Peace-for-war

In the summer of 2002 I wrote a post to nettime called
“Deflation, anyone?” which observed the transformations of
the world economy after the krach of the Internet bubble,
and speculated about the underlying reasons for the emerging
war regime. This led to renewed curiosity about political
economy. However, despite a lot of reading, I was never able
to find anything convincing on the relation between the two.
The text below sums up the impressive theory that I recently
have come across, and goes on to make speculations about a
subject that re-emerged on nettime after the Montreal
conference, namely cybernetics. The video of the lecture,
which I just gave at the Dictionary of War event in Munich
this weekend, is available along with some fifty others at
the excellent website, http://dictionaryofwar.org.
Best to all, BH -The concept I’m going to present draws directly from the
work of Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan. It describes
the economic phases of “depth” and “breadth,” and correlates
them with the first- and second-order cybernetics of
control. It attempts to situate the functions of
cultural-communicational labor within these economic phases.
It questions those autonomist Marxists who thought it would
be possible to transform a broadly expansionary phase of
capitalism, like that of the ’90s, into a qualitatively
different society. It’s not a polemic, but seeks to open up
a field of strategic debate. It doesn’t assert a future, but
observes the unfolding of the present into the depths of
violence, which has robbed resistance movements of their
potential, again. The concept is Peace-for-War.

At stake here is society itself: the really existing forms
of social cooperation. The Argentinean activist, Ezequiel
Adamovsky, writes about exactly that: “Today, the division
of labor is so deep, that each minute, even without
realizing it, each of us is relying on the labor of millions
of people from all over the world.” (1) This lecture, the
words, the images, my voice through the microphone or over
the Internet, is literally brought to you by the labors of
Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe combined. The question
is, what guides the dynamics of our worldwide cooperation?
How is order maintained? And why does this “order” descend
periodically into chaos, as it’s doing now in the Middle East?

Adamovsky points out that nothing encourages even asking
such questions, much less answering them. “In the capitalist
system, paradoxically enough, the institutions that enable
and organize such a high level of social co-operation are
the very same that separate us from the other, and make us
isolated individuals without responsibility with regards to
other people. Yes, I am talking about the market and the
(its) state. Buying and consuming products, and voting for
candidates in an election, involves no answerability. These
are actions performed by isolated individuals.”

Order will not provide a language to explain its chaos. The
essence of contemporary power is to provoke crisis and to
ride it out toward profit, without revealing strategies or
goals. The effect of such huge unknowns is to make people
cling to their identities and their operative routines, for
fear that the public disruption will spread into their
private lives. Without an interpretation of capital —
indeed, of power — there can be no opposition. The first
thing that resistance movements are lacking is a common
language to describe, predict and oppose the maneuvers of
the most powerful groups in the world.

I.
Bichler and Nitzan’s work — and particularly their article,
“Dominant Capital and the New Wars” — tries to show
exactlywhy peace is allowed to become war under the
contemporary political-economic order. (2) Their starting
point is the measurement of value. They recall that both the
Marxist concept of abstract labor, and the notion of utility
in classical economics, claim to designate an objective
foundation of value. But neither of these “foundations” has
ever been measurable. What can be observed and measured in
capitalist society are prices, profits, losses — in short,
money. The fluctuation of prices, profits and losses is the
index of shifts in power relations. In this sense, the
economy is always political, it has no objective touchstone.
What the fluctuations measure is the struggle for
differential accumulation.

Capital in the singular is like the night where all
Cadillacs are black. If power relations give value its
measure, then what matters is beating the average, standing
out from the others. The corporations with the highest rates
of profit (for example, those of the Fortune 500) will be
able to shape the environment in which they accumulate,
either directly, with their own resources, or more
importantly, through collaboration with the state. Such
corporations “make the market,” they impose technologies,
laws, standards, prices. They are “dominant capital.” But
dominant capital itself is not singular. At the heart of
Bichler and Nitzan’s analysis are two different strategies
for differential accumulation, associated with two different
political-economic cultures: one called “breadth,” and the
other, “depth.”

