The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Stuart Hall on Cosmopolitanism

I have for a long time had a soft spot for British crypto-Marxist intellectuals. They have largely been politically ineffectual and even irrelevant. The height of their influence was on Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour campaign against Margaret Thatcher. His platform – nicknamed ‘the longest suicide note in history’ – included withdrawal from NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament. It concluded the Labour Party going down in flames at the polls and the spectacular triumph of Thatcherism. The old British Left has never really recovered.

Michael Foot: author of 'the longest suicide note in history'.

Nonetheless, whether it is Eric Hobsbawm on the history of capitalism, Benedict Anderson on the emergence of nationalism or Fred Halliday on the ‘Second’ Cold War and the Middle East, British Leftist thinkers have had much insight. So it is with Stuart Hall, born in Jamaica, co-founder of the New Left Review, professor, sociologist and cultural critic. His books – whether on the media or unsatisfactory developments in British politics – appear under obscure and intimidating titles like Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices and Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. But he also has a more common touch, appearing on BBC radio and various documentaries to comment on issues of globalization and multiculturalism with his trademark affable manner and comforting, grandfatherly voice.

Insightful volumes.. (mind the historical materialism)

Pnina Werbner (sp?) of Keele University has an interesting interview of Hall on the subject of cosmopolitanism today. I find this of particular interest given my own background. Hall is asked: is cosmopolitanism possible? Is it emerging with the coming of globalization, the rise of Asia, multiculturalism and immigration?

Faux cosmopolitanism: the airport bar.

Hall answers very quickly in the negative, human beings continue to be dominated by parochial, ethnocentric concerns, not but by the interests and culture of the whole of humanity – trans-culturalism, world peace, human rights, environmentalism and so forth are for another day. He laughs referring to his friends who appear to think themselves ‘cosmopolitan’ because they travel around the world for business and pleasure – with all the airports looking the same, eating diverse cuisines, living ‘the global life’ – when all they are doing is inhabiting Western bubbles (colonies) spiced with a little exotica.

He notes that genuine cosmopolitanism will be impossible until there is a basic equality between all fractions of humanity – North, South, East, West – so that all participate in what he calls, ‘the swim of history.’ Until now world history has been the history of capitalism, its tribulations and the rise of a technical-industrial civilization in the North with vast endeavours of production and destruction. Which is to say that Latin Americans, West Indians, Africans and Asians – four fifths of humanity – have been objects of foreign histories for some two hundred years. Hall does not have much to say on the new capitalism since the 1970s, which saw major non-Western nations and elites rise spectacularly in wealth and power for the first type since Japan in the 1870s. Yet from Dubai through Hyderabad, to Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, the are coming to the table, as incarnated in the expansion of the rich man’s club at G7 to an unwieldy G20.

Eric Hobsbawm: A European cosmopolitan.

Hall also does not consider more limited definitions of cosmopolitanism that might be more regionally circumscribed, but still useful. I think of this particularly in the European context – with all our nations, classes and tribes – where there have been individuals with the cosmopolitanism of ‘Europe’, the openness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I think of Eric Hobsbawm, a man never limited by national preoccupations, partly as he was born in 1917 in Alexandria to Jewish parents, raised in Vienna and Berlin speaking English, growing up to become a British historian. Or of Stanley Hoffmann – an Austrian immigrant raised in France and a naturalized American – who has spent much of his life explaining France to America and America to Europe. Or again, in a more limited way, of George F. Kennan who though first articulated the doctrine of containment in the ‘Long Telegram’, spent his entire life criticizing U.S. Cold War policies. It was said his influence was so limited, because he had learned to understand Russia better than he did his own country. I believe such individuals might have the formation and interests to transcend individuals nations – working for peace for the whole of Europe, including Russia and North America – something of no small value given the concentration of destructive potential that continent has held for much of its history.

