Terra-forming Islands in the South China Sea, or the Future of International Law in the Age of Anthropocene

As per our disciplinary formations, IR scholars often indoctrinate instruct their students with the assumption that anarchy is a constant in international relations. The use of the term, however, generally assumes that there are natural/material constants within the international that transcend central concepts of sovereignty, power, and choice/preference. In other words, the assumption is that anarchy has (material) limits. Even those subscribing to the discursive turn would/might agree that there are material constraints that limit ‘meaning construction.’ We base a number of international laws, norms and regulations on this assumption; there are certain constants that cannot be changed through human actions. Our aspirations, capabilities, hopes, preferences, do not change these constants. What if – and this is a big ‘what if’ – for the time being, we are increasingly wrong about this assumption? What if human ability to transform the earth’s eco-systems has reached a level where this basic assumption no longer holds valid, or as valid as it used to be?

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A number of geologists, environmental scientists, and futurists alike have already picked up on this trend. Looking at climate change in particular, they claimed that the earth has entered a new epoch in its life cycle. “We now live in the age of Anthropocene!” these scholars claim. Anthropocene, in this context, refers to the humans’ distinct ability to affect earth’s ecosystems. This claim is disputed, yet many see merit in it. To understand, or reflect, on the implication of the fact that we, as humans, are not the only ‘things’ that matter in this world of ours, you can also look at this amazing post by Audra Mitchell on Posthuman Security.

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While in the future we might see the effects of other types of terra-forming and/or bio-engineering in international relations and international law, this post will only look at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the effects of the Chinese pursuits in the South China Sea on the said law. The BBC ran an excellent exposé back in September on the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) pursuit of building man-made islands on the South China Sea and its (intended) effects on the territorial water disputes between the countries of the region. Aside from the amazing medium through which the BBC editors and reporters managed to convey the message, the story itself is equally worth reflecting on for all things international.

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The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott, Part II

Given the level of interest in my previous post (over 2,400 views in the last 10 days), I thought I would provide an analysis of UCU’s counter-proposals on USS and of the ongoing contestation of the leadership’s strategy in the current industrial action. In brief, UCU is offering to sacrifice the final salary scheme and give employers much of what they want, in exchange for a modestly improved career-average scheme. Conservatives within the union are also moving to rescind the industrial action before it has even properly started.

UCU’s Counter-Proposals

UCU’s response to UUK’s proposals, and its counter-proposals, were initially buried in a circular to branches posted on UCU’s website, before being circulated to members on Friday, only after they had been put to employers’ representatives in writing and at the USS Joint Negotiating Committee on Thursday. UCU’s critique of UUK’s proposals is excessively technical, but it does provide this helpful chart of pre-1992 universities’ incomes and costs since 2008/9.

Pre-1992 HEIs Financial Indicators (2008/9 =100). Source: HESA

Pre-1992 HEIs Financial Indicators (2008/9 =100). Source: HESA

The remarkable highlights are that income is up 27.7%; on average, the surplus of income over expenditure is £14.2m per annum, of which £11.2m is retained in reserves, which have consequently increased by 62.5%, leading to a net rise in the universities’ assets of 39.8%. Meanwhile, because of the massive real-terms pay cuts inflicted by employers, staff costs as a proportion of income are 3.7 percentage points lower. Put bluntly: just like major corporations, universities are hoarding cash; they can afford to improve their workers’ pay and conditions, but choose not to do so. There is no crisis in the affordability of pay or pensions in pre-1992 universities.

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For the Joy It Brings: Hashtag Activism and Little Wins

I do it for the joy it brings
because I’m a joyful girl
because the world owes me nothing
and we owe each other the world

Ani Difranco, ‘Joyful Girl

So unless you were unplugged last week (and it’s fine if you were, I’m not judging), you would have seen the hashtag #takedownjulienblanc trending on Twitter. Julien Blanc, to whom the hashtag refers, is a self-styled ‘Pick Up Artist’ who charges actual money – between one thousand and three thousand dollars, by all accounts – for the privilege of listening to his advice on how to ‘pick up’ women. For the privilege of listening to his white, male, privilege, actually, given that the (TW) video that caught the attention of the activist community showed Blanc assaulting Japanese women in a highly sexualised way and commenting that ‘when you go to Tokyo, when you’re a white male, you can do what you want’.

