In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War the United Nations has intervened as peacekeeper in more ethnic civil conflicts than it had done from its inception to 1989. It can be argued that the global politics of the Cold War created the emergency and contingent conditions that prevented such intervention, but this will have to wait for another discussion. What we are interested in presently are the projects of state formation from conflict that the UN undertakes, and the contradictions that these processes expose.
The UN represents the totality of the world’s recognized nation-states, and the fundamental logic of its functioning is to recreate the image of its membership wherever it goes. Elections are, thus, only a step in restoring or conjuring up a nation-state, and wherever the demands of democracy or humanitarianism run contrary to the exigencies of the nation-state, it is the latter that will always win out. Amitav Ghosh
Few would argue that peace is an undesirable outcome of international intervention in any regional or national conflict, but there are many differing constructions or models of peace, and one must ask whether that created or imposed by the UN is the best of all possible peaces. As a totality the United Nations is not a neutral entity, but the collective will of many states; “the child of all the world’s hierarchies,” as Ghosh has put it.
As ever changing constructs of collective ethnic and cultural identity nations become such as a consequence of the exercise of their own sovereignty; that is to say that the autogenesis of national self-determination precedes the political reality of the state, and not the other way about as the UN casts new nations from conflict. This creation of states-seeking-nationhood rather than nations-forging-statehood tends to an impression of the international community making states – cookie cutter states – in its own image.
This model of state-building rests on the assumption that states and, by extension, good governance are the best model always and everywhere for peace. States do prefer to do business with states, and, as the international body of states, the UN too prefers dealing with states, and so where such do not exist it makes them. The United Nations is the embodiment of a de-colonising paradigm shift, and therefore the product of a paradigm shift. Peace in that paradigm may indeed be the state, but what happens after the next shift and what happens to those states that have not quite undergone the presumed paradigm shift of the UN? Are we making peace to store up future conflict?
Words describe our worlds and realities. Words describe and define, and in defining they assume the power to imprison people and ideas within their limits. Words assume a knowledge over the cosmos. They imagine they have control. ‘I am hungry’ defines me, yet the same in another language, ‘Tha an t-acras orm’ threatens me. Our words shape our imaginations. Our words place limits on people and things. Humanist conceptualisation of the human being has served to circumscribe what it means to be a man. Not a woman. Not a non-Westerner. Not an African. The universal man, the Superman, is a white European male human being. Our words and ideas have created a reality in which all other versions of human must be measured and judged against our ideal.
The fallacy of the universal person falsely assumes that people are intellectually and psychologically the same in all times and places and circumstances… People, in various times and places, have not merely thought different things. They have thought them differently. It is probable that their most fundamental cerebral processes have changed through time. Their deepest emotional drives and desires may themselves have been transformed. Significant elements of continuity cannot be understood without a sense of the discontinuities too… – David Hackett Fischer
Language, following the reasoning of George Saunders, is so very often a form of lying. It presents the world in a certain accepted way; not as it is, but how we have decided it is. As we share the language we share the consensus reality; our common agreement. So sadly our words and word-shaped ideas have reduced others to less than human. This great idea of Progress, for example, has come at the price of the extermination of all things determined backward – whole peoples and whole cultures; whole worlds of possibility annihilated to make way for Progress.
Knowledge is an instrument of power and therefore a tool of oppression. Knowing this is also an instrument of power. #RaceEthnicityConflict
This language; this knowledge, is power. More specifically it is the arrogant assumption of power over others. Knowing this is yet another knowledge, and as such fails to liberate us – as the speaker – from our role as the oppressor. I’ve wrestled with this idea since it was presented to me yesterday. Can the Wordsmith/bully be freed from this violence? It’s a conundrum, but we have to be optimistic – even if just for the sake of good mental hygiene. There is the possibility of uttering sounds to communicate, internally and externally, which do not dominate. At the moment I like to think of this as Awareness.
Nothing short of revolution, suggests Michel Foucault, will extricate “We other Victorians” from the polymorphous mechanisms of power which have conditioned us over millennia. The exercise of power has undergone a transformation from the feudal spectacle of the scaffold to the age of repression which marks the bourgeois order, and with this the unproductive passions of humanity have been subjected to the triple edict of modern puritanism; taboo, non-existence, and silence. It is interesting that Foucault elects to examine the development of social attitudes towards sex and sexuality as he unravels the bond of repression which he reminds us links sex with both knowledge and power. It is interesting because Marx touches on this in his own version of the evolution of Capitalism:
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation. – The Communist Manifesto
Sentiment here is the great crime against the bourgeois order, and it is so because, rooted as it is in hitherto unexploitable emotion, it cannot be reduced to a tradable cash value. The sentimentality of family life and the sensuality of sex – other than their reproductive function – are counterproductive to the Capitalist project of boiling down human beings to units of labour. It is against this canvas that one must consider the discourse of sexuality a protest against the prevailing order; be that women’s liberation or any other challenge to sexual and gender norms. Power concedes nothing without a demand (Frederick Douglass); women’s suffrage, for example, was granted only when women had been proven useful to power.
