Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War
It would be very easy and even accurate to announce that the best book on where things stand since 9/11 and the Iraq War is Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War. It would be just as tempting to say that the collective that wrote it under the name Retort should displace Negri-Hardt with their instant classic. The problem is that their analysis hinges on the fact we must dispense with the notion of a vanguard ideal. Nevertheless, there are four main authors: Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts. And they produced an instant classic that combines a meticulous analysis with a trenchant manifesto. As rigorous and nuanced as anything by Chalmers Johnson, Retort adds a stern but less “monumental” historical sense of the deeper structures of empire as well as the ability to probe for common ground on which to base a serious social movement against globalization.
At the heart is an attempt to reclaim the language of insurrection from Revolutionary Islam, but Retort’s argument is broken down into five chapters: a fresh, realistic treatment of how relevant Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle still is: a nuanced and fastidious re-contextualization of the “blood for oil” theme which reveals its limits when not seen as an extension of old-fashioned primitive accumulation; a history of US militarism as it relates not only to the blowback of 9/11 and the counter-reaction in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also its strategy since the Cold War; a succinct and provocative account of how political Islam evolved both intellectually and historically; and a final philosophical chapter that places all the others in relation to political praxis and attempts to show what is needed for the various left social movements to become truly effective.
Departing slightly from Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle, Retort emphasizes that behind the symbolic level is a real and cruel form of violence that operates as a set of social filters and exclusions that weaken citizenry, turning them into consumers and fantasists. To understand, as Retort does, is to see that the destruction of the Twin Towers is not just an invitation for the empire to take off its mask, but a genuine if symbolic loss on the part of the empire. It says the US and its satellites no longer have a monopoly on big violence. Before, a terrorist was someone with a bulge in his/her jacket and a threat to a bus, now he/she is a global threat and metonym for all the other forces resisting, for better or worse, modernity itself.
Retort’s foremost contribution here is perhaps this sort of contextualization: “One of the formative moments in the education of Mohammed Atta, we are told, was when he came to realize the ‘conservation’ of Islamic Cairo, in which he hoped to participate as a newly-trained town planner, was to obey the logic of Disney World.” One consequence Retort dialectically teases out from this sense of history lost is that it is impossible for the nation-state to strategize. It just comes out swinging. It steps blindly into contradiction after contradiction. It makes temporary alliances with people who will surely either undermine its credibility (Uzbekistan) or because hostile enemies (the Taliban). Democracy, even as a facade, proves an unviable export, but the facade itself gains importance as it attempts to hide its primitive accumulation, its scramble for natural resources, and forces of violence that enable them. But the lesson for the left is that we still do not know what a commodity culture can do, how it blinds people to its basis in violence and theft, how it poisons its own den, how it suffuses everything.
The central chapter for the peace movement is “Blood for Oil.” Crucially, Retort’s is not a reductive economic analysis wherein oil is simply a form of currency or addictive substance to which a “just say no” position would be some salve. Retort argues that to see oil as a commodity is only the start and that even in the context of renewed “primitive accumulation,” there is a need to see how oil and technology, particularly the technology of war, are inextricably linked. By drawing on the history of oil itself during the rise of “weak states,” “weak citizens,” and “failed states,” Retort characterizes our time as one of “military neo-liberalism,” no simple resurrection of gunboat diplomacy, but a sign of the decline of the very appearance that capitalism is natural and sustainable. The link between primitive accumulation and war has been made many times, but rarely has it been done so in such a way as to reveal how the very minutiae of politics and survival are involved in producing Malthusian illusions of scarcity. That markets themselves, particularly those of oil and weapons, perpetuate the illusion remains a blind spot of political philosophers and activists alike. Afflicted Powers is the beginning of a much needed, unsentimental left-critique of notions that the world must always be built on competition, and that the state provides some blanket against excessive cruelty.
