Omar Dahbour interviewed in 3:AM Magazine by Richard Marshall.
Omar Dahbour is the philosopher whose thoughts turn all the time to how philosophical argument acquires structure from implicit narratives, to the debate between localists and nationalists, who broods on self-determination, on how Globalisation provides the basis for increasing ethnic conflict, on why nation-states are not good political communities, on liberal states and nationalism, on why there is no connection between self-autonomy and nation states, on ecosovereignty as a positive political structure, on problems of great-power hegemony, on responses to terrorism and what a non-humanist Marx might think about all this. Go get some.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Omar Dahbour: Actually, it was something of an accident. I have degrees in both history and philosophy, and have always viewed both disciplines as contributing essentially to an understanding of those subjects I’m interested in—political change, the nature of social life, the variability of peoples and places, intercultural relations, the interconnections between ideas and events. My particular trajectory through graduate study led me, by a series of accidents, to obtaining a teaching job in philosophy rather than history. But it might have gone the other way. More fundamentally, though, I have always, even in my historical studies, been interested in the development of ideas; and for this, use of philosophical argumentation is essential. Furthermore, I believe the two disciplines, though fundamentally different, nevertheless employ some aspects of the other. Historians are more aware of this than philosophers, when the former discuss the role of “theory” (meaning, really, philosophy) in structuring historical narratives. But I would argue (and will argue, in future work) that philosophical argumentation (at least the kind I’m familiar with, in political philosophy) acquires structure partly from implicit narratives. And this is something that would be news to a lot of philosophers (unfortunately).
3:AM: You’re concerned to think about how to solve some of the many contemporary political problems across the globe. The world does seem to be in a mess at the moment and sovereignty issues do loom large all over the place. Perhaps you could outline what you think are the new challenges to contemporary sovereignty that make a revision of current theories necessary? Is it largely the increasing presence of nationalism across the globe?
AD: For a generation now, global or international ethics has been divided between localists or nationalists, on the one hand, and globalists or cosmopolitans, on the other. The first argue for the legitimacy of nation-states (not sovereign states, necessarily, but states based on ethnic nationalities), while the second argue for the necessity of world government (now called “global governance”). But these aren’t, or shouldn’t be, the only options. I’m a localist ; a cosmopolitan—but I think nation-states abhorrent ; world government undesirable, not to say, impossible. In other words, we have to rethink this dichotomy; it’s getting in the way of creative solutions to social problems, at this point. That’s what my concepts of popular self-determination & ecosovereignty are designed to do—think “outside the box” of international ethics, as it were. To put it slightly differently, nationalists have usually been criticized for advocating self-determination (for national groups), while cosmopolitans have usually been criticized for attempting to solve problems by running over local peoples’ autonomy. But I think that self-determination is a great idea, just not for nationalities, which should be seen as cultural, not political, communities. Similarly, I think that cosmopolitan principles of human dignity, personal autonomy, and so on are moral bedrock; but we’re not going to realize them without iterating those principles one political community at a time—there’s no “global” quick fix.
3:AM: Doesn’t globalization make the issue about nationalism complex in that it might be understood as eroding the power of nationalism?
OD: Actually, no. Globalization, which is an economic process (i.e., what used to be called “free” trade), and one that requires powerful states (foremost the U.S. under the Clinton administration) to operate, actually provides the basis for increasing ethnic conflict. And where there’s ethnic conflict, there’s nationalism, which is just viewing cultural differences (in dress, custom, language, etc.) as political differences. Globalization exacerbates this by creating a world of winners and losers (economically speaking), and both are often characterized (rightly or wrongly) in ethnic terms. Sometimes, certain ethnic groups (e.g., overseas Chinese is a common contemporary example, as Jews were a common one in the 19th-century) really do benefit from increasing global trade & money flows—at least some parts of those communities. Sometimes, it’s just thought that they do. Whichever is the case, a reduction in commercial and financial globalization—something that is happening right now, by the way—will lead to a reduction in the scapegoating and persecution that results from targeting ethnic minorities as winners (as majority populations in “loser” countries endure the negative effects of global trade). The larger point is this: certain people will benefit from globalization and therefore will have a stake in viewing it as good, inevitable, or whatever. People such as executives of multinational corporations, officials of hegemonic states, or tourists (e.g., academics going to international conferences!). But most of the world does not; I wrote this book for them.
