Monday, 29 December 2014

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Westphalians!

The turn of the year always prompts a desire to understand recent history and put it into context, if only because year-end reviews can be prepared weeks in advance to give media elves a seasonal break. This includes re-evaluating the medium-term impact of "pivotal years" like 1989 and 2008, which is why media appearances by Francis Fukuyama and Nassim Taleb tend to follow the same frequency distribution as Santa Claus. The optimism of 1989 has given way to that species of pessimism in international affairs known as "realism", which means banal parallels with 1914 and a revival of the vocabulary of "interests" and "spheres of influence". The delusion that 2008 would prompt the reform of the neoliberal order has in turn given way to depression and stagnation - psychic as much as economic.

Larry Elliott has given the "eve of war" meme another bump in his seasonal roundup ("Why 'life will go on' thesis about global economy might not pass muster in 2015"), noting the parallels with 1999 in order to suggest we may still be "stuck" in a transitional phase that began 25 years ago. Elliott references Harry Shutt on the possibility that we are witnessing a shift in the historical paradigm. Shutt believes we must "confront the reality that the world order based on the primacy of private profit has been rendered obsolete by technological change, just as feudal aristocracy was 200 years ago." The idea that technology has made capitalism obsolete is obviously nonsense, but there are grounds to believe that the change in the nature of technology (notably software) is having a profound effect.

Shutt's reference to the end of feudalism is significant, though he is wildly out with his chronology. Rather than a sudden disjuncture 200 years ago, Western European feudalism as a social and economic order (insofar as a common definition is possible) can be thought of as "in decline" from as early as 800 to as late as 1789 (presumably Shutt had the fall of the Bastille in mind, rather than the battle of Waterloo). Some historians see the Black Death of the mid-14th century as the pivotal moment, because of its disruptive impact on land-holdings and labour mobility, while others point to the intellectual challenges of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. At the level of the state, the last rites of the feudal order are generally held to have been read with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which established the concept of sovereignty (i.e. non-interference) and provided the framework for the emergence of modern nationalism.

One of conceits of the 1990s was the idea that the "Westphalian era" was finally over, as globalised free markets and democracy dissolved the boundaries of the traditional nation state. This was summed up by Tony Blair in 1999: "We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper." This was to elide the meaning of internationalist with neoliberal, suggesting that Blair was either obtuse or deliberately contemptuous of Labour history. Blair would expand upon this doctrine in 2004, partly to justify his fast-unravelling Iraq strategy: "So, for me, before September 11th, I was already reaching for a different philosophy in international relations from a traditional one that has held sway since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648; namely that a country's internal affairs are for it and you don't interfere unless it threatens you, or breaches a treaty, or triggers an obligation of alliance". Of course, this right (nay, responsibility) to intervene is not universal.

For many, the neoliberal chickens finally came home to roost in Ukraine rather than Iraq. The realist school of international relations sees the "loss" of Crimea as a miscalculation by the West, and specifically by the "liberals" who shared Blair's worldview. In brief, instead of treating it as a neutral buffer, the West's arrogance in expanding NATO and supporting the deposition of Yanukovych forced Russia into destabilising counter-moves to protect its own interests. According to John Mearsheimer: "In essence, the two sides have been operating with different playbooks: Putin and his compatriots have been thinking and acting according to realist dictates, whereas their Western counterparts have been adhering to liberal ideas about international politics. The result is that the United States and its allies unknowingly provoked a major crisis over Ukraine." The sight of leftists excusing Putin is often attributed to the influence of Russia Today, but the conservative realists of Foreign Affairs are just as influential.

You don't have to buy into Mearsheimer's dichotomy to recognise that talk of "playbooks" points to a major political division among orthodox thinkers on international relations. A part of this is just paleoconservative antagonism towards the universalist tendency of neoconservatism - i.e. the suspicion that the "liberal interventionism" of the last 25 years has been the work of Jacobins - but a part also springs from the realisation that commercial realpolitik in the age of globalisation increasingly trumps the state realpolitik of the Westphalian era. This is best exemplified by the fear of Atlanticists that a Europe dominated by Germany (following EU expansion in the East and exacerbated by the UK's semi-detachment) will seek greater rapprochement with Russia and China and thereby weaken the geopolitical bonds with the US.

