Immanent war, immaterial terror

Edited transcription of the author’s address to Antonio Negri in June 2004 at Birkbeck College, London.From its very inception, the contestation of liberal modernity has involved the refusal of the biopolitically constituted forms of peace that liberalizing regimes inculcate within and among the populations they govern. Subject to the imposition of their ‘zero time of peace’ we are compelled to retrieve and create anew the ‘time of life’ (Negri: 2003, 123). This is the grand paradox of liberal modernity that Foucault’s original account of biopolitics in The History of Sexuality first exposed. Founding themselves upon the challenge of the mastery of war in the name of a commitment to the promotion and enablement of life, liberal regimes are being shaken to their core today, animated by a fear and insecurity at life’s refusal to submit to techniques aimed at its pacification. Founded as a project based upon the pursuit of peace, liberal modernity reconstitutes itself in the form of an endless terrorization of life’s radical undecidability. Life’s aleatory immeasurability initiates a biometrics of security. The time of life is suborned to the regulation of a biopolitics that functions in accordance with the degenerative powers of the norm. Zero time begins, constitutive time ends. Those institutions, practices and processes of subjectivation, indivisible from liberal strategies for the mastery of the problem of war within society, can only be understood in this context as a form of the terrorization of human dignity, where time is lived constitutively.
In this paradoxical context, which we might more realistically describe, after Achille Mbembe, as necropolitical (2003: 11-40), it is imperative not only to continue to join in the longstanding critique of the martial strategies of liberal peace but also to reinvigorate our understanding of the immanent necessity of war to the limitless movements of life that liberal peace attempts to block through its incessant pursuit of biopolitics.2 This is the precise foundation of a counter-strategic response to the impositions of liberal techniques of discipline, control and regulation that has empowered a tradition of thought which stretches back as far as Clausewitz and Nietzsche. This tradition is most readily identifiable in much of the later works of Foucault, as well as others who have adapted their own polemologies against liberal peace from him – most notably, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, as well as Antonio Negri.3 In turn, this is also the form of argument we see empowering the renewal of radical democratic traditions of ‘politics as war’ in response to the current onslaught of liberal terror defined by the global extension of biopolitical techniques of control, shaping the responses of liberal societies to their new insecurities.4 For a better grasp of what is at stake in this present conjuncture, we must therefore reverse the terms in which this struggle is being articulated, and speak of the prosecution of ‘Terror on War’. The concept of war refers here to what is most material and immanent to the dignity of human life, and the concept of terror – to that which is most abstract from it. Far from representing a war upon an immaterial abstraction as its discourse otherwise suggests, this is a conflict incited by an immaterial regime of biopower dedicated to the terrorizing of life’s most material instinct – war.5 

If the discourse of peace was fundamental to the consecration and development of biopower in the modern nation-state, it has become as – if not more – fundamental to the increasingly biopolitical forms of regime that have now exceeded the traditional form of the nation-state. These biopolitical forms of regime now function as the bedrock of a globalizing order, in the name of the extension of which terror is being conducted today. The global control of populations via technologies deriving from the molecular and digital revolutions, the targeting of the natural life of individual bodies through biometric techniques, hail the formation of biopolitical regimes that are in the process of establishing new thresholds of strategic virtuosity.6 Contesting the globalizing tendencies of those biopolitical regimes which now exceed the traditional nation-state form necessarily involves not only refusing their most fundamental value of peace and exposing their foundation in terror, but also engaging in the further and decisive act of retrieving the constitutive dignity of war as the font of life. In this sense it means not only contesting the ways in which peace has been formulated as a response to the political problem of war – formulations which have themselves been, and continue to be, constitutive of the failures of modernity to realize in any tangible sense its foundational ideal of peace – but also insisting on the retrieval of the irreducible force of war that liberal regimes attempt to capture and put to work in the reproduction of their docile social orders. The current conflict provides clear testimony to both these paradoxical features: liberal regimes’ propensity to terrorize populations into submission and the irreducibility of the force of war to the vagaries of terror. If the current prosecution of Terror on War represents the vainest of attempts to trap the movements of war within the narrow confines of a biopolitical account of human being, as well as testifying to the decrepitude of the liberal ideal of a pacified humanity, it also bears witness to the indissolubility of the warrior class.

