The notion of “→ alignment” almost automatically evokes the idea of space. Concretely, it invites us to think of taking a certain position within a geopolitical space. But the fact is, however, that the term “alignment” as such does not at all belong to the vocabulary of geopolitics. It is rather its negation that more than a half-century ago entered the political stage of the world. The so-called → Non-Aligned Movement was founded in the midst of the Cold War at the first Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries, held in September 1961 in Belgrade, the capital of what was then socialist Yugoslavia. Thus, the first meaning of “(non-)alignment” unfolds from a historical retrospective and refers to the spaces of a former geopolitical order that dissolved with the end of the Cold War. We might even call it the “former (non-)alignment”.
However, the adjective “former” already points at another meaning of the word “alignment”, a meaning that is no less political than the geopolitical one, although it does not refer primarily to space but rather to time. In fact, recent history provides a good example of such an alignment in time.
Alignment in time: The case of the East
Since the so-called Fall of Communism more than a quarter of a century ago we have been accustomed to hearing the phrase “former East”. Although its scope is often disputable, it clearly refers to the space of historical communism, the one that was born in October 1917, in the Russian Revolution, and which grew first in Soviet Union, expanded after World War II into Eastern and Central Europe, and finally fell apart in the so-called democratic revolutions of 1989/90. Curiously, the notion of “former East” does not apply to the Far East, to China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, where historical communism also spread after 1945. In fact, it refers only to the European East, including Russia. But the truly weird thing about “former East” is that it designates a space that has just ceased to exist as such. As an adjective, “former” has a double meaning. First it assigns to the past the object to which it is attached. But then, in the same breath, it saves this object from the past, gives it, so to say, a second chance, a chance to somehow survive and participate in our present. “Former” thus designates a sort of continued life of an object that originally belongs to the past. It is its afterlife, so to say.
“The East is still the East although it is now called ‘the former East’”, the Slovenian art theorist Igor Zabel wrote ten years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. His essay, under the ironic title “Dialogue”, was in fact inspired by a scandal that, back then, shook the world of contemporary art. During the opening of an exhibition called Interpol in Stockholm, aimed at establishing “a global network” between the Swedish capital and Moscow, the Russian performance artist Alexander Brenner destroyed a work by fellow participant, Gu Wenda, while another Russian artist, Oleg Kulik, performing as a dog on chain, bit some visitors and was attacked by the audience, provoking a police intervention. In a reaction to the affair a group of artists and critics wrote and signed An Open Letter to the Art World, a public protest against what they saw was the destructive behaviour of their Russian colleagues. Not only was the Open Letter signed exclusively by “the Westerners”, it also expressed general accusations of “a new form of totalitarian ideology”, “hooliganism and skinhead ideology”, “a direct attack against art, democracy and the freedom of expression”, as well as a “speculative and populistic attitude”, “classical model of imperialistic behaviour”, “attitude that excludes female artists”, and so on. Analysing the case, Zabel pointed first at the fact that such aggressive, destructive and subversive actions were long ago accepted and recognised by the tradition of 20th century art, sometimes even being granted the status of entering its canon. Yet, quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, or in the words of Igor Zabel, “the Russians do not belong to the ‘family’ […] they are not two individual artists, they are not even Russians, they represent ‘the East’ – politically correctly called ‘the (former) East’”. This is why, as Zabel argues, “their action cannot be legitimised by the code which it was actually questioning and attacking”. In short, what is permissible for a Westerner is not permissible for an Easterner.
But what does this case tell us about “alignment”? First, that this notion, nowadays, necessarily implies an articulation of cultural difference. The example mentioned above proves it best. It is obvious that the end of the Cold War has made the old regime of alignment along the geopolitical divide between “West” and “East” obsolete. The East has ceased to exist geopolitically, yet it has survived culturally. This is what the adjective “former” actually denotes, the cultural persistence of an expired geopolitical entity. The “former East” is a sort of zombie whose geopolitical body died but whose soul has found its cultural afterlife. The zombie is still on the move, but only in time, and it still aligns itself, but only culturally, or more precisely, it moves and aligns itself throughout a culturally measured time.
Curiously, this cultural difference hasn’t been introduced by a cultural praxis itself but rather by a political → event, or more precisely by the way this political event has been understood. At stake is, of course, the notorious “Fall of Communism”, or the so-called democratic revolutions of 1989/90. Probably the most precise definition of this historical event was given by Jürgen Habermas, the paradigmatic philosopher of late capitalist modernity’s order of liberal democracy within the Western social welfare state. Already at the moment when it was happening, he called this event the catch-up revolution (die nachholende Revolution), as well as a “rewinding” (rückspulende) revolution. Behind this catchy notion is a thesis with far-reaching consequences. In short, he argued that communist rule prevented the societies of Eastern Europe from accomplishing a “normal” modernist development, in contrast to the societies of democratic capitalism in the West. As a result, they must now, after the communist obstacle has been removed, catch-up with that missed development.
