The traditional political dividing lines no longer fit a world of new puzzles and paradoxes, says Professor Andrea Ruggeri of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.
By Olivia Gordon
‘Politics is about conflict,’ says Professor Andrea Ruggeri. ‘If we didn’t have conflict, politics would not exist. I believe the core of how we organise society is about conflict.’
But politics is changing dramatically, and so are conflicts. Ruggeri’s grandfather fought the Nazi occupation as a member of the Italian Resistance. Growing up in Italy himself, Ruggeri was active in politics — a far more formative part of a high-school student’s identity in Italy than in Britain, he says. Here, he senses, identity seems to be constructed more by social class.
‘When I was growing up it was still the classic left–right divide. Easy; simple. Now, I don’t think it’s so simple. There are issues about inequality and marginalisation, but we can’t understand the Brexit vote in terms of left- and right-wing politics.’
So how can we understand Brexit — and Trump? ‘We see puzzles and paradoxes. Marginalised, poor people vote for a very rich white man; unemployed people vote against labour laws that protected minimum wages… I think we should look at the role of emotions, particularly indignation and resentment. Resentment of whom and what? People who feel under-represented perceiving an unfair redistribution.’
In other words, a misplaced sense that immigrants are taking what is theirs; that there’s too much political correctness. Or indignation making a British citizen join Isis.
But although he does not agree with this new politics of anger, Ruggeri insists: ‘We should not blame the voters — it’s shortsighted to say they shouldn’t have voted that way. If they voted that way, it meant they felt that way.’
Tutorial Fellow in Politics at Brasenose, Ruggeri is Associate Professor of Quantitative Methods in International Relations at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations. In a timely move earlier this academic year, he and his colleagues created a brand-new undergraduate Politics course: International Conflict and Security.
One of the founding insights of his career — a point that struck Ruggeri while researching his PhD — is that civil wars are not a domestic issue but an international one. A civil war in one country has an effect on other countries and vice versa — just look at Syria and its interrelationships with the USA, Libya, Russia and the whole Middle East.
Ruggeri’s work then moved onto researching how United Nations peacekeeping missions — typically composed of soldiers from a wide range of nationalities — affect civilians’ safety. To take the relatively new state of South Sudan as an example, the mission there is made up of soldiers from 66 different countries. ‘How do they communicate?’ Ruggeri asks. ‘What is their training? What are their norms; capabilities? And how do these differences affect the way they stop the fighting and protect civilians? We find that diversity can protect civilians, but where the leader of the mission comes from, and how often they change, can have a negative effect.’
For a world expert on conflict, Ruggeri (pictured right) is a thoroughly genial man. You could say that a researcher needs an open and diplomatic personality to get to the bottom of complex, violent wars.
The Italian from Liguria arrived in Oxford in 2014 from the University of Amsterdam, having done his PhD in Government at the University of Essex. Essex was his first experience of England, and ‘very different from Oxford!’, Ruggeri smiles. In his cosy college room, his hundreds of books on politics are ordered on the shelves with a logic only the professor can make sense of. ‘I have even more in storage,’ he tells me.
He and his wife and son live in Oxford. When not researching or teaching, you’ll find Ruggeri playing the trumpet — he was once ‘almost’ a professional musician. In true Italian style, his other passion is cooking — ‘cooking is like doing research,’ he laughs. ‘Most people think playing the trumpet, or cooking, or research, is about creativity. But most of the time it’s about preparation, training, making mistakes and trying again. That’s why I use the recipe of how to make risotto in my graduate class as an example of how to do research. Step by step, you define the ingredients, put them together, experiment, and eventually you make a decent product.’
Images from women’s marches against Donald Trump, January 2017, by bones64 (Pixabay) and Lorie Shaull (flickr) under Creative Commons licence. Portrait courtesy of Professor Andrea Ruggeri.