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Giving Back (Without Giving Up) In Neoliberal Times

15 Aug

A guest post from our sometime co-conspirator Wanda Vrasti. Wanda teaches social studies at the Humbolt University and international politics at the Feie Universitaet in Berlin. Her book Volunteer Tourism in the Global South just came out with Routledge. She has also written on the uses of ethnographic methods in IR (in Millennium, twice) and on questions of global governmentality (in Theory & Event and Review of International Studies). Her current interests (still) include the politics of work and leisure, social movements on the Left, and anarchism and autonomism. Images by Pablo.

UPDATE (9 Nov): Wanda is now happily a member of the Disordered collective. And thus, this is retrospectively no longer a guest post.


Last week my PhD dissertation entitled Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: How to Give Back in Neoliberal Times came out as a book with Routledge’s Interventions series. Publication usually marks the end or the completion of a research project, but in this case I feel like the puzzles that animated it are still very much alive in my mind. Rehashing some of these, at my blog hosts’ invitation (also considering that the book goes for a price I imagine not many people will be able to afford outside university libraries), is an exercise in keeping the thinking and writing that went into this book alive beyond its publication date.

In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic study of volunteer tourism projects in the Global South (Ghana and Guatemala specifically) with a particular focus on the kinds of subjects and social relations this rite of passage cultivates and the reasons why we attach so much value to them. The argument I make in the book is not very different from the common indictment against voluntourism seen in the media. The accusation is that volunteer tourism does more for the Western (in my case exclusively white middle-class) tourists who enrol in these all-inclusive tours of charity than for the impoverished communities they are claiming to serve. Volunteering programs, most of which focus on English teaching, medical assistance or minor construction projects, have neither the trained staff nor the organizational capacity to make a lasting impact upon the lives of developing populations. Often the commercial travel agencies offering these tours fail to deliver even basic assistance goods, let alone encourage grassroots community initiatives that could lead to more sustainable change. What they can offer, however, to Western customers willing to pay $500 to $2,500/month is the chance to travel to places outside the Lonely Planet circuit without being a tourist. A tourist, as we have all experienced it at some point, is a rather pitiable figure reduced to gazing at things or being gazed at, their only meaningful encounter being with the guide book. A volunteer, on the other hand, can live with a local family, get to know traditional cultures, and participate in the collective good. Not surprisingly, the formula has become a growing trend among high-school and college graduates hard pressed to find many opportunities for meaningful participation in the alienated (and austere) market societies they come from.

Sadly, the majority of volunteers I worked with in Ghana and Guatemala did not have their feelings of lack and longing satisfied on these tours. Besides having to cope with all sorts of cultural frustrations and racial tensions, the work we were doing felt boring and useless. Our tour organizers failed to provide work that was challenging and gratifying for the volunteers and socially useful for the local community. Still, most people returned home with an improved sense of self, feeling like these trying circumstances had helped them develop greater confidence and cultural awareness.

Volunteer tourism appears here as yet another form of aesthetic consumption designed to confirm the racial, economic and emotional superiority of white middle-class individuals who are able to afford it. Continue reading

The Olympic Semiosphere

10 Aug

The chafing constraints of a thesis prevent any original reflection on our hallowed Olympic moment (not least because Rahul has already said so much, and so well). There was little to better Iain Sinclair’s apt diagnosis of “a wonderful national hallucination: a beautiful conjuring between William Borroughs and Charles Satchi…the combination of paranoia and advertising run wild” (a clip worth watching for Jon Snow’s outraged ignorance at the origins of the Olympic Flame [clue: Nazis]). Reports had filtered through that the economic miracle was not as originally billed, with talk of Central London’s ‘ghost town’, stimulating a description elsewhere of the Olympics as an “economic bomb deployed against world cities”. And now there is the most welcome return of K-Punk. At length:

Welcome to the Hunger Games. The function of the Hunger Games is to suppress antagonism, via spectacle and terror. In the same way, London – 2012 preceded and accompanied by the authoritarian lockdown and militarisation of the city – are being held up as the antidote to all discontent. The feelgood Olympics, we are being assured, will do everything from making good the damage done by last year’s riots to seeing off the “threat” of Scottish independence. Any disquiet about London 2012 is being repositioned as “griping” or “cynicism”. Such “whinging”, it is claimed, assumed its proper place of marginality as the vast majority enjoy the Games, and LOCOG is vindicated…

