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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The "Sovereignty Left"?

This post is, in some ways, a follow-up to my thoughts about my own and others' past support for the Iraq war, but mostly it's an elaboration of some themes I see being discussed throughout the long (and growing!) thread beneath Michael Bérubé's Crooked Timber post on the complicated arguments amongst liberals and leftists about their opposition to the war. In other words, it's my observations about the justifications and reasons employed by people who were, for the most part, smarter than me.

Bérubé's complaint is with those he refers to as the "Z/Counterpunch left," who continue to attack liberals like himself "and Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin and Marc Cooper and David Corn (all of whom opposed war but favored UN inspections and/or no-fly zones and/or revised sanctions) as supporters of war in Iraq." Or if not outright supporters, than at least people who were supposedly squeamish enough in their taste for confrontational politics, or seduced enough by the universalist rhetoric of the liberal hawks, to not be willing to reject all American actions against Iraq. In the minds of folks like Alexander Cockburn, as Bérubé sees it, this animosity has deep roots, going back to the division between certain liberals and leftists over the appropriateness of NATO's intervention into the civil conflict in Kosovo, to say nothing of America's attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. He sums up:

[I]f Alexander Cockburn is going to wonder whether I’ve had any dark nights in the past few years, I suppose I can wonder in return if he’s had any moments of regret for inveighing against people like me and Gitlin as insufficiently anti-imperialist and unacceptably willing to consider violations of Saddam’s sovereignty. Because although the Sovereignty Left has achieved a remarkable consistency in defending Milosevic and the Taliban from international interventions, they also did their part to make the antiwar movement in the US smaller and less effective than it might have been when it came to Iraq.

Bérubé's label for this group--the "Sovereignty Left"--is an interesting one. Many of the commenters that have shown up on the thread have denounced it as unfair; the primary concern of anti-intervention absolutists is repelling imperialism, they claim, not defending national borders. Still, it's a revealing enough label to prompt this thought from Timothy Burke:

[W]hen and how did one faction of the Western left come to regard sovereignty as the singular inviolate principle that left politics is called upon to defend, and by which people who are truly “left” may be separated from riff-raff moderates and popular frontists of various kinds? Seen against the long history of the left in the West, this strikes me as a very late and in many ways markedly odd development.

The question of "sovereignty" has weighed on Tim's mind for a long time. Years ago, he wrote a fine post on the topic that has stayed with me ever since:

When you defend sovereignty as the only moral principle in all the world, and say that all intrusions, forcible or otherwise, are wrong by their very nature, you ought at the same moment to deny yourself any and all judgments about the places and peoples you deem sovereign. If East is East and West is West, then the twain really must never meet, and humanity is sundered from itself, the globe inhabited by ten times ten thousand variants of the genus Homo. If you rise to sovereignty as the singular sacred principle, then human rights, civil liberties, democracy, and freedom are no more than local and parochial virtues.

And not even that. Because once sovereignty becomes an impermeable barrier to intervention, we have to ask, "Are nations the proper unit of sovereignty?" The answer is clearly no: peoples or “cultures”, in the ethnographic sense of the world, are what assert the most meaningful claims of sovereignty, of an inalienable right to difference. Meaning that from such a perspective imposing Roe vs. Wade as the law of the land on a town of Southern Baptists in Georgia is morally little different than invading Iraq with tanks: the difference is only in scale and method of imposition. The Constitution itself is then an imposition, as is any law which intrudes a larger political power onto the scene of some bounded, well-defined practice of everyday life in the name of enforcing a larger system of rights and obligations which the smaller community refuses....

A journey through that hall of mirrors always brings us back to interventionism. We are all interventionists now. We should be able to spare a gentle thought or three for late 19th and early 20th Century British imperialists as a result. The question of the 21st Century is not whether interventions should happen, but how they should happen. It is a question of method and result, not of yes or no....

If we are bringing democracy to the world, then let us bring democracy, and follow the best traditions and instincts of the United States. Intervention is a double-edged sword. If we act against sovereignties in the name of human rights, then we must be open to being acted against. If humanity as a whole rejects capital punishment as a fundamental violation of human rights, for example, then the United States has no business pursuing it--not if we want the right to intervene on behalf of human rights ourselves.

