The Corbyn Effect

Moderate Militant-Free Labour Conservative Poster

In the last days, the Labour mainstream has not so much fallen as fully leapt into a fit of apoplexy. The cause an opinion poll – by no means solid, by no means a guarantee of future stock value – placing Jeremy Corbyn as the likely winner of the party’s leadership contest. Labour MPs, some now publicly flagellating themselves, nominated Corbyn for a ‘balanced debate’, but apparently couldn’t countenance that it might actually lead anyone to, you know, debate. Corbyn’s moment of popularity is thus sketched as, among other things, “the emotional spasm…an apocalyptic tendency”. John McTernan – a prime mover in the utter implosion of Labour in Scotland – was invited to hold forth on national TV as an oracle nevertheless, where he showed off his great talent in persuasion by calling Labour supporters “morons”. John Rentoul, that other great passé hack, thought recognising the left-wing appeal of the SNP as a factor in Labour’s defeat was like believing in space lizard conspiracy theories.

There was an equal portion of patronising bullshit to go with the name-calling. “Do some research” before you dare to a preference, chided Anne Perkins. Don’t be a “petulant child”, admonished Chuka Umunna. Sunny Hundal came at logic with customary cack-handedness, transforming the clear articulation of principles into a pathology. These are some of the same people who bemoan the detachment of politicians from real people, the decline in party membership, and so on, only to rise up as vengeful furies when a candidate dares to stir energies. All down to an unsavoury populism, natch. This, says Helen Lewis, is ‘purity leftism’, nothing like the necessary compromises of opposition, where you have to be bold enough to endorse 2% defence spending (something “the public” indeed likes, although hardly top of their polled priorities). Blair, of course, can only relate in the terms of triangulation, regurgitating the 1990s whilst pretending to the terrain of the future.

It doesn’t matter that Corbyn’s record is one of social democracy (remember that?). It doesn’t matter that there are trends in his favour. It doesn’t matter that his economic policies are comparatively bold and redistributive. It doesn’t even matter that many of Corbyn’s policies are popular. One line of Blair’s intervention was widely cited: “I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform”. Few completed the quote: “…even if it was the route to victory“. This is not political argument, nor even Machiavellian electoral planning, but the tantrum-jitters of the self-appointed aristocracy. Having passed out lectures on loyalty and collective responsibility on Monday during the second reading of the Welfare Bill, the dauphins were by Thursday pre-declaring a coup should Corbyn win and practically spitting on their own activists besides. They saw no contradiction. Labour’s experts advocate not political communication but political manipulation, impersonating the enemy to take their place in our collective consciousness.

And so it will go on if any of the appeasement candidates win. Continue reading

Notes on Ex-Yu Justice, Part II

Following Part I, and in advance of Part III.

The court is political  

The smartass response goes something likes this: “Of course it’s political; what’s not political? Haven’t you read the ICTY’s website? It says clearly that the tribunal was established for explicitly political reasons, too, by the UNSC, which is political by definition.” But the smartass response is a rude interruption. The above assertive prefaces monologue, not dialogue. The monologue is a story about world politics as a dog-eat-dog contest in which the strong always devour the weak with a focus on the origins of the ICTY. “Of course an international judicial institution cannot be created on the basis of an UNSC resolution alone. Of course Chapter VII of the UN Charter does not specify the conditions under which war crimes tribunals can be set up. Of course the ICTY quickly discovered that it could not bother with the question of own legality. But when have great powers ever cared about law and institutions? Might makes right, right? The ICTY is based on the consent of states – big states, not our banana republics.”

