Jacob Mundy, Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence: Conflict Science, Conflict Management, Antipolitics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jacob Mundy (JM): At first, I wanted to write a book about the unanswered questions surrounding the violence in 1990s Algeria, particularly the extraordinary massacres of late 1997 and early 1998. The typical question asked in response to those atrocities, even today, is: “Who killed who?” That is, who conducted the massacres? Islamsits? The state? Private actors? Some combination of these? These questions persist into the present, and I now agree with Hugh Roberts that we will probably never have definitive answers. When I was in Algeria conducting doctoral research on the consolidation of the regime under Bouteflika, I quickly realized that, all along, I had been asking the wrong questions. I had been using the wrong analogies, trying to understand Algeria as a case of X when Algeria refused to conform to the categories of analysis I had been taught in graduate school. Algeria taught to me to question the question.
So instead, I began wonder why the international community seemed to be paralyzed in the face of the horrors emerging from Algeria. As I worked through these questions, I began to see a relationship between this paralysis of policy and how Western social science has tended to understand mass violence as civil war, terrorism, or complex humanitarian emergencies in the last twenty-five years. Hence the project evolved from being just another critique of international inaction in the face of mass atrocity to an exploration of the role of social science in the intellectual deskilling of North Atlantic strategies of understanding and managing conflict.
What began to concern me was not the use and abuse of Algeria as a case of civil war, terrorism, or failed humanitarianism. What concerned me was the way in which new conceptions of civil wars, terrorism, and mass atrocities—conceptions that emerged largely after the Cold War—began to reconceptualize conflicts in a radically depoliticized ways. Hence the idea of contemporary conflict science and management as an antipolitics.
These suspicions were sadly reaffirmed during a research visit to Libya in the summer of 2012, and as I watched the daily horrors coming out of Syria on television while I was in Tripoli. It was then that I realized I was perhaps on to something more pervasive than I had originally thought.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JM: Needless to say, the book is heavily informed by postcolonial and postructural thinking about issues in development, global security, and war studies.
In terms of structure, the book is, first of all, an extensive engagement with, and critique of, the still-emergent historiography of 1990s Algeria. More importantly, however, it uses 1990s Algeria as an anti-case to interrogate the new ways in which civil wars, terrorism, and mass atrocities have been securitized after the Cold War.
Part of this analysis looks at power/knowledge relationships, particularly how new theories of civil wars have helped reconstitute neoliberal development schemes or, more recently, counterinsurgency-as-development schemes. Whether in the work of Paul Collier or David Kilcullen, there is a strange yet productive absence of the traditional concerns that once guided thinking about mass violence, particularly history and geopolitics. This is not to suggest that Cold War understandings of mass violence were superior (that is, that everything was derivative of the US-Soviet struggle); it is only to suggest that the disappearance of politics from conflict science and management—and its replacement with “economic” thinking—is suspiciously symbiotic with the extension of the globally antipolitical regime of neoliberalism or, in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s terms, Empire.
The book then looks at terrorism, an antipolitical framework of understanding that was prevalently used to interpret the violence in Algeria, particularly after 9/11. Algeria was frequently upheld as an important case of why terrorism should be viewed and treated (read: eradicated) as an apolitical phenomenon. So an important element of the book is understanding how an irreducibly complex situation like 1990s Algeria was in fact reduced to such an instrumentalized understanding.
Lastly, the book looks at the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect,” as well as criticism of the Algerian government for not adopting the South African model of national reconciliation via a truth commission. In the case of the former, it is interesting that Algeria has never been given any consideration or analysis by the “R2P” community of scholars and practitioners, though Algeria was, in the mid- to late-1990s, one of the premier cases in the humanitarian intervention debate of that decade. Yet because Algeria’s violence could not be easily defined as genocide (that is, Algeria`s intra-religious violence could not be racialized as “ethnic”), and because foreign efforts to halt the killing were minimal, “the Algerian case” has simply disappeared from the record. Regarding transitional justice and truth commissions, it is interesting that the South African “model” was being proposed for Algeria when the South African TRC had yet to complete its work, let alone demonstrate any effects on the post-Apartheid polity. But as Morocco’s truth and reconciliation commission would demonstrate several years later, transitional justice has now become an antipolitical instrument to appease critics and foreign patrons.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JM: The book owes a huge intellectual debt to the work I did with my colleague Dan Monk on our Postconflict Environment project, where we assembled a really amazing group of scholars with extensive field experience in a number of post-conflict sites. In the book that came out of that project, we began to use our cases as “anti-cases” and instead treated certain regimes of peacebuilding as our object of interrogation. We asked how certain international practices or approaches towards postconflict management help make the very thing they claim to find—first and foremost, the postconflict environment itself.
