Across a swathe of the world—most places in what we can call the ‘Greater Middle East’ from the Sahara and the Maghreb, through the Horn of Africa and the Levant to Iraq and Central Asia—political systems are moving away from institutional forms, away from familiar forms of nationalism, and away from familiar forms of democracy and authoritarianism. They are instead characterized instead by turbulence and monetary patronage, by the penetration of political markets as the dominant form of political organization. I describe this in my recent book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power. In all political systems, money and personal transactions over cooperation and allegiances play some kind of role. In most of the countries of the Greater Middle East, commonly known as ‘fragile states,’ marketized transactional politics is the dominant form.
As political systems come to resemble political marketplaces, the organization of non-violent political action also becomes more difficult. Another notable trend is that, as authoritarian governments in this region are overthrown, they are replaced, not by democracies, but by political markets.
In this short presentation I ask the question, how is it possible in such political marketplaces, to secure peace? How can organized violence be eliminated, or at least massively reduced? How can there be a political practice of non-violence?
My starting point is with the political understandings of the men (and they are almost entirely men) who run these political systems. We can accuse them of various kinds of crime, from corruption to mass murder, but we cannot accuse them of failing to understand their predicament, and we must recognize that some of them are extremely skilled at remaining in power against the odds. They are cruel but they are not only cruel—in fact the most effective ones are not, in their own terms, needlessly cruel. Their skill is that of the seaman, keeping a small boat afloat in stormy seas, not of the navigator, steering a large ship from one port to another.
First let me define a political marketplace. It is a system of governance that is driven by personal transactions of loyalty for reward. All political systems have this element: what characterizes a political marketplace is that all institutions, rules and laws are subordinate to this kind of bargaining. It is not a relict from an earlier era, a form of old-style patrimonialism that is due to be superseded in an era of state-building. Rather, it is an updated and thoroughly contemporary form of governance, found in countries that have undergone severe political and economic crisis. These countries may have outward signs of prosperity, social and economic development, and institution-building, but they are not on a trajectory towards a Weberian state.
This is the dominant form of political organization in many parts of the Greater Middle East. Most of the countries that underwent transitions from centralized authoritarian rule—through popular uprising, insurgency or foreign occupation—have ended up as advanced political markets. Their economies are rentier, based on commodity exports, aid and security cooperation, as well as illicit commerce. Their politics are driven by the three principles of political budget (cash for renting loyalties), the political market (the prevailing price of loyalties) and skill in political business management. Skilled political managers are entirely instrumental and deal with individuals in an opportunistic manner: there are no permanent friends or enemies, only peers, rivals, clients and contractors. Ethnic and sectarian loyalties are mobilized on an instrumental basis. These political systems are typically highly turbulent, unpredictable from week to week, but maintaining recognizable patterns over a long period of time.
Violence is a standard tool within a political market. It is a signal of presence in the market; it is a means of bargaining and especially a signifier of determination in pursuing the best price (highest for the claimant, lowest for the ruler). It can also be a means of reducing or eliminating a rival’s constituency, by killing, raping, robbing and destroying. Excessive violence is a risky strategy as it disturbs any near-equilibrium in the market and risks inviting in new players.
The qualities required for a political leader to prosper include having a wide network, skill in judging individuals and assessing situations, access to political funds, readiness to use force as required (but, preferably, not to use excessive force and invoke attendant dangers) and a reputation appropriate to his or her political business plans and strategy. Politics is more than a career: it is a vocation. The political entrepreneur or business manager has no private life, no holidays: he or she must live the political business strategy to the full, or fail.
What is peace under these circumstances? Most peace agreements are bargains struck among players in the marketplace, to share resources and reconfigure alliances. They divide the cake and construct a new configuration according to which they share out the rents. A peace agreement is as good as the market conditions in which it is made. It also typically involves the parties to the agreement organizing violence against those who have not joined. Often, such peace agreements actually see an upsurge in violence, as the signatories enforce their deal on those they describe as ‘spoilers’. A ‘successful’ peace deal in a political market is not an end to violence: rather it means that violence no longer matters (specifically, it is no longer a problem to those in power).
There is no longer a ‘victor’s peace’. While a strong and disciplined dictator of earlier eras could unleash massive violence, and could then stop it, today’s political business managers can inflict violence, but struggle to stop it. A memo or directive will not do. The leader does not sit atop a bureaucracy that can carry out his will, turning the machine of state on a dime. Rather, he issues an instruction that is at best reinterpreted, and at worst bargained, at every stage in the decision hierarchy. Saddam Hussein could inflict mass atrocity and then decide abruptly to stop when he had achieved his goals. His successors cannot order a halt to killing.
