Spooks and the haunting of Russian Area Studies

A spooky Russian house, which, like Area Studies, is both haunted and possibly in need of kapremont.

Just a quick follow up to my last post on Russian punditry, which got quite a lot of private responses of support. I hadn’t considered adding the ‘spooks’ (not-so-secret security agencies) angle; my piece was mainly about the domination of public and social media attention by a narrow and not always best informed commentariat sitting uncomfortably between academia, journalism and think tanks.  

However, after I wrote the post, a few people mentioned the security services angle. What does this mean? Well, in a sense it’s the second elephant in the room of Russia punditry. If the first elephant is the clear leveraging of latent public sympathy abroad for the Russian regime by our friends at the English-language offices of RT, then the other elephant is the continuing relevance of academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.

If you underestimate the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia – from both elephants, then you are guilty of the ‘fallacy of insufficient cynicism’, as Bruce Cumings wrote in 1997 about Russian and Asian Area Studies’ partial capture by security service interests.  Cumings’ illuminating piece is still relevant today. I’ll come back to his proposal for Area Studies later.

What is clear from the reaction to my original post is that many people don’t really get how ‘ideological’ commentary is that comes from both ‘foreigners’ and ‘natives’ alike. Many also don’t want to talk about how the filtering mechanism of funders, results in funnelling out diversity. Perhaps that should be ‘Diversity’ with a capital ‘D’ (in terms of viewpoints, background, gender and race).

Cumings mentions Richard Pipes at one point. Pipes is an example of a type of Eastern European anticommunist intellectual recruited to enthusiastically tell the US government what it wanted to hear about Russia at a particular point in time. A leading critique of détente, his hawkish views came from his flawed reading of Russian history (a kind of historico-genetic autocracy thesis that even at the time was seen as simplistic). The result: advising politicians and the public that the USSR was bent on world domination and a real military and economic threat to US hegemony. Both these hyperbolic assertions were empirically falsifiable at the time by any curious undergraduate student with a good grounding in Russian Studies; the point is that effectively countering such an approach was not possible – not because of group think, but because of the structural conditions of academia-as-adjunct-of-security-state. Cumings:

“foundations (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford) worked with the state and the center to fund projects and, in some cases, to launder CIA funding; that the same scholars who undertook this activity often were themselves subjects of FBI investigations; that some of these scholars, in turn, were responsible for denouncing other scholars to the FBI; and, finally, that these academics were major figures in the postwar development of Russian area studies in the nation as a whole.”

People like Pipes acted to shape Area Studies as a Cold War industry dependent on the security services for social science research, an issue not just in Russian Studies (96% of all social science funding in the US came from the military in 1952).

Today, my previous post reflects concerns about the way Twitter acts as an amplifier of sometimes narrowly-informed and narrowly-thinking people in think tanks and policy who are less dependent now on the academic setting. Just as on one side some of the loudest voices come from journalists and grifters making money from laundering Russia’s geopolitical reputation, we should be aware of the continuing influence of security services’ patronage on Russian punditry at ‘home’.  The funniest line in Cumings’ piece is this:

“It has been estimated that while about 60 percent of the academics working for the CIA know that is what they are doing, the others do not.”

What he means by this is precisely the laundering of influence and policy-papers through academic and para-academic writing for the think tanks and foundations that have only increased in visibility in the era of social media.

What’s different today? In some respects nothing. If someone in a Western think tank is very hawkish or very dovish, ask yourself why? If they make grand knowledge claims, also be suspicious. Are they grifting for themselves or for a blob-faction?  One thing that has changed is that academia itself has become too neoliberal for most dedicated spooks to survive there. While there were a few in the Cold War institutes I taught in back in the day, even then they were leaving to go freelance because the requirements to publish or perish in the ivory tower are not so conducive to spook work. [allow me one little shout out to the prof I met a few years ago with so many passports and travel money, despite not publishing or getting grants! He’s not on Twitter! But he’s the exception and not the rule in terms of successful academic career and spookdom.] I digress, but the point is that a list of Russia experts that weighs heavily to the think tank side should give pause for thought.

Which brings me back to Cumings. While the Cold War birthed Area Studies (and hijacked anthropologists), Cumings in 1997 proposed rethinking the boundaries of area and discipline to reengage American minds with the task of understanding the world beyond the US. He was alarmed by the prospect of the rational choice paradigm taking over social science. Was he was right?

“it is a simpler matter of the researcher staring at the game-theoretic mathematical formulas that appear on the computer screen, thus to determine how the real world works. If the theory does not explain political, social, or economic phenomena, it is the real world’s fault.”

He had a two-pronged response to this challenge. The first was based on ‘boundary displacements’:

  • (1) move away from fixed regional identities (that is, the area committees), given that globalization has made the ‘areas’ more porous, less bounded
  • (2) utilize area expertise to understand pressing issues in the world that transcend particular countries, which is the real promise of area studies in the post-1989 era
  • (3) reintroduce area knowledge to social science disciplines that increasingly seem to believe that they can get along without it
  • (4) integrate the United States into “area studies” by recognizing it as an “area” that needs to be studied comparatively

Then, following Immanuel Wallerstein’s similar intervention, Cumings had more concrete suggestions; they are just as provocatively relevant today as 25 years ago:

  • All academics should reside in two departments
  • Thematic, yet heterodox, research themes that are not US-centric, but neither driven by supposed specificities of ‘Russia’ or ‘China’
  • Embrace post-positivism
  • Fold all the social sciences into ‘political economy’ (and preferably get rid of economics to the Business School)
  • Let funding flow from corporate identity of the university (serving society as the institution imagines it)

For that to be possible, especially in area studies, Cumings had one final prerequisite:  “Abolish the CIA, and get the intelligence and military agencies out of free academic inquiry”.

8 thoughts on “Spooks and the haunting of Russian Area Studies

  1. PaulR

    Hmm… As someone who could be said to be part elephant one and part elephant two – a contradiction which doesn’t easily fit in your model – I think this oversimplifies somewhat. There is something to it, but insofar as there is, I’m more concerned with the influence of the defence community (military industrial complex, if you prefer) and its role in promoting threat inflation, than with security/intelligence agencies per se. Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon have bigger pockets than the CIA! I’ll ponder this some more. It might be worth a full response.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Morris Post author

      Reading your response now, Paul. When I wrote about RT, I didn’t have you in mind. Nor with the other pole. Like you, I think being outside both UK and US allows one to say certain things that others are not able to

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
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