This story varies in terms of breadth and depth, but its modal conclusion is that the tribunal cannot represent anything but “victor’s justice” and/or Western and specifically American oppression of those living on the periphery. As for the motive, the supposedly aggressive prosecution of Bosno-Serbo-Croat baddies practiced by the ICTY is a function of the desire for retribution for every case of ex-Yu insolence in recent history, starting with the Trieste crisis of 1945. As discipline and punishment at once, trials are also meant to serve as a warning to the rest of the peripheral and semi-peripheral world. This type of theorizing could be described as a cross between pop-realism and pop-Marxism with a whiff of the crudest forms of pop-anti-Americanism and some other, far less respectable prejudices. While it is not exactly a closed loop, for every new newstory indexing Western and specifically American double standards and double visions in international law, the theory gains strength. Who in the former Yugoslavia doesn’t have an informed opinion on the “Hague Invasion Act”?

imgfrontisThe two accounts of the origins of the ICTY that I have on my shelf make something of an opposite case. Pierre Hazan’s book, subtitled ‘The True Story Behind the ICTY’, suggests that the weak (international justice activists) outfoxed the strong (realist diplomats and state-centric lawyers) and, against all odds, managed to turn the tribunal into such a revolutionary achievement (more on this below). Hazan is no theorist of norms and transnational advocacy networks, but there are more than a few parallels with this literature. The second account is Rachel Kerr’s 2004 book, which begins and ends with the thorny issue of “politicization,” including the issue of “prosecutorial discretion” as its special subset. Kerr has the ICTY walking on a tightrope. Sidle up too closely to justice, and you alienate those who rule the world; let politics in, even to manipulate it for judicial ends, and you lose credibility. While infinitely more nuanced than Hazan’s, Kerr’s framework for analyzing politics (it, too, chimes with 1990s IR theory, namely the “bringing international law back in” literature) follows the same binary – let me personify it a little as a contest between “realists” versus “legalists” – and it reaches the same conclusion. And judging by both the quotidian operation of the court as well as its key decisions up to 2002-3, Kerr finds, “legalists” had the upper hand.

I am not sure what stock-taking exercises based on the realist vs. legalist framework look like today (again, this post is my attempt to reconnect with the literature I stopped following years ago), but what struck me in my conversations is how adamant my interlocutors were in rejecting even the most carefully drawn legalist claims. It’s simple, the typical response goes, the ICTY is subject to constant political pressures and it shouldn’t be surprising to see so much judicial malpractice. Lest one is keen to dismiss this as “typical” ex-communist (and transitionalist) disdain for the notion that law serves to ensure that valuable social goods are distributed in ways that protect equal respect for everyone, note that some of the most critical arguments about the “hopelessly political court” are drawn from the texts left behind by bona fide ICTY insiders like Antonio Cassese (he of  those great international law textbooks), Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, Louise Arbour, Graham Blewitt, Carla Del Ponte, Serge Brammerz, and Florence Hartmann (more below). Anyone can cherry-pick a few memorable lines from a few memoirs and journalistic accounts (Hartmann, if I recall correctly: “the ICTY was formed so that war criminals could negotiate on the level of their innocence”), but what I find interesting is that these types of arguments have gained more and more adherents over the years.

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The Anglosphere, Part One: What’s in a Name?

What do you get when you intersect indices that rank top two dozen nations of the world by political freedoms, GDP per capita, productivity, literacy, and patent applications in late 2000s? The answer is you get some kind of an “Anglosphere” – usually the quartet of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the U.S., but also, depending on the underlying measures and thresholds, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore and so on.

Using data from the World Development Indicators, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and International Labour Organisation, among others sources, I’ve played this game in my research methods classes quite a bit. No methods textbook endorses such mindless empiricism, but students, from what I can tell, tend to appreciate the loose structure of the exercise. This is because the objective – familiarizing students with comparison, measurement, scaling, and so on – almost always shifts onto the “why?” questions, at which point everyone (ok, not everyone) tries to come up with his/her social scientific narrative on what makes this or that grouping “interesting,” “different,” or “special.”

Joel Kotkin, one of America’s premier demographers, and his nine collaborators have shown me how this game can be played at an infinitely more sophisticated level. Their argument – developed primarily in a collection of the Legatum Institute papers entitled “The New World Order”, but also in two shorter pieces penned by Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar at and in City Journal – is that globalized economy by and large operates in and through three large “tribal groupings” or “spheres”: the Indosphere, the Sinosphere, and the Anglosphere [1]. As the authors note, their narrative can claim a formidable intellectual pedigree: “we have followed the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s notion that ethnic and cultural ties are more important than geographic patterns or levels of economic development.”

