Friday, October 27, 2006

The ruling imperialist argot: partnership, leadership, capacity-building and empowerment.

Donald Rumsfeld "pledges" to "increase support for the Iraqi security forces". Governments, where they do not "vow", always "pledge". Kruschev "pledged" his assistance to the oppressed Hungarian workers, and "vowed" to crush their capitalist enemies. In the case of Iraq, in particular, the language is of devoting oneself to assisting an infant state into full maturity. But this is no more than usual, and no different than when the Washington-aligned Kurdish politician Barham Saleh recently begged Western leaders not to "cut and run" - a plea ventriloquised on behalf of those same leaders, directed at their electorates. The idea of a cosy relationship between Iraq and its benevolent occupiers is disrupted from time to time by a desperate squeak from al-Maliki, but if this is designed to make him look like a strong, independent leader, I'm afraid it has the opposite effect. He looks very much like the Bush-elected sap that he is (remember, it was a Bushite putsch against the previous leadership which was moving in the direction of a nationalist bloc that brough Maliki to power).

However, if this pretense at partnership is not new, there is certainly a new emphasis on the idea of assisting formally equal states, building up their capacities as states, rather than publicly appearing to dictate terms. While US imperialism is becoming more and more territorial, and more and more intrusive, a language of denial is increasingly evident. David Chandler deals with this in his latest book Empire in Denial, which, if I don't completely accept the heuristic, is a compelling and very well-researched account of the present strategies of the American empire. Let me summarise a bit. Poverty reduction and international development discourse has raised state-capacity to the centre of concerns. For instance, the World Bank’s World Development Report 1997: The State in a Changing World, and Reforming Public Institutions and Strengthening Governance: A World Bank Strategy from 2000 are complemented by the UK government’s Commission for Africa report from 2005 in arguing that weak state capacity has been the central barrier to continental development. The UN Millennium Project argues that the problem is not so much corrupt government as those that “lack the resources and capacity to manage an efficient public administration”. The US National Security Strategy has it that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones”. Rice said in 2005 that “the greatest threats to our security are defined more by the dynamics with weak and failing states than by ... strong and aggressive ones”. And so on. From Clintonite IR theorists like Krasner to neoconservative social theorists like Fukuyama, weak states are thought to unleash every ill on the world, from AIDS to terrorism to poverty.

This is reflected in policy too. Bush's Millennium Challenge Account, which purports to assist the development of state-capacity in non-Western states, has a budget of $3bn, and aims to increase to $5bn. The EU's absorption of Eastern states has a strong focus on state capacities, as does its role in former Yugoslav states. But EU bureaucrats argue that they are mere facilitators in the Stabilisation and Association process agreements, while IMF and World Bank officials argue that Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers are “country-owned” and they merely “endorse” them. The US doesn't formally 'occupy' Iraq, any more than it is formally fighting rebels in the Phillipines: officially, the US is empowering national governments that have been legitimised through elections. A new language has been developed to describe these policies: concepts such as “neo-trusteeship”, “guided sovereignty” and “shared sovereignty”. You hear about are “partnership”, African “leadership”, “capacity-building” and “empowerment”. The discourse is obviously highly technocratic and depoliticised, and it obscures the actual relations of domination, like any other chitter-chatter that derives from managerial speak.

As Chandler remarks: "When it appears that the solutions to the problems of security, development and human rights are amenable to resolutions through therapeutic, legal, administrative and bureaucratic means and are not political questions, then the role or necessity of politics is clearly put to question." Yet: “What appears formally to be a relationship between two contracting partners is in effect a product of the hierarchy of power”, whereas the “new regulatory forms of Empire in Denial seek to deny any direct political control and to reinforce the formal legal status of sovereignty”. Indeed, "new forms of governance open up non-Western states to “metropolitan monitoring, intervention and regulation unprecedented since the colonial period” according to Leeds professor Mark Duffield. Several other theorists working in the field of development studies highlight the "unprecedented" nature of the current level of regulation of non-Western states by Western states. But whereas the old mode of conditionality has not been surrendered, a new means of regulation is emerging, reflected in the output of the Commission for Africa, for instance, which sees past attempts at conditionality as besmirched by attempts to force conditions ill-suited to the country in question, and therefore prefers a focus on accountability and transparency, formally allowing recipients to choose their own course of development (while relying on the competitive accumulation of capital to force governments to insert their societies into the global economy on terms amenable to Western power).

