Book of the Week: Escape Routes (2): What is postliberal sovereignity?

Book: Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos. London: Pluto Press, (2008)

We presented this book here. Today, our excerpt discusses a new form of power in the network age.


“Postliberal sovereignty is neither a substitute, nor an alternative, nor the next stage of transnational sovereignty. Transnationalism is an integral component of postliberal sovereignty. The concept of postliberal sovereignty allows us to recognise the formation of emerging hegemonic projects which make up the space of transnationalism in the beginning of the twenty-first century (Greven and Pauly, 2000). The commonality between transnationalism and postliberal sovereignty is that both deal with the aporias of constitutionalism, that is, they both attempt to solve, on a global level, the national crisis of the double-R axiom. The difference between them is that transnationalism is inherently apolitical; it pretends to solve the problem on a simply horizontal level, while postliberal sovereignty inserts hegemonic political claims into the global horizontal space. Transnational sovereignty presents a solution for the problem of rights and representation by adding dynamism to the borders of national sovereignty. Historically borders were lines of demarcation between national sovereignties. Transnationalism implodes these demarcation lines and reinterpellates, on a global scale, the participating actors of national sovereignty in many different ways (Brenner, 2004). Transnational sovereignty merges national spaces and their actors with other international players into a unified horizontal plane by asserting arbitrariness in the way borders are established (Castells, 1997). Borders are no longer by definition the limits between national sovereignties; rather – as discussed in Section IV – they are erected wherever there is a need to solve and to organise social space and political governance (Larner and Walters, 2004; Rigo, 2005). Consider, for example, the emergence of the new virtual European borders in North Africa – borders erected to control the flow of migration into Europe by maintaining aspiring migrants in externalised camps or internal borders erected in the heart of metropolises of Global North Atlantic countries. Making and remaking borders in a contingent way was the strategy transnationalism deployed to solve the crisis of the double-R axiom.

Postliberalism appropriates this solution – and in this sense postliberalism is also the heir to the crisis of sovereignty and relies on the same organisational substratum as transnationalism. But postliberalism attempts to initiate a strategic rearrangement of the transnationalist horizontal and networked organisation of space: in the midst of an even plane of global action it establishes vertical aggregates of power. The break occurs when postliberalism leaves nationalist imperialist geopolitics behind irrevocably. Instead it uses the global transnational space to install dominant hegemonic alliances which cannot be simply reduced to the imperialist geopolitics of entire nation states.

Rather these new postliberal aggregates reconnect different segments of nation states and different social actors who have emerged in the phase of transnational governance into new condensations of power. Although postliberal sovereignty feeds on the horizontal transnational order of power, it introduces a new hegemonic strategy with a project of global corporativism. Postliberalism involves the verticalisation of horizontal transnational geopolitics. Transnationalism is the legal algorithm of post-Fordist, neoliberal globalisation. And in this sense, transnationalism is hegemonic on a global scale. What postliberal sovereignty does now is to hegemonise hegemony, that is, to insert and realise conflict in the hegemonic project of transnational neoliberalism. In the years from 1970 to 2000, we used to think of the neoliberal globalisation which transnational governance made possible as a more or less unifi ed project of domination on a planetary scale (Held, 1995; Urbinati, 2003). However, the concept of postliberal sovereignty is an attempt to contest this position and to trace the internal conflicts and ambivalences of this project.

The globalisation of transnational neoliberalism can no longer be characterised as a bloc of global power; this notion does not help us to understand or to gain any purchase on the political constitution of the present. Although it is the hegemonic form of geopolitics today, the globalisation of transnational neoliberalism is not unified. Rather it contains conflicting alliances of diverse interests which try to dominate the process of transnational neoliberal globalisation. In this sense, postliberal vertical aggregates attempt to appropriate the space which was created by transnational governance and in so doing they conflict with other vertical aggregates attempting to do the same. The concept of postliberal sovereignty gives us the possibility to move beyond a simplistic understanding of globalisation as a matter of dominant neoliberal forces being opposed by the rest of the world. Rather global domination is itself a diverse and conflicted process. The conflict emerges through the formation of vertical aggregates which try to seize more power with the global unfurling of transnational neoliberalism.

The Making of Vertical Aggregates

The figure of the BMW plant in Leipzig illustrates this verticalisation of horizontal relations and terrains. The social is not only constituted out of horizontal layers of different actors, whether these be social classes, interest groups, or social subjectivities. The social consists of vertical aggregates containing and intermingling segments of social classes, groups or subjectivities into large formations which coalesce along an imagined commonality. These social bodies condense economic, technoscientific, political and cultural power and control decision-making processes. They are unlike the social structures we have known up to this moment. There are no clearcut social institutions, social classes or associations of civil society interacting in the making of polity. There are no people (Volk) in the BMW plant (Figure 9). We rather observe the emergence of legitimate players consisting of many different bits of all these various actors and which together constitute social bodies vertically traversing society and its institutions.