Habermas’ concept of a catch-up revolution implicitly rearticulates the space of the former historical communism, mostly meaning the “Eastern Europe”, in terms of its historical belatedness, or more concretely, of a belated modernity.
It goes, then, without saying that the process of alignment – or, should we rather say “re-alignment” – of the former communist East to the West, has clearly a temporal meaning. It implies a movement in a historical time that is measured according to the logic of modernist → temporality. Curiously, there were even attempts to very precisely measure this time. Such was in Lord Ralf Dahrendorf’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, published at the same time as Habermas’ Catch-up Revolution, 1990. To join the club of the developed Western democracies, the → post-communist societies, he claims, need six months to establish the constitutional and political framework (this is “the hour of the lawyer”: laying down the basic values of statehood, fundamental rights, the main paradigms of the rule of law, independent administration of justice and separation of powers); six years to construct the rudiments of a true market economy (juridical guarantees for anti-monopolism, economic rivalry and free competition, which includes the development of a certain social protection network – “the hour of the economist”); and for the final implementation of a free democratic society relying on the power of its well-developed civil society, (“the hour of the citizen”), no less than sixty years.
The time of such a historical re-alignment of the former communist East to the capitalist, democratic West is thus measured by three clocks, which represent three socially and politically different temporalities of one and the same process. Yet, however different, they all count time progressively. The development of a properly functioning civil society might be a very slow process, much slower than the political institutionalisation of its constitutional framework, but nevertheless, its outcome is teleologically predetermined. At the end of the process, even if the lifespan of a generation is needed for its accomplishment, the East was obviously supposed to finally lose its adjective “former” and dissolve itself in the West, that is, to become the West itself. In the context of the post-communist “catch-up alignment” this means only one thing – to eliminate, or in Hegelian terms (quite appropriate here) to sublate any temporal distance between the East and the West. The East becomes the West at the moment when it enters its temporality, that is, when it starts to share the same temporality as the West. But what is this temporality of the West?
Alignment after history
The well-known thesis on so-called post-history seems to perfectly fit into the teleology of the post-communist alignment. It implies a temporality that has detached itself from history and become ahistorical in terms of the final conclusion of all historical development. As such it might be also understood as the final destination of this same historical development. This too applies to the process of the post-communist transition, i.e. the re-alignment of the former East to the capitalist democratic West. It has the meaning of a historical process only insofar as its ultimate goal is to leave history behind. So the East has finally aligned itself to the West at the moment when it has found the exit out of history and become ahistorical, like the West. What this could concretely mean is shown best in the most popular – although theoretically not the most original – concept of post-history, as seen in Francis Fukuyama’s essay on the “The End of History?” (yes, here still with a question mark), published 1989 in the American magazine The National Interest.
So, in the same year as the Berlin Wall fell, Fukuyama pronounced authoritatively that we had reached the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and that Western liberal democracy was the universal, and thus final, form of human government. However, he didn’t mean the beginning of an epoch in which nothing significant happens. Fukuyama didn’t mean the end of all battles, political or military, but merely the end of ideological battles. Not all societies are supposed to become successful liberal democracies, but whatever the regime or system it would no longer claim any ideological superiority over liberal democracy. In his response to Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, the book in which the American political scientist expanded his thesis from the article in The National Interest (published three years earlier, and now in the form of a book without a question mark in the title), Perry Anderson probably best summarised the meaning of the concept of the end of history by stating that it is “not the arrival of a perfect system, but the elimination of any better alternative to one”.
In fact, Fukuyama’s theory of the end of history is a conceptually reduced and ideologically simplified version of a more original thesis on the end of history elaborated by Alexandre Kojève in his lectures on Hegel given 1933–39 in Paris. In Kojève’s version of Hegel’s philosophy, history ends at the moment when the struggle for recognition, epitomised in the master/slave dialectic, has reached its final conclusion, which in terms of a concrete historical development coincides with the creation of a universal, homogenous state that has left behind all the internal contradictions like, for instance, class conflict. Seen from the same perspective, the latter is nothing but a particular form of the general struggle for recognition, which is for Kojève just another name for history.
