ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)

Machiavelli’s Double: Power, Simulation, and Hyper-Sovereignty

Dr. Ross Abbinnett
(Department of Social and Political Theory, University of Birmingham, England)

What is essential to the state must not be written down (Joseph De Maistre).


I. Introduction

I begin by examining the relationship between politics and representation that is narrated in Machiavelli’s‘evil book’, The Prince. The background to Machiavelli’s description of the political necessities to which a prince must respond if he is to maintain the power of his estate, is one in which the created world appears as a place of universal violence. The economy of force that informs his account of political necessity begins with man’s expulsion from Eden; ever since his life has been ruled by the struggle for existence, and any remission he may have gained from this necessity has come through his powers of self-determination and intelligence. The only hope of man’s attaining a life of virtuous community with his fellow creatures therefore, is through judicious use of the practical capacities that God has bestowed upon him. It is however the use of these capacities that raises the question of evil in Machiavelli’s work. The unfolding of history and the development of human culture is not the direct expression of divine providence; it is the outcome of events in which certain human beings have been better at organizing themselves strategically against the violence of life in the state of nature, than others (Machiavelli, 1979: 33-44; Machiavelli, 1970: 165-167). Thus, it is only insofar as men have successfully developed the capacity for foresight and leadership that the boundaries that determine the existence of a state could come into being. Such qualities however are not good in themselves; they do not necessarily bring about the peaceful coexistence of men under the rule of law, and nor do they neutralize the violence of the fallen world. In fact, the ‘evil’ of Machiavelli’s work, as Nietzsche was later to point out, lies in his refusal to deny the place of violence in the life and futurity of the state, and in its continuity as a place of culture, civilization, and religious piety (Nietzsche, 1984: 138-139).

Machiavelli’s politics is essentially bound to idea that the violence of the world is not redeemable, and that consequently a prince is obligated to defend the customs and laws of his state from the destructive effects of that violence. Thus, the particular form of realpolitik described by Machiavelli is developed from a single guiding principle: that the foundation of the state lies in the maintenance of the ‘good arms’ that protect it from the incursions of other powerful forces (Machiavelli, 1979: 77).What every prince must do, if he is to be in actuality what he is in principle, is to defend his state without regard for the moral and legal standards that have been established within it. For Machiavelli, the enactment of sovereignty is always the enactment of an absolute demand that both violates and protects the legally constituted relations of the state. As such, an almost inhuman will and sagacity is required of the prince; for he must always suspect his friends, be prepared to make alliances with the most despised of his enemies, and be willing to torture and maim those oppose his will (Machiavelli, 1979: 99; Machiavelli, 1970: 488-489).Such qualities are, of course, incompatible with the life of a well-constituted state, and so there is a further dimension to the exercise of the prince’s sovereignty that is identified by Machiavelli - the aesthetics of deception. To the citizens of his state the prince must appear to exemplify the virtues of honesty, generosity, compassion, and piety, for if he fails in this he will come to be despised. A great prince therefore, is one who is able to enact the strategic responsibilities of sovereignty without becoming irredeemably evil, and to represent himself to his citizens as a moral exemplar to whom they owe a debt of absolute gratitude (Machiavelli, 1979: 101).

So, the ‘evil’ of Machiavelli’s writing comes down to whether or not one believes in the virtue of princes, or rather, in the process of natural selection through which the disturbed, incompetent, insane, or stupid prince is destroyed in by the implacable logic of war. The weak moral principle that it is possible to trace in Machiavelli’s politics, in other words, lies in the fact that if a prince were constantly to abuse his enemies without reason, he would soon expend the resources of his state, and render it subject to the power of those he has mistreated. However, to call this principle moral is perhaps stretching things a bit; for the concept of sovereignty that Machiavelli determines in The Prince, includes the use of murder and devastation as strategies for holding on to states that have been used to living under their own laws (Machiavelli, 1979: 48). Thus, given that Machiavelli’s principle of legitimate violence is so permissive, and that a truly great prince has the gift of being able to conceal the worst of his actions, we might suspect that there is in fact no morality at all in Machiavelli’s politics. Indeed, we might suspect that The Prince is the first systematic account of a modern politics of appearance, in which the power of the prince has come to depend on his ability to mask the true consequences of its exercise. Men, Machiavelli claimed, ‘judge by their eyes rather than by their hands’; and so in the absence of intimate knowledge of the prince, most will be persuaded by the spectacle of conquest and destiny he isable to weave into the ecclesiastical aesthetics of the feudal state (Machiavelli, 1979: 101). Perhaps then the ‘evil’ of Machiavelli’s book does not lie in its perverse veneration of violence as the foundation of the political, but rather in its recognition of a fundamental change in the relationship between aesthetics, authority, and the exercise of power.  

This brings me to the idea of the ‘doubling’ of Machiavelli’s politics that I will pursue as the central theme of the article. The history of the image Jean Baudrillard presents in his essay, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’, begins with a certain suspicion about the ‘machinery of icons’ through which God is represented (Baudrillard, 2000: 3-7). This suspicion is the one expressed in the second commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath’(Deuteronomy 5: 8). The necessity of such a prescription derives from the power of the image to reconfigure reality, and to conjure ‘the real’ in way that has departed from the unfathomable being of the object. What is at stake in the second commandment is the nature of God’s presence in the world, or, to put it in the terms of Baudrillard’s symbolic economy, the holy terror of a being that cannot be propitiated with offerings or sacrifices. Thus, if we follow the logic of Baudrillard’s argument, it is in relation to the economy of Christian ecclesiastical representation that Machiavelli’s concept of sovereignty is originally determined. At the time when Machiavelli wrote, the spiritual authority of the church had to enter into an ever more strategic relationship with the prince, as its position as the arbiter of individual will and property had been substantially reduced by the evolution of feudal property law (Rose, 1981: 159-163). This is something Machiavelli regarded as a positive development, given that the conservatism of religious authority tended to limit the power of the prince to act decisively in his defense of the state (Machiavelli, 1979: 44; Machiavelli, 1970: 165). What I will explore in the sections that follow however is the idea that the economy of representation through which the prince is able to enact his sovereignty, marks the origin of a political violence that threatens its own symbolic economy, and which reaches its absolute extremity in the antagonisms of the globalized world.

II. Mask of Power / Power of the Mask

The concept of evil and its relationship to regimes of representation is a theme that runs throughout Baudrillard’s later work. In particular, The Transparency of Evil, The Intelligence of Evil, and finally Ventriloquous Evil, present the emergence of a sphere of technological representation from which the last traces of symbolic life have been expelled. As a result, ‘the political’ has been fatally transformed; it has ceased to be a symbolic exchange between opposing positions that might produce some form of dialectical synthesis or revolutionary rupture, and has become a process of simulation in which every position is an equally valid model of reality (Baudrillard, 1995: 3-13). Feminism, gay liberation, black power - each is recognized as a ‘lifestyle choice’ that has its place in the cultural mélange of the postmodern world. So where, we might ask, is the evil? Where is the malignity that is concealed in this liberal attitude towards difference? Baudrillard’s answer to this question is that the symbolic economy of politics depends on the existence of real differences within the body of the social, the differences to which feminism, gay liberation, and black power sought to give political expression. What has happened to these differences is that they have become hyperrealized; their political narratives have split off from the symbolic economy of the social, and have become subject to the same logic of aesthetic representation that is characteristic of the ‘serial, circular, spectacular’ arrangement of consumption (Baudrillard, 2000: 77). It is this constant re-aestheticization of political ideologies that determines the fate of politics in Western societies. For as the symbolic economies of sex, race, and gender become egregious simulations of themselves, so they are absorbed into a ‘communicative democracy’ that seeks to bring them into discursive-dialogical unity (Baudrillard, 1995: 13). For Baudrillard however this project is a massive anthropological gamble; it is the absorption of the whole of social life into the aesthetics of performativity, and as such, its relationship to anything that exists outside of its ambit (theocracies, primitive civilizations, etc.) is simultaneously fascinated, anxious, and destructive (Baudrillard, 2010: 88).

The fundamental difference between Baudrillard’s work on power and representation, and Foucault’s genealogies of the carceral state, is that Baudrillard has always tried to keep open the transgressive possibility of the absurd. Looking through the lens of Foucauldian genealogy, the history of the feudal state can be seen as determined by the evolution of three specific forms of disciplinarity: disease control, the spectacle of punishment, and the confession of the flesh (Foucault, 1986: 134-145). Feudalism appears as a kind of preparation for the Enlightenment, from which ‘man’ will emerge as a rationalized subject who is properly equipped to discharge his productive responsibilities in the modern world. For Foucault, the gradual movement away from the dominion of the Roman Catholic Church produces an increasingly close relationship between the state, as a body of strategic knowledge, and the work, satisfaction, and desire of its subjects. Thus, the sovereignty of the prince, as Machiavelli understood it, begins to be overtaken by the original dispositifs through which the state is constituted as a control machine. The future, in other words, belongs not to the sovereign master, but to the systemic regime through which the imperatives of discipline and productivity are maintained. Such genealogical retrospection does, of course, have great persuasive power, for it gives a highly plausible account of the shift from Machiavellian wars of conquest, to the industrialized conflicts of twentieth century. And yet there is something in Baudrillard’s remarks on the machinery of icons that stages the spectacle of feudal power, which threatens this plausibility (Baudrillard, 2000: 5). It is the fact that the constitution of the state begins with a potent intermixing of the secular and the divine, and that it is this symbolic economy that founds the sovereignty of the prince. This aesthetic power cannot be discharged from Foucault’s productive machine precisely because it has always been a simulation of itself, and is the form in which the violence of sovereignty retains its capacity for excess, for ‘doubling’.

The second element of Baudrillard’s history of the image refers back to concerns he originally raised about Marx’s concept of use value in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Baudrillard argued that the distinction Marx drew between ‘use’ and ‘exchange’ values, succeeded in obscuring the underlying code of a system of objectification in which use value functions as the ‘alibi’ of universal commodification (Baudrillard, 1981: 137). The rupture in the system of symbolic exchange, in other words, is originally produced by the emergence of an idea of comparability which, if not strictly arithmetic, marks the point at which objects are conceived in terms of their utility rather than their symbolic value. What Marx’s account of the fetishism of commodities does therefore, is to present the inverted world of capitalism as if it sustains the possibility of a return to the natural usefulness of objects and their properly ordained satisfaction of human need (Baudrillard, 1981: 139).This idealization of use value is, for Baudrillard, the source of a determining limitation in Marx’s account of ideology. For by making the natural utility of the object into the underlying possibility of a return to happy and satisfying human relations (the account of ‘estranged labour’ in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, for example), his critique remains complicit with what Baudrillard conceives as the metaphysics of regulated exchange. The concept of socialized production that haunt’s Marx’s work is actually a projection of the utility code, and as such, his inheritors have attempted to articulate the immanent forms of social life through which ‘archaic’ relations of possession, subjection, and worship are finally put to rest. Thus, for Baudrillard, the evolution of Marxism through the questions that pre-occupied the Second and Third Internationals - revisionism, voluntarism, spontaneity, revolutionary dictatorship - is the evolution of an ideology that has been unable to break with the metaphysics of equivalence. Marxism is part of a sphere of signification that obscures the ‘profound reality’ of capital: that its crises ensue from the fact that it has ruptured the symbolic economy of human society, in which the experience of life and death were implicit in every performance of sovereign power (Baudrillard, 1981: 101).

Baudrillard’s account of symbolic exchange depicts a system of legality and ownership whose strictures are always beyond the metrical regime of value. The organization of men and women into hierarchical relations proceeds from  a sovereign power that always risks itself in its performance, and which constantly transfigures the everyday experience of work, satisfaction, and desire (Baudrillard, 1981: 135).Thus, it is the danger of this unpredictable sovereignty, its solicitations of death, adoration, and violence, which creates the soul of primitive man.For Baudrillard, the counterpart of the regime of regulated exchange established by political economy is the expansion of the ‘system of needs’: objects are categorized in terms of their specific use values, and as such, their embodiment of utility determines the ‘real’ needs of human beings, beyond the ambiguities of symbolic exchange.The transition to capitalism therefore is staged within the ideological figures of political economy; the significations of need are worked up into homogenous ideals of cathexis (sex, eroticism, love etc), which are the basis of the universal drive for consumption (Baudrillard, 1981: 100-101). This is the foundation of the culture industry thesis presented by Horkheimer and Adorno: the total formation of the individual as ‘need’ and its subjection to a regime of repetitive innovation in the image sphere (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1986: xv-xvi). The expansion of capitalism therefore is not limited by its degradation of use value or human need, for the potential of the sign-image to mask the absence of the symbolic is potentially infinite (Baudrillard, 2000: 27-32). Yet for both Adorno and Baudrillard this unlimited solicitation of need is haunted by a sense of emptiness, and it is through this absence that the dynamics of sovereignty are radically transformed.

For both Adorno and Baudrillard the political culture of the Enlightenment is essentially a simulation of the utility principle (perfected communication, perfected representation, perfected recognition), and as such, it has been unable to sustain itself against the multiplication of desires created by the technological reproducibility of the image and the commodity. Thus, the preservation of this emergent cycle of satisfaction and desire becomes the telos of the modern political order; for as the utility code spreads into every sphere of social existence, so the institutional organization of government is dedicated to achieving measurable gains in collective happiness. However, the conjunction of expanded productivity, communication, and strategic welfare provision is haunted by its complicity with the utility code; for the principle of efficiency through which it operates leaves no time for the expressive rituals of social identity that Horkheimer and Adorno called mimesis. In the final chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, they examine the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany as an outcome of the desire to return to mimetic unity with the life of the nation. This strategy of examining the relationship between reified socio-economic relations and the political crises to which they are prone, gives insight into the conditions under which the violence of the symbolic can return to the instrumental regime of modernity.For it is not until we have understood the power that pure economic subjection (in the form of the economic strictures imposed on Germany after the First World War) is able to exert on the symbolic identity of the state, that we can conceive the intensity of the desire for mimesis (death, sacrifice, love, worship, etc.) that haunts the system of utility. In the midst of economic collapse and the destruction of the status hierarchies which constituted the substance of ethical life, the Führer emerges as saviour; the leader who will inspire the rejuvenation of the German nation, and who will finally destroy the‘eternal’ enemy of the Volk - the Jew (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1986: 187-200).

The return of this autocratic singularity to the reified relations of capital, is a specific form of doubling: the logic of spectacle and concealment through which the power of the Führer is staged, takes place through technological networks which have erased the symbolic economy of sovereignty, but which also provide the means through which it is re-presented as an absolute sacrificial demand. Thus, the figure of the leader is hyper-aestheticized; he is represented as the embodiment of the nation, the orchestrator of war and destiny, and the voice that speaks against the immoral promiscuity of capitalism and democracy (Benjamin, 1992: 234-235). Such millennial demands were extremely effective in the ruins on Weimer, for the cult of Aryanism propounded by the NSDAP was able to mobilize, in a self-consciously Machiavellian style, the anxieties of different social classes, status groups, and religious communities. Beyond this radicalization of civil society however, the hyper-sovereignty of the Führer is implicated in the event of the Holocaust, for it is directly involved in the cultic formation of the SS as the advanced guard of the new Aryan order (Goodrick-Clarke, 2005:5-6). Thus, theories that explain the scale and efficiency of the Final Solution, or Endlösung, as an effect the techno-scientific reduction of being which is characteristic of modernity (Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology’,  Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust), fail to grasp the transformative power of mimetic sovereignty. For without the aesthetic occultation that formed the sovereign body of the Nazi Party, the SS could not have emerged as the relentless executor of the Führer’s will, which refused to give up on the Final Solution even as the death camps were being liquidated.

Adorno once remarked that the question posed by Auschwitz is how we, in the face of the abject failure of Enlightenment culture, are to prevent such barbarism from ever happening again (Adorno, 1990:365-368). For Adorno, the possibility of recurrence is related to the transformation of memory that is essential to the culture industry. The Second World War enters popular consciousness through conventional representations of heroism, comradeship, and sacrifice, which are designed to intensify the experience of identity and belonging. This rendition of the war through a kitsch aesthetics of good and evil is inherently dangerous, as it is complicit with a process of re-presentation through which the violence implicit in reified social relations is erased. If the Holocaust does figure in popular memory, it does so through highly sentimentalized accounts of heroism and sacrifice, which ignore the brute facts of industrialized genocide (Rose, 1993: 33-36). The Adornian problematic therefore is concerned with the power of bourgeois society to continue its expansion of the commodity form, even after its provocation of the most violent political mimesis has been revealed. And so the possibility that such powerfully cathectic representations of nation, people, and race will return, is essentially related to the rationalizing project that is resumed after the war: the sovereignty of ‘being’ always threatens to destroy the fragile culture of democracy which sustains itself in the public sphere (Adorno, 1990: 398). Baudrillard’s work inherits this Adornian account of politics after Auschwitz, for he is explicitly concerned with the performance of the real from within the networks of technological representation. However, the concept of fourth order simulation Baudrillard develops in ‘The Precession of Simulacra’, suggests a radical transformation of the conditions under which the dynamics of hyper-sovereignty are played out in the post-Auschwitz world. And so in the following section, I will examine his account of the antagonism of sovereignties that has developed between ‘Enlightened’ and ‘Theocratic’ states in the global economy. 


III. Adventures in Hyper-sovereignty

There is a fundamental suspicion about Hegelian phenomenology that Baudrillard inherits from Georges Bataille. This is that Hegel’s account of the historical differentiation of spirit into increasingly rational forms that express the mediated totality of the Absolute Idea is, in essence, an attempt to expel the disturbing presence of death from the totality of social relations (Bataille, 1997: 279-295). According to Bataille, Hegel’s staging of the Master-Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Mind tries to determine the moment of pure necessity when self-consciousness, faced with the choice of annihilation or absolute servitude, chooses the latter. It is this event that establishes the foundation of Hegelian phenomenology; for it is the moment when spirit’s powers of dialectical transfiguration begin their fatal mitigation of the experience of death. For Bataille, this universal mediation of being is an aesthetic process, whose phenomenology seeks to expel the violence of the symbolic from the Apollonian unity of ethical life. And so if we return to Baudrillard’s account of the four stages of simulation, we might argue that Hegel’s account of the movement of religion away from the literalist mythologies of the Catholic Church towards a Protestant ‘revealed religion’, marks the point at which the aesthetics of the icon transcends itself towards the concept of a loving, intelligible creator whose purposes accord with the laws of the state and its ethical life. We might also contend, that Hegel’s reading of Smith and Ricardo’s theories economic individualism, is part of the aesthetics of bourgeois utility expounded in Baudrillard’s account of second order simulation. The possibility of mediating the egoistical striving that takes place in civil society, is given through its representation as bourgeois forms of art and morality which, in the end, find their substance in the life of state. This figuration of sovereignty as infinite return however is still marked by the possibility of violent rupture that Marx attempted to solicit, and it is not until the image has become a properly technologically form (the simulacrum), that the order of state power is fatally dispersed into its aesthetic economy.

Baudrillard’s concept of fourth order simulation determines a radical break with Hegel’s account of the state as a transcendent unity, in which the elements of ethical life (Sittlichkeit) find their ultimate purpose. In the West, the technological evolution of representation has transformed the conditions under which all the elements of life are related to each other; they have become subject to the logic of pure simulation, in which each sphere of activity becomes a performance that is without limit or mediation (Baudrillard, 1997: 32-40).Thus, religion becomes hyper-religion; its symbolic mediation of man’s relationship to the unknowable is dissolved into a performance of faith that has lost both its purity and its danger. All that remains is the body of Christian and Judaic orthodoxy, around which circulate various fundamentalisms, nationalisms, and messianic cults. Art ceases to be a sphere of seduction, in which reality is transfigured, opposed, resisted; it becomes a technological form in which the real, in all its obscene detail, is taken up into a world of signs, and reproduced as value (Baudrillard, 1995: 16). So, as the last traces of the aesthetic are dispersed into the technological systems of simulation, the commodity form is radically altered; for the regime of ‘capital’ is able to put everything to work in the production of value: Third World debt, the human gnome, liberal guilt, etc (Baudrillard, 1995: 26-35). Ultimately, the system of hyperreality consumes the order of political power; for once the substance of its authority can no longer be traced in the differentiated spheres of subjective and objective spirit, then, for Baudrillard, its powers of governance become ever more dependent on the aesthetics of spectacle and the exaggerated performance of power. It is this dominance of simulation that initiates the ‘Machiavellian’ dynamics of power that is the focus of this section.

As we saw in the introduction, Machiavelli’s account of sovereignty maintains that, in the end, the art of deception cannot save an evil ruler. There is a principle of natural selection at work in the field of war that dictates that, no matter how good a prince is at blaming others for his failings or deceiving his subjects, his corruption will eventually bring about either his overthrow or the fall of his state. However, Baudrillard’s suspicion would be that by the time Machiavelli was writing, European civilization had already been transformed by the aesthetic of the counterfeit: for his account of the liberation of the sign from the symbolic forms of feudal obligation which took place during the Renaissance, contends that the order of power ‘dreams of its predecessor, and would dearly love to find an obligation in its reference to the real’ (Baudrillard, 2004: 51). Perhaps then, Machiavelli’s idea of a process of natural selection which holds the logic of the counterfeit and its evil consequences in check, is itself a simulation of nature; perhaps it is already part of the multiplication of signs through which modernity seeks to recapture its relationship to the real. If this were the case, the fragile notion of prudence that marks the boundary between sovereignty and barbarism would be all but impossible to sustain. For if a prince were skilled enough in his manipulation of the counterfeit he could pursue a terrible barbarity that would not, necessarily, lead to his destruction: he could stage his atrocities as the necessary evil that binds together the alliance of the good, he could constantly evade responsibility for his failures, and he could conjure the absolute right of the nation in the pursuit of his mission. The importance of this play of the counterfeit lies in the fact that it undermines the economy of honour, responsibility, and prudence through which it is represented in Machiavelli’s thought; the exercise of power passes over into the escalatory logic of signs, from where it seeks to recapture the necessity of the real. I will return to this in moment.

The question that has emerged here is the one that is implicit in almost all of Baudrillard’s later work: what happens to the performance of sovereignty in a globalized world characterized by the complete loss transcendence? Let me begin to address this with a brief account of what Hardt and Negri have referred to as the ‘new imperium’ of global capital (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 22-41). With the emergence of virtual exchange as the dominant mode of accumulation, the geopolitical focus of power has shifted from the nation state, to stateless corporations that have floated free of the responsibilities incurred within the legal structures of civil society. Real power lies in the ‘orbital’ wealth of the corporations, and in the network of financial and political institutions through which their rights of appropriation are defended (the World Bank, the United Nations, the IMF). Thus, in Baudrillardian terms, the nations that belong to the G8 have effectively lost their sovereignty; for it is the encoding of the real as universally available for simulation, that has become the determining principle of the global economy.Power is dispersed into the networks of unlimited exchange, excessive desire, and hyper-consumption that are constantly transformed by the fluidity of virtual capital and the strictures of its global institutions. It is this migration of power from the nation state into the global networks of capital however, that brings about a particular re-enactment of sovereignty of the nation. For Baudrillard, the process of globalization is one in which symbolic economy of the real, with all of its desires, intensities, taboos, and seductions, is erased from the circuits of simulation; everything is made subject to a logic of representation in which the power of the unknowable disappears into an infinite play of signs. From this perspective the conflict between Western post-religious societies and Islamic theocracies is inevitable, as the latter are put in the position of having constantly to defend the symbolic relations through which God is made present in the economy of law, family, and state. The West, as the endless pursuit of techno-synthetic happiness, demands that Islamic societies ‘should sacrifice themselves on the altar of obscenity, transparency, and pornography and global simulation’ (Baudrillard, 2010: 24).

The pivotal event in this process of antagonism is, of course, the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon September 2001. As is well known, Baudrillard maintained that the 9/11 attacks were a non-returnable gift from a culture whose values and devotion to God were being threatened by the ceaseless expansion of global culture. The potency of the attack slay in their sacrificial excess: their refusal of the labile happiness that has spread from the West, and their unconditional devotion to the sacred demands of God. Immediately the attacks occurred a process of hyper-simulation began in the US, whose trajectory can be traced throughout the War on Terror that has been pursued ever since. The elements of this process are what constitute the ‘doubling’ of Machiavelli’s concept of sovereignty, and so I need to specify what they are. In the first place there is the principle that was announced in George W. Bush’s assertion that ‘America is at war’: that the integrity of the nation state has been put in jeopardy by the assault on its military, economic, and political infrastructures. This immediately transforms the attacks into acts of war; it changes the meaning of the violence from that of a terrorist strategy into a clash of civilizations, in which the US must not be found wanting. All of a sudden the hegemonic power of America is seen to totter, and the state is opened up to an ontological violence for which it must, from now on, always be prepared. The second element of this revitalization of sovereignty is that the War on Terror must be pursued against all those who are associated with the attacks. And so the geopolitical map is redrawn: old alliances are airbrushed from history (such as America’s support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war), and the world is divided into those who are part of the alliance of the good (including those ‘modernizing’ theocracies who have decided to pursue the Western ideal), and those who are part of the fundamentalist axis.

This reshaping of the geopolitical imagination requires a massive deployment of the resources of simulation, and, for Baudrillard, it is in America that the definitive formation of Western hyper-sovereignty takes place. This is anticipated in the remarks Baudrillard made in 1986 on the ‘astral’ trajectory of American culture, in which ‘the immanence and material transcription of all values’ has been reduced to the expansive regime of the hyperreal (Baudrillard, 1993: 28).Thus, once the events of 9/11 have been determined as the beginning of a War on Terror that the West must win at all costs, a process begins in which ‘politics’ in America becomes the performance of a national unity that is without schism or fracture; the pure self-determination of one nation happy and free under God. In a state that has become increasingly void of normative authority, and which has been pared down to the punitive functions that orbital capital demands of it, the sense of symbolic community is restored through the simulation of the ‘natural enemy’. The logic of this process, as it has taken pace in America since 9/11, is significant because it is not simply the exchange of the menace of the Soviet Union for the threat of Islam. The imagination of the enemy has been completely transformed: Islamic fundamentalism becomes a simulacrum that is simultaneously identical with particular states (Iran, Iraq, Pakistan etc) and with the cellular networks of al Qaeda, it combines the fanaticism of non-Christian religion with the technological skill of the terrorist, and as such it is devoid of the basic values of honour and integrity that once allowed it to be an ‘enemy’in the Western sense of the term (Schmitt, 1996: 27-37). The Soviets at least were adversaries against whom it was possible to conduct a proper war (albeit a cold one); Islamic fundamentalism, on the other hand, has become an evil cipher that is without determinate form or limit. The representation of Islam that takes hold in the US therefore excludes the possibility of ethical conflict, and it is this exclusion that has transformed politics in America since 9/11.

For Baudrillard, those ‘developing’ nations who have pledged themselves to the hyper-accumulative model of capitalism (China, India, Japan etc) enter into an unstable relationship of attraction and repulsion with the West, while those who retain a theocratic structure (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan etc) are the ones that are destined to refuse the fatal promise to be better mimics of Western culture. It is this refusal to participate in the cycle of pornographic disclosure to which ‘Enlightenment’ has been reduced that has determined the ‘cosmopolitical’ interventions of the US. For given that America has now virtually abandoned a democratic process based on opposition and dialogue, and that elections are little more than a contestation of idols and personalities, politics in the US has become a brutal enforcement of power that takes place both at home and abroad. The election of George W. Bush as President and of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California represents the complete exchangeability of simulation and politics: both have made reputations as ‘strongmen’ who are able to cut through the complexities of democratic representation (including human rights and the electoral process itself), and to destroy those who threaten the American way of life (Baudrillard, 2010: p. 19). With the parodic figures of Bush and Schwarzenegger therefore, we have reached the point at which simulation has overwhelmed the order of political power: the relationship between existential force of character, political judgement, and military skill that is the essence of Machiavelli’s prince is dissolved, and we are left with ciphers who can only perform the rhetoric of power and chastisement they symbolize. Indeed, the more stupid and violent the response (the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 for example), the more chance there is it will succeed in persuading the masses to support the action. And so the US becomes the global defender of hyper-consumption, obscenity, and indifference: the punisher of those who refuse ‘subscription to the most disenchanted models’ (Baudrillard, 2010: 24).

At the end of the previous section I suggested that the question that is raised by the doubling of Machiavelli’s political aesthetics, is essentially related to the fate of sovereign violence after Auschwitz. For Adorno, the stark truth that the death camps reveal to us is the violence that persists within the rational organization of modernity. And so we, as the inheritors of the Holocaust, are placed under an obligation to keep watch over the technological processes of representation and erasure through which reified society reproduces itself.The doubling of Machiavellian sovereignty is a ruse of simulation, through which the immediate demands of the state (for safety, happiness, and unity) can present themselves as absolutely unquestionable. From the first Gulf War onwards, Baudrillard has made it clear that, for him, the military excursions made by America and the Western Alliance into the Middle East have not been wars, which are marked by a roughly equal distribution of risk, but rather technological strikes whose outcome has been decided before the first missile is launched (Baudrillard, 2001). In the first Gulf War in 1991, for example, a survey commissioned by the American Air Force estimated that over twenty thousand Iraqi combatants were killed in the combined air and ground campaigns, compared with two hundred and ninety four Americans (Thomas and Cohen, 1993). Thus, the Machiavellian imperative to pre-empt the danger posed by rogue states, and to inflict the maximum possible damage with the smallest possible losses, becomes a largely technological operation: it is a spectacle of remote destruction in which the risk of death lies almost entirely on one side. Thus, in both The Intelligence of Evil and Carnival and Cannibal, Baudrillard presents the reduction to absurdity that is implicit in this enactment of sovereignty; for as the symbolic threat posed by Islamic states is increased exponentially by the use military force, so the communicative potential of diplomacy is fatally diminished by the spectacle of ‘shock and awe’ (Baudrillard, 2005: 159-164; Baudrillard, 2010: 22-28).

There is something profoundly disturbing in Baudrillard’s account of the parodic sovereignties that have emerged since 9/11. For it discloses a redoubling of evil that takes place through the connivance of each side, and the apparent lapsing of Enlightenment into the dream of pure utility. Thus, the feeling that crystallizes in Baudrillard’s thought is the same one that haunts Adorno’s work; that the concepts which define the autonomous subject (reflection, judgement, recognition), have been lost to the representational processes through which ‘being’ returns to dominate the life of the nation. The logic of sovereignty therefore becomes a matter of escalatory violence, in which the antagonistic powers of East and West, Christianity and Islam, contrive to overwhelm every conciliatory possibility that might arise from the regime of simulation. My own position on this follows a rather more qualified account of the power of representation, which is close to the position Derrida expounds in ‘Envoi’. His argument is that it is the aesthetic figuration of the real can never be technologically hermetic, for the envoi of being, its representative, has always been ‘menaced by divisibility and dissension’ (Derrida, 2007: 122). The image, in other words, always carries within it the trace of what, or who, it cannot represent, and the possibility of events that exceed its encoding of the real (Abbinnett, 2008: 79-87). So, for example, we might look to the difficulties America had in justifying the second Gulf War to what George W. Bush referred to as ‘Old Europe’, and in constituting a new Western coalition.However, this is not to say that Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum, as the form in which the image has virtually disposed of its difference from the real, does not menace the politics of hospitality that Derrida expounded in his later work. And so in my concluding remarks I will look briefly at the transformation of hegemony that has taken place with the rise of the Chinese economy, and the impact this has had on the dynamics of sovereignty in the globalized world.

IV. Conclusion: The Return of the Double?

Back in the mid-1980’s Baudrillard remarked that America had created itself as a fiction, and that if one wished to understand how it had come to dominate the world, one would have to understand how its ‘fictive basis’ had spread into the collective imagination of humanity (Baudrillard, 1993: 29). In this concluding section I will look briefly at fate of this once hegemonic fiction, or, more precisely, at the strategic relations that are beginning to emerge between America and the rapidly expanding power of the Chinese economy. Let me begin by restating the transformation of the global economy that is mapped in Baudrillard’s later writings. Capital, he claims, has become orbital; it has ceased to be tied to the territorial space of the nation state, and circulates through virtual networks in which the form of its conglomeration, dissemination, realization, accumulation, and exchange is completely mutable and without limit (Baudrillard, 1995: 33). The genesis of this orbitalform of capital is important, as it represents the purification of virtual forms of economic life that originate in the fictive landscape of America: pure autonomy, pure self-reliance, pure individualism, pure eroticism etc. Thus, once this hyper-capitalized model of exchange departs from the troublesome political and economic restrictions of the sate, those nations who have done most to deregulate their financial institutions and to cut government interference in the free market, are the ones that are most exposed to the effects of capital’s migration into extra-territorial networks. It is in this context that we have to understand the decline of American economic and political hegemony, and its consequences for other Western economies. For as capital is dispersed into global corporations, so the powers of hegemonic domination that America once possessed, have mutated into the Machiavellian simulation outlined above. This situation, as I have said, is complicated enormously by a new regime of sovereignty taking shape in the East: the state-led capitalism of the People’s Republic of China.

