Military Intervention in Syria: The Only Option?

This week has been one of the deadliest in the uprising across Syria since protests began against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

The incessant shelling of civilian areas has provided the latest chapter in the increasingly protracted and bloody saga of the Arab spring.

Attempts by the disparate anti-government forces to bring to an end the nigh-on 40-year rule of the al-Assad family have been met with brutal suppression by the state military.

The Syrian civilian death toll is now estimated to be around 5,000.

When comparing Syria to other countries wrapped up in popular uprisings across the Arab world it is clear there are haunting echoes of Libya: an intractable regime unleashing the full force of military power against rebel areas with no heed for human rights or international pressure.

Although an Arab League-sponsored conference is being held this weekend to help foster a peace accord, there are still roadblocks to a diplomatic solution.

Foremost among these is an inability to secure a UN Security Council resolution designed to bring about political reform in Syria, given how Syrian allies Russia and China, both with strong economic ties to the country, used their veto to block the move.

But is military intervention the only viable solution?

Not necessarily. A military strike against Syrian army positions would come up against powerful opposition from al-Assad’s allies. Colonel Gaddafi did not have friends in such high places. And it is not entirely clear what a post-Assad Syria would look like.

There is not a cohesive opposition movement in Syria. Instead there are numerous dissident groups and militia movements.

But with intervention looking improbable the breaches of human rights continue. We must hope this latest round of diplomacy is more successful at bringing this authoritarian blood-letting to an end.

This article by Dr Andrew Mumford, a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, originally appeared in local media in Nottingham.

Boris Johnson, Papua New Guinea and Hegemony

In 2006, prior to his status as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was revelling in the slow disintegration of New Labour. With ethnocentrism now added to his infamous crassness, he declared that, ‘For 10 years we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party’.

Ignoring diplomatic outrage from Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner in London and refrains from almost all circles, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (his full name) then added oil to the fire by thanking Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner for her criticism while stating, ‘I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us’.

Perhaps the affront could have been avoided if only this former Etonian, graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and distant relative of David Cameron, had been given the earliest opportunity to consult some of the essays in a recent edited book collection on Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion

The book provides excellent scholarship on colonial Papua New Guinea and its subsequent formation as a modern state. One remains hopeful that the readership of Ballots & Bullets might be broad enough to include former members of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, such as Boris Johnson, or David Cameron, or George Osbourne, in order to affirm the merits of this book and its approach to understanding hegemony in and beyond the Asia-Pacific region.

But if now, what does this volume offer in and beyond the debunking of prejudiced assumptions about Papua New Guinea?

Given its primary focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion (edited by Richard Howson and Kylie Smith) presents a series of theoretical and empirical essays that provides new insights on the study of hegemony but also on the political economy and regional geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific.

Hegemony can refer to cultural, ideological and moral leadership combined with coercive dynamics and it is important in the Asia-Pacific context because of the different historical situations and class actors involved in the region over, and through, which hegemony is exercised. The book is therefore centred in debates, reflections, and controversies on the notion of hegemony, drawn from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in order to provide alternative readings of hegemonic processes in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, it delivers a set of new regional and theoretical views that adds to the focus of my own book Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy.

One of the main messages delivered in Howson and Smith’s Introduction is that ‘hegemonic authority exercised as domination must impose coercion at some level of intensity and focus so as to ensure the dominant interests are protected’ at the state level or world order. This subtle comment is crucial in that it recognises the mix of coercion and consent that defines a situation of hegemony, namely a form of power through which class rule is conducted that blends together different cultural, social, coercive, and intellectual dimensions.

As a result, a focus on various ‘hegemonic principles’ binds together many of the essays within the book, notably on hegemony, imperialism and colonial labour (Andrew Wells); the World Bank and neoliberalism in Vietnam (Susan Engel); hegemony and neoliberalism in India (Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase and Timothy J. Scrase); the Australian experience of neoliberalisation and subalternity (Damien Cahill; Kylie Smith); and U.S. geopolitics and Japan (Yoko Harada).

A further key motif of the book is the relationship between hegemony and passive revolution, with the latter referring to ruptural conditions of political, social, or economic transformation and upheaval that result in a restoration of dominant class rule. One example of passive revolution would be the case of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) that, as outlined in my latest book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, led to specific forms of state intervention from above and mass mobilisation from below to shape Mexican history throughout the twentieth century.

Returning to the edited volume, essays on hegemony and Japan (by Yoko Harada) and Papua New Guinea (by Charles Hawksley) give further empirical attention to the condition of passive revolution in alternative contexts. The real gem is Hawksley’s chapter and his focus on the modernising project of state formation and development in what would later become Papua New Guinea (PNG). This process is understood as a passive revolution in that it was induced, planned, and executed through the colonial state to entrench the conditions for capitalism within the emerging state of PNG. To quote Hawksley directly: ‘The commonsense of capitalism, including the subjugation of citizen to state, of local politics to the state, and of people to the market, has failed to take a stranglehold on the people of PNG’.

For this reason among many—pace Boris Johnson—one would not want to cast the people of PNG as leading ‘lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity’, especially given that such a blameless existence can hardly be seen to apply to any class-ridden society. Hawksley’s essay is thus a classic contribution to the debates on passive revolution and delivers an exceptional interpretation of Gramsci relevant to historical and contemporary conditions in global politics.

