In Search of Selfhood: On African Statehood and International Relations
This paper intends to look at African statehood through the lens of psychological selfhood. The difference between moral relativism and moral universalism is at the heart of the issue. I believe in moral universalism and the traditional conception of statehood, which is an indispensible ideal both to IR and Africa. The nation-statist approaches developed in the past decade, however, provide invaluable insights into how the traditional statehood shall be built according to African reality. They shall be taken seriously as useful analytical tools, but they are not ideals.
A persistent theme in recent literature of IR theories with regard to Africa, as sampled in the first part of our course readings, is re-assessing nation-state as the central object of IR study. Different authors have different approaches: some advocate broadening the concept of nation-state; some propose abandoning the nation-state concept in favour of a generalized notion of sovereignty within the IR discipline; some raise the possibilities of more radical subaltern and interdisciplinary approaches; some, however, defend the validity of traditional realist approaches to nation-state either from a behavioural or systematic point of view. The timeframe of those readings indicate that this disciplinary dialogue has been going on for more than one decade without reaching consensus. Relativist arguments on expanding sovereignty concepts are still in an incoherent state. Africa, and the world, at the same time, have been moving on probably in unprecedented pace. To tentatively reach coherence in this fragmented postmodern debate, I suggest we look at the statehood discussion in terms of selfhood.
Mohammed Ayoob’s Inequality and Theorizing in International Relations: The Case for Subaltern Realism (2002), originally presented in a 2001 Chicago conference, is the earliest text in our readings. It is probably a development of his 1998 thesis Subaltern Realism: International Relations Theory Meets the Third World. In any case, it is a direct response to the rampant neoliberalism triumphant since the 1990s and the corresponding emergence of neorealism within the IR discipline. The keyword missing from both neoliberalism and neorealism, according to Ayoob, is inequality, an “acute state” that “pervades International Relations terrorizing”: “inequality is certainly not new, yet it seems to be intensifying as a result of globalization ..” (Ayoob 2002:48). What is inequality? It is power imbalance. But what is Ayhood worrying about? He is worrying about power imbalance’s impact on knowledge production, and in turn knowledge production’s reinforcement of existent power imbalance, hence the statement: “not only is knowledge power, but power is knowledge as well” (Ayoob 2002:29).
What is being argued here is the question of selfhood. It’s noteworthy that Ayoob is unwilling to let go the word realism, a word – along with idealism – denotes an attitude, a psychological state and a behavioural pattern – all of them lead to human agency and selfhood. What he sets out to do is to reveal who is this self in previous IR studies and who has agency in neoliberal world order. Neoliberalism endorses a “scientific” approach to universal human agency. Its absolute gain doctrine assumes that global laissez-faire allows free-flowing of capital, technology, other forms of power and knowledge from the North to the South and vice versa. Ayoob, however, points out that “most Third World states are economically and militarily far too dependent on their external benefactors” to have any real gain (Ayoob 2002:36). In other words, neoliberal agency is one-sided in favour of the North. Neorealism in IR appropriate classical realism in its analogue of state behaviour and individual psychology, yet it discards philosophical nuances and historical contexts embed in the classical arguments and recreates a pseudo human “science”. Ayoob re-introduces to IR a classical sense of selfhood developed in European history and accepts its “statism, survival and self-help” (Ayoob 2002:41). On that basis, he makes his original contribution to IR: the subaltern subjectivity, in other words, the selfhood of non-Western state entities in general and African state entities in particular.
It’s very noteworthy that Ayhoob doesn’t deliberate on the actual contents of the subaltern realism. Why? Because it is not necessary: for Ayhoob, the psychological components of subaltern realism is not essentially different from classical one: the African self and Western self are the same, albeit the fact that they belong to different individuals “who” are going through different stages of historical-sociological development.
Ayhoob’s silence on subaltern contents underlines a universalist view of world history and psychology, it also demonstrates methodologically how to appropriate competing discourses: if liberal view of the world, either through idealist or realist lenses, is at the roots of the IR discipline1, the rival critical and neo-Marxist paradigms are introduced implicitly via third parties. The idea of subaltern subjectivity is the brainchild of a ménage à trois, the threesome between anthropology, literary studies and postmodern philosophy. In particular, the summer of 1983 at the University of Illinois sees the presentation of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s canoic text Can Subaltern Speak?(Nelson 1988:ix), an essay that makes the word subaltern popular. Spivak in the essay articulates, with philosophical intensity, literary sensitivity and ethnographic example from India, the possibility of accepting non-Western subjectivity into Western discourses (Spivak 2010:21-78). Spivak’s subaltern agency, however, is not content-free: for example, the ritual suicide of Hindu widow, according to her, could be exercising agency as opposed to submitting passively to “culture” as Western outsiders general perceive (Spivak 2010:66). By contrast, Ayhood in introducing the subaltern concept into IR almost two decades later “deliberately not addressed the issue of … classes, groups, and individuals” (Ayhood 2002:46). The reason Ayhood gives is that “the international system has not yet progressed from being an international society to that of a world society” (ibid). That is to say: subaltern agency is defined by subaltern nation-state’s relationality with regard to the West – subaltern subjectivity itself – as manifested by smaller groups, individuals and cultural aspects within a nation-state – is outside the scope of IR. This stand is inherently contradictory: how can one be a full-fledged individual without having individuality? It leaves the door open for future articulations, which are done subsequently by William Brown, Ian Taylor, Douglas Lemke, Christopher LaMonica, Thomas Kwasi Tieku and probably many others in the next ten years.
