Fredric Jameson: Universal Conscription and the Citizens' Army


Fredric Jameson’s pathbreaking essay An American Utopia radically questions standard leftist notions of what constitutes an emancipated society. "If," Jameson asks, "business, the professions, religion, even the labor unions (let alone the post office or the Mafia) are inadequate vehicles for dual power, what can then be left in late capitalism as an already organized institution capable of assuming the parallel and ultimately revolutionary role on which alone radical social change depends?" 

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This is the moment to mention a final candidate, the only subsystem left which can function in so truly revolutionary a fashion. It is a thought that must have first come to me many years ago, inspired by an image by one of our greatest political cartoonists. I think it must have been during the first year of the Eisenhower presidency, if not still during the campaign, when the last vestiges of the New Deal still survived in Truman’s ill-fated campaign for socialized medicine on the English and the Canadian model. Ike, presumably in full military regalia, perches informally on the edge of the desk in the Oval Office and observes conversationally, “Well, if they want socialized medicine, they have only to join the Army as I did.” This is indeed very precisely the strategy I propose, the recipe for a new form of dual power.

Below, we present an excerpt from Jameson's revised and expanded version of the essay included in 
An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, a collection edited by Slavoj Žižek that features responses to Jameson by Jodi Dean, Saroj Giri, Agon Hamza, Kojin Karatani, Kim Stanley Robinson, Frank Ruda, and Kathi Weeks. An American Utopia is currently 50% off. To redeem the discount, click on the link here.

I have so often deplored the revival of antiquated branches of philosophy—ethics, aesthetics—in a postmodern situation of de-differentiation in which, on the contrary, the various subfields of such a discipline should be asked to fold back on each other and disappear (and perhaps along with them, philosophy itself), that it is a pleasure to be able to include political theory among them as well. It should be obvious that the withering away of the state inevitably brings with it the withering away of that thinking whose object is essentially the state as such (the polis).

Indeed, in order to see this new army — the universal army — in the proper light, it is necessary to understand that it is not a new form of government but rather a new social structure, or better still, a new socioeconomic structure, as we shall see. In the transitional phase — that of dual power — the coexistence of the old state and the new one will indeed seem to be a rivalry of governmental powers; little by little, however, it will be understood that it is the old state which is in reality the “government,” and destined as such to “wither away,” and the new structure, which is in fact the society at large or, if you prefer, the completion of that “civil society” which Hegel in his own time took to be simply the sphere of private life and of business and commerce. There are suggestive analogies to this process in antiquity: for example, when Augustus founded the Roman Empire as such, he was careful to leave the institutions of the Republic in place. The Senate continued to exist, to meet and deliberate, to give lengthy speeches on the order of those pre-power tribal chieftains of whom we have already spoken, and with the same effects.

Meanwhile, antiquity also affords methods of dealing with the fear of dictatorship that inevitably arises in a biological species like our own, in which collectivity is so absolutely sundered from individuation. Indeed, the very word derives from that worthy institution according to which, in a crisis situation, an individual of some unique endowment is accorded exceptional power for a limited period of time, after which he sinks back into equality with the population (or is more often simply banished). The crisis itself is then usefully marked by another ancient institution, the temple of Janus, whose doors are ceremoniously opened at its onset and then closed again to signal the return to normalcy and the conclusion of the imperilment, in an effort to institutionalize what Carl Schmitt famously theorized as the “state of exception.”

Such states are often thought of in terms of William James’s symptomatic American misconception, for in America, wars are the moral equivalent of collective action, as witness the great American utopia of World War II. In the twin situation of the economic anarchy of late capitalism and the irreparable ecological damage of nature by contemporary industrial exploitation (whose simultaneity is not accidental), we must invent better temporal models of crisis, long- and short-term, than those afforded by war.

