this is one of two texts that will appear early next year in a volume Ian is editing, called "Deleuze and the Contemporary World"
he kindly allowed us to post it here.
The Axiomatic, or, The Seven Givens of the Contemporary World
It is the real characteristics of axiomatics that lead us to say that capitalism and present-day politics are an axiomatic in the literal sense.
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
In his book on Nietzsche, Deleuze says that you can never know a philosopher properly until to you know what he or she is against. To know them at all, you have to know what puts fire in their soul, what makes them take up the nearly impossible challenge of trying to say anything at all. Too many people are content to say Deleuze, like Nietzsche, was against Hegel without ever asking why. And those who do trouble themselves to ask this question are too often satisfied with a merely philosophical answer. But if Deleuze found Hegel’s philosophy intolerable it was not simply because he thought that the dialectic was a badly made concept, or that he objected to a metaphysics predicated on negation. These are the complaints of a sandbox philosopher and Deleuze was certainly not that. Hegel’s philosophy was intolerable to Deleuze because in his eyes it offers a slave’s view of the world. Worse, it is a model of thought that seems to participate in the legitimation of the very system that enslaves us by installing the master-slave dialectic at the centre our ratiocination, making it seem like this is the only choice we have, effectively denying us in advance the option of asking our own questions and forming our own problematics. But this critique is only meaningful (i.e., authentically critical) to the extent that it is read in terms of their conception of philosophy’s purpose, which is precisely Marxian to the extent that, like Marx, they hold that the point of philosophy is not simply to understand society, but to change it.
Our answer to the question of what Deleuze and Guattari are against, then, is this: the axiomatic. The axiomatic is the latest form of social organisation, which for Deleuze and Guattari always means the organisation of the flows of desire. For Deleuze and Guattari desire is a kind of cosmic energy that is constantly being deformed into the desire-for-something; but, in their view, its true form is that of production itself. It is, in other words, a process rather than a thing. Desire is the force in the universe that brings things together, but does so without plan or purpose and the results are always uncertain. It may lead to the formation of new compositions, but it might also lead to decomposition. As such, desire is an ambivalent force - without it, we shrivel up and die, but if it isn’t carefully harnessed it can tear us apart. Deleuze and Guattari’s handling of the concept is similarly ambivalent: on the one hand, they are constantly demanding that desire be unbound from the various shackles of guilt, repression and shame, but on the other hand they caution that this process needs to be done slowly and with care.
The organisation of desire occurs on all levels of society, from the mundane to the world-historical. Obviously, at the mundane level, desire is subjected to literally countless constraints, most of them quite innocuous. And as the example of the extremely mundane activity of hand-washing will illustrate readily enough, the molar can always be discerned in the molecular. Insofar as we wash our hands because of a concern for hygiene, or in deference to a religious ritual, that mundane activity is the means by which we express our fidelity to the social matrix we think of ourselves as belonging to. Whether it is because we accept the scientific rationale for washing our hands or because we are obedient to the edicts of faith, our actions signify belonging. By the same token, we don’t hesitate to castigate others for failing to follow the routine; indeed, it provokes feelings of disgust and rage if we learn, for instance, that someone hasn’t washed their hands after using the toilet, especially if they are handling our food. On the macro scale, however, desire has been subjected to relatively few world-historical types of organisation. Throughout history, there have been only three main types of social organisation: (1) the primitive tribe or band, (2) the state, and (3) the axiomatic. Deleuze and Guattari differentiate these organisations according to the different ways in which they codify the objects and practices of everyday life to channel desire into socially useful activities and corporate entities.
If it is true that are we are not using the word axiomatic as a simple metaphor, we must review what distinguishes an axiomatic from all manner of codes, overcodings and recodings: the axiomatic deals directly with purely functional elements and relations whose nature is not specified, and which are immediately realised in highly varied domains simultaneously; codes, on the other hand, are relative to those domains and express specific relations between qualified elements that cannot be subsumed by a higher formal unity (overcoding) except by transcendence and in an indirect fashion.