Blanc was clearly paying attention in class when they studied Peggy McIntosh’s ‘invisible backpack’; the trouble is, he thought it was a primer rather than a cautionary tale. This is not the only time Blanc has confused genres in this way. Earlier this year, he tweeted a chart mapping out various abusive relationship dynamics, from intimidation to coercion and threats, with the caption ‘May as well be a checklist’ (though the image has since been taken down, along with Blanc’s entire Twitter account). Blanc’s website actively encourages men to use ‘male privilege, isolation and emotional abuse’ to attract women.

The hashtag was started by ‘shitty artist, intersectional feminist’ Jennifer Li.

Li has explained why she started the hashtag, saying that she was moved to start the hashtag because Blanc is actively perpetuating ‘toxic masculinity’, sexism and racism through his website, social media usage, and ‘Real Social Dynamics’ seminars. The hashtag existed, as all hashtags do, to catch the attention of Twitter users, to make explicit Li’s critique of Blanc and to encourage other Twitter users to do their own research into Blanc and his vile misogyny so that they might support efforts to get Blanc’s seminars shut down.

Dear readers, it worked. Continue reading

Pinkwashing Apple

The gays, we love our Mac toys – and now it seems that our conspicuous consumption of such has paid off: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has come out gay. And we are never going to hear the end of it. The hyperbole has been extra-ordinary. He is, in short, the new messiah: “Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives.” That, from Human Rights Campaign (HRC) – the same people who also think same sex marriage will dissolve homophobia and cause the LGBTs to be treated equally. Clearly, there is a lot of wishful thinking going on. How should we navigate it? Well, we have an excellent guide over at A Paper Bird. Scott Long, who authors the must read blog on “sex, rights and the world”, has written a “medium length read” on the matter, and you really should read all of it. Here’s a few highlights (but go on, read it in full on your IOS device when time permits!)

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The Global Colonial 1914-18: A Public Roundtable

This is the fourth and final post in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18, which is the video and transcript of the public event which took place at SOAS on September 18th 2014. Links to previous posts and the series as a whole can be found here. Many thanks to our speakers Hakim Adi, Catriona Pennell, Parmjit Singh, Martin Spafford and Charles Tripp for their contributions, as well as the audience for their incisive questions.

Global Colonial 1914 poster


M = Meera Sabaratnam

C = Charles Tripp

H = Dr Hakim Adi

P = Parmjit Singh

CP = Catriona Pennell

MS = Martin Spafford

M:       Okay. Hello, everybody and welcome. Thanks very much for coming. My name is Meera Sabaratnam, I’m a lecturer here at SOAS in international relations. And tonight we’re delighted to host a roundtable on the Global Colonial 1914-18. So obviously this is triggered by a number of contemporary events, not least the centenary of World War One, which you’ll have seen all over the news. But one of the stories I suppose, that gets told less often is the role of the wider world in the way that the war unravelled but also as a theatre of war. And in the place of where the war stood as part of the global context. So what else was going on, multiple revolutions, uprisings. So this is a moment in which the war is an important part of a global order which is undergoing substantial amounts of change. I should say this event is also sponsored…has been organised through the British International Studies Association and their working group on colonial, post-colonial and de-colonial research questions.

And this particular group tries to look at the elements of coloniality and colonialism in how the modern world came to be and what that means for when we understand globalisation and global history. I’m delighted to have a roster of speakers here tonight covering not just all of the sort of main areas, the regions that we’re studying in SOAS, namely Asia, Africa and Middle East. But also researchers and teachers who have been involved in how World War One is remembered in the classroom as a form of public cultural memory. Each of our speakers is going to speak for about 10 minutes. And then after that we’ll open it up for questions. Please do be forthcoming with your questions and we hope to have a good discussion afterwards, okay. I’d first like to welcome Professor Charles Tripp who is professor of Middle East here at SOAS. Thanks.

