‘Wars and Capital’ by Éric Alliez and Maurizio Lazzarato reviewed by Neal Miller

Wars and Capital

Semiotext(e), South Pasadena, 2018. 453 pp., $19.98/£22.50 hb
ISBN 9781635900040

Reviewed by Neal Miller

About the reviewer

Neal Miller is an independent researcher based in Chicago. He writes on the roles of world-making …


Released in France between the end of the 2016 spring revolts against the loi travail and the U.S. presidential election, Éric Alliez and Maurizio Lazzarato’s Wars and Capital reconceives the history of capitalism as the history of multiple modes of warfare. The motivation for their work lies in the cycle of struggles that began with alter-globalization and have accelerated since the occupation movements of the early 2010s. For despite these, ‘no collective “theoretical practice” has been elaborated or tested at the scale of the civil wars launched by capital.’ (383) Their aim is to provide a conceptual framework for fighting in today’s prevailing mode of warfare – a global, fractal civil war – delineating both its characteristic features and its limits, or potential points of rupture.

The significance of the history told by Alliez and Lazzarato lies not in its originality, but in the intervention they make into discourses on primitive accumulation. At heart, the book is a critical synthesis of the early 1970s work of Michel Foucault and the collaborations of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (with heaping doses of Paul Virilio and Giovanni Arrighi), whose insights into primitive accumulation ground a ‘historical ontology’ of our present and attempt to trace our revolutionary horizon.

The principal thesis of Wars and Capital is that war is the ontological reality of capitalism. Lightly satirizing Antonio Negri, they say that war, state and money make up its three constituent forces. They accord with recent scholarship on primitive accumulation that highlights capital’s continued dispossession of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities alongside its most developed forms of exploitation. Yet at every turn (while borrowing heavily from Deluze and Guattari) they attend to the role of war in creating the conditions of primitive accumulation. While their relations vary, the history of capitalism is the history of (1) the state, which historically emerged through the capture of land, rents and public debt (taxes), (2) the governing powers of financial capital and its speculative war-investments and (3) the military apparatuses themselves, the immense absorbers of capital surplus whose endeavors continually revolutionize the means of destruction and subjection. Capitalism is thus more the assemblage of its constituent forces than a society: the populations it integrates either become parties to its accumulation or form its human logistics.

Alliez and Lazzarato’s second thesis pertains to the constituted forces that capitalism subjugates: capitalism is an irreducible multiplicity of wars in which class is but one differential alongside race, sex and subjectivity. They address their book ‘To Our Enemies’ because it is about the victories won by the constituent forces of capitalism up to present, which capture outside forces or forces escaping them, and thereby constitute them in stabilized power relations. If race appears to surpass class in their analysis, it is because they continually return to a colonial strategy first isolated by Foucault, namely, that the techniques of power and violence first developed in the colonies and the periphery are later redeployed by capitalist states on their own peoples. This was colonization’s boomerang effect, in which the race wars and wars on women first waged in colonization ‘returned home’ in the wars of enclosure and the witch-hunts that threw European peasants into wage labor and patriarchal social reproduction. Infamously, the aims of extraction, land appropriation and control over reproduction and its labor reduced non-European and non-male bodies to a biological existence, providing the matrix for all further permutations of capitalist war. This biopolitical reproduction of subjugated populations as docile subjectivities evaluated them by their distance from the ‘majoritarian model’ of the rational-white-adult-male-property owner (the norm of civil society).

Yet because the power relations between constituent and constituted forces are grounded in war, which they argue to be in itself groundless, these relations have the potential to be broken open and become ‘strategic confrontations.’ This task is still ours and it involves reversing the boomerang effect of capitalist warfare, turning it in our favor. Their Foucaultian reworking of the Leninist theme of ‘the weakest link’ states that, whereas revolutions succeed where capitalist development lags (as the Haitian Revolution shows), these revolutions remain localized and fail to resonate across the world system (again, see Haiti). And where revolts fail, a worse fate awaits, as in the case of the French Revolution of 1848, which was put down using counter-insurrectionary techniques first developed to fight guerillas in the 1830 invasion of Algeria (more recent examples: Chile in 1973, the Vietnam War, the IDF in Palestine). To act on the scale of capital, those of us located near its centers must synchronize with revolutionaries in the margins and learn quickly from their victories and defeats. For our enemies do learn quickly, they argue, and we will have to fight the results of their study.

The anti-imperialist struggles of the 1960s became conscious of this (the mantra ‘bring the war home’), but far too late and in relative disconnection from working classes in the capitalist North, who had long since been compromised. As Alliez and Lazzarato tell it, the twentieth century saw the conditions of global revolution evaporate just as they solidified. The ComIntern of the Russian Revolution and the spread of communism amongst colonized peoples were countered by the integration of working classes into the capitalist war machines of fascism and the New Deal welfare state. The U.S. emerged from WWII as a global hegemon and creditor to the international capitalist system, buoyed by a war economy thriving on the Cold War’s ‘peace of terror.’ The Taft-Hartley Act, intensified racial violence, the integration of (mostly white) workers into ‘consumer society,’ the rise of cybernetic epistemologies and automation in core industries all quashed the threat of a renewed revolutionary labor movement (the 1946 strike wave). When 1968 saw the confluence of struggles by women, racial minorities, gay liberation and anti-imperialism in connection with Vietnam, the working class and its political organs were either absent or lagged far behind a renewed spirit of the Paris Commune. This spirit (still crucial today) sought the de-subjection of everyday life and the critique of every representational politics that would re-shackle it to the state.