But what for Kojève was a dialectical fulfilment of the historical process became in Fukuyama’s version of the end of history into a vulgar form of Western ideological triumphalism. The West undoubtedly did win the Cold War, yet instead of the fruits of this victory being shared with others in the now globalising world, they were used to renew and expand what at the time was a declining imperial power and to suppress resistance to the new forms of → global injustice. A seemingly antiquated totalisation of historical time, which Fukuyama managed to accomplish in his thesis on the end of history, was deployed globally to delegitimise any attempt at a radical systemic critique as ahistorical. At the same time it changed the general perspective on history by retroactively realigning all the different paths of history, those already trodden as well as those not yet tried, into one single line that follows the course of Western capitalism and liberal democracy. Alignment as a political, economic and cultural move within the given geopolitical space was now still a historical process, but it was seen as such only from a post-historical retrospective view, i.e., from a standpoint that presents itself as its only possible outcome. Combining both the geopolitical logic of space and the historical logic of time, one might define this one-way alignment of the post-Cold War era as a twofold process: a process of Westernisation that, at the same time, unfolds as an → ahistoricisation. The final destination of this process is, of course, a West that has abandoned history forever and becoming in this way completely timeless, which is why it could be imposed now as the very measure of historical time.
Yet, however liberated from history, the West still has its past, a past that is far from being a realm of the dead. Rather it is abundantly populated by the West’s living others who desperately strive to become Western too, and so get rid of their own history. They are not simply somewhere else, be it geographically, politically, culturally or economically, they are also in another time, or in terms of a vulgarly Hegelian historicism, they still occupy the stages of historical development that the West has already left in its past. They suffer from chronic belatedness, a sickness, which Western colonialism once spread throughout the whole world and which still remained uncured. This is why today to still have history means to be sick. And why one of the severest symptoms of this sickness is, curiously enough, oblivion.
Speaking of the West/East divide that has survived the end of the Cold War, the Slovenian philosopher Rastko Močnik pointed at its ideological function, which is to rob both sides of their history. The West, as said before, appears as emancipated not only from its own history but from any history. This is why it can be imposed as general or canonical. Moreover, as Močnik writes, it has taken the form of a real existing Utopia. Contrary to this, the notion of the East functions as a form of amnesia, for its primal goal is to get rid of its history and to become an ahistorical space like the West. So the East has history, but a history that would be better forgotten, for it is just the experience of its historical belatedness, and as such of no use whatsoever for the future. As a result, Močnik concludes, both sides are robbed of their history. Moreover, they are prevented from having a → common history in the future.
However, the re-alignment that takes place within the temporal framework of post-historicity, imposed after the end of the Cold War by the West on “→ the rest”, is multidimensional, and in fact a deeply ambiguous process. From what has been said so far, this re-alignment process does not follow its own temporality. It does not share the temporality of the so-called democratic revolutions of 1989/90 either. At least in their genuine motivation these events followed their own temporality generated by the teleology of → emancipation. This also applies to the events of the “Arab Spring”.
In both cases the temporal logic of re-alignment reflects merely a particular social relation, concretely the relation of domination, which can be best understood in terms of what Johannes Fabian, in his critical account on the discourse of modern anthropology, called the denial of coevalness. What is at stake here is the coming together of a temporal and social difference, which is at the same time the expression of an epistemological, or more precisely, an anthropological difference. What is actually meant by this is that classical anthropology played a role in the establishment of a historical differential between cultures, which provides the basis of all developmentalist theories, as seen in the theories of modernisation, which are perfectly in tune with the post-historical retrospectivity of today’s West. To put it briefly: in the classical discourse of anthropology a non-European culture was seen as not only somewhere else, but also as existing in another time. This is precisely what Fabian’s book is about. The time-consciousness of anthropology denies coevelness. It places the referent(s) of anthropology in a time other than the present of the producer of this same anthropological discourse. The concept of coevelness, in contrast, implies a recognition that the referents of anthropology inhabit the same time as the present of the producer of anthropological discourse. Coevalness shouldn’t be mistaken for synchronicity. What is meant with this concept is not a physical time but rather an active occupation and sharing of time. It is a social relation that creates a shared temporality. On the other side, the concept of coevalness shouldn’t be mistaken for contemporaneity either. Or, as Fabian argues, contemporaneity is a sociologically periodising category. Coevalness is a matter of social praxis. In other words, if contemporaneity acquires the meaning of an intersocietal relation, it must be actualised as coeval praxis. At stake in this actualisation is not and cannot be merely a matter of cultural praxis, however transformative or progressive it might be. Rather it is a matter of a socially transformative praxis, i.e., of a praxis that both implies coevalness and creates it as its effect.
Seen from the perspective of the claim to coevelness, which is but the claim to a praxis of social transformation, we might say that at the moment of its re-alignment with the West the post-communist Eastern Europe after 1989 was a sort of historical non-space, the temporality of which was reduced to an empty and belated “now”, to a present without its own past yet with a future that was nothing but someone else’s present.