C:        Thank you very much, Meera. It sounds rather grand, I’m not the professor of Middle East, I’m professor of politics in the Middle East. But why not, grander? I was asked to talk today about the relationship between what was happening in the Middle East and what happened to the Middle East in and around the First World War. And I must admit straight off, I’m not a historian, so I don’t work on the first war particularly but clearly anybody who works in the politics of the Middle East is well aware of the fact that legacies of the First World War and what happened to the region are still very much there and indeed are being revived in the press in one form or another as they talk about Syria and Iraq at the moment. But what I wanted to really try and do is to pick out two themes if I can, in the time allotted. One is the notion that as with many other parts of the world, much was happening before the First World War that the First World War changed the course of, if you like. So in a sense one of the dangers of looking, which of course happens now to some extent in the press and elsewhere, is to see the Middle East purely as the Middle East as a political entity, whatever that is, as a kind of creation of European intervention, the First World War.

But what I’m trying to argue is that actually there were processes long before that that had been going on and that in some ways the European intervention set back in various significant ways that had an effect for the future as well. So the first part is really to think about what had been happening in the 50 years or so before the First World War in the region, we now think of as the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Qajar, Iran, North Africa. And I want to look at two themes which are intertwined but really revolve around the same emerging idea and notion which is the idea of the autonomous citizen, which again was quite a novel, a radical idea with hugely radical implications for the dispensations of power. But the two themes that they were intertwined with was, one, the struggle against despotism and the other, struggle against colonialism, both of these seemed to be deeply repressive of the idea of the autonomous citizen. And in some senses therefore what you’re looking at in the long…well, the period before the First World War in the 40 or 50 years, whether it’s in the Ottoman Empire, the Qajar Empire, Iran, in Egypt, you have a struggle against local despotism for constitutionalism. A precarious constitutionalism which is often of course therefore sabotaged by those who would rather not see it. But nevertheless very powerful in the mobilisation of the politics of these regions. Continue reading

The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott

Academics in pre-1992 universities who are members of the University and College Union (UCU) will tomorrow be commencing a marking boycott in response to a planned attack by employers on our USS pension scheme.

By any reasonable measure, and despite losses suffered during the global financial crisis (GFC), USS is in good financial health, persistently taking in much more in contributions than it pays out to retirees. However, the arbitrary valuation method favoured by the UK Pensions Regulator – which has an interest in a highly conservative approach, to avoid employers running schemes down then leaving the regulator to carry the can – perversely shows the scheme in deficit. The ridiculous nature of the assumptions behind this valuation have been well explained elsewhere, as has the mendacity of Universities UK, the employers’ association, in using data misleadingly. Put simply, the claim that USS is unsustainable is based on the scenario of all contributing universities simultaneously ceasing to pay into the scheme, e.g. as a result of bankruptcy. By any reasonable measure, the scheme is not in serious difficulty in the short to medium term. Nonetheless, the employers have seized on the valuation to demand radical changes to USS, which will result in a cut in pensions of up to 27%. This follows changes imposed by the employers in 2011, which closed the final salary scheme to new entrants, put new staff onto a vastly inferior ‘career average’ scheme (which was even worse than the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS), which is used in secondary, further and post-1992 higher education institutions), and shifted the burden of contributions from the employers to employees. It also follows years of minimal or zero pay increases, such that in the years since 2009, real pay has fallen by about 13% nationally and 17% in London.

Given this context, it is obvious that employers are seizing the opportunity of the perverse USS valuation to further cut staff costs. Insofar as the scheme faces difficulties because of the GFC, this represents yet another shunting of the costs inflicted by hyper-capitalism onto workers. And insofar as universities are trying to cut staff costs because of vast reductions in the public subsidy to higher education, it represents yet another indirect effect of austerity, which is again about socialising the costs of bailing out Britain’s financial institutions.