There is nothing left over from the base–superstructure formation of political power. There is nothing left over from the politics of difference and subjectification. Neither ideology, nor discourse. The politics of difference of the 1980s and 1990s intervenes in the given conditions of representation, renegotiating and rearticulating them under the imperative that resistance is possible. Cultural politics, post-feminist positions, queer mainstreaming, radical democratic approaches – all have revealed that the given systems of representation generate the effacement of certain differences (the migrant, the queer, the subaltern, the excluded) and they have introduced a new subversive strategy of visibility. But these times are over. The crisis of multiculturalism, the difficulties of aligning queer politics with other social movements, the occupation of postfeminist positions by neo-essentialist understandings of what women are, the obsession of radical democratic approaches with the question of formal rights, all these mark a phase of stagnation of subversive politics and its absorption into the vortex of neoliberal thinking. The politics of difference fails to grasp how actors participating in vertical aggregates are detached from their original indexes. These actors do not refer to themselves as members of collective interest formations (social class, ethnicity, gender, etc.). Their self-understanding and their agency are not derived from what they are but from their position in particular vertical aggregates. For instance, in Chapter 8 we discuss the vertical alignment of the transnational pharmaceutical company, Baxter, and the Indonesian Ministry of Health. Because this alignment arose in response to the seeming acceptance of unequal access to vaccines for pandemic influenza on the part of those most deeply involved in coordinating global preparedness for a pandemic, there has been considerable sympathy for Indonesia’s move from countries of the South. However, Indonesia does not represent the collective interests of these countries in their alliance with Baxter; in fact the alliance excludes them, and potentially poses a risk to the health of those living in countries which cannot pay for vaccines.

Vertical aggregates are by no means solidified, unchangeable, closed systems. They are rather interactional entities, neither open nor closed. They are open to the extent that they can assimilate the actors necessary for their functioning and the retention of their power, and closed as much as is necessary to protect their existence. In the previous chapter we identified the network as the functional principle of transnational sovereignty. The figure of a network promises unlimited potential for connectedness. But the promise of the vertical aggregate lies more in its becoming and holding together a series of different actors, akin to the pluripotence of stem cells which might develop into a valued body part or into a cancerous growth (Waldby and Mitchell, 2006). Stem cells entail the possibility of transforming into almost any other cell, but engage in this transformation by creating ‘colonies’ made of different kinds of cells, colonies which close their porous boundaries, and by creating a tight division between their becoming and all that is excluded by it (Figure 10).

The cultures of assemblages of stem cells serve as a paradigmatic figure of how artificial postliberal aggregates arise to be able to respond to the ad hoc needs of a certain situation. If the network was the emblematic image of the political organisation around the turn of the new millennium, cultures of stem cell lines now become the image of political organisation as we move towards postliberalism.

Postliberal aggregates carry neither the modern fetish of wholeness, nor the postmodern obsession with partiality. It is not so much that the state disappears or that transnational processes and institutions take control. We know that states play much harder now than at many other times in history. And we also know that patriotisms, fundamentalisms, new nationalisms play a crucial role in the makeup of current geopolitics. The difference is that the state ceases to act as representing itself, it splits itself, and certain parts of the state participate in broader social aggregates. It participates by articulating interests, wills and political views and by linking with many different, selected segments of social classes, social groups, associations of civil society (such as trade unions, customers organisations, pressure groups), local business companies, transnational companies, non-governmental organisations, international governments, transnational organisations. These aggregates use the cultural politics of patriotism, nationalism and fundamentalism in an arbitrary way, not because these politics refer to a nationalist ideology, but because they help to maintain the coherence of the aggregate. The main objective of postliberal sovereignty is to articulate, in a positive way, a not-yet-represented commonality of the actors participating in a postliberal aggregate.

The emergence of vertical aggregates of this kind constitutes a renewed form of corporativism, a form which attempts to get rid of totalitarian ideas and of any commitment to a liberal democratic organisation. Here we do not mean corporativism as the domination of local or multinational companies and economic trusts in decision making. Rather, we use it in the Gramscian sense, to denote a form of social organisation which attempts to resolve the crisis of state power and its inability to govern effectively by developing new modes of regulating social institutions (Gramsci, 1991; Sternhell, Sznajder and Asheri, 1994). Such neo-corporate social regulation cuts across established social interests vertically aligning segments of distinct class, interest and social groups with each other.

This mode of organisation can be illustrated by comparing how neoliberal and postliberal modes of social regulation function.

Neoliberalism responded to the nation state’s inability to deliver on its promises of rights and representation through the centralising powers of the state, by introducing the need for actors to demonstrate responsibility before they could make claims on the double-R axiom (Bayertz, 1995). The neoliberal imperative to demonstrate responsibility works to break the coherence of distinct social groups or class: individuals’ attempts to claim rights are dissociated from their belonging to segments of a particular group or class. Neoliberalism can be understood as a doctrine of governance that opposes protectionism, interventionism and central economic planning in the modern state, and rehabilitates the individual as the historic subject of the modern era, combating conservative preference for traditional collectives or socialist humanist visions (Wallerstein, 1995). Milton Friedman summarised it as early as 1962, saying that ‘a liberal is fundamentally fearful of concentrated power’ (Friedman, 1962).

