New theoretical meanings? Transnationalism, networks and the semi- authoritarian state
A world without meaning Exploring meaning in an increasingly meaningless world is not necessarily the province of science fiction. Nevertheless, Arthur Clarke’s novel The Fountains of Paradise is a particularly suitable starting point for questions about how to make sense of the world since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago. Today, the ultra-modern Petronas towers in Malaysia stand beside ultra-conservative madrasahs in the Pakistan borderlands – both are expressions of (Islamic) “modernity”, according to Tibi.2 Clarke attempted in 1979 to bridge this ambiguity – which is only one at first glance – between archaic tradition and futuristic technology and modernity, when he plotted the story of two poles which are both far from and close to each other: on the one hand, the infamous engineer Vannevar Morgan, trying to build a 34,000 km high space elevator on the fictional equatorial island of Tobrane; on the other, Tobrane’s ancient king of Kalidasa, an engineer equally ahead of his time, who, 2,000 years ago, constructed the immense palace and intricate gardens of Yakkagala, in which he tried to reinvent himself as a god, much to the opposition of his Buddhist monks who cursed him for “challenging the gods”. Not surprisingly, the monks are not inclined to hand over the nearby holy mountain of Sri Kanda to Vannevar Morgan as a site for his space elevator, which would destroy and deface one of the vital spots of the island’s history and culture. Zaki Laidi tries to come to terms with “a world without meaning”, in which the comparative stability of the nation-state and its ideologies – spanning “from
the Enlightenment to the end of the Cold War” – has been replaced by a diffuse scramble to make sense of fundamental issues such as society, change, modernization, governance and religion.3 What he and Clarke have in common is the realization that the new utopia is almost overstretched by its far-reaching points of reference. Its modernity comprises the extremes of both tribal cultures, seemingly feudalistic but modernizing in their own right, and international companies that – while paving the path towards globalization in shining office towers – take the rights of their employees back to a time even before the Frankfurt parliament of 1848. The present book tries to explain these apparent ambiguities theoretically by moving along the following discursive path. It starts with an evaluation of Laidi’s world without meaning, to argue then for a new world with widely diversified meanings that could represent the following flagpoles along the journey across the map of developing countries from Asia to Africa. Starting with the authoritarian and semi-authoritarian state which is the subject of newly emerging debates and “state ideologies” that are particularly non-western in their approach, from the Islamic state to the transnational Islamic Caliphate, from “Asian values” of the Malaysian, Singaporean or even Kazakhstani type to the East Asian labour ethic, from Chinese authoritarian developmentalism4 to Malaysia Boleh (“Malaysia Can Do It”) – part of Vision 2020 (Mahathir’s goal for Malaysia to be a developed nation by the year 2020) – these discourses shape, as I shall argue, the new transnationalism of states which are strengthening their ties both through bilateral relations and through their partly privatized industries. The concept of transnationalism will be interpreted and understood not so much in terms of immigrant and labour flows and the identity construction of the ethnic diaspora – as has recently been done5 – but will rather be a point of departure from a gradually retreating nation-state, which – again being directly linked to its discourses of authoritarianism – is confronted with growing grassroots movements and people-to-people flows that surpass the tightly drawn borders of authoritarian state discourses, be it on religion, on ethnicity, on political participation or on the system and nature of the state itself. Whether the authoritarian state is willing or forced to retreat, giving way to emerging NGOs, Islamist groups or simply alternative concepts of business and trade, as we see in Malaysia – examples being the Sufi business empire of the Al-Rufaqa and the Naqshbandiya Golden Chain, which are also very much transnational in nature – is discussed in the volumes of Brownlee and Canterbury.6 It interests us here in so far as transnationalism is concerned with new forms of governance, the spread and exchange of interregional concepts of knowledge and their organizational forms (in a redefinition of the concept of anthropological transnationalism as it has emerged since the 1990s).7 Rather than arguing for an anthropological approach à la Clifford Geertz in deconstructing the meaning of the transnational, I shall argue for a more cultural analysis which is concerned with the imagined communities of ethnic, religious and cultural belonging, following in the steps of Benedict Anderson. This will then lead to a discussion of alternative modernities which can be expressed in various shapes and forms and concern the state as much as non-state actors.