That is the crystalline moment where interventionism become immoral imperialism: when the pursuit of human emancipation is not a reciprocal obligation that binds the actor as well as the acted upon, when the honest pursuit of freedom everywhere curdles into cynical oppression.

When I first read that essay, the phrase "we are all interventionists now" rang forth as a terribly true description of the post-9/11 global reality. But I wonder how much I may have misunderstood Tim: he was clearly talking about the failure of both national actors (like the U.S.) and existing international actors (like the U.N.) to fail to appreciate the reciprocity which an ethical interventionary liberalism ought to demand, but nonetheless I read his essay as forwarding a prescription for interventionary liberalism as an unavoidable burden--seeing his comments through Michael Ignatieff lenses, as it were. I suppose that if I got him wrong, then that is all the Sovereignty Left requires: positive proof that failing to be an absolutist on matters of sovereignty results in blank-check writing to supporters of war, even fairly doubtful one's like myself. Tim, of course, shouldn't be blamed for my misreading of him, or rather for my ideological appropriation of his ideas. But nonetheless, I think, thanks to a few years of pondering over what liberalism and universalism and their opposites mean, I can give a slightly more charitable reading of what Bérubé's and Burke's opponents saw in statements like this, and what might yet be learned from such claims, however much they failed to grasp our real situation both in 2003 and today.

Cockburn and Co. obvious consider themselves leftists. Clearly, any position that is even remotely leftist is going to be unwilling to credit the historical construction of power and elites within state borders with normative authority; the willingness to dispute the claimed “naturalness” or “rightness” of capitalist/colonial hierarchies is pretty much fundamental of leftist critiques. And so, in that sense, to attribute to them an obsession with state sovereignty is either to accuse them of deep confusion, serious hypocrisy, or to have misunderstood their position. Surely leftists, from Marx's call to working men of all countries onward, have been internationalists, supporters of international agreements and movements that would limit the crimes that can be covered in the name of sovereign privacy.

However, state power doesn’t necessarily exhaust all the possible meanings of "sovereignty"; one might also be talking about populist/culturalist notions of power, in which case the defense of sovereignty is a way of defending the self-determination and democratic development of peoples. That is, one might argue that progress/the revolution/liberation has to happen solely through the organic efforts of the oppressed, and if that’s going to happen then some sort of space that is truly their own and not subject to intervention needs to be in principle defended. This is a way of thinking on the left that, far from being recent, has been with us for a while; it is a mix of Gramsci and realpolitik, and as subsequent comments Tim makes in the CT thread reveal, it has deep roots in the anticolonial leftism of the 80s and 90s and perhaps earlier.

How does this map on to the supposed internationalism of the left? That internationalism obviously underwent a crisis over the past decade, as leftists of numerous persuasions came to recognize that hegemonic power was no longer being exercised by states and governments but rather by corporations and media empires, both of which benefited enormously from--indeed, were the largest supporters of--free trade and open borders and liberated populations. In this new world, international law served the upwardly mobile (and thus incipiently liberal and Westernized) classes; international institutions, far from being a tool of the oppressed, became components of an interventionary world system.The resistance to globalism thus became paired with a kind of defensive, anticapitalist organicism, and sovereignty, all of sudden, made more than just anti-imperial sense: it because the very heart of certain quite narrow, quite pure, leftism.

