Saturday, July 29, 2006

Actually, I Am Anguished In Proportion To Suffering

On Tuesday, on my day off, I was playing a computer game called 'Shogun' - in between stints of sitting in the garden and reading a dual language edition of the Inferno, kept brief by the stupefying heat, I hasten to add. 'Shogun' is set in late medieval or early modern Japan, the idea being that the player attempts to unite the country under a single warlord through a combination of alliances, subterfuge and, most usually, brute force. In fact, there's a whole genre of games where the aim is basically the achievement of political dominance: the immensely successful Civilization series, for example. What's striking about all these games - or at least the ones I've played - is the way that they assume, in some crude sense, the state as the basic unit of world politics. Dominance is achieved either by creating a unified state, as in Shogun, or through some kind of idealised form of a unified state, as in Civilization.

This is undoubtedly partly a function both of the technical limitations of what can be done on a typical home computer and what, for want of a better term, I'm going to call the narrative possibilities of the medium. A world made up of complex, interlinked feedback loops and fuzzy authorities would be difficult to represent in a manner which would be relatively simple to interact with, and, further, would compromise the sense of agency, of overcoming a challenge, so central to the experience of playing a computer game. I think, perhaps, though, that there is something more to the etatisme of computer games. Perhaps in the Atlantic democracies particularly, because of the way that powerful centralised states emerged relatively early, there is a sense that states are not only the central actors of international politics but also that that state of affairs represents some kind of triumph, a plateau of achievement.

There are good reasons to think in both of those ways: states are typically the most powerful actors in contemporary international politics, and the simplification, the rationalisation, of systems of authority that they have achieved over their predecessors produces a degree of stability and eliminates or mitigates certain kinds of conflict within their territory. As 'Shogun' demonstrates, though, there have been undoubted costs to that acquisition and distribution of the benefits of power: the elimination, often through unadulterated force, of alternative sources of authority, with physical destruction that necessarily entails. Indeed, although clearly also having roots in concerns about the potential mediocrity of mass democracy, the highly individualist liberalism of Mill and De Tocqueville, with its worries about the loss of eccentricity, articulates a further possible loss involved in statism, De Tocqueville more explicitly: that the concentration of power that necessarily goes with the a strong, centralised state destroys the independence of mind that is the source of much of value in human life.

In this context, Mark Mazower's piece in the most recent LRB is interesting. It documents the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of the First World War and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Although Mazower can well see why the population exchanges might have been a good idea at the time, separating as they did a variety of communities which did not have exactly peaceable relations, he is somewhat skeptical about whether the sort of forcible removal that the Lausanne Treaty resulted in would make the kind of pragmatic sense it seems to have done in 1923 now. Ethnic cleansing, however humanely administered, is, after all, ethnic cleansing, involving both the uprooting and replanting of whole communities, usually under the threat of force. Mazower ends his article by saying

[t]oday, however, the revival of older, cross-regional networks seems to point back to the pre-national age which Lausanne destroyed, with its more ample horizons and less restrictive borders. Both Turkey and Greece now form vital links on the people-smuggling routes between Asia and Europe. An estimated one million people in Greece – maybe a tenth of the population – are immigrants. Istanbul may have lost almost all its Greeks, but its Iranian population, for example, is huge. National homogeneity and its suppressive myths no longer make economic sense. Prosperity means joining European markets, and importing cheap labour. We are not exactly returning to the old imperial multi-confessionalism but we are surely emerging from the historical parenthesis represented by the ├ętatist nation-state.

In what is almost certainly not a piece of serendipity, Mazower's article is bookended first by two diary pieces on the current examples of the brutalities of power in the Levant, and then by a review of the autobiography of an French-Israeli leftist, Michel Warschawski. In the second of the two diary pieces, Karim Makdisi, predicting that the apparent stalemate produced by the IDF's inability to quell Hizbullah, despite or perhaps as a result of seeming intent on sending Lebanon back to the state it was after the last time they were there, will only end badly for Israel and its Neo-con cheerleaders, quotes John Bolton. Apparently Bolton said, attempting to quash calls for some kind of ceasefire

I’d like to know when there’s been an effective ceasefire between a terrorist organisation and a state in the past.

Etatisme does not just infect computer games designers, clearly. Blair at least could hardly with a straight face make the same kind of excuse, eliding collective punishment of an entire nation into some kind of police action, having himself been heavily involved in a relatively successful attempt to exploit a ceasefire between a terrorist organisation and a state to solve some of the underlying problems which caused the conflict. The British military, certainly, would have never the gall to bomb residential areas of Dublin as part of a cross-border pursuit of the IRA. Norm Geras' piece here - via Marc Mulholland, whose own piece on it is excellent - which exhibits what I can only describe as a kind of self-righteous blindness, seems to have made the same set of assumptions as Bolton about how conflicts are fought and how they get resolved.

Geras' central point is that the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello ought to compel us to support Israel's right to attempt to prevent rocket attacks from southern Lebanon, since that is clearly a legitimate cause on which to begin a military conflict, whilst condemning particular parts of its exercise of that right, although, beyond stating briefly a couple of parts of the conditions on that exercise, he declines to state which parts of Israel's exercise are illegitimate. I don't think this distinction stands up. The conflict Israel is fighting does not seem to be to prevent rocket attacks on northern Israel, but rather to militarily destroy Hizbullah, which is a distinctly different aim. Preventing rocket attacks on northern Israel could involve a number of strategies, most obviously negotiating the prisoner exchange which Hizbullah would have clearly settled for in the beginning whilst working to strengthen the Lebanese government and address some of the greivances which motivate anti-Israeli feeling in Lebanon so as to marginalise the role of the paramilitary.

