Tag Archive | political science

Will the West become the East?

“I included a dummy for Eastern Europe” the presenter said, explaining the statistical methodology in her paper.

You have, you see, to control for the unknowable, complex bundle of historical peculiarities that mark out one half of the continent’s democracies from the other and might skew your results.

“But not just a dummy for Western Europe?” my colleague and I mischievously wondered.

Silly question. of course. And we didn’t ask it.  Most comparative political science research –West European democracies in the old (pre-2004) EU as their point of departure.  Most political science theories and paradigms have been framed on the experience of established (or as they are sometimes termed ‘advanced’) democracies of Western Europe and the United States. Many political models, – of democracy, interest group politics or party organisation – are abstractions and distillations of the experience Western Europe.

The task of those studying Eastern and Central Europe typically been an exercise in model fitting, of noticing and measuring up the gaps – like a tailor trying to fix up a suit made for someone else with quick alterations.  Eastern Europe – despite geographical and cultural proximity success of democratisation and liberal institution building – is not Western Europe.

The normative question lurking in the background is, of course, that of catch-up and convergence: when will Central and Eastern Europe become more like Western Europe? When would it consolidate ‘Western-style democracy’? Read More…

Teaching Eastern Europe: A course by any other name?

Process of coming to terms with the past after 20 years

Photo: gynti_46 via Flikr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

 Like most British academics I’m loath to put any of my courses through multiple committees merely for a change of name. But sometimes you come to a point where you just know that the old name’s old name’s just got to go.

 The Politics of Transition and Integration in Central and Eastern Europe  course has evolved since I started teaching it some ten years ago. Less on communism, more on the EU. Out with Democratic Consolidation, in with Quality of Democracy.  Downplay ethnic conflict, foreground state-building and welfare state reform. Fond farewell (sniff) to George Schöpflin’s book on Eastern Europe and the ‘condition of post-communism’. Hello to a new generation of work on leverage and democracy in CEE with sharper methodology and fewer Shakespearean quotes.

Oh and make a small, small berth on reading list for Theories of European Disintegration alongside  Andrew Moravcsik and Frank Schimmelfenning onwhy the EU integrated and why it expanded.

And yes the end, there are no two ways about it. That name too will have to change, paperwork or no paperwork. Transition, at least in the democratisation sense of the word, is almost a historical topic. And integration (well EU membership anyway) is ten

 But the difficult question, of course, now is what do I call it? If the region’s current politics are no defined by transition and integration, what does define them? Read More…

Party government: All we want for Christmas is you…?

All I want for ChristmasAt an eye-watering £75 Hans Keman and Ferdinand Müller-Rommel’s new Party Government in the New Europe which came out earlier this year with Routledge is unlikely to have made it to under many people’s Christmas trees this year. It does, however, offer a quite thought-provoking, if not causally readable, a state-of-the-art survey of research on the place of parties in European democracy – and one with laudable and long overdue goal of taking in  both established West European democracies and the younger democratic systems in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

 As Keman and Müller-Rommel make clear, despite an onslaught of social and geopolitical transformation – post-modernisation, de-industrialistion, Europeanisation, globalisation and so on – patterns of European party government have proved surprisingly resilient. Although public dissatisfaction and electoral volatility have mounted in Western Europe – driving the emergence of new parties that many of us political scientists professionally know and love– old established parties have maintained a central position in government.

While an impressive feat – and mildly reassuring to the middle aged and middle of the road, the editors are almost certainly right to term is growing mismatch between the represented in parliament and the pool of from which of governing parties are drawn as a ‘gap in representational quality’. Eastern Europe’s party systems till recently also been characterised by high (if reducing) volatility, but Keman and Müller-Rommel claim, rather intriguingly, greater fluidity of parties and party systems implies less of a representation deficit. A chapter by Fernando Casal Bértoa and the late Peter Mair party system institutionalisation in CEE confirms that the region’s parties are both less institutionalised than those in earlier waves of democratisation and are bcoming, if anything, less institutionalised, but is rather less sanguine about what the prospect implies for democracy.

