2017年6月22日星期四

Towards a Non-State Centric Understanding of Iraqi History

While reading historian Eric Davis's Memories of the State, I came across his description about how the British colonizers favored a compliant chess piece, Faisel II, and his regent, Prince Abdullah among the successors for the Hashemite royal family in the mid-1930s. Davis argued that the compliant Prince saw that the British could help him stay in power, and thus allowed for more British interference in Iraq.

Book cover
This description struck me because it seemed that the state harbors a magical "seat" where the person who manages to sit in that place, would become more invincible than other political actors. Thus generations compete for power at the magical seat, which replicates the preexisting organs and arrangements of the state, including colonialism arrangements such as the British mandate. It does not seem to be that much different from a pre-French revolution "monarchy," even though it is clear that the 20th century Hashemite monarchy was anything like it. While Davis is aware of the differences and impact of colonial designs on the Hashemite monarchy, he still presumes a rather monolithic, state-centered narrative in the unravelling of the Hashemite monarchy for his readers.


The implicit question seems to be the age-old one: How can a "modern historical account" explain how an "Oriental despotic regime" becomes a "modern state," which has institutions providing checks and balances?

But this frame seems to be exactly the problem. The frame assumes that everyone is power-hungry as rational decision makers, and thus would definitely seize the opportunity to enter the power vacuum when available. In the Iraqi case, the colonialists could presumably offer anyone that magical seat, and anyone would capitulate. Even idealists such as leftists and nationalists might squander the opportunity during the power machination process. At the same time, states are also in competition with each other, and thus, they would all have to maintain internal stability to "get ahead" in the race. In Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, scholar Vijay Prashad has also noted how "regional stability" is also a key code word for U.S. foreign policy decisions in the Middle East. In this sense, one could see how there are people who support a state-centered narrative (including a wide range of people from U.S. foreign policy heads to certain Ba'athists and Communists), and those who would differ.

Rather than state-centered narratives, I find Foucault's conception of power more nuanced in order to understand these processes. He critiques the idea of power as a magical seat in Society Must Be Defended (p13):
In the case of the classic juridical theory of power, power is regarded as a right which can be  possessed in the way one possesses a commodity, and which can therefore be transferred or alienated, either completely or partly, through  a juridical act or  an act that founds a right—it does not matter which,  for the  moment—thanks to the surrender of something or thanks to a contract. Power is the concrete  power that any individual can hold, and which he can surrender, either as  a  whole or in  part, so  as to constitute a power or a political sovereignty. 

Under the Iraqi state's eyes, "Communists," "Shias," "minorities,"and "women" are separate categories. Davis takes cue from Gramsci in his formulation of the state and anti-state resistance. While Davis's book emphasized that there had been functioning political institutions and democratic activity in Iraq in 1954 and complicates a despotic stereotype of pre-1960s Iraq, his state-centric understanding of power is still limiting and replicates these monolithic categories of women, Shias, minorities and communists. Similarly, the good-intentioned policymakers have made and would continue to make the same mistake while navigating through ethnic loyalties and political affiliations of Iraq if they continue to view society from a state-centric vantage point.

Rather than staring at the magical seat, we should pay more attention to where the power projects itself toward and how it is embodied. Foucault also admits that there are not so many methods outside of this model to understand power. One can read more about that in his lectures. While recognizing the Iraqi Left-leaning intellectuals' enormous contribution in historicizing sectarianism, documenting "voices from below" and analyzing class formation in Iraq, I would also like to see more Foucauldian or non-state-centric analyses of Iraqi history.

Overall, the mainland Chinese academia also suffers from obsession with state-centric narratives. They are also using the same paradigms to understand the outside world as well. That is why I find studies on the effects of colonialism so curative to the current academic obsession. As Timothy Mitchell as written in 1991 in the article "The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics," "Political subjects and their modes of resistance are formed as much within the organizational terrain we call the state, rather than in some wholly exterior social space." This understanding would also become beneficial to critiquing and resisting the communist government: currently many dissidents cannot formulate a strong response to the assumption that "without the communist government, China will surely become chaotic." This assumption similarly uses the overempowering ideal of a sovereign that keeps things in check: Without that sovereign, any opportunist will seize the magical seat. To have any meaningful resistance against the increasingly prevelant communist state, dissidents and resisters have to undo this understanding of the magical seat.

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