Such idle talk in support of war and its warriors is, of course, likely to be misconstrued. In preemption of such misunderstandings we would do well to remind ourselves of a crucial but oft forgotten distinction, that between warriors and soldiers. Foucault it was who first drew attention in Discipline and Punish to the military origins of all disciplinary and biopolitical systems of subjection and regulation. This biopolitical machine for the production of social civility, which liberals called into being in the name of peace, has developed only in the context of a form of regime founded upon the ability to reduce the warrior’s dignified immeasurability to the calculated uniformity of the soldier. Biopolitics was prefigured by the development of the disciplines, which meant that 

by the late eighteenth century, the soldier had become something that could be made: out of a formless clay, an inapt body, the machine required could be constructed; posture was gradually corrected; a calculated constraint running slowly through each part of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning silently into the automatism of habit; in short, one had ‘got rid of the peasant’ and given him ‘the air of the soldier’. (Foucault, 1991: 135) 
Those disciplinary techniques for the reduction of the war instinct to an aptitude for logistics via ‘the supervision of the smallest fragments’ of the bodies of men all derived from the new military systems of organization that emerged in the eighteenth century, the development and refinement of which have haunted the passage of liberal societies from war to terror. It is only slowly, through the gradual dissemination of civility throughout society as a whole, that we have become subject ‘in the context of the school, the barracks, the hospital or the workshop’, to this paranoiac system for the ‘mystical calculus of the infinitesimal and the infinite’ (Foucault, 1991: 140). ‘I see many soldiers: if only I could see many warriors!’ remonstrated Nietzsche (1969: 1974). How sorry, for old Friedrich, that he did not live to see the gay denizens of Falluja; they who did not flinch in resisting the contingencies of the forms of logistical connectivity otherwise insisted on as universal and objective conditions for the generation of civil and pacific life forms. 

If we must not forget the martial genealogy that accounts for the upright bearing of our civilities and proprieties, neither must we surrender that immanent force of war which biopolitical regimes attempt to martial to extinction. In answer to this injunction the counter-strategic tradition finds its voice. Its call to arms is incessant – from Foucault’s own exhortation to an ascetic ‘combat’ of the self (1992: 63-72), to Deleuze and Guattari’s construction of a counter-concept of philosophy to wage ‘war against past and future wars’ (1996: 160), to Hardt and Negri’s multitudinous intervention in their construction of a grand ‘civil war’ of modernity between order and desire (2001: 74-5). As liberal modernity problematizes life’s undecidability as the source of the problem of war, and as the development of biopolitical peace takes the form of a terrorization of the very condition of being alive, we have as often sought an answer in the return to and an insistence upon war as a condition of possibility for the expression of life. Faced with the grand paradox of the experience of a liberal modernity in which the promise of a world devoid of violent differences forces us in a fundamental sense to choose sides, we who object have literally followed suit and attempted to choose sides. The martiality of liberal biopolitics revealed, the pursuit of a response to the phenomenon of liberal terror has assumed the form of a war of resistance against the imposition of this insidious biometric violence. As such the question rendered is that of how to assume war as a condition of possibility for the constitution and generation of life. What form does life take when peace is no longer its foundation but its enemy? What form does being assume when war is the determinate condition of its possibility? What is the temporality of war when the decision for war is life’s aleatory throw of the dice?

Yet are we perhaps tiring of the marshalling we subject ourselves to when we succumb to such endless polemologies? For some time the temptation has been to respond to such paradoxes by inverting the terms in which the problem of war is traditionally posed by those modern formations of power that have sought peace. War is nothing other than a political instrument, declared Clausewitz (1993: 77). His apparent insistence upon the subordination of war to politics has functioned as the principal formula for the strategy by which political sovereignty delegitimizes questions over the terrorizing techniques with which life is marshaled biopolitically to surrender the autonomy of war to its protector. In opposition to this strategy of sovereignty, Deleuze and Guattari have exhorted us to think the concept of war as the ‘pure form of exteriority’ that life assumes irrespective of the sovereign’s duress (1996: 354). War is not simply the mythical condition of a state of nature which legitimates the political relationship of sovereign to subject and which biopolitical regimes declare as their basis for the administration of life. It is the speed of a force of movement that political sovereignty ceaselessly fails to capture in performing the kinds of biopolitical manoeuvres upon which forms of civil pacificity are built. And in response we are necessarily exhorted to pursue the intensive counter-state of an abstract ‘war without limits’, which Clausewitz evoked in his more sublime moments.7 It is precisely this heretical reading of Clausewitz which empowered Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualization of war as antithetical to State power. And it is in turn they who have inspired the more latter-day attempts of Hardt and Negri to reground war as a condition of resistance to post-nation-state formations of Empire.8 

Foucault’s ultimate significance in this context is, however, of another order altogether. How long, he asks in Society Must Be Defended, will it be until we recognize the limits of the invocations of these imperatives of counter-strategy?9 How long until we tire not so much of the old-fashioned demand for neutrality but of this perpetual parlor game of proliferating divisions, minor offensives, sieges and snares that enslave the counter-strategic tradition? Is there no idiom imaginable to life other than this endless wiring of force relations and incessant generation of war’s limitless potentialities? Regardless of the challenges to the disciplinary techniques and biopolitical management for the manufacture of subjectivities that this insistence upon war’s exteriority affords, it is today as necessary to raise questions about the limits imposed on the potentialities for life when such an ontological account of being as time of war is mobilized as politics. If the peace that political sovereignty sanctions and upholds is a historically and politically contingent disequilibrium of force relations, then one means to contest that peace is to disturb its martial genealogy, to pervert its order and disinter its pathologies. The biopolitical figures in this context as the residual forms which life assumes once political sovereignty renders the labour of immanence constituent, conceivable only in the context of the existence of the insurrection of immanent struggles against the forms of transcendence that biopolitically sanctioned forms of life necessarily acquire. In this sense all of these post-1968 messianic refrains aid ultimately the sustenance of the regimes of biopolitics they would otherwise claim to undermine. Forces of immanent war and biopolitical regimes of immaterial terror exist in the form of a confrontation, yet the development of biopolitical modernity has only ever functioned as the sign of the tragic labor of immanence, not simply of the weakening of modern forms of political sovereignty but of the intensification and dissemination of the biopolitical imperium – ‘produce at all costs’. The commodity of this biopolitical production, which Hardt and Negri endorse fully, resembles nothing more than the kind of living death evoked by Farquhar’s ‘Peace’ so exactly above, and which in turn provokes a grim symbiosis with the mis en scène of a Musab al-Zarqawi home video (Hardt & Negri, 2004: 94-5).

