Category Archives: History & conflict

Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus: a world-system biography, by Georgi M. Derlugian


Chechnya is one of these places that are commonly only known through their TV or internet mediated pictures of destruction and violent emptiness. Personally, the name Grozny makes me think of images in which little elderly women with colourful headscarfs and grey coats hurriedly run inbetween rubble and ruins, with half a loaf dark bread and maybe some tomatoes in a basket under their arm. It is, that is for sure, not a place where I would expect someone even knowing the name of Pierre Bourdieu or having read him. Shame on me for my lack of awareness.

Georgi M. Derlugian’s book is an immensly refreshing reminder of the stifling ignorance we have of exactly those parts of the world that are most often in the news. It is furthermore an excellent exercise in dismantling received ideas, prejudices and stereotypes of civil wars and of uncivilized so-called islamists or warlords. The most exciting aspect of Derlugian’s book is, indeed, that he resists simplifications; on the contrary, he masterly delves into the entire complexity of the end of Soviet socialism, the fates of peripheral developmental states in the great neoliberal age of the 1980s and 1990s and the complexities of shifting elite and popular systems and cultures in these marginalising world regions.

Derlugian centres his intelligent analysis of change and violence in the Northern Caucasus around the figure of Musa Shanib (or Yuri Shanibov in the russianised version). The admirer of Bourdieu, that’s him. Shanib also happened to be a prominent figure in the  independence movement of the region, first assisting Dudayev in his bid for Chechen independence, then leading a volunteer force into Abkhazia in their secessionist struggle against Georgia. Shanib’s personal history comes to stand for the political and social history of the former Soviet Union and its republics, most notably of Chechnya.His trajectory, bizarre as it seems, is representative of the Soviet nomenklature, its tribulations in the post-Stalin era and their disillusionment.

Derlugian draws on a large number of illustruous examples for his analysis: Charles Tilly, Rendall Collins, Immanuel Wallerstein and Pierre Bourdieu, himself, of course have inspired his approach of socio-political archeology. Yet, unfortunately, the theoretically inspired discussion of sociological paradigms is the weakest part of the book. The author frankly admits not being at ease with the often parochial chapel fights of the discipline; nevertheless, a more systematic comparison of these authors and a more thorough exploration of the synergies their work might offer would have been much appreciated, if not already for the fact that there is still very little written on the matter. Apart from some occasional, hardly discussed and even more sparingly referenced uses of the concepts these authors have coined, there is relatively little of Charles Tilly’s thorough historical and archive-based puzzleworking, Wallerstein’s lengthy theoretical comparisons of economic paradigms and national economic histories, Rendall Collins’ experimental sociology, or Pierre Bourdieu’s extensive empirical research in Derlugian’s book. There is also, contrary to what the title makes the reader expect, very little of Shanib’s view and understanding of Bourdieu. From this point of view Derlugian’s book is disappointing.

However, he compensates for this theoretical weakness through his own, original field research. Although not as systematic and detailled as Bourdieu’s work, Derlugian bases his research on Bourdieu’s claim that all politics are, essentially, struggles over social positions and power. Derlugian carves out which social classes contributed in which way to the disasters of the Soviet breakdown. He argues that three classes played a central role throughout the existence of the Soviet Union and that their interactions in each subnational region, most notably in each Republic, predicated whether the disintegration of the Soviet Union would result in collective violence or not.

The nomenklatura was, according to Derlugian, primarily responsible first for fractionalizing the Soviet state and second, for carving it up during privatization and to the benefits of their private bank accounts. This thesis is anything but new and has been discussed in various forms before. What is new, however, is how Derlugian interweaves this narrative with the particular story of the nomenklatura’s fate in those Republics, which were the furthest away from the political centre such as Chechnya.

The two other social classes emerged from the split of the Soviet Union’s principle class, the proletarians. Whereas the job security and boring predictability of a state-guided life led one part of the proletarians, in the 1970s notably, to embrace intellectualism, another larger part sank down to a sub-proletarian status as state-sponsoring ceded in the 1980s before it completely broke down after 1989. Derlugian goes to some lengths to explain why the emergence of a large class of intelligentsia, which in their intellectual expressions reflected a broad range of democratic orientations, did not lead to a broader democracy movement like it did in Poland, Hungary or the Germand Democratic Republic. In his view, a peculiar mixture of proletarianization of the intelligentsia, of state repression and surveillance but also lack of organisational opportunities – for instance the lack of unionization due to state-paternalistic undermining of professional groups – hampered the transformation of the Soviet intellegentsia into a broader social movement. The Soviet state’s reach into all professional categories, whether doctors or drillers, stiffled any autonomous organisational capacity, and it did the more so in the provincial republics of the Caucasus where the state’s grip was doubled by the more traditional social structures of clan and family networks. The intelligentsia resented the Soviet system less for its politically authoritarian character than for its central government tendency to tamper with those networks which commonly provided extra income from gift making (otherwise called corruption), smuggling, insider deals or outer-institutional work (e.g. doctors doing private visits for private money). Derlugian concludes that this class’ democratic orientation would better be called a consumerist orientation: “In sum, the university-educated proletarian specialist did not merely seek an opporutnity to earn extra money and gain access to scarce goods. They sought to translate certain kinds of occupational capital into the consumption and symbolic display associated with the prestigious imagery of the Western middle class.” (p. 146) A Potemkin democracy struggle so to say.

