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What We Talked About At ISA: From #occupyirtheory to #OpenIR?

19 Apr

A write up of my comments at the #occupyirtheory event in San Diego. The event itself was both hope-filled and occasionally frustrating, not least for the small group of walk-outs, apparently ‘political’ ‘scientists’ lacking in any conception of what it actually means to engage in the political (note: this bothered me especially, but was a rather minor irritation in the grander scheme of things). Despite the late hour, there were between 40 and 60 people there throughout, and a number of very positive things have come of it. It looks like there’ll be some gathering at BISA/ISA to discuss further, and we’re pitching something for the Millennium conference on some of the themes addressed below, and there will of course be ISA 2013 too. In the meantime, there’s the Facebook group, the blog, and a mailing list. The term OpenIR is owed to Kathryn Fisher, and seems to several of us to be a better umbrella term for the many things we want to address in the discipline and the academy. I also just want to give a public shout-out to Nick, Wanda, Robbie and Meera for doing so much on this.


The #occupy practice/meme has antecedents. Physical manifestations of a ‘public’, horizontalism, prefigurative politics and more can be traced in all sorts of histories. One such lineage is the foreshadowing of Zucotti Park in recent struggles over education. Take the slogan in March 2010 over privatisation at the University of California, which was ‘STRIKE / OCCUPY / TAKEOVER’. Or Middlesex, where students resisting the dismantling of the Philosophy Department in that same year unfurled a banner during their occupation, one that proclaimed: ‘THE UNIVERSITY IS A FACTORY! STRIKE! OCCUPY!’.

I want briefly, then, to think about the space of the university in our discussions of #occupy. There have been rich and suggestive calls to re-politicise ourselves as academic-activists, to look again at our work and its claims, and to turn our abilities, such as they are, to projects of resistance and transformation. But we risk a displacement. When we talk of ‘the street’, or politics enacted in the reconfigured space of #occupy, or of the ‘real world’ that we must be relevant to, we already miss the university itself as that factory in which we labour. We are tempted by a view of ourselves as leaving ivory towers to do politics, instead of seeing those towers themselves as spaces of politics. As if our institutions and practices were not already part of the world.

Whether you see #occupy as transformational or nor, or whether you simply prefer a different vocabulary, I think a demand remains: a demand to politicise our own positionality. This politicisation can have many dimensions, but I want to suggestively highlight four, each being a sphere in which we should be diagnosing and transforming our own practices.

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#occupyirtheory, International Studies Association (San Diego) Edition

30 Mar

ISA 2012 is just around the corner, and it will doubtless be as hectic and awkward and joyous as ever. Robbie and I will be appearing at an event on #occupy and its relevance for IR on Tuesday at 7 in Indigo 204 at the Hilton Bayfront. We’ll be joining Lucian Ashworth, Lara Coleman, Nicholas Kiersey and Wanda Vrasti (all chaired by Jason Weidner) for what I’m sure will be an exciting roundtable discussion. More importantly, it will be brief, with most of the session given over to a General Assembly-style discussion of what IR can learn from #occupy, what #occupy might get from IR, and how we might take the spirit and organisational form into the discipline itself (or not).

The hope is that the slightly later starting time will allow people to go both to the various Section receptions and meetings (briefly) and to come to this, whilst still leaving reasonable evening time for food and the rest. Please do get involved over at Facebook (see also the #occupyirtheory group and #occupyirtheory blog) and let interested IR-types know. Readers may also be (should also be!) interested in a recent forum from the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies on ‘Occupy IR/IPE’, featuring Nick and Wanda (as well as Colin Wight, Michael J. Shapiro, Patrick Jackson and others), which I’ve parcelled together as a single pdf for your delectation here.

Hope to see you there!

Call for Contributions: The Global Political Economy of the 1%

12 Mar

Tim Di Muzio (Wollongong) is putting together an edited volume on The Global Political Economy of the 1% which Disordered readers might be interested in contributing to. The full call is here. Abstracts of 250 words or less are due by 30 April 2012 with first full drafts by 1 November 2012. Tim can be emailed with submissions or for more details here.

While the internationalized Occupy Wall Street movement faces many strategic and organizational challenges, one of its major accomplishments has been its ability to draw global attention to the massive disparity of income, wealth and privilege held by 1% of the population. Such attention comes amidst a relatively synchronized global financial crisis, a mounting first world debt crisis in parts of Europe and the United States and the intensification of neoliberal policies. While political science and sociological study has shed light on elites and the wealthy in the past, with some recent popular exceptions, there has been a dearth of research on the culture, politics, built environments and psychology of the global rich in the new gilded age.