But I digress, as Hall’s mains concerns regard the relationship between Europe and the world, not between Europeans. Hall criticizes much of the rather triumphalist, universalist talk about globalization, noting that instead of homogenizing the world, we are only seeing the mixing – we might say the friction – between heterogeneous groups, poor and rich, conservative and modern. He notes that immigration represents a kind of globalization from below, and that Third World peoples learn to live in and adapt to living in foreign countries, exploiting legal and illegal markets, adopting what he calls ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’.

Globalization from Below: African migrants reach the shores of Spain.

A key question for the future, is the place of the diasporas these movements of people produce. How do young individuals deal with their ‘lived reality’ – people imbued by consumerist, sexualized Western culture, who might have deeply conservative grandparents, who return ‘home’ to India or Jamaica and are considered foreign and confused, while have the prospect of living and dying in France or Britain, while largely being considered foreign if not menacing by your host nation.

What place in the world for you, how should you act, what should you attempt to be? Hall does not pretend to have the answers. Instead, diasporas are torn between an alien present and a an imagined past, a mythical origin, which in no longer exists (if it ever did). For against the essentialists who believe in unchanging and eternal tribe and religion, he posits that people must ‘see the extent to which who you are now… your culture is being made and remade by forces that are global.’ In regard to my own experiences in France, Britain and America, I can only agree with his saying that ‘every diaspora has its regrets. Although you can never go back to the past, you do have a sense of loss,’ of family, landscape and tradition. He adds, fatalistically, ‘this is the fate of modern peoples.’

Not a be-all-end-all: Independence Day, Ghana.

Hall’s own nostalgia is partly linked to his leaving the West Indies just as it was on the threshold of independence. He did not participate in the building of independent nation-states whether in Africa, Asia or his native Jamaica. There seems to be a little regret for a missed opportunity, but he nonetheless claims the he never ‘tied [him]self into to the notion of the nation, and nationhood, as the ultimate end of the political process.’ While important in the context of defeating colonialism, he does not consider nationalism an end in itself or the only means to the people’s betterment. And indeed, one is tempted to agree with him given the unfortunate history of so many postcolonial states, the long history of nationalist terror in the idea’s birthplace, Europe, and indeed the partial rejection of the concept by Europeans themselves in favour of a kind of technocratic continental government.

Hegel and Marx: No History but Europe.

This makes him something of a cosmopolitan, though he is keen to distance himself from the Enlightenment’s definition of it. He notes that Western science and discovery came to serve to legitimize Western domination of the world. Thinkers – as diverse as Locke, Hegel or Marx – agreed that the peoples of Africa and Asia lived without history, in unchanging, fixed civilizations when not completely without culture. He condemns the belief that ‘we are the enlightened ones and we are going to enlighten everybody else... everyone else are the childhood of mankind and only Western civilization really are the grownups.’ Indeed, as a corollary, he doesn’t ‘think we can march around the world and make people cosmopolitan [or democratic, or respect human rights].’

He does admit to being a child of the Enlightenment in that he ‘believe[s] in history and in progress, I am not religious, I believe in the rule of law, etc.’ He also loves the Enlightenment’s belief in the power of debate: ‘It required a big argument!’ But even here, on the subjects of North-South relations and multiculturalism, the liberalism issued of the Enlightenment is of marked poverty. It imagines a world of ‘free-floating atoms contracting with other free-floating atoms’ and ‘it has never understood difference.’

Stuart Hall

Then nation-state, liberalism and Western interventionism are of little use to us today… What are we do to? And what is Hall, as a deracinated Jamaican and a Leftist intellectual in England, to recommend? Hall seems to suggest muddling through, he concedes that he is ‘a cosmopolitan by default.’ He aspires to an ‘openness to the horizon to that which I’m not.’ While, ‘I don’t want to make a fetish of Otherness,’ he does claim a sympathy and kind of kinship with the Palestinians in particular. He says that ‘I know what it’s like to be colonized… They come from another tradition, another world, another religious universe, another language, another literature… They are not me but I am open in some ways to their existing in my global world.’ An openness to other lives – as our own experiences and identities transform and interpenetrate – may provide a partial answer. That and a kind of activism, Hall reminds us that democracy is ‘open, argumentative, quarrelsome society.’ He urges political activism to solve the problems of today: “It’s quarrels that gave the enfranchisement of women or that gave the majority of people the vote. It is struggles that democratised old aristocratic and capitalist societies.” He assures, as though advising and supporting his grandchildren on a difficult matter “It’s not an easy passage.”

