The Cannibal War Machine

This is the text of a presentation given to the Conference – Sacred Empowerment – University of Leeds, June 2011…with special thanks to Lori Shelbourn.

The modernity of witchcraft and the intertwining of divine or sacred forms with the exercise of political power are topics recently much discussed by anthropologists.

So too envisioning violence as means of cultural expression, not simply the absence of or destruction of meaning, has been central to anthropological approaches to ethnographic locales increasingly consumed by wars, especially in South America and Africa.

It is timely then to turn this anthropological lens towards the Euro-American West, itself involved in a long series of colonial and now global wars, in order to ask how the Sacred Empowerment of free market liberal democracy and its global projection is established through violence, a process no less evident here in Leeds.

Such issues are being raised by historians of the World Wars and by anthropologists looking at memorialization and monuments as well as archaeologists who now characterize the super-modern 20th century as one of increasing devastation of both humans and things leading to the proliferation of archaeological sites, such as battlefields, industrial ruins, mass graves, and concentration camps.

A critical anthropology then is not just telling alternative stories but also unveiling what the supermodern Cannibal War-Machine does not want to be shown.

So the suggestion here will be that there is a deep historical and systemic relationship between the modern free-market, liberal democratic world order and the prosecution of war and other forms of military and police violence.

At the same time the progressive evacuation in the 20th century of the nation-state as a means of class domination and the advent of a nomadic pirate class of financial capital, means that the practice of endemic global war has become be indifferent to national territory and so functionally infinite in its horizons for future conflict.

Modernity & Violence

The mark of the modern is violence. Violence, in both material and immaterial forms has become a vital sign of the truth and authenticity of cultural and social meaning. Increasingly it seems that all socially significant meaning can only be produced through the agon of war.

Wars on drugs, terror, disease, cancer, Aids, poverty, crime, homelessness constitute the ideological backdrop to more localized battles for justice, truth, accountability, human rights and so on and on?

While the idea of “war” in such usages is partly metaphor, this should not be allowed to obscure the centrality of the idea of adversarial contest and victory to the shaping of our cultural and social priorities and goals.

One consequence of the Renaissance revival of the thought of the Classical world, and its subsequent codification as Enlightenment, was precisely to create a cultural epistemology rooted in agonistic relations with the world

The ancient Greeks routinely tortured slaves to extract evidence for legal trials. They considered truth obtained from slaves by torture to be more reliable than the freely-given testimony of free men.

Perhaps then our idea of both scientific and spiritual truth, the truth of the philosophical tradition founded by the ancient Greeks, is caught up in the agonistic logic of torture, in which truth is conceived of as residing elsewhere, requiring violence and suffering as necessary for its production.


The tortured animal subjects of neuro-scientific experiments, the suffering of the unemployed, the displaced, the impoverished are all an acceptable price for progress towards modernity, they are unavoidable casualties in our wars for freedom, democracy and prosperity, the spiritual mimesis of which is of course the tortured Christ

Moreover our assumption that there is a linear progress in this death-march towards the modern also closes off alternative histories, so that our recollection of the past becomes merely a curiosity that allows us to marvel at our progress from those savage origins.

The savages then become exemplars of not just ignorance but also illegitimate violence, violence which does not stem not from Reason and a desire for Progress, but violence that is atavistic, primitive and animalistic.

Certainly the practice of violence has always been part of human history but, as those key Moderns – Shakespeare and Hobbes ? both understood, there came a moment somewhere in the 16th century when we collectively cried “Havoc!…and let slip the dogs of War.”

Anthropologists would argue not that violence was somehow absent or lesser until this point but rather that the purposes and meanings of the social relationships of war and violence were secondary to other kinds of supervening social relationships and practices.

Ritual and ceremony, kinship and the forms of social exchange, technologies and logistics all tended to inhibit the orbit of large-scale warfare as a habitual and persistent form of social relationship

Certainly mighty states and empires were capable of laying waste to local populations but the Greek war-machine of Alexander, the Roman war-machine under various Emperors, or the conquests of the Assyrians and Mongols, were always episodic in character

By contrast, the transcontinental colonialism of Europe in America, Africa, Australia and Asia relied on war as a continuous means to inaugurate social relationships with previously unknown populations ?

