Friday, March 10, 2006

Grinding Axes

Milan recently complained about the role of theory in IR, a greivance which I have some sympathy with. Realism, with its black-box states and stubborn refusal to admit the motivations of actors into its explanatory framework, can seem rather divorced from the rather complex series of concrete historical events which any problem in IR is made up of. Even more so when lots of realist literature can seem like a rather transparent apologia for hyperpower realpolitik - the 'we had to destroy this village so as to avoid destroying all those other villages' logic of inexorable arms buildup and extension of threat. As an undergraduate, I became increasingly convinced that almost all of IR would be better done by historians, more comfortable with contingency and open systems and so much less vulnerable to the temptations of grand theorising, than the political scientists, strangely enamoured of Hobbes, who had created and colonised the discipline.

Indeed, the only decent thing I remember reading in the theory of IR was Hollis and Smith's 'Explaining and Understanding International Relations', which ends up more or less throwing its hands up at the prospect of thorough-going explanatory theory in International Relations, and by extension, Social Sciences more generally. The substanial part of Milan's complaint, though, is not the theoretical poverty of theory, which is what Hollis and Smith deal with, but its lack of practical engagement, its obsession with the theoretical poverty of other theory, and apparent utter disinterest in the empirics of the matters in hand. He sums up his complaints by saying

[T]heory is a matter of self-definition. It's about finding a framework that lets you do what you want to do, protected by walls of academic and intellectual respectability.

Malcolm Bull recently wrote a piece in the LRB on genocide. In it, he claimed that Rawls' 'Law of Peoples' could be used to justify, where committed by genuinely well-intentioned liberal 'crusader' states, genocide. I haven't read 'Law of Peoples', and it has been criticised for having an insufficiently cosmopolitan view of the scope of justice, but I would be very much surprised if Rawls, perhaps the pre-eminent English language follower of Kant in his generation, would have acquiesed in genocide. Rawls' theory is unquestionably a liberal individualistic one, and the idea that it would have condoned the sacrifice of the lives of some to bring benefits of noticeably lesser kind to others runs counter in about every way possible to that set of commitments.

Bull ends his piece with a snide side-swipe at liberal egalitarianism, implying that egalitarianism is at the root of all genocide with a series of examples that merely prove that, given enough imagination, you can impute anything you like to something you disapprove of sufficiently, and arguing that the contractarian liberal framework of rights and duties should be given up as unavoidably imbricated in exchange value, clearly convinced this net draws in all liberals. Without getting excessively theoretical, contractarianism is, in fact, a quite restricted part of the field liberalism, explicitly rejected by the liberal egalitarian par excellence Rawls when he said 'to each according to his threat advantage is not a principle of justice', because contractarianism relies on mutually beneficial exchange under conditions of uncertainty, thus permitting the judicious use of threats. Rawls, and most of his followers, are contractualists, in the tradition of Locke rather than Hobbes, with explicitly moralised conceptions of the social contract which exclude the bare marketisation of rights and duties Bull deplores.

So. Hardly earth-shattering news that critiques can sometimes misrepresent their targets. Sometimes it is intentional, and sometimes the result of genuine mistake. Even intentional misrepresentation might not be as much of a departure from the norms of reasonable argumentation as would appear immediately: pushing a thought to its logical extremes, or attempting to demonstrate the consequences of doing so, may well involve imputing to a disputant views they do not actually hold. Further, disputants may not realise the implications of all the views that they do hold. Rawls, for example, I think does allow for, in highly restricted circumstances, and after the exhaustion of other options, military intervention. On Bull's definition of genocide, such interventions could lead to genocide, and so, under very limited conditions, Rawls supports genocide. Bull enjoys the uncomfortableness of that conclusion - yet again, the liberal is damned by their own rhetoric of univeralism and human rights - and it is uncomfortable, because of the moral weight unavoidably attached the idea that anyone supports genocide. However, because of the way in which Bull uses genocide, which means that anyone who is not a pacifist could at times support genocide, it is hardly very informative. Still, it is a conclusion.