…But once the Olympic floodlights are turned off, most will switch back from an attitude of mild interest to indifference towards even the most dramatic Olympic sports, never mind those many Olympic sports which plainly have limited specator appeal. This isn’t the point though: disquiet about London 2012 was never necessarily based in any hostility towards the sports. Enjoyment of the sport and loathing for LOCOG and the IOC are perfectly compatible.

Cynicism is just about the only rational response to the doublethink of the McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsorship (one of the most prominent things you see as you pass the Olympic site on the train line up from Liverpool Street is the McDonalds logo). As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, “It is no accident … that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.” Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality.

Affective exploitation is crucial to late capitalism. The BBC’s own Caesar Flickerman (the interviewer who extracts maximum sentimental affect from the Hunger Games contestants before they face their deaths in the arena) is the creepily tactile trackside interviewer Phil Jones. Jones’s “interviews” with exhausted athletes, are surely as ritualised as any Chinese state broadcast. Emote. Emote again. Emote differently. Praise the crowd.

And, just in case you somehow missed it, the irrepressible CassetteBoy:

It’s Really Kicking Off In Quebec

25 May

Despite some news coverage and discussions on Twitter, we’ve seen little on the continuing educational and political crisis in Quebec. Hence, a guest post from our friend and colleague Philippe Fournier. Philippe teaches political thought and International Relations at the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Montréal. He has published research on Foucault and International Relations, Governmentality in the contemporary United States and Violence and Responsibility. He is currently working on the government of security in the US and on the theoretical conflation of sovereign power and government in Foucault. His other research interests include critical cultural theory and political economy.


A little background info and some thoughts on the student crisis in Quebec, which has been going on for 101 days now and shows no signs of waning in the face of the government’s disturbing intransigence. The recent adoption of Bill 78, which circumvents the right to protest without prior notice and gives the police the right to change a demonstration’s itinerary, among other things, has shocked and angered many Quebecers and made the news worldwide. On Tuesday May 22, over 250 000 people expressed their discontent with the current government and it was quite a sight.

Ever since the ‘quiet revolution’ in the early 1960s, which saw the institution of important social provisions and the attribution of several socio-economic entitlements to the francophone majority, Quebec has been holding fast to its social-democratic heritage. Jean Charest’s liberal party, in power since 2003, is determined to fight off the modern-day antichrist of debt and rationalise state activity. The Charest government’s attack on hard fought social entitlements, including accessible post-secondary education (Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in Canada), has been going steady since 2003 but has intensified since 2008. Quebecers were told that it was no longer reasonable to expect affordable public services and that it was high time that we join the pay as you go party.

What is at play in this conflict is no less than the fate of social-democratic expectations in Quebec. These expectations are actively discouraged and discredited by the current political elite. The demands for a tuition freeze by sizeable portions of Quebec’s students are considered unreasonable in many quarters, and seen as a plane expression of bad faith and overindulgence by a majority of Canadians, seemingly stuck in a Stephen Harper induced stupor. The words ‘pragmatic’, ‘realistic’ and ‘rational’ have been duly appropriated by the partisans of deregulation, free-enterprise and individual responsibility. Any suggestions that the latter orientations are based on an ideological choice are ridiculed; they simply express a sounder and more logical way to manage society.

Up to now, there seemed to be a dour resignation to the decimation of our social programs. This young generation of Quebecers, which many had touted as completely apathetic and apolitical, has taken a resolute stand against restricting access to a public good, against the further commodification of knowledge and against the uncompromising law and order approach of an arrogant and irresponsible government. Those that have taken to the streets day after day and sacrificed their terms and put their professional lives on hold for the students that will come after them, have shown extraordinary resilience and bravery. It came as a surprise to many, because they did it on their own, with little or no help from their political science professors, who have long abandoned critical thinking for functionalist replications of reality sanctioned by government money.

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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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