The Neoliberal War

drone1The drone is the perfect tool of liberal warfare. It is notionally the most precise means of taking the war directly to the enemy. It allows U.S. forces to avoid the niceties of international law and the vulnerabilities that arise from putting boots on the ground where they are not wanted (which, let’s face it, is practically anywhere). The representatives of the U.S. security apparatus are conveniently insulated from any blowback from their actions. Safely ensconced in the air-conditioned shipping containers at Creech AFB, the  front line agents of this end of the conflict are far out of range of any direct retaliation by enemy combatants. Never again the smoking ruins of Khobar Towers, or the Marine barracks  in Beirut, or the gaping hole in the side of the U.S.S. Cole. More importantly, no more flag draped coffins and Gold Star families.

 

The central lesson of the Vietnam wars has finally been fully metabolized by the U.S. Government. Counterinsurgency warfare is dirty and difficult. It has the capacity to generate unpalatable images of people not easily classifiable as enemy combatants killed, maimed, covered in napalm. Lacking the underlying basis of legitimation in the defense of Western civilization that made the World Wars, the process of acquiescence is further disturbed by their propensity to generate dead white people. While non-white bodies can pile up like cord wood, the will to fight even for the most noble of causes deteriorates each time another Wally Cleaver comes home in a sack.

 

drone2To most Americans, the drone war is invisible. To its victims it is omnipresent. Each facet implies a psychological benefit to the overall process. Those in the conflict zones live life in a Benthamite panopticon, their lives reduced to mute pantomimes that might at any time call for a Hellfire missile from the empty air. Every act undertaken under the open sky (and sometimes within buildings as well) is translated into a symbolic code to deciphered in the cool darkness of a distributed military architecture. Each individually generated fragment of code synergizes with thousands of others, independently generated into a mosaic of life and threat. In most cases it is simply impossible to know when the flows and eddies of information will map lethally onto the ineluctable logic air to ground fire.

 

So far as the American public is concerned, the invisibility of the conflict eliminates the necessity, at least for most people, of thinking of it at all. Out of sight and very definitely out of mind, the invisibility of the drone war forestalls the need to soothe (or one might even say to embalm) one’s conscience. Otherwise reasonable (and reasonably critical) individuals can simply block out the reality of the situation through an assumption (more often than not simply tacitly made) that the people who get vaporized in drone strikes must have done something to deserve it. Collateral damage (i.e. surplus corpses) there may be. But if the good wars of the 20th century teach us nothing else, they teach us that the death of a few innocents is an unavoidable, if regrettable, concomitant of traversing the path of greater good.  And if those collateral losses outnumber the actual targets of (at least in some sense) legitimate violence by more than 25 to 1 the end must still be seen as justifying the means.

 

drone3The drone war reflects, in a certain sense, the perfection of limited, asymmetric warfare. Ideally, if not in every case, the application of violence can be limited to those who demonstrate by their actions malign intent. Rather than requiring the deployment of massed bodies of soldiery to far off places, the conflict can be bracketed, undertaken by a small cadre of anonymous joystick jockeys who have graduated from ninja level Mass Effect skills to the ‘leetest of the ‘leet. The relationship between this cadre and their opponents is both destructive and symbiotic. Prevented from striking back directly, the forces of Al Qaida, ISIS, and whoever else are limited to acts of pure terrorism against soft targets. Here the designation pure indicates only that it is not covered under the aegis of states sanction. State terrorism is different, more complicated in the sense that the actions that constitute it might, in some measure, be covered (less likely legitimated) by international law. Viewed in human terms its outcomes are hardly less grim. In any case, the perpetration of public atrocities facilitates the continuation of a conflict that benefits both sides. The cycle of violence is self-perpetuating and the medium is quite clearly far advanced in the process of becoming the message.

 

The capacity of this sort of warfare to cut off the malice at its source is touted every time it is announced that some important (though heretofore generally anonymous) member of the enemy hierarchy has been dispatched in a strike as surgically precise as the excision of a tumor. Perhaps it has, on a time, occurred to the agents and facilitators of this mode of conflict that they are fighting a postmodern enemy, one which has no center and thus one whose command and control structure is extremely difficult to degrade no matter how many explosions one causes. In fact, the state of continual war that this entails is functional to the complex of class fractions that run advanced capitalism, as it tends to occlude the pathways of democratic control that promoters of the neoliberal order find so pernicious.

 

In the industrialized world, warfare itself is in the course of becoming neoliberalized. This process was already far advanced by the self-reinforcing dynamic described above. War is a profit center. The other motivations that have at times governed its dynamics: religion, nationalism, racism, etc., have increasingly become epiphenomenal to the process of accumulation. The process is now, also, fundamentally different from that of accumulation by dispossession, in which war was undertaken for the control of resources or territory. War has now become a matter of the circulation of capital. It is the return of Keynesianism, but as if it was run by Darth Vader.

 

At its leading edge, war is decreasingly a human process. Rather, the goal is to make it a matter of autonomous, AI-governed systems making decisions and undertaking actions in the basis of merciless and unflinching algorithms. In the future, war will become like the weather, an event experienced as natural, sine ira et studio, an event for which there is no humanly comprehensible reason. It is becoming both hypercomplex and brutally simple. The technology, especially as current capacities and systems synergize with developments in artificial intelligence, is becoming increasingly prone to internally generated dynamics of such complexity as to far outstrip the abilities of human beings to understand them or to predict future outcomes. As artificial intelligence develops to the point that it becomes self-conscious and self-reproducing, it may turn out to be the case that it has goals and inclinations beyond the reaches of our souls. When that happens, capital itself may become autonomous and self aware. When that happens what place humans will have in the resulting order can hardly be guessed.

 

 

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