Category Archives: democratisation

Blogosphere Round-up II: Kenneth Waltz, Rational Choice, People Power and Self-Promotion

I’ve read a series of things recently that made me want to write something, but that probably wouldn’t support a full blog post. So here’s another round of discussions going on that are in some way relevant to past posts on this blog.

  • via Martin Hewson/Breviosity, here’s an article by Ian Clarke on the significance of Waltz contribution to international relations theory. I agree with the opinion expressed over at Breviosity that, although Waltz gave realism a second lease of life, debates in IR might have actually turned out fairly similar even without Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. I think, however, that ToIP has helped tie the discipline together by providing different theoretical perspectives (as well as some atheoretical perspectives) a common foil (I think Wohlforth has argued something similar).
  • There’s been a very interesting debate over on the Duck of Minerva about rational choice theory and whether it conceives of actors as autonomous from their environments (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This debate is of especially interest because I’m reading a book by Jon Elster (philosopher of science and advocate turned critic of rational choice theory) that is specifically concerned with methodological individualism and the way in which we different kinds of relations amongst actors should be characterised. I might write a short post on this topic soon. Over on the comments thread at Howl at Pluto I took issue with Jackson’s Kantian-Weberian characterisation of moral decision making during the course of this debate. From memory and from the bits and pieces I’ve read more recently, I don’t think contemporary political philosophers/philosophers of action draw such a sharp distinction between ‘value-rational’ and instrumental action.
  • The wave of popular protests against the world continues to rumble on, prompting attempts to explain the connections between the events as well as derision of some of those attempts (I’ve commented on the Blood and Treasure post). In the course of reading round this topic, I’ve discovered the really rather good Political Violence @ A Glance blog  (which provides interesting analysis of some of the facets of protests in Brazil and Turkey).
  • Via a Tweet by Pablo K, I discovered that my article in Millennium and the rest of the pretty damn interesting special edition on ‘Materialism and World Politics’ is currently open access. It’s never been easier or cheaper to read my thoughts on the connection between global inequality, labour markets and the democratic peace!

Thug Politics

Oh dear, over a month since I said that I would be reviving the blog and this is the first post to follow. In my defence, I had a busy August teaching at a Summer School in Oxford.

Anyway, there’s an interesting mini-article by Murad Batal al-Shishani and Dalia Elsheikh over on the BBC website about the rise of the thug as an important political actor in the Middle East.

The term “baltagi” is Turkish in origin. “Baltaci”, which means “axe-man”, was adopted into Arabic during Ottoman rule.

In modern day Egypt, baltagi came to mean “thug”. But after mass anti-government unrest erupted in January and February 2011, it began to be used to describe regime supporters who were used to disperse and attack protesters.

The Assad regime in Syria has of course been utilising the Shabiha militias, made up of criminals, to terrorise supporters of the armed opposition. Similar groups are wielded by the Yemeni regime as well, according to the article.

As a non-specialist, the article suggests to me that the political capacity of the regimes of the MENA region must have significantly declined if they are now dependent on hooligans and gangsters to cling on to power. In his recent book on political order (which I blogged on quite a bit) he makes the case for seeing the emergence of such retinues, which orbit strong-men able to keep doling out the loot, as a feature of political decay. Away from West Asia, bands of thugs have been utilised by various regimes whose hold on power and the conventional levers of government was slipping: from the Shanghai gangsters who massacred of workers and communists at the behest of Chiang Kai Shek at the start of the Chinese Civil War, to the squads of football hooligans who formed into ethnic paramilitary units during the Yugoslav wars after the disintegration of the federal state.

As these two example might indicate, the rise of the thug isn’t a good sign for the MENA region. Arguably, democracy requires an existing political order and the institutionalisation of the principle that political disagreements should not be resolved through force. Democracy seems a distant prospect where the state has privatised and farmed out its monopoly on the use of force.

#Egypt, #OWC and the End of the End of History

Everyone is commenting on how eventful 2011 has turned out to be, with Charlie Brooker comparing it to an untoppable season finale. Given that the past week witnessed the deaths of both Vaclav Havel and Kim Il Jong (seems like the childlike empress of the universe is trying to keep the scores even), it’s anyone’s guess what surprise twist will be sprung in the last two weeks of the year. Alien contact via microwave signals beamed to Nintendo 3DS consoles? Ahmadinejad turns out to be a Saudi sleeper agent? Dolphins petition to join the UN?

'Eternity is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child.' Heraclitus and NeverEnding Story references in a single post, only here on Chaos and Governance

The ‘Arab Spring’ and the Occupy protests have, of course, been identified as the crucially important events of the year by many. The link between the two was at first seen as spurious by many. But in an article for the Guardian last Friday, Malik, Shenker and Gabbat make a decent case for seeing events of the year as part of an interlinked youth revolt against economic and political hierarchies, taking inspiration from one another and employing the same social media-enabled tactics.

It may have seemed churlish at first to compare the sacrifices of the Egyptian protesters to those of the Occupy movement but, without losing a sense of perspective, the parallels seemed much more relevant once security forces responding to Occupations by pepper-spraying unarmed, unresisting students in the face at point blank range.

In addition, commentators such as Malik, Shenker and Gabbat (as well as Mason) have seen in the various struggles signs of the decentralised ‘multitude’ prophesied by social theorists Negeri and Hardt back in 2000 as the new vanguard of global protest. On this I’m not so sure. Is the Egyptian uprising really all that different in terms of its social composition or organisational strategy from past pro-democracy movements, such as those which brought down the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe?

Malik, Shenkar and Gabbat seem like they are on to something when they suggest that there is an important generational aspect to current protests. There is an undeniable groundswell of frustration from what they describe as ‘most well-educated generation in human history’, a generation which is probably the most under-employed generation in history to boot. High education and dashed expectations are a volatile mixture. As Mason quips in what was probably the most important and perceptive blog post of the year, the French revolution was ‘not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers’.

The Malik et al piece, however, ends with the rather strange suggestion that

the great revenge is this: the generation that grew up being told they were the heirs to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history and victory of a liberal capitalist society, is now working its damnedest to prove how untrue this is

Maybe I just have Fukuyama on the brain this month. But the comment seems strange because it seems to describe the opposite of what is going on in the Middle East, where pro-democracy movements (or at least important elements of them) are trying their damnedest to prove that Fukuyama was right, to prove that that the Arab-Islamic world is not eternally destined to be subject to tyranny and that democracy is a universal aspiration. Even in the advanced industrialised world, where I agree that many making up the Occupy movements seem to yearn for something more than representative liberal democracy, it seems strange to call the protests ‘revenge’. Rather, they seem more like self-defence in the face of the shredding of the social contract and all-out assault by the 1%. Indeed, a return to the model of social market democracy extant before the crisis would no doubt be an appealing proposition for many in Western Europe and the US right now.

In other words, I think many of us in the North wish that history really had ended in 1989.