of destruction accumulated by the arms race had reached a point that did not permit another qualitative increase. If the arsenals of the two superpowers sufficed for a hundredfold or a thousandfold omnicide, it ultimately remained a question of little importance. On the other hand, it was clear at the climax of the Cold War that the line between the threat of destruction and manifest war, into which the superpowers would throw all their military weight, could only be crossed once.
The statification of warfare led to an enormous increase in the efficiency of killing. It would of course be too shortsighted to see that only as progress in the technology of weapons. No society has ever transferred a similar portion of its social and material resources to the war industry; neither has any society rationalized the craft of violence to maximized destruction to the same extent as commodity society. (The construction of the Chinese wall might be the most prominent exception. But this show of strength, paid for with famine and uprisings of farmers, was notably a defensive measure.)
The precapitalist wars were mainly “limited wars” in which the bloodshed fell far behind what was technologically conceivable. War remained the private entertainment of a small caste or, where a large part of the male population was under arms, temporally confined and ritualized to prevent too big of a disturbance of the reproduction. The conflicts between the Greek city-states are paradigmatic of this second form of limited war. In these conflicts all participants refrained from big strategic maneuvers and the military action was confined to the immediate decisive battle. (Only the Peloponnesian War diverted from that pattern. It therefore ended with the downfall of all participating powers, the whole of Greece, and the rise of Macedonia as superior power.) Those who could stand their ground already had victory in their hands. The statist war on the other hand tended towards “absolute war” (Clausewitz) and knew only one limit to the complete unleashing of destruction, namely the reconnection to political ends. But this limit, scrutinized more closely, is a precarious one.
It is not just that the practice of warfare gained in statification a rational-instrumental character, gradually transforming all material and human resources into actual or potential means of warfare; while in the Middle Ages armed conflict created its significance as a specific way of life of a special caste, modernity rendered warfare a mere means of the statist calculation of interest. A politically defined will switches the war machinery on and turns it off: war is a “true political instrument”; it is to be understood as the “continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”20
In the conventional understanding, the primacy of the political over the military guarantees reason and proportion within murderous lunacy. This connection only seems necessary against the background of an affirmative image of politics, in which politics is understood as something rational per se, and its primacy, therefore, as a reasonable, even cynical end, over an irrational instrument. But politics does not reduce itself to the process of tarring competing interests, and neither does brutal statist policy confine itself to the conquering of countries, raw materials, and working populations in the service of its own capital. Where politics itself becomes an irrational means, the alleged extinguishing agent works as an accelerant and intensifier.
The extreme example is of course National Socialism. It showed that the reduction of human life to bare, extinguishable, biological existence not only provides the foundation of political sovereignty but also that destruction became, as we still see, a political program throughout the history of the rise of commodity society; a program that ultimately suspended the reluctance to destroy and kill that is contained in military logic. First, a war of conquest that from the beginning was supposed to be boundless is incoherent. Second, the decision of the leadership of the Third Reich to continue war beyond the point of obvious complete hopelessness was politically motivated. And finally, the central point of the National Socialist murder program, the destruction of the European Jewry, fully contradicted military calculation.
The Warfare of the Commodity Society as “Absolute War”
The idea of the primacy of politics goes back to Clausewitz. But it is not the only feature of statified war that he expressed with precision. Never before and never again would the essence of the statified war be comprehended more precisely and clearly than in his main work On War. Already in his initial definition “absolute war” seems to be the central point of reference: “War is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force.”21 The unleashed “absolute war” is considered by Clausewitz as an ideal type that was far from being realized by the actual wars of all ages. Unlike the thinkers of the Enlightenment who wanted to see a containment of the impact of destruction by the implementation of Western civilization, Clausewitz saw destruction as a neutral factor. But the alleged transhistorical ideal type is actually, scrutinized more closely, the logical-historical vanishing point of statified violence.22
War has developed towards “absolute war” in three great leaps, and Clausewitz’s theory has the first as historical background. Clausewitz’s formula of “absolute war” was developed in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, which represented a dramatic increase in murderous efficiency in comparison to the cabinet wars of the eighteenth century. This new quality sprung immediately from the achievements of the French Revolution and cannot be thought without the discovery of the nation. In the wars of the absolutistic sovereigns of the eighteenth century, the intensity of the slaughters was mainly limited by two factors. First, the mercenary soldiers pressed into the army were completely passive tools of destruction. The highest goal was drilling them to be obedient marionettes that executed their exercised battle program on command. In the life of the soldier-material, only one form of one’s own initiative existed that was not quite compatible with the murderous goal, but was practiced massively: namely, fleeing the scene on the first possible occasion. Consequently, the eighteenth century entered military history as the “age of deserters.” In the battles of the Seven Years’ War, on every side one-third of the troops disappeared into the woods at the first shot. Battle discipline was primarily a matter of preventing one’s own troops from running away and only secondarily of the effort to destroy the enemy army. Second, the recruitment of a sufficient number of soldiers always remained an expensive problem. Both conditions stood in the way of what Clausewitz defined as the essence of war: the concentration on the abolition of the enemy, the willingness to seek the decisive battle in the appropriate moment.
Both difficulties disappeared with the emergence of the citizen soldier. In their level of training, the voluntary troops of the French Revolution were at first inferior to the regular troops of the coalition of British, Prussians, and Austrians. Furthermore, the guillotine and the escape over the French border had decimated the old aristocratic officer corps. But the tapping of hitherto unused resources made it possible to compensate for these unfavorable conditions. The identification with the national cause provided hitherto unknown readiness that can less euphemistically be described as bloodlust and fanaticism. (The lyrics of the “Marseillaise,” bristling with xenophobia and the glorification of violence, speaks of that spirit of the new bourgeois age.) At the same time the levée en masse and the transition to general compulsory military service allowed for the immediate (and for the state budget financially cost-effective) closure of emerging gaps. It only needed a commander that knew how to turn these new possibilities into strategy. In Napoleon, a man that boasted of sacrificing a million men without the blink of an eye and who for so much manhood was rightfully raised by Hegel to the level of the “world spirit astride a horse,” the epoch found its ideal embodiment. Ill-reputed among generals of the old stripe as a slaughterer, he defied all military doctrines of the eighteenth century, always looking for the immediate decision. The new French empire could only be beaten when the enemy had adopted the new methods.
