Kobani: What’s In A Name?

Kamran MatinA guest post from Kamran Matin. Kamran is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, where he teaches modern history of the Middle East and international theory. He is the author of Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change (Routledge, 2013), and recently of ‘Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner-Life of Eurocentrism’ in the European Journal of International Relations (2013). Kamran is also the incoming co-convenor of the BISA Historical Sociology Working Group, and a management committee member at Sussex’s Centre for Advanced International Theory. He is currently working on a paper on the origins of the current crisis in the Middle East, and a larger project on the international history of the Kurdish national liberation movement.


Kobani Fighters

The city of Kobani’s epic resistance against the genocidal assault of the Islamic State (IS) has entered its thirtieth day. So far the response of the western left has been generally one of solidarity. However, the left seems divided on the best way to support Kobani. Invoking anti-imperialist and anti-war principles a considerable part of the left has been shying away from demanding military and logistical support for the main defending force of the city, i.e. People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women Protection Unites (YPJ), the armed wings of Democratic Union Party (PYD), by the US led anti-IS coalition. Moreover, with some exceptions such as David Graeber, many western leftists have neglected the historical significance and transformative political potentials of the success of Kobani’s resistance.

In what follows I argue that pressuring western powers to provide arms and logistical support to YPG/YPJ is legitimate and justifiable, and that in the battle for Kobani the left has a unique opportunity to contribute to an important shift in the regional balance of power in favour of a radical democratic and egalitarian project with transformative ramifications for the entire Middle East.

Kobani, the Kurds, and the West

With regards to the discomfort of the left with the idea of western military support for YPG/YPJ the important preliminary point to be made is that the Kurds have repeatedly claimed that they do not want or need direct military intervention by either coalition forces or Turkey. They’ve repeatedly said that they only need anti-tank weapons, ammunition and the opening of a corridor for fighters, food and medicine to reach Kobani. This request has been echoed by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who warned of a repetition of the fate of Srebrenica in Kobani if such a humanitarian corridor is not established.

In its demand for a limited tactical western military support for YPG/YPJ the left by no means loses sight of the fact that at its root Islamic State is the fascistic faeces of western imperial metabolism, a direct product of the American conquest of Iraq, the deliberate manipulation of sectarian differences, and the destruction of the social fabric of Iraqi society. But surely, none of these should obviate the recognition of the vital significance of protecting an actually existing and functioning radical left experience at the heart of the Middle East from eradication, notwithstanding its unavoidable flaws and limitations.

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International Relations is Not an American Discipline (Well, Maybe It Is, A Little)

Helen TurtonA guest post on the state of the discipline by Helen Louise Turton. Helen is a University Teacher in International Relations and Security Studies at the University of Sheffield. She received her PhD from Exeter in 2013 for a dissertation on ‘The Sociology of a Diverse Discipline’, and next year Routledge will publish her International Relations and American Dominance: A Diverse Discipline. She also has work on marginality and hegemony in IR forthcoming in the Journal of International Relations and Development (with Lucas Freire) and is beginning a larger project on ‘Rereading European IR Theory’ (with Knud Erik Jørgensen and Felix Rösch). Helen is also the co-convenor of the BISA Working Group on IR as a Social Science. If you wish to join the working group please follow the link.


Gary Hilliard

It has been said on more than one occasion that International Relations is an American dominated discipline, or that the US IR community is hegemonic. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that the disciplinary image of IR being dominated by the US has become a disciplinary truism, with many academics reproducing this characterisation time and time again. The TRIP survey that has just been sent to academics in 33 different countries even poses the question “Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement: The discipline of international relations is an American dominated discipline” to ascertain the degree to which IR scholars around the globe feel dominated by the US. Furthermore, other empirical surveys of the discipline have sought to demonstrate the seeming continued disciplinary dominance of the American academy, pointing to the different ways in which the US is able to exercise its disciplinary hegemony.

In my new book International Relations and American Dominance I challenge the claim that IR is an American dominated discipline because the underlying question is itself deeply problematic. Asking whether IR is dominated by the US presupposes a yes or no answer. We are therefore presented with an either or option which overlooks the possibility that the discipline may be dominated by the US in some ways but not in others. This then leads us to unpack what it means to be dominant. When scholars claim that IR is an American dominated discipline we first need to assess how they understand disciplinary dynamics and relationships of dominance. Are dominance claims being made because it is perceived that American methods populate the discipline? Or do certain American theories dominate global IR? Perhaps the US is stated to be dominant because it is American IR scholars who are in positions of power? Maybe scholars have argued that IR is dominated by the US because there are more American IR scholars than those from other national IR communities? Or does the discipline subscribe to an American agenda and American understanding of what ‘international relations’ is?