Bombing areas traditionally loyal to Hizbullah and much of the Lebanon's infrastructure, in addition to potential as well as actual launching sites, in contrast, looks like a campaign aimed at the destruction of a paramilitary force which necessarily lives amongst a civilian population. That kind of intention, because it necessarily requires acts which could not be jus in bello, can never be the starting point for a conflict which could be jus ad bellum: there are some things that just shouldn't be done, and bombing civilians is one of them, regardless of whether or not the other side shelters amongst them. The problem that Geras has, I think, is that he wants to conceptualise the conflict like that between two states, as if Hizbullah were a regular army, which could then be drawn into open battle with the IDF and immediately crushed, thereby avoiding the war crimes Geras half-admits Israel has committed. It isn't though, and so pursuing its destruction inevitably involves those apparent slips, which then of course threatens Geras' distinction between the end of a war and the means used to reach it. Etatisme as the hang-up of old Marxists, anyone?

Addendum, 30/07/06: Having thought a little more about this, I think there's maybe a little more mileage in the idea of the Decent Left being dubiously wedded to the idea of the centralised state. Think of the Euston Manifesto, which has virtually nothing to say, as I remember - like I'm going to read it again - about alternative forms of authority, or the constant refrains of the evils - which, basically, I do not question - of various disfavoured regimes, as if these were homogeneous, almost monolithic, totally and unambiguously dominant in the societies they rule over.


Phil said...

You're using jus as an adjective, which confused me (it's a noun - 'rightness' or 'legality', roughly) but otherwise I thought this was a useful post. Geras's means/end dichotomy is a handy device for suppressing some important questions. We could say, for instance, that Israel was legitimately entitled to do something without concluding that it was legitimately entitled to start a war. We could even grant that starting a war was legitimate, without also assuming that it was a wise, farseeing and humane strategy. Both of these questions are begged by Norm's rendering of jus ad bellum. (And the second, in particular, makes me wonder what the point of the legitimate-entitlement argument really is - other than to imply that people criticising the strategy are doing so illegitimately.)

Rob Jubb said...

Yeah, Geras' unwillingness to name names as it were, to actually state what it is that Israel has done which is not jus in bello, does make you suspicious that he, consciously or unconsciously, is eliding the question of whether the war is jus in bello into that of whether it is jus ad bellum, which on his account, of course, it is. Sorry about the terminological confusion though.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me, without benefit of dictionary, as if jus ad bellum and jus in bello are medieval or early modern distinctions where a verb is understood (waging a just war/waging a war by just means). There's also a sense in which the non-statist nature of Islam is threatening to the idea of the state in the West - when you consider all the wars and revolutions that it took to separate state and religion in the time of the Holy Roman Empire (neither holy nor roman nor an empire) and the role of France, the first and more powerful unified state in Europe in those wars. Threatening to the extent that the rough beast, his hour come round at last, who now is ruler of the world (at least in title) was given the word 'crusade' to use when he launched the overt war which he now, semi covertly, prosecutes through the IDF. Liz

ek said...

It's no surprise, that, with the end of history and things having fallen apart- if I may join the quotefest-that quondam Marxists and others should clutch at JackStraws in this messy business. For business it is- and business as usual. Reconstruction contracts anyone?

David Duff said...

Sorry, I have come late to this exchange.

I was struck by your description of Blair's Ulster deal as "a relatively successful attempt to exploit a ceasefire between a terrorist organisation and a state to solve some of the underlying problems which caused the conflict". Well, that's one way of putting it, or you might describe it thus, 'a relatively successful attempt to surrender to a terrorist organisation that *succeeded* in bombing and murdering its way into power in a democratic state and which certainly did "solve some of the underlying problems which caused the conflict" but perhaps not quite in the way the participants anticipated'.

I'm not saying it wasn't good 'real-politik', given that the British people had no stomach for the fight, but the Ulster "narrative possibilities" have some distance to run. "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

As for the middle east 'imbroglio', I allowed myself a brief snigger at the sight and sound of the so-called international community getting their collective knickers in a twist, now that the brown stuff has hit the fan, having resolutely ignored all the warnings from Israel over the last 2 - 3 years that Hezbollah was building the armaments and infrastructure for war with the help of Iran and Syria. Heads buried in the sand tend to leave arses exposed!

Rob Jubb said...


usually better late than never, but clearly not always...

David Duff said...

''Tis a poor thing, Sir, but mine own.'

Rob Jubb said...

Yeah, I suppose I probably ought to make some kind of attempt at a substantive reply.

I'm not sure exactly why you think that the British state surrendered to the IRA. As I understand it, there are still armed agents of the British state on the streets of Northern Ireland, and the prospects of Sinn Fein/IRA achieving their avowed goal, the unification of the island of Ireland, at least in the short term, don't seem particularly good. This is by no means to say that everything is hunky-dory in Northern Ireland, but it is better than during the height of the troubles, which strikes me as an achievement of sorts.

Equally, I'm not sure what your point about the Middle East actually is. Israel should have been given a green-light to attempt to effect the destruction of Hizbullah in the manner it currently is two or three years ago? What?