Global Governance Diplomacy by Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux

★★★★☆ (4/5)

“Global Governance Diplomacy” by Jean-Robert is a book with academic overtures and can be read by students of International Relations and Diplomacy. The author largely delves into where diplomacy is accounted for in resolving global issues, rather than in the art of diplomacy itself. He talks in length about changes affecting contemporary diplomacy and reliance of global governance on different modes of diplomacy.

The expanding subject matter of international relations is also having an impact on the diplomatic process. A large variety of issues that used to be exclusively domestic, such as health care, education, and human rights, need to be addressed internationally, and nations need to turn to specialized personnel and experts to negotiate issues in these areas. For example, the global effort to control the spread of disease requires the participation of health care specialists or medical personnel in the diplomatic process. Experts become critical components of international negotiations.

The premise of the book simply states that globalization of world economies has globalized political and social issues too, whereby in the not so distant past, such issues were limited to national boundaries. The creation of United Nations and its Specialized Agencies have expedited the process of resolving international issues and have encouraged nation-states to collaborate and cooperate with each other to bring relief or remedy to ever-escalating problems. The book has sub-chapters dedicated to various UN bodies and regional organizations, their inception and history, their core functions, along with a brief outlook on their successes.

The author also highlights the importance of non-state actors in mediating on behalf of civil sector on international platforms and how diplomacy is no longer restricted to diplomats only. He asserts that contemporary diplomacy is also conducted by individuals belonging to varying fields such as health, education, food security, environment, drug control, migration and policing.

Where once diplomacy was relegated to aristocrats only, to negotiate and mediate on behalf of political governments on issues which were more or less political in nature too, modern diplomacy abounds in all sectors of political, social and economic life. Environmental diplomacy is perhaps the next big and logical step for state and non-state actors to delve into.

The struggle for development now involves environmental protection. It is a central part of global governance. A surprising number of issues have been alleviated even when some, like global warming, remain intractable.

All in all, Jean-Robert gives us a cursory glance on how diplomacy addresses international problems and the role it plays in resolving issues in an increasingly globalized world.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Definition of Diplomacy

  • The term diplomacy is used to identify a method of interaction between states or other international actors such as international organizations. It has to do, among other things, with maintaining contact, communicating, or negotiating.
  • Diplomacy also implies a mode of behavior, a certain professional style. It facilitates transactions across political boundaries and bridges many differences—political, ideological, cultural, and economic. The practice of diplomacy thus requires caution, tact, and circumspection, particularly when the issues at hand are of some delicacy.
  • The following must be added to the preceding qualities: adaptability—given the vast diversity of settings in which diplomacy is practiced—self-control, the ability to size up a situation (or one’s counterpart), and imagination—to create alternatives in conflicting situations.

International Problem Solving and Diplomacy

  • The world is confronted with an increasing number of international problems that cannot be solved single-handedly by states—for example, environmental degradation
  • They require continuing attention, that is, continuing international cooperation in dealing with them. Many situations require some form of international management to keep them from deteriorating and getting out of hand.
  • More and more specialized domestic departments are involved in this kind of international work, another consequence of interdependence and the blurring of the line between domestic and international functions. Despite the distance separating them and their cultural/political differences, these non–foreign service officials are likely to become colleagues with their foreign counterparts, developing diplomatic skills on the job without ever meeting face to face.
  • The greater need for international problem solving and the more complex nature of international society are likely not only to expand diplomatic interaction but to produce more innovations in the field.
  • A crisis anywhere can threaten the most prosperous countries. Drug traffic, organized crime, the migration of people in search of a decent existence, and so many other problems cannot be contained without concerted efforts on the part of a large number of states, and not just the rich and powerful, although, doubtless, they have more to contribute. This points to the globalization of international problem solving and calls for diplomatic efforts on an unprecedented scale.
  • National policies on migration are primarily formulated on the basis of national concerns (and public emotions), but it has human dimensions, which cannot be ignored.
  • The amount of diplomatic work is beyond quantification. Of course there is disagreement. But the opportunity for negotiations is unprecedented—in international organizations, in a growing number of conferences and consultations, and in response to NGOs more anxious than ever to play a role. The multiplication of international actors means that a greater diversity of initiatives is available to address international problems.

Ideology and Diplomacy

  • One modern complication in the practice of diplomacy is found in ideology although the problem varies with the values held and the extent to which decision makers are intent on the promotion of these norms.
  • Ideology has pernicious tendencies. In the name of dedication to a value system, it may encourage intolerance and create barriers. It may foster tunnel vision—an inability to perceive what is not encompassed by the ideology. In more extreme cases, international issues are seen exclusively through the distorting lens of the ideology. Moreover, ideological zeal tends to infuse an emotional dimension complicating dialogue. A confrontational style makes it more difficult to explore what can be done collectively.
  • Some international actors will use any international gathering to remind the world of their plight. Rationality no longer enters the picture. Single issue fixations are of course extremely detrimental to any form of diplomatic dialogue, no matter how legitimate the issues.
  • Geographical details are usually of great importance in convincing one’s opponents of the demands and limitations of given situations on the ground, or in deciding who will be allowed to enter specific areas and the resultant implications for the maintenance of cease-fires or the disengagement of military units.