The main rationale for violence in the marketplace is political bargaining. Violent acts signify that a political entrepreneur has entered the market, and much bargaining is conducted through violence. This is not the violence of inter-group hatred, it is the violence of political business competition. As Marielle Debos says of the métier of violence in Chad: war is not fought because there are enemies, there are enemies because war is fought. Extremes of violence and mass atrocity typically arise either because of mistakes by political business managers, or because the stakes are very high (for example during a contested transition of national political leadership), or because one of the players in the market has decided that a rival can only be defeated by forcibly eliminating his constituency.
The political marketplace is structurally violent. Violent acts are embedded within it, and there is a constant danger that violence will escalate. But a well-run political market is also prone to lower levels of violence than modernist state-building—and especially revolutionary modernism in the 1970s and ‘80s. Violence is an inefficient and risky strategy in a political market, and is best used sparingly. A common feature of a well-regulated political market is elite truce: members of the elites don’t kill one another, on the sound business principle that it is preferable to deal with known quantities rather than newcomerts, and that today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s friend. We should not dismiss political markets as dystopian, just as we should not see them as transient stages to be surpassed quickly. We should understand that they are here to stay, and investigate how they can be made less violent.
A marketplace analysis allows us to see how mistakes in law enforcement, counter-terror or peacemaking can lead to worse outcomes. Decapitating a criminal cartel in a political marketplace will probably lead to a proliferation of lower-level criminal entrepreneurs, more violent and less well regulated. Decapitating a violent extremist organization will have a similar outcome, as well as generating more anger and resentment among its constituents. Trying to enforce a peace agreement without the resources that would enable a political budgetary buy-in will likely lead to repression, as the parties to the agreement remove claimants and rivals.
Achieving non-violence in a political marketplace is therefore a very different task to eliminating men of violence or pressurizing belligerents to sign peace agreements.
Non-violent political mobilization can take several forms.
First is for an individual to act out of personal integrity to uphold justice and non-violence. An individual judge, chief, administrator, journalist, teacher, religious leader, etc., can uphold non-violence in a limited sphere. There are cases of principled individuals defying the pressure of political leaders and resisting financial inducements. An example is the decision by high court judges in South Sudan to throw out treason charges against political opponents of the government. In order to do this, the individual concerned needs many of the same qualities and capacities as an effective political entrepreneur: a wide network, skills in judging character and circumstance, and resources. Those individuals are also typically selective in applying their principles: they do enough to generate a reputation and a following, which protects them, but they cannot uphold principle on every occasion.
A civic activist must therefore be an entrepreneur, in the sense of treating human rights, humanitarian or peace work as a vocation, requiring complete personal commitment, rather than a profession. Civic activism cannot be organized on a project basis. It needs total commitment and readiness to adapt to changing circumstances.
A second approach is to make a political market more efficient. In principle, a well-run political market could be made to function with reduced violence, if the functions of signaling entrance into the political market and bargaining could be carried out by other means, for example through elections or non-violent demonstrations, violence would be reduced. As countries urbanize, and as communication improves, this may indeed be a long-term trend. Some initiatives have enhanced this feature, for example the use of the internet and social media by Ushahidi in Kenya. Communication among elites increases the possibility that they will conduct their business with limited violence. Another approach to this is to enhance the coordination of political finance: if those who provide the funds for political entrepreneurs to operate coordinate to insist that politics is conducted with less violence, then politicians will comply.
Aid and security cooperation are sources of rents that are readily translated into the political budgets of politicians. Aid projects have a poor record of promoting civic action: often they promote the monetization of voluntary work and thereby undermine the spirit of civic solidarity that is so essential to political mobilization. Official aid and especially military assistance tends to benefit those in power, giving them greater resources, discretion and legitimacy. However, the international assistance apparatus has proved a useful mechanism for providing livelihoods for counter-elites, and means of them communicating and organizing, and aid mechanisms have generally promoted liberal norms.
Third is to challenge the structure and logic of the political market itself. No political system can function solely on the basis of transactions, there have to be animating norms, values and ideals. Political entrepreneurs utilize these for building their following. Typically they call upon a rubric of ‘moral populism’, to invoke ethnicity or religion, to create in-groups and out-groups. But it is also possible to draw upon societal norms to resist violence. For example, the memorialization of the dead can be a means for invoking the deepest conceptions of what it is to be a human being. These kinds of mobilization—around funerals, remembrances—may be transient, but can be powerful nonetheless. Another example of how people can mobilize resistance is around land rights, one of the most fundamental components of identity in rural societies. Language and cultural rights are another rallying point, remarkably resistant to co-option by elites.
We should not labor under the illusion that institutions can be built, and rules and procedures established, in these societies, in the foreseeable future. The standard formulae for state-building are therefore unlikely to be relevant. Rather, the focus of action should be on building on the political vernaculars and existing societal values, to enhance non-violent practices.