As the conquistador of Orinoco, Fernando de Berrio, wrote to the Spanish King in 1590 ? “?the natives flee on our arrival and will not come and trade with us, so I shall make war upon them and by these means draw them more closely to us?.”

More widely, the project of modernity was also enabled by the possibility that war itself could become fabulously profitable and in so doing also made State-sponsored warfare a means for the Sacred Empowerment of the colonial and eventually global social order.

Rene Girard was quite right to emphasize that violence and the sacred are intimately connected but this is not only as the intermittent refreshment of the status quo through scapegoating that Girard was principally interested in,

Violence also links to the sacred as a systematic and historically evolved means for the accumulation of power and wealth through war and violence, for which the sacrifice of bodies and lives is necessary.

As a result the divinity of kings gave way to the divine status of the capitalist market whose occult and hidden hand came to rule in place of the noble, but impoverished, lineages.

Capital accumulation became not only moral but true since wealth is represented as the result of a victorious engagement in the agon of entrepreneurial competition. Might is right, greed is good and the cannibal war-machine perfectly unites those values.

The cannibal war-machine thus consumes persons and ecologies through forms of commodity production and price speculation that profit from the systematic creation of social chaos and its re-ordering through the violence and destruction of high-tech military performance and the enforced disciplines of emergency or pandemic management and homeland security.

The war machine image here invokes an unnatural force, made by humans but beyond their control and intimately tied to the profits of economic and financial production.

But the cannibal war-machine is not a new phenomenon even if it is a quintessentially modern one ? it originates with the colonial creation of a New World in the Americas. ? a new world of unspeakable violence and vast profit, of merciless genocide and marvelous possessions.

In 1494 it was reported from Haiti that the natives

“? say that their king talked with the spirit Giocaugama, and that he prophesied that those who succeeded him would enjoy their rule for but a short time; because people wearing clothes would arrive, who would dominate and kill them, and that they will starve to death. At first, the natives thought that these people had to be the cannibals but they now believe that these people are actually the Admiral Columbus and the men that he brings.”

More recently the Dominican writes Junot Diaz pointed out that “..the Caribbean generally and the island of Hispaniola specifically is the linchpin, the pivot point where the Old world swung into the New world. If you want the transformation point, if you want the ground zero where the Old World died and the New World began, it’s there? the modern world was given rise by what began in the Caribbean”

The consequence of that arrival, for European and Amerindian alike, was the advent of a new world, a modernity whose ruins we still inhabit. Perhaps then, in all its poverty and urban decay, its prophetic reflection of those states of exception that haunt the contemporary imagination, Haiti is in fact the most modern country in the world.

For the Columbian discovery was indeed of a “new” world, but it was one in which we were the savages and they were the civilized, in which we were the cannibals and they the kings, just as had been prophesied.

In this light the aboriginal Ta?nos of Haiti were the very first “industrial reserve army”, as Marx termed it, the first appearance of killable bodies, in Agamben’s formulation, they were the first fuel for the wealth-generating cannibal war-machine.

Las Casas’ famous account of the “Destruction of the Indies” thus precisely registers the culture shock of not just an encounter with the exotic, but shock at a new world order that was rapidly emerging from the profits of plunder and extraction of gold, pearl diving and tobacco growing.

“The Spaniards, studying and learning nothing, assaulted the Indians like cruel and starving Tigers, Wolves and Lions, for the space of Forty Years after their first landing, inhumanely and barbarously they butchered and harassed the Indians with many kinds of Torments, never before known, or heard of ?”

The invention of these new and unimagined forms of violence is precisely the birth of the cannibal war-machine.

This cannibal war-machine thus accrued vast profits through the accumulation of natural resources, such as gold and silver, as well as later plantation commodities.

The high rates of profit for these commodities was exactly related to the unfettered consumption of persons as insurgents and slaves, as well as the ability to treat human landscapes as wilderness in which no one owned the “natural” resources ? war had become a mode of economic production.

