Institutional Structure of Empire
Empire is the transnational capitalist state; the embodiment of the capital flows that move across the smooth surfaces of the globe, the elite figures whose class cannot truly be locked into a national framework, the subordination of state-function to things outside of itself, and the institutions whose limits exist beyond the lines marked off as borders.
What is the structure of Empire? As a matter of flows that encompass the world, structure would be too straightforward a term: there is no-overarching regulatory body or assemblage of bodies, no transnational super-state to oversee the management of such a complex system. At the same time, however, Empire is not a free-market dream in the truest sense of the word; management paradoxically does exist in limited yet powerful forms. Following Hardt and Negri, Empire is the production of multiple strands of influence and historical processes, each rooted in a variation of utopian dreaming of generations past. One such passage is the ideological exodus from the symbolic orders of domestic states that occurred in the 1960s and 70s, which demanded freedom and autonomy of the Fordist-Keynesian regime of accumulation and the family and factory-based discipline that it inherently engendered. Another passage could be seen in the currents of internationalism, the divisions of the elite whose financial interests existed outside domestic manufacturing bases, usually in the realm of international trade and finance. Manifesting political power through traditional pressure groups, think-tanks and summits, philanthropic foundations and mass social movements such as the United World Federalists, these individuals lobbied extensively for the creation of broad platforms for transnational cooperation and coordination: examples of these would include the failed League of Nations (founded in 1919), the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), the United Nations (founded in 1945), NATO (founded in 1949), the Trilateral Commission (founded in 1973), and a host of others.
The characteristic of so many of these groups, despite their affiliations with global military action or international capital – or, usually, both – is that their aim that of a global equilibrium, a dream of peace. The League of Nations and its successor, the UN, formed directly as a reaction to the horrors wrought on the global people by the world wars; NATO too is aimed to assist in stabilization in zones that could potentially trigger such mass conflicts. The Council on Foreign Relations operates as a mega think-tank and discussion forum where many of these ideas have their genesis, and it continues to make itself one of the most highly-prized advisory organizations in operation today. The Trilateral Commission, likewise, was conceived as a space where transnational elites could assist in coordinating the transition from Fordist-Keynesianism to the global neoliberal form of capitalism. In each, the idea (however faulty it plays out in reality) is that openness and cooperation will establish a smooth peace – yet these peace can only happen through the strategic utilization of intervention, be it economic or militarized, when it comes to the variety of disturbances that could threaten the global order. Organizations like the International Monetary Fund constitute apparatuses of economic intervention, utilizing domestic crises to impose austerity measures on countries and to subsequently open up their markets. Justification for militarized intervention comes from the so-called “responsibility to protect,” a moral calling to defend the global people from authoritarian stateforms and humanitarian crises; the UN and NATO maintain the roles of the primary response agents in these situations. The police functions of domestic states themselves, however, often bridges the gap between military and economic mechanisms of intervention, as they seek to insulate the interests of the top-down transnational order from the bottom-up pressure for autonomy forming at the bottom.
With this in mind, its worthwhile to draw out a quote from A Thousand Plateaus that works as an excellent foreshadow to the Empire hypothesis:
This worldwide war machine, which in a way “reissuses” from the States, displays two successive figures: first, that of fascism, which makes war an unlimited movement with no other aim than itself; but fascism is only a rough sketch, and the second, postfascist, figure is that of a war machine that takes peace as its object directly, as the peace of Terror or Survival. The war machine reforms a smooth space that now claims to control, to surround the entire earth. The war machine has taken charge of the aim, worldwide order, and the States are now no more than the objects or means adapted to that machine.1
Hardt and Negri visualize this aspect of Empire’s structure as that of a pyramid. At the top they position the United States, given that at time in which work was written (throughout the 90s and published in 2000), the country was in a time of relative ‘stability’ and surplus under Clinton and the dot-com boom. However, with the subsequent War on Terror, financial crises, loss of faith in the governmental mechanisms, and the rise of other countries that could challenge the “sole superpower” claim, we could see that Empire, as an expression of capital flows, is like a snake eating its own tail, deterritorializing itself and reterritorializing in strange and unexpected ways.
