Imperial Velocities & Counter-​Revolution

Just when the state ve­lo­cities of the Gaddafi re­gime were out­pa­cing, out­man­euv­ering, and routing the Libyan in­sur­gency, they were hit hard and slowed down by the much faster and more powerful air ve­lo­cities of the im­perial mil­itary ma­chine. The waves of jets taking off from European bases and un­leashing vi­ol­ence on a sov­er­eign na­tion across the Mediterranean mark a turning point in the in­sur­rec­tions of North Africa and the Middle-​East: their trans­form­a­tion into re­volu­tions with plan­etary re­per­cus­sions that de­mand the direct en­gage­ment of im­perial fighting forces. The high-​speed weapons from North America and Europe hit­ting North Africa are dra­mat­ic­ally ex­panding the spa­tial tra­ject­ories of the vi­ol­ence in­volved in this up­heaval. It is now clearer than ever that this mess is not (never was) an Arab af­fair. The geo­graph­ical elong­a­tion of the mil­itary theatre of these in­sur­rec­tions means that we are wit­nessing the start of the im­perial counter-​revolution.

These re­volu­tions caught the re­gional and global elites off guard and cre­ated a powerful trans­form­a­tion in the af­fective dis­tri­bu­tion of fear in myriad geo­graphies. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or Bahrain pro­testers con­fronting state vi­ol­ence on the street em­phas­ized over and over again that they were not afraid any­more. These ex­pansive re­volu­tionary res­on­ances, in turn, struck fear in the re­gional and global elites. This alarm is now the af­fective fuel of an ex­pansive counter-​revolution that seeks to re-​inscribe fear in now-​restive, em­boldened mul­ti­tudes. North Africa and the Middle-​East are now tra­versed by con­tra­dictory affective-​political forces fighting for su­premacy in ter­rains defined by in­sur­gent, state, and im­perial pat­terns of speed.

Counter-​revolutions also ex­pand in waves fol­lowing bodily res­on­ances. And like re­volu­tionary waves, they also need to cross a threshold to gain mo­mentum, to stop being at­om­ized local events and be­come spa­tially ex­pansive forces. While counter-​revolutionary meas­ures started with the first riots in Tunisia, this re­gional threshold was Gaddafi’s swift crack­down of the Libyan in­sur­rec­tion. His regime’s re­solve to phys­ic­ally wipe out dis­sent in the streets res­on­ated among other equally threatened elites. It re­minded them that re­volu­tions can, in­deed, be stopped and de­feated. Counter-​revolutionary res­on­ances are, by defin­i­tion, of a fearful and re­ac­tionary kind, which seek to dis­perse res­onant mul­ti­tudes through vi­olent stri­ations and frag­ment­a­tions. While re­volu­tions are neg­at­ivity (rup­ture of the real) as well as af­firm­a­tion (the cre­ation of some­thing new), counter-​revolutions are pure neg­a­tion and are guided by one goal: the de­struc­tion or con­tain­ment of in­sur­rec­tional neg­at­ivity (Benjamin Noys would prob­ably see this anti-​revolutionary neg­a­tion as part of the de­structive neg­at­ivity of cap­ital. But I think I prefer to dis­tin­guish, as Diana Coole does, between neg­a­tion as re­active force/​Hegelian ab­strac­tion and neg­at­ivity as crit­ical dis­in­teg­ra­tion of the pos­it­ivity of the real– a per­spective that in fact agrees with Noys’ call to rescue neg­at­ivity as part of critical-​radical polit­ical ruptures).