It is only on the ground of such an ahistorical temporality that the process of re-alignment of the “former East” with the West could have taken the ideological form of the so-called post-communist transition to democracy, a quasi-historical process about which political scientists have been producing since 1989 tonnes of books, and around which a weird dynamics of political legitimation and socio-economic transformation has been generated, but whose real historical meaning has been obscured ever since: an often criminal privatisation of the means of production and – this is what the “re-alignment” was truly about – the integration of the → former socialist economies into global capitalism in the form of yet another stage of the primitive accumulation of capital.
The transformation that is at stake here has been also mirrored in the dimension of the global realpolitik. In order to understand this we must go back to the historical event that dissolved the old post-World War II geopolitical order and its regime of (non-)alignment – the end of the Cold War.
From uni- to multi-polarity
As is well known, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of historical communism, with which it coincides, are symbolically condensed in that romantic picture of the freedom-loving masses, who come together over the ruins of the Berlin Wall that unjustly separated them from the West for decades. But this event was far from being a politically neutral historical mark. For many, the Cold War didn’t simply end but was rather won by one side, the capitalist, democratic West, politically and militarily led by the USA. From this perspective, the geopolitical turn that was brought about in 1989/90 can be seen as a move from the previous bipolarity to a so-called unipolarity. At stake is a perspective, which not only aligns the whole world, and all its political agencies, economic capacities, cultural values and social stakes behind the winner of the Cold War, but at the same time implies that this winner, the West and especially its leader, the USA, had reached the moment of their absolute global hegemony, in other words, that they were at the historical peak of their power.
But there is another perspective in which precisely the opposite is claimed, namely, that the United States at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc was already in decline. This view is offered by the author of the so-called world system theory, Immanuel Wallerstein. Moreover, he argues that the hegemony of the United States has been in decline since the 1970s. In fact, according to Wallerstein, the rise of the United States began a century earlier, in the 1870s when it entered into competition with Germany over who would adopt the hegemonic position in the world, which was possible only against the background of another historical decline, that of the British Empire.
The thesis, however, makes sense only within an alternative timeline of modern history. Wallerstein is not the only one who, instead of talking about the First and the Second World Wars, merges both into one single event, the “Second Thirty Years’ War”, from 1914 to 1945 – a concept introduced in 1946 by Charles de Gaulle – that was in principle fought between the United States and Germany over world hegemony and ended in 1945 with the clear victory of the former.
What happened thereafter can then be divided into three periods: the first, 1945–1970, marked the final establishment of the United States as the most powerful agency of world history. It was a period in which the USA absolutely dominated the world economy as its most productive and efficient producer. It turned its former enemies, Germany and Japan, into its political satellites and struck a deal, at least on a military level, with its sole challenger, the Soviet Union. According to the agreements in Yalta, the world was divided into two blocks, which respected their clearly demarcated boundaries. Despite many crises, which often culminated in local wars, like in Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan, the military status quo between two blocks guaranteed a long lasting global peace, a peace that was, curiously, called war, “the Cold War”.
The second period, 1970–2001, marked the slow decline of the sole world power. Wallerstein argues that already by the mid-1960s both Western Europe and Japan had reached virtual economic parity with the United States, which had no longer any particular advantage over its allies. At the same time, the countries and political movements of the developing world, for whom the Yalta deal had not brought any significant benefits, started to pursue their own → interests. This was politically articulated in the form of a struggle for national liberation that often had a clearly → anti-colonial character. Wallerstein sums up this political process under the name of “the world revolutions of 1968”, meaning the multiple revolutions that occurred between 1966 and 1970.
This is where we should situate, both historically and in terms of a transformation of the world system, the emergence of the → Non-Aligned Movement. It was generally a revolt against the neo-colonial and neo-imperial order, which concretely targeted a political arrangement that brought this order into being and guaranteed its persistence, the Yalta deal and the bipolar logic of global power-relations.
These two historical events, the coming of the Non-Aligned Movement on the stage of world politics, as well as the “the world revolutions of 1968”, also mark the historical moment at which, according to Wallerstein, the structural decline of US power and authority in the world-system began. It was a new reality of which those in power in the United States soon become aware. Wallerstein argues that the key objective of all presidential regimes after the1970s, from Nixon to Clinton, was nothing more than to slow down this decline. As one of the consequences of the series of structural adjustments that US politics has undertaken ever since – making of the former satellites, Western Europe and Japan, partners in the implementation of common world policies with whom it works in various international institutions, from the Trilateral Commission and the G-7 to the World Economic Forum in Davos – the new geopolitical order has emerged, an order we might call “multilateralism”.
On the economic level the three partners, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, were no longer able to promote “developmentalism” around the world. It was replaced by a new ideology that promised to ensure a greater flow of capital from the Third World to the North: neoliberalism that essentially facilitated the process of globalisation in which the frontiers of the developing world were opened to both, the exports from the North and the free flow of capital back to the North.
It is under this new global condition that the third and final phase of the decline of the United States began, the era Wallerstein calls “Unilateral Machismo”. This was implemented after the Al Qaeda terror attacks of September 11 by President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors. The result of the new policy was the unilateral invasion of Iraq, an adventure that, according to Wallerstein, has transformed a slow US decline into a precipitate one.
Regardless of many questions and doubts that arise about this alternative timeline of our recent history, it still offers us a different perspective on the problem of → alignment: for Wallerstein, the transition from the second to third period is paralleled by a move from a creeping to an effective multipolarity of the world. At stake is a new global condition in which, as he writes, “the United States has been reduced to the position of being one strong power in a multipolar world”.
As we have seen, the change in the spatial dimension of global geopolitics, from unipolarity to multipolarity, directly corresponds to and cannot be conceived of without the change in its temporal dimension, concretely, in the general perception of historical reality. To put it more precisely, it implies a new “grand narrative” of recent history, a narrative that makes sense of particular political decisions, causally connects them and depicts a broader historical picture in which these decisions are made. It is therefore only within this spatio-temporal framework that we can understand the historical change in the general strategy of today’s re-alignment processes.
Align or perish!
As we have mentioned at the beginning, the concept of “→ alignment” entered the stage of what we call today global politics in the form of its political negation at the first Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries, held in September 1961 in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia. It was initiated by Josip Broz Tito, then the President of the country, and attended by Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Soon over 100 countries, mostly from the Third World, joined the Movement, which played a significant role in international politics in the second half of the 20th century.
Today, none of the founding fathers of the Movement is still alive. The country, where it was founded, Yugoslavia, fell apart in a civil war, without any of its successor states showing → interest in the legacy of the non-alignment. Yet the Movement itself, although having lost any significant influence on international politics, has curiously survived the end of the Cold War, in opposition to which it had once found its raison d’être. This, however, seems to be changing now.
Since Narendra Modī took office as India’s prime minister in 2014, the world’s second-most-populous nation, and one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, has openly abandoned non-alignment as the guiding principle of its foreign-policy. The change is even more significant if we remember that it was in fact an Indian, V. K. Krishna Menon, who in 1953 coined the term “non-alignment”. Yet another Indian, Jawaharlal Nehru, was first to define it as a geopolitical concept based on five principles: mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in domestic affairs; equality and mutual benefit; peaceful co-existence.
But today India’s prime minister has a better idea, something he calls a “multi-alignment policy”. Behind what some commentators not without irony call a “grand vision” there are no more regulative ideas in the tradition of Kantian “eternal peace”, but rather a very pragmatic idea of doing business with all. Without abandoning its independent course, India has moved to a contemporary, globalised practicality, according to which it will carefully balance closer cooperation with the major players in today’s global geopolitics, like US, Russia or China. It has been doing it in a way that advances the country’s economic and security interests, without being forced to choose one power over another.
Yet the multipolar world in which alignment no longer follows some universal principles grounded in a vision of a more just world, free of war, but has become instead a matter of “rational choice” led by egoistic interests of a particular country or its current government, is far from being a world of social stability and peace. On the contrary, ever-larger parts of the existing geopolitical order deteriorate into a sort of permanent state of exception in which the former social contracts appear to be dissolved forever. These new spaces of disorder, lawlessness and violence generate new forms of social misery, economic regression and political extremism, which can no longer be contained outside of the actually existing democratic order. As a consequence, the old bastions of socio-political stability come under increasing pressure from no longer controllable migration and the greater threat of terrorism. Only two decades ago there was a widespread feeling that the world had entered a permanent state of peace, and this idea is now severely shaken. Even the vocabulary of geopolitics (and Wikipedia too) has reacted to the new reality. It has coined a new concept, the notion of “The Cold War II”. The idea, which is also known as “The New Cold War” and the even more sinister “The Colder War”, refers to the renewed tensions, hostilities, and political rivalry that intensified dramatically in 2014 between the Russian Federation on the one hand, and the United States, European Union and some other countries on the other. The tensions escalated in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine.
Regardless of what it exactly designates, this new entry in the vocabulary of contemporary geopolitics testifies of its attempt to keep up with developments on the ground, i.e., with a profound historical transformation of the world order whose symptoms have become obvious but whose meaning is still unclear. Such a meaning, however, cannot be retrieved from an objective, politically neutral interpretation of the given condition. In other words, it will always imply some sort of political commitment, be it a left or a right one.