Interdependence of Nations

  • Interdependence is at the root of globalization and globalization generates more interdependence. Russett, Starr, and Kinsella have identified globalization as “a process whereby economic, political, and cultural transactions are less and less constrained by national boundaries and the sovereign authority of national government.”
  • Another aspect of interdependence and globalization is the expansion of the diplomatic agenda. A multiplicity of issues that used to be confined to the domestic order must now be addressed internationally.
  • No nation state is self-sufficient; but some states are more sheltered from global influences than others.
  • Small states learned to unite in the decolonization process, in their search for development assistance and in their efforts to avoid being pawns in the Cold War.
  • In more severe cases of alienation, civil society groups have resorted to violent disorder, as in their opposition to globalization and to the work of the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.

International Organizations and Diplomacy

  • In addition, some non-sovereign territories are now occasionally invited to participate in international conferences. And some revolutionary movements are heard in international gatherings. Even when distrusted or seen as illegitimate, some of their representatives actually participate in the diplomatic process, as was the case with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
  • Great powers are probably more inclined to act unilaterally (even when they do not have to), seeing it as “taking the lead” in approaching questions of concern to them, perhaps inviting others to follow them or join them. They are often resented for not consulting other actors before embarking upon their own courses of action. It must be noted, however, that this kind of unilateral initiative may be the only mode of global governance available when apathy prevails, or when a deadlock prevents collective action. And it is true that there are situations in which collaborative approaches are not critical.
  • No organization will achieve the objectives of its founders if the member states fail to carry out their obligations. This is the instrumental dimension of international organizations—and member-state diplomacy is critical in this respect. States remain in the driver’s seat. Their diplomacy, the way they interact within the organization, is critical in the role international organizations will play in international affairs. This is the first condition for institutional effectiveness in global governance.
  • International organizations have given weak states the means to be heard, to take initiatives, and to participate in decision making. The formation of voting blocs gives them power.
  • None of the Asian regional organizations have a specific mandate to promote or protect human rights and a number of Asian countries are accused of serious human rights abuses by the international community and human rights organizations.
  • But nature is difficult to control when it comes to what generates natural disasters. The Hyogo strategy has to do with preparedness, conscious human action to reduce vulnerability, and mitigation of consequences. It seeks the development of institutions and mechanisms at all levels to address the issue and build resilience to hazards, as well as the inclusion of risk reduction in programs of emergency preparedness. It shows concern for early warning.

The Changing Nature of Diplomacy

  • Because of the expansion of the diplomatic agenda, states are increasingly using a multiplicity of executive agencies other than their foreign ministries in dealing with other states with regard to specialized issues of international governance.
  • Chief executives seldom relish the thought of failing in their negotiations and therefore try to determine in advance how much can be agreed upon.
  • Another reason for advance negotiations is that summits must remain relatively short
  • Symbolic summits, such as the 1992 Earth Summit, in which the bulk of the diplomatic work is done by the conference delegates before the arrival of the heads of state or government. The presence of the chief executives, in this case, is used to emphasize the significance of the event.
  • The involvement of departments other than foreign ministries in global governance is demonstrated also in the changing composition of the personnel of embassies in foreign capitals: a large number of specialized departments (e.g., justice or agriculture) station officers in the national embassy.
  • One important limitation of conference diplomacy is the relatively short time available for interaction.
  • Reconvening regularly can be seen as a kind of institutionalization of the conference. Some conferences may even be given a permanent Secretariat to prepare for the regular sessions.
  • One of the most challenging departures from traditional sovereign practices has been the Council of Europe’s judicial enforcement of its own human rights convention. The system is truly revolutionary in that the citizens of the member states (currently 47 of them with a population of more than 820 million) may bring cases even against their own governments for violating the convention.

International Law

  • Legal order is one of the foundations of international peace—perhaps maligned because of the many violations endured by the global legal system with seemingly no hope for international enforcement. The rule of law is nevertheless indispensable to the functioning of international society.
  • When two parties value their relationship but cannot find a negotiated solution to what is now dividing them, an impartial determination of what they are entitled to under the law can be a way out. In the name of their cordial relations, they pledge to accept whatever the law offers—not that they necessarily consider it right or desirable, but an impartial decision under the law can be accepted for the sake of their valued relationship.
  • In the early stages of a problem, taking preventive action may trigger the crisis it is trying to prevent. Early on, the UN found an alternative: international observation. This could take the form of international civilian or military observer groups to report what is happening. Keeping the situation under continuing observation can reveal the nature of the danger and how to respond.
  • Under international law, no state has a right to obtain custody from a state in which the fugitive is found. In the absence of a treaty of extradition, the host state is free to decide whether to return the individual or not. And most states are very cautious in helping foreign states exercise their criminal jurisdiction (because of different outlooks as to what a crime is and what punishment to apply).

