Sunday, June 22, 2008

Red Approaches

Having returned victorious from the gauntlet that is exam results, I am no longer quite so distracted with worry and so can get back to actually writing something. That being said, I would quite like to finish up the last of my conference posts before moving onto something more substantial. Anyway, this shouldn’t take too long.

Red Approaches to Self-Determination
Bill Bowring: The Return of Politics to Self-Determination
Although I have heard this talk before I wasn’t paying very much attention the first time, mainly because I was stressing about my own paper. Basically, Bowring begins by examining the Anghie’s Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law and Knop’s Diversity and Self-Determination (an absolutely fantastic book). Bowring argues that whilst these books are both great they have serious gaps in their arguments. Knop’s book is rare, insofar as it addresses an area not much examined in work of self-determination – how it relates to indigeneity and gender (viz. diversity). Anghie’s book, which I have discussed extensively here, is obviously concerned with the way in which certain ideas in international law – democracy, humanitarianism etc. – are tied up in the colonial/imperial project.

Bowring’s notes that although these books are doing different things they share very similar (flawed) conceptions of the world. As a kind of anecdotal aside he points out that both of them share a common figure in their lives – the arch liberal and progressivist Thomas Franck. Although such a connection does not necessarily have much meaning Bowring argues that it is illustrative of a certain trend. Although both Knop and Anghie both seem to be rather radical, it turns out on later examination it turns out that they are in fact liberals. Both of them essentially just call for the law to live up to its stated ideals, they don’t call for anything beyond this.

This liberalism is reflected in the way in which Anghie and Knop conceptualise the role of politics in self-determination and international law more generally. Thus, Knop gives us no explanation of how it was that the inchoate ‘principle’ of self-determination was able to become a right. The same can easily be said of much of Anghie’s work, which seems to ignore the existence of resistance or struggle. For Bowring the most telling example of this is the lack of Lenin in either of the books. Knop doesn’t mention Lenin at all and Anghie only mentions him in relation to (I think) Hobson. But, as Bowring correctly notes, Lenin and the Bolsheviks – in their political theory, debates and practice – made self-determination a central plank in their doctrines. Furthermore, further Soviet practice can only be understood in the light of this (people have often been scared of Bowring invoking ‘Stalinist’ practice, but he usually does a pretty good job of it).

Bowring then moved on to examine Pheng Cheah’s Spectral Nationality. Cheah argues that Lenin was the essential basis for the national liberationists (Fanon, Cesaire etc.), whose opposition to colonialism was based on a reception and embedding of Lenin’s argument. Bowring argues, quite rightly, that Lenin did rather a lot in relation to self-determination, particularly in his struggle against Stalin with regard to Georgian independence. This was followed on by the dreaded Soviet Union who were instrumental in getting self-determination incorporated into the major international instruments and putting it firmly on the international agenda. Although one can’t exclude the amazing struggles undertaken by the national liberation movements, one also shouldn’t ignore how important the Soviet bloc was to these movements.

From these arguments Bowring moved on to a consideration of the current furore over Kosovo and the threats of Russia to push for ‘self-determination’ in the Caucuses. Bowring argued that Russia is being rather devious, but that its actions have no real basis in Lenin’s practice.

Ultimately, I mostly agree with Bowring’s general assessments. That being said, I do think that Bowring underestimates the structural constraints of self-determination and its adoption by national liberation movements. I would also point out the obvious, Lenin’s conception of self-determination was ultimately a limited, non-permanent one, as obviously his final aim was a post-national future.

Scott Newton: The Over-Determination of Self-Determination
Scott Newton’s talk was really interesting, but it is quite hard to summarise (as he was dealing with a huge topic). Basically, he examined Soviet theory as it applied to self-determination in the USSR, emphasising that numerous legal institutions were determined, and in fact over-determined, by self-determination. He begins by looking at today, 90 years on from the Bolshevik experiments. He looks at the region of Akbhazia, where there has been a fight over territory and nationality as defined in Soviet law. The shape of secession, ethnic cleansing etc. are determined by the legacy of the USSR, especially since the legal institutions of the USSR juridified culture. In recent times there has been a move towards ‘internal self-determination’, whereby existing states are subjected to regimes which allow given ‘peoples’ to have some form of political representation. Newton argues that the heterodox-orthodoxy of the USSR pre-figured this moment.

Newton then goes back to the early law. He notes that in the old, Wilsonian vision there was one law for Europe and one law for the west. European self-determination had conditional rights to external self-determination (some nations were given their own states) combined with robust minority obligations. Non-European ‘self-determination’ was avowedly culturalist, it essentially conditioned the level of independence relative to the level of ‘cultural preparedness’ obtaining in the territory. There was no mention of internal self-determination in these areas and no provision for federalism or devolution.