Understood from the right-wing perspective, multipolarity is the name for a new geopolitical order that is supposed to replace the old system of international relations based on the historical legacy of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia treaty that ended what today we should perhaps call “the First” Thirty Year’s War. From the same perspective, this old picture of the world as a cluster of legally equal sovereign nation-states no longer corresponds to the factual state of affairs. It is only a façade on the actual edifice of the international order based on a real balance of forces and strategic capabilities. This applies foremost to the principle of sovereignty of existing nation-states. For the right-wing reformers of today’s global order, sovereignty is only a nominal, empty claim that cannot be taken seriously if it is not confirmed by the presence of sufficient power, that is, by a real strategic, economic and political potential: “In the XXI century, it is no longer enough to be a nation-state in order to be a sovereign entity. In such circumstances, real sovereignty may be only achieved by a combination and coalition of states. The Westphalian system, which continues to exist de jure, no longer reflects the realities of the system of international relations and requires revision.”
However, for the right-wing advocates of multipolarity, the existing state of affairs is rather one of unipolarity, the global order established after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War bipolar division of the world. What followed thereafter has been an uncontested hegemony of the West, or concretely, of the so-called Euro-Atlantic community led by the United States, which has become the single centre of decision making on major global issues. In fact, the unipolar world is, according to Wallerstein, divided into three regions, the core consisting of the “rich North”, the “poor → South” at the periphery, and the zone of transition, the so-called semi-periphery with big countries developing towards capitalism like China, India, Brazil or Russia. What essentially makes this global order truly unipolar is not simply the supreme economic, cultural and military power of the West, backed by the claim to universality of its values like liberal democracy, the free market, individualism, multiculturalism or human rights, but the will to expand this socio-political system and its values on a global scale. This, however, is precisely what the right-wing proponents of multipolarity oppose, and what they believe should be replaced by a new global order in which there will be few independent and sovereign centres of the world, with none of them having exclusive rights and each of them being able to withstand military-strategic hegemony of the West, a stance that also implies the refusal to accept the universality of its standards, norms and values. In other words, such centres necessarily deny the right of the West to act on behalf of all humanity. They, each as a “particular civilisation”, will also resolutely oppose the threat of melting into a single cosmopolitan multiplicity, and preserve and strengthen their own cultural specialities.
Now, it is perfectly clear that within the right-wing concept of multipolarity there is no space left for any sort of non-alignment politics. The claim to sovereignty in the multipolar world is a privilege of its few centres that can still afford it. For those outside of their sphere of influence sovereignty means nothing. They have no other option than to align themselves with one of these few centres of the multipolar world.
The right-wing concept of multipolarity even retroactively denies the very possibility of non-alignment. It presents the Non-Aligned Movement as a historical failure:
"[T]hese “non-aligned countries” were in no way able to create a “third pole” owing to the main parameters of the superpowers, the fragmented and unconsolidated nature of the Non-Aligned Movement members, and the lack of any joint general socio-economic platform."
At this point a deep affinity between the right-wing understanding of multipolarity and the legal and philosophical concepts of Carl Schmitt are revealed. His open animosity towards the → Non-Aligned Movement has its roots in his general rejection of the anti-colonial cause. It was precisely in his reaction to the call of Krishna Menon – who, again, invented the notion of non-alignment – for another, non-European concept of international law, made after India’s 1961 annexation of Goa, that Schmitt accused anti-colonialism of the destruction of the Eurocentric spatial order: “[I]t is oriented solely backwards, towards the past, and its aim is to liquidate a condition that was valid until today”. Similar to the way the right-wing advocates of multipolarity dismiss the Non-Aligned Movement as historically irrelevant, Schmitt trashes anti-colonialism in general: “Putting aside moral postulates and the criminalisation of European nations, anti-colonialism has been incapable of producing a single idea of a new order.”
Carl Schmitt’s vision of this new world order is better known under the label of “New Nomos of the Earth”, a new juridical and political ordering that is supposed to replace the dissolving order of international law based on the model of European secular, sovereign states, the so-called Jus Publicum Europaeum. This vision of a new post-Eurocentric global system that is dominated by what Schmitt calls “great spaces” (Grossräume), a system of international relations in which Europe will also have its ordered place, and in fact the notion perfectly fits the right-wing concept of multipolarity.
The question is, however, whether there can be a left-wing alternative to these geopolitical concepts?
Out of sovereignty: The time of → migration
At this place we should come back to what Wallerstein calls “the world revolutions of 1968”. Not only did they denounce the Yalta deal; they also denounced “The Old Left”, the traditional anti-systemic movements comprised of three components, Communist parties, Social-Democratic parties, and national liberation movements, and which Wallerstein defines as having a two-step strategy: first to conquer state power, and then to change the world. The revolutionaries of 1968 concentrated primarily on the second step, to change the world, which has become a differentia specifica of the New Left.
