Sunday, March 20, 2022

Global War, Non-State Collectives, and the De-Centering of States--Interesting Hints of Lessons From the Russo-Ukraine War



For years I have been writing and speaking, to no one in particular, about the way that the post 1945 structures of globalization bore fruit after 2000 in a number of interesting ways.  

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The first was the governmentalization of the private sector as a principal means of dealing with two core problems of global production.  One was the problem of coverage (governance gaps) and the other was on uniformity (compliance, accountability as values embedding techniques). This impulse toward governmentalization has only accelerated after 2010 and is profoundly changing the nature and operation of states as well as non state actors. Governmentalization has produced great incentives to move to data driven governance measures. At the same time it has universalized the cultures of public administrative organs throughout the organization of human collectives. This has both created greater autonomy and regulatory authority in such non state actors while tying them  to public bodies as regulatory auditors. 

The second was the privatization of the state--that is of the willingness of the state to project authority in and through private markets and market activity.  That could be broken down into several components of interest here. One of the consequences of privatization was a tendency toward disaggregation of the state.  Unity of the state organs and the coherence of its operations was never easy; it is harder where the state serves both as regulator and as an element of what is regulated.  It becomes harder still when state private authority is projected outward and is subject to regulation by other states. The other was the ability of states to project power outward through private activity in ways that would have not been possible were the state acting in its regulatory-political role. Markets inevitably became a political space even as international organs more and more loudly proclaimed (through soft law norm making) the opposite. 

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The third was the legalization and judicialization of both public and private spaces. Critical here is a consequence--the possibility of decoupling both law and dispute resolution from the state and state organs. Non state actors could create powerful private law systems (sometimes coupled with public law(s)) as well as dispute resolution mechanisms (entre nous mechanisms)sometimes authenticated with a public fig leaf. In those spaces between and beyond states, non-state actors might then be better equipped to animate themselves (within or beyond orthodox legalities) as autonomous governmentalized organs with deep but at critical points auto0nomous relations to the states against which they brushed or into whose territories they might project their own activities. Financing also became more detached, not just in the form of banks and crowd sources debt sales, but in terms of cryptocurrencies, and most important, by the rise of a great global banking system for non-state non-economic actors in the form of foundations  who projected their own normative agendas through their curation of funded objects.

Pix Fritz Lange Metropolis
Fundamentally, however, each of these, and all of them have effectively de-centered the state in the way that sustainability and climate change has de-centered the human from human rights.  In both cases, what had been at the heart of an ancient system--territory for states and individuals for rights, has now been subsumed within quite distinct emerging "territories.  For human rights these new territories are marked by environment, bio-diversity,and interactive ecologies. For the state system those territories are marked by identity ethnos, by production chains, by the return of religion in its manifestation as a self-reflexive institutional organism, by the multinational enterprise, and by objectives based collectives that either seek to protect their members or (in the style of 20thcentury Leninism) to lead like minded collections of individuals toward some transformative goal or other. 

Nonetheless, people find these layered abstractions exhausting (in the language of people whose tentacles I have been made to feel). However well they suggest the profound transformations of theory and however well they manage to suggest the comprehensiveness of the factors in that transformation, the human mind attaches  value to the reductionism and essentialism of example; conception is impossible without  giving it concrete form. Intellectual exhaustion is a barrier; it becomes a vice to be avoided where it displaces broader abstraction entirely in favor of the simpler pleasures all to much at the ready for intellectuals and policymakers desperate for the simplifying  virtues of simplicity within which they might construct the holograms that serve as their own versions of reality.  This impulse is hardened especially where reality slaps people in the face- - - - over and over again.

Sometimes war helps clarify things in an unavoidable way--a hard slap to be sure.; but these are cheeks quite in need  of the sharp embrace of an open palm. 

Our global leaders--academic, political, economic, media, social, and perhaps even religious--have been working hard to paint the traditional picture of war as the great (and because it is an activity and expression of apex power and undertaken in a specific way) performance of state power in the form of rationalized violence--the unleashing of a power that is the essence of the energy bounded up in territory and at the disposal of some sort of unifying (and authentic) leadership. One speaks here, of course, of the conflict between this territorial singularity (Ukraine) and the morally darker version (under virtually all contemporary political ideologies) of that other territorial singularity (Russia).  Two objects hurling all manner of the tools of violence at their disposal along with the deployment of whatever other tools of modern warfare to which they might acquire access. The state system then worries (to the extent an abstraction is capable of worry). It worries about expanding the war beyond these singularities, even as many states (on all sides of this war) maneuver to intervene without appearing to intervene. So far all well worn and ancient theater. The object is to avoid "world war" while the "world" "wars" (here infamously by the Biden Administration's mantra of seeking to avoid direct confrontation with a nuclear power--they mean Russia but do they also mean Iran? too early to tell).  

And yet. . . . And yet.

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The world is at war.  And the scope of a world at war may no longer be measured by the number of states involved.

