A dubious trend spread through social media in the days following the growing number of athletes who demonstrated against racial injustice and the breathtaking impunity of police violence. This was a moment when languished demonstrators locked inside of a St. Louis synagogue weathered threats of “gas-the-synagogue,” hashtags, and charging police in riot gear. It was a moment when the very same officers of the law could, with alarming blindness to redundancy, chant, “whose streets? Our streets,” while at the same time being the executive instrument of a state that interacts with its black and brown citizens with unparalleled violence, disdain, surveillance, and criminal convictions. It was a moment when the President of the United States could deny the status of catastrophe to millions of citizens of color because their catastrophe isn’t one in which thousands perish, and in the same breath reproduce the racist trope of Hispanic laziness. It was also a moment when Colin Kaepernick silently suggested that a nation confront and destabilize its legacy of racialized brutality while the same President called black athletes “sons of bitches.”
Today, however, the struggle to destabilize the institutional fabric of disenfranchisement, imprisonment, and wealth inequality risks being buried by viral images of combat veterans “taking a knee,” or the children of service members killed in combat signaling their support for the “cause.” Generally speaking, it has become patriotic to stand with these athletes against police violence and domestic racism. However, there is a basic friction between antiracism and the pride of veterans and patriots who do not totally rebuke nationalism or recognize how it must necessarily interlock with geopolitical racism. There is a chance to rupture the concrete solidarity between racism at home and abroad by questioning the rationale of the sovereign state, but this chance will be squandered by sharing honorific images of veterans or sanitizing the staggering human toll of militarism, past and present.
The logic of the images seems simple enough. One can make antiracism more palatable for a broader spectrum of Americans with viral posts on social media which depict veterans mimicking the iconic, slouched posture of an athlete reticent to revel a national anthem that begs harm on runaway slaves. The trouble with this viral trend is that it closes the dialogue on institutionalized racism and denies the shared foundational thematic of racial oppression and political exclusion visited on bodies across the globe: the modern sovereign state. A veteran who kneels provides us only an empty gesture of abstract unity without a substantive contestation of white supremacy and imperialism.
Patriotism can never be the conceptual core of an antiracist resistance. Patriot, from the Greek patriōtēs, makes an explicit association to the land from which a person is from, and through modernity, has acquired the semantic value of a more rigid linear relation between a body or bodies and land. The intensification of this relation coincides with a notable shift in the history of Western political organization: the emergence of the European nation state. In thinking about patriotism, what it means, and what its implications are on the context of our participation in a society, one is shuttled into the discourse of land, territory, and the rationale of sovereignty.
Max Weber famously argued that what is unique to the state is how it sustains and reproduces itself with violence. While it is not the only technique available to its influence on politicized subjects it is peculiar to the state. Violence on communities and populations may punctuate history but “[t]he state is the form of human continuity that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory – and this idea of ‘territory’ is an essential defining feature” (Weber 2004: 33). The sovereign state historically reflects a power relation between the ruler or rulers who are unattested in the legitimate exercise of violence within an arbitrary boundary, and the ruled who either willingly or unwillingly comply.
While systems of legitimization may be debated, the defining concept of sovereign territory – of the determinacy of borders over this land and not that land – will necessarily implicate racialized bodies and populations. This is because, along with notable shifts and developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sovereign actors began to convey greater interest in the lives of individuals and populations inside and outside of their rigid borders. Modernity triggered ruptures that gave politics a central focus on the lives of populations, and life became central to political strategies. It also had consequence for lives that were not recognized as lawful political subjects. The intensification of the interconnected threads of patriotism, nationalism, and sovereignty is hence a product of the biopolitical turn: a fundamental transformation in how power is exercised, and how power relations are codified by virtue of social regulation and techniques of disciplining bodies. The modern state thus began to centralize, oversee, and collect demographic data relating to birth and death rates, disease, sanitation, urbanization, life span, and wealth circulation (Lemke 2011: 36-7).
When states take an interest in life they begin to use a discourse of survival and danger; this is often where race enters the logic of sovereign power. In classical and feudal society, the monarch or rulers who held the monopoly on the exercise physical coercion did so primarily through a deductive power. In other words, sovereign power was a power to “take away” land, goods, property, political influence from other administrators or aristocratic bodies, or even the lives of subjects. Michel Foucault called this the “characteristic privilege” at the disposal of the sovereign (1978: 136). However, after the seventeenth century the influence of this mechanism of power waned in relevance, and the power to take away either property, wealth, or the lives of the governed became just one of many other force relations. Mechanisms to make new force relations, to grow, facilitate and expand political influence on subjects began to emerge and rupture the deductive power over life. Gradually, the sovereign grew into its role of promoting and sustaining the lives of the governed. Foucault writes,
wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital. It is as managers of life and survival, of bodies and the race, that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed. … The atomic situation is now at the end point of this process: the power to expose a whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an individual’s continued existence (Ibid: 137).
For Foucault the paradigm of war represented a crucial lens through which to analyze power because he saw conflicts and struggles as reflections of force relations. Power is precisely and just that: a relation of force between groups or individuals, however plastic or crystalized, in an institutional or structural system. Power flows through everyone, and every body affected. The interests of the state, and politics more generally, re-inscribe those relations of force within institutions, social inequalities, or even the techniques of disciplining bodies or regulating populations (Foucault 2003: 15-6). A new dimensional shift opened during the turn of the eighteenth century, and in this realm of biopolitics the project of monitoring and protecting life replaced displays of lethal rancor. When death is called for, it is carried out on behalf of protecting the race. There occurs a startling reversal in the sovereign right over life if one considers the juridico-political philosophy of the social contract. Individuals band together on the basis of a threat to their lives and choose to surrender essentially all of their power in exchange for the protection of sovereign leadership. Meanwhile, fearful of a “war of all against all,” the chosen sovereign ultimately wields total discretion over the life and death of the ruled. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries inaugurate race to condition and legitimize the truculent power of the unattested, sovereign exercise of violence. This absurdity of a leadership position contingent on life-protecting while holding a monopoly on force and death is concealed under the guise of safety and danger.