The subproletarian class, finally, is one that official Soviet ideology denied to exist yet whose reality not only preceded the Soviet breakdown but which also has been constantly growing since the economic downturn started in the late 1970s. Derlugian admits that this class is the most difficult to characterize as income opportunities, local hierarchical positions and even education might vary enormously across the category. He offers a phenomenological characterization (you recognize a subproletarian if you see one) and one based on the dialectics of formal and informal income sources. Subproletarians, notably in rural regions, will, according to Derlugian, draw their income from a large variety of sources of which state employment would be one but not the main source; others would be any kind of agricultural production, side businesses like shops or little workshops, migration to construction sites in more labour affluent areas or any kind of illegal income. The inclination to diversify business has made this class a fertile recruiting ground for illict trafficking and violence entrepreneurs.

The latter’s habitus fits particularly well to what Derlugian calls the brutality of the subproletarians’ lives: “A great deal of aggressiveness is displayed in the dress and demeanor of males and in the ‘marketplace scandalousness’ of many women. Domestic violence serves to reaffirm the fledging patriarchy; street gangs become the default mode of socialization among adolescents; violent sports like boxing and wrestling serve to uphold the virtues of masculinity; vandalism against the symbols of the dominant order (be it a defenseless park bench or a toilet seat in a public restroom), seemingly unmotivated hooliganism, and occasional rioting all help to vent social frustrations. Sub-proletarian social beliefs are precariously suspended somewhere between the ritualistic religiosity of peasants and the secular confidence of urbanites. Hence the responsiveness of sub-proletarian masses to secular populist or religious fundamentalist cults” (p. 153).

Such sweeping generalizations are not uncommon in Derlugian’s book and they make the reader feel uncomfortable at times: not a single footnote, not a single systematic comparison of any empirical data upholds this assertation that the certainly more visible violence of sub-proletarians would be, indeed, more brutal than the often better hidden violence of the middle class or of elites (referring to examples of other societies it might even be doubted that hooliganism or boxing are good indicators of sub-proletarian classes). This is one passage where Derlugian dreadfully fails to achieve one of his declared goals of the book, namely to displace prejudice as he reproduces his own appreciations of sub-proletarian culture. It sometimes sounds that Derlugian is rather cladding his own intelligentsia prejudice towards the subproletariat in academic terms.

The empirical weakness is in those parts particularly evident where his theoretical approach is equally weak. From describing the historical emergence of these three main classes of Soviet society, Derlugian is faced with the task of explaining how social class translates into collective politics. He is certainly not the first who has failed to convincingly explain how individual dispositions turn into collective movements. Yet, his slight tendency of stereotyping makes some of these passages sound strikingly superficial given that his field research otherwise is brilliantly detailled, fine grained and differentiated.It is Bourdieu’s “habitus” which he (wrongly but that is not the matter here) likens to Tilly’s routine scripts that receives the honour of becoming the keystone in the bridge that Derlugian builds from his purely social to the political analysis.

The three classes initially shared the same habitus in the streamlined Soviet society, hence, they respectively responded to the same discourses and ideas for change that circulated in the revolutionary moment since Brezhnev. Nationalism notably became the central idea that allowed coalitions of regional nomenklatura and intelligentsia to say good-bye to Moscow all the time populistically mobilising the support of the sub-proletarian classes. So far, he argues, the same happened in all republics. Yet, why some republics tumbled into violence and civil war, and others not, depended not on ancient hatreds or other arguments that have been made about ethnic violence. Rather, the reasons why the transition succeeded without violence in some republics but not in others have to be saught in the “mundane details of administrative relations, social networks, class and group attributes, and various conflicting efforts to reshape the networks and reframe the goals that taken together produced the vector of nationalist mobilizing and violence” (p. 174)

It is with this programme that Derlugian’s departure from conventional wisdom becomes most pleasant to read and think about. Derlugian makes three arguments against the common statement that nationalism brought the Soviet Union down. He first points out that chronologically nationalist discourses appeared only long after perestroika had set off other ideological and social movements. Nationalist mass movements in form of demostrations etc. only appeared at a later moment in Gorbachev’s era; before that social manifestations had been held over environmental issues (Chernobyl), social issues (like youth) or health issues (alcoholism). Nationalist discourses and nationalist events (ralleys) etc. hardly attracted any interest in those early times.

Derlugian further argues that those nationalist movements which then, with a time lag of several years, gained in strength, drew mainly on two of the three dominant social classes: the local and regional nomenklatura that had become extremely disgruntled with Gorbachev’s “de-bureaucratization” policies and the sub-proletarian underclasses which grew in size and which slowly became aware of the end of state-sponsored employment and social welfare. Violence resulted, in his view, if the two established direct relationships, the former addressing directly the latter for support, thereby marginalizing the intellectuals. Had his book ended here he would not have added anything to the well-known argument of ethnic entrepreneurs populistically manipulating the masses. Yet, Derlugian asks further where the intellectuals disappeared to, and it is here where his account originally interweaves the personal story of Musa Shanibov with the history of the Soviet disintegration and Chechnya’s wars. Comparing the Armenian-Aserbedjan conflict, the Georgian conflict and the events in Chechnya, Derlugian describes how the intelligentsia class was crushed by the unhealthy coalition of nomenklatura and sub-proletarian crowds. The nomenklature itself is described as a victim of the contradictory and, in the end, substanceless politics from Moscow that left the bureaucrats rely on their own networks for survival, hence, engaging in a nationalist competition to rally support from the masses. Derlugian singles out the lack of a “bureaucratic” ethos, which preceded Gorbachev’s reforms and had translated into an extensive system of patronage on the central governments costs. Notably in Georgia, the breaking away of Moscow’s suppport accelerated the nomenklatura’s fall and the nationalist turn.