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Friday, May 22, 2009

P: Mitterrand

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


And now, for something completely different..

I have doodled ever since I could hold a pencil, usually to mixed results, but it has only been relatively recently that I have tried to draw real-life people, and only in the past year or so that I've tried drawing from pictures. Favorite subjects include Francois Mitterrand, Mobutu Sese Seko and Frantz Fanon. I am usually charmed by those with a certain mystique..

I've drawn a few over the past year and I've decided to share. Unfortunately I don't have access to any decent image-editing software on this computer (libary, they have scanners though) so I haven't been able to crop or fix the contrast of most of these pictures. (Did you know paint doesn't have a "zoom out" function?!)

I've got Frantz Fanon and James Blake Miller (aka. The "Marloboro Marine") from sometime early last autumn. Each time using a thick pencil, a bit rough..

More recently (last week), I indulged in my novel minor obsession with Mikhail Gorbachev. I was so pleased with the result that I continued that day with LBJ and George F. Kennan. For these I used a thin pen-pencil, so I don't have much color depth. The last two were quick and dirty and it shows, their left eyes are slightly off. (Although, for Kennan, it may be that he just had the one big eyeball.)

And finally...

..more Fanon! I used the same model as the first drawing, but this is the first time I had all the proportions looking about right and, most importantly, got good-looking shading. I invite you to look at the big version (see the original).


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Lonely Military-Industrial Complex

Inspired by and in response to Stephen Walt. He questions the reasons and need for the United States to spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined.

The global imbalance in defense spending towards the U.S. is the product of several factors. The most important have been the demilitarization of other advanced economies and the strength within American society of the National Security state and the military-industrial complex. The resources the U.S. commits to defense, while a huge imbalance internationally, is not unusual by American standards since 1945.

Europe (and Japan): where have all the soldiers gone?

The tendencies towards demilitarization within the developed world (Western Europe, Japan) have long been underway. Obviously in Germany and Japan, post-World War pacifism and guilt have been important. In countries like France, the U.K., Belgium and the Netherlands, military power was undermined by its consistent failure to maintain long-term colonial domination in the 1950s and 1960s. The trend really became pronounced with the end of the Cold War, when the security of European states was fundamentally assured, and they could engage in a vast demilitarization. Now European and Japanese defence spending tends towards a near-negligible 1% of GDP, with the exceptions of Great Britain and France with their lingering Great Power aspirations. The fact that even if a major European country invested more substantially in their military, they would lack the ability to undertake autonomous action of any real interest anyway (not counting the odd British and French adventures in Africa..).

In what was once the place of the ‘other’ vast military-industrial complex, the former Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War was the critical factor. Russia no longer needs to invest (waste) so much of its national wealth into military forces to control Eastern Europe or participate in the nuclear arms race. Add to that that the Soviet/Russian economy collapsed in 1989-1991, and you understand why that country no longer factors into the equation.

China is still attempting to have a working aircraft carrier. This, the ex-Soviet Varyag, is currently undergoing repairs by the Chinese.

China is the only rising economy that might rival the U.S. eventually in terms of defense spending. I suspect they will have both the potential and the interest in the mid-term future, but we are not there yet.

Unheard of..

So the 'spending more than the rest of the world' factoid is somewhat misleading. It is not that the U.S. is all that militarized by most standards. This is not Wilhelmine Germany, interwar Europe, or even Ronald Reagan's America (about 6% of GDP to the military). It *is* high by today's global standards, mainly because other poles of military power - Western Europe, Japan, Russia - have demilitarized massively. The United States is the last country in the world today seriously interested in projecting substantial military might abroad.

..and normal.