Even on the micro-level, war and the state move lockstep, and the often-discussed state of permanent war is part of Retort’s argument. Only here and only for a few pages does Retort appear to nod, moving through the history of US military interventions much the way William Blum and Chalmers Johnson have done before them. They quote approvingly the old line that “War is the health of the state,” but they do so by downplaying the role of domestic economics in empire. They boldly avoid discussion of de-industrialization, for example, and it’s role in weakening the citizenry and its role in raising an army.
Some readers will find their asides such as the one about “deterrence” and “terrorism” sharing the same etymology a little schoolmarmish. But it is precisely this thoroughness that earns the reader’s trust, as Retort develops their concept of military neo-liberalism (quite apart from military Keynesianism) and take on some of the more prickly issues, such as the alleged necessity of nation-states and the role of Israel.
Weak states as in Eastern Europe are seen as structural to the neo-liberal project. A degraded sovereignty is the mechanism of resource theft. NGOs serve empire by perpetuating weak states and weak citizenry, and failed states are potential pitfalls for the very idea of empire. Retort argues that the peculiar power of the recent “military neo-liberalism” is its ability to cast the end of the Cold War as a kind of peace, rather than a pacification (often through bombing, often through the Washington Consensus) of Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America. In fact, it is important to know that the impetus for this book began as a broadside intended to communicate with other anti-war protestors entitled “Neither their War nor their Peace.” Retort shared with the more vibrant elements of the anti-globalization movement an apprehension toward a peace movement oblivious to the needs and bellicose exigencies of capitalism and nationalism.
In moving from permanent war to the US’s psychic investment in Israel, Retort again exemplifies not only their precision, but also how the various lefts can speak to each other even over ostensibly vast chasms. Retort deftly outlines the history of Zionism within the US and Britain as they differentiate themselves from that position, and yet they continue to show that Israel was never an invaluable strategic asset, but at best a modest one symbolically or militarily, and only briefly. Provocatively, they argue that Israel is now a failed state, one that has begun to drag on the empire, not unlike the American colonies did on England, as even Adam Smith recognized. It’s an elegant argument empathetically laid out and one that only a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist could utterly dismiss. Here, it is Retort’s historical sensitivity that wins the day. Their account of the PR machinery used to sell Americans the sense that their fate is inextricable from Israel’s is one of the highlights of this book, and invaluable for those who were infants as the campaign really ramped up to promote Israel as an oasis in the desert and, later, as “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
The final chapter of outright historical argument is “Revolutionary Islam.” It retells the way a religious movement amid secular states became a fervent political movement with its own brand of “regime change.” But it does so while dispelling notions that we are in a “clash of civilizations” or a war of fundamentalisms on all sides and that the new Islam is best characterized simply as a perversion, etc. They describe Sayyid Qutb, the caliphate who studied Western thinkers like Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and other moderns and from whom they derived a sense that what was needed was not simply a restored caliphate, but a modern Islamic order, a political Islam that could attack the Western notions of modernity, even as it drew energy from the video camera, the internet, and digital recorder. This is a crucial if subtle point -- September 11 was not the blow back from high technology (or “our freedom” in Bush-speak). The whole constellation of compromises, errors and contradictions in Enlightenment thinking was too amenable to imperialism. It would necessarily produce a resistance movement.
Qutb’s eventual dissatisfaction with all things modern, his counter-Enlightenment rhetoric, particularly the idea of a state as instrument of salvation is crucial to understanding Al Qaeda’s tactics and ideology. More importantly, Retort says, “It is only Islam, for now at least -- that can claim to provide a political project that is global in reach and ambition, anti-imperialist (in some of its expressions) and revolutionary in practice.” This provocative statement is not an endorsement, but the beginning of the thread Retort will develop in the final chapter as it relates to what a “movement of movements” might best resemble. Here, however, the point is that the Islamists have beat Bush at his game of regime change (Madrid) and faith-based service provision. Revolutionary Islam has proven that even without nation-state status, they are equal to the task of confronting hegemony. And they have done this using their master’s own weapons.