The Role of NGOs

  • NGOs have been a major factor in this phenomenon. They mobilize opinion, exercise leadership, and thanks to digital technology, network around the world. NGOs are becoming more aggressive and resorting to their own diplomatic outreach to achieve their objectives, especially in international organizations.
  • The degree of openness and democracy in a given society is, of course, making a difference in NGO activity and individual participation. And so does local culture since some societies are more interested than others in activism and in joining volunteer organizations. And there are differences also in the degree of people’s international interests.
  • But representatives of states are still wary of NGOs and, toward the end of the preparatory process, may meet in closed informal sessions, leaving them out of the negotiations.
  • Local NGOs have intimate knowledge of the communities in which many projects are to be carried out and provide valuable assistance on the ground (at times beyond the capacity of the international agencies trying to address the problems at hand).
  • NGO contribution to the implementation of field projects has another dimension: helping donor countries and international organizations to channel development and humanitarian funds into less-developed countries. The funds are made available to NGOs to carry out local projects. With the spread of failed states and of governments whose administration is ineffective in parts of the country because of unrest or corruption, NGOs are given the means to provide social services, which these governments cannot offer.
  • NGOs fought out contentious issues among themselves, then took an agreed position to the national delegations on which they served. When NGO representatives could not reach agreement, they would communicate to their national delegations what the problem was and where a compromise might be found. This process led to a climate treaty.
  • The most remarkable partnership between states and NGOs led to the creation of the global treaty to ban antipersonnel landmines, which the UN itself had failed to do.
  • They are not normally major decision makers and often add a degree of complexity to global diplomacy—not necessarily constructive. Some NGOs, too, are out of touch with reality (but so are a number of other international actors, including states). NGOs give a voice to many people, which many decision makers are unwilling to hear.

The UN, its Subsidiary Bodies & Specialized Agencies

  • The UN is extensively involved in disaster relief and it endeavors to achieve global coordination of relief efforts. For that purpose, its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva has created the Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Center (Virtual OSOCC), whose main object, through the ReliefWeb site, is to facilitate decision making for a widespread response to disasters around the world, by means of near real-time information exchange, among all international actors involved in such operations, including a variety of international organizations, governments, and NGOs.
  • Before the UN was created, the Allies launched independent Specialized Agencies eventually to be linked to the UN. This approach continued even after the UN was established. The Charter of the World Health Organization (WHO) was drafted in 1946 and became operational in 1948.
  • Each WHO representative has diplomatic status and enjoys diplomatic privileges and immunities. Significantly, the WHO representative is a trained physician and does not have the nationality of the host country, literally a new kind of health diplomat.
  • Given the magnitude of this devastating pandemic, the ECOSOC established UNAIDS in 1994, a coalition of ten, eventually eleven, UN institutions, identified as “co-sponsors.” They are as follows: the UNHCR, UNICEF, the WFP, the UNDP, the UN Fund for Population Activities, UN Women, the UNODC, the ILO, UNESCO, the WHO, and the World Bank. Launching UNAIDS was tantamount to the establishment of a new agency with an unconventional structure. Its effectiveness is dependent upon these eleven institutions working together, hence, the importance of their diplomatic process.
  • The Universal Declaration is very comprehensive and straightforward in its presentation of universal human rights. It includes civil and political rights, for example, freedom of expression, the right of assembly, and the right to take part in government (Articles 19–21); legal rights such as equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and the right of due process of law (Articles 7–11); personal rights, including freedom of movement, the right to found a family with the free and full consent of the intending spouses, and the right to own property (Articles 12–18); economic rights, among them, the right to work (free from any discrimination), the right to rest, and the right to join labor unions (Articles 22–25); and finally, social and cultural rights, including the right to education and to participate in cultural life (Articles 26–28). The Universal Declaration also clarifies that “everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible” (Article 29).
  • Moscow Mechanism, which allows the establishment of ad hoc missions of independent experts to assist in the resolution of human rights issues. In extreme situations, an investigation may be carried out without the consent of the state in question.

