17 May 2011

What is the best IPE sitcom IPE scholars have never heard of?

The question, from a backbencher: "Everyone knows that Yes, Minister is a work of genius. But are there other BBC sitcoms that political scientists should know and quote?"

The answer: Yes: Hyperdrive.

How to describe it? The closest I can come is that the show is a parody of Star Trek: The Next Generation crossed with the Crimson Permanent Assurance section of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Perhaps even better would be to say that it is Doctor Who meets Firefly.

The essentials are that the crew of the HMS Camden Lock, a starship that bears a passing resemblance to the BT Tower, are on a mission to "to protect British interests in a changing galaxy." Rarely, this involves military action. Almost always, it includes trying to attract foreign direct investment to Britain or opening interstellar markets to British trade (a task made harder by the fact that Britain is not very good at exporting).

The delight for IR scholars, of course, is that we know that this is more or less how international relations works these days. Even though security folks still think IPE is sooooo boring, it's not exactly as if security work over the past twenty years was as exciting as it was in the preceding three thousand years. Yes, I know that many good scholars are keenly interested in learning more about low-intensity conflicts. But there is an obvious qualitative difference between studying how best to manage COIN and trying to manage a thermonuclear war.

The day-to-day nature of power in the international realm instead seems to be a little more mundane. What are your exchange rates? How credible is your government's commitment to paying off loans? (Not that it matters anyhow; Greece has been moving toward a sovereign debt crisis, enduring a sovereign debt crisis, or recovering from a sovereign debt crisis since 1827.) What are your labor regulations? And so forth. In such a world, the idea that Britain has to maintain aircraft carriers and other accoutrements of power projection is, frankly, ridiculous.

For some reason, it is only slightly less ridiculous when the French do that. But that may just be better advertising.

So Hyperdrive captures the precise absurdity of swagger in a world of intergalactic trade. Pragmatically, force is never the solution, even when the Camden Lock employs it. But as a matter of policy, national pride requires that the United Kingdom maintain a vast and expensive spacefaring Royal Navy. ("Britain is still a great power, isn't it?" one character asks the captain.)

And this is exactly the kind of dynamic that IPE scholars occasionally miss when they move from their quotidian models to asking broader questions. The same assumptions don't hold for models that seek to explain 50,000-feet phenomena as those that work for explaining more micro-level processes. At some point, other factors do start to confound simple models.

This isn't to say that such processes can't be explained. I rather think they can. But theory should include a sense that, just as gravity and the strong nuclear force (say) have different effects at different scales, so too do different kinds of political effects operate differently at different scales of analysis.

I'd also like to point out something that needs to be discussed more often. For all our discussions of the Liz Lemon problem*, I'm not sure that we've really thought about what it would be like if people who were ... not ugly, but just physically unattractive were cast in sitcoms. The BBC has always been much better about casting people who look like, well, people. It's realistic that The Office's Dawn is pretty enough to be crush-worthy but also not snagged by a real alpha male; similarly, Life on Mars' Liz White falls into the category of real-person cute, not celebrity cute. (Alison Brie on Community allegedly falls into the same range as Liz White did.) Hyperdrive takes that attitude to extremes.

* I've seen only eight minutes of Glee, ever, but as someone who shops in grocery stores I have of course seen many photos of Lea Michele. If the show presumes that she is unattractive, the show is an ass.

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