Think of profit as the number of employees, times the
earnings per employee. How does a corporation beat the
average rate? One way is to increase the number of people
working. That can be done by building new capacity,
so-called “greenfield investment.” But too much capacity
creates a glut, and a glut destroys a market. So the more
common route is to buy away the competition, through mergers
and acquisitions. Industrial sabotage, like the politics of
the Treuhand in former East Germany, is a strategy of
breadth. It’s about destroying potential competitors in
order to make yourself relatively bigger. It’s associated
with speculative fever, as corporations double or triple in
market share overnight. But insofar as real capacity does in
fact increase, breadth is also associated with
proletarianization, or the induction of more people into the
global labor force. Like the populations of China, Russia
and India in the 1990s.

The other strategy, depth, means increasing the amount of
earnings per employee. Here again, there are two basic
avenues. One is to cut costs, to do more with less, to be
lean and mean, which has become the watchword of capitalism
— everybody tries it, constantly. But the other way is to
raise prices, even if that causes inflation, and even if
rising prices are accompanied by stagnation of the economy
as a whole. Depth is typically accompanied by stagflation,
which is anathema for the majority of dominant capital. Only
the most powerful corporations can take the first moves in a
strategy of depth. And the only way they can legitimately
raise their prices — that is, the only way they can succeed
in forcing people to pay the higher prices — is to seize
the occasion offered by a crisis, which is typically the
occasion of a war.

Why does a relatively small fraction of dominant capital
periodically succeed in launching a strategy of depth? What
Bichler and Nitzan have done is to show that the major waves
of corporate expansion through mergers and acquisitions have
all reached their size limits, or filled out what could be
conceived as their “envelopes of possibility.” As they
write, “Merger booms tend to ‘hype up’ investors and make
market conditions increasingly fragile as the boom
progresses. Eventually, negative sentiment sets in, making
the market inhospitable for merger till the next reversal in
mood. Furthermore, breaking each ‘envelope’ involves major
legal, institutional and political realignments, and that
takes time. The consequence is that the whole process is
susceptible to major interruptions. It is here that
stagflation enters the picture.” (3)

A graph on page 289 shows four great waves: the monopoly
phase at the turn of the century, the oligopoly phase of
vertical integration in the twenties, the conglomerate phase
of multidivisional corporations in the 50s and 60s, or
finally, the globalization phase of the 90s. The line itself
is the “buy-to-build ratio,” which rises as mergers and
acquisitions outstrip construction. Another curve shows that
from the 1940s onward, a period of stagflation inevitably
accompanies any drop in the buy-to-build ratio. Stagflation
is the sign of depth. Since the postwar period, the two
divergent strategies of dominant capital, breadth and depth,
have clearly become two distinct temporal phases in the
rhythm of accumulation as a whole. Their curves become
exactly symmetrical. But who are the actors of these two
phases? And what are the relations between them?

Bichler and Nitzan don’t have a lot to say about the
high-tech companies and financial actors — or what they
call the “Technodollar-Mergerdollar Alliance” — that
dominated the speculative fevers of the nineties. What
interests them is integrated oil and defense: the
“Petrodollar-Weapondollar Coalition.” Another graph (p. 316)
shows how its share of global net corporate profit grew
tremendously during the stagflation of the ’70s, when the
Middle East replaced South-East Asia as the focus of the
global arms market and the OPEC embargoes helped Western oil
majors extort record prices at the pump. What’s at stake in
the Middle Eastern wars is neither the rarity of oil
resources, nor the scramble to control them, nor even the
cost of obtaining them. What’s at stake is the capacity of
specific corporations to raise prices against a backdrop of
crisis and uncertainty.

