Globalization, Compression, and the Desire for Intervention

Posted on March 8, 2011 by


Whose Responsibility?

One would expect that the citizens of the nations that exported arms to those regimes that they now find offensive, need to take personal responsibility to make sure that their weapons manufacturers are blocked from ever again selling weaponry to states with a record of human rights violations–there is little point in first selling them the guns, and then balking when they are used. Otherwise, these revolutions do not belong to us–that “the best revolutions are completely organic,” is apparently a principle that even Obama voices (when not speaking of Afghanistan, of course). Readers should also read Patrick Buchanan’s article, “It’s Their War, Not Ours,” which makes many critically important points. I also agree with the Canadian Peace Alliance that any call for Western military intervention is “like asking the arsonists to put out their own fire.”

Why Does Libya Matter?

We should ask ourselves why it is that actions that have been taken against the Gaddafi regime were never even voiced as a possibility against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, with its own history of decades of torture, murder, imprisonment of dissidents, and the use of thugs and paramilitaries to injure and in numerous cases kill unarmed protesters. In Egypt’s case, there were no sanctions, no assets freeze, no arms embargo, and no call for the international criminal prosecution of the dictator and his henchmen. What kind of calculation is at work, where effectively one despot is treated as a “good dictator” and the other one as a “bad dictator”? What makes the difference? Is it the level and nature of the violence used against protesters? If so, and it is a matter of a body count, then what is the “magic number” of protesters killed that causes us to invoke the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine? (Just look at how people think of the violence as “genocide”–which by definition it is not–when speaking of Gaddafi’s violence.)

But apparently these questions glide past most of those citizens–not those in power–who make impassioned calls for urgent military action to “get Gaddafi out” and “stop the violence” (see the relevant section in our latest EER), including respected bodies such as Physicians for Human Rights and numerous other rights groups calling, ultimately, for military action should “peaceful” measures fail. Some go as far rehabilitating discredited tools in the imperial armoire, such as the no fly zone. And this has the urging of some Libyan rebels who ask for it. Yet, when it is pointed out that a no fly zone is actual military intervention, then the call is revised: yes, to the no fly zone, and air strikes (added recently), but no to foreign troops on the ground. Then they call on the UN to impose these, when the UN has no air force and no means of enforcement…so those in Libya calling for military intervention know very well that it will come from NATO. Neither no fly zones nor air strikes have ever removed a dictator or ended human rights violations–but they have always led to an escalation of atrocities and have vastly expanded the range of suffering. No matter: action now, any action, the no fly zone is suddenly validated. Also validated, NATO, as if it were some sort of global protector of revolutionaries. Gone from some minds are the lessons of Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Why is it that so many apparently feel that we must do something about supporting their revolution? This is the central question to this whole essay. What accounts for this desire to intervene? Is this a novel global phenomenon?

Revolutionary Resonance: “I may be in France, but my spirit is in Tahrir Square”

In a recent essay, “The Speed of Revolutionary Resonance,” by Gastón Cordillo, we begin to find some answers about this desire by non-Libyans to intervene in Libya. In that essay he speaks of “expansive empathy,” built on “instant systems of global communication” that “now shoot out powerful revolutionary resonances that travel at high speed toward anywhere on the planet.” Cordillo notes the “unfathomable speed of this briefly disembodied resonance,” and that it involves “not bodies but affects decomposed in bits of information through networks of instant media communication that, on impacting TV and computer screens, affects other bodies and makes them resonate.” He builds his theory by speaking of the velocity and acceleration of current revolutions, “new revolutionary velocities,” “high-speed deterritorializing force,” and “fast-paced rhizomic synergy” aided by “instant forms of communication.” Cordillo provides us with an interesting quote to this effect from Nikolai Grozni:

“Ever since the uprising in Egypt began on Jan. 25, I have hardly moved an inch away from the TV screen. I may be in France, but my spirit is in Tahrir Square. I’m throwing stones. I’m breathing in tear gas. I’m lighting up Molotov cocktails. I’m dodging bullets. I’m fighting thick-headed policemen. I’m cursing every symbol of the regime until my voice cracks.”

As Cordillo explains,

“Grozni’s body (not just his spirit) was affectively and fully in sync with those bodies on Tahrir Square, to the point that the spatial distance between Egypt and France seemed to had dissolved. His body resonated, via his TV, together with those bodies on Tahrir Square. This instantaneous affectation amplified through global networks was the same that, a few days earlier, had inspired millions of Egyptian bodies following the news about the uprising in Tunisia to take to the streets to topple Mubarak.”

Cordillo also quotes Emily Bell who appeared on a panel organized by Al Jazeera and compared the speed of these revolutions, in language that will be useful later on: “We are now looking at a much more compressed time frame. Six weeks instead of six months.”

