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

Friday, November 27, 2009

Where is Afghanistan on the West-East slope?

On Wednesday I went to a debate that seemed to offer something unrelated to Afghanistan, and still ended up reflecting on Afghanistan. Of course.
The debate was about whether in "our region" (the region which I hail from; a region that "we" cannot really name; the borders of which we cannot clearly define), namely in the region varyingly called "Eastern Europe," "East-Central Europe" or "Central-Eastern Europe," we belong to the "West" or to the "East" rather? This could be a boring exercise normally, whereby you could often hear pseudo-intellectuals recite boring, well-known arguments and even some of the craziest, most stereotypical bullsh*t you can imagine, albeit in sophisticated or at least pseudo-sophisticated form.
But on this occasion there were good panellists to listen to, including Attila Melegh, author of this quite excellent book. It was Attila Melegh's idea of the "East-West slope" (which I would rather call a "West-East slope" perhaps, since that more clearly indicates the direction in which one looks down on this slope) that started a string of thoughts in me.
As I will outline it here in a nutshell, the gist of the slope's idea is going to be immediately familiar to those who are knowledgable about postcolonialism. What Attila Melegh does is that he identifies the latent impact of an omnipresent concept in the discourse about "the former Eastern-bloc" or "post-communist" part of Europe: that of the "slope," i.e. the "West-East slope." It is a multidimensional scale on which countries or even certain social behavioural patterns can be placed in terms of how appropriate they are, with the ultimate measuring rod of the "liberal humanitarian utopia" in mind - the latter is ultimately converging with the idea of the "West." Thus countries that "need to catch up," have "unfinished business in terms of their transition processes," show "deficiencies in terms of the rule of law, the functioning of their market economies and the vibrancy of their civil societies" or otherwise, are not in fact perfect members of the West, and thus inevitably not Western enough in nature. Social behavioural patterns that are, or seem to be, a hindrance to achieving a better position along the West-East slope are identified as non-Western. This is used in a self-disciplining way in the discourses of the countries concerned. Concerned politicians and intellectuals in general warn society of how certain phenomena are "non-European" or, say, "Balkanic" or "Asian" or whatever that one shouldn't be.
The end result is a mental hierarchy offensively referred to by Western critics to exert transforming pressure and defensively addressed or self-disciplinarily utilised by some within the target populations. A search for excuses or self-regulation is not the only reaction that emerges, however. Nationalist answers offer what seems to be an escape route, out from the mental hierarchy: something like "we are perfect, no need to measure us, we know this;" or "of course we are European (whatever we do)." An especially negative aspect of this is the enhanced "Othering" of those identified as being further down the slope, to justify how good one is.
Post-colonialism is essentially a similar critique of the mental hierarchy that tends to latently inform much West-centric thinking (not only by Westerners of course). But it is more general in space and time. It is global and not specific to the experience of the so-called "transition period" of "post-communist" countries.
The interesting thing to ask, combining the two, is whether the slope (or scale) of Westernisation, or, alternatively, and more problematically, of "modernisation" or "civilisation," is truly "an imaginary ruler" (as Attila Melegh puts it) along which all countries could theoretically move, or be moved, in the West-centric mind. All sorts of resistance emerge in reaction to the post-structural hegemony of the West, however benign or "benevolent" this hegemony may seem to be, or be intended to be, by many in the West. And meanwhile some ideologies just plainly ignore the Western measuring rod and go for something defined not in reaction only, but at least partly internally driven as well (think of Salafism for an example). Western thinking has to accomodate the idea that not every country can be moved (upwards) along the imaginary ruler or scale, be it because of active resistance to this or because of just a general endeavour to get along in a totally different direction. Momentarily, temporarily, or possibly even in the long run, there may be too many obstacles. And this is where "the idea of Afghanistan" comes in. The country that many believe cannot really be changed, a country where culture is supposedly static and the people irreconcilable with Western ways. A country that is not really on the slope but off it in the minds of many, just like that continent, Africa (another hopeless "country" in the minds of many). A country "doomed to self-destruct;" a country "that should sort problems out on its own;" a country "corrupt beyond repair." Etc. Many of such assertions will most likely sound familiar to you if you are cursorily interested in the discourse about Afghanistan.
That is just why I ended up thinking about Afghanistan again and in general about the West-centric discourse of state-building, towards the end of the debate.

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