Wednesday, December 31, 2003

We Wish It Were True, But...

When New Zealand's paper of record (sic) The Herald isn't busily encouraging anti-Asian sentiment, it does find the time to comment on weighty international affairs. Today's editorial on Iraq takes on that tone that newspapers always do at the end of the year, blending a kind of wise survey of history with an attempt at prognostication that in this case misses the mark. The funny thing is that I wouldn't have noticed why the editorial was so perfectly wrong if I hadn't happened to be reading Hardt and Negri's Empire a little later on the evening.

The editorial contends that the invasion of Iraq may have made the world a safer place, not because of the toppling of Saddam, or the removal of the mysterious weapons of mass destruction, but because it has taught the United States a valuable lesson:

Finally, it appears to have dawned on Washington that it has blundered into a quicksand and that it does not have the resources to extricate itself, or to enter lightly into other such adventures.

When I first read the piece, I nodded my head sagely and paused to appreciate the gravitas of the piece. There was a tone of moral remonstrance in the editorial that I couldn't resist. I told you so, the editorialist seemed to be saying. And I agreed with the writer because I wanted it to be true. I wanted to believe that the situation in Iraq has taught the mighty U.S. to respect the will of the international community, to resort to diplomacy before war, etc., etc...

Negri and Hardt's work offers an interpretation of the contemporary world order that should give us pause to reconsider the analysis given in The Herald. Their book theorises the new form of global domination in the post-Soviet era as Empire, a "permanent state of emergency and exception justified by the appeal to essential values." Empire can also be characterised as a perfection of capitalism, the contemporary form of which entails the radical extension of control and exploitation into all areas of human life. What is of interest to us here is their analysis of war as a tool of empire. Pointing to the way in which war is both normalised and exceptionalised, they write:

The traditional concept of just war involves the banalization of war and the celebration of it as an ethical instrument, both of which were ideas that modern political thought and the international community of nation-states resolutely refused. These two traditional characteristics have reappeared in our postmodern world . . . Today the enemy, just like war itself, comes to be at once banalized (reduced to an object of routine police suppression) and absolutized (as the Enemy, an absolute threat to the ethical order).

The point is that war is used as a tool to construct ethical consensus by minimalising armed aggression as a police action, while at the same time justifying military action as ethically positive. If it is true that war is a tool of consensus building, then we need to look differently at the ways in which the various national and international actors (France, Britain, the U.N.) have responded to the situation in Iraq. We need to see that the United States has defined a situation of exceptionalism (Iraq as a rogue state) in order to justify military aggression and, having done so, redefined the occupation as a banal police action requiring international co-operation.

It doesn't matter that the U.S. has failed to secure the participation of the leading military powers in the day-to-day business of the occupation. What matters is that, having created a situation of disorder, they have secured the legal framework from the international community for an ongoing police action that serves the interests of Empire.

Hardt and Negri challenge us to understand the contemporary global order beyond the viewpoint of any particular political entity, such as the United States. Whereas the old imperialism was defined by a rivalry between great powers in conflict over the world's undeveloped spaces, the new Imperialism is a dense fabric of production, communication and control, aimed at colonising the totality of human existence. So in terms of the conflict over Iraq, there is in fact more in common between the Western powers than what may appear to separate them. Empire seeks moral legitimation and consensus for its growth through the mechanism of conflict.

All conflicts, all crises, and all dissensions effectively push forward the process of integration and by the same measure call for more central authority. Peace, equilibrium, and the cessation of conflict are the values toward which everything is directed... This preconstituted movement defines the reality of the process of the imperial constitutionalization of world order - the new paradigm.