Survival, or, the War Logic of Global Capitalism

by Edgar Illas

The following was presented as a talk at Stanford University on March 3, 2015. A longer published version by the author is forthcoming.


Perhaps the logic of global capitalism is no longer cultural but has evolved into a logic of war. As Fredric Jameson and David Harvey, among many others, taught us, financial capitalism unfolded in the second half of the twentieth century based on a logic of difference that produced cultural and spatial identities throughout the globe. In postmodernity, localities, cities, nations, and all types of spaces and communities began to develop distinctive qualities to attract the flows of global capital. Postmodern culture was thus fully subsumed in the production and marketing of difference.

While this process is still operative today, another aspect seems to play the dominant role. This aspect is the war logic of globalization. Globalization appeared in the 1990s as the consolidation of a single world market, the establishment of post-Cold War peace, the successful union of capitalism and democracy, and the technological development that would make possible the interconnectedness of the globe. But in the 2000s, and especially after 9/11, globalization has shown a darker side: multiple forms of state and transnational violence have not proven to be exceptional moments of conflict, but the normal functioning of the system. Violence does not interrupt the smooth course of globalization; on the contrary, the global world needs to be in a constant state of emergency in order to function in an effective and profitable way.

Many theorists have described the unprecedented nature of this new state of war. For Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, globalization has turned war into a “permanent social relation” and has effaced the traditional distinction between politics and warfare. Hardt and Negri emphasize three characteristics of the global state of war: the unlimited extension of conflict, both spatially and temporally; the intermingling of domestic and international politics; and the diffusion of the Schmittian distinction between friend and enemy. A certain ambiguity traverses their narrative. On the one hand, they locate the origin of global war in the shift from modern warfare to biopolitical warfare, that is, in the emergence of twentieth century biopolitical control of populations and bodies through state apparatuses. For Hardt and Negri, the technologization of death that culminated in Auschwitz and Hiroshima represents the full capture of social life by biopolitical control and destruction. On the other hand, however, they present a historical difference between twentieth-century wars and global war when they observe that the latter, starting with George Bush’s 1991 Persian Gulf War, constitutes a “project to create a ‘new world order’.” In this respect, a fundamental difference separates the two historical phases, and the complete destructiveness of total war has been supplemented by a certain constructive impulse of global war. Global war is constructive to the extent that it permanently redefines the spaces of globalization and rearranges the distribution of sovereign power.

Carlo Galli draws up a different historical typology and divides modern war in three phases. First, what Clausewitz called “real absolute war” corresponds to the classic wars between nation-states within the Westphalian legality of the Jus Publicum Europaeum. In this phase, war had a distinct rationale, namely the protection of the national body against other national enemies. Second, what Raymond Aron called the “total wars” of the twentieth century led to mass destruction in both social and individual spheres. The rationale of war was no longer protection but irrational destruction. Galli observes that, despite their genocidal logic, total wars still produced a main spatial difference between “friend” and “enemy,” which resulted in the bipolarity of the Cold War.

In global war, in contrast, we no longer find a clear difference between the spaces of the friend and the spaces of the enemy. For Galli, global war involves no telos and no division between internal and external spaces. Global war is the inherent obverse of globalization, in which “every local point become[s] an immediate function of a single global Totality (the principle of ‘glocality’).” Globalization is “at every point, an immediate short-circuit between local and global,” which generates a “contradiction without system” and makes violence a boundless mode of being. The difference between this situation and total war is that the latter was based on total mobilization and “the immediate militarization of society,” whereas global war entails “the global socialization of violence.

The transformation of violence into a social relation has destabilized a central paradigm for political and theoretical practices. Whereas under the cultural logic of late capitalism the recognition of all types of differences and the unearthing of heterodox, queer, marginal and subaltern subjectivities were the main driving forces of critical efforts, in the new conjuncture recognition is no longer the last horizon of cultural and social politics. Under the war logic of globalization, another regime has become dominant: the regime of survival.

Two determinations conflated in the task of cultural recognition. First, the cultural logic of capital established a market of identities that made possible the recognition of multiple subject positions that had been previously invisible or nonexistent. Second, the destruction of total war in the twentieth century made imperative that an ethical task of recognition worked against the disappearances, forgetting, and repression it caused everywhere. Recognition encompassed, on the one hand, ethical work against the effects of total war and, on the other, an opening to the possibilities offered by the new postmodern marketplace.

I will now focus on three important aspects of the regime of survival. These aspects are the new antagonistic relation between life and death; the post-katechontic nature of survival; and the overcoming of the modern paradigms of convivance and biopolitics.

The contemporary regime of survival contends with a new reality of life and death. While in the last decades of the twentieth century cultural recognition attempted to give visibility to what total war had erased, an effort that could generate positive effects, like reparation or affirmation, or more aporetic ones, like the impossibility of bridging the gap between visibility and invisibility amidst the infinite dimensions of justice, survival copes instead with the fact that, within global war, life and death are two absolute conditions, with no possible bridge or dialogue between them. Death produced by total war resulted in cultural exclusion and social destruction and, as psychoanalysis and trauma studies have analyzed, death marked the beginning of endless chains of haunting specters and mourning acts. Death under global war, in contrast, is as constituent as life. It is as destructive as it is constructive. It is not hidden but fully exposed. It has no function in the structuring of social life other than being productive elimination. Survival is therefore the task of escaping death and establishing no connection to it.

But we should not understand the new conjuncture as a return to a pre-political stage where homo homini lupus est. Global war is not the situation previous to sovereign power and in which, in Hobbes’s famous phrase, there is “continual fear and danger of violent death, and [where] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In fact, we may define it as the exact opposite, that is, as the post-political condition that results from the crumbling of the state’s monopoly on violence. The absence of an indisputable sovereign power that can limit the spaces of life and death produces a sense of permanent threat and an apocalyptic structure of feeling. Global war entails the end of Carl Schmitt’s katechon, that is, the demise of “the power that prevents the long-overdue apocalyptic end of times from already happening now.”

In this conjuncture, survival is an unregulated struggle to live on, with no form of governmentality that directs it and no katechontic principle that controls it. One often encounters the idea that the so-called “survival of the fittest” encapsulates the governmentality of our times. The premise is that we inhabit a sort of capitalist jungle in which only the strong survive and where, as Guns’n’Roses used to sing, “ya learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play.” Yet the problem with this ideologeme is not so much that it justifies the colossal inequalities produced by economic competition, but rather that it applies the rational template of the law of the stronger on a global reality in which the rationalities of modernity have imploded. The logic of survival does not refer to the post-evental circumstance of those who come out alive from a war or those who win in an economic battle. Rather, it defines an ongoing and productive condition determined by the presence of immediate catastrophe.

In this context, political practices are no longer oriented toward the modern question of convivance and living together, but, as French anthropologist Marc Abélès writes, they result from what he calls “the interiorization of the survival problem.” For Abélès, the reflections and practices that go from the construction of Hobbes’s Leviathan to the implementation of the Keynesian welfare state, aimed at finding the best possible political form for the organization of the living together of human beings. Within globalization, in contrast, “the political field finds itself overrun by a gnawing interrogation concerning the uncertainty and threats that the future possesses.”

But Abélès explains the transition from modern convivance to postmodern survival in terms of biopolitics, and he defines “survival” as the “biopolitical dimension” of neoliberal governmentality. As is known, for Foucault the imperative of the biopolitical state is “to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die,” that is, to regulate life and pursue the disciplining and subsequent purification of the social body for the extraction of surplus labor. It is true that, in Foucault, biopolitics do not lead to a positive organization of convivance but rather to a system of terror of which the Nazi state is “the paroxysmal development.” However, the genocidal logic of the biopolitical state was not oriented toward the administration of future uncertainty. Systematic massacring did not pursue the control of future threats, but continued to organize convivance by means of a radical extirpation of the perverted and inoperative elements of the population. For this reason, if the contemporary regime of survival is not about organizing communal living-together, then it cannot be biopolitical. Biopower is not the primary catalyzer of the new world order.

But let’s now focus on the productive energies of the regime of survival. The interiorization of survival by individuals, which is a way of inserting the work of the state into one’s subjectivity, compels everyone to play a protective but also entrepreneurial role in the social field. Thus, survival takes multiple forms of intervention. It may consist in the direct attack on other positions that are not necessarily dominant or oppressive, but that are perceived as threats in a given moment. It may be the effort to protect an inherited body of knowledge against external contamination or internal dissent. It can operate as preemptive manhunt that neutralizes future conflicts. It can develop guerrilla tactics, with hide-and-seek movements and specific targets. It can consist of mafia politics based on friendship and alliances of common interests. It can take the shape of a covert operation in the sphere of infowar and cyberwar. It can be violent or non-violent, physical or symbolic, melodramatic or unspectacular, real or virtual, or a combination of both, or a synthesis of all of the above.

This brief list of forms is indicative of one central aspect: the neutral ideology of the work of survival. Survival is neither progressive nor reactionary; it is indeterminate and generic. It is a standard principle imposed on all political and critical interventions, and yet it does not make interventions indifferent to the world. On the contrary, the work of survival transforms all social practices into interventionist practices. Each individual and collective action becomes effectively militant and activist.

In the first stage of globalization, during the euphoric years of postmodernism, Reagan, Thatcher, and Fukuyama’s “end of history,” an opposition traversed the space for cultural and theoretical practice: the opposition between identity politics and subaltern critique. The recognition of different subjective positions and new identities constituted the dominant horizon of critical and political interventions. In a relation of inclusion/exclusion vis-à-vis this process of recognition, subalternism questioned the hegemonic articulations required to play the game of identity politics. Subalternism aimed to give justice to the residues that could not be incorporated into this game. Multiculturalism and subalternism were the terms of a suprastructural discussion built on two historical changes: the end of total war and the transformation of the nation state into the corporate state. These transformations involved the replacement of national cultures by multicultural diversity, and offered the possibility of imagining an end to war alongside utopian and alternative spaces beyond the state.

In our second, post-9/11 stage of globalization, in which the euphoria of postmodernity has been replaced by the permanent state of emergency of global war,

the opening process of cultural recognition has turned into the activist intervention for the common survival. This shift should not be interpreted as a clear-cut break, but as a shift of valences or as an Althusserian tendential law. But a crucial difference lies between recognition and survival. While recognition involved a variety of actions oriented toward making the invisible visible, speaking truth to power, bearing witness to the ashes of total destruction and writing the unnameable names of the subaltern, the interventions of survival pursue their own effacement in a realm of full visibility and control. Instead of bearing witness to the erased traces, the challenge now is to erase the traces that one leaves when moving through the “modulations” of the society of control. Contemporary interventions do not create evental changes; on the contrary, they produce changes without events, consequences without programs, itineraries without trails. The question is no longer whether the subaltern can speak, because everybody can speak. In fact, everybody must speak in order to survive. One must speak all the time in order to locate oneself in the field of war. One must speak so that she is not automatically seen as a threat and a target.

Thus, the paradox is that one must intervene in the field of war and yet one must also pass unnoticed. To put it in other terms, to survive is to accomplish a mission and at the same time remain peacefully static. To survive is to avoid being caught on camera in a permanently televised world. To survive is to delete the undeletable cookies of the computer; to avoid being shot when one crosses the street; to be somewhere else when a terrorist attack occurs; to withdraw the money before the investment fails; to be safe when a natural disaster wipes everything out. Contemporary Dasein is not being-there, but being-somewhere-else when something takes place.

A further aspect of this paradoxical condition is that the reality of global war in which interventions take place is ultimately eventless. Even if the media constantly focus on the horrifying components of the war (from Bin Laden to ISIS, from Palestine to Ciudad Juárez, from Afghanistan to Guantánamo), the perpetual war of globalization is characterized by the eerie calm of everyday life. Anxiety and fear are prevalent structures of feeling, but traumatic events are surprisingly absent in global war. Or, more precisely, violence is experienced through the mediation of the media and so, as Judith Butler observes, today violence seems to affect others even when it affects oneself: “Television coverage of war positions citizens as visual consumers of violent conflict that happens elsewhere … enforcing a sense of infinite distance from zones of war even for those who live in the midst of violence.”

The mediatization of war also reveals and conceals the fact that war is the normal state of things, that it is less an existential or phenomenological experience than a spectral structure that organizes social life. One short story by Catalan writer Quim Monzó, “Durant la guerra” [“During the War”] is a perfect portrait of the practice of everyday life under global war. In it, a group of citizens become aware that a war has begun despite the fact that no government has officially declared it and no military action has taken place. The irrefutable sign that indicates the beginning of the war is that everybody acts as if nothing happened, and they keep a “calma (aparentment apparent)” [“(ostensibly ostensible) calm.”] It seems that the conflict resulted from the “enfrontament entre dues faccions (no declaradament antagòniques) de l’exèrcit” [‘a confrontation between two factions (that weren’t openly antagonistic) within the army’]. But none of the factions are interested in publicizing the fight: the winning side wants a discreet victory, and the victims do not want to have to admit defeat.

Symptomatically, radio and TV stations do no inform about the conflict. They continue to program classical music, an Elvis Presley movie, a soap opera in which one of the leading characters reveals that he is gay, and the reports of a workers demonstration and of the seven victims of a rugby match in which fans of the two teams began to fight. This situation of tension and misinformation lasts for years and years, until one day one of the citizens announces that the war finished that afternoon “tan inopinadament com havia començat” [“as unexpectedly as it had begun”]. Some citizens celebrate the event, but others become even more worried. They know that wars are hard, but that post-wars are even harder, and the peace treaty that had just been signed “en marcava inapel·lablement l’inici” [“was an ineluctable indicator that the post-war period had started”]. In short, global war is the dark obverse of globalization, but global peace, or the state of ostensibly ostensible calm, is the even darker side of global war.

So, after this shift from recognition to survival, is there something we can do in this futile global war other than trying to survive? If the subaltern was the locus of defiance to the cultural logic of late capitalism, how must we conceive spaces of nonconformity and acts of disobedience under the war logic of global capitalism?

In this new conjuncture, the (non-)work of the subaltern is replaced by the emergence of local singularities that produce some type of short-circuit in the immanence of global war. Singularities establish a common field that is inherent to the world of war and yet disrupts this immanence of the glocal. Disruption should not be interpreted as interruption or delinking, let alone denunciation or resistance. Rather, singular short-circuits or, to use Badiou’s terms, the forcing or torsion of truths, present new political constituencies. They create events that are open and unique, generic and unreproducible, transparent and enigmatic.

Rather than Badiou’s conceptualization of evental sites, however, it is Althusser’s earlier notion of aleatory events that provides a theory more attuned to the singularities that emerge in the “eventless” global war. As is known, Althusser analyzed how Marxism dismantled the Hegelian inscription of all particulars in a universal explanatory structure. The Marxist rewriting of historical dialectics transformed particular situations into singular and overdetermined conjunctures that were not the expression of a spiritual principle but the complex unity of structures and their effects. For Althusser, singularities are not the product of teleological universal laws like Hegel’s concrete universals, but aleatory events whose causes are immanent to their effects. Althusser uses two main terms to describe the (non-)causes of singularities. Depending on whether he wants to emphasize the structural causality in which they are inscribed or whether he wants to stress the contingency of their moment of appearance, singular events are alternatively interpreted as a dislocation or “décalage” or as an “irruption” or “surgissement.

Event, intervention, and singularity have become dominant notions in thinking a non-teleological logic of history. One particular aspect has been decisive: the openness of the intervention or, in other words, the emptiness of the event. Against the teleological template of Hegelianism and of previous, “dogmatic” versions of Marxism for which the content of historical events was determined by the proletarian road to socialism, Althusser put forward what he termed “the void essential to any aleatory encounter,” that is, the unpredictability and openness of singular events and political interventions.

And yet within post-Althusserianism other encoded premises have determined the meaning of interventions and events. These premises are in turn connected to the logic of recognition of the first phase of postmodernity. For instance, when Laclau argues that the articulation of social heterogeneity needs a singular element that can act as an empty signifier and establish a chain of equivalences between the diverse political demands in a given conjuncture, he wants to show that the content of political interventions cannot be programmed or anticipated. And yet he predetermines not the content but the form of the political by conceiving politics as the articulation of a demand.

Similarly, Rancière’s conception of politics as interruptions of the police order by way of making visible the excluded or the part of the no-part puts forward an egalitarian logic that also implies a structure of demand. The antinomy between the police order and the part of the no-part may also be related to the historical moment of multicultural inclusion and subaltern exclusion.

Badiou disentangles singularities from both an egalitarian logic and a structure of demand. For him, singularities generate real change by bringing into being the inexistent in a given situation. In Logics of Worlds, Badiou distinguishes between “weak” and “strong” singularities to specify that, while a weak singularity has non-maximal consequences over the situation, a strong singularity can “be recognized by the fact that its consequences in the world is to make exist within it the proper inexistent of the object-site.” So, even though Badiou lays the emphasis on the transformative consequences of events rather than on the naming of the excluded part, his thinking of singularity continues to follow the model of inclusion and exclusion. While the inexistent is not an unnameable moment or a structural impasse but an occasion of transformation, Badiou assumes the premise of the logic of recognition that stipulates that the excluded becomes included and that the outside traverses the inside, in this case through the appearance of being and event.

But the argument of “exclusion” is not as useful as it was under the cultural logic of late capitalism. One of the terrifying effects of global war is that it does not exclude anyone. Naturally, this does not mean that inequality and domination are not omnipresent. The point is rather that the main antagonism that traverses the political no longer involves a closed order versus the inexistent part, but seems to correspond to a different opposition: the antagonism between war and freedom.

Thus, in a situation in which exclusion itself has been excluded, singularities constitute acts of pure freedom not linked to a position of structural barring. They do not result from putting forward an egalitarian, inclusionary logic but from being the product of a desire for freedom. The desire for freedom manifests itself as escape from a state of oppression. After all, the founding of freedom in the Greek polis was not only the result of an original, self-generating desire, but also of the victory against despotic Persia in the battle of Salamis. As Plato reminds us in The Laws, it was the fear of becoming slaves of the despotic laws of the Persians and of their Greek ancestors that gathered the Athenians to fight against the invaders and found the free polis. Given this linkage between freedom and fighting, the singular instances of liberation do not interrupt or oppose the order of global war; on the contrary, they fold up onto the same logic of conflict. Singularities of freedom do not cancel the state of war but have an immanent and yet dramatic relation to it.

Freedom, in other words, does not correspond to the dialectical counterpart of war, peace. Peace assumes that there is a difference between the spaces of the friend and the spaces of the enemy, so that the end of the war can represent, as Schmitt puts it, the “retreat [of the enemy] into his borders only.” But given the vanishing of the friend/enemy distinction in global war, peace, let alone the utopia of perpetual peace, are uncertain and undefined.

For this reason, freedom cannot be celebrated as a pristine ethical notion like equality. The antagonism between war and freedom is muddled and paradoxical. Freedom is good and bad at the same time: the desire for liberation is noble, but the fight to achieve it is dangerous. To escape a system of oppression is liberating, but it also leaves behind those who remain subjugated or it imposes change on those who do not want change. Freedom is a political creature, always involved in war operations, equally available to progressive and reactionary collectives.

To mention one current example, the emergence of Catalan separatism as a hegemonic movement in Catalonia has often been interpreted as a selfish act to secede from an impoverished country, as a disloyalty to the constitutional pact of post-Francoist Spain, as a culturalist move to shelter the Catalans from the disturbances of globalization, or, as one may hear among radical Leftists, as a local pseudo-event that does not shake any of the pillars of the capitalist system. These accusations are not necessarily false, and yet one can also argue the exact opposite: the construction of a Catalan state is the positive result of a collective desire. It is an occasion to invent a new type of sovereignty based on democratic votes rather than on a postbellum peace treaty or a postcolonial pact. This state can be a state without an army, as judge Santiago Vidal has proposed in his draft of a future constitution. Or, as queer theorist Paul B. Preciado (formerly known as Beatriz Preciado) has put it, the new state offers the possibility to create a “Catalonia trans,” which “podria assemblar-se, en les seves modalitats de relació amb el poder, la memòria i el futur, a les pràctiques d’invenció de la llibertat sexual i de gènere” (“could resemble, in its modalities of relation to power, memory and the future, the practices of invention of sexual and gender freedom”). Thus, this example shows how the reactionary or transformative content of an event (such as Catalan separatism) depends not so much on its conformity to universal premises of equality or on its level of ethical opening to otherness, but rather on the concrete articulation of its immediate unfolding. This does not mean that equality or ethical otherness do not matter; instead, their relationship to the political cannot be categorical or presupposed, but only articulated in the immament consequences of events.

In this situation, one may argue that it is impossible to determine whether the intervention of a free singularity opposes the logic of the system or whether it reproduces it. And yet, given the planetary dimension of global capitalism and global war, this Marxist dilemma remains a pressing and inevitable one. Galli observes that “the temporal vectors and spatial architectures of modern politics” (including Marxism) are not capable of explaining globalization, which he defines as “that ensemble of processes in which all the tensions of modernity explode.” However, we have no other option but to continue using the concepts that we have inherited to describe our present. In fact, the very idea of war is problematic as an analytical category. Without the possibility of differentiating between friend and enemy and between an exceptional state of war and a normal state of peace, war is no longer an operative concept. Or, rather, war, as well as all concepts of classic and modern philosophy, can only be used “under erasure,” that is, knowing that their meaning is ultimately spectral and differed.

Galli presents global war as the obverse of economic globalization, and we can add that, after 2008, financial crisis has replaced the war on terror as the central thematic conflict of global war. This shift has made the economic nature of the beast even more visible. For these reasons, the thinking of singular events cannot be disentangled from the thinking on the economic structure. While, as we have seen in Laclau, Rancière and Badiou, post-Althusserianism tended to adopt the non-teleological logic of the event but replaced the economic structural causality with other “structural” premises related to equality, inclusion/exclusion and recognition, perhaps the new logic of survival of the global capitalist war compels us to go back to Althusser’s notion of event as both a contingent irruption and a structural dislocation. The tension between singularity and structure, between contingency and determination by the last economic instance, seems much more attuned to the new antagonism between acts of freedom and structures of war that traverses our global conjuncture.

Althusser left no politics to replace the proletarian road to socialism. On the contrary, his lesson is that the content of the political can never be predetermined. Multiple singular political acts within global war pursue forms of survival that are a liberation and an escape from the constructive-destructive machine of war. They are not preprogramed progressive movements, but they do aim to free individuals and collectives from the control of capital. To survive is to engage in open, empty, aleatory interventions that are also produced by, and directed against, the structural logic of capitalist war.

The articulation of a chain of equivalences between survival, singularity and freedom is a possible path for present transformative and combative politics. Jameson ends his analysis of the cultural logic of late capitalism with the motto, “We have to name the system.” After the shifting of valences from culture to war, a new slogan is needed: “We are at war with the system” is a possible option.

Edgar Illas

Edgar Illas is Assistant Professor of Catalan and Spanish in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of Thinking Barcelona: Ideologies of a Global City (Liverpool UP, 2012) and has published various articles on contemporary Catalan culture and architecture, Marxist theory, and globalization.

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