The implication is that at a low point, and particularly
after a long period of decline, the crises themselves could
be allowed to develop, maybe even encouraged, as a sure-fire
path toward the recovery of differential profits. But this
could only be done by actors able to influence the American
state. The Petro-Core, according to Bichler and Nitzan, is
composed of six Anglo-American companies, now merged to
four: BP, Exxon-Mobil, Shell and Chevron-Texaco. A bar graph
(p. 311) shows that since the mid-1960s, every time the
Petro-Core’s rate of return slips below the Fortune 500
average, a conflict in the Middle East will follow. Do you
remember them? The Arab-Israeli war in ’67; then another in
’73; the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan and the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon in
’78; the beginning of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in ’80
and the second invasion of Lebanon in ’82; the first Gulf
War of ’90-’91; the Palestinian Intifada of 2000, the US
invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and finally the Iraq
invasion in 2003. Each time, war is preceded by a drop of
the Petro-Core’s profit rate with respect to the other
Fortune 500 companies. Of course, the oil companies do not
start the wars, whose causes are multiple. But from 1973
onward, each war is accompanied by a significant or even
spectacular rise in the oil majors’ rate of differential
accumulation.

So what type of causality are we talking about? There’s a
difference between this argumentation and the conspiracy
theories that have sprung up concerning the “real events” of
September 11. Consider the film Loose Change, which claims,
among many other things, that a Boeing 757 did not hit the
Pentagon, and that the 16-foot diameter hole in the wall of
the building would more likely have been caused by a cruise
missile: a Tomahawk, fired from an A3 jet, both manufactured
by the Raytheon corporation. (4) This do-it-yourself
documentary has all the vital energy of popular conspiracy
theory — and all the mistakes of what Frederic Jameson once
described as “the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the
post-modern age; a degraded figure of the total logic of
late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s
system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer
theme and content.” (5) Dylan Avery, the maker of Loose
Change, is 22 years old; he came of age at the turning point
of Peace-for-War. Raytheon is almost a hundred years old,
and partakes of a normality that may be worse than
conspiracy. It forms part of what Bichler and Nitzan call
the Arma-Core, or the “Seven Archangels of Armageddon,”
which also includes Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, General
Dynamics, Northrop-Grumman, the British manufacturer BAE
Systems, and the Euro-consortium EADS. These companies, and
their state allies, have a century’s experience in the
politics of depth.

Bichler and Nitzan say nothing about the 16-foot hole in the
outer wall of the Pentagon. They focus instead on the
threat, not just of stagnation, but of outright deflation,
that arose after the collapse of the new economy bubble.
They analyze a Financial Times article of April 2003,
calling on Alan Greenspan to “go for higher inflation” —
which would signify the entry into a regime of depth. (6) As
a sign of political will, they quote a famous declaration
from the neoconservative Project for New American Century,
written in the year 2000, which claims that the process of
transforming the US defense budget is “likely to be a long
one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a
new Pearl Harbor.” (7) Finally, they produce a graph
showing the decline of US defense spending after WWII, from
15% of GDP during the Korean War, to 10% for Vietnam and
7.5% for Reagan’s Star Wars, then finally a mere 3.8% under
Clinton. Is there any good reason these companies would
lobby for war?

You are presented, not with allegations, but with
statistical outlines, behind which you can see the changing
fortunes of specific groups, juxtaposed to the chronicle of
international events. You are given, not the proverbial
smoking gun, but important clues as to possible motivations.
You are asked to decide whether a fraction of American
capital, closely allied with elements of the state and
historically accustomed to exerting a preponderant influence
over the forms and dynamics of social cooperation, would
have any interest in seizing on the events of September 11
as an excuse to re-engineer the entire pattern of
accumulation that had been established during the merger
boom of the ’90s. You are being asked, in effect, whether
there are steersmen influencing the global course of
Peace-for-War.

Today, in mid-July of 2006, after observing in utmost detail
the strategies put into effect by the Bush administration,
after examining its political-economic alliances and the
biographies of those involved, after witnessing the extreme
profiteering of the oil majors amidst continuing Israeli
escalations in Lebanon and Gaza and continuing arms sales to
Israel from the US, many people may be a little less
inclined to doubt the existence of this kind of
steersmanship. (8) So the more interesting question becomes
this: Are anti-imperialists ultimately on the side of the
“Technodollar-Mergerdollar Alliance,” despite our critiques
of figures like Gates and Soros, or of institutions like the
WTO? Would it be possible to “do away with the old economy,”
that is, the economy of industrialized war, as some
autonomist Marxists believe, in favor of a new and better
one? Does the decline of the arms industry represent an
historical chance, a “could have been” that might still be,
with the help of another democratic or social-democratic
government?

