Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Search for Sovereignty: A Review

In A Search For Sovereignty, Lauren Benton uses deep historical research to undo the sense of sovereignty and colonial empires many readers may have derived from theoretical discussions of 'modernity', 'coloniality', and such. The standard image--again, derived more from theoretical debates than careful engagement with the historical record--is that European empires increasingly controlled space rationally, as epitomized by the standardized geography of modern cartography. Furthermore, distinctions were drawn and maintained between rational European subjects and others who supposedly lacked rationality and thus could not be agents of the modern world. These vague generalizations are eroded by the evidence presented in A Search for Sovereignty. Rather than producing a homogeneous, smooth space, empire-builders are portrayed as having to improvise through a number of types of territories that confounded them--rivers, mountains, oceans, islands. In turn, efforts to define sovereignty in these ambiguous spaces produced opportunities for multiple agents to make contradictory claims about law and their rights. Far from producing a smooth space, one might instead picture a space that is more deeply and coherently produced near centers, and then becomes increasingly vague and contradictory (although claims made about the hinterlands were often ruled on in the centers, and redounded there). Even oceans, for example, were the site of contradiction between corridors which were relatively controlled and expanses where who could exert sovereignty was much less clear. The bulk of the text is given over to illustrating the contradictions of each of these spaces. Rivers are the sites of claims and counter-claims of treason, as actors near ports or further upriver attempt to use loyalty to the crown to undermine their rivals and assert their own autonomy. In oceans, pirates were actors who often asserted a relation to the law, claiming to act on behalf of various sovereigns. Islands, often used as penal colonies, were the site of the ambiguous development of martial law, as it was unclear whether non-prisoners residing on the islands (often soldiers) were subject to the arbitrary rules developed for prisoners, or what the rights of everyone were in relation to the rights developed in the states controlling the island. Mountains were imagined as places where less civilized people resided (although the historical development was much more contradictory-they were often refuges from oppression in the lower lands) and forms of indirect rule, involving inconsistent concepts of who (representatives of the colonies, or indigenous leaders) had jurisdiction over what. In all these cases, concepts of law and sovereignty only emerge from repeated contestations and claims by different actors. There was no palimpset of colonial law that could be imposed and stably reproduced. The different European powers picked up on and developed what each other was doing. Several of these chapters resonate with the present--most dramatically, the question of whether rights recognized elsewhere are nullified for island prisoners jumps out for its similarities to Guantanamo. Benton only makes the most passing reference to this continued parallel and her gentle hand is appreciated here(she also notes the parallels between questions of indirect rule and problems of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan--note the indeterminancy as to who has the right to hold those employed by the US (such as Blackwater mercenaries) responsible for crimes committed in Iraq. Piracy has of course also returned lately, although to date the Somalis have not attempted to use law to defend their actions).
I found the general pattern laid out in the book to be quite stimulating, and it shook up my (admittedly limited) framework for understanding these questions. However, each chapter tended to lapse into somewhat turgid prose as different cases and claims were laid out. I altogether lost track, for example, of the difference between the Grotian and Gentilian conceptions of the rule of the sea. In other words, this is one more academic book that could have really have used a more careful edit.
Benton eschews any simple directionality to the processes she describes. While many people writing about colonialism emphasize the exertion of power by Europeans and the resistance of various 'Others', she emphasizes that diverse actors tried to employ the law to strengthen their claims, and European classification of non-Europeans was not stable and already-known before the colonial process developed. Or to take another example, she disputes Peter Linebaugh's claim that pirates were resolute opponents of the states in the eighteenth century. Instead, pirates themselves often made legal claims in the name of various sovereigns to legitimize their actions. It is very useful to blur boundaries and complicate the picture in this way. In a sense, although this is fairly large scale history, moving across many continents and through several centuries, it parallels the anthropological insistence on the contradictory effects of power when it is localized and played out among a number of actors. However, as with this sort of anthropological work, Benton's book left me wondering why European empires achieved a stability of sorts that lasted for several centuries, and whether any sort of directionality to events can be identified. Is it possible to write grand narratives of colonial empires that do justice to the contradictory and ambiguous processes highlighted here?

