In what ways can a modality of sovereignty premised on war still be defined as neo-liberal?

Three Theses on War and Policing:

  1. War is the violence used to establish sovereignty.
  2. Policing is the state violence used to preserve law.
  3. Securitization either exceeds or falls short of war and policing.

War is indissociable from sovereignty and conquest; it presides over the birth of nations.  While there are ‘rules of war’, there isn’t a law-preserving quality to them.  Rather, a functionalist definition of war is the violence used to found sovereignty.  In the Middle Ages when sovereignty was based in divine right to rule, it functioned like a game of chess whereby the objective was to capture the king.    The post-dynastic raison d’etre shifted, founding the state on more clearly delineated territorial boundaries where norms and political institutions were established to guarantee the well-being and security of the population.  The cartographic fixity of national borders highlights the intense importance war’s spatiality.  The divergence between theories of International Relations and domestic policy in political science demonstrates the sharp analytic boundary between inside and outside that lies at the center of modern nation-states.

In terms of the use of force, states police their own populations but rarely wage war on them.  In opposition to war, whose violence isn’t legitimated by legal authority, the state violence used against a states own population is in a sense ‘pre-accomplished’ because the use of force to maintain the social order has already been legitimated by its originary authority in law.  Policing works to preserve the already existing legal order that is assumed to sanction whatever force is necessary to maintain its existence.  Anyone who violates the social order does so knowing that they are ‘inviting’ an already established response from the state.

This is not to say that policing is the only state violence visited upon a domestic population.  Somewhat recent scholarship has worked to develop a diverse typology to render visible forms of oppression like exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism.  All of these terms are able to describe what follows from relationship of domination, subjugation, or dependency predicated on citizenship within a nation-state.  But they all pre-suppose the prior sovereignty of the state and its rule over a territory and its population.  The unique character of war is that it is the form of state violence that founds the monopoly of the legitimate use of these forces.

In the event that some domestic challenge doesn’t simply violate the legal order but risks upsetting sovereign authority completely, the state declares a state of exception whereby the legal order is not discarded but is temporarily suspended while the state uses whatever means necessary to establish a new basis for sovereignty and return to a normal state of law.  It is only when this risk is present that a sovereign is able to wage war inside its borders.  Instead of mobilizing the law-preserving violence of the police, the state is able to call a temporary suspension of the exclusion of the use of the military within its borders.  In times of ‘national security’, state violence is no longer law-preserving policing but the shoring up and extension of state sovereignty.

Some domestic groups working to subvert the authority of a given political party, regime, or system might disavow the legitimacy of state rule.  The Weather Underground, for instance, claimed to be occupied by an illegitimate power and advocated its violent overthrow, in particular working to “Bring The War Home”.  It’s not uncommon for such groups to claim that the government to be waging war on its own population, sometimes in the form of a covert ‘low intensity war’ of underdevelopment or more strongly in terms of a war on its own people.  After the secrets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program revealed the systematic targeting of domestic political groups through tactics of harassment, intimidation, infiltration and even assassinations, the distinction between policing and war are in some sense blurred.  If war is to establish sovereign authority over a territory and a population, then a state might wage war internally if it is at risk of losing sovereignty.  If the state isn’t at risk of losing control but rather uses force domestically to eliminate political opposition, it would simply be the politicization of policing or other forms of state violence and not war.

A clearer example is the growing dual-purpose of the National Guard in both domestic and foreign deployment.  Formed as the first-line of defense of the United States, it now routinely performs other tasks because there hasn’t been a war fought on United States soil for over 100 years.  Most often, the National Guard has been mobilized most often in wake of natural disasters and other emergencies that don’t threaten the sovereign order of the United States.  But it has also been mobilized in a domestic military context.  In the Gilded Age during the heyday of big labor, robber barons were able get the National Guard sent in to put down rowdy strikers or protect scabs, in some cases under the declaration of Martial Law.  Later in the 1960s and 70s, governors called in the National Guard to pacify race riots and student protests.  With the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and Joint Terrorism Taskforces, National Guard are typically combined with various local and federal authorities through a ‘fusion center’ to provide a range of policing options not available to traditional law enforcement.  Also striking is the recent deployment of National Guard in overseas wars.  Controversially, National Guard have been mobilized at their highest rate during the War on Terror.

Securitization is the process by which the sharp distinction between sovereign war and policing becomes more fluid.  Problems regulated by laws, whose proper governance was based on juridical right are transformed into security issues.   Security itself is a vague term that implies both national security and financial securitization – wedding together sovereignty and economics in a way that allows profits from the ambiguous slippage between the two terms.  Securitization carries public policy into the discursive regime of threats, re-situating everyday bureaucratic issues like human migration and environmental concerns in terms of potential security risks.   When placed under aegis of security, state action inhabits a threshold marked by the undecidability between a normalized application of law and the extra-juridical force waiting in the wings.

On the one hand, securitization exceeds the modern forced opposition between war and policing.  Almost anything can be securitized and therefore considered a potential threat to sovereignty, adding the combinatory force of policing plus military force an option in situations that would usually be out of bounds.  An easy example is the war on drugs, which is highly securitized, allowing for the deployment of a whole slew of para-military forces that would otherwise not be available for use in a domestic context.  The result is both the strengthening of sovereignty and the foreclosure of alternatives like legalization or medicalization.  The benefit of securitizing domestic issues is that they can be connected the whole foreign policy apparatus, as demonstrated by the linking of the drug war with the war in Afghanistan via opium production.

The underside of securitization is its ambivalence to both sovereignty and the law.  Neither war nor policing, securitization in its limited sense constitutes a political economy of force that uses violence to establish a normalized set of relations. It doesn’t seek to establish the foundational authority found in sovereignty that serves as a basis for legal right.  This limited modality governmentalizes relations only enough to capture them and put them to use in an already existing social order.  The figure that epitomizes this form of securitization is the mercenary. Not beholden to any sovereign and usually operating in spaces not controlled by the rule of law, ‘private security firms’ like Blackwater complete security objectives by neither policing nor waging war.  Mercenaries may be deployed in war but do not establish a basis of sovereignty – the associated legal order must come from outside the mercenary in the form of political figures.  Alternatively, mercenaries may be deployed in situations that may be traditionally the role of police – for instance providing security for diplomats – but rather than doing so to maintain order which is a formal guarantee ostensibly extended to all citizens regardless of status, they do so by contract to those able to pay.[1]

At first glance, these two tactics of securitization seem divergent.  One aspect combines both policing and war in a way that exceeds both inferring a widening sovereignty.  The other is less than either war or policing and therefore narrowing sovereignty.  Upon closer investigation, both tactics may converge within neo-liberal assemblages.  Establishing such a case requires a specifically Foucaultian notion of power in which power produces more than it represses.  Within a classical liberal conception of power, power is a substance; therefore, limiting the operations of sovereignty leads to corresponding reduction in state power.  Using Foucault’s account of neo-liberal governmentality, it becomes apparent that securitization can simultaneously intensively limit and extensively extend sovereignty.[2]


Despite the massive proliferation of the term neo-liberalism, its widespread use lacks analytic clarity.  Often synonymous with privatization, it is deployed by social democrats and progressives to tar politicians as corrupt capitalists looking to dismantle the few state entitlements left over from the welfare state.  Or even worse, its used alongside the critique of capitalism popularized by remnants of the Global Justice Movement who think ‘big is bad’ and ‘small is beautiful’ – making the distinction between local organic farms and neo-liberal entrepreneurship a moral judgment on lifestyle choice.  Working to produce a richer definition of neo-liberalism not only adds precision to the sprawling bodies of literature that utilize the term, but has political payoffs when used to re-orient strategies built around the perceived role of neo-liberalism.

Before the election of Reagan and Thatcher, far before the Washing Consensus, Michel Foucault delivered a series of lectures in 1978-9 entitled “The Birth of Biopolitics” which charted the trajectory of forces that produced contemporary neo-liberalism.  Part of his yearly lecture series, in years prior Foucault had previously worked through the early modern establishment of post-dynastic sovereignty and the rise of the liberal state.  In Biopolitics, Foucault proposes a genealogy of the present that considers governance as a technology that develops techniques to respond to immediate problems.  In opposition to other theories that see the state as a unitary actor that unfolds according to a single logic, Foucault looks to series of quotidian developments that graft temporary connections to deal with concrete problems but are quickly re-articulated and put to new use.