The be­gin­ning of the bombing cam­paign now led by NATO marks a re­mark­able tor­sion in this counter-​revolutionary wave, in which loc­al­ized op­er­a­tions to neut­ralize re­volu­tionary up­heaval have now been folded upon an im­perial man­date. And the paradox is not­able. In Libya, the im­perial counter-​revolution is presenting it­self as pro­tective of an in­sur­gent pop­u­la­tion and is un­leashing its fire­power on the forces that kicked off the counter-​revolutionary wave. But the paradox, while real, fades upon closer ex­am­in­a­tion. The im­perial counter-​revolution in Libya aims to crush the Gaddafi counter-​revolution not to sal­vage the re­volu­tion but to neut­ralize it more ef­fect­ively and claim a moral high-​ground in the global pro­pa­ganda ma­chine. It is an at­tempt to as­sert im­perial sov­er­eignty in spaces torn apart by re­volu­tions; an at­tempt to make sure that any post-​Gaddafi gov­ern­ment does not dare chal­lenge the im­perial order of things.

Already in­spired by the Libyan counter-​revolution, the ruling elites in Bahrain and Yemen were fur­ther em­boldened by this mil­itary in­ter­ven­tion by their global pat­rons and weapons-​suppliers. Well-​aware that Obama’s calls for the re­spect of human rights are hollow and do not apply to loyal US cli­ents, they joined this wave by un­leashing mas­sacres on the streets at the exact mo­ment when the first bar­rages of US, French, and British mis­siles and bombs were hit­ting Libyan soil. That Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to con­tribute to the re­pres­sion of dis­sent in Bahrain also signal that we are in­deed wit­nessing a re­gional counter-​revolutionary wave in­volving in­ter­na­tional forms of co­oper­a­tion. Tunisia and Egypt seem to be in a more lim­inal situ­ation, in which re­volu­tionary res­on­ances on the streets are still strong enough to put some limits on cur­rent state at­tempts to con­tain them. Elsewhere in the re­gion, this counter-​revolutionary con­ver­gence and its sub­or­din­a­tion to an im­perial man­date was em­bodied by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar: sending mil­itary forces to Bahrain to help crush the re­volu­tion and to Libya to help en­force the no-​fly zone. This wave may have dif­ferent and con­vo­luted local ma­ter­i­al­iz­a­tions, but its pat­terns point in the same dir­ec­tion: res­tor­a­tion of im­perial sovereignty.

My col­league Max Forte at Zero Anthropology has ar­gued that the im­perial mil­itary in­ter­ven­tion against Gaddafi means that the Libyan Revolution is now dead. I cannot really say that is the case, given the volat­ility and un­pre­dict­ab­ility of everything we have seen so far in the re­gion. But the re­volu­tion is cer­tainly very ser­i­ously com­prom­ised, for the ideologically-​vague leaders of the in­sur­gency are now willing cli­ents of global powers and, as sev­eral re­ports in­dicate, are now re­ceiving as­sist­ance from CIA op­er­at­ives on the ground as well as praise from the US neo-​cons.

But what in­terests me here is the sa­li­ence of im­perial ve­lo­cities in the spa­tial form of the counter-​revolution. The same way that re­volu­tions are move­ment and ac­cel­er­a­tion (as Paul Virilio has ar­gued), counter-​revolutions are ma­chines of de-​acceleration: they try to slow down and halt re­volu­tionary fer­vors. These ma­chines of de-​acceleration work at dif­ferent spa­tial scales: the de­ploy­ment of high-​speed weapons sys­tems that can out­pace enemy vec­tors, the pro­duc­tion of mil­it­ar­ized stri­ations in space to pre­vent the ex­pan­sion of re­volu­tionary un­rest, and the cre­ation of stri­ations on the in­ternet and in net­works of in­stant com­mu­nic­a­tion that aim to dis­sipate in­sur­gent af­fects. Imperial actors are act­ively working on all these fronts.

The most ap­parent strategy of de-​acceleration is the dis­play of im­perial mil­itary ve­lo­cities. The bombing of Libya by jets and mis­siles is both an act of vi­ol­ence set to slow-​down the Gaddafi mil­itary ma­chine and a global spec­tacle: a re­minder that im­perial speed and might can rap­idly dis­rupt the state ve­lo­cities of in­di­vidual nation-​states. These ve­lo­cities, lim­ited to the smooth space of the skies, cannot de­feat on their own well-​entrenched forces on the ground. As is clear after two weeks, the air strikes may not be enough to lead a dis­or­gan­ized in­sur­gency to vic­tory. But they have changed the tem­por­ality and spa­tial shape of the con­flict and cre­ated a marked de-​acceleration of re­volu­tionary and counter-​revolutionary speeds on the deserts of North Libya.