What makes me worry about the implications of a theory of resonance, is what it says about those who fail to resonate. I think here of Trinidad, now celebrating Carnival, whose mass media seem almost oblivious to what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa. We have heard humanitarian interventionists deride “isolationism” (as with Buchanan, above), but now “resonance” may unintentionally recreate the category of the “isolated,” reproducing a kind of Levi-Straussian, and Eurocentic binary between the “hot” (dynamic, modern) and “cold” (frozen in time) societies. Update: but given Cordillo’s response, my worries may be unwarranted. I hope so.

Globalization as Compression

Cordillo’s essay brings to mind a substantial body of writings on cultural globalization which, until recently, I had generally devalued for overstating the novelty of the past 40 years, taking instead a longer-term world-systemic perspective. (In fact, this was the subject of one of my earliest journal articles [more booklet] which was published when I was still a MA student: “Globalization and World-Systems Analysis: Toward New Paradigms of a Geo-Historical Social Anthropology (A Research Review),” Review 21(1) 1998, 29-99.) In these writings, as represented by Anthony Giddens, Roland Robertson, and Malcolm Waters, we find a stress on the following novelties of what they call globalization, as a post-1960s cultural phenomenon: the emergence of a single human community, indeed, a virtual community formed by instantaneous “real-time” interaction, leading to an “an emerging global culture of consciousness” and the emergence of “globality”–“the circumstance of extensive awareness of the world as a whole.” In this situation we find the growth of the systematic interrelationship of “all the individual social ties that are established on the planet” and even “the intensification of worldwide social relations” to the extent that we can speak of the formation of “genuinely world-wide ties.” Space has shrunk, we are told, and localizations of time have disappeared. Some anthropologists prefer to call this “distanciation,” which is quite misleading and often leads students astray: the more significant and useful concept is that of “compression,” of everything seeming to have come closer together. Where Cordillo speaks of movement, we might speak of “implosion.”

Continuing in this vein, Martin Albrow (see “Travelling Beyond Local Cultures,” in The Globalization Reader, 2nd. ed., edited by Frank J. Lechner and John Boli. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) describes globalism as “the values informing daily behaviour for many groups in contemporary society,” and how they “relate to real or imagined material states of the globe and its inhabitants” (p. 134). Globality consists of “images, information and commodities from any part of the earth [that] may be available anywhere and anytime for ever-increasing numbers of people worldwide, while the consequences of worldwide forces and events impinge on local lives at any time” (p. 134). Time-space compression is the situation where “information and communication technology now make it possible to maintain social relationships on the basis of direct interaction over any distance across the globe [emphasis added]” (p. 134). Anthony Giddens defined globalization as “the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa [emphasis added]” (see The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 64). For Frederic Jameson the concept of globalization “reflects the sense of an immense enlargement of world communication [emphasis added]” (see his Preface in The Cultures of Globalization, edited by Frederic Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, Duke University Press, 1998, p. xi). Roland Robertson argues that globalization as a concept “refers both to the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole [emphases added]” (see “Globalization as a Problem,” in The Globalization Reader, 2nd. ed., edited by Frank J. Lechner and John Boli. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). Similarly, James Mittelman explains that “globalization compresses the time and space aspect of social relations [emphasis added]” (quoted in Manfred B. Stenger, Globalization: A Brief Insight, New York: Sterling, 2009). Finally, it was David Harvey who conceptualized globalization “principally as a manifestation of the changing experience of time and space. He captures this change in the notion of ‘time-space compression,’ which refers to the manner in which the speeding up of economic and social processes has experientially shrunk the globe, so that distance and time no longer appear to be major constraints on the organization of human activity [emphases added]” (Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo,  “Tracking Global Flows,” in The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, 2008, p. 8).

Having previously criticized these authors’ emphases on the novelty of globalization, I now have to issue a retraction. I think especially of past revolutions against dictatorial regimes, and how there was generally no popular outcry from citizens in other nations, nor special Security Council resolutions, nor even any effort to end support for the tyrannical regimes in question. Think of the 1949 Chinese revolution–in fact, I can think of the Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune, monumentalized as he is in Canada precisely because his involvement was such an exception (I belonged to Norman Bethune College at York University, and a statue of Norman Bethune greets me at the entrance to Concordia University). Think of the Cuban revolution in 1959–and again, an exceptional example of foreign involvement came in the body of Ernesto Ché Guevara, again a doctor, this time Argentinean. Think of the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979–U.S. involvement there consisted of Jimmy Carter ending aid to Somoza but also, through his ambassador (Lawrence Pezzullo), working quietly behind the scenes to unsuccessfully prevent the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) taking power after doing years of heavy lifting in toppling a brutal dictator backed by Washington. One of the few other acts of foreign intervention against that revolution came in an attempted secret shipment of weapons to the Somoza dictatorship, sent by Israel, which had previously armed Somoza’s troops with Uzis and Galil rifles. Think of the Grenadian revolution against the dictatorship of Eric Gairy, also in 1979, and also a domestic phenomenon that did not benefit from any significant international aid.