Fordism and Total War
“Absolute war” stands for the ruthless application of all military means available for the “aim of military operations,” the “enemy’s overthrow.”23 The logical continuation and overculmination of the focalization on the goal of destroying the enemy troops lies in the consequent mobilization of all productive potential for the war effort, the transformation of society in one gigantic machine of destruction in which all wheels turn only for victory. The industrialization of warfare in World War I marked this new quality: absolute war realizes itself in total war.24
Up to this point, wars strained the monetary resources of the states involved. The state — the ideal general capitalist in the nineteenth century — confined itself essentially to channeling away the necessary resources for the maintenance of the standing army from the social production of wealth. The economy of war was not particularly different from the economy of peace. At this point, the relative brevity of military conflicts rendered the transformation of production obsolete. In the great conflicts of the twentieth century, on the other hand, war had a much greater impact and affected social regulation more than ever.25
Heraclitus is often quoted as having said that war is the father of all things. Although this translation distorts heavily what the philosopher meant, it hits the mark for modernity. In particular, the so-called German economic miracle of the 1950s is in every aspect a child of the world war era and total war.26
This can be seen for instance in macroeconomic regulations. The monetary and economic-political framework created by the warfare state, in order to maximize the production of destruction, only needed to be slightly modified to optimize the production of civil abstract wealth. The interventionist state, first born from the necessities of “absolute war,” became a permanent arrangement and made the Fordist take-off and the short summer of full employment and historically unique growth possible at all. With regard to the methods of production and products, it is equally obvious that Fordism is an achievement of total industrialized war. Of course civil commodity production initially had to suffer under the frictions that accompanied the alignment of industry to the statist production of destruction. But in the long run, production aligned to military ends became the model for the civil application — a condition that points to the character of commodity wealth as the continuation of destruction by other means. Not only did the standardization of the labor process emerge from war production, but the key technical innovations of Fordism also all started their career in the military field. It was not only in Germany that the automobilization of society began with the motorization of warfare.27
At least as important, and in our context even more revealing, is the world war’s historical effort regarding mentality. If there is something like an ur-experience for the homo fordisticus, it is the experience of the World War I battlefronts.28 From the trenches of the “Great War” crawled men who differed as much in their thinking and feeling from the bourgeois class of the nineteenth century as from the masses of the lower classes in the past.
The horror of industrialized warfare could not be withstood by hero nonsense or by the identification with the “national whole” that essentially bore the euphoria of the outbreak of the war. The trauma of being exposed to overwhelming destructive mechanics broke down all social bonds and values. The evasive movement was internalized. Thereby the soldier-subject adopted the kind of relation to the world that was introduced as a theoretical and epistemological program by Descartes. Descartes and Hobbes had put the thought experiment of a universal “idea of destruction” that retains nothing but the thinking subject at the beginning of their philosophies. The material battles at Somme and Verdun turned this empty self back onto itself and into a mass experience.
The psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi wrote about the basic mechanism of war neurosis: the “[l]ibido withdraws from the object into the ego, enhancing self-love and reducing object-love to the point of indifference.”29 But even self-love threatens to become abolished in the numbing process. To be able to function and survive in conditions of war, the soldier-subject approaches a solipsistic attitude in which connections with others dissolve as much as the subject impoverishes emotionally.
Jacques Rivière expressed not only his own war experience when he wrote: “Just as he tried to delouse himself as regularly as possible, so the combatant took care to kill in himself, one by one, as soon as they appeared, before he was bitten, every one of his feelings. Now he clearly saw that feelings were vermin, and that there was nothing to do but treat them as such.”30 The horror could only be endured in some kind of psychological rigor mortis and state that Marc Boasson accurately described by as “automatisme anesthésiant.”31
The state of radical endogenous anesthesia is certainly an exceptional state but one with a model function. The soldier’s effort of abstraction, his ability to abstract his self from all feelings and desires, found civil successors. The unsensuous sensuousness of the commodity subject, however, is not to be comprehended as an awakening from soldierly anesthesia. The coolness of the postmodern competition-idiot rather repeats the death-feigning reflex of the war neurotics of the World War I, while the manic bustle of the marketing professionals and coordinators is consistent with other means of going crazy in the barrage. In both versions endogenous anesthesia lives on as a constitutive moment and with good reason: only in the state of anesthesia can a reality constantly transformed by the ravages of value logic be endured.
It would be misleading to interpret the merciless subsumption of the subject as a retraction or even an eradication of the subject form. The leading image of the Freudian theory, the autocentric individual strengthened by ego power, which is sometimes equated with the true single subject, never became a mass phenomenon; even in the classical bourgeois parts of society the ideal of the ego-sovereign, controlled from within, has probably never been realized to the degree that is often ascribed to it. Subject form and external guidance, contrary to the common understanding, are not contradictory. The developed subject form is rather a mediated form of external guidance. For the subject form to become universal it has to be somehow dictated from above as a kind of collective We-Ego. The aggrandized collective identity of soldiers plays a key role in that process. With the rapid transition to the unleashed competition and commodity subject, the slaughters of the world wars and the subsumption of the subject under the military megamachine gained the character of a mass initiation. Brought into and mediated through military formation, millions of troops were trained to adopt a type of relation to the world that the fully developed commodity subject later had to execute without the continuous reference to omnipotent intermediary powers. The holiest principles of competition society became flesh and blood for the soldiers at the front: the elimination of the other is the presupposition of self-assertion. Only he who can degrade his opponent to an object secures as a degrader his own status as subject. Only by consistently treating himself as an instrument and a machine is man able to triumph as subject.
Ernst Jünger celebrated the soldiers as those that “know how to create in a martial way.”32 This is no perversion of modern subjectivity and by no means a break with it; the negative Prometheus who creates himself by the destruction of others is rather its ugly prototype.
The Age of the Scientification of Destruction
The history of modern warfare is one of gradual total mobilization of all social resources for destruction. With the Napoleonic Wars, the essential psychological, social, and military-tactical shackles that had hitherto prevented martial potentials that already existed implicitly from being fully realized had been cut. About 100 years later “total war” means industrialized warfare, systematic and widespread appropriation of civil-society labor power for the sake of destruction. But World War II also marks a third level, namely the immediate subjugation of science and research under the warfare business, the scientification of destruction.
With regard to the application and improvement of technological innovations, the military, of course, always showed itself to be open-minded; even novelties in a nonempirical science like mathematics — one could think here of mathematical functions — had military-practical applications already in early modern times, for instance in ballistics.33 The old entente cordiale between freelance inventors and scientists on one hand and the military, interested in military application on the other, was now being replaced by something qualitatively new. Military needs now determined directly the alignment, focus, and development of research, and the military hired an enormous scientific apparatus to realize it. This new quality is of course in the first place represented by the Manhattan Project.34 But the key technology of the third industrial revolution is definitely also a child of World War II and the arms race. After the end of the Cold War too, especially in the United States, the majority of the national research budget goes through the hands of the military or institutions close to it like NASA.
In the Cold War the process of the statification of war reached its culmination. First, the dialectic of potentialization and potentiation of destruction arrived at its final state in the balance of the nuclear horror. Second, the scientification of killing increased the arms effort to such a degree that it became incompatible with the competition of many national states and the classical polycentric system. For forty years, scientific complexes sufficient to compete in the technological race could only be maintained by two superpowers. The transition into the age of globalization and digital communication that also transformed the technological basis of destruction, however, exhausted even this situation. Without even one shot fired, the Soviet empire, armed to death, had to give up. The number of armies with a profound international presence had shrunk to one, an exceptional position that would not be conceivable without the privileged access of the United States to transnational capital.35 The absolute military superiority of one state is not just an absolute novelty in the history of modernity; with the abolition of the balance of power, a cornerstone of the international order of violence has been removed.
