Wednesday, March 05, 2008
For a glance at how much the shade of the former Yugoslavia haunts the present geopolitical terrain, you could do worse than looking at this uncannily tasteless article at The New Republic. Entitled 'Balkan Ghosts' (after Robert Kaplan's 1994 book, the precursor to his New Barbarism thesis which argued that the roots of the conflict were in historical cultural antagonisms released from their statist integument), the TNR piece entertains what looks at first sight like a rather trivial and boring parallel between Kosovo and Darfur. But since every sentence in the piece contains a lie - by omission, comission or distortion - it is obviously not intended as an essay in recent history. Rather, it is an intervention within a rather well-policed discursive regime. If we drop the idea that 'Kosovo' and 'Darfur' in this case refer to living places populated with real people struggling over material problems (property, patronage and - in the case of Darfur - land), it becomes much more comprehensible. In terms of the ideology of 'humanitarian intervention', therefore, the piece is a breezily efficient polemic. Kosovo, lorded over by an evil genocidal megalomaniac, had to be rescued at long last and with considerable restraint and reluctance, by an international coalition at whose heart was the American behemoth. Darfur, lorded over by an evil genocidal elite which doesn't even have the decency to be susceptible to intense personalisation, will also have to be liberated in the same fashion. In those terms, the structural isomorphism is exact, and the argument infallible. Who cares if it is an argument over cartoons rather than reality?
But why is the comparison so essential? As much noise was made of the fact that the Yugoslavia wars were happening in Europe rather than another continent, what was really significant for many interventionists was that it was perceived to be on a faultline between the Orient and the Occident. The ancient Balkan culture with its Oriental despotism, its propensity for command economics and its psychological value of repression was depicted as being in a collision with European civilization with its liberal anti-centralist traditions, its free trade, and its psychological value of truth and open inquiry. Those who resisted this quackery with materialist (marxist) analysis were told that they were themselves subject to a Victorian mytheme that was itself part of the root of the problem. By contrast, the Eurocentric and Orientalising habits of 19th Century imperialist thought were treated as if they were the newest and coolest thing, pomo to the max. Doctrines that emphasised universality were outmoded and intolerant forcing all of humanity into a one-size-fits-all mould, while doctrines that relentlessly polarised humanity and dehumanised most of its actual constituents were regarded as inclusive and open-minded.
'Humanitarian interventionism' saw its earliest beginnings in the continent of Africa, in Somalia. The narrative no longer works for Somalia, which is why it is depicted instead as a frontline (or frontier) in the 'war on terror'. But it is appropriate that the doctrine now returns its focus and emphasis to that continent, the topic of Robert Kaplan's eco-fascist musings on overpopulation, scarcity, social breakdown and state failure. In Kaplan's latest book, 'Imperial Grunts', which makes much use of the familiar 'Injun Country' motifs, the whole world has been re-mapped according to the spatial projections of US power (there are actually maps which celebrate the breakdown of the world into distinct zones of US dominance). This is for the better in a war against 'barbarians'. The ordinary business of commerce, arms deals, oil transactions, shipments of Gum Arabic, financial speculation, tilts in geopolitics, bribery, inter-state competition and so on has to be inhabited by the Spirit of Europe and its Oriental or barbarian opposites. Instead of treating Sudanese state personnel is typically cynical operators embedded in a ruling class with clear interests, it has to be inexplicable, inscrutible, instransigent, insusceptible to run of the mill calculations. Instead of treating the problems of land ownership, water shortage, famine, property rights, and so on, as part of a global, universal system of injustice with particularly acute and sometimes genocidal manifestations in zones where postcolonial manipulation and exclusion by external actors interacts with hegemonic strategies by local ruling classes, it is necessary to treat them as simply localised aspects of a genocidal juggernaut.
One is reminded of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin's essay on 'the spandrels of San Marco', in which they remark that the spandrels in St Mark's cathedral, the spaces created by the intersection of arcs at right angles, are so beautiful and such lavish use made of them by decorators, that given a sufficient set of intellectual biases one might almost be inclined to treat them as independent of the architecture, or as indeed commanding the architectural structure rather than the other way about. It requires a similarly far-fetched set of intellectual biases to treat a state's mode of repression and rule as independent of the social and economic architecture that actually co-produces it. Yet, this is what the Spectre of Europe is doing in Africa. It is expunging the territory, purging dissident thought, removing the traces of past crimes, concealing the mass graves of colonial and capitalist famines and massacres, committing a kind of ethical cleansing from which the carapace of capital emerges pristine. If Balkan Ghosts are touring Darfur, it is only because the frontiers have shifted. Capital relentlessly reterritorialises, demands a re-spatialisation of the global order, demands new and more intricate morality fables to enable its activities, and creates new frontiers that require taming. It demands the constant disarticulation of global problems as topics for analysis, and even where it permits their rearticulation for the purposes of dramaturgy, one of the functions of any efficient ideologist is to relentlessly particularise and localise. The spectre of Europe permits him to do so with a spurious consistency and even, should he require it, historical resonance.