For the Critique of Sovereignty and Violence
Bruno Gullì – 2013
“[E]very citizen of a nation is responsible for the actions committed in the name of that nation”
–Frantz Fanon, paraphrasing Francis Jeanson
1. We live in an unprecedented time of crisis. The violence that characterized the twentieth century, and virtually all known human history before that, seems to have entered the twenty-first century with exceptional force and singularity. True, this century opened with the terrible events of September 11. However, September 11 is not the beginning of history. Nor are the histories of more forgotten places and people, the events that shape those histories, less terrible and violent – though they may often be less spectacular. The singularity of this violence, this paradigm of terror, does not even simply lie in its globality, for that is something that our century shares with the whole history of capitalism and empire, of which it is a part. Rather, it must be seen in the fact that terror as a global phenomenon has now become self-conscious. Today, the struggle is for global dominance in a singularly new way, and war –regardless of where it happens—is also always global. Moreover, in its self-awareness, terror has become, more than it has ever been, an instrument of racism. Indeed, what is new in the singularity of this violent struggle, this racist and terrifying war, is that in the usual attempt to neutralize the enemy, there is a cleansing of immense proportion going on. To use a word which has become popular since Michel Foucault, it is a biopolitical cleansing. This is not the traditional ethnic cleansing, where one ethnic group is targeted by a state power – though that is also part of the general paradigm of racism and violence. It is rather a global cleansing, where the sovereign elites, the global sovereigns in the political and financial arenas (capital and the political institutions), in all kinds of ways target those who do not belong with them on account of their race, class, gender, and so on, but above all, on account of their way of life and way of thinking. These are the multitudes of people who, for one reason or the other, are liable for scrutiny and surveillance, extortion (typically, in the form of over-taxation and fines) and arrest, brutality, torture, and violent death. The sovereigns target anyone who, as Giorgio Agamben (1998) shows with the figure of homo sacer, can be killed without being sacrificed – anyone who can be reduced to the paradoxical and ultimately impossible condition of bare life, whose only horizon is death itself. In this sense, the biopolitical cleansing is also immediately a thanatopolitical instrument.
2. The biopolitical struggle for dominance is a fight to the death. Those who wage the struggle to begin with, those who want to dominate, will not rest until they have prevailed. Their fanatical and self-serving drive is also very much the source of the crisis investing all others. The point of this essay is to show that the present crisis, which is systemic and permanent and thus something more than a mere crisis, cannot be solved unless the struggle for dominance is eliminated. The elimination of such struggle implies the demise of the global sovereigns, the global elites – and this will not happen without a global revolution, a “restructuring of the world” (Fanon 1967: 82). This must be a revolution against the paradigm of violence and terror typical of the global sovereigns. It is not a movement that uses violence and terror, but rather one that counters the primordial terror and violence of the sovereign elites by living up to the vision of a new world already worked out and cherished by multitudes of people. This is the nature of counter-violence: not to use violence in one’s own turn, but to deactivate and destroy its mechanism. At the beginning of the modern era, Niccolò Machiavelli saw the main distinction in society in terms of dominance, the will to dominate, or the lack thereof. Freedom, Machiavelli says, is obviously on the side of those who reject the paradigm of domination:
[A]nd doubtless, if we consider the objects of the nobles and of the people, we must see that the first have a great desire to dominate, whilst the latter have only the wish not to be dominated, and consequently a greater desire to live in the enjoyment of liberty (Discourses, I, V).
Who can resist applying this amazing insight to the many situations of resistance and revolt that have been happening in the world for the last two years? From Tahrir Square to Bahrain, from Syntagma Square and Plaza Mayor to the streets of New York and Oakland, ‘the people’ speak with one voice against ‘the nobles;’ the 99% all face the same enemy: the same 1%; courage and freedom face the same police and military machine of cowardice and deceit, brutality and repression. Those who do not want to be dominated, and do not need to be governed, are ontologically on the terrain of freedom, always-already turned toward a poetic desire for the common good, the ethics of a just world. The point here is not to distinguish between good and evil, but rather to understand the twofold nature of power – as domination or as care.
