Designing the Accident: Pathways of Diagonal Governance
In recent years there has been increased discussion on “globalization” or “globalism” in relationship to governance structure.* This essay examines abuses of state sovereignty within the contemporary international political situation in order to map the current trajectory of global governance as a supranational state. In light of this trajectory, there has been a rise of “anti-globalization” movements which seek to negate globalization or global governance. This reactionary movement tends to produce xenophobia and nationalism. By presenting the tension between globalization and anti-globalization, this essay attempts to position an alternative trajectory which works on a diagonal between the affirmation and negation of globalization, suggesting that through a divergent pathway we can design and produce an alternative form of global governance on the basis of egalitarian and democratic values.
The Current Trajectory
On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world as they voted to leave the European Union, voting ‘yes’ to ‘Brexit’. While the ‘leave’ vote had been strongly associated with right wing, conservative politicians, the actual divide between ‘leave’ and ‘stay’ was less partisan along the left/right binary than one might typically assume. On the right, David Cameron and a good number of Conservative Party politicians campaigned for the UK to remain part of the EU, while on the left, a movement dubbed ‘lexit’ argued for a left-wing movement to leave the EU. Rather than falling along the dichotomized left/right divide, voters tended to be divided among the lines of class and education, along with a larger divide over pro- and anti-globalization.
The problem of globalization can, at least in part, be demonstrated through the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. Imagine that two men have robbed a bank. They stash the money in a safe, undisclosed location, and have gotten away without any notice. There is, however, a certain detective who believes that they are guilty. This detective ends up arresting the two men for a misdemeanor, with the penalty of community service. The two men are placed in separate rooms, and each is offered a deal of a reduced sentence if they will testify against their partner for the bank robbery. The issue is that, in order to get the deal, they must turn on their partner before he turns on them. If neither man speaks, then they will both get off with only a small penalty for the misdemeanor. However, if either man turns on the other, they will both be punished more severely.
Similar sorts of problem exist on an international scale today. Perhaps the most obvious example is that of climate change and emissions. When one state pollutes, it affects every state. Thus, in order to escape the dangers of climate change, all states must work together and lower emissions. The problem is that a lot of wealth is tied into the releasing of emissions (through manufacturing and other phenomena). Thus, it is enticing for many states to not follow the emissions reduction, and be granted with an economic boon. As a result, states increasingly work against the regulations in favour of short term economic gain. It is as if the prisoners cannot take the plea deal and turn against their partner fast enough!
As a result of global common problems, nation states have come together to form international organizations which deal with the issues that face the globe. The most prominent of these organizations are the development of the League of Nations and the United Nations after World War One and Two, respectively. The EU exists as a similar sort of organization, but on the scale of a single continent (rather than a global scale). These developments suggest the inevitability of a movement from the nation state to something larger — such as a planetary governance (Wendt). It could be argued, however, that the nation state, as it once existed, is already obsolete. The Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben suggests that with the emergence of a “supranational police state” the demarcated boundaries of the nation state have already been breached (Agamben, 25). I’d like to suggest that this supranational state can be tied to the phenomena of Pure War and the free flow of capital under neoliberalism.
The concept of Pure War comes from Paul Virilio, who describes it as a “perpetuation of war…which isn’t acted out of repetition, but infinite preparation” (Virilio and Lotringer, 104). Within contemporary society, war has become so pervasive that it becomes an invisible part of the background. Part of this disappearance is due to the fact that war is no longer declared, it simply is. For example, the last war declared by the United States of America was World War II. Thus, every conflict that the USA has been a part of since then has been fought without formal declaration. On this basis, the USA and other dominant states have entered into other sovereign states without declaration of invasion. Furthermore, as recent deaths of American soldiers in Niger brought to light, this expansion of the American military is both unknown to the public and has branched across the world. In this perpetual warfare, the most powerful nation state on the earth has been granted the freedom to override the sovereignty of other nation states, disrupting the very concept of state sovereignty.
In addition to the overriding of national boundaries by military powers, a second overriding of national boundaries has taken place by capital. Since the 1980s, free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, have increasingly reduced state sovereignty in regards to trade. These agreements allow trade between countries at reduced (or without) tariffs. As a result, goods and money are able to go from country to country without impediment of government. These agreements have, in many way, legalized the neo-colonization of natural resources in poorer states for the benefit of multinational corporations (see Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything). This neo-colonization is not simply a theft of resources, but has been used on the bodies of people in poorer nations as well. Through these developments of neoliberalism, the sovereignty of national boundaries have been eradicated to allow the free flow of capital and resources.
Through these two movements, we can see the actual movement towards globalization. Such a movement works for the benefit of an exclusive few who benefit economically from the perpetuation of war and neo-colonization efforts, at the expense of those who have to deal with the consequences of war, famine and climate change that result from these practices. Such a system of global governance — realized in the supranational state — does not work to diminish the problems the world faces, but instead works to perpetuate and exacerbate them. Is it any wonder that anti-globalism is on the rise in the face of this global governance?
Designing the Accident
As shown above, globalization stinks of something awful. Yet, the alternative to it appears to us as equally horrific and exploitative, at least insofar as its leading proponents are increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic. The 2016 USA presidential election can be read as a microcosm for contemporary political debate: nationalistic xenophobia from the ‘right’ and neoliberal meritocracy from the ‘left’. With these two distinctions we can see those who affirm globalization (neoliberal meritocracy) and those who wish to negate it (xenophobic nationalism). Such a dichotomy does not provide a solution worth affirming or pursuing, but sitting out of the struggle is not a possible option. As a result, we are often forced to pick the lesser of two evils, and even within national borders, these choices have global consequences.
Instead of affirming this dichotomized either/or, it is possible that there might exist an alternative, divergent pathway. This pathway is what we might call a diagonal pathway. The term diagonal is used to suggest that this pathway works in between the given dichotomy — selecting elements of anti- and pro- globalization to use against the binary and produce something novel and different. It must be stressed that such a pathway is not a reform: the goal is not to reform global governance to make it more palatable. Instead, it is the recognition of the inevitability of global governance, in conjunction with an understanding that negation seems to only lead to a xenophobic, fascist future. It is possible that the diagonal pushes towards global governance, but in a way that pursues egalitarian and democratic principles, rather than meritocratic and capitalistic ones. It does this by affirming the necessity for global governance, while taking into account many of the very legitimate critiques from anti-globalization movements.
It is in the production of the diagonal that we design the accident for global governance. Virilio suggests that every technology produces an accident that comes with it. For instance “the invention of the boat [brought about] the invention of shipwrecks” (Virilio and Lotringer, 46). The creation of a supranational police state, as a form of technology, also produces accidents which are specific to them. If we hope to use these forms of technology against themselves, we are, in essence, designing accidents which produce something novel and different.
Agamben’s essay “Beyond Human Rights” serves as an example of how we might be able to start developing an accident of globalization towards a diagonal governance structure. Here, Agamben deals with the paradoxical relationship between the refugee and the concept of human rights. Since WWI there has been a constant stream of refugees out of war-torn and resource deprived states. This has led to a problem for nation states: How to deal with people who cannot be naturalized? Thus far, the international community and individual nations have proven incapable of handling large scale refugee crises. As a result, displaced people have been placed in dangerous and precarious situations since the origin of the crisis after WWI. Agamben is quick to point out that the first concentration camps were not created by Nazis, but by Social Democrats who were trying to deal with refugees. Through this development the paradoxical nature of ‘human rights’ can be explicated: “precisely the figure that should have embodied human rights more than any other — namely the refugee — marked instead the radical crisis of the concept” (Agamben, 18).
The refugee makes visible the problems that have been produced by the two sides of the globalization movement. The refugee crisis has increasingly expanded as a result of economic and military expenditures which intersect with the role of the supranational state. On the other end of the spectrum, the anti-globalization movement has, in many ways, developed as a reaction to the contemporary refugee crisis. The loss of jobs has led to increased xenophobia and scapegoating of refugees, increasing demand for the production of new camps.
Agamben denies the given dichotomy of globalization by seeking an alternative pathway which breaks from the logic of the dichotomy. He suggests that the refugee is not a problem, but a solution. Near the end of this essay, he states that, “Only in a world in which the spaces of states have been thus perforated and topologically deformed and in which the citizen has been able to recognize the refugee that he or she is — only in such a world is the political survival of humankind today thinkable” (Agamben, 25). This does not erase the refugee by adopting the logic of the nation state, but instead problematizes the very notion of nation state. The refugee is a person without a nation, and, as such, shows that inegalitarianism and xenophobia are at the heart of the nation state. Furthermore, it problematizes the current trajectory of globalization by showing that the supranational state also depends on the logic of the nation state, insofar as it continues to rely on the nation state as the source of a solution for the refugee crisis. Agamben’s new political ontology problematizes both of these by focusing explicitly on the refugee as the central political subject. Through this move, it is possible to affirm a global structure of governance which negates the centrality of capital in favour of the bare human life.
Agamben does not go into much depth about how we could actualize or design such a system. He seems more interested in the political ontology of it all. This is unfortunate, since, while the theoretical underpinnings for such a diagonal movement are of the utmost importance, it remains very difficult to even think about how such a pathway could be brought into political existence. The strength of Agamben lies in the fact that he does provide a starting point for designing an accident that could wipe out the current trajectory of globalization and replace it with something democratic and egalitarian. Designing what comes next is the more difficult step. For this to be an affirmative politics, it must not push for negation alone, but instead use negation in favour of the positive — by producing something which can be affirmed. Jason Adams has some interesting ideas on isonomia and sortition that could, perhaps, provide the beginning for how to set up something that this affirmative politics could push towards.
The permanence of the nation state should not be taken for granted. As this essay has shown, the nation state is already being problematized by loss of state sovereignty due to military and economic dismantling of national boundaries. Resistance to such a problem cannot be purely negative, because such a negative political project seems destined to return to xenophobic and nationalistic fascism. Instead, resistance can take place through the production of the diagonal: an alternative political vision which takes place on the basis of egalitarian and democratic grounds. A diagonal which affirms bare human life as it is in the refugee, and not on the basis of nationality.
*This essay exists as the result of the course Promethean Democracy which was taught by Jason Adams at the New Centre for Research and Practice. I have developed my thinking about the concepts used here — specifically the concept of diagonality — through conversations with Jason Adams and Matthew Donovan. It was in conversations with Donovan that I was first introduced to the term ‘diagonal’ in a political context, and they have been integral to my thinking on the subject.
Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without Ends. Minneapolis, MN: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Wendt, Alexander. “Why a World State is Inevitable.” European Journal of International Relations 9, no. 4 (2003): 491–541.
Virilio, Paul, and Sylvère Lotringer. Pure War. Translated by Mark Polizzotti and Brian O’Keeffe. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2008.