Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Imperial Presidency

            The confirmation that everything we write, say, or do electronically is being "recorded" and stored in giant databases indicates that the aggressive expansiveness of the planetary surveillance apparatus does not tolerate the existence of places beyond its reach. This is precisely how Hardt and Negri define the globalized system of sovereignty they call Empire: as a spatial totality "without outside." Empire marks, in this regard, not just a new territoriality that overrides national territories but the planet-as-territory. And while Empire began forming two decades ago with the global triumph of neoliberal capitalism, it has only coalesced as a mature political entity under the Obama presidency. This presidency is not simply the heir to the old, nationally-based US imperialism; it presides over something much larger and planetary in scope, forged in alliance with military-political nodes from all over the world: a spatially expansive project to make the totality of the planet observable, controllable, and subservient to a neoliberal ontology of profits.
            The Obama presidency has further consolidated Empire by removing the last political and spatial obstacles that prevented an unrestrained deployment of imperial violence and surveillance on the totality of the planet and the whole of humanity. The constitutional protections from abuse of power by the sovereign that were enshrined by the bourgeois revolutions of the late 1700s (the right to trial, the right to privacy, etc.) managed to create for a few generations a relative spatial sanctuary from the terror that imperial forces regularly unleashed overseas. This relative sanctuary exempted US citizens from what imperial forces have always done directly or by proxy in places like Vietnam, Guatemala, or Afghanistan: detaining people without trial, assassinating them, or having their homes and personal communications submitted to permanent surveillance. These privileges enjoyed by a few hundred millions of people (among the billions of the whole of humanity) have now been terminated by an imperial sovereign that no longer tolerates limits to his capacity to decide who must die. The "kill lists" regularly approved by Emperor Obama, in short, have no bounds and no restraints, and are solely dependent on his own will as absolute sovereign power. A legion of imperial assassins and drones are being permanently dispatched to all corners of the world following Obama's "thumbs down" signal. The best expression that we are witnessing not simply a transition but a rupture in global geographical configurations is the fact that recent TV shows like The Wire (with cops seeking warrants from a judge to set up a wire) and movies like The Bourne Ultimatum (with US intelligence officials going to jail for ordering the assassination of US citizens) have become quaint, disjointed relics from another era. Old forms of racial, class, and imperial privilege will not vanish overnight, for it is easier to “take out” civilians in the mountains of Pakistan than it is in New York City. But the violent repression of the Occupy movement in New York and in the rest of the United States submitted many white, middle-class US citizens to the type of police brutality (coordinated by the FBI and involving 8,000 arrests and hundreds of people injured while in police custody) that in previous years was usually restricted to poor African-Americans. This erosion of liberal notions of citizenship marks a key threshold, and a rupture, toward the historically novel and totalizing territoriality of Empire.
            The rise of an imperial architecture of surveillance and militarization is a major project of counter-revolutionary engineering. While official propaganda seeks to distract the public by insisting that the current hyper-surveillance is a response to “Islamic terrorism,” the latter poses no existential threats to Empire. In fact, the main impact of "terrorist attacks" has been to empower the global elites and make a fearful public more amenable to their will. The internet and mobile communication networks are being militarized because they have become the channels of much more threatening forces: multiple anti-imperial, anti-elite, and anti-neoliberal movements that have appropriated and politicized the open-ended spatiality of communication networks to disrupt, challenge, and interrupt the material currents and flows of Empire. This anti-elite appropriation of the internet had a profound political impact on the streets (in North Africa, southern Europe, North America) and in the breaching of the secrecy of the security apparatus (Wikileaks, Anonymous). The attempt by the Obama presidency to tame the internet and turn it "into the largest and most powerful surveillance system ever created" (as Julian Assange rightly puts it) is not simply an effort to curb political dissent, as in China or Bahrain; it is a profoundly imperial gesture that seeks to expand its controlling gaze over the totality of the globe. The fact that the Obama presidency has consistently supported state terrorism against demands for democracy and social justice from Bahrain to Honduras and that it has expressed open hostility against countries marked by grassroots, egalitarian, and anti-capitalist sentiments like Venezuela confirms that Empire is, above all, a machinery guided by the ontology of profits of the global capitalist elites. The main vector that reproduces this spatiality with no outside is violence in its material capacity to destroy and mutilate human bodies. “Imperial sovereignty means that no point of space or time and no element of the biopolitical tissue is safe from intervention” (Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War, p. 157).  
While acknowledging the immense power of the surveillance apparatus of Empire enthusiastically co-generated by corporations and state agencies, we must not lose sight of the political weakness that its existence reveals. The global panoptic reveals that the bourgeois elites of Empire are fearful of the opacity that is constitutive of the planet (I examine this opacity in my post Opaque Zones of Empire). The panicked, knee-jerk reaction by the many pundits who demonized NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden also reveals that the elites’ fear of the opacity of the world is proportional to their fear of losing the opacity they feel entitled to. The articles by Jefreey Toobin at The New Yorker and David Brooks at The New York Times, for instance, reveal, first, that these elites are lying through their teeth and therefore seek to destroy the message by killing the messenger. Most tellingly, they consistently defend their Orwellian imperial state with an Orwellian double-speak. Both Toobin and Brooks argue that Snowden is an “enemy of transparency” for demanding transparency and that he “broke the law” for revealing that the Obama presidency has systematically violated the US Constitution. Orwell’s 1984 is not simply an allegory of the present: it is the present of a planetary machinery obsessed with making every space observable while waging war in the name of peace. The fact that the presidency that regularly approves "kill lists" was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is not, strictly speaking, a contradiction. This is how the global elites see imperial terror: as a civilizing campaign of pacification. Yet we should resist the techno-fetishized aura of God-like inevitability that the media projects onto this powerful Imperial Eye. All empires in human history, after all, are sooner of later reduced to rubble. And the paranoid Imperial Eye that is obsessively scanning the whole world fears the planetary and human immensity that it will never be able to fully visualize, control, and apprehend. 

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