These questions, I think, must be confronted with others.
Why did the post S-11 political-economic hijacking by the
party of war, oil and engineering meet with such ineffective
resistance from the other fractions of dominant capital? Was
it, as Bichler and Nitzan suggest, that their prospects for
further accumulation were simply exhausted, by virtue of
their very success in the preceding decades? Was fear of
deflation enough to make them pass the baton? Did all of
dominant capital simply acquiesce in the repetition of a
pattern that had characterized accumulation throughout the
twentieth century? Or would it be possible, for instance,
where the European Union and its separate nations are
concerned, to map out which corporations and key officials
came down on which sides of which dividing lines? The answer
to that question is relatively simple: no one has done the
work, no one knows. But isn’t this kind of mapping what we
would need, to resist the strategies of the major actors who
create the worlds we live in?

In their most comprehensive book, The Global Political
Economy of Israel (2002), Bichler and Nitzan have traced the
transformation of the contemporary Israeli ruling class,
within the context of the Middle Eastern “energy conflicts”
and of their particular role in the political economy of the
world as a whole. (9) This kind of work can show who gains,
and in which ways, from the transformation of the “peace
dividend” back into “war profits.” One of the weaknesses of
the international resistance movements has been an inability
to chart out the oscillations of War-for-Peace,
Peace-for-War. Yet without this capacity, there is no common
language. Each generation’s experience becomes
incomprehensible to the next, as the curves reverse and the
pendulum of differential accumulation keeps on violently
swinging.

II.
Capital, as we’ve seen in the pages above, is inseparable
from politics. It’s what Guattari called “the integral of
power formations.” (10) That means it also produces
subjectivity — differentially, and in diverging phases, as
I’ve tried to make clear. Resistant culture, the kind that
can cross the generations, has to be able to escape these
oscillating phases, to steer outside the political
subjectivity of Peace-for-War. I want to close with some
open questions about contemporary governance, and about
governmentality, that is to say, the rationalities whereby
we shape our own behavior. For this, let’s return to our
departure point, the remarks of Ezequiel Adamovsky. We live
in an age of unprecedented cooperation — but also of
conflict — between isolated persons, mediated increasingly
by computers. The governmental science for this separated
and interconnected age is cybernetics.

The word cybernetics is based on the Greek root kybernetes,
which means “steersman” or “governor.” Its modern coinage is
due to the scientist Norbert Wiener, in his book
Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and
the Machine (1948). This concept has developed historically
in two modes, and perhaps in two distinct phases.
First-order cybernetics corresponds to the formula of
“purpose controlled by feedback,” as described in the early
texts of Wiener and his colleagues. (11) The phrase refers
to the logical structure of efforts undertaken by organisms
to transform the environment in which they evolve, by
gradually altering or “correcting” their own activity, on
the basis of information gathered in the course of the
transformative action itself. The stimulus to automate this
kind of activity was given by nothing other than war: the
need to automate artillery, in order to respond to the
exceptionally fast and mobile action of enemy planes. It was
a matter, in other words, of targeting and eliminating
problems, by setting up circular flows of self-correcting
information. This kind of feedback is negative: it does not
seek to add energy to the system, but merely to correct the
errors on the way to purpose (a pragmatic purpose whose
singleness is elevated, by Wiener and his colleagues, to the
status of “teleology”). The Revolution in Military Affairs,
or even closer to us, the current frenzy over biometrics,
bears witness to this way of thinking, what might be called
government by self-preservation. More broadly, the entire
logistical system of globalized industry and distribution,
then of just-in-time production, is based on this kind of
first-order cybernetics. It may therefore be worth exploring
the hypothesis that as a governmental science, first-order
cybernetics corresponds to an economic phase of depth, and
to situations of violent conflict, where the priority is to
look out for number 1.

