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The Ever-Broadening War

To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no Power, there is no common Law: where no Law, no Injustice. Force, and Fraud, are in Warre the two Cardinalle vertues. – Hobbes, Leviathan

Across Europe, as in the rest of the world, a kind of obsessional speech has proliferated that attempts to resolve the enigma of September 11. Expiatory speech or rational speech, barroom chatter or the proselytizing of experts, ideological joust or more factual discussion—these forms of speech may be slightly more removed in Europe than in the United States, less perplexed perhaps and sometimes more arrogant, assured in their sense of history, yet overall similar in regard to the more urgent debates which animate America. If the fables of the “end of history” and of the “new world order,” which have faded since the end of the Cold War, suddenly seem distant and laughable, other fictions governed by the same necessity of symbolic exchange have gradually replaced them: catch phrases make sense to, and contain, the event, they contribute to its meaning and in return they provide the interpreters with the aura of good opinion-makers. However, even at the hour of such a generalized “ethics of discussion,” despite the entertaining role conversation has played for centuries in the “civilized” world, this same speech can turn into vital debate, armed debate, not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real “speech-act” consequential and violent. Such is the case in the following dialogue. One evening, on their way out of an old European university, a young woman and an older professor, known for the vigor of his analyses and the sharpness of his critiques, discuss politics while talking at a leisurely stroll.

The citizen-of-the-world: Well then, professor, the events of September 11 and the current war, how do you interpret them? They say it’s the beginning of the 21st century, that nothing in the United States will ever be the same again and that a new form of war is being born.

The Expert: We must recognize, young lady, that in the heat of the moment, very few were able to grasp it. the Event exceeded us, just as it momentarily exceeded the mainstream media, our official filters of information. But I should also say, with the hindsight of the past few weeks, that explanations seem clearer now, yet without being completely transparent…

The citizen-of-the-world: Nonetheless, as in any war there is a scarcity of information, general censorship, and the self-censorship of governments, of journalists, particularly in the United States, which creates an obstacle to analysis.

The Expert: Certainly, but that doesn’t prevent the initial responses which, though Manichean from the outset, gave way to more rational discourse. Today it is no longer a question, among those who govern and those who represent public opinion in the west, even in the United States, of explaining the current conflict as a struggle between Good and Evil, as a “clash of civilizations,” or as a new war of religions. From the beginning there was a curious mirror-play with the presumed enemy, which is something that I would call a political regression. But very quickly, most of the analysts recognized it was necessary to look more deeply for the causes of terrorist acts, such as in American support for Israel, or in Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden has continued to find support among certain factions of the Saudi elite, even though Saudi Arabia—a country bin Laden has sworn to “deliver” one day—is America’s premier ally in the Arab world. And here, of course, the question of oil is central…

The citizen-of-the-world: You can give me all the geopolitical and strategic explanations possible, but that does not change the fact that, for the first time in the last two centuries, American civilians have been killed on their soil by an external enemy. The symbols of world finance, of the market, and of the military-industrial complex have been struck to the heart with a blow to American political and economic power in the world that is much more than symbolic. Now that America is at war with bin Laden and the Taliban who support him, do you think we ought to understand the nature of this conflict as one of “Democracy” and “Terrorism”?

The Expert: I see where you are going with this skeptical line of questioning, but don’t forget that this war is fundamentally legitimate. The U.N. Security Council has recognized that the United States is practicing self-defense. And even if it is still not defined with adequate precision by international law, you know well enough what ‘terrorism” is. This whole affair brings us back to the Terror of the French Revolution, which was subsequently revived by Lenin and his commander-in-chief Trotsky against the anarchists. Terrorism always meant that the end justifies the means. Presently, it means attacking innocent civilian populations in the name of future reconciliation, which is only attainable once the enemy has been vanquished by force or persuasion. Most of the barbarisms of the 20th century, such as those perpetrated under Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianisms, were State terrorisms. The current war between “Democracy” and “Terrorism,” as it is defined by America and its allies, is basically a war between two opposing conceptions of politics. You, as a modern young woman, can hardly deny that the Afghanistan of the Taliban is far from offering a model of emancipated society. I’m not saying that one must immediately invoke the concept of “Human Rights,” which would always remain little more than an ideological abstraction even if a true international court of justice was ever to be created. But what I am saying is that, if one wants to defend both liberty and justice, then this war has to be regarded as just. Now this does not mean it’s a good idea to wage this war. The Americans don’t really have the means to win, anyway, for it is more than conceivable that bin Laden will succeed in not being found, and that his objectives will be distributed and carried out by others in the Arab world.

