The Universal Army

What is the link between the military question and political visions? In order to break out of capitalist realism, Fredric Jameson proposes an „American utopia“ – which he refers to as the Universal Army. As to be expected, the US Army plays an essential role in his proposal. This convergence of armed forces and emancipation appears to be quite odd at first glance, but this only goes to show that the military question is a blind spot for the present Left. We axiomatically oppose military interventions and saber-rattling, but we’re far from being in a position to have a say in such matters. What is really our practical response to militarism and impending wars? How do we concretely react to worsening conflicts, the increasing geopolitical isolation of Europe, NATO’s 2 percent rule, recurring calls for a European military, etc.?

Of course, the easiest and most convenient answer is complete and full disarmament, or technically the dissolution of the military. But this demand can only ever be a bluff, for what is the military in its essence? In the final instance, when push comes to shove, it is the true power of the state, the highest level of state-monopolized force. With the military, wars are conducted and revolts are smashed. So as long as the existence of the state itself is not even minimally endangered, it would be ridiculous to wish for the dissolution of the military, let alone demanding it from the state. Thus, the question is not how to eliminate the military but rather how to approach it so that its original purpose is undermined; i.e. how we prevent military conflicts and – as Jameson imagines – transform the army into the foundation of a new society. Ultimately, it all comes down to a minimal but far-reaching demand, which radical Leftists in Europe must propose: The establishment of a European military with universal conscription.

The post-industrial proletariat

The reason we lay stress on the military is linked to structural changes capitalism has been undergoing for now at least five decades. During the classical age of industrial capitalism, factory halls and unions were the starting point for socialist agitation. For obvious reasons, this strategy is outdated. In post-Fordist society, the industrial sector is only a marginal part of the economy, and likewise, factory workers are only a marginal part of social stratification. The power of unions has diminished irreversibly, both as it concerns their numerical size and their once radical nature. What we were able to identify as the worker movement in the past is today technically dead. Wage workers organized in unions do not experience the same working and living conditions as the overwhelming majority of people. In a society within which economic and social dispositions are as diverse as in ours, the equivalent of the old worker movement is the political movement, uniting the masses.

To add insult to injury, traditional wage labor in general and guaranteed employment more and more turn into a privilege. If the existence of the precariat and the phenomenon of permanent unemployment teaches us one thing, it is that unemployment is today the normal state and employment the exception. Digitalization and automization render an ever-growing part of the population „dispensable“, as the labor force required to reproduce the economic structure of capitalism is reduced to a bare minimum. Hence, it’s fashionable to prattle on about „overpopulation“. Wage relations or surplus value production and the exploitation it entails, comprehensively analyzed by Marx, do not delineate the central antagonism of today’s capitalism anymore. The area of political agitation can thus not be reduced to the work environment but must occupy a more abstract dimension.

Is Marxism therefore buried? It’s true that nowadays the traditional factory worker is not abstract enough to embody the infamous concept of the proletariat. But instead of rejecting it and reducing it to the empirical contents of industrial society, our task should consist in rediscovering the essential form of the proletariat: What we can identify as the proletariat in the epoch of digital capitalism is even more abstract and thus even more fundamental to the concept of the proletariat than the industrial worker was able to be, on a superficial level. The proletariat embodies the miserable state which the bourgeois perpetually flees from, and which the dying middle classes threaten to descent into. It represents the ultimate deadlock of society: We can detect it in those precariously employed in bullshit jobs, in the ghetto dwellers, in a word: the excluded. Excluded from the inside of Sloterdijk’s cupola, which does not only separate the Third World from the First but also within these worlds the dispensable masses from privileged, „polite“ society. Excluded through new forms of apartheid, gated communities, etc. The proletariat is the „over“ in „overpopulation“.

In industrial capitalism, the germ of socialist collectivity was to be found in the factory environment. Workers were mustered by means of spatial centralization, which enabled them to directly organize in unions to tackle their shared conditions of life and suffering, and the routine of clocked work units as well as the distribution of responsibilities through technical division of labor gave them a sense of discipline necessary for the organization of a socialist movement. The movement had to be just as machinic, disciplined and organized as a factory. With the flexibilization of work and the emergence of precarity, entailing postmodern culture and the atomization of society, the least common denominator of the enterprise has been lost. Today, the preparative form of a self-conscious mass is the army.