Multinational Corporations

  • Multinational corporations (MNCs), also called transnational corporations at the UN, have long been controversial. They are economically powerful and their number has grown dramatically. They can strengthen the economy of underdeveloped countries, bring badly needed capital, provide technology, employment, training, and increase production and trade. But they often do it without taking into account the special needs of these countries. Increasing their profits is of course their main objective. They do not hesitate to use their enormous power to force host states to do whatever serves their purpose, even exploiting them. They stifle local competition, inhibit local infant industry, and export their profits. Their technology and modus operandi may even be ill-suited to the local economy.
  • Companies currently spend one-third of all sales revenue on marketing their products, roughly twice what they spend on research and development

For a Left Populism by Chantal Mouffe

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Perhaps it is verbose and pedantic in its style and treatment, but this brief book is a staggering eye-opener for those who find themselves enmeshed in and confused by contemporary political airs. It makes a case for appropriating the word “Populism” within the Leftist spectrum, in accordance with core ideals and foundational values of democracy. Chantal also asserts that the relative “otherness” of Right-wingers must neither be completely erased or stifled, nor be ignored. Rather, Leftists should recognize these divisions as being fundamental to the democratic process and view the Right as adversaries, not enemies.

The author also highlights the unintended consequences of a post-political world where true democratic ideals have perished under the weight of mercenary callings, hyper-individualism and corporatism. Gradual erosion of liberal democracy is not only owed to the rise of the Right-wing but also to duplicitous misgivings by Liberals and Leftists – those who ceded ideas of equality and popular sovereignty in lieu of second-hand power and construction of an abstract enemy.

This is a dense read, especially for a novice. But the author’s stance is worthy of further deliberation, even if the reader disagrees. And that is the essence of intelligent discourse.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Definitions

  • Anti-essentialist theoretical approach that asserts that society is always divided and discursively constructed through hegemonic practice
  • Laclau defines populism as a discursive strategy of constructing a political frontier dividing society into two camps and calling for the mobilization of the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power’.
  • Neoliberalism is the term currently used to refer to this new hegemonic formation which, far from being limited to the economic domain, also connotes a whole conception of society and of the individual grounded on a philosophy of possessive individualism.
  • The ‘populist moment’, therefore, is the expression of a variety of resistances to the political and economic transformations seen during the years of neoliberal hegemony.
  • ‘Post-democracy’, first proposed by Colin Crouch, signals the decline in the role of parliaments and the loss of sovereignty that is the consequence of neoliberal globalization.

Demise of Democratic Values and Post Politics

  • According to this perspective, that we called ‘class essentialism’, political identities were the expression of the position of the social agents in the relations of production and their interests were defined by this position. It was no surprise that such a perspective was unable to understand demands that were not based on ‘class’.
  • Multiple struggles for emancipation are founded on the plurality of social agents and of their struggles.
  • By claiming that the adversarial model of politics and the left/right opposition had become obsolete, and by celebrating the ‘consensus at the centre’ between centre-right and centre-left, the so-called ‘radical centre’ promoted a technocratic form of politics according to which politics was not a partisan confrontation but the neutral management of public affairs.
  • On the one hand, the tradition of political liberalism: the rule of law, the separation of powers and the defence of individual freedom; on the other hand, the democratic tradition, whose central ideas are equality and popular sovereignty.
  • With the demise of the democratic values of equality and popular sovereignty, the agonistic spaces where different projects of society could confront each other have disappeared and citizens have been deprived of the possibility of exercising their democratic rights.
  • As a result the role of parliaments and institutions that allow citizens to influence political decisions has been drastically reduced. Elections no longer offer any opportunity to decide on real alternatives through the traditional ‘parties of government’. The only thing that post-politics allows is a bipartisan alternation of power between centre-right and centre-left parties. All those who oppose the ‘consensus in the centre’ and the dogma that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalization are presented as ‘extremists’ or disqualified as ‘populists’. Politics therefore has become a mere issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved for experts, and popular sovereignty has been declared obsolete.
  • By drawing a frontier between the ‘people’ and the ‘political establishment’, they were able to translate into a nationalistic vocabulary the demands of the popular sectors who felt excluded from the dominant consensus.
  • Although such protest movements have certainly played a role in the transformation of political consciousness, it is only when they have been followed by structured political movements, ready to engage with political institutions, that significant results have been achieved.
  • They cannot recognize that many of the demands articulated by right-wing populist parties are democratic demands, to which a progressive answer must be given.

To stop the rise of right-wing populist parties

“It is necessary to design a properly political answer through a left populist movement that will federate all the democratic struggles against post-democracy. Instead of excluding a priori the voters of right-wing populist parties as necessarily moved by atavistic passions, condemning them to remain prisoners of those passions forever, it is necessary to recognize the democratic nucleus at the origin of many of their demands. A left populist approach should try to provide a different vocabulary in order to orientate those demands towards more egalitarian objectives. This does not mean condoning the politics of right-wing populist parties, but refusing to attribute to their voters the responsibility for the way their demands are articulated.”