In attempting to think the temporality of war we subject ourselves to that same slavish imperium of biopolitics: 

One can summarize in the following manner the imperatives of the immeasurable for the singularities that constitute the multitude: do not obey, that is be free; do not kill, that is generate; do not exploit, that is constitute the common. In other words you will be able to decide the common. (Negri, 2003: 258) 
When will the tireless duty of ontological labor, the demand to know the temporality of war itself, incite the challenge of a concept of living that exceeds such biopolitical imperia? This is the ultimate demand of Foucault to his counter-strategic peers. It is one by which he realizes the essential logic of war, rather as Hannibal did in enveloping the Romans at Cannae, and destroys those grounds of enunciation from which virtually everything he had enabled himself to argue previously had been declared.

It would be wrong, then, to read these final words of Foucault on the problem of the relation of war to biopolitics as a simple demand for the reassertion of a pacifist politics. Neither is it a call merely to clarify the boundaries that define the differences between a newly legitimate democratic violence and the illegitimate wars of sovereign powers. Such demands only ever lead, as they do so perspicuously in Hardt and Negri’s most recent Multitude, to tame insistences upon the resubordination of violence to politics (2004: 342). How ironic that such a heartfelt project of the deterritorialization of the war-instinct should lead to the adoption of a position in respect of the problem of violence which pulls precisely the same manoeuvre of delegitimization that consecrated the sovereign power of the nation-state! And how demoralizing when the repentance of war provides the discursive grounds for the constitution of a ‘new race’ whose ‘accomplishments’, they tell us, must be defended (2004: 356, 344). The problem of war becomes, at this conjuncture, utterly intractable. Immanent war begets immaterial terror.


1 This is an edited transcription of the author’s address to Antonio Negri in June 2004 at Birkbeck College, London.

2 For a different account of the martial politics of liberalism see Michael Dillon (2003) ‘Intelligence Incarnate: Martial Corporeality in the Digital Age’. Body and Society.9, 4: 149-68.

3 Most significantly in The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 (1990: 92-102). The ‘strategic model’ of power that Foucault portrays derives from his claim that ‘it is one of the essential traits of Western societies that the force relationships which for a long time had found expression in war, in every form of warfare, gradually became invested in the order of political power’ (102). See also Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1999) A Thousand Plateaus .London: Athlone Press, 351-423; Antonio Negri (2003) Time For Revolution. London and New York: Continuum, 122-26.

4 See, for example, Miguel Vatter, ‘Politics as war: a formula for radical democracy’, http?//

5 A much neglected yet valuable discussion of the relation of war to the instincts is to be found in Edward Glover (1935) War, Sadism & Pacifism. London: George Allen & Unwin.

6 See Michael Dillon & Julian Reid (2001) ‘Global Liberal Governance: Biopolitics, Security and War’. Millennium: Journal of International Studies.30, 1: 41-66.

7 Clausewitz (1993: 85). While Clausewitz is almost exclusively remembered for his dictum that war is nothing but the continuation of politics with other means, his more fundamental definition of the concept of war was that of ‘an act of force’ to which ‘there is no logical limit’. 

8 On Clausewitz’s influence upon Deleuze and Guattari see, A Thousand Plateaus (1999: 420-21). For a more extensive analysis of how Deleuze engages with Clausewitz see also Julian Reid (2003) ‘Deleuze’s War Machine: Nomadism Against the State’. Millennium: Journal of International Studies. 32, 1: 57-85.

9 Foucault (2003) Society Must Be Defended. London: Picador. See especially the first lecture of the series, pp1-19. There can be no doubt that Foucault understood one of the foundational remits of the series to be the laying down of a challenge to the conceptualization of war as a condition of possibility for resistance to political sovereignty, a point that was developed by Deleuze and Guattari in their two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 


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Dillon M. & Reid, J. (2001) ‘Global Liberal Governance: Biopolitics, Security and War’. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 30, 1: 41-66.

Dillon, M. (2003) ‘Intelligence Incarnate: Martial Corporeality in the Digital Age’. Body and Society 9, 4: 149-68.

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