To redress this gap in the literature, this edited volume calls for a more focused and engaged study on what could be called the global political economy of the 1%. Such a project could help shed light on the massive chasm between this elite class of wealth holders and the rest of the global working class – the majority of whom subsist on less than US$2 a day and increasingly live in informal settlements as the dialectic of dispossession and urbanization continues its historical dance. Of course, it should be emphasized that a global political economy of the 1% does not preclude (and nor should it) the unavoidable social relations between the 1% and the 99%. However, recent literature has already enriched our understanding of how poverty, unprotected workers, and the everyday life practices of the seemingly mundane impact upon the wider global political economy. So a keen, yet nonrestrictive, focus on the political economy of 1% and the global income/wealth hierarchy is welcome.

All abstracts will be accepted and reviewed with sincerity. Selections for inclusion in the volume will be evaluated on the basis of original content, coherence and consistency with the general theme as well as the necessity of creating coherent sub-themes. Sub-themes are suggested here to organize research questions but are not necessarily the themes of the volume (contingent upon contributions).

Topics and questions that could be addressed in such a volume include but are not limited to the following: The Usual Suspects: Identifying the 1%The Social Reproduction of the 1%; Culture, Consumption and the 1%; and Power, Resistance and the 1%.

We are Illafifth Dynamite!

20 Jan

The Roots

In Capitalist Realism, Mark “K-Punk” Fisher writes of Kurt Cobain:

“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliche”. (p. 15)

This is as concise and accurate a summary of the dead-end of Nirvana’s nihilism as one could ask for – but as an illustration of the wider impotence of cultural and artistic expression to push beyond a dominant social vision of neo-liberal capitalism it’s not wholly convincing.

Fisher is right about Cobain, but his observation begs the obvious question: is Nirvana the wrong listening choice? If we turn to artistic expression for exemplars of how to begin anew, to think beyond our current moment, to escape the scripted thoughts, words and movements that structure our lives, this is actually a vital question.

Who should we be listening to?

This is a question that overflows beautifully, but here I want to explore the significance of one group – The Roots. This is partly an expression of personal love, but it’s also borne out of two less subjective impulses: (1) The Roots are insufficiently appreciated as an artistic and intellectual resource – they are artists in need of critics and journalists equal to their own insight and intensity; and (2) while I appreciate the efforts of those studying politics in an academic setting to bring in cultural resources, I don’t identify with International Relations’ obsession with Science Fiction (even as I appreciate the significance genre fiction can achieve), nor do I get much out of Political Theory’s tendency to appeal to classic dramas, and the multidisciplinary use of cinema, while fascinating, rarely leaves me inspired – so, returning to what one knows and finds inspiring – I want to argue it’s well worth listening to The Roots (and hip hop music) to understand the world and find profound insights.

A simple proposition: The Roots are the most important artists in popular music today – not bigger than Jesus, or the only band that matters – but possibly the best hip-hop group ever and a creative and intellectual force the quality of which is rare in music, especially music that maintains a popular orientation. This proposition matters because understanding and appreciating The Roots’ work over the past thirteen years takes the listener into an artistic world that expresses a very particular experience of the first decade of the 21st century (black, urban and American) through profound musical originality and penetrating intelligence, this experience provides a very different vision that has the potential to disrupt the exhausted and nihilistic sense of inevitability that Fisher so rightly identifies.

“I’m kinda like W.E.B. Du Bois meets Heavy D and the Boyz”

- Dice Raw, “Get Busy”, Rising Down (2008)

W.E.B. Du Boisidea of double-consciousness provides a way of appreciating the importance of The Roots. Double-consciousness is defined by a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” While this burden threatens to overwhelm a positive sense of self-awareness and confidence, it also enables a second-sight in women and men systematically repressed and whose experiences are devalued, allowing a sharper vision of social violence and providing substantial resources for struggle and emancipation. The Roots carry over this sense of double-consciousness, but rendered more positive and confident by decades of growing black self-awareness, increasing social strength and important political victories in the US and more widely, such that they render the potential psychological weakness of double-consciousness into an incisive and positive vision, one wholly at odds with Cobain’s musical and cultural legacy of frustrated exhaustion.

