Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Methods and ideologies

The enthusiasm for yesterday's post is warmly received! Yet for all the discussion about Libya, I can't help but feel dismayed by what was in fact said about Libya, which wasn't much. As indicated already, I don't find generic discussions of Western foreign policy to be sufficient for my interests, nor do I believe they should ever act as a substitute for trying to understand a situation from the perspective of those primarily affected. To the degree that I use such a critique, it is one part of a broader equation, not the only part.

This in turn points to my method for evaluating the legitimacy of authority in a particular situation, which might best be described as something like a non-ideological anarchism. For our purposes here, I will only reiterate that it's really not important what your view is in a situation that primarily impacts other people. It's important what their view is, and what their preferences are under the circumstances as they experience them. So if you aren't part of that situation, but want to have some relevant relation to those within it, you have to try to establish a consensual connection that acknowledges reality on both sides. As far as I am concerned, if you don't want that, you won't do it.

The main reason why I am uninterested in imposing an ideological template on every situation that comes along is that it provides no incentive to even try to understand what is happening from anyone's perspective but my own -- i.e. to understand the situation. What I believe is an uncomfortable fact for many of the left is that if they let other people express their preferences, it is unlikely that they will fit neatly into their preconceived world view. And what we find in such cases is that this prompts not renewed engagement, but anxiety and condemnation.

Needless to say, I have my interests and there's never any expectation on my part that they should be yours. If you want, you are welcome to engage them in your own way, with all that genuine engagement entails.

37 comments:

Justin said...

I'm not sure what you want to hear about Libya from others to complete the discussion for you.

I thought almost everyone were voicing their opposition to action in Libya in terms of understanding that a violent assault is going to have unforseen consequences and is more likely to hurt than help Libyans. As far as considering what Libyans are asking for since they have their own take on the above, several people spoke directly to that point, questioning whether a vocal minority of revolution minded insurgents are representative of everyone in the country.

Regardless, the mission was supposedly to protect those same rebels from Qaddafi's aircraft guns, not the people at large. So if we are intervening on behalf of the rebels asking for help, and it is only their welfare we are concerned about, then it makes sense to think of it in those terms.

Lastly, I am not using an ideological template to oppose this action. I am relying on experience and knowledge about historical examples of what actually happens when one country helps another country by bombing them and overthrowing their government.

JRB said...

Justin:

In terms of whose understanding?

ohtarzie said...

Presumably when you're not patting yourself on the back for being so much more expansive and broad-minded than your readers, you're getting up to your eyeballs in all things Libyan.

When the time is right, let us know what you learn, because while your commenters said about LIbya 'wasn't much', what you've said is precisely zero.

We are hearing all about you, though, and YOU ARE AMAZING.

JRB said...

ohtarzie:

while your commenters said about LIbya 'wasn't much', what you've said is precisely zero.

Well, I think you get my drift.

ohtarzie said...

I have suggestion, JRB. We are all clear on your extremely good intentions. We know that these intentions have something to do with discerning what the Libyans want. Many commenters noted that discerning what Libyans want is extremely difficult. So in the interest of weaning us from our ideological templates, why don't you provide us with a new template for probing the collective mind of a people that might further its revolution via a tactical alliance with the Western death factory.

ohtarzie said...

Well, I think you get my drift.

No, I don't. You haven't said anything about Libya or Libyans. You have simply expressed an intent to understand it better with the implication that others should understand them better to before making knee-jerk objections to the recent intervention.

JRB said...

Priceless.

Anonymous said...

I hope the people in North Africa and the Middle East find their way to a freer life. I surely understand that that thought and all others that I have on Libya are unimportant to the people impacted by life under Qaddafi and now, life under Qaddafi and a bunch of bombers.

This does not mean that I can't comment on the actions of the United States, which in some measure, is my community. All of the effects of US participation in Libya appear to be negative with respect to the US. Now if Qaddafi is removed and proved to be the horrible guy he appears to be, I'm actually OK with it, even believing in my ideological stupor that the next guy will be just as abad.

I have no take on Libya because as I've said before, and I think here, we have no idea who these people are or even what they are asking the world to do for them beyond" make him stop killing us." I wish that would happen, but dropping bombs is not going to make it so. Neither is not dropping bombs.