3. The biopolitical (and thanatopolitical) struggle for dominance is unilateral, for there is only one side that wants to dominate. The other side –ontologically, if not circumstantially, free and certainly wiser—does not want to dominate; rather, it wants not to be dominated. This means that it rejects domination as such. The rejection of domination also implies the rejection of violence, and I have already spoken above of the meaning of counter-violence in this sense. To put it another way, with Melville’s (2012) Bartleby, this other side “would prefer not to” be dominated, and it “would prefer not to” be forced into the paradigm of violence. Yet, for this preference, this desire, to pass from potentiality into actuality, action must be taken – an action which is a return and a going under, an uprising and a hurricane. Revolution is to turn oneself away from the terror and violence of the sovereign elites toward the horizon of freedom and care, which is the pre-existing ontological ground of the difference mentioned by Machiavelli between the nobles and the people, the 1% (to use a terminology different from Machiavelli’s) and the 99%. What is important is that the sovereign elite and its war machine, its police apparatuses, its false sense of the law, be done with. It is important that the sovereigns be shown, as Agamben says, in “their original proximity to the criminal” (2000: 107) and that they be dealt with accordingly. For this to happen, a true sense of the law must be recuperated, one whereby the law is also immediately ethics. The sovereigns will be brought to justice. The process is long, but it is in many ways already underway. The recent news that a human rights lawyer will lead a UN investigation into the question of drone strikes and other forms of targeted killing (The New York Times, January 24, 2013) is an indication of the fact that the movement of those who do not want to be dominated is not without effect. An initiative such as this is perhaps necessarily timid at the outset and it may be sidetracked in many ways by powerful interests in its course. Yet, even positing, at that institutional level, the possibility that drone strikes be a form of unlawful killing and war crime is a clear indication of what common reason (one is tempted to say, the General Intellect) already understands and knows. The hope of those who “would prefer not to” be involved in a violent practice such as this, is that those responsible for it be held accountable and that the horizon of terror be canceled and overcome. Indeed, the earth needs care. And when instead of caring for it, resources are dangerously wasted and abused, it is imperative that those who know and understand revolt –and what they must revolt against is the squandering and irresponsible elites, the sovereign discourse, whose authority, beyond all nice rhetoric, ultimately rests on the threat of military violence and police brutality.
4. I think that we have now an understanding of what the situation is: The sovereign everywhere, be it the political or financial elite, fakes the legitimacy on which its power and authority supposedly rest. In truth, they rest on violence and terror, or the threat thereof. This is an obvious and essential aspect of the singularity of the present crisis. In this sense, the singularity of the crisis lies in the fact that the struggle for dominance is at one and the same time impaired and made more brutal by the lack of hegemony. This is true in general, but it is perhaps particularly true with respect to the greatest power on earth, the United States, whose hegemony has diminished or vanished. It is a fortiori true of whatever is called ‘the West,’ of which the US has for about a century represented the vanguard. Lacking hegemony, the sheer drive for domination has to show its true face, its raw violence. The usual, traditional ideological justifications for dominance (such as bringing democracy and freedom here and there) have now become very weak because of the contempt that the dominant nations (the US and its most powerful allies) regularly show toward legality, morality, and humanity. Of course, the so-called rogue states, thriving on corruption, do not fare any better in this sense, but for them, when they act autonomously and against the dictates of ‘the West,’ the specter of punishment, in the form of retaliatory war or even indictment from the International Criminal Court, remains a clear limit, a possibility. Not so for the dominant nations: who will stop the United States from striking anywhere at will, or Israel from regularly massacring people in the Gaza Strip, or envious France from once again trying its luck in Africa? Yet, though still dominant, these nations are painfully aware of their structural, ontological and historical, weakness. All attempts at concealing that weakness (and the uncomfortable awareness of it) only heighten the brutality in the exertion of what remains of their dominance. Although they rely on a highly sophisticated military machine (the technology of drones is a clear instance of this) and on an equally sophisticated diplomacy, which has traditionally been and increasingly is an outpost for military operations and global policing (now excellently incarnated by Africom), they know that they have lost their hegemony.
5. ‘Domination without hegemony’ is a phrase that Giovanni Arrighi uses in his study of the long twentieth century and his lineages of the twenty-first century (1994/2010 and 2007). Originating with Ranajit Guha (1992), the phrase captures the singularity of the global crisis, the terminal stage of sovereignty, in Arrighi’s “historical investigation of the present and of the future” (1994/2010: 221). It acquires particular meaning in the light of Arrighi’s notion of the bifurcation of financial and military power. Without getting into the question, treated by Arrighi, of the rise of China and East Asia, what I want to note is that for Arrighi, early in the twenty-first century, and certainly with the ill-advised and catastrophic war against Iraq, “the US belle époque came to an end and US world hegemony entered what in all likelihood is its terminal crisis.” He continues:
Although the United States remains by far the world’s most powerful state, its relationship to the rest of the world is now best described as one of ‘domination without hegemony’ (1994/2010: 384).
