Asynchronous Wars & the Technology of Killing

1.VII 2022

If enemy’s body can no longer be liquidated with direct hits, then the attacker is forced to make his continued existence impossible by his direct immersion in an unlivable milieu for a sufficiently long time. (Peter Sloterdijk)

Our bodies consist of organs and technology acts as a prosthetic, allowing us to go where we otherwise could not have imagined. Shoes, autos, planes, telescopes, microscopes, hammers, axes, guns, Viagra, and other tools and weapons are all extensions of our organs that allow for new experiences and more efficient management of time for the purpose of travel, vision, work or killing. Technology changes the flow of time, shortens distances, makes the unimaginable doable, impossible efficient. It defines the way reality reveals itself to us.

However, despite the enormous advantages technology brings, it does not come free of charge. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck. Invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash; nuclear power plant of nuclear meltdown[1]. One cannot innovate without creating some damage. The 20th century has been celebrated as a period with the highest concentration of innovations in history with the most far-reaching consequences. It was also the time of the greatest expressions of large-scale violence and killing, most of them with a direct link to those innovations.

When seen from an angle of technology of killing and techniques of death, the 20th century will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body, but the enemy’s environment[2]. This shift completely changed the concept of war; it altered its logic and gave it new grammar. Wars could now be waged between opponents of vastly different strength, which in turn means that wars could be triggered at any point of time, or on any terrain, without significant armed forces or war machinery and with modest financing. In the last hundred years, the implementation of this new strategy of targeting enemy’s environment went through three phases. These three phases capture a gradual buildup of layers of abstraction in the evolution of the warfare, which, contrary to their appearance, reveal a regressive pattern of relapse to its barbaric mode of pre-thymotic pillage.

PHASE ONE: From destruction of bodies to destruction of the environment

The 20th century’s dawn falls on 22-April-1915 at the battle of Ypres, when a special German gas regiment launched their first operation against the allied troops using chlorine gas as a weapon. This was the first time poisonous gas had been used on a large scale. It was at this moment that war shifted from destruction of soldiers’ bodies to destruction of their landscape. When compared to the advancement from cold weapons to firearms, from swords to guns, which was a transition from blood on one’s hands to blood on the battlefield, the use of poisonous gas was a transition from bloody to bloodless warfare. As a consequence, acts of destruction became more efficient but, at the same time, appeared less barbaric, detached, and remote.

This mode of taking life quickly and silently found its place in times of peace. Executions by electric chair, in which a sentenced prisoner’s brain was fried by high voltage, was replaced by what was perceived as a more humane way of life extinction by internal asphyxiation triggered by inhalation of cyanide which blocked oxygen transport through blood.

The idea of efficient and “humane” killing underwent a perverse mutation during WWII when it was systematized for the purpose of the large-scale annihilation of ideologically dehumanized subjects. The mass killings in gas chambers evolved from the projects conducted by pest control units where efficiency was the primary goal. German chemist Fritz Haber, who served as the National Commissioner for Pest Control between the two world wars, the same person behind the invention of the gas used at Ypres, was responsible for developing Zyklon for the purpose of vermin extermination, which was later used (in its modified form as Zyklon B) in extermination camps. However, one of the most important objectives of extermination camps extended beyond mere efficiency; it was intended to protect soldiers of the firing squad from the trauma of killing other human beings.

PHASE TWO: Latency and destruction at the subatomic level

The search for an ever more efficient and potent means of destruction did not stop with gas warfare and extermination camps. It reached its apex towards the end of the WWII. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not only a demonstration of the potency of the new weapon[l4] , but also an introduction of another layer of distancing between attackers and physical destruction. It highlighted a new dimension of landscape destruction beyond mere pulverization through effects of latency at higher resolution, making the landscape uninhabitable for years to come. The released radiation, which lingered on for years, was not just polluting the air, but also contaminating the microscopic level of the landscape, the waves and particles (much smaller than the air molecules) and continued to kill people slowly long after those who dropped the bomb could connect those deaths to their actions or were even alive.

Banalization of guilt

We are wired to kill, but we are also wired to feel bad about it. And as the killing and devastation become more massive, the associated guilt grows deeper with it. How to increase efficiency of killing while desensitizing the killers became a complicated optimization problem of utmost urgency. Technology provided simultaneously a solution to both sides of this issue and has continued to play a dual role in that context. Technology displaces things from what they originally are. Each thing that presents itself technologically loses its distinctive independence and form. A soldier is seen as an instrument of war (and a worker as an instrument of production), a human resource to be arranged, rearranged, and disposed of.

