Prisoners of the State

Republished in Critical Legal Thinking


We have all become prisoners of the State. Wherever we are across the whole planet. It's a time like no other time in human history or natural history. Is it a force of Nature as virus Covid-19 that has brought this about; or is it something to do with the nature of our State?


In our near universal confinement we understand that it's all for our protection. On that there is no argument here. We also understand that just as the immune system in our own bodies produces antibodies to protect us against an invading pathogen, so does the State in its means of protection. But we know that by the reaction of our bodies, it is our own antibodies that often kill us, not the pathogen. The State also kills the same way. Both literally and in spirit. That is the danger. That the State mirrors the pathogen. The State becomes the pathogenic State.


If we take a look at the online portal set up by the WHO (World Health Organisation) to monitor the Covid-19 pandemic, we see pale blue circles each defined by a sovereign nation-state. Within each circle, vast new asymmetries of power have grown out of this pandemic – some in the most absolute sense as Viktor Orban's Hungary. And in-between the circles is an intensification of an 'each one against the other' – the fights between states over ventilators and protective masks as nations block and hijack each others' shipments, their sealing of borders, and so forth. At a transnational level it has been nothing but a chain of reactive inflammations. Even when the spread of the virus is still on the increase.


Behind all of this is a or, the reality that is being occluded; which we can only see by an exercise of our imagination. That the viral pandemic is in fact the one cloud that is migrating through the body of the one species – the human.
This does not imply a proposition here for some post-national border-less world. But given the way the pandemic in our globalised times has forced almost every state to adopt the same measures to make us universal captives of state (for protection), here is an enquiry into what underlies the contemporary sovereign state.


By its scale of upheaval there has been much talk that this pandemic takes us back to the end of World War Two whereby the universal violence that killed over 200 million led not only to an unprecedented level of financial investment to enable a post-war recovery but also an unforeseen level of international law-making. This transnational law-making we need to bear in mind today. With the end of the world war came the “transmutation” of its violence into new regulations and international law: the establishment of the United Nations alongside global decolonisation, the principle of the sanctity of sovereignty of each state symbolised by “a family of nations” at the UN. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and supporting transnational conventions like the 1951 Refugee convention.


However behind the narrative of a post-war new world, an order remained through a specific form of sovereignty within which the family of nations took its place and which prevailed. In their book Empire Negri and Hardt describe it as a principle of sovereignty by which “liberty is made sovereign and sovereignty is defined as radically democratic within an open and continuous process of expansion.”
The critical combination here is of sovereignty, democracy and expansion. What is expanding by this combination we can of course understand as Capital; as well as the implications on society and the planet's resources. But the combination prevails because it renews its moral framework even when its maintenance requires the practice of war, as the just war. How this is so was well articulated by Robert Cooper, the special adviser on foreign affairs to Tony Blair. In The new liberal imperialism (2002), before the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, Cooper wrote:
What is needed then is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values. We can already discern its outline: an imperialism which, like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle.


The exercise of “voluntary imperialism” as listed by Cooper was the use of the global economy, its International Financial Institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and, in a critical choice of words,  the “imperialism of neighbours”. The “imperialism of neighbours” created a chain of trickle-down copycat imperialisms from great to small in the Darwinian globalisation we live in today. Yet this chain is itself dependent on the hegemon, the power that maintains the order either through a policy of military interventionism or the exercise of unilateral sanctions. This unilateral order, as the 'New World Order' (a phrase we became familiar with at the very start of the 21st century) underpins the contemporary sovereign state today; each state in its place in the family of nations, including those as counter-hegemons yet all a functionary in Empire. Empire itself is real yet intangible, untouchable and beyond all contest.
Or so it was until Covid-19 arrived.



The virus has hurt Empire and by that abruptly opened up this world to new scenarios. That's why many analysts describe the crisis of this pandemic as a 'conjunctural' point in history (that is a crisis point within a greater history a longue durée that demands structural change). A point in time that breaks the pattern.
As we try to project a post-Covid future, the practice of scenarios thinking comes to the fore, now ranging from the utopian to the dystopian. Two examples can serve to illustrate benign approaches: the French parliamentarians' open consultation with 11 themes ranging from “a more open democracy and how to share power” to “Our wealth is invisible: how can we better measure the common good?”
Or the philosopher Bruno Latour's 'little exercise' “to make sure that, after the virus crisis, things don’t start again as they were before”.