This is an example of how ideology deforms itself. In reality, inter-state relations are always predominantly driven by calculations of commercial and industrial advantage simply because these are the chief realms of international competition (hence the threat to Atlanticism is the US's unilateral "pivot to Asia"). This is why the "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention" is both trivially wrong (open-market states are perfectly capable of conflict) and trivially right (international monopolies and cartels reduce competition). In other words, the interests of capital determine policy, which is then contingently justified through appeals to either national interest (free-trade/protection, revanchism, patriotism etc) or supra-national principles (sovereignty, collective security, human rights etc). But this can lead to determinist absurdity - just as Middle East policy is often reduced to "oil", so EU (or at least German) policy is now often reduced to "gas" - and ignores the extent to which ideology takes on a life of its own (e.g. the nationalism that facilitated the industrial revolution also facilitated the capital destruction of the Great War).

The nation state isn't going to disappear any time soon, not least because neoliberalism depends upon it as much as it depends on international governance. But because modern capitalism is increasingly globalised - in the statelessness of capital as much as the internationalisation of goods and services - more and more of its contradictions and stresses will be reflected through the medium of the state, from arguments over its role ("activist" versus "nightwatchman"), its legitimacy (Scottish independence, the EU etc), and even whether it truly exists or not (Eastern Ukraine now). But this variety reflects the state's ubiquity, not its fragmentation. An ideological clue to the Westphalian state's resilience is offered by the ever-popular pirate trope.

As Antoine Garapon noted, "A pirate is the purest kind of rational agent, motivated solely by a desire for gain; free of loyalty towards any flag, he is subject to no system of taxation. In that sense, the pirate symbolizes the globalized individual, free of ties, who behaves solely in response to his animus furandi, his predatory instinct". We live in age of piracy, from the old-skool bandits of Somalia to the online piracy of the Internet. Tortuga has given way to tax-havens, while pirate parties stand for election. But the reality is often more about dependence than independence. It is surely emblematic that Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series is fixated on The Black Pearl, ocean-going ships being the fixed capital of the mercantile age, while the Aardman animation, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, centres on the delusions of competition and state hypocrisy.

It would be easy to suppose that "the imaginary pirate in a globalized world is a sign that the 'international system', which can function only in terms of states and territories, is in crisis", but this would be to ignore the role of the state in suppressing traditional piracy, and the role of piracy in justifying extra-territorial state intervention post-Westphalia: "It is probably no coincidence that piracy was the first internationally recognised common law offence, one that can be traced back as far as the beginning of the seventeenth century. The second offence was slavery, viewed as human pillaging of a land with no ruler. Indeed, ... the definitive banning of slavery originates with an international decree that today we can see as having established the sharing out of Africa amongst its various colonizers". The suppression of the twin evils of piracy and the slave trade were the traditional justifications for the expansion of empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Harry Shutt's insistence "that different, more sustainable and equitable mechanisms must henceforth be used to determine the allocation of resources and wealth", is the old dream of a just, world government - i.e. positive globalisation. But this is based on the belief that the Westphalian nation state is dying, that national sovereignty is, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, increasingly "unanchored and free-floating", the international counterpart of the "emaciation" of domestic politics as the state "hives off" its historic responsibilities. In reality, the domestic state is as dominant as ever. If anything, it has become more intrusive and demanding of its citizens, as the ideology of rights and responsibilities combines with the technology of surveillance. At the international level, this moralistic intrusion was advanced by the "Blair doctrine" as much as the "war on terror". Recent experience has left politicians more cautious, but it would be foolish to believe that the non-intervention in Syria marks the end of the Westphalian order, any more than intervention in Kosovo did.

