Category Archives: Must reads

Finally a full stop to the (in)famous greed vs. grievance debate: Lars-Erik Cederman, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Halvard Buhaug (2013) Inequality, Grievances, and Civil War, New York: Cambridge UP.

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This book will hopefully set an end to the deeply fatigued and flawed debate about Paul Collier’s  and Anke Hoeffler’s claim that grievances do not matter for the outbreak of violent conflicts. Its epistemology is the same as Collier and Hoeffler’s, that is the book is situated in the behaviouralist research paradigm. It therefore can hardly be brushed away as ‘non-scientific’ as it uses exactly those scientising tools that are now so popular in the Journal of Peace Research. We have categories, variables (dependent and independent, of course), causal mechanisms and datasets with a lot of numbers, a nicely constructed research design and pretty proofs of hypotheses (including some francy graphs which are most useful for teaching) . And grievances matter. Full stop. Yeah.

Yet… this book also has everything that makes behaviouralist research so boring: a  lack of critical and reflexive discussion of categories, terms and notions; a superficial, opportunistic and partial reading of sociological, historical and anthropological literature; a couple of sweeping claims which would be almost funny if they weren’t so ideologized western-centric — for instance the claim: “In the new era of national self-determination and popular sovereignty that followed after the American and French revolutions in the late eighteenth century, it become increasingly difficult and costly to conquer territory, let alone to control it against the will of the local population” (pos. 986 in my kindle version) – to say the least, this is a very unusual way of describing the century of empire and colonialism….

And of course the study suffers from the greatest weakness of behaviouralist research, namely findings which are absolutely unsurprising for everyone who knows from zillions of case studies and historical literature that ‘civil wars are not a stupid thing’ as Cramer said so nicely in his book.

What do we learn from this study? If there are objective inequalities in a society and if there are ethno-national cleavages along which these inequalities run, if these inequalities are aptly exploited by the state, for instance by consistently maintaining discriminating and excluding policies, and if the groups can be mobilised through discoursive frames that pitch ethnic groups against each other or against the state, we have a situation with salient grievances. In such a situation there is an increased likelihood of armed and violent conflict. Bam!  What a truly revolutionary insight.

Now, to be fair, within the paradigm of behaviouralist research this book reformulats these insights most astutely and takes refreshingly new approaches to number crunching. It is, hence,  able to set an end to the (in)famous debate over greed vs. grievances by showing that economic fortunes of populations are closely interrelated with their political standing and that this in turn shapes their preparedness for violent politics. It allows for a multi-layered and hence somewhat more complex reconstruction of pathways to rebellion than those that this kind of research had produced before where mountains or oil where identified as causing violent politics. It reintroduces politics into the equation and it tries at least to account for processual developments and change. The latter tentative is inherently limited and restricted by the rigidity of quantitative models – there is simply a point where a category has to be fixed and a time span has to be defined consistently across many cases.

The research also has a take on a couple of questions, which this type of research had, up to now, rarely asked. It formulates ideas and hypotheses about the role of emotions, hence departing from the debilitating rigidity of the rational actor model. Indeed, the authors identify emotions as being the essential ‘jigsaw puzzle piece’ that connects objective grievances with the mobilisation of groups through discursive frames.

It also, and this is really something quite unusual for this kind of research, attempts to conceptualize conflicts as relational process. The authors conceptualize conflict process as conditioned by social relations first by taking into account group dynamics. This goes together with their emphasis on emotions and the consecutive departure from methodological individualism. Here, individuals and potential rebels behave in certain ways because they are members of groups, because others are important: their sympathy, their gaze and their feelings, good or bad.

Second, they conceptualize conflict processes as relational as they formulate a ping-pong of action and reaction between the adversary groups, or between the adversary group and the state or what the authors call “the interactive logic of claims and counterclaims issued by challengers and incumbents” (pos. 1352). The study makes extremely good use of social movements literature and this section in particular relies heavily on Jeff Goodwin’s “No other way out”. Yet, their relational thinking also finds its inherent limitation through the behaviouralist research design in which processes have to be linear and progressive to be measurable in order to avoid endogeity problems or reverse causation.

