An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management

Randy Martin, An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007).

For all of the unknowns that this current economic crisis presents, one thing has become increasingly certain: the world has become fully engulfed by the volatility of finance. Randy Martin has been arguing as much since well before this most recent implosion. His previous book, The Financialization of Daily Life (2002), is a creative attempt to see financialization as an everyday practice, updating the western Marxist interrogation of commodity fetishism as a lived experience. In An Empire of Indifference, Martin subjects US imperialism and warfare to a similar analysis, arguing that American military aggression in the war on terror has taken on a logic akin to that of financial management. What is new, according to Martin, is less the functions that war plays within and for the capitalist imperium, than the form that these wars take, their inner logic and tactical organization. What distinguishes financialization from other forms of accumulation is the focus upon wealth extraction through risk management. Hence, the “imperial unconscious” (125) has shifted its focus from victory – defined in terms of sovereign control or development – to an active indifference, or the management of permanent war.

The Empire of Indifference is largely an argument made by metaphor, with the keywords of finance, securitization, derivatives, leverage, etc., each coming to describe dimensions of US militarism and the war on terror. The book is divided into an introduction followed by four chapters. The first of these chapters (Chapter 2) establishes a framework for understanding the financialized state, in terms of both domestic and military affairs. Martin begins with a survey of the rise of financialization, focusing on the history of capitalist monetary regimes leading up to the dissolution of Bretton Woods in 1971. With dollars no longer convertible to gold, the Federal Reserve initiated a period of monetarist policies centrally concerned with preempting inflation through the careful management of interest rates. This emphasis on the risk of potential inflation finds its correlate in financialized warfare, where the risk of potential terrorist acts could – like inflation – disrupt the regular operations of business and the free flows of capital. Hence, the war on terror represents a shift away from the cold war’s focus on deterrence, to a newly asserted focus on preemption as a strategy of risk management. There is a shift from enemies with weapons of mass destruction to enemies that ‘seek’ them, enemies that are potential, but not-yet, risks. American war (by which Martin means US militarism) manages the racialized others of its terror war as if they were all potential terrorists.

The strength of Martin’s approach is to always trace a topography of capital where apparently disparate social relations or institutional forms can be seen to display parallel logics. And so for instance, securitization – now infamous as the central pillar of the subprime crisis – need not be left to the financial pages, but can be seen more broadly as the de-localization of risk through its conglomeration and then abstract segmentation and management. Similarly, the war on terror links its disparate targets through their imperial securitization – in other words, the war homogenizes its enemy as terror, and then manages this de-localized risk through ‘leveraged’ interventions. The securitized state, both domestically and militarily, is Martin’s attempt to financialize Foucault’s concept of biopolitical rule, the injunction ‘to make live and let die.’ He draws connections between the current terror war and the domestic policy wars against crime, AIDS, drugs or poverty of the ‘80s and ‘90s. These are not, as with Lyndon Johnson’s war against poverty, efforts to rehabilitate, but are instead efforts to police, punish and criminalize. The culture of poverty meets its correlate with a culture of terrorism, and the key binarization underlying this financialized logic is a division between those who are able to avail themselves of risk as opportunity, and those who are at risk; the self-managed and the unmanageable.

The next two chapters outline the financialized, post-Fordist management of military intervention. Led by the Office of Net Assessment, the military has adopted a systems analysis where models no longer attempt to predict the future, but instead attempt to thoroughly understand the present, providing a ‘leveraged’ advantage on the battlefield. This systems analysis provides a technological cover for the downsizing and privatization of the military, as it shifts into a post-Fordist model: a militarized version of just-in-time production where technological innovation and investment creates a small set of highly productive (or destructive, as the case may be) commandos, supported by a vast army – literally – of support staff. The ‘products’ of this post-Fordist military are derivative wars, which are small, quick and leveraged affairs – directed attacks less concerned with holding territory than with managing risk.

Martin is not arguing that there is something new about the small war – but that these small wars are no longer about positioning in relation to a larger skirmish. They are now themselves the core of strategic positioning. These interventions are primarily concerned with the ability to circulate, as opposed to the ability to claim sovereignty. For Martin, this is analogous to a shift from shareholders, who own shares of equities, to leveraged derivatives traders, who instead generate wealth via the management of risk. The unintended consequence of this risk management, both in the world of finance and in the case of US empire, is to exacerbate the very volatility that was to have been contained. Hence, there results a vicious cycle of destabilization and derivative wars, which, in the final chapter, Martin terms the “empire of indifference.” This is empire whose stated objective is no longer progress or development but which now only promises the management of a perpetual present of risk-opportunities.

