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5 Questions with Professor James Dunkerley

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In our second interview for the 5 Questions series, Simon Reid-Henry talks to Professor James Dunkerley, Professor of Politics, about Robinson Crusoe, political suicides, and populism in Latin America and elsewhere.

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IHSS: You’ve been writing and teaching about politics in relation to Latin America in particular for more than four decades, covering a great variety of countries and topics. In 2001, the year we were all fretting about what the new millennium would look like, relieved that Y2K had not come to pass and unaware of 9/11 shortly to arrive, you published a book, Americana: the Americas in the World Around 1850, which eloquently shows how much of what we take for the complexities of our “global” age today was alive and well in the mid-19th century. More recently you co-authored a book, with Jean-Francois Drolet, that breaks open the old realist-idealist preoccupation by foregrounding issues of religion, race and domestic political experience as formative elements of US foreign policy. For all its diversity, however, one thing cutting across much of your work is an interest in the prospects for progressive political movements. I wanted to start by asking if you think there is anything different about the institutional articulation of progressive political ideas in the current moment in the Americas? Does the establishment of something like the Quincy Institute, for example, represent a shift in the way that American foreign policy is reflected upon within the US domestic environment?

JD: The goal that animated Americana was to demonstrate how relatively recently 'exceptionalism' transitioned from US political rhetoric, where elements were evident even before the establishment of the republic, to everyday life. The quality of life, pattern of behaviour, and movement of goods, ideas and peoples in the Americas of the 1850s was pretty much of a type. Edward Thompson's term 'the condescension of posterity' is sometimes over-used, so I set out to provide a ‘thick description’, showing rather than telling, narrating rather than arguing. Some found the book short on explanation, which was paradoxically satisfying although not really a career game-changer for a supposed social scientist. Luckily for me, Eric Hobsbawm got the idea and wrote a nice review for the BBC. That was just as well because the title was pretty soon airbrushed out of the Verso catalogue. I can understand why, though. If I was to follow through on a pointilliste hemispheric portrait I needed to provide extensive quotation and immerse the reader in as many factors of the era that the written word could convey. I tried to do this by adopting a 19th-century voicing in my own prose and by interspersing conventional themes, such as culture, political economy, and war with edited transcripts from court cases, not least to demonstrate that the wise trying of a case is not synonymous with the values and aspirations of liberal democracy; discerning judgment is not the exclusive property of our era. I chose cases from Ireland, which I took to be an American country in the wrong continent, the USA, where Louisiana could also be said to have a spatio-cultural mismatch, and Bolivia, which only acquired its present name in 1825 and has experienced a secessionist movement in the last dozen years. All three cases involved elements of betrayal and traitordom, which law is so much better at understanding than social science. Even with the rich contemporary exchanges and judgements, I realised that the written word was not enough, so I persuaded Verso to let me have 72 pages of photographs. Luckily again, they owed me royalties, and so complied in exchange for forgiveness of the debt. By the way, my new colleague Laleh Khalili is about to publish with Verso her fabulous Sinews of War and Trade, which succeeds in a quite fabulous manner in ‘telling stories’ about the whole maritime world around the Arabian peninsula and beyond. I don’t think it has any images, but I do know it is a sensible length.

Now, having wandered extremely far from your initial question, I’ll just quickly say that foreign affairs think-tanks have proliferated exponentially in the USA post-1945. They are often tied to the military or some foundation derived from corporate donations – Ford was particularly interested in area studies from the 70s onwards – but they are still pretty much operating within a realist idiom and on the basis of policy-related provision of factual detail. Let’s hope that the Quincy Institute can fortify a much more adventurous approach, even in these adversarial times. The collection edited with my colleague JF, as he is known by his friends and colleagues, emerged from a SPIR workshop in 2014. We felt that there was a real need to enrich the theoretical and ideational understanding of International Relations (IR), and to explore more carefully and broadly the role of ideas and intellectuals in US foreign affairs. Equally, we wanted to revisit US foreign policy and affairs in a much more variegated manner, by taking seriously what we might call the ideational ‘capillary action’ of ideas and cultural practices that apparently had little to do with foreign affairs but ended up being salient influences. One example would be religious doctrine and role of Reinhold Niebuhr, who was, of course, a big influence on Barack Obama. The book also notes de Tocqueville’s plausible assertion from the 1830s that in the USA, as in Europe, foreign affairs are essentially an elite concern, of little consequence to the great mass of the population. I think that is not greatly changed in the 2020s.