3:AM: Why do you think that political communities are ethically desirable? Surely we can at least envisage different kinds of communities that aren’t political – economic ones or religious ones or cultural or ethnic ones say? – and surely we can also suppose that not all political communities are good?
OD: Of course not all political communities are good ones—nation-states, for instance! Or hegemonic states; one purpose of my book is to get people thinking precisely in these terms—which are desirable, which undesirable. At the end, I advocate two methods of political change designed to deal with such undesirable cases—federation and devolution. Nation-states (to the extent that they exist—most are fictitious) should federate into ecoregional states—the Balkan peninsula is an excellent example. It is so divided that it will be mired in poverty for generations to come (of course, there is ample historical precedent for this in Balkan history). Hegemonic states should devolve—or decentralize, if you prefer. The U.S., the E.U. (if you count that as a state, which it isn’t yet and never will be), China, and so on: these are empires or empires in the making—there is no legitimate reason for their existence as centralized states. At least in the U.S., we have a discourse that can accommodate this viewpoint that I am arguing for—it’s called “states’ rights” (and is usually viewed askance by right-thinking academics). But if you regard what the “federal” government is really for (it hasn’t been truly federal for almost a hundred years now), it is an excellent warmaking machine and an exceptional handmaiden to large corporations (because of the creation of the largest internal market in the modern world).
But it’s also been exceptional in oppressing labor movements and exploiting the resources of various regions of North America for its transcontinental elites. This, of course, is no news to historians; but it should also change the way political philosophers view these entities. Geographical scale matters in philosophy, too—this is also a point I seek to make in this book. As for the general justification for political communities, that’s easy: if you want any public goods—harbors, bridges, mass transit, public schools—you need political communities that can tax and spend in order to get them. There have been “societies” that had simply “night watchman” states—police, armies, and nothing more. You wouldn’t want to live in these societies unless you had an awful lot of personal wealth, because you would have to supply yourself with everything other societies could more easily, economically, and aesthetically supply communally. That’s what political communities can do.
3:AM: You argue that the rival notions of liberal nationalism and political cosmopolitanism dominate existing ethics of international relations but they no longer suffice? In what ways are they defective?
OD: Well, I think I’ve already answered this to some extent. Liberal nationalism seeks to create nation-states that are liberal, i.e., tolerant of individual and group behaviors. But nation-states are largely fictions—most communities consist of different sorts of people with no necessary kinship relations—so making a state “national” can hardly accommodate liberal qualms about, say, ethnic cleansing and such things. Those that claim that nation-states don’t have to be intolerant like to forget the history of ethnonational conflict—it goes very far back historically and in all geographical locations. If nation-states were just “sitting there,” so to speak, ready to operate, that would be a different thing. They aren’t; you have to make them—and you make them by scaring or killing people that “don’t belong.” As for political cosmopolitanism, the kind that views cosmopolitan principles not as moral norms (I’m fine with that version), but as guides to creating coercive institutions that can realized them—well, they won’t and they can’t. If world government did really exist, it would be the most oppressive state ever known. Can you imagine a government that was effective enough to enforce its laws anywhere on the planet? But, thankfully, this has never happened, and never will—the world is still too big for that sort of thing, and it’s a good thing, too.
3:AM: Are there examples you can give that show their defectiveness?
OD: There have been no liberal nations, except those who have already killed, excluded, or otherwise coerced those who were undesirable, and therefore can be “liberal” to the survivors, the ethnically pure enough to warrant toleration. Some might say England, France, and other West European “liberal” states would fit this description. The exceptional horror of the Nazi program was the result of attempting to do this in the 20th century; the others had achieved similar results hundreds of years before. As for world government, we won’t have one; but we do have “global” institutions that masquerade as such. The “international community”—which means the community of bureaucrats and hangers-on in the U.N., World Court, and other “international” institutions—is the primary example. It’s pretty clear by now—because several excellent historians have done enough research to show us—that these institutions are agencies of victorious, hegemonic powers who like to lightly disguise what they want to achieve with an aura of legitimacy.