 Political scientists have often, if somewhat implicitly, followed Schumpeter in seeing party competition as i being about picking teams of elites to govern. However, as Ian Budge and Michael McDonald point out this not only ties the profession to an elitist and technocratic model that many would find rather toxic, neglects the question nature of the democratic majorities which underpin them.  More specifically, they are concerned with the question of whether – and how – elected governments’ majorities should overlap with the position of the mythical median voter in the political centre or with the electorate of largest party (which may be elsewhere).

 Through a series of simulations, they find that there is often considerable tension between the two according to the format of party system and the speed and scope of policy change under a new government. Slower rates of policy change make it more straightforward to reconcile the two models of ‘democratic congruence’. Such findings Budge and McDonald note are particularly relevant to CEE, where lack of voter-party identification makes simplified party competition models of this kind a good(ish) approximation of reality.

 Social policy specialists are not everyone’s idea of sexy, but – as well driving forward many of the best innovations institutional theory – they have long seen party competition as a key factor shaping policy outcomes. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly then this book features as a triple whammy of chapters in this area. Klaus Armingeon kicks off, testing whether the classical proposition that strength of left parties, leads to stronger trade unions and more egalitarian welfare states, applies to Central and East Europe. While CEE the does exactly not invalidate this view – Armingeon finds no instances of social democratic welfare states without strong left parties – many CEE case fit the West European paradigm uncomfortably:  there are many instances of strong left parties with weak trade unions and minimal welfare states.

 CEE party specialists might at this point nod sagely and wonder whether the region’s self-styled social democratic parties – many successors to ruling communist parties – can be straightforwardly taken at face value as programmatically ‘left’ parties.  For as F.G Schmidt notes – and Armingeon himself allows – additional factors such as the national legacies of communist rule clearly needs to be factored in. Schmidt analysis of patterns of party government and social policy in CEE accordingly picks out two distinct groups of states, which intuitively make sense: the Visegrad countries and Slovenia, where – as in Western Europe – the party-political coloration of governments matter for social polciy and Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states where it does not.

 Paul Penning top things off using Charles Ragin’s QCA to show that the left/right complexion of governing parties matters for welfare policies only in combination with factors such pre-existing benefit levels, integration into global markets or corporatism.  Frustratingly, however, data limitations stop him extending the analysis to CEE, where – as in so many areas – QCA might help unpick spaghetti-like patterns of similarities and difference with the West.

 Although it narrows ‘party government’ to party influence on policy, overall Party Government in the New Europe is an engaging collection, refreshingly free of padding, which gives a lucid overview of a well established but obviously still evolving research agenda. Despite the good intentions, however, it sadly makes limited progress in integrating the comparative study of Western Europe and CEE. Faced with the usual awkward patterns of difference and similarity, even chapters genuinely pan-Europe in scope fall back on the old standbys of simply juxtaposing the two halves of the New Europe or viewing the East through the prism of the West.

 Like the inevitable presents of socks and aftershave, useful, familiar and not altogether unwelcome, but not quite…

Left with questions

I’m at conference on the Future of the Left in Central Europe in Prague co-organised by CESTA, one of the Czech Republic’s few centre-left thinktanks, and the German SPD’s Ebert Foundation, having been to an academic workshop on a similar topic the day before. It’s a wide-ranging and interesting event bringing together representatives from various Visegrad socialist parties, Czech anti-capitalist activists and politically engaged academics and the odd non-aligned foreign analyst like me. Shifting through a mass of impressions, notes and tweets at the end of the day, I wasn’t entirely sure where the future of the left in the region, but I did begin to see the political landscape of the region more clearly.