IHSS: Political Suicides is a fascinating account of what, to paraphrase you, is the most comprehensive form of resignation note a politician could devise. All the cases you discuss in the book are, naturally enough, quite dramatic: ranging from the principled stand to the tragically misfired act of theatre. The death of Chilean President Salvador Allende is likely the best known example of the former, but I am intrigued by some of the parallels to the present that arise through the death of Eduardo Chibás – definitely one of the latter – who shot himself live on radio in 1951 after declaring: “People of Cuba keep awake. This is my last knock at your door!”  Chibás, we know, only intended to injure himself but died ten days later of his injuries. He was a muckraker and a moralist, but also a figure who commanded a wide following in Cuba via his rhetorical command of the medium of radio. So here we have themes of public trust, political virtue, whistle-blowing, media crusaders and public feuds that resonate with the current political moment in so many ways. What unexpected or alternative understandings of the current moment of political turbulence in Europe and America can we glean by thinking about them in light of the history of Latin American politics?

JD: First off, Eddie Chibás was undeniably a rascal! But what a tragic end to a performative act. In fact, of the cases discussed in the book, his was the only one where the subject/victim did not fully intend to subtract themselves from humanity. Of course, most were in conditions of extremis where you might want to say that the alternatives were just too bleak. Allende would be a good example of that in the other 9/11 of 1973, and Balmaceda evidently thought so too in the Chile of the 1890s. Would that be the same for Alain García, the former president of Peru who shot himself dead in the last year? The accusation of corruption against him seemed very strong, but the masses at his funeral displayed little evidence of scorn for a disgraced public servant. Obviously, it was a cortege accompanied by his APRA co-religionists, yet I still have the sense that political suicide has a trajectory in Latin America that is distinct from other continents. It is not as if the regional cultures of honour, pride and shame are so different, though, so it might be less the cultural substrate than the trigger mechanisms associated with personalism and populism.

Now, I am not going to get involved in a discussion about populism, which several of my SPIR colleagues study with rich detail and analytical suppleness, not least Stijn van Kessel’s fine comparative work. Elsewhere, perhaps especially in universities situated close to county cricket grounds, a good deal of fluent and egotistical flaunting of this term has become the flattery that deceives in our day. But let’s use it here in a common-or-garden fashion to suggest that Latin American populism is more characteristic of the politics of that continent than it is of, say, Western Europe. Equally, it debouched into a particular severe form of Cold War repression under the dictatorships of the 1970s, just when Franco and Caetano were on their way out in Europe (although Spinola looked pretty much like a fleeting and refined form of Hugo Chávez). But we need not only look to the past. In light of present day concerns about racism, particularly in the USA but also, more tightly imbricated with a de-colonial movement, in the UK, it might be worth venturing the suggestion that Latin American populism recognised and addressed – mostly rhetorically and not always very positively – the issue of racial inequities earlier than in Europe. That cannot be much of a surprise when Brazil has the largest population of African ancestry after Nigeria, or that the Aymara and Quechua peoples of Bolivia constitute, together with people of mixed race, two-thirds of the population. Of course, we now have the awful Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Evo Morales was turfed out of office in La Paz. So we are evidently living in a Polanyian moment of counter-action that certainly has echoes in the USA and Europe. Bernie Sanders might have formal policy aims similar to those of Andrés Manuel López Labrador in Mexico or Jeremy Corbyn even (married successively to a Chilean and a Mexican) but where is the European Lula or Evo?

IHSS: Arguably one reason we don’t have a European Lula is that European liberal democracies rebuilt themselves after the second world war in ways that very carefully limited the powers of mass movements: yes, there are freedoms to protest and to join a party, but as Mair showed for the latter, parties have long been on the decline and the former, until relatively recently, has been a language largely forgotten (the Iraq war marches in 2003 aside: but they too were oppositional, rather than a mass movement ‘for’ something). Macron’s rise to power on the back of his own political vehicle, En Marche, was perhaps the nearest we have come – though the politics are hardly the same. I wonder if the problem here is two-fold? On the one hand, under pressure of ‘neoliberal’ retrenchment, outsourcing of government services, and the rise of new forms of professionalised elite governance, governments are less directly accessible than before: a trend some refer to as ‘government at a distance’. On the other hand, the decline of parties and mass organisations, the rise of ring-fenced executive bodies and the erosion of routine channels of popular participation in politics (the demise of local government for example) leave a great many people feeling they also have less voice. The underlying problem here then becomes less about populism – and I understand your criticisms of its functioning as a buzzword – and more about the functioning of the institution of popular sovereignty per se; so that this particular resurgence of populism we are seeing today (and we always should historicise it I feel) is in a sense merely the epiphenomena of an underlying congealment of functioning political institutions. Short of decrying that process, and more effectively pointing to where it requires reform (and you’ve mentioned several of these areas already, including de-colonialism and the gendered nature of politics), it seems to me there is still a notable lack of suggestions regarding what preferred or better alternatives might look like. Niebhur, who you mention for example, was a strong critic of ‘sentimental’ idealism. But utopia as you’ve also written about is more than just idealism. What do you see as the role for utopian thinking, or at least thinking about utopia, in today’s world?