Building on this approach, I began looking at how the Algerian conflict and postconflict environments were constituted within certain discourses of security and certain related practices of conflict management: civil wars and economics and diplomatic interventions; terrorism and counterterrorism; genocide studies, humanitarian intervention, and transitional justice.
In relation to my previous work on Western Sahara, the central question is essentially the same: how have outside actors affected the conflict? Except, in the case of 1990s Algeria, I am now asking how outside actors have used the conflict, in addition to how they have understood, helped produce, and managed the conflict.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JM: Unlike my book on Western Sahara, this one was not written with a particular audience in mind or any kind of mandate for “policy relevance.” Because of this, I have already had to deal with an inevitable question from colleagues: “So what’s the alternative that you’re advocating?” Anyone looking for an alternative account of 1990s Algeria or some kind of “lessons learned” will be disappointed by this book.
That said, it was important to have endorsements on the book from recognized “Algerianists,” even if that label is as problematic for them as it is for me. On the one hand, I want to raise uncomfortable questions about what we are doing in Area Studies but, on the other hand, I agree with Timothy Mitchell and Michael Dutton that Area Studies needs to stop selling itself short as an interdisciplinary enterprise. Rather than being the site where the hegemonic social science disciplines test their theories, I think Area Studies should be more aggressive in terms of deconstructing the case-theory opposition. In a way, Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence treats Algeria as the theory, and civil wars, terrorism, and humanitarianism as its cases.
Outside of people interested and concerned about politics in the Middle East and North Africa, I am curious to see how the book is received by practitioners and theorists working in contemporary peace and conflict studies, conflict resolution, and conflict management or peacebuilding fields. The field of critical security studies, one of the fields I share an ambivalent relationship to, is at least one in which deep and probing questions can be asked about the field itself. What is interesting in the conflict resolution and conflict management literatures is the total lack of any reflexivity, any consideration of the political functions of the knowledge being produced, the policies being advocated, or its embeddedness within regimes of power. I am lucky to be in one of the only Peace and Conflict Studies programs where such questions can be asked.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JM: My next project aims to take a fresh look at the oil and intervention debate by combining a historically informed geopolitical analysis of the Darfur, Libyan, and Algerian crises with a Foucaultian appreciation of the biopolitical side of oil in issues of conflict and intervention. The idea is to get beyond the Neoclassical “resource curse” and Neomalthusian “oil wars” literatures to something that retells the history of humanitarian thought and action in a new way, one that appreciates the productive powers of oil à la Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy. Further down the road, I would like to understand the changing nature of monarchical rule in Morocco and its increasingly neoliberal forms of state power. I’m even tentatively calling it, “Commander of the Financial.” The debate about “authoritarianism” in Morocco seems stuck in highly endogenized stories about indigenous or cultural forms of legitimation set against the backdrop of a modern state apparatus capable of astonishing levels of coercion, surveillance, and compulsion. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the Moroccan monarchy being embedded in international and, increasingly, transnational networks and flows—from North Atlantic expansion to global finance today. These are factors that are taken for granted in studies of, say, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf but, in the case of Morocco (if not Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya as well), there is an unshakable logic of sui generis that has governed understandings of how power operates.