Overall, then, what this fascinating book reveals is that the categories developed by Antonio Gramsci are alive and kicking and that he continues to have a bearing on politics across different times, places, and spaces.

I would highly recommend dipping into these new analyses on the politics of hegemony and giving it a try!

Adam David Morton

Aristotle and Natural Law


A new book by Dr Tony Burns, from our School of Politics and International Relations, offers an important new examination of Aristotle’s political thought and its relationship to the natural law tradition.

The book, Aristotle and Natural Law, challenges recent alternative interpretations of Aristotle, and argues that his ethics is most usefully seen as a particular type of natural law theory.

It is commonly thought that the natural law tradition is important because the concept of natural law – understood as a ‘higher law’ – is associated with that of natural rights, often referred to as human rights. It is sometimes thought that the concept of natural can be used to ground a belief in the existence of rights of that kind. Consequently, it can also be used a vehicle for criticising states that abuse such rights.

The book, Aristotle and Natural Law, argues that although there is a tradition of natural law theorising that can be used in this way, this is not in fact how Aristotle thought about natural law, and its relationship to positive or civil law.

Dr Burns shows that the type of natural law theory to which Aristotle subscribes is an unusual one, because it does not allow for the possibility that individuals might appeal to natural law in order to critically evaluate existing laws and institutions. Rather, its function is to provide legitimacy for existing laws and conventions by providing them with a philosophical justification from the standpoint of Aristotle’s metaphysics.

Burns claims that this way of thinking about natural law can be traced in the writings of a number of thinkers in the history of philosophy, from Aquinas through to Hegel, but argues that because this tradition begins with Aristotle it is appropriate to describe it as ‘the Aristotelian natural law tradition.’

See the profile of Dr Anthony Burns

Can We Justify Hereditary Peers? No, Not Really.

Following the removal of all but 92 hereditary peers in 1999, Lords reform has stalled and divided over the next way to proceed. With reform expected to feature in the upcoming Queen’s speech, even optimists acknowledge the weight of obstacles ready to prevent the passage of a largely or wholly elected second chamber. What we have is likely to be how we will proceed in the foreseeable future, with a wholly appointed chamber supplemented by 92 peers still exercising their anachronistic birthright. But can any justification be sought for the continued participation of hereditary peers?

Lord Younger of Leckie defends his position by claiming hereditary peers ‘have a better voting and attendance record than the appointed peers as a whole [because]… appointed peers are more diverted by business activities and outside directorships.’ Lord Howe considers his fellow hereditary peers are ‘more independent…[and] some of the most assiduous attendees. A great many sit on committees of the House’. Others use the justification that they contain a ‘considerable body of expertise’, which would be eradicated upon any future ejection from the House.

This research sought to analyze whether they genuinely bring something necessary, worthwhile and complementary to the House of Lords. Before the 1999 reforms, hereditary peers showed on average considerably lower attendances rates compared with life peers. However, following the removal of all but 92 of their number the opposite trend occurs, with hereditary peer attendance as much as 22% higher than life peers in the 2004-05 session. Clearly, the hereditary peers that were most committed to parliamentary work were the ones who remained after 1999, but does attendance translate to participation?

In reality, what we hear is silence. Throughout 2011, hereditary peers on average only made half as many oral contributions in the chamber compared with life peers. Perhaps their greater attendance rates can instead be reflected through select committee work?

Lord Brabazon of Tara, the current Chairman of Committees comments that the political parties and crossbenches naturally choose peers in their recommendations ‘who are interested in the subject and, in the main, volunteer for the job and are able to give the necessary time’. Although during the 2001-02 and 2004-05 sessions hereditary peers were about 20% more likely to sit on at least one select committee, in 2011 it is life peers who are now slightly more likely to sit on committees. As the influx of new life peers are now well established within the Lords, the chamber no longer relies on the continuity offered by the hereditary peers, thereby explaining why hereditary peers actually do not play an exceptional role in committees.

Andrew Turner MP presents the view that hereditary peers are ‘the epitome of independence’, contrasted with the ‘partisan appointments’ created through the influx of life peerages. However, when tracking the rebelliousness of hereditary peers, the findings are minimal with 40% not rebelling a single time in 2011 and 71% not rebelling more than once. Again, arguments that they play a distinguishable role appear unconvincing.

But to give credit, there are certainly a small number of hereditary peers who do demonstrate an impressive individual commitment to Lords work, particularly on committees prompting the notion that should the hereditary principle ever be completely eradicated, there is a strong case for certain peers to be granted life peerages.

On average, however, this study of hereditary peer participation does not provide sufficient defence to justify their role as being convincingly different or complimentary to the role performed by life peers, proving the arguments of many defenders of the principle to be incorrect. Hereditary peers show greater attendance rates, but they appear no more likely (and in some areas dramatically less likely) to perform the cumbersome work of parliamentary scrutiny.

This conclusion is probably more important now than ever before: if hereditary peers are attending en masse but not contributing significantly, then as of 2010 they are collecting a parliamentary allowance for every time they attend, perhaps enjoying the social benefits of the House even if they are not contributing a great deal in terms of the nitty-gritty of parliamentary work.

As greater reform has proven irreconcilable with varied interests, the hereditary principle remains upheld, but it also fails to be legitimately defended by those who possess the title.

David Rank, Undergraduate at @NottsPolitics. See his personal blog.