This has gotten increasingly difficult—witness the current worries of the Obama administration trying to find allies to go along with bombing Syria—but most philosophers will still give the U.N. a pass. Why, I don’t know—it is the community of the winners of World War II (why else would Britain and France have seats on the Security Council?). The chances of ever “democratizing” such a body (the Security Council, not the General Assembly) are nil. Every “global” institution works the same way—either it is partisan (just prosecuting “war criminals” on one side of a conflict, whether World War II or the Yugoslavian civil war), or ineffective (the World Court judging the U.S. “guilty” of mining or bombing Nicaragua, e.g.).
3:AM: What do you think is wrong with nationalism as the ground for self-determination?
OD: Well, as I’ve already said, nations are the wrong sort of community to be self-determining. Much of my work in the 1st part of this book and in my 1st book as a whole, was analyzing different sorts of reasons philosophers have come up with for the idea that nations should be self-determining—that is, having their own states. None of them are good reasons. Generally speaking, there have been three reasons given—a moral one, a cultural one, and a political one. There is no moral rationale because persons don’t necessarily need to live in nation-states to be who they want to be. If that were so, very few of us would have any chance of success at individuation, since there are so few real nation-states in the world, now or ever. What matters for individual self-development are other things than nation-states. Besides, once you accept this idea—that personal identity requires a national identity, then you quickly get busy denying others their national, and thereby supposedly personal, identity. Where’s the morality in that? There is no cultural rationale because, despite nationalists’ claims, most human cultures have existed, and many thrived, in the manifest absence of a nation-state.
So why it is supposedly necessary for cultural community to “truly” exist? Finally, the political argument is that, for a self-governing community to exist, it must be a national community. But there is no connection: self-government is always conditional on the prior establishment of a community at all. For a people to be self-governing, there 1st must be a people. Who is going to decide who that is? It can’t be done by the people itself—there is, in other words, an irreducible element of arbitrariness or contingency in the establishment of political communities. We simply have to accept that and go on from there. But no purpose is served by then trying to go back and “get it right” by getting rid of everyone that doesn’t fit into an ex post facto definition of who is in and who should be out. Frankly, I think the argument about this whole matter has been pretty much settled in the last ten years. Very few philosophers are still in the business of defending nationalism in this way. The real issue now is whether self-determination in any sense is still important. Obviously, I argue that it is—as long as it is rid of any association with nationalist ideas. The cosmopolitans have won at least that much of the battle. But it is the manifest absurdity of their positive beliefs (i.e., in world government) that now gives cause for concern.
3:AM: Ernest Gellner argued that nationalism is a product of modernity not a producer of it, that nationalism is not an expression of nations, classes or intelligentsias and its roots are not in nations, classes, capitalism or ideas. As you know he uses the anthropological distinction between structure and culture to say what nationalism is – are you saying that the current situation erodes conditions for nationalism where polity and culture no longer overlap and that we now have to tolerate different autonomous political communities rather like the Ottoman Empire tolerated many communities through its millet system?
OD: Gellner, along with Benedict Anderson, argued in the 1980s that nationalism was deeply rooted in the very nature of modern life—as Anderson put it, it was the modern equivalent of religious belief. Well, religious beliefs didn’t disappear in “modernity,” quite the contrary. I disagree with Gellner and Anderson on this point: I think of nationalism as a political strategy based on a fallacious understanding of political community. Historians that have studied when and where nationalist movements (not just ideas) arise, such as John Breuilly, Walker Connor, and Donald Horowitz, have shown that they are reactions to particular historical conjunctures in which other forms of political movements (based on geographical region, or social class, or religious belief) are foreclosed by underdevelopment, superexploitation, or political repression. Nationalism is what’s left. It’s a poor substitute; but at least this view is able to explain when nationalism arises, and when it does not. As Gellner himself pointed out, there are many more (potential) nation-states than nationalist movements (to establish them).
3:AM: You coin the term ‘ecosovereignty.’ What do you mean by this?
