Saturday, May 05, 2007

The primitive accumulation of moral capital.

For liberal interventionists like Michael Ignatieff as much as for neoconservatives like Robert Kagan, there is a 'we', a 'West', an 'America' or some other such collective agent whose actions can be expressed variously through states, aid outfits, pressure groups, PR campaigners and such. Hence, one finds Ignatieff introducing a volume on American Exceptionalism and Human Rights by explaining that Americans have been uniquely involved in pursuing human rights agendas overseas, conflating the actions of AIDS campaigners with those of the State Department (whose statements and press releases he happily takes at face value at any rate) and expounding on the strange paradox that the US nevertheless seems ill-disposed to accepting international human rights laws. How strange. After all, the US chose to ratify the Genocide Convention several decades after its original formulation and acceptance by most other democratic states (Ignatieff prefers the word 'democracies' to the phrase 'democratic states') - and yet, no one accuses the US of support for, complicity or involvement in, or perpetration of genocide.

Again, as he introduces readers to Warrior's Honour, his Huntington-lite guide to the conflicts in Yugoslavia, he describes an urgent mission to describe the sudden willingness of 'Westerners' to go about the world righting wrongs, an historically unlikely fate he avers, since morality has been traditionally bound by tribal solidarities. And again, all the way through Virtual War, his collection of apologetics for the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, Ignatieff rehearses what 'Americans' did and did not do, what 'the West' did, and so on. These are not used to imply group designations that summon loyalty: they occlude and obscure distinctions which urgently need to be made.

This is hardly unique. It is a pattern of thought ritually encouraged by the assumption of 'national', 'local' or 'school' credit for the actions of individual sportspeople or whatever. Yet persisting with this fetish is hardly indicative of critical thought. Indeed, in reading through some assorted dreck about the Yugoslav wars, most of it presented as a curious admixture of academese, journalism and humanitarianism, the pre-9/11 elaboration of a 'clash of civilisations' theme (the apparent inability of different tribes or ethnicities to coexist without some degree of distance and separation) is dominant. And if most of it is not so sanguine about the great deeds of 'Westerners' and 'Americans', it nevertheless relies upon a sort of artificial unity of state and people. A typical phrase introducing the relationship between 'Western' public opinion and 'Western' state policies says something like this: "As the images of atrocities flickered across television screens, outraged citizens demanded action...". Not only Virtual War, Ignatty dear, a whole virtual democracy, with virtual outrage and virtual virtuosity assembled around the television. People see, people react, politicians are finally stirred from their slothful, hidebound ways, and some people get saved - all too late, of course.

In this way, media conglomerations acquire the status of humanitarian watchdogs, imperial states with global reach are converted into hermits, and a largely passive desire by television viewers for someone to do something becomes the height of civic duty. The organic unity of the New York Times, Human Rights Watch, CNN, President Clinton, the American public, the military high command and the national security state is thus established through a series of artful inversions. Wars prosecuted by a discrete hierarchy of professional combatants under the direction and authorisation of acquire not only democratic legitimacy, but also the reflected sentimental glory of humanitarianism, conscience, tears, frustration and the longing for a shared human community.

The always-present reference to the images mediating people's understanding of conflict, oppression (the axes of class and exploitation being habitually suppressed and denied) is not only a way of implying a critique of the media that never comes to fruition (since, for example, Ignatieff has no real conflict with his enthusiastic employers). The point about referring to television screens and flickering images is to evoke the one shared experience that is utterly passive, totally without genuine involvement, completely atomised, static and temporary - it is a zone of engagement that is least likely to be engaged, a highly personal but utterly uniform arena of efficacy that has no compulsory effects. All you have to do is wait for the war, then cheer it on when it comes. Bearing no immediate consequences, one's sitting room humanitarianism is apparently the ideal disposition. Well fuck public outrage - if you really want to do something to help an oppressed group, then form an international brigade, raise money and be prepared to evade Europol's new 'counterterrorism' squad.