The citizen-of-the-world: You mean to say that the Americans are involved in a war that is lost in advance?

The Expert: I can’t say for certain, but I do understand the criticisms of liberal Americans who are now asking questions about the indirect responsibility of their country for the events of September 11. They fear a greater resurgence of anti-Americanism in the world as a result of this conflict and they also understand the attacks as a monstrous symptom of a growing challenge to American hegemony. And then one must not forget that the Americans armed Islamic radicals during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that the C.I.A. was in contact with bin Laden, that the war against Iraq caused a million deaths, and furthermore the American use of chemical and biological weapons was responsible for thousands of deaths, etc.—all of which is being turned back on America today. A country, or one should rather say a world, which imagined it had created a void around itself, now discovers the disease in its own guts, among its own children so to speak. This is why, if we continue in this vein, I understand also the position of a small minority of progressives and anarchists who reject, like others in Europe, the idea of entering into the war. Feeding the cycle of vengeance and violence is not, historically, the best way to promote order and progress among peoples. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s true: once more, times are going to be dark for the oppressed.

Reaching a familiar neighborhood, the professor draws closer to the young woman, and suggests they go for a drink, trading on the eloquence of his last phrases. Though hesitant, she does not refuse. If he really wants a drink… 

The citizen-of-the-world: I’m surprised by your political analysis of “terrorism.” You know as well as I that State terrorism is not solely the domain of dictatorships. State terrorism was practiced by the United States in Latin America in the 1970s, and through the support of Indonesian dictators and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. With the aid of the C.I.A., it was knowingly practiced in Italy, where attacks by the extreme right were disguised as attacks by the extreme left, such as in Milan in 1969. Looking at the larger picture with regard to the practice of violence in politics, you must admit that the past 30 years have been marked by the struggle between State violence and the violence of revolutionary movements on a global scale. In Europe and in the United States, too—keeping in mind the Weathermen, the Black Panthers—the struggle was won by the State at the beginning of the 1980s. The recent events manifest the return of armed conflict in the West, be it from its periphery, and more generally the return of violent struggles on its home soil, even among those supposedly secure minds devoted to social causes and humanitarian aid.

The Expert: There certainly is a return to confrontation today. Based on this, one can draw a parallel, as you have, between bin Laden’s network and the anti-globalization movements that have developed, from Seattle to Genoa? I am not so sure. Immediately after September 11, the Wall Street Journal rejoiced that the present global reshuffling made it possible to forget such movements and to render them illegitimate or illegal. I disagree with that: on the contrary, I believe that, despite the caution bin Laden’s actions provoke within the “Far Left,” the debates on globalization, the desire for better regulation of global capitalism, for greater representation of developing countries and of civil society at large in international organizations, will be altogether stimulated. The shock of the present events will make it unlikely that the Americans can still opt for isolationist positions. The necessity to open to the world, to better understand the situation of other countries on this planet, has now become more obvious. It means that globalization can no longer only signify American hegemony and Western power. But, still, beware of the confusion! Bin Laden does not represent the wretched of the earth. He is a capitalist, and the current war is being conducted between capitalists. Of course it is possible that behind all this there lie two conceptions of globalization, one more liberal and open, the other more conservative and closed. But for those who imagine globalization as something that needs to involve the necessary development of a world citizenship, violence is not the order of the day. Look, for example, at what happened at the counter-summit in Genoa last summer. The “pacifists” from the anti-globalization movement had to be opposed to the more bellicose tactics of the so-called “Black Bloc” and its anarchist elements, because the battle for a more just global order also requires what sort of values one wants to see prevail, especially in the face of the blind violence of a few wealthy terrorists. 