Excerpt from Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence: Conflict Science, Conflict Management, Antipolitics
Though little understood, the crisis of 1990s Algeria became a productive case study for the science and management of conflict after the Cold War. Algeria’s violence was contorted to fit new understandings of civil wars developed in the 1990s and early 2000s. These understandings not only devised new economic accounts of civil wars that stripped them of their political, historical, and ideational content, these understandings fed into neoliberal strategies of conflict management and prevention by addressing armed conflict as a problem of development rather than diplomacy. Similarly, Algeria’s violence of the 1990s was rendered in such a way as to make it a pivotal case in the new understandings of Islamic terrorism, jihadi violence, and (de)radicalization that came of age after the Cold War and effloresced after 9/11. Algeria of the 1990s also contributed to new understandings and doctrines of humanitarian intervention by not contributing at all. The absence of Algeria allowed the R2P project to narrate itself and the killing fields of 1990s in such a way as to avoid the difficult task of developing tools to understand and manage the kinds of complex and indeterminate forms of mass violence Algeria’s massacre crisis represented in 1997–1998. More recently, Algeria has likewise contributed to understandings and strategies of postconflict management by being a bad example. Algeria’s failure to follow the South Africa model of staging a national truth and reconciliation commission becomes a possible explanation for the persistence of violence and authoritarianism.
These various framings of Algeria’s violence reveal the antipolitics driving contemporary efforts to systematically understanding and so manage late warfare. This antipolitics is best understood—and clearly manifests in understandings of, as well as interventions into, Algeria’s violence—as a scientific and managerial attitude in which questions of power, space, and history are absent or highly circumscribed. Central concepts in international security today, such as civil war, terrorism, genocide, and the postconflict environment, have come to be understood, and so acted upon, in new, reimagined ways after the Cold War. These reimaginings of conflict reflected the growing antipolitics neoliberalism came to represent and enact upon the world through globalization, democracy promotion, and international conflict management. Civil wars were reimagined as economic phenomena to be addressed through schemes of development rather than traditional forms of diplomacy. Terrorism, once thought of as a tactic arising out of strategic adaptation, became an irrational, ahistorical, apolitical identity that could only be managed through elimination. Mass atrocities likewise were deemed no longer tolerable after the Cold War, but the underlying justification relied on the racialized concept of genocide rather than on the more profoundly humanitarian concern for the systematic killing of any civilians regardless of their identity or the perpetrators’ identity. Necessary conditions for atrocities to take the form of genocide have since come to include either a foreign military intervention in the name of stopping genocide (for example, Libya in 2011) or at least a geopolitical predisposition among key states on the UN Security Council to use military force for such humanitarian purposes (as in Darfur from 2002 onward). Transitional justice, through the ICC or truth and reconciliation commissions, increasingly transformed postconflict justice into a morality play that obfuscated history and power in the name of neoliberal peacebuilding.
Some of these scientific framings and managerial strategies drew on Algeria’s violence and were applied to Algeria with varying degrees of accuracy and self-defined success; others used Algeria by not using Algeria as a case—by avoiding the ways in which Algeria’s violence would otherwise complicate the ability of neoliberal conflict management to understand and intervene into mass violence and postconflict environments. This critique of contemporary conflict science and management elucidates some of the reasons for the international community’s paralysis vis-à-vis the violence in 1990s Algeria. It also provides some leverage for understanding both the productivity and the incapacity of contemporary conflict management and science vis-à-vis more globally distressing issues.
The career of conflict science and management after the Cold War is animated by several crises of thought and action. The first crisis is the end of the Cold War itself, which called into question the epistemological regimes that had positioned themselves as the primary interpreters of the US-USSR rivalry and all of the politics that derived from that rivalry. The failure to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union was most often laid at the feet of international relations theory as well as sectors of government, notably intelligence. Nonetheless, this epistemic crisis quickly became the occasion for bountiful debate on the shape of things to come, whether in its optimistic “end of history” variant or its pessimistic “clash of civilizations” form.