And in having a trans-​continental reach that en­ables them to strike any­where on the planet (Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan), these speeds also af­firm that the whole globe is under im­perial sov­er­eignty: that there is no out­side of Empire, as Hardt and Negri have ar­gued. But Derek Gregory would add that these im­perial in­ter­ven­tions also pro­duce a new out­side: places of bar­barism in need to be dis­cip­lined by civil­izing vi­ol­ence, the same way that the drone at­tacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan create those geo­graphies as opaque, bar­baric en­claves out­side of the civ­il­ized global order. This spa­tial folding pro­duces spaces of ex­cep­tion: spaces in which bodies be­come what Agamben called hom­ines sacri: bodies that can be killed with im­punity by im­perial forces. And to add a spa­tial di­men­sion re­l­at­ively ab­sent in Agamben’s ana­lysis of the state of ex­cep­tion, these bodies can be thus killed be­cause they are in a space of in­dis­tinc­tion, out­side and in­side of Empire at the same time.

The clash of im­perial, state, and in­sur­gent ve­lo­cities now taking place in Libya also help us un­der­stand that the power of the latter, which I ex­amined in The Speed of Revolutionary Resonance, de­pends on the spa­tial ter­rain in which they op­erate. When the bombing cam­paign began, the Libyan in­sur­gency was about to be crushed by rap­idly ad­van­cing ar­mored columns en­croaching on Benghazi. The rebels had been routed partly be­cause they had con­fronted an ar­boreal, cent­ral­ized, and faster mil­itary ma­chine in the open: in the smooth space of the desert. In that wide-​open, flat ter­rain with few places to hide they were easy tar­gets of tanks, ar­til­lery, rockets, and par­tic­u­larly jets.

There is a his­tor­ical paradox in this weak­ness of a non-​state, mo­bile in­sur­gency in the smooth space of a desert. For many cen­turies, smooth spaces such as deserts, prairies, and steppes were the most fa­vor­able ter­rain for what Deleuze and Guattari called the no­madic war ma­chine: the mo­bile mil­itary as­semblages that his­tor­ic­ally chal­lenged state power in central Asia and parts of South and North America. At that time, the max­imum speed of the no­madic war ma­chine was the same of state-​run cav­al­ries: that of the horse. This parity in speed often al­lowed non-​state cav­al­ries to out­pace and out­man­euver reg­ular troops through rhizomic pat­terns of dis­per­sion, multi-​polarity, and swarming. With the he­ge­mony of the state in the con­trol of high-​speed weapons and sys­tems of com­mu­nic­a­tion since the late 1800s, this old sa­li­ence of rhizomic speeds to con­front the state in smooth space has been shattered. Smooth spaces such as flat deserts are now ter­rains in which rhizomic in­sur­gences can be easily out­paced and des­troyed by state mil­it­aries. Yet it is also the space in which state ve­lo­cities are most vul­ner­able to im­perial air power, as the Libyan tanks des­troyed on desert roads by French, British, and US jets clearly illustrate.

