In his well-known essay, Isaiah Berlin quotes the Greek poet Archilochus’ dictum that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”. More recently, psychologists and commentators have confirmed this insight. The point is that when one commits to just one grand theory, one is often going to miss important information, and thus get many things wrong. Of course, the other danger with grand theories is that they might not stand the ‘test of time’. And if one has an emotional attachment to the theory, it will be difficult to face reality (cf. the confirmation bias).
Academia is replete with grand theories that are no longer applicable, but live on in the minds of a small group of academics. Economics is no exception to this phenomenon. Two such ‘theories’ (n.b. I use the term loosely) are neo-liberal theories of development (a.k.a. the Washington Consensus) and the more critical Dependency Theory. That the principles behind the Washington Consensus rarely have their desired effect is well-known – President Obama help bring attention to the fact that there was no consensus about ‘the consensus’. So best to focus on an alterative theory that is equally erroneous, i.e. Dependency Theory.
Of course, orthodox economists have already critiqued dependency theory - and many debates have followed, to the point that even the left-wing The Guardian newspaper admits that :
Classical dependency theory, which focuses on the relationship between rich and poor countries, probably needs substantial restructuring for the present era.
So I will focus here on a few facts that relate to recent changes in global economics. Indeed, it is the fact that many things have changed since the theory was developed that make it less correct and less applicable.
A first major problem is the fact is the poverty is decreasing worldwide. Although one can note a global increase in relative poverty, one can also note a decrease in absolute poverty, notably in Asia (see chart above).
The second major problem is that many so-called 'dependent' states are also getting richer. I wonder how dependency theory could be used to explain economic growth in, for example, the BRICS (i.e. Brazil, Russia, India, etc.). Combined with this development, is the increased influence these states’ governments have obtained in international institutions and organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), and most of all the G20, which when Dependency Theory was written did not exist. India, for example, is an increasingly important actor in the IMF and the WB. Or as Robert Wade puts it:
Many developing and transitional countries have grown faster than advanced countries in the past decade, resulting in a shift in the distribution of world income in their favor. China is now the second largest economy in the world, behind the United States and ahead of Japan. As the relative economic weight of China and several others has come to match or exceed that of the middle-ranking G7 economies, the world economy has shifted from “unipolar” toward “multipolar,” less dominated by the G7. How is this change being translated into changes in authority and influence within multilateral organizations like the G20, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)? Alarm bells are ringing in G7 capitals about G7 loss of influence. According to a WikiLeaks cable from the senior U.S. official for the G20 process, from January 2010, “It is remarkable how closely coordinated the BASIC group of countries [Brazil, South Africa, India, China] have become in international fora, taking turns to impede US/EU initiatives and playing the US and EU off against each other.”
The third problem with Dependency theory is the argument that “core” states can afford to be liberal democracies. With the rise of illiberal parties and illiberal policies and laws throughout Europe and North America, surely this assumption must be questioned. In the richest states we have not ‘healthy’ liberal democracies, but rather nascent illiberal nation-states.
Today, it must be said, Dependency Theory seems most applicable to small postcolonial states, such as Haiti, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea. But the list of rich small post-colonial states is quite long now. In fact, most small states are rich, especially measured by GDP per capita (e.g. Qatar, Singapore, Ireland, Iceland, Malta, etc.). Dependency Theory does not seem to be able to explain this, if only to point out that these riches go to local elites. But if one looks at the GINI coefficient, which measures inequality, one notices that 1) inequality is in the rise in so-called ‘core’ states (e.g. the United States the United Kingdom); and 2) although most poor states do have high inequality, several small postcolonial states are quite equal (e.g. Iceland, Moldova, Malta, Montenegro).
Finally, Dependency Theory argues that it is the global economy, and especially free trade, that renders poor states poor, but with the rise of trade wars between the largest markets, it is likely that poor states will only get poorer – it is well-known that small states are especially exposed to market volatility. And if one wonders whether autarchy might be the solution for small states, then one should study the case of Albania.
