Societies Under Siege: A Reply

I am extremely grateful to Elin, Clara and Katie for writing such thoughtful and  thought-provoking engagements with Societies Under Siege, and to Joe Hoover for kindly organising this forum. It is not easy to set aside the time during a busy teaching term. Here is my reply!

Elin raises a lot of interesting questions about the normative consequences and drivers of sanctions. She is right that this lies largely outside the book’s scope. This is partly my own bias as a historical materialist, but also because I could not really find any evidence of the mechanism that Elin suggests: “normative boundary drawing”, the “symbolic” effects, especially of targeted sanctions, that supposedly create “reputational and material consequences” beyond their “actual content”. Crawford and Klotz call this mechanism “normative communication”. I was open to finding evidence of this mechanism, since it is certainly feasible that modest material restrictions could – in theory – have disproportionate psychological or other effects on their targets. Indeed, this is often the justification offered for symbolic boycotts as well as state-based targeted sanctions. But, try as I might, I did not discover any such effects.

In South Africa, for example, I interviewed many of the surviving members of the apartheid-era cabinet. All admitted that South Africans hated the sporting boycott in particular. But the crucial question for any sanctions measure is: does it create any political consequences? The answer always came back: no. As one reformist minister put it, South Africans certainly felt they were being labelled as “pariahs… But not a single constituent came to me and said, ‘you guys must now release Nelson Mandela, I want to see Cliff Richard perform…’ … [T]he kind of debates I was involved in with my constituents, friends and colleagues were not sparked by the idea of a cultural and sport boycott.” This may seem too stiff a test. But that is what Societies Under Siege is all about: cutting through vague platitudes about “adding to the pressure on the regime” and asking precisely what these measures actually achieve in practice. The consistent answer in every case was: very little.

J.A. Seidman, Support the Cultural Boycott, litho, Gaborone 1982

The “social conflict analysis” framework remains open to the possibility of normative communication, and other effects from apparently modest sanctions, but also gives sound reasons to be sceptical. Fundamentally, Gramscian state theory refuses to see political outcomes in any state as being driven solely by the preferences of a few hundred individuals. So, even if those individuals feel psychologically or materially harmed – and many do, as Elin says – the consequences depend on the broader set of power relations in which these individuals are situated, and the nature of these actors. Myanmar’s crony capitalists, for example, were indeed irritated by targeted sanctions. But they did not rush to denounce the government and demand progress on democratisation; rather, they lobbied their patrons for compensatory deals. This is hardly surprising given their illiberal orientation, their dependence on state power, and the imperviousness of Myanmar’s state managers to political activism.

So, while Clara is quite right that Societies Under Siege contains only limited empirical treatment of targeted sanctions, if I have theorised the state correctly, there are nonetheless solid theoretical reasons to doubt their efficacy in other contexts. Still – that remains an open question for others to study. As Clara notes, the book aspires to shift the terms of the debate, not to be the final word.

Clara also criticises the case selection, saying that choosing one “success” (South Africa) and two “failures” (Iraq and Myanmar) “dooms the study towards a negative assessment”. I have to disagree here. As chapter one explains, the cases were deliberately chosen for two main reasons: for variation in apparent success, and for their political significance. South Africa is the “success” par excellence, consistently used to justify the imposition of sanctions elsewhere. Probing whether and how they actually “worked” is crucial to interrogate that logic. Iraq is the quintessential “failure”, used to spur the shift from comprehensive to targeted sanctions; but did sanctions really “fail”? I found that (at terrible human cost) they did force Saddam to disarm and make other concessions. Their “success” was not recognised or accepted only because the US and UK were pursuing regime change or containment, not disarmament. Myanmar – the biggest test-bed for targeted sanctions to date – is an ambiguous case, particularly after the regime transition of 2011 and Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2015 election victory. Only last week the Washington Post declared that “Economic sanctions combined with timely engagement worked”, deriding the so-called “experts” who “dismissed [them] as ineffective”. Similar claims have been made by British and American officials, and Suu Kyi herself. Evaluating these claims are vital to assess attempts to rehabilitate sanctions. So, contrary to what Clara says, the case selection is not biased towards “failure”, but finely balanced; moreover, even a supposed “failure” like Iraq does in fact reveal mechanisms by which sanctions “work”.

