Review of Runciman’s Politics

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Politics

David Runciman

London: Profile Books, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-78125-257-4

166 pp.

David Runciman, a Cambridge University professor of politics, is perhaps best known to the general public for his podcast Talking Politics, which offers a combination of penetrating near real time insights and deeper explorations of political issues which are worthy of greater consideration. It was while listening to one episode of this while walking to Central Eastville in Bangkok that I popped into the bookshop there and saw this one, which it seemed churlish to ignore. Politics is part of a series entitled Ideas in Profile, which has been accompanied by volumes on Art in History, The Ancient World, Geography and so forth. There have been several series such as this published in recent years, which offer consideration of important issues at a length which is not daunting (this one weighs in at 166 pages with plenty of white space and illustrations along the way) but offers greater space than is practical for popular media or the internet, where there are so many distractions to disrupt concentration over an extended period of time. Presumably this has been identified as an opportunity for publishers and a need for the public (it is notable that long-from journalism is also enjoying a resurgence of interest).

Runciman organizes the books into three main chapters with a brief, framing introductory section and an equally short conclusion. He uses the introduction to indicate the importance of politics to everyday life by comparing conditions in Syria and Denmark. Syria, as is well-known, was a fairly grim place to live for most people when the book was written and seems likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Denmark, on the other hand, is the land of Borgen, where political conflict is expressed through parliamentary debates, newspaper opinion pieces and backroom deals. Yet Denmark has a history of violence and conflict through many periods of history which was the equivalent of the worst in the world, while Syria has been at the very heart of civilisation and progressive discourse for the Mediterranean world. Runciman argues that: “The difference between Denmark and Syria is politics. Politics has helped make Denmark what it is. And politics has helped make Syria what it is (p.4).” The argument is not that politics causes all of these problems or, conversely, is responsible for all the good things that happen in different societies. Politics is important but not so central as this. Instead, it is the use of politics by the state and its institutions that has enabled the Danish society to move from violence to peace. The opposite has occurred in Syria. Consequently, it is important to understand how the relevant institutions can be used in positive ways and what must be done to protect them – the book was written before the advent of Trump and other political leaders with an apparently ambivalent attitude towards democracy to the extent that they are willing to attack and undermine those institutions which have been so instrumental in delivering peace and prosperity to so many people.

The first of the three main chapters concerns violence, the monopoly of the legitimate use of which is often considered to be the central part of the definition of a state. This allows him to introduce his hero Hobbes, who is often invoked during the podcasts and in Runciman’s other work. He points out the misrepresentation of Hobbes that has become so prevalent (i.e. the nasty, brutish and short characterisation of life) by demonstrating that this chaos only exists when the state is absent or has broken down. It is constituted when there exists a relationship between the sovereign, who speaks for the people on their behalf (and not for personal benefit) and the people acknowledge that their being spoken for in this way is legitimate: “… a state is what comes into existence when sovereign and subjects are locked up together in a relationship of representation (p.30).” This marks one of the transitions from the pre-modern to the modern world, in which the use of violence is possible but subject to the possibility that people can withdraw their recognition of the legitimacy of the state if they believe that violence is being wrongly or excessively used (which is the case in Syria). This then allows Runciman to describe some of the more problematic issues of the state in the contemporary world in which it is possible for states to wield unprecedented amounts of destructive force against people far away but in conditions in which it is likely that the truth will be revealed, sooner or later.

The other principal chapters concern technology and justice and follow the same rational and well-argued approach that the reader will have come to expect. This does not mean Runciman is unable or unwilling to take unusual or even controversial positions: for example, his argument that children have a right to vote which they might be able to exercise from the age of six (when they might be able to make some kinds of informed decisions by themselves) has provoked some debate once the initial shock was overcome. Particularly in a world facing catastrophic climate change seems set to destroy the future that those children might have been able to expect, it seems fair that they should have some say in the ways in which the state is organized to preserve their interests into the future.

The book, as mentioned, is quite a short one and it is copiously illustrated by cartoons and graphics that other people will perhaps enjoy more than I did. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining and enlightening introduction to actual issues in politics rather than in party politics and worth considering. As an ‘idea in profile,’ it more than meets its requirements.

Review of Slavoj Zizek’s Against the Double Blackmail

Žižek, Slavoj, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.55-8.

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Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours
Slavoj Žižek
London: Allen Lane, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-241-27884-0
117 pp.