I don't know if 4% of GDP is too high. Certainly, given the size of the U.S., its economy, its scientific successes, this has meant that there has been a rampant and sickening technophilia in the U.S. military. It has been evident since the Cold War, with officers and congressmen seeming to think all their security problems can be resolved by atomic bombs, Huey helicopters, smart bombs, stealth bombers and more 137.5 million-dollar fighter jets… In my opinion, one can trace a straight line in thinking between losing in Vietnam despite dropping more bombs on Southeast Asia than the whole of those exploded in WW2 with the idea that Rumsfeld's "military revolution" would mean Iraq would be a cakewalk.

U.S. military power means our leaders will, every so often, misuse it. Whether this is because of hubris or miscalculation is irrelevant. Assuming no general war, in 20 or 30 years, I am convinced there will be American boys fighting a losing war in some other godforsaken corner of Asia. This is part of what the Founding Fathers' feared. America was meant to be different from Europe, with its vicious circle of power-hungry princes and ravenous wars.

Civil War: an American exception

America has not succumbed to despotism, but it has embraced a very European tradition of permanent semi-war footing, and military adventurism. This was literally un-American before 1941 and has been normal since. (And, to counter the arguments of a Bob Kagan: there were obviously American wars in the 19th Century, even expansionist ones, but there was no peacetime conscription or vast military establishments as in Europe.) So we have this ironic symmetry: the U.S. was exceptional before the Second World War for being the only civilian power, it has been exceptional since the end of the Cold War for being the last military power.

I think we could benefit from an honest and open debate on the issue of American military power. If only so that, every four years, we do not have these ridiculous pissing matches between presidential candidates as who is willing to be ‘stronger-on-defence’ by throwing yet more money at it... without ever detailing which programs in particular make the United States more secure. Although, to be frank, I doubt the country is capable of such a discussion. The fact that so many in our media and political elite portrayed the new defense budget - representing a 4% increase - as a cut seems to confirm this. At least Bob Gates seems committed to reorienting in a more useful manner the necessary curse of organized violence.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

More Walt

Noted realist international relations professor and commentator Stephen Walt has was is really a very good blog. He's been very prominent in the poli sci community in the U.S. for a long time (structural realism, defensive realism, balance of threat.. zz..), but only came to worldwide and public prominence when he co-wrote an article (later book) with John J. "give everybody nukes!" Mearsheimer on the Israel Lobby and U.S. foreign policy. He produces a steady stream of posts on a vast array of topics on the world today, whether its on Israel-Palestine, pessimism on Afghanistan, nuclear Iran, films and so forth..

More recently, he has written two pieces that caught my interest. The first compares Obama to Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, and hopes he will be like the latter in terms of foreign policy (detente and recognition of enemies, military withdrawal from quagmires..). I am somewhat jealous because I long had drafts for a Nixon-Obama analogy piece kicking around on my desktop, and Walt has largely articulated what I would have said. He also has a must-read 'Threatmonger's Handbook' describing all the tactics used over the years to justify a large, large number of unnecessary and often ill-advised wars.

Worth tracking.


Friday, May 01, 2009

"Punching" (response to Walt)

This is a long response to Stephen Walt's post on states punching above and below their weight. His post raises questions about the nature of a nation's power, its international influence, and the relationship between the two.

For this kind of exercise to be useful, one would need to define and be rigorous about what one means by 'national power', 'international influence' and so forth. The ability to get in the headlines is not the same thing as being influential.

President de Gaulle: power without influence.

In that sense, Charles de Gaulle is a rather misleading example. He obviously got a lot of attention at the time (and since) for his eloquent and bombastic rhetoric, and innovative, sometimes shocking, foreign policy. Arguably he increased France's power by making her autonomous within NATO through military withdrawal and the nuclear deterrent. However his influence over other countries seems to have been fairly close to nil. His efforts to seduce Germany (away from the Americans), to push the Poles to rebellion, to form a rapport with the Russians and neither were the Europeans willing to accept French leadership of the EEC with the Fouchet Plan. (One can only really cite his influence negatively: in blocking the UK's accession to the EEC, in vetoing the EEC for a while.)

