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The Congress of Riyadh

A guest post by Conn Hallinan on Juan Cole’s blog compares a meeting of the Arab League in Sharm el-Sheikh  to the Congress of Vienna – which presumably makes the coalition prosecuting the intervention in Yemen a C21st West Asian Holy Alliance. I’ve been thinking and reading about the Congress a fair bit recently, so I thought it was an interesting angle. I’m not sure about Hallinan’s argument that the intervention has nothing to do with religion or actions by Iran. On the first count, I’m not sure that political power, ideology and religion are easily disentangled at the current conjuncture. On the second count, the Houthi groups don’t have to be pawns of Iran for others to be threatened by their success. The very possibility that they could act as proxies or allies in the future, opening up Yemen as a battleground, might be enough to motivate action against them. Such worst-case scenario reasoning may well be more likely given the strategic rivalry that exists between the Kingdom and the Republic, and in the context of the sectarian polarisation sweeping across the region.

The comparison with the interventionist coalition of C19th conservative powers is apt though. I’m currently reading John Owen’s The Clash of Ideas in World Politics, who argues that political instability, leading to ideological polarisation, leading to great power intervention, leading to further ideological escalation is a longstanding and perennial cycle within world politics. Internal ideological challenges and external threats become intertwined and reinforcing as powers compete to impose compatible regimes through intervention and cross-border ideological networks struggle to shift the ideological and geopolitical alignment of states. If he is correct, then the length of past cycles is pretty sobering: around 100 years.

On a closely related topic, I’m going to just note some of the different accounts of what exactly IS is that have popped up: Stern & Berger’s account of the role of foreign fighters, Wood’s comparison of IS to the fanatical sects of the 30 years war, and Reuter’s account of the Baathist origins of IS – which makes him prefer the Stasi as the chosen historical analogue.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how to think about international relations systemically in the wake of the exhaustion of the paradigm wars in international relations theory. Whatever a revived systemic approach to world politics looks like, transnational ideological networks and non-state violent actors have to have an important place.

Edit: Another article on the Daesh-Baathist connection from the Washington Post, from a little while back. Also, Channel 4 docu.


Greek Tragedies

Before the weekend, the Monkey Cage featured an interesting article on the Greek debt crisis and Thucydides. In general, I’m not a fan of the way that Thucydides and the History of the Peloponnesian War is trotted out within debates on international relations. The basic problem is that the famous quote plucked from Thucydides’s Melian dialogue, ‘The powerful do what they can, whilst the weak suffer what they must’, is potentially vacuous. There’s a question of whether the quote is even an accurate translation of Thucydides:  apparently, Mary Beard claims that a closer translation would be ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply’, which removes some of the natural necessity of the quote and assigns greater responsibility to the powerful. But putting this to one side, the quotation is circular and tautological if being weak is defined as suffering what one must and powerful means doing whatever one can without restraint. As I’ve emphasised (belaboured?) in discussions with countless students, a lot of power-talk in international relations is vacuous in this regard. These sort of parlour tricks, wheeling out old Thucydides to make seemingly-profound but platitudinous statements, are what provides fairly unsophisticated versions of realism in international relations with their superficial aura of plausibility. To talk about power properly, it’s necessary to distinguish between resources/relationships and outcomes, which enables a much more productive debate about what sort of resources/social relations generate control over outcomes under what sort of conditions.

But the article by Neville Morley is quite a bit better than the usual fare, as it discusses the way in which responses of actors placed positions of strength and weakness differ from what rational choice theories would predict. Thus it seems that the structure of the situation of bargaining among unequals has an influence over the goals that actors pursue. Perhaps this is another case where actors are operating according to heuristics, general strategies that are effective in a range of similar social circumstances. Maybe in their wider social experiences actors are used to using a position of strength to push for maximum advantage and used to shifting to moral appeals and unreciprocated cooperation when they are at a disadvantage. As the evidence I’ve read on cross-cultural experiments with game theory seems to indicate, actors may bring their wider social experiences of competition and cooperation with them into the laboratory.

