Review of Alain Joxe Empire of Disorder (New York: Semiotexte, 2002)
The theme of empire is back in circulation in cultural discussions and analytical exercises in many places. The cultural themes are prevalent in everything from “Star Wars” movies to the biting critique in Ridley Scott’s reinvention of stoicism in “Gladiator”. In academic circles Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s book Empire, with its sweeping claims and infuriating vagueness, has stimulated discussion in quite a few languages. In the United States the near taboo on discussing matters of American foreign and military in imperial tropes has crumbled.

Into this revived concern with the theme of empire Alain Joxe’s meditations on Hobbes, Clausewitz, politics and war arrive with a simple argument that is important if not very precisely specified. The title suggests the key theme of this slim volume; imperial matters are juxtaposed with disorder to challenge the usually implicit assumptions that empire provides order. Its rationale as the overarching authority, the ultimate arbiter and protector of the commerce and markets that allow prosperity within the writ of imperium, is challenged directly by the specification of the current imperial arrangements as the antithesis of the conventional formulation.

Joxe suggests that the American dominated international order that emerged in the 1990s in the aftermath of the cold war is clearly imperial in terms of violence and trade. But it is not a traditional arrangement of conquest and territorial occupation. The American military preponderance has rarely been used to defeat, occupy and completely rebuild conquered polities. Direct administration is also frequently anathema. The exception is the case of what became Western Germany. Even Japan in the 1940s was only partly remade with many of the economic and political arrangements of the prewar period refigured minus the overt militarism of the 1930s.

Rather the American way is, Joxe argues, a matter of military destruction of opponents, support for counterinsurgencies rather than pacification and development, surveillance and temporary military arrangements rather than long standing political coalitions. This is not warfare in the Clausewitzian mode, but it is political violence. Disorder is the result; its not the American role to build nations. Removing military opponents is considered enough. Other powers and peoples clean up the mess. But the lack of an overarching political structure leads to many instabilities and a power that prefers military interventions to economic development.

In the aftermath of the cold war American military power is unchecked. The conventional international relations theories which suggest that power will be balanced, that a preeminent power will stimulate alliance building and cooperation among rivals to check its influence, has not worked in the last decade. Bandwagoning, where states take sides with the hegemon, rather than allying against it to check its power, has been the order of the day. The preeminence of American military power is unmatched; few states have either the inclination or the capabilities to challenge this power. But without a matching political commitment to rule the American commercial and military power provides only disorder, injustice and insecurity, an empire of disorder.

But what to do about this state of affairs? The speculations in this volume suggest that European republican traditions may provide the basis for a constructive opposition to all this. Hence the return to a consideration of Hobbes, Clausewitz, Cromwell, Napoleon and the possibilities of political resistance to American power. But how this might be mobilized and what the enlarged European Union, becoming more sympathetic to American themes in the process of expansion, might offer is not clearly specified. But then that is not entirely unexpected. Few analysts have a clear idea of how the current political order is to be understood, much less how political initiatives to challenge the disorder that operates under the sign of globalization might be mounted and to what end.

The value of this short book is that it specifies the nature of contemporary empire so clearly. The combination of military and commercial power in the absence of any political vision, or any willingness to provide political leadership, is a succinct analysis of the post September 11th situation. It is useful precisely because it focuses on the key military dimensions of global politics. It suggests a formulation that is clearer than most other discussions of empire; it is consistent with recent history and contextualises political discussion in the language of political theory, violence and security rather than only in conventional political economy. This dimension is not ignored. Rather it is usefully incorporated into the discussions of the absence of overarching political authority.
For all these reasons this short volume is well worth reading very carefully. Its lack of an explicitly worked out political program does not detract from the appropriate elegance of its basic propositions. But it does leave the big political questions of how to proceed open; the apparent necessity of Europeans taking the lead does not imply that current leaders are up to the job. This task of considering political options will nonetheless be helpfully clarified by this book’s careful reflection on the precise nature of contemporary disorder and the military underpinnings of this new violent form of disorderly empire.

Reviewed by Simon Dalby, Carleton University