Overall, greater openness has had “a positive net payoff for growth”.
I am reading Marcuse's "Reason and Revolution", and I think it might be a good base for reflection on the similarities between post-positivist social science and 'post-truth' and anti-system politics.
A great deal of philosophers have said far more insightful things than Marcuse on the concept of truth. But I wanted to share with you an inconvenient truth, so to speak: the Frankfurt School and anti-systemic voters in Europe and the United States share many, many similarities (actually just one).
Marcuse uses Hegel to distinguish fact from truth. For him, truth corresponds to an object's and a subject's potential, especially potential for something normatively better, whereas facts represent the status quo. If we stick to social issues (and put the natural sciences aside), this definition of truth seems reasonable (although Marcuse never explains the source of his value judgements). Marcuse calls the recognition of contradictions between facts and truths 'negative thinking', which can also be called critical thinking.
In the book Reason and Revolution and elsewhere, Marcuse uses economic examples (inequality, monopolies, arms spending) to demonstrate what he means by contradictions. Again and again, he deplores complacency and calls for reason to instigate a revolution against the (liberal) status quo. When this book is read in today's context, one can only come to the conclusion that anti-system voters have made a reasoned diagnostic similar to Marcuse's and have voted to change the system -- only many of them are reactionary and not Marxist, i.e. they differ in their revolutionary remedies.
It might be possible to argue that Horkheimer and others from the School were more attuned (than Marcuse) to the issue of how demagogues and nationalists can use 'reason' to their advantage. Marcuse seems to think the world will always be like 1950s USA, other Frankfurt scholars were less pessimistic/optimistic.
This summer, the the European Court of Human Rights found that Poland had cooperated in the "preparation and execution of the CIA rendition, secret detention and interrogation operations", of at least two persons. Russian journalists and many other observers were quick to highlight Poland's ( and the USA's) double-standard: are these states for or against human trafficking?
From a political science perspective, this leads to definitional debates. What is human trafficking? What is rendition? Do these concepts overlap? It seems to me that the two terms refer to similar tactics used for very different ends. In one case, the detention -- illegal or not -- is done for economic reasons, while the other -- illegal or not -- is done fore political reasons. For example, the economic implications of the two types of violence are quite different. Thus, to differentiate the two intentions and motivations must be known.
The debate about rights, although important from legal and ethical perspectives, obscures these differences. It also obscures the actor-type: in each case: are the acts conducted by government staff, by private companies for government staff, or by autonomous private actors? Can non-state actors be said to conduct rendition?
The next questions to ask would be: are either practices ever effective? And in light of their methods, ends, and effectiveness, are they ever ethical? Comments welcome.
Since the the CSTPV at St Andrews is organizing a symposium on "Terrorism Research: Past, Present and Future’", I thought I would make public my views on the topic. My main argument is not that provocative: throughout terrorism studies, the theories, models, concepts, and data used should be improved. My second argument, however, is that the best way to accomplish this might be through a research program -- a topic I will develop in a subsequent post.
Instead of binary thinking (rich/poor, religious/ideological, etc.), there should be more interest in variation within a concept and comparison between similar concepts. In other words, concepts such as religion, ideology, poverty, violence, etc., should be used in a more refined and precise manner and placed within a larger classification or typology. Similarly, any modeling of causation needs to include actors such as competing terrorist organizations, insurgent groups, criminal organizations, but also international organizations, states and their various agencies, civil society (NGOs, religious institutions, the private sector, the media, arts and entertainment), tribes, and especially the family and friendships.
These models could then be improved with several levels of analysis (international, regional, state, metropolitan, organizational, group, psychological, neurological) and the related emergent properties and theories thereof. For example, think of the effects on terrorism of factors such as armed conflict or peace; climate; education, health and income; constitutional and criminal law and regime type; social norms and values; collective memory and family history; personal religious and political beliefs, all of which vary across time and space.