On the other hand, Gorbachev’s increasingly obvious incapacity to manage the breakdowns of regional party structures, and his unwilligness to combat nationalist movements gave the latter even greater momentum. Turning to Shanibov, Derlugian describes in detail how the intellectuals in these republics were confronted with the dilemma of either being ran over by the historical situation or to rally with nationalism. In Derlugian’s account, nationalism became essential for political survival. Independence of the republics, before and in the wake of August 1991, precipated the nationalist movement even further as now popular unrest catalyzed dissatisfaction of the crumbling Soviet system against local and regional elites. The breakdown of the Soviet Union and the unleashing of nationalist and ethnic violence in these republics followed several interlooping spirals of escalation in which each social group aimed at surviving by betting on the nationalist card: “As the Soviet state was breaking apart, the scramble for fragments of its political and economic assets became increasingly turbulent. The course of events could turn on such small contingencies as timing, personal acquaintance, contemporary social ‘mood’, or one lucky move. The broaken and chaotic system of relations nonetheless formed a maze that allowed only certain pathways.” (p. 219) Short-termism was endemic to the system’s breakdown.

Reproducing the structural differentiation of peripheries and semi-peripheries in the world-system, socio-political changse without supporting economic changes escalated into violence. The violence and its causes pushed these regions further into the periphery. If Derlugian’s explanation of the unholy alliance between a nomenklatura that is squeezed by the dilemmas of ungovernability and sub-proletarian masses is correct, the prospect of the region’s further descent into deindustrialization and poverty is anything but cheerful. Middle classes shrink and hardly reproduce themselves, notably with those gaining valuable professional qualifications emigrating; proletarian classes are further pushed into the sub-proletariat due to the increased de-industrialization of these regions; intellectuals like Shabinov emigrate or remain marginalized and forced to subdue to radicalizing ideologies, which confer them a position in the infernal system; bureaucrats and politicians keep their grip to power through authoritarian violence and patron-client networks.

This pattern is not exclusive to the Caucasus and this is why Derlugian’s analysis is highly relevant for the analysis of other conflict cases. Although his analysis could have been in parts formulated in a more straightforward and systematic way, his insights in the mechanisms by which those parts of the population will rebell who have been for a long time excluded from any chances of social mobility and participation through socio-economic status, are highly valuable for further research.

Yet, just as Bourdieu himself and many who used his sociology, Derlugian stops short before answering one crucial question. If classes are constituted by varying configurations of capital (social, economic, cultural etc.) and if politics is nothing else than the struggle of these classes over social positions how can we know at which point such a struggle will be violent? This is less an empirical than a systematic question. Bourdieu observed empirically for the middle classes an almot unsatiable desire to emulate and imitate higher social classes; he also testified empirically that those classes, which traditionally have been seen as potential radical elements in a society, i.e. the working class and other subordinate classes (petty clerks, small shop owners etc.), find a common ground in a cultural, moral, and ethical attitudes which favour authoritarian morality and discipline. In the mid-1990s Bourdieu saw a glimmer of hope that new social movements of the time, i.e. the unemployed movement or the students’ movement of 1995/6, could be this confictual and radical force just to see them vanish quickly and being absorbed in the “pensée unique” of neoliberalism.

Yet, there seems a point when subordinate social classes choose to use armed force against a dominant class. The question is why and when. That the subordinate class wants its share of the cake is not a sufficient answer as exactly Bourdieu’s studies have shown the huge weight of symbolic power that keeps the subordinate classes accept and even justify their subordinate status (see for instance Bourdieu’s work on real estate and home buying in France). That timing and luck contingently play a role is not a helpful answer either. Yet, the procedure of looking at coalitions and alliances between different groups and how their respective positioning forces the various social classes to choose their arms (literally) is a promising approach for the analysis of social conflicts that turn into war.


Empathetic reflexivity as data collection method


Winter holiday is time to read the books that do not fit easily into the research and teaching agenda yet promise some new insights. This year’s reading was no exception: Pierre Bourdieu’s “Esquisse pour une auto-analyse”  which made me think through a number of questions about data collection for conflict analysis. This autobiographic non-autobiography is another tentative of the French sociologist to explain his approach to social sciences, this time by referring to his intellectual and academic trajectory. He notably explains in length his early (intellectual) struggle as young “normalien” (graduate of France’s prestigious grande école Ecole Normale Supérieure) against the grand authorities of the time, and particularly his ambiguous relationship to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ works which he admires for their pioneering character but also sharply criticizes for their epistemological and, hence, methodological premises.

Commonly, Bourdieu’s criticism is understood to have been directed against Lévi-Strauss’ scientistic naturalism for its rigid structuralist thought…and, yes, in this sense Bourdieu can certainly be called a “post-structuralist”. Yet, it is less the naturalism of Lévi-Strauss that is at stake but the ahistorical and unreflective take on societies against which Bourdieu argues. Bourdieu most certainly does not share any so-called post-modern arguments about the utter contigency of society which leaves us with pure phenomenologist thunder and aw. He does argue that social behaviour follows patterns and rules, yet these are historically specific and need to be analysed empirically. He upholds this epistemological position for two reasons: one, because he ascertains that any social situation is fundamentally shaped by power and the particularity of power is exactly that it shapes, determines, limits and enables human behaviour — the sociologist’s task is to analyse these shapes, determinations, limits and abilities and to do so we need to know also the subjective side of power, how power is perceived (or not), used (or not), expanded (or not), diminished (or not) and the effects these power games have on body and mind of individuals, groups adn entire societies.