JD: Right, I should have seen this question coming and need to be super-circumspect. First, of course because your own Empire of Democracy considers the dynamic contradictions of neoliberalism in the West over a full half-century, underlining and explaining precisely those factors you’ve mentioned over a far greater range than I could manage. Secondly, my colleague Tim Bale, who has also written extensively about Europe in particular, is a leading specialist on political parties in the UK, and in Footsoldiers he and his co-authors have drilled down with real investigative depth into the membership of the parties in such a telling way because political parties appear to those of us who are not in them to be all about leadership, speeches, parliamentary performance (and the occasional reputational abrasion). What Tim and his colleagues show is a mixed bag. On the one hand, as you might expect, Greens are younger, Conservatives are clustered in southern England, and Labour Party members tend to work in the public sector. But what really struck me was their finding that members of all the parties generally joined on account of policy and then found that membership did not live up to their expectations. That might well be a measure of their initial idealism, or it could be a reflection of the range of activity that members undertake, but I think it reflects a need to test precisely that ‘sentimental idealism’ that you quote from Niebuhr. As far as utopianism goes, in developing our module for Pol 380, ‘Utopia and Dystopia: Political, Literary, and Economic Dreamworlds’ in 2016, Arianna Bové and I argued that utopias can be read as historical testimonies of the political imagination. As we wrote there, “Utopia does not exist anywhere but the imagination. The imagination is a human faculty and, as Kant claims, the freedom it enjoys offers something more than ‘a temporary respite from a morally hostile world’”.

IHSS: Your latest work, Crusoe and His Consequences, addresses a rather more direct form of respite from the world. Aside from having a brilliant title, the book challenges us to reflect on the uses to which literary fables are put (the rugged individualism that free-market economists have sometimes idealised, for example). As you point out, Robinson Crusoe is a text that has been used to debate and to understand everything from colonial relations (and their unacknowledged silences), to dreams, to the nature of work. JM Coetzee famously gave his Nobel acceptance speech in the persona of Crusoe in 2003, narrated as if he were an old man now back in Bristol who, having grown used to his solitude while shipwrecked, finds there is too much talk and nonsense in the world. Coetzee himself further blurs the divide between author and text. By contrast, you take the very different route of locating the text of Robinson Crusoe carefully within the historical circumstances of its production and reception. I must confess to never having read the original. It’s a long and dense text and Coetzee is right, there’s sometimes just too much noise in the world – so what makes it particularly worth our time revisiting it today?

JD: As you know, I open this little book ardently urging the reader to read the original. So, now you have nicely confirmed my low success rate! But, of course, there is a reason, and that’s the point of my rather reckless venture off disciplinary piste: Crusoe is too well known from abridged versions for kids and from extensive freelancing as an illustration for any number of social and economic theories in search of a plausible example. The full book bears virtually none of those latter efforts out, and is, in fact, quite a demanding read, especially over the scores of pages before Defoe actually gets his man on the island; and then there are the full 25 years before Friday pitches up. Coetzee’s speech is a piece of unqualified brilliance – so playful and intelligent that when I first read it I went back to another under-recognised masterpiece, Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. Defoe only wrote fiction for four years of a long publishing life, and Scott McCracken tells me that if he had to choose which of the novels to teach to SED students, it would be Moll Flanders. And that’s where Coetzee’s essay is so fine since he effectively combines elements of the two books as well as Defoe’s life in a critical pastiche. As to noise, Defoe, a true Londoner (we launched the book in a Stoke Newington pub that stands on the site of his garden), certainly appreciated relief from the urban clatter; today we probably underestimate the noise associated with the horse-borne world, just as we underestimate the patience of a pre-telephonic readership. At the first lecture of Pol 380, I ask the 60-odd students who has ridden a horse – three Home Counties hands go up; who has spent a night in a house without electricity – rarely any hands are raised; and who is prepared to say that they live in true fear of God – 15 or so hands go up. I then remind them that their lives are quite different to that of most of humanity up to the mid-19th century; by Week Three, when we study Crusoe, they are up for it.

IHSS:  It’s been great fun discussing the wide range of topics your work has examined and thank you for taking the time to share these thoughts. I am encouraged to go and read the original version of Robinson Crusoe. Our last question is a very simple one and is always the same. What is James Dunkerley reading at present?

JD: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club which looks at the US Pragmatists with a fine blend of intellectual history and collective biography so that non-specialists can enjoy learning about ideas and experts can chill a little in the messiness of real life.


This interview was conducted by Simon Reid-Henry (IHSS) and James Dunkerley in July 2020.