John F. Clark’s Realism, Neo-Realism, and Africa’s International Relations in the Post-Cold War Era (2001) was published in the same year when Ayhood gave his speech on inequality and subaltern realism. Like Ayhood’s article, it is also a defence of psychological approach to international relations against neoliberalism and neorealism and a rejection of absolute rationalism and scienticism in IR. Clark pointedly quotes the founding father of neorealism Morgenthau that “politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” (Clark 2001:90), and that “there are ‘spiritual’ and ‘instinctual’ drives in the individuals that frequently govern behaviours” (Clark 2001:93). That is to say, we shall not use abstract terms to describe international relations and then to quantify them in a systematics way – international relations are historical dramas: we shall describe them as if we are describing human beings’ desires and actions; we shall understand nation-state as if they are individuals. The individual psychology as seen through classic realists’ nation-states, however, is quite simple: it is embodied in the concept of regime security (Clark 2001:96). Clark supports his claim with examples of South Africa-Angola and Ethiopia-Somali conflicts, as well as DRC civil war (Clark 2001:96-98).
In defending classical realism, Clark gives leeway to its object of study. He points out the exceptions to the rules found in Africa, such as personal wealth accumulation becoming functions of nation-states and voluntary resignation from government (Clark 2001:100). Superficially those exceptions weaken the argument supporting IR’s relevance to African reality. In fact, according to Clark, they re-inforce the validity of regime security argument, which is the essence of classical IR. Clark opens new front of IR study by distilling the meaning of classical IR from statism to individual psychology.
Like the Ayhood and Clark articles, a sense of selfhood permeates Siba N. Grovogui’s Sovereignty in Africa: Quasi-Statehood and Other Myths in International Theory (2001) – only it is more pronounced here. If we look beyond the keyword sovereignty in the title, we will see these words: morality (Grovogui 2001:31), desire (31), determination (44), and self-realization (43). Only armed with this sense of selfhood, is Grovogui able to penetrate African political psychology deeper than either Ayhood and Clark. He uses the phrase “domestic focus” (Grovogui 2001:42) to describe this self-awareness. An example of this domestic focus is African intellectuals’ emphasis on Africans’ responsibility in history: even when they fully understand the global and historical origins of political problems that bring huge personal losses and tragedies, they won’t blame everything on external forces. They will “gaze on internal modes of being that perpetuate the subordination and exploitation of Africa” (ibid). Selfhood, self-determination and self-responsibility are inseparable from each other. Contrary to Robert Kaplan who argues that African states have no internal coherence, thus no true status of sovereignty, thus interventions entirely decided by external actors are justified (Grovogui 2001:29), Grovogui believes in moral universality which is embedded in Africa as well as in other parts of the world. Interventions of any kind can only be justified by this universal morality shared by within and without (ibid: 45).
Grovogui’s psychological penetration, however, generates technical questions unaddressed in his essay: how to study African sovereignty? where could we find this intense sense of selfhood? To answer this question, we could look into his theoretic background. A quick review of the article shows the word “moral” or “morality” makes one of the most frequent appearances among subjectivity terms listed above. Its association with the question of sovereignty leads us to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Gambian who makes explicit connection between the entity of sovereignty and the existence of individual moral order (Gambian 1998:63). If Foucault cuts the king’s head off, that is to say, denies traditional concept of sovereignty2 (Foucault 1980:121), Gambian re-establishes it – not in old centralized form but in fragmented non-governmental entities or in undocumented governmental . Professor Joshua Barker of the Anthropology Department is an expert on Indonesian police force. He once observes that Indonesian police in their daily works often keep important occurrences off-record while utilizing local oral tradition to keep history alive (conversation with the author). There are possibilities that in contemporary African nation-states, the bureaucracy, which is often inherited from colonial powers, doesn’t necessarily have local welfare in mind and doesn’t necessarily keep local history intact. True practices and true history of the nation-state government exist off-record. In order to study some of the African nation-states, IR scholars or historians might need to go beyond official records and take closer look at daily practices of individual actors or behaviours of smaller institutions and groups, then they might find the moral order, the selfhood, the sovereignty and the statehood universal within the IR discipline.