It is not sur­prising the only place where the Libyan in­sur­gents put up a more ef­fective fight was in their de­fense of the city of Misurata in the west, where they have man­aged to with­stand re­lent­less waves of at­tacks due to their dis­per­sion in a dense, stri­ated urban fabric. Modern armed in­sur­gen­cies only stand a chance against reg­ular armies in stri­ated space: jungles, moun­tains, cities, or rugged ter­rains. A major reason why the rhizomic ve­lo­cities cre­ated by the mul­ti­tude on the streets of Egypt out­man­euvered the state was that they took place in in­tricate urban ter­rains. This stri­ation al­lowed for mul­tiple pat­terns of dis­persal and multi-​polarity in re­sponse to po­lice re­pres­sion that en­hanced the multitude’s rhizomic speed. This is why reg­ular and im­perial mil­it­aries dis­like and fear counter-​insurgency op­er­a­tions in opaque, rugged spaces. And this is why (as Eyal Weizman has ana­lyzed) the Israeli Army has drawn on Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about smooth and stri­ated space to smooth out urban space in mil­itary op­er­a­tions in Palestine, by opening large holes in walls and build­ings in their at­tempts to out­man­euver and dis­or­ient mo­bile clusters of Palestinian fighters.

Yet the weak­ness of the Libyan in­sur­gency is not re­duced to the ter­rain. Most ob­servers on the ground agree that this is an en­thu­si­astic but in­ex­per­i­enced, poorly armed and trained force, which re­minds us that res­onant bodies alone are never enough to topple the state. History is full of ex­amples of ex­traordinary re­volu­tionary up­heavals that were des­troyed. Old ques­tions of or­gan­iz­a­tion, training, and co­ordin­a­tion are de­cisive in the trans­form­a­tion of massive con­glom­er­ates of res­onant bodies into an af­fective polit­ical force. But an­other weak­ness of the Libyan in­sur­gency is that it does not seem to have ex­ploited its rhizomic form. By and large, its main ac­tions seem to be re­duced to cara­vans of pick-​up trucks with mounted ma­chi­ne­guns and rocket launchers moving up and down the main road along the coast of the Mediterranean, both char­ging ahead and re­treating at high-​speed. Theirs has been a mo­bility and speed fixed in the narrow space of a single road: vis­ible and pre­dict­able. But the power of in­sur­gent rhizomic ve­lo­cities, as the case of Egypt shows, has al­ways been multi-​polarity, spa­tial sat­ur­a­tion, dis­per­sion, opa­city, and un­pre­dict­ab­ility. In fact, it is the Gaddafi re­gime that seems to be rap­idly ad­apting to the aerial power of im­perial ve­lo­cities by in­cor­por­ating some of the rhizomic moves that have defined seasoned guer­rillas. The Independent, for in­stance, re­ported the re­cent use of “guer­rilla tech­niques” by small pro-​Gaddafi units that am­bushed and des­troyed vehicles of re­volu­tionary fighters and promptly disappeared.

Elsewhere in the re­gion, the counter-​revolutionary de-​acceleration is ap­parent in the cre­ation by the state of mul­tiple spa­tial stri­ations that aim to slow down the spread of un­rest. An em­blem­atic case is Bahrain, where the re­cent crack­down has in­cluded set­ting up myriad mil­itary check­points and the sat­ur­a­tion of the re­l­at­ively small na­tional space with mil­itary forces. The mil­it­ar­ized stri­ation of roads has long been favored by states fighting in­sur­gen­cies (from El Salvador to Iraq) and is ul­ti­mately a strategy of de-​acceleration and con­trol over move­ment. An in­famous ex­ample of the slow­ness these check­points create is the maze of Israeli check­points in the West Bank, ex­amined by Derek Gregory and Eyal Weizman. And in Bahrain and else­where, this at­tempt to re­strain, slow down, and con­trol the move­ment of bodies is fur­ther en­forced by massive ar­rests, curfews, and bans on demonstrations.