The scientification of warfare undermined the classical statist regime of violence. It profoundly affected the traditional agent of the core of violence of commodity society, the proud citizen in uniform. His halo began to disappear, in part due to the development of nuclear weapons which displayed a potential for destruction that made traditional Fordist armies look like military atavisms at best responsible for the preparatory phases of major military engagements. Finally, the advance of microelectronics and the associated emancipation of destruction from the need for immediate destructive labor struck the final blow to the armed citizen. Certainly, the realization of the vision of the automatic battlefield, the military counterpart to the empty factory, might be limited. But its appearance alone reveals that the military and ideological mass mobilization of destruction workers no longer fits into the historical picture and is finished. The old pacifist slogan “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came” gains a frightening new significance. To wage war in all its brutality it is no longer necessary for the masses to be there; they can consume the exploding cruise missiles from their chair in front of the TV. It suffices that the destruction specialists and the military infrastructure workers do their job. Significantly, compulsory military service is conserved only in some militarily third-class countries, while the power of all powers has long since abolished this anachronism.
Part Three: The Age of Post-Statist Violence
The Unleashing of the Violent Core
After a long process of depletion, the figure of the proud defender of the fatherland associated with compulsory military service lost, bit by bit, its significance for the identity constitution of the commodity subject. Its final hour came with the breakdown of actually existing socialism. But the violent core of the competition subject did not perish with the disappearance of its traditional carrier. A new, seemingly chaotic regime of violence has been forming since the 1990s, characterized by autonomous operators running amok, killer sects, warlords of every description, and transnational NGOs of another — terrorist — stripe. If states and states in spe proved their status as sovereigns and decided between war and peace, new competition now entered the stage. A colorful cast of post-statist agents of violence begins to take possession of the ur-ground of sovereignty, the law.
This frightening development incorporates two basic moments. First, it is to be understood as a process of unleashing. Violence, up to this point essentially a means of politics, detaches itself from its connection to political ends and palpably takes on the character of an end in itself; parallel to this the market is taking the place of the state in the universe of violence as well. Amidst the process of separation from the state, violence enters a new liaison. Violence markets emerge as a substitute and competitor for state power. With this a familiar phenomenon of early modern times returns.
No development without precursors and predecessors. This is no less true for the rise of violence as an end in itself. Already in the nineteenth century the glorification of nothingness and the worship of destruction were in vogue in parts of bohemia. The basic axiom of the necrophiliac character of philosophical vitalism goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche: “rather will nothingness than not will” was his groundbreaking expression. His successors only took the decisive step by elevating the will to nothingness to an actual will, and war and destruction to the highest acts of creation. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti did not only speak for himself when he wrote in 1909 in “The Futurist Manifesto”: “We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”36 Legions of painters and authors around the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century indulged in bloodthirsty fantasies and revealed themselves to be absorbed by Abel Bonnard’s visions of unleashed violence: “We have to encompass war in all its wild poetry. If a man throws himself into war he does not only rediscover all his instincts, but also regains his virtues. […] In war everything is created anew.”37 War occupies a place of honor not for the sake of political ends that can be achieved by military means, but is rather celebrated for its own sake — that is, as the epitome of male self-presentation and the glory of the modern subject.
This break with Clausewitz’s framework and its instrumental understanding of violence, of course, only pertained to the level of individual motives. The hope for redemption from capitalist boredom was the hope for redemption by the statist war messiah. It was his task to make such an event of salvation possible, as happened to Hermann Hesse in August 1914: “To be torn out of a dull capitalistic peace was good for many Germans and it seems to me that a genuine artist would find greater value in a nation of men who have faced death and who know the immediacy and freshness of camp life.”38
Some high priests of violence went one step further. In the “Second Surrealist Manifesto,” published in 1930, André Breton praises the murder without motive or reason as an acte gratuite (André Gide), as an existential deed as such: “The ultimate surrealist deed is to walk into the street with a revolver in one’s hand and, without aiming, fire shots into the masses of people for as long as one can.”39
That Breton glorifies murder and violence as such does not distinguish his perspective from the aestheticization of horror. In this regard it is only the malignant spirit of the world war epoch speaking through him. His position, insofar as he is asking the individuals to take it into their own hands, is vanguard. In Karl Kraus’s Last Days of Mankind it was still: “War is war, and in war one has to do some things that one previously merely wanted to do.”40 Breton dreamed of a world in which one need not wait for the right circumstances but can brace oneself every time to be master over life and death.
In the age of what Peter Klein calls “mass-affirmation,” this form of murderous subjective self-determination was far from the general consciousness and way of life. But this changed fundamentally with the process of consolidation through separation and depletion of the intermediary powers like state and class, which was misunderstood as a process of individualization. Seventy years ago, artists provoked by turning random destruction and self-extermination into the epitome of self-positing. Today we witness the leap to a corresponding practice of massacre.
Of course, the vanguards of violence subjectivity are exceptional figures. Probably there can be found medical terms for people like the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh or the Beltway snipers. This does not change the fact that their pathological acts shed, as an exaggeration, a bright light on the social normality: “Just as a mentally ill person brings to light the truth of his family, a gypsy the truth of the settled citizen, the bondsman the truth of his master, an individual running amok ex negativo brings to light the suppressed truth of our present society.”41 However, the application of medical categories to the leading figure of our epoch, the suicide bomber, brings with it considerable difficulties.42 The Israeli psychologist Ariel Merari in his study of the environment and biography of fifty suicide bombers came to a frightening and unequivocal conclusion: “He could […] ascertain neither similarities in their character-structures nor pathological personality patterns. He found no insane persons or broken individuals, no failed existences, and no monstrous souls. The most conspicuous aspect of all the perpetrators was their inconspicuousness.”43 The highest level of madness can no longer be determined as such because it is not a deviant insanity but the constitutive lunacy of the commodity subject driven to its most bitter consequence.
Old and New Terrorism
Terror is not a new phenomenon. Ever since the nineteenth century, groups tried to achieve political goals by spectacular attacks. In the age of politics and state formation, terrorism always remained a marginal factor, and that goes for its effectiveness as for the number of victims. The victims of left- and right-wing terrorism in the last 150 years might amount to those killed in one day of World War II. The restricted success of terrorist acts in political confrontations is hardly surprising insofar as it has always been an emergency strategy originating from a position of extreme weakness. The recourse to terrorism has only been taken by elitist groups that saw no possibility of gaining influence on a broader political organization, but hoped to make up for that by spectacular attacks. The “propaganda of the deed” aimed at pulling the layers of society that the terrorist claimed to represent from their lethargy so that they would stand up for the interests ascribed to them by the terrorists. With their method the terrorists dreamed of paving the way for a formation of “classes” or “nations” resting on a broader social foundation.
