Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Barbara Misztal (2003) 'Negative Capability or Dealing with the Complexity of the Iraqi War'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 3, <>

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Received: 10/7/2003      Accepted: 20/8/2003      Published: 31/8/2003


The paper develops an argument that the growing complexity of information and the widespread distrust of such information have created a need for a new foundation for the development of political action and that this demand has recently been satisfied with the help of the human rights discourse. On the surface of it, the global public's ability to judge and protest against the Iraqi war can be described with the help of Keats's concept of negative capability. The paper suggests that the unity of the anti- Iraqi war movement was illusory and made possible because of the availability of language in which people can express their opposition to the war, namely a human rights discourse. It concludes that only if we have a global public and an effectively working international system, are we able to respond to threats in a non-simplistic way.

Negative capability, Discourse of human rights, Public opinion, Complexity

I must admit that I have difficulties in understanding the developments surrounding the Iraqi war and also that I have never written or even thought about writing on contemporary international issues. Yet, my need to write about the second Gulf war is not an attempt to decipher my difficulties in understanding the fact that we were taken to war on the basis of the intelligence report. Such a lack of understanding of what is really going on in politics is nothing new. Moreover, it is a rather widely shared feeling. Many of us are still confused about the argument leading to the war: was the war initiated because of world terrorism, weapons of mass destruction in the hand of Saddam Hussein or because of the radical Islam of the sort promoted by Osama bin Laden? John Dunn's (2000) general remark, that neither citizens nor career politicians understand what politics is about, well describes the puzzlement surrounding the Iraqi war. The need to write about the recent international developments is not even an attempt to make sense of my confusion about the complexity of the situation. It is driven by my surprise that our lack of information about the whole picture and a lack of clarity how to work out a way of dealing with such complexity, have not stopped us from judging the political and military developments. The best evidence of it is the fact that for the last six months a large proportion of citizens of many countries has seemed to be united in their protest against the Iraqi war.

Before developing my central point that the unity of the anti-war movement is illusory, let me stress that here I am interested in a general public's comprehension of the reasons leading to the war rather than in specialists analyses of the background to the war (e.g. Bobbitt 2002) or the rationale for fighting it (e.g. Pollack 2002). While these books are in many ways remarkable, nevertheless their sophisticated arguments have not really influenced a common discourse on the war. For example, Kenneth M. Pollack's advice to launch a full scale invasion of Iraq, despite that his book was published before the war and despite that it includes the impressive arguments and documentation of the threat that Saddam presented to the United States, has not resonated with the European public opinion. Furthermore, now is too late to evaluate the validity of Pollack's assertion that the war with Saddam's Iraq was inevitable. More valid is other books' suggestion that we now are at a transitional stage or at a pivotal point in history, where there are no clean lines of divisions, where there are new kinds of insecurity, where there is a good deal of confusion and uncertainty (Bobbitt 2002; Kagan 2002). Both Bobbitt's and Kagan's works also seem to support my point about illusions of globalisation as they argue that states are here to stay and that, perhaps ironically, the recent development 'makes the role of the state all the more crucial in achieving international peace and national security' (Bobbitt 2002: 813). The state will continue to resist the current wave of globalisation because it is as 'indispensable to peace as it was in the era of invasion that gave it birth' (ibid: 814). In the world of states, Bobbitt writes, the greatest danger still remains the confrontation between the most powerful states. Since law and strategy continue to be key instruments of the state and since the choice is not between war and peace, but between wars that we have anticipated and can mange and wars that we haven't and can't, we must decide when it is appropriate to use force. In the new post-Cold war world we ought to decide when to collectively sanction the use of force. 'This is a matter of creating precedents and case law' and , it amounts to 'deploying the habits of law on behalf of strategy, and of course, vice versa'(ibid:805). Furthermore, Bobbitt's assertion, that the avoidance of the war per se can be dangerous because 'it counsels against the preparations for war that might avert massive, carefully planed large-scale attacks by one state on another, and because it actually invites low-intensively conflicts once aggressors can rest assured they can find sanctuaries where they will not be troubled by outsiders'(2002:781), suggests a need for careful analyses of a seemingly united global opposition to the Iraqi war.