We must also cure ourselves of the habit of thinking politically, for politics is the art of power and of the state. If the latter is effectively to wither away, then we must confidently expect political theory to wither away along with it. As I will continue to snipe at political theory throughout, and to argue for its replacement by a properly utopian kind, I will here explain my fundamental position, namely that the essentials of political theory were already established thousands of years ago by Polybius in his codification of the three types of government (or state) and their degenerate forms. Everything since then (including Machiavelli) has been engineering the invention of forms of statecraft appropriate to these three forms, which are taken as ontology — that is, as given in advance — while Rousseau’s cancellation of the scheme, in The Social Contract, has rarely been thought through to its utopian conclusion.

Political theory takes as its object problems without solutions; utopian speculation solutions without problems. The first constitutes an ontology which is necessarily obliged to work within the limits of being and of reality as it currently exists. The latter aims at a radical transformation of the present and its system: in that respect, it is the sibling of revolutionary thought and today occupies the place of a revolutionary politics which has not yet fully reemerged from the transformations of globalization and postmodernity, of finance capital on a world scale. Utopian thinking demands a revision of Gramsci’s famous slogan, which might now run: cynicism of the intellect, utopianism of the will. A generalized cynicism is indeed one way of characterizing the political transparency of contemporary or postmodern society, in which “they know what they’re doing but they do it anyway,” in which everyone is a Marxist and understands the dynamics and the depredations of capitalism without feeling it possible to do anything about them.

The problem with representative systems is deeply embedded in the very nature of political thought itself, whose very name conceals a reference to a specific form of political organization based on slavery — the polis. What I would have liked to argue here at greater length is a critique of political philosophy in general: it is already implicit, of course, in the way Marxism seeks to reground social and political interpretation in the economic and in class; but we can come at it from the other side by pointing out the failure of all political theory to constitute its object, which is the collective as such. We have reached a moment philosophically in which people are willing to agree that there is no adequate way of thinking the individual subject, in which various philosophical schools have sought to dispel ideological conceptions of a so-called centered subject and have proposed a variety of untenable alternatives, from multiple subject positions to a radical separation of consciousness as such from various notions of selves or personal identities.

We should be willing to do the same for all the forms in which thinkers have failed in much the same way to conceptualize collective entities. I want to make a philosophical point here; I suppose it is a Kantian one, since it involves the impossibility of thinking certain kinds of things (such as that peculiar thing-in-itself called consciousness, which no human philosopher has ever been able to describe); for it seems to me the same with collective reality. That is, owing to our individuation as biological individuals, the collective is as such also impossible to conceptualize. This is the point Rousseau was trying to make in The Social Contract by proposing a kind of unthinkable, unrepresentable “regulative idea” in his ‘‘general will’’; when Kant praised the emergence of the written constitution, he was not endorsing a type of government or state, but rather singling out the moment when a collectivity comes to “maturity” (or the coming to age at which the individual is liberated from tutelage), by taking the formation of the new society into its own hands, as a deliberate and collective act.

But here I need to pause and to rectify the misunderstandings Kant’s formulation is likely to perpetuate, for the dilemma in thinking the collectivity has in modern times generally led to an unacceptable result, namely that from Aristotle to Kant and on, the prejudice that the ultimate aim and endpoint of political theory lies in the drafting of a constitution, conceived as the bringing to an end of revolution rather than its apotheosis. I like Toni Negri’s masterful analysis, in which he shows how the arrival of constituted (constitutional) power shuts down that brief moment of freedom of the constituante, of the construction of power. But remember that the strength of the universal army scheme is that it cuts across the federal constitution in a wholly novel way, transgressing its boundaries and carefully drawn limits without annulling it, leaving its map intact beneath a wholly different topology.

