Shirk, Mark. 2022. Making War on the World. How Transnational Violence Reshapes Global Order. Columbia University Press, New York. pp. 256

For Mark Shirk, “the idea that the state is receding in the face of globalization or that it is no longer as important as it once was is a straw man.” (p. 147) For him, the Westphalian state has undergone several transformations, and the current global capital attack on the state is but a convoluted way of registering transformation. In short, Shirk finds that the state endures. Only that one’s understanding of it has to be broadened and démodé conceptions abandoned.

The gist of the book is that state and anti-state actors or structures reinforce each other, all for the benefit of the former. The latter could be early eighteenth-century pirates, late-nineteenth-century anarchists, or early twenty-first-century jihadists. In each example, Shirk takes, the state’s initial response is largely inadequate. Eventually, the state learns its lesson through dynamics, which he calls: shattering and reinscribing. In exhausting its resources, the state causes some dysfunctionalities, but it gradually harnesses the courage to defeat the challenge. But the state neutralizes threats once ingrained habits, those thought useful for bypassing the threat are challenged. Only new and transboundary practices reinvigorate the state to the point that the state itself is transformed, almost beyond recognition, particularly for observers reared on entrenched practices. With each violent crisis, Shirk illustrates three he deems pivotal. It is not exactly the concept of the state but rather an outmoded understanding of its nature and role, which must be left behind. In the end, “boundaries have always been shattered and reinscribed; change is constant and the state [emerges] as a project, a process.” (p. 146)

In “Change and Continuity in Political Order”, the definition of state actors has to accommodate what we currently call the private sector since the latter operates in a state ecosystem. Because threats are transboundary, like with three examples treated in the issuing three chapters, old theories (such as geographical sovereignty and state competitions) are bypassed in understanding the evolution of the concept of statehood in practice. In conclusion, we read that borders are fluid (defined by surveillance, not by exclusion), and sovereignty is almost ontological. It comes irrespective of territory or citizens’ acquiescence.

In “The Golden Age of Piracy and the Creation of an Atlantic World”, readers find that from 1710 to 1730, piracy around the Caribbean Islands and the costs of what is today the United States constituted a major threat to the mercantile economy and the chances of European emerging capitalisms for expansions. Only by relocating judicial power to the periphery (the colonies) piracy was finally extinguished, and commerce resumed. Britain (not France or Holland) emerged as the biggest winner, less through design and more by accident.

In “‘Propaganda of the Deed,’ Surveillance and the Labor Movement”, we read that by the end of the nineteenth century, radical socialists or anarchists called for a stateless order. Their means to achieve such an objective is the assassination of monarchs, heads of state, and lesser state representatives. States’ repressions followed, but efforts to quell anarchism only succeeded when state legislators introduced the welfare state and the eight-hour working day. The state funnelled the anarchists’ energy into labour movements. 

In “Al-Qaeda, the War on Terror, and the Boundaries of the Twenty-First Century”, Shirk observes that following 9/11, the policies the U.S. took, such as the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, did not pay off. Such responses were more expressive of anxiety and confusion than judicious countermeasures. In the following decade, targeted killing by drones and data surveillance succeeded in illuminating terrorists’ threats. Data surveillance, in particular, has irrecoverably transformed the state in the sense that liberal democracy that guarantees the individual’s (citizen and alien) privacy is fundamentally challenged.

One cannot agree more with Shirk’s proposal. Topping the three illustrative scenarios lies perhaps marron communities and Marronage as an anti-state institution. Those slave escapees who established independent communities at the top of mountains and other inaccessible localities and challenged empires could only be destroyed once the technology became available. But what dictates the transformation of the state is that situation where capital takes over from the state because it no longer needs a state, at least the one that is paternalistically understood.

Leaving the issue of the teleological unfolding of the process of state transformation to others, I choose to dwell on the book’s approach. The practice theory unveils itself as anti-historical. Instead of universal principles, we read that “…it is situations that determine the meaning and outcome of the event.” (p. 139) Even when deploying three historical situations, Shirk’s proposition cancels historical destiny, that is, people’s aspiration for freedom from state orders, the way the pirates, the anarchists, or jihadists dreamed of. So why deny that history has a sense, a universal principle called emancipation? Shirk’s argument can be confused as the trust that there is neither right nor wrong outside space and time, but it is not. For him, that which is working (not that which works) has to be right is an ideological imposition, seeking to eradicate the subaltern’s (the wretched of the world) resolve to challenge the state because the latter is presumed to be too invincible and as such cannot be successfully challenged.

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)


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