Saturday, June 14, 2008

New Approaches to Self-Determination - Part One

I thought have posted more this week but apparently (and perhaps fortunately) I have more of a social life than I think. Anyway, on Thursday I went to a conference hosted by SOAS’ Centre for Colonialism, Empire and International Law (which is an absolutely fantastic idea for an academic centre) on New Approaches to Self-Determination. In my opinion it was a pretty awesome conference, so I thought I may as well write up my notes here.

Professor Christine Bell: The New Law of Hybrid Self-Determination
Bell essentially focuses on the relationship between self-determination and what she calls ‘peace agreements’. By peace agreements she is essentially referring to those which deal with intra-state conflicts, for example, civil wars, wars of national liberation etc., more than half the states in the world have these agreements, and she thinks she has discovered common ways in which these agreements deal with self-determination.

Classically, self-determination has been structured by an antinomy or a contradiction. Essentially, it has pitted territorial integrity (the right for historically constituted nations to remain unitary) and representative government (the right for certain ‘peoples’ to be represented by this government). This contradiction has often been thought of as exacerbating conflict – as it raises the stakes of conflicts. She argues that ‘hybrid’ self-determination is marked by three conceptual developments; these are:

  • Redefinition of the nature of the state
  • Disaggregation of power
  • Dislocation of power

State redefinition
Peace treaties tend to redefine the state in a way that it is possible to incorporate its dissenters. This is not just a symbolic manoeuvre, it is also performative, since it legitimates the dissenters and represents an formal/institutional incorporation of their vision of the state. This can be seen in the Belfast agreement, which talks about respect and esteem for all of the identities in Northern Ireland, or the Burundi agreement, which negotiates an official history of the state and the conflict. The general features of this redefinition are a new state identity, constitutional recognition and substantial provisions for the participation of dissenters in the government of the territory.

The second feature of the hybrid law of self-determination is the disaggregation of power. Whilst sovereignty has traditionally been seen of as indivisible and unitary (as in Hobbes, Rousseau etc.), hybrid self-determination sees state power as divisible and fluid. This is instantiated in a number of different ways, thus peace agreements make provision for power sharing, regionalism, minority and human rights. Basically, this gives effect to the redefinition of the state and connects sovereign power with this redefinition.

Dislocation of power (‘fuzzy sovereignty’)
The sum total of this dual movement is that sovereignty – as it has been traditionally conceived – has been blurred and attenuated. This can obviously seen in the existence of bi and multinational states and the role of international supervision.

Why hybrid?
Bell argued that these agreements are cunning because they set up four hybrid ‘tricks’.

The first of these it that the old distinction between internal and external self-determination is blurred. Although the agreements would like to portray themselves as being solely concerned with internal self-determination, this simply cannot be the case. The language used in the agreements has elements of both and remains inconsistent with statehood as normally conceived. Furthermore, international actors are almost of necessity involved in these processes (which again is not a mark of internal self-determination). Basically, the agreements remain deliberately ambiguous, as it allows ‘everybody’ to win (and nobody).

The second of these hybrids is the hybrid between process and substance. Most of the agreements only agree on the processes to be used. These processes are then constitutionally or institutionally incorporated, but what they processes essentially do is to institutionalise ‘agreement to disagree’ and build it into the foundations of the state. At first sight this seems to allow us to set aside substance but on closer examination this doesn’t hold water. This is because in agreeing that the state can incorporate such processes one must be holding a substantive conception of the state as process.

The third of these hybrids is between representation and participation in democracy. Thus, these agreements emphasise representative democracy but also bring in a lot of participatory elements. In some ways this is a pragmatic role, as those who are concluding peace agreements are often unelected and without any democratic legitimacy. This meant it was necessary to continually invoke participation and ‘the people’. Thus, the agreement appears to have multiple authors.

New law or new practice?
There is a question as to whether this is really new law? Although she has found a number of agreements it really doesn’t follow that this is law. What she does note is that peace agreements articulate themselves with constant reference to self-determination. In this way they represent an attempt to mediate the central contradiction of self-determination. They represent a ‘law of the centre’. Furthermore, peace agreements seem related to developments in the ‘democratic rights’ human rights law and are linked to some recent tribunal judgments, such as the Wall Advisory Opinion and the Badinter Commission’s Opinion on Yugoslavia.

Two readings
The most interesting part of this talk (and Professor Bell agreed with this) was the way in which these developments can be viewed from different angles. On the one hand, one can read them in an optimistic way. The developments can be interpreted in a heady, post-sovereign way whereby identity is fluid and transformative, it results – as Bell excellently put it – in an ‘internationalised, permanently transitional constitution’. This of course finds support with a certain kind of optimistic, liberal constitutionalist.

On the other hand, it seems like this can all be viewed as ‘simply a con trick’. Rather than seeing these developments positively a dual case can be mounted against them. Firstly, it is argued that these developments are not the beginning of some new, permanent flux, instead they are the mark of a society in transition. On this view what seems like a new development is simply an aberration that results from the process of reconciliation and state-building. In other words these ‘new’ features are just about building a new liberal democracy, peace agreements are shaped by the ‘invisible pull of the Westphalian state’. On the other hand, it is argued that this is essentially a type of informal imperialism. Just as the disempowered are about to achieve statehood (and therefore be on equal terms with the powerful), it is yanked away from them (one might cross reference this with the problem of the League of Democracies and Phil’s comments). They no longer have the straightforward buffer to the expansive power of hegemon, instead what they have is this ‘state in flux’. These arguments are complementary (rather than contradictory) because international intervention is generated by the state-building project.

Bell notes that there isn’t necessarily a right answer to these questions. Both sides of the argument are persuasive, but this is partially because these arrangements are designed to please everyone. She essentially returns to the idea that hybrid self-determination is trying to recreate a middle way (between the antinomies of self-determination) that doesn’t exist. Thus, there is a centre that constantly ‘falls apart’. Bell argues that she doesn’t need to choose because all she is doing to capture what is going on in the ‘new battleground’, as people miss both the dark side and the transcendent side. She does however admit that some people clearly ‘lose out’.

My response
I really enjoyed this paper, and agreed with it in a lot of ways. However, I have some severe reservations about it. In some ways I feel like my observations would be best illustrated by putting up my dissertation here, and I may well do that, but I feel like I’d at least like to know its mark first of all. However, I think my basic problem is that I am not entirely sure how ‘new’ these developments are. Self-determination has always had a problematic relationship with the concept of the state. In a lot of ways it has always problematised its legitimacy and foundations (by trying to root it in consent and linking it to a conception of ‘the people’). Furthermore, by rooting sovereignty is the ‘consent’ of the people it necessarily renders it somewhat fluid. I would also argue that the divergent approaches Bell notes to ‘hybrid’ self-determination have also always structured self-determination itself. Traditionally, self-determination has been seen as a ‘free choice’ that is brought about by the resistance of national liberation movements or as a way of imposing a certain model of social organisation upon the Third World.

This is the antimony which I think structures self-determination, and I think Bell’s vision is only a variant of it. However, and this is where I am no post-whatever-ist, whenever I see an antimony I demand its dialectical resolution – as opposed to just leaving things open. So, what my basic intuition is that it is true to say that the hybrid self-determination is both liberatory and constraining. What it can be seen as doing (and this is especially true in terms of the ‘institutionalisation of disagreement) is finding a way of constructively incorporating the resistance of the peripheries into the international order, in a way that does not destroy its fundamental material coordinates. In this way it is a genuine product of resistance and it is (relatively) liberating but it also buttresses the (exploitative) international order. In reference to this I would note that Bell notes the connection between the postmodern times and the shifting character of sovereignty. But I would deepen this, perhaps through an engagement with Laclau of Mouffe. This is because it strikes me that a lot of the post- stuff is interesting insofar as while it recognises (and celebrates) difference, disagreement etc., it doesn’t really seek to transcend it – and indeed condemns wholesale, transformative projects. Something like the radical democracy of post-Marxists, which sees antagonism as constitutive of politics and central to it, seeks only to manage antagonism not resolve it. And perhaps this is the ultimate role of self-determination, to manage antagonism (between classes and nations) without questioning the exploitative regime which gives rise to it.

I'll post more notes over the week

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