Monday, April 4, 2011
Imperial Velocities and Counter-Revolution
Just when the state velocities of the Gaddafi regime were outpacing, outmaneuvering, and routing the Libyan insurgency, they were hit hard and slowed down by the much faster and more powerful air velocities of the imperial military machine. The waves of jets taking off from European bases and unleashing violence on a sovereign nation across the Mediterranean mark a turning point in the insurrections of North Africa and the Middle-East: their transformation into revolutions with planetary repercussions that demand the direct engagement of imperial fighting forces. The high-speed weapons from North America and Europe hitting North Africa are dramatically expanding the spatial trajectories of the violence involved in this upheaval. It is now clearer than ever that this mess is not (never was) an Arab affair. The geographical elongation of the military theatre of these insurrections means that we are witnessing the start of the imperial counter-revolution.
These revolutions caught the regional and global elites off guard and created a powerful transformation in the affective distribution of fear in myriad geographies. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or Bahrain protesters confronting state violence on the street emphasized over and over again that they were not afraid anymore. These expansive revolutionary resonances, in turn, struck fear in the regional and global elites. This alarm is now the affective fuel of an expansive counter-revolution that seeks to re-inscribe fear in now-restive, emboldened multitudes. North Africa and the Middle-East are now traversed by contradictory affective-political forces fighting for supremacy in terrains defined by insurgent, state, and imperial patterns of speed.
Counter-revolutions also expand in waves following bodily resonances. And like revolutionary waves, they also need to cross a threshold to gain momentum, to stop being atomized local events and become spatially expansive forces. While counter-revolutionary measures started with the first riots in Tunisia, this regional threshold was Gaddafi’s swift crackdown of the Libyan insurrection. His regime’s resolve to physically wipe out dissent in the streets resonated among other equally threatened elites. It reminded them that revolutions can, indeed, be stopped and defeated. Counter-revolutionary resonances are, by definition, of a fearful and reactionary kind, which seek to disperse resonant multitudes through violent striations and fragmentations. While revolutions are negativity (rupture of the real) as well as affirmation (the creation of something new), counter-revolutions are pure negation and are guided by one goal: the destruction or containment of insurrectional negativity (Benjamin Noys would probably see this anti-revolutionary negation as part of the destructive negativity of capital. But I think I prefer to distinguish, as Diana Coole does, between negation as reactive force/Hegelian abstraction and negativity as critical disintegration of the positivity of the real- a perspective that in fact agrees with Noys' call to rescue negativity as part of critical-radical political ruptures).
The beginning of the bombing campaign now led by NATO marks a remarkable torsion in this counter-revolutionary wave, in which localized operations to neutralize revolutionary upheaval have now been folded upon an imperial mandate. And the paradox is notable. In Libya, the imperial counter-revolution is presenting itself as protective of an insurgent population and is unleashing its firepower on the forces that kicked off the counter-revolutionary wave. But the paradox, while real, fades upon closer examination. The imperial counter-revolution in Libya aims to crush the Gaddafi counter-revolution not to salvage the revolution but to neutralize it more effectively and claim a moral high-ground in the global propaganda machine. It is an attempt to assert imperial sovereignty in spaces torn apart by revolutions; an attempt to make sure that any post-Gaddafi government does not dare challenge the imperial order of things.
Already inspired by the Libyan counter-revolution, the ruling elites in Bahrain and Yemen were further emboldened by this military intervention by their global patrons and weapons-suppliers. Well-aware that Obama’s calls for the respect of human rights are hollow and do not apply to loyal US clients, they joined this wave by unleashing massacres on the streets at the exact moment when the first barrages of US, French, and British missiles and bombs were hitting Libyan soil. That Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to contribute to the repression of dissent in Bahrain also signal that we are indeed witnessing a regional counter-revolutionary wave involving international forms of cooperation. Tunisia and Egypt seem to be in a more liminal situation, in which revolutionary resonances on the streets are still strong enough to put some limits on current state attempts to contain them. Elsewhere in the region, this counter-revolutionary convergence and its subordination to an imperial mandate was embodied by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar: sending military forces to Bahrain to help crush the revolution and to Libya to help enforce the no-fly zone. This wave may have different and convoluted local materializations, but its patterns point in the same direction: restoration of imperial sovereignty.
My colleague Max Forte at Zero Anthropology has argued that the imperial military intervention against Gaddafi means that the Libyan Revolution is now dead. I cannot really say that is the case, given the volatility and unpredictability of everything we have seen so far in the region. But the revolution is certainly very seriously compromised, for the ideologically-vague leaders of the insurgency are now willing clients of global powers and, as several reports indicate, are now receiving assistance from CIA operatives on the ground as well as praise from the US neo-cons.