Speaking of traditions of black music in America, Du Bois says,

“Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”

Black culture in America provides an alternative reservoir of tradition (in the form of hip-hop culture, black musical traditions, political radicalism and distinctive forms of socially engaged religious practice) that not only nourishes the social imagination but is resistant to co-option. Hip-hop music is received by the dominant culture as a threat that must be commodified and tamed, but the refusal of a hip-hop artist to acquiesce to their own commodification need not reduce to an empty and ironic refusal nor solipsistic underground fetishism. The Roots, among others, maintain both a lucrative musical career and a challenging artistic output, at least in part, because of their capacity to occupy multiple subject positions – knowing that the music business is a business, intentionally challenging young, black, urban identities normally associated with hip hop, exploiting the fear of black assertiveness in mainstream culture in the US and working as “working musicians” who write, perform, produce, arrange for multiple artists, across generations and genres. But they are not simply polymaths too nimble to succumb to commodification – they are also self conscious creators of their own musical and intellectual space, shared in common, tied to tradition, and pushing relentlessly outward and forward. It is this quality, so essential to beginnings, that I focus on here.

Over a series of posts I want to consider the visions contained in The Roots music, with a particular focus on the political importance of their work – running from their groundbreaking 1999 album, Things Fall Apart, to their 2011 concept album, undun, I pull out a central theme from each album, which hardly defines the limits of their significance, but rather focuses on some of the insights they offer up with abundance.

Things Fall Apart (1999) 

We are illafifth dynamite

“I am no man, I am dynamite.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

On Beginnings

“Listen close to my poetry, I examine this like an analyst, to see if you can handle this”

- Black Thought, “Next Movement

Beginning are difficult – this is a simple truth that is particularly pertinent to anyone who feels pressed in by the world as it has been given, who struggles to find fractures in the world that might be expanded far enough to stand up to their full height. Partly this is a struggle to give expression to the discontent one feels – it’s not enough to know, as the early Roots’ records insistently documented, that one’s culture has been distorted, co-opted, defiled and weakened by its basest impulses – we need an analysis, an account of the dynamics that make’s our present condition combustible material for making new worlds.

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Has the Left given up on Economics?

3 Oct

With the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression continuing to slowly unfold, one of the most surprising consequences has been a non-event: the dearth of high-quality economic theorizing in leftist groups. [1] This is in spite of the opportunity the crisis presents for alternative economies, and in spite of the economic conundrum that developed economies find themselves in: too indebted for stimulus and too weak for austerity. This differend between austerity and stimulus indexes the insufficiency of either and yet few have taken up the necessity of thinking proper alternatives.

The leftist response to the economic crisis has instead been mostly been to focus on piecemeal reactions against government policies. The student movement arose as a response to tuition fee and EMA changes; the right to protest movement arose as a response to heavy-handed police treatment; and leftist parties have suggested a mere moderation of existing government policies. The project to bring about a fully different economic system has been shirked in favour of smaller-scale protests. There is widespread critique, but little construction.

Admittedly, the left is not entirely devoid of high-level economic theorizing. Rather, the more specific problem is that those few who do such work are a relatively tiny minority and are typically marginalized within the leftist scene. The attention and effort of the leading intellects of leftism (at least in the UK) are on social issues, race issues, rights issues, and identity issues. All important, to be sure, but there is no equivalent attention paid to economic issues.

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Commodification, the Academic Journal Racket and the Digital Commons

14 Sep

David, my erstwhile ‘parasitic overlord’ from when I was co-editing Millennium, points me to some posts by Kent Anderson of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, who defends the industry on a number of grounds from Monbiot’s polemic against the journal racket. The comments threads on both pieces are populated by academics who agree with Monbiot and by publishing industry colleagues who agree with Anderson (and who alternate between dismissing and being personally offended by the original Monbiot column). The core counter-argument is that this anti-corporate, out of touch, ‘wannabe-academic’ day dreaming is old hat, and stands up no better now than it did when it was demolished at some unspecified point in the past.

Most crucially, Monbiot’s central exhibit (that companies consistently make 30-40% margins on the distribution of work already paid for by the public purse) is almost entirely passed over. Anderson coyly suggests that maybe publisher margins are that high, but maybe they’re not. Despite working rather closer to the heart of matters financial than do the rest of us, he provides no settling of accounts either way. In any case, however much it costs, and however much publishers make, it’s good value, apparently by definitional fiat. Since libraries keep paying the money, and since academics keep submitting papers, it is ‘idealism’ (remember that?) to complain about the current balance of power.