In contrast, postliberalism takes distance from this doctrine. In postliberal conditions neither the centralised government of the state nor the individualising principle of neoliberalism are seen as effective ways to organise polity. The principal figure of postliberalism is neither state nor individual; rather, it is new aggregates of power which articulate and incorporate particular segments of the state together with certain individuals or segments of social groups. Isaiah Berlin’s (1958) two concepts of liberty are turned upside down and fi nally neutralised in postliberal conditions with the emergence of a new concept of political organisation which neither wants to minimise state intervention nor to maximise individual selfdetermination.

This is the reason why we call the current condition postliberal. It moves beyond the liberal principle of the individual and beyond any form of political organisation which finally sees state institutions as the guarantors of individual freedom. Hence, in the scheme of postliberal power we have neither state supremacy and omnipotence (as in national sovereignty) nor self-governed actors (as in transnational sovereignty). How have we come to this? How has postliberalism evolved out of these two forms of political order? As the constitutionalist structure of modern national sovereignty retreats, the practices of neoliberal governments create the conditions for the emergence of transnational governance. In transnational neoliberal conditions, connecting and realigning particular segments of social groups on a horizontal plane on the basis of common global normative principles becomes the predominant mode of governance (Commission of the European Communities, 2001; Rosenau and Czempiel, 1992; Castells, 1997). In transnational sovereignty, governance signifies the erosion of the boundaries which delineate individual self-governed actors as well as the limits of constitutionalism. Governance is post-constitutionalist, that is, in a scene populated by many different self-governing actors, governance is the way to achieve a common mode of functioning. In other words, global action and the coordination of multiple self-governed actors is not made possible by common observation or by following some predefined or abstract principles imposed by a central authority. (Such organisational processes pertain to government in conditions of national sovereignty.) Rather, in transnational sovereignty, governance involves regulating the search for and allocation of normative principles and this occurs in the absence of any predefined authority which holds on to some foundational principles. These normative principles are developed ad hoc through intensive processes of negotiation between participating self-governing actors. It is through the process of governance that self-governing actors are able to co-exist and operate effectively in conditions of transnational sovereignty. Thus, we can now sketch two modi of polity: first, national sovereignty, which operates through the process: state – foundational principles – government; second, transnational sovereignty, which operates through the process: self-governing actors in relation to state and non-state institutions – ad hoc normative principles – governance. With the emergence of postliberal sovereignty there is no longer

either a centralised statist apparatus or a fl uid network of negotiation and regulation. In other words, neither government nor governance. The project of postliberal sovereignty attacks the search for ad hoc normative principles. For example, zones of exception in which human rights are deactivated or are only partially extended are sanctioned or created without prior negotiation; wars (Afghanistan, Iraq) are fought despite the fact that they are not grounded in a set of normative principles which legitimise them (here, the second Gulf War is an emblematic event of a postliberal vertical aggregate of power). Such attacks serve to install hegemonic claims into the geopolitics of governance. In fact vertical aggregates bypass governance. They interrupt the process of governance and instead they impose a series of actions whose sole legitimisation is the simple fact that vertical aggregates have the power to do them. Consider, for instance, how the ‘coalition of the willing’, refusing the UN, split transnational space (incorporating some actors, such as Halliburton and Blackwater) and split nations (with military forces being sent to Iraq despite the strong opposition of the majority of people they are supposed to represent). Not only does postliberalism interrupt the horizontality of power by installing vertical aggregates at the horizontal level, as we described earlier. It also renounces the liberal foundational principles of polity and strives to install a set of eclectic principles whose only aim is to solidify the internal coherence and alliances of the vertical aggregate.

Of course this leads to paradoxical political configurations which, if we were operating in conditions of national or transnational sovereignty, would result in non-government: consider for example the mix of economic liberalism and neo-conservatism in the United States, or the new white supremacist politics of Howard’s Australia, the blend of democracy and Western fundamentalism in European societies, etc. Vertical aggregates close down the horizontal, ‘open’ social spaces occupied by self-governing actors involved in transnational governance, and consolidate new hegemonic modalities of power which come to colonise these spaces. Postliberalism employs a strategic selectivity as it works on the level of horizontal geopolitics installing dominance in the, by definition, unstable and decentralised global space of geopolitical operations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century and after more than 30 years of neoliberal transnational sovereignty, postliberalism changes the political constitution of the present. This shift occurs in tandem with a second, the radical reorganisation of global social actors and of the way they enter into and sustain global postliberal vertical alliances. We want to show this in two examples, one from Europe and one from the United States.”

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