Right-wing populism vs. Left populism

  • Right-wing populism claims that it will bring back popular sovereignty and restore democracy, but this sovereignty is understood as ‘national sovereignty’ and reserved for those deemed to be true ‘nationals’. Right-wing populists do not address the demand for equality and they construct a ‘people’ that excludes numerous categories, usually immigrants, seen as a threat to the identity and the prosperity of the nation.
  • Left populism on the contrary wants to recover democracy to deepen and extend it. A left populist strategy aims at federating the democratic demands into a collective will to construct a ‘we’, a ‘people’ confronting a common adversary: the oligarchy.
  • We are living through a ‘populist moment’. This is the expression of resistances against the post-democratic condition brought about by thirty years of neoliberal hegemony. This hegemony has now entered into crisis and this is creating the opportunity for the establishment of a new hegemonic formation. This new hegemonic formation could be either more authoritarian or more democratic, depending on how those resistances are going to be articulated and the type of politics through which neoliberalism will be challenged.

On Economic Liberty & Democracy

  • To apprehend the nature of the Keynesian welfare state as a hegemonic formation, it is necessary to acknowledge that, although it played a crucial role in subordinating the reproduction of the labour force to the needs of capital, it also laid the conditions for the emergence of a new type of social rights and profoundly transformed democratic common sense, giving legitimacy to a set of demands for economic equality. In several countries, the strength of the trade unions allowed the consolidation of social rights.
  • In his report to the Trilateral Commission in 1975, Samuel Huntington declared that the struggles in the 60s for greater equality and participation had produced a ‘democratic surge’ that had made society ‘ungovernable’. He concluded that ‘the strength of the democratic ideal poses a problem for the governability of democracy.’
  • According to Hayek, the idea of democracy is secondary to the idea of individual liberty, so that a defence of economic liberty and private property replaces a defence of equality as the privileged value in a liberal society.

Gramsci’s Influence

  • Gramsci calls ‘hegemony through neutralization’ or ‘passive revolution’. By that, he refers to a situation where demands that challenge the hegemonic order are recuperated by the existing system, satisfying them in a way that neutralizes their subversive potential.
  • Indeed, Gramsci suggested such a path when he asserted that it was ‘not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s individual life, but of renovating and making “critical” an already existing activity’.
  • To abandon the productivist model and to implement the necessary ecological transition will require a truly Gramscian ‘intellectual and moral reform’.

Strategy and Objectives of Left Populism

  • The strategy of left populism seeks the establishment of a new hegemonic order within the constitutional liberal-democratic framework and it does not aim at a radical break with pluralist liberal democracy and the foundation of a totally new political order. Its objective is the construction of a collective will, a ‘people’ apt to bring about a new hegemonic formation that will reestablish the articulation between liberalism and democracy that has been disavowed by neoliberalism, putting democratic values in the leading role.
  • In democratic societies, further crucial democratic advances could be carried out through a critical engagement with the existing institutions.
  • Clearly articulating democracy with equal rights, social appropriation of the means of production and popular sovereignty will command a very different politics and inform different socioeconomic practices than when democracy was articulated with the free market, private property and unfettered individualism.
  • In our post-political times the difference between left and right is usually envisaged in terms of a ‘cleavage’–that is, as a type of division which is not structured by an antagonism but signals a mere difference of position. Understood in that way, the left/right distinction is not suited to a project of radicalization of democracy. It is only when it is envisaged in terms of frontier, indicating the existence of an antagonism between the respective positions and the impossibility of a ‘centre position’, that this difference is formulated in a properly political way. I believe that this ‘frontier effect’ is more difficult to convey with notions like ‘progressive’ or ‘democratic’ populism and that ‘left’ populism brings more clearly to the fore the existence of an antagonism between the people and the oligarchy without which a hegemonic strategy cannot be formulated.

On Leadership

  • ‘Leadership’ must be constantly subordinated to the multitude, deployed and dismissed as occasion dictates. If leaders are still necessary and possible in this context, it is only because they serve the productive multitude. This is not an elimination of leadership, then, but an inversion of the political relationship that constitutes it.
  • The leader can be conceived of as a primus inter pares (a first among equals) and it is perfectly possible to establish a different type of relation, less vertical between the leader and the people.

On Agonistic Confrontation – Adversary not Enemy

  • The main problem with existing representative institutions is that they do not allow for the agonistic confrontation between different projects of society which is the very condition of a vibrant democracy. It is this lack of an agonistic confrontation, not the fact of representation, which deprives the citizens of a voice. The remedy does not lie in abolishing representation but in making our institutions more representative. This is indeed the objective of a left populist strategy.
  • What is important is that conflict when it arises does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries). The agonistic confrontation is different from the antagonistic one, not because it allows for a possible consensus, but because the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is perceived as legitimate.

On the Construction of a People

  • A relation of equivalence is not one in which all differences collapse into identity but in which differences are still active. If such differences were eliminated, that would not be equivalence but a simple identity.
  • To partake in a ‘we’ of radical democratic citizens does not preclude participation in a variety of other ‘we’s’.
  • Once we acknowledge the dimension of ‘the political’, we begin to realize that one of the main challenges for pluralist liberal-democratic politics consists in trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations so as to make human coexistence possible. Indeed, the fundamental question is not how to arrive at a consensus reached without exclusion, because this would require the construction of a ‘we’ that would not have a corresponding ‘they’. This is impossible because the very condition for the constitution of a ‘we’ is the demarcation of a ‘they’.