The now ex-citizen-of-the-world: You are so stuck on recent events that you can’t see that the nature of the relationship between politics and violence has changed, or more profoundly, that the very nature of the political and of sovereignty has changed, that the war we are living through is not definable using traditional strategic categories. If I spoke of a return to violent struggles, it is because I believe that a new cycle of struggles has begun at a global level. The previous cycle peaked in 1968 and the 1970s. What followed was 20 to 30 years of counter-revolution, what is commonly called the “post-modern backlash,” which was, as usual, a strategically and tragically progressivist movement. Moreover, this current cycle of struggles corresponds to a recent cycle of innovations within the capitalist economy, the so-called “e-business revolution.” With each new cycle of capitalist innovation comes a return of violent struggle on the political scene. I do not give a damn whether bin Laden is a legitimate disputant in the debate over globalization, I’m just saying that his acts perhaps unknowingly participate in a new economy of violence. To put it bluntly, for 30 years now violence has no longer been monopolized by the State. The guerilla—a category, as you may know, invented by T. E. Lawrence to describe the Arab revolt against the Turks he commanded in 1916 – 1917—has become something much more generalized. Further still, under the category of “terrorism” are assembled all the acts that are regarded as politically illegitimate. In this sense, the “Founding Fathers” of the United States were “terrorists.” The even recognized a right to insurrection against the oppressor in their Constitution! The major shock of September 11 is that the enormous mass of violence which structures international life is no longer concentrated in the Third World, and now tends to disseminate. You wanted to compare what took place in New York and Washington with what happened in Genoa: in both cases, one can observe that a mass of violence is ready to overflow all boundaries, and that the reaction of “democratic justice,” which consists in systematically criminalizing it, is by no means sufficient to contain this violence. On the contrary, the well-assured “process of civilization” has run aground. It is the end of the State monopoly on legitimate violence and the beginning of a collective reappropriation of violence.

The Expert: You are saying nothing else than the fact that all social and political order is founded on violence and that we have witnessed, since September 11, the resurgence of violence. In fact, you repeat what historians have always known, the permanence of war in history or what anthropologists or theorists of origins have seen as “mimetic violence.”

The ex-citizen-of-the-world: Not only. I’m also saying that this return of violence is taking place in an international political space whose nature has changed over the past 30 years. The State monopoly on legitimate violence has disappeared because the State itself is on the road to extinction. It is neither capable of “regulating” the market, nor of resorting to the decree of a given “exteriority,” whether a determinate enemy or a utopian horizon. It has been practically replaced by a network of integrated positions that are sufficiently dispersed to remain endlessly mobile—a protean power that is no longer that of the sovereign or State apparatus but that of “Empire.” You should understand perfectly well that pacifist positions inherited from an anarchism profoundly hostile to the State—such as Chomsky’s in the United States, as well as progressivist positions which rejoice in the “return of the political” and the return of the State in the face of markets—all turn out to be obsolete.

The Expert: However, you give the impression of being on their side, with your old-fashioned critique of Imperialism…

The ex-citizen-of-the-world: Not at all! When I speak of “Empire,” I mean that States are secondary institutions, and their leaders the ones who are only apparently responsible. In this context, an Imperialism understood as the domination of one State over other States is no longer possible. More precisely, it is just an effect of “Empire.” What is happening here is rather the emergence of a “society of control” at a transnational level. The current psychosis and panic reinforces this necessity of control. For contemporary capitalism, everything that circulates in this world and which is not yet commodified or subject to exchange, needs to be the subject of a constant surveillance. The present crisis is so profound that all movements, even of capital, must be monitored. So I mean that “Empire” is by definition a “machine of total war.” Violence does not lie outside of it: it is rather its engine, its very essence. And when the power of the Nation-States is no longer decisive for the course of history, events like those that have just taken place, and which represent only a first stage, no longer reveal a war between States but rather something more essential, the emergence of a civil war on a global scale, a civil war which as already begun. A war without faces and without borders. This also means that historical conflict ought not to be reduced to the “class struggle” for which Marxists are still desperately looking. As a matter of fact, in this civil war, there is no neat border dividing combatants from non-combatants, soldiers from civilians. There is a new flux of violence in which the State is only one of the actors, and there is this larval struggle between an invisible enemy and all the control mechanisms that are more and more independent of the State; a struggle which leaves refuge for no one and extends the field of battle to every domain of daily life. It is easy to observe the autonomization of such technical devices, networks or institutions. Witness the Russian army, or the European police in the process of collaborating above and beyond national governments. Or look at what Foucault called “biopower,” that is power which is taking care of life in the totality of its aspects and of which “bio-terrorism” is only a malignant side-effect, both a revelation and a reversal. The current imperial strengthening since September 11, is even more obvious when one looks at the recent “patriotic laws” which were voted-in a few days ago. The nature of the political has changed as a result of generalizing such legislations of exception like the ones which initially appeared in Italy in the 1970s precisely in order to counter “terrorism.” There is a common logic in the public security measures taken by Western governments inside their territories, and the military operations undertaken outside, in Afghanistan and perhaps soon in Iraq, between what Bush calls the “interior front” and the “exterior front”: populations must be under constant control and threat. In reality, the “Empire” is at war inside itself with a faceless enemy that is tangible nowhere and present virtually everywhere, an Imaginary Party. The war will be long, the ventriloquist Bush repeats, infinitely long. From now on, what we call “terrorism” is no longer solely the timely crime of fanatical minorities. Every citizen of the “Empire” is prejudicially perceived as a potential terrorist, a suspect, a person at risk. After September 11, even the guardians of this world, the insurers, ended up stuck in disbelief; the insurers cannot assure anything any longer. Why? Because at bottom, the enemy is risk itself. From every viewpoint, the worst is to come.

