A common purpose Gains value as a common goal Let’s flail together If we must flail at all. Deep in the heart of the battle Caught in the switch of the flow Freedom from notes, she sells freedom from songs She sells freedom and arms Eritrea. I could have made these excuses in my sleep As if anyone had doubted them at all But if we arm Eritrea we won’t have to pay her And everyone can go home.
Future Of The Left, ‘Arming Eritrea’ (2009)
This now fairly-widely disseminated video of Saif Gaddafi brandishing his militarised manhood and promising death can only fuel the paroxysms of guilt and denial afflicting those previously enamoured of him. Not a topic to be neglected, fersure, and one that will be returned here at The Disorder Of Things soon (I promise). But there is another element at play, and one rather more materially linked to massacre and repression. Where are the guns coming from?
Last month, The Guardian engaged in one of its periodic moments of data-explication, borrowing somewhat from Dan O’Huiginn to set out which regimes get UK arms exports, and how much. Since David Cameron is unashamed in his claims that we’re merely helping democracies protect themselves (barring minor hiccups), the numbers and relations make interesting reading. The conventional (if perhaps flawed) metric for such political goods as freedom and democracy is that provided by Freedom House. The top five Middle East and North African beneficiaries of UK military export licences in 2009-2010 were Algeria (£270 million), Saudi Arabia (£64 million), Libya (almost £34 million), the United Arab Emirates (almost £16 million) and Jordan (£12 million).
Every single one is listed as ‘Not Free’ in the Freedom House Index for 2010.
Libya got the lowest score possible (although this was already several years into its rapprochement with the forces of progress and human dignity and some two years after Saif had concluded his inquiries into democracy and civil society). Kuwait, championed by Cameron as the example of the good guys, comes about half way down the list of ‘Partly Free’ countries but is only seventh in line for our largesse. Morocco and Lebanon both count as ‘Partly Free’ too and come 13th and 14th for UK exports respectively. The only people who got nothing at all were the Iranians, although Iran is freer than Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya (and on a par with Tunisia). The only ‘Free’ country awash with our arms is Israel, although the fear in that case is hardly that weapons will be used excessively with its own territorial jurisdiction.
It does not take a regression analysis to show that the Prime Minister is ‘inadvertently misleading the House‘ on this point and that his sudden discovery of naughtiness-by-proxy is a bloody sham. Moreover, it intimates an interesting research question, following work on the political economy of human rights by Noam Chomsky and Edward Nerman (almost completely neglected, even by Chomsky fans) which claimed to show that US aid from the 1950s to the 1970s was positively correlated with improvements in ‘investment climate’ and negatively correlated with the maintenance of democracy and human rights (someone drop me a line if you’re interested in following this up).
This is all even more interesting because there is something vaguely unpalatable about talking about the arms trade. Those who campaign against it, although surely replete with quality data, are regarded as a little unhinged and unrealistic. The absence of much serious discussion of this particular transnational network is also rather puzzling for a discipline like IR, which generally prides itself on how much it understands the geopolitical dynamics of global power and the realities of war and peace.
The exception is Anna Stavrianakis, who has been working on these issues for some years. As she argues, more attention is needed to the ways in which the promotion of ‘development’ policy feeds into military-industrial-governmental complexes. The connections are intimate indeed. Although now replaced by the seemingly identical UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation, the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) existed only formally as part of the government rather than industry. Indeed, every head of the DESO since 1984 had been seconded to that role from within the arms industry. The resultant complicity with corruption drew its share of public attention, but this too risks a diversion of focus from the underlying (and legitimated) sociological and political economic networks themselves to particular acts of illegality.
As comforting as this attention to civilian-military relations is for us knowledge-producers, at some point this conversation does bring us back to the University system. The degree of complicity is not minor. At the most general level, there are the investments. Although some campaigns against administrations investing in BAE and its ilk appear to have been successful, it is unclear (at least to me) how many universities still invest at one remove in arming repressive regimes, or even what ‘disinvestment’ consists of. At the LSE, for example, Howard Davies would maintain that the school did not invest ‘directly’ in arms since its portfolio was managed by a third party.
Then there are the more direct connections, as when a company pays directly for research by a University centre or donates sums towards projects. This will be trickier territory, since the money is flowing in the other direction now, and defenders can always claim that, barring attached strings, the source of the cash matters not at all. It will surely influence the direction, or at least the topics, relevant for investigation but the lines of funding will be clearer and the time spent on such projects circumscribed.
Most perniciously of all, there is the creeping place of ‘impact’ in these relationships. As the ‘interface’ with business becomes more prominent, both in discourse around the place of thought in society and in the very real funding streams sustaining institutions of learning, the potential role for the arms trade increases. As Philip Moriarty so cogently argues, the now banal common-sense of government talk about universities is that they should repay their debt to The Taxpayer through social goods. And social goods are synonymous with ‘increased competitiveness’ and other indicators of economic health which reduce to increased profit for private businesses and their stockholders. Who can naturally also help universities in a rare symbiotic beauty, largely thanks to their superior ‘efficiency’ and the like.
The connection on this front is likely to be much more nebulous but also much more thorough-going, particularly under a regime in which every academic will have to demonstrate in measurable terms how their research has fed into the projects and profits of those outside the ivory tower. The consensus seems to be that a general contribution to public debate will not be permissible. The direct adoption of work by an identifiable company (ideally channelled through those offices of the university dealing with intellectual properties) would be ideal. We would do well to ponder what such a win-win situation might look like where the research area is terrorism, foreign policy, cultural studies or the relationship between corporate interests and human rights.