Janice Thomson’s Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns (discussed also in the Laboratorium) is about the constitution of sovereignty not (as is customarily stressed) so much by imposition of order within national territories, but by the delegitimation and suppression of extraterritorial violence wielded by non-state actors. In her words, she asks:

How did the state achieve a monopoly on violence beyond its borders that emanates from its territory? What explains the elimination of nonstate violence from global politics? (3; my emphasis)

For, as Thomson recounts at some length, until remarkably recently–the mid nineteenth-century at least–global violence was if anything dominated by non-state rather than state actors. Moreover, this non-state domination of extraterritorial force was for the most part accepted and even sanctioned by states themselves. Why, Thomson asks, should states desire to end this long tradition, especially in so far as it entailed numerous benefits to states both strong and weak?

Thomson provides a categorization of different forms of international non-state violence, from the different modes of mercenarism, to pirates and privateers, and international mercantile companies with sovereign and war-making rights.

Mercenarism, for instance, was endemic within Europe’s armies of the eighteenth century: in 1743, 66% of Prussia’s army was foreign; in 1701, 54% of Britain’s army was non-national; while fully a third of France’s pre-revolutionary land forces were foreign-born (29). Moreover,

Foreigners were not confined to service in armies; navies displayed a similar multinational character. In the 1660s, six thousand French sailors were serving abroad. One-third of the Dutch navy was French. About seven hundred Frenchmen served in the Sicilian navy, and more Frenchmen than Italians served in the Genoese fleet. At the same time, Italian volunteers and “slaves–North African ‘Turks’ . . . Russians, Negroes from West Africa, and a few Iroquois Indians”–worked as rowers in the French navy. (32-33)

Meanwhile, as for mercantile companies such as the English and Dutch East Indian Companies or the Hudson Bay Company, they

were, as a rule, granted full sovereign powers. In addition to their economic privileges of a monopoly on trade with a given region or in a particular commodity and the right to export bullion, they could raise an army or a navy, build forts, make treaties, make war, govern their fellow nationals, and coin their own money. (35)

Thomson notes the survival of some of these traditions, particularly mercenarism both sanctioned and un-sanctioned such as the role of Gurkhas in the British army, the continued role of the French Foreign Legion, and the role of soldiers of fortune in a variety of Africa’s colonial and postcolonial wars. But her point is that by 1900 most of these practices had been thoroughly delegitimated: piracy was an international crime, privateering abolished, the mercantile companies disbanded or (in the case of the Hudson Bay Company) transformed into purely economic enterprises, filibustering (of the type exercised by William Walker in Nicaragua) outlawed, and so on.

I do wonder, however, what she would say now, ten years after her book was published, of the situation in Iraq. For is not mercenarism making a comeback, with the outsourcing of both official US warmaking to contractors, and the widespread use of private companies, usually employing ex-army personnel, for the security of everyone from the BBC to the United Nations? As John Robb’s Global Guerrillas notes (and read the comments to his post),

PMCs (private military corporations) are central to the US effort in Iraq. With between 15,000 PMC (Update: 20,000) mercenaries in Iraq, they represent the second largest allied military force in theater.

See also Robert Fisk and Severin Carrell’s article “Occupiers Spend Millions on Private Army of Security Men” or Global Risk Strategies’ self-description as “the Force Protector for the International Zone Baghdad”. And does not the role of a company such as Halliburton in Iraq remind us more than a little of the ways in which the East India companies served as proxies for colonial expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?

What are the implications of these developments for contemporary discussions of sovereignty and the multitude?

Image from Blackwater USA