21 November, 2006

I love conferences

I love conferences. You get to hang out with important people and feel like you are part of some great scholarly community, even if you are a just a master student who lurks at the back and says nothing. And you get to go to receptions with free bouze - it's like being an undergraduate again.

I am going to the Royal Irish Academy conference on The Rise of Asia in International Affairs this coming friday. Spy school have not really covered this area so much, so I am looking forward to the RIA filling in the gaps.

The RIA are also hosting the annual Graduate Research Seminar in International Relations on thursday. This event features people talking about the exciting research they have undertaken in the field. My hope is that it will help to trigger research ideas in my own mind.

Look forward to write-ups of these events, hopefully less interminable than the account of my last conference attended.

09 November, 2006

Markus Wolf

Markus Wolf, the chief spy of the DDR for most of its existence, has died. Despite his many successes, he was unable to prevent the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of his country, though he had by then retired. Wolf's memoirs make fascinating, if self-serving reading. Among his agency's many achievements were running an agent in the immediate circle of the West German chancellor and recruiting senior figures in West German counter-intelligence.

BBC obituary

Guardian obituary

07 November, 2006

Recently in Spy School

"Recently" in this context is rather relative.

A couple of Fridays back we had a double lecture on Development. The lecturer (OK, let's call him Peadar then, affecting an impertinent familiarity) talked about how the development project burst into being after the second world war, summoned into existence by Truman's inauguration speech (I'm guessing in 1949 rather than when he succeeded Roosevelt in '45). The context was interesting - both post war optimism (the sense that if we stuffed the Nazis then anything is possible) and Cold War paranoia (making sure the Soviets do not lure people to their kind of development).

The theoretical underpinnings of the development project were discussed. Marx was mentioned in passing, in the context of his blandly confident sense of capitalism as being a progressive force in the world (although one he questioned when looking at Ireland and India). I think maybe Marx is more important in this context for the idea that societies can and do change - when you have that intellectual possibility you are in a position to start thinking of fundamentally changing society. Other intellectual stars of the pre-Development theoretical views of the world are Max Weber (protestant work ethic and all that) and Emile Durkheim, with the latter having apparently more or less invented the idea of the "modern" and "traditional" as two radically different things, thereby launching the Modernist project; development comes to be seen as a process of moving from traditional to modern.

Moving on from the precursors, we get actual rogues gallery of early development theorists, who seem to all come at it from different directions but share a vision of development as being about modernisation: Talcott Parsons (sociology), Walt Rostow (economist), David McClelland (psychology), & Seymour Lipset (political science). McClelland is one of the more entertaining of these, with his idea that reading children stories about self-reliant heroes will make them become entrepreneurs in later life. They all think in terms of a natural progression of societies from backward traditionalism into something akin to the USA in the 1950s. The development project is seen as being about helping the backward societies along this road a bit more quickly than they could manage on their own.

An influential reaction to the broadly liberal and pro-capitalist development model emerged in the dependency theory model especially popular in Latin America. This to some extent took Marxist ideas but left out his bland confidence in the progressive transformative power of capitalism in the non-west. Instead the dependency theorists talk about transnational exploitation, of a world "core" and of nations of the "periphery". The latter are seen as being in a dependent relationship to the former, with people in the periphery being at the end of a chain of exploitation from the rulers of the core. Whereas the modernisation theorists saw engagement in the world economy as straightforwardly positive, dependency theorists saw international trade as exploitative, and argued that peripheral countries should detach themselves from the world economy; they were however a bit vague as to what this actually meant, not really going so far as to suggest that peripheral states should actually adopt fully autarkic policies.

In practice, modernisation and dependency theory turned out to be a bit rubbish. Modernisation theory could not cope with the emergence of countries with economies that were obviously growing, but which were also seeing increasing inequality and poverty. Dependency theory suffered from a lack of any real policy programme and a tendency to encourage fatalism about the unjust nature of the world. AG Frank, one of the leading dependency theorists, subsequently claimed that it had failed empirically. One might add that it is simplistic to talk of peripheral countries being dependent on the core, when all countries are joined in a complex web of interdependence, with even the richest being dependent on trade. Our lecturer, though, is an unreconstructed leftist and felt that dependency theory still has much in the way of positive results, even though it failed to deliver on economic development. These would be in the areas of political mobilisation and the development of civil society in the "periphery".

So now there is a theoretical void at the centre of the development project, and two positions have emerged which implicitly or explicitly challenge the conceptual validity of development. Postmodernists lambaste the development project as a typically totalising Enlightenment grand narrative, an attempt to coerce the world into one way of living. The proponents of neo-liberalism, meanwhile, seem to give up development as a heroic project, instead suggesting that the untrammelled workings of the market will lead to the most optimal of outcomes.

06 November, 2006

First they came for the niqab wearers

I'm learning German. In German class last saturday, we discussed the veil (der Kopftuch). This seems to have become something of an issue in Germany, following a ruling by the Constitutional Court that the federal government has no right to ban teachers from wearing the hijab. Apparently some opinion poll has shown that a large majority of Germans think that women teachers should not be allowed to wear the hijab.

Our discussion was conducted in the halting style you would expect with people for whom German is the second, third or fourth language, and I suppose given our lack of vocabulary and skill with the language it is not surprising that discussion tended towards cliché and unsophisticated argument. Still, I was struck by how many of my classmates were taken with the idea that immigrants into a country should conform to the mores of the host culture. I find this kind of idea disturbing. To go further, I think it dangerous, and I feel that thinking along these lines is the first step on the road to Fascism.

Fascism is an oft bandied word, and saying that any kind of thinking is akin to it is alarming, if not alarmist. What do I mean? Simply this - that in any country, there is no monolithic host culture which immigrants can be required to adopt. I can't speak for everyone who reads this, but I do not live a life that conforms to the majority culture of my country. My fear is that any attempt to impose "our" culture on immigrants leads to a narrow definition of what that culture is, and that after immigrants have been obliged to love it or leave it the culture cops turn on other people who do not match up to their constructed view of how to live Our Way Of Life. I reckon the gays would probably be the second or third up against the wall, but it would not be long before general low level deviance would be having its collar felt. I would be having to give up my nerd hobbies and instead have no option but to take up an interest in GAA and Coldplay. The horror.

02 November, 2006

Nice work if you can get it

I have a new hero: Stephen McVeigh of the University of Swansea, who is delivering a paper on The Galactic Way of War: Warfare in the ‘Star Wars’ Universeon the wednesday at the annual British International Studies Association conference, taking place next month in Cork*. Christ, I could write that in my sleep, talking about pre-Westphalian models of political organisation coexisting with oddly modern ideas of ideology. I must get my act together and submit them a paper on the International Relations of Star Trek: The Next Generation for next year.

You are probably too late to book for this event, as they are being a bit Realist about reservation deadlines. And it costs a fortune as well.

*Cork is not actually in Britain.