OD: Ecosovereignty is my term for the idea that ecological regions—those places that have a roughly similar way of producing and reproducing human life—have a legitimate claim to sovereignty (political autonomy). While such a claim may, under certain circumstances, eventuate in a claim for an independent state, it need not do so. It seems increasingly likely that, for instance, Tibet or Sinkiang, unless they achieve political independence, will be swallowed whole by China (just as Manchuria was). On the other hand, the northern U.S., though heavily exploited by the federal government to finance so-called development in the U.S. South and West, probably just needs a more decentralized political system (less federal, more state governance), so that it can fund mass transit, universal health care, and public housing and schools, legalize marijuana and criminalize gun ownership, and take other measures regarded as anathema by most of the rest of the U.S.
Globally, there are many other examples both of places that may require political independence and others that simply require decentralization (devolution, in the terms of my book)—this is a contingent matter. But the principle justifies whatever is necessary to ensure the autonomy, self-determination, of peoples with particular ways of life, as determined by their ecological relation to place and space. Obviously, this will justify what is called indigenous rights—usually of tribal peoples; but it will also justify measures taken, whether by European farmers or African fishermen, to protect their livelihoods from corporate agriculture, oil companies, and the like. The point is to espouse a principle that trumps—overrides—property law and state sovereignty where necessary to protect the integrity of ecosystems, including distinctive human ecologies.
3:AM: If we had ecosovereignty governing international relations now, what kinds of differences would we notice that would be obviously ethically better?
OD: The goal is to reduce the power of the large-scale economic and political institutions that are pushing globalization. I think the struggle against justifying the outdated notion of nation-states (really a 19th-century idea) has been largely won. The moral cosmopolitanism in the ascendancy in political philosophy served a good purpose in helping this struggle. But it does nothing in terms of fighting the other struggle—the one against a new neo-colonialism of hegemonic corporations and states. And the struggle is changing, too: the ascendancy of the U.S., so striking in the 1990s, is fading now. Increasingly, we live in a multi-polar world, with a number of regionally powerful super-states (great powers, as they used to be called) asserting their regional dominance (China in East Asia, India in the Indian Ocean world, and so on).
This will eventually lead to conflicts between these states—the late 21st century may look a lot like the late 19th century in this regard. The rest of us, the medium and small states and peoples of the world who strive simply to survive, will increasingly get squeezed between these hegemonic states. Add transnational corporations to the mix and the situation looks even more dire. Meanwhile, political philosophers, with their ideas of political cosmopolitanism and global governance are busy justifying the very situation that much of the world is suffering from. It’s fine, as some philosophers argue, to say that everyone globally should have similar incomes. But everyone also knows that’s not going to happen—unless we can somehow defuse the power and wealth of global institutions. After all, comparative incomes globally were much more equal in the mid-19th century—before the last great surge of “globalization”—than they are now. But philosophers go on thinking about globalizing this and that, actually legitimating the very institutions that are making the problems worse. We need ideas that can justify the opposite. There are some out there—indigenous rights, environmental security, food sovereignty, for instance. Ecosovereignty is a concept that attempts to generalize all these notions into an overarching idea of protecting local peoples and places through affirming their right to self-determination.
3:AM: Does the possibility of a new bipolar balance of power – China and the USA – or even a tripartite balance if India gets its infrastructure problems ironed out – make a difference to how we understand sovereignty in the near future? I’m thinking that if the eruption of nationalism was a reaction to the collapse of the original bipolarism the new situation might stop the nationalist resurgence.
3:AM: Well, as I suggested above, I think ethnic nationalism as a whole is on the wane. But great-power attempts at hegemony are the new problem. Actually, I think the U.S. is, long-term, the least of the problem (except, of course, for people who happen to live in the U.S.!). China has gone furthest in establishing a sustainable basis for regional, and potentially, global hegemony. But it, or other such powers, can be inhibited from further expansion given certain changes. As a theorist, I’m not in a position to recommend actual political actions. But I can at least give a theoretical justification for movements, groups, or communities to resist their own subsumption in a world where their habitats are plundered by states and corporations for the purposes of “global” consumption. In some ways, as environmentalists have often pointed out, that is the real culprit—the “global” consumer, that is, the consumer with enough income to afford goods produced globally. For most of history, and still to this day, most people have lived off food and fuel produced locally. This should not change—and probably cannot change without producing mass starvation, or at least further immiseration. But it can worsen, so that the affluent global consumers get their goods more cheaply. The right of local producers to limit, tax, or prohibit others from mining, selling, or purchasing locally is one very important part of the idea of ecosovereignty.
