War on time: Occupy, communization and the military question - Benjamin Noys

War on Time

Noys examines the contrasting conceptions of military struggle of Theorie Communiste and Paul Virilio, and the absense of such concepts from the Occupy movement.

You can have a proletarian insurrection on the condition that the others hold their fire. If they dump two tank battalions on you, the proletarian revolution is as good as nothing.
André Malraux (in Virilio 2006: 115)

‘Occupy’ obviously has a military connotation. It is a counter-discourse and counter-practice to not only the various military occupations (Iraq and Afghanistan), but also to the everyday occupation of space and time by capital and the State. Despite this reference, the military question – the question of the role, power, and the lethality of military intervention – has not been particular central to the debates over the strategy of occupation. Of course, the question has been critical for those protests in the ‘Arab Spring’: from the equivocal role of the army in Egypt to the militarized repression found in Bahrain and Syria, and on to the ambiguous military struggle in Libya by the ‘resistance’, with UN support. Within the protest movements, and notably the occupy movements, in countries like the US, the UK and Spain (Greece would be different), the military question has tended to be raised via the militarization of policing. In the case of the UK the deployment of tear gas and baton rounds as responses to the student protests and rioting ‘for the first time on the mainland’, refers to the colonial experience of Ireland and the military-police-secret services fusion that was already tried in this ‘laboratory’ for counter-insurgency. Questions of violence have, certainly on the side of the protestors, remained at a relatively low level.

Here I want to approach the military question in relation to these contemporary forms of struggle. I will do so in a rather oblique fashion. In the first instance, I want to re-examine the seminal theoretical work of Paul Virilio on the role of the military, in particular his two key works of the 1970s: Speed and Politics (1977) and Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles (1978).1 My reason for doing so is not only that they resonate in terms of these contemporary struggles, but also that they pose crucial questions around the possibilities and limits of what he calls ‘popular defence’ (Virilio 1990). I then want to compare Virilio’s account of the forms of proletarianizion and resistance to some recent work in the problematic known as ‘communization’, especially the work of Theorié Communiste (TC) (see Noys (ed.) 2011). The reason for this is not that ‘communization’, as of yet, forms any particular major role in these contemporary struggles. In fact, as a problematic it has been insistent on tracing the limits of these new forms of struggle, while attending to what these ‘limits’ might indicate for a future revolutionary communism. Rather, I want to attend to a convergence in problematic of Virilio and TC around the exhaustion of previous modes of struggle based on workers’ identity. In this convergence I want to probe the emergence of the military question as a problem of reflection, analysis, and practice.

One brief remark before beginning this task; it is notable that often reflections on the military question can slip into a ‘techno-fetishism’ or replication of the nihilism of ‘pure war’ (Virilio 1990: 68). In a recent review of Karl Marlantes’s fictionalized account of his Vietnam experience Matterhorn (2010), Jackson Lears’s (2010) noted the implication of ‘[w]ar as authentic experience: this is the nihilist edge of modern militarism, unalloyed by moral pretension.’ This ‘nihilist edge’ often takes the form of aesthetic awe at the destructive power of military force and its technical means. I doubt whether I can entirely avoid this problem in what follows. I do, however, want to suggest that the military question be confronted without, as far as possible, conceding to this fetishization.


In his work of the 1970s Paul Virilio offers a startling account of the emergence of State and capitalist power in terms of military power. While indebted to Marx or, more precisely Engels, who researched military questions in detail,2 Virilio’s narrative offers significant departures from the more familiar Marxist account. Originating in his work as an urbanist, Virilio became fascinated by the spatial dimension of war and its role in crystallizing the forms of contemporary power (Virilio 1983: 1-3). He rethinks the proletarian condition in military terms. His analysis proposes that the proletarian body is ‘produced’ through semi-colonization by the military class, which seizes goods and value to support their own indolent and parasitic existence (Virilio 1990: 48). In response the proletariat forms itself into a counter-‘war-machine’, militarizing itself in the compact formations of the march and the violence of sabotage to seize the streets and engage in retention of the instruments of violence. In this model the forms of the traditional workers’ movement – notably parties and unions – become alternative ‘armies’ to counter this military domination.

For Virilio this path leads to failure, and the absolute violence of nuclear war signals the ‘end of the proletariat’: ‘In this sense, the proletariat’s determining role in history stopped with the bombing of Hiroshima.’ (Virilio 1990: 29) The result is ‘a kind of absolute colonization’ (Virilio 1990: 32), in which the military class finally eliminates any localization or ecology of resistance. This is what Virilio calls ‘endo-colonization’. It is visible in the passage from the desperate holding on of the Vietnamese against the ecological destruction of their territory, to the disappearance (in the 1970s) of the Palestinians from any territory into the final deterritorialized space of the media.