The theme of Revolutionary Islam as the shadow projection of the West’s own decadence is illuminated in the tradition of Edward Said or counter-Orientalism, but within the history of technology. Retort includes a history of the fragment bomb, which points out that passenger jets evolved directly from bombers, and that modernity has always been linked to effort to control territory from the air.
In addition, Retort has done much of its own new research into the virtual cyber organization of Revolutionary Islam. The degree to which this political movement relies on and recycles the alleged Western capstone of high technology has eerie ramifications -- it will be impossible for nations to choke this network without crushing their own circulatory system of communication networks, black markets, the arms industry, and international policy. The day-to-day functioning of Al Qaeda reveals the degree to which it is a symptom of capitalism itself and not simply a parasite.
But if political Islam is a movement much the photo negative of capitalism itself, what options are open for those who oppose both? This is the question addressed in the final chapter, “Modernity and Terror.” In dazzling augmentation to their understanding of “the spectacle” and the power of commodities to inspire “a devotion unto death,” Retort concludes that Radical Islam’s attraction to its adherents is an attraction to an ideal image, and one that perpetuates a notion of movement vanguards. This is doubled by those in the West and their fetish for commodities, for an end to the disenchantment of the world, and their love of villains and heroes, cowboys and Indians, and the resulting form of nationalism. The solution, Retort tacitly and gingerly suggests is not to look forward to the end of modernity or backward to some ideal state of history or primitivism, but a recovery of the present. This is done without the usual left infighting. There is a bit of the old utopian anarchism implied in the book, a do-it-yourself twinge, but it has never been so well stated, so finely argued, and so rich in detail as it is here. (Although, a number of like-minded writers such as anarchist anthropologist David Graeber and Silvia Federici -- particularly in her recent Caliban and the Witch, which is the only other rigorous new account of primitive accumulation, have been resuscitating anarchism as a serious alternative to modernity.) What Retort does perhaps better than anyone is to make this strand of thinking relevant both to intellectuals and movement organizers.
There is no better brief and realistic a summation of the crises within modernity. It is not apocalyptic nor is it overly decisive. Retort wisely avoids reckless predictions such as those put forth by the “America is in decline crowd” or the proponents of “the end of hegemony.” It is quite clear that they would not be surprised if capitalism were to transform itself once again. The crux of their diagnosis is nonetheless that the institutions of modernity are bankrupt -- those that constitute the spectacle, those that comprise the state, electoral politics, and the like. Secular nationalism, both Eastern and Western, seems to be in its death throes.
There is one methodological problem a book such as this one has: to critique its object, it shadows its logic. Thus, in critiquing the logic that divides the world into East and West, they overlook the global South where another secular nationalism seems to be stirring, even if in the guise of anti-Americanism. In Latin America where there has never been the same fervor over national boundaries, there is now a resurgence of the State as a bulwark against primitive accumulation, the privatization of water and oil, and a resistance to the World Bank, IMF, and WTO. Even the book jacket promises that Afflicted Powers will address “The Scramble for Africa.” It appears that the periphery has been somewhat overlooked, and its specific iterations of modernity are not easy to evaluate in light of Retort’s argument, even though they acknowledge such places as being less high-tech, less thoroughly captivated by “the spectacle.” This oversight is particularly unfortunate given that the peasants’ movements there might well-inform or need precise distinction from the movements of resistance within the empire itself. It may well be that in Bolivia they are already “reclaiming the present” as Retort suggests we ought. But what remains vital in Afflicted Powers is its insistence that rigor and determination can reveal the alternate paths out of this most vile and ruthless age, and most of all their insistence that it is social movements and not electoral politics or virtual resistance (such as moveon.org) that will turn the course.
Standard Schaefer is a writer living in San Francisco. His latest book Water and Power is forthcoming from Agincourt Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.