And so in the end, the study’s analysis does not go much beyond the already existing qualitative literature on grievances and violent conflict. Its central piece, the new data set of ‘Ethnic Power Relations’ offers a tool for bringing about the behaviouralist, measured proofs of what much of the qualitative case studies have already argued before (notably those quoted by the authors like Wood’s case study of El Salvador or Jeff Goodwin’s comparative case studies) and it is, surely, an achievement in itself. The dataset is certainly helpful for studies on power-sharing mechanisms and can serve well for practitioners interested in conflict prevention. It is a fine example of applied science in social science and conflict research.

Yet, in terms of understanding the how and why of conflicts the study still leaves many more questions open than it answers. First, the conflicts identified by the authors are only a small section of all armed conflicts the world has witnessed in the past decades. Notably, a large number of those conflicts which have shocked the world public most like the war in Sierra Leone or Liberia, the conflict in Somalia, large parts of the conflicts in the Congo are not considered. They obviously fit the overall framework as the authors’ focus on ethno-national groups is determined by the fact that they only have data for these groups but not by their framework.

Second, the framework is too general and unspecific to provide insights into the concrete why and how. Where do those elites come from who frame inequalities as grievances? How are these frames transmitted? How does the interaction with other groups interfere with these framing processes? Are framers, mobilizers and fighters a homogenous group or do internal divisions exist and what effect does this have, for instance on radicalization or, on the contrary, pacification? What is the role of layered and clustered identities and how do they affect mobilisation processes? These are just a couple of questions that remain unanswered by this book.

Third, the book suffers like most of this literature from its definitory focus on government-rebel group conflicts. In many social conflicts, the target of the rebellious group is not forcibly the state or the government (the RUF being a case in point as their interest in capturing the state seems to have been relatively low, see Peters).  Nation-state borders and official governments might also be simply irrelevant (blatant cases of non-existing governments like in Somalia for instance) or their involvement might be hardly recognisable in conflicts. Indeed, as Duffield pointed out some time ago in his book “Global Governance and New Wars”, many current conflicts might be better understood as conflicts over different forms of political organisation and community than those traditionally understandable with the nation-state goggles on.

In sum, the book makes an important contribution to the debate within the behaviouralist paradigm as it uses behaviouralist tools to demonstrate some of the conflict processes that have already been well analysed in the qualitative literature. It does not go beyond this as the behaviouralist paradigm does not allow delving into deep with the messy, contradictory, spiralling and irremediably non-linear social processes of conflict. Yet, as hopefully final word on the question whether the importance of grievances can be measured and therefore ‘count’, it has a brilliant place to take. It also reveals a long row of questions that still seek answers but which are unlikely to find them in this kind of quantitative analysis.

Oh, and it certainly desserves a brownie point for being one of the rare studies of this kind which locates the causes of the Croatian war, among others, in the discriminatory policies of the Tudjman regime and the Kraijna Serbs’ reaction to these, and not firstly in Serbian ‘barbarism’.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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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.

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

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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.

 

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War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone, by Krijn Peters

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With his book “War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone”, Krijn Peters presents an analysis that is exceptional by the materials it presents, intelligent by the way it uses the material and full of marvelous insights about the motivations and reasons why young people would not only take up arms but also commit horrendous atrocities as RUF fighters and others did in the Sierra Leonean war. For this reason alone, Peters’ book is precious and rare in the literature on civil wars, a diamond one would be tempted to say if this book would not make so brutally clear what a curse diamonds and its economy have been for Sierre Leone.

The book is a major contribution to research on armed conflict and most particularly on child soldiering as Peters manages to carve out the motivations of the combatants for joining and staying with the RUF. He reconstructs the internal organisation of this movement which has remained rather obscure and been subject to quite some phantasms, and he has found sensible explanations for the atrocities committed by RUF rebels, mainly in the second half of the 1990s. With this work that builds on former publications (some with Paul Richards) Peters successfully debunks the myth of a disemparaged youth run wild. He replaces it with a differentiated, fine grained and sensitive portrait of the mainly rural underclass of Sierra Leonean society that was surely out to take its revenge for the injustice and (violent) exploitation it had experienced before but which also pursued a project of a better society as any respectable revolutionary movement. Such a perceptive analysis is rare in war studies and particularly when it comes to organisations like the RUF which have made headlines for their brutal violence. Peters painstakingly pieces together interviews on a large range of topics.

