Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Barbary Inc., a Failed States corporation

Watching the unfolding Libyan meltdown, emceed by Qaddafi's lunatic performance of self-parody that kills, it is difficult to step back from the immediate play-by-play. After all, these Arab revolts are the perfect antidote for our unrequited Obaman aspirations—our vicarious takeovers of the public square in some dusty CNN construction of a Indiana Jones film set provide a nice steam valve for our pent-up desire for actual change in our own society. Might there be more to be learned from this unlikely analog than the self-congratulatory platitudes of Washington pundits? (And does anyone remember when covert Libyan hit squads were roaming 80s America, disguised in Ray-Bans and curly Howard Chaykin mullets?)

When Iraq War "where are they now" supporting actor Mohammed el-Baradei parachuted into Cairo from his London lifestyle to volunteer to lead the opposition and run the country after Mubarak fell, eliciting the adulation of the Western media, my first reaction was to wonder what made anyone think the Egyptian multitude needed leadership—they were doing just fine as a smart mob-networked movement. While there's a big difference between a maniac like Qaddafi, who is like the Michael Jackson figure of 21st century geopolitics (Michael Jackson—with MiGs!), and an upstanding devotee of the rule of law like El-Baradei, the selflessness of any individual who presumes to say "I should be in charge here" is inherently suspect. Remember what Lord Acton said. And if power corrupts, shouldn't human progress include, on the political front, the further diffusion of power out of the hands of particular individuals and across the society? If we believe so devoutly in the invisible hand of the market as the basic social glue of our culture, why do we get so nervous about power vacuums that are not filled by some fucking dude adhering to the Al Haig paradigm?

Witness the New York Times, with its front page Sunday freakout, "The Vacuum After Qaddafi," expressing all of the angst of the oil-drunk West over the imminent possibility of that thing that we most fear: a "failed state." Failed states represent, in the minds of the Western establishment (meaning, Western states, and the elites that are part of their control, support, and legitimacy), the end of civilization, of global order, of peace—of themselves.

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi sounded a resonant warning, exhorting his dwindling supporters toward civil war.

That is indeed the fear of those watching the carnage in Libya, not least because Colonel Qaddafi spent the last 40 years hollowing out every single institution that might challenge his authority. Unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, Libya lacks the steadying hand of a military to buttress a collapsing government. It has no Parliament, no trade unions, no political parties, no civil society, no nongovernmental agencies. Its only strong ministry is the state oil company. The fact that some experts think the next government might be built atop the oil ministry underscores the paucity of options.

The worst-case scenario should the rebellion topple him, and one that concerns American counterterrorism officials, is that of Afghanistan or Somalia — a failed state where Al Qaeda or other radical groups could exploit the chaos and operate with impunity.

Coming soon: Planet Somalia!

Might there actually be *good* things about this trend (other than the fact that you might get to see Gloria Vanderbilt's progeny the Abercrombie Edward R. Morrow get beat up by the mob a few more times)? Like representing potential answers to the question, at what point does Network culture evolve to the point where we can replace the idea of the sovereign with something that looks more like open source government?

The Times story shows the instincts of the West: hey, if these Arabs can't rule themselves, adopt an Uncle Tom El-Baradei who puts in place some animatronic simulation of a Western constitution, why not have the indigenous oil monopoly become the government? Kind of a perfect solution, in a way, if you consider that the governance structure of the contemporary corporation is the way the West best preserves the mode of the tribe, of the nomadic warrior band, with a militaristic command structure in which all power is vested in an individual leader under the back-slapping supervision of a committee of retired chiefs, the collective dedicated to the roaming search for plunder and profit. Surely that is a secretly compelling Western vision for the evolutionary direction of the "developing world"—small countries organized around natural resource monopolies, governed by Capital through the self-interest of post-tribal plutocrats, with weak militaries.

Late last week the Guardian featured a much fresher analysis by Hardt and Negri, arguing that the leaderless Arab revolts are the continuation of a trend seen in other uprisings in other parts of the world in recent years:

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it's Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google's head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don't understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre – that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure. These are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organise autonomously.