On the surface of it, the global public's ability to judge, despite its uncertainty and doubts, can be described with a help of Keats' concept of negative capability. Negative capability refers to a situation when we are 'capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reasons'(Keats, quoted in Trilling 1955:32). Keats also notes that to remain in half-knowledge should not be an obstacle in coming at a truth. Even more importantly, he remarks that negative capability is the important sign of the poet's quality because it makes possible the artistic vision of life. The advance toward negative capability means greater 'empowerment' as it is achieved by creating 'formative context that soften the contrast between context-preserving routine and context-transforming challenge and by expanding 'mastery over our formative institutional and imaginative context'(Unger 1987:36 and 291). Paraphrasing Keats' statement, we could say that the global public's opposition against the war might be seen a sign of its negative capability as it could be argued that it was this faculty that made possible the public's judgement of the recent international events, despite their complexities and uncertainties.

Yet, can we really assume that the global condemnation of the Iraqi war is valid proof of the international public's negative capability? In other words, have we really discovered how to work out a way of dealing with enormous complexity? Following Keats' argument that negative capability depends upon the sense of personal identity, and therefore it is out of reach of 'a man who cannot feel that he has a personal identity unless he has made up his mind about everything'(quoted in Trilling 1955:37), we should enquire whether the 'global public' is actually an entity that is strong and cohesive enough to do without 'the armour of systematic certainties' (Trilling 1955:37). Since 'only the self that is certain of its existence, of its identity' (Keats quoted in Trilling 1955:37) can accept living without certainties and be content with contradictory knowledges, we need to question the nature of the global consensus. My suspicion is that the global public is still lacking in a common identity and unity, therefore the global protest against the Iraqi war needs to be seen in less optimistic colours, namely, as rather an accidental decision and illusionary unity.

It seems that the perception of the global consensus is merely a mirage that covers up a wide range of various national responses to the war, which came together only by chance. Although there were anti-war marches in all major cities around the world, this image of unity should not lead us to overlook the evidence that these protests were mainly motivated by national conditions and problems. Despite the illusion of globalisation, the truth is that explanations of the nature of countries' responses to the war are rooted in national views and attitudes. Here, it is enough to mention the different motivations against the war that arose in Turkey, Palestine or Greece.

If we look at other examples of movements in which various forces come together, it becomes obvious that such movements' ability to act was created by the existence of 'a common enemy'. For example, the Polish Solidarity movement's unity crumbled once the system that it had united to oppose was swept away. The Solidarity, which was created in 1980 and became, with 6 million of Poles from all social groups joining in, a one of the largest social movements, expressed the nation's rejection of the communist rule. While the movement managed to survive the imposition of martial law (December 1981) and successfully run against the communist bloc in the first (almost) free election in 1989, the disappearance of the enemy, that is the end of the communist state, resulted in the Solidarity's fragmentation into more than twenty small quarrelsome parties and in the consequent decline of its importance (Misztal 1996). Also the anti-globalisation movement is held together only by the existence of a common enemy, that is, the process of globalisation, while the movements' members cannot agree on an alternative to it. In the same vein, it can be argued that the recent anti-war movement is held together only by its opposition to the military action against Iraq, while beyond that it has very little in common. Yet, probing further, we can ask what is about the communist rule, the process of globalisation or the Iraqi war that makes each of them into 'a common enemy'. It can be argued that what has made possible such a unity in public condemnations of these three phenomena is the availability of language or discourse in which people can express their opposition to each of them (communism , globalisation or war). In the case of the Solidarity it was a language of dignity /respect (Staniszkis 1984), in the case of anti-globalisation movement it is a rhetoric of anti-capitalism, while the underlying language of the anti-war movement is a human rights discourse.