Yet today when it comes to the politics of the global Left, both practically and in terms of its historical visions, it is not difficult to diagnose certain deficits. According to Alberto Toscano, in the last 25 years the Left has almost completely ignored the geopolitical perspective. Totally devoted to all sorts of so-called struggles for hegemony, mostly in the realm of culture and education, as well as socially focused on the sphere of civil society, it has forgotten, as Toscano argues, that geopolitics frames the conditions of a political action, especially in terms of a politics of radical transformation, → emancipation or revolution. Geopolitics situates all these struggles into the reality of geopolitical constraints like economic competition, scarcity of resources, biopolitics of population or military calculations.
The old anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist Left, including the left involved in class struggles, was much more realistic and was concretely involved in instrumental geopolitical calculations. Toscano calls this “battle-hardened realism” and argues that it disappeared from the strategy of the Left after 1989/90, i.e., after the fall of historical communism. It seems as though the Left for more than 20 years completely accepted the proclamation of historical closure and liberal-democratic hegemony, and thus Fukuyama’s turn to so-called post-history in which no historical move is imaginable outside the ultimate horizon of capitalism and Western liberal democracy.
The question is now, how to break this circle of historical idleness from a left-wing perspective? Is it possible to challenge the overall, that is, ideological and political, right-wing hegemony over the global space now when the Left no longer governs nation states, orchestrates diplomatic events or commands armies? The question is, more generally, how not to align in a world in which the alignment into one of the emerging Grossräume has become a matter of survival for all those who are too weak and too small to become Grossräume themselves? Is there anything the Left can do about it now after it has almost completely surrendered the geopolitical space to the Right?
In fact, this is not the first time that the Left has had trouble with space. It was in 1917, in the midst of the WWI, when the representatives of Bolshevik Russia, determined to keep their promise given to the masses of withdrawing from the imperialist war, arrived in Brest-Litovsk fully aware that they were too weak to hold the territory against German armies. As is well known, their saving formula was to trade space for time. So the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany, sacrificed a huge amount of the former tsarist Russia – and an important geopolitical role in the then world – but gained time to consolidate their power at home.
This is a history worth learning from. Not, however, to once more make use of a simple temporal delay, but to expand the very idea of the historical condition in which political praxis takes place today. At stake is a general move of our attention from space to time. When it comes, concretely, to geopolitics, the introduction of a temporal paradigm radically reframes the problem of alignment we are discussing here. The legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement as well as contemporary processes of alignment are usually understood as political rearrangements of spaces in a given order. However, what changes, or more precisely, what moves in the case of such an alignment process is never a space of state or of a block of states, but rather a political commitment. To put it in brief, one might align, re-align or not align only politically, which today means, only within the political paradigm that still dominates global geopolitics, the principle of sovereignty. The status of being aligned or not aligned as well as the change in this status is all about the relation between the subjects and objects of sovereignty, or about a change of this status. This applies to both, the now crumbling, old Westphalian order and the new world of “great spaces” emerging from its ruins.
Seen from this angle the phenomenon of → alignment is fully absorbed by the logic of sovereignty. It determines all its political meaning but also the way we understand it. Concretely, the logic of sovereignty privileges the role of state power-politics and juridico-political arrangements, especially in the sphere of inter-national relations; it territorialises identities and overdramatises cultural differences; it generally puts emphasis on everything that is static, stable and long-lasting. At the same time, it marginalises economic issues, particularly in terms of movements of capital and → labour force, and it shows weak → interest in what is mobile, temporal or provisional. This is the reason why, within the logic of sovereignty, the contemporary processes of geopolitical alignment appear as fully detached from such an important phenomenon as → migration, which is nowadays intensively reshaping the global world. That the → institution of borders as well as different border regimes play a crucial role in these processes, and generally in the patterning of the post-Westphalian order, is more than obvious. Yet it is precisely the phenomenon of migration, or more concretely, its subjective dimension consisting mostly of the experience of border crossing as well as of social struggles that accompany it, which discloses the temporal meaning of the existing spatial arrangements.
