Geopolitics and the generative limits of the ungovernable


Rafael Heiber

Dec, 2022

On decadent realism

In a text published shortly before his death [1][1] Bruno Latour, Is Europe’s soil changing beneath our feet? Sep 2022, 92-97. Available here:, Bruno Latour questioned Europe’s role in the transition towards a new idea of nation, and thus, of the world. Marked by an armed conflict bringing back fears of a nuclear disaster and by the struggle against extractive regime dragging the planet to an ecollogical point of no return, the continental peace of recent decades appears to be nothing more than the residual benefit of colonialism and post-World War II reordering. So, today’s opportunity would be to design a new notion of “soil”, or Heimat, based on the challenges posed by these two parallel wars.

Affected by a sense of geopolitical “realism” as opposed to a more usual “constructivist” stance, perhaps this proposal for a new “soil” ignores Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene. Etymologically, this concept evokes a cosmic organicity that inhabits the earth, and encourages a shift towards ecological and social justice, recognising the entanglements of life and calling for new narratives of sustainable coexistence between people and the world beyond purely human frameworks. By not exploring this field, which he mastered so well, Latour used realism to make a critique from its diagnosis. He saw the post-Westphalian scenario as a field where nation-states were predominant players, sovereign competitors pursuing their own interests in an international system characterised by anarchy and the lack of a global regulatory authority; resulting in cycles of conflict brought in the name of security and freedom.

Photo_ Alexander Svensson_ CC BY 2.0

In their sovereign pursuit of security, states take actions that inadvertently threaten others and choose amoral approaches to international politics that ultimately contribute towards existential risks that overlook modern territorial boundaries. In this sense, Latour argued that the world was experiencing an “interregnum” and needed new, forward-looking authorities capable of formulating solid action plans as opposed to being anchored in the past.

Several theorists backed the contemporary paradigm shift in political discourse, which underlies the transition from the modern to the postmodern era. Here, the affinity with the “intermezzo” advocated by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt stands out as a transition period between two global order systems. According to traditional realist theory, the former is the old and still existing system of nation-states and blocs, characterised by sovereign territorial compartments interacting in an international system of national entities; and the latter, which they call “empire”, is based on a new form of de-territorialised sovereignty distributed in global supranational power networks.

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict illustrates that the European continental peace of the last decades has been nothing more than the residual bonus of colonialism and post-World War II reordering.

In this context, “Intermezzo” is the phase in which the principles of realismstate centralism, power politics, self-interest, security dilemmas and amoralitygradually give way to a new form of global politics beyond individual nation-states. In this transition, power regimes determine the validity of modern borders (e.g. the control of migration flows) or overcome them (e.g. the fluidity of financial capital) with a more diffuse exercise among disparate players: multinational corporations, international organisations and even non-state actors, from terrorist groups to peaceful social movements.

“Z”, the last letter of the Western alphabet

While the neoliberal triumph was to promote this historical transition by seizing the spheres of political representation and prioritising the accumulative and supranational private capital speculative interests, the disastrous Russian invasion of Ukraine at the end of February 2022 created a historical accident that brought contradictions in the current world order into light.

US hegemony has prevailed in Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, preventing Russia from integrating in the continent. The “end of history” and the universal triumph of liberalism came hand in hand with the fear of admitting the recovery of a country with the geographic dimensions and nuclear power quite like Russia. While the Warsaw Pact was being extinguished, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) began to expand into the former Iron Curtain countriescontrary to what was agreed with Mikhail Gorbachev at the timealbeit preventing Russia from joining.

The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC), created in 1997 during the Clinton administration, which later became the NATO-Russia Council in 2022, was ultimately intended to regulate this expansive project under the guise of a diplomatic mechanism for cooperation, consultation and dialogue. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic formalised their first accessions to NATO, as early as 1999, in a period decidedly characterised by what Habermas coined back in the 1970s as the “legitimation crisis”. This is when a political system can no longer generate and uphold the belief that it is fair and capable of meeting the expectations and needs of its people. Thus, the systemic corruption of the transition from communism to capitalism in the former Soviet territories served to support the US-promoted democratic indoctrination project throughout the region, which even led to a series of political events known as the “colour revolutions”. The most notable of these revolutions were Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. In these cases, the insightfulness of the strategy lay in a broad defence of democracy as the political model to be established and the promotion of democratic leaders systematically aligned with Western interests.

Even if the near future proves that there will be no Russian victory, the letter Z may also symbolize the end of the Western rhetoric by triggering a number of controversial developments in Central Europe. For example, the usual double standards of the West, especially with regard to human rights and democracy.

In his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, President Vladimir Putin fiercely criticized the current unipolar global structure, marked by US hegemony, and vehemently opposed NATO’s expansion into Eastern countries, suggesting a multilateral international system anchored in mutual respect for national sovereignties instead. Several secret documents revealed by Wikileaks in 2010 exposed the risks consciously built along the new frontier of Western influence. In one of these cables, dated February 2008 [2][2], US Ambassador William J. Burns explained the likely war-like consequences of Georgian and Ukrainian accessions to NATO. He said crossing this red line would threaten Russia’s security and trigger a conflict between local separatists that could lead to a much deeper international military conflict. In August of the same year, Russian attacks hit several regions of Georgia, and South Ossetia was declared an independent republic.

In another of these secret documents [3][3], after the outbreak of the conflict in Georgia, NATO informed the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that Russia posed a threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. According to the cable, during the 2008 Bucharest Summit, Vladimir Putin had claimed that 90 per cent of Crimea’s population was Russian and that a significant part of Ukrainian territorythe eastern and southern portionshad been separated from Russia without proper procedure during the Soviet breakup. The diplomatic communiqué also criticised Germany for its lack of antagonism towards the Russian position.

In 2014, following the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russian military forces moved into the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which prompting a referendum under military presence that led to its formal annexation by Russia, an action that provoked international condemnation and fuelled a major separatist movement in the Donbas region. Ongoing mutual tensions and NATO’s continued expansionism ultimately led to the failure of the Minsk Agreements to mitigate the conflict.

Finally, in February 2022, Russia launched an offensive against Ukraine to dismember the eastern and southern territories and held elections for Moscow-aligned governments to regain control of the Black Sea region. As immoral as it was miscalculated, the Vladimir Putin-led operation saw resistance from the no less controversial Ukrainian actor and president Volodymyr Zelensky, more inclined to the seduction of the limelight reserved for him by his new role as Washington’s puppet than to protecting the lives of the Ukrainian population by seeking long-term engagement with the international community to avoid direct conflict.

The letter Z painted on invading tanks and battalions, whose exact meaning is unknown but is speculated to stand for “zapad” (West) or “za pobedu” (victory), became the leading topic of news stories invariably reporting deadly Russian aggression along with economic sanctions adopted by North Atlantic countries against Moscow. Even if there is no Russian victory in the near future, the letter Z may also symbolise the end of the Western repertoire by triggering several controversial elements in Central Europe: the West’s usual double standards, especially regarding human rights and democracy; cynical narratives that ignore the geopolitical history of the last thirty years in favour of a fallacious account of Russian imperial expansionism as a danger to Western European countries; the arrogance of the technocratic elite of the “first world”, unable to generate responses that live up to the original promises of the continental project; the same elite’s lack of analytical criteria for a comparative calculation of socio-political resilience between Russia and Western countries (which will ultimately undermine the integrity of local democracies and not guarantee a regime change in the Kremlin); the opportunities for close cooperation between Russia and China, and an acceleration of Chinese influence among the countries of the Global South and its increasingly predominant role in a new multilateralism.

In addition to national armies, war scenarios now involve armed mercenary groups, espionage systems operated by multinational companies, space races led by private corporations, punitive economic measures and controversial media narratives. Also new forms of multi-level sabotage, such as the explosion of the Nord Stream gas pipeline connecting Germany and Russia.
Obviously, the opposite cannot be ruled out either: an all-out nuclear war. Leaving this scenario aside, the United States must continue to insist on a discourse of fighting external enemies to avoid internal confrontation with its own collective deterioration and the outbreak of a civil war.

A hybrid control regime

The nature of recent wars provides sufficient grounds to evidence the transition of the two worlds above. National armies, armed mercenary groups, espionage systems operated by multinational corporations, space races led by private corporations, manipulation of judicial systems, punitive economic measures, controversial media narratives and sabotage at various levels, such as the explosion of the Nord Stream pipeline connecting Germany and Russia, all come into play in war scenarios. In short, the transnationalisation processes stemming from technological advances and the transfer of public resources to private corporations in coexistence with previous institutional models have given rise to what we call hybrid wars. They combine conventional and cybernetic styles of military warfare, along with disinformation, diplomacy, economic intervention and the use of proxies.

The versatility of this strategy lies in breaking down the barriers between war and peace and creating a feeling of permanent enemy vulnerability. Indeed, the goal of hybrid warfare is not always classical victory, but to sow chaos, undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the adversary, permanently destabilising it from the inside out.

This context is explained in broader political terms: a world without a tangible “outside”, a society with a fragile base identity and unstable trade principles and relations between isolated subjects. Meanwhile, Foucault’s concept of biopower gains ground as a paradigmatic shift in our understanding of how power has ceased to be merely repressive and disciplinary to mobilise a whole series of techniques and knowledge that affect subjects from within, defining patterns of control adapted to the latest hegemonic demands of appropriation, production and accumulation.

The all-new cosmotechnologies [4][4] Augé, M. (2011). Où est passé l’avenir? París: Ed. Points replace traditional cosmologies and enhance the exercise of biopower in both symbolic and material terms, although in the first case, through biopolitics, whose purpose is the management of the population based on the maximum data collection; and in the second, through psycho-anatomo-politics [5][5] Michel Foucault only used the term anatomo-politics, but recently Byung-Chul Han updated it to psychopolitics. Our twist, considering the materialist aspect, is psycho-anatomo-politics. aimed at capturing individual vitality and forging processes of self-exploitation.

Photo_ Oleg Afonin_ CC BY 2.0

Photo_ Matias Jaramillo_ CC BY 2.0

Along the route in which power, labour and globalisation were configured as pillars of life possibilities in this “inner world of capital” [6][6] Reference to Peter Sloterdijk and his work of the same name., technology was ideologically positioned as a merely impartial element. In the real world, however, contingencies act differently. As one of Melvin Kranzberg’s elementary laws proposes, a technology is neither good nor bad but far from neutral. From a constructivist perspective, one can reasonably demonstrate that, in increasingly common socio-technical environments, the technology-creating process is often not the determinant of its consequences, intentional or otherwise, but rather the hybrid roles that emerge from both programmed and spontaneous combinations between objects and subjects. It is, therefore, a matter of seeing the irreversibilities in technical mediations when composing repertoires of action, agencing subjectivities and managing society. In other words, in a hypothetical murder with a firearm, the responsibility lies not only with the individual human, nor solely with the weapon, but with the complexity involving the new hybrid entity called the “shooter”, properly understood as the place he or she occupies within a network that influences and is influenced by their motivations and behaviours. Therefore, there is no purely technical or psychosocial determinism, but a condition that Paul Virilio’s dromological rhetoric never tires of confirming: the invention of the boat makes shipwreck possible.

Biopolitical reterritorialisation between the generative and the degenerative

The simultaneous contest for the two ultimate frontiers, that of the body and of the planet, is what is really at stake, regardless of how much war and its anachronistic leaderships on Europe’s doorstep challenge the peace of an order thought to be well-established. Negotiation in these latter battlegrounds requires accepting an unknown level of ungovernability alongside the sophistication of the contemporary apartheid phenomenon.

What is at stake in this historic moment is the simultaneous struggle for the twoultimate frontiers: that of the body and that of the planet.

With the advent of the “big data” era, which turns users into commodities amidst a sea of endless offers, services and data monetisation, the very notion of History loses its ontological depth to give way to an omnipresent Geography of networks and algorithms that feed on accumulated collective knowledge and function as regulators of social interactions.

The popularisation of artificial intelligence, understood as a “generative” technology capable of producing linguistic understanding, creating new data and extending logical models from pre-existing repositoriessuch as the recently launched ChatGPTincreases the deterministic traps of technological solutionism and self-sufficiency. But as the portfolio of actions expands, it displaces and re-defines the whole range of human activities, and it would not be surprising to see the emergence of modern versions of the 19th-century English Luddites in the coming years.

The civilising mission of the socio-technical changes of the 21st century will be to weigh up what we can gain (or lose) with these technological drifts and judge them from a posthumanist perspective devoid of nostalgic connotations. Another aspect is involving politics to guarantee reflexivity as presented by Giddens (i.e. as an aspect arising from the growing consciousness and self-awareness generated by the globalisation, industrialisation and social change processes) under a “generative” pedagogy designed to overcome the precariousness, loneliness and excesses that characterise the economy of attention.

In this sense, the degenerative processes that capitalism often leaves in the shadows are of value. If the bridge across the failure of geopolitical realism holds, a legitimate sphere of global authority involving an organic sense of planetary responsibility beyond national borders and corporate transnationalism remains to be constituted. It is a long and windy path, but the speed of current events warrants immediate action.