Three kinds of politics within the Left

  1. ‘Pure Reformism’ that accepts both the principles of legitimacy of liberal democracy and the existing neoliberal hegemonic social formation.
  2. ‘Radical Reformism’ that accepts the principles of legitimacy but attempts to implement a different hegemonic formation.
  3. ‘Revolutionary Politics’ seeks a total rupture with the existing sociopolitical order.

Point of divergence on “State” between the different forms of ‘Left’ politics

  • Reformist view envisages the state as a neutral institution whose role is to reconcile the interests of the various social groups and the revolutionary one sees it as an oppressive institution that has to be abolished
  • Radical reformist perspective addresses the question of the state in a different way. Taking its bearings from Gramsci, it conceives the state as a crystallization of the relations of forces and as a terrain of struggle. It is not a homogeneous medium but an uneven set of branches and functions, only relatively integrated by the hegemonic practices that take place within it.

No relationship between Political and Economic Liberalism

  • Despite the claim of many liberal theorists that political liberalism necessarily entails economic liberalism and that a democratic society requires a capitalist economy, it is clear that there is no necessary relationship between capitalism and liberal democracy. It is unfortunate that Marxism has contributed to this confusion by presenting liberal democracy as the superstructure of capitalism.
  • The process of radicalizing democracy necessarily includes an anti-capitalist dimension as many of the forms of subordination that will need to be challenged are the consequences of capitalist relations of production.
  • People do not fight against ‘capitalism’ as an abstract entity because they believe in a ‘law of history’ leading to socialism. It is always on the basis of concrete situations that they are moved to act. If they struggle for equality it is because their resistances to various forms of domination are informed by democratic values and it is around those values, addressing their actual aspirations and subjectivities, and not in the name of anti-capitalism, that people can be mobilized.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Points to Contemplate

  • The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.—NDT
  • The laws of physics prescribing the formation of these spectral signatures on the Sun were the same laws operating on Earth, ninety-three million miles away.
  • Science thrives not only on the universality of physical laws but also on the existence and persistence of physical constants.
  • In Germany before World War II, laboratory-based physics far outranked theoretical physics in the minds of most Aryan scientists. Jewish physicists were all relegated to the lowly theorists’ sandbox and left to fend for themselves.
  • Invoking the military edict “trust but verify,” the U.S. deployed a new series of satellites, the Velas, to scan for gamma ray bursts that would result from Soviet nuclear tests. The satellites indeed found bursts of gamma rays, almost daily. But Russia wasn’t to blame. These came from deep space—and were later shown to be the calling card of intermittent, distant, titanic stellar explosions across the universe, signaling the birth of gamma ray astrophysics, a new branch of study in my field.
  • These findings tell us it’s conceivable that life began on Mars and later seeded life on Earth, a process known as panspermia. So all Earthlings might—just might—be descendants of Martians.
  • The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their “low contracted prejudices.” And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment—until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace, rather than fear, the cosmic perspective.

Fascinating Stellar Space

  • One of the most distant (known) objects in the universe is not a quasar but an ordinary galaxy, whose feeble light has been magnified significantly by the action of an intervening gravitational lens. We may henceforth need to rely upon these “intergalactic” telescopes to peer where (and when) ordinary telescopes cannot reach, and thus reveal the future holders of the cosmic distance record.
  • If omega is less than one, the actual mass-energy falls below the critical value, and the universe expands forever in every direction for all of time, taking on the shape of a saddle, in which initially parallel lines diverge. If omega equals one, the universe expands forever, but only barely so. In that case the shape is flat, preserving all the geometric rules we learned in high school about parallel lines. If omega exceeds one, parallel lines converge, and the universe curves back on itself, ultimately recollapsing into the fireball whence it came.
  • There is no distance where the force of gravity reaches zero.
  • And if a planet is teeming with flora and fauna, its atmosphere will be rich with biomarkers—spectral evidence of life. Whether biogenic (produced by any or all life-forms), anthropogenic (produced by the widespread species Homo sapiens), or technogenic (produced only by technology), such rampant evidence will be hard to conceal.