The article makes some fascinating points about Varoufakis’s own research on game theory and the strategies that he has pursued as Finance Minister. But as someone in the comments points out, Morley’s piece ignores the fact of Athen’s eventual defeat in the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides classic has been read as a tragedy in which the Athenians, who expressed the hubris of the overly mighty in their arrogant dismissal of the moral arguments of the Melians, were eventually visited by nemesis. On this reading, there are lessons for the powerful as well as the weak.

Two Boosts for Elitism

As every first year politics undergraduate will be aware, once upon a time there was a debate within political sociology between elitists and pluralists. Elitists in political sociology, represented by scholars such as C Wright Mills, argued that political institutions exhibit a systemic bias in favour of certain dominant groups within society, i.e. the ruling classes. Pluralists, such as Robert Dahl, argued that no one set of organised interest groups could maintain permanent control of the political process within modern democracies.

Events over the past decade make pluralism seem rather prima facie implausible. One would certainly want some strong evidence to support such a claim during a period of increasing inequality and displacement of the costs of risks taken by globalised financial sectors onto general publics.

Instead, there seems to be mounting evidence from political science – where a basically pluralist outlook tends to dominate – that the elitist theory provides an accurate account of the current state of politics in the OECD. Via Kevin Drum a summary of a pilot survey by Page and Bartels that suggests that the policy preferences of US politicians seem to track the policy preferences of the wealthy much more closely than those of average citizens. Via Chris Dillow a recent paper by Torija that argues that politicians of all major parties work to maximise the preference-satisfaction of the top few percentiles of the income distribution. He argues that this is a new phenomenon that has arisen since the 1970s, which is interesting as it suggests that the problem is less ‘structural’ and intrinsic to capitalist democracies than ‘conjunctural’ and reflecting recent historical circumstances.

What relevance is all of this to international relations? Well, it gives a boost to more elitist/structuralist theories of international relations and foreign policy such as neo-Gramscianism (Robert Cox, Stephen Gill), and might undermine some of the complacency of pluralist theories such as ‘new liberalism’ that regard states as neutral agents that act on behalf of shifting coalitions of social actors.

Crisis Thinkers: Charles Tilly and #OWC Part 2

In the last post I drew upon Charles Tilly’s framework for understanding what he called contentious politics to shed some light on the tactics of OWC and aligned movements. That post analysed various common features of the gestation and development of such movements through mechanisms such as emulation, brokerage, formation of a blame narrative and the employment of a repertoire of contention. Although cautious about making claims for predictions about a process so open ended and dynamic as political protest, Tilly also offered some insights into how movements achieve success.

For Tilly and collaberators such as Tarrow working in the same tradition, the space for protest is strongly conditioned by the ‘political opportunity structure’ within a specific ‘political regime’. In other words, the space for protest depends on the specifics of a social and political context. Movements must be able to organise, communicate, reach out beyond their core base and to actually engage in some form of protest. Different opportunities result in different kinds of protest movements. For example, an acquaintance of mine was a dissident in communist Poland. He and fellow dissidents were severely limited in their ability to openly criticise the existing regime, but they took to wearing electronic resistors on their lapels to indicate that they were resisting the communist regime.

Resistance not always futile

In many non-democratic Islamic nations, political movements were systematically crushed by autocratic governments. As a result, political protest retreated inside of the remaining social space the security apparatus had difficulty operating within and could not shut down, the Mosque. This left movements like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as the primary vehicles for anti-government discontent, explaining a significant part of the rise of political Islam over the past three-and-a-bit decades.