The best example of an ideologically induced ignoring of such a temporal meaning of border regimes is offered by various forms of detention facilities. Following dogmatically the logic of sovereignty we understand them as sites of sovereign exception, the meaning best epitomised in the institution of detention camps and most comprehensively elaborated by Giorgio Agamben in his Homo Sacer. In his view, the institution of a camp has an essentially juridical origin in the concept of state of exception and in martial law. It makes it possible to legally include the detainees precisely by excluding them from this very same legal order. Yet such a paradoxical space, which is demarcated by the processes of exclusion through inclusion, acquires a completely new meaning when seen in the context of a particular historical condition, that is, in the context of the contemporary global capitalism and the way it shapes labour markets. Here a detention camp becomes a device of migration control and serves primarily the purpose of regulating the time and speed of migrants’ movements into labour markets. Mezzadra and Neilson call such a camp a “decompression chamber” that uses the system of administrative detention to equilibrate the tensions created by the conflicts of interests constitutive of labour markets. Looking from this perspective, one that transcends the logic of sovereignty focused on the juridico-political creation and regulation of spaces and gives insight into the functioning of contemporary capitalism, a detention camp is literally a temporal border. As such it not only discloses the temporal dimension of the spatial arrangements that map the cartography of the existing geopolitical order, but also challenges our general perception of historical reality in which we live today. In more concrete terms, it puts in question the “grand narrative” of modern political history that is frozen in the geopolitical order and provides its legitimation. At stake is a chronologically measured historical time that makes history appear as a linear, progressive development, the well-known Walter Benjamin’s “homogenous empty time”. This model of historical temporality is constitutive of nation building processes. It informs the temporal structure of national consciousness and the modes and institutions of its cultural expression from national history, national language and national literature, all the way through the very ideology of national statehood. One cannot belong to a national identity without sharing its particular → temporality. And one cannot have a nation state without being temporally embedded in its national history. This is why this same model of historical temporality is also constitutive of the Westphalian order and the principle of sovereignty on which it is grounded. And finally, since this principle seems to be surviving the now falling apart cluster of sovereign states and finding its afterlife in the new post-Westphalian reordering of the world into the Carl Schmittian “great spaces”, the homogenous and empty time of a linear historical progression threatens to further dominate geopolitics and direct our orientation in the labyrinths of its power relations – unless one takes into account the experience of contemporary migrations, which is always already an experience of another existential and historical temporality. The experiences of border crossing and struggles, of the temporariness of one’s legal status, of one’s political loyalties, social belongings or cultural identifications, that are intrinsic to migratory movements across the global world today, necessarily imply the experience of heterogeneous temporalities, which disrupts the linearity of historical progression and eludes the temporal homogeneity of national histories. Such a temporal experience can no longer be confined to bounded spaces of nation states or normative identity blocks, and ideologically deployed to endlessly perpetuate the status quo.
If you would rather not align, align with them
The pressure to align is today stronger than ever. In some places of the world it has become unbearable. It breaks apart societies, ruins whole states, separates families, erects walls where they have never been before, and even stirs up bloody conflicts and wars, setting in motion large parts of the population and turning people who only yesterday were citizens of a state, members of a society, village or city dwellers, into an amorphous mass of refugees on the run who, on their way, join millions of those who are already fleeing poverty, desperate to align themselves along the line from the global poor to the global rich. It seems an escape is still possible, but not from → alignment itself. More and more people in today’s world are being forced to choose, often at gunpoint, between the West and the rest, between Europe and Russia, Islam and the infidels, between this or that normative identity block, this or that container of “essential” values, this or that “civilisation” … And while an enlightened theory and a liberal cultural critique glorify the emancipatory potential and moral superiority of the concepts and visions like cultural hybridity, in-between zones or the neither/nor spaces, in the real world of global power politics these concepts and visions are of no use whatsoever. For this is not the realm of freedom but rather of necessity, the necessity of alignment.
How then not to align? How to remain faithful to the → emancipatory spirit of the early Non-Aligned Movement? And how to give its legacy an afterlife in the world of global capitalism and the geopolitics that serves its interests?
Today’s processes of migration are the answer to these questions. They are already reshaping the existing geopolitical order precisely as a structurally unrecognised part of it. In fact, this order, a network of enclosed spaces and expansive temporal borders, seems to rather be designed to make use of migration. The usual impression, generated from within, of migrants coming from a remote foreign outside with the intention of penetrating the existing order and take advantage of its accumulated wealth and values, is a blatant ideological delusion. The truth is precisely the opposite: it is the order itself that acts as a parasite on migration, extracting its wealth, the labour force, with the intention of launching, time and again, capitalist accumulation, the very precondition of its survival. Linked to this is another false impression: that the political struggles taking place around migration are essentially a conflict between the refusal and acceptance of migrants. This impression rests on the wrong premise that politics is possible only within the existing order and that migrants, by being outside of this order, are at the same time outside of politics as such. In other words, it denies them the status of political → agency on its own. And it makes us blind to the fact that this order, together with the concept of politics within which it reproduces itself, a concept that includes, one must dare to say, the most advanced forms of Western liberal democracy, is falling apart today. Migrants are more than a symptom of this collapse. They are – and here one must agree with the panicking racists who mobilise all the right-wing forces to protect order – an active agency of its destruction, but the only one able to save the best of it for a → common better future.
If the historical Non-Aligned Movement still has a future today it is thus to be found in a political alignment with the contemporary movements of global migration.