Second, assuming in a positivist manner fundamental laws of society poses a major epistemological problem, namely the question how we, as researchers and observers, can know, understand, think and talk about these laws to which we would be, logically, also subject. We would have to be able to step through the looking glass and make us as observer disappear in another world (which we know from Alice is a paradox by itself) OR we assume that WE are fundamentally different from THEM. Bourdieu argues that Lévi-Strauss had chosen the latter option, hence, “a vision of the social world based on the denial of the social” as Bourdieu puts it (Esquisse pour une auto-analyse, p. 62) by representing his objects of analysis as preserved in a historical, social, political and cultural vacuum, unconscious of the world around them and ready-made aesthetic, museal objects. The counter argument Bourdieu makes is that the world is not stuck in an eternal variation of the same theme (like we would be running up and down Esher’s staircase) but evolving, changing and moving because individuals, groups and societies do, subjectively, deal with those objective structures of which they are part. Once we admit this, we also have to admit that we, the observers, are part of this “game”. Instead of denying our integration into the subjective living of objective structures, we should rather use this awareness as source of understanding of and knowledge about the social world.

If Bourdieu’s argument would be taken for granted on this very basic level of thought, one could misread him as pleading for an empiricist sociology. Yet, Bourdieu draws on a huge philosophical fund when he negotiates the relationship between the empirical and theoretical, the subjective and objective, his main reference being the French philosopher Pascal (Méditations pascaliennes) and the German “idealist” Emmanuel Kant. Put in a nutshell, he refuses to accept the distinction between the empirical and ideational world and challenges the common argument that one cannot analyse both at the same time (Loic Wacquant has nicely written about the ways Bourdieu bridges the empirical/theoretical and objective/subjective divide here). For the analysis of armed and violent conflict this throws up a row of interesting challenges, and it does so first of all for the questions what exactly should be empirically observed and this question does not only concern the problem whether large or small phenomena should be observed (already discussed in this post) but also what about the conflict needs to be observed.

Taking Bourdieu’s critique seriously one will stumble and fall when trying to identify “causal mechanisms”. Whatever the mutual constitution and influence of agent and structure is, it will hardly be a linear one of an independent variable A having an effect on a dependent variable B, maybe (or not) transformed by intervening variable Z. Not only does the idea of linear causal mechanisms exclude any possibility of reflexive “loops”, it also ignores the idea of mutual constitution (so the acceptance of the fact that one cannot know whether the hen or the egg were first), it denies the freedom of subjective alteration and transformation, it disregards the historicity of structures and it denies the freedom of subjective alteration and transformation of these. Yet, much of the current conflict analysis is still preoccupied with “causal mechanisms” despite the fact that research of the past ten years has shown that there are too many, that they are too unspecified and that there are barely “provable”.

This is particularly evident in the behaviouralist approaches to the influence of economic conditions on war which has been particularly prone to arguing in terms of “causal mechanisms”. Yet, it is the proliferation of hypothetical causal mechanisms that has made this research area one of the most frustrating in civil war analysis. Despite increasing efforts of collecting data, the major neglect of context and complex causalities has produced an erratic variety of “maybe” explanations. Ross for instance identifies five causal mechanisms which could explain the relationship between resource wealth and onset of war ; Humphreys indentifies six “families” of causal mechanisms how natural resources set off civil wars, and another seven families for causal mechanisms how natural resources impact on the duration of conflicts. None of these bundles of causal mechanisms has ever been systematically tested, probably because they are much too complex for linear regression models; particularly if more than two variables have to be assumed of influencing each other dynamically.

Unsurprisingly, this strand of research has not produced any conclusive insights about how economic structures shape the likelihood of collective violence, rebellion or war. Michael Ross’ work is examplary for this: In his early works, swimming in the streamline of Collier and Hoeffler’s greed model, he found a significant relationship between resources that can easily be looted  so which excluded for instance oil. Two years later, he finds that oil wealth is correlated with a risk of war as is wealth in diamonds and gas if a different regression model and different data is used. He then, in his most recent book, again belittles the risk of oil as triggering factor for civil wars alltogether, stating “When oil-producing states fall prey to civil war, oil is never the only factor; it is sometimes not even the most important factor” (145). In this strand of research, whether oil is important for the onset or the duration of conflicts does not depend on what people make out (or don’t make out) of oil wealth but on the data rows the researcher uses.

Yet, asking these questions is, again, not enough as I have argued in my post on Weinstein’s and Humphreys’ ill conceived survey of former combattants in Sierra Leone. It is how you ask questions. Peters summarizes this very concisely in his study of young fighters in Sierra Leone when he asserts the necessity for an empathetic encounter which takes the subjective understandings, thoughts and feelings of the object of analysis seriously. However, Peters’ book also epitomizes the practical and methodological difficulties of such research: it requires extremely good knowledge of the society under investigation, including language skills, and access to the population that is observed over a longer period and based on trust and, at least in parts, intimate knowledge of what Charles Tilly called “local scripts”. Most of the literature that provides deep insights into civil wars like Elliotts “Vietnamese War”, Wood’s “Insurgent collective action” or Mats Utas’ “Sweet Battlefields” are the result of years if not decades of work within the communities. Of course these difficulties exist for all deep sociological work, but in cases of collective violence they are aggravated by the sheer brutality of conflicts, the strain their observation puts on the observer who might become witness to extreme cases of violence and who, in any case, will have to take note of the devastation of wars.