NLD supporters

An area that Elin, Clara and Katie all focus on is the relevance of Societies Under Siege for activists and policymakers. Katie’s recollection of that meeting with BDS activists elicited a wry smile. I remember how hard Katie worked to get them to agree to meet with me, against quite ferocious opposition from the local BDS campaign coordinator. But I also remember how most attendees – including some veterans of the anti-apartheid movement – basically agreed with my analysis. I have had similar reactions from Myanmar activists and Palestinian campaigners. And yet there is also a similar reluctance to fully accept the critique. The Palestinian e-zine Jadaliyya wanted to publish a forum around my BDS paper, but withdrew the offer amidst internal controversy. When I asked Burma Campaign UK to consider providing a research “user” review of the original grant proposal, they initially agreed, then withdrew, fearing I would be too critical. Apparently the interests or agenda driving the campaign for sanctions, or simply the need to present a united front, rules out even sympathetic criticism that might improve political praxis.

Indeed, as Elin notes, it is precisely for these reasons that I expect the book to have no impact whatsoever on policymakers and activists, despite the fact that I have laboured to reach out to them, write the book in plain English, and include recommendations for them. It is kind of Clara to say that the book’s framework is readily usable by policymakers. But she must recall participating in a workshop I organised to present the framework to them, where officials essentially said: this is great, but there’s no way that our political masters will use it, because it would often mean not imposing sanctions, and the pressure to “do something” is too strong. Bizarrely, perhaps, for a Marxist academic, I engage a lot with policymakers, but I have absolutely no illusions about my capacity to influence them. As with all policies, sanctions are not simply an “instrument” rationally selected from a “toolbox” on the basis of sensible cost/benefit analysis. They are an expression of power and interests. And it is often in leaders’ interests to project power overseas with little regard for the consequences. After all, in the wake of the Paris attacks, the British government is gearing up to bomb Syria, without any apparent strategic thinking about how this is meant to achieve any useful goal. An absence of clear thinking is hardly constrained to the domain of sanctions.

And yet, as Katie’s surprising and truly fascinating relating of the book to the politics of vaccination suggests, clear, strategic thinking is absolutely essential for any political actor, regardless of their orientation or goals. I feel particularly anxious about the dearth of strategic thought on the European left. The fuzzy logic of “applying pressure” through BDS is just part of a wider malaise whereby leftist campaigns take actions without any preliminary analysis or any sense of how their actions are meant to achieve their goals. What, for instance, is the mechanism by which the “Occupy” movement expects to achieve its goals? How are endless marches against austerity or foreign wars meant to have a political effect? And this is not to mention the rise of “clicktivism” and the supposedly “revolutionary” consequences of social media. The collapse of mediating institutions, cynicism about political parties and the rise of post-Marxist ideology means that an entire generation of leftist activists are having to re-learn the importance of organisation and strategy – slowly and painfully. The de facto defeat of movements like Occupy have driven some of its imitators, like Podemos, to think more strategically, recognising the importance of organising to capture state power. Elsewhere, as in Greece, the continued failure of leftist strategy continues, with colossal human costs.

Clicktivism sceptic

Elin complains that the book ends with a cliff-hanger: it notes that the only way that policymakers will be forced to change their ways will be through “renewed social conflict within Western states themselves”. Indeed, it is the absence of explicit, forceful and principled resistance that Western elites enjoy enormous elbow-room to instrumentalise foreign peoples for their own sectional purposes. Can the left revive itself to challenge this? Given the foregoing, I have to side with Gramsci, and be a pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will.


One thought on “Societies Under Siege: A Reply

  1. The United Nations, including myself, have repeatedly and unequivocally called for an end to siege as a weapon of war against civilians and for full, unhindered, unconditional and sustained access to all people in need in besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria. We have also demanded that civilians be protected from violence and abuse, including targeted and indiscriminate attacks, and for respect for their freedom of movement.


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