But what interests me here is the salience of imperial velocities in the spatial form of the counter-revolution. The same way that revolutions are movement and acceleration (as Paul Virilio has argued), counter-revolutions are machines of de-acceleration: they try to slow down and halt revolutionary fervors. These machines of de-acceleration work at different spatial scales: the deployment of high-speed weapons systems that can outpace enemy vectors, the production of militarized striations in space to prevent the expansion of revolutionary unrest, and the creation of striations on the internet and in networks of instant communication that aim to dissipate insurgent affects. Imperial actors are actively working on all these fronts.
The most apparent strategy of de-acceleration is the display of imperial military velocities. The bombing of Libya by jets and missiles is both an act of violence set to slow-down the Gaddafi military machine and a global spectacle: a reminder that imperial speed and might can rapidly disrupt the state velocities of individual nation-states. These velocities, limited to the smooth space of the skies, cannot defeat on their own well-entrenched forces on the ground. As is clear after two weeks, the air strikes may not be enough to lead a disorganized insurgency to victory. But they have changed the temporality and spatial shape of the conflict and created a marked de-acceleration of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary speeds on the deserts of North Libya.
And in having a trans-continental reach that enables them to strike anywhere on the planet (Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan), these speeds also affirm that the whole globe is under imperial sovereignty: that there is no outside of Empire, as Hardt and Negri have argued. But Derek Gregory would add that these imperial interventions also produce a new outside: places of barbarism in need to be disciplined by civilizing violence, the same way that the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan create those geographies as opaque, barbaric enclaves outside of the civilized global order. This spatial folding produces spaces of exception: spaces in which bodies become what Agamben called homines sacri: bodies that can be killed with impunity by imperial forces. And to add a spatial dimension relatively absent in Agamben's analysis of the state of exception, these bodies can be thus killed because they are in a space of indistinction, outside and inside of Empire at the same time.
The clash of imperial, state, and insurgent velocities now taking place in Libya also help us understand that the power of the latter, which I examined in The Speed of Revolutionary Resonance, depends on the spatial terrain in which they operate. When the bombing campaign began, the Libyan insurgency was about to be crushed by rapidly advancing armored columns encroaching on Benghazi. The rebels had been routed partly because they had confronted an arboreal, centralized, and faster military machine in the open: in the smooth space of the desert. In that wide-open, flat terrain with few places to hide they were easy targets of tanks, artillery, rockets, and particularly jets.
There is a historical paradox in this weakness of a non-state, mobile insurgency in the smooth space of a desert. For many centuries, smooth spaces such as deserts, prairies, and steppes were the most favorable terrain for what Deleuze and Guattari called the nomadic war machine: the mobile military assemblages that historically challenged state power in central Asia and parts of South and North America. At that time, the maximum speed of the nomadic war machine was the same of state-run cavalries: that of the horse. This parity in speed often allowed non-state cavalries to outpace and outmaneuver regular troops through rhizomic patterns of dispersion, multi-polarity, and swarming. With the hegemony of the state in the control of high-speed weapons and systems of communication since the late 1800s, this old salience of rhizomic speeds to confront the state in smooth space has been shattered. Smooth spaces such as flat deserts are now terrains in which rhizomic insurgences can be easily outpaced and destroyed by state militaries. Yet it is also the space in which state velocities are most vulnerable to imperial air power, as the Libyan tanks destroyed on desert roads by French, British, and US jets clearly illustrate.
It is not surprising the only place where the Libyan insurgents put up a more effective fight was in their defense of the city of Misurata in the west, where they have managed to withstand relentless waves of attacks due to their dispersion in a dense, striated urban fabric. Modern armed insurgencies only stand a chance against regular armies in striated space: jungles, mountains, cities, or rugged terrains. A major reason why the rhizomic velocities created by the multitude on the streets of Egypt outmaneuvered the state was that they took place in intricate urban terrains. This striation allowed for multiple patterns of dispersal and multi-polarity in response to police repression that enhanced the multitude’s rhizomic speed. This is why regular and imperial militaries dislike and fear counter-insurgency operations in opaque, rugged spaces. And this is why (as Eyal Weizman has analyzed) the Israeli Army has drawn on Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about smooth and striated space to smooth out urban space in military operations in Palestine, by opening large holes in walls and buildings in their attempts to outmaneuver and disorient mobile clusters of Palestinian fighters.