Shutt (like Bauman) quotes Antonio Gamsci: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born". Gramsci was referring specifically to a crisis of hegemony - a crisis of belief - not to a historical paradigm shift or an economic or political crisis: "If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer 'leading' but only 'dominant', exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

The truth is that the old is not dying. The neoliberal economic order and the Westphalian nation state remain supreme. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the new is not being born, as the still-births of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring have shown. UKIP and the FN will be pointed to as "morbid symptoms", but a moment's thought will confirm that the "great masses" remain attached to their "traditional ideologies" while the ruling class shows little doubt about its fitness and ability to continue "leading" (when Boris Johnson goes into exile in the US, you'll know the game is up). This is why a possible election victory by a Syriza-led coalition in Greece would be atypical but hugely significant, and why various neoliberal worthies like Juncker and Steinmeier are already "intervening" to neutralise any challenge to EU ideology. Don't occupy a public square, occupy the state.


  1. Herbie Causes Extinction4 January 2015 at 12:46

    I never recognised any delusion that 2008 would break the neo liberal order, especially given that austerity so quickly followed as the agreed remedy, after the massive bailouts obviously. Clearly neo liberalism has been strengthened, and I can’t see anything reversing that trend, including a victory for Syriza.

    “Shutt believes we must "confront the reality that the world order based on the primacy of private profit has been rendered obsolete by technological change””

    I think this is part fantasy/part wishful thinking. If anything the internet re-enforces and deepens the consumer mentality, to the point that it seems almost impossible to break it without some major calamity. If Shutt means by this some objective and technical factors then I think it a great mistake to exclude from these factors the level of consciousness of the masses (the singular most important factor!).

    “But this can lead to determinist absurdity - just as Middle East policy is often reduced to "oil"”

    This is not a determinist absurdity but a very very reasonable and very necessary abstraction. Those who don’t think Oil can be highlighted among all the other factors are the ones who are absurd.

    “But because modern capitalism is increasingly globalised - in the statelessness of capital as much as the internationalisation of goods and services - more and more of its contradictions and stresses will be reflected through the medium of the state”

    Is capital more free now than in the days of colonialism? I am not sure. I think it could be argued that capital is more constrained now than at any point.

    None of the above is meant to mean that:

    • Technological change doesn’t have any qualitative affect on how capitalism operates, clearly the greater the automation of labour processes the greater the barriers to exchange value.

    • That neo liberalism will get a free ride, clearly conflict can never go away under a capitalist system, and to some extent all bets are off.

    • That globalisation is not a reality. Clearly as capitalism encroaches on more and more of the world, more of the classic contradictions of capitalism will come to the fore. And the actual process of capitalism dominating more and more regions will play out in a relative decline in Western living standards in relation to the East etc etc etc. Or conflicts will break out around these processes.

    However, seeing the wood for the trees with all these countless variables at play will be a challenge and many a theory will be nothing other than a wild goose chase.

  2. The legitimacy of the state is much more secure than it was 40 years ago, and this has largely been an 'achievement' of Actually Existing Neoliberalism, rather than many of the ideologues who over-emphasise the novelty of globalisation.
    In the early 1970s the state was losing its ability to rule in the interests of the elites due to a combination of reasons. The 'fiscal crisis' described by O'Connor was one, with the state struggling to finance obligations it had assumed with regard to a range of functions, but there was also a sense among sections of the population that technocratic planning over society had gone too far. The politics of the Right might have talked the language of 'laissez-faire' and reducing state dependence, but they concentrated mainly on reducing the 'burden' that social democracy had placed on the state and shifting responsibility on to local authorities and certain sections of civil society (trade unions) for any problems. They actively sought to increase dependence on business and the market. This strategy has worked perfectly, and the state has been enabled to govern more 'efficiently' while providing a steady source of income for less productive parts of the private sector. This provides one of the main reasons why political discourse is so ridiculous at present, focusing on immigration and identity issues, comedy politicians and the scapegoating of the poor.