The essential question that arises here concerns the nature of Chinese modernization, or the way in which China has combined the political ideology of collectivism with a certain encouragement of economic individualism. What has emerged is a kind of hybrid regime, in which the state acts as a limiting mechanism that attempts to keep the process of hyper-commodification in check: the dangerous performance of sex, femininity, personality, desire, and egoism through which the Western paradigm has destabilized every facet of the real, is made subject to a restrictive code whose reference point remains the glory of the People’s Revolution. This hybrid machinery has proved immensely successful in the global economy; its powers of ideological control, strategic planning, and political representation have taken China to point of overtaking the US as the world’s largest economy. Indeed, the banking crisis in America has produced a situation in which China currently owns $1.2 trillion of the US Treasury debt, and has demanded that the America should ‘learn to live within its means’ ( What seems to be emerging therefore is a new dynamics of sovereignty, which is significantly different from the one that has been played out between the Christian West and the Islamic East. The old economic hegemony has gone, and the structural position that is occupied by America in its economic and political relations with China, is one of relative weakness. Thus, if we take an explicitly Baudrillardian position on the antagonism that is taking shape between China and the West, our focus should be the way in which the fictive life of ‘America’ has transformed itself into the essence neo-liberal freedom. For it has become the focal point around which the simulacra of personal autonomy, human rights, free speech, and happiness constantly re-circulate; a hyper-simulation of itself in which the networks of orbital capital find their ideal representative.

What is important, indeed crucial, about this confrontation of sovereignties is the fact that it produces a reactionary turn, which is also a gesture of resistance to the regime of orbital capital.Walter Benjamin once remarked that the transformation of the state during a period of crisis is always haunted by an ideological-aesthetic of nostalgia for its origin (Benjamin, 1997: 183-184); and so we might expect that the sovereignty pursued by the People’s Republic, will tend towards a somewhat authoritarian enactment of the principles of Chinese socialism. This creates a paradox. For while it is true that China’s human rights record does leave a great deal to be desired, it is also the true that there remains a certain commitment to the idea of a society that is not entirely driven by greed and egoistic desire. The recent disputes between China and America have heightened the antagonism that exists between the exorbitant demands of transnational capital, and the Chinese attempt to ‘modernize’ without surrendering every trace of socialist ethics. The ideological form in which this antagonism has been played out is the discourse of rights (of self-determination, sovereignty, free speech, ethnic identity etc), and it is here that the violence of the Machiavellian double returns once more. For insofar as what is at stake in the clash of Chinese and American sovereignties is the ontology of human happiness, there is a huge potential for the re-distribution of violence across newly disputed territories, subjugated peoples, rogue states, and heroic struggles. The particular danger of these conflicts lies in the fact that they are potentially unlimited; for the circulation of ‘China’ and ‘America’ as virtual reference points within the system of global political exchange, constantly renews the potential for strategic interventions and covert violence.

The question this leaves us with, of course, concerns the outcome of this escalatory play of simulation. The strictest Baudrillardian reading would predict the dissolution of Chinese socialism, which is already a simulation of itself, into the virtual networks of capital. The idea of dialectical history on which the socialist imaginary is founded, in other words, will soon be overtaken by the play of images through which the global economy is liquidating the political history of the world. And yet there is something in the performance of hyper-sovereignty that is not absolutely fictive, and which cannot be absorbed into its regime of exchangeable signs. What this is, if it ‘is’ anything, is the return of history; the irruptive, temporalizing affects of old ghosts who are summoned to the clash of exorbitant sovereignties. Perhaps then, the dimensions of ‘the inhuman’ that are expanding through the Chinese-American antagonism, are both unrepresentable and topological: perhaps they are realms of spectres, each of which approaches as a sovereignty that disturbs the spectacle of power, and which recalls the violence of history. What the political consequences of such a dispersed spectrality will be is undecidable, for it cannot entirely escape the gravitational effects of hyper-sovereignty. However, and this is something we can observe in the unfolding story of the ‘Arab spring’, their expressions of freedom, community, and justice are acts of sovereignty that are ‘both a threat and a chance not to be missed’, the very possibility of the future as redemption (Derrida, 2005: 5).

Ross Abbinnett completed his doctorate with at Warwick University. His interests are in the relationship between theories of aesthetic representation and the constitution of democracy. His book: Politics of Happiness (Continuum, 2012), concerns the ideological constructions of love, pleasure, worship, and ecstasy that have formed the political life of Western modernity.


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