Something has definitely changed. Now, whenever a crisis erupts “we are all Americans” (9/11) or “we are all Palestinians,” (Gaza 2009) and recently “we are all Egyptians” and “we are all Libyans.” It seems like these days we are all busy being somebody else.

The Will to Intervene: “Are we there yet?”

Now, revolutions are to be measured in days, where two weeks of survival for the Gaddafi regime–after 42 years in power–is deemed “too long.” Revolutions must be instant, and we all get to have a say in what happens to make them succeed. Indigenous revolutions, painful, and enduring for years and even decades, are treated (if even acknowledged) as if they belonged to the Jurassic Park of political history. This attitude, and these expectations, of instant success, demanded by all of us, with the aid of our resources, is decidedly a novel phenomenon. We now speak of Facebook revolutions, and events in Libya may unfold in a way that we will speak of it as the “F-16 Revolution.”

While I am not one to sweep aside all proponents for intervention as “iPad imperialists” and narcissists (the will to intervene is about the need for me)–because I know of the many misplaced good intentions behind such desire to intervene, perhaps not foreseeing how their desire “to stop violence and save lives” will be appropriated for nefarious ends by more powerful actors with other agendas–I am nonetheless troubled by this phenomenon, and not from a morally superior position as I was one of those who initially vacillated when hearing the outrageous reports of violence in Libyan streets (most proven to be false nonetheless).

The phenomenon is troubling, and not because of the vicarious, voyeuristic nature of the participant spectatorship. It is troubling because what do we really know about Libya? What do we know about the opposition forces? Unarmed protesters? Not any more. “Anyone’s better than Gaddafi”? Sober up. After days of contacting journalists and asking them to pursue this angle of inquiry vigorously–one freelancer and one Al Jazeera producer both acknowledged this remained a black hole in our knowledge of the actors on the ground…but they have done very little to remedy it–we still know little, and even fleeing migrant workers are treated as wallpaper for foreign reporters to talk about, but never talk to. I have never before witnessed a revolution where we knew so little about the revolutionaries. And what do we know about Gaddafi? While Fidel Castro lauds Gaddafi for vastly improving the lives of Libyans, CNN’s Anderson Cooper berates Libya’s educational system as “a joke,” when Libyans have the highest literacy rate in Africa (see UNDP, p. 171) and Libya is the only continental African nation to rank “high” in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Does Anderson Cooper have better, secret statistics? It’s interesting because the BBC, if anything, affirms that Castro is correct:

“Women in Libya are free to work and to dress as they like, subject to family constraints. Life expectancy is in the seventies. And per capita income – while not as high as could be expected given Libya’s oil wealth and relatively small population of 6.5m – is estimated at $12,000 (£9,000), according to the World Bank. Illiteracy has been almost wiped out, as has homelessness – a chronic problem in the pre-Gaddafi era, where corrugated iron shacks dotted many urban centres around the country.”

Gaddafi appears deranged and nonsensical on television–because that it how the mass media wish you to see him. So would many other politicians, speaking at rallies, in constitutional democracies, addressing supporters in their language, in a style they know and understand, with the flourishes that are customary in local politics. Observers scorn Saif Gaddafi and his wagging finger…but they have never seen a finger wagged at an audience until they have watched former Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning in action, who rambled from god, to fidelity, to jobs, sentences truncated, statements often contradicting each other, and the applause was wild. My simple point is that there is a lot we do not know, and do not understand, from the outside looking in, with little background.

Resonance may improve the agitation of bodies, but what does it do to educate minds?

NATO: Prosthetic Device for Revolutions?

Finally, what I am most concerned about is the possible prospect of would-be revolutionaries launching themselves into action, with little sense of cost and consequence, with little preparation to meet a military giant head on, as if approaching an injured and rabid tiger by waving a napkin at him. At one time revolutionaries used to brood and stew over questions such as “are the conditions ripe for revolution?” and “are the masses ready?” and so on. I am not saying this is absent from the minds of Libya’s revolutionaries–I know no such thing. What I worry about here are expectations. What would be a tragic downfall is for that admittedly excessive and vanguardist scientism to be replaced by a heady optimism that says, “Hey, but they did it over there, so let’s do it over here!” Revolutions are not raves, and more than just sensation.

More than that, one cannot go into a revolution thinking someone else, a superpower, will be there to back up the revolutionaries. One cannot screw on NATO as if it were a secret weapon needed to finish the job one started, and fears not being able to complete. Real revolutions are always violent; they are never clean and without bloodshed. In this vein, let me present (thanks to a friend’s recommendations) two especially vital videos of Malcolm X, demanding special attention to his message to revolutionaries: