Alain Joxe, Empire of Disorder, Semiotext(e), New York, 2002

Reviewed by McKenzie Wark

Alain Joxe, a prominent French expert in international studies, offers a timely alternative to both a micropolitics or a politics of the multitudes. Empire of Disorder offers a restatement of the politics of the citizen in an age in which globalization brings in its train a global disorder.

For Joxe, the social republic might still be a viable form of resistance to the military empire. The problem with empire, which Joxe sees as centered on US military power, is that it offers the world only power without protection. As Machiavelli noted, a prudent conqueror improves the lives of the conquered, thus legitimizing its rule. But the US does not seek to conquer the world, as that would mean assuming responsibility for it, only to manage it by remote control.

The American empire does not create order. There is no Pax Americana. It merely regulates disorder through financial norms and occasional military policings. It mainly operates by threats, which must occasionally be made good on to remain credible — as we may eventually see in the case of Iraq.

Under the reign of President Clinton, empire appeared in the neo-liberal guise of the economic norms of trade and sanction. Under President Bush Jr, this economic offensive is replaced by a military offensive. Why try to tangle diplomatically with those wily Europeans? Why not replace a diplomatic strategy, where American superiority is relative, with a military one, where it is absolute? Joxe is both alarmed and bemused by American power, a not atypical European reaction, perhaps. Observing past American geo-political blunders, he observes: “They are not competent to rule the world. Which is a point in their favor. ” (p56)

The American empire is applying some of the same norms internally as it applies externally, and this perhaps is the most alarming development for those living within the US. The state is reneging on its obligations to protect its citizens. Joxe is what one might call a non- denominational social democrat. Politics is supposed to be about class struggle, and the role of the state is to moderate the conflict. The state is obliged to protect its citizens to maintain their consent. But the ruling class can sometimes escape from its obligations by transforming class struggle into ethnic struggle; either internally, as in the case of Rwanda or Serbia, or externally, as in the case of Bush Jr’s war on the ‘axis of evil’. This is a context in which, as Joxe observes, “the notion of class needs to recreated”. (p62)

There is a growing intuition about that the economic system in which we are living is not the same ‘capitalism’ as experience by our grandparents. As to what exactly it has mutated into, nobody yet really knows. Joxe provides an illuminating glimpse at this problem. For Joxe, Max Weber had a clearer grasp of the historical relationship between the economy and violence than Karl Marx.

In ancient Greece, free labor competed with slave labor. To the extend that city-states were able to invent a limited democracy, it rested on the political power of free labor. In Rome, the balance shifted from free to slave labor, and with it, the empire emerges. War becomes a slave hunt. The military mode of violence determined the mode of production and not the other way around, as most Marxists hold.

Perhaps this is a relevant historical parallel for our own times. The factories of the underdeveloped world are based on forced labor. The ongoing destruction of the rural way of life in much of the underdeveloped world provides a steady supply of forced labor, which challenges the free labor of what I would call the ‘overdeveloped’ world. Slaves are gathered the old fashioned way, by violence.

On the one hand, a new global slavery, and on the other — a new global slave-owning and slave-trading nobility. This is what Joxe calls an “imperial counter- revolution”, organized by a transnational corporate class and its para-state expressions, which are able to force sovereign states to participate in their own evisceration.

This is not a paranoid view of a new world order, however. For Joxe, nobody is really in charge. Globalization is achieved by remote control. The result is what he calls “fractal chaos”. The crisis reaches all levels -“” – continents, nations, regions, neighborhoods, families. As I argued in Virtual Geography (Indiana UP), the communication vector allows power to be organized independently of the old hierarchies of scale.

After the cold peace of nuclear standoff, this is an era of “cruel little wars.” Under the stress of global economic liberalization, some states crack. The ruling class fends off the anger of the subordinated classes with a divide and rule strategy, diverting class war into ethnic war. But what starts as a means of preserving power becomes the ruins of all contending classes.

Confronted with the crack-up of one stressed state after another, supra-national powers are paralyzed by differing world views and calculations of national interest. For Joxe, there is a difference between the dominant American view of globalization as the flattening out of political territories, and the European view in which the emergence of economic globalization calls for stronger trans-national forms of sovereignty and political identity, which might extend some form of protection to citizens no longer protected by sovereign states.

This global diplomatic gridlock has replaced the cold war with a “frozen peace.” Either there is a failure to intervene, as in Rwanda, or a failure of intervention, as in the Balkans. When tran-national interventions occur, they are subject to “mission creep”. The result is what Joxe calls “non-Clauswitzian wars”. Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means assumes there is some political calculation of interests that drive military strategy. In the case of Somalia or Bosnia, Joxe thinks it may be quite the other way around. Left rudderless by diplomatic gridlock, commanders in the field take military actions which cause irreversible shifts in political calculation and strategy.