This concept of indirect mobilization hardly ever worked, but the underlying concept of terror as a political means had the side effect of keeping the terrorist trail of blood thin. As long as terror aimed at the mobilization of interested third parties, it had to be selective in choosing the victims of attacks. Whoever targeted high-ranking and hated functionaries could hope to gain the sympathies of those circles of the population in whose name he acted. Accidental victims were to be avoided — they undermined the basis of the terrorists’ legitimation — and indiscriminate mass destruction was ruled out from the beginning.
If the new terrorism rested on the same basis as the political terrorism of the past, it would be no major threat and would be relatively easy to account for. Unfortunately it has emancipated itself fundamentally from the instrumental understanding of violence. Terrorism thus gains a new quality — namely the capacity for murderous efficiency. A marginal phenomenon threatens to turn into the dominant form of violence of the twenty-first century. Whether apocalyptic sects and fundamentalist fanatics use weapons of mass destruction is merely a question of technological feasibility; one can hardly hope that a structural limit will result from the terrorist motif as such. Far from remaining a deterrent, the ability to realize Armageddon constitutes the very attraction of the new terrorism for today’s competition subject who strives for omnipotence. There is no culture that does not create its own reservoir of angry young men who, equally attracted to and repelled by their existence as commodity subjects, escape into some kind of eschatological fundamentalism. Everywhere a population ripe for recruitment: commodity subjects who see no individual and collective possibility for future development other than taking revenge for a long chain of real or imagined national or individual indignities.
The Identical Subject-Object of Destruction
War in commodity society has turned violence into an act of abstraction. The place of hand-to-hand combat has been taken first by mechanical and then by automatic destruction labor. This metamorphosis is bound up with the development of the long-range weapon. The decisive historical turning point in this regard is marked by the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, in which English longbows crushingly defeated a larger French army. The distance weapon, disregarded by feudal warriors as being dishonorable and inappropriate to their social class, triumphed over the medieval warrior. The spatial distance over which the warriors raked each other grew only slightly with the development of firearms and then more rapidly after World War I. At the end of that development are those long-range bombers that flew from U.S. territory to their mission over Baghdad, and for whom the battlefield only existed on the display of their airborne computers.
To this spatial separation corresponds a process of internal distancing. The enemy is degraded to a passive object. The challenge in the duel in which the opponents confront each other as equals is substituted in commodity society war by the separation of the destruction worker on one hand and the biomass to be killed on the other. Already the Fordist (but more than ever the scientized) war resembles pest control in its methods and no longer has anything to do with classical battle. Not only does the killing move more and more out of the visual field of the killer; killing and being killed also dissolve into independent acts, with one or the other side being exposed to the man-driven apparatus of destruction.
The new archetypal actor of violence of our time, the suicide bomber, represents the implosion of this structure. The polar oppositions into which this murderous practice split suddenly unify. The suicide bomber no longer carries a weapon; he is himself one. His body is turned into an explosive body and even the separation of killing subject and subject of killing has been rendered obsolete in a perverted way. In that identical subject-object it finds its suspension. After 600 years, the long-range weapon has been substituted by a historically new weapon, the weapon of absolute lack of distance.
Weapon and Market
Neoliberal ideology categorically dreads monopolies and the state. The exception to this generally valid rule is of course presupposed even by free-market fanatics. Few of them dare to attack the state monopoly on violence. The main asset of the state is to be left untouched by the celebrated process of destatification.
The total free market economy as it prevailed after the epochal break of 1989 proves to be more consistent in this regard than its ideologues. The catastrophic final victory of the world market over the statist developing regimes is accompanied by the dissolution and gradual disintegration of the statist monopoly on violence in the South and the East. With the loss of the ability to create the basic conditions of the valorization of value in much of its territory, state power loses both the ability to eliminate and the interest in eliminating all other actors of violence from its own entire territory. Increasingly large geographical spaces de facto elude state control. Especially where the withdrawal of regular statehood provides ideal working conditions for actors operating in illegal sectors of the world markets (drugs, smuggling, weapons, and human trafficking), those apparatuses take the place of the police. Before the historical process of transferring organized violence into the sole instrument of abstract generality in the peripheral states of the world market is completed, the entire direction of development is reversed. The structures of violence are increasingly influenced by mafia factions, which are dedicated to protecting and violently carrying out their business interests.
This shift towards markets of violence is not only brought about by the displacement of state power. The statist apparatus of violence is itself undergoing a metamorphosis during the collapse of modernization. The concept of “state business” takes on a literal meaning through the loss of a perspective of valorization, and the distinction between mafia and state becomes blurred. During the period of state ascendency, corruption meant a disturbance of the normal function and reproduction of statehood. In large swathes of the world the concept of corruption has become useless insofar as the practices that it describes must be considered the rule and have long since become the actual material basis of the reproduction of the state apparatus.
In the center of that development stand the security apparatuses. For their members it is perfectly natural to use their traditional position as guarantor of law and order, and their skills in the use of violence, as private human capital. Having the social means of violence at their disposal puts them in the position to secure access for themselves to the few goods of the breakdown regions that still have a place in the global valorization process. Some African countries have already undergone this process: the national economies of Congo or Liberia turned into pure looting economies, while the world of politics has shrunk to the dimensions of an armed fight for control of raw materials. The remnants of state power turn into the main players on the thriving markets of violence.
The Post-Statist War
The old international wars dissociated the ends of war from its means. Wars used to be waged to gain a changed position of power for peace. War appeared as a kind of investment in advance for a possible postwar world. In the military competition between sovereigns organized in nation states, the side that won knew how to mobilize most effectively all the human and material resources in its territory into a machine of destruction for the sake of defeating the enemy. Considered economically, the war economy was the alignment of social production to maximized unproductive state consumption. The material substrate of the war economy was turning as much abstract wealth as possible, siphoned off through nonmilitary means such as taxes or bond issues, into as many, and as effective, means of destruction as possible.
Our post-statist wars conform to a different pattern. The separation of the ends and means of war is invalid: the ends have turned into the means. The new masters of the state of exception themselves use violence as a means to the appropriation of wealth. The war economy no longer represents the extreme version of overall social overconsumption; rather, the war economy functions as a looting economy, as the special form of reproduction of military players who have ceased to function as abstract generality. As in the early modern conflicts, it is the task of war to nourish war. In the past, the battle of nationalisms was about which of the competitors could start the task of homogenization and modernization, and where. Questions such as whether Alsace and its inhabitants would be part of the German or French modernization machines, or if Poland is allowed to experience an autonomous process of national development, were decided by the force of arms. In the wars of disintegration in the South and the East, nationalism, having degenerated into ethnicism, again plays a central, albeit differently situated role. Ethnic differences essentially determine recruitment for competing war gangs and the preferred victims of the corporations of the looting economy.