Jiří Pehe’s opening remarks do a good job of putting CEE into broad global context, arguing that as elsewhere the centre-left is faced by the dilemmas of globalisation and global market bearing down upon the limited capacities of the national state. Distinctively though it represents a regional of developed democratic societies without a strong middle class. The political consequences flowing from this were not entirely clear, beyond the fact that the CEE left could not simply follow West European centre-left recipes.  In later contributions the specifics of the region – while surfacing occasionally – were not always obvious. Nor were the somewhat differing political fortunes ofsocial democratic and socialist parties across the Visegrad states.

 In some cases what was unsaid was as interesting as what was. Read More…

Uncorking democracy

Photo: Davide Restivo, Lenzburg, Aarau, Switzerland. Via Wikicommons

Like a good wine or an old cheese, comparative research on democratisation is often described as a ‘mature’ academic literature and, as such, one that can lay claim to have accumulated some real knowledge about one of the central trends in global politics over last two centuries or so. Leonardo Morlino’s new book Changes for Democracy: Actors, Structures, Processes, however, warns that even such cautious satisfaction is not in order.

 There has, he suggests, been high-level theorising of institutional change and empirical research with quantitative research preoccupied with operationalization tends to produce simplistic variable-driven theories.  Regionally oriented approaches to democratisation –beginning with the ‘transition’ approaches developed by O’Donnell and other Latin Americanists in 1970s – however, get the lowest marks for offering  ‘questions but not theoretical results’ heralding a  ‘…retreat from theory or a fear of developing a theory… ’ .

 Morlino’s wide-ranging book which – sometimes rather awkwardly –  mixes literature review, empirical analysis and discusses concepts tries to correct this with an ambitious three-part reflection seeking to identify underlying mechanisms of democratisation. It takes in definitions of democracy (and illiberal democracy); phases of democratisation and democratic ‘anchors’ and the question of deepening democracy once established.

 

The book is in some ways a rather untidy and frustrating read. Parts of the discussion, seemed laboured and the book shifts frustratingly between recapitulation and revision of conventional approaches such Dahl’s minimal definition of procedural democracy to much more novel insights. In the end in its own terms, however, its does deliver  picking out three key shared mechanisms of democratisation:  learning as the main motor transition; ‘anchoring’ mechanisms as key to consolidation; and the fact that the good qualities of good democracies tend to converge, rather than being brutally traded-off.

 Set against the sheer complexity and diversity of global democratisation, however, such conclusions to me seemed a little sparse. Much more interesting were the arresting and sometimes rather brilliant linkages Morlino make between phases of democratisation which tend to be theorised and studied in isolation. Reflections on ‘anchoring’ democracy, for example, lead to an innovative idea about the nature of political crises in modern democracies as rooted to initial patterns of democratic consolidation.  His suggestion that the well-worn ‘transition’ perspective might be used to analyse shifts within democracies from one model of democracy to another is a similarly arresting insight.

 All in all while not quite a vintage work, certainly a book with some subtle and interesting flavours worth savouring for a while.

(A longer version of this review is forthcoming in Czech Sociological Review)

 

God save the Queen – and the EU governance regime

How do you celebrate the Jubilee? Given the choice between watching Prince Charles on TV, mowing the grass or reviewing a book about Central and Eastern Europe and the European Union, I knew what I would go for.

 There is enormous literature on the influence of the EU on the states of CEE, both as candidates and (latterly)new members of the Union, embracing a gamut of mechanisms, institutions and policies.  You almost feel there should be a moritorium of some kind. But a (thankfully) smaller body of work, however, asks what effects ongoing enlargement into CEE has had on the Union itself.  A lot of seem preoccupied with how   the influx of CEE new members will impact the efficiency of EU decision-making or reshape coalitions and bargaining between members.

 Eva Heidbreder’s new book, however, takes a somewhat different tack, questioning two (implicit) assumptions that seem to underpin many debates about the relationship between enlargement and integration:  that changing patterns of intergovernmental competition and cooperation drive integration; 2) and that there is a trade-off between widening tending to obstruct deepening.