Below the United States they place the series of nation-states that hold the dominant world economic power, and the institutions that they operate and coordinate through – G7, Davos, etc. Military and cultural power, they tell us, comes from these same zones. Again, however, we could perhaps challenge the cultural superiority of these nations when it comes to culture, particularly when we can consider the rise of aesthetic and musical forms like ‘global ghettotech’ and other expressions of subaltern existence that are rapidly trickling upwards (see my post, Super Hybridity for more on this). Continuing on, they position beneath this the actual flows generated by the actions of transnational capitalist corporations: “networks of capital flows, technology flows, population flows, and the like.”2 On this particular plane we also find the nation-states whose political power exists as a generalized servitude to the same corporations producing the transnational flows; as a mediator between the domestic people and the global plane, we can find here traces of Foucault’s disciplinary society even as the passage towards the control society continues unabated.
At the bottom of the pyramid is the global people, the multitude itself. Unable to “be incorporated directly into the structures of global power,”3 the global people find themselves positioned indirectly into Empire through a variety of regimes of representation. These mechanisms of representation run the gamut of Empire’s hierarchy, be it through the representative forms of governance present in liberal stateform, or through these government’s own representation in the United Nations General Assembly. Representation is also mediated through the contagious virology of the media, with events and actors capable of being dispersed rapidly throughout the entirety of the transnational network. Adjacent to both the media spectrum and the vertical/horizontal intersections of representational power are NGOs, performing the important roles of drawing attention to humanitarian crises (often in preparation for ‘peaceful’ militarized intervention), alleviating poverty or other systemic crises, and acting as mediators between the power lines of Empire and the global civil society produced by the transnational multitude.
There a multiple problems with the pyramidal visualization of Empire. For starters, as addressed above, it may very well have been an accurate model based on the time and place in which Hardt and Negri first drafted their work; subsequent transformations through both crises, their ongoing reverberations, and increasing complexity and competition have shaken this structure, even if this paradigm is true to the structure’s internal workings. Second, Hardt and Negri reiterate the Deleuzeguattarian emphasis on the flows themselves – Empire is not solidity, it is a process, and the model must make this point clear. An alternative form, better equipped for an age in which corporate power is surpassing even the superpower of nation-states, comes from a visualization given in Graeme Chesters and Ian Walsh’s Complexity and Social Movements: Multitudes at the Edge of Chaos.4 Instead of positioning the United States as the narrow summit of global power, they speak of Empire’s “supra state institutional nexus” itself, composed of the various factions of the transnational capitalist class5 that operate through three generalized spheres: security, finance and development, and governance.
Each sphere operates through a series of elite-dominated institutions: under security, we can find organizations such as the UN, NATO, and regulatory bodies such as the IAEA. For finance and development we find the traditional vanguards of neoliberal theory, the economic interventionists of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and again, the UN. Governance, on the other hand, is not the representative power of the nation-state, but the dual power roles of the multinational corporation (MNC), which is situated in a single country with extensive operations outside of their home base, and the transnational corporation (TNC), which distributes its operations across a variety of countries without a domestic country in which it identifies itself with.
Beneath this exists the national elite factions, with the activities of the nation-states that they exist within subordinated to their power. Again, security and finance reproduce themselves here, with the notion of corporate governance shifting to domestic political power. Security on the national level operates through first the chiefs of staff, with the intelligence and armed forces operating under their gaze. Finance’s domestic power splits itself between two entities, capital and finance. Capital operates through businesses and the organizations that spring from domestic inter-capitalist interaction, while finance is reflected in merchant banks and stock markets. The political arena, by contrast, is the usual realm of ‘democratic’ representation: presidents and prime ministers, cabinets, congresses and parliaments, and civil services.