Yet the weakness of the Libyan insurgency is not reduced to the terrain. Most observers on the ground agree that this is an enthusiastic but inexperienced, poorly armed and trained force, which reminds us that resonant bodies alone are never enough to topple the state. History is full of examples of extraordinary revolutionary upheavals that were destroyed. Old questions of organization, training, and coordination are decisive in the transformation of massive conglomerates of resonant bodies into an affective political force. But another weakness of the Libyan insurgency is that it does not seem to have exploited its rhizomic form. By and large, its main actions seem to be reduced to caravans of pick-up trucks with mounted machineguns and rocket launchers moving up and down the main road along the coast of the Mediterranean, both charging ahead and retreating at high-speed. Theirs has been a mobility and speed fixed in the narrow space of a single road: visible and predictable. But the power of insurgent rhizomic velocities, as the case of Egypt shows, has always been multi-polarity, spatial saturation, dispersion, opacity, and unpredictability. In fact, it is the Gaddafi regime that seems to be rapidly adapting to the aerial power of imperial velocities by incorporating some of the rhizomic moves that have defined seasoned guerrillas. The Independent, for instance, reported the recent use of “guerrilla techniques” by small pro-Gaddafi units that ambushed and destroyed vehicles of revolutionary fighters and promptly disappeared.
Elsewhere in the region, the counter-revolutionary de-acceleration is apparent in the creation by the state of multiple spatial striations that aim to slow down the spread of unrest. An emblematic case is Bahrain, where the recent crackdown has included setting up myriad military checkpoints and the saturation of the relatively small national space with military forces. The militarized striation of roads has long been favored by states fighting insurgencies (from El Salvador to Iraq) and is ultimately a strategy of de-acceleration and control over movement. An infamous example of the slowness these checkpoints create is the maze of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, examined by Derek Gregory and Eyal Weizman. And in Bahrain and elsewhere, this attempt to restrain, slow down, and control the movement of bodies is further enforced by massive arrests, curfews, and bans on demonstrations.
The counter-revolution is also fought on the internet: a space that is indeed, as Julian Assange recently put it, “the greatest spying machine ever created.” This global machine exposes billions of the devices to sophisticated technologies of state-corporate surveillance scanning the web, like the eye of the panopticum, for signs of suspicious activity (a reality captured by a good number of Hollywood movies). In the Middle-East, Facebook has been a double-edge sword that has allowed for rapid coordination among activists but also revealed to the state the identity of activists, leading to myriad arrests from Egypt to Bahrain. Secondly, as analyzed by Jillian York, filtering technology (Websense, SmartFilter, Netsweeper, Cisco, manufactured by corporations in the United States and Canada) is used by multiple states in the Middle-East to block-off access to particular sites, eroding the rhizomic speed allowed by the internet through the creation of powerful striations originating from arboreal nodes. And the counter-revolution has also involved using these nodes to inundate the rhizomic channels of the internet with propaganda: from disseminating messages on Facebook (as the Mubarak regime did), to developing software that allows a single person to create multiple fake identities and post pro-US comments on discussion boards (as revealed by The Guardian), to the recent rise of suspicious tweets in English with false information seemingly coming from Libya (analyzed by Max Forte).
Max Forte rightly observed in a comment on this blog that while North Africa and the Middle-have been engulfed since January in high-speed insurrections, many parts of the world are still defined by “the stillnesses of everyday life, the non-moving grain of local circumstances.” And indeed, multiple striations and local political circumstances create very diverse patterns of political speed in different parts of the world. The counter-revolutions now gaining momentum in the region aim to create a similar stillness, to roll-back the insurrections to the days when political slowness dominated the public spaces of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Syria. But political and affective terrains have shifted too dramatically to allow for a unilinear restoration. It was precisely the closure of the streets as a space of protest by the state, Armando Salvatore recently observed, that pushed many Egyptian activists to create affective connectivities on the internet that eventually allowed them, years later, to reclaim the streets and wrest them from state control.
A particularly potent moment of the counter-revolution in Bahrain was the destruction by the state of the Pearl Monument, the focus of huge demonstrations against the regime and the main node of revolutionary resonance in the nation. “We did it to remove a bad memory,” said the Foreign Minister of Bahrain, candidly revealing the fearful affects that inform their counter-revolution. The bad memory that the Bahrain elites tried to conjure away by tearing the monument down is the power of that place to attract and inspire resonant multitudes. It is also the bad memory of Tahrir Square, the spatial node of the Egyptian Revolution that haunts these elites like a nightmare. Yet in turning the monument into ruins, they have now produced a powerful absence, a ghost: a negativity that has charged the square with even more affective and political power. A similar negativity has haunted Tiananmen Square in Beijing since the 1989 massacres, which requires that the Chinese regime keep a tight security apparatus on the square around the clock. In his book The Funeral Casino, Alan Klima asked how long must the Chinese police occupy Tiananmen Square to continue suppressing commemorations and demonstrations. “Forever,” he answered. And he added, “No one can control forever.” Contingency and unpredictability are part of the nature of politics. But it is very likely that the day multitudes force the regimes in China and Bahrain to loosen their grip on the streets, Tiananmen Square and Pearl Square will be both reborn again as nodes of political resonance.