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.

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