Instances of collective violence are furthermore particularly difficult to define and delimit (see my post on Syria) as these rarely take place in all the territory and covering the totality of the population. As Charles Tilly already noted in 1969, collective violence is a particularly ill-bounded social phenomenon, and all tentatives to establish clear definitional boundaries to the categories of violent events observed necessarily allows the influx of normative theorizing about political authority, its legitimacy and the legitimacy of contesting and protesting against it. The risk of being thwarted by the phenomenon observed is clearly recognizable in Carolyn Nordstrom’s work which presents masses of empirical materials, asks extremely well formulated and challenging questions but gives only very little answers or conclusions.

Furthermore, going into the field cannot and must not be the only way to collect data as this would make all historical research futile. Bourdieu himself was, indeed, very critical of history as science (although one might say that this has been ascerbated by the French media/academic context and that most of these debates are rather personal feuds). When dealing with the reported experience and sources, reflexivitiy becomes not only an ethical requirement but an epistemological necessity. There is no language, no experience and no concept that is not shaped by social domination and none has a meaning per se. Only if we ask ourselves what we understand by the words we use and how we understand how others use them, are we able to decipher those social structures of meaning that “make” the world. Empathy is essential but not sufficient; reflexive empathy is necessary if we want to grasp the full meaning of people’s thoughts, motivations, actions and words.

This said, the idea of “authentic” voices, sources or, more generally, data becomes critical. In fact, such “authentic” data does not exist per se; it is interpreted as such by the observer (and then, of course, not “authentic” anymore). In order to show the own meaning that subjects concede to their world, the observer has to render their words “authentically” (e.g. verbatim, as Bourdieu chose to do in La misère du monde) yet these same words also need contextualisation, analysis, dissection and critical examination (in the Kantian sense of “critique” as proof, test, check etc.). Writing about these experiences, rendering subjective thoughts and critically discussing them in the light of objective regularities becomes a challenge of scientific inquiry in its own right.

For conflict analysis this means that we do not forcibly need “more” and “new” data and the tendency, that can be observed particularly in US research, to accumulate more and more interview hours, surveys, datasets etc. is actually detracting the observer’s critical sense from a deep analysis of meaning. Yet, for meaning we need a deep understanding of contexts and this is rather often lacking. We can find for instance dozens and dozens of surveys on about any aspect of the life of Bosnians during and after the war, but we have very little critical, contextual and reflexive-empathetical literature on the lives of Yugoslavs before the war. The same can be said for other societies up to the point that a colleague who is a specialist on Algeria had the one 2013 new year’s resolution of “breaking the 1962 barrier” (i.e. wanting to write a history of Algeria AFTER 1962).

A critical and reflexive-empathetic treatment of data also opens another way of data collection as much more than the politically spoken and written word can become a source once it is reasonably interpretable as expression of meaning. Even the observer’s own experiences may become a source of understanding if they are systematically, critically and empathetically reflected in the context of the analysis. Participant observation hence obtains an epistemological importance that positivist approaches cannot grant.




Who killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the cold war and white supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams, New York: Columbia U.P., 2011.


Dag Hammarskjöld is undisputably a modern hero for many, including the author of this book. Without his vigorous stewardship, the United Nations would most certainly not be in charge of 17 peace missions nowadays, employing more than 121,000 people and costing billions. Yet, in the cold war and the painful decolonization process of Africa, his actions and personnality were not liked by all. Consequently, his death in a plane crash while on mission in the Congo has since always been a huge inspiration for conspiration theorists. Three inquiries into the causes of the crash have been undertaken: one immediately after the crash by the Rhodesian government concluding a pilot’s error; another one by the the UN in 1962 which already expressed doubt over the pilot error’s hypothesis; finally, a parliamentary investigation in Sweden in 1993 more clearly said that the hypotheses of a criminal cause could not be excluded. In July this year the UN set up a new inquiry commission in order to investigate the hypothesis of Susan William’s book that Hammarskjöld’s plane was either shot at or sabotaged by white mercenaries.

Indeed, the empirical material carried together by Susan Williams is impressive and first of all shows how incomplete and neglectant former inquiries had been. She not only retraces numerous inconsistencies in the way witness testimonies and essential data were recorded; she also unearthes interesting materials about the activities of white supremacist mercenary groups in Africa between 1960 and the 1990s. She retraces in detail how these mercenary groups had important government contacts in Rhodesia and South Africa. She makes a plausible case that Hammarskjöld was sufficiently loathed by white settlers in Katanga, Rhodesia and South Africa to make them, at least, not regret his death. Yet, although impressive, this material does not allow beyond doubt imputing the plane crash to these groups and Williams carefully refrains from drawing any absolute conclusions. She makes very honestly clear that she cannot prove the authenticity of the documents she is discussing and she is also very sceptical about the veracity of the accounts former mercenaries have given her and other informants.