There is a peculiar conflict of terms when European nation states attest to the proliferation of life, securing, protecting, and expanding the lives of political subjects while at the very same time calling for the deaths of people or simply disallowing others from living. Foucault’s point of focus wasn’t ideological racism but state racism: when the state, its functions and mechanisms, become entangled or even constitutive with racism as an actor in the political sphere. In a normalizing society such as ours, “[r]ace or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable” (Ibid: 256). The interstices of racial oppression and governing thematically integrate. Race thinking sabotages the unity of a biological whole, which used to be the domain of a single, bounded territory. Suddenly, rather than an enemy who originates from that sovereign territory over there who menaces us from afar, there are enemies from within who threaten the biological integrity of the population. The creation of fissures and hierarchies in a society are native to this process – the survival of the species is systematized by who is allowed to live, and who must die so the other may prosper. Racial thinking in premodern civilizations was one of race struggle mapped on distinct sovereign territories: modernity turned race against the very society itself in a frantic search for its own permanent purification and social normalization. The congruence of governance and racialized bodies, of the centrality of race and survival to political strategies could only ever happen with a robust enough authority to confront “enemies” inside of and beyond its borders: the modern state (Lemke 2011: 42).
Racial cleansing and geopolitical racism make possible the border violence that simply wouldn’t happen if we didn’t organize politically through sovereign states with determinate borders. There is a serious concrete solidarity between geopolitical racism (or premodern race struggle on the global plane) and racial cleansing within a nation, and their common thematic is the modern sovereign state. The war on terror and the counterterrorism surveillance it spurred, the war on drugs and racial disparity in our prison system, and border violence all exemplify their common roots. The acrimonious power of the sovereign state over the lives of lawfully recognized, political subjects and migrants alike isn’t a return of the ancient, deductive power of the sovereign. Indeed, these programs and institutions are done in the name of protecting the population and promoting the lives of citizens. Foucauldian genealogy equips us with the tools to see a cluster of relations that bound geopolitical racism and state racism exercised on people within a state. They develop, react, fragment and promote each other.
State racism can and does persist today without explicit claims to the biological purity of camps and eugenics because of the adaptability of sovereign power. This “tactical polyvalence” is reflected in how language can adjust to further reproduce static relations of force in a society. Language can create areas of tolerance and complicity for what, if unmasked, would indisputably be intolerable, like individuals killed by the state or disallowed from life (Foucault 1978: 101). Static, brute relations of power can only exist if they are covered this way. For example, state actors or representatives may emphasize “fundamental cultural differences,” or say “their culture is incompatible with ours,” or that they are migrants coming from “evil” places.
Giorgio Agamben defined modernity as a stage when bare life becomes central to political strategies, but noted an idiosyncrasy to contesting the sovereign right over life. Struggles done in the name of principles of freedom, human rights, and so on, along with other core precepts of liberal governmentality in the end further reproduce the sovereign power over life. In growing the liberal practice of government one is further buried underneath its power. This is why our solicitation of state apparatuses, the rule of law, and liberal governance will only feed the oppressive power of the sovereign state by virtue of its inflexible relations of power. White supremacy, racialized domination, and border violence will only end if we fundamentally rethink power and national sovereignty. If the goal is to challenge not only the American, but the global legacy of colonialism, slavery, land theft, anti-migrant violence, occupation, mass incarceration and racial disparity in the prison system, then it requires us to reconsider how we do politics in the first place. The viral images of patriotic veterans who support freedom of speech against white supremacy further obscures the logic of land, bodies, sovereign power and legitimized violence. Almost as if by design, it sanitizes the structural inequality within a nation and those inequalities mapped on the globe.
The best method we have to interrogate the rationale of sovereignty and territory is unearthing real historical contents and consequences of this type of political practice on people. The aggressive and unprecedented prosecution of leakers and whistleblowers shows us the effectiveness of unmasking the very real effects and of geopolitics, militarism, and imperialism. Their actions reveal the truly violent cost, the tragic loss of life, precisely because state actors behave a certain way. The rationale of the sovereign state and its material implications on bodies exist to reproduce inequalities plotted onto racial and class categories. We should use this chance to think through and past this impasse, open a dialogue to challenge the solidarity between racialized oppression within a nation’s borders and how sovereign states necessarily implicate race on the globe.
It unnerves me to live in a world which makes possible the assertion, “I’m not racist, I’m patriotic.” The two are mutually incommensurable. It isn’t a matter of co-opting an antiracist movement, but intentionally obscures the contradictions therein. Until we move beyond the model of sovereign states and patriotism, or its embellishment on efforts to destabilize injustice, we can never escape geopolitical racism. There is a serious conceptual tension between endorsing protests of the national anthem while remaining patriotic. Most crucially, today isn’t a day to opportunistically posture against President Trump. Today is our chance to contest white supremacy and the racialized brutality of sovereign states. Both white supremacy and race based violence, however unintentional, are products of statist rationality – we need only look to the backdrop of history and how sovereign power has inherited and continues to use violence today.
Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality: Volume 1. Pantheon Books.
Foucault, M. (2003). “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975 – 76. Picador.
Lemke, T. (2011). Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. New York University Press.
Weber, M. (2004). Politics as Vocation. In The Vocation Lectures. Hackett Publishing Company