Liberals and Leftists are not the same

I've actually been thinking of writing a similar article to this one by Ron Jacobs. The confusion between the center (eg liberalism) and the left is one of the most infuriating aspects of American discourse. Basically, the right supports maintaining the power of traditionally powerful groups (in the US, whites, males, straight people, the military, the wealthy...) by defending all their privileges. Liberals try to maintain most of the status quo by pushing through some reforms to quell demands for more far-ranging change. And the left seeks to upend these hierarchies altogether. Almost all public debate in the US is between the right and the center, with the left altogether excluded, notwithstanding that the right labels the center 'liberals', 'socialists', etc. At times the center repudiates these labels, and joins the right in denouncing the left; at other times, it embraces the 'liberal' label, claiming for itself the right to draw the bounds on legitimate reforms.
There are a couple of things Jacobs gets wrong. Neither right, left nor center maintains a principled support for private property. The sort of economic strategies epitomized by Robert Moses or the Kelso Supreme Court decision, in which the state's ability to seize property for the greater economic good overrides property rights is entirely consistent with liberalism. And Dennis Kucinich is part of the left. Faced with a two-party system, some on the left will work within the Democratic Party. It is a question of strategy, not orientation.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When it rains it Pours

Here is the basic news for the last week from the 'fronts' of the 'war on terror'.

1. Wikileaks released a video showing that US military claims that a Reuters photographer was shot dead by the US in the midst of a battle in Baghdad were false; there was no enemy fire. On the tape, troops can be heard joking and congratulating each other about killing people.

2. Afghan president Hamid Karzai stepped up his rhetorical attacks on his Western backers/occupiers.

3. The government was overthrown in Kyrgyzstan, site of "an important US air base" for the Afghanistan mission. "It also posed a potential embarrassment for the Obama administration, which angered the Kyrgyz opposition last spring by courting Mr. Bakiyev in an ultimately successful attempt to reverse his decision to close the base."

Along with his prayers that the economy does not officially tank again before November, I'm guessing Obama is adding a few about all of this not blowing up in the US too soon. There will not be a dignified finish to these wars.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Afghanistan FUBAR

For the last eight years, Afghanistan has been contrasted in the liberal imagination with Iraq, as 'the good war'. After all, Al Quaeda had a base there. And women had it really really bad under the Taliban. If only the president would direct his attention away from Iraq and towards Afghanistan...

It should not come as any surprise that this naive imperialist mentality was not an accurate guide to the situation. Eight years in, all the US cares about is trying to keep an ally in control of the country, and it is not getting that. Karzai realizes he actually has some options, and that the US is not the only game in town. He has moved closer to China and Iran. He has threatened to move closer to the Taliban. It's not emphasized in American news reports, but it seems likely that his distancing himself from the West plays well given the numerous Afghan civilian deaths that are coming with the 'surge' in troops. This has led to predictable condescending fulminations from the neoconservative/neoliberal/whatever New York Times editorial board. The generally astute M K Badrakumar suggests that Obama intuits sympathy for Karzai against the alignment with Pakistan promoted by Richard Holbrooke et al. The problem is that, as with Iran, where Obama also showed some decent instincts at times, it is easy to get outflanked by the reactionary foreign policy wing, both in various entrenched wings of the US state and in the mainstream media.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Bloomberg Way

Excellent interview that clarifies the Bloomberg Way.
" It’s a notion of governance in which the city is run like a corporation. The mayor is the CEO, the businesses are clients, citizens are consumers, and the city itself is a product that’s branded and marketed. And New York is a luxury product."
Doesn't look like the book has been published yet, although this interview is dated 2008.