Pushing a button while sitting in a cockpit 30 thousand feet above the target or in a control room in a barracks outside of the gas chamber, without facing the victims, introduces a layer of abstraction into the process of killing and increases the physical and temporal distance between attackers and their target. To kill becomes a technocratic decision, which begins to resemble a “job” rather than a direct confrontation with a human adversary and, as such, removes the innate moral conflict associated with killing.

As the 20th century progressed and the aftertaste of WWII continued to linger, the world became more resolute in its desire to distance itself from its barbaric legacy. Wars, without which humans are incapable of living, had to be reframed and reformatted, and additional layers of abstraction introduced. They would continue to be waged – that was inevitable — but they had to become less direct and less violent, at least in appearance.

Truth and consequences of the new technological revolution: A digressive foreplay in three acts

The first chapter of globalization was defined by Magellan. Perhaps, the most groundbreaking realization of the project of circumventing the globe was not only a possibility of the journey, but that a return was possible as well. The arrival of 18 survivors, the remainder of the decimated crew of 270, no matter how small, demonstrated unambiguously that the other side of the Earth also had atmosphere, so one could breathe and survive the journey (this was far from obvious at the time) and that the seas were connected with their oceans, winds, and climate. Travel and return with a bounty of spices defined a new mode of capital multiplication aimed at satisfying the insatiable demand dictated by the refined palate of that period.

1: Rule without a ruler

Towards the end of the 20th century, the second chapter of globalization began its final metamorphosis, which outlined the contours of the new era. Information technology revolutionized our perception of space and time, the most radical in its scope and magnitude since Galileo. Time now flows differently and space is compactified, no longer a space of trajectories, but a global Network. Different geographies are transformed into its nodes, all points equidistant to each other and, in terms of informational transfer and communication, instantaneously accessible from any part of the Network. Through technology, the world became smaller, but within that world, things no longer had a fixed place; they were displaced and delocalized. Permanently and irreversibly.

By its construction, The Network has remained extraterritorial & ex-judicial  — not only unregulated, but with no one having capacity to regulate it. Without a global system of law and regulation, outmaneuvering legal obstacles defined the new paradigm of profit making. Crime became an essential part of every business leading gradually to the criminalization of the globe and the globalization of the crime where all states gradually began to gravitate towards failed states. 

The disappearance of borders resulted in the systematic deterritorialization of local geographies afflicted with identity erasure and eruptions of regressive politics. A socio-economic transformation of uprootedness and a reformation of the attitude towards habitat preservation was the most fundamental change in the early 21st century. Habitat became exchangeable and portable. Technology as prosthesis gave way to transplantation.

2: The new elite

The late 20th century marks a hasty coming out of a new class of ultra-rich. Rather than serving collective interests of society, like investing in economic progress, education, welfare or environment, the oligarchic activities of this new class have focused on the extraction of resources and the impoverishment of their own habitats. This has gone into overdrive in the Wild East, the emerging post-socialist Europe and Asia. As the old state structures of the region were falling apart, they were replaced by criminal surrogates designed to operate under new conditions, which the state apparatus itself created for their own advantages. In that process, the new emerging state became both referee and player in the game of oligarchic repositioning, a practice, which became a standard modus operandi of the third world but has gradually taken root in developed economies as well, with the United States leading the way in that direction.

The conversion of public trust into private wealth and money became routine. Greed was no longer (magically) converted into a public virtue – the old capitalism’s fairytale was dead and gone. The Keynesian bond that ties the profit of the rich to the wellbeing of the poor was severed during this process of oligarchic redistribution. It has cut the fate of the economic elites from that of the masses. Porous borders, created by globalization, allowed the undisturbed circulation and permanent displacement of, generally, illegitimately acquired wealth and money across different jurisdictions.

This became an environment especially favorable for the large scale and state-sponsored kleptocracies of the Wild East and third world, who drew substantial wealth from pillaging their own habitats, which they then invested and consumed abroad, where it remained sheltered from scrutiny.

