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Andropov’s ghost: language and society under global governance

Written by Mladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac.

Frankly, we don’t know the society in which we live and work enough.

So General Secretary Yury Andropov warned the Soviet Communist Party Plenum in June 1983. Andropov’s speech was made a few months before one of us started a degree in Slavonic languages, and a year before the other began military service in the Yugoslav People’s Army. Andropov is now been quoted in the Russian media about the US political establishment, confronting not knowing the society in which they live.

The rude awakening of the US political establishment to the election of Donald Trump on 8 November is not the first political earthquake this year. There was similar political shock across the European political establishment at the British referendum result in June to leave the European Union.

‘Two Nations’ identified by Benjamin Disraeli back in the Victorian age was a refrain on many people’s lips on 24 June in the wake of the vote:

Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws: the rich and the poor.

The Two Nations divide has become a global phenomenon, where globalisation and global governance since the end of the Cold War have fostered cosmopolitan elites, less embedded in their national societies.

Strikingly under globalisation and global governance of the last quarter of a century, (non-English) foreign language studies, except for Spanish, have declined relatively or absolutely in Europe and North America, especially Britain, although Western states are invested heavily in these global processes. The growth areas of European and North American academic studies have been in management studies, global politics or political science rather than area studies. Why would language or area knowledge be prioritised when accession processes essentially go in one direction where candidate states adopt legislation and policy frameworks wholesale? Similarly if you look at international organisations, such as international NGOs, most of their job adverts don’t look for language skills. Instead they look for management skills. Any language skills are an optional bonus, but haven’t been critical. Meanwhile the lack of Middle Eastern language skills has been a notorious gap in western counterterrorism since 9/11.

What is the significance of expanding global governance conducted with weak foreign language and area studies knowledge? Global policy-makers have been busy talking to each other in global English, without really talking to the people under global governance. They have effectively only been speaking to one part of the nation – those who speak global English. And insofar as they speak to the other part of the nation, it has been through these global English-speaking intermediaries. Moreover in insecure areas, international staff are increasingly living in fortified aid compounds, cut off from the populations they supervise. Digital humanitarianism or big data surveillance is superseding personal interactions between internationals and locals.

This trend towards governance and analysis at a distance is linked to the dangers of field work for aid workers and scholars who are not treated as impartial actors, but legitimate political targets by some state or non-state forces. Tragically an Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni researching on Egyptian trade unions at the University of Cambridge was abducted and tortured to death in Cairo. However this appalling killing does not explain the dearth of language and area knowledge in safer parts of the world. Strikingly those academics making the sharpest analysis in understanding developments in international relations or political science are also those with language and country knowledge.

Here we come how we need to modify Benjamin Disraeli’s statement of the 1840s. The great global divide today is not a simple rich and poor, but the global technocracy and the people alienated from this expert governance and its global policy framework. In the words of the writer Kenan Malik:

The most significant political divide in America is probably not that between white and non-white voters but, as in Europe, between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – a more globalized, technocratic world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless in such a world. This is not just a political faultline, but a faultline, too, of the imagination. A faultline in the ways in which we are able to think of ourselves and others and of our place in society; and of the kind of society and of social change it is possible to envision.

What are the long-term prospects of global governance if it is detached from the societies it is seeking to govern? Since the Great Recession of 2008, globalisation and its accompanying global technocracy has been facing a slow-burning crisis of legitimacy. The failures of its technocratic solutions preceding over large unemployment and stagnant living standards have re-awakened people from their long sleep. These discontents are now taking political forms as Ivan Krastev’s Democracy Disrupted explores. The global policy-makers, like the Soviet bureaucracy, are suddenly finding that their global authority rather thin, and that they are struggling to understand the world with their usual models.

Anti-establishment concerns are looking for outlets to express themselves. The future direction of politics – beautiful or ugly – is open to be shaped. Opposition to globalisation and global governance has democratic and anti-democratic elements, conservative oand socialist political elements, and egalitarian and bigoted elements. We need open-minded researchers sensitive to the distinctive character of developments. Brexit is not the same as Trump’s election. Nor is the entry of the Human Shield Party into the Croatian parliament, a party originating in defending people from mortgage repossessions, the same as the election of a Russian friendly Rumen Radev to president in Bulgaria or Igor Dodon in Moldova, although they may have some overlapping discontents.

Processes of globalisation are becoming disrupted, and language, speech and freedom of speech are going to be sites of those challenges. However too often linguistic governance has been the solution rather than free discussion. In response, it is up to us as researchers to decide whether we want to understand what is happening and speak to people and in their own language, or simply impose faltering global models on societies. Will we as researchers support free speech and open debate about national or international reforms? Or will we keep to our social echo chambers and stifle glasnost and perestroika until it is too late as happened in the Soviet Union?

Language and area studies knowledge have always been undervalued and will continue to be so by those global policy makers who think global English is enough and that google translate makes foreign language knowledge redundant. Against this tendency, the BBC announced new and expanded language services in November. But this welcome development is not enough to overcome the global two nations divisions. If we want to understand societies, we need individuals having conversations with people and gaining insights into their lives beyond an election opinion poll or commentary at a distance. Not only is it vital to have more on the ground reporting in newspapers, but we need more academic field work and in-depth country understanding.

Probably among the best insights into why people supported Trump over Clinton has been the sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s five year ethnographic research into these communities. She identified their concerns as spanning globalisation, loss of industrial jobs and erosion of a way of life. To conduct equivalent research into foreign societies you have to know their languages, and be prepared to take similar effort to listen and converse and immerse yourself in people’s lives.

The recent political earthquakes demand a renaissance of language studies as an integral part of understanding the world. Many in modern foreign languages though see recent political developments as attacking cosmopolitan ideals. Unfortunately this can lead us to close our ears to the nuances of developments and cling to our own post-truths. But we need to challenge the prevailing hollow cosmopolitanism which has become aloof from people, especially those not speaking global English. Instead academics with solid language and area knowledge could take a lead in revitalising cosmopolitan ideals and fostering communication bridging the two nations divides.

Vanessa Pupavac is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons. She has previously worked for the UN Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. Mladen Pupavac is a Research Associate at the School of Politics and International Relations. 

This is an extended version of a talk on 16 November at a workshop on ‘How Languages Studies Research can influence policy makers’ workshop at the University of Nottingham organised by the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership (M3C DTP) and the White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities (WRoCAH).

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