Leninist self-determination was framed with reference to a continental empire. This was because the Romanov empire was like a ‘menagerie’ of colonies, the colonial territories were all physically contiguous the Russian metropole, and were composed of a number of different ‘types’ of colonies. Thus, the Romanov Empire was constantly incorporating new territories into itself, and can be seen as ‘pushing back the European frontier’. This meant that the Bolsheviks were confronted with a situation of unparalleled complexity. They had to try and organise this vast area into a new state, without allowing it to collapse, thus they had to ‘de-imperialise but not dismantle’.

This resulted in a scheme of ethno-cultural autonomy. Essentially the Soviet Union had four levels of autonomy, which was calculated through a complex formula. Newton argues that this formula was ultimately an arbitrary one, which produced a lot of aberrations. But the point was not necessarily to ‘accurately’ represent anything. Instead, the idea was to ‘give everyone a story’, the point was the constitution of a number of ‘selves’ and their juridification. In this way one could also note a continuity between the culturalist assumptions of the Mandate System. However, what Newton notes is that while this did create a series of parallel ethnic worlds, this was all much of a muchness. Ultimately, the selves were all standardised into the ‘Soviet self’, Newton illustrated this through an examination of the architecture of all the regions, which appeared virtually identical.

Whilst I did genuinely find this talk fascinating, it is hard to know what to take from it. There is probably an interested lot of work to be done in examining the more general homogenising tendencies of self-determination, and its role in the constitution of the state. Indeed, there is a good argument that self-determination tends to posit selves in the nation-state form, ultimately one rooted in Europe.

Akbar Rasulov: Post-Soviet Lessons of Self-Determination
For me, this presentation didn’t really get going until the end. Rasulov kind of admits that the project he is engaging was too big for him to summarise in the short time available to him, but nonetheless it felt pregnant with possibility. Self-determination creates a ‘self’ through practice, and this process has been variously described. What Rasulov wanted to consider was the possibility that self-determination might actually be a a grandiose fig-leaf for something else. In this regard he looked at the post-independence legal transformations in post-Soviet territories.

Rasulov notes that the basic pattern of the post-Soviet reform is that there has been very little attempt (or success anyway) in creating a specifically central Asian law. What there is that is new is largely inserted at the behest of foreign legal advisors. Much of the modernising stuff is simply a direct continuation of Soviet law. Rasulov then traced this across a number of different areas of the law, all of which show the same pattern: faithful preservation with perhaps some gradualist development. Essentially there has been very little sign of any development of an ‘indigenous’ tradition of law.

If indeed we can find a general pattern in this respect, then we have to question whether this suggests something interesting about self-determination. States are the subject of self-determination, insofar as peoples are envisaged by it, it is people within states, or people who will become a state. What a people must do in self-determination is to ‘choose their own status’, but the question is whether or not this can work in the absence of external interference. What Rasulov suggests is that self-determination projects a predictive theory about behaviour of states onto the law. For self-determination the law is always your ‘own’ law it is the law of the state. Rasulov sees this as the legacy of the German Historical School, who viewed the law, as the law of a particular people. Furthermore, he argues that this is a way of importing Kantian concerns about individual selves onto state behaviour. Thus, the absence of external compulsion is conceived of as a morally desirable state of autonomy, which is then projected back onto states. But this is projecting the liberal ‘self’ inappropriately onto states in a mythological type of way. But this ignores the fact that there ultimately is no self aside from the Soviet one that has been constructed.

What I thought was interesting about this was Nathaniel Berman’s contribution to the discussion. Adopting a Foucauldian position, Berman asked if perhaps this ‘myth’ was merely one myth amongst many. Thus, Foucault argued that the individual self was merely an effect posited by discourse and power, and so ultimately just as much of a myth as the ‘self’ in the nation state. Rasulov’s response was interesting, he acknowledged that the point could be correct (although he didn’t adopt a concrete position on it), but then argued that what is important with myths is examining their function (this is similar to what Susan Marks says about Marxist analyses of ideology). He argues that this myth of the authentic national ‘self’ sets the standard so high that the newly decolonised nations are incapable of living up to the standard. This allows the former power to assert the pointlessness of decolonisation and the incapability of the ‘natives’ to actually create an authentic form of self-government. This would set the scene for a new recolonisation.

As I say, whilst I thought this started off a little slow, the general sentiment of it was pretty interesting. The ‘high standard’ seems to me to be a particularly interesting form of analysis, and one that might fruitfully be pursued further.

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