The question of 'so things don’t start again as they were before' returns me to a World Social Forum workshop in Tunis in March 2013 presented by the Marxist economist Samir Amin in which he introduced the idea of a new International for the 21st century, a global accord of people as workers – given that more people than ever before now work for a wage. Amin elaborated further on this in the years before his death. But we do not need to be a Marxist like Amin to consider the utter implausibility of such an accord at this moment of an universal crisis or any possibility of space for the question. Why this is so, and to this absolute degree, Amin (in Monthly Review) explained by the new nature of capitalism: the extreme centralisation of Capital today. That is, we should no longer see Capital as islands, centres of capitalism in different places or states e.g. Wall Street, Dubai, mega-factory of China etc. but in an integrated system that controls the largest to the smallest everywhere - including the “peripheries”. This of course is Empire but Amin's work describes it by how centralisation depends on social disintegration as it grows. He called this lumpen-development. To quote, “lumpen-development is the result of accelerated social disintegration connected to the model of “development” with “the dramatic growth in survival activities (the so-called informal sphere), in other words, by the pauperization inherent to the unilateral logic of capital accumulation.”


In easier language, a simple picture out of this would be: the extreme centralisation of Capital alongside the extreme fragmentation of peoples and workers. For scenarios thinking for a post-Covid world the picture can help, in particular as its symptoms are openly manifest. Life as mass precarious existence both in the advanced economies as in the peripheries alongside ongoing forced migration and displacement.


But the danger is how already these very symptoms are being exacerbated (and yet covered up) in the management of the pandemic. Unreported mass deportations of migrants using emergency measures outside of rights conventions, refugee boats left adrift in the seas, and other untold tragedies. The power imbalances of lockdown – for women in abusive relationships, domestic workers in alien households etc.. And in the rich nations, the informal workers – the cashiers, cleaners, drivers who must work during lockdown to keep things going till everyone else returns. And alongside on a vast scale in the poor, the majority of the world today who survive by the daily wage now stripped of their means of survival, yet politically voiceless. State by state the lockdown has involved mass silencing. Behind it what is happening is incalculable, unimaginable and unaccounted.


Of course this is simultaneous with efforts of revival, to prevent a global crash through as Foreign Policy magazine states, “the largest combined fiscal effort launched since World War II”. In this unparalleled scale of fiscal injection, of some $8 trillion and counting (IMF blog) the exercise of  'voluntary imperialism' is being made bare naked. We see how the financial institutions of the World Bank and IMF from the onset exclude certain states (e.g. Cuba, Venezuela, Iran) from any loans in their struggles against the pandemic whilst providing discretionary debt relief (Reuters) to others. And within them the disparities, of uneven interest rates, and whose interest they serve to consolidate. On the question of an outcome in a post-Covid order, if anything the current order being reinforced through crisis.



To reconsider the practice of scenarios, let us recast our minds back to the end of World War Two. Let us not forget that many at the time, like Hannah Arendt in her book on Totalitarianism warned that the new international laws or conventions would provide inadequate protections against the spectres of either Imperialism or Fascism. And that the formulation of the State and human rights would leave too many at the mercies of state or in a no-mans land. Equally in how the European colonies folded at the end of the war, Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth questioned the process; in his words, the “quick, quick, lets decolonise... for god's sake, lets decolonise quick...”. Fanon noted:
"Gabon is independent, but between Gabon and France nothing has changed; everything goes on as before."


If anything the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how much we are hostage to the last century, its state and financial institutions and how they shutter the windows of change today. Because as it stands another Darwinian world order begins to form by the very management of the pandemic.
In defeating the pandemic we play our part, we stay indoors, we are incapacitated. But in the meantime Empire moves relentlessly. The wounded Empire becomes the revanchist Empire. We see images of the desperate Italian businessman (Il Tempo) down to a last Euro beating at the gates of the bank. We see the desperation in the mass stampede in India (BBC) as migrant workers try to escape lockdown which to them means absolute poverty. We see how the State is both helpless and an author of the desperation. And yet we have become prisoners of the State.
By that, it is most telling that, unlike 1945, no significant thinking about new transnational institutions or law-making for a post-Covid world appear on the political horizon today. We can ask why.




/ Reposted at Critical Legal Thinking 28.04.20 as part of Critique in Times of Coronavirus
/ Posted at nettime 25.04.20