Michael Goldhaber on Wed, 14 Apr 1999 06:19:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Kosovo and the Economics of Attention

Kosovo and the Economics of Attention

by Michael H. Goldhaber April 13,1999

{This is the first of my new series of E-letters on Post-Industrial Issues
to subscribe, send blank message to Goldhaber-subscribe@listbot.com. It is
also a draft of my next Telepolis column www.heise.de/tp )

The Kosovo situation provides as good (or rather, as bad) an illustration
as anyone is likely to need of the childhood adage "two wrongs don't make
a right." The bombing rains down destruction (mostly economic) over what
is left of Yugoslavia, but it has certainly not stopped the "ethnic
cleansing" and rape of Kosovar Albanians by the Serb government and its

What led to this horrible mess? If we are to have any chance of ending it,
and even more of not repeating it, now is the time to understand just how
it began and what propels it forwards. 

Some right-leaning American opponents of the bombing argue that it is not
defending American vital interests—whatever these may be. Many left wing
opponents to the contrary in effect take the bombing itself as proof US
imperialistic interests are involved. Thus, it is argued that the US is
interested in Kosovo because, unlike such places as Chechnya, Rwanda or
Kurdistan, Kosovo is situated at "the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the
Middle East." Others see the attack on Yugoslavia as part of a larger plan
to control Central Asian oil. Some even hint at rumors that gold has been
found in Kosovo itself. 

As far as strategy goes, the US has long quite happily ignored Kosovo. How
could it suddenly be at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East? In
fact, for centuries it has been a backwater, and no more than the little
traversed crossroads between Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia —a
naught within a naught when it comes to strategic value to outsiders. 

As for oil, since it is found just about anywhere, it can always be
brought up as a reason for anything; but the fact is there is if anything
too much oil on the world market, and even quite recently, the US
demonstrated that its stand on oil could be subservient to other concerns.
(American economic planners looked favorably on an attempt by OPEC to
raise prices form their historic lows, since that would help prop up the
tottering Russian economy.)

Gold is just as nonsensical a supposition,as a look at world gold prices
over the past decade or so would indicate. The fact is that for quite some
time now, securing access to natural resources hasn't made sense as a
basis foreign policy. Raw materials can always be bought —even from
enemies—or substituted for. In dollars the price of bulk resources of all
sorts has never been lower than recently. 

Why then the bombing? One could suppose that nothing but a concern for
human rights energizes the NATO war effort, but that would not explain why
out of all areas where human rights are violated Kosovo has been singled
out. It would also not explain why, of all ways to support human rights,
bombing has been chosen. 

I believe that in part, there is an economic explanation, one that doesn't
rule out the possible role of genuine compassion, but gives it context.
And that same form of explanation helps in comprehending the actions of
Milosevic and his Serb allies. 

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed my writings that my
explanation is in terms of the new kind of economy I argue is coming to
dominate the world, the economy based not on the scarcity of material
goods, but rather on the unavoidable scarcity of human attention, the kind
of attention that comes from audiences, increasingly often. This is the
economy that has helped give rise to cyberspace. In old-fashioned
geography, it is quite absurd to see Kosovo as strategically important.;
in the current geography of cyberspace, such a hypothesis isn't absurd at

In the new economy, stardom is wealth— and power. Ronald Reagan helped
complete the conversion of political power to an application of the
principles of stardom, and now his advances have been burnished by Bill
Clinton. Since the US audience is a stand-in for the world audience, it is
not surprising that aspiring politicians in much of the rest of the world
have adopted the Clintonian style, so as to snare their own share of this
audience. Thus NATO is now dominated by Clinton clones, from Blair to
Schroeder, who not only perceive things in the same way but who operate
according to the same sort of principle. 

This new type of politician must always move easily in a world of
celebrity, including not only the world of movie stars, sports stars and
the like, but the world of celebrity journalists, who of course gain their
celebrity by constantly referring to the statesman-stars. 

In this world, the President or Prime Minister must view everything that
happens as a backdrop against which he must shine. Should someone win a
sporting event, or set a new record, the President must be sen with her.
If a natural disaster occurs, the President must be there, offering
compassion to the injured or homeless, within a day or two. 

It is in the nature of a successful star to appear to cater to the needs
of the audience, and successful politicians of the American variety are
those who cater to the largest sort of audience, refusing to do anything
that seems particularly to wound anyone in that audience. And in this
world, the audience is not confined by borders, in fact the audience is
world-wide, following American stars and their imitators most closely. 

These requirements sharply limit the range of acceptable action, but they
also create certain requirements to act. If a war occurs where war
correspondents can set foot with their cameras, then that war will appear
on the Internet and on TV. (This is one way reporters can achieve their
own stardom, after all.) And if brutalities or war crimes take place, then
they look as ugly on the nightly news as increased crime at home. No sane
politician today can ignore such images, especially if there are parts of
the audience that can especially easily identify with the victims. 

(My tone may seem unduly cynical, but I am merely trying to show, as
objectively as possibly, how attention economics influences political
action. Most of the journalists and politicians involved, probably feel
genuine compassion for the victims and genuine outrage at the perpetrators
of war crimes. But their genuineness is less at issue than their success
at seeming concerned, whether genuinely or not. Human rights organizations
have played an important role too, continually bringing to attention
issues that might otherwise fade more easily into the background, but
their effectiveness too is a separate issue from the depth of their

There are two major sets of images involved in determining the Kosovo war.
One is the wounded soldier, or worse yet the body bag, together with
worried or grieving relatives and friends at home. (These latter images
are the specialty of stay-at-home journalists, identical in form to
traffic accident or crime reports.) This set has played a key role in
making conventional warfare unthinkable under most circumstances.
President Clinton discovered this in the case of Mogadishu, had he not
recognized it before. "No dead American ground troops; and therefore under
most imaginable circumstances—no ground troops inserted into danger at
all." That is the rule, to be broken only at extreme peril to political
success. Only if troop deaths are kept in the general range that would
occur even without a war is the politician who put them in harm's way now

Even keeping one's own casualties down is not really enough any more.
Every "statesman" these days must play to an audience that also can watch
the war and its consequences directly. While individual soldiers "in the
field', that is stationed at faraway bases or on high-flying planes, can
avoid any direct contact with the deaths and sufferings his or her actions
bring about, a President or Prime Minister must expect to be juxtaposed on
the evening news with grizzly pictures of the dead the maimed and the
dying, of houses, hospitals, schools and apartment buildings up in flames. 
And that is to be avoided if at all possible, since enough of these
pictures can turn even the most beloved head of state into a villain in
very little time. 

So why Kosovo at all then? Precisely because the dead look just as
thoroughly murdered if someone else's troops did the firing, and one's own
stood by, even if in so standing they were horrified by what they saw. In
other words, no Western politician want a repeat of Vietnam,
Mogadishu...., or Srebrnica. It is the fear of a new Srebrnica that
explains why Kosovo has roused such concern in Western capitals. 

Pristina is no strategic crossroads, but it not so far away that hand-held
TV cameras can't get there and record atrocities. By Fall of last year the
western worry about it, second only perhaps to worries about the Lewinsky
scandal, was that Serb ethnic cleansing of Albanians would take place
without the powerful western nations doing anything about it. That too
would have made for unacceptable television. 

Kosovo is neither Kurdistan nor Rwanda, for the simple reason that it is
identified as within Europe, that it is easy for TV cameras to be in it or
near it, and because its inhabitants resemble Western audiences
sufficiently for close identification. (In all honesty, I must add that
another reason atrocities in Tienanmen or Tibet, say, don't get the same
treatment is that China is understood as too powerful to trifle with,
whereas Serbia is not supposed to be much of a power. A President who is
afraid of Serbia is therefore in trouble.)

Kosovo is also linked with the same Serbian government that sponsored what
went on so disgustingly right before the eyes of Western (Dutch) soldiers
in Bosnia so very recently. And since bombing of the Bosnian Serbs had
finally brought about a painful but apparently workable cessation to
atrocities in Bosnia, the threat of bombing, the only military card any
Western government really holds anywhere, quickly became the only card
seriously to be considered worth playing in the case of Kosovo. Since
Srebrnica and even before, Milosevic has acquired a reputation in the West
of being tricky and untrustworthy, unless under the threat of force. Not
wanting to be taken for suckers, the Western diplomats who planned the
Rambouillet talks insisted that they be backed with the threat of bombing
unless an ironclad agreement involving an occupation similar to that of
Bosnia would guarantee the peace. And since threats must be carried out
for their users to remain "credible," the bombing has inevitably but
uselessly followed. A further requirement of collective diplomacy, of
course, is that it make use of as little creativity and imagination as
possible. "Don't try anything that hasn't already been tried and worked in
similar cases," is this rule. Hollywood studio heads would be right at

If this was the Western calculus, what of Milosevic's? His acts too can be
parsed in attention economic terms, but one must begin with the premise
that he is not playing to the same world audience. There are two basic
routes to stardom in the world. One is to follow what may be called the
Hollywood rules, playing to the common denominator, offering something for
everyone possible. The other option is to reject this mass appeal in favor
of a special appeal to a smaller audience that in itself feels, or can be
made to feel, somehow disenfranchised. In the best case you manage to
soothe this audience while simultaneously accentuating its feelings of
difference and grievance. It will then be exceptionally loyal to you while
your fortunes as star will be closely tied to it. 

Finding himself in power in Serbia, then only one republic of six in
Yugoslavia, at the end of the Cold War, Milosevic had little chance to
appear as basically a westernizing hero, in the mould of Gorbachev or
Yeltsin, say. Serbians were less entrepreneurial than Slovenes or Croats
or Bosnian Muslims, and already felt victimized by the partial opening of
Yugoslavia to the West under Tito. Since Yugoslavia was not a Soviet
satellite to begin with, one could not hope to gain stardom by simply
shaking off the yoke of Communism. 

The obvious course for Milosevic was to take the Serb feeling of
victimization and run with it, in the process risking his appeal on the
world stage, in favor of greater loyalty among Serbs themselves. In this,
he resembled numerous others who have played the "identity politics" card.
In those terms, Milosevic has played his card very astutely, by now
becoming a star for Eastern Orthodox Christians everywhere. Orthodox
Christians as a group are much more bitterly anti-Muslim than other parts
of Christendom, It was the active center of Orthodoxy, Constantinople,
that fell to Islamic rule in 1453, and it is also the Orthodox who thus
far have done least well of all Christians in the market economy. 

>From the standpoint of holding on to such an audience it actually helps
if it is turned into a pariah in the eyes of outsiders. Milosevic is
probably the last leader in Europe who has chosen such a stance, rather
than seeking a more mass-based, widespread popularity and celebrity, which
now inevitably means as a kind satellite star to American leaders, such as
Clinton. It is no coincidence that he is also the European leader who has
held power longest. 

As is widely known by now, Kosovo was where Milosevic began the whole
process of appealing to Serb resentment. And, inevitably, by removing
Kosovar Albanian autonomy a decade ago he instigated a reciprocal set of
moves on their side. After his losses in Bosnia, he has only increased
support for himself by resisting the West as he has done. 

In the course of this, presenting the Serbs as embattled and outnumbered
he has certainly created a climate in which desperate, even genocidal
measures—such as those taken at Srebrnica can be construed by Serbs as
simply necessary for survival. Unlike Germans under Hitler, the serbs are
not holding themselves up as a master race, but rather as perpetual
victims, whose victimhood confers the right to do anything. It is a
dangerous and ugly stance, but not one unique to the Serbs, unfortunately. 

Kosovo and the bombing campaign thus represent a dangerous new trend in
the future direction of interstate relations, ironically occurring at a
time when the state is loosing its purpose and function. If we are to
prevent this sort of war, those of us who are against both sides must find
new means of getting attention, the attention of the very audiences now
fixated on the wars, yet not wanting really to become involved. 

The Yugoslavs have come up with the idea of protecting property such as
bridges from bombing by offering themselves up as prospective casualties,
knowing full well that civilian casualties, even if they are enemy
casualties cannot be tolerated by political leaders in the West. In a
future incipient Kosovo, celebrities and other volunteers might simply
move into contested territories to be prospective casualties, more
dangerous dead than alive in the eyes of the world. 

That is but one possibility. The challenge to would-be peaceniks, who
almost certainly cannot be expected to be governments, is to come up with
attention-getting ways to make the war-fighters look bad that can compete
with war itself in media effectiveness, meaning in timeliness and
attention getting capacity. This is not an easy task but it is one worth
attempting. As for oil, since it is found just about anywhere, it can
always be brought up as a reason for anything; but the fact is there is if
anything too much oil on the world market, and even quite recently, the US
demonstrated that its stand on oil could be subservient to other concerns. 

 copyright 1999 Michael H. Goldhhaber
Permission is hereby given quote this article, but only  in full,
including authorship and this statement, and only at no charge to
readers and not for profit.

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