Continuing the downward trajectory, we reach regional and local forms of government, and the institutions that correspond directly to Hardt and Negri’s bottom rung of the pyramid: professional associations, trade unions, NGOs, media and social media, and the citizenry (forming domestic aspects of the global multitude) itself. Finally, at the bottom is everyday life; awash in both the transnational civil society and the intersecting lines of power that operate above it, we can visualize how this all operates not as structure but as ongoing process. Empire, and the institutional interfaces that its flows move through, is nothing more than the frame of everyday life itself – or more properly, the limits imposed, despite the utopian air it maintains, on the actions of an allegedly autonomous citizenry. These institutions may operate on macro-levels, but their primary focus and impact exists squarely in the domain of the micropolitical.
Empire and Environment: the 3 Regulators
“Imperial control,” writes Hardt and Negri, “operates through three global and absolute means: the bomb, money, and ether.”6 The Bomb, in their work, refers specifically to the atomic bomb, yet by this point could be expanded to include the variety of cybernetic smart bombs and drone technology deployed across the globe; for the time being, however, we’ll focus on just the atomic bomb and the legacy of the Cold War on the political and cultural landscape. Money is the flows that compose the market place, but Ether is the manner through which production that establishes these flows is conducted. Unlike the Fordist regime, where labor was real and material and directly correlated with notions of community-life, post-Fordism disperses the means of production into technologically-enhanced networks. “Cognitive capitalism” sees a shift towards immaterial labor in the dominant countries of the world with the material labor pushed to the margins; the networks are held together by a complex web of communicative technologies, horizontally organized corporate structures, offshoring, outsourcing, just-in-time production, and the replacement of workers by machines. This immaterialization is complimented by the rise of equally communicative “affective labor,” or “labor in the bodily mode”:7 physical and mental healthcare, entertainment, etc.
What is important to note about the category of the Bomb is not necessarily the physical aspects of the weapon itself, but the cold implications that emerge from it – Mutually Assured Destruction, a concept that would forever rework geopolitical organization across the globe. Atomic bombs are stockpiled in the dominant countries; when countries existing lower in the Imperial hierarchy or on the outright margins (Iran, for example), search for the means to produce the Bomb, the militarized apparatuses of intervention launch into position, with the role of the media frequently captured as a platform for the spectacle of propaganda. Irrevocably altered too is the nature of warfare itself. No longer will we see large, international conflicts as we have seen in the past; the Bomb’s ability as a silent police agent has shifted the focus of warfare to limited or regional conflicts, economic warfare (sanctions), proxy warfare – permanent forms of war that are easily adaptable to the network-structure of Empire itself, and are often utilized to advance power’s own interests. Thus, we can see how the atmosphere created by the Bomb can be indelibly linked to monetary power and the way in which Money and its flows are organized in terms of distribution across the globe. The Bomb is also relevant directly to the historic establishment of the Ether: it was the need for networked forms of communication, impervious to impacts on centralized structure in the event of an attack, that drove the portions of cybernetic research that produced the internet.
The Bomb has reshaped the contours of our everyday life; it has set the precedents and parameters for the architecture and geographical environment that we disperse ourselves within. Today, towns, cities, and larger metropolises – the decentralized hubs of commerce, population, and culture – are linked through the interconnected network of highway structures; these lines frame everyday existence, acting as symbolic dividers between regions of urbanity, and they are frequently the signposts for how we coordinate our daily travels. Furthermore, they help enable trade-able goods to flow across the landscape in a quick and smooth manner. At their onset, the official name of the American highway system was the National System of Interstate and Highway System – according to an issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists from the early 1950s, systems like the highway were necessary to avoid high population density in urban centers, thus rendering the event of an atomic attack less devastating than it could be.8 Through the highway and the fear of the Bomb, the city needed not be visioned as a vertical structure, like the dreams of utopian high modernists like Le Corbusier, but as a horizontal sprawl linked through networks. Thus the phenomena of suburbanization was born in the shadow of the Cold War, and with it came the flight of the middle class from the urban center: the entire financial and laborous landscape of America, reworked with all of the political implications shining forth.