The transition from a war economy of state consumption to a looting economy dramatically changes the face of war. In the new wars the conflict between combatants begins to retreat; military actions instead find their main targets in the goods and chattels and the lives of noncombatants. Statified wars are characterized by the effort to focus the impact of destruction on the enemy troops. If the civilian population was caught in the crosshairs, it was in the course of attacks that were indirectly aimed at the armed enemy as a result of the destruction of infrastructure and supply. Massacres of the civilian population or mass migrations of refugees were the ugly side effects of military conflicts.44 In the contemporary wars of disintegration, massacres, looting, and “ethnic cleansing” are elevated into the actual content of military operations. The direct confrontation of competing armed powers is retreating and in many wars of disintegration it is carefully avoided by all parties involved.
The epoch of statist wars, in which the elimination of enemy troops was central, was characterized by a perpetual arms race. Its monetary effect was a permanent explosion of costs. The wars of disintegration of our times are characterized instead by being permanently low-budget wars. First, many of the new warlords can, directly or indirectly, help themselves to the leftover arsenals from the epoch of statist modernization. During the Yugoslav wars, for example, the Serbian troops basically operated with the war material of the former army, left over from the time of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Second, with the change of target, cheap weapons such as machine guns, mines, and machetes take the place of tanks and planes as dominant weapons. The consequences of the actions of contemporary warlords include devastation that rivals that of the wars of state creation of the past, albeit associated with a comparably minimal financial effort. Rarely in the history of modernity has the sum of investment per casualty and displaced person been as low as in the wars of disintegration of the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the South and East. This new economy of war is also in effect where the ugliest kind of economical rationality disappears behind the pure goal of destruction. Compared to states, even al-Qaeda, run and financed by a successful businessman, gets by with remarkably modest financial means.
The history of the statist regime of violence can be described as a double movement of the potentialization of violence. The power of destruction grew dramatically whereas at the same time great manifest wars became less frequent. This development is due not least to an immense increase in the price of arms. This leads gradually to the reduction of the number of actors of violence who are able to compete on the relevant level of destruction. In the course of the microelectronic revolution this number of competitors shrank to one: the United States.>45 On the other hand, however, thousands of groups worldwide are now able to raise the means to instigate a “new” war. The transition from state wars to wars of disintegration is therefore also accompanied by the process of depotentialization, which in turn is to be understood as twofold. The nightmare of a nuclear showdown of the superpowers vanished with the end of the East-West conflict, but only to make room for the low-intensity conflicts that have been emerging and growing in numbers since the 1990s. It is frightening that even in Europe military conflicts could be waged again. Even more frightening are developments in the Third World. Not only did wars continue on the periphery of the world market even after the end of the East-West confrontation; with the transposition to a purely looting-economy basis they also took on an epidemic character.
With the transition to the age of wars of disintegration, it was not only the case that the number of armed conflicts increased; individual conflicts also often drag on. In the same arenas new players of violence emerge to fight each other in changing constellations of alliances. This new feature can also easily be placed in the context of the basic changes in the war economy. As periods of massive statist overconsumption, international wars affected or even interrupted the overall social movement of accumulation. Imperialist wars then drew their legitimation essentially from their expected results. A nation state fulfilled its task as abstract universality only when it managed to end wars successfully as soon as possible. Even for the anticolonial movements, which began their battles from a position of military weakness and therefore had to rely on strategies of attrition, the mobilization for the wars of liberation was only an unfortunate, inevitable, bloody opening for their actual “peaceful” project of modernization. Despite the invaluable significance of the anticolonial struggles as rites of passage on the way to becoming a nation, it would have occurred to no one to prolong the overture voluntarily. Where war turns into a mode of reproduction for its agents and disconnects itself from the overriding social horizon, the players of war have little reason to seek a military perspective. Left to themselves, these conflicts burn out only to the extent that the potential for economic looting and appropriation of monetary wealth is exhausted. An early end usually occurs only when the “international community” brings itself to intervene. But in such cases the precarious peace is principally predicated on the international troops’ allowing local players of violence to put their looting business on a different basis, and to squeeze money out of the international institutions and aid organizations instead of the local population.
In the process of statification the regime of violence obtained a binary structure. In the first place a clear boundary emerged between domestic and international violence, a difference reflected in the institutional separation of army and police. The wars of disintegration eliminate this line of demarcation: not only to the extent that these functional distinctions lose their significance, but that respect for state borders is also alien to the new players of violence. That the warlords of Rwanda and Burundi are also playing a central role in Congo is not an isolated case. Routinely operations that target members of their own state and attacks on other aspects or institutions of communal life coincide.
To the bipolar structure of the statified orders of violence there also belonged a strict separation of war and peace. Whether one or the other state of affairs was currently in effect was legally just as clearly defined as it could be experienced unequivocally in everyday life. Abeyances that could not be comprehended as either peace or war were unknown to the universe of Clausewitz. In the world of wars of disintegration, precisely these in-between states become the rule. During the war in Bosnia the international mediators pressured the conflict parties into more than a dozen truces before the Dayton agreement. As soon as the ink with which the official representatives of Serbians, Croatians, and Muslims had signed was dry, they were broken. This was no oddity peculiar to that part of the world, but an index of the blurring of war and peace in the age of the wars of disintegration.
The dominance of commodity subjectivity is ultimately predicated on the reduction of humans to biomass approved for killing. In the statified regime of violence, this basis appeared as a special, spatially and temporally limited sphere that contradicted the domain of law and contract: a counterworld that would only become reality in the state of exception. Only in this constellation could free competition as normal social relation emerge from immediate physical force. The post-statist regime of violence destroys this limitation. The regular competition of commodity owners and the irregular competition of direct killing are visibly merging. In the breakdown regions of the fully globalized world market this merging process is already in full effect.
The Ugly Inverse of Individualization
In the centers of the world market, the domination of the territorial state can look back on a much longer history than on the periphery, and it is therefore considerably more rooted. At the same time the credit-worthiness of the Western states provides a much more solid monetary foundation for the role of the state as ideal universal capitalist. In the course of globalization, the symbiosis of the territorial state and “its” capitals becomes fragile, but still state power in the West can continue to play that part for quite some time. The very heart of state sovereignty, the state monopoly on violence, remains untouched in its core substance. Although there also exist slums and banlieues ruled by gangs in the West, and although a growing privatization of “security” can be observed — symptoms for the emerging of zones of differing “security density” — the basic supremacy of state power is not put in doubt by these phenomena. Also the elsewhere barely noticeable line between state and mafia remains, in the West, fairly clear, for the moment at least.