Now frankly, I think this is a terribly flawed position. Admittedly, it is "conservative" in all sorts of ways I find interesting, but it also fails to provide any sort of grounding for what it aims to "conserve"--in this case, a localized space for "authentic" liberation--besides that which the status quo provides. In short, it fails the Rousseau test; it does not allow for, or even properly acknowledge, the tragic reality and history of interventions of all sorts in any sort of spatial or social or public construction; it takes what is there (Kosovo in the midst of war, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Zimbabwe under Mugabe) and calls it a will worth respecting. Which, of course, it often isn't...and just not from some elite universalist position (though obviously it is often that also, of course), but from the position of the people themselves. But I will give this to the “sovereignty left”: there’s a conceptual clarity to their anti-universalism, one which allows them (in the end wrongly, but not without some insight all the same) to see at least part of where liberal nationalists and communitarian social democrats from Christopher Hitchens to Michael Walzer and everyone in between got their thinking somewhat confused (though obviously some of the above were far more confused than others, myself included!). There’s a reason, I suppose, why Cockburn et al, get so inflamed at certain leftists: because they expect them, demand of them really, a willingness to denounce any kind of interventionary liberalism—that is, universalism—both root and branch. Their antiliberal leftism is both silly and self-defeating given the actual world we live in. Even a communitarian and anticosmopolitan like myself can and should recognize that there are good, prudent reasons to be liberal, and that means--at the very least!--recognizing the occasional justice of intervening on behalf of the liberation and security of individuals in the face of whatever remains of the Westphalian system. Still, that alone--that observation about sovereignty that I turned into a support for my own theoretical take on the Iraq War--is hardly sufficient to justify a pre-emptive war; and I have to say that I find it bracing, and even a little bit salutary, to have radical leftists-cum-paleoconservative anticapitalist cranks like Cockburn remind weak thinkers like myself of that fact, when necessary.


Anonymous said...

The antipathy among leftists for American liberals long predates the Iraq War. It traces back to the Vietnam War at least, if not further, to the Depression period.

The basis for this distaste is somewhat unknown to me, although perhaps it has something to do with the liberal propensity for creating idiotic caricatures of left-wing thought, e.g. "The Sovereignty Left." Personally, as far as slanders go, I prefer "isolationist", a term which has the merit of at least approximating somewhat my actual views. As for "Sovereignty Left", I confess it leaves me cold, as I can't recall a single leftist anti-war polemic that took as its starting point the presumption that sovereignty is inviolable. But then neither, it seems, could Berube: reading his post again, I am unable to find a single example of this new sovereignty absolutism of which you and him speak.

Is that because...there isn't one?

Of course, "Sovereignty Left" isn't meant seriously. It's an insult, and I can't begrudge Berube's using it, just this once, in response to Cockburn's slurs. (Although, in my opinion, the worst thing Cockburn wrote was his congratulations to himself and others like him, for their anti-war fortitude--as if with 500,000-700,000 dead, a slap on the back is in order!)

But please let's put it to rest and subject it to no more earnest scrutiny, a la the post above. There are serious propositions to discuss, like this, from Robert Farley:

"Sovereignty is a norm that, like any other norm we choose to support, should be justified by its utility."

Hmmm, that's interesting. What's more, it has content! This, I think, we can work with.

So, what utility might sovereignty have? Well, here’s a quick argument, made offhand: with a quick glance at history we see that sovereignty seems most often to be violated by larger states seeking to extract some kind of advantage from smaller states. Were sovereignty to be taken seriously, it might serve as a kind of cover for the weak against the encroachments of the strong, if only in the courts of international law and opinion. And if that’s true then surely it’s in the interests of the weak that the world’s strongest nation not treat sovereignty like a legal fiction whenever it thinks it convenient.
Does this render sovereignty inviolable? Obviously not. But is it useful? Seems to be. Is it therefore worth upholding and invoking in an argument against aggression, generally speaking? I think so.

Well, I will admit, taking ideas seriously is exhausting (and it’s so hot outside). About these slogans, I can see the appeal: calling someone a “Sovereignty Leftist” is so much easier than thinking.

Nevertheless we should eschew name-calling. Unfortunately, we can’t: Berube's coined a new slogan, a handy substitute for thought. And I foresee it, a new demonology, inscribed in all our liberal magazines, when the next outburst of jingoism occurs, two or three decades hence.

Russell Arben Fox said...

"Thou Shalt,"

(Great moniker, by the way.)

I don't know if you're reading, and I'm sorry I didn't respond sooner. My apologies for having apparently caused you some offense with this post. Yes, clearly, Berube meant his label--the "sovereignty left"--as an insult, and just as clearly, it's a caricature of anti-interventionists who insisted that opposition to imperial projects must be, as he understood his opponents to be saying, absolutely consistent with Westphalian principles of sovereignty. I didn't mean to take this caricature and insult as the simple truth, and I thought I acknowledged in my post that most of those in the comments in the CT thread who arguably fell under that label saw the reality it supposedly described as not a state-sovereignty-fetish, but rather as a deep conviction that practically any intervention is going to be an aggressive, hegemonic one, and that therefore every tool available that seems likely to help stop intervention from happening ought to be used. In short, I recognize that the great majority of the "sovereignty left" are that because sovereignty is useful, as you note, in getting at the kind of world they want.