  Her study examines the extent to which the extra powers delegated to the European Commission to manage the accession of CEE states which the EU in 2004-7 resulted in permanent extension of the Commission’s authority. Her theoretical point of departure to my great interest was the neo-functionalist paradigm, which crudely stated sees European integration as underpinned by pressures for larger scale, more functionally efficient  policy solutions and so driven  – somewhat in the face of existing national state structures – by process of ‘spillover’ whereby integration in one sector created pressures for the integration of related sectors.

 Once widely considered obsolete because of its apparent inability to political processes of political competition, neofunctionalism has seems to have enjoyed something of a revival in EU studies in recent times. Drawing on ‘neo-neo-functionalism’ reworking and updating by Philippe Schmitter and others of classic texts of 1960s and 70s Heidbreder  argues, that extensions of the European Commission’s competencies in policy sectors  pioneered during Eastern  enlargement may ‘spill in’ to the broader EU system, effectively extending the  acquis as a side effect of enlargement.

 Such ‘spill-in’, she argues, can be traced by examining the post-accession growth Commission’s ‘action capacities’ in different fields where the conditionalies presented to candidate states ran ahead of the existing acquis in the old EU member states. Picking out five policy areas, – institutional capacity building; minority protection; cross border cooperation, nuclear safety; and anticorruption she asks if, Eastern enlargement has, in some instances have reinforced integration. Such ‘spill-in’ occurs neither automatically nor contingently, but is dependent on the nature of a particular policy field, in particular, and the ‘modes of governance’ used by the Commission to administer it.  Drawing on Theodore Lowi’s neglected ‘arenas of power’ approach to public policy – and incorporating his argument that policy processes shape institutions rather than vice versa – she distinguishes four types of EU policy-making: regulatory; redistributive (zero-sum correction of inequalities); distributive (targeting resources to meet particular groups’ needs); and constituent (making rules about rules).

Photo: Dincher/Wikicommons

Where, as with capacity building and cross-border co-operation,  the Commission relied on loose, informal governance mechanisms of or (as with minority protection) framed policies as distributive programmes targeted at particular groups, member states were willing to allow a degree of ‘spill in’ from accession – even when as with the cross border co-operation and Neighbourhood Policy this entailed the Commission moving into sensitive fields such as foreign policy. However, where implied formal regulation as with nuclear safety or anti corruption, she finds, member states blocked it, either relying on international bodies outside the European union to achieve functionally desirable end or (as with anticorruption policy) simply allowing double standards between old and new  EU members to persist.

 Despite a sometimes dense and desiccated academic style, the book was a well argued original one, which keep me reading even as the wall-to-wall royal coverage started to fade. As being theoretically thorough and engaging, it does an excellent empirical job in surveying and picking paths for the reader through the tangled forest of regulations, conventions and instruments that make up EU governance.

 My one nagging doubt was whether member states’ underlying reason for sometimes irrationally rather blocking integration in relatively low salience issues like nuclear power could credibly be seen as a fear of ‘political spillover’ in which national actors and citizens would re-orient themselves towards supranational European institutions. Given the deep illegitimacy of EU institutions among the Union’s citizens and deep ‘democratic deficit’ has such spillover ever happened – or could it – other than perhaps in very anaemic form?

 The book’s broader finding that integration can often take place most easily through  the creeping extension informal governance offer an interesting lens through which to observe ongoing EU enlargement into South Eastern Europe which – if the Euro holds together – is likely to unfold over the next 10-20 years, the last chapter of the enlargement story, I would guess. It might perhaps even offer some pointers as to how the Commission, widely considered to have been sidelined, if not emasculated, by member states in the new political climate of austerity and debt/currency crisis management, might reassert itself.

“Can you recommend a good book on Czech politics?”

There must be a good book here somewhere

No trouble.