And even if a safe prove could be produced that mercenaries attacked Hammarskjöld’s plane or had placed a bomb in it, this would still be more than unsatisfactory. Mercenaries wouldn’t be commercial soldiers but political terrorists if they had acted on their own and become political at that point. They would have needed broad, powerful and rich support from political actors in order to attack directly the Secretary General of the UN. Williams is quite right when she notes that the logic consequence of this thought is to assume the involvment of right-wing groups in the former colonial powers, notably the UK, and white supremacists in Africa, notably in the Rhodesian and South African governments. Yet, chances are nil that evidence of that kind will ever come into the public domain. Neither the UK nor France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Portugal have in the past shown in any way that they are mature democracies enough to fully confront their colonial past. Admitting having participated actively in a plot against the Secretary General of the United Nations (assuming that they did, of course), the very institution these governments like to invoke today to justify their bombing of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places? No way.

Williams insistence to steer through this white supremacy-colonialism mud puddle is admirable. She does sometimes, however, muddle up dates and presents curious narratives which undermines partly the credibility of her account. She presents Hammarskjöld as supportive of Lumumba which was certainly not the case (see John Kent and Ludo de Witte on this relationship); she also argues that Hammarskjöld from the outset wanted to end Katanga’s secession which is also not the case; she furthermore asserts that some of the mercenaries in Katanga were former Organisation Armée Secrète soldiers (a group of French army colonels in Algeria, mostly paras, who fought to keep Algeria French) and therefore close to the French government which is simply nonsense as the OAS was explicitly set up to overthrow the government of Charles de Gaulle (and although certainly attached to French grandeur, de Gaulle’s absolutely outstanding quality was to have understood, admittedly late, how futile Europe’s grip to power in Africa and Asia was: “If you want independence, then take it!”). These are not minor factual errors but important misconceptions of main narratives of the events of the time. A second edition of the book (which will most hopefully come as paperback to make it more widely accessible) should correct these.



Charles Taylor, bustered! War narrative walled in.


So, they finally bustered the bastard…that’s what many might think at the 50-year  sentence Charles Taylor received by the Special Court for Sierra Leone yesterday. And indeed, it’s not in any way regrettable that someone like Charles Taylor should disappear in some prison for a couple of decades, yet what is utterly bizarre that he was not sentenced for whatever murder, deaths, cruelty, torture and killings that occured in the Liberian civil war but for “aiding and abetting” the RUF in neighbouring Sierra Leone. His apparent crime was to have sold weapons to the RUF and “advised” them on attacks on Sierra Leonean towns in 1998 and 1999. But of course, this alone would not allow to construct a case against Charles Taylor, so according to the prosecution, Charles Taylor’s real crime was to have elaborated a plan with Foday Sankoh in which the terrorization of the populations by all violent means available played a key role. As for any mundane murder, prosecution had to prove that the terror of the Sierra Leonean war was the planned, intentional and voluntary outcome of Charles Taylor’s plan. Hence, the entire indictment is built on the assertion that Taylor and Sankoh had met in the late 1980s in Libyan training camps and that they had elaborated such a devilish plan sometime 1988 or 1989 prior to the RUF entering into Sierra Leone.

There are a number of things that are very fishy in the entire trial, from its timing to the final court announcement of the sentence in which allegedly one of the judge’s microphones was switched off to silence his reservations over the trial’s procedures. These are footnotes to the much larger problem of international criminal justice and how it (im)possibly can render justice, all of these having been brilliantly discussed by Martti Koskenniemi. What I found interesting for this post is how this judgment contributes to the construction of a particular narrative of the war in Sierra Leone that is less and less based on documentary evidence, of which very little was presented at the trial, and more and more on hear-say as well as retrospective reconstruction of ideas, motives and interpretations of events. The Sierra Leonean war is an excellent case to observe how war narratives are constructed. The country was too small and insignificant before the war broke out to have attracted huge amounts of research into its political, economic and social structure and yet, as an anglophone country, it had already served as case study for the state failure literature, notably with the analysis of William Reno, in the wake of Zartmann’s “quasi-state” analysis. It is actually this mixture of a little evidence we have, which, despite its internal thoroughness and consistency, comes together to a picture that conveniently suits some powerful states in this world (see also Chris Mahoney’s comment on the Charles Taylor trial).

The merits of Reno’s excellent analysis notwithstanding, this partial, generalized ignorance of Sierra Leone’s social conflicts prior to the civil war lent itself conveniently to uphold three basic claims throughout the war and now in its aftermath: a) the government of Sierra Leone, i.e. Siakah Stevens,  mismanaged the country for personal motives but the basic governance structure of the country, which was not fundamentally changed since the colonial times,  is by and large ok; b) the only problem of the lopesidedeness of the Sierra Leonean economy which relied/s heavily on multi-national companies for the exploitation of its mineral resources is that the government was/is too corrupt (see a.); and c) consequently, Sierra Leoneans would live happily if only the government were not corrupt OR, to talk in the present time, without a corrupt government they have all reason to live happily. This three-layered argument conveniently conceals the detrimental nature of multi-national companies’ engagement in the mineral exploitation of Sierra Leone, it hides from our eyes the miserable living conditions of notably the rural populations before the war and also after, which have been, additionally, hardened after the ravishing effects of the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, and it finally points exclusively to the domestic government as main actor of politics, hence silencing the numerous external influences on Sierra Leone’s politics, from the IMF to the former colonial power Great-Britain.