3:AM: There’s the so-called war on terror happening at the moment. You’ve written about responses to terrorism and raised the question as to whether such a response should be moral condemnation or ethical judgment. So what’s the distinction driving at and where do you land?
OD: Well, this is really another topic that I have written about elsewhere (and will write more on in the future). But the basic idea is that understanding violence (terrorism, for instance) ethically means understanding the “ethical world” out of which such violence erupts. By “understand” I mean make an evaluation of the values of that world—is it an ethically corrupt world, a fundamentally rational one, or what? Moral judgments are easy to make: “violence is wrong.” But the definition of wrongness itself depends on the violation of a norm of goodness that is determined prior to the act. An act of killing is not wrong in an ethical world that regards self-defense as a legitimate reason to kill, if that particular act was defensive.
An execution is only wrong if the idea of capital punishment is already regarded as bad. And what are the criteria for regarding it as such? Not simply “moral” ones—they have to do with evaluating the goodness or badness of a way of (ethical) life as rational or irrational. My particular point about terrorism was that, in a world in which hegemonic states routinely engage in campaigns of “strategic bombing” (which was itself regarded as terrorism when 1st invented by the British in the 1910s), terrorist acts may come to seem “rational”—that is, appropriate responses to those who bomb your country, for instance. To morally condemn such acts requires a “correlative” judgment be made about the ethical world in which the act takes place—that that world is itself irrational, in other words. Prime example: to condemn 9/11 as immoral requires that some judgment also be made about the world in which the U.S. has militarily intervened in the Near East for the last 50 years.
3:AM: The USA is the great ‘exceptional state’ at the moment and there’s a new imperialism in play. Do you think contemporary liberal philosophy actively promotes or justifies this new imperialism or is merely inert in the face of its peculiarity?
OD: I think I’ve already spoken to this to some extent. After 1989 (and especially after Clinton’s election in 1992), many philosophers, esp. in the Anglo-American world, regarded the U.S. as having the potential to “do good” in the world. The rhetoric of so-called human rights activists was key in this regard. I have written about this elsewhere, as well: my main point was that, unless carefully circumscribed, such rhetoric can justify hegemonic (i.e., quasi-imperialist) policies. We have seen this in Iraq, and later, in Afghanistan. But we have actually seen it in play for a long while before these instances. What may be different is that, without the Cold War in place, without an “enemy,” as it were, more hopes are raised (at least among philosophers!) that good can be done. But good cannot be done by either an ascendant (as then) or a descendant (as now) “superpower.” You don’t need to read Weber or Schmitt to realize that powers act primarily to increase their power, only secondarily, if at all, to do anything else. It’s amazing that philosophers have been so slow to recognize this (historians generally got there faster). Perhaps it was the lack of another venue in which to lodge such hopes for a better world.
3:AM: Would a non-humanist Marxist agree with your notion of ecosovereignty?
OD: Well,I don’t know. I think that, unfortunately, Marx (not to speak of Marxists) had no viable political theory, nor was he especially concerned to develop one. (He did invent social theory, after all, so he was busy!) “Marxist” political theory—in Marx and after—is either Leninist (as in Lukács, in many ways the best, perhaps only, “Marxist” philosopher), or it oscillates between a sort of liberalism and a kind of anarchism. But there is no distinctive Marxist politics that I have ever been able to discover. Most politically astute socialists long ago became “ecosocialists”—so I would hope that they would look on my idea of ecosovereignty with some favor.
3:AM: And finally can you recommend five books that would take us further into this crucial philosophical world?
OD: The ur-text for political philosophy right now is Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; all the issues Marx “forgot” about are touched on there, and more. An update of sorts is Axel Honneth’s Struggle for Recognition; with all its problems, still an important book. More specifically, John Rawls’ Law of Peoples repays reading; this is the book that political cosmopolitans love to hate—so it’s recommended for at least that reason! Two fairly recent books with the same title have much to commend them: Globalization and Sovereignty, both the one by John Agnew (a political geographer), and the one by Jean Cohen (a political theorist). And since they have the same title, I will also recommend anything by Vandana Shiva and by Walden Bello—to get a sense of the ongoing struggles that have inspired much of my own work.