I’m always happy to help people working on CEE politics, especially our former research students. And forecasting and analysis for real world organisations concerned with political risk is always an interesting challenge.

But then I rather hesitate. Trouble is, I sense the kind of book this person really wants has not actually been written.

Sure, there are introductory histories and guides, but SSEES graduate with a background in the regions knows all this kind of stuff.

And there  are some  fine  academic books  (usually comparative) about the Czech party system, or cleavages, or privatisation or lustration, or national identity or whatever.   But these are academic in the bad as well as the good sense: oriented towards theoretical and comparative problems; wordily anchored into numerous literatures;  clearly written but dry and colourless.

Immodestly, I think of some bits of my own book, which has, after all,  just come in paperback. When not trying to critique Herbert Kitschelt’s concept of regime legacies or fit new models party organisation to Czech parties, it has some (I hope) some quite informative and readable passages.

Photo: Akron

Probably, the best academic book I’ve read on Czech politics in the sense I think the questioner means was Martin Horak’s  study of Prague  politics Governing the Postcommunist City.  As well as riffing very skillfully with some unconventional ideas path dependency and punctuated equilibria, it manages to give a holistic view of the city’s post-communist politics of 1990s and in your mind’s eye you  can sense political processes unfolding across offices , dodgy new developments, half finished motorway projects and crumbling historic buildings.

But even this only goes so far.  The basic problem is that there is a gap between academic treatments of Czech politics, which focus on  formal rules and institutions,  but can’t quite integrate the the corruption and sleaze, and journalistic accounts which is nigh on obsessed with – and well informed – but lacks perspective. The CR for all its faults is not Russia and is actually one of CEE’s better functioning democracies.

Speaking at the Central European Symposium, the Czech journalist Jan Macháček summed up Czech politics rather nicely as the political  leaders staying on the top floor of their part’s  conference hotel with lobbyists, dodgy sponsors and informal power brokers safely esconced in the suites one floor below. He meant it as reportage , but it works  equally well as a metaphor for the limitations of different styles of political analysis.

In the end, I recommended a different book altogether where the Czech Republic barely features in the index.

Reykjavík diary

The  decision of the European Consortium for Political Research to stage its biennial (soon to annual) General Conference in Reykjavík has resulted in one of the biggest such events ever, with some 2000 political scientists temporarily boosting the Icelandic capital’s population by around 2%.

And decending through the clouds to Keflavík  airport with fields of basalt below, mountainous coastline to the right and the Atlantic ocean to the left, it was not hard to guess why. Iceland also intrigues  as a small state with economy nearly wrecked by the financial meltdown, a highly distinct language – the closest thing you are likely to hear to what the Vikings spoke – and cultural scene ranging from crime fiction to sculture and dance music.

The influx of ECPR delegates is, seemingly, almost too much for airport shuttle bus and the capital’s hotels, full to capacity and sometimes overbooked.  Arriving at mine, alongside strip of unprepossessing low-rise office blocks and light industrial units that stretch along the sea front, we are asked to move to a hotel in a small town just South of Reykjavik with a jacuzzi and hot tub.

I get a free bus pass and a cup of coffee for compliantly agreeing, but then while waiting for a while for a taxi that never came and a certain

Photo: Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

amount of confusion, I’m told I can stay after all.  I check in, getting to keep the bus pass, and go out to admire the view of mountains and sea across the bay.

There is a garage with a shop, actually more of a kind general store, and diner serving sandwiches and burgers. I rapidly come to understand the role of the garage as local social centre that had puzzled me so much wartching Night Shift and the importance of the hot dog in Icelandic life.  And there are free coffee refills.  Too good to be true.

…….

Iceland University is a 20 minutes bus ride away on the other side of town, but our panel, where we are analyising new anti-establishment parties in Central and Eastern Europe using Qualitiative Comparative Analysis is only in the afternoon and before that we have a date at the City Hall.

