Terror, Reason, and History

By Hunter, Ian | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Terror, Reason, and History


Hunter, Ian, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Abstract

A striking feature of Barry Hindess' political thought is its unflinching application of theoretical reason to concrete problems. In recent discussion of terrorism, Hindess thus argues against the restricted application of the term to nonstate actors and for its expansion to cover the political violence of territorial states. This self-consciously polemical argument displays Hindess' commitment to theoretical reason and his preparedness to assess historical politics on this exacting basis. In this article, I argue for a more "timid" form of political analysis, that gives more room to compromised historical-political norms, and that has greater sympathy for the restricted application of the notion of terrorism.

Keywords

terrorism, theory, history, state, sovereignty, Hobbes

One of the striking features of Barry Hindess' work during the 1970s and 1980s, including the work done with his collaborator and friend Paul Hirst, is its commitment to the power of theoretical discourse. This was the result of a rigorous refusal to separate thought from its instruments, which had a lasting impact on many of us who first learned this lesson from Barry and Paul. In the area of epistemology, they argued, if to think means to operate a kind of intellectual calculus, then there can be no general relation to the real--whether of empirical reflection or of historically induced reflexivity--and hence no epistemology: "This order [of concepts that produces objects] is the order created by the practice of theoretical work itself, it is guaranteed by no necessary "logic" or "dialectic" nor by any necessary mechanism of correspondence with the real itself." (1) In the area of ideology, if ideological thought is the product of ideological practices then there can be no such thing as consciousness, hence no such thing as false consciousness, that might later be rectified through the providential operations of Hegelian-Marxian philosophical history.

Looking back at this set of intellectual developments, one is struck by the fearless commitment to a particular kind of theoretical rationality which, admirably, continues to characterize Barry's work, even if the content of the theory has changed markedly. Perhaps for this very reason, historiography remains a problematic discipline for Barry. He remains, of course, above all a formidable social and political theorist. Interestingly, in his recent work, universal or philosophical history has returned as an important target for Hindessian vivisection. This is no longer for its covert Kantian and Hegelian epistemology but for a different reason: namely, its role as an ideology of civilizational progress used in a supremacist manner as an instrument of European colonialism and imperialism. (2) That said, Barry's own work itself now makes greater use of historiography. This is not least in order to uncover the historical complicity of various forms of European thought--state theory, liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and universal history--in the practices of colonialism and imperialism. Nonetheless, this recent work continues to display the same fearless exercise of theoretical rationality in pushing arguments to their limits and displaying the full force of their consequences. This characteristic is clearly displayed in Barry's recent dissection of the concept of terrorism, in his "Terrortory" article of 2006. (3) In discussing this article, I want to say a few things about the relation between theory and history in it, and a few things about the substantive issues that it discusses.

This article provides a powerful version of the argument that there are no grounds for restricting the use of the term terrorism to the violent actions of nonstate actors against states. The word terrorism should be thus also be used to characterize the intimidatory violence of states, both against their own citizens and against foreign states and groups. This allows Barry to pose the confronting question of whether the "domesticated" terrorism of states is any more legitimate--or any less illegitimate--than the "undomesticated" terrorism of nonstate groups. …

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