It is no mistake the internet is often rendered in terms that invoke the highway system: both were born from the Cold War and the Bomb, and each were preludes to the global shift to network form that is the hallmark of postmodernization. If the highway system helps shape the geographical and social landscapes of everyday life, then Ether, the environment radiating from the internet and its corollary information technologies, is doing the same. Under the new cognitive and information driven economy, where material labor jobs flow across the withered national border, the suburbans are now facing the same issues of escalating poverty that confronted the urban in the face of middle class flight. When the housing crisis struck, the suburban class bore much of the brunt of the destruction – from Los Angeles to Detroit, entire neighborhoods have disappeared, left as little more than ghost towns in the face of capital’s unapologetic flows. We’re starting to see a transition back to the city, but it will not be the centralized and vertical city of yesterday. Instead, it will be the full integration of digital infrastructure throughout the sprawl, the rise of technologically enhanced megacities built on the so-called ease of mobility and tailor-made for the fast-paced demands of post-Fordist capitalism. (For the relationship between this turn and the surveillance culture, particularly in the light of the Snowden revelations, see my post Urban Drifting)
Just as the geophysical landscape is reworked by the Ether, so too is the psychical landscape. Brian Holmes has written of the “flexible personality,” a situation in which the advertising and other corporate firms, so dominant in the economy, have adapted to the 60s counterculture’s revolt against institutional hierarchy.9 Cognitive capitalism, in Deleuze’s early and timely analysis, is the Society of Control; at the same time, paradoxically, it requires above all things the positioning of human creativity as its adaptable center. In the 1980s we saw the privatization of the arts market, fueled by the newly minted class representing transnational capital interests, and in the 1990s it was the cannibalization of creative energies by the dotcom industry. Today, art students are funneled into advertising industries and other adjacent ‘flexible’ modes of labor. Yet this is not limited to the arts alone: management, programming, and all other forms of communicative labor depend entirely on the individual to tap into his or her creative energies, their desiring-flows, as the motor of the new economy. Despite the new mobile and nomadic sensibilities explicit in this kind of work, establishing it as a kind of horizontally-conducted labor, important vertical bureaucratic functions are retained. This management of flexible labor, which in turns conditions life outside labor time to rework itself to meet its demands, constitutes for Holmes a new type of postmodern alienation. It is an “alienation from political society, which in the democratic sense is not a profitable affair and cannot be endlessly recycled into the production of images and emotions. This new configuration of the flexible personality is a new form of social control…”10
The subjectivity built on flexibility for the immaterial labor force is matched by an equally amorphous subjectivity in the realm of consumption. This subjectivity, Jonah Peretti argues, is not so much one that is flexible, but is one that is schizophrenic in the clinical sense of the word. Drawing on Lacan and Frederic Jameson to argue that one of the hallmarks of the schizophrenic condition is the inability to comprehend a sense of continuity in time, he sees the cultural cartography of digital postmodernism as a nonspace where the individual’s “sense of temporal continuity” has grown stagnant.11 He bolsters this allegation by drawing, in a somewhat contradictory manner (yet entirely in keeping with the postmodern discourse he is attempting), on Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. For them, capitalism and the process described by the mental health profession as schizophrenia follows identical trajectories: both are a matter of decoding flows, unlocking them from the symbolic order which has appropriated and overcoded them for their own means. Capitalism is always cutting at what has fostered it; likewise, the schizophrenic is always trying to break away from the despotic social that attempts to assign his or body some role or affix them to a subjective grid. “Yet,” they tell us, “it would be a serious error to consider the capitalist flows and schizophrenic flows as identical… Our society produces schizos the same ways it produces Prell shampoo or Ford cars, the only difference being that the schizos are not salable.”12