Scientific Nuggets

  • If all mass has gravity, does all gravity have mass? We don’t know.
  • Einstein’s general theory of relativity, put forth in 1916, gives us our modern understanding of gravity, in which the presence of matter and energy curves the fabric of space and time surrounding it.
  • Later still, the electroweak force split into the electromagnetic and the “weak nuclear” forces, laying bare the four distinct forces we have come to know and love: with the weak force controlling radioactive decay, the strong force binding the atomic nucleus, the electromagnetic force binding molecules, and gravity binding bulk matter.
  • And you’ll never catch a quark all by itself; it will always be clutching other quarks nearby. In fact, the force that keeps two (or more) of them together actually grows stronger the more you separate them—as if they were attached by some sort of subnuclear rubber band. Separate the quarks enough, the rubber band snaps and the stored energy summons E = mc2 to create a new quark at each end, leaving you back where you started.
  • Today, we’ve settled on the moniker “dark matter,” which makes no assertion that anything is missing, yet nonetheless implies that some new kind of matter must exist, waiting to be discovered.
  • “Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move.”
  • This means something quite simple: if you split iron atoms via fission, they will absorb energy. And if you combine iron atoms via fusion, they will also absorb energy.
  • The planet Jupiter, with its mighty gravitational field, bats out of harm’s way many comets that would otherwise wreak havoc on the inner solar system. Jupiter acts as a gravitational shield for Earth, a burly big brother, allowing long (hundred-million-year) stretches of relative peace and quiet on Earth. Without Jupiter’s protection, complex life would have a hard time becoming interestingly complex, always living at risk of extinction from a devastating impact.

Absolutism – the very phenomenon which Scientists oft rage against

  • after the laws of physics, everything else is opinion.
  • The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is not solely the provenance of the scientist. It belongs to everyone. The cosmic perspective is humble. The cosmic perspective is spiritual—even redemptive—but not religious. The cosmic perspective enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small. The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that our brains spill out, making us susceptible to believing anything we’re told. The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another. The cosmic perspective shows Earth to be a mote. But it’s a precious mote and, for the moment, it’s the only home we have. The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae, but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them. The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and a mate. The cosmic perspective reminds us that in space, where there is no air, a flag will not wave—an indication that perhaps flag-waving and space exploration do not mix. The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • But in the beginning, during the Planck era, the large was small, and we suspect there must have been a kind of shotgun wedding between the two. Alas, the vows exchanged during that ceremony continue to elude us, and so no (known) laws of physics describe with any confidence the behavior of the universe over that time.
  • What we know is that the matter we have come to love in the universe—the stuff of stars, planets, and life—is only a light frosting on the cosmic cake, modest buoys afloat in a vast cosmic ocean of something that looks like nothing.
  • Not only is the solar system scarred by the flotsam of its formation, but nearby interplanetary space also contains rocks of all sizes that were jettisoned from Mars, the Moon, and Earth by the ground’s recoil from high-speed impacts.
  • Jupiter’s moon Europa has enough H2O that its heating mechanism—the same one at work on Io—has melted the subsurface ice, leaving a warmed ocean below. If ever there was a next-best place to look for life, it’s here. (An artist coworker of mine once asked whether alien life forms from Europa would be called Europeans. The absence of any other plausible answer forced me to say yes.)
  • When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets, each one a pirouetting dancer in a cosmic ballet, choreographed by the forces of gravity, sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard for the delicate interplay of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land, with consequences that our children and our children’s children will witness and pay for with their health and well-being.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Calpurnia’s Insightful Observations

  • “There’s nothing creepy about it. It’s scientific interest. Backy Medlin looks kind of decrepit to me. How old is he, do you reckon?”
  • Backy’s name came from his prodigious use of chewing tobacco and his poor aim at the spittoon. He spat frequently, randomly, mightily. A constant foul brown rain pattered down on the dust around him, and you had to keep a sharp lookout.
  • There was one strange thing about her that I found fascinating: She always had a delicate mist of perspiration across the bridge of her nose, winter or summer. It was barely enough to moisten a fingertip, but when you wiped it away, it immediately reappeared. This sounds unattractive, but it was entertaining rather than off-putting. As a small child, I would stand there and dab it away and watch it return for as long as she would let me. There seemed to be no explanation for it.
  • My next job was to keep an eye on the two dozen or so babies who played in the yard between the house and the outside kitchen while their mothers worked the fields, and to make sure they didn’t get pecked by the busy, officious hens who were aggrieved by this invasion of their normal habitat. I was not happy with this unpaid duty, either, especially when I had to watch Sam Houston and Lamar prance off to the gin and come home with money.
  • Now, fainting. There’s a subject I’d always wondered about. The heroines in books seemed to faint a lot, swaying genteelly onto a handy padded couch or into the convenient arms of some concerned suitor. These heroines were always willowy and managed to land in graceful postures of repose, and were revived with the merest passing of a decorated flagon of smelling salts under their noses. I, on the other hand, apparently went over like a felled ox and was lucky to land on the grass and avoid cracking my head open.
  • Ahead of me lay perfection. Could I stand it? Could I bear to mar it with my presence? I could. I had to have this gift of the moment—this great gift of the new century—to myself for one more minute, a few more precious seconds, before the bustle and shouts and tracks of the others shattered it forever.

