Libyan cash and the LSE: a deeper problem

As Qaddafigate rolls on, and its luminaries publicly distance themselves or fall on their swords, a repeated line marks the public justification: there was no influence over research, there was no influence over research, there was no influence over research.  This is, as far as anyone can see, true – there is no evidence, even in the most scathing denunciations, to suggest that there was any attempt to influence the outcomes of the research programme. Even so, the School have rapidly appointed an investigation into this very issue.

Whilst many have been relieved by this, I find myself more deeply disturbed. Why is it that the regime of an eccentric and violent autocrat can slide into bed so easily with a research programme on governance and democratisation?

Clearly, the Saif-shaped-fig-leaf of one remove is not enough, as was made abundantly clear at the time by the typically  judicious intervention of Fred Halliday.

A deeper problem may be that the regime ultimately did not fear that anything emerging from the programme would undermine or disrupt their position within Libyan society. Of course, we can find plenty of good reasons for this that are nothing to do with the academic research or posture – the tight control over the means of communication and of violence in Libyan society, repressive action against dissenters and, of course, the European firesale of high-grade weaponry for exclusive use by the Libyan state.

Yet, my feeling is that it is also because the academic research on democratisation, development and governance has been focused almost exclusively on the nature of process and the organisation structure of institutions rather than the underlying distribution of power – in short, it has not emphasised the fundamentally political implications that democratisation must have, and that it has always had. In focusing on capacity building in the state, integration into global economic supply networks  and speaking in the language of human rights and good governance, there is plenty for Libyan scions  to talk about, all of which fit perfectly into mainstream research on democratisation, and none of which touches the basic questions of autocratic power – in short, the founding violence of an assumed and unaccountable entitlement, control and authority over the resources of a society. In failing to call the regime out explicitly and repeatedly on the basic fallacy of this as a starting position, we fail – in an analytic sense as much as any other – to engage the potential of democracy as the basis for a more just order.

As such, discussions of democracy and good governance became too often transformed into idioms of deferring political change rather than resisting or challenging the regimes themselves. Regimes are encouraged to gently tinker with the practices of state, policy rhetoric and accept the odd public curveball on human rights whilst all the time consolidating control over resources, weaponry and mouthpieces of political authority. The rise of a seemingly more radical religious idiom of resistance makes sense most clearly when it is understood that engagements with ‘democracy’ simply seem to consolidate the violence of power in its back-slapping ‘dialogues’.

Amongst the items flying around in the storm then – arms  and oil deals, the privatisation of British education, the questionable sartorial choices – we must add a gnawing gap at the centre of many academic engagements on democracy: the failure to state clearly and repeatedly that the key problem is not the matter of form and language, of playboy plagiarism of international norms and treaties, but of the massive and brutal concentration of power.  The democratic move is the active contestation of that power, not the clipping of its toenails.


31 thoughts on “Libyan cash and the LSE: a deeper problem

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

  2. Failings in the academic encounter with democracy and democratisation I can agree with, but ‘massive and brutal concentration of power’? Surely the ‘democratic move’ is not limited to the contestation of power, but ultimately resides in its legitimation? Unless you think that democracy is opposed to power? It seems to me that democracy is always related to the legitimate exercise of power, not its refutation. And where Gaddafi failed, it was chiefly in forgetting that his people (‘my people all’) might have opinions of there own when he abandoned his anti-western rhetoric (something along the lines of ‘we make sacrifices for decades to fight against the west, arm the IRA etc., only to find you didn’t really mean it?).

    Side not: did you ever expect to see a protest banner in Libya that said ‘Oil for the West!’

    It is easy to forget that Gaddafi has long been excused his tyranny on the grounds that he had a certain nobility as a revolutionary. Let us not forget that while we’re settling scores. The fact that the Labour party, and a bunch of leftist academics have been so heavily caught up in this scandal is not simply because they lost their way and were seduced by big business (oil and arms dealers). It looks more like a baptist and bootlegger coalition between the perennial bad boys of international politics, and Gaddafi’s western apologists. In a sense Tony Blair et. al. were actually representing the true feelings of their party by rehabilitating Gaddafi, and not merely serving the interests of big business. This may well be a New Labour crisis, but it is Old Labour values that served it up.


    • How would we establish these ‘true’ ‘Old Labour’ feelings and their role in the Gaddafi scandal? Can we identify pressures for ‘normalisation’ from the Trade Unions to which the Labour Party is apparently in permanent subservience? Or of The Socialist Campaign Group within the Labour Party? Perhaps personal meetings with Tony Blair in which they pushed him to engage more? Maybe on a scale which outstripped meetings with BP?

