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?
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.