So, to me, American actions seem largely negative, a position I take knowing it is ideologically driven. I can't assess whether those negative effects are outweighed by what might happen in Libya. But asserting power without knowing the consequences, even to assist a weak party requesting the power, is inappropriate and likely to result in a coercive exercise of power over many. And that power (back to ideology, I'm afraid) will come from the West and be imposed over all of Libya.

Can't wait to read more of your thoughts.

drip

George Jones said...

lemme see if i got this one.

ohtarzie: Why don't you take our position on this situation, you ignorant sanctimonious ass!?

JRB: I'm not sure I have enough information, and also I'm not Libyan, and so am not sure I should even have an opinion.

ohtarzie: But you obviously don't have enough information to evaluate this situation, and also you aren't Libyan. So why don't you take our position!?

JRB: ...



all right. assume there is a single Libyan--a bricklayer, a nurse, a first-grader, whatever--who looks around at a neighborhood strewn with rubble and corpses and says, Gee whiz, I think it would be a net good if the UN or NATO or the US came in and bombed Qaddafi et al to tiny bits, right now. What would y'all say to this person? And do you think your opinion might sound a wee bit, I dunno, abstract? Maybe even condescending?

and, remember:

To the degree that I use such a critique, it is one part of a broader equation, not the only part.

JRB said...

Drip:

Thanks.

It's really just a question of what you are interested in. I was interested in a particular approach, so I encouraged people to consider it that way.

It's true, I wasn't interested in hearing what I already know about Western power, and what Libyans surely understand from their own history about Western powers. That's an important part of the bigger picture, and it takes us a long way. For lack of additional information (or time, etc.), it is appropriate to say "I don't know what's going on there, and without an obvious justification Western intervention is illegitimate."

But saying that one doesn't know what's happening isn't the same as saying that there is no way of knowing what is happening, or insisting on non-intervention as an absolute principle. My sense is that once people understand more about the situation, evidence will show that there may very well have been reason to want to target the Libyan military in order to get them to stop targeting Libyan cities in the retaking of the country. Saying "I don't know" should leave open the possibility that there are things we don't know that could change our minds.

Christopher M said...

JRB:

My very first comment in the previous thread was an attempt to address the question of Libya and "The Libyans," and the highly problematic use you've been making of that term. As I said then, "The Libyans" are not some monolithic group - indeed, not even the forces in opposition to Qaddafi's rule, which we refer to as "the Libyan opposition" or "the Libyan rebels", are a monolithic group, and a number of them have expressed opposition to Western intervention! You have not addressed this, at all. You have not addressed the fact that tribes in Western Libya appear quite willing to attack tribes in Eastern Libya, not solely out of fear of Qaddafi, but out of longstanding enmity to tribes in the east, and that Western intervention with tribes in the east is therefore not merely some humanitarian effort to preserve people in the east, but an active effort to extinguish the lives of Libyans in the west. Are they not Libyans too? Do their voices not count?

You appear to privilege the evil of being murdered by one government over the evil of being murdered by another. You have not explained why that is. To me, murder is murder, and a corpse is a corpse. I don't think my aversion to death, and my insistence that any flag death might carry on the way to dealing death is fairly incidental to the nature of death, is particularly "ideological." I think it's fairly practical. Dead is dead, in Libya and across the world.

ohtarzie said...

George,

Thanks for that, seriously, because it helped me understand a little bit more where JRB is coming from. However, you didn't paraphrase me correctly, so there is a risk that you didn't paraphrase JRB correctly sooner. I don't fault JRB for not adopting my position. I fault him for posts that imply that folks who have made up their minds about the intervention on somewhat conventional grounds are variously ethnocentric, thoughtless and robotic. I am, however, sorry that I let loose with the ad homs.

drip said...

JRB-- Yeah. I try to keep what's left of my mind open and I can't spend time with people who can't change it. I am ideological, but it helps to be reminded of what that means.

Justin said...

JRB,

You are accepting the terms of debate set out by the powerful. They are saying that the choice is between helping Libyans or leaving them to die.