What can the US do next? Not much, short of brutal dominance. In the last few years, we have seen president Obama praising himself for the killing of Osama bin Laden. While that action was most likely unlawful, too (Noam Chomsky has often noted that bin Laden was a suspect, not someone charged with or found guilty of a crime), it is certain that you can kill all the bin Ladens of the world without gaining back a bit of hegemony. In fact, this killing, just like G. W. Bush’s war against Iraq, makes one think of a Mafia-style regolamento di conti more than any other thing. Barack Obama is less forthcoming about the killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, whose fate many have correctly compared to that of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin (killed in Florida by a self-appointed security watchman), but it is precisely in cases like this one that the weakness at the heart of empire, the ill-concealed and uncontrolled fury for the loss of hegemony, becomes visible. The frenzy denies the possibility of power as care, which is what should replace hegemony, let alone domination. Nor am I sure I share Arrighi’s optimistic view about the possible rise of a new hegemonic center of power in East Asia and China: probably that would only be a shift in the axis of uncaring power, unable to affect, let alone exit, the paradigm of sovereignty and violence. What is needed is rather a radical alternative in which power as domination, with or without hegemony, is replaced by power as care – in other words, a poetic rather than military and financial shift.
6. Power as care must be based on dignity. But what is dignity? This word must be explained because it is all too easily used, and as such it might be too vague. Precisely, dignity is the opposite of racism. I use the word racism in a very broad sense, understanding by it not simply the discrimination that takes place on account of a narrow category of race (i.e., of whatever is construed as race), but rather all discrimination that happens on account of difference when it is falsely understood that there is something –the norm, the same—which by definition is not different. The notion of difference then immediately acquires a negative connotation. Dignity is the reversal, a counter-movement to that. It is the motor of counter-violence. I think it is important to assign dignity an individuating power, and it is in this sense that I prefer to speak of dignity of individuation (Gulli 2010). This expression names difference as difference, outside of the decision of the same which turns it into a problematic difference rather than the one that it is. What does this mean concretely? A relevant example comes from Frantz Fanon who says:
In other words, the black man should no longer be confronted by the dilemma, turn white or disappear; but he should be able to take cognizance of a possibility of existence (1967: 100; emphasis in the original).
This is indeed a perfect example of what I mean by dignity of individuation, and it is in the phrase “a possibility of existence” that the notion of power as care is also understood. For what kind of existence is possible for the problematic difference, determined as difference by the gaze and discourse of the same? The answer is: No existence whatsoever, but rather a tormenting insistence in the false activity (thus truly a kind of passivity) of trying to ‘keep one’s place’ – something that Fanon does not advise. It is clear that dignity means to stand out. Standing out, and continuing to stand, enduring in it, requires power as well as care. It does not require guns and batons, missiles and drones. These are the tools of the weak and cowardly, of those who only equivocally belong, not simply in the human race, but in the truth of the fact of life, its fragility. Thus, the standing out of difference, its individuating dignity, is the unsovereign awareness of “a possibility of existence” – unsovereign because enmeshed in the impersonal fragility (yet in the potency) of life itself.
7. An interesting question is whether it is enough for power not to be sovereign in order to also have an exit from all forms of domination. The question is, in other words, that of the relation between sovereignty and domination. It is obvious that there is always domination in sovereignty, and that may come, as we have seen, in a hegemonic or non-hegemonic way. However, can there be unsovereign domination? The answer must be negative, unless one confuses sovereignty with hegemony. Indeed, all forms of violence and domination, even when they happen outside a formalized situation of sovereignty, always carry a residue of the sovereignty paradigm. This is the paradigm of separation, which gives sovereignty its specific meaning, as Jacques Maritain (1998) powerfully shows in Man and the State. Thus, the power which is grounded in dignity and aims at the destruction of what blocks dignity from fully actualizing itself, insofar as it is nonsovereign, also rejects all violence and domination. Yet, the question is perhaps complicated by the distinction found in Michel Foucault between sovereign power and disciplinary power. As far as I can see, this is not a clear-cut distinction, but it is important to deal with it in order to understand a form of power other than the one found in the paradigm of sovereignty and domination, and exclusively grounded in dignity and care. Otherwise one simply goes from sovereign to disciplinary power, without perhaps realizing that the two are interlocked. True, the power based on dignity and care is similar to the new nonsovereign and nondisciplinary power sought by Michel Foucault. In “Society Must Be Defended”, his 1975-1976 Lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault says that “we should look for a new right that is both antidisciplinary and emancipated from the principle of sovereignty” (1997: 40). As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri note in Commonwealth, one “might suggest to Foucault the Marxist notion of ‘counterpower,’ but –they continue—that term implies a second power that is homologous to the one it opposes” (2011: 56). As “the other to power,” they thus propose “an alternative