In April last year the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) clashed with the army in Khartoum, beginning a civil war that has plunged Sudan into humanitarian crisis. Over ten million people have been displaced, and almost half the country faces acute hunger. For the warring parties, catastrophe has proved profitable: both have seized humanitarian assets, taxed aid convoys, and looted the civilian population. Once an ethnically organized militia beholden to Omar al-Bashir, the dictator who ruled the country between 1989 and 2019, the RSF has begun to grow into a transnational economic empire; it already has a gold mining business offshored in the United Arab Emirates and forces that have deployed in Libya and Yemen. Eager to complete this transformation, the group is now intent on capturing the state that created it.

Militias are often taken as a sign of weak or absent government, the result of renegade actors operating in the wake of state collapse. Such a narrative could be told through a roll call of fallen dictators—from Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia through to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya—whose removal seemed to result in the death of the state and the emergence of militias that pick over its carcass. But these lapsarian lessons about the evils that befall a society after state collapse occlude more than they reveal. The reality is that many militias active around the globe today were created by states. In the aftermath of the economic crises of the 1980s, governments wracked by debt found militias an efficient way of managing restive populations.

Sudan’s story is exemplary. When Bashir came to power in a coup, he faced International Monetary Fund (IMF)–imposed austerity and an expensive civil war in the south of the country. His solution to both problems was to invent a durable form of rule by militia. Bashir privatized much of the state, selling it off on the cheap to his cronies in the security organs, while withdrawing services from the country’s peripheries. He also privatized the civil war, outsourcing most of the actual fighting to ethnically organized militias. These forces secured control of Sudan’s oilfields, while enriching themselves through looting and extortion. Bashir’s mode of entrepreneurial predation was a grim analogue to the well-documented neoliberal privatizations that prevailed in the Global North in the 1990s and led to the violent policing of populations abandoned by the state.

Far from preventing the state from functioning effectively, militias have proved essential to its existence.

Today, the RSF’s attempted takeover of Sudan is just one example of a series of recent militia campaigns that have contested state power across the globe. Just like the states they have attempted to overthrow, contemporary militias operate at the interstices of global supply chains, controlling resource flows—gold in Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), and oil in Libya—and exploiting the populations under their control. Yet even if these militias have challenged the state, this should not blind us to the fact that they have also enabled state power.

These arrangements are at odds with the normative assumptions of liberal peacemaking, which undergird cookie-cutter, UN-backed Security Sector Reform (SSR) processes in every postwar settlement in the Global South. The central tenet of SSR is that a state should have a single unified army and a monopoly of violence within its territory. Its motto might as well be: where the militias are, the state is not. That assumption has been proven false, time and again. In South Sudan, for example—now five years into an SSR process that began in the aftermath of civil war—the state has ruled by multiplying militias. Far from preventing the state from functioning effectively, militias have proved essential to its continued existence.

Indeed today’s militias, simultaneously state-supported armies and private economic actors, are the substantive political force organizing much of our world, even if the international system still insists that the nation-state is its operative political unit. These militias are not aberrations, nor are they atavistic forms of social organization. They flourish because of the way that nation-states are inserted into the contemporary global economy.

In 1919 Max Weber could confidently assert that the state is the community “that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Even as a normative claim—to say nothing of political reality—this was a relatively new idea. For much of European history, militias and other nonstate military actors played a part in state policy. Feudal military mobilization, for example, largely relied on assembling coalitions of aristocratic houses and their levies. When this system broke down, it was replaced by a marketplace for mercenaries in which access to force depended on capital reserves. By the eighteenth century, half the Prussian army was comprised of hired troops, and all the European states except Switzerland relied on foreign fighters. These mercenaries were sometimes drawn from private armies. Just as often, European rulers would hire out their own forces to other sovereigns.

Privatized violence allowed the state to act with relative impunity. In times of conflict, privateers were licensed to attack the state’s enemies, though they could be disavowed if they caused their patrons problems. The Elizabethan Sea Dogs spent the second half of the seventeenth century razing and extorting Spanish colonial cities, netting their backers in London, including the Queen, a handsome profit. When one of the most famous Sea Dogs, Walter Raleigh, attacked one colonial settlement too many, he was executed to appease the Spanish ambassador.

Prior to the nineteenth century, private violence did not oppose state violence, but was all too often a means of its expression. Behind the bandits, to paraphrase French historian Fernand Braudel, stood the lords who bankrolled them. Privateers and mercenaries were only two types of nonstate armed actors that could be found in Europe. One could also mention mercantile firms (the British and Dutch East India companies among others), bandits, religious groupings, and almost constant rebellions against the violent extractive power of the state.