Capitalist Strike

The Universal Army = political mobilization of the (European) people while staying true to its proletarian elements. Just as the success of an armed force depends upon the individual engagement of each soldier, disciplined and organized in order to carry out collective actions for a common aim, in a socialist movement each participant is individually responsible for its collective advance. The political struggle mirrors the military struggle in many respects, the movement learns to adapt its strategies, perfects camouflage where it is demanded, instills confidence in its constituents to carry on, etc. For the Universal Army, the people exists for its own sake, while capital exists at the expense of the people. For the Universal Army, there are no dispensable people, no overpopulation, for an army is only as good as its soldiers and every subject is a potential soldier in the Universal Army. This is the significance of „army“. Of course, it is necessary to discard the bellicist connotation of an interventionist force, to turn the military functions away from geostrategical aims and redirect them to the construction of a new society which includes the excluded masses in a common political universality. For this reason, geostrategical intervention is transformed into intervention in the social domain, progressive institutions – which in part are already existent within the military (e.g. the health system of the US Army or the emergency aid of the Bundeswehr) – extended and supplemented.

Whose state?

In order to exert control over the military functions, it is first of all necessary to colonize the military apparatus by means of formal inclusion, i.e. by means of conscription. It is the nature of a volunteer army not to be a basis for a social mass movement. Instead, it primarily attracts wealthy, patriotic reactionaries and selects soldiers according to their efficiency. We cannot call on the masses to infiltrate the military, for as long as we’re dealing with a volunteer army, individual entry remains a purely personal, ethical decision with no political significance whatsoever. Collective political actions regarding the military are impossible as long as the people are excluded from its structures. Insofar as individual soldiers desert, it would be impossible to link it with the masses, who are not involved in the military institutions. Renegade soldiers can be easily replaced by more loyal volunteers, eluding meaningful political controversy. A formal conscription, on the other hand, incorporates the masses into the internal structures of the military apparatus and concedes to them formal power over it.

Given the possibility of impending wars and growing nationalism, there is no risk in reintroducing conscription, as if there is the danger of sending masses to the frontline as cannon fodder. On the contrary, especially because of this it is all the more urgent to include the masses in the military and give them authority over weapons and institutions in order to build a practical opposition to military interventions. Both the nature of warfare as well as the composition of the military has fundamentally changed due to technological advancements in recent decades. Mechanization of military functions and modern weapon systems render traditional mass infantry outdated. Foot soldiers only fight in combination with high-tech systems (drones, AI) and weapons with high rates of fire, with the result that relevance and size of infantry decreased drastically. The age of trench warfare is over: Nowadays, enormous troop sizes are inefficient as it concerns the execution of the military functions, and think tanks are aware of this. Ending the draft was part of US president Nixon’s program in order to undermine the protest movement against the Vietnam war, which has reached such a powerful level only because the masses of American society were impacted by it.

The first modern dissolution of private militaries was carried out by the same revolution which also ended French absolutism, introduced political modernity and became the model of all further revolutions of the world which strived to eliminate feudal structures. France introduced conscription in 1793, when Austria and Prussia declared war on the Revolution. We shouldn’t view this simply as a pragmatic measure but as a democratic achievement, for it expanded the political framework of mass participation in the Revolution by the military institutions. It’s not an accident that the privatization of the military comes along with the rise of neo-fascism: The historical locomotion of today’s social totality tends to a technocratic order which transforms formerly political controversies into technical matters for „experts“. The people with its „bias“ are an „impediment“ to the decision processes it is increasingly excluded from. One has to conceive the privatization of the military in a wider context, which is the general tendency of today’s world capitalism we can characterize as the „industrialization of the state“ and its bodies: Not only the military, but on top of that, increasingly all further functions and institutions of the state apparatus are becoming privatized and commodified at the expense of public control.

What we learn from the increasing fascination for authoritarian states, or „capitalism with Asian values“, and growing popularity of the mindset „if you’re not happy with it, leave the country“, is this: The global threat we are confronted with is what the neoreactionaries from Silicon Valley uphold as a „patchwork system“ of small, business-like city states wherein the only guaranteed right is the right to leave, such that territories are consumed like commodities and lack any kind of political dimension. The future of capitalism is a neofeudal world order.