production of subjectivity,” and it is this production that should be understood as biopolitics (ibid.). It is, in any case, a power of individuation, the individuating power of care, without which any talk of dignity may simply change nothing. To be sure, Foucault’s new and nonsovereign power is not necessarily, certainly not immediately, a counter-power, or anti-power, and the power of individuation. In fact, this new power is initially disciplinary power, which at one point (in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Foucault holds) replaces or complements sovereign power (which he sees as a more traditional form of power). Foucault is not very consistent in his views of whether there is a substitution of one form of power with another –disciplinary power taking the place of sovereign power— or whether the two forms coexist, but the latter view seems stronger, and indeed applicable even to realities in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The shift from one form of power to the other is also a shift from sovereignty to domination, many forms of domination. Yet, as I noted above, it does not seem to me that they are mutually exclusive. There is always sovereignty in domination. There may be situations in which the classic formula of transcendence and separation, which gives sovereignty its name, is apparently not there. However, in order to try to legitimate sheer domination and raw violence one always goes back to sovereignty, that is, the right of one subject over another, or others (Foucault 1997: 43). And of course this ‘one’ is mainly and most notably the State and its police machine. Yet, the State is not the only one. We find the same situation in the family, for instance, in the workplace, and in other interpersonal relations beyond the family and the workplace.
8. Let us see in what sense biopolitical power –a power for which life becomes a problematic object, something to be regulated and controlled in the most efficient and detailed manner – remains inscribed within the formula of sovereign power. Foucault speaks of racism, and State racism (1997: 239), in terms of biopolitics, a “new nondisciplinary power…applied not to man-as-body but to the living man, to man-as-living-being; … to man-as-species” (p.242). This means, to a multiplicity of human beings. These human beings are now not simply “disciplined, but regularized” (p.247). It is the power of regularization, the norm, the power of normalization, although the norm of discipline and the norm of regularization intersect (p.253). For Foucault, racism is the modality whereby sovereignty survives in the regime of normalization:
If the power of normalization wished to exercise the old sovereign right to kill, it must become racist. And if, conversely, a power of sovereignty, or in other words, a power that has the right of life and death, wishes to work with the instruments, mechanisms, and technology of normalization, it too must become racist (p.256).
Basically, “[o]nce the State functions in the biopower mode, racism alone can justify the murderous function of the State” (ibid.). And here Foucault means “also every form of indirect murder,” and not “simply murder as such” (ibid.). These are the instances of indirect murder mentioned by Foucault: “the fact of exposing someone to death, increasing the death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on” (ibid.). An interesting list, especially when considered forty years after Foucault wrote it. Indeed, today the racist and murderous modes of the sovereigns –the terror they breathe into everyday and common life – become problems of the most urgent nature. This is indeed what explains the eruption of revolt everywhere in the world in the last few years. In fact, the situation of generalized violence and terror is no longer sustainable. State racism has become common, informing and supporting all instances of institutional violence: war, punishment, the prison, the police. To say it with Frantz Fanon, the world has a racist structure. It is this structure of sovereignty as a generalized mode of domination without hegemony, this gangsterism at the heart of power, that must be totally annihilated. The loss of legitimacy of the sovereigns everywhere is no longer just a politically interesting phrase, but a true reality. A case in point is the situation in Egypt these days. Two years after the revolution that deposed Hosni Mubarak, the new Egyptian president Mohammed Mursi has again imposed on some Egyptian cities the state of emergency typical of the Mubarak regime. The people of Port Said have defied the presidential order in a clear example of what it is for a community to show the illegitimate nature of sovereign power, the violence on which it rests. This is obviously an example that should be followed everywhere in the world, where state of emergency orders are constantly passed in more or less open and explicit ways. For instance, in the US the Patriot Act passed after September 11 and subsequently renewed, or the National Defense Authorization Act, is no less problematic. In Italy, to give another example, the new tax on the first house is in no way a lesser instrument of extortion than others, which cripple life. And the various regimes of austerity in Europe, the imposition of debt everywhere, the making of the indebted man –to name the title of a recent and important book by Maurizio Lazzarato (2012) — again show the wide-ranging scope of sovereign violence, its potentially murderous and genocidal drive. What is also interesting to note is that the sovereign elites and their guards (the armies and police and bureaucracies everywhere), responsible for the global genocidal regime, are, per Machiavelli’s distinction we have seen above, inferior to those who “would prefer not to” be dominated and thus find themselves always-already within the ontological ground of freedom. Here I would like to quote the words of Aimé Césaire describing the relation between the European colonists and the enslaved Africans in the age of conquest and slavery:
What sort of men were these, then, who had been torn away from their families, their countries, their religions, with a savagery unparalleled in history?
