Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading Trump's Foreign Policy with Bourdieu-ian eyes

A good understanding of Pierre Bourdieu's differentiation between a state of 'symbolic violence' and a state of 'orthodoxy' can help us understand an important dimension of the various dispositions already exhibited by the Trump administration in the domain of foreign policy. The centring of the idea of 'America first', the willingness to engage in an exhibitionist flexing of muscles and the cultivation of an aura of unpredictability.
States of symbolic violence and states of orthodoxy are for Bourdieu two states of domination.
They differ first of all in degree. A state of symbolic violence entails a far more complete domination than a state of orthodoxy. 
If you are representing, upholding and defending a way of living A with a set of beliefs x, y, z and you are struggling against someone representing, upholding and defending a way of living B with a set of beliefs a, b, c. You have a state of symbolic violence when your way of living A and your beliefs x, y, z so decimate the way of living B and the beliefs associated with it that the latter become insignificant. Symbolic violence is a state where a dominant reality and a dominant set of beliefs dominate so completely that they stop being perceived as dominant, they become the norm, what goes without saying, the way things are, 'common sense' as Gramsci would say. It's like when you ask someone for the date in a western or westernised country today and they say it is 18 April 2017, they will not say 'It's 18 April according to the Gregorian Calendar'. Not many think of that date as embodying the history of the domination of the Gregorian over the Julian Calendar or the solar over the lunar calendar. A date is the end result of a long history of domination of a particular way of thinking the date that becomes so dominant that it successfully hides its history as a process of domination. It does so by absenting any alternative reality and beliefs from its orbit so much so that it becomes just the norm.  We can look at the colonisation of Australia, Canada and the US as a way in which a European mode of life displaces and eradicates indigenous ways of life to the extent that the latter becomes largely invisible and insignificant (except in a limited touristic way) and a European way of life becomes so dominant that it is perceived to be the norm. Your everyday tourist to Sydney will not experience the Europeanness of Sydney as the end result of a history of domination, extraction and colonisation. Symbolic violence is a violence that hides its original violence such as it no longer appears as violent domination. Its when your order of things becomes the order of things such that when you are defending your own particular interests you are defending 'the order of things' and vice versa.
A state of orthodoxy for Bourdieu is a lesser complete mode of domination. It is still a mode of domination, to be sure where there are dominant ways of life and beliefs and minor/dominated ways of life and beliefs. However, in a state of orthodoxy the dominant never manages to 'naturalise' their way of life (to make them look as if they are natural, unquestionable and normal). It is a state of orthodoxy because there is a significant heterodoxy which is continually challenging those who are dominating. It is not that it stops them from dominating but a heterodoxy is nonetheless always there, in the way, stopping an orthodoxy from dominating so much that it no longer appears as if it is dominating. In a state of orthodoxy, the dominant order of things is not experienced as 'the' order of things but as the dominant's order of things, and when the dominant's defend their interest they appear as doing exactly that: defending their interest.
In what way is this helpful to understand Trump's foreign policy orientation in the world? For a long time, the United States acted in the world as if it was aiming for, and upholding, a state of symbolic violence. It wanted and tried to achieve, and acted as if it had achieved, a state where its interests and its order of things became perceived as the order of things, where it's order became the 'world order'. This has never been completely successful nor has it been a linear history of success. It can be said that the American capacity to define the 'world order' has fluctuated between a state of symbolic violence and a state of orthodoxy. US presidents have always vacillated from being the upholders of an international state of symbolic violence to upholders of a state of orthodoxy.
When Trump says 'America First', only the most naive would think that before that declaration US foreign policy was 'America Second'. Of course it has always been 'American First'. Nonetheless, it would be equally naive not to note that in explicitly declaring 'America First' one is changing the way in which the policy of having America first is being pursued and the way 'America's firstness' in the world is being conceived. What we are seeing is a clear move from a politics of symbolic violence to a politics of orthodoxy, form saying I want to protect 'the world order'  knowing very well that the world order is precisely your order writ large to saying I want to protect myself and my interests in the world come what may.
The modality of rule in, that is, the ways to uphold, a state of symbolic violence and a state of orthodoxy are very different. The mode of rule in a state of symbolic violence is in a sense quite perverse because the dominant assumes both the position of a fighter in the ring and the position of the referee. You act as if you are regulating the game while at the same time fighting to win the game. You have to look at your enemy both horizontally, face to face the way fighters face each other, and top down as a regulator, the way a 'world's sheriff' is supposed to look at a conflict. your wars are always fluctuating between a warring and a policing operation: it is never clear whether you are fighting a war that looks like a police operation or a police operation that looks like a war. The mode of fighting to maintain one's dominance as an orthodoxy does away with the transcendental, policing, position. You therefore can shed your 'reasonable' aura necessary for someone who acts as a judge and a regulator. you become a pure fighter needing to flex your muscles and exhibit your power in a different way. If as a regulator of world affairs you need to exhibit wisdom, establish and be seen to be following rules and regulations, as a warrior you need to be unpredictable: one cannot fight if one's enemy knows what one's moves are going to be well ahead. It is hardly surprising that this is precisely what we are seeing Trump doing today.
From Bush to Obama we have a series of presidents who have been confronting a clear decline in the capacity of institutionalising American power in the form of symbolic violence. And while the United States' dominance of world affairs is unquestionable, its mode and degree of dominance certainly is. Obama was the last president trying to maintain the aura of a world policeman while US power is clearly no longer projecting itself as 'world order'. That is Obama is the last president to act as if the US was presiding over an institutionalisation of symbolic violence while it is in fact struggling to dominate as an orthodoxy.  Trump, on the other hand, is the first to assume responsibility for this state of orthodoxy. In this sense he is more of a realist than the presidents who preceded him. This mode of accepting a far more realist sense of the kind of domination that the US is capable of exercising in the world might end up being one of the defining dimensions of international politics in the first half of this century.