Kotkin et al offer no shortage of interesting and novel observations and analytical points, but one of the project’s key punchlines is in the title of the Anglosphere section in the New World Order: “We are not dead yet.” The project’s foil, in other words, is the current wave of American declinism:

The era of unipolar domination by the United States and its key allies — which dates from the fall of the Soviet Union — has come to an end. Yet despite this, the core Anglosphere remains by far the largest cohesive economic bloc in the world. Overall it accounts for more than 18 trillion dollars, one quarter of the world’s GDP, far more than any other cohesive global grouping.

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Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: The West, The African Union, and International Community

This is the third part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.

The oblivion of commentators to these possible African objections has been less than helpful to understanding the actualized Western intervention itself; emergent African ideas on democracy and security; and the actual place of international morality in international affairs. Underlying the African apprehension to military intervention is a long-standing tension between international organizations that represent Africa, on one hand, and self-identified representatives of the West, on the other, over the meaning of international community as well as the source, nature, and proper means of implementation of the collective will. The dispute over the meaning of international community and the collective will has been particularly salient in Africa because, as a political space, Africa has been more subject to military interventions than any other geopolitical space in the modern era. These interventions have reflected contemporaneous relations of power, permissible morality, and objects of desire: from proselytism to fortune-seeking, trade, extraction of raw material, and the strategic pursuit of hegemony. Indeed, it is hard to remember a time since the onset of the slave trade when there was no open conflict between the majority of its states and the West over some dimensions of global governance that implicated the notion of the commons or international community.

The postcolonial era has not brought about any change to this situation. Since the end of World War II and the institution of the United Nations system, the plurality of African political entities have confronted self-appointed representatives of the West over the ethos of UN procedures (involving transparency and open access to the channels of decision-making) and the mechanisms of dispute mediation (including the determination of the principles and applicability of humanitarian interventions in a number of cases). One need only recall the political, legal, and military confrontations between African states and former Western colonial powers over Apartheid South Africa’s mandate over South West (which involved the legality and morality of colonial trusteeship); the French war on Algeria (which involved the legality and legitimacy of settler colonialism); the wars of decolonization in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique (which involved the principles of majority rule through open elections which communists might win); the unilateral declaration of independence by the white minority in Southern Rhodesia (which involved the principle of white-minority rule in postcolonial Africa); and the legality and morality of apartheid (which involved the principle of self-determination and majority rule). The underlying antagonisms contaminated deliberations throughout the UN system (particularly General Assembly proceedings) and involved all major issues from the Palestine Question to the Law of the Sea to other matters of trade and intellectual property. They reached a climax at the time of exit of the US and Great Britain from UNESCO, which was then directed by Ahmadou Mathar Mbow, a Senegalese diplomat and statesman.

These and other contests have shared a few singular features. One is a Western insistence on representing the essential core and therefore will of something called international community. In any case, the label of international community has often been reserved for Western entities in relations to others, who remain the object of intervention on behalf of the international community. This is to say that the term ‘international community’ has had political functionality in relations of power and domination in which Europe (and later The West) subordinated ‘Africa’. The relevant tradition can be traced back to the opening moments of the modern era, particularly during the ascension of The West to global hegemony. While it has undergone changes over time, the embedded imaginary of international community and its will have been built around artificially fixed identities and politically potent interests. Accordingly, the identity of the West, and therefore the international community, flows from a theology of predestination, formally enunciated as the Monroe doctrine in the US or the Mission Civilizatrice in France.

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Egypt and the Failure of Realism

Update (19/05/11): A revised and expanded version of this post has been published in The Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies (Volume 4), which you can access for free here.

I’ve hesitated to comment on events unfolding in Egypt (and in the wider region, from Tunisia to Yemen). Not only do I lack any special knowledge of events but many others have said all that I would say with greater skill and clarity. Yet, a sense of solidarity with protesters and my frustration with the commentary on events leads me to offer a few thoughts on the ambiguous role that appeals to “realism” are playing in the response to the actions of the protestors and the government in Egypt.