On Family

  • Mother disliked Petey’s presence but tolerated him because he would eventually turn into something beautiful. Mother yearned for Beauty in her life
  • My mother had got one girl out of seven tries at it. I guess I wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind, a dainty daughter to help her bail against the rising tide of the rough-and-tumble boyish energy that always threatened to engulf the house. It hadn’t occurred to me that she’d been hoping for an ally and then didn’t get one.
  • But my mother’s life was a never-ending round of maintenance. Not one single thing did she ever achieve but that it had to be done all over again, one day or one week or one season later. Oh, the monotony.

On Nature & Science

  • It would have been an ordeal to push my way through it except that the regular river patrons—dogs, deer, brothers—kept a narrow path beaten down through the treacherous sticker burrs that rose as high as my head and snatched at my hair and pinafore as I folded myself narrow to slide by.
  • What if it had gotten out? Had I tightened the lid on the jar after opening it the last time? What if it was flying loose around the room? Then I caught myself. Calpurnia Virginia Tate. You’re being ridiculous. Are you a Scientist or aren’t you? Come on, now. It’s. Only. A. Moth.

Wise Gems

  • And when something is all you know, it’s easy to stand it.
  • I didn’t feel like sharing, and I didn’t feel like explaining. They had their own lives. And now I have mine, I thought, exulting as I ran.
  • It is better to travel with hope in one’s heart than to arrive in safety.
  • It was more important to understand something than to like it. Liking wasn’t necessary for understanding. Liking didn’t enter into it.
  • “Plato said all science begins with astonishment.”

To Contemplate

  • If no one around me even understood the question, then it couldn’t be answered. And if it couldn’t be answered, I was doomed to the distaff life of only womanly things. I was depressed right into the ground.
  • Why waste time “playing,” as I’d been ordered, when I could spend some valuable time with Granddaddy? He didn’t find me dangerous when I wondered about something. In fact, he encouraged it.
  • Where had all the abounding life gone? The lack of living things made the landscape both beautiful and menacing.
  • Sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day, or at least take off some of the shine.

Marvellous World Building

  • The little boys actually managed to sleep at midday, sometimes even piled atop one another like damp, steaming puppies. The men who came in from the fields and my father, back from his office at the cotton gin, slept too, first dousing themselves with tin buckets of tepid well water on the sleeping porch before falling down on their rope beds as if poleaxed.
  • They had banded together to fill in the bare spots on the globe and to pull the country out of the morass of superstition and backward thinking in which it floundered after the War Between the States. All of this was heady news of a world far removed from hankies and thimbles, patiently delivered to me under a tree amidst the drowsing bees and nodding wildflowers.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • Petey, with a mighty effort, launched himself into the air and in that split second was transformed from an ungainly land-bound dweller into something else, a creature of the wind, a citizen of the air.
  • I leaned against the wall and stood there, empty, for a long time. Empty of everything. I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.
  • Travis had driven us, and the fair organizers, mad with his obsessive checking and rechecking that Bunny was entered in the rabbit/fur competition and not the rabbit/meat competition.
  • I contemplated my chances and fanned a dim ember of hope in my heart as I sat in the sun, reeking like a giant match.
  • My thoughts scattered in all directions like undisciplined troops facing their first fire, and it took me a moment to marshal them.
  • Finally, just when I thought I would pass out, I shoved my way through the last ring of spectators and there it was, in all its dazzling glory, something never seen before: a carriage without a horse. How to describe it? It looked like speed incarnate, its every line carved by the wind. There were the shining brass appointments, the gracefully curved mudflap, the tufted black leather seat.
  • Great fatigue washed over me like a tidal wave, drowning my anger. I was too tired to fight anymore. I did the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. I reached down into the depths of my being, and I dredged up the beginnings of a watery smile.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

The Penderwick sisters, along with their dog Hound, are on vacations in Arundel. Their mischiefs and well-intentioned albeit poorly thought-out plans carve their summers, all in the shadow of the terrifying Mrs. Tifton and her lovely but somewhat estranged boy Jeffrey whom the sisters befriend.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • But this was Skye. She only thought, I need a way through the hedge, and here it is. And then she plunged.
  • “Besides, Cagney says the bull’s more dumb than mean. It’s not right to shoot someone because they’re not intelligent,” said Jeffrey.
  • Poor bull. He had simply wanted to quietly munch daisies in the sunshine, and now his private paradise was full of active and extremely noisy creatures. He hadn’t the wits for it.
  • She knew that hearing bad things about yourself is one of the punishments for eavesdropping. Her father had taught her that a long time ago. Her wonderful father.
  • “People sometimes make unexpected choices when they’re lonely,”
  • This is what made a book great, she thought, that you could read it over and over and never get tired of it.
  • “Good-bye, white bedroom,” said Skye. “Good-bye, secret passage in the closet,” said Batty. “Good-bye, dearest Jeffrey and Churchie and summer and magic and adventure and all that’s wonderful in life,” said Jane.
  • “Are you all right?” she asked. “No.” “Endings are sad, aren’t they?” “Yes.”