      The usual outlets are trying to make this about ‘left-wing’ academics. But I would wager that any continuum which places Anthony Giddens, David Held, Tony Blair, Howard Davies, Mark Allen and Richard Dearlove on ‘the left’ (sometimes ‘hard’ or ‘radical’ left), yet position Fred Halliday somewhere closer to the centre, is basically bankrupt.


  3. Nice piece Meera. David Held’s cosmopolitan democracy will fail for as long as an ideological deference to the state clouds judgement about the normative value of state-bound democracy. Irrespective of his appeals to cosmopolitanism, if the state is still central to emancipation, both ideologically and analytically, Held is hobbled. See his blindness over Libya for evidence. Democracy works to restrain power when it is not part and parcel of sustaining that very power. Widening suffrage, universal suffrage, for example, did not change the state, it entrenched it. To use democracy against power you have to empower democratic institutions other than the state and its subsidiaries. Anarchism has so much to offer here both analytically and philosophically. See here:


  4. Good to see everyone is on form.

    Douglas manages to get in a swipe at New and Old Labour – which is of course a red herring in relation to the post – while suggesting the “democratic” move is about legitimating power and that where the Libyan regime fell down on democracy was not taking public opinion seriously enough.

    And Alex gets to push the anarchist line – which I’m of course far more sympathetic to – and engage in some impressively unabashed self-promotion (which I completely support!). In that vein, I’ll also point everyone to the official Millennium version of his Held paper as well:

    I’ll also throw in that Meera’s statement

    “we must add a gnawing gap at the centre of many academic engagements on democracy: the failure to state clearly and repeatedly that the key problem is not the matter of form and language, of playboy plagiarism of international norms and treaties, but of the massive and brutal concentration of power. The democratic move is the active contestation of that power, not the clipping of its toenails.”

    in no way says that *all* there is to democracy is “the contestation of power” nor does it suggest that “democracy is opposed to power”, but rather the contest of concentrated/unequal power is inherent to democracy and the legitimacy of power in a democracy does depend upon the redistribution of power.

    But the reduction of democracy to legitimation is exactly the point, as I read it, of the post – and thinking that Held & Co. are missing out that democracy requires substantive transfers of social power from elite to the “masses”, which will involve very real contestations, is pretty basic to understanding democracy. Aristotle was dismissive of democracy for exactly this reason – it put political power into the hands of the unworthy, when it should be left with the best representatives of the people – and the democratization as process/institution brigade repeat this move, missing that democracy (even representative democracy) is incompatible with highly unequal concentrations of power – one hardly needs to be anarchist to see this (which doesn’t mean I would discourage anyone from being an anarchist).

    And drawing on what Alex said, I’d add one of the problems academics working on such questions face is that the university itself is a state institution – not that there’s any short term solution to that problem, as research funded by private funds is as problematic or more.


  5. Joe – I’m of course hoping that someone other than just us reads this blog! 🙂 I’m sure someone does (!), which is why I was so happy for the opportunity to partake of such acts of self-promotion…


  6. Hello all,

    Pablo has responded on the links with the left issue very well, so I’ll get to the question both Douglas and Alex pose, quite rightly, about the nature of the link between power, the state and the idea of democracy. This is the core problem about which we should be having a conversation.

    Whilst I did not claim in the post that democracy was limited to the contestation of power, I do think that its most meaningful expression is the restless contestation of power, power itself being liable to entrenchment and self-servitude in all sorts of ways. The relationship between democracy and power is one that I see as perpetually tense – dare I say it agonistic. The notion of “legitimate power” is itself the basic and necessary paradox that underpins political life.

    Thus, we must make proper judgements on the expressions of this paradox in various cases. In the case of Libya, I am saying directly that there is a massive and brutal concentration of power in the state, and I am also saying that the first job for advocates of democracy to identify and deal head-on with this basic problem rather than tinkering around the edges. Incidentally, I think that the fundamental problem of the concentration of power is a problem in many political orders, our own included.

    On the side note regarding the ‘Oil for the West’ sign, to me this is a very clever puncturing of the basic myth of realpolitik that propping up dictators is the only way to ensure a regular flow of oil… A pretty transparent lie that nonetheless has governed European thinking about the Middle East for about a century.