However, if these three elements are re-integrated into the analysis the narrative of the war in which Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh played Risk in large scale on the Liberian-Sierra Leonean border appears overly simplistic and actually not that right anymore (some this can actually be pieced together through a careful reading of the rare literature on Sierra Leone before the war, whether by Paul Richards, Alfred Zack-Williams, William Murphy, Caroline Bledsoe or Marianne Ferme) . The real problem with the verdict’s thin documentary base lies exactly there: for all these other aspects, too, there are only very few documents. Whether it is the shadowy role of the British FCO, army and secret services or the ghost-like appearance and disappearance of private security companies all over the country, whether we look at lack of serious analyses of the Sierra Leonean economy before the war and its criminal features or at the ways the Sierra Leonean political structures shape social forces in a way that violent dissent is “the last way out” (to take up Jeff Goodwin’s title), and if we simply, for just a moment, assume seriously that Sierra Leoneans maybe did not live happily before or even now after the war…then we quickly stumble over questions we need to ask about the appropriateness of the global economic structures, the role of international organisations and of former colonial powers, of neighbouring countries like Nigeria or South-Africa, and about the inappropriateness of tools like peacekeeping and peacbuilding in these contexts.

Yet, the documents that could answer these questions are well hidden or simply inexistent. We will have to wait at least another 10 if not 30 years until we can access the archives of the British FCO and MI5 in order to understand the role the British forces played in support of the private security companies and the so-called Self Defence Forces of Sierra Leone (and the same is true for South Africa which is the country from which many of these private security companies originated and which might also hold valuable documents on them); we will probably never be able to access any documents which will tell us much about the transnational networks of money and diamonds through which people like Jamil Sahid Mohammed financed the Sierra Leonean and the Lebanese war; nor will we probably ever have any access to any documents which might exist on the overall very unglamourous role of the African Union peacekeepers; and we will most certainly never find any documents that tell us anything about how it comes that in the current economic situation of Sierra Leone the large majority of businesses engaged in the mineral exploitation sector are financed through British, Israeli or American capital.

Yet, whereas in the one case, namely Charles Taylor’s trial, the lack of written evidence was taken as prove that the hear-say is true, the lack of written documents will be for a very long time considered as prove that there is not and never has been any other problem in Sierra Leone than that of too greedy elites and weirdo, illuminated warlords. By the time historians will be able to access those other documents, this narrative will have become the standard narrative in history books and that conflict analysis that does not like to look far beyond the policy reports of the same international organisations which have constructed exactly this narrative (as for instance the Uppsala Conflict Encyclopedia).


Colonial legacies and armed conflict: how to assess their continuity?


There is, quite often, a certain intuition that colonialism has had an effect on contemporary armed conflict. Sometimes this intuition is based on simple observations of continuity of those conflicts since independence: the Karen conflict in Myanmar (Burma) for example. Sometimes it is the arbitrariness of colonial borders that is invoked when explaining the transnational nature of certain conflicts like in the Touareg war in the Sahel at the moment (see the blog on Mali). There are also intuitive parallels between forms of violence, for instance there is an overlap of the regions where child soldiering is rampant with former slave raiding regions. And there are obviously the much more discrete continuities like the rule of law, the form of property rights or administrative structures.

Yet, what they all have in common is that, beyond intuition, it remains difficult to assess how these legacies can still have an impact today. 50, 60, even 70 years have passed since independence and 2, 3 or even 4 generations should see changes, transformations and disruptions of these “traditions”. A first step to assess colonial legacies has to be taken, obviously, towards knowing and understanding the impact of colonialization on the societies concerned. Now is a good time for research on the last years of colonization as a number of archives are becoming accessible. However, they do not always keep the promises they hold and particularly the recent opening of the “lost” archives that have been recently released at the National Archives in Kew on the British colonies. Most of the comprimising documents on British exactions, notably during the Mau Mau revolt, have been destroyed, making it hard for historians to establish political responsibilities all the way up to London. And yet, even before the opening of these archives, a couple of books had established that the British were anything but peaceful and civilized in their colonial mission – an observation that still does not go down well today. David Harvey’s book has been discussed already. But there are also Madhusree Mukerjee’s “Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II” or Caroline Elkins’ book “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya” which both show with quite massive evidence the major, indispensable role that systematic violence against colonial subjects has played in the British Empire. This said, the French obviously haven’t been nicer colonial masters at all and whoever wishes to read through the horror of the Algerian war can do so now online; nor the Belgians since we know the latest from Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghosts” …

Yet, once we know of the violence of imperialism — how can we conclude any effect on today’s societies? There is the common question that has be asked about the local populations which benefitted from colonialism. Colonialism, in its different forms, destroyed and reorganised social power elites but had a varying impact on power structures. A careful comparison of cases could elucidate if colonialism had a major impact on the ways and forms how social groups referred to each other, particularly with respect to property, social marginalisation and the use of violence, or if it only changed one elite group against another. Ahmad Alawad Sikainga’s “Slaves into workers” is a fine example of such a study. He shows how slavery in Sudan persisted from pre-colonial through colonial times until today, however under changing masters and in different guises. In a different way, Greet Kershaw’s “Mau Mau from below” (see here for a review) is equally interesting as it shows the intertwining and interlocking of several conflicts: social and ethnic conflicts between the different Kenyan groups and the conflict with the colonizers. The question of property rights and economic production structures is, second, closely related to the first one. As such it is rather well researched, however, a comparative study bringing insights from the literature on postcolonial political economy together with the question of continuities of violence is still lacking. Again, a major problem remains, that all these studies are disparate single case studies and of which the conclusions have not yet been systematically compared.





It’s not the weather, it’s politics! Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts” revisited.