Iceland’s financial and political shocks have seen the country’s voters turn to some new anti-establishment parties of their own, including the Best Party of actor and comedian – and star of the Night Shift, Jón Gnarr. Starting as a  satirical protest , the party’s runaway momentum saw it win last year’s muncipal election and Mr Gnarr (or Jón , as I should say, as he’s that kind of guy, and besides first names are the proper form of address in this country, I think) is now mayor of Rejkjavik, although the realities of office has seen his popularity fall back from 34% to 19%.

We get to speak to the Best Party’s competent and thoughful campaign manager and learn a lot, seeing a lot of unexpected parallels between Best and anti-establishment protest parties we are more familiar with in CEE.

Gnarr: The MovieAlthough mainly reported as a joke party – and having detractors in other parties and the media, who see them as incompetent showmen  – we come away the impression of serious political outfit, which has its tactics quite well thought through.

On the plane back we learn more, watching  the story of the 2010 election campaign on the in-flight documentaries , Gnarr – The Movie, and learn some more.  The party is clearly built around Jon Gnarr, whose deadpan outrageous humour totally floors Iceland’s decent but worthy party politicians.

It is also hilarous. The guy in the next seat on the plane, who is quietly reading an a collection of John Stuart Mill’s writings, seems initially disconcerted as we  degenerate into helpless laughter beside him.

….

Despite time issues – not the least with our presentation – and our panel and paper (on paths to  anti-establishment parties’ breakthroughs  in Central and Eastern Europe) went well.  The other three papers had an interesting mix of approaches and strengths and weaknesses and, I later realised, we probably had the basis  for a great workshop, rather than a 90 minute panel. Chair and discussant Carsten Schneider, however, provided a tour de force critique of all four papers in 10-15 minutes.

Some of the other panels were a bit more frustrating, as paper overload killed off any real prospect of audience questions or discussion. Even with the most efficient time-keeping, five papers and two formal slots in a 90 minutes  for discussants reduces a room full of well informed specialists from all parts of the world  to a cast of dumb onlookers.

I wondered why in one of the biggest political science conference in Europe and one of most wired countries in Europe, no one had thought of a smarter way of doing things than the traditional panel format, which seems to date from another era.  If there are time pressures and many speakers , could we not a least tweet questions and comments?

President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson - Photo Sebastian Derungs/World Economic Forum

In the evening we are bussed to Reykjavik’s newly opened Harpa concert hall to be formally welcomed by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former professor of political science now in his fourth term as head of state. The President’s plenary lecture stressed that markets and economics should not take precedence over politics and that Iceland was a laboratory both for the dangers of market forces and the way politics and political consensus could avert them.

Iceland’s process of constitutional reform was a model, part of new wave of citizen-driven democratic change driven by the internet and social media, being played out against a background of shifting techtotic plates in global society. India and China were on the rise, while Iceland would become part of the New North.

Here there was plenty of tweeting and Facebook comment from those listening and – as it was intended to – the speech seems to havedown well with the mass ranks of political scientists.

But hang on.

Surely politicians, including long-serving ones such as the President himself (a man of the social democratic left, presiding until 2009 – over centre-right governments), were responsible for the lax regulation, which alloed the insane hubris unleashed by financial sector? Indeed,  Ragnar Grímsson is on record pre-crisis as praising the dynamism of the country’s unconventional (and as it turned out dangerous and pointless) financial sector.

Hard not to feel that, while perfectly OK  as democratic  counterveiling mechanism, his hugely popular stand against the Icesave Laws  –   rejected twice by voters in presidentially initiated referenda – is not altogether a principled stand against The Markets, but also one  against small savers and local authorities in the UK unlucky enough to have their money in duff Icelandic financial institutions and taxpayers like me.

 A small country like Iceland clearly cannot pay for massive losses of the crisis in toto – take a Reykjavik bus  (and with my free bus pass I took plenty) and you always see  a few people,  poorly dressed and look worn out and beaten up by life.