Yet the more interesting question, once again, concerns the
phases of breadth, and the varieties of so-called
second-order cybernetics. Take for starters the “system
dynamics” of Jay W. Forrester, developed in volumes of
continually expanding scope: Industrial Dynamics (1961),
Urban Dynamics (1969), World Dynamics (1973). His innovation
was to study the feedback loops that come into play between
distinct systems, each of which are already dynamic and
feedback-based in their own right. In other words, it was
the loops between loops that were to be studied; and this,
in view of transforming the mental maps that each actor has
of the interrelated systems. Forrester, who did his
pioneering theoretical work in the 1950s and early 60s, was
perfectly in tune with the phase of conglomerate capital,
when corporations moved outside their original industries
and faced the redoubtable challenge of inter-branch
management. This was a phase of tremendous expansion, and
Forrester’s models integrate positive feedback, which can be
seen as the cybernetic equivalent of growth. But despite the
continuing use of his studies by industry, there is probably
nothing in Forrester that can interest us philosophically
today — as you might guess from the failure of his project
on World Dynamics, and of the famous Limits to Growth report
to the Club of Rome, published by his collaborators in 1972.

The problem may be that Forrester’s models can predict only
the growth, and never succeed in staging an encounter with
the limits. The problem, in other words, may be that there
is no room for radical otherness in a positive feedback
system. Yet such encounters are the necessary consequences
of a breadth economy, when it entails the induction of
massive numbers of new workers into the capitalist labor
market, as it did in the ’60s — and then even more
extensively in the ’90s.

Consider where positive feedback led. In 1994 the economist
Brian Arthur, linked to the Santa Fe Institute for
complexity studies, published a book entitled Increasing
Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy, in which he
showed how positive feedback into a network can lead to
exponential growth and monopoly positions. This turned out
to be the key theoretical text of the new economy, which was
predicated at once upon the exponential expansion of
networks, and on the monopoly position of those who
establish the technological standards. So here is another
question: whether the expansion of a system through the
circular reiteration of its own potentials can be correlated
with the heavily financialized kind of breadth economy that
was developed during the Internet boom, when dominant
capital invented whole new digitized realms for the
multiplication of its increasingly semiotic wealth. Could
the political-economic agitations of the turn of the
century, including the protest movements in which some of
participated, have been an inevitable culmination of this
semiotic expansion? If this were true, then the speculative
krach of the years 2000-2001 would appear as a classic case
of uncontrollable oscillation, exactly as Norbert Wiener
describes it in his early work on servomechanisms, when he
speaks of a hunting pattern that spirals out of control in a
steering device whose excessive feedback corrections cause
it to overshoot its own marks, worsening the situation with
each new attempt at resolution. (12) This would seem to be
the destiny of the long breadth phase that came to its
culmination at the turn of the century.

With this, I can reach a provisional conclusion. The present
disaster is its own condemnation; but we have yet to
sufficiently map all the interests that combine to make it
endure. Only a more precise treatment of the collusion
between specific state and corporate actors and an increased
understanding of the two-phase nature of differential
accumulation can provide a common language of critique and
resistance, able to traverse the generations. And this
language will undoubtedly be needed. Beyond the present
moment, perhaps a decade into the future, lies the
possibility of another phase of breadth. If it comes, will
be intensive this time, expanding into the micro-dimensions
of bio- and nano-technologies, as a new envelope imploding
the limits of the global. Such a phase would have tremendous
subjectifying power. It seems to me that as cultural
activists, we have to consider the relative failure of the
attempts to overflow the preceding breadth phase by
introducing more-or-less arbitrary information and
unpredictable behavior into the system. I’m thinking, among
others, of culture-jamming, carnivalesque consumption,
corporate over-identification and the subversive insistence
on the libertarian content of neoliberal slogans. All of
these strategies attempt to outrace what is already a
self-accelerating process of perpetual recombination: they
are a kind of flight before the storm. But a system that
expands by absorption, through fusion and acquisition, with
the delirious ambition of integrating all obstacles into an
infinite multiplication and diversification of the same
basic principles, seems fated not to overflow its own
bounds, but at the limit-point, to reverse into its mirror
opposite: which is a targeting system that works, government
by destruction. How do we transform our models, without
ignoring reality? The inability to map the gyrations of the
same, and to encounter, at their limit, the irresolvable
equation of the other, is what keeps us inside the concept
of Peace-for-War.