The analysts of wars in Africa who actually go and talk to those who fought the war are few. There are a number of reasons for this: ongoing wars are particularly unpleasant fields of research, not only for the dangers they represent but also for the logistic and communicative difficulties of these environments: people engaged in armed combat are likely to have other things on their mind than talking to academics; the discussions one can have in war will most probably be fully subjected to the emotional and intellectual exceptionality of wars and might therefore not give further insights into the larger picture.

Krijn Peters is well aware of all these difficulties and the materials he collected as well as his presentation reflect the tremendous care he has taken to deal with the fallacies of doing research in these situations. Just like Mats Utas argues in his marvelous “Sweet Battlefields“, he contends that standard interviews or polls will not lead very far with these young people (Mats Utas admits that his method was “deep hanging out” with the ex-fighters and that this was a much better, complete and honest information source than the over 100 hours of formal interviews he did with youngsters in a demobilisation programme). The former combattants are far too experienced in delivering standard narratives to curious folks whether from NGOs, state agencies, media or academia. They also might have personal, psychological and reputational interests in not presenting their own story but what they assume others want to hear; Peters and Utas make this point particularly clear for the question of abduction. Although abducted, many young people might have, or actually, have chosen to stay with the armed groups they fell prey to. Whether this is the effect of brainwashing, of the Stockholm syndrome or the not unlikely discovery that, in the end, the abductees found something genuine positive in their new roles is something only careful interviewing over a long period of time can tell. Representativity of the the interview sample is, in this case, less important than getting into deep with the former combattants and just like Utas, Peters chose to follow “his” informants over a longer period of time in order to peel off the upper superficial layers of standard narratives and discourses. He nevertheless keeps his critical distance, true to his initial statement that “empathy does not mean sympathy”.

The care he has taken to choose his interview partners, to follow them over a longer period and especially to come back in well paced intervalls shows in the wealth of insights he produces from these sources. He is thus able to correct a number of received ideas about rebels and child soldiers in general and the fighters of the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in particular. With respect to recruitment, he makes a plausible case that the RUF mainly recruited from rural poor, and here from the lowest social stratum, namely young men (mainly) who lacked patronage networks to protect them from exploitation in villages or mining areas: orphans, “foreigners”, descendants from former house slaves and similar social groups. He explains internal cohesion of the movement partly with this common origin and the replacement of a hierarchical, class-based and gerontocratic social structure of the Sierra Leonean countryside by a meritocratic one in the rebel movement. In the RUF recruits could gain position and respect through their fighting; even if not spellt out in sophisticated and intellectual-theoretical terms such a “base socialism” provided important ideological ferment for the RUF. Ideology also translated into praxis with the creation of communal farms and the communal organisation of mining. Peters thus amasses evidence against a common thesis that movements like the RUF was void of political vision, just as he makes plainly clear that material incentives played overall a minor role in the motivation of the fighters, in the origins of the rebellion and in its internal organisation. For those used to the standard narrative of a “lumpen youth” (as Abdullah calls them) run wild, Peters conclusion will come as a surprise that “the movement had a set of rules and regulations and a guiding ideology which it sought to instil in its fighters during their training period”.

In the fifth chapter Peters actually provides a deep analysis of the causes for the atrocious violence deployed by, and this is an important qualification of his study, some RUF fighters and some points in time during the 12-year war and in some places. In previous chapters, Peters had explained at length the decentralized “cell” character of the movement which made consistent organisational training, monitoring and control extremely difficult, particularly during the “bush” years. This may account for the lack of discipline within the RUF but does not yet explain the actrocities committed (note that any war is brutal, the particularity here being the “specialisation” in certain types of violence like the amputation for which the RUF had gained its image as new barbarians in the onwatching world). Peters advances two sets of reasons and causes for the violence of the RUF: external influences and internal organisational dysfunctions. Among the external influences he notes that many of the atrocities committed in the early stage of war were so by Liberian fighters. This early stage settled the reputation of the RUF and the brutal repression of the rebellion by the army  (although ineffective) seem to have distanced the RUF from its natural constituency, hence, making violent antagonism between the RUF and villages escalate. Peters argues that this led to a strong paranoia among the RUF which was carried on into later phases of war and became particularly virulent in the phase after 1997 when the RUF took the bushes again. Internally, two organisational features supported the development of such paranoia and reinforced the key role particularly violent individuals could play. The RUF was organised in cells with flat hierarchies; in the beginnings, there were ony two military ranks and platoons were small. In this jungle guerilla warfare, paranoic suspicion towards civilians was actually an assett as it contributed to the group’s safety. With the rise and success of self-defense militias which would hunt down the RUF in the jungle, this paranoia became reinforced and was not mediated by a larger command or organisational movement. The second effect of this guerrilla organisation was that particularly “wicked”, i.e. violent individuals were not only difficult to control and punish for their behaviour, their aggressiveness might even be useful for the protection of the individual RUF platoons and therefore go unpunished despite the movement having a set of rules that prohibit unnecessary violence, rape and looting.