The Expert: Look how you get yourself going! The end of States, generalized civil war, imperial and fanatical terrorists marching shoulder to shoulder, and while you’re at it, all the discontented citizens figuring as little bin Ladens! In mixing everything together like that, you risk not being able to distinguish religious extremism and economic domination, to distinguish our frightened middle classes and the martyrs of the third world, and soon, the murderous theology of a few terrorists and the fundamental freedom offered by the democratic system, yes, democratic freedom despite its faults, despite the circumstances.

The ex-citizen-of-the-world: The word “distinguish,” as you seem to understand it, means to retrench complacently behind one’s values as soon as they’re attacked, and consequently to believe that a “barbaric” enemy and a democratic and civilized “lesser evil” are separable. This is a reaction, if you’ll excuse me, that risks being a bit outdated. The present antagonism is everywhere and is dividing every self. Your politics are a little more than a vague moral void, your arguments are sophistic. Listen, this freedom, as you call it, that the armies of the “free” world offer us for grazing, this freedom is dropped along with bombs like the peanut butter at a humanitarian garage sale in case the survivors would like to celebrate with a big stomach ache. This very freedom unveils its essence entirely in the name given by Washington to its vengeful operation of reprisals, a name for which no one seems to have noted the two possible readings. “Enduring freedom” can be taken as durable freedom, one which persists, but on the other hand, you can read “endure” as a verb and not simply an adjective, thus freedom which the oppressed ought to endure, that they should cherish if they can get out alive, a freedom that is imposed upon them as a supreme value, as restrained as its definition is, that of a permanent state of emergency.

The Expert: You forget that, even there, most Afghani or Arab citizens are not prepared to lose this life, this freedom, that the extemporaneous pilots of September 11 were willing to sacrifice.

The ex-citizen-of-the-world: All the values of your world are conflated—life-freedom, freedom-life—as incapable of representing what survival really is as you are of imagining another kind of freedom, one that consists in playing with power, in passing through the links of the networks, of constructing a singular and livable space, an autonomous zone rather than remaining complacent in the promises of a market abstraction, that which you call “Freedom.” My parents, born in Algeria, had by force of circumstances, a more practical, more urgent, more opaque conception of your so-called freedom. My cousins fighting today in Kabylia know the differences between your freedom and what autonomy requires here and now. (She glances to the side, suddenly all seduction, even if mixed with irony.) Or rather, what you really do is misplace life with liberty just as you misplace, for your own gain, the student with the sexual prey, the one speaking with you now in order to pass the time, with the one who will soon give herself…

The Expert (stuttering): I…no, why, ahem, what do you mean by that?

The never again citizen-of-the-world: Nothing more, if only because of the hour. We’ll stop here. I do not care about words; acts speak another language. (She leaves after a smile, cold this time, without looking back. He is left alone with his credit card.)


The Z.O.O.

is a collective based in Paris.


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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