In the inside back cover of this new book by the irrepressible Slavoj Žižek, the author is described as ‘a Hegelian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and political activist.’ He makes full use of all three of these aspects in this slender volume on the challenges surrounding the flow of refugees aiming to reach Europe from war-torn countries in Asia and Europe. The first of these is the political aspect (Marx is not noted on the back cover but his influence soon makes an entrance nonetheless). Žižek draws on Fredric Jameson’s concept of the lack of ‘cognitive mapping’ to suggest why it is difficult for people to understand their relationship with the rest of the world and that, of course, is because of the immanence of late capitalism which dictates the conditions of life but in a way that remains invisible to those who lack the ideological vocabulary to identify the contours of class struggle in the symptoms of apparent chaos all around. This inability to identify the problem has led to the rise of supposed maverick outsider politicians, the riots without demands in Paris and elsewhere and the outbreak of sexual violence in India. The same of course is true of the reception of the refuges. Citing (as he often does) Peter Sloterdijk, he observes that “… capitalist globalization stands not only for openness and conquest, but also for the idea of a self-enclosed globe separating its privileged Inside from its Outside (pp.15-6).” The refugee, like the economic migrant, short-circuits capitalist globalization by seeking to move from the peripheral Outside to the core Inside. In this context, the refugees are worse than the migrants because (particularly when young and vulnerable) they come shaking their gory locks and force us to face the consequences of what we (of Europe and of the west) have done in history and what is now being done in our name.

Here Žižek adds the Lacanian aspect of his approach (while Hegelian dialectics form part of the very fibre of his discourse) by considering the importance of the ability of people to be able to tolerate others. This is a theme he has considered before – to be honest, he writes so much and publishes so often that there is not always very much in any of his books which could not have been found in some other part of his oeuvre. He refers to Freud: “Since a Neighbour is, as Freud suspected long ago, primarily a Thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose different way of life (or, rather, way of jouissance materialized in its social practice and rituals) disturbs us and, when the Neighbour comes too close, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails, this can also give rise to an aggressive reaction aimed at getting rid of this disturbing intruder (p.74).” The Lacanian term jouissance refers to “… excessive pleasure coinciding with pain (p.75).” Pleasure and pain are defined on an individual basis: the ascetic or forest monk who lives outside society in poverty actually does so, it can be argued, because that is how pleasure appears to such a person and the pain involves not so much the physical deprivations as the self-knowledge that the purpose of asceticism is actually to gain that pleasure. We human beings all live together in communities of different sorts and our communal forms of jouissance have evolved to enable life to continue in a way we consider to be normal but when we are faced with an alternative form, unless we have the relevant cognitive mapping available, we may well reject this “ex-timate intruder (p.75)” with disgust. This is one reason why the maintainers of capitalist globalization are so opposed to any form of internationalism and regularly denounce the Others, whoever they might be, as threats to our way of life, our standard of living (they steal jobs and welfare payments) and our personal property (which for many people continues to include women).

However, Žižek does not just stop there with the implicit conclusion that if only, as so many t-shirts have it, we could live in “a world without strangers) then we could all just get to know each other and live together peaceably (i.e. 42). Instead, we should recognise that those we might consider to be Other can still behave very badly, as the sexual abuse of young white girls in Rotherham by ethnic Pakistani men and the large-scale incidences of sexual assaults in German cities by migrants and refugees demonstrates. Here Žižek likens these activities to those of paedophile Roman Catholic priests (which is one of the reasons he has so many enemies) and argues that (pp.31-3) it is the very nature of the institution of which they are a part that makes the men behave in the way they do: “One can well imagine a non-paedophile priest who, after years of service, gets involved in paedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an ‘institutional unconscious’ designates the obscene disavowed underside that sustains the public institution (p.32).” This argument, which flows from his Hegelian-Lacanian approach combined with the pessimism of the intellect characteristic of Marxist thinkers, will outrage many. This is perhaps part of the point of it all but there is no doubt that Žižek constructs his arguments with integrity as well as his customary broad humour. However, just as soon as he reaches one conclusion he is skipping away at an apparent tangent to search for quite a different one. He is best challenged, I would say – for those who wish to challenge him – in terms of his method rather than his assertions.

Having said which, there is some concern in my mind about his use of data and references. He does seem to rely too much on a thin number of sources for the data to support his wide-ranging subjects. Most references used in this book are online and, while that is not in itself problematic, quite often it is a single newspaper story that fuels an entire argument. Certainly he writes with great rapidity and in extraordinary profusion but a watchful editor might perhaps have required a little more justification. Still, the pleasure is in the breathless journey.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

 

Review of Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions

Sassen, Saskia, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.51-3.

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Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy
Saskia Sassen
Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0-674-59922-2
298 pp.