The state itself was just one of many forms of military power that vied with each other, none of them necessarily more legitimate than any other. If the state won, it was because, as Charles Tilly puts it in his famous article on state- and war-making, “small groups of power-hungry men fought off numerous rivals and great popular resistance in the pursuit of their own ends, and inadvertently promoted the formation of national states.” In this telling, Weber’s legitimation of state violence was the winner’s prize bestowed on the most distinguished group of bandits. The state became the form that seized the mode of predation.

Other groups were to be eliminated. By the nineteenth century, states were creating mass conscription armies, privateers were banned following the Paris Declaration in 1856, and neutrality laws prevented many countries’ citizens from fighting in foreign forces. Writing in the aftermath of World War II, the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt could look back with nostalgia to the establishment of the jus publicum Europeaum: an interstate European order that, he claimed, bracketed warfare by making it the prerogative of states and thus curbed the brutality of the religious and factional wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such a European order, Schmitt realized, was only thinkable in relation to what he termed the “vast free spaces” of the rest of the globe, which would become the stage for displaced European antagonisms and land and resource appropriation. European banditry had moved house.

One of its new homes would be in Africa. During the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, in many of the places where militias now flourish, the state tended to be a weak colonial occupying power, reliant on setting extant local forces against each other and intent on seizing what it could from the populations it tried to control.

In what became South Sudan, the history of the state is the story of the region’s violent inclusion within the global marketplace. Since the nineteenth century, the territory has experienced a series of incursions by foreign powers. Slavers, financed by Khartoum, were followed by a Turco-Egyptian occupation and then a British colonial administration that began in 1899 and lasted until Sudan’s independence in 1956. The details of these occupations differed, but certain elements remained constant. Seen from southern Sudan, the state was an emissary from elsewhere, and like the humanitarian agencies that now work in the region, it was answerable to the priorities of distant capitals, not to the southern Sudanese people. Colonial government was little interested in developing the region. Instead, successive regimes armed militia forces from among the area’s many ethnic groups, setting them against each other, while using patrols to capture conscripts and force the payment of tithes (a tactic used by Sudanese slavers and British colonial officers alike). Local leaders instrumentalized the colonial regime, using its guns and resources to defeat competitors and punish resistant populations. It paid to be on the right side of the biggest bandit in the region.

The state’s monopoly of violence was only a brief period in European history.

Colonial violence often followed the paths created by the needs of international commerce. As Peer Schouten has shown, a surge in European demand for ivory in the nineteenth century led to the creation of long-distance trade routes in Central Africa. Caravans taking ivory and other resources required security, which necessitated the payment of protection fees. Entire communities would uproot themselves to be better positioned at crucial nodes of this transport system, and an elite emerged, perched along the ivory routes. The entrance of colonial capital did not just empower some communities at the expense of others (who were attacked, controlled, or displaced), but fundamentally changed the exercise of political power, which became orientated around a hongo (transit tithe) economy. Rather than being constituted by internal community dynamics, political power was to be found in harnessing and exploiting external forces. Schouten sees this as a process of “extraversion,” a term coined by French political scientist Jean-François Bayart to conceptualize how African elites, rather than being dominated by the continent’s subsidiary position within the global economy, came to actively participate in it, reimagining their subsidiary position for their own ends.

In parts of Central Africa, the hongo economy came to a close in the late nineteenth century due to the creation of large infrastructural projects—including railways—that saw the colonial powers seize control of transport routes. Nevertheless, the ambitions of the colonial state were always quite limited. In a Dutch cartoon of Leopold II from the period, the founder and sole operator of the Congo Free State is depicted as a roadblock operator, and the colonial state appears to be running a protection racket, taxing trade and exploiting civilians much like a contemporary militia.

In what was to become the CAR, the French state ruled indirectly by empowering militia leaders, who used the colonialists’ weapons to enslave and tax the populations under their control. As Louisa Lombard suggests, the colonial state, like the militia leaders it empowered, was more interested in extracting value from the circulation of people and things than it was in establishing a delimited territory and maintaining a monopoly of violence.

These colonial histories are not comprehensive but indicative. They suggest that far from being an exception to an unbroken history of Weberian statecraft, militias form part of a longue durée in which states often outsourced fighting to local militias that both instrumentalized and resisted foreign incursions. Many of the places where one today finds rule by militia are marked by such histories. Perhaps, these histories further suggest, the state’s monopoly of violence was only a brief period in European history—one with specific geopolitical coordinates that are now coming apart.