While it is true that more than half of the population within the majority of European and non European countries (with the exception of the USA) was against the war, it has happened within the logic of the forced choice between human rights and the war. In other words, a paradoxical dilemma that, although we supposedly live in a global world, our the reactions to the war were dictated by local values and interests, has been solved with help of the human rights language. The same discourse of human rights was also used by supporters of the military action against the Iraqi war as they saw the war as being necessary to eliminate local and regional human rights abuses. The logic of each choice, the first between human rights and war (meaning here abuse of human rights) and the second choice between human rights (meaning here war) and tyranny (meaning here abuse of human rights) suggests that there is only one right option. To put it differently, it means there is no alternative to the human rights language. By looking at these two choices along side each other, we can notice that there are some problems with the discourse of human rights. We already know, as Zizek (2002:17) points out, that there is 'the wall separating those covered by the umbrella of human rights and those excluded from its protective cover'. Apart from this hidden truth of the discourse on universal human rights, there still seems to be another problem connected with the use of the language of human rights as a convenient ideology. Such an ideology helps us to reduce our feelings of responsibility towards less fortunate (because we have armed them with the language of human rights, they should be able to defend themselves) and to ease our guilt towards the other (as we are now in some way the victim as well, and not only because of September 11, but also because of the whole range of discrimination faced by all of us; from ageism to bullying).

While politics as it is practised forces us to make either/or choices (e.g. are you for or against war?), the issue cannot be reduced to 'are you in favour of human rights or not?' The self-congratulatory nature of the human rights language can be criticized not only for its emptiness, defensiveness or victimology, but also for not encouraging us to face many ambiguities and difficulties of weighing claims that cannot be judged without a detailed knowledge. Our task as academics should be to show that the choice is 'not that simple', that we all can benefit from the strengthening our negative capability or, in other words, from 'the empowerment that arises from the denial of whatever in our context delivers us over to a fixed scheme of division and hierarchy and to an enforced choice between routine and rebellion' (Unger 1987:279). It seems to me that judgements which are not accompanied by knowledge and careful thoughts could be emptied of all responsibility and could lead to escapist tendencies. Without questioning the centrality of judgment in the construction of understanding, I wonder whether a detailed knowledge is not equally important? Although we need to 'understand our own values, if we are to judge how we in particular have good reason to act' (Dunn 2000:106), we should also ask whether such a framework of judgement of politics is really sufficient and where to find reliable information.

These are important questions because when people try to grasp the significance of what has been occurring on the international stage solely on the basis of their own values and on the assumption that they understand the values of others (for example, as when they declare that Iraqi people love peace or hate tyranny), they run a risk that their opinions could become too simplistic. Naivety of our understanding of politics is not, however, a result of our unwillingness or a lack of attempts to inform ourselves. People listen to news, read newspapers and surf the Internet. They are, however, increasingly aware that the whole truth is not always disclosed and often manipulated. During the Iraqi crisis this message was confirmed by many main players, for example, by the arm inspectors, French diplomats and UK MPs, each of them telling us not to trust other actors (e.g., American and English officials or even the PM of Britain). Paradoxically, we supposedly live in an information society, while much of available information cannot be used as a basis of our action. At the same time, the less we know what is really going on, the less we understand it and the less likely we are to act, individually or collectively 'in a well-advised way' (Dunn 2000:93).

The growing complexity of information and the widespread distrust of such information have created a need for a new foundation for the development of political understanding and action. This demand has been satisfied with the help of the only really available, accepted and legitimate ideology, namely the human rights discourse. It is the language of human rights that has been used to justify and to establish people's judgement as the main framework for their understanding of politics. In other words, the imperialism of the human rights discourse (as Hobsbawm, 2003, calls it) has been made necessary because of both the growing complexity of information and the widespread distrust of such information. Here is yet another paradox; the less we trust politics in general, the more we tend to search for 'faces', or in other words, for individual politicians whom we can trust. This trend towards the personalisation of politics only further undermines our trust in politics. Therefore it can be said the process of personalization of politics can be seen as a trend which is both a factor behind and result of public distrust of politics. So, due to the growing significance of universalism of rights as a criterion of global co-existence in the context of the growing personalisation of politics, the human rights language has established itself as the dominant political discourse.