Let us speak of *influence*, not notoriety. That is, we are talking about a state's ability to coerce, persuade or shape another state/region according to its desires. Here we find most countries becoming unexceptional, if not peripheral, to one another. Even informal spheres of influence today are rather rare, and whatever power a typical nation such as a Spain, an Argentina or a Malaysia has today, seems rather abstract. But let us explore this exercise..

Some conditions for punching above:
* Be the best in your region: This allows you to be the quasi-formal leader of your region in international fora. This applies mainly to Brazil and South Africa.

* Be powerful relative to your region: A related, but separate concept. Israel is tiny, of course, but its economic, technological and military prowess (not to mention the opposite qualities of its neighbors) give it a kind of dominance over its neighbors. Other examples of this could include Cuba (it used to have troops in various parts of Africa) and (Apartheid) South Africa.

The European Union: pooled power.

* Pool/join power: The best example of that is the EU. While it is obviously true the institution is a political fractious and a non-entity in any crisis, it also represents a sharing of economic power. Each EU member is economically too small to be of any real influence internationally (with the very slightly partial exception of Germany). EU membership negotiations are done in common, they offer the possibility of structural funds, agricultural funds, trade, aid, investment, and access to the European market. Naturally, the EU's neighbors greatly desire all these things, and the EU's member negotiate collectively to place *conditions* on access to it, the most important being democracy, the rule of law, market economics and so forth. In so doing, the small-to-medium sized EU states, each in themselves of little significance, are collectively using their substantial economic power to literally reshape their neighbors in accordance with their interest (in essence, making them peaceful, prosperous, democratic trading states).

Some conditions for punching below:

Happy irrevelevance... (Switzerland)

* Having a weak military-industrial complex and foreign policy/national security elites. This is the case of civilianized 'trading states', Japan and Western Europe (partial exceptions of Britain/France) being the typical examples. With military spending at circa 1% of GDP, the ability to project military power is almost nil, making one impotent in crisis situations requiring it (1990-1 Gulf War, Yugoslav Wars, for example).

...miserable strength. (Soviet soldiers in Prague, 1968)

* Have a too strong (or foolishly used) military-industrial complex and foreign policy/national security elites. Military power today is a double edged sword, and I would argue, not that useful in most instances. Globalization and nuclear weapons have meant that fighting first world countries is both useless and suicidal. Demographic explosion and asymmetric weapons (IEDs, Kalashnikov etc.) have made 3rd world occupation mostly pointless. The typical example of this was the Soviet Union, having vast armed forces, a huge nuclear arsenal, an economy distorted by 15-20% of GDP sucked into defense. Meanwhile, this military power was either A) unused B) used to control an impoverished, expensive, embarrassing and strategically useless Eastern Europe, and the threat it posed precluded much Soviet cooperation with the only places that mattered in terms of trade, aid and technological development: North America, Western Europe and Japan.

Still, this is all very schematic. One would really need appropriate and rigorous definitions. 'National power' seems easy enough, tally up the numbers in terms of GDP, soldiers, nuclear weapons, tanks, trade and so forth. 'Influence' and 'international power' seem much more difficult. Power is often structural and not related to executive leadership (the democratic/capitalistic/pacifying influence of German trade on its neighbors for instance). Power is also often conditional on a (usually problematic) situation for it to be useful. Without Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, for instance, it is doubtful US military power would have seen any 'useful' action since the end of the Cold War. Finally, 'power' can't be judged as a simple number (nation X is 10x stronger than nation Y).

Power and Peril: military adventurism

Power is double edged, particularly military power. Germany's influence abroad is constrained by its low military tradition and aversion to intervention. But does vast military capabilities really make a nation internationally powerful? As always, it depends. Military power is useful in some instances, but it also has an intoxicating effect on elites, leading them to military adventures that are extremely costly to the nation in terms of blood and treasure, while not increasing the country's international influence, in fact, often the opposite. The examples are infinite: French Indochina, French Algeria, the U.S. in Vietnam and Iraq, the Soviets and Americans in Afghanistan to cite the most modern examples. As they say, when you have a hammer..

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