But the political opportunity structure does not totally pre-determine the fate of political movements, according to Tilly a great deal depends on the strategies adopted by political movements. Such areas are genuinely resistant to generalisation, they depend on issues of timing, leadership, when to consolidate and when to go on the offensive – the stuff of political judgement. But Tilly does repeatedly insist that, at least in modern democratic societies, mass movements engaging in contentious politics have to take steps to publically demonstrate four things as they issue their claims:

  1. Worth: Movements engaging in contentious politics usually appeal to some set of widely acknowledged moral or political principles. To have credibility they need to demonstrate that they themselves are morally worthy by the standards of society. The more worthy a group, the more difficult it is for the state or other opponents to confront that group with violence. Thus successful pro-democracy movements often induce a kind of paralysis in the authorities – who cannot crush them without destroying what remains of their legitimacy. In order to demonstrate its worth the OWC movement has had to rebut claims that they are composed of only the shiftless unemployed and troublemakers, emphasising the role of veterans in the movement. The Occupy London Stock Exchange movement has been able to position itself as standing up for widely shared values of social justice, acting as the conscience and representative of theUKpublic. Their standing was increased after the St Paul’s farce, relative to both a Church that some now seen as having failed in its own moral mission and an opaque and murky political entity in the form of the Corporation of London.
  2. Unity: This requirement is pretty straightforward. Strong political campaigns can claim ‘E pluribus, unum’, drawing diverse individuals under a common banner. This might be where the OWC protests find themselves weakest, as the goals as well as their make-up of the protesters are diverse. Nonetheless, opposition to accelerating inequality has provided a common enough of a focal point to unify the movement thus far and allowed it to issue a reasonably clear public message about its goals, even if the specifics are vague.

    CC DoctorTongs

  3. Numerousness: Protestors must show that their claims are supported by large numbers. This might be because they need to demonstrate that their claims are not just the special pleading of a malcontented minority, but it also serves to demonstrate that their claims are supported by large numbers of people who, if they chose, could take more direct and disruptive action. In the OWC occupations efforts have been made to both attract more participants and to appeal to the idea that the occupiers are part of a much larger 99%. Opponents of OWC have tried to undermine such claims through the (somewhat incoherent) ‘We Are the 53%’ slogan, demonstrating the importance of the claim to numerousness. The ‘We Are the 1%’ style rebuttals, however, fail to understand the dynamic of protest within a democracy.
  4. Commitment: Protest movements attempt to demonstrate their depth of commitment to the principle underlying their claims by ostentatious public actions designed to remove scepticism that they are unserious or narrowly self-interested. Classic examples might include the Jarrow Crusade, or Ghandi’s hunger strike. Hence in the current round of protests, critics of Occupy London Stock Exchange have made the claim that protesters are not really sleeping in their tents at night. This is an attempt to undermine the public perception of their commitment.

As the above suggests, Tilly’s framework is relatively simple and intuitive but is nonetheless quite helpful in understanding the some of the dynamics involved in the current round of political protests.

Crisis Thinkers: Charles Tilly and #OWC

What thoughts might sociologist Charles Tilly have offered if he had lived to witness the #OWC protests? Probably something considerably more eloquent and erudite than this blog post. Nonetheless I’d like to offer some ideas drawn from the eminent historical sociologists rich and insightful work examining the nature and evolution of popular protest and collective action. The following mainly draws upon Dynamics of Contention (2001, with McAdam and Tarrow) and Contentious Politics (2006, with Tarrow), which examine what Tilly referred to as ‘contentious politics’: episodes and campaigns of non-institutionalised claim making.

The Occupy protests (as well as the Tea Party in the USand the student protests in the UK) are clearly examples of movements engaging in contentious politics. Tilly’s schema for analysing such movements employs a set of mechanisms which account for the strategies of those involved in collective action. Movements make normative ethical/political claims that (usually) draw upon principles which are widely accepted within their wider social context, as members of OWC do when they point out that extremes of inequality have undermined the cherished American principle that with hard work anyone can achieve a middle-class lifestyle.

An important part of such claims is the blame narrative, which assigns responsibility for the complaint with a political set of agents and identifies that which the movement is protesting against – ‘the 1%’ and the Wall Street financial sector in the case of OWC. At the same time, movements must try to appeal to a broad set of supporters from whom they can draw moral and practical support. This involves brokerage, the attempt by activists to find grounds for a common platform with groups beyond the original ‘base’ of the social movement. This is depicted superbly in the film Milk, which highlights Harvey Milk’s skill at building bridges with social groups beyond his core constituency of homosexual men.