  7. Yes well a victorious revolutionary hero has many fathers, but a clownish murderous tyrant is an orphan I suppose. But it doesn’t change the fact that Gaddafi’s apologists almost invariably came from the anti-imperialist left, whatever the ‘usual outlets’ say. Fred Halliday’s position, I would imagine, came from a rich understanding of the region, not from a political posture. The left always thought Gaddafi was more victim than victimiser. Fred, to his credit, saw through that.

    But that’s just a red herring, so I’ll get back to the point at hand. If what you are saying Meera is that institutions for the effective determination of popular legitimacy matter then I don’t think you’ll find me disagreeing with you. However, if you are satisfied that this is the case (which I’m not, but that’s a secondary matter at the moment), and they remain open to contestation then I’m not sure that agonism has anywhere to go. Equally I’m not sure that all forms of agonistic struggle have democracy as their principle aim. They are struggles for certain outcomes within a democratic context, where everyone is prepared to accept the outcome of a legitimate contest. There are lots of groups in society that seek to secure certain outcomes irrespective of whether they can be described as democratically mandated. I dare say student protestors might not be entirely keen to expose their funding grievances to a genuinely democratic process, but that’s another red herring I suppose. Democracy is just the playing field, and the set of rules that govern how collective decisions are arrived at. This makes them legitimate in the eyes of some, not in the eyes of others, justification is a separate concern, but this is also bound up with securing popular legitimacy. Concentrations of power are everywhere, and you are right to say this is problem in Libya, but I think the protesters are more concerned at the moment with its accountability, than with its concentration. I also think that power is too concentrated in this country, but again, it is the lack of accountability that concerns me more.

    And – alright I’ll get my cheap shot confession in early – I was always under the impression that Gaddafi’s Green Book was a sort of anarchist text? And if his last remaining defender, Hugo Chavez, is also an anarchist (dubious, but a claim I have heard of certain emergent forms of social organisation in Venezuela), then they make a pretty impressive double act. So when I hear Libyans protesting for ‘civil rights, human rights and democracy’ I take them at their word, but I have a suspicion they mean the kind of government they see in Turkey, or even Europe, or even here! Rather than a rarified form of anarcho-syndicalism. Whether they get either – of course – is uncertain. But their organisation under the old flag of Libya, and the constant reference to a united Libya does not fill me with confidence that the state itself is the object of their revolutionary fervour.


    • We can hone our disagreement to a precise but fundamental question: whether democracy is “just the playing field” or not. I think you are saying that political process and concentration of power are separate and the latter is not relevant to democracy – I am saying that they are fundamentally intertwined and that the latter is crucial for democracy.


      • As long as the terms under which power is concentrated are up for democratic contestation, then yes, you are right. I do think that a hierarchical society is potentially compatible with democratic legitimacy. I also think you have the more difficult task of persuasion if you think otherwise, for the simple reason that the concentration of power becomes an object of resistance in itself, and any democratic move must be preceded by a sufficient condition of dispersed power. Thus it becomes easy to ignore a democratic consensus if it doesn’t meet your criteria of sufficiently dispersed power. And you don’t need to democratically mandate your criteria of sufficiently dispersed power prior to supporting political action (violence? passive resistance?) designed to bring it about. Whereas I think the systems and institutions (processes) that exist already in this country are adequate to the task of democratic contestation, if not perfect. So yes, that is a difference of opinion that is indeed, honed, provided I have not done you an interpretive injustice.


      • Douglas – WP won’t let me reply to you – only to my previous comment; please forgive the self-referential location…

        Whilst I think it will be worth migrating to a more substantive format, I would like to make a quick point here. I don’t know why this position should be particularly accused of lacking a mandate, even if that were the criteria on which I suggested it, which it was not. Either way, there is no resolution between the apparent circularity of the democratic claims on either side of the argument – if it is true that a contestation-based account of democracy has a prior account of justice, then so does a process-based account no matter how it is constructed: in neither case are such claims the subject of democratic “mandate”. This is all the more obvious when the context is not theoretical but embedded in already-existing politics whereby process-based accounts are easier for elites to embrace than contestatory ones. I would largely disagree that our institutions are adequate to the task of democratic contestation but that is another, much longer conversation…


      • Now that is an altogether more interesting discussion. What is the source of that which we do not mandate? What is the prior account of justice that we presuppose? Here, I believe I am with Oakeshott, and I presume you are probably with Habermas. But in any case, this would be worth elaborating.


      • I was quite surprised about being described as Habermasian..! What prompted it? As far as my knowledge of him goes, the ethical schema is based on an ideal speech situation under which political discourse can take place. My whole point is that because this never happens democracy needs to be about contestation… Have I missed something?