Following a genealogy of liberalism, Foucault finds the impetus for neo-liberalism in post-war Germany which had already seen the rejection of liberalism for Nazism, and therefore looked to a modified version of liberalism.  Using economic freedom to found juridical legitimacy and political consensus, economics became a tool to both found and limit the state by installing competition at the heart of governance. There are two crucial changes that mark the shift from liberalism to neo-liberalism: the role of the state in markets and the rationality of the liberal subject.  In both areas, classical liberalism posits economic activity as a given while neo-liberalism understands the proper conditions could be upset and therefore must be carefully maintained.  In terms of the state intervention, classical liberalism adheres to a hands-offs laissez faire approach where government intervention upsets already given natural markets and was reserved for overriding the rare social ills created by the market.  Neo-liberalism posits markets as neither natural or given, but as the product of competition, which is a structure with formal properties, that requires “permanent vigilance, activity, and intervention” (132).  The corresponding conception of economic rationality according to classical liberalism assumed a human that was always inclined to engage in economic activity, a “natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” as Adam Smith argued.  Because the corresponding economic rationality failed to manifest itself in an uncompelled predictable pattern of behavior, neo-liberalism introduces market competition into the figure of the economic individual in terms of human capital, displacing blame from the failures of the market to the failure of individuals to economically maximize their every action.  The phrase ‘socialize costs and privatize profits’ might not go far enough, costs are now privatized as well in the

This account fills out the shift to biopower only suggestively developed in History of Sexuality.  Neo-liberalism doesn’t follow Reagan’s promise to ‘take the government off the backs of the people and turn them loose to do what they do best’.  Rather, it emphasizes the complete shift from the sovereign ‘right to kill and let live’, to the biopolitical right to ‘make live and let die’.  This turns on its head the vulgar liberal notion of a negative freedom, alternatively known as a freedom from external coercion.  Neo-liberalism isn’t the withdrawal of the state, rather, it displaces a portion of regulative techniques from the state onto the market.  In an era of high-speed capitalism, the precision and speed of state techniques lag far behind the almost immediate interventions of firms, especially the most financialized.  In fact, relative autonomy isn’t allowed under neo-liberalism, but forcefully granted.  This proves why labeling neo-liberal governance “de-regulation” is a misnomer and actually obscures the growing importance of sovereignty.  Neo-liberal privatization is ‘working smarter, not harder’, extensively multiplying regulative intervention while intensively minimizing its responsibilities.

In their landmark book Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that the state is becoming-immanent with society.  This can be understood in two ways.  The first roughly takes the Foucaultian maxim ‘power produces more than it represses’ to its logical conclusion.  State sovereignty is eroding will soon be reduced to its ability to tap into the dynamic force of self-organizing social forces, and inevitably lagging behind, left to wither as a relic.  This perspective requires looking at sovereignty as only negative and repressive.  The second approach is one that understands the unique combinatory power of neo-liberal governmentality.  Rather than sovereignty fading with the becoming-immanent of the state, it retains a fundamentally autonomous dimension that is irreducible to social or economic calculation.  Sovereignty and the social are imbricated, crucial elements of sovereignty are inscribed within the social even as they become inseparable.  In a series of lectures, Foucault outlined what that unique aspect of sovereignty by inverting Clausewitz’s maxim of “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means”, arguing, “politics is a mere continuation of war by other means.”  More clearly, politics is the institutionalization of war through the inscription of the originary violence in the foundation of law.  The “blood that has dried in the codes” hides the conflict that lies beneath.  This is not to say that the state wages war on its own population but that the genesis of sovereignty is violence not law.[3] Wendy Brown captures this condition beautifully as a case of Nietzchean ressentiment where the ‘weak’ drag down the ‘strong’ down with them:

The political culture of “egoism” and rights produces not mere individualism but anxious, defended, self-absorbed, and alienated Hobbesian subjects who are driven to accumulate, diffident toward others, obligated to none, made impossibly accountable for themselves, and subjected by the very powers their sovereignty is supposed to claim.  “Egoism” also connotes the discursive depoliticization of this production: an order of sovereign, self-made, and privatized subjects who subjectively experience their own powerlessness as their own failure vis-a-vis other sovereign subjects.  In sum, even as they emancipate certain groups and certain energies from historical suppression, bourgeois rights codify the social needs generated by historically specific, traumatic social powers as natural, unhistorical, and permanent (113-4).