So why did I go deeper into the label, then? Perhaps because, as a political theorist, that kind of speculation comes easily to me. Or perhaps because, if you look closely at what Counterpunch puts out, you'll find that the utility defense of sovereignty maybe isn't the whole story...maybe what you'll see there is a leftism that is increasing localist, organic, concerned with liberation on the ground and deeply dismissive of the claims of international institutions and regimes--ones that are dominated by American and Western power--to be able to serve the freedom of peoples everywhere. Maybe that's a pretty minor theme; in fact, I don't doubt that it's a minor theme. But it is a real theme nonetheless, one that lurked around the corners of the confusing debates between certain liberals and leftists who used to see themselves as universalists, but had to rethink things when the rhetoric of universalism fell into the hands of the neocons. That alone, I think, made it worth of discussion.

More here, if you're interested. And, again, please don't assume I'm not trying to respectfully think through things here.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking about this quite a lot after the CT thread. One thing I'd agree with is that "sovereignty left" isn't the world's best label. Partly because I think what the label makes me think about is not a clearly or straightforwardly "left" argument, and partly because I think it is less a movement and more an unresolved intellectual tension or contradiction in anti-imperialist activist and thought.

But I really think there is such a thing in the terms I described in that thread, that the content of anti-imperialist activism and thought is often ill-matched to the political objectives it proclaims. In a way, someone like Perry Anderson is far, far clearer because the way he reconciles his Marxism and a critique of imperialism doesn't route through the moral or political terrains of liberalism. He doesn't so much argue that the United States should or should not be imperial. He takes it for granted that the US will be, as a structural inevitability.

Many of the passionate anti-imperialists, in contrast, see imperialism as a contingency. At least one of the more dogmatic voices in the CT thread was apparently aghast at my argument that the war was inevitable. That seems to me to be a liberal argument, not a radical one. In fact, I'm not clear how a genuine radical, especially a Marxist one, can make strong distinctions between the Bush Administration and and other US Administrations. In structural terms, aren't they doing not only what all Administrations do, but what the radical expects them to do?

It's these kinds of conceptual and tactical mismatches that call my attention to the way in which the political object of a lot of leftist anti-imperialism is ultimately sovereignty, when in fact, if you take the rhetoric seriously, it should be something else entirely. Sovereignty or self-determination in a normalized interstate sense should be almost beside the point

Russell Arben Fox said...


"One thing I'd agree with is that 'sovereignty left' isn't the world's best label. Partly because I think what the label makes me think about is not a clearly or straightforwardly 'left' argument..."

Straightforwardly, no, it isn't; I agree with you there. But I would still say there is something "left" about it, because it's not as though it's emerging in the context of a straightforward national/cultural essentialism, either, which would be a "right" position. Instead, as I read it, it has something to do with how one thinks about peoples and moving those peoples towards independence/revolution/whatever.

"...and partly because I think it is less a movement and more an unresolved intellectual tension or contradiction in anti-imperialist activist and thought."

That definitely makes sense, though. So if talking about a "left" implies a real movement, maybe this label does misdirect even more than we already allow that it does.

Great example of Perry Anderson; I hadn't thought of him, but his approach fits this model, to the extent it accurately explains anything, very well. And you make a good point about the confusion that arises amongst some of these radical voices. Convinced Marxists and radicals of this particular type ought to assume that imperialistic intervention is part of modern capitalist-state package, and therefore completely unavoidable. I suspect that many of them do think that, and they want to see organic revolutionary movements emerge amongst different peoples so as to challenge that package. And yet, that would suggest that their reliance upon sovereignty in order to exercise some control upon those hegemonic forces and thereby provide space for these new alternatives to emerge, is simply accepting the playing field as defined by the status quo in the short-term. And what's radical about that?