Drawing on history, recent and old, within and outside of living memory, some are pointing out that intervention is often discussed in terms of this choice that later turns out to be entirely false. Moreover, it just as frequently turns out to be false not because western powers bumble around and do unintended damage to people they are trying to save, but because they are pursuing their interests at the expense of those people. There have been roughly 0 examples of the humanitarian intervention working out as promised and you could fill a library with books about conflicts that cut the other way.

When can we dispense with the pretense that the United States and others bomb countries and shape their political fortunes to help the people living there? Is that ideological blindness or is it learning from the past? Some of both?

ohtarzie said...

I am ideological, but it helps to be reminded of what that means.

There is nothing wrong with being ideological because everyone is. Some come by it more thoughtfully than others, but everyone has one or two or three.

When someone starts claiming they're 'non-ideological' what they are trying to say is that they are in possession of The Truth. Popular with neoliberals and other riff-raff.

JRB said...

Christopher M.:

I addressed your first concern in the original post, when I said there was "evidence of support for Western intervention amongst those doing the fighting against the Qaddafi regime," qualifying it by saying that we (I) don't know who this represents exactly. Could be something of interest for those insisting on non-intervention who aren't Libyan, though.

As for a tyrant attacking his population in an attempt to maintain control vs. an international campaign targeting his military in a high-profile "humanitarian" effort, I simply don't see the two as analogous in the context, and don't understand arguments to the effect that they are, even if we allow for the fact that strikes on military targets will likely include civilian casualties. That is just not the same thing as targeting urban areas outright, and I suspect that were I in Libya such a distinction would not be lost on me! This is not to say that taking this course of action is justified in and of itself -- getting the tanks and artillery not to massacre people, by one means or another, however, presumably is.

JRB said...

Justin:

You are accepting the terms of debate set out by the powerful. They are saying that the choice is between helping Libyans or leaving them to die.

The fact that the powerful make a particular claim has no bearing on whether or not the claim is true. The relevant question is whether there is any justification for what the powerful do, and if not, how best to oppose it.

Sometimes there are justifications for what otherwise illegitimate power centers do, as you and I know in our relationship to the state -- we don't challenge people who accept social security checks, or other forms of assistance.

Drawing on history, recent and old, within and outside of living memory, some are pointing out that intervention is often discussed in terms of this choice that later turns out to be entirely false.

I agree, that's why we want to evaluate the claims, seek out better alternatives, etc.

When can we dispense with the pretense that the United States and others bomb countries and shape their political fortunes to help the people living there?

I've already dispensed with it, so I'm not sure who you are addressing here. But just because Western intervention in the Libyan context can't be justified on the basis of Western claims, this doesn't mean it can't be justified for other reasons, including what might predictably happen to Libyans in its absence.

Christopher M said...

I don't know what to say, other than have you been asleep for the last several decades' worth of "humanitarian" interventions? War is not a selective tool. One does not go to war against one dictator, or against one dictator and his military. The machines of war are deployed against cities, buildings, homes, infrastructure, roads, schools, factories, power plants, water-treatment facilities. War is necessarily brought to bear against a population.

It is not simply the case that the US and company are firing some rounds at Qaddafi's henchmen and a couple stray civilians are happening to get caught in the crossfire. Hundreds of missiles are being rained down on Tripoli, on populated areas. Moreover, if Qaddafi is toppled, as the rebels would have it, those who supported Qaddafi in the west will be slaughtered by those backed by NATO in the east. What makes that slaughter more just than the slaughter you would use "humanitarian" intervention to stop?

You are being willfully obtuse here. The military is not the Red Cross; it is not a tool for saving lives but a tool for extinguishing life.

Anonymous said...

What you should stop pretending is that you are IWW in good faith.

JRB said...

What does that mean, Anonymous-in-good-faith?

JRB said...

Christopher M.:

Can you substantiate any of that with evidence in this case? Human rights alerts or something?

As I say, I haven't seen any evidence to seriously suggest they are analogous.

ohtarzie said...

Hey Christopher M:

What sources are you reading from? You seem to know more about the various factions involved than I am able to find in the sources I've been reading. I still know very little about all the various elements in the rebellion apart from the elements that have links to Qadaffi.