The reality is that all these grounds have been used to state that the US IR community is hegemonic. Academics have implicitly drawn on different understandings of dominance and explicitly drawn attention to the different implications of US dominance, but often this is done without first clarifying what is meant or implied by American disciplinary dominance. Often scholars are speaking about one form of dominance on one page of a text, and then refer to a different understanding on another page. What this means is that the word dominance when in the context of claims stating ‘IR is an American dominated discipline’ or ‘IR is no longer an American enterprise’ is used in many different ways, taking on many different forms and measured in numerous modes despite the fact that it is presented as ‘one size fits all’ form of dominance. What this means is that although certain scholars may agree that the US is dominant they may be talking at cross-purposes about how and why America dominates. Whilst there may be agreement in one sense, there will be different answers to the crucial questions of how and why America allegedly became and remains disciplinarily dominant.

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The Wages of Sin

Scrooge McDuck

The Times Higher reports stockholder relief. The fears of investors in pre-eminent parasites Reed Elsevier – that profits would be undermined by the move to academic open access – have been dissipated. Normal business is more-or-less resumed, thanks to the rise of hybrid publication models in the UK. That is, the combination between pay-to-publish that makes journal articles immediately available to all on the one hand and repositories for drafts and embargoed versions which preserve library subscription income on the other. In 2011, says the report [1], it looked like the push for widespread and substantial open access (rather than the soft version we’ve ended up with) might undermine the kind of market dominance that produces operating profits of 32%. Indeed, they expected Elsevier’s profit margins to fall by over a fifth in the face of full open access. But by September this year share prices were outperforming expectations.

The analysts write revealingly about the threat: “political intervention both in Europe and the US would force a shift to full Open Access journals, with negative consequences on the economics of Elsevier”. Revealing, too, on the concessions made to corporate publishers and divergent national policies. Despite more than a decade of agitation, debate, and now government mandates, “the rise of Open Access appears to inflict little or no damage on leading subscription publishers” for reasons that are obvious enough, should we care to notice them. Embargo periods and other restrictions protect profits, and so subscription levels remain high. Moreover, this manifestation of openness “may in fact be adding to profits”, because double dipping people.

The new reality is that we have two mutually reinforcing business models. Publishers can now add those Article Processing Charges (APCs) – many of which will be funded by the public purse – to their already bountiful subscription income. Unsurprising, then, that the stock performance of Reed Elsevier and Wiley continues to a grow at a neat pace. The future risk – so far as there is one – comes not from a revolution in publishing, but from library funding shortfalls caused by potential trouble in the economy at large.

Elsevier Profits 2011-2014

Source: Berstein Research, ‘Reed Elsevier: Goodbye to Berlin’, 24 September 2014

So open access is growing “in theory” but not in substance, which is to say, not in a way that realigns academic publishing. Continue reading

Four Things the Left Should Learn from Kobane

The Kurdish town of Kobanê has recently become the centre of a geopolitical conflagration that may well change the course of Middle Eastern politics. After months of silence over the threat faced by Kurds from ISIS, the world is now finally watching, even if the ‘international community’ remains conspicuously quiet. However, many Western responses, be it from scholars, journos or activists, have somewhat predictably retracted into recycled critiques of US and UK imperialism, often at the expense of missing what is truly exceptional and noteworthy in recent developments. So, in the style of contemporary leftist listicles, here are four things we can and should learn from events in and around Kobanê.

1. It’s Time to Question the West’s Fixation on ISIS

If Barack Obama, David Cameron and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are to be believed, the ‘savagery’ of ‘fundamentalism’ is the primary focus of NATO involvement in Syria. Notably, many left critics have reproduced this very same fixation on ISIS when discussing Western interests. However, for an almighty imperialist organisation supposedly hell bent on stopping ‘Islamic extremism’, NATO have been curiously ineffective. In fact, the US has been indirectly responsible for arming ISIS and altogether incompetent and/or reluctant in arming the decidedly secular Kurdish resistance. US and UK air strikes have been fleeting, and at best symbolic, making little impact on the advance of ISIS. Moreover, Turkey has repeatedly turned a blind eye to ISIS’s use of its territories and borders for training activities and supply lines, respectively. More recently, as Kobanê teetered on the edge of conquest, Turkey insisted any military assistance was dependent on the Kurdish PYD abandoning self-determination and self-governing cantons, and agreeing to Turkish buffer zone in Kurdish controlled areas in Northern Syria (which amounts to little more than a colonial land grab). Now, considering the US and UK were keen to intervene long before ISIS was seen as a threat, and considering Turkey long-standing hostility to the PKK/PYD, we should be more demanding of any analysis of intervention that begins and ends with ISIS. In short, it is becoming increasingly clear that ISIS is little more than a pretext for NATO to pursue other geopolitical aims – namely removing Assad and destroying Kurdish autonomy.