Movements tend to draw on a relatively narrow repertoire of contention, a ‘script’ of common protest actions varying heavily from place to place. Movements tend to emulate the repertoires of other successful protest movements, perhaps best demonstrated by the wave of ‘colour revolutions’ in which successive groups of democratic activists in different nations drew on the techniques of past movements for democracy. OWC has clearly drawn on both the experiences of anti-war and global justice movements over the past decade and emulated the tactic of occupying a central urban space employed by the Egyptian protestors in Tahrir square.

As this post is already fairly long, I’m going to break it into two parts. The second will look at Tilly’s framework for analysing what movements actually have to do to successfully press their claims and offer some thoughts about OWC’s strengths and weaknesses.

A Terminal Prognosis? The Case for Financial Euthanasia

In the past few weeks the scale of the crisis has escalated once again. The question however is the location of the weak points and hidden fractures within the present system. As Faisal Islam points out, from a certain perspective this does not look like a crisis of capitalism at all. The bargaining position of capital vis-a-vis labour is currently extremely strong in the industrialised North, no doubt because the high levels of unemployment induce quiescence on the part of employees desperate to keep their jobs. Workers are effectively accepting cuts in their standard of living, there is no factory floor challenge to capitalism.

Worryingly for the populaces of the advanced industrial economies, this rather supports the viewpoint that some shock (maybe technological change or the rise of the emerging economies) has occurred which has significantly undercut the market price that labour can fetch in the world economy. If this is the case then things won’t get better after the financial crisis, indeed the GFC might be a signal of massive shifts within the world economy that signal a bleaker future for many workers in OECD nations.

The problem for the ‘no real crisis’ argument, however, is that if shocks of such significance have occurred then the reverberations might themselves be catastrophic. The three clear dangers ahead are that the global financial system may not be able to take the strain of both sorting out bad debt from good and absorbing losses likely to arise from secondary consequences of the crisis; the fact that the structures of political decision making (what Susan Strange called the Westfailure system) are pretty clearly inadequate for the scale of the problem and elites far too insulated from the depths of the crisis; that publics in the North are not prepared for drastic downward revisions in their standard of living and attempts to enforce any such settlement will result in the collapse of the legitimacy of democratic institutions. In this crisis political problems simply cannot be separated from economic problems because an economic solution to the crisis depends on international cooperation and maintainence of domestic order.

Hence the excellent discussion with Paul Mason and Gillian Tett over at the Guardian, in which the two commentators discuss the nature of the risks the liberal international political economy may be threatened with. What is fascinating is that, in the face of such risks, hitherto totally left-field ideas suddenly become thinkable. It’s particularly interesting to read mention of ‘financial repression’, also known as financial euthanasia, by Tett. The term is shorthand for a series of policy steps which close off avenues to financial speculation and force liquid capital into the economy at below market or negative rates. These sort of measures were employed by East Asian economies such as South Korea during their industrialisation, providing a source of domestic seed capital drawn in significant part from small household savings accounts.

Time for Another Roll of the Dice?

Intriguingly enough it was just such measures, which include controls on the movement of capital, that the US took aim at in the 1990s through the IMF as well as other channels. According to the sadly late Peter Gowan this was part of a concerted effort, a ‘global gamble’, to expand the scope for financial capital to operate, providing an enlarged market for the US financial sector to expand.  The idea of financial euthanasia therefore runs against the entire thrust of post-Cold War US geo-economic strategy, the interests of a hugely powerful set of organised interests, as well as the economic orthodoxy which still dominates the mindset of Northern elites. But then again other potential solutions such as monetising the debt and eroding it through inflation are equally radical. It is a testament to the scale of the crisis that such ideas are being floated by journalists working for the Financial Times.