One key characteristic of contemporary militias is that though they are often backed by the state, their legitimacy is almost always derived locally. The origins of Sudan’s RSF can be traced to the Janjaweed (a portmanteau word in Sudanese Arabic that roughly means “devil horsemen”) militias of Darfur. During the 1990s, there was intermittent conflict between largely sedentary agrarian non-Arab populations and transhumant pastoralist Arab groups, many of which had fled drought in Chad during the 1980s. In 2003 these low-intensity clashes were transformed by the beginning of Darfur’s rebellion, after non-Arab groups rose up to protest their marginalization at the hands of Bashir’s government.

Khartoum gave the Arab pastoralists political and military support, creating the Janjaweed militias. In so doing, Bashir transposed a political struggle onto an ethnic distinction as a means of fighting a counterinsurgency on the cheap. Bashir’s control of the Janjaweed was never absolute. While they waged his war, killing civilians, looting livestock, and displacing some two million Darfuris, they did so for their own ends, occupying non-Arab land and assassinating their political opponents. By 2013 discontent was growing amongst the Janjaweed, who demanded development projects—schools and hospitals—from the central government, much like their erstwhile enemies in the Darfuri rebel groups. Bashir responded by marginalizing or imprisoning key Janjaweed leaders and promoting Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, nicknamed Hemedti, a young camel trader turned militia leader, to run a formalized version of the Janjaweed, the RSF, whose initial six thousand members were largely drawn from Hemedti’s own Mahariya branch of the Rizeigat Arabs and whose leadership was composed of his family members.

In South Sudan, the militias used by the government also have local sources of legitimacy. After a 2005 peace agreement brought an end to Sudan’s twenty-two-year-long civil war, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which had fought against Khartoum and was poised to take over a southern regional government, faced a problem. The biggest fighting force in southern Sudan was not the SPLA (then the SPLM’s military wing) but the largely Nuer—the region’s second largest ethnic group—militias that Khartoum had used to control the oilfields. Salva Kiir, the head of the SPLM, feared that Bashir would use these militias to disrupt a referendum on southern independence scheduled for 2011. So in 2006, newly flush with oil revenues flowing into the southern regional government, Kiir bought off the militias, offering them positions within a national army. This integration was formal rather than substantive, with the militias remaining answerable to their own leaders. Many SPLM commanders feared these newly integrated forces. Losing trust in the army, they instead began to build up monoethnic militias in areas inhabited by the Dinka, southern Sudan’s largest ethnic group, and that to which Kiir belongs. These militias were drawn from the gelweng, the pastoralist cattle guards that protect the Dinka’s prized livestock.

The SPLM had already attempted to transform the gelweng into auxiliary troops during the Sudanese civil war. After the signing of the 2005 agreement, this process intensified. Guns flowed into communities, and everyday life became militarized. Politicians encouraged their constituencies to think of politics in explicitly communitarian terms, with government positions treated as sinecures to be fought over. Soon southern Sudan’s fighting forces were almost entirely organized along ethnic lines, as other groups mirrored the SPLM’s arming of the gelweng. When South Sudan’s own civil war broke out in 2013, it initially pitted the Nuer forces that had been absorbed into the SPLA against the Dinka ethnic militias the SPLM had raised, but soon became a broader ethnic conflagration. The civil war ended in 2018 with the signing of a peace agreement—but it did not change the nature of military organization in the country.

The U.S.-led reform process cemented rule by militia inside the structure of the state.

The agreement had as its central plank an SSR process designed to bring the belligerent parties together and forge a single national army. Yet after the agreement was signed, the opposite happened: the number of militias multiplied. Kiir, by then South Sudan’s president, followed Bashir’s playbook and outsourced the country’s fighting capacity to local militia groups with more legitimacy on the ground than a regime in Juba concerned only with distributing oil revenues to a narrow coterie of elites. Such militias also offer Kiir deniability: he can claim to be adhering to the terms of the peace agreement because the government can disavow the very militia campaigns it bankrolls, chalking them up to intercommunal fighting.

At the same time, the government is all too willing to be an enthusiastic participant in the theater of SSR, which it turns into a political tool. The government supports the garrisoning of opposition soldiers in cantonment sites, but rather than paying them wages and providing them with food, it starves them while they await an integration into the national army that will never arrive. Their commanders then prove easy pickings for Kiir’s regime, which uses its petrodollars to pay them to defect and form new militia forces, further dividing the opposition. The state multiplies militias as a means of maintaining control in the center by fracturing the peripheries of the country.

Throughout the Horn of Africa, the Weberian dreams of SSR processes have run up against the reality of rule by militia and been chastened. In Somalia, Siad Barre presided over what Alex de Waal has called a “rentier kleptocracy,” a government dependent on distributing external flows—foreign military assistance and concessionary loans—to army commanders and militia leaders who established their own provincial fiefdoms. A system of violent armed actors supported by the state—in other words, a militia system—already existed before Barre was overthrown in 1991. The collapse of his regime simply revealed the lineaments of the system more clearly.

Today, despite having received over a billion dollars of international financial assistance and training, the national army is ill equipped and poorly motivated. Officially, it numbers some twenty-seven thousand troops, but just as in Sudan and South Sudan, a good number of these soldiers are ghosts—invented so their all-too-real commanding officers can draw spectral salaries.

If one were to only read SSR documents, one might think the Somali army is a national, unified force. The UN Development Programme, for instance, claims that “Somali federal security institutions have increased professional capacity to exercise political and civilian oversight, deliver security services and coordinate the federal approach to security in accordance with their mandates and in compliance with human rights standards.” Underneath the verbiage, the Somali army is a collection of militias playing masquerade. The army almost totally collapsed in 2009 during conflict with al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group that vies for control of the country with the weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu, which is propped up by peacekeepers and the international community. After the army’s near collapse, the TFG tried to resuscitate it by carrying out a recruitment drive organized by clan in an attempt to incorporate militias within the army. In clashes with al-Shabaab, the army’s only effective fighting forces are militias loyal to local leaders.

Faced with the failure of the SSR process in Somalia, the TFG’s international backers—including the United States, Kenya, and Ethiopia, all of which have military forces inside the country—are discussing direct financial support for militia groups, abandoning their decadeslong state-building project. The project, predicated on external backing and counterterrorism funds from foreign powers, has little to show for the billions that have been spent: its main product is a cartel-government constituted by rivalrous politicians competing for payouts from international donors. Somalia is, in effect, a theater-state, staged for the benefit of the international community, which depends on buying the loyalty of militia commanders for its continued survival.

Iraq’s state has better internalized the logic of rule by militia, but only by becoming entirely dominated by it. Thanks to a UN sanctions program (1990–2003), Iraq saw an 87 percent drop in per capita income from 1989 to 1996 that led to the breaking up of state institutions. Hussein—just like Bashir—coup-proofed his regime by multiplying the security services and by placing power in informal networks and militia forces like Jaysh al-Quds and Fedayeen Saddam. The U.S. invasion in 2003 only supercharged a process already well underway.

Since the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003, formal state forces, to the extent they exist, have been intertwined with militias, organized by locality, religious affiliation, or ethnic identity. Despite their claims to be building an Iraqi state through an SSR process, and $25 billion spent training and supplying a new Iraqi national army, the U.S. occupying force enabled militia governance, empowering Sunni Sahwa groups during the famous “surge” that had been fighting the United States only a year earlier. As power in Iraq fragmented following the invasion, the United States tried to play the militias off against each other; but just as often, it was being played, with militia forces obtaining materiel and resources on the occupier’s dime.

Today, Iraq’s security forces are a complicated mixture of armed groups, many of them officially integrated within the government but substantively independent of any meaningful overall authority. As in Somalia, the formalization of the militias within the security forces has laid bare the fiction of a unified government. In its place stands a series of constituencies, political leaders, and military forces, embedded in the formal structures of the state but not beholden to it. One cannot say that the wide variety of armed actors that make up Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)—including the Iranian-backed fasa’il forces—are separate from the state. Instead, they are a constituent part of it: the formalization of these forces as the PMU gave them access to state funds and patronage. Rather than being a step to creating a national army, the U.S.-led SSR process cemented rule by militia inside the structure of the state.

Though militias in places like Iraq and Somalia are now part of the state security apparatus, their members are not simply salaried employees but political-economic actors in their own right. The second key characteristic of the contemporary militia is thus that it exists—much like the mercantile companies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe—as a military force, political organ, and business all at the same time. After its founding in 2013, Hemedti rapidly turned the Sudan’s RSF into a multinational firm, following the path taken by Bashir’s other security organs; the Sudanese army and the national security service are as much economic empires as fighting forces. Their control of real estate, banking, and commercial services ensures their autonomy from the state.

The relationship between militias and resource extraction is more complicated than a story of nefarious warlords selling “blood diamonds.”

Gold enabled the RSF’s transformation. Following South Sudan’s independence in 2011, Sudan lost 75 percent of its oil revenue, as the fields that the Nuer militias had protected all lay in the south. Without petrodollars to grease its wheels, Bashir feared, the patronage system he relied upon to purchase political loyalty would seize up. He urgently tried to reorientate the Sudanese economy, and, from 2011 to 2014, the country experienced a gold rush. While Bashir’s government had initially envisioned gold mining as an efficiently organized enclave industry, a lack of state capacity instead led to widespread artisanal mining (the term lends a misleading sense of artistry to dangerous forms of extraction). Unlike oil production, artisanal gold mining tends to require a large security force to discipline labor and guard mines. The RSF was just such a force. In 2017 Hemedti took control of the Jebel Amer mine and established a series of holding companies to send the gold to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These firms enabled him to make a fortune by controlling the purchase and export of gold, outside the ambit of the state. The opacity of the RSF’s business operations mirror those of global commodity trading more broadly; the gold from Darfur disappears into an international system that, even if it is often interested in tracing finished goods, is deeply uninterested in making visible the violent labor relations that make global trade possible.

Contemporary militia violence is bound up with new forms of commodity production and new global relations of inequality, and it is often centered on contentions over the circulation of goods. In January last year, clashes between government forces and opposition militias affiliated to the Union for Peace (UPC) in CAR focused on two key nodes: the Béloko customs post, on the way to Cameroon, and the Vakaga prefecture, where UPC forces had once taxed artisanal miners. In the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), conflict between a Rwanda-backed collection of militias, the M23, and the Congolese army (which outsources fighting to militias and private security companies), allows an emergent class of commanders and politicians to profit from the militarization of capital accumulation thanks to taxes at checkpoints and diversions of humanitarian aid.

Yet despite the imaginations of some American NGOs, clashes between militias over sites of resource extraction and nodes in global transport systems do not mean that rule by militia can simply be reduced to a tale of greedy Africans terrorizing local populations and battling for resources. The relationship between the rise of the militias and resource extraction is more complicated than a story of nefarious warlords selling “blood diamonds.” Such a narrative appeals to those who hope for conflict-free, guilt-free diamonds for Western consumers, but it leaves intact Central Africa’s subsidiary position in the global economy as a mere provider of raw materials. It also occludes the role of global commodity markets, which have obscurity built into them, in enabling militia economies. A U.S. Government Accountability Office review of conflict minerals (which include tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold) from 2022 determined that half the companies surveyed couldn’t determine where the minerals they used came from, at all.

The militia economy, furthermore, does not simply—or even primarily—happen at the point of extraction. It grasps hold not of the mode of production but of nodes in global supply chains. Schouten’s analysis of the collapse of the infrastructural state in what is now DRC is a good example of how militia economies function. After Mobutu Sese Seko came to power in a coup in 1965, he used high copper prices to expand social services while embarking on nation-building exercises. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, DRC (then Zaire) experienced an enormous economic contraction brought about by a collapse in global commodity prices, state withdrawal from the maintenance of transport routes, and a ruling class that consolidated itself through international loans, the acquisition of mineral rights, and the appropriation of state assets. Massive capital flight ensued—with the acquiescence of international financial institutions.

In response, Mobutu changed course and liberalized mining, speeding up the growth of the artisanal mining sector, which was flooded with young people without the prospect of gainful employment elsewhere. Mobutu also multiplied his security services in an effort to coup-proof his regime, while fragmenting the country along ethnic lines. This fragmentation continued into the 1980s, as the country struggled under an IMF structural adjustment program. Meanwhile the number of roadblocks drastically increased, as impoverished state officials, militia leaders, and communities all intensified forms of predatory activity, taxing the movement of people and goods in the absence of other means of getting by. Checkpoints sprung up along the pathways of international commerce, with coltan and diamonds replacing the ivory of the nineteenth century.

Along these deregulated supply chains emerge new possibilities for militias. In the DRC, some militias have run lucrative schemes looting minerals. Others have even briefly established mining companies of their own, issuing paperwork with all the weight of the state. Yet these groups are outliers. The militias’ economic model is centrally based on the control of circulation, not of productive capacity: like the colonialists of old, they have seized the mode of predation. The Rwanda-backed M23 makes its money not in mining but at checkpoints; the former genocidaires of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) branched into businesses both legal and illegal after they fled to the DRC.

