Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bauman or Hobbes? Peace versus security in Iraq

In the tradition of Western political theory, society begins with the organization of people into modes of co-existence. Co-existence, however, is problematic since people are forever haunted by their own primordial desires for material possessions and greed. Wary of this instinctual inclination, people renounce a bit of their freedom to a sovereign, the Leviathan (the State), who in turn guarantees security and the possibility of co-existence. Without this sovereign, society would break into a state of nature, a war of every man against every man. Such is the gloomy account of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and upon which much of contemporary political theory is structured.

A political theory of Iraq may well be premised upon such assumptions. Sectarian violence, uprisings, and clashes between different ethnic groups is a matter of security, and people are yet to enter into the Hobbesian social contract, the renunciation of a little bit of freedom, in order to be able to leave peacefully side by side. Indeed, much of the discourse on the political situation in Iraq hinges upon notions of "security". America justified its invasion of Iraq with reference to "national security", and the discourse is spreading into the political language of Iraq itself, which regards security as one of the key issues to be resolved before reconstruction can begin.

Within Baghdad itself, "security" is as tangible as the walls surrounding the Green Zone, an enclosed area supposedly shielded from terrorist attacks, a zone which still houses an American and Western presence, along with the newly emerging Official and Democratic Iraq. "Security" is barbed wire, machine guns, tanks, helicopters and bullet proof windows. "Security" becomes literally embodied in the American men and women who wear military attire, and the Iraqi police, uniformed and armed with weapons to combat disorder and violence on the streets.

The maxim of security is rarely called into question. We need security, everyone needs security. Life cannot go on without security. The withdrawal of security, the withdrawal of an American military presence, would result in  a war of every man against every man. To avoid a state of anarchy and chaos, security must be established, it must remain, it must be passed on, it must be ingrained. Hobbes was right. Or was he?

An alternative account of human co-existence is provided by the postmodern philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, who disagreed with Hobbes about the primordial essence of humans as greedy and ego-centric.  According to Bauman, a genesis of human co-existence is found, not in the wants and needs of the mind, but in the goodness of the heart. People are inherently good. People are driven by what Bauman referred to as a "moral impulse". The natural inclination of people in the face of Others is to be good. The culprit, according to Bauman, is not an instinctual egoism, but rather social institutions, and the bureaucratic organization. It is the walls that people erect around each other that deafen us to our moral impulse of goodness. It is the reconfiguration of people as pieces in a game of chess that eclipses our natural and unconditional willingness to be good, to be compassionate, and to extend our hand to the Other.

Bauman used this theory to explain the Holocaust in Germany of the II World War. Nazi Germany had in effect developed into a meticulous organization, where those who bore responsibility of the administration and execution of the Holocaust were simply performing tasks within the context of a larger purpose, which at times remained only abstract. Boundaries, borders, rules, regulations, procedures, policies created the conditions of possibility for the inhumane eradication of millions of people. Many of those responsible for these atrocities were not inherently evil, but were blinded and deafened to their moral impulse of goodness. The menacing threat, in Bauman's terms, was the inhumane Organization of Nazi Germany, founded on a discourse of racial differentiation, which created the conditions of possibility for the seemingly impossible.

In a rather naive and adventurous reading of Bauman and Hobbes, I suggest that there is a need to revisit the conditions of human nature and the current configuration of the language of "security". Let us, for a moment, suspend with the notion of "security", which is ridden with a Western understanding of suppression, and let us instead turn to the idea of "peace".

"Peace" resides within the heart. "Peace" is what people do in their everyday experience of momentary bliss. A Sunni woman in Aadhamiya inviting her Shi'a neighbor for dinner, a Kurdish family babysitting the child of their Armenian friends, or an Assyrian couple helping their Shi'a friends move house.

"Peace" opens up a realm of possibilities, whereas "security" is premised on restriction: restriction of space and movement. "Peace", like acts of compassion and generosity, ripples from one person to another, while "security" produces effects of suspicion, compliance, and fear.

"Peace" asks for your hand, "security" asks for your ID.

In a globalized marketplace of what Jonathan Rowe has referred to as "turbo capitalism", "security" has become a commodity, sold and traded, valued and depreciated, in a range of exchange modes. Security companies thrive in the midst of insecurity, offering bullet proof vests, highly trained security guards, superior intelligence gathering, and restricted access technology.

The Green Zone figures as a model of security. Peace, however, is organic. I invite you to share your reflections on how we might alter the discourse of security, and instead turn to the possibilities of "peace", possibilities which have yet to become articulated.



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