Axioms are operative statements of a primary type, they do not derive from or depend upon other statements. They function as the component parts of the various assemblages of production, circulation and consumption that comprise the capitalist system in full. Their principal function is to regulate flows - of money, people, raw materials, commodities, etc. Flows can be the subject to several axioms at once, but they can also lack axioms of their own, whereby they are either contained by the consequences of other axioms, or they remain ‘untamed’. Axioms may take the form of laws, but more often they appear as contracts, trade agreements, policy statements, governance protocols, and so on. The Marshall Plan for the post-war reconstruction of Europe is an example of an axiom, as would be Brazil’s import-substitution program and the seemingly perennial Global War on Terror. Axioms are in effect order-words by another name, they are the slogans that underpin and give reason to the heterogeneous raft of laws, policies, regulations that give daily life in the contemporary world its structure, consistency and its essential nature. In what they refer to as a “summary sketch”, Deleuze and Guattari identify seven “givens” that taken together constitute the universe axiomatique.
1. Addition, subtraction
Axioms can be added and withdrawn at will. The general tendency in capitalism is to add axioms in response to changing circumstances; but in certain cases, particularly in totalitarian regimes, the opposite tendency is the rule. “What makes the axiomatic vary, in relation to States, is the distinction and relation between foreign and domestic markets. There is a multiplication of axioms most notably when an integrated domestic market is being organised to meet the requirements of the foreign market.” These opposing tendencies converge in crisis form in the third world when debt-ridden totalitarian regimes try to reorganise in order to stave off red-lining by first world credit agencies. If totalitarianism is defined by the withdrawal of axioms, or what might also be conceived as the reduction of the state to its bare minimum, then developments in third world suggest that not only are the conditions ripe for a massive proliferation of totalitarian regimes, but in a real sense they are in the grip of a totalitarianism from without. The austerity conditions imposed by the IMF, World Bank, WTO and indeed the White House itself, have the hallmarks of classic totalitarianism.
At the behest of these allegedly benevolent agencies domestic markets are forcibly deregulated, government spending slashed, wages pared to the born, to create structural conditions - disproportionately - favourable to foreign investment (the axiom of ‘access’) from whence salvation is supposed to come. The effect of the loss of these internal structures is that third world nations are denied the very same supports first world nations, such as Japan and Germany, but also the US, a notoriously protectionist market, used to claw their way forward. The first world effectively uses its financial muscle to kick away the ladder the third world might use to get out of its infamous poverty trap. As Mike Davis notes, the principal cause of the continued downward spiral of pauperisation in the third world is precisely the retreat of government. The domestic economy is sacrificed for the sake of foreign profit-taking. In the twentieth century, it was internal dictators that created these conditions; today it is globalisation. The gap separating totalitarianism and fascism is narrow. The later uses war to rescue its economy. The US policy of giving credit to needy countries so they can buy arms is already pushing a number of countries in this direction.
When not pointing the finger at demography, these agencies, the World Bank and WTO in particular, tend to blame poverty on bad governance, rather than the structural inequalities of globalisation, citing lack of trust and reciprocity as the major impediment to growth. Under these auspices the concept of social capital has known an unparalleled rise in fortune. The fiction underpinning this thinking is that communitarian attitudes, if they are properly fostered, will stem rapacious profit-taking and enable social justice to flourish. What should be obvious, but seems to have escaped notice, is that social capital is effectively a form of social and labour discipline: its precise aim is to create conditions safe for foreign investment. Community development is really a codeword for what financial analysts call risk treatment, that is, it identifies and tries to attenuate the ‘human factor’ as the principal cause of the failure of aid programs. If villagers were more community-minded they would be less likely to embezzle aid funds so this reasoning goes, the irony being that it creates a paradoxical situation in which laissez-faire capitalists find themselves promoting socialism to protect their investment all while singing the praises of the ‘free market’. The creation of cooperative markets in peasant villages is then taken to be a sign of success rather than yet another instance of micro-exploitation and informalisation of labour rampant in the third world.