More worrying in a way is the characterisation of liberalism. A while ago, Ben posted a philosophical in-joke where two interlocutors mischaracterise each other's positions in attempt to discredit them. Imagine there is an issue, on which opinions can be scaled, left to right, from 1 to 20. First one of the two, let's call them A, characterises their view as 13, then the other, let's call them B, responds, characterising A's view 15, and offering 7 instead. A then accuses B of misrepresenting their view as 17, while critiquing B's view as if it were 5. The person who apparently told this joke, Gerry Cohen, runs a graduate course which I took whilst studying for my masters. At beginning of the course, he gives a spiel about how he thinks philosophy should be done. The bit I remember most vividly of the spiel is a caution against regarding any position as self-evident, as so obvious as not to require defence: despite all their endeavours, philosophers continue to display the capacity to disagree about more or less anything, and the chances are that, by now, any self-evident truths that were there to be exposed would have been.

The radical left has a general tendency to regard all liberals as bitter ideological opponents, who are automatically complicit in the manifestlyunjust bourgeois state through the provision of spurious justifications for the mechanisms through which it perpetrates its systematic abuses, primarily those of the market. It is as if, rather than going through the polite motions of gradual escalation, A started the debate by screaming '1! 1!' at B. More seriously, it also ignores Cohen's point about the absence of self-evident truths by assuming that liberals necessarily support, covertly or otherwise, the existing order. This is quite frustrating. I've argued before that Rawls, who is by no means the most radical of the liberal egalitarians of the past thirty or so years, was committed to regarding more or less every state in the world as fundamentally unjust, partly for reasons which more or less any Marxian would recognise.

To describe him as a centrist, as Perry Anderson does, is really quite misleading. After all, the normative distance between Nancy Fraser, whose most recent work on justice displays a marked respect for the traditionally liberal concern of state neutrality, and Rawls, whose claim about the social bases of self-respect being one of primary goods on which claims of justice are assessed leans towards accommodation of concerns of identity reproduction and imposition, is small. Fraser, though, is undoubtedly part of the radical left: she has published in the Anderson-edited New Left Review, for example. Susan Moller Okin's critique that Rawls ought not to have excluded the family from the basic structure of society, thus removing it from the scope of social justice, has been readily accepted. Anderson's treatment, again in 'Spectrum'. of Habermas, involving frankly bizarre confusions about the roles of facts and norms in Habermas' pragmatism, is if anything even stranger, given Habermas' clear Marxian heritage.

What makes Anderson's treatment even stranger is the way in which he seems perfectly happy, where the person involved has explicit Marxist commitments, to forgive what he clearly regards as enormous errors of judgement. His assessment of Hobsbawm, for example, is generally sympathetic despite seeing in Hobsbawm's work on twentieth century history and his political statements seriously skewed by an excessive and ideologically suspect commitment to the politics of the Popular Fronts of the thirties. In Anderson's judgement, this makes Hobsbawm an apologist for Stalinism, as well as the corruptions and evasions of the European centre-left, yet he ends his piece with this:

[t]he enormous patrimony Hobsbawm has left us should be approached in his own spirit, with warmth, passion, and acerbity.

This should be compared to the patronising dismissal at the end of the piece on Rawls:

[t]he needed sequel to his major work had another title - A Theory of Injustice.

The difference in tone hardly seems warranted, given the faults which Anderson claims each possesses. The tendency to stigmatise those with different methodological commitments does of course run both ways: Tom Nagel's insistence on an epistemology which leaves him with no resources to defend himself against any skepticism, for example, seems to be motivated wholly by the fear of lapsing into the alleged nihilism of Nietzsche and Foucault. However, a willingness to abandon the principle that one should approach an interlocutor's argument in good faith seems rather more widely spread on the radical left. John Pilger's attempts to set himself up the leader of a crusade of the marginalised and oppressed against monolithic American imperialism, ignoring the ways in which the system he decries has published and indeed given reasonable levels of prominence to his books and articles for forty-odd years, are perhaps typical of this attitude.

So, theory as ideology, in the vulgar Marxian sense. The reflexes of defence. Hardly very edifying. Not particularly surprising, either, maybe. Still, I wanted to express a sadness at it. It is, as the joke I mentioned earlier surely acknowledges, a giving-up on the Enlightenment belief in the amielorative, and possibly transcendental, effects of Reason. Perhaps that is not particularly surprising either. A pity, because when genuine engagement does occur, it tends to be fruitful, as the examples of Fraser and Moller Okin suggest. It is almost as if, behind the walls of theory, the position of trenchant critic, unafraid to speak the truth to power in all its guises, is rather difficult to give up, has attractions which lead to the insistence that it is a stance appropriate for all forms of critique. I wouldn't like to suggest such a thing. After all, we can all be guilty of it.