Observing several years ago the consequences of this trend in eastern Europe and Russia (where President Yeltsin provided a good illustration of the personalisation of politics), it became obvious to me that it is not a welcome development as it does not teach people to trust democratic institutions, weakens the effective functioning of institutions, allows individuals to be above criticism and it does enhance personal representation rather than grounded in the system. Today, as the role the citizen as spectator increases and the media focus people's attention on personal rather than public relations, politics in Western countries has also become more personalised (Bobbitt 2002). The most obvious example of the growing personalisation of politics is the fact that many people see President Bush as the single greatest threat to the peace world. Furthermore, when politics becomes personalised and its objects reduce to the subject of media obsession, the issue of political identity becomes rather problematic and complicated. For example, does John Howard's (the Australian Prime Minister) argumentation (which comes too close to the language of the 'clash of civilisations' to be acceptable to many Australians) speak for Australia? Or do Poles identify with Leszek Miller's (the Polish PM) support for the war (who saw it as a good opportunity to increase his own and the country's visibility on the international scene)? Another example of problems arising due to the personalization of politics is the British people's refusal to be convinced by Tony Blair' personal crusade to persuade them that the Iraqi state possessed weapons of mass destruction.

In today's post-Hobbesian age, which has begun with September 11, terror networks, such as those assembled by Osama bin Laden (which, according to Bobbitt , is a virtual state), threats from 'failed' states (or a 'rogue' states, as Americans prefer to call them) are new and unfamiliar dangers (Kagan 2002). However, states, as Kagan (2002) notes, are not designed to deal with these kinds of threats, therefore they try to fit the new threat back into the 'old frames'. Thus, we witnessed the Iraqi war and now, at the end of July 2003, Australia leads intervention in the Solomons. These actions have only been possible when the Iraq's problem and the islands' troubles have been redefined - in the light of the new doctrine which teaches that domestic chaos provides a breeding ground for terrorism - not just as a humanitarian issue but also as a security threat.

In reality, we do not have a clear idea how to deal with complexities of a new global, post-cold war world, while at the same time we cannot simply leave it to the government to decide what it best as it is going to need our support on whichever path it takes. 'Consequently, it is critical that we engage in a compressive and informed public debate and make a choice' (Pollack 2002:xiii). If our choice is against the war, we need, as Walzer (2003:4) notes, 'a complicated campaign against the war, whose participants are ready to acknowledge the difficulties and the costs of the politics'. In order to develop such ability we ought to build up the faculty of negative capability or, in other words, the capacity to live with uncertainties, ambiguities and complexities and the capacity to contain our emotions and too quick and unreflective judgements. Since this faculty depends upon the existence of a firm and strong self, we should nurture the development of the international public and its opinion. Such a cohesive global public's voice, its radical openness, tolerance and ability to learn, could provide the basis of any successful response to situations that make significant and complex demands on people. Secondly, what is required to campaign to defeat aggression is a project for the development of a strong international system. Only if we have a global public and an effectively working international system, will we be able to respond to threats in a non-simplistic way. How to develop an international opinion able to respond in complex ways to complex situations? Maybe, as the beginning, we should pay more attention to informal communication, as it plays an important role in public opinion and collective action formation because it 'pulls together the scattered critical potentials of a public that is only abstractedly held together by the public media and it helps this public have a political influence on institutionalised opinion' (Habermas 1996:382). Equally important is to enhance international cooperation by increasing importance and the effectiveness of the United Nations as a promoter of collective security. To sum up, the revitalization of the complex world of sociability and the enhancement of international cooperation, seen as the most productive ways in which we can overcome the inadequacy of our understanding of the complexities of the global world and reduce threats, are the essential steps towards the construction of the basis for the development of a global public capable of speaking in one voice.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003