Sunday, August 5, 2012

Naivities and failing empires

While making a raspberry tartellette, I was listening to an interesting but slightly enervating discussion on the public Swedish radio about private security firms. The most (in)famous such firm is the American Academi , formerly known as Blackwater and known for doing dirty work for the Americans in Iraq. But there are several other firms, also Swedish.

To sum up what was said in the discussion: such firms do work that the state has not resources to do, e.g. protect NGO's, which is a good thing, but they do wage violence in the name of the state beyond any political control and compete with the national armies for competent staff, which is bad. All of this is something that is almost never discussed in public.

What struck me most about the discussion was the lack of any historical perspective, and the naivety about our democracy.
Bashi-bazouk Ottoman Postcard
First history. Are these firms a neo-liberal phenomenon, typical for our time? Not so much. Outsourcing violence has been, and is being done done before  in many different contexts. Who is doing the massacres in Syria? Not the Syrian army but the Shabiha militia. Shabiha is a pretty new name - a few years ago it was the Janjaweed militia that were talked about. Almost 150 years ago, when the Ottoman empire was unraveling, the Bashi-bazouk were famous for brutality against Christians on the Balkans, notably the Batak massacre in Bulgaria.

The Wikipedia article on Bashi-bazouk notes that "Although Turkish armies always contained bashi-bazouk adventurers as well as regular soldiers, the strain on the Ottoman feudal system caused mainly by the Empire's wide expanse required heavier reliance on irregular soldiers".

I believe this is the key insight - when states and empires crumble, as the US and Syria are today, they are forced to rely more heavily on irregular forces. When the Ottomans conquered the Balkans they did it with a very loyal force of Jannisaries, controlled directly by the Sultan. When they lost it they did it with self-sufficient Bashi-bazouks. Which of course undermines the very essence of the state - its monopoly on violence.

Thus, the rise of private security firms, is a strong indicator of an empire in decline. And these days anyone can see that the West's grip on the world is weakening.

So much about history. Then there was the naivety. It is true that the outsourcing of violence is a democratic problem. But it is not strange that it is not discussed. Since when do we discuss fundamental issues? When did you last see a government official including climate change and peak oil in economic forecasts? Still the same politicians will acknowledge these problems when discussing environmental policies. We live in a state of official denial about the future of civilisation, so why on earth would we discuss this matter?

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