Postscript: Lenin here, involved in some internecine disagreement I don't pretend or particularly want to understand, epitomises this tendency. Whatever Zizek's crime is, he has become more liberal. What a marvellously capacious term, that it can encompass Slavoj Zizek and the Neo-Cons, right-Libertarians and John Rawls. One might almost think it retained some meaning.


Milan said...

You say that Rawls is "committed to regarding more or less every state in the world as fundamentally unjust." To me, this doesn't seem to be a claim that should even be controversial. It's manifestly obvious that any state where people are denied basic personal liberty, equality before the law, and the basic material requirements of life is a state where the fundamentally unjust takes place. Since there is no state where those things do not occur to some extent or another, we cannot hold any state to exist in a condition of perfect justice. Indeed, that is the whole impetus behind the development and implementation of normative theory.

As for Bull claiming that Rawls could be used to support genocide, I find it very difficult to believe that his argument could be valid. If we take genocide to be a conscious campaign designed to eradicate members of a particular ethnic or religious group, it's not something you can be taken to support just because you believe that force is sometimes a legitimate option in international relations. What distinguishes genocide is that the aim of the exercise is such racial eradication. To intervene militarily for a different purpose that nonetheless kills many members of an ethnic group seems morally distinct. The issue there is more one of proportionality between damage inflicted and the importance of the aim being sought.

Rob Jubb said...


obviously I think Bull is taking the piss if he thinks his argument holds much water. Indeed, his use of genocide does blur the line between mass-killing of group x and mass-killing of group x in an attempt to wipe out group x. Fine, if he wants to call whatever non-genocidal mass killing is, genocide, he can.

On the justice thing, well, apparently this is more controversial than you might think. Quite appart from the large number of patently non-democratic states across the world, electorates in democratic countries continue to choose governments which obviously do not hold even quasi-Rawlsian, let alone full-blown Marxist, views about justice. I'd also be careful about the use of the adjective 'perfect' in conjunction with justice: justice may well be necessarily imperfect.

Rob Jubb said...

Actually, thinking about it, more substantively, the point about Rawls and injustice is that he would regard the perpetuation of inter-generational class inequality as a fundamental injustice, thus aligning himself with (parts of) the radical left.

B said...

Even in the most developed nations of the world, domestic violence and huge inequalities of welfare and social and legal treatment continue to exist.

Ben said...

Going off topic a bit, but someone pointed out to me if you take some of what Pogge says seriously - that in leaving people in the Third World to die what we're doing is morally killing them - then it would seem they're justified in self-defence, e.g. perhaps terrorism...

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, I may just get round to writing a more substantial comment on it on LJ, but in the meantime:

1. In my experience, a lot of "theorists" seem to confuse a concern with the empirical with being empiricist, and therefore they reject such a concern.

2. The Frankfurt School had a bit more of a nuanced notion of the relationship between critique and the status quo in modern capitalism. Indeed, Marcuse in One Dimensional Man makes the very point about resistance being co-opted and contained by capitalism. Which is somewhat amusing since in a parallel universe it'd be Marcuse's face on a billion t-shirts rather than Che's.

Meanwhile, Adorno's entire philosophical project can be characterised as dealing with the problem of immanent critique in a "total" society (a theme which is also there in mid-period Foucault).


Rob Jubb said...


personally, I've never much liked Adorno: he always seemed rather self-indulgent, and stuck with the problem which I think troubles Foucault as well, that there is not the room for the foundations of the normative critique within the theory. Habermas puts it nicely when he says something like that if you had only read Foucault, you'd think that prisons, mental institutions and the like had uniformly got worse since the nineteenth century, whereas, for all their undoubted faults, the coming of Enlightenment has generally been fairly good. I also understand, for example, that historians think that Foucault is deeply dubious on actual archive work. Which isn't, of course, to say his work isn't interesting. Anyway, I look forward to the possibility of a longer comment.