Once all of these concepts and models are clearly established, it would be useful to seek to understand what types of social relationships and behaviors are stable and reoccurring and which are changing (either deliberately or not). This would require focusing on specific regions of the world, specific historical periods or specific types of terrorism before combining this knowledge at a higher geographical or conceptual level or in a larger historical period and theorizing interaction effects and path-dependency. For example, once all of this is done, research could try to model the spread of global trends and fashions in terrorism tactics (highjacking, suicide bombing, kidnapping, beheading, etc.) across space and time.
One way of organizing such progress would be through a research program, possibly based on scientific/critical realism and complexity theory, but I think that would not be very popular, for a number of reasons. Without such a program, however, the progress in terrorism studies is likely to remain piecemeal.
Having finished my internship at NATO and having just attended a conference on the (dis)integration of Europe, I have been thinking about (ir)regular fighters. Recent and not-so-recent events in Ukraine and other regions of South Eastern Europe demonstrate that the term 'insurgent' must always be defined in relation to a concrete situation of established authority, the history of that authority, and the degree of legitimacy that authority caries. As much as the term 'terrorist' relates to methods, and 'freedom fighter' relates to goals, 'insurgent' relates primarily to a positional (i.e. asymmetric) relationship vis-a-vis an opponent, i.e. an authority in the from of a government, an empire, etc.
Defining 'insurgent' only becomes problematic (in terms of political neutrality) when it is applied to a concrete set of actors. To avoid bias, one would have to determine empirically the identity of the legitimate authority. In some situations, such identifications will seem facile and remain uncontested, but it others such identifications will be one of the reasons for conflict and thus one of the issues to be resolved politically (or militarily).
Without expanding on what methods could be employed to determine 'authority' from 'insurgent', it will suffice to say here that insurgent is just as polemical a term as terrorist, if not more. If we look to Ukraine, all sorts of terms have been used in public discourse (NAZI, little green men, etc.). The term the most contested, however, is insurgent and the like (e.g. bandit, rebel). In a situation of contested legitimacy, where all actors are trying to win popular support, the term 'insurgent' becomes subjective and of little analytic use.
I continue to believe that one of the fundamental ways to improve the social sciences today is to improve the concepts used. One area where this is especially needed is in the study of political violence.
As I am currently conducting an internship at the US Mission to NATO, I have not had much time to dedicate to my research. But I have managed to go to NATO's library during my lunch breaks. NATO's library holds a great number of books on insurgency and counterinsurgency. Moreover, these books are often grouped into a series of thematic bibliographies. One of my favorites is the one on irregular warfare. The library also develops a series of online guides, on subjects such as counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
Looking through the thematic bibliography on counterinsurgency forces one to conclude that the study of irregular warfare is quite affected by terminological trends and fads. Year by year, the books often respond to the latest foreign policy debate. Being policy relevant is a laudable endeavor, but this should not come at the expense of analytical rigor. Rather than these two interests having to be balanced, I believe the former should be based on the latter -- policy guidance that is not based on analytical rigor could even be considered unethical.
The first step towards analytical rigor is conceptual clarity, and I ( and others) believe this is currently lacking in counterinsurgency studies and irregular warfare studies writ large. I would argue that those who seek to study current events should always critically examine the concepts they employ, especially when these concepts are borrowed from governments and the press. When scholars do not have the benefit of hindsight, they should always ask whether other concepts (terms and definitions) could better describe and differentiate their objects of study. We could start, for example, by asking: what is counterinsurgency? And then move on to asking: what is the opposite of counterinsurgency? With these answers in hand, we could then develop a universal conceptualization of counterinsurgency ready to be made operational in the study of any historical period, even the current one.
In my efforts to define counterterrorism, I have found this nice little article by Teun van Dongen. It should be of interest to anyone seeking to explain the causes and effects of national counterterrorism policies. I will critique this paper in a book chapter I am preparing.