It is a pity that Peters does not engage with any of the theories of violence currently en vogue. Weinstein’s binomic and path-dependent distinction between low resource movements, who would engage in ideological training rather than loot and indiscriminate violence, from high resource organisations which will maintain adherence of fighters through lucrative material booty, does not fit at all to Peters’ descriptions. Kalyvas’ argument that indiscriminate violence will increase if territorial control, information and the loyalty of the population are contested fits Peters’ account much better. Yet, just as Elliott’s study of the Vietcong/Vietminh shows neither the material nor strategic or ideological position of these groups can fully explain how and which form of violence they employed. It appears from these two studies rather that the dynamics of violence in civil wars is also strongly determined by inner-organisational developments. For further research this is probably the most important conclusion from Peters book.

With respect to child or young soldiers, Peters book introduces also an important observation that is all too often missing from other accounts on child soldiering, namely that child soldiering is more frequent and more likely to happen if the youth that is recruited into the rebel movement had been already widely marginalised before; and that these young men take mature and responsible decisions despite their age. The latter leads us to having to rethink our understanding of childhood and youth as times of irresponsibility and immaturity. Rather, these young people have to be considered and their actions have to be analyzed within the social tissue of which they are part.

 

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Violence and Social Orders, a conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history, by Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, CUP, 2009

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Is this again another book that promotes the ideology “The West is the Best!”? Yes. Do the authors really account for recorded human history as they say they do? Of course not. Do the authors prove convincingly that democracies are less violent? Again, no. Is it still worth a read? Yes, it is.

The authors do develop some interesting ideas about the relationship between violence and the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of social, economic and political institutions, even though the book is a, at times comic, tentative to rewrite Eurocentric modernization theory without writing Eurocentric modernization theory. Indeed, the book’s subtitle is a misnomer as the cases cited are mainly and predominantly those of the US, England and France, and what is discussed of the “rest” (the Atzek Empire for instance) is quite rushed, vague and superficial.

It is also full of omissions and superficial readings of other scholars who have already tempted before them (and more successfully) to decipher why modernity in the West has created very different political, economic and social systems in which most people (but by far not all as the authors imply!!) live in relative physical security, economic comfort and political stability. It is for instance stunning to see that North, Wallis and Weingast (NWW furtheron) take up all three of S.N. Eisenstadt’s core topics (civilization, modernity, patrimonialism) without citing him even once. The rendering of Max Weber is also disturbingly superficial and weak, particularly the claim that Weber would not have accounted for varieties of what the authors call “natural states” ignoring Weber’s painstaking analysis of Hinduism, the Chinese Empire and other works. And of Tilly, they seem to have read not more than his “Capital, coercion, states” so that they couldn’t notice that they talk about exactly the “opportunity hoarding” and “exploitation” mechanisms Tilly identifies at the origin of most social orders. Indeed, both concepts resemble a lot, a lot the limited access definition of NWW!

And, indisputably, there remain serious problems with the categories the authors develop. As Jean Bethke Elshtain observed in her review of the book, using economists’ (one needs to add: liberal economists) language does not really help. Yet, the bone that is the most hard to swallow is the author’s arbitrary and extremely limited definition of the problem of social and political violence.