As the protestors and Mubarak’s goons wait it out in Tahrir Square, the rebellion against the president has entered a key phase. Will the threat of continued violence give Mubarak the space he needs to solidify his power till next year, and in the process avoid the thorough changes the Egyptian people are demanding? As protestors face violence, exhaustion and deprivation the prospect of compromise must seem more desirable than before. The time seems ripe for expressions of support from key states and leaders.  The protestors need our support; it’s much easier for Mubarak to play for time from the presidential palace than for protesters in the streets, but the men and women able to make a difference do not use their voices to share in democracy’s street-choir. And these moral midgets are attended to by their Lilliputian advisors, who counsel patience, restrain and reform that preserves stability.

When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

Barak Obama has clearly mastered the dark art of evasive support, leaving no doubt that he’s all for Egyptian democracy that doesn’t change too much, too fast, and, most importantly, doesn’t compromise the key strategic interests of the US.

The administration’s restraint is also driven by the fact that, for the United States, dealing with an Egypt without Mr. Mubarak would be difficult at best, and downright scary at worst. For 30 years, his government has been a pillar of American foreign policy in a volatile region, not least because of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. American officials fear that a new government — particularly one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups — may not honor the treaty signed in 1979 by Mr. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat. (NY Times)

Predictably, Joe Biden made the point with less tact, but perhaps more truth, when he expressed his insensibility to the crimes of Mubarak against his own people.

Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

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‘The only answer was slaughter, and the only way to do it was fast’; In which others read the autohagiography of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair so I don’t have to

The publication of Blair’s recollections and rationalisations has been a gift to many of us. Not content with the material for satire he provided during office, he has now furnished us with further damning evidence in his own hand. A weighty (non est) mea culpa. Pat psychologising, quasi-religious conviction, the hamfisted use of historical analogy and that overwrought prose (now infamous: “I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct, knowing I would need every ounce of emotional power to cope with what lay ahead“). All of this has enabled some incisive commentary, and some barely contained rage: Tony as Captain Stanhope; Tony as the ‘preacher on a tank’ (Dick Cheney’s apposite barb); Tony as delusional Christ-Pope in waiting.

Three thoughts. First, there is the question of how we can now read Blair, and Iraq as the exemplar of his style of thought. What were the mechanisms that allowed the clear advice of experts of all stripes, and the opposition of most of the population, to be translated into an unbending commitment to the projection of American power? A familiar answer is that the New Labour project was driven by the energies of Blair’s religious (or religious-like) faith, his commitment and earnestness and belief. But the scene set by A Journey and its deconstructions is far more prosaic. On the one hand, there is plenty of garden-variety ‘misperception’. Actors chose the analogies that fit their pre-established understandings, over-emphasised the pressures for action in their calculations, and failed in their responsibility to examine situations from more than one angle. These are the kind of slippages that pop up enough for some systems- and cognitively-minded scholars to trace their role in wars across the ages.

On the other hand, there is Blair’s extraordinary decisionism. Something must be done, and someone must do it. But this is in some ways the reverse of a faith-based politics. It was not belief that guided Blair, and certainly not carefully delineated actions set out by dogma or doctrine. It was the absence of such a schema which mattered, at least on his own account. “The pieces are in flux”. Hence the insistence on leadership, on grasping the truth and necessity of the moment. What continues to intrigue is this movement between an over-abundance of values and the hardened core of Machiavellianism. The necessity was never one dictated by the ends of justice, but only that of power and its demands.

Yes, ideology was at play. But structurally so. Not in the bible readings and personal psycho-dramas of two little rich boys from New Haven and Edinburgh, but in a much less appreciated, and much more insidious sense. A subjectivity with a sociology. There is something typically Žižekian about this apparent paradox. As with others nominally committed to grand projects, the issue is not one of hypocrisy, so much as of the means by which raw power and purity of purpose can be experienced as synonymous:

the figure of the ‘big Other’ as a background against which [to] exert… ruthlessness and drive for power. They had displaced their belief onto this Other, which, as it were, believed on their behalf. Continue reading