War as peace, peace as pacification

To stress one’s own love of peace is always the close concern of those who have instigated war. But he who wants peace should speak of war. He should speak of the past one … and, above all, he should speak of the coming one.1

A remarkable consensus appears to have emerged onthe Left: that in the context of the war on terror the distinction between war and peace has been destabilized. Alain Badiou suggests that the category of ‘war’has become so obscured that ancient capitals can be bombed without serving notice to anyone of the fact that war has been declared. ‘As such, the continuity ofwar is slowly established, whereas in the past declaring war would, to the contrary, have expressed the presentof a discontinuity. Already, this continuity has rendered war and peace indistinguishable.’ ‘In the end’, notes Badiou, ‘these American wars … are not really distinguishable from the continuity of “peace”.’ Antonio Negri and Éric Alliez likewise comment that ‘peace appears to be merely the continuation of war by other means’, adding that because peace, ‘otherwise known as global war … is a permanent state of exception’, war now ‘presents itself as peace-keeping’ and has thereby reversed their classical relationship. Their reference to a concept made popular following Agamben’s State of Exception is far from unusual in this new consensus. ‘We no longer have wars in the old sense of a regulated conflict between sovereign states’, notes Žižek. Instead, what remains are either ‘struggles between groups of Homo sacer … which violate the rules of universal human rights, do not count as wars proper, and call for “humanitarian pacifist” intervention by Western powers’, or ‘direct attacks on the USA or other representatives of the new global order, in which case, again, we do not have wars proper, merely “unlawful combatants” criminally resisting the forces of universal order. Hence ‘the old Orwellian motto “War is Peace” finally becomes reality.’2

The consensus is wide. From a diverse range of recent publications, let me just cite Daniel Ross’s analysis of democratic violence in which he claims that in democracies ‘peacetime and wartime … are increasinglyconvergent’, Rey Chow’s suggestion that war is now the very definition of normality itself, Gopal Balakrishnan’s claim that the invasion and policing of ‘rogue states’ means that ‘a long-term epistemic shift seems to be occurring which is blurring older distinctions between war and peace’, and François Debrix’s argument that the reason the war machine permeates everyday culture is because the distinction between peace and war has broken down.3

I have no interest in challenging this account in itself; as will be seen, despite its apparent boldness it is infact a fairly uncontroversial position to hold. What I do want to challenge, as my starting point at least, is the major historical assumption being made within it. For these accounts rely on an assumption of a ‘classical’ age in which war and peace were indeed distinguishable; they assume that the destabilization is somehow new – hence the references to wars in ‘the past’, in the ‘old sense’ and in the ‘classical’ age. The nebulous nature of some of these phrases is remarkable, given the implied radicalism of the insight being expressed. Worse, in accepting the very claim made by the USA and its allies that everything has indeed changed from the time when the distinction between war and peace was categorical and straightforward, this account also reinforces the general fetish of ‘9/11’ as the political event of our time. Perhaps there really was a time ‘in the past’ when mass killing possessed a greater conceptual clarity; but I doubt it. Felix Grob’s Relativityof War and Peace, published in 1949, offers countless examples of states engaged in mass killing but either denying or sometimes just not knowing whether or not they were at war, which explains why a wealth of categories have existed to describe a condition that appears to be neither war nor peace or that might just be a little bit of both: reprisals, belligerency, state of hostilities, measures short of war, intermediate state, quasi-war, and so on. And more than a few international lawyers in the early- and mid-twentieth century pointed out the artificial nature of the distinction between warand peace.4 It really is a bad sign when supposedly key insights on the Left come half a century after the same insights are made by international lawyers.

The first aim of this article is therefore to make a historical point: that this consensus about a recent elision of the difference between war and peace is rooted in a deep historical misconception. Rather, I will aim to show that the distinction between war and peace has always been blurred. The second and more political aim is to suggest that this blurring was part and parcel of an ascendant liberalism which found an important political use for the language of peace within the context of international law. To accept the idea that there was a ‘classical age’ where the distinction between war and peace did make sense is thus to accept one of liberalism’s major myths, one which circulates widely in academic discourse as part of ‘the liberal peace’ hypothesis: that peace is the focal dynamic of civil society, that the state exists in order to realize this ‘liberal peace’ within civil society, and that international law exists to ensure peace between states. On this view, war is an exception to peace. As a myth, this has served to gloss over liberalism’s own tendency to carry out systematic violence and to call it peace; to gloss over, that is, the violence of the liberal peace. I therefore argue that it has never made sense for the Left to adopt a categorical distinction between war and peace.