If I raise the possibility of African statehood as existing in undocumented daily governmental practices, Kevin C. Dunn’s The (Blank) African State (2001) expands the possibilities to more specific actors such as international financial institutions, regional strongmen, foreign companies, mercenaries, etc. However, the most noteworthy part of his scheme is not the inclusion of non-governmental entities and individuals, but the inclusion of foreign powers in the discussion of sovereignty of African states. Another observation is the absence of moral argument salient in Grovogui’s article collected in the same volume. Those two points are significant: there is no doubt that Dunn’s discursive approach (Dunn 2001:58) is highly practical and precise without overt rhetoric and obscurantism rampant in social sciences, but here he is risking confusing reality with ideal. But why is idealism important? I would like to take the chance to point out that realism, as discussed in the very beginning of this essay, is assuming the selfhood and subjectivity of a nation-state – in other words, is to treat a nation-state as an individual person. Since it is a psychological or behavioural approach, it inevitably invites the discussion of ideals, even when those ideals are not positive ideals. In confusing reality with ideal, or in abandoning ideals altogether, Dunn might be justifying foreign appropriations of Africa, although he might insist on his scholarly detachment. We could and we should re-define African sovereignty well beyond the scope of nation-state, but we shall always be looking for a selfhood in this sovereignty. Foreign interests, I believe, shall always be looked at as external not internal to sovereignty.
The same attempt at expanding IR research scope is made by Ian Taylor in his introduction to the volume of African International Relations. The African political entities, under his pen, becomes far more inclusive without losing a sense of selfhood. The mentioning of cultural aspects and the Diaspora is Taylor’s unique contribution in our readings. Taylor also correctly puts foreign actors under the category of international relations instead of African sovereignty, a distinction that is important to make (Taylor 2004:19).
The distinction between self and others and the integrity of individuality (or selfhood) are keys to the current debates in IR. They are also the two key debates within the discipline of anthropology. The connection made here is neither casual nor trivial. It reveals a coherent and vibrant total history of ideas in modern Western tradition. If we treat the West as an individual – just like we have been doing so far – this individual has been engaging two kinds of intense gazing since its modern history. The exact periodization of modernity is highly debatable. If we take Jacques Derrida’s words, the most revolutionary moment occurred when this tradition was engaging in colonial expansion, in particular its engagement with Africa. This process propels a movement of decentering (Derrida 1978:280), in other words, a moment when the twins of ethnocentrisms and anti-ethnocentrisms were conceived at the same time. If this “individual” had been gazing at himself in the past, colonial expansion truly introduces into his entities and concept of others. Gazing at others gives the self stronger sense of self. If one always perceives self temporally as opposed to spatially (no one can be at two different places at the same time after all), others or the other are first of all distinguished on spatially terms. This leads us to two different kinds of gazing, namely, history and structure. On disciplinary terms, philosophy, when losing its steam in front of sciences, takes two different turns after the onset of colonization: at home it engages in a living history (or politics), morphing into political sciences; in faraway lands it morphs into ethnography and ethnology which is combined into anthropology that studies spatial structure and relationality. IR is born into political sciences, but it was born with an anthropological gene which is reflected in the word “relations” in its name. Political sciences, along with history, and anthropology, have always been approaching each other: the former from the North to the South while anthropology from the South to the North in terms of their respective fieldwork locales. There is no doubt that rampant globalization since the 1990s changes reality on the ground at such a speed that both camps felt compelled to walk faster towards each other. In the Anthropology Department of the UofT, symbolic anthropologists who study rituals and tribes are being replaced by political anthropologists who study nation-state, activism and globalization. The materials I have been reading so far in this class indicate IR researchers are shortening the distance as well. But both sides yet to reach a point where conversations can be carried out in the same room.
Both William Brown’s defence of IR theory (2006) and Thomas Kwasi Tieko’s plea for African collective worldview (2012) touch upon key anthropological questions. In Brown’s case, as I have pointed out in my presentation essay, his inconsistent use of relationality on local level and on global level – the former he champions, the latter he detests (Brown 2006:126) – raises the question of how to understand African sovereignty’s statehood. To use the analogue of selfhood again, we can see Brown and Tieko are on the same front: both insist on – if I’m allowed to borrow Grovogui’s favourite word “moral” – moral relativism with regards to African nation-states. In insisting African individual particularities (Brown 2006:140), Brown endorse a self that doesn’t take the same moral responsibilities as others do. Tieku’s collectivism view of African statehood is based on solid observations (Tieko 2012:41) – the problem is he gives and essentialist interpretation of this phenomenon. Instead of taking into account of African states history and geopolitical contexts, he evokes Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was in search of a pan-African culture and solidarity, and uses the phrase “world view” (ibid). But I believe, what is important is not a particular world view but a particular living condition which is going on rapid change at this very moment.
To face the challenges and changes, both Africa and IR need to has a strong sense of self. This strong sense self, in modern ages, can only be found in the form of nation-state. African countries shall (and indeed will) continue nation-state building at a time when new opportunities present themselves. IR shall do the same: instead of languishing in the incoherent words of moral relativism, it shall refocus on the idea and ideal of nation-state, and dig into their undiscovered meanings on African ground.
- Although LaMonica includes Marxism in his IR paradigm chart under historical-structuralism (LaMonica 2010:366), it is a relatively new development in IR. See Encyclopedia Britannica entry on IR http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/291237/international-relations.
- See Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon: “… a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” (1980:121).
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