Colonmial impunity from the customary consequences of war and violence allowed a lethal conjunction of military action, commodity speculation and social power to emerge at the very foundation of modernity.

As gold sources in the Caribbean declined so the Spanish war-machine created in the Caribbean moved onto the continent and dreams of ever more El Dorados meant that the orbit of the new-world war machine expanded rapidly.

Not surprisingly then the cannibal white-man, symbolizing the unceasing and rapacious progress of the war-machine, has become a stock figure in the non-Western imagination.

From the inception of New World, with Ta?no rock inscription or the Aztec Codex Borgia, we see the body-of devouring-mouths, right through to the present day and the Palale-undepo drawn by Caribs, or the cannibal white-man who was said to be the first to enter the Yawong in Guyana where I did extensive field work.

One might also reference here the organ stealing fat-sucking pishtaco of the Andes, as well as Karl Marx’s apt characterization of “vampiric” capital.

The violent consumption of others is also an overt part of European self-imagining.

The original illustration for Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, that manual for the workings of the cannibal war-machine, is represented likewise as a body-politic of violent, dominating, and sacred power, a body itself of composed of hungry desires.

If the cannibal war-machine of the colonial State was perfected in the New World, it also came home. Certainly the first stirrings pre-dated the New World as both the Crusades and The Hundred Years War of the 1337-1453 established new social and cultural codes for violence and war but it was the hundred years of endemic warfare across Europe, especially in Germany and France, from the mid-16th to mid 17th century ? which exactly referenced the modernist relationship between spirituality, violence and the State.

This Sacred Empowerment of European nation states through the sacrificial slaughter of their own citizens, thus signaled that the relations of production and destruction in the New World would also be played out in the Old.

And so the New World War-Machine was also a European Cannibal as first civil wars and ultimately world wars ensued. Surely, we ask ourselves, the millions killed in just the last century cannot have died in vain?

To which is answered that the meaning of their suffering and erasure is found in the relentless pursuit of the Modern project.

The poem Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori was written by Wilfred Owen in disgust at such a sentiment but it is today quite literally true again, following the redemptive wars on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest wars ever fought by the US military.

War-Machines – Nomads (Tribes), States and the NWO.

My use of the term “war-machine” certainly derives from Delueze and Guattari and they too were closely engaged with how the “nomads”, or “tribes” at the margins of the burgeoning state systems of Europe and it colonies, resisted State control.

This has also been the subject of extensive anthropological discussion over the last 20 years, as with my own volume, War in the Tribal Zone.

Delueze and Guattari write, “If the nomads formed the war machine, it was by inventing absolute speed, by being “synonymous” with speed.  And each time there is an operation against the State ? insubordination, rioting, guerrilla warfare, or revolution as act ? it can be said that a war machine has revived, that a new nomadic potential has appeared.”

But the war machine for Delueze and Guattari is not solely dedicated to the production of war. War is simply an occasional by-product of what the war machine is really about which is for Delueze and Guattari “exteriority to the State.”

Certainly Delueze and Guattari recognize that the State may appropriate the war-machine of the nomads and War in the Tribal Zone explicitly focuses on the mimetic and converging forms of violence in wars of colonial conquest and ordering.

However, in the 30 years since Delueze and Guattari first wrote of the war-machine, the State, understood as that cluster of power, wealth and privilege through which the elite enforces its market disciplines, has itself has become nomadic, exceptional, and marked by its absence.

In this way the contemporary cannibal war-machine directly reflects the globalized, digitized and immaterial forms and relations of power, that are controlled by a de-territorialized pirate class of nomadic off-shore capital.

This brutal nomadic formation is ultimately exterior to the nation-state even if the United States still has uses and so it is now the indigenous governments of Euro-America, as in Greece right now, which are being stripped down, outsourced and rendered incapable of stopping the cannibal war machine coming ashore to profitably consume both nation and national resources.

The cannibal war-machine no longer needs the State ? the nomadic war machine of the global financial elite ? the modern pirates of the global Caribbean ? need no territorial ties and so the structural adjustment of Europe and North America now follows that of the “Third World” in the 1980s.

Unleashing the cannibal war-machine thus reinvigorates capital accumulation through provoking incessant crises which fuel commodity speculation and the plunder of natural resources.

Local resistance is reframed as insurgency; local capital is reframed as criminality and local spirituality becomes superstition.

In this way we will all become part of Marx’s “disposable industrial reserve army”, with eroding economic resources, dwindling legal status, no enforceable human rights, we become merely “killable bodies” as Giorgio Agamben terms it.

The imagination and construction of these killable bodies is at the heart of the ideology of exception and are the fuel for the cannibal war-machine

Soldiers, policemen, security guards, firefighters no less than insurgents, terrorists, criminals, narco-traffickers and the urban unemployed are all disposable and killable from the perspective of the owners of the cannibal war-machine.

War becomes an infinite possibility for the enactment of an Infinite Justice,  in response to the infinite threats of terror and insurgency, criminality or civil disobedience ? at this point then the war machine truly eats its own?

In turn war itself ceases to be a clash of nation states and becomes the profligate consumption of high tech weaponry and resources in pursuit of  these intangible and mystical goals, goals which nonetheless are highly profitable ? after all  the US Army is the leading consumer of gasoline on the planet and BP holds one of the largest the supply contracts

The occult and mysterious – if not exactly mystical – goals of the contemporary war-machine reflect a form of spirituality in which ontological engagement with the immaterial Sacred has come to be supplanted by a cultural fetish centered on the auto-consumption of material Commodities

As we follow our own trail of tears to the Modern the older gods and even God himself has, as Bruno Latour put it, simply been crossed out.

In our tattered modern world the actions of national militaries have become nomadic and unpredictable, so that now the question is not “what is war” but WHEN is war?

Militaries world wide have quite literally adopted the notion of the “war-machine” and are consciously employing the nomadic tactics of swarming and chaos creation which become a means to assert, through violence, sporadic forms of murderous and destructive control

This ordering and disordering of social life through violence also invokes, and is a mimesis of, sorcery and witchcraft.

The occult and hidden nature of high-tech military weapons, such as drones, attack helicopters and black-ops, create a magical military violence.

Sacred empowerment comes not just through human sacrifice but through the sorcery of military killing – killing one’s enemies through secretive and hidden methods

Unseen high-altitude bombing or drone strikes, covert operations which shape-shift the identities of killers, and the ability to see in the darkness of night, are all a mimesis of the imaginative worlds and subjective experiences manifested in forms of witchcraft, magic, and assault sorcery

And this mystique is consciously promoted by military and police world-wide, entering a global cultural imaginary that ceaselessly replays the violent performances of both military and insurgent, police and criminal,

Such virtual experiences circulate incessantly through electronic media  whose consumption mesmerizes, stupefies and enchains individual subjectivities to The Cannibal War Machine.


The logic of the modern world order is thus necessarily violent and cannibalistic. Persons, places, and things are perpetually consumed through forms of commodity production and price speculation that profit from the systematic creation of social chaos and its re-ordering through the violence and destruction of high-tech military and police performance

At the same time, the cannibal war-machine spiritually redeems liberal democracy and financial profitability through the structural adjustment of nationality and locality to the discipline of democratic free-market conditions.

This is directly achieved through forms of economic and military violence that obliterate prior collectivity and political organization.

However, the profitability of this process is made occult through a Western liberal discourse of democratic transparency and terrorist conspiracy.

Rational, Infinite, Justice-seeking violence conjoined to the agonistic procedures of Science and Research, thus perversely promises pre-Apocalypse global redemption through faithful adherence to the cult of the Modern.

However, our colonial history of relentless immiseration of local communities for the last 500 years and a 20th century apotheosis of the Modern which killed millions, shows us that the Sacred Empowerment of the Modern is necessarily violent and so perpetually stimulates the Divine Hunger of The Cannibal War Machine.

Neil L. Whitehead is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology,
University of Wisconsin-Madison.