This is why the struggle for a united European continent goes hand in hand with the struggle for a common transnational military. The Universal Army is a direct response to the particularism of philistine „rogue states“ and the technocratization of politics. The Universal Army is democratic, for democracy is not just defined by legal rights but first and foremost by the real power of the people, the real influence it can wield. As long as „experts“, volunteers, outside of public liability and control, carry out the military functions, interventions remain purely technical matters which elude political controversy. Every opposition to wars which ignores that is futile. It’s easy to dismiss interventions, if one is not in the position to decide on war and peace anyway: Abolition of conscription does not entail individual freedom to escape imposed military service, but rather impotence, exclusion, imposed submission to the geostrategical interests of the government. Those who oppose universal conscription necessarily tolerate that voluntary experts and private mercenaries hold the whip hand – and practically supports war. Universal conscription means democratization of the military apparatus, for it carries the antagonisms of civil society into the military, opens up the space for meaningful opposition to war and forces the masses to constitute themselves as a political subject.

Dual Power

Mere control over military institutions simply for the sake of preventing war will inevitably touch upon fundamental questions regarding the essence of democracy, and it would inspire a revived understanding of it. The struggle for people’s power over the military apparatus revolves around the question: Who is really entitled to exercise state-monopolized force, and in whose interest? The governments in their own interests, the same governments which already lost the trust of the masses, or the European people in the universal interest of the people? The masses are no longer alienated from state power, but instead wield it themselves, as a collective. State power transforms into something the people are themselves responsible for. Against the backdrop of the militarization of the police, too, the Universal Army is the reclamation of the people’s power, self-mastery of the masses: Politics ceases to be concerned with decisions which influence people, and is now concerned with the ability of people to influence decisions. The universal army as it were turns into a „state within the state“, competing against the legitimacy of the governments. Its motto is: We ourselves are capable of governing ourselves, and in maintaining this our position, we are ready to take on the official institutions of the state.

BPP police patrol

For this reason, the Universal Army will not stop with mere control over interventions. This is our minimal demand, but it plants the seed for establishing autonomous structures, providing everyday support etc. and spawning a new political culture. The Universal Army turns from a (geostrategically speaking) inefficient military into a self-regulatory parallel society, increasingly diverging from the official government and instead building separate institutions. The details of these structures are open for debate and have to be adjusted to real political developments. Nevertheless, we might propose a provisional program:

1. Opposition to war and jingoism is possible only by means of militarization of the masses. Establishment of a European military with universal conscription of men and women. Restricting responsibilites of national forces culminating into their complete dissolution.

2. Self-empowerment of the people is possible only by means of militarization of the masses. Actually transferring state-monopolized force into the hands of the people, i.e. the army, by means of disarming police and private forces.

3. Universalizing privatized „expert knowledge“ and constituting the people as a political subject is possible only by means of militarization of the masses. Universal practical and technical weapons training so that the masses have access to and control over the weapon systems. In addition to technical education, political education, organization and mobilization of the masses.

4. Ensuring social policies is possible only by means of militarization of the masses. The Universal Army is the political mobilization and empowerment of the excluded masses, which have been degraded to the status of dispensability by capital. As a response to automization and the ideology of „overpopulation“: Universal Basic Income on the condition of membership in the army regardless of nationality and citizenship. In addition to this, universal job guarantee in accordance with the structural necessities of the army.

5. Public control over infrastructure is possible only by means of militarization of the masses. Military infrastructure of all kinds, communication systems, motorways etc. gradually turn into public property of the army.

6. Free movement of individuals can be guaranteed only by means of militarization of the masses. Demolishing „Fortress Europe“ by assigning the responsibilities of Frontex to the army. Not only „cultural“ but also political integration of refugees by including them in the army. The European people is not a particular group but an abstract category, defined by a political universality which everyone has access to. For this reason, the people identifies refugees as a part of itself.

7. Confrontation of the ecological crisis is possible only by means of militarization of the masses. Merging the military with the European Space Agency. Extension of emergency aid and formulation of concrete plans for impending catastrophes which cannot be avoided anymore. Prioritizing geo-engineering over space colonization. Providing scientific education by ESA.

The Universal Army is not reducible to its empirical contents. What makes it democratic and radical is the form of the army, which is nothing but the successor of the party movement: It is just as political as a party but it is more specific, insofar as it also connotes mobility and orientation of its body (the masses), which is not associated with the term „party“ anymore. It develops a political culture which lays the ground for a socialist society. It reduces the state to a bare minimum, transforming it into a body everone belongs to and which everyone is equally responsible for. In short, the Universal Army is the realized force which recognizes the identity of the struggle for democratic standards and the overcoming of capitalism.

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