Blogosphere Round-Up I: Ideas and Interests, Lyotard vs. Habermas Redux, Democide and Structural Violence
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been a bit busy submitting one journal article and revising another for publication. As a result I’ve gotten a bit behind with the blog. An empty page looks a bit daunting when you are out of the groove. So I’m going to do a bumper round-up of interesting debates on various blogs that have caught my interest over the past week:
There was a very interesting discussion of the role of ideas and interests in sustaining the policies of austerity over at Crooked Timber. The comments thread was particularly excellent, with commentators providing some excellent reasons why a hard distinction between ideas and interests is difficult to sustain. I particularly liked the points made by Rich Puchalsky, who pointed out that if good-faith belief in a set of ideas motivated agents we would expect them to change their beliefs and actions when those ideas were demonstrated to be weak. This isn’t what we find with regards to austerity. Also excellent was the distinction Peter Dorman made between four possible mechanisms for how ideas can arise from interests. This is the kind of high-level debate which, in all honesty, is often too difficult and time-consuming to find within the traditional structures of academia.
Second, I somehow managed to miss a spat from last October that span out of discussion of a review by Corey Robin of Daniel Rodger’s Age of Fracture. Nils Gilman, the author of an excellent book on the role of modernisation theory in US foreign policy, endorsed the view expressed in Age of Fracture that the 1980s and 1990s intellectual trend of post-modernism shared a great deal with the reactionary, individualist spirit of that era. This provoked Adam Rothstein to offer a rebuttal in an attempt to acquit post-modernism of the charges against it. He makes the fair point that we should properly distinguish between post-modernity and post-structuralism – the latter was developed as an attempt to make sense of the former and so can hardly be held accountable for it. As an intellectual historian, Gilman was able to provide a compelling contextualisation of post-modernism as a broad intellectual trend that helped to undermine the intellectual basis for collective action as well as, in its vulgarised forms, provide a ready-made set of anti-scientific arguments for the political right. For my money, Gilman has the better of this one. The mini-debate was, as Gilman noted, a rerun of earlier Habermas vs. Lyotard/Foucault arguments. The problem with Rothstein’s attempted rebuttal, in addition to its descent into hyperbolic polemic in the last paragraphs, is that he doesn’t seem to realise the shape of the battle-lines. He rightly notes that post-modernism/post-structuralism was not just the product of the Reagan era, but had deeper roots in the 19th ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. But he doesn’t seem to realise that many have criticised Ricouer’s categorisation. Specifically, Marx can be interpreted as a theorist of depth whilst Nietzsche can be seen as a theorist of surfaces: the former is concerned with the way that appearances mask reality whilst the latter holds that it is masks all the way down. Simplifying massively, the latter position is more or less that held by contemporary post-structuralists, whilst the former is hewed to by Western Marxists and Critical Theorists. This is why the two camps of theorists have been at contretemps so often and why people in the latter camp such as Terry Eagleton had such a low view of the general post-modernist trend. Rothstein wants to have his cake and each it, he conflates two very different positions: there is an objective reality which appearances misrepresent; there is no objective reality, just an ever-shifting array of interpretations which have real social effects. If you’re going to make a stab at defending post-modernism, actually defend post-modernism.
Third, Martin Hewson has continued a discussion we began in the comments thread for my post on Django regarding genocide and mass-killing. I think he pretty much hits the nail on the head, but I’m less sceptical about the idea that poverty might be considered structural violence under certain circumstances – especially given the sliding scale between economic warfare and less direct imposition of conditions of economic deprivation.
Is there any link between these three topics? Well, maybe my interest in these three discussions arises from an issue I’ve been pondering since the Millennium Journal of International Studies conference last year: how best to work towards contributing to a non-dogmatic, analytically rigorous materialist account of world politics.