If this endo-colonization is successful, then the people are reduced to domesticated animals, the status of the ‘human commodity’ (Virilio 1990: 65). The aim of military occupation is to ‘reduce[…] a population to the status of a movable slave, a commodity’ (Virilio 1990: 54). In fact, ‘One now colonizes only one’s own population. One underdevelops one’s own economy.’ (Virilio in Virilio & Lotringer 1983: 95) The final response of the Palestinians to this reduction is a suicidal popular assault, as popular defence is no longer possible.

Implicitly tracking the rise of neoliberalism Virilio links this condition to the withdrawal of the State, which then inhabits a ‘doctrine of security’ (Virilio 1990: 57) permitting intervention anywhere. In the face of the ‘terrorism’ of the 1970s, the State evolves a new modelling of power as ‘a world-wide police chase, a fearsome blend of military and judicial violence.’ (Virilio 1990: 63) This characterization obviously resonates with the dominance of neoliberalism and the instantiation, in the ’00s, of the ‘war on terror’. Virilio presciently captured the sense of new forms of asymmetric warfare and the ‘hostage-holding’ function of military control in contemporary mediatized societies. In this situation traditional forms of popular resistance and what Virilio calls ‘ecological struggles’, the ‘the simple freedom to come and go, as well as the freedom to remain, to stay put’ (Virilio 1990: 91), become put into question.

This ‘ecological struggle’, the right to stay put, obviously speaks to the situation of ‘occupy’, which attempts to place a limit on the intrusion into what remains of ‘public’ space. It tries to reinstantiate a new figure of subjectivity – the 99% – to find a ‘grounding’ of resistance. In this way, implicitly if not explicitly, it tries to refigure the situation of the people from this status as ‘movable commodity’ into immovable protestor. Of course, while it speaks to that conjuncture the difficulty remains concerning the military power that Virilio identifies as the origin of this ‘delocalization’.

The End of Programmatism

In a rather uncanny way Virilio’s analysis dovetails with that of the Marseille-based group Theorié Communiste (TC) and their announcement of the ‘end of programmatism’. In this thesis capitalism and the workers’ movement remained locked in a duel in which the capitalist negation of the proletariat generated the affirmation of the workers’ identity. ‘Programmatism’ refers to this affirmation as a programme to be realized, and one structured by the capital-labour relationship (Brown 2011: 22). TC offer a periodizing hypothesis, in which the passage from formal subsumption – subsumption under capital of workers, with workers still producing in forms external to capital (such as peasants tilling their own fields, but bringing the produce to a capitalist market) – to real subsumption – in which the worker is drawn into capital, as in production line work (or capitalist agriculture) – produces shifting configurations of struggle. The period of formal subsumption draws to an end around 1917, with the emergence of a new cycle of struggles around real subsumption that involve affirming the worker’s identity. This ‘programmatism’ comes into crisis with the second phase of real subsumption, beginning in the early 1970s, and a new cycle of struggles that suggest the limit of this identity. Capital’s ‘abandonment’ of the worker, and worker’s struggles of absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes, open new ‘lines of flight’ that hollow out the traditional formations of programmatism (unions, parties, etc.)

In the analysis of TC this cycle of struggle does not simply end the proletarian condition (‘we are all middle-class now’), but reconfigures it to suggest the necessity (rather than the choice) of the proletariat as the self-abolishing class. They argue that: ‘Communisation is prefigured every time the existence of the proletariat is produced as something alien to it, as an objective constraint which is externalised in the very existence of capital’ (R.S. 2011: 95). The ‘appearance’ of communization is one at the edge or limit of struggle in which class itself ‘appears as an external constraint, a limit to overcome.’ (R.S. 2011: 95) In this historical model these shifts in struggle put communism as communization on the agenda, shorn of previous ‘workerist’ illusions.3

It would be the workers’ protests of the 1960s and 1970s, which countered these affirmations. Also, the capitalist response of decoupling the worker from work would also dispense with the affirmation of worker’s identity as an essential ‘moment’ for capitalist reproduction. Under these twin shearing pressures the affirmative forms of worker’s identity would be hollowed out. Rather than this simply being the sign of defeat, TC argue that it signals a recomposition of struggle with the proletariat as the pole of negation, structured within and against a capitalist system that no longer required the ‘working class’ as mediator.

The comparison between Virilio and TC becomes clearer if we consider the 1973 occupation and self-management by workers of the Lip watch factory in Beçanson. At the time several on the French far-left, primarily Maoists, regarded this act of occupation as the signal that workers no longer required the guidance of parties or militants to direct their struggles. This, at least, was the conclusion of Jacques Rancière (Rancière 2011: 90; Brown 2011: 20). A similar conclusion was drawn by the former Maoist militants Guy Lardreau and Christian Jambet:

We came to realize at a certain point that the masses had gotten all they could out of us, that intellectuals had nothing left to give them. Everything we had done had passed over into the masses themselves. Witness the events at Lip. It was becoming clear that there was no longer any sense in militancy. (in Starr 1995: 91)

There were, however, dissident voices. The French ultra-left journal Négation argued that the workers of Lip had reached a limit – the limit of self-management (Négation 2007; Brown 2011: 20). The Lip workers had been unable to go beyond their own factory and were limited to restarting a capitalist enterprise. So, while recognizing this was a struggle, for Négation it is limited by its failure to go beyond the limits of the workers’ identity as workers. It is this point, as we have seen, which is taken up in more detail by TC.

In the case of Virilio, his point is similar. With more sympathy, Virilio regards this struggle as the attempt to hold on to an ecological ‘niche’ of struggle. He remarks:

The trade unions knew what they were doing when they ordered the workers to carefully maintain their tools of production. It’s as if, in their minds, these tools were the last representation of the original environment, the guarantee and mainstay of their entire legal existence. (Virilio 1990: 54)

While certainly, in a fashion somewhat similar to Négation, Virilio sees this struggle as outpaced by the ‘delocalizing’ forces of the State and capital, he also refuses to simply condemn this attempt at ‘attachment’.

Resistance; Futile or Otherwise

If we place these articulations in dialogue we can say that the ‘military question’ now plays out in terms of the new forms and possibilities of the ‘proletarian condition’. Virilio concludes that the dispersion of military power across space and time puts an end to the traditional right of resistance – grounded in a particular territory and the preservation of means of violence. In fact, ‘deprived of their productive arsenal, they [the proletariat] stop being privileged economic partners in the pact of military semi-colonization.’ (Virilio 1990: 53) The collapse of the place of the pact between the military and civilians means that: ‘From now on, military assault is shapeless in time and orgiastic participation is no more than the irrational support of a techno-logistical supra-nationality, the final stage of delocalization, and thus of servitude.’ (Virilio 1990: 72) This ‘disappearance’ means that we cannot locate a moment of resistance, and so find the dissolution of resistance.4

The pessimistic conclusion of Virilio is that revolution is over and only revolutionary resistance remains, but as we have seen this seems largely ineffective. In typically hyperbolic fashion he concludes:

We can all drop dead. In any case, they no longer need us: robots and computers will take care of production. War is automatized, and along with it the power of decision. They no longer need men, soldiers or workers, only means of absolute extermination, on the commercial level as elsewhere. (Virilio in Virilio & Lotringer 1983: 102)

While this registers capital’s abandonment of ‘labour’, as also registered by TC, it extends it to a vision of annihilation that falls outside the still remaining ‘moving contradiction’ of capital’s need for labour.

On the contrary, TC argue that new forms of ‘suicidal’ struggle register the limits of this delocalization, while continuing to contest it. In these struggles workers no longer try to hold on to a wage labour that has failed, but instead are ‘forced’ into a ‘rift’ with that identity. The result is the burning down of factories, attempts to claim as high a redundancy payment as possible, and other ‘exits’ from work (R.S. 2011: 119). These struggles have an equivocal status, indicating both the tragedy of workers deprived of the identity of the worker and the fleeting prefiguration of a ‘de-essentialisation’ of labour (R.S 2011: 120). Contrary to Virilio’s sense of the exhaustion of the ‘proletariat’ under the threat of extermination, TC suggest that the ‘rift’ of proletarian self-abolishing can suggest the possible emergence of a new communizing process of revolution.

While Virilio tends to an apocalyptic pessimism, TC’s evasion of the military question produces some moments of seemingly remarkable optimism concerning the ‘communizing’ process of revolution:

The confrontation with the state immediately poses the problem of arms, which can only be solved by setting up a distribution network to support combat in an almost infinite multiplicity of places. Military and social activities are inseparable, simultaneous, and mutually interpenetrating: the constitution of a front or of determinate zones of combat is the death of the revolution. (2011: 56)

While we might have some agreement with this statement the level of abstraction with which it is posed makes it remarkably hard to see how it will gain purchase against the ‘military body’ of a compact and trans-national ruling class. Elsewhere TC concede there may be ‘the possibility of a multitude of small, barbaric wars.’ (R.S. 2011: 138)

The hope of TC is that the very speed of the communizing process will outpace the military and logistical capacities of the capitalist class:

It [the revolution] permits the abolition to an ever greater extent of all competition and division between proletarians, making this the content and the unfolding of its armed confrontation with those whom the capitalist class can still mobilize, integrate and reproduce within its social relations. (2011: 56)

It is the rapid expansion of the ‘proletarian condition’, no longer tied to the usual organizational and wage forms, which will permit an overcoming, it is claimed, of the fraction of the military (and its capacity for destruction) still integrated in capital. Therefore, they stake communization on an effect of acceleration:

This is why all the measures of communization will have to be a vigorous action for the dismantling of the connections which link our enemies and their material support: these will have to be [i]rapidly destroyed, without the possibility of return. (2011: 56; my italics)

A similar trope occurs in the communzing text by Rocamadur / Blaumachen on the London riots of 2012. They conclude:

The dynamic of class struggle today can never be victorious, because it will keep finding class struggle itself as its limit, up to the point when the multiplication of rifts will become the overcoming of class belonging (and therefore of class self-organization), as a revolution within the revolution, as communizing measures, that will either de-capitalize (communize) life further and further or be crushed. (2012)

Of course, the question is whether the speed invoked by TC, the spread of communization in the process of revolution, will ‘de-capitalise life further’ ‘or be crushed’. It is, to me, the rather sanguinary tendency to not take seriously the second possibility that seems problematic.

This is Virilio’s question. He notes the disappearance of the military from their own war-machine, pointing out that the Captain of HMS Sheffield had no time to react to the launching of an Exocet missile launched from a Super Etendard aircraft, whose pilot obeyed the injunction of ‘Fire and Forget’ (Virilio in Virilio & Lotringer 1983: 18). The ship was destroyed. Beverly Silver (2003) has also pointed out that against the great citizen-armies, which allowed workers to then make a claim on the States which had unleashed them in war, the response has been to professionalize, privatize, and minimize the role of workers in war – in line with the general tendency of capitalism to replace variable capital with constant capital. In the jargon of the US military in regards to drones, the aim is the ‘compression of the kill chain’ – the removal or minimisation of human involvement from destruction. It is perhaps not hard to imagine these hardwired ‘moral drones’ regarding proletarian revolution as an immoral act.

In fact, this banking on speed and movement is precisely the ground of the ‘war of time’ Virilio identified as the problem of the military class. The war of acceleration turns on new technologies that push humans out of the domain of choice and control, in favour of an autonomous and automatic deterrence. While I am, of course, not assimilating TC to this discourse, we can see that what we have here is, precisely, a ‘war of time’. On the one hand, we have the elimination or minimisation of labour from the process of warfare, to increase the speed and violence of military response. On the other hand, we find the seeming necessity of the rapid dispersion of revolution to counter this possibility. There are two symmetrical risks, it seems to me. We could, first, overestimate the military capacities of the ‘trans-national military class’, and thereby engender our own stasis, if not even reification and fetishization of military power (a risk run by Virilio). Secondly, however, we could also disregard the military question by simply relying on the ‘superior’ speed of revolution. It seems to be this second risk is run by certain formulations of TC.

Of course, ‘Occupy’ is, or was, a heterogeneous formation, or set of formations, that often aimed to break outside of this kind of ossification. If anything, in the typology we have traced, it lies closest (in general) to Virilio’s insistence on the continuation of ecological resistance in the absence of revolution. In this way it seems not so much that it evades the military question as that it positively refuses it, precisely to escape the discourse of ‘pure war’ that Virilio argues is at the heart of Western nihilism (Virilio 1990: 68). A similar claim could be made for TC. My suggestion in reply is a modest one. While this is a laudable aim, it might be that a politics of dispersion, resonance, and acceleration, will have to confront not only the inertial effects of the ‘practico-inert’, but also the militarized forms of the capitalist State that deploy and engage with exactly these new forms to produce their own de-localization and localization of power.

Benjamin Noys, 2013.


  • 1. Jason Adams (2012) has used Virilio to reflect on strategic difficulties and tensions in the ‘Occupy’ movement, but not directly raised the military question. I owe Jason Adams for the encouragement to pursue these speculations.
  • 2. ‘To my mind, there was some hocus-pocus between Marx and Engels. Engels was aware of the reality of war, even if he didn’t see it the way we do. There was also the idea of war as reappropriated by the working class. The working class, especially at the beginning of trade unionism, was a combat unit. This relation of Marxism to war wasn’t really clear at the outset.’ (Virilio in Virilio & Lotringer 1983: 105)
  • 3. This is also contrary to the ‘communizing’ theory of Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic, who treat ‘communizing’ as a persistent possibility yet to be realized, rather than a new historical possibility (see Endnotes 2008).
  • 4. This diagnosis bears some similarity to that of Carl Schmitt in his Theory of the Partisan[i] (1963).