The counter-​revolution is also fought on the in­ternet: a space that is in­deed, as Julian Assange re­cently put it, “the greatest spying ma­chine ever cre­ated.” This global ma­chine ex­poses bil­lions of the devices to soph­ist­ic­ated tech­no­lo­gies of state-​corporate sur­veil­lance scan­ning the web, like the eye of the pan­op­ticum, for signs of sus­pi­cious activity (a reality cap­tured by a good number of Hollywood movies). In the Middle-​East, Facebook has been a double-​edge sword that has al­lowed for rapid co­ordin­a­tion among act­iv­ists but also re­vealed to the state the iden­tity of act­iv­ists, leading to myriad ar­rests from Egypt to Bahrain. Secondly, as ana­lyzed by Jillian York, fil­tering tech­no­logy (Websense, SmartFilter, Netsweeper, Cisco, man­u­fac­tured by cor­por­a­tions in the United States and Canada) is used by mul­tiple states in the Middle-​East to block-​off ac­cess to par­tic­ular sites, eroding the rhizomic speed al­lowed by the in­ternet through the cre­ation of powerful stri­ations ori­gin­ating from ar­boreal nodes. And the counter-​revolution has also in­volved using these nodes to in­undate the rhizomic chan­nels of the in­ternet with pro­pa­ganda: from dis­sem­in­ating mes­sages on Facebook (as the Mubarak re­gime did), to de­vel­oping soft­ware that al­lows a single person to create mul­tiple fake iden­tities and post pro-​US com­ments on dis­cus­sion boards (as re­vealed by The Guardian), to the re­cent rise of sus­pi­cious tweets in English with false in­form­a­tion seem­ingly coming from Libya (ana­lyzed by Max Forte).

Max Forte rightly ob­served in a com­ment on this blog that while North Africa and the Middle-​have been en­gulfed since January in high-​speed in­sur­rec­tions, many parts of the world are still defined by “the still­nesses of everyday life, the non-​moving grain of local cir­cum­stances.” And in­deed, mul­tiple stri­ations and local polit­ical cir­cum­stances create very di­verse pat­terns of polit­ical speed in dif­ferent parts of the world. The counter-​revolutions now gaining mo­mentum in the re­gion aim to create a sim­ilar still­ness, to roll-​back the in­sur­rec­tions to the days when polit­ical slow­ness dom­in­ated the public spaces of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Syria. But polit­ical and af­fective ter­rains have shifted too dra­mat­ic­ally to allow for a uni­linear res­tor­a­tion. It was pre­cisely the closure of the streets as a space of protest by the state, Armando Salvatore re­cently ob­served, that pushed many Egyptian act­iv­ists to create af­fective con­nectiv­ities on the in­ternet that even­tu­ally al­lowed them, years later, to re­claim the streets and wrest them from state control.

A par­tic­u­larly po­tent mo­ment of the counter-​revolution in Bahrain was the de­struc­tion by the state of the Pearl Monument, the focus of huge demon­stra­tions against the re­gime and the main node of re­volu­tionary res­on­ance in the na­tion. “We did it to re­move a bad memory,” said the Foreign Minister of Bahrain, can­didly re­vealing the fearful af­fects that in­form their counter-​revolution. The bad memory that the Bahrain elites tried to con­jure away by tearing the monu­ment down is the power of that place to at­tract and in­spire res­onant mul­ti­tudes. It is also the bad memory of Tahrir Square, the spa­tial node of the Egyptian Revolution that haunts these elites like a night­mare. Yet in turning the monu­ment into ruins, they have now pro­duced a powerful ab­sence, a ghost: a neg­at­ivity that has charged the square with even more af­fective and polit­ical power. A sim­ilar neg­at­ivity has haunted Tiananmen Square in Beijing since the 1989 mas­sacres, which re­quires that the Chinese re­gime keep a tight se­curity ap­par­atus on the square around the clock. In his book The Funeral Casino, Alan Klima asked how long must the Chinese po­lice oc­cupy Tiananmen Square to con­tinue sup­pressing com­mem­or­a­tions and demon­stra­tions. “Forever,” he answered. And he added, “No one can con­trol forever.” Contingency and un­pre­dict­ab­ility are part of the nature of politics. But it is very likely that the day mul­ti­tudes force the re­gimes in China and Bahrain to loosen their grip on the streets, Tiananmen Square and Pearl Square will be both re­born again as nodes of polit­ical resonance.

Gaston Gordillo

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