On the other hand unemployment, having peaked at 10 per cent, is 7.5% , similar to that in the UK, although low by East or Southern

Photo: James Cridland

European standards and  the Icesave  sums payable after assets sales are, it is reported, relatively small, suggesting that the whole Icesave has just served as convenient safety value for popular anger.

You wonder, however, whether the four-term President might have done his country a favour by perhaps his own political responsibiliy- and the malfunctioning (as elsewhere) of domestic democratic institution – stepping down to allow deeper political renewal, rather than  stoking the fires of  national grievance.

And is the rise of the internet really akin to the transition from feudalism? And the rise of the Scottish National Party part of the same New North ? I leave the Ragnar Grímsson’s address sceptical and disappointed.

Let’s hope Jón Gnarr runs for President. At least the jokes will be funnier.

….

On my last day I walk through Reykjavik again. It is the calmest and most peaceful capital city  I have ever been in. I decide to hire a bike and cycle along Seabraut taking in a view of mountains and sea.Then I get lost and end in an industrial estate beside a toilet factory.

Way out West

Cycling around the Icelandic capital is safe and easy. Laws allowing cycling on empty pavements are eminently sensible and cycle paths run beside main roads . The  view is mixed but interesting: large villas, blocks of flats small shops, mountains, small residential streets with whimical statues, a broad vista West with mountains and motorways, then mutlicoloured traditional houses.

With quite realising it, I circumnavigated the city and  done a Leif Ericson, discovering interesting places I didn’t mean to go to and had never heard of, although admittedly he had a longship while I only have a well used bike in low gear.  Appropriately enough, I finish up by the Leif Ericson statute and go for a cup of coffee.

Area studies in the dock again?

Cover of Brzezinski's book The Grand Failure

Foreseeing Soviet collapse?

In the early-mid 1990s  –  along with a chain of momentous social and political consequences- the fall of communism also triggered soul searching and crises in the academic world among specialists on Soviet and East European politics: Why, with the possible and belated exception of Zbigniew Brzenzinki, had no one seen the speed and completeness of the Soviet collape coming?

Breast beating self-examination and self-criticism among wrong footed  USSR and Eastern European specialist soon gave way to academic spats between proponents of Soviet/East European area studies and comparativeists more closely plugged in to the political science mainstream, who argued that the  (ost-communist world  should be seen along with Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia as just one more newly democratizing region.

As anyone who takes my comparative politics courses knows, the most famous expression of this was Bunce/Schmitter & Karl polemic played out on the pages of Slavic Review which still makes informative and interesting reading today, although the polemical positions expressed have since softened, become more complex and the dabtes has generally  moved on.

Indeed, two decades of research on post-communist systems have, in broad terms,  yield a pretty thorough and sophisticated understanding of the various paths  taken by the former socialist world. So much so, that come the Arab Spring  East European politics specialists have moved play the role that Latin Americanists twenty odd years ago, offering interpretations of events in North Africa and the Middle East based on analogies with Eastern Europe and the former USSR, while specialists on the region  are bogged down trying to make sense of unfolding events and fight off requests for TV studios and journalists. Is Egypt closer to Romania in 1989 or East Germany? Or Yugoslavia in 2000? And so on.  As you know, in a minor way, even I have been at it.

But, of course, as with Eastern Europe in 1990s, the inevitable question comes – why did specialists on the region failed to see the wave of protest and regime change coming? F. Gregory Gausse takes up this challenge in an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (many thanks to the person who forwarded me a copy of the article).  The answer  he gives is threCover of Foreign Affairsefold :

1) that they misread the natire of regime  institutions, failing to see the political importance of armies and secuirty forces and their ability, in some case, to detach themselves from authoritarian rulers:

2)  that they ignored ‘Pan-Arabism’, the extent to which people in one Arab country would take events in others as template and inspiration for protest; and

3) that they under-estimated the ability of de-mobilised societies to spring into life over night and over-estimated the effectiveness of regimes’ ability  to stabilise themselves, and especially their the extent of their (admittedly often limited) social constituencies and their abilities to co-opt better-offsocial groups.

