Unsettling the binaries—of economics and war

Posted: 6 April 2017 in Uncategorized
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Back in 2003, in Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics, Jack Amariglio and I set out to identify and unsettle some of the key binaries that structure the work of modern economists. Vijay Prashad [ht: ja] has just done something similar with respect to conceptions of modern violence.

Our view, in a nutshell, was that many approaches to modern economics, however different they might be in terms of methods and conclusions, shared certain foundational axes—especially binary oppositions concerning stability, rationality, and order. Thus, for example, neoclassical economists tell a story about the emergence of order from disorder via the “invisible hand.”

Drawing upon Adam Smith as the original source, neoclassical economists begin with the premise that civil society, rather than being governed by an overarching religious authority or state, is fractured into a plethora of individuated and competing human atoms who take actions on their own behalf without knowing in advance either the actions of others or, for that matter, the potential consequences of their own actions. Then, the apparent chaos that is suggested by the interaction of the teeming mass of individual actors is shown to converge toward a well ordered, “general equilibrium” solution—in which social welfare is maximized—by virtue of decentralized markets. Thus, the modernist paradox is solved by showing that (a) economic coordination can be achieved (market transactions are mostly orderly processes) as the outcome of (b) the unintended (or not-necessarily intended) actions of self-interested, rational agents. Thus, the initial premise of apparent anarchy or disorder is overcome by the order that is taken to be both an essential attribute and the necessary effect of market processes. The unfolding of this story gives rise to the characteristic optimism and progressivism—the utopian vision—of mainstream economic modernism since it confirms post-Enlightenment beliefs in the efficacy and social beneficence of rationally directed, free, and individual choice.

Marxian economists are, of course, quite critical of the neoclassical story. They consider the story to be a pure fiction: capitalism cannot possibly achieve the harmonious coordination or produce the socially beneficial outcomes foretold by most mainstream economists. As it turns out, however, the contrast between order and disorder contained within the neoclassical master narrative also helps to constitute much of the alternative Marxian crisis theory. Thus, Marxists have often reduced the difference between capitalism and socialism to the choice between one system (capitalism) characterized by instability, irrationality, and disorder and the other (socialism) defined by stability, rationality, and order. We find these tensions played out in a variety of ways in the Marxian tradition—in the differentiations and oppositions between production and circulation, the conception of competition, the opposition of markets and planning, and the role of subjectivity—with dubious theoretical and political effects.

According to Prashad, the asymmetry of Western media’s reporting on recent acts of violence—including, hours apart, Khalid Masood’s attack in London and the U.S. bombing of the al-Badia school in the Syrian town of Raqqa—is a reminder that a series of binaries “operate to blind thinking about violence in the world.”

Our days have become hallucinations, with violence always at the edge of consciousness. But violence is understood through these binaries in ways that befuddle those who believe in a universal humanity, those who believe—in concrete terms—that people in Kabul deserve empathy and sympathy as much as people in Berlin. In fact, the scale of the violence in Kabul is so much greater than in Berlin that you would imagine greater sympathy for those in far more distress. But actually the logic of these binaries moves consciousness in the opposite direction.

Here are some of binary oppositions identified by Prashad:

Eastern Malevolence / Western Benevolence

There is standard belief amongst reporters—for example—that Western actions are motivated by the highest values and are therefore benevolent. The loftiest values of our time—democracy and human rights—are sequestered inside the concept of the West. The East—bedraggled—is treated as a place without these values. It is bereft, a bad student. There is what Aimé Césaire calls “shy racism,” for it suggests that Easterners cannot be given the benefit of doubt when they act, or that Westerners could not also be malevolent in their objectives. The way this logic runs it is the Eastern bombing of Syria’s Aleppo, conducted by the Oriental despot Bashar al-Asad, that is inhumane, while it is the Western bombing of Iraq’s Mosul (250 to 370 civilians killed in the first week of March) that is humane. It would pierce the armor of Western self-regard to admit that its armed forces could—without sentiment of care—bomb mosques and schoolhouses.

State Legality / Non-State Illegality

States do not normally act outside the confines of international law. If they do, then it is in error. Or there are some states that are not proper states, but “rogue states” that do not behave according to the principles of civilization. Normal states, not rogue states, the logic of shy racism goes, never intentionally violate the laws of war and behave in a barbaric way. Their acts of murder are always unintentional because it would be too costly for them to intentionally murder civilians.

Violence to Heal / Violence to Hurt

When the US military conducted its massive bombing run against Iraq in March 2003 under the name “Shock and Awe,” it was considered to be in the service of human rights and security. But the language used by its architects was genocidal. . .

The violence of the Iraqi insurgency, on the other hand, was immediately considered to be violence intended to hurt, to create problems not only for the United States, but for Iraq itself. The violence of the West is prophylactic, while the violence of the East is destructive.

Precious Life / Disposable Life

When news broke of the failed US raid on the village of al-Jineh (Yemen), the Western media concentrated on the death of Ryan Owens who was a Seal Team 6 member. There was a great deal of discussion on his death and little mention of the civilians who were killed by Owens’ comrades in that raid. If they were mentioned it was as a number: twenty-eight or thirty. There were no names in the stories, no way to make these people into human beings. Nothing about Mohammad Khaled Orabi (age 14), Hasan Omar Orabi (age 10), Ahmad Nouri Issa (age 23), Mustapha Nashat Said al-Sheikh (age 23), Ali Mustapha (age 17), Abd al Rahman Hasim (age 17), and not even Nawar al-Awlaki (age 8) whose father and brother had been killed in earlier raids. No mention of the names of the forty-two Somali refugees gunned down by a Saudi helicopter gunship, a weapons system provided by the United States. To offer these names would be to give these people humanity.

Legible Narrative / Illegible Narrative

It would be an illogical narrative to suggest that Western generals want to raze cities. That is not their motivation. When the US flattened Fallujah (Iraq) in 2004, under the command of then Major General James Mattis of the 1st Marine Division, this was not the intent. That the use of Depleted Uranium led to cancer rates fourteen times higher than in Hiroshima (Japan) after the atom bomb was dropped there was incidental, not deliberative. It is impossible to imagine an American, for instance, being cruel in military strategy. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine a Syrian general, such as General Issam Zahreddine, being systematically vicious. It is not possible to see both as ferocious. It would be an illegible narrative if these two stories were set side by side. One is so obviously a better man (Mattis) than the other (Zahreddine). The character of the man of the West always surmounts the character of the man of the East.

Prashad’s point is that the distinctions created in and through these binary oppositions serve to erect and naturalize a set of differences—for example, between terrorism and counter-terrorism—that see an Enlightenment logic behind all Western states’ acts of violence and something else, the motivations emanating from some “darker world,” behind al-Qa’ida and other such forces.

To break down the distinctions between them represents, as in the case of the binaries that structure modern economics, “a scandal against civilization itself.”

  1. […] Unsettling the binaries—of economics and war […]

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