Long before the territorial state regimes of violence lose their monetary basis even in the West, their dissolution has already begun. One of the starting points is provided immediately by the neoliberal offensive and the advance of the total market in the capitalist centers. In a world that does not want to know society — only individuals and success at all costs — inadmissible fears are growing: the total rationalization and full economization of social relations creates a greenhouse in which their immanent opposite, irrationality, always already charged with violence, thrives. The process of individualization also touches the violent core of competition subjectivity. The lunacy from which none are spared — having to exist as a self-sufficient subject — translates itself into the crazy impulse to defend this unlivable way of existence by any means necessary, preferably with a weapon in hand, against real and above all imaginary dangers. The feeling of omnipotence and impotence that determines the commodity subject finds its most extreme expression in the age of complete subjugation to the total market. It is increasingly impossible to live out nation-statist claims of omnipotence. These find an adequate form of appearance and dissolution in pseudo-religious sects and individual Rambo-fantasies in which the released component of violence threatens the core of society.
The horrific construct with which the state theorist Hobbes once legitimized the existence of the Leviathan returns as a pattern of perception, and paranoia becomes a leading psychic disturbance in an epoch in which asocial sociality is driven to the extreme. The paranoiac “finds himself in a kind of natural state, similar to the one described by Hobbes in the Leviathan: he is surrounded by enemies, isolated, without connection to a society….From this perspective paranoia is simply the situation of a person [who] feels forced to live outside of society. Political paranoia is the unfortunate attempt to step into relation with others again, to form a community again.”46
This is probably furthest developed in the United States, above all with regards to ideologically motivated violence. There, racist and Christian fundamentalist groups not only turn against the existing state but increasingly against any overarching statehood at all. The most devastating terror attack in the history of the United States up to 9/11, that of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City in April 1995, targeted a building of the federal government. This choice of target is not to be comprehended as the confusion of a single person, nor does the anti-statist motif limit itself to the extreme Right and millenarian religious sects.47 Especially in established political organizations like the NRA (National Rifle Association), this basic orientation is obvious.48
The World Police in the Decade of Human-Rights Paternalism
The established regime of violence in the centers of the world market is dissolved not only by the emergence of new agents of violence. In confrontation with them, the established state power also begins to bid farewell to the familiar framework of reference, finally mutating into the driving force of its own dissolution.
This process occurs in two phases. The first begins immediately after the breakdown of actually existing socialism. With the disappearance of Eastern competition, the United States and its junior partners accrued a kind of world monopoly on violence. The West was now able to intervene militarily practically everywhere in the world without having to expect serious counterstrikes from the targeted ruins of modernization. This not only led to the participation of the West, no longer used to war, in the process of depotentialization while increasingly sending its own troops to military operations in the periphery of the world market; above all, for the first time the strict separation between inner-statist and international violence was questioned, as it had developed since the Westphalian Peace of 1648. On the basis of its own superiority, the West believed it would be possible to apply the model of domestic pacification — police power assigned as the monopoly on violence — to the international stage.
The conflicts emerging in the breakdown regions since the beginning of the 1990s, mostly ethnically motivated, touched the West only indirectly. To the extent that the wars of disintegration did not involve secessionist movements that impinged on capitalist centers (Yugoslavia), they merely raised legitimation problems. The TV images of ugly bloodshed were in blatant contradiction with the Western-universalistic credo that the triumph of market and democracy would open up a wonderful and peaceful future for the planet. The Western interventions had a corresponding character, namely that of human-rights paternalism. Also where glorious competition-subjectivity could no longer maintain its “peaceful” counterpart in labor society due to a lack of developmental horizon, it was not supposed to run riot in its horrific alternative form as murder-subjectivity. Even in the de facto written-off regions of the world, security imperialism tried militarily to enforce the “right” form of respect for universal Western principles against the reality of crisis.
With human-rights paternalism the West turned “mission impossible” into a program. The well-intended drivel of a new world order has from the beginning been nothing but a label for exemplary operations. This alone already denies the claim to be the world police. Where and when the Western-dominated international community intervened (Somalia, East Timor, Kosovo, and Bosnia) it was always influenced greatly by the patterns of perception of a media-transmitted world publicity rather than by a far-reaching, sustainable plan. This limited range was, however, by no means only a question of a lack of political will or of inadequate implementation. Even the attempt to manage acute conflicts would considerably overextend the military-logistic capabilities as well as the financial potentials of the West. What faces the West is all the more Sisyphean because although the military risk of the miscellaneous “peacemaking” or “peacekeeping” actions was and is in most regions limited, the peace-sheriff was doomed to permanent patrol. This necessity springs immediately from the phantasmagorical goal. The West can here and there suspend the wars of disintegration by means of troops and the application of corresponding financial means, detaining some warlords and bribing others. Real pacification would, however, mean a break with the long-anachronistic concept of recuperative nation-building and capitalist development. Durable pacification in the age of crisis is only possible by means of exoduses and emancipatory destatification from below, as a break with the Western subject form and with the imperatives of unleashed competition. But that would be precisely the opposite of even the most well-intentioned human-rights paternalism.
Western policy towards the breakdown regions and ailing ruins of modernization incorporates the clandestine acknowledgement as well as the denial of the dissolution of the territorial-statist order. While in the construction of what amounts to a new domestic foreign policy the West defies the separation, constitutive of the territorial state, of inner-statist and international violence it simultaneously hallucinates a form of nation-building, attempting to reeducate one or another warlord faction into a state power. At the high point of the national liberation movements of the Third World, the leaders of the “free world” pregnantly denounced the emergent state power in spe as bandits and robbers. Today the politically tainted mafia-clan leaders are welcomed as statesmen.
This continuation of the collapsed order of the territorial state, however, is made visible only by the assemblage of friends and contacts these would-be human rights keepers choose on location. It comes into effect especially in the determination of the enemy. The crazy construct of the “rogue state” speaks volumes in this regard. Hallucinating that some ruin of modernization such as Iraq, Libya, and Cuba poses a danger to the new world order, the leading Western powers, impervious to the simplest facts, define precisely the kind of enemy that does not stand a chance.
The level of asymmetry that characterized the world-order wars of the 1990s has probably not been seen since the conquest of the Inca Empire by Pizarro. Every time the United States mobilizes its high-tech military apparatus, it is confronted with an opponent with weapons from another league. If war is understood in the strictest sense by Clausewitz, then the U.S. campaigns of the last decade no longer fit the category. If, according to Clausewitz, war does not begin with an attack but a defense, then war as a phenomenon is bound to a minimal degree of ability to defend; that is, the will and the ability of the attacked side to turn blood and thunder into a mutual event. These conditions were met neither in the Iraq campaign nor in the Kosovo intervention of 1999. In both cases the “battle,” from the Western point of view, is reduced to target practice from the air on run-down Fordist armies on the ground. The Kosovo conflict can be most accurately described as the merging of two hijackings. On one side, Serbian militias and paramilitaries terrorized and displaced the Kosovo-Albanian civil population. On the other side, NATO alternately punished the population of Serbia and destroyed the infrastructure of the rest of Yugoslavia without a single NATO soldier needing to set foot in the country.