This takes me to my third aim, which is to suggest that in accepting the major liberal assumptions aboutwar and peace the Left has cut itself off from developing a concept of war outside of the disciplines of International Relations (IR) and strategic studies (within which, unsurprisingly, the idea of a ‘classical age’ is also constantly reiterated). For the liberal argument to hold, war has to be understood as a phenomenon ofthe international sphere: as a confrontation between militarily organized and formally opposed states. Not only does this contraction of the war concept ignore the transnational nature of a great deal of warfare, it also manages to obscure the structural and systematic violence through which liberal order has been constituted.5 The Left has too easily bought into the idea of war as articulated in IR and strategic studies and has thus been driven by an agenda not of the Left’s own making, replicating the idea of war as formal military engagement between states and aping IR and strategic studies in becoming little more than a series of footnotes to Clausewitz.6 One of the wider implications of this article, then, is to move discussion of war away from the fairly restrictive account found in liberal mythology,IR and strategic studies, and to expand it to include what is after all the most fundamental war in human history: the social war of capital.

To make this case I will begin with the birth of international law and end with some comments on the ideology of security. Why? Because the formal liberal position is that the decision about whether war exists is a legal one and that peace comes through law. ‘Law is, essentially, an order for the promotion of peace’, says Hans Kelsen in his lectures on international relations: ‘The law makes the use of force a monopoly of the community. And precisely by doing so, law ensures peace.’7 Thus the proclaimed purpose of international organizations such as the United Nations is always peace, to be achieved through law and the legal regulation of war. And not just peace: it is always ‘peace and security’ that are expected to come together; a conceptual couplet performing the same ideological role internationally as ‘law and order’ performs domestically. I therefore focus on the early period in international law (or, as it was, the law of nations), since this was the period in which liberalism found in law a way to articulate its vision of peace and security. It did so in that crucible of capital’s civil war: colonialism.



1. Walter Benjamin, ‘Peace Commodity’ (1926), in Walter Benjamin’s Archive, trans. Esther Leslie, Verso, London,2007, pp. 56–7.

2. Alain Badiou, ‘Fragments of a Public Journal on the American War against Iraq’, 26 February 2003, in Polemics, trans. Steve Corcoran, Verso, London, 2006, pp. 39–41; Antonio Negri and Éric Alliez, ‘Peace andWar’ (2002), in Antonio Negri, Empire and Beyond, trans. Ed Emery, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp.54–6; Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real:Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates, Verso,London, 2002, pp. 93–4.

3. Daniel Ross, Violent Democracy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, p. 12; Rey Chow, The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory and Comparative Work, Duke University Press, Durham NC,2006, p. 34; Gopal Balakrishnan, Antagonistics: Capitalism and Power in an Age of War, Verso, London, 2009,p. 104; François Debrix, Tabloid Terror: War, Culture,and Geopolitics, Routledge, London: Routledge, 2008,p. 97.

4. Fritz Grob, The Relativity of War and Peace: A Study in Law, History, and Politics, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 1949. For the lawyers: Quincy Wright, ‘When Does War Exist?, American Journal of International Law 26, 1932, pp. 362–8; Georg Schwarzenberger,‘Jus Pacis Ac Belli? Prolegomena to a Sociologyof International Law’, American Journal of International Law, vol. 37, no. 3, 1943, pp. 460–79; Philip C. Jessup,‘Should International Law Recognize an IntermediateStatus between Peace and War?’, American Journal ofInternational Law, vol. 48, no. 1, 1954, pp. 98–103.

5. See Tarak Barkawi, Globalization and War, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2006.

6. Recent attempts to shift the debate include Randy Martin, An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2007; Michael McKinley, Economic Globalization as Religious War: Tragic Convergence, Routledge, Abingdon, 2007; Peter Alexander Meyer, Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008; Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2008; Tarik Kochi, The Other’s War: Recognition and the Violence of Ethics, Birkbeck Law Press, London, 2009. Also important is Étienne Balibar’s unpublished lecture ‘Politics as War, War as Politics: Post-Clausewitzian Variations’, Alice Berline Kaplan Center for the Humanities, 8 May 2006. I am grateful to John Kraniauskas andPhilip Derbyshire for bringing Balibar’s lecture to myattention.

7. Hans Kelsen, Law and Peace in International Relations, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1942, pp. 1,11–12.

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