It is quite plain to those who see without the aid of the ideological and political spectacles that make the sort of antiquarian leadership (perhaps better said a quite dusty leadership, dusty in a way that studied neglect leaves its tell tale signs all over the surfaces of neglected house) of states plausible. But in a world in which the state is de-centered--that world includes quite powerful global non-state actors.  Where non-state collectives are now exercising governance power it is only logical that within the scope of their collective authority, and within the functionally differentiated territories over which they may exercise both authority and power, that these actors might also decide to intervene in the war the epicenter of the violence of which is now (for the moment) centered on the territory of the Republic of Ukraine. . . . for the moment.

Let me make this simple by reference to just a few recent reports that inadvertently reveal the extent of this global conflict that suggests that while the state remains at the center of violence, non-state actors are nor emerging as critical parties to conflict to protect or further their own interests, values, and to protect their own collectives. Indeed, one can go one step farther--in post-global warfare, states are dependent on the election of these non-state actors to participate int he way that states once sought alliances among their own kind int he last century. Multinational enterprises, NGOs, anarchic collectives, the global institutions of religion, and others, are now as important as states in conflict.  And indeed, the Russo-Ukrainian war suggests that states may in the future the relationship between states and these actors may flip, or even more likely, that states (beyond the apex states and their top dependencies in the post-global order) may no longer be useful in warfare except as tools of the most powerful non-state actors and in the service of their needs and goals. 

The new critical actors:

1. Crowdsourced Collectives. Several generations of identity and ideology-moral politics beyond the discredited organizational frameworks so favored through the 20thcentury (race, ethnicity, religion,and the like those these remain portent though more discredited organizational frames) has created a fertile ground for the constitution of popular collectives.  These may be made more or less permanent by he use of institutional frameworks.  But increasingly important are crowdsourced collectives, bound by passion built around deeply held identities, may be utilized for single (or limited) purpose and short term operations.  And they may be crowdsourced. . . by anyone--states, non-state organizations, trans-national enterprises and the like.  These are not just the mob that can be used as an instrument to serve others.  These are collectives that exist in latent forms which assume form when appropriately triggered. 

Tech has made these latent pop-ups much more potent, especially when they take the form of Global Hacker Collectives. Consider the pop-up  “IT Army of Ukraine” (‘It’s the right thing to do’: the 300,000 volunteer hackers coming together to fight Russia). 

Like many of his peers, Kali was directed to the Telegram group, which has Ukrainian- and English-language versions, by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation. Fedorov, 31, has been using his vastly expanded Twitter profile to plead with executives at the world’s biggest tech firms to cut ties with Russia. On 26 February, he posted a link to the Telegram group, which was set up by his ministerial department. “We need digital talents,” he said. “There will be tasks for everyone.” (ibid).

What can almost instantly be set up through the direction of a state, can also be set up by others.  The state was not necessary as state--rather it serves here as the cause, the catalyst.  But such catalysts do not require the state, just a cause--moral, ethical, social, economic etc. ("“I wanted to help and use my attacking skills to help Ukraine,” he says via Telegram. “I’m from Switzerland, but I’m a strong hacker and I’m so sorry for every Ukrainian." Ibid (quoting "Kali" an ironically delightful handle in this case). One can as easily crowd source a private army--or buy it. Here the exogenous nature of these collectives that exist both within and outside of more institutionalized collectives transform the old form of the mob into ideologically distinct organismus--alive though usually existing in a latent state. They belong to no one but themselves, but may be triggered when that which is important to them comes into play.

2. Institutionalized tech collectives with their own agendas. There are many, but few have become as influential as Anonymous. 

Anonymous has claimed that it successfully infiltrated Russian state TV to show citizens the devastation of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. It also leaked emails and files from government agency Roskomnadzor, responsible for censoring Russian media. Anonymous has since gained the support of more than 500,000 followers on its Twitter account, which now boasts more than 7.9 million followers. (Anonymous has unleashed a successful cyber war to undermine Putin’s Ukraine invasion)

As a tech vanguard organismus, Anonymous follows its own agenda, but that agenda can align with those of states form time to time.  They remain autonomous. And they are now powerful enough to make a difference in the counting of the constellation of actors necessary to engage in modern warfare across (many and many types) of border. They are not unique--except to the people producing copy for press organs and in the narrowing construction of the narrative of such organs by states both willing to use them and fearful as well. 

3. Multi (or Trans)-national enterprises. MNEs are no longer instruments of states. They have become, some of them anyway, strong and autonomous enough to see states as instruments of their own agendas--markets, productivity, the protection of their value chains, etc. Alliances with MNEs has become a critical factor in warfare.  States without MNE allies are at a decided disadvantage in the management of their conflicts with other states.  The same, it seems also applies to MNEs--MNEs without sufficient state alliances are at a disadvantage in their wars against other MNEs and non-state actors in the territories within which they operate. One speaks here of two kinds of alliance--one touches on the offense and defensive use of production to feed allies or starve enemies. These are undertaken under cover of public international doctrine (collusion, complicity, etc.) but at the same time they further strategic objectives in a public-private partnership--at least at the level of visibility (and reporting). In this form of alliance the interlinking of entities and states is strong, though strategic and built on the convergence of norms and the governmantalization of entities operating autonomously in the global production spaces between states. This is the global social space of markets and the 2nd Pillar of the corporate responsibility grounded in international (no national) norms ofa public and private (markets driven) basis.