In Marxian terms, financial securitization takes difference and reduces it to a monetary chain of equivalences, creating an abstract category from concrete subjects that compels a universal logic in those subjects despite their hetereogeneous material conditions.  And what follows is a policy of governance where the state’s role is to invest in subjectivities that express rates of deviation from the market logic of pure competition (‘risk’).

Financial securitization works on both sides of the boom-bust cycle.  During busts, it serves a retro-active function that provides a justification for dispossession (and therefore a continuous process to legitimate ongoing primitive acccumulation), at all other times it tries to preempt that process by creating a set of techniques used to produce an everyday rationality that liberalism took as a natural given.

It would then follow that biopolitics is not about disciplining difference through absolute norms, but the acknowledgment of an ‘open system’ account of social life that intervenes on the level of relatively-immanent free-floating norms (much like the shift in exchange rates), and “the internal subjugation of individuals” (Foucault’s BOB 260)  – which people have come to label ‘subjectivity.’  This is where Hardt and Negri speak to “biopolitical production”, which captured in the Brown quote on neo-liberal citizenship being a ‘political culture of egoism’.

Therefore procedures understood as necessarily, continuous, routine interventions in the market that compel subjects to follow a market logic get partially displaced from the state and diffused through inscription into the everyday fabric where sites like the family, school, the prison, etc bear the burden of constant intervention, governing, and manipulation social relations to take on the characteristic of market forces.  Subjects and institutions aren’t usually prevented from engaging in non-competitive acts as much as the incentive structure governing most behavior rewards those who follow and extend neo-liberal logic.  The crucial turn comes here: the classical conception of ‘exposure to risk’ through financialization would consider such an action to be a limitation on sovereignty, but I am arguing that such ‘exposure to risk’ is merely the taking on board of the state’s techniques of economic management.

Which, when that introjection gets re-projected back into governmentality, allows for the creation of entitlement programs that follow a certain economic logic — for example Franco Barchiesi’s work on the South African state giving out government assistant that is low enough to survive, but not comfortably, and therefore compels recipients to look for work.

Final Remarks

Though neo-liberalism may mark a waning commitment by states to maintain sovereignty as the exclusive form of governance, it is unlikely that securitization marks the end of sovereignty.  In fact, securitization may merely be the continuation of sovereignty by other means.  In the shift from liberalism to neo-liberalism, state intervention isn’t an enemy of accumulation but a hidden mediator that both produces and is limited by the ‘pure competition’ of markets.  Like the state in neo-liberalism, sovereignty inhabits a permanent mediating position within securitization.  While on the one hand securitization falls short of sovereignty by refusing to wage war, the disciplinary power mercenaries are used to exercise is only useful as long as they produce results useful for a sovereign, which in most cases is favorable conditions for market integration.  And on the other hand, securitization also allows the extension of sovereignty through lowering the threshold for what counts as a security concern.

In clarifying the terms war and policing, I am hoping to also eliminate confusion around diagnoses and political strategies that turn around the term ‘war’.  Reducing all violence to war – or even worse all power relations – would ignore the special characteristic of war, that it is the form of violence used to establish sovereignty and is the foundation of law.  It is crucial to retain the ability to specify conquest as the type of violence inscribed in every law.  Equally important is the ability to single-out political strategies based in war.  Though not sufficiently unpacked in this essay, the distribution of tactics that fall from a strategy based in war bear contrast from the tactics available to other political strategies, even those that include the use of violence.  Channeling D&G and Benjamin, the possibility for real liberation exists only in finding a violence that is exterior to the state – neither law-preserving nor sovereignty-establishing.


