mercenaries II

I’ve now finished Thomson’s Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns. In her concluding pages she addresses some of the issues I raised yesterday about contemporary changes and developments. She writes that:

this study demonstrates the development of norms of nonstate violence that were quite robust in the nineteenth century, but the book has not dealt with certain practices that appear to challenge those norms. Were the Nicaraguan contras mercenaries for the United States? Did the U.S. military sell itself as a mercenary army to Kuwait? What about major instances of nonstate violence such as terrorists, drug smugglers, mafiosi, and pirates in the South China Sea? Do these contemporary practices mean the nineteenth-century norms of sovereignty are obsolete?

In my view, they do not. [. . .] Unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts [. . .] contemporary state leaders must [make use of nonstate violence] in secret. States today cannot shirk responsibility for nonstate violence by simply claiming that the latter is a purely private undertaking. [. . .]

But while each twentieth-century practice may be interpreted as being consistent with nineteenth-century norms of sovereignty, a question meriting further theorizing and more systematic empirical research is: How much can practices change and yet remain consistent with the institution of sovereignty? If this book’s arguments are correct, a shift away from sovereignty to heteronomy or something else would require a fundamental change in the identity of the national state. This would entail an end to or at least significant erosion of the state’s monopoly on the authority to deploy violence beyond its borders. (152-153)


So much for sovereignty. As for the multitude… there’s an interesting hint a little earlier in a reference to Anthony Giddens, who argues, we are told, that

the production and control of violence follows a logic different from the production of wealth because in the former there is no force equivalent to the proletariat. Thus, the production of violence is not a dialectical process. (146)

The reference is to Giddens’s A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, volume 2, The Nation-State and Violence. I’m not sure that there isn’t some confusion here between violence and power. For Negri’s point about the multitude, as I understand it, is that its role in the production of power is equivalent to the proletariat’s in the production of wealth. Indeed, that there’s an almost exact symmetry between the process by which power is produced and the process by which wealth is produced.

In Thomson’s book, power refers to the ability to control the allocation, means, and use of violence. But violence is also, of course, a form of power. Read from the point of view of the multitude, the history that Thomson recounts could precisely (I think) be recast in terms of a contest between different forms of power–heteronomy and sovereignty, if you like, in Thomson’s own terms–in which the multitude plays a very similar role to that played by the proletariat in traditional accounts of political economy.

Which is not to say that we are thereby returned to dialectics.

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