But to return to my argument about the collective (using the most neutral term for something that by definition cannot be named, let alone conceptualized) and to pursue its thesis about the latter’s unrepresentability: one has only to pass in review the various candidates — tribes, clans, groups, communities, Gemeinschaften, Gesellschaften, mobs, crowds, peoples, nations, democracies, republics, cooperatives, even multitudes (I should add that the concept of social class is not a concept of this kind) — to see that all are in the long run both defective and ideological. I take a Kantian critical perspective on the impossibility for “reason” to think, let alone to name, the multiple and the plural, a dilemma that generally only comes into view when that other unnamable reality — population — makes its scandalous presence unavoidable yet unmentionable. “Un peuple à venir,” was Deleuze ’s wise version of this representational impossibility: implying that any name, by suggesting that such a thing already existed, was an oppression and a normative or repressive ideology. This is why the plural cannot have majorities or minorities either; it is also why political theory cannot be a substantive discipline.

I give a quick example of its insufficiencies before moving on.

Recently, the old untenable notion of underdevelopment — unsatisfactory because, as Robert Kurz showed, it implies that development and so-called modernity are still possible — has been succeeded with a new slogan, namely that of the “failed state”: a pseudo-concept which really cannot be blamed on the neocons inasmuch as it is today the basis of everyone’s foreign policy. This expression is all the more ridiculous in light of the fact that today all states are failed states, very much including this one (the United States). None of them function, none of them can be patched up, even with the usual band-aids of propaganda. Not even dictatorships work anymore, as we have lately seen; and one is, reluctantly or not, drawn back to Samuel Huntington’s scandalous conclusion, namely that the more democracy there is, the less governable a state — indeed, that genuine democracy is ungovernable and irreconcilable with capitalism. We must, however, draw the opposite conclusion from his, and as a consequence abandon government altogether. 

In fact, no one wants a state any longer, failed or not; all the factions are united in denouncing it. But as the state is the privileged subject matter of political theory, we must abandon political theory as well. I return therefore to the proposition that it is population which is both the conceptual and the social scandal: that philosophically fearful thing called the “Other” which has haunted modern thought in recent years is in reality plural, and it is population as such that constitutes otherness. Not overpopulation, as Malthus thought; not underpopulation, as the early-twentieth-century French thought (along with other countries today); but simply sheer plurality and multiplicity.

Nor is this scandal of the Real to be avoided in the other direction by retreating into nostalgic micro-groups or clans of a fantasy ethnic type, the groupuscules of today’s politics, the imaginary players in the so-called “culture wars” of current American politics. These singularities are as ineffectual, in theory as in practice, as the universalities they are supposed to subvert. Yet they are precious symptoms of the inability of late capitalism to provide even the rudiments of collective life; they are the heart of a heartless world, to use Marx’s old description of religions and churches. It is not to replace such imagined or, better still, imaginary communities and micro-groups of all kinds that the universal army is called upon, but it seems to me there is a better way of putting them in their place (and allowing them to flourish as they will), and this brings us to the substitution of utopian thinking for politics and political theory.

This is also the moment when we pass from what remains a concrete political program — the conscription of the entire population into some glorified National Guard — to that rather different matter which is the imagining of utopias. And here, to be sure, we enter a no-man’s-land (which is also that of dual power), in which assessments of the current situation give way to personal and private visions of all kinds and in which rational revolutionary calculations necessarily give way to fantasy, including those of the crackpots and oddballs who were our great utopian thinkers. This is therefore the moment in which we may all begin to diverge, substituting our private utopian predilections and gadgets for sober analysis.

But we are not yet so far, and for the moment remain with banal historical and political reality. The army we currently have is what is called a volunteer army, that is, a commercial profession like any other. I need not remind us of the history of citizen armies, from the Greeks to Machiavelli, and very much including the French Revolution. These armies, based on the draft, had political missions, most notably in modern times to forge the nation out of a variety of local and provincial populations sometimes not even speaking the national language (itself a political creation of the new national state). To be sure, nowadays the media have already done that for us, but the usefulness of the analogy lies in the fact that, in our federal system, the army is virtually the only institution to transcend the jurisdiction of state laws and boundaries, divisions which were among the most important counterrevolutionary principles embedded in the American Constitution, itself one of the most successful counterrevolutionary schemes ever devised. No genuine systemic change can take place here without an abrogation of the Constitution — a foundational fetish, as I have claimed, and a document the left itself would be as loath to forfeit as the right, owing to the protections of the Bill of Rights. The signal advantage of the army as a system is that it transcends that document without doing away with it; it coexists with it at a different spatial level and becomes thereby a potentially extraordinary instrument in the erection of dual power.