Agamben, Giorgio.  Homo Sacer

–. State of Exception

Brown, Wendy.  States of Injury

Foucault, Michel.  Society Must Be Defended

–. Security, Territory, Politics

–. The Birth of Biopolitics

Ong, Aihwa.  Flexible Citizenship

–. Neoliberalism As Exception

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri.  Empire

–. Multitude

Schmitt, Carl.  The Concept of the Political

Tiqqun.  Introduction to Civil War

[1] A potential opposite figure of securitization is the guerilla.  Following Virilio’s (imprecise) definition of ‘war machines’ as “those machines that produce accidents”, guerillas produce accidents within securitization.  At most the model of sovereignty guerillas appeal to is a vulgar form of popular sovereignty that might explain the idiosyncratic form of Maoism found in many guerilla groups.   For more see the chapter on ‘counter-insurgencies’ in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude.

[2] This can be contrasted with Aihwa Ong’s helpful but ultimately limiting account of ‘graduated sovereignty’ expanded from the account given in Flexibile Citizenship in her 2006 book Neoliberalism As Exception.  Graduated sovereignty is useful at contrasting multiple modes of sovereignty simultaneously present. For Ong, states pursue strategies of partially ceding sovereignty, as long as they are able to maintain a monopoly on the last decision.  However, her account is fairly typological and therefore not following the imbricated topology found in Agamben’s works Homo Sacer and State of Exception, Ong is not able to account for layered regimes of sovereignty having combinatory effects that make positivistically unverifiable.  Ong’s insistence at maintaining the disciplinary-based scientific rigor of anthropology ultimately prevents her from being able to incorporate more complex Agambenian theoretical tools like the ‘threshold of undecidability’ (SE: 29).

[3] This argument runs parallel to the recently re-popularized Marxist critique of capitalism based on primitive accumulation.  Some Marxists begin with the critique of commodity fetishism in order to point out the ideological roots of capitalist domination, critiques based on primitive accumulation focus more on the violence that was required to jump-start capitalism by bringing together otherwise disparate conditions for the capitalist mode of production.  Following Rosa Luxemburg, they also argue that there is an ongoing need for inputs to the capitalist mode of production that are violently acquired, making primitive accumulation continuous violence of capitalism.


6 thoughts on “In what ways can a modality of sovereignty premised on war still be defined as neo-liberal?

  1. in reference to your last line may i quietly suggest the riot, not what summit-hopping activists have come to call riots, but urban riots. not saying we should aim for a generalized riot, but that it’s a potentially interesting case study.

    (o wait. that’s my thesis :) )

  2. FYI – Thatcher was first elected an MP in 1959 and her “neo-liberal” ideology was evident from the start in both securitized form (birching) and economic form (privatization of council houses in the 1960s).

    Similar things could be said about Reagan’s time as CA governor.

    But your main point with respect to neo-liberalism is well taken. The concept is fuzzy. Foucault helps some, and David Harvey’s narrative is lacking…. as an elite-movement it begins post-WWII, not in the 1980s….

  3. i guess i have no real qualms with different historical periodizing. in broader terms i’ve sort of thoughtlessly followed a graph alex foti made up a few years ago that maybe gives too much credit to the macro-forces in each given regime of accumulation:

    following a pretty standard fordism to post-fordism argument, the grid/fork argues it wasn’t until the crisis of the 70s, the technological innovation of the CPU, and some business interventions that major industrial economies shifted their governance strategy to include neo-liberal elements like monetarism, flexible global division of labor/accumulation, etc etc.

    like you pointed out, reagan/thatcher didn’t come out of nowhere. i’d be interested to see the roots of other neo-liberals and their policies. Foucault’s genealogy traces it back to the Germans in the 50s/60s (he calls them “ordo-liberals”) which is appropriated and adopted by the Americans just a little later (and somewhat in conflict with the ‘chicago boys’, which he characterizes as ‘anarcho capitalists’ or souped up liberals rather than neo-liberals).

    PS: how am i doing at writing in a style that doesn’t require a theory decoder ring?

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