Alliez and Lazzarato’s autopsy of 1968 concludes that the counter-offensive fundamentally changed the nature of war: Nixon terminated Bretton Woods, which allowed the U.S. to fight the Cold War through unlimited military spending on a policy of national debt, thus tying the capitalist war machine directly to financial markets. The Soviets were outspent in proxy wars as China underwent its own capitalist ‘restoration.’ States were superceded by financial institutions as the principal executives in war (e.g. the IMF, the ECB and the Federal Reserve), which now deployed states within a continuum of military and non-military means. Following Chinese Air Force colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui’s Unrestricted Warfare (1999), they arge that wars have become increasingly waged through finance and debt (e.g. austerity and structural adjustment), trade wars, currency manipulation, cyber-war and information warfare that targets a population’s belief and morale. War in this new era (our era) aims at the indefinite pacification of populations (i.e. Sir Rupert Smith’s ‘war amongst the people’) by fighting upon their informational, financial and infrastructural conditions. This governmentality by permanent counter-insurgency seeks stability for capital accumulation under generalized and permanent conditions of financial (and ecological) crisis.

Wars and Capital offers a sweeping account of our situation: wars amongst global populations abolish the civilian-military distinction as populations simultaneously exist as differentially zoned labor forces (the necropolitical/biopolitical continuum of the global human supply chain) and as virtual fields of potential insurgencies and strategic confrontations. The rigid segmentarity of the core-perphery system has fragmented under the heat and pressure of acute crises and the wars that follow them. Extraction and production under the directive of finance has dotted the Global South with new metropolitan capital centers, just as capital has retreated from segments of the North, leaving hinterlands of abandonment. Migrants and refugees flow across borders to capital centers, unleashed by extraction, crises and acute wars; states functioning increasingly as strategic means of segmenting the global labor market implement endo-colonial policies in response, compounding extant racial and sexual hierarchies.

While war governmentality prevents class contradiction from making capitalism die a ‘natural death,’ Alliez and Lazzarato’s practical offerings stay true to Deleuze and Guattari’s use of crisis theory and their formulations on minoritarian composition. The crises of capital depreciation at the foundation of capitalist governmentality means there is a permanent potential for ruptures in power relations, for opening insurgencies that polarize against the forces of capital. This is evidenced in the rise of new political subjectivations of civil war, which may not always turn to our favor.

On the one hand, neoliberalism’s broken promises have led to disappointment and cynicism, whose reactive forces have engendered new political religions like Daesh and a variety of neo-fascisms. Both replace the governing/governed relation with a friend-enemy distinction through a pastiche of capitalism’s earlier wars. On the other, they argue, we have seen new autonomisms emerge in revolts against austerity and debt, indigenous and ecological revolts against extraction and development, revolts of migrants and refugees against endo-colonization, revolts against the police and revolts of women against femicide. Alliez and Lazzarato call for ‘the invention of anti-capitalist, democratic war machines.’ (384) Democracy here refers to the people as a subjectivity that can only be invented through minoritarian composition. For every minority group, one side faces the majoritarian subjectivity of the system (white, male, creditor, etc.) and seeks the recognition of its state and inclusion in its institutions. Yet another side faces a potential line of flight that would challenge the binary opposition of the major and minor terms altogether. A people is only possible if minorities compose with other minorities. Hence the criterion for evaluating the insurgent potential of a break with constituted power relations is how far it can go to the limit of their power? How many connections can it make between women, racial minorities, migrants, refugees, indigenous peoples, workers and the indebted in a movement? This entails more than the refusal of governability and the reduction of populations to labor forces (the ‘freedoms’ of the governing/governed relation), for one is only as ungovernable as one is connected positively to a people whose existence lies in an ‘autonomous temporality’ and new spatialities that can shelter it (a world). (389)

Reading Wars and Capital, it is clear that one is dealing with Deleuze and Guattari’s most faithful students, who have made every effort to demonstrate the power and relevance of their predecessors. The book offers a robust macrohistorical framework and the beginnings of a critical tool for evaluating movements. Yet it ends abruptly, without as much discussion of the revolts that motivated the project as one would have liked. This is the promise of Alliez and Lazzarato’s still-forthcoming sequel, Wars and Revolutions, whose delay is perhaps due to the last year of new historical materials. Curiously, we have witnessed the renewal of national struggles around democracy that have indeed invented spectacular democratic war machines with impressive endurance capacities (Hong Kong is exemplary here). However, many still appeal to the states tasked with hemming their populations into capital’s global labor markets. The task of reversing the boomerang effect and waging struggle on the scale of capital remains. It is a problem that the book succeeds in impressing upon its readers, arguing its stakes so well that one is left feeling pessimistic about solutions. A new International is as improbable as it is needed. And its prospects are complicated by the rise of China as a second global hegemon (noticeably absent from Alliez and Lazzarato’s analysis given their use of Arrighi). The global wave of revolt continues, but the number of countries on its list has stopped growing. One hopes that the sequel to Wars and Capital returns to the problem of scale with warranted optimism.

6 March 2020


  • Liang, Qiao and Xiangsui, Wang 1999 Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House.

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