→ First published in Italian on June 8.
The time is out of joint— O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together.
The war has sparked stupor for what appears still possible today. On the one hand, we should not be surprised: if we look at events with non-European eyes, the war has never really left us, but has only camouflaged itself behind the trick of a Western-driven globalisation. However, those who today are recovering categories encrusted with the past, such as ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’, are not doing a good service to a movement which, in order to practice a politics of peace, must deals with a changing transnational space. The problem is not only lexical and not even historical, but political. It is not 1914 and capitalism is not in its highest stage which is a prelude to some 1917 to be confidently awaited. Rewinding the tape of history, with the pretence of guessing even its direction, is of little use for probing the possibilities of the present. If anything, the alleged return of imperialism, or of rival imperialisms as it is used, must be measured on the growing savage, transnational disorder produced in recent decades not only by the free movement of capital, but also by the struggling movements of living labour.
Faced with these movements, imperialist schemes are out of focus. These end up inflicting on us a geopolitical cloak that prevents us from going through this disorder productively. It is then a matter of identifying current points of tension to think about the relationship between the war and class struggles out of the certainties of past analyses.
Nonetheless, the ghost evoked must be questioned. It has the features of Lenin and his theory of imperialism, or the coincidence between the centralisation of political command and capital around the state. While the state became capital’s vehicle indulging its craving for accumulation, capital presented itself as an aggregate of financial monopolies, which took charge of the national mobilisation for imperialist wars and collaborated in the colonial government of Empires by supporting states’ power politics. In fact, just a few months after the revolution, Lenin defined imperialism as a “superstructure” of capitalism. Anyone who even remotely knows the misadventures of the term ‘superstructure’ in Marxism, realises that imperialism was no longer capitalism’s highest and definitive stage for Lenin, but something more complex and contingent. After the revolution, ‘imperialism’ identified the line of clash between the capitalist and socialist states. However, the socialist state no longer exists, and the capitalism of (all) the States is not based on the centralisation of financial resources by banks. Reviving the imperialist system would therefore require a thaumaturgical gesture: it would mean to revive the sovereignty of the nation-state and to bring financial capital, which is no longer anchored to nationally rooted banks, back within this territorial horizon. With the liberalisation processes that followed the end of Bretton Woods, capital emancipated itself from national grounds and increasingly parted with state power. States, in turn, tried to survive the great changes of the 1970s by giving up parts of their sovereignty.
Capital and state no longer share the same fate, either imperial or otherwise; rather, they are in a functional relationship whose rules are never completely given, final, or supreme.
Unless we give credit to the ideological junk of the democratic, liberal, and capitalist West fighting against autocracies and their oligarchic state capitalism, the war in Ukraine has certainly not reproduced some organic union sacrée between capital and state. As such, those reviving ‘imperialism’ depict it as a mere politics of power, thus reducing the intertwining of politics and economy either to a dichotomy between markets and nation-states or to one between globalisation and reactive or hegemonic ‘sovereignisms’, depending on the situations.
This is not to say that there are no attempts to realign state and capital in various areas of the world. All in all, both state and capital act according to command logics deployed against those subjects who would like to free themselves from those commands. What is missing is an imperial logic that unifies them, synchronising in a stable and lasting manner the contracted movements of the state with capital’s agility to move on world markets – either financial or otherwise. The globalization of the 1990s and early 2000s unsettled the historical relationship between state and capital that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has not and cannot reconcile. Nor could the wars that preceded the Russian-Ukrainian war. These were all expressions of transnational conflicts that couldn’t be resolved simply with international agreements between states. In this sense, these conflicts proved the reality of the adolescent fantasy of a smooth global space, capable of reabsorbing every contradiction in itself. The misunderstanding of the return to the national and the sovereign – a precondition for reactivating imperialist logics – lies in looking at the present with lenses devised for a time in which Clinton and Blair argued that the progressive motion of globalisation was a “natural force”, and that questioning it was tantamount to debating whether “autumn should follow summer”. The autumn of globalization has finally arrived, but this does not mean that we must return to the winter of nation-states that enlist capital in their imperial designs. Rather,
a peculiar reconfiguration of the state is currently going on. States now act as platforms. Their political command combines government and jurisdiction, which are however limited by the intermediations and attempts of coordination of different powers and subjects – public and private; state, supra-state, and regional. This results in a hybrid and mobile assembly that contributes to define the transnational space by meeting and often clashing with other platforms.
The relationship between state and capital must be constantly stitched together in an inevitably provisional way. This surplus of politics, which is required to rein into the transnational wild, is commonly mistaken for the return to the national. In truth, not even the oligarchic form of Russian capitalism involves an immediate alignment between state and capital. While the energy sector is reaping extra-profits due to the war, at the same time the conflict has frozen Russian financial assets and prevented Moscow’s companies from accessing Western markets, which are essential to equip themselves with the technology needed to run big business. Yet, Moscow is not merely appropriating new resources, labour, territories, and world market hubs in Ukraine and offering them to Russian capital. Since neither Russian capital flies a national flag, the Kremlin-led state-platform has been working for years to create an environment of exchanges that includes China, India, and some parts of Africa. In this way, the same capital rejected by Atlantic sanctions is provided with a favourable exit route to valorisation.