      • I was really talking about the regulative ideal of emancipation, rather than the specifics of his deliberative democracy.


    • Naturally, support for a despotic Libya and for Gaddafi is fundamentally ‘leftist’. When apparent ‘leftists’ *don’t* support the Libyan regime it’s because they aren’t operating in a leftist register when they speak on that particular problem. Similarly, when apparently ‘rightist’, ‘liberal’ or ‘centrist’ figures not only speak for Libya but also lubricate its machinery of dominance through preferential treatment, SAS training programmes, deals over natural resources and extensive PR treatments, well, that’s them actually *acting* out a hidden ‘leftism’. Which is handy, because it means that ‘the Left’ is ‘for’ Gaddafi no matter what anyone actually does or actually says.

      Meera never mentioned ‘left’ or ‘right’, still less the Labour Party. You introduced the question of who was more complicit, and specified that this was peculiarly ‘Old Labour’. ‘The Left’ (represented, as everyone knows, by the Labour Party over the last decades) is so self-evidently the apologist-in-chief that we need not detain ourselves with evidence. Such epiphenomena distract us from the deeper causes. The closest we get to an example is Hugo Chavez, but his position is rather contested within ‘the anti-imperialist left’ (

      That is confusing, but we must struggle to enforce some kind of intelligibility, I suppose. However, perhaps we could, just for now, focus on the actual things said by the actual people who write at The Disorder Of Things, rather than playing a rather circular, if limitless, game of guilt by non-association?


      • Well that’s an invitation, but I did read Meera’s piece, I did enjoy it, and given that it comprised a set of claims about Libya, and about academic complicity with the interests of ‘big business’, I thought that the suggestion that Gaddafi has had a fair wind from a variety of political directions had a place in the discussion. And, impressionistic as this may be, I remember a time when people on the anti-imperialist left were explicit in their endorsement of Gaddafi, even to the extent of justifying his supplying the IRA with semtex. They were – of course – raving loons, but they comprised the majority of the student union at SOAS while I was there, and their opinions were not in the slightest bit incompatible with the general tenor of student politics at the time (NUS President, Jim Murphy, current Shadow Secretary of State for Defence). Hard to imagine I suppose, but there was once a time when the hard left really wasn’t that interested in democracy. Which gets us back all the way to Meera’s article. The priority of the relationship between ‘democratic processes’ and ‘concentration of power’ is – I think -actually of some importance, as our discussion above indicates. (incidentally, so does she, clearly). And I think that if it gets to the point where arguments about the ‘concentration of power’ serve to disavow ostensibly ‘democratic processes’ then democracy itself can be a casualty. In the case of Libya, this has taken the form of the slow transfiguration of a popular revolutionary hero, to a raving tyrant with a ‘Green Book’ and the absurd idea that the people are already in charge. In Venezuela, we see a popular leader currently corrupting the entire constitutional framework in the name of a Bolivarian revolution. So it’s no surprise to me that people make the connection. The rather good article you attached is clearly written by someone who has yet to reach his ‘Kronstadt moment’ with Chavez. Finally, the point I made was not simply to indict ‘the left’ but to broaden the discussion, and I did that in order to counter the impression that this association between Gaddafi’s regime is simply down to a few academics losing their faith and selling out to the logic of liberal capitalism. Instead it is just as much a consequence of them keeping their faith and ending up as apologists for a dictator. God knows they wouldn’t be the first.


  8. I was going to say something smart about democracy but I’m just not up to it. Though I will support Meera’s last point:

    “Either way, there is no resolution between the apparent circularity of the democratic claims on either side of the argument – if it is true that a contestation-based account of democracy has a prior account of justice, then so does a process-based account no matter how it is constructed: in neither case are such claims the subject of democratic “mandate”. This is all the more obvious when the context is not theoretical but embedded in already-existing politics whereby process-based accounts are easier for elites to embrace than contestatory ones.”

    A democratic agonism has a particular account of justice that insists that the terms of democratic engagement remain open and are not closed down by entrenched power and static public perception/aspirations. This contrasts markedly with the procedural focus on the maintenance of rules and institutions, which are of course exploited by those with other forms of power – Michael Walzer’s “Spheres of Justice” is good on this conceptually, and the recent “Winner-Take-All Politics” is a great demonstration of how democratic processes can be subverted by economic power, and how an excessive focus on process/institutions enables such subversion.