Chandler selects an analogy from New Labour's lexicon: "social exclusion" which, although it has been a theme of New Labour idiotology since 1997, was first defined in public by David Miliband in November last year. The socially excluded are those who experience a range of ten problems including unemployment and poor physical and mental health. This is a technocratic rather than a political designation. It involves no interests and appeals to no social or political constituency. Similarly, Jeffrey Sachs, who is both an advisor to the UN and the Millennium Development Project director, argues that ending poverty by 2005 would mean no one living on less than $1 a day: this focus ameliorates the worst extremes of poverty, rather than ending it. It devises coping strategies for those brutalised, exploited and marginalised by the system: it ‘empowers’ them. This logically derives from the posture of impotence that states adopt in the face of globalisation: we can no longer manage massive transformative projects, and so we manage the system in the nicest way possible.

It is this approach which causes Niall Ferguson to worry in Colossus that without an imperial purpose, there is a risk of “generalised impotence – or, if you like, apolarity”. Savour those metaphors for a second. Ferguson thinks the US punches below its weight, especially since its “defense budget is 14 times that of China”, a greater advantage than activist Britain enjoyed over rivals: “it is an empire that lacks the drive to export its capital, its people, and its culture to those backward regions that need them most urgently and that, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security”. Chandler argues that in fact while Western governments "seem happier disclaiming" the rights of power, this isn't because they aren't interested in empire. He concedes part of Ferguson's point: the US is an empire in denial, but it doesn't want to accept responsibility for its power. In formal or explicit relations of domination, the onus and accountability is placed on the dominating states. By contrast, the new conception of sovereignty, elaborated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, involves only accountability to internal and international constituencies, places all the onus on the dominated states. Contra Hardt and Negri, this process doesn't remove or weaken the involvement of national states. When theorists like David Harvey and Ellen Meiksins Wood emphasise the informal empire of capital, or when Rosenberg speaks of an empire of civil society they all accept that national states are necessary to sustain, expand and manage these relations. It produces in a new form a hierarchy of sovereignty.

The attempt is to intensify the real relations of domination while making them invisible, in the same way that those perpetuated through the capitalist market are invisible; to convert open domination into routine, daily, minute exertions of power, of regulation, surveillance and discipline, ultimately backed up by a threat of force which is seen as exceptional. Indeed, like the enclosures and the accompanying Great Confinement, precisely at the moment when this reaches its most oppressive, intrusive and restrictive phase, it will be treated as a new kind of freedom, a new egalitarianism in international relations. Rights and responsibilities, everyone in partnership, everyone answerable to the community of responsible states. Precisely as sovereignty is 'unbundled', in Krasner's term, and reconceived as a variable concept rather than an indivisible right, precisely as this introduces a legal hierarchy of sovereignty, it will be understood as an attempt to 'level up' state capacities. And, precisely as these new arrangements insulate the public from political and economic decisions, it will be understood as profoundly democratising and empowering.

This is the new 'democratic imperialism': stripped of its moralistic secretions, it is an effort to entrench a violent, exploitative and oppressive world order that favours ruling elites in non-Western states without the potential for accountability. The Bush administration are, contrary to some popular leftist wisdom, not deviating from this tack: they are simply pursuing it more ruthlessly than ever before, and in the process racking up considerable advantages to the segment of America's capitalist class that is closest to them. And this is why resistance movements are so important. The enclosure movement is sweeping Iraq, Lebanon, Haiti, Nigeria, everywhere the empire touches down (which is everywhere), and local resistance movements of various kinds are thwarting the attempt to coopt populations into relations that, once entrenched, would be much more difficult to overturn than formal colonialism was. This is why we can speak of a looming failure in Iraq: the Bush administration have certainly trashed the place and made money for their rich friends, but if their army is so demoralised that 72% now want to come home, if they have no legitimacy among the population they purport to be assisting, if they are increasingly unable to sustain their military presence, they will end up with a government that cannot be integrated, deserted military bases and an empty embassy. And they know it, and cannot let it happen, which is why they have become more and more ruthless as the war has gone on. That is why they have turned to Israel to help break up any germinal regional bloc against the empire. And that is why they are threatening Iran. If they were to get their preferred governments in power in the Middle East, (a tripartite Iraq, MEK and Modern Right in Iran, a broken Fatah movement in Palestine, the Hariri Gang in Lebanon etc), they would get to be the rulers while posing as partners with the legitimate national governments. They would subordinate the region for another few generations at least. If they don't, then the American empire is in serious peril.