THE BIG BOOK: Nations torn asunder

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199602872

Reviewed by: Eoin Dillon


At the time of writing, breakup is very much in the air. The UK has decided by referendum to leave the EU. Scotland, after more than 300 years, may decide to leave the UK. The EU might also fragment back into its constituent parts, either in the short term or in the medium to long term. A further referendum in a member country or the collapse of the euro could trigger a series of incalculable results. Entities and relationships that have acquired a quasi-permanent aura are looking decidedly temporary. None of this may happen, or all of it, but nobody, as yet, is forecasting a Europe riven by civil war. For most of the recent past, from the vantage point of Europe, civil wars, with the glaring exception of Yugoslavia, happened in newly independent, far-away poor countries, most notoriously but by no means exclusively in Africa. Most recently, however, the Middle East has brought the consequences of civil war to Europe’s doorstep and beyond. Civil wars matter again.

Thomas Hobbes, a founder of political science, draws on the experience of seventeenth-century England to come to lasting conclusions about human nature, the nature of the state, how it should be constructed and what it should do. The state, above all, exists to suppress all tendencies to civil war, the most extreme expression of state collapse. Hobbes’s conception of the state has had a remarkably enduring presence. Civil wars, with notable exceptions such as the American, the Russian, the Spanish and the Chinese, have been treated as specific to time and place, part of a particular state or national history—a very personal part of that history, a place of private grief where outsiders tread warily, but not of more general interest or as a generic category. Over the last two decades or so this has changed. Social scientists, economists, have started to look for more general explanations, at the structural level, as to why civil wars might occur. An example of a structural theory explaining civil war is if during a process of state collapse people only decide to withdraw their support from the existing state if they are sure that others will also do so, and that a personal benefit, protection and security, will result from new state formation. Very destructive effects result for eminently rational reasons.

Best known in the structuralist genre is the work by the Oxford and World Bank development economist Paul Collier, who also writes for a wider public. Given that most contemporary civil wars occur in poor countries, economists find a correlation between low GDP and the opportunities civil war provides for private gain, most notably by diverting primary export revenues in the direction of the rebels. In Africa, frequently, the acquisition of territory is less important than the acquisition of people: child soldiers, sex slaves, slaves—civil war as rational choice. In their analyses of states and economies as well as civil wars, many leading economists have tended towards a deeply parsimonious approach: keep it simple at all costs; exclude complexity. In particular, they have taken a very one-dimensional approach to the state. The state is to be modelled on certain precepts: liberal democracy and liberal economics for all; the complete separation of economics and politics. Democratic transition is safeguarded by certain levels of economic activity. Civil society restrains the state’s natural tendency to excess. Not even civil war is political: in some cases, these policies have undermined the existing order to the advantage of predatory forces, low-level insurgency and more.

According to Bill Kissane, author of a well-received book on the Irish civil war, scholarly interest in civil war now outstrips that in revolution and inter-state war. Wars that may be classified under the rubric of civil, internal or new—a paradoxically globalised form of civil war—are likely to predominate over big inter-state wars for the foreseeable future, thus ensuring no fall off in interest. Bill Kissane is not parsimonious. His subject is civil war after 1945. His essential approach is one of comparative political science, but he ranges from classical times—Thucydides and the Peloponnesian wars feature—to the present, crossing the globe at will and drawing on literary and artistic sources—Goya’s Caprichos recur—while making analogies with medical science and even with psychology and psychoanalysis: this is the body politic with all its disorders, physical and mental. The effect is to bring a richness of texture absent from alternative approaches; his politics may be scientific, but his history and much of his writing draws on the literary-humanist tradition.

Kissane proposes a useful definition of civil war, to distinguish it from other forms of insurgency or sustained criminal violence. The stakes are high in a civil war; the political community is in real peril. If most internal conflict ultimately strengthens the state, in civil war there is a real danger of fragmentation—that the state may fall to pieces. Under circumstances of civil war this may be understood intuitively. Citing Kalyvas, Kissane says that civil wars may have three objective characteristics: (1) at the opening, rivals are subject to a common authority; (2) both sides are highly organised militarily; (3) there is a de facto territorial division between the two sides. Kissane then qualifies these: succession crises, palace coups, rebellions and insurgencies might meet these criteria but not see their divisive logic through to its ultimate conclusion. Territorial divisions may persist for long periods; a palace coup may go relatively unnoticed by people at large. A split polity may not necessarily amount to a civil war. For that, political authority must face the prospect of fragmentation, and it must be apprehended to do so, resulting in a lost sense of the shared fate that underpins community; catastrophe looms. The prospect of having to live together may be replaced by the sense that this is no longer possible; fragmentation becomes self-sustaining, as in parts of former Yugoslavia. It is the profound psychological effect of this—what I understand to be the internalisation of external realities to the point where they structure the human personality and thus ongoing human events—that marks the escalation of conflict to civil war dimensions. Goya elides with television images to form a hideous and inescapable past, present and future.

For the structuralist-economist analysis of civil war, and life generally, history is not important, just as ideology is irrelevant for those who see the state as primarily a coercive instrument. Under certain circumstances, civil war occurs; motivation is secondary. Power, once won, will be used to certain ends. This approach can be said to run through policy formation generally: mathematics has replaced other forms of policy analysis. This does not mean that analysis cannot be used to forecast imminent events and possibly to pre-empt them, but the past is no guide and has no explanatory role. Yet any defence of history has to be qualified: the past is always contested. In developing countries, where civil wars are most common, the past is also much more unknown than in countries with extensive archives, written histories and developed ideologies to draw on: history may or may not be science, but it can be shown to have been falsified—a criterion for scientific status. In central Africa, locus of multiple civil wars, the long historical process of state formation is opaque, uncertain and tentatively understood. Certainty is the prerogative, as in Rwanda, of a victors’ history mandatorily taught to university entrants. Kissane acknowledges the importance of history to a deeper understanding of particular events, but that still begs the question: what history, whose history?

Structural factors may almost always be determinant. Kissane briefly considers the situation in Ireland in 1923. Political factors may explain the immediate occurrence of civil war: the terms of the treaty, the split between Collins and de Valera. But structural factors explain its duration. The anti-treaty forces were strong in those areas where the anti-British campaign was strongest. But the Dublin government therefore was also aware of how any campaign might be waged and where. Anti-treaty forces were isolated, and, faced with British ordinance as well as the opposition of church, banks and vocal elements of public opinion, the civil war was never going to be protracted. Yet politics may also be determinant in healing schism. When élites split, a strategy of reassimilation may be engaged: bring together the leadership, nationalist-republican/unionist-loyalist, in the hope that disaffected communities follow. It is a strategy pioneered by the Dutch political scientist A. Lijphart (oddly, not mentioned by Kissane), and has been utilised from Burundi to Belfast.

Ultimately, civil wars are fought to win control of a state or to exit from the control of one state to form another. This puts the state at the centre of any understanding of what civil war is. But what is a state? ‘The state should be examined not as an actual structure, but as the powerful, metaphysical effect of practices that make such structures appear to exist’, according to one influential commentator. The state at the very least, as Kissane remarks, is not a constant but a conceptual variable. In one view, liberal, western development thinking equates the state with government. In this view, the state should be above and separate from that which it governs. It should also be minimal, overseeing the functioning of free markets and free-choosing individuals. To those ends, good governance should be promoted. Western development agencies over the past decades have sought—with no great success—to mould the African state in that image. Alternatively, as John Dunn has written, the state is more extensive than government, rarely wholly coincides with nation, and is not exclusive to a particular set of institutional arrangements and practices, yet as a contested area of politics it frequently defines the perspectives of those engaged in contestation. Within these parameters, the state conjures up ready and easy stereotypes: controlling, rapacious, inimical to individual interest; but alternatively a guarantor of basic welfare and a system of justice, the provider of a unifying infrastructure. The state may be something defined by its own contradictoriness.

Could it be that a great deal of blood has been spilt and misery endured by maddened people in pursuit of a chimera, another example of historical irony and bitter humour? Kissane’s book is a good place to start finding out.

Eoin Dillon is a scholar of twentieth-century African history.


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