Recently, I’ve been reading and rereading a fascinating essay by Gopal Balakrishnan in the New Left Review. It’s a long review of a recent book, Afflicted Powers by the Retort collective in San Francisco. The book is an attempt to think through the meaning and logic of the contemporary period of warmaking, and to critique and update Marxist theories of imperialism in light of recent developments.
Balakrishnan enumerates several different themes in the book, many of which strike me as tangentially or episodically interesting at best. But I can’t stop thinking about the last piece of Retort’s analysis, on “the spectacular”.
The concept comes, of course, from the situationist Guy Debord. In late modern capitalism, Debord argued, the manufacture of images and appearances–the spectacle–has taken precedence in all realms of social life. This is simply an extension of the logic of commodity production, as Debord explained:
This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things,” which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.
As appropriated by Retort, the spectacle is the principal structuring logic of modern politics, and it intervenes between political actors and “facts on the ground” in such a way as to erode historical knowledge and make “strategic interests” indeterminate. This introduces a jarring reversal in the left’s discourse about imperial power. It has always been the virtue of anti-imperialist analyses that they can break through liberal critiques which attribute wars to incompetence or individual evil; anti-imperialism achieves this by positing a rational logic of capital accumulation behind war’s inhuman illogic. But Retort’s analysis would suggest that today, our leaders are in fact confused, incompetent, impotent; it could not be otherwise. Balakrishnan:
A major, probably irreversible, sociological transformation of baby-boom capitalism is at work here. The plebeians refuse to die in wars, the rich refuse to pay for them. The spectacle has resulted not only in weak citizenship at the bottom, but also faulty intelligence at the top. With an eye on the mounting chaos in occupied Iraq, it is not difficult to conclude that the Republican administration’s attempt at grand strategy is now heading for the shoals. ‘The dimension of spectacle has never before interfered so palpably, so insistently, with the business of keeping one’s satrapies in order.’
This view is only confirmed the more one looks at the developments overseas. Christian Parenti’s recent book, The Freedom, details the madness of an occupying army attempting to rebuild a country that does not want them, and that they do not understand. The army appears to be breaking under the strain, as recruitment falters. The debt burden continues to mount, and it is impossible to determine how long the Bank of China will continue to fund our adventures. Moreover, even Rumsfeld acknowledges, in a quote used by Balakrishnan, that “we lack metrics to know whether we are winning or losing the war”.
All of this is perplexing and disturbing enough. But Balakrishnan goes on to add another layer of uncertainty. It is one thing to say that our leaders have lost the ability to connect military means with their ultimate, capitalist ends. But why, he asks, do we continue to act as though the role of military power in the constitution of interstate power dynamics were obvious and unchanging?
What role does military power play in determining a state’s position within international ranking systems; why and to what extent is it still a decisive dimension of state power? The inability of existing theories even to pose these problems speaks to a deeper crisis of the classical categories of geopolitical rationality.
This is certainly relevant to the various theories of imperialist succession, in which China eventually displaces the U.S. as the hegemonic power. It is generally assumed, in such accounts, that China will have to generate an autonomous military capability in order to accede to first status; the main danger in this transition comes from the potential irresponsibility of a declining U.S. which still has the capacity to start a global conflagration. But perhaps this perspective is too reliant on old schemas of interstate politics.
There is a paradox here. On the one hand, war is increasingly everywhere–the line between soldier and civilian, homeland and battlefield, is steadily being eroded. Yet the purpose and meaning of military power in late capitalist society has never been less clear. Where does that leave us?
A chaotic system is described deterministically by a mathematical equation. But tiny variations in the initial conditions can lead to tremendous nonlinear variation in the system’s motion. This is the puzzle of our epoch: it appears that the transition from Clinton to Bush, along with the catalyst of 9/11, has utterly rearranged the logic of the international system. Thus, while a determinate logic must exist in principle, it is, in practice, unknowable.