The Limits of Omnipotence
The biggest “military power of all times” will never meet an enemy that could muster even a fraction of the military resources available to the United States. Of course this asymmetry does not guarantee triumph. Everywhere the fruits of military successes are withering for the West, not only ex post facto with respect to the inner contradiction of exercising control without the ability to seize territories and begin the valorization process; the military ability to triumph at any time is also limited. The first limitation lies in the extreme costs of the high-tech military apparatus of the United States. The last remaining superpower is not merely excluded from the tendency, inherent to the “new wars,” of minimizing the initial monetary costs of death and destruction; it experiences the complete opposite. In the wars of world order of the West, for the first time in military history the missiles are more expensive than the targets.
In this context it is worth taking a close look at the concept of “surgical attacks,” ranking high in the U.S. military apparatus. Of course this is in the first instance errant propaganda. At the same time, as a euphemism this expression describes a special battle economy, an original exaggeration of the American way of fighting in the aftermath of human-rights paternalism. Already in the Fordist wars, the U.S. destruction apparatus was characterized by an extremely high organic composition. Whether in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, U.S. warfare was determined to minimize its own casualties by means of material expenses. In the war on Kosovo and Iraq the enemy could for the first time participate in that relative protection. It was all about beautiful pictures and an impressive demonstration of power — the effectiveness of destruction was secondary. Never before have there been such a ratio of fireworks to the number of casualties. Considering the single applied use value (explosive force in TNT units) as well as the monetary value of each explosion, the direct victims were by far the most laboriously produced deaths in military history. The U.S. cannot afford many campaigns like the one against the Hussein regime.
Second, the force of the superpower is calibrated to a very specific type of opponent. It can with ostentation crush into the dust those enemies that depend essentially on territorial control — be it only for the purposes of economic looting — and that organize themselves as states or pseudo-states. The high-tech military machine is useless as soon as the Western centers no longer confront conflicts between states but are attacked from within the global world market society.
9/11 marks a historical cut. The attacks on the World Trade Center abruptly revealed the vulnerability of the capitalist centers, but that type of violator is appropriate to challenge Western superiority. About the fate of al-Qaeda one can only speculate; but little speculation is required about the fact that this organization will become the prototype of a new epoch of violence. With 9/11, security imperialism also entered a new phase. Facing its own vulnerability, the world police got rid of paternalism in favor of brutal repression. As in every war, also in the war on terror the opponents are beginning to resemble each other.
The State of Exception as Rule; or, Guantánamo Is Everywhere
The war on terror and especially its second phase, the conquest of down the Ba’ath regime, have a transitory function. The choice of enemy already documents that the Western leading power is hallucinating itself back to a bygone epoch of wars between states; with the Hussein regime, the United States chose a surrogate enemy organized in a territorial state. That is, a target that can be easily overrun with a high-tech military machine rather than the actual enemy, the transnational and deterritorial network al-Qaeda. At the same time, the egomaniacal world police have kicked open a door to a new epoch that would have better remained closed.
First, with the triumph over Saddam Hussein’s “rogue state” and the occupation of Iraq, the United States has landed in exactly the kind of succession conflict they hallucinated away with the concept of “rogue state.” After its fast victory the superpower finds itself endlessly engaged in a low-intensity war against an ungraspable, deterritorialized enemy.50 The U.S. troops probably will not be better off in their Iraqi protectorate than Israel, equally superior in military power, facing the never-ending al-Aqsa Intifada.
At the same time, with the war on Iraq, Western hegemony abandoned the ground of human-rights paternalism. The United States itself began acting as a transnational actor of violence that no longer knows any limits. While human-rights paternalism still reacted to anomic conditions, the leadership of the last superpower claims the primal right of all sovereignty, the declaration of the state of exception, for the global theater. The war on terror represents the self-enabling of an unleashed leviathan, equally absolved from international agreements and martial and domestic law.
The war on Iraq in 2003 illustrates this new quality. It goes beyond the referential framework of the international conflicts in a threefold fashion: structurally; with regard to the arrangements of military actions; and concerning the war’s ends. Whether enforced demilitarization or regime change, the explanation for the attack on Iraq would have been unthinkable as casus belli in the traditional universe. Not that foreign powers were never involved in the overthrow of governments: as is well known, the United States in particular has some experience in the discipline. But this time regime change enforced from the outside functioned as a highly official and emphatically proclaimed war aim. All international wars since 1648 fit the most general of Clausewitz’s definitions of war: “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”50 The attack on Iraq in 2003 does not fit this framework. It does not aim at the retreat of the enemy sovereign. Before the U.S. troops moved towards Baghdad they had deprived the Iraqi state of the status as subject of international law, an absolutely unprecedented process in history.51 As sovereign the Iraqi leadership could not capitulate, since doing so would have meant to acknowledge its own non-existence as sovereign, not only regarding the future but also regarding the present and the past.52
The military operations of the war on Iraq reflect this in their own way. They mix elements of statist warfare with manhunts against the ruling regime that were being executed according to the slogan “wanted dead or alive.” The military actions were opened for instance by a (failed) attack on the alleged location of Saddam Hussein.
The battle against the Iraqi dictator was, as in the logic of the international wars, no longer about depriving the enemy government of its military instruments and rendering it defenseless. The military event seemed more like a mafia-style retribution. More precisely, there was something to it of the procedure of the avengers in Hollywood movies. The former bearer of enemy sovereignty had turned into biomass approved for killing. The special treatment that Saddam’s sons faced instead of arrest speaks volumes in this context, as does the subsequent exhibition of the bodies. When dead GIs were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu for the cameras in the early 1990s, the Western public still reacted with outrage. One decade later, the U.S. administration reveals that it is not very far removed from General Aidid’s gangs. It relies on the American TV audience’s having arrived at the level of the jubilating mob of the Somali capital when it stages itself as master over life and death.
Because of its democracy-missionary and security-imperialist intentions, the war on terror implies a tendency to come untethered. A war aim such as “security” is neither achievable nor objectifiable and it can be only left to the free judgment of the leviathan to define it as appropriately achieved or not. But also in its temporal and geographical structure the war on terror is not simply long and wide-ranging, but limitless. The justification of the necessity of preemptive battle against terrorism renders almost every state a possible target. What could contribute more to the unleashing of fundamentalist desperados more than the war that is to subdue them?
It is more likely that the circle will be squared than that the war on terror should end with a victorious peace for democracy. On the historical horizon there lies rather the threat that the war will discharge into an exceptional state maintained both by the leviathan and by the terrorist behemoths. The result of the war on Iraq already gives some idea of how it could continue. Rather than a state of exception limited geographically and temporally (camp and front), familiar from the epoch of the rise of commodity society, a permanent and spatially omnipresent state of exception under Western auspices begins to appear.
