What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Structure as a pyramid, Afghanistan at the bottom?

Before Monday, here is one more academic sort of post I wanted to put out. Academic, so not irrelevant, but relevant in a less direct way. (Tomorrow I shall post something that, you will see, is very directly relevant for the Afghanistan campaign.)

Anyway. Have you heard of the "Pyramid of the capitalist system" yet? It was a poster mobilising workers to take action, in 1911, in the UK, showing them right where they had to feel they were (at the bottom!) in order to take centre-stage. Here it is:

It is easily available at a great number of websites with a Google search taking "0.12 seconds," showing much that could be difficult to grasp about the importance of "structure" and "structural variables" in an extraordinarily easily digestible way.

Of course, its scheme was by no means perfect, however. Western factory workers felt badly exploited and it did not really occur to them that others were living in even worse circumstances at the time. So when they wrote "We work for all/We feed all" there, they not-so-kindly belittled farmers' role for example (having there just one dude with a shovel to represent farmers). For now, let this be enough for an illustration of why this scheme could be regarded as rather imperfect.

What would a similar scheme look like in 2009? Perhaps that could be a logical question to leap to. And it turns out some people have already put their heads down to it. Here is the pyramid's new version:

And look, it says evil politicians (vaguely reminiscent of Dick Cheney I'd risk saying) are defended by aggressive-looking riot policemen and (re-)elected by TV-watching people high on the happy stuff shown on their TV screens. And they are altogether defended by soldiers behind tanks that trample on the rights of the not-really-voiceless but rarely heard peoples, in peripheric locations on earth. That right there is a theory of what is happening in the world, reducing complexity to what it regards as essential... Why am I addressing this? Because there is a guy down there, at the bottom, who could as well be wearing a turban and a shalwar kameez, so it seems... He is definitely there to represent some kind of resistance against the liberal globalisation project, coming from the Islamic world, and perhaps he was even meant to represent the Taliban there. So is there anything that is wrong with this scheme, specifically with Afghanistan in mind?

Thinking back to how farmers were forgotten in the case of the previous scheme, one could start with the obvious, going from the rather superficial to the quite substantial:

- TV is less an exclusive medium, even if not necessarily less important, nowadays, than it used to be...

- Tanks are not used so much nowadays. Yes, there are some in Afghanistan, and they are of use, but they are not deployed in such a great number. As to soldiers' force protection, a lot of that is provided from the air...

- The current U.S. and other efforts in Afghanistan aim at creating better, not worse, conditions in Afghanistan. Even if they were to fail in the end, being partly misconceived or lacking sufficient commitment behind them.

- There are many that are on top of the "food chain" and yet hard to place in this rather constraining scheme above. A number of countries making good use of the American interest in the global counter-terrorist campaign. Many individuals and companies making profits from it. People feeding on the democracies concerned in all sorts of ways. People feeding on people and state institutions everywhere, across state boundaries, in all sorts of complex ways.

The way Marxists would address the latter argument would be to say that it is the structure that matters, parasytes coming in great numbers notwithstanding. There are nice expressions in use, such as "secondary" and "tertiary parasytes" and so on. But it is a little more complex than that, of course. China is an important source of financing for the U.S., and financing something is hardly about parasytism... this tends to disturb the clear-cut centre-periphery dichotomy a little. Of course there are dependencies in this world, but there are interdependencies as well, in other words. Structure cannot be portrayed as a neatly shaped pyramid, in fact.

This brings one to the most important point. What the above scheme really suggests is that a structure of dependency and dominance being a factor in the way the world is ordered is just inevitably bad. But one is at pain to tell, outside the imaginary world of a utopia, how there could be a world without any such structure.

The alternative costs of the current structure are always interesting to ponder (from the issue of agricultural subsidies to the conduct of transnational corporations and issues of world trade), if one is given concrete ideas to contemplate. But just hating the currently given structure and equating those identified as "at its bottom" (whatever they do) with the potential and actual good-doers is intellectually a rather empty approach. It is built on the notion of the opposite of the "West-East slope" that I wrote of on Friday here, in fact. It is just a reversal of that imaginary slope.

Moreover, the wrongs of any given structure ought not to be necessarily identified to a full extent with the wrongs of its parasytes (from a more predatory CEO in investment banking to the despotic strongman in some remote Afghan valley).

Alright, I hope I managed to retain your interest up to this point. Next time, as promised, some much more policy-oriented input to be provided here.

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