As important as the emergence of the various ‘fair trade’ initiatives have been in ameliorating the impoverishing structural inequality between first and third world countries, their very existence stands in the way of a clear-eyed view of the universality of this situation. It effectively amounts to an instance of what Roland Barthes astutely described as rhetorical inoculation, the small concession that immunises against a more systematic criticism. By admitting that in certain circumstances the market system isn’t always fair, those who benefit most from this system try to duck the fact that it is the system itself that is iniquitous. Starbucks agreement to pay slightly over-market for its coffee beans is an attempt to blind us to the reality that this situation - third world as market garden for the first - is the cause of the problem in the first place. The lack of diversity in the domestic sectors of the coffee growing nations places them in a very vulnerable position, their livelihood literally hinging on the whim of first worlders. It also prevents them from expanding their agricultural much less their industrial base because they cannot afford to grow less lucrative, but ultimately more nutritive crops. So countries like Brazil have to import food, despite having an enormous primary industries sector.
“Capitalism is indeed an axiomatic, because it has no laws but immanent ones. It would like for us to believe that it confronts the limits of the Universe, the extreme limit of resources and energy.” But the reality is that the only limits it confronts are of its own making. And even as it confronts these limits it repels them, or displaces them, thus avoiding the moment when the system would actually have to change. The oil industry offers an instructive case in point. In spite of scaremongering, from both the left and the right, there is no shortage of oil. Oil shortages - or at least the threat of oil shortages - are expedient political weapons for both sides: the green-hued left use it as leverage to foster a more eco-friendly outlook and to encourage greater investment in research and development to find a replacement energy source; meanwhile the hawkish-right use it to argue that imperialism is necessary to protect ‘energy security’ and the lifestyle we have. And there are a plethora of positions in-between. Yet, the fact is, even if China and India continue to escalate their rate of oil consumption, oil isn’t going to run out in the short or medium term. Current estimates are that proven reserves are sufficient to last us another 150 to 500 years (one hopes that this will be time enough for a replacement energy source to be standardised).
Some theorists, like Yeomans, have argued, that what there is a shortage of, is cheap oil. Cheap oil is oil that can be extracted and processed at low cost. If one looks at the various potential oil sources in the world, from Canadian shale oil, to North Sea oil and gas, to Texas, and the Middle East, it is Middle East oil that is cheapest by a big margin. Whereas extracting oil from oil sands can cost upwards of $14 a barrel and is environmentally messy, Iraqi oil costs a mere $1.50 a barrel and is relatively clean or at least far enough away not to attract much attention from the NIMBY set. The difference in profit potential is obvious. While this puts the Middle East oil producing countries in a strong position in the marketplace, if they do not keep oil prices down then they make presently uneconomical oil reserves attractive and risk losing market share which is effectively what happened in the years following the ‘oil shock’ of early 1970s. “As Saudi oil minister Sheik Yamani said in 1981, ‘If we force Western countries to invest heavily in funding alternative sources of energy, they will. This will take them no more than seven to ten years and will result in their reduced dependence on oil as a source of energy to a point which will jeopardise Saudi Arabia’s interests.’” In most of the West this is precisely what happened in the 1970s. Fuel efficiency suddenly become a watchword everywhere, even in the US with its notorious lack of energy thrift. By the same token, the so-called ‘oil shock’ was in fact a boon for producers and retailers alike, so from the point of view of the accumulation of capital it was anything but a disaster. As such, this version of the oil shortage argument is not, finally, persuasive.
The inverse - or, oversupply - argument is more compelling. “The history of oil in the 20th century is not a history of shortfall and inflation, but of the constant menace - for the industry and the oil states - of excess capacity and falling prices, of surplus and glut.” In other words, the real oil crisis is not an external crisis or “extreme limit” of vanishing resources; but, an entirely internal crisis of the volatility of prices. On this argument, the Gulf Wars have been fought to stabilise prices and regularise profit-taking. Blood is not being spilled for oil, as such, which at least has a certain materiality, but for the utterly nebulous and by nature completely ephemeral, base points on the stock exchange. In the end, as Retort have argued, it is not even the price of oil that matters, so much as the sustainability of the triangular trade of arms sales, and military base construction, that has grown around the oil industry - fighting over oil concessions, building military bases to protect oil interests, are ultimately just as profitable as dealing in oil, at least when viewed from the perspective of the domestic US market. With so many new players in the oil and guns business, it has become impossible to regulate the market by the old-fashioned oligarchic means. Hence the necessity of war. War is the last resort of the axiomatic, which usually has much more powerful instruments at its disposal.
3. Models, isomorphy
In principal, insofar as all States are domains for the realisation of capital within a single, integrated world market, they are isomorphic. Although this isomorphy implies a degree of homogeneity between the states, at least on an operational level (“the highway code, the circulation of commodities, production costs, etc.”), this only holds true insofar as there is a general “tendency toward a single integrated domestic market”. At a deeper level, however, there can be a real heterogeneity between states without them ceasing to be isomorphic because the fact of the worldwide market leaves them no option but to conform. “The general rules regarding this are as follows: the consistency, the totality (l’ensemble), or unity of the axiomatic are defined by capital as a ‘right’ or relation of production (for the market); the respective independence of the axioms in no way contradicts this totality but derives from the divisions or sectors of the capitalist mode of production; the isomorphy of the models, with the two poles of addition and subtraction, depends on how the domestic and foreign markets are distributed in each case.”
Deleuze and Guattari identify three kinds of isomorphy corresponding to three bipolarities that constituting the contemporary world. The first refers to the States in the centre of the capitalism world-system, the US, the member-nations of the EU, Australia, Canada and so on. Although their various models of governance are different when compared in strict detail, they are isomorphic with respect to the capitalist world-system. Obviously, too, organisations like WTO, NAFTA, WEF, etc., have as their precise goal the machining of this isomorphy. The nations in the centre do not become homogeneous via this process, indeed, the opposite is true - in the guise of tourism and niche marketing, the cash-value of difference has long been recognised - but their relations of product do become increasingly well-integrated. The second bipolarity is fading significance in the contemporary world: the grand bureaucracies of what used to be known as the second world, namely the USSR and PRC, have effectively relinquished what Deleuze and Guattari call their heteromorphy in favour of a more streamlined isomorphy. Even so, one can still find countries whose mode of production and relation of production do not conform to the Washington ‘consensus’, but continue to integrate themselves with the world market all the same. One could point to the planned economy of North Korea or the bizarrely feudal economy of Saudi Arabia as instances of this. The third bipolarity is the familiar distinction between centre and periphery (North-South), which Deleuze and Guattari describe as a polymorphy: here capital as acts as the relation of production in noncapitalist or not necessarily capitalist modes of production.
Whether the US is the lone or remaining superpower is not the crucial issue - militarism defined as a peace more terrifying than war amounts to a single smooth space of war reigning over the globe and it doesn’t matter whether there are opposing parts or not. It is not whether the US is at loggerheads with North Korea or Syria that is the issue, but rather that diplomacy between states is defined by the presence or absence of a ‘credible threat’. For the US, withdrawing a trade agreement is just as devastating, perhaps more so, than sending in the marines; likewise OPEC nations can do more damage by driving up oil prices than by blowing up tall buildings in NY. States no longer appropriate the war machine; they are a component of it.
5. The included middle
The very operation of the axiomatic - namely, its restless search for new models of realisation - creates problems it cannot solve. “The more the worldwide axiomatic installs high industry and highly industrialised agriculture at the periphery, provisionally reserving for the centre the so-called postindustrial activities (automation, electronics, information technologies, the conquest of space, overarmament, etc.), the more it installs peripheral zones of underdevelopment inside the centre, internal Third Worlds, internal Souths.” In search of new sources of capital, capital willingly invades the underdeveloped regions of the world so it can build and operate factories unburdened high taxes, labour and environmental restrictions; equally willingly, it consigns to the scrap heap entire industries and the jobs and lives dependent upon them in the First World if the profit and loss statement no longer appeals to the shareholders. Capitalism has never had any interest in enriching all - indeed unequal exchange is indispensable to its functioning. “Even a social democracy adapted to the Third World surely does not undertake to integrate the whole poverty-stricken population into the domestic market; what it does, rather, is to effect the class rupture that will select the integratable elements.” Today, in the first world, we can witness this strategy at work behind the rhetoric of the so-called ‘deserving poor’. The included middle refers to the rump of citizens of capitalism deems it unnecessary to save.
What is a minority? It certainly isn’t an affair of numbers - indeed those who number among the minority are frequently in the majority if we take a purely numerical view of things. The world’s poor outnumber the rich by an extremely wide margin, yet theirs is the minor voice. The combined wealth of the 500 richest people in the world exceeds the GDP of the entire continent of Africa, and is greater than the combined incomes of the “poorest half of humanity”. A handful of people whose total wealth has to be measured in the trillions are numerically speaking quite obviously in the minority; they are a very select group indeed. Yet the power they wield in consequence of their tremendous wealth makes it a nonsense to describe them as a minority. In contrast, the three billion people constituting the poorest half of humanity have so little power singly or collectively that it is no error of judgement to describe them as a minority. So why do Deleuze and Guattari speak of the minority as being vested with the power of the nondenumerable?
For Deleuze and Guattari, the nondenumerable refers to the power to ask one’s own questions, to form one’s own problematics, and, more particularly, to define the conditions under which a satisfactory answer or response to these questions and problems might be obtained. Today, after so many centuries of suffering and silence, it is the indigenous peoples of the world who are showing the rest of us how potent this power can be. If the 1960s took inspiration from Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestra, as Jameson records in his capsular cultural history of the period, then the 1990s took its inspiration from Subcomandante Marcos in the Chiapas. For many, the road to Seattle began in the mountains of southeast Mexico when the Zapatistas launched their movement. The figure of Che as militant and utopian was a potent one for the Left in the 1960s, but as Jameson argues the failures of the guerilla movements in Peru and Venezuela effectively robbed it of its utopian energy. The guerilla lost its appeal and there followed a profound “disinvestment of revolutionary libido and fascination on the part of the First World Left”. The headline-grabbing violence of the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof Gang disillusioned many on the Left and the very idea of militancy was jettisoned. Subsequently, the figure of the guerilla fighter was appropriated by the Right and transformed fatefully into the image of the terrorist, effectively depriving the Left of its ideological claim on the right to bear arms. Thus a new figure was needed and that is how we should understand the Zapatistas. Subcomandante Marcos put it in an interview with Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Pondo:
A soldier is an absurd person who has to resort to arms in order to convince others, and in that the sense the movement has no movement if its future is military. If the EZLN perpetuates itself as an armed military structure it is headed for failure. Failure as an alternative set of ideas, an alternative attitude to the world. The worst that could happen to it, apart from that, would be to come to power and install itself there as a revolutionary army. For us it would be a failure.
The Zapatistas’s movement began with 11 demands - work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace - but eventually expanded this to 15 with the addition of - security, anti-corruption, information and environmental protection. They claimed the right of dissent and rebellion, but chose to practice democracy rather than wage war for it. Using the electronic media to full advantage, the Zapatistas sowed powerful slogans of the password type into the global political subsoil. Among the many rallying slogans the Zapatistas have put into circulation, the one that gotten the most traction in the First World is undoubtedly the one Naomi Klein has made the centrepiece of her recent utopian cry to reclaim the commons: ‘one world with many worlds in it’. This, for Klein, defines the stakes of the present struggle. It means fighting against the logic of centralisation, consolidation and homogenisation dear to what she calls McGovernment, the purveyors of the “happy meal of cutting taxes, privatizing services, liberalizing regulations, busting unions”. It means giving local communities “the right to plan and manage their schools, their services, their natural settings, according to their own lights.”
As charming as this picture of a world freed from the predatory claws of capitalism is, it misses its target inasmuch as it defines capitalism as denying us the right to plan and manage our schools and so on. In fact, the sad truth is most neo-liberal governments would be quite happy to hand over management of schools to local communities, seeing this as one easy way of cutting overheads and appearing to do something good at the same time. The real problem is that the axiomatic is able to treat all forms of organisation as its model of realisation. This is something it has only lately perfected, as Naomi Klein’s book on the rise of the logo documents. We didn’t lose control of our schools so much as give them up in the name of profit, or rather its insidious other: efficiency. Education, health, life, these are the nondenumerable in their very essence, yet we have seen the neo-liberals transform them into denumerables, for which a balance-sheet approach can be taken. If one must frame this discussion in the language of rights, then it is the right to determine what can and cannot be a model of realisation that must first be obtained. The lesson the Zapatistas have passed on to us is that we should start with government itself!
7. Undecidable propositions
The Left’s response to Seattle and Porto Alegre has been mixed, ranging from the fervent enthusing of anarchists like David Graeber to the cooler considerations of Michael Hardt. These two positions, which by no means exhaust the range of responses or even map out its extremes, typify the two dominant kinds of responses Seattle and Porto Alegre have been met with: either their sheer existence is enough, or more organisation is needed to really make things change. How would Deleuze and Guattari respond? One can speculate that Deleuze and Guattari would have approved, perhaps with a few reservations concerning fascist reterritorialisation as they did May 68. The anarchism evident in Seattle would no doubt have pleased them too. As is evident in their remarks on “Saturation”, Deleuze and Guattari do not view the potential development “of a worldwide labour bureaucracy or technocracy” as an improvement on capitalism. Indeed, they list it as a danger to be warded off by focusing on precise and highly localised struggles.
There is no consensus on what to call the flashpoints of dissent we associate metonymically with Seattle and Porto Alegre - the media-applied label ‘anti-globalisation movement’ has stuck, despite being an obvious misnomer (these movements are global in their outlook and in their range of concerns and make use of all the available globalising technology at their disposal). But as Emir Sader puts it, new formations are difficult to recognise in the new contexts they create for themselves (as Borges might have said, revolutionaries like all great artists create their own precursors) and to continue to try to read them against the background of former movements misses the point of their very existence. The overwhelming complaint about Porto Alegre is that it is difficult to see how it will coordinate its efforts. By contrast, following Deleuze and Guattari, we might equally argue that it is their lack of organisation and their spreading of disorganisation that capitalism cannot tolerate - what it wants is for dissent to be organised. Turtles and Teamsters was the catchcry of the ‘Battle in Seattle’. It summarises Deleuze and Guattari’s thesis concerning the revolutionary: connections not conjugations: “Every struggle is a function of all these undecidable propositions and constructs revolutionary connections in opposition to the conjugations of the axiomatic.”
As Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair wrote in their report on the ‘Battle in Seattle’, it was a triumph despite what latter-day doomsayers said in the months that followed the ‘five days that shook the world’ (November 28, 1999 to December 3) because it placed the protesters’ “issues squarely on the national and indeed global political agenda”. Until then international trade meetings were relatively inconspicuous affairs whose agenda were reported, if it at all, in the dry tones of economists. After Seattle, this changed. The first casualty was their physical invisibility - following Seattle meetings of WTO, IMF, NAFTA, WEC and so on became extremely high profile. Subsequent meetings in Washington, Prague, Genoa and Melbourne, were similarly disrupted, though none nearly so effectively as in Seattle. The security forces learned from Seattle and spent up big. DC spent $1 million in new riot equipment and $5 million in overtime to secure the city for the April 2000 meeting of the IMF and the World Bank. Unlike Seattle, the protesters weren’t able to halt the meeting much less shut the city done. Yet in its own way this was a victory for the protesters because the cost of providing security at these meetings escalated so much that it became almost impossible to contemplate staging them. By the same token, the meetings did not continue to go unanswered: the World Social Forum being the most important response. Most importantly, though, the agenda of these trade talks ceased to be reported and indeed thought about in purely economic terms - the economic gained a face and a body. The axiomatic was shown to be the cruel, callous system that it is and though this did not bring it to a halt it created a landscape in which hitherto silenced minorities could begin to pose new problems.
As Cockburn and St Clair acknowledge, the effects of the ‘Battle in Seattle’ can be compared to the long summer of the ‘events of May’. “You can take the state by surprise only once or twice in a generation. May/June, 1968, took the French state by surprise. The French state then took very good care not to have that unpleasant experience repeated. The same reaction by the state’s security apparat happened after Seattle, which represented a terrible humiliation on a global stage for the US government.” The heady optimism of this activist moment which stretched from late November 1999 to September 2001 is difficult to recollect in the present era, and that is perhaps the most damaging effect of the collapse of the Twin Towers. As John Sellers, the director of Ruckus Society, one of the more active organisations present in Seattle, commented: “People all over the world were so inspired by Seattle, partly because it was the most heavily televised protest in history […] but also because most people had no idea that there was real dissent here in the United States. But when they saw tens of thousands of people in the streets, and the facade of democracy peel away to reveal the armed storm troopers with shields, grenades and gas, wielding chemical weapons against unarmed crowds, it really drove home the fact that there are all kinds of different opinions in this country, and that there can be a true, sweeping social movement in the United States.” Since 9/11, however, such molecularising images of political dissent have effectively vanished; to be replaced by the molarity of mourning.
What is most striking about the global mood change is that whereas the images of US brutality towards its own citizens was shocking in 1999, they now seem pallid in the face of its brutality towards the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. But that isn’t quite right either because it misses the fact that then it was still possible to think in terms of police action as a violation of civil liberties. And although they had already taken a severe belting during the so-called war on drugs which peaked under self-confessed pot-smokers Clinton and Gore, civil liberties are suffering an even greater thrashing under Bush in the name of homeland security. The images of Seattle were also shocking because, as Cockburn and St. Clair point out, it gave the world its first glimpse of America’s highly militarised police force. Visored black helmets, kevlar body-armour and assault rifles replaced the thin blue line as the image of peaceableness, which is as eloquent a testimony to the change in temperature of the times as one could hope for. A Cold War abroad and Hot War at home.
The San Francisco based ‘gathering of antagonists to capital and empire’, Retort, have argued that the invasion of Iraq can only be properly understood in light of the ‘Battle in Seattle’ and, more especially, the troubling display of third world insubordination at Doha and Cancún where “an in-house insurgency of 20 nations refused to endorse the massive US-EU subsidies to North Atlantic agriculture and the WTO rules crafted to prevent the South from protecting itself.” Commentators who have drawn comparisons between the second Gulf War and the Vietnam War generally do so on the basis of outcomes, real and predicted. The lack of gratitude on the part of the liberated Iraqis and their failure to spontaneously Americanise coupled with uncontrolled insurgency in most parts of the country has led many to mutter the fateful word long associated with Vietnam, namely ‘quagmire’. To put it in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the US, but by this one really means the entire integrated being of First World capital, has been thrust up against a limit-point. The whole world is holding its breath waiting to see if it is a real or absolute limit …
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