Shortly after the end of the Cold War, another crisis in conflict management and science emerged. The genocidal acts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda raised serious questions about the international capacity to understand and so control episodes of mass internal violence. The response to this post-Cold War crisis—as with the response to the end of the Cold War itself—was likewise bountiful in terms of its discursive production (e.g., debates about “new wars” and humanitarian intervention) and equally problematic in terms of its limits, blind spots, and misprisions, as this study has demonstrated. Nonetheless, boycotts of conflict minerals such as “blood diamonds” were linked directly to the new science of civil wars; thanks to the R2P project, efforts to “save Darfur” became the largest globally oriented social movement on US college campuses in the 2000s. The irony of these movements was the way in which their expressions of concern hinted at the depoliticization—and economization—of social activism against war through boycotts and calls for sanction. Another sign of the new antipolitics of social activism was its abdication of basic notions of democratic responsibility toward the victims of terrorism inflicted by one’s own government. The bloodiest war of the early 2000s, the war initiated by the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, did not precipitate a social movement comparable to the movement that sought to end the Darfur conflict in Sudan.
The events of 9/11 likewise spurred much criticism of Middle Eastern studies for its ostensible failure to predict those events and its failure to produce policy-relevant knowledge for the global war on terror. Nonetheless, the events of 9/11 reinvigorated the study of the Arab and Islamic worlds in ways that would have been unimaginable in the years prior. The tendency to view polities in North Africa and Southwest Asia as places of static politics came into crisis with the widespread protests of 2011—protests that led to the overthrow of three long-standing dictators and two bloody civil wars. Related to these developments were trends in armed and unarmed conflicts that had gone unrecognized for many years until certain technologies of truth—statistical analysis and large comparative datasets—were applied to them. What these studies showed was a fact that had long been dismissed or ignored in the conflict sciences: strategic nonviolent action had become, over the course of the twentieth century, the most successful form of waging conflict. Instead of reflecting on its inability to see these trends, the conflict sciences doubled down and began to incorporate them into preexisting structures. Also related to the events of the 2011 Arab Spring was the global financial crisis of 2008, which should have constituted a crisis in the economic sciences as much as it was a crisis for economic management. Instead, the role of economics in both interpreting and governing societies only became more entrenched as politics accepted economic’s intellectual and managerial hegemony more and more. Along with that, the epistemological hegemony of economics’ reductionistic and ultimately antipolitical approach to describing and explaining the world—an approach that had certainly contributed to the 2008 crisis in the first place—continued to colonize the social sciences voraciously.
These trends speak to the problematic relationship between conflict science, conflict management, and crisis. These trends also elucidate the antipolitics animating the relationship between the three of them. More than ever before, there exists a strong warrant to understand and confront this antipolitics given the confluence of two global challenges. One is the apparent decline in violence worldwide and the other is the emerging climate catastrophe. The worldwide, centuries-long decline in the number and intensity of wars and lesser armed conflicts is a good thing. But the most disturbing features of this trend—what could be the end of war and other forms of large scale mass violence—are that explanations of the decline vary and, more important, today’s unprecedented peace has come about despite any deliberate and coordinated global effort, apart from that of the United Nations. Two major analyses of these trends have largely vindicated the antipolitics of our age, that is, the increasingly monochromatic vision of political life as it is currently organized under neoliberalism. This political vision cannot be a good thing, however, when one considers its incapacity in the face of the global climate crisis. The world is more peaceful than ever before (but we do not know why) and yet the world is careening toward a multifaceted ecological crisis (and we do not have the will or imagination to avert it). So overwhelming is this confluence of forces and the ossification of global politics that a leading theorist of environmental conflict sees only hope in the opportunities afforded by global civilizational collapse. It is difficult to imagine how such a collapse will not reinvigorate modalities of war long thought dormant: interstate, conventional, total, and maybe even nuclear. The science and management of conflict are incapable of doing anything about these trends for reasons explicated throughout this book. Mainly, this is because contemporary understandings of late warfare and efforts to manage it are embedded within a globalizing regime of antipolitical knowledge and power that neither the science nor management of mass violence is able to recognize, account for, or affect.
[Excerpted from Jacob Mundy, Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence: Conflict Science, Conflict Management, Antipolitics, by permission of the author. © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. By permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press. No other use is permitted without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]