    And in response to the always and already made accusation that the “left loves dictators” – which is fairly ridiculous claim clothed in true facts that don’t actually prove the charge – I’d say, lots of leaders, thinkers and publics support very bad people and regimes for very bad reasons, but I can’t see any reason for assigning either the “left” or “right” a better track record on this – not least because such designations label everyone and no one in particular.

    There are of course elements of “left” politics that invite the challenging moral question of how/when “we” should judge violence acceptable (as there are for any politics), but I think Paul’s pretty spot on that we (in this case the “we” writing at DoT) have been pretty clear about our stand on such matter and our allegiances (or lack there of)… so, in the spirit of throwing off the hinted burden of guilt by association:

    Adam Raised a Cain by Springsteen


  9. I admit, it was a mere provocation. But the responses from the ‘usual outlets’ have gone from ridicule and complete refutation, to equivocation, acceptance and disavowal. All I did was widen Meera’s explanation for her beautifully phrased ‘clipping toenails’ analogy.

    And, just to make my final point, I keep seeing this reference to what the contributors to ‘the disorder of things’ are saying, as if there is some sort of disciplining going on. Maybe you’re not so disordered after all? and am I wrong to hint at this possibility?


    • I’m not sure whether to read ‘provocation’ here as a) code for trolling, plain and simple; or b) a vaguely-to-immensely patronising pedagogical tool in which you expand our intellectual horizons with your comments.

      You are, lest there was any doubt, wrong to hint at the possibility of blog ‘disciplining’, if by that you mean anything approaching the usual uses of those words.

      Besides which, you have conflated the (procedural) suggestion on my part that ‘engagements’ or ‘provocations’ should work with the actual claims of posts, rather than diversionary associations with dictator-lovers in some mythological and monolithical unified ‘left’/Labour Party, with a (substantive) idea that we’re all saying exactly the same thing. If those of us who write here all disagreed on everything, you still wouldn’t be any closer to addressing substance.

      The complaint is not that you’re pointing out our internal incoherence with your insights. Its much more banal. Indeed, it turns out that “this reference to what the contributors to ‘the disorder of things’ are saying” is nothing more than a reference to what we’re actually saying.


      • or c) that I figured you would react to it with your usual defensiveness etc.

        Equally, your ‘procedural’ concern over ‘diversionary associations’ is sort of, maybe a bit bogus don’t you think? (And certainly seems to conform pretty exactly to a ‘usual use’ of the word ‘disciplining’) Unless you think that Meera has set aside any possible challenge concerning the context of, and the assumptions that inform, her piece. Not a claim I see her making.

        And I really was not trying to point out your ‘internal incoherence’ (quite the opposite, it’s your internal coherence that I find interesting, particularly when it is so directly – if symbolically – disavowed) with my ‘insights’, but instead to address some things that I think you are actually saying, without actually saying them.

        If you honestly think that this is ‘trolling’, or a ‘vaguely-to-immensely patronising pedagogical tool’ then I think you are willfully misreading my posts.


      • Well c) falls into a) and b) pretty easily. More than once you state a thesis or case (here that complicity with Gaddafi at the LSE actually reflects ‘Old Labour’ values), neglect to defend it againt replies to the contrary, and then announce that it was all a ‘provocation’ anyway. Does that mean that you don’t really mean it in the first place and were just trying to extract the ‘defensiveness’? If so, for what purpose is this activity undertaken? Merely to aggravate, or because you think it exposes something fundamental? It seems you favour the latter, but this comes down to a) or b) in any case.

        ‘Disciplining’ *you* would be either barring you from commenting, moderating your comments or just plain ignoring them. Arguing that you are missing the point is not disciplining. Consistently and repeatedly replying to issues you raise is not disciplining.

        ‘Disciplining’ in the sense that you initially used it (i.e. disciplining *our* views on the blog) would mean having a party line on what could or couldn’t be argued here and/or engaging in marginalisation of authors who failed to adhere to that.

        Hope that clears up any misunderstanding.


  10. In reply to Douglas’ comment that for some people Chavez and Gaddafi’s Green Book are anarchistic, I just thought I’d point out that this is garbage. They’re both of the left but Chavez is a feminist and gaddafi is at best advocating a form of council communism. Formal hierarchical authority is incompatible with anarchy by definition.


    • I have no idea how I typed feminist into that post! I’m on the bus typing with my phone… we’re running an hour late by the way….

      I meant to say that Chavez is a Leninist!


  11. Pingback: The Qaddafi Controversy « The Disorder Of Things

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