Our present openness in the West to matters sexual would perhaps contradict this assessment, had it not be for the fact that sex is only less taboo, less non-existence, and less silence insofar is it can be packaged and sold or employed to add value to other commodities. Less economically productive sex still very much remains out in the cold and subject to the power of repression, and the same is true also of all human creativity that will not or cannot bend to the will of the Capitalist economy. Power is the relationship of control between the powerful and the powerless that employed repression as a tool to protect and further strengthen itself.
As a Scot seasoned in a campaign for Scotland’s independence against the Westminster establishment and its BBC lapdog, it galls me to read Jonathan Powell, former Downing Street Chief of Staff under Tony Blair, pontificate on peace-building through risky dialogue. In every paragraph his words stink to high heaven with that nauseating stench of affected British moral superiority, and positively ring with the splendid arrogance of power. He contemptuously dismisses the better history of his so-called terrorists as a result of their leaderships’ undemocratic longer stay in power rather than once concede the truth that imperial Britain inflicted history upon them – as it did us.
Yet he is right, I will admit, that dialogue is a must if we are to see an end to violent conflict. Typical of his kind, he vainly imagines that this dialogue, in the case of the north of Ireland, offered the Provisional IRA a way out of the war via negotiations in London. Talks gave his Britain as much of an escape route as it ever gave the Republicans. Discussion, he and I can at least agree, was the only way out, and so it is – ultimately – in every conflict that cannot be won by the brutality of force.
Too many Protestants. Too many Catholics. Not enough Christians. Just saying.
Ireland’s peace, fragile as it is, was celebrated as a miracle by its brokers who desperately sought divine intervention. As such it was appropriated as a commodity which could be sold and re-sold wherever the peacemakers required a cherry for their battle-for-hearts-and-minds cakes to pacify their other colonies. The London School of Economics’ James Hughes takes almost twenty pages to spell out the European Union’s banker model of the Irish peace as it was applied in Kosovo and its inevitable failure to accommodate real difference when the cookie-cutter hit the dough. Still, in his redressing of the EU and the UN, Hughes can’t escape Britain’s imperial repackaging. Peace, he concludes, can only be won with the creation of lines between communities.
Had it not been for Eamonn McCann I think I may have abandoned all hope. As long as we are to make our peace with the reality of élites at the reigns of states, we have to accept that peace by the division of people down lines of invented difference benefits only those who gain from governance by domination. Power over communities divided by walls merely makes latent the crisis and keeps the gravy train of the peace industry on the tracks. Class and economic interests offer the only route to a lasting peace in the North.
Introducing his discussion on the particular bespoke nature of the ‘Liberal Peace’ in Northern Ireland (The Liberal Peace at Home and Abroad: Northern Ireland and Liberal Internationalism, 2009) Roger MacGinty uncritically accepts Michael Howard’s assertion that peace itself is a social construction, and so continues to develop his discussion adjuring his readers to agree that this peace “must not be regarded as a neutral concept or blindly accepted as normatively good.”
Michael Howard reminds us how peace is a social construction. Rather than a utopian state of nature to which we revert in the absence of warfare, peace is invented and reinvented by power-holders to suit each context.
– The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order, 2000
It is only right that we should be queasy with such a reduced definition of peace, and indeed, by extension, such a negative and profoundly bleak anthropology. Perhaps in the conceptual economy of a tactician and military historian – such as Howard is – this state of pacification for the sake of political and strategic expedience makes sense, but it is at an extreme remove from the transcendent notion of the irenic peace of future hope and religion.
Irrespective of this qualm, we can at least appreciate the nuance in the discussion of this peace as an endpoint of conflict resolution and the utopian peace of myth and theology. The former; Howard’s invented and reinvented peace of Machiavellian power-brokerage, is not the intuitive peace of a positive anthropology but a mere social reality free from violence and the threat of violence. It assumes a social Darwinism to be the default setting of human community, and perhaps this says more of the mentality of the power-holders than it does of authentic human nature.
Ignorance and fear, ignorance caused by fear, that’s where all the evil comes from, that’s where your violence comes from. The person who is truly nonviolent, who is incapable of violence, is the person who is fearless. It’s only when you’re afraid that you become angry.
– Anthony De Mello, Awareness
The latter peace speaks more of a human nature which is essentially peaceful yet distorted to violence by ignorance and fear – both of which, incidentally, are instruments by which the powerful rule.