Behind the new security policies deployed by either the NATO bloc, Russia, or China, then, lies an attempt to reproduce an alignment between capital and state. The latter, however, is forced to chase the movements of those capitals that seek and find the greatest opportunities for valorisation on a transnational level. This is the plan that either NATO’s new Strategic Concept, Moscow’s ‘Indivisible Security’ strategy, or Beijing’s ‘Global Security Initiative’ seek to regulate. On the one hand, NATO’s Strategic Concept will be approved at the end of June and will make the North Atlantic Alliance a platform of platforms, not only by overlapping military cooperation and economic partnership but also by extending them beyond the sole members of the alliance. On the other, both Russian and Chinese plans aim to redesign an area of commercial, energy, and financial exchange with those subjects penalised by the globalisation of the late Washington consensus.
However expansive these platforms may be, their reach remains limited compared to the transnational projection of capital. The resulting realignments are therefore unstable and tend to produce frictions that spill over into international relations which are constantly buffeted by winds of war.
Despite the Afghan failure, President Biden has recently gone to an arms factory to remind us that democracy is defended with Javelin missiles and that the American workers must therefore be proud to produce them. We might have been spared some second-hand rhetoric if Sleepy Joe had not watched Dr Strangelove late into the night. Whether or not Biden has just learned to love bombs or already loved them, in the Atlantic West the realignment between capital and the state is passing through an ideological attempt to reaffirm a nexus between capitalism and democracy – to which we can add a dash of green, which never hurts these days. The call for the (Green) New Deal, which resounded on both sides of the Atlantic to fend populists and sovereigntists off, is however something more than a Cold War days legacy. The New Deal serves to evoke a nexus between capitalism and democracy that, in its external projection, is affirmed through relocation policies of world market’s material basis. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls these “friend-shoring policies”. They imply supply chains’ redesigns, not to shorten but to develop them within an area of friendship, that is among those sharing common liberal-capitalist values to which trade must conform. The aim is to prevent some global villain, whether his name is Putin or Xi Jinping, from holding pieces of the production and distribution chains hostage by generating those shortages responsible for current inflationary dynamics. Affected by both US tariffs and the effects of the pandemic on supply chains, China has in fact lost $50 billion foreign investment. In order to circumvent the limits imposed by the trade war with the US, Chinese capital itself is beginning to turn its back on the Central Committee in Beijing and take the road to Vietnam, a destination that is now tempting American and other capital. Invoking “values” to regulate capital is a sign that the means to control it are insufficient. Similarly, invoking “friends” is not such an easy task as it was in the past, since there is no longer any iron curtain separating friends from enemies. As Secretary of State Blinken has repeatedly stated, the US aims not so much at blocking Chinese development, but at shaping the environment in which China has to make decisions, following the “invest, align, compete” strategy that is announced as the feature of transnational policies in the near future.
The end of imperialisms also means the end of a policy of (commercial and industrial) friendship in which friendly states are merely an external projection of the imperial centre. In other words, the project to realign capitalism and democracy – or capital and state – to reconstruct the primacy of politics, appears marked from its inception by structural flaws that condemn it to contingency.
While similar industrial policies are also emerging on this side of the Atlantic, the difficulty of realigning capital and the state has become apparent in the long stalemate around EU sanctions to Russia. This makes it clear that the nexus between capitalism and democracy is triggering a short-circuit rather than producing a coherent order. In this sense, it reveals the contradictions inherent in the supposed primacy of politics, disclosing capital’s influence over Brussels institutions. The defence of democracy, which today has the tired face of a second-rate thespian, may have its good points; however, when faced with galloping inflation, European companies are not prepared to accept risky manoeuvres that cause commodity prices to skyrocket, even in the light of supply chains’ turbulences. The energy transition itself, whose impact on inflation was already fatalistically accepted by the ECB in the autumn, has to deal with the necessities of capital. It is always convenient to have a pro-Putin scapegoat in the European Council, but the fact is that Italian PM Mario Draghi’s conundrum “peace or conditioners” is very complicated to resolve, especially if we consider not only private energy consumption but industrial consumption and, more generally, the conditions of profitability of industrial investments. At the same time, the material conditions of a war that is increasingly taking on a worldwide scope, show how even rivalries between different alliances are forced to reckon with the contradictory logics that intersect within platforms. Russia continues to supply energy to a European economy that cannot do without it, in anticipation of an ecological transition with unclear contours and above all unclear deadlines. At the same time, Europe continues to supply Moscow with capital to continue the war. The supposed primacy of politics thus is caught in the transnational paradox whereby even to wage war, states must give up fragments of their sovereignty.