Gentle men, polite, considerate, unquestionably superior to those who tortured them… (quoted in Fanon 1967: 130).
The same can be said of the relation between the exploiter and the exploited generally –between the colonizer and the colonized, the torturer and the victim of torture, the warmonger and the victim of war, and so on. The superiority of the latter has to do with a greater and deeper sense of ethics and humanity, the fragility of life, which characterizes those who, precisely, reject domination and thus have a greater desire for freedom.
9. It is then important to ask the question of what power can alter this racism that, as Foucault says, “first develops with colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide” (1997: 257). From its first development, we then get to a situation where, as I noted at the outset of this paper, racist violence becomes a global and biopolitical regime of terror, a war between two main classes: the war of the political and financial elites against the class of those who have been dispossessed to various degrees – once again, the violence of the 1% against the 99%. As Foucault says, this is a question of the technique of power, more than of ideologies (as it was the case with the traditional type of racism), because the sovereign elites, the State, are well aware of the urgency of the struggle, the fact that, again, what is left to them is the raw use of the violence that, as Walter Benjamin (1978) says, informs the law, domination without hegemony. Especially at the present stage of the world, where information and knowledge make it unnecessary and thus impossible for the General Intellect or common understanding and reason to be governed, brutal domination and potentially genocidal methods of repression seem to be the only instruments left to a decaying and ruthless global ruling class. Then, “the old sovereign power of life and death implies the workings, the introduction and activation, of racism” (Foucault 1997: 258). Foucault makes the example of Nazi Germany, where “murderous power and sovereign power [were] unleashed throughout the entire social body” (p.259) and “the entire population was exposed to death” (p.260). But this is today a common and global paradigm: The “sovereign right to kill” (ibid.), from cases of police brutality in the cities to war atrocities throughout the world, has become the most effective way to deal with a ‘population’ that refuses to recognize the false legitimacy of the sovereign, the sovereign right to govern. What Foucault says of the Nazi State –but he acknowledges it applies to “the workings of all States” (ibid.)—shows the terminal stage of sovereign power: a desperate will to absolute domination no longer able to count on hegemony: “We have an absolutely racist State, an absolutely murderous State, and an absolutely suicidal State” (ibid.). This certainly shows the crisis of sovereignty as State power, but more broadly, in a globalized world, it shows the crisis of the sovereign elites, who are facing a final solution. No one can blame them. Their unintelligent worldview is bound to that. The hope is that they will not destroy everything before they are gone. Yet, they will not go by themselves, without the workings of an altering power, bound to inherit the earth. This is the power of individuation, the dignity of individuation, whose workings are based on disobedience and care. It is the power of those who, in the age of biopolitical terror, have “nothing to sell except their own skins,” (Marx 1977: 295), reversing the history of racist violence, of “conquest, enslavement, robbery, [and] murder” (ibid.).
Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel
Heller- Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
__________. 2000. “Sovereign Police,” in Means without Ends: Notes on Politics.
Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis, MN: University of
Arrighi, Giovanni. 1994 (new and updated edition: 2010). The Long Twentieth Century:
Money, Power and the Origins of our Times. New York and London: Verso.
___________. 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century. New
York and London: Verso.
Benjamin, Walter. 1978. “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections. Trans. Edmund Jephcott.
New York: Shocken Books.
Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New
York: Grove Press.
Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”. Lectures at the Collège de France
1975-1976. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador.
Guha, Ranajit. 1992. “Dominance without Hegemony and its Historiography,” in R.
Gupta, ed., Subaltern Studies IV: 210-305. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gullì, Bruno. 2010. Earthly Plenitudes: A Study on Sovereignty and Labor. Philadelphia,
PA: Temple University Press.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge, Mass. and
London: Harvard University Press.
Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2012. The Making of the Indebted Man.Trans. Joshua David
Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1950. “The Discourses” in The Prince and the Discourses.
Introduction by Max Lerner. New York: Random House.
Maritain, Jacques. 1998. Man and the State. Washington, DC: Catholic University of
Marx, Karl. 1977. Capital, Vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage.
Melville, Herman. 2012. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. CreateSpace
Independent Publishing Platform.