Saturday, November 22, 2008

Political Vacuum

Just calling something a vacuum implies some potential threat or opportunity. Something is going to happen (we hope, we fear). But what exactly is a political vacuum? A quick search revealed many different types.

1. A lack of (coherent, strong) leadership, perhaps following the departure or death of a leader. For example, political vacuum in Iraq, Israel or Pakistan.

1a. As a special case of 1., the interregnum between the outgoing and incoming leader.


2. A lack of representation or voice for some groups.
  • Hazel Blears (UK Community Secretary): "If mainstream political parties leave a vacuum, people like the BNP will fill that vacuum." (BBC News, November 2008)

3. A lack of stability.

4. A lack of knowledge

  • "Israeli Jews know next to nothing about their Arab fellow citizens. And in such a vacuum, the hateful views of a determined minority can take root and flourish." Richard Silverstein: Acting in ignorance (Guardian, 27 March 2008)

5. An unused system or mechanism


6. An unavailable system or mechanism, creating an unfilled demand.

So many different types of vacuum then.

Often the main beneficiaries of any kind of vacuum are extremists.

So the extremists have an incentive to create a vacuum. The traditional method is of course to assassinate the leader. But as this post shows, there are many other types of vacuum that can be engineered or exploited, and moderates need to beware of all of these.


Now here's the problem. Once something is perceived (framed) as a vacuum, there is a kind of inevitability about the consequences. But what causes us to frame something as a vacuum in the first place? The word vacuum implies that there is some hole in the polity, but this of course depends on some idea of what counts as a complete polity in the first place. Do we need strong leaders? Do we need to provide a voice for everyone, including the bad and the mad? Which political structures enable a decent balance between stability and change?

Once the absence of a strong leader is counted as a vacuum, with such-and-such consequences, we can talk ourselves into an unhelpful political agenda - for example, either supporting Saddam Hussein for fear of the consequences (as the West did for years) or rushing to replace him with some fantasized polity called Iraqi democracy (as America and its allies did with ill-considered haste).

Is the BNP filling a vacuum? Better not give it the oxygen of publicity then!

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