While I am not persuaded Hardt & Negri have all the prescriptive answers, they have always been pretty insightful and even prescient in their analysis (see, e.g., Empire and Multitude). Those of us who were around at the birth of the Web remember the enthusiastic musings on the potential of the then-new medium to facilitate direct democracy. Well, we may not have replaced Congress with remote-control referenda, but the Network is taking over anyway, at least in other countries—the latest on Libya yesterday was the use of a Muslim Internet dating site as a clandestine hub for revolutionary communication and coordination. And the U.S. government may not want to arm the Libyan rebels, but what are they going to to when the Network empowers the next generation of rebels to print their own guns?

Might you actually want to live in the liberated territory of a Somalia that actually works?


kerinin said...

I'm not so optimistic about Libya. In my mind there are two major issues there; the fact that it's a rentier state, and the fact that the very information systems you're referring to don't seem to have the same presence in Libya as they do in Egypt.

I want to read more about historical precedents, but all the examples of resource-rich countries I can think of have always had repressive and centrally controlled governments. When there's no need for the public to be productive it's hard to keep authority decentralized.

There seems to be a parallel between what you're saying and the Soviet Revolution - Marx assumed communism would emerge from industrialism, instead it emerged from agrarianism. It seems like there's a similarity here; moving the structural logic of one system onto another doesn't always work in the intended way. For russia, "communism" became the rationale authoritarianism. Wasn't one of Qaddafi's stated objectives to eliminate the traditional apparatus of the state - I've read a couple places that the government is partially controlled by ad-hoc local committees.

Thought-provoking post...

kerinin said...

(kerinin = ryan, BTW)

Chris Nakashima-Brown said...

You make a good point about the limited availability of information systems, though I suspect mobile telephony is the most important one, and I wonder how close that is to global ubiquity. And you are right about Qaddafi's political theory—I actually bought a copy of his *Green Book* in Sandinista Nicaragua, a sort of manifesto for direct democracy, as you suggest. Perhaps, as is often the case with revolutionary vanguards, the local committees are an illusion of pluralism infiltrated by instruments of the State?

A classical liberal would no doubt argue in all of these cases that the fundamental missing ingredient is a wide and relatively even distribution of (enforceable) private property rights, and they may be right. But I think that kind of model should only support the idea of more network-facilitated governance that minimizes the need for the role of the traditional republican nation-state sovereign.

kerinin said...

Doesn't the oil wealth make property rights a poor basis for resource distribution though? How do you decide who 'owns' the oil, it's not as though the inhabitants of the country *did* anything to create the oil. I guess you could argue that the labor required to extract it constitutes a measure of ownership in the proceeds. If anything, the concept of property rights seems to encourage the existence of a sovereign in a practical sense, as it allows the assertion of 'ownership' over the resources and thus the 'right' to control their extraction and the distribution of wealth from their sale.

You're probably right about mobile telephony, it's easy to get caught up in the most recent 'big thing' and start thinking the technology of the last decade is obsolete.

It's that infiltration by the state you suggest that seems to be the critical flaw in most cultural revolutions. It seems to me that however the superficial structures of power are organized, there will always be an underlying power dynamic that can't be ignored.

I've also wondered when we would begin to see the effects of information technology on systems of governance. My guess is that it will happen in imperceptible incremental steps; a senator's twitter feed here and political blog post there.

Dave Hardy said...

I get the impression that the Revolutionary Committees are just the local mouthpiece of the regime, the local elite posing as popular assemblies. If they really are representatives of the popular will, that just goes to show that democracy without rights is simply another form of dictatorship.

I never had much feeling for Obama, so I'm looking for Arab uprisings to ratify my desire for change. Honestly, I'm feeling a boatload of schadenfreude as the self-confessed assassin of PanAm 103 is fixing to get some just desserts.

Seriously, we rehabilitated Qaddafi because he let the lowest guy on his totem pole go to jail. Meanwhile, the people of Iraq have paid a zillion barrels of blood because Saddam Hussein couldn't prove he didn't have non-existent WMDs.