But let’s start at the beginning. The authors’ core argument postulates that “limited-access orders” are more likely to produce inter-social violence than “open-access orders”. The reason is that open access orders have monopolized violent means under one central institution of which the control is, in principal, open to all; there is, consequently, no need for different groups to employ violence to rule over, fend off or compete with other groups. This central institution is commonly the state but the authors argue that other institutions are imaginable. Open access orders have importantly institutionalized the principle that all members of the society can become members of the ruling elite – “elite” hence changes its meaning from a group whose members are there because of their personal status (like the nobility) to a group whose members are there because they worked their way into the group, independently from their personal status. NWW call this depersonalization of the elite. As means of violence are now subject to a depersonalized institution (the state) to which access is universally open, all members of the society will compete peacefully to either become members of the ruling group or they will, out of their choice, accept not being member of the ruling group, always keeping the option that they could in mind.

In limited-access orders such peaceful competition is not possible because different groups in society, which are based on exclusive membership, have not given up their means of violence  in order to be able to forcefully compete over access to rulership. This is what the authors call “the natural state”, a rather confusing term in political science as they certainly do not mean the natural state of political philosophy. Natural states can be peaceful but if they are so it is because the ruling elite is in a balance: „The natural state reduces the problem of endemic violence through the formation of a dominant coalition whose members possess special privileges. The logic of the natural state follows from how it solves the problem of violence. Elites – members of the dominant coalition – agree to respect each other’s privileges, including property rights and access to resources and activities. By limiting access to these privilege members of the dominant coalition, elites create credible incentives to cooperate rather than fight among themselves. Because elites know that violence will reduce their own rents, they have incentive not to fight. Furthermore, each elite understands that other elites face similar incentives. In this way, the political system of a natural state manipulates the economic system to produce rents that then secure political order.” (p. 18)

Contrary to that, open access orders are peaceful because they are structurally organized in a way that the use of violence for competition is impossible (given that there is a state monopoly of violence),  unnecessary (given that individuals or groups can participate in the ruling elite by peaceful means), and unproductive (given that violence can destroy the advantages all groups have, so there will be no interest in using violence).

Now, the authors contend that all recorded human history has been the history of natural states apart from the past 150 years in North America and parts of Europe. They go to some lengths to show that the United States, England and France have successfully muted from natural states to open-access orders in the 19th century and they contrast this with a couple other cases of “fragile”, “basic” and “mature” natural states. It is in this discussion where modernization theory and “the West is Best” creeps in again and readers who are more sensitive than the authors to other historical periods and cultures will be shocked by the cavalier way they treat complex civilizations like the Aztecs and how they happily, unreflectively jumble them around with others like the Carolingians.

These comparisons throw up a major methodological problem and an essential ontological question. The question is very simple but sheds fundamental doubt on the entire enterprise: how can the authors compare the past 150 years of the US, England and France with let’s say, to take their own example, 2700 years of Aztec Empire, or, to take other examples, 5000 years of Chinese Empire, a couple of hundred years of Ashanti kindom, more than a thousand years of Byzantine/ Ottoman Empire, or simply and more recently 300 years of Japan’s Tokugawa rule? Maybe those open access orders have simply not been around long enough to have their share of major intersocial violence?

Of course, this question only makes sense if we are to accept the ontological claim that these countries were peaceful. The fundamental problem is that we can only accept this claim if we are willing to see American, English or French society as being restricted to white, Christian, adult, middle-class, straight men. Women, homosexuals, native American Indians, slaves and former slaves, underclasses of all colours and colonial subjects would certainly have another story to tell about the peacefulness and the open access of US-American, English or French political and social institutions. While the US are, according to NWW, consolidating their open-access regime in the second half of the 19th century they are also committing what can be safely called a genocide on the Native American Indians and violently abusing thousands and thousands of black slaves. While England is building its open-access regime it is also starving millions to death in Ireland, India and China (see Mike Davis “Victorian Holocaust”). And what to say of France, where as late as the 1960s hundreds of Algerians could be massacred in the middle of Paris without anyone caring?