The other kind of alliance is one that reveals the power of the MNE in its own right--and their essential role in warfare.

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In a move as rogue-ishly provocative as his moonshot, Elon Musk is inserting himself into the drama of international conflict by bolstering Ukraine’s internet connection to the outside world. Last Wednesday, his trucks delivered a second shipment of satellite-based Starlink internet terminals to a battered Ukraine, responding to a plea from the nation’s vice prime minister. His initial shipment arrived on Feb. 28, only four days after Russian forces launched an assault on the nation. His system beams data from space — and so, unlike land-based networks, it is less vulnerable to attack or authoritarian control. Those aspects seem to be angering Russian officials. (How Elon Musk’s satellite internet is coming to Ukraine’s defense).

The supplying of internet connectivity is always red meat for the global press. But it is crucial in other respects as well. Most revolve around logistics. But in critical respects they also center on provision and maintenance--as well as the technologies necessary to add military capacity (DJI Denies Throttling Ukrainian Army Drone Tech Amid Rumors ("DJI has denied accusations that it is limiting the capabilities of drone technology used by the Ukrainian army after rumors spread on social media that the Chinese consumer drone manufacturer was throttling its AeroScope technology.")).

And, indeed, the rules that are likely to be refined respecting corporate complicity will represent an effort by states to limit the discretionary power of MNEs to act within their production chains to further their own interests and to try to ensure their primary character of state instruments--until state interests (again) militate in favor of autonomy.  That is the likely trajectory especially as institutional and systemic character of MNE merge around the territories of functionally differentiated global production.

But not just MNEs.  The great non-state actors have also acquired an element of autonomy that permits them to choose sides and act independently of the choices made by states in whose territories these NGOs might operate.  And because these are, like MNEs, entities with abstracted territories (Fractured Territories and Abstracted Terrains: Human Rights Governance Regimes Within and Beyond the State)  this multi-spatial disaggregation within any specific territory becomes more likely.  States have recognized this power, to some extent by enacting blocking and monitoring legislation.  These are effective to a degree, but cannot entirely protect the state from the inward projection of NGO power in those shared and abstracted territories where monopoly control of space is still impossible.   Again, it is not the actions, but the autonomy and detachment (from states) from which NGO actions are framed that mark the difference between now and a decade ago.


None of this is new.  One sees here the continuing strengthening of trends with long historical lines. What is new, though, is the way that these actors have moved from the peripheries closer to the center.  This is no longer about instrumentalization of sub-national collectives, nor is it about the necessity for (temporary) alliances with institutions that operate suppressed markets (crime syndicates, etc.).  Nor is this little more than the use of tech to better manage the mob (though for example its use by religious officials in some states has been a useful instrument of autonomous religious authority within states--and between them where states are viewed as political sub-units of transnational religious collectives. Tech helps in the process of transformation, to be sure.  

But what has been emerging is a greater clarity in the extent to which these non-state collectives have become "sentient" in the sense that they self consciously act by and for themselves and politically in their own interests.  They may be used by states but they may also use states. They aid because they can, because they choose.  And they can now choose the manner of it as well.  They exist within and between states, and in any case, even the most insular state must interact with them politically, economically, and sometimes violently, in the course of their actions.  

Where once these interactions were strictly segregated and vertically ordered--now they are more vertically arranged.  Not that states welcome this change.  Yet the organization of the state system itself after 1945, and the choices made for the realization of coherence and coordination in economic production and political communication has now made it possible for non-state entities to assert (within their functionally differentiated scope of authority) public power and for states to serve as instruments of transnational movements and objectives. Worlds at war with themselves--especially among subsets of political actors (eg states) --may produce much by way of violence (that has been the great tragedy of the Russo-Ukraine war the perpetrators of which (though not their collectives) may be punished by application of transnationalized legal structures. Yet its fundamental character has also changed.  Collectives--not just states--now go to war.  Collectives, and not just states, may exercise authority with, against, or aligned with those of states. The sovereignty of states, like the power of other collectives may be negotiated away. 

In this new "state of political nature," only antiquarians might find value in the ideologically charged (and judgmental) language of "hybrid" warfare.  What has been hybridized is the state system itself.  All else, including the nature and conduct of violence ("legalized" or not) now follows. One sees a only a glimpse of a possible future here.  Expect many of the other older modes of sub-national disruption to acquire  a life of their own and to join the constellation of actors in international (the national part of which becoming increasingly de-centered except among the small core of leadership among states). They will be the same but different--more self-conscious and more detachable from the geographies in which they operate. 

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