Hsiang’s, Meng’s and Cane’s pompous chatter about El Niño and conflict made me want to read again one of those books they would certainly count among the “anecdotical” accounts: Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts”. Far from being anecdotical this is an excellent, extremely well researched and documented historical study of the mismanagement of major droughts and floods in the 19th century India and China, colonies of the British Empire, and in Brazil, equally dependent on Great-Britain at that time, and the complex reasons that led to the probably biggest humanitarian disaster in the 19th century. The droughts and floods were caused by El Niño, all right, but the ensuing famines and hecatombs (Davis speaks of estimates between 12.2 and 29.3 Million for the two Indian famines of 1876-1879 and 1896-1902 alone) were caused by something rather different, much more complex and far more political than the weather: racist mismanagement, imperial arrogance, liberal free market ideologies, colonial interferences in local property rights, agriculture and rural production structures, administrative incompetence, “modernization” and its destruction of traditional patterns of solidarity and inter-communal help, abolishment of the state capacity in India and China where famines had been successfully prevented before…

It well takes the book’s 464 pages to expose the complex path from meteorological misfortunes to widespread famine and death. Yet, the core argument remains simple enough: Climatic vulnerability had always existed in those lands where the famines appeared in the late 19th century; however, it is only when weather hazards combine with the complete remodelling of the political and economic structures of these countries in the wake of their forced and violent “integration” into the world (or more precisely European and American) market that disastruous famines like these wiped out millions of people.

Three major effects of imperialism account for the heavy toll El Niño took in those years, as Davis painstakingly sets out in the third section of his book. “First, the forcible incorporation of smallholder production into commodity and financial circuits controlled from overseas tended to undermine traditional food security” (p. 289), “Second, the integration of millions of tropical cultivators into the world market during the late nineteenth century was accompanied by a dramatic deterioration in their terms of trade” (p. 290); “Third, formal and informal Victorian imperialism, backed up by the supernational automatism of the Gold Standard, confiscated local fiscal autonomy and impeded state-level developmental responses – especially investments in water conservancy and irrigation – that might have reduced vulnerability to climate shocks.” (p. 290).

Through a combination of military force and financial pressures agricultural production in these countries was redirected towards exports at the cost of local food security. Local governments (whether the provinces were under direct or indirect rule) were severed from own resources and capacities to undertake relief measures when disaster stroke. Davis tellingly compares the lack of response to the late 19th century famines with the relief campaign of the Qing Dynasty Governor-General Fang Guanchang who had established graneries all over the province of Zhili in Northern China and successfully combated a threatening famine after severe droughts in 1743-1744, shattering by the way common assumptions about the incapable and passive Chinese Qing state (see for more on Fang Guanchang and famine relief in imperial China, Liliane M. Li “Fighting Famine in North China”). Furthermore, as Davis points out in the gruesome first chapter of his book (which can be read online here:, a hideous melange of free market ideology (no state intervention!) and colonial racism offered convenient excuses for the colonial masters to do as little as possible for relief and to do the little they did as cynically and brutally as only those can do who do not consider people of other skin as humans. Nowhere is the obscenity of British imperial contempt more palpable than in Davis’ comparison of daily calorie rations distributed by the British in Indian “work-for-food” camps (where the starving were forced to heavy coolie labour) with the higher caloric value of food rations in Buchenwald (p. 39).

Davis is first of all interested in analysing the complex interworking of the three factors mentioned above but he does mention again and again how all these features that led to these enormous famines had already before created hardship and provoked armed rebellions such as the Taiping Rebellion, the Great Mutiny or the Boxer rebellion. In the context of analysing causes and reason for political violence, Davis’ comprehensive outline of the destruction the “world market” (which, again, was actually the British or other colonial motherland’s market) brought to India’s, China’s and Brazil’s economy and states points to three major issues that need consideration.

First, rather than poverty as such conflict analysis needs to consider the income land can generate for rural poor. This depends not solely on the productivity of land but also, and particularly in times of crisis, on external circumstances such as tax regimes, world food prices, food security capacities (e.g. irrigation and graneries) and rural finances, notably in terms of cash liquidity to come through times of failing harvests. Long before droughts or floods ruin harvests and income, peasants had fallen victim to vicicous circles of debt, forcing them out of the land or into cash crop production that seriously endangered their subsistence. Similarily, taxes need to be analysed whether they serve to support poor underclasses in times of crisis or, on the contrary, squeeze them to death.

Second, intimately linked but analytically an issue of its own, property rights and usage rights have to be carefully analysed to understand how, in the long term, poverty and exploitation are produced (or abolished). The greatest “innovation” brought by colonialism in the 19th century was the introduction of private property and the transformation of communal, shared land and other property forms into private property claims with the often accompanying dispossession of those who had before born the fruit of land usage. Far from being always the product of explicit violence or laws, dispossession has indeed taken a large variety of financial, economic and political forms.

Third, Davis’ fine analysis of market liberal discourses and “modernization” points to the urgent need of self-reflexive caution when it comes to analysing political and social conflict and struggle in strange societies. The currently so fashionable homo oeconomicus paradigm of conflict analysis (the famous rational utility-maximizing individual), a borrowing from liberal economics, often sprinkled with good doses of neo-Malthusianism, is entirely inappropriate in the light of the complex structural and relational dynamics through which 19th century imperialism has created those Victorian genocides. All the features of the 19th century liberalism are still well alive in global mainstream development politics, from the aversion against state intervention to the unbelievably efficient remodeling, through development assistance, peacebuilding and so-called statebuilding, of local economies to magically fit the business interests of Western and Northern economies rather than local needs.