It is a shame that the authors do not confront this violence up-front. It would have forced them to think a bit more in detail about the relationship between impersonal rule (rule by law), economic free market institutions and social inclusion. As it stands, the authors simply posit that open access orders are those where all three go hand-in-hand and the limited access orders are nothing else than coalitions of violence entrepreneurs who carve up the cake of economic opportunities among themselves, violently fending off any competitors. Yet, there are a number of historical cases where impersonal rule and economic free market have gone along with violent exclusion of parts of the population. The above cited cases belong to those but of course there are more, from minor violent incidents to full-blown genocide like in Nazi Germany (indeed, if we follow Hannah Arendt’s Eichman study, then the Holocaust was only possible because of the impersonality of the bureaucracy). The argument that open access orders are less violent actually hinges on the postulate that impersonal rule, monopoly of violence and free market allow social inclusion. This goes counter to some arguments, mostly of Marxist following, that the free markets of today were only possible on the grounds of violent exclusions. The authors do not offer any argument to solve this debate, actually by not addressing the violence cited above they simply avoid it.

And yet, they do make an interesting argument about the self-sustainability of peaceful competition once the “open access order” is established. According to the authors, states that can offer markets with many opportunities for all (or most) actors in society to gain their live, make a living and/ or become rich are more likely to be stable. They also tend to create and reproduce equalising and stabilising political institutions as any actor trying to diminish these opportunities will, over the short or long term, encounter political resistance. If this resistance can be formulated peacefully and successfully, e.g. in elections, then the economic openess and political openess stabilize and reinforce each other.

Two points are particulraly interesting in this argument. For one, the emphasis is on opportunities and institutions that make an economy offer such opportunities and not on the individuals. In this view, people are neither greedy or lazy if they choose between rebellion and let’s say exploitative diamond mining (Sierra Leone) or precarious coffee planting (Columbia) but they simply lack other opportunities to gain a living. In the current neoliberal paradigm of rebellions the usual story says that rebellions offer greater incentives and awards than “normal” activities. Consequently, people rebell for material motives. However, the Fearons, Colliers and Hirshleifers of conflict analysis and their ideological heirs never analyse why an economy is structured the way that risking one’s live can be a better way to gain one’s living than growing coffee. In NWW’s account of the economy, it is obvious that rebellion is only then a viable alternative if there are no alternatives; and there are no alternatives because the institutions of the economy are not open to create such opportunities. The authors make a Schumpeterian argument that open access economies allow for “creative destruction” competition which allows turning over ideas, projects and people without violence in order to find appropriate solutions for social problems. Unfortunately, their analysis stops here as they do not go further into detail of the relationship between for instance property rights, dispossesion and economic opportunities (which could, actually, have led them back to the American Natives in the 18th and 19th century…).

Second, NWW contextualize economic structures and choices. Although society does not exist in their account, at least not as analytical category, their institutionalist vision contends that free markets never exist as “free” markets, which would be only directed by magic forces like invisible hands. They nicely explain how economic and political institutions go hand-in-hand (with an interesting and and, nowadays, rare defense of the welfare state), pointing by the way to the risks of violence contained in much of the current statebuilding practices and development policies. The authors contend that free markets can only work if they are combined with impersonal institutions (institutions that decide by the law and not the person) and institutionalized accountability and pluralism through which discontent can be voiced and the government’s critiques can become the ruling class themselves. Separating these three elements and installing only one, let’s say elections without free markets with many opportunities, will commonly lead to disaster and a revival of patron-client politics based on personalized rent-seeking.

NWW make therefore also an interesting argument about what they call “natural states”, i.e. states in which access to political and economic institutions is restricted. Arguing over the interconnectedness of economic opportunities and political institutions, they assert that “Natural states are not sick. Natural states have their own logic; they are not dysfunctional” (269). For readers of Joel Migdal’s or S.N. Eisenstadt’s work, this does not really come as a surprise but it is, nevertheless, nice to see that an institutionalist analysis can lead to the same conclusion as a sociological analysis.

For conflict analysis, NWW make a major contribution in contextualizing the use of violence and the (non)monopolization of the means of violence in a larger analytical framework of the institutions in society, state and market. This can redirect research in the political science mainstream to look at the importance of inclusiveness in political, economic and social arrangements, and to shift the attention from the indivdualist “greed” interpretation of most research in the past. However, NWW leaves a lot to wish for, not at least a clarification of the concrete relationship between institutions and violence: which institutions lead to which types of violence? The distinction between natural states and open-access orders becomes much less convincing, once this is considered even with the historical narratives in the book. And as Elshtain points out in her review, the utter neglect of politics from below, of social movements and non-elite actors is not only startling but a major methodological weakness as it clouds the relationship between “access” and violence.

 

 

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