Initially, the parallel running-amok of the superpower and Islamic fundamentalism is sure to ravage the Middle East. But it is not necessarily in the logic of things that this will remain the full extent of the matter. The security-imperialist leviathan can ultimately only fail in its efforts to externalize violent irrationality and to wage it as an external war, and to try to contain it with police force. Whether Islamic fundamentalists carry the will to destruction, the ultima ratio of commodity subjectivity, into its Western primal home, or whether other terrorist behemoths take on the job, the security-imperialist leviathan will always find an occasion and an opportunity to do his part for the abolition of the normality of commodity society even at home. The U.S. Patriot Act, the invalidation of basic rights, the police function of the military discussed in Germany — these are all indications of the direction into which the statist regime of violence might move if its foundation is crumbling: towards the permanent state of exception.
- Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983) 127.
- Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Common Sense, and Other Political Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) 265.
- See Karl Otto Hondrich, Lehrmeister Krieg (Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 1992) 16.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 127.
- Hobbes, Leviathan 126.
- For more on the term “asocial sociality,” see 177n2 in this volume.
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) 19.
- Hegel, Phenomenology 114.
- Phenomenology 117.
- Phenomenology 270.
- Compare Christina von Braun, Nichtich (Frankfurt: Neue Kritik, 1999) 231 and following.
- Phenomenology 288-289.
- Phenomenology 360.
- Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. S.W. Dyde (New York: Cosimo, 2008) xxxii.
- Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990) 181.
- Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990) 38, 46.
- Freud, Totem 181.
- Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
- Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Oxford: Oxford Unviersity Press, 2007) 28.
- Clausewitz, On War 15.
- Clausewitz’s war theory claims absolute validity. In reality it only grasps the characteristics of the statified modern war. This, however, it does very precisely.
- On War 223.
- The term “total war” was infamously used and subsequently has been associated with Joseph Goebbels’s “Sportpalastrede,” the speech delivered by Goebbels at the Sportpalast Berlin on 18 February 1943. The proclamation of a total war was intended to reenergize the German military and public after Germany had suffered major military setbacks. In this speech, Goebbels famously asked the audience and all of Germany: “wollt ihr den totalen Krieg” (do you want total war)?
- Of all wars of the nineteenth century, perhaps the American Civil War anticipates the industrialization of warfare most, which might be due to its sheer duration. The wars after 1815 were rather short in comparison.
- This quote contains an error of translation. Heraclitus does not speak of war but, very generally, of “struggle” and “conflict.” See Wolfgang Schadewaldt, Anfänge der Philosophie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2002) 389.
- What is true for vehicle construction also is true for the fabrication of aircraft, movies, or communications engineering.
- This context was probably expounded most clearly by Modris Eksteins in Rites of Spring (Boston: Mariner, 1989).
- Quoted in Eksteins, Rites 213.
- Quoted in Rites 174.
- Letter from 26 March 1917, in Rites 173.
- Ernst Jünger, Der Kampf um das Reich (Essen: Kamp, 1929) 9.
- Remnants of these origins seem to have lasted quite some time. Certainly, during my schooldays in Bavaria in the mid-1970s, I encountred a mathematics teacher who woukd often set “demonstrative” tasks from the field of artillery as exam questions.
- The so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy has never been more than a waste product of military use.
- See Robert Kurz, Weltordnungskriege (Bad Honnef: Horlemann, 2003) 23n.
- Compare Sibylle Tönnies, Pazifismus passé (Hamburg: Rotbuch, 1997) 77.
- Abel Bonnard, “Devant La Guerre,” La Figaro 29 October 1912: 1.
- Ralph Freedman, Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978) 168.
- Compare Peter Bürger, Ursprung des postmodernen Denkens (Weilerswist-Metternich: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2007) 26.
- Karl Kraus, The Last Days of Mankind (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1992) 34.
- Götz Eisenberg, Amok-Kinder in der Kälte (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2000) 13.
- People consciously sacrificing their lives in combat are not an entirely new phenomenon. In the old Roman tradition it is represented by the figure of Devotus. The twelfth-century Islamic sect of the “Assassines” also sent people to war who did not spare a thought for their survival. The association of suicide and mass murder, the combination of the greatest murder efficiency and taking one’s own life, however, is a completely new phenomenon even though the weapons-technological preconditions have existed for a long time. The first event dates back to November 1982 when a seventeen-year-old Islamist attacked the headquarters of the Israeli occupiers in the south-Lebanese Tyros.
- Christoph Kucklick, Hania Liczak, and Christoph Reuter, “Selbstmordattentäter — Die Macht der Ohnmächtigen,” eds. Hans Frank and Kai Hirschmann, Die weltweite Gefahr Terrorismus als internationale Herausforderung (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2002) 264.
- Where states made “ethnic cleansing” into political goal, it was notably exercised mostly after the ending of combat actions or independently of them. One should think in this regard especially of the war of destruction in the East by Nazi Germany. In the new wars they make out the center of the military operations.
- This ability, as is well known, is predicated on the U.S. administration’s ability to tap the international finance markets for its military program.
- Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997) 40.
- The novel The Turner Diaries, written by William Pierce, a bestseller in the American ultra-right-wing scene, can be seen as a proof for that alignment. It melts the defense of the private possession of arms, the fight against the government, and the extermination of Jews and Blacks to one gigantic complex. “The plot of The Turner Diaries is a crazy triumph phantasy. It describes America after the prohibition of every private possession of arms by the Cohen Act. The protagonist, the Arian hero Earl Turner talks about the role he played in the overthrow of the U.S. government in the Great Revolution of the ’90s. Turner is a member of a secret society, the organization whose goal to reconstitute the power of all whites in the U.S. and additionally to kill all non-whites and Jews. In the last part of the book millions of the American Jews, Black Latinos and ‘race traitors’ are killed on the day of the ‘great hanging’ (Robins 277).
- The anti-statist affection in the United States can look back on a long history. To the west of the Atlantic, blood and thunder have never been an absolute statist privilege to such a degree as in Europe or East Asia. This does not mean of course that France, Germany, or Japan are immune to this.
- Of course Western troops cannot simply withdraw from Bosnia or other regions of crisis in which they engaged in human-rights paternalism under the flag of the UN since the 1990s; but it is not only because of problems of legitimation that remaining in the position of compulsory referee is something quite different from playing the part of an active party to the war.
- On War 13.
- The first Gulf War was still about forcing Iraq by military means to withdraw from the occupied Kuwait. As an attempt to compel Iraq, as subject of international law, represented by its government, to certain measures, this event did still fit into the pattern of the international wars.
- Here lies the fundamental difference from the resignation of existing subjects of international law in the world of international wars of annexation. The resignation as subject of international law referred to the future. It was part of the production of legitimation of the victorious side to make, if at all possible, the former subject of international law sign the resignation himself, which would in turn acknowledge its former status. In the war on Iraq of 2003, the resignation of the subject of international law is not the result of a military act; it is rather its starting point.