Archive | November, 2010

Zero-Level Protest, the Student Movement and the Spectacle of Politics

15 Nov

I agree with Joe.

The fall-out from Wednesday’s fees protest has congealed into some familiar oppositions. On the one side, we have disavowal. The violent minority, undermining the broad case against cuts, inarticulate in their regression to a juvenile acting-out. On the other side, affirmation. The real vandals are Clegg and Cameron, the insurgents were the epiphenomenal expression of legitimate mass anger, and broken glass is the not-that-unfortunate substratum of all great political movements.

These are not morally equivalent narratives. The case for the disavowers is built on a palpable desire to appeal to bureaucratic reasonableness, and to present the case in terms sympathetic to the cadences and tones of power, as if the problem was one of flawed communication. More ‘rational debate’ please! More damagingly, the internal disciplining necessary to any movement conceived of as a Party is already under way. Bad protester, good protester. Wayward foot-soldier, clear-sighted leader. There was a serious message, and the hijackers lost it.

This is nonsense. That the march was larger than expected would have made news, barely. But the aerial shots of Westminster, and the collections of amusing signs and fancy dress, would have concurred fully with the established parameters, the well-worn rituals, of polite English disagreement. There would have been patronising cod-support about how polite the young are these days and Mock-The-Week non-jokes about the difference between Parisian insurrectionists and London shufflers. In such symbolic space, and especially on The Right, the trope of the feckless student is impermeable to disproof. This is the mistake of those scrambling for respectability. No amount of denouncing The Crazed Vandals Of Millbank will make the cause of education palatable (although those heading up the NUS will ascend, like those before them, into the lower ranks of party politics).

Slavoj Žižek put the appropriate response nicely:

“You could have delivered the same message without violence”. Fuck them, of course you can deliver the message. But nobody would hear the message. This is what they like, that 100 people gather and write a message and then you don’t even get the bottom note [in the day's paper]…You have to break some windows to get the message through.

This is true enough, but should already alert us to some dangers, and to the necessity of overcoming the choice between affirmation and disavowal. Continue reading

Ethics of Austerity 2: Interlude of Broken Glass

11 Nov

There’s always a surprising disconnect between experience and public reality when you attend an event that goes on to become an “event.” On such occasions, I find myself wondering how my experience can run so counter to the public narratives that emerge. Yesterday’s (10 Nov.) protest march in London is no different.

Here are some media images that reflect the protest I attended:

But the images that defined the “event” were slightly different. We’ve all seen them on the TV, in the papers, and on the web.

What I don’t want to do is engage in hand wringing over a protest hijacked by violent fringe elements, or tut at those smashing up the office building or gathered outside to watch. Instead, I want to do the opposite, I want to imagine myself as the one who failed, failed to fully grasp that it wasn’t just a sunny afternoon of political play acting. Continue reading

Inequality and the Human(e) Development Index

10 Nov

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has for the last 20 years pioneered seemingly innovative approaches to development that have substantially redefined the terms on which development aid is conceived, offered and spent. The publishing of the first Human Development Report in 1990 was a bold move which made a case for measuring and judging countries’ developmental status in a way which focused on quality of life indicators as well as macro-economic statistics – an idea now which is completely mainstream and commonplace amongst donor governments and development practitioners.  It also proposed the notion of ‘human security‘ in 1994; a subversive response to the ‘securitisation’ agenda emerging in the wake of the Cold War which sought to broaden both the referent of security and the range of relevant concerns.  It was absolutely instrumental in pushing the Millennium Development Goals agenda – an incredibly ambitious and detailed set of targets for international development practice that served to underpin widespread agreement for the expansion of development funding across donor governments.

Its recent decision to measure inequality as a constituent part of development through its apparent role in determining the quality of life is, in this context, really interesting. On one level, it is indicative of the development community’s constant reflexivity – a term often used by David Williams – which recalibrates the tenor of its activities according to whatever the relevant crisis is supposed to be. Having been roundly critiqued and lambasted for the MDGs’ complicity with impoverishing neoliberal economic structures, we can read this ‘equality turn’ as the UNDP’s attempt to once more place itself on the vanguard of a more humane and responsive development agenda, moving itself away from the territory that the IFIs are starting to encroach upon.

It will be interesting to see whether and how the donors follow down this particular road. To a certain extent, the UNDP’s previous ‘innovations’ on human development, particularly with regard to adjusting for gender inequality, levels of absolute poverty and service provision, have all found various champions amongst western development agencies, all of whom have incorporated these issues seemingly deeply into their approaches to development, albeit perhaps through substantially de-radicalising the most substantive aspects of critique.

Inequality as an issue however poses a much more substantive threat to the international development agenda when pushed too far – not only does it cast doubt on the shining beaconof the self-made rich in the global South, but specifically, it starts to push against the foundational myth that ‘development abroad’ can be achieved with no corresponding change in the fortunes of ‘developed’ countries, a key threat to donor sanguinity and compliance with the UNDP’s more radical agendas. After all, if it is true within countries that vast inequalities impact on quality of life through skewing access to the goods that constitute human well-being, why would this also not be true between countries? The nonsense and yet widespread idea that some countries merely have to ‘catch up’ with others is belied by the inequality point but poses the much harder question for western countries and populaces to deal with: do I support international development enough to sacrifice any aspect of my own well-being?

As argued on an earlier post, the failure of highly-moralising development and anti-poverty agendas to deal at all with the central problem of inequality, both international and domestic, has been egregious and pervasive over the last 20 years, and looks to remain so in the future. The UNDP’s intervention is no doubt a timely one, although given the history of its more radical proposals, one which will probably be so watered down in practice as to be meaningless. Furthermore, by bringing this question within the competence of the ‘development’ policy specialists rather than engaging it as a public political question in ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries, the potential for getting to grips with the depth of this challenge seem remote.

National Demonstration Against Higher Education Cuts

4 Nov

Demo 2010 – Fund Our Future

Additional information from UCU

We’ll see you there…

Fred Halliday and ‘The Mid-Atlantic Journal of Inverted Abstraction’

2 Nov

The next few days at LSE will see a number of events celebrating the life, and exploring the ideas, of the late Fred Halliday. Indulging in some narcissism-by-proxy, we’re pointing out that there’s an early assessment of his intellectual trajectory and legacy by Alex Colás and George Lawson freely available from Millennium (already mentioned elsewhere).

The Mid-Atlantic Journal of Inverted Abstraction was an imaginary output for work Halliday deemed excessively introverted or self-regarding. There is some argument to be had about that attitude to (some) theory. But not now. Instead, a few other choice Fred-isms:

History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the third time as a fad in IR theory.

The ESRC is a four letter word.

One good post-graduate seminar is worth a thousand anti-ageing creams.

In his less charitable moments, he is said to have spoken of ‘Floor 7 Disease’, referring to the Millennium office, as a catch-all for the navel-gazing abstracters in our midst. It seems appropriate to point that many of the other Millennium articles currently (if temporarily) freed from the tyranny of the paywall, to my mind at least, resist such a dismissal. I would particularly recommend Gideon Baker‘s historical-reconstruction-cum-Derridean-intervention on hospitality and haunting in the colonial encounter:

The neglected history of hospitality teaches us that unconditional hospitality, such as that which Montezuma showed to Cortés, can unleash an annihilating violence in which sovereignty and identity, much more than being ‘problematised’, are obliterated in an orgy of violence. The ghost of Montezuma reminds us that unlimited hospitality is haunted too. The Spanish, totalling around 300 men, were outnumbered a thousand to one; Montezuma could have prevailed and his homeland could have survived, at least for a time, if he had not offered an unconditional welcome.


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