Then there are the so-called ‘humanitarian’ wars. In his book Powerless By Design (Duke UP), Michel Feher argues that the US and EU powers justified their inaction in the face of local destabilizations of the global order by presenting them as ‘humanitarian’ crises — akin to natural disasters — before which they were powerless to offer anything other than food and bandages.

Joxe is likewise critical of the ideology of humanitarian aid, a politics wherein “the clean conscience of the torturers is protected by the bad conscience of politicians.” Humanitarian missions put soldiers in the paralyzing situation of not being able to defend anyone, having to watch murder in the name of impartiality.

For different reasons, the cruel little wars and the humanitarian interventions both end up being irrational military actions on both sides. Self-destructing states that descend into genocide are met with directionless military responses or none at all. “Without political rationality, war is nothing other than madness.” (104)

There may be no ready solution to the new global disorder, but for the European opinion that Joxe is mainly addressing, there is the question of choosing which chaos it prefers. As Joxe says, “In the current disorder, it is preferable to organize a sphere of political fraternity with citizens and without states, rather than sitting back to watch the victory of the transnational wealthy classes and their smiling neofascism.” (111)

Empire of Disorder is not just a stirring and timely political tract, however. It also offers some theoretical tools that may outlive the particular issues Joxe chooses to address. Curiously, Joxe goes back to Hobbes, who he identifies as a rare enlightenment thinker who includes chaos and civil war in his political thought as constitutive categories, rather than as mere inconveniences. He sees Hobbes’ ‘archaic’ monarchism as a useful critical tool for analyzing forces that betray popular sovereignty in the name of constructing it.

Building on Hobbes, Machiavelli and Clausewitz, Joxe constructs tools for analyzing empire refreshingly free of wishful thinking, and not colored by current theoretical fashions. What makes this book so timely is that its thinking is so untimely. It is a shame that Joxe does not explore that other geneaology, that runs from Locke to Smith to Ricardo and Marx. This might yield a comparable analysis of the abstraction and globalization of property — that other kind of abstract territorialization at work in the world today. Perhaps the role of the abstraction of property, from land to capital to ‘intellectual property’ — is a topic for another book.

For Joxe, the empire emerges as the republic betrayed. Joxe sees a link between expansion of the market and eruption of cruel little wars. As with Hobbes, in Joxe violence and civil war are constitutive categories — globalization cannot be thought without them. This makes his book a useful challenge to both neo-liberal ideologues and the various versions of a transnational anarchic anti-capitalist movement.

For Joxe, the global concentration of wealth can only be protected by violence. The worldwide repression of the urban and rural poor is part of the same process as the WTO’s trade regime. Responding to the violence of empire requires forms of para-state, supra-national power able to act in the name of protection. Democracy, since the Greeks, has always required a delimitation of the city state, to count votes, to manage tensions between the classes. One can think, with Joxe, of forms of democracy without the nation, but not without some kind of spatial delimitation.

The challenge to think through new forms of spatial inclusion, new forms of sovereignty and protection, becomes even more pressing as we appear to move from what Joxe calls a logistical to a predatory empire. In the logistical empire, economic interest sets some limit to violence. The empire insinuates itself subtly, bypassing borders, through the virus of trade. In the predatory empire, the economic is subordinated to violence. Damage to the mode of production is offset by a sharing out internally of the loot. Predatory empires do not creep into the cracks of the world, they seek confrontation with the other.

It’s hard not to see this as a description of the regime of Bush Jr. Internally, attention is diverted from a vicious class struggle against workers and farmers by war talk, symbolically unifying the citizens against vaguely defined external threats. Meanwhile, a new police state takes shape. The economy is in a serious under consumption crisis, due to the failure of real wages to rise in line with increasing productivity. So the surplus is to be consumed through military spending, with the promise of seizing the nationalized oil reserves of Iraq as a pay off. As Joxe warns, “Something resembling global structural slavery has reappeared, leaving us with the prospect of… totalitarian empires with camps and slavery.” (187)

In this context, “Europe should make clear that America is mistaken in its search for military space without sovereignty, peace without pacts and economic space without politics.” (215) Make clear to whom? There is no national media space in the US where Americans can debate and calculate their interests, and certainly none where they might hear what Europeans have to say on the matter.

One can subscribe to the excellent new English language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique ( Or one can read Joxe’s useful little book. It’s a more mainstream, trad-left title than one usually expects from Semiotexte, which introduced much of the English speaking world to Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard, Lyotard and Negri. But under the current geo-political circumstances, Semiotexte have made a wise tactical decision in bringing Joxe to the English speaking world.


McKenzie Wark is the author of Virtual Geography and several other books. He teaches as SUNY Albany and is a guest scholar at NYU.