Wednesday, November 23, 2005

brain dump

thinking of states is not the appropriate way to think about the middle east.

all norms and structures are practices: they are not constructed, in that they do not exist indepedently of their implementation; rather, they are patterns of practice and action that can be identified and that from which can be extrapolated reasonably predictable parameters within which action will occur.

all systems of surveillance, coercion and co-option in the middle east, as elsewhere, stem from constantly evolving practices: the state, as it is envisaged today, is basically the concentration of those practices in a bureaucratic organisation. as elsewhere, some practices evolved indigenously in the middle east while others were learnt from others.

the evolution of these practices can be readily observed by examining the longue duree.

many of the practices that characterise the middle east today are coded as norms. the establishment of identity and community is based on particular interpretations of the world, and specific practices are coded as proceeding inexorably from those interpretations. that linkage gives the normative weight to those practices, and allows the practices to become to some degree self-reinforcing.

while the interpretations hark back to a bygone age, today's practices are new, creating constellations of coercion and co-option that have not existed previously but that contain the echoes of previous constellations.

patterns of coercion and co-option existed on the arabian peninsula long before the prophet, and in those patterns, described by ibn Khaldoun, can be discerned the reflection of the modern Gramscian concept of hegemony.

the coming of the prophet broke down the steady system that had existed on the peninsula and triggered a violent realignment of power relations. by elaborating a system of practices that could pacify medina, a huge quantity of previously untapped power was released, which flowed across the peninsula and out along north africa and into spain and in the other direction into persia. but as the ripple that had started in medina spread outwards, it left the water in its wake calm - that is, it left behind it different steady system. the new steady system was constituted of old practices - for bedu of the desert, the merchants of the hejaz and the traders of trucial oman, little changed - upon which was superimposed the new discourse of islam. the old balance of power system revived, and ebbed and flowed until muhammed ibn saud made his pact with muhammed ibn abd al wahhab. through shari'a, the bedu could act in unison: again, the power that was unleashed swept all before it. but when the wahhabis took the hejaz they threatened the greater regional hegemon, the ottomans, and the egyptians were delegated to crush them. the egyptians benefitted from 'modern' (i.e. bureaucratised) practices/technologies of organisation and were thus they could muster superior force and defeated the al-Saud.

the british became increasingly interested in the region and the al-saud played them off the ottomans. the british supported the al saud and taught them new organisational technologies, which were then translated into practices that increasingly resembled statecraft. they taught similar technologies the rulers of the uae and oman. these new practices included many conceits copied from the british monarchy, which melded easily with the traditional concepts of sheikh and amir. so new practices of power were garbed in old clothes.

the discovery of oil meant that new practices had to be developed. these practices were concerned with the appropriation of the revenues resulting from those resources by those who were at the apex of the constellation of power relations and the redistribution of a proportion of those revenues in such a way as to perpetuate the trope of the benificent patriarch and to sate the jealousy of their more ambitious fellows. a new technology imported from the british allowed the development of such practices in a way that would not take the form of such an explicit pay-off. the advent of oil wealth meant that money had to be administered. the administration of resources for the public benefit was commonly conducted in the west by an organisation called a bureaucracy. the adoption of the organisational structure of the bureaucracy in the middle east provided both a conduit for the distribution of oil revenues and a legitimating discourse for such distribution. the government of oil - the practices of extracting oil and administering the resulting revenues - was the entire purpose of the new organisation, and those whose tribes had been at key points in the shifting structure of power relations in the pre-oil period expected and were expected to wield influence in the new steady system of bureaucracy.


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