This is the familiar circular logic of neoliberal reason: privatised arrangements are beneficial because they will make the system more efficient and less costly. But if the rate of profit does not fall in line with the expectations of open competition, then it must mean that the rates charged are true equilibrium prices. Nevertheless, complainants citing high margins are referred to the benefits of privatised arrangements and assured that competition will bring prices down. Even though £200 million each year, or 10% of all research funding distributed by HEFCE (the academic funding council for England), ends up being spent on journal and database access by academic libraries. [1]

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Beneath The University, The (Digital) Commons

5 Sep

UPDATE (8 September): In the comments, Lee Jones reminds me of the Directory of Open Access Journals, which gives some more info on existing outlets. Monbiot also tweeted details of a petition to make all publicly-funded research available for free within a year of publication, which you should sign (yes, I know it’s just a petition, but start somewhere OK?)


1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you, and doesn’t give you a key, the lock is not there for your benefit;

2. It’s hard to monetise fame, but it’s impossible to monetise obscurity;

3. Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.

Despite the focus on the artist and her output, Cory Doctorow’s three propositions for understanding copyright against creativity also speak to the products of the university (and both videos are worth watching). In short, the addition of copyright ‘protection’ to your work acts to restrict it, doesn’t actually drive higher resources to artists, and can’t really work in practice, thus requiring extending circles of criminalisation and monitoring. Contemporary copyright is a way of creating an obstacle course, one where the people who put in the work of limiting access are also the ones who you pay down the line for the access. In short, “they have created a problem that they know how to solve, and it works for them”.

In July, Aaron Swartz was charged under US federal hacking laws for downloading more than a few academic articles via MIT. It was about 4.8 million papers, since you ask. Wired reports that the penalty for this may amount to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Worse, there is some evidence that the prosecution is being driven by the state rather than JSTOR alone. He’s due in court this Thursday. After some germination, both George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre have entered the fray with astute and biting pieces on the profitable stupidity of these arrangements and their detrimental impact on the free exchange of knowledge, scientific progress, the public good, etcetera.

The problems of intellectual property and who gets to profit from it are general, but the scandal is in the specificity of different productive spheres. After all, an artist is not like a university lecturer.

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The Politics of Austerity: Emergency Economics and Debtocracy

17 Jul

austerity |ôˈsteritē| noun – sternness or severity of manner or attitude

It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.

– George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”

Why what have you thought of yourself?

Is it you then that thought yourself less?

Is it you that thought the President greater than you?

Or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

 I do not affirm that what you see beyond is futile, I do not advise that you stop,

I do not say leadings you thought great are not great,

But I say that none lead to greater than these lead to.

– Walt Whitman, “A Song for Occupations,” Leaves of Grass

The Politics of Austerity – Part I

This is the first in a series of posts that look at the political implications of the ongoing global economic crisis. I begin by examining the way that crisis is being used to attack the very idea of democracy through an assertion of the political imperatives of “the market” and the violation, bending and re-writing of the law by capitalist elites. I conclude by laying out how understanding the economic crisis in political terms shapes our ability to respond to it.

In the second post I’ll look at the ethos of austerity, which justifies the pain inflicted on largely innocent people, while suggesting that an affirmative democratic response to the economic crisis must begin with its own ethos, which I suggest should be an ethos of care for the world – which can provide orientation and inspiration for political struggles seeking to address the deeper causes of our current crisis. In the third post, I turn to the structures of the economy and of politics that define the current crisis, looking at the banking crisis, the bailouts, the politics of recovery/austerity and also reflecting of the structural imperatives of capitalism that led us to crisis. This, then, leads to the question of how to respond to the politics of austerity, and of what alternative actions are available to us, which is where the fourth and final post will pick up – with an affirmation of a caring ethos that supports a radically democratic economic vision.

Emergency Economics

In a previous post I briefly highlighted Bonnie Honig’s work, Emergency Politics, to examine the way that the ethical case for austerity is made; most basically, the existence of a supreme emergency, in this case economic, justifies actions that would normally be considered unacceptable. Honig’s work looks at how the appeal to emergency is used to reassert the exceptional political power of the sovereign over and against the law, with a focus on the reassertion of sovereignty witnessed over the past ten years in response to the threat of terrorist attack in the US and Europe.

Rather than accepting the necessarily intractable conflict between the power of the sovereign and the power of the law, Honig attempts to deflate this paradox by turning her attention to the always ongoing contestation that defines democratic politics, a contest over both the content of the law and the institutional embodiment of sovereign power. She suggests, then, that attending to the ambiguities of the “people”, who are both the democratic sovereign and a diffuse multitude, as well as the political element in the law – as new laws come into being through political action – enables us to avoid thinking about emergencies as moments of exception in which the rule of law is lost to the play of political power, while also acknowledging the limits of established law in moments of profound crisis. By undermining the exceptional nature of crises and emergencies Honig alters the challenge we face when circumstances force us to make choices or carry out actions we know are harmful and wrong by asking what we (democratic publics and citizens) can do to survive an emergency with our integrity in tact.