More than in rival imperialisms, the roots of the current conflict and potential future conflicts are to be found in the dissolution of the global order that since the 1990s claimed to delocalise not only production, but even armed conflicts. This dissolution does not simply bequeath a multipolar world but marks the disintegration of the material constitution of a never-born empire. In place of the global order, a wild transnational disorder has settled in, in which what is lacking are not only rules, but subjects legitimised to produce them. In this respect, sovereignisms have been failed attempts to fill regulatory gaps by reactivating sovereign devices incapable of establishing an order other than the populism of capital.
The only order that is today possible – which is only possible because it is contingent and always on the verge of turning into disorder – is that provisionally produced by platforms, spaces of convergence of economic, military, energy, and ecological policies that are not simply states’ responsibilities. The platform is the form of the global state and its political command: it is a material force that, along with others, must come to terms with the ever-present possibility of war.
In the current turmoil, calls for a new Bretton Woods increase. What is lacking, however, is a monetary backing that would ensure not only its material basis but also its enduring stability. Although it is still the hegemonic currency, the dollar is experiencing increasing difficulty in fulfilling the function of general equivalent that it gained in the American Century. It is being hit hard internally by inflation driven by broken production and supply chains, rising energy costs and, above all, by greedy corporations unloading onto prices the lust for profit that used to find an outlet in financial markets, which are now less favourable than they used to be. Inflation is certainly not due to derisory wage increases, which are more than compensated for by price rises and certainly not enough to cause an inflationary spiral. As the dollar shows its face as a mortal god, its worshippers at the Fed say they will do anything to save it. Such zeal, however, has to reckon with the dual nature of the dollar. The side effect of protecting the dollar as a national currency by raising interest rates is the weakening of its role as a transnational currency. The risk is to send the world economy into recession and push the new friend-shoring partners to other shores and other currencies, especially at a time when Beijing is beginning to challenge dollar’s hegemony. The Fed and its weakened currency thus move in the narrow paths of another transnational paradox, while no one seems able to stop big corporations from indiscriminate price increases. After all, the Fed power has to deal with transnational processes that no central bank can control. What is certain is that the period marked by low inflation and low interest rates that ensured a favourable investment environment and gave impoverished workers access to a whole range of cheap goods has come to an end. All this is thus pressing on the living flesh of men and women.
If the armed security projects promised by the Atlantic platform on the one hand, and the Chinese or Russian platform on the other, take a long time and present unstable balances, the time of inflation, famine, and wars hastens dramatically.
In this world war scenario, we have seen Bangladesh and Tajikistan explode, whose meagre foreign exchange reserves force them to choose between default or the purchase of fuel and medicine. We have seen the crisis triggering riots in Sri Lanka, while Pakistan, shaken by political instability, is caught between debt restructuring and economic aids that keep fuel costs in check. However, this is not something affecting just the global South. In more and more poor houses in London – an old ‘imperial’ capital – the unexciting alternative heat or eat shows up. Times of alternatives punctuated by the rhetoric of sacrifice await us, because after all, the imagination of capital and those who command it is also clichéd. While the geo-political imagination speaks of a security that will never make us safe, there is a non-aligned imagination to be unleashed, cultivated and nurtured, one that is neither hijacked nor dazzled by promises to align capitalism with democracy.
This imagination is being already practiced as a transnational politics of peace, building political connections against the time of war, poor wages, and new and old sexual and racist hierarchies, asserting across fronts and borders the time of our subtraction, organisation, and insubordination.
In this context, the reference to Europe, often evoked in the debates among movements by those who demand greater realism, becomes increasingly unsatisfactory. Reduced and progressively disfigured – in the West, because of Brexit; in the East, because of the enlargement whose features and blackmails the war further highlights – Europe ceases to indicate a potentially viable space in a circuit that is as virtuous as it is problematic, for it should have allowed political actions from below and from above in an expansive and conflictual way. Yet the reference to Europe continues to have a meaning, which changes colour and content according to the situation and has an ambivalent but undeniable circulation, especially in the areas most directly affected by the war.
Rethinking the reference to Europe means removing it from the institutional and territorial perimeters of the present, crossing its borders and putting back at the centre, from West to East, a difficult but real set of political hypotheses and practices.
It will then be essential to stand on the side of migrant women and men who, driven by war and climatic famine, challenge the provisional boundaries of this unstable order. It will be essential to stand on the side of women who challenge the patriarchal order of war, in which even sacrifices are differentiated along sexual lines: in Moscow, Russian mothers become ‘heroic’ because they bear many children to support the nation; meanwhile, in the West, Ukrainian mothers are considered as heroine if they support male soldiers or send remittances to their country that are as necessary today as they will be for future reconstruction. Regarding this, those men and women employed in the production chains overwhelmed by the policies of war and green transition will be essential as well.
This time is out of joint. Who can set it right if not the messy materiality of living labour? We will have to stand among those women and men, migrants, and poor workers who daily practise their transnational politics of peace. We will have to organise ourselves against the new orders resounding amidst the din of bombs, to prevent the peaceful realignment between state and capital that would only be the continuation by other means of the war against them.