Among the Atavists

If there is one especially lazy characterization among the many about Scotland’s independence referendum, it is the description of the Yes movement as motivated by ‘atavistic ethnic tribalism’ or the like. Toss a pebble at the UK commentariat and you will come across it soon enough: from the Guardian to the Financial Times, the argument is the same. Britain is the outward-looking future, an independent Scotland a reversion to the barbaric past.

Taken literally, the idea of reverting to a period before Scot and Englishman jointly exported the apparatus of colonial power and racial supremacy they forged in Ireland to the rest of the world does not seem at all regressive. One can scarcely imagine an Indian or Ghanaian, for example, objecting to the move on these grounds. In the same breath as condemning the Yes campaign’s alleged ethnic tribalism, Unionist commentators give as their prime reason for retaining the UK its 300 years of success. Of what, in large part, does that success consist? Why, expanding into other territories and enforcing a hierarchy by which the indigenous inhabitants were plundered of their resources and denied self-government on the grounds of their alleged genetic or cultural inferiority. A textbook case of ethnic nationalism, you might say. One might think that someone celebrating centuries of such behaviour would baulk at condemning the ‘tribalism’ of others.

There is no insincerity in such condemnations. We can have no doubt that when Sir Jeremy Greenstock says of the referendum:

in this ­complex, unpredictable and sometimes threatening environment, the instinct to return to the tribe is understandable. Yet it is creating momentum for global chaos.

he believes it. So profound a substratum is British nationalism that men such as these, its prime beneficiaries, cannot see that their tribe – easily identified by its common modes of dress, speech and rituals of adolescent sequestration – dominate all the institutions of the British state and therefore articulate their interests as universal. Were a Kenyan of Gikuyu heritage, or a Syrian of the Alawite faith to do the same, we can imagine what would be made of her.

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Want to Deprovincialize Your Political Theory Syllabus a Little? What I Learned at APSA

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American Political Science Association (APSA) annual conventions typically offer a rich selection of pre-conference short courses. This time I went to “Deparochializing Political Theory.” Sponsored by Steven Johnston and Michaele Ferguson and organized by Emily Beausoleil, this course offered two excellent sessions on how to enrich your political theory syllabus with ‘non-western’ content. Loubna El-Amin spoke about Chinese political thought, and Michaelle Browers on Arab and Islamic political thought. These are my course notes from last week, in a Q&A form. My gratitude goes to Michaelle and Loubna for letting me copy/paste from their course materials.

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Decolonising the Anglosphere

Alex at Red Fort

A guest post from Alexander Davis, who is a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Alex holds a research MA on India’s international colonial history from the University of Tasmania and his PhD dissertation is a postcolonial examination of India’s relationship with the Anglosphere, supervised by Priya Chacko, Kaniskha Jayasuriya and Carol Johnson. This post provides an outline of his critique of the ‘Anglosphere’, which follows from previous discussion on The Disorder of Things by our own Srdjan Vucetic, and acts as an introduction to the themes of his forthcoming dissertation. Alex can also be found over at Twitter.[1]


Why India? Why the Anglosphere?

The term ‘Anglosphere’ refers to a distinctly murky combination of states, peoples or cultures with an implication of both cultural superiority and closer international relationships on the basis of a shared identity. Even dictionary definitions of the term illustrate the difficult. For some, Anglosphere is based simply on the English language, for others it includes the ‘cultural values’ associated with the political development of Great Britain. Srdjan’s recent book on the Anglosphere shows excellently how the idea of the Anglosphere is rooted in its colonial history and is an expression of Anglo-western superiority. Because of my previous research and teaching interest in India’s colonial history, the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’ struck me as an assertion of cultural superiority and dominance, suspiciously similar to colonial justifications for imperial rule. Once we realize this, India, just as it was central to the British empire, becomes central to understanding contemporary discourse on ‘Anglosphere’. The first question I asked, sensibly enough I thought, was ‘is India in the Anglopshere?’ I have since realized deep inadequacies of this question, which in turn has led me towards to believe in need for a decolonisation of the Anglosphere subject.

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Thinking the Anglosphere through India

In order to understand contemporary Anglosphere discourse, and the position in which India fits within the concept, we first need to understand its historical context. An early form of contemporary Anglosphere debates on India can be in England on the future of the British empire at the turn of the 20th century which turned into a discussion on the concept of ‘Greater Britain’. This idea was to be federation between Britain and her colonies might look like. Some thinkers at this time saw India as central to the empire, and therefore central to any ‘Greater Britain’. Sir Charles Dilke originally began to use ‘Greater Britain’ as shorthand for the British empire as a whole, but later argued it should only be the ‘English-speaking, white-inhabited, and self-governed lands’. Others, such as historian John Seeley, took up the idea, initially including India on the inside as a territory of the Crown. However, later, in the same book, he argued Greater-Britain needed to be racially homogenous, declaring India to be ‘…all past and, I may almost say, has no future’.

Winston Churchill’s work on the ‘English-Speaking Peoples’, itself an echo of Alfred Taylor’s ‘English Speaking Races’, emphasizes the supposed superiority and unity of these peoples. Conservative historian Andrew Roberts has recently taken it upon himself to follow up on Churchill’s work. Roberts cuts down the magnitude of his chosen topic by ignoring English-speakers outside the geographical centers of the Anglosphere. His approach to India and colonial history is revealed by his depiction, and ultimate defense, of General Dyer’s massacre at Amritsar. This is the worst example of ‘imperial’ history I can think of. Roberts goes so far as to defend Dyer from the propaganda of the nasty Indian nationalists. Even the British government no longer defends this event, though on a recent trip to India, David Cameron declined to apologize for it. Roberts defends the massacre even though many of Dyer’s victims