What do we need to do to ensure our continuity as selves and/or our survival as a democracy with integrity? Our survival depends very much on how we handle ourselves in the aftermath of a wrong. We will not recover from some kinds of tragic conflict. But when faced with such situations, we must act and we must inhabit the aftermath of the situation in ways that promote our survival as a democracy.

I continue to find this a useful way to understand our current economic crisis. Appeals to austerity depend upon the exceptional state created by crisis in order to justify the pain inflicted upon masses of people and the priority given to private interests (the markets, investors and bankers) over democratic publics. So, as democratically enacted laws must bow before the sovereign power threatened by exceptional attacks, so economic justice and democratic equality must bow before the commands of market forces, of economic inevitability, in this time of crisis.

The economic version of this argument is stronger still. While the space of political contestation that remains open when we accept the framing of emergency politics is limited, it does exist in the clashing of opposing sovereigns. The prospect of a substantive alternative to neoliberal economic ideology is dim, a light flickering weakly on antiquated appeals for a return to Keynesianism or watered down triangulations of the moderate-middle that sell off dreams of a just economy bit by bit – capitalist realism in action.

Honig awakens us to an important aspects of our current crisis: that “the market” is not in fact supremely sovereign, and the move to re-establish and further neoliberal policies and push through austerity measures requires an engagement in democratic politics – albeit one that undermines the notion of the public itself and seeks to use the power of the law to subvert democracy. Recognising the current crisis in these terms not only challenges us to consider how to survive our current troubles without giving up democratic virtues, it also reinvigorates and clarifies the political challenge we face. Emergency economics – with its assertion of debtocracy over democracy – is not an inevitable response to the crisis, it is a political one that we can, and should, fight against.

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Grayling’s Eminence; Or, For That Kind Of Money, I Would Demand A Team Of Live-In, Round-The-Clock Tutors, Ready To Fill Me In About Renaissance Art Or Logical Positivism At The Snap Of A Finger.

16 Jun


I do feel somewhat sorry for A.C. Grayling. Following his sudden exit from the Birkbeck scene, former colleagues sent a short but apt letter to The Guardian, expressing appropriate levels of dismay and resistance to the innovation of the New College of the Humanities. They raised basically two objections. First, that the New College is for-profit, substituting the business of teaching in place of the vocation of research. And second, that it is in the ‘vanguard’ of efforts to link education to wealth, partly via a leaching of public resources.

Although many prominent names were used to unveil New College, few seem in sight now that it is under sustained attack (Peter Singer, where are you?). And Grayling, somewhat to his credit, keeps replying to the antiquated nay-sayers desperately clinging to the sinking ship of public provision. Perhaps the fullest public defence has come in response to the Birkbeck letter. Although garlanded by academic niceties (“with respect”; “I would be very grateful”), the ultimate conclusion is that his critics lack some basic faculties of reason: “I have seen only an emotional case for scapegoating our project”.

Surely, then, there are firm responses to the proliferating critiques? Continue reading

On Objecting to the New College of the Humanities; Or, Who Would Pay £18,000 a Year to Listen to this Outdated Victorian Rationalism When They Could Buy Themselves a Second-Hand Copy of John Stuart Mill?

8 Jun

Yes, this is more comment on the New College, a.k.a. Grayling Hall, a.k.a. Grayling’s Folly, a.k.a. North Oxford in Bedford Square (NOBS), a.k.a. The Ultimate Scab University.

It won’t have escaped your notice that there has been a flurry of disgust, disbelief, protest and rage at the announcement of the New College of the Humanities (an aside: ‘of the’ Humanities? Why not ‘for the’ Humanities?). There have also been a number of responses that pretty much add up to ‘meh’: to wit, there are some bad things, but also some good things about Grayling’s Folly. And then there has been some welcoming of this project, and its ‘chutzpah’. Since we are in a downward vortex of vanishing funding and academic status, why not expand where we can? And why damn the entrepreneurial? As Brian Leiter puts it:

NCH is just the natural continuation of the elimination of 75% of government funding for higher education and 800% increases in tuition in the space of a few years. If the Brits can’t even keep the Tories out of office, and if their party of the Left is now in bed with the Neoliberals, it’s really hard to see why one should think “petitioning” the government for more government funding for higher ed will produce any results. The battle to be won is at the polls, and NCH is just a symptom of the battle already lost.

All this makes me think it’s worth clarifying the case against, and the potential mitigating factors. Continue reading

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