Saskia Sassen focuses on two systemic shifts in the global economy to explain how brutality has produced the eponymous expulsions that inform the basic concept of this book. One of these is the ascendancy of finance capitalism and she remarks on “… the capacity of finance to develop enormously complex instruments that allow it to securitize the broadest-ever, historically speaking, range of entities and processes; further, continuous advances in electronic networks and tools make for seemingly unlimited multiplier effects (p.9).” The other relates to space: “… the material development of growing areas of the world into extreme zones for key economic operations. At one end this takes the shape of global outsourcing of manufacturing, services, clerical work, the harvesting of human organs and the raising of industrial crops to low-cost areas with weak regulation. At the other end, it is the active worldwide making of global cities as strategic spaces for advanced economic functions, this includes cities built from scratch and the often brutal renovation of old cities (p.9).” Both time and space, therefore, have been assaulted and wrestled to the ground by the forces of capitalism as they subject the world to a new stage of nature: first nature was the world before the impact of humanity; second nature was the world after humanity began to extract and take advantage of its resources; third and subsequent forms of nature are the world after capitalism has reshaped it so as to intensify capital accumulation. Inevitably, this form of creative destruction produces both winners and losers and it is Saskia Sassen’s claim that the losers are not only increasing in number but are being expelled from the system and from communities with ever increasing rapidity and brutality, with obvious implications both for inequality and for the inherent instability of the system.
She explores these themes through a series of empirically-based chapters which include issues of land ownership and degradation, the role of finance in the formation of permanent crises and the role of global climate change. She builds a powerful if somewhat unoriginal picture of a world in which through accumulation by dispossession, in various guises, millions are forced into becoming refugees while a tiny minority increasingly hoovers up all the wealth, resources and future available. These chapters are competently enough written but seem slightly underwhelming because customarily she offers so much more than the accumulation of evidence. So, we look to the conclusion for the conceptualization to take place. Here, she describes the systems considered in the book to be economic, social and biospheric and (given the two themes outlined above) they veer ever further away from geographical borders and, hence, are emblematic of the declining relevance of states vis-à-vis capital. This leads to the core hypothesis “… that the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatizations, deregulations, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in to dynamics that push people out (p.211).” This is evident both at the international scale and also at the national scale, where China, as a large nation, has demonstrated its own movement towards inequality that is locking people out of the overall economic wealth creation process. The unit of analysis in this case is the ‘systemic edge,’ because that is: “… the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because that is “… the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because it is the site for expulsion or incorporation (p.211).”

Having established this position, which has an attractive logic, Sassen can then broaden her analysis to cover the world from the early 1980s, which is approximately the moment when neoliberalism began to replace the previous rather successful (as Paul Krugman regularly argues) Keynesian economic settlement and concomitant social institutions. That settlement was fundamentally inclusive, as demonstrated by the rising wages and living standards for most sectors of society around the world. That this took place was not related to some kind of good old days phenomenon of moral decay so much as the awareness of the desperate need for peace and security after the horrors of the Second World War. People realised the need to build stable ties between countries and with communities to prevent those horrors recurring. That thinking has been replaced. Neoliberalism, of course, reduces all of the additional effects of work and of social arrangements to the lowest common denominator of money. People thereby become customers rather than clients, patients or passengers and the financial bottom line of the corporation is the master narrative of the age. In other words, “The relationship between today’s advanced capitalism and more traditional forms of market capitalism can, at the limit, be characterized as one of increasingly primitive accumulation: complexity and technical progress serve causes of brute simplicity (p.216).” This is a powerful argument and one which I would have liked to see developed further.

Sassen concludes by wondering about the ‘spaces of the expelled (p.222)’ and this consideration leads to a number of emergent questions which might have shed light on whether any of these effects might be eliminated or reversed. As is so often the case, the book is more concerned with what has happened and its problems rather than what might now be done to try to improve the world. However, the closing words do offer some sense of tempered optimism: “… the spaces of the expelled cry out for conceptual recognition. They are many, they are growing, and they are diversifying. They are conceptually subterranean conditions that need to be brought aboveground. They are, potentially, the new spaces for making local economies, new histories, and modes of membership (p.222).” Perhaps these will be addressed in another book.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Religious Diversity and Political Change in Thailand

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Announcing: Lovichakorntikul, Petcharat and John Walsh, “Religious Diversity and Political Change in Thailand,” Journal of Social and Development Sciences,” Vol.4, No.12 (December, 2013), pp.538-41, available at: http://ifrnd.org/Research%20Papers/S4(12)3.pdf.

Abstract:

Thailand continues to undergo a process of political modernization, moving from a feudal to a
fully-fledged and modernized capitalist society. This is a process that has involved numerous missteps
and backward turns – most recently the 2006 military coup and the 2010 massacres – and the dissolution
of previously existing cultural and social bonds. Marketization of all regions of the country has brought
about changes in land ownership, social relations and gender relations but has not, as yet, brought about
changes in religious beliefs or in the relationships between people of different belief systems. The
majority Buddhist philosophy has been invigorated by emphasis placed on figures such as the goddess
Guan Yin, who is eminently appropriate for the age of plenty, while animist hill tribes people incorporate
new ways of life into a flexible and accommodating belief system. Only in the southern provinces
bordering Malaysia, where the majority of people are ethnic Malay Muslims, is there a division between
people based on religion. A faction of people in the border regions have been agitating for autonomous
rule or, at least, an end to unfair and unpleasant treatment by high-handed representatives of the Thai
state and their mandate to enforce the longstanding triumvirate of Thai language, Buddhist belief and
respect for the monarchy as defining characteristics of citizens. Agitation has led to acts of terrorism and
suppression including atrocities on both sides. These divisions are not reflected in any other part of the
country, although plenty of other symptoms of division are.
Keywords: Religious diversity, political change, Thailand

The Politics of Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainable development is  a form of critique on rampant capitalism which has, when given free rein, proved  to be disastrous around the world in terms of causing environmental degradation,  promoting inequalities in society, creating waste and materialism in large  quantities.

Read the full article here.