In the final chapter, Martin also discusses the financialization of anti-imperialist struggle, framing it with a critique and reformulation of Hardt and Negri’s work in Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004). The multitude, grounded in networks of immaterial labor, is replaced with the idea of socialization, grounded in the immaterialty of financial circulation. Martin understands socialization as “the connection between participation, the spread of social production, and the constitution of a social economy” (146). His argument, roughly, is that financialization, and in particular securitization, entails a further socialization of capital and of labor – an intensification of interdependence on a global scale – that is both exploitative and generative; not necessarily of progress, but certainly of social wealth. But who has access to that social wealth, and in what forms? Similar to Multitude, any analysis of the production of value (as Marx outlines in volume I of Capital) is set aside, in favor of a triumphant conception of resistance grounded by people who are in direct control of their own productive lives.1 Martin is absolutely correct that surplus populations create new forms of social wealth, but to presume that these social economies, plagued as they are by a scramble for survival within a militarized, capitalist environment, will automatically result in a form that is less exploitative than capitalism, seems rather naïve. Patriarchy and domination can take many alternative forms; the Taliban may be a case in point.

Nonetheless, this leads Martin to embrace, as do Hardt and Negri, heterogeneous protest movements that “avoid divisive calls for unity” and “challenge the privatizing mandates of the terror war and the discretionary aspects of the derivative war while adopting certain properties of leveraging and securitizing of their own” (157). Such “movement of movements” or “dispersed demonstrations” are the assemblage of small bundles of opposition into a larger effort, a securitized demonstration that renders people “mutually interdependent.” Financialized protesters are at once united in opposition to war and yet at the same time represent a multiplicity of alternatives for organizing the social surplus. Here it is sufficient to say that those already inclined toward this post-Marxist paradigm of political philosophy will welcome Martin’s contribution, and those less convinced will be re-confirmed in their suspicions that such work has divorced itself from any analysis of class struggle.

One gets the sense, reading The Empire of Indifference, that Martin is exploring the financialization of US imperialism and its popular opposition as a cultural moment without sufficiently contextualizing either imperialism or anti-imperialist social movements within their long and bloody history, and without sufficiently accounting for the role of financialization in relation to the crisis tendencies of capitalism. Against the perceived functionalism of Marxist critiques of political economy, Martin raises the possibility of unintended consequences, or the idea that “interest tends to betray itself” (162). However, Martin does not link this to a tendency toward crisis, but only to a tendency toward increasing, yet manageable, volatility.

That said, Martin’s argument could only be made stronger by linking the rise in financialization to contradictions immanent to capitalism – not only the contradiction embedded in the wage relation, which results in a crisis in profitability, but as well O’Connor’s second contradiction, between the non-human conditions of accumulation and their unsustainable exhaustion by capitalist production processes. In fact, in 2004 the Pentagon issued a confidential report that warned of global warming-induced resource depletion creating the conditions of permanent war as soon as 2020.2 Recognizing financialization’s relationship to a value system in crisis, some of the most interesting questions remain to be asked: Will there come a point when the US military has leveraged its position past a point of solvency? Is US imperialism increasingly becoming a speculative bubble, a fictitious power waiting to burst? If so, what will the bailout attempts looks like? And who will pay… with their lives?

The style of the book presents its own problems, reading like an impassioned stream of consciousness, a non-linear ride through the US imperium and its logic of risk management. One is tempted to turn Martin’s own critique of financialization upon his text, and to ask whether he has himself become consumed by a ‘derivative prose’, a rapid succession of short bursts of analysis, each leveraged for maximum impact and hedged against the risk that the reader might somehow lose interest. Yet here, as with the world of derivatives, the attempt at risk management may in fact exacerbate the problem that it seeks to contain. Frustrating as the text can sometimes be, I am nonetheless left with a creative and exciting new analytic for understanding current forms of US imperialism. Martin succeeds in creating a generative text – one that opens up lines of inquiry and re-evaluation of pre-conceived truths regarding the war on terror – and for these reasons, I recommend the book to all those interested in expanding their conceptualization of US imperialism beyond the well trodden paths of current Marxist debate.

Jesse Goldstein
PhD Student in sociology
City University of New York
jesse@space1026.com

Notes

1. Cf. David Camfield, “The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour,” Historical Materialism 15.2 (2007).

2. Mark Townsend and Paul Harris, “Now the Pentagon Tells Bush: Climate Change Will Destroy Us,” Observer/UK 22 Feb. 2004.

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