At stake in this industrial action is not just the fate of our pensions, but of our trade union. The marking boycott is just the latest in a recurrent spate of industrial action over pay and conditions, including on pensions in 2011 and pay in 2013/14. This time around, 78% voted for strike action and 87% for action short of a strike, on a 45% turnout – the highest since UCU’s formation in 2006, though still disappointingly low, given the stakes. However, each period of industrial strife was  botched by UCU’s national leadership, leaving the union progressively weaker. The earlier action on pensions was lost: despite some minor concessions from employers, they successfully rammed through changes to USS. The UCU Left grouping rightly warned that accepting this would only encourage the employers to come back for more later – as they are now doing. On pay, UCU itself declared that the principle of national collective bargaining – the union’s main raison d’etre – was at risk: UCU’s rejection of miserly annual pay offers had repeatedly been ignored, and employers were increasingly departing from the national pay scale and trying to tempt UCU branches into local-level settlements.

Yet, a comprehensive strategy on escalating industrial action, democratically determined by the union’s Higher Education conference, was simply ignored by the leadership. Continue reading

Mozambique and the Invisible Bodies: A Contrapuntal Reading of the Great War (1914-1918)

This is the third in a series of posts on the Global Colonial 1914-18.


The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

Whatever one’s views on the causes, significance and consequences of the ‘Great War’, few deny that it was ‘world-historical’ as an ‘event’ or series of events. 1914 is offered by Hobsbawm as the end of the ‘long nineteenth century’; a periodization which is widely accepted as giving birth, finally, to ‘the modern world’. The horrors of the Great War, then, are quintessentially the horrors of modernity. The bodies of the Great War are the product of a particular configuration of nationalism, militarism, technology, class relations, capitalist expansion and an effective state administration, which enables death at this level of efficiency and magnitude. The fog of war does not arise from irrationality, but from the awe-inspiring complex edifice of modern political organisation playing out its tragic fate amongst white European nations. If we are looking for the ‘big picture’, this, it seems, is it.

Yet the ‘big picture’ metaphor is only expressive in a two-dimensional and static framing of history, rather like a painting. Said suggested on the other hand that thinking musically might be a more appropriate way of conceiving the pluralities of historical time. Musical counterpoint, in which independently moving melodies weave in and out of each other, creating resonances, harmonies, dissonances and an altogether more complex sound, was his method for thinking about the historical relationship between colonies and metropoles. Neither is subsumed under the other, and they may have different rhythms and patterns, but they move simultaneously through time. The hope is that reading history contrapuntally enables us to hear multiple melodies, neither cacophonously (although this may be itself productive) nor monotonously, but in a way which discloses both the relatedness and distinctiveness of human experiences.

With this in mind, in what follows I reconstruct some fragments of historical melodies in what is now called Mozambique from the period of the Great War, thinking about what this might disclose for our present histories and remembrances – what David Scott might call our own ‘problem-space’. The East African Campaign – if it is remembered at all in the metropole – is remembered mostly as the site of a brilliant and gutsy guerrilla campaign by the German commander Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and a small hardy detachment of Schutztruppe, who surrendered two weeks after the declaration of the Armistice having cunningly evaded the British throughout the war. Yet, this romanticised history of innovative military tactics in exotic tropical climes heavily obscures almost everything about the historicity of the war in East Africa – indeed it obscures much of the history of the campaign itself. Clearly, part of our contrapuntal reading must be a reading of these missing notes and melodies within the campaign.

Beyond this, however, the reading must open up the historical presence and experience of the peoples in what was at the time called Portuguese East Africa. If the ‘Great War’ began in Africa, it did not necessarily mean the same across the continent as it did elsewhere. Whilst both deadly and destructive, the matrix of war-related destruction was also configured by specific colonial historical relations of violence, prestige and dispossession, as well as by political struggles within the colonised space. These experiences resonate in unexpected, but important, ways with the ‘world-historical’ moment of the war.

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