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Clinton’s World

As part of the Canada 2020 conference, Hillary Clinton will be giving a lunch-time talk at the Ottawa Convention Center on Oct. 6. The subject of her speech is yet to be announced, but I imagine due attention to “Canada-U.S. relations in a changing world” will be given. I also imagine the event will be sold out despite high ticket prices (495 Canadian dollars per person + sales tax).  The main reason is that the former U.S. Secretary of State—former front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator, and former First Lady—is also the most likely person to succeed Barack Obama as POTUS (according to the American and British bookies at least).

By my count, this will be her fourth visit to Canada’s national capital region, and the first since 2010, when she swung by to attend important meetings in nearby Wakefield, Quebec. But where exactly is my city in Clinton’s world?

To answer this question, I turned to Hard Choices, her second memoir published earlier this year, and I read it through the lens of Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” a famous Manhattanite mappa mundi from the era when the Vietnam War was a fresh trauma and Jimmy Carter was making an unexpected splash in the Democratic presidential primaries.

steinbergnewyorker1976

 

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The Far-Right: Pathology of Capital

A guest post from Rick Saull, who is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He has written on a range of topics from the international relations of revolutions to the Cold War and the geopolitical consequences of the 2008 global economic crisis. More recently he has focused on the international political dimensions of the far-right, co-editing The Longue Durée of the Far-Right (Routledge, 2014) which has just been published, and on which this post draws. He can be contacted here.


The politics of the far-right are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Unlike its historical foe on the left – social democratic or otherwise – which has continued to be characterised by a combination of disintegration and disorientation as it continues to implement neoliberalism, the far-right persists through exercising a toxic but powerful influence on political debate across mature capitalist democracies (and beyond). How are we to make sense of the persistence of the far-right and explain its recent reinvigoration? What analytical framework offers the best, way of explaining the distinct trajectories of far-right currents of politics across different historical periods? This blog post will try to address these questions through outlining an understanding of the contemporary far-right as a pathology of capital best explained through a framework based on an international historical sociology (IHS). Before I do that it makes sense to mention what the main alternative frameworks on the far-right tells us.

The academic discussion of the far-right is dominated by approaches grounded within the mainstream assumptions of bourgeois social science. Thus, it is the methodological nationalism of comparative politics combined with the literature on the history of ideas that are intellectually hegemonic. In the former, the far-right is assessed and compared across different states according to a quantitative grid of electoral performance, voter shares, opinion poll data and definitional attributes centred on ‘Europhobia’, anti-immigration hysteria and ‘welfare nativism’. In the latter, the fetish of definitional taxonomies prevails through the gradations of ‘neo-fascism’, the ‘extreme’, ‘far’, ‘radical’, populist’ and/or ‘reactionary’ right that are dissected via an examination of speeches and pronouncements to gauge the ideological coherence of said party or movement usually related to the core criteria of fascism.

This has resulted in an endless search for an ‘objective’ or ‘minimal’ definition of the far-right – an academic cottage industry in itself – which serves to freeze and simplify the far-right instead of viewing it as an evolving socio-political movement. Further, in spite of the need to treat ideas seriously it has resulted in analytical contortions to the effect that the far-right – in its fascist incarnation at least – can be seen as ‘revolutionary’ phenomena comparable to communism. This can be seen in the way in which the doyens of political science in organizations such as the ‘Extremism and Democracy’ Standing Group of the European Consortium on Political Research appear to mimic the assumptions of Cold War liberalism’s use of the concept of ‘totalitarianism’ by treating the ‘extremist threats to democracy’ from the far-left and far-right as part of the same analytical exercise thus blurring their distinct and antagonist dynamics.

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Resistance to Global LGBT Norms

International Relations is not normally thought of as the go-to place for lessons on the protection of gays, lesbians, trans, bi and queer people. But in recent times, it has been possible to get the impression that something about the practice of international politics has changed; that norms regarding sexual orientation and gender identity were gaining prominence and exerting discernible influence. In politics and policy making, one could point to the Yogyakarta principles. In mainstream IR theory, one could assess the steady stream of work that has arisen from theories of norm change and entrepreneurship and consider how they might apply to the LGBT case.

yogyakarta-principles

The Secretary General of the United Nations has launched a campaign for the protection of the human rights of LGBT people (with its own Bollywood movie clip!) He has said that the protection of human rights is “one of the great, neglected human rights challenges of our time.” In 2011, the UN released its first ever report (pdf) into the human rights of LGBT people. It states that:

a pattern of human rights violations emerges that demands a response. Governments and inter-governmental bodies have often overlooked violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The mandate of the Human Rights Council requires it to address this gap: the Council should promote “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner. (see here, paragraph 2)

The question of how “Governments and inter-governmental bodies” might go about looking at and responding to violence and rights abuse against LGBT people is a complex one. Knee-jerk responses that impose aid conditionality measures, such as that suggested by UK PM David Cameron in the case of Uganda, are probably the least helpful route. Nonetheless, some form of conditionality, or assessment of the rights afforded to LGBT peoples, has become a standard within the repertoire of pro-LGBT rights states and their foreign policy advocates. Continue reading