JM said...

JRB, maybe this can help:
http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/libyans-say-no-to-foreign-intervention/

Learn you it.

JRB said...

JM:

Awesome. I only wish the clip were more recent. Life would be much simpler if I could only tell myself "They don't want it," in a more or less definitive way -- so keep it coming.

Abonilox said...

JRB,

This discussion has been interesting. Can you elaborate upon "non-ideological anarchism?" I mean this sincerely. I am struggling to understand how an anarchist point-of-view informs this debate.

Anonymous said...

JRB, i'm a fairly recent (6 months) reader of your blog. but i've checked it every day since then. b/c i've deeply appreciated your approach & voice.

on this issue it pains me to say you are utterly full of shit. stop defending yourself & BE WRONG.

JRB said...

Abonilox:

I'm just describing the method I use to evaluate what is justified under specific circumstances; namely, whether the predictable outcome of an action or inaction can be justified in light of the preferences of the affected person or persons.

I'm not saying I'm non-ideological myself; this just lets me understand other's preferences without getting too much in the way myself.

In the Libyan case, you'd want to know the preferences of the Libyans you are trying to support, for example, not so much the preferences of outsiders.

JRB said...

on this issue it pains me to say you are utterly full of shit. stop defending yourself & BE WRONG.

Can you explain how I can do this? I honestly don't see anything wrong with trying to do right by people in circumstances that I don't totally understand, thereby leaving open the question of what they want, rather than making that decision for them.

Jack Crow said...

You keep sidestepping around US/UK/French bombs as if "what they [unnamed, anonymous 'Libyans'] want" has any bearing on the matter.

That's disheartening. This is sloppy, careless thinking.

JRB said...

Jack:

Who requested the no-fly zone (which means US/UK/French bombs)?

What exactly am I sidestepping around?

Jack Crow said...

You are sidestepping the generic category "Libyans." At this point, close to a dozen people have attempted to reach you on your own terms, regarding this fact - but you either dismiss them, ignore them or argue right around the point.

So, I'm going to try it another way.

What's your minimum threshold?

What is the smallest number of people requesting help from bomb dropping capitalist countries which meets your criteria for representation of a populace of nearly seven million persons?

Is it one? Five? Ten? One hundred? One thousand? Who speaks for them? How do you know that any person requesting intervention from states which have zero humanitarian credibility has the interests of those he claims to represent in mind?

scott said...

I'd agree the thinking here really is quite sloppy. We're supposed to ignore the easily anticipated and horrible effects of dropping bombs (death, maiming, falling on the just and the unjust alike) because we have a vague sense that some Libyans (a majority, a minority, a plurality?) might be OK with that? What? I get an unsolicited text from a couple of people in a park saying they need help from unspecified murderous thugs unknown, so I go to the park and either spray the park with a semi auto or lob grenades? But the text said that they totally authorized me to use any force necessary! It's all good.

scott said...

I'm also surprised that a guy who likes to quote Marx a lot is so sanguine about the idea of Western powers intervening in another country for the highest, most benevolent humanitarian motives. Kinda thinking the bearded one would have had a full belly laugh over that one.

JM said...

There's alternatives to intervention here:
http://www.counterpunch.org/prashad03232011.html

JM said...

P.S. This was the man who called for an intervention:
http://the-crows-eye.blogspot.com/2011/03/freedom-has-leader.html

JM said...

This is also good:
http://www.maxajl.com/?p=5088

JRB said...

I'm wrapping this up, guys:

Any intervention in another's affairs requires a very high burden of proof to show that it can be justified. All evidence in favor needs to be evaluated as to whether it can meet this burden. Without meeting this burden intervention can be assumed to be wrong.

The anarchist position as I understand it is never non-intervention as an absolute principle, but that intervention is wrong without adequate justification; particularly, as it relates to the preferences of the affected parties.

The fact is, as much as we do not like Western power in principle, in practice there are many instances where we solicit it for what we think is right, because there is no alternative. Naturally, we seek out these alternatives if we can. But it is hypocritical to foreclose the same options to others when in our daily lives as Westerners we pursue them all the time.