Peretti returns to the Lacanian mirror stage to further draw out the implications of this for the new economy. The mirror stage, the theoretical site of the production of the ego, occurs when the infant, up to this point inhabiting an affective and quasi-schizophrenic pre-subjectivity, develops an understanding of his or her body as a unified form. This marks the beginnings of the entry into the symbolic, the linguistic order that will ultimately shape and direct the individual’s understanding of the self and its possibilities and limitations. In contemporary capitalism, we too are perpetually confronted with returns to the mirror stage: at the movies, in fashion magazines, in music, in the whole terrain of pop culture, we are given forms and essences with which to identify ourselves. Today, there is a profound sense of a heterogeneous market; “individuality” is not something to be conformed to on a mass level but instead something to be experienced as a play of differences. Experiment! the new economy demands of us. But here too even, the preformed experimental individualities given to us by the advertising companies, drawing on the creative energies of their cognitive workers, are presented as ideal forms to strive towards. These forms are transmitted to us through the ‘flickering’ of the media apparatuses, made possible on a mass scale and even accelerated by the Ether, establishing micro-continuities that exist only so long as they project it will take for the capital-accumulating effects to set it. For these flashes of time, we identify our body with the idealized form that we can never become, for it is not a human body but a representation of the body reworked and enhanced through digital technologies; we lose ourselves in a quest for the new identity, and this loss and act of regaining (through consumption in the monopolistic marketplace) must occur through the ever-increasing acceleration of images. Thus, “consumer capitalism needs subjects who continually reenact the infantile drama of mirror stage identifications. These subjects must oscillate quickly between schizophrenic consciousness and idealized ego formations.”13
In post-Fordist control, this abstracted psychical landscape and the networked and precarious physical landscape are wielded together in a unified yet disparate cartography. Hardt and Negri argue that the Imperial terrain operates its lines of controls through biopower, or the establishment of power atop the very mechanisms that constitute life itself. Time, language and communication, creativity, interpersonal relationships – these were the methods of struggle that drove the 60s counterculture into the exodus from the Fordist-Keynesian capital-state regime. At that time, power was disciplinary; it positioned itself top-down through the interlocking roles of “orange juice” (welfare) and “Agent Orange” (warfare).14 Now, biopower is horizontal – even if there exists the myriad of vertical structures that build Empire’s transnational hierarchy, as described in the first half of these notes – it is in the realm of the micropolitical, the everday life, that Empire’s impact is both most readily and subtly established and measured. Imperial biopower is a question of life: the Bomb makes life toil under the implications of the threat of annihilation; Money makes all other aspects of life a matter of survival. Ether marks the passage of life through time, and the way that life actualizes itself in terms of subjectivity.
Steve Shaviro wrote that “Postmodernity isn’t just an option or style or particular stance. It is the very air we breathe, the viscous substance of our internal organs.”15 We cannot qualify Empire, the structures of transnational capital and its governing institutions, in terms of the physical entities that inhabit it, but as these structures as well as the atmosphere that it generates. It is the whole (the globe itself) that is also a many (the multitude and the iron cage of capture that it exists within); the Society of Control is an environment.
1Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pg. 421
2Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire Harvard University Press, pg. 310
3Ibid, pg. 311
4Graeme Chesters and Ian Walsh Complexity and Social Movements: Multitudes at the Edge of Chaos Routledge, 2006, pg. 153
5Chesters and Walsh deploy the term “global elites,” but I prefer the transnational capitalist class (TCC) theorized by William I. Robinson, which he describes as the “owners and managers of the TNCs” and the “transnational managerial elite.” William I. Robinson “Global Capitalism Theory and the Emergence of Transnational Elites” Critical Sociology, vol. 38, no. 3, May 2012, pgs. 349-363
6Hardt and Negri Empire, pg. 346
7Ibid., pg. 293
8Oliver Gillham The Limitless City: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate Island Press, 2002, pg. 35
11Jonah Peretti “Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution” Negations http://www.datawranglers.com/negations/issues/96w/96w_peretti.html
12Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Penguin, 1977, pg. 245
13Peretti “Capitalism and Schizophrenia”
14Bruce Robbins “Orange Juice and Agent Orange” Occasion Vol. 2, December 2nd, 2010 http://arcade.stanford.edu/journals/occasion/articles/orange-juice-and-agent-orange-by-bruce-robbins (thanks to dmf for alerting me to this interesting discourse!)