For all their differences, the places in which rule by militia has taken hold tend to have remarkably similar class structures. In all the countries surveyed here, a rentier elite calls the shots. This elite has external sources of income: the taxing of resources (oil, gold, coltan) heading to global commodity markets, inflows from international institutions (such as humanitarian aid), and investments from foreign powers (for counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and policing). Such elites depend not on popular legitimacy but on international support. In South Sudan, DRC, and Somalia, among other countries, there is no developmental state. There is rather a theater-state, formally required by the international system, but fundamentally uninterested in providing services and accountability to the population it controls. Instead, the state proves a source of lucrative contracts with external actors, which enable embezzlement by the elite. Rule by militia empowers this fractious elite to sit atop fragmented nation-states, setting local and ethnic groups against each other while profiting from international largesse.

A different mode of predation prevails below. The implosion of the DRC, Sudan, and other countries has created an enormous class of surplus young women and men unable to find a productive place within moribund economies. Decades of war in these countries have produced their own dynamic: widespread dispossession, the destruction of agriculture, and an enormous wealth transfer to the rentier elite that has made peasant and pastoralist forms of life untenable just as more and more young people have come of age. For my friends in South Sudan, if they are not lucky enough to find a job with a humanitarian agency, joining a militia is one of the few life paths open to them. A viable existence might be possible, at least for a while, by taking up work at a checkpoint, taxing, looting, and raiding civilian populations. Often in South Sudan, young men will join local defense forces that rebel against the rentier class that displaces their communities and loots their villages, but these forces’ subsidiary positions in the country’s political economy means that they can easily be instrumentalized by the very same elite and set against other communities.

The theater of state-building has run its course.

This surplus of young people is the third key ingredient in the rise of the contemporary militia. As one can observe in the DRC, the militarization of everyday life has generalized the militia form. Either as a defensive gesture or to acquire scarce resources, communities now set up their own roadblocks to tax trade. Everyone becomes a militia member.

External powers can easily intervene in such fragmented environments. In Somalia militias are backed by the UAE and Qatar; in Libya by Turkey, Qatar, Russia, and France, among others; and in Sudan by the UAE, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. But rule by militia is a law for only part of the world. Within the nation-state system, as Amitav Ghosh once suggested, there are increasingly two classes of country. In one class, borders are believed in, the state promises to offer at least a vestige of security, and governments have the capacity to act relatively autonomously from the ethnic and economic forces that constitute them. In the other class of country, the state is a fiction insisted upon by the international community. State-building efforts in these countries have only led to more power being vested in rentier elites, dependent on resources from elsewhere, who have fractured the nations over which they rule.

Recent militia attempts to overturn this order and take power for themselves reveal its emptiness. The Sudanese army wants to portray the RSF as a group of mercenaries intent on looting the state and amassing wealth. But such routinized looting is simply the actuality of the Sudanese state since the 1980s. Rule by militia is the logical consequence of the theater-states that have been propped up by the international community over the last thirty years. In Libya, there is an emergent new order after a decade of civil war: a set of rivalrous militias, backed by different international actors, that have decided it is more profitable to share the spoils of the state than to fight another civil war. Rather than simply appointing politicians to positions while ruling from the shadows, they are now taking an active role in determining the affairs of the state.

In Sudan, as elsewhere, it is sometimes tempting to paint these militias in a heroic light—to see them as the only forces that are attempting to resist the rentier elite despoiling the country. Yet the RSF has no plan for governance in Sudan. Its political strategy is simply the mirror image of its former patrons in the security services: it wishes to be the rentier elite, not transform the system.

Rule by militia has not emerged due to the failures of the Iraqi or Sudanese people. Quite the contrary: it is the international economic order and the fiction of the nation-state system that is propping up the rentier elite, enabling militias’ seizing of power, and cementing the emergence of two classes of nation-state.

Changing this dynamic is not easy. What is certain is that the liberal dream of a Weberian state will offer no solutions; the theater of state-building has clearly run its course. Any alternative would need to attend to the supply chains and international commodity markets that enable rule by militia. If international actors were actually interested in more democratic forms of governance in places like Sudan, they would address themselves to the growing debt crisis that threatens to further cripple capacity in the Global South. Rather than propping up fictional governments, the international community could focus on the real motor of militia membership: a growing surplus of young women and men thrown off by the global economy which cannot be absorbed by the countries they live in unless massive economic transformations take place at a planetary scale.

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