Russia has gone the furthest in that direction. Given its territorial size (an area roughly equal to that of the United States and China combined), it is a relatively small economy ($1.7tr), smaller than Texas ($1.9tr). It is a very resource-rich territory with enormous, but unrealized, potential, a condition that has been maintained for more than a century. As a result of its post-communist transformation into a criminalized oligarchy, 1/3 of Russian GDP (about $500 billions) has ended in the hands of about 100 oligarchs. A significant fraction of that capital is largely exported outside of Russia and integrated into global finance and investments. To benchmark the magnitude of the $500-billion GDP loss that was taken from the Russian state, one should recall that during the 2008 global financial crisis, the US economy lost 4.3% of its GDP while during the great depression, 1929-1933, that loss was about 30%.

3: Global provision

Confident that they would outlive the social system that was making them rich, these actors of plutonomic capitalism no longer had to worry about national economic growth because their transnational fortunes grew without it. This was further catalyzed by the symbiotic forces creating strong tailwinds for further capital outflows from developed economies to the West, where they found increasingly favorable conditions for their wealth to prosper. The exit of the super-rich from their respective countries became possible and easy – they could take their money (most of it already outside) and move to another location, like Switzerland, the UK, or any country that gives them domicile and favorable tax treatment.

This is the logic of cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind – the global provision[3] of rescuing oneself and family by exiting with their wealth untouched – a unique option provided by globalization, which incentivizes the rich to move into endgame mode. While this has been mostly a game  played in the third world, the West is catching up rapidly.

PHASE THREE: The legitimization of pillage

You take my life/ When you take the means whereby I live (Shylock in Merchant of Venice)

The basic kinetic pattern of the age of globalization is capital departing from its location on a voyage around the Earth and returning with a surplus on its ledgers[4]. This pattern gets a new treatment with the late century technology. In contrast with the first phase of globalization, in the new era of global kleptocracy, capital no longer needs to circumvent the globe to multiply. Thanks to embedded global provision, it can be removed from the country of its origin to a zone where scrutiny of its acquisition can be avoided and where, through elaborate money laundering schemes, it can be integrated into the global financial system and its multiplication optimized through private wealth investments, foreign financial advisors, and money managers, or by sitting in warehouses of international duty-free zones as untaxed collateral.

However, this has not been a riskless maneuver, but merely a tradeoff between convenience and exposure. Despite all the riches new technology has created, it has exposed the global griftopian capital to predation by political adversaries. By its very nature, globalization has created the Achilles heel of thus acquired and displaced capital, which, as its size grows, becomes both more vulnerable and more attractive as a bounty.

This vulnerability defines a new phase of warfare: the freezing and seizing of assets by political adversaries, which, when combined with sanctions, becomes effectively a destruction of one’s economic habitat. So, the question is: How to create conditions for and declare an open season on foreign assets?

The absence of global law allows enormous arbitrariness in creating situations that are condemnable, and considerable flexibility around shaping a global consensus of condemnation. This presents a blueprint for the legitimization of the large-scale global pillage.

Creating conditions for war and asset freezes requires manufacturing an appropriate narrative that shapes subsequent actions. Those narrative presents a virtual layer, which ultimately legitimizes asset seizure by engineering political and/or humanitarian crises or augmenting and exploiting the existing ones. Places of massive oligarchic capital outflows present easy prey in that context. They function essentially as electoral dictatorships and have always had shaky records of humanitarian conditions, but during the initial phase of their capital’s transplantation and its multiplication abroad, these problems had always been temporarily overlooked.  

Provoked and fueled from the outside, the adversary is initially placed in a position where they cannot avoid making a series of suboptimal decisions, generally creating a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. In its initial phase, that usually starts with a crackdown on opposition and follows by seizing control of the media — an explosion in a chemical weapons factory is always convincing — and usually the bombing of hospitals, nurseries and innocent civilians, the rape of women, dead children, refugees etc. All these factors, which present massive red flags for the Western global conglomerate, are used to shape international consensus around the de-legitimation of the regime in the target country.

The first act of this play usually ends with a cathartic moment of either ritual execution of the strongman leader by domestic opposition his apprehension and a trial by international tribunals from whose jurisdiction the West has been excluded by design. This part signals that the stage has been set and that the plunder can begin.

We all remember Hussein, Gadhafi, or Noriega, who were taken out in this way because of (nonexistent) WMD, human rights violations, meddling into political affairs of the West or just for not paying the racket.

