John Keane’s questions to David Held

In response to David Held’s account of his involvement with the Libyan regime, John Keane has published an open letter at openDemocracy raising further questions for Held. This is one of the smarter interventions in the whole affair, it seems to me, because amongst the specific issues of ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ that Keane raises about money, PhDs, plagiarism, etc, he ends with a set of questions that transcend the specifics of this case. His ‘parting question’ is the ‘least tangible but most concrete of all’: “do you think the LSE Libya affair has done damage to the scholarly credibility of research programmes in the area of democracy?” Keane raises interesting questions (and not just for Held) about the extent to which research on a concept and practice which has such powerful normative force, undertaken in a spirit which wants to do justice to the values and promise behind this force, might always lend itself to the possibility of ‘perversion’ or ‘misrepresentation’. One response of course to Keane’s line of questioning on this issue is to dismiss all such research as hopelessly naive and idealistic. But that is hardly his intention. His question does raise some important issues about the relationship between broadly normative and more worldly analyses of democracy and democratization, however – and of how to temper the idealism of the former with the realism of the latter without reducing the real-world force of the normative content of ‘democracy’ in its various registers and forms to mere ideology and hypocrisy.

Benjamin Barber on democracy in Libya

Is the more or less grudging involvement of social theorists with the Libyan regime in the 2000s now shown to be an index of naivety, or stupidity, or venality? The involvement of David Held and the LSE has been much discussed this week, via Saif Gaddafi’s PhD, and an optimistic  commentary by Anthony Giddens in 2007 unearthed. Rather more interesting perhaps is the democratic theorist Benjamin Barber, whose involvement with the Qadaffi Foundation is long-standing. Here is a comment by Barber in 2007 on the ‘normalisation’ of relations with Libya, around nuclear weapons and the ‘war on terror’ in particular. Barber has now resigned from this organisation, and this involvement is the basis of his rather sobering analysis of the prospects for democratization in Libya whatever the outcome of current events.

Back to Syracuse?

One sidebar to political upheaval this week in Libya has been the story about Saif Gaddafi’s academic credentials, holding as he does a PhD from the LSE. In re-posted profiles from 2006 and 2009, he is presented as a reformer in waiting, and credited with influencing the relative normalisation of Libya’s international relations. Now it looks a little like a means of providing intellectual respectability for the anointed son. Gaddafi’s PhD was supervised by David Held, who has professed a certain degree of disappointment at the conduct of his former student this week. There is some discussion on the blogosphere suggesting that somehow the cosmopolitan theory that Gaddafi used in this thesis is now shown to be complicit with state-sponsored violence. A bit of a stretch, that argument.

The more interesting aspect of this story is the funding relationship between the LSE and the Libyan regime, which has suddenly become very embarrassing indeed, provoking sit-ins and rapid disavowals (this particular deal was opposed at the time it was established by the late Fred Halliday). This is hardly the first time that a University has been embroiled in potentially dubious relationships wfide runders. But it is timely, in the current context of UK debates about the future of University funding – the long term trajectory of institutions such as the LSE is to seek greater ‘independence’ by substituting public funding for a varied portfolio of private funding. Anyone who has received alumni literature from an Oxbridge college in the last few years will have had this aim more or less explicitly acknowledged. Again, not new, an old story in the US. Nevertheless, this is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, and it remains the case that the putative ‘brand value’ of elite universities in the UK as private players in an international marketplace for higher education does depend on a massive, century old public subsidy. So the sorts of reputational risks involved in diversifying university funding are likely to be heightened for quite some time into the future. Cosmopolitanism can be a bit grubby, it turns out.