The Qaddafi Controversy

Saif Gaddafi (PhD, LSE, 2008) has lost a lot of friends recently. Even Mariah Carey is embarrassed by him now. The institution to which I have some personal and professional attachment is implicated in a number of intellectual crimes and misdemeanours, as may be a swathe of research on democracy itself. Investigations are under way, by bodies both official and unofficial. All of this now feels faintly old-hat (how much has happened in the last month?), even rather distasteful given the high politics and national destinies currently in the balance. So let the defence be pre-emptive: the academy has political uses, and those with some stake in it need feel no shame in discussing that. If crises are to be opportunities, let us at least attempt to respond to them with clarity and coherence. After all, our efforts are much more likely to matter here than in self-serving postures as the shapers of global destiny.

Saif’s academic predicament is both a substantive issue in its own right and a symptom. As substance, there is now a conversation of sorts around complicity and blame. Over the last weeks, David Held has appealed for calm and attempted a fuller justification of his mentorship (Held was not the thesis supervisor and Saif was not even a research student in his Department at the time, although he, um, “met with him every two or three months, sometimes more frequently, as I would with any PhD student who came to me for advice”). Most fundamentally, it was not naivety but a cautious realism based on material evidence that led a pre-eminent theorist of democracy to enter into what we could not unreasonably call ‘constructive engagement’. [1]

Held characterises the resistance of Fred Halliday to all this as reflecting his view that “in essence, [Saif] was always just a Gaddafi”, which of course makes him sound like someone in thrall to a geneticist theory of dictatorship. The actual objection was somewhat more measured, and, if only ‘in retrospect’, entirely astute:

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Excuses In Our Sleep: Libya, the Arms Trade, Universities and the Political Economy of Human Rights

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.

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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? Continue reading