Parallels with the misreadings and mistakes of (post-)Sovietologists of the 1980s and 1990s? Well, yes and no. A clear commonality is the over-estimation of authoritarian stability and failure to sense that there was potential for ‘Now Out of Nothing’ mass mobilisation (but how can you tell when such mobilisation will occur?) and the critical role of demonstration effective across a culturally similar region. East Europeans inMap of Miidle East 1989 may not have spoken a common language, but saw themselves culturally as European  and as historically belonging to West not East.

Moreover,  for communist Eastern Europe there is one single lynchpin, the USSR:  misunderstand the unravelling but genuine reform politics  of the Gorbachev period and you would be likely to miss everything else. I still can’t get away from the feeling that Central and East European democracy is ultimately just a side effect of  perestroika .

Misinterpretation of institutions offers few parallels: no East European armies acted as midwives of revolution and well placed and savvy communist party-state apparatus at best negotiated themselves off the political stage. Perhaps, howver,  the underlying commonality is of failing to grasp the sheer adaptability of authoritatarian institutions, both in the good sense (accomodation to democracy) and the bad (‘stolen revolutions’, surreptious denial of popular aspirartions for far reaching change).

But does Area Studies have some fatal flaw? Some of the accusations of parochialism and disconnect from wider comparative and theoretical development in political science were perhaps true in the case of Soviet and East European Area Studies during late communism – I am. let’s admit it,  a  fan of Schmitter, both generally and on this point – but it seem hard to make the same charge even half stick for Middle East studies.

Perhaps the real point is that even being comparatively and theoretically well tooled and having the language, cultural and historical background are insufficient to waves of regime change until they are upon you.  Social and political science is not about prediction, but the ability to make accurate anticipations (even retrospectively?) of major historical developments is a reasonable test.

The jury’s still out, but trouble is peering into the dock,  I’m not actually sure who the accused is.

Update: Martin Brown (via Facebook) helpfully points out the following roundtable discussion between US Sovietologists on H-net.

Tweeting 1848?

 Having had a few very interesting conversations about the historical turn in political science with students in my Comparative Methods class and also used the Arab Spring as an example issue for research design, I was interested to pick up a copy of Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet. This, in case you hadn’t guessed, was the telgraphy and the electronic telegraph.  Students reckoned, like many commentators, that the Arab Spring was partly driven by the socially empancipatory potential of the internet and social networking. Sceptically, I pointed out that revolutions took place in the pre-internet era, although admittedly TV and fax machines did play a role in some of the East European ‘Revolutions of ’89’. (Prof James Carey says something similar in recommending ‘historical pragmatism’ as an antedote to the over-hyping of the political consequences of the net in a paper here.)

Perhaps, I thought, there was actually  a (his)story of technology and social and political revolution? After, all historical analogies about political processes – comparisons of the Arab Spring with the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, Europe’s Springtime of Nations of 1848) –  are not in short supply.

Standage’s book offers a readable account of the social impact of the Victorian internet – and makes a reasonable case that this analogy – but, unfortunately, doesn’t really answer this question: it has hapters on  the new communications technology and war and peace, as well as a discussion of the changing timescale of news reporting (foreign correspondents reporting in hours or days, not weeks). A similar point s made by  Tom Wheeler writing how the North’s use of the telegraph (Mr Lincoln’s ‘t-mails’) won the American Civil War.

Little or nothing on the 19th century ‘internet’ and grassroots social protest and mobilisation, however. Perhaps these technologies were just less emancipatory and usable by non-state actors, hence the lack of research.  Or maybe you know different?

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