Russia is only the most recent example, which synthesizes all aspects of the underlying mechanism. A criminal utopia of with significant aspirations for global influence, it has become an unprecedented rogue player in the eyes of the developed West and a potentially dangerous competitor in energy production who interferes in domestic affairs, with a huge bounty already exported outside of its borders, ready to be taken away. The size and extent of their looted capital enabled Russian oligarchs to buy considerable political influence abroad. And as their capital grew, so did the appetite and ability to defend it by purchasing further political favors and influence. It was only a matter of time until the harvest would be declared. By freezing and seizing their assets and their partial excommunication from the international financial network, the West has practically forced Russia into a virtual default, impairing its ability to raise debt and wage war effectively, causing a gradual change in sentiment, the withdrawal of investments, and the loss of market share. It was a carefully crafted plan to get them stuck in a long war that they could not win and simultaneously destroying them economically and eliminating them as a global player for decades to come.

This was yet another instance where conflict could have been avoided were it not for the different preferences between the main decision-maker(s) and the rest of their country, a classic principal-agent problem whereby low-level criminal minds of the Russia’s leadership (former KGB operatives and communist apparatchiks) could not see beyond their own self-interests, defined through the obsession with benefits of savage capitalism and unconstrained capacity for looting, and align with the long-term wellbeing of the country.

The triangulation of a conflict

The new technology of death is no longer the physical and immediate destruction of the landscape of the adversary but turning off the life-supply faucet and its gradual and erosive decay due to economic deprivation, marginalization, and exodus of human capital. The war no longer involves just two adversaries, but requires a third party, the Victim, which completes the scene. The Victim, which can be either an internal opposition or external actor (e.g. another state),absorbs physical and human devastation. They are used as a human sacrifice at the altar of global capital, and the war, in its initial stage, is conducted as a precisely staged pagan ritual according to the strict rules that never change.

Reduced to a minimum between the two adversaries, violence and suffering is outsourced to the Victim. It is used only to trigger the initial step of the conflict aimed at shaping the global consensus of condemnation – because the civilized  world detests violence – and define the position of the Network against the perpetrator.

As war gets transformed from an art of unbearable sensations to economy of suspended rights, it becomes even less barbaric and more detached and remote, but at the same time, more to the point. The act of pillage is implemented without direct military confrontation — physical destruction of the Victim during the initial stage is merely its overture.

The seizing of assets is followed by sending them to the opposition or the victim state, who in turn use those funds to either buy arms from the West or hire their contractors and military consultants to train their troops and rebuild the infrastructure. Conflicts are no longer about people or about territory, but (like ancient wars of our barbaric past) about the benefits of pillage and its legitimation on the landscape of the global network. At the end, wars end up serving to boost demand in developed world.

When it comes to war, rational decision makers weigh potential gains and losses from it in the context of their objectives, beliefs, environmental considerations and existing constraints.  For war to occur, at least one of the two parties involved must see a net potential gain from war in given circumstances[5]. With current distribution of risk and return in international conflicts, for the developed West gains easily outweigh other considerations and war for them becomes a rational, and sometimes even an attractive, option.

In this game, the United States and the West become the Bermudan triangle on the global capital’s journey.

Barbarism as a universal reference frame

All the Western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority. (James Baldwin)

The term “barbarism” is the password that opens up the archives of the twentieth century[6]. Postmodernity has set a cultural aesthetic ideal in which barbarism is denied and everyone acts as if it did not exist. This ideal excludes everything from its purview that is essentially unacceptable by the enlightened mind. However, a persistent obsessive effort at the exclusion of barbarism reinforces the awareness of its omnipresence and leads ultimately to its acceptance and surrender to barbarism, which defines a universal reference frame.

Despite all progress, cultural developments, education, enlightenment, and general efforts of distancing from its barbaric past, the world remains violent, but through technology, violence has become less direct, less visible, and more abstract. Contemporary public attention is short and fades in a matter of weeks after which the conflict, no matter how large its scale is, disappears into the netherworld of obscurity where people continue to suffer and die, but their suffering remains hidden away from the public eye. And the civilized world enjoys the delusion of itself as a less barbaric place. However, this is the world where local aggressors pay tribute to the global ones, where small rackets are taxed by big rackets and where the most barbaric rules prevail.

[1] Paul Virilio

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the air, Semiotext(e) (2009)

[3] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?: Essays on a failing system, Verso (2017)

[4] Peter Sloterdijk, What happened in the 20th Century, Polity (2018)

[5] Matthew O. Jackson and Massimo Morelli, The Reasons for Wars, in the Handbook on the Political Economy of War, edited by Chris Coyne, Elgar Publishing (2011)

[6] Peter Sloterdijk, You must change your life, Polity Press (2013)

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