Monday 2 September 2013

Syria, Information and Statism

A nation that gasses its own people is very sick. The question is, "what's the cure?" If a sick nation was like a sick child, a parent would take the temperature, a doctor take blood samples, etc. Parents would examine their diet and get a feel for their mood. A parent and a doctor are in an intimate relationship and a position to act. They understand the consequences of the actions they might take. They understand the risks. Exactly how they understand consequences and risks, however, is a bit mysterious. Understanding themselves no doubt plays an important role. Recognition of sickness is a process of reflection on one's own sickness. Self knowledge gives parents (and maybe doctors) knowledge that they have flexibility to experiment. They are not without information: established knowledge of symptoms, established knowledge of the effects of medication, but this information provides the context for their decision-making. It doesn't determine it, it constrains it.

Nigel Howard was instrumental in the conflict in Bosnia, and in his theoretical work on 'drama theory' (which was used in this conflict) he points to the difference between 'confrontation' and 'conflict' (see  As the world confronts Syria over its sickness, I find Howard's work relevant not just in finding a way to understand the nature of the problem, but in shedding light on the relationships between decision (the decision to attack; the decisions of Assad, etc) and information more generally.Syria is grotesque. But many of the same patterns of social pathology afflict more civilised situations: this is what makes intervention so hard - how does the sickness behind the intervention relate to the sickness it seeks to address?

There are many things about the Syrian situation which are disturbing. But the role of 'information' is one of the most striking aspects of the crisis. There is a 'clamour' for evidence of who gassed the citizens of Damascus. "Evidence" must be provided by the UN inspectors, who now find themselves unwittingly in the role of potentially firing the starting pistol for a conflict. But what they will actually provide is not evidence, it is 'information'. "Evidence" is a subjective claim relating to blame in some form. "Information" is simply the stuff that constrains decisions. The claim of 'evidence' is really a decision taken in the light not just of the constraint of information, but the constraints of national politics and (probably the case with the 2nd Gulf War) personal agendas on the part of the decision-makers.

The sickness that can afflict nations is terrible because the people have no escape. This makes it unlike the sickness that can afflict a company or an institution. Although people might feel trapped in a sick institution, they can always leave - albeit with potentially dire consequences for their income, and their families. However, there are few social institutions that are not sick to some extent! We shouldn't suppose the Ministry of Defence as an institution is particularly healthy, or any of the other institutions of government. If people have problems of conscience in those institutions, they can of course leave. But it's scary, and indeed in a time of crisis, no doubt extra pressure is brought to bear to ensure compliance with particular dominant narratives. There are a few Malcolm Tuckers walking the corridors.

Institutions don't gas their own people. But in the past, when legal constraints were not in place, they have behaved in discriminatory ways which would seem shocking to us now. The process of establishing those constraints is the kind of regulatory process which it is argued is needed for sick regimes like Syria. That process is, on the one hand educational; on the other hand it is coercive. It takes time, and things still aren't perfect.

The nature of pathological sickness can present problems for any kind of intervention. Pride, politics and power with the ruthless willingness to inflict death and destruction on your own people is a terrible combination. The leader idealises their nation as being a subset of the nation they actually have. What lies outside is the 'enemy' and they seek to destroy it. As they do so, chaotic forces are unleashed which give the leader new information which leads them to further act. The leader's conception of their nation becomes increasingly detached from reality, because they cannot accept that their actions at any point were wrong, and surround themselves with generals who only tell the leader what he wants to hear. The majority of the people can see what's wrong, but are powerless to do anything. Fear takes over as the most powerful constraint on thought and action.

Other nations observing this suffer the same dynamics of pride, politics, and power. Their ideal doesn't include the 'rogue' leader and his state, and they set out to cure it, perceiving threat to themselves if they don't. Their leader's conception of the rogue state becomes increasingly detached from reality, because they cannot accept that their interventions at any point were wrong, and they surround themselves with generals who only tell the leader what he wants to hear. A lack of justice and disingenuous action can emerge. In a democracy, however, eventually those responsible get voted out of office. Injustice is a wound that must eventually be dealt with; but this fact often inspires undemocratic regimes to acts of oppression (think about the Chinese and Tienanmen Square)

A democratic politician wants to get re-elected. Their political instinct will naturally lead them to test the political temperature. The electorate, on the other hand, have access to more information about world events than ever before, and this information constrains their views which will be situated against the other concerns they have in their lives. The information a politician is privy to may lead them to wish to strike out for international justice; but this is tempered with the complexity of the effects of information their electorate is exposed to and the information they then provide about their own decision-making processes which forms part of the information environment for the politician. Past events form a key part of this information environment; the well that Iraq 'poisoned' is the well of information.

But what of the 'threat' that is perceived? Isn't it ultimately economic? We tend to perceive wealth in terms of "sovereign wealth": the wealth of nations. In Adam Smith's time, military force and sovereign wealth were inextricably tied up together. The use of force as a material constraint was the regulating sanction for economic cooperation. With recent wars, particularly Iraq, it seems that this principle was still in operation. But the consequences of it have been politically disastrous. Unlike in Adam Smith's time, physical coercion creates information as a bi-product which upsets the political balance.

An information-rich society is a society of plastic constraints; it is Bauman's 'liquid' modernity. Material constraints still matter, but they produce informational constraints in ways that are new which result from communications technology. The idea of "sovereign wealth" is is an abstraction based largely on information. The material aspects of sovereign wealth are related to historical forces of material coercion which are now translated into informational constraints of legal frameworks, etc. The recent issues in Gibraltar highlight the this forceful materiality behind sovereign wealth: threats to sovereignty are usually met with force, although in the case of Gibraltar, all parties will hope to address it with information.

The question with Syria is how the material constraint of force will give rise to informational constraints on politicians who commission force. The backfire of information can also negate the effectiveness of material force as a constraining power. Rarely has it served to topple unpleasant regimes. Indeed, it often serves to strengthen them. Only in Bosnia has the toppling of an unpleasant regime through coercion led to a civilised society.

But if the material constraint of force can no longer work,.where does that leave the foundation of the wealth of nations? The issue there may be that statism itself is called into question. Murray Bookchin's social ecological arguments against statism in favour of urbanism may be important here. What is 'Syria'? Is this really about 'Syria' or is it about the city of Damascus and a mad president?

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