As for the draft, it is preeminently symbolic that Nixon ended the draft in order to put an end to popular, and in particular student, resistance to the war in Vietnam (Johnson had already modified the draft with hosts of class and racial exemptions in order to limit its political impact). More recently, during the Iraq war or what we may call the Rumsfeld period, this professional army has been further privatized — and I insist on the relevance of this word for the way it underscores the relationship with the variety of other economic or free-market privatizations all over the world inaugurated by the Reagan-Thatcher regimes. Rumsfeld further privatized this already specialized and salaried private army by outsourcing many of its functions to private corporations of the Blackwater type, and by introducing complex advanced technology in order to render other portions of the military workforce redundant — that is, by downsizing them via mechanization (a process Marx described in Capital). This very significant moment in the history of the modern army had a political purpose above and beyond its adaptation of current late-capitalist business practices: that purpose was to remove this small professionalized group possessing Weber’s proverbial monopoly of violence (currently only .05 percent of the population) from any possibility of mass democratic action and, further, to assimilate it to the structure of the police force, which it seems now to have become on a global scale.

So the first step in my utopian proposal is, so to speak, the renationalization of the army along the lines of any number of other socialist candidates for nationalization (some of which I mentioned above), by reintroducing the draft to transform the present armed forces back into that popular mass force capable of coexisting successfully with an increasingly unrepresentative “representative government,” and transforming it into a vehicle for mass democracy rather than the representative kind.

Inasmuch as the army continues to be associated with the various coups d’état of modern times all over the world, as well as with all the wars it has been called on to wage in recent years, I will at once specify the most important steps in the process. First of all, the body of eligible draftees would be increased by including everyone from sixteen to fifty, or, if you prefer, sixty years of age: that is, virtually the entire adult population. Such an unmanageable body would henceforth be incapable of waging foreign wars, let alone carrying out successful coups. In order to emphasize the universality of the process, let’s add that the handicapped would all be found appropriate positions in the system, and that pacifist and conscientious objectors would be placed in control of arms development, arms storage, and the like.

Now I need to remind you of the breadth of the military system, particularly under the pre-Rumsfeld dispensation. We have already begun with medical attention, and in particular the veterans’ hospitals, which are currently in desperate straits, at the very moment when hospitals themselves, the private kind, have become big business in the United States. In our new universal system, of course, the military hospitals would become a free national health service open to everyone (insofar as everyone is now a service person or a veteran) and the entire center of gravity of universal health care, and also, I would add, pharmaceutical production, disease control, and experimentation with and production of new medicines, would now be reorganized and situated within the army itself.

We may also assume a reorientation of education itself under military auspices, not merely for the children of this military population but for various advanced degrees. Nowadays it is difficult to think of any kind of advanced training, save perhaps for business schools, that would not be required within this system (the Army Corps of Engineers is the obvious example). We may think of the socialist (or ex-socialist) countries for models of our situation, in which the various armies included such functions as the manufacture of clothing, the production of films, the eventual production of motor vehicles, and even (as in China) a writers’ union, in which intellectuals and writers and artists found their space and income. The army is also notoriously the source of manpower for disaster relief, infrastructural repair and construction and the like; the question of food supply would immediately place this institution (if it can still be called that) in charge of the ordering and supply of food production and therefore in a controlling position for that fundamental dietetic and agronomic activity as well.

This essay is taken from An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army by Fredric Jameson, which is 50% off until