Notes

1. Ezequiel Adamovsky, “Autonomous Politics and its
Problems: Thinking the Passage from Social to Political”
(2006);
http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?sid=06/05/25/225244.

2. Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, “Dominant Capital
and the New Wars,” Journal of World Systems Research, vol. X
no. 2 (Spring 2004), available at
http://bnarchives.yorku.ca. All the graphs reproduced here
come from this article. Indeed, part I of this text is
merely an abbreviated synthesis of Bichler and Nitzan’s
major theses, which deserve a wider audience.

3. Ibid., p. 276.

4. Loose Change can be viewed at
http://www.loosechange911.com. Also see the critique,
“Sifting through Loose Change,”
http://911research.wtc7.net/reviews/loose_change/index.html.

5. Frederic Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in Cary Nelson and
Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of
Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p. 356.

6. Inflation plus stagnation are the earmarks of what
Bichler and Nitzan call a depth regime. Currently,
speculations about possible stagflation in the US economy
abound; for the most “authoritative” (or rather, normative)
source, see The Economist, May 5, 2005, “Inflation, the
remix,”
http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3941024.
The Financial Times article urging inflation can be
consulted at
http://road.uww.edu/road/glossers/BusConSP03/BD&PM_FT42403.doc.

7. The PNAC text is at
http://www.newamericancentury.org/RebuildingAmericasDefenses.pdf.

8. Compare the remarks of Chalmers Johnson, the conservative
critic of US empire: “In our society, we don’t want to admit
how deeply the making and selling of weaponry has become our
way of life; that we really have no more than four major
weapons manufacturers — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop
Grumman, General Dynamics — but these companies distribute
their huge contracts to as many states, as many
congressional districts, as possible…. This is state
socialism and it’s keeping the economy running not in the
way it’s taught in any economics course in any American
university. It’s closer to what John Maynard Keynes
advocated for getting out of the Great Depression —
counter-cyclical governmental expenditures to keep people
employed.” Interview by Tom Engelhardt, “Chalmers Johnson on
our Military Empire,” March 2006,
http://www.globalpolicy.org/empire/analysis/2006/03chalmersjohnson.htm.

9. The book, published by Pluto Press, is available in full
at bnarchives.yorku.ca.

10. Felix Guattari, “Capital as the Integral of Power
Formations,” in: Chaosophy: Soft Subversions (New York:
Semiotext(e), 1996).

11. Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, Julian Bigelow,
“Behavior, Purpose and Teleology,” in: Philosophy of
Science, vol. 10. no. 1 (Jan. 1943).

12. “On the other hand, under certain conditions of delay,
etc., a feedback that is too brusque will make the rudder
overshoot, and will be followed by a feedback in the other
direction, which makes the rudder overshoot still more,
until the steering mechanism goes into a wild oscillation or
hunting, and breaks down completely.” Norbert Wiener,
Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and
the Machine (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1965 [1948), p. 7.

Holmes Brian

Critique d'art, essayiste et traducteur, il vit à Paris et s'intéresse aux croisements entre art, économie politique et mouvements sociaux. Il a effectué un doctorat sur les langages et la littérature romantiques à l'Université de Berkeley ( Californie ) et a été l'éditeur en anglais du receuil {« Documenta X»}, Kassel, Germany, 1997. Membre du groupe d'art graphique {«Ne pas plier"} de 1999 à 2001, il travaille depuis peu avec le groupe d'art conceptuel parisien {« Bureau d'études »} avec lequel il a fondé la revue {«Autonomie artistique»}. Il contribue régulièrement à la liste de diffusion {« Nettime »} et collabore à diverses revues : {Springerin} (Vienne), {Parachute} (Montréal). Auteur d'un receuil de textes, {« Hieroglyphs of the Future : Art and Politics in a Networked Era »} ,Zagreb: Arkzin, 2003, il prépare un livre en français : {«La personnalité flexible : pour une nouvelle critique de la culture»}. Membre du comité de rédaction transnational de Multitudes. Il a dirigé son numéro spécial {«l'Art contemporain : la recherche du dehors»}, Janvier 2004, Exils.