What We Talked About At ISA: Weaponising Geography and the Global Striations of Military Targeting

In the context of a panel I put together on “Turning Ploughshares into Swords: Weapons and Weaponizations”, the ISA’s annual conference was the occasion for me to present some of the research I have undertaken as part of my long term project into the logistics of military perception. The central aim of that project is to uncover the genealogy and operation of the functional constituents of contemporary targeting practices as they increasingly span the globe. I submit that we can outline three distinct, if profoundly intertwined, functions of sensing, imaging and mapping that respectively gather sensorial information, visually represent and disseminate it, and relate it to geospatial frameworks. It is the last of these operations that was the focus of my paper, with particular attention paid to the way in which the planet has increasingly been enframed within systems of geographic coordinates permitting the geolocation and thereby targeting of any entity caught within their mesh.

While the role of cartography in European colonial expansion from the fifteenth century on is well-known, my main interest here lies in the even more intimate relationship between the histories of weapons targeting and techniques of geospatialisation. From the outset, the development of artillery in the early modern era was closely bound up with that of surveying techniques for the measurement of distances by visual means. Indeed, the range-finding exercises of gunners relied on the same trigonometric methods that underpinned the rise of modern cartography.

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Capital, The State and War: Rethinking the Geopolitics of Capitalist Modernity in the Era of the Two World Wars

A guest post from Alex Anievas to inaugurate a brief symposium on his book anievasCapital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 (Michigan University Press, 2014), which will unfold over the next few days. Alex is a Leverhume Early Career Researcher at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is editor or co-editor of numerous books (including Race and Racism in International Relations and The Longue Durée of the Far-Right, both of which have previously previewed at The Disorder). His work has also appeared in the European Journal of International Relations, the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Millennium and the Review of International Studies.


The manuscript that would become Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflicts and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 developed, like so many first books, out of my PhD thesis[1] In its final form, Capital, the State, and War endeavours to offer nothing less than a systematic and radical reinterpretation and historical sociological reconceptualisation of some of the main geopolitical and socioeconomic fault-lines of the 1914-1945 period. It does so through the theoretical prism of uneven and combined development, demonstrating in the process the various problems with extant historiographical interpretations and IR theorisations of this crucial epoch in the development and remaking of modern world politics. But given the rather substantial differences between what I had originally envisioned the PhD thesis to be and what it became, it’s worth briefly discussing the origins of the project and how it changed in the process of researching and writing it.

I. Origins

My PhD project was originally conceived as an intervention into the contemporary debates on the ‘resurgence’ of US imperialism in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – very much a radicalising moment in my own intellectual and political trajectory – and the concomitant return to Marxist theories of imperialism and empire. My aim then was to essentially rethink and ‘update’ the classical Marxist theories of imperialism and, in particular, Lenin and Bukharin’s theory of inter-imperial rivalry which, whatever its faults, still captured an essential aspect of contemporary imperialism. I was then heavily influenced by a number recent Marxist works on imperialism, particularly David Harvey’s 2003 The New Imperialism (along with his earlier, more theoretically sophisticated The Limits to Capital) and Alex Callinicos’ The New Mandarins of American Power.

Both studies, in their different ways, sought to retain the fundamental insights of the classical Marxist theories of imperialism (e.g. the persistence of historically-differentiated forms of inter-imperial rivalries rooted within the inherently competitive dynamics of capital accumulation), whilst dispensing with their more economically determinist and instrumentalist features. They did so, in particular, by reconceptualising imperialism as the intersection of two analytically distinct, but historically interconnected, ‘capitalist’ and ‘territorial’ logics of economic and geopolitical competition. While critical of certain aspects of this kind of approach – particularly, Harvey and Callinicos’ relatively undigested incorporation of a ‘proto-realist’ conception of ‘the international’ – my initial thought was that, if rooted in a stronger conception of the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development and expansion that produced the somewhat porous but nonetheless identifiable ‘territorial logic of power’ – regionality – inherently arising out of the processes of capital accumulation in space and time, this perspective could provide a more adequate historical materialist theory of geopolitics.[2] At this stage in the development of the project, this is how I originally envisaged the role of Trotsky’s concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ – a kind of supplementary theory that could be employed in capturing the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development in reconstructing a modified Marxist theory of imperialism. Add in a more attentive focus to the relations between capitalists and state managers and the role of ideology in structuring foreign policymaking processes and I thought this would do.

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The Politics of Austerity: Emergency Economics and Debtocracy

austerity |ôˈsteritē| noun – sternness or severity of manner or attitude

It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.

– George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”

Why what have you thought of yourself?

Is it you then that thought yourself less?

Is it you that thought the President greater than you?

Or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

 I do not affirm that what you see beyond is futile, I do not advise that you stop,

I do not say leadings you thought great are not great,

But I say that none lead to greater than these lead to.

– Walt Whitman, “A Song for Occupations,” Leaves of Grass

The Politics of Austerity – Part I

This is the first in a series of posts that look at the political implications of the ongoing global economic crisis. I begin by examining the way that crisis is being used to attack the very idea of democracy through an assertion of the political imperatives of “the market” and the violation, bending and re-writing of the law by capitalist elites. I conclude by laying out how understanding the economic crisis in political terms shapes our ability to respond to it.

In the second post I’ll look at the ethos of austerity, which justifies the pain inflicted on largely innocent people, while suggesting that an affirmative democratic response to the economic crisis must begin with its own ethos, which I suggest should be an ethos of care for the world – which can provide orientation and inspiration for political struggles seeking to address the deeper causes of our current crisis. In the third post, I turn to the structures of the economy and of politics that define the current crisis, looking at the banking crisis, the bailouts, the politics of recovery/austerity and also reflecting of the structural imperatives of capitalism that led us to crisis. This, then, leads to the question of how to respond to the politics of austerity, and of what alternative actions are available to us, which is where the fourth and final post will pick up – with an affirmation of a caring ethos that supports a radically democratic economic vision.

Emergency Economics

In a previous post I briefly highlighted Bonnie Honig’s work, Emergency Politics, to examine the way that the ethical case for austerity is made; most basically, the existence of a supreme emergency, in this case economic, justifies actions that would normally be considered unacceptable. Honig’s work looks at how the appeal to emergency is used to reassert the exceptional political power of the sovereign over and against the law, with a focus on the reassertion of sovereignty witnessed over the past ten years in response to the threat of terrorist attack in the US and Europe.

Rather than accepting the necessarily intractable conflict between the power of the sovereign and the power of the law, Honig attempts to deflate this paradox by turning her attention to the always ongoing contestation that defines democratic politics, a contest over both the content of the law and the institutional embodiment of sovereign power. She suggests, then, that attending to the ambiguities of the “people”, who are both the democratic sovereign and a diffuse multitude, as well as the political element in the law – as new laws come into being through political action – enables us to avoid thinking about emergencies as moments of exception in which the rule of law is lost to the play of political power, while also acknowledging the limits of established law in moments of profound crisis. By undermining the exceptional nature of crises and emergencies Honig alters the challenge we face when circumstances force us to make choices or carry out actions we know are harmful and wrong by asking what we (democratic publics and citizens) can do to survive an emergency with our integrity in tact.

What do we need to do to ensure our continuity as selves and/or our survival as a democracy with integrity? Our survival depends very much on how we handle ourselves in the aftermath of a wrong. We will not recover from some kinds of tragic conflict. But when faced with such situations, we must act and we must inhabit the aftermath of the situation in ways that promote our survival as a democracy.

I continue to find this a useful way to understand our current economic crisis. Appeals to austerity depend upon the exceptional state created by crisis in order to justify the pain inflicted upon masses of people and the priority given to private interests (the markets, investors and bankers) over democratic publics. So, as democratically enacted laws must bow before the sovereign power threatened by exceptional attacks, so economic justice and democratic equality must bow before the commands of market forces, of economic inevitability, in this time of crisis.

The economic version of this argument is stronger still. While the space of political contestation that remains open when we accept the framing of emergency politics is limited, it does exist in the clashing of opposing sovereigns. The prospect of a substantive alternative to neoliberal economic ideology is dim, a light flickering weakly on antiquated appeals for a return to Keynesianism or watered down triangulations of the moderate-middle that sell off dreams of a just economy bit by bit – capitalist realism in action.

Honig awakens us to an important aspects of our current crisis: that “the market” is not in fact supremely sovereign, and the move to re-establish and further neoliberal policies and push through austerity measures requires an engagement in democratic politics – albeit one that undermines the notion of the public itself and seeks to use the power of the law to subvert democracy. Recognising the current crisis in these terms not only challenges us to consider how to survive our current troubles without giving up democratic virtues, it also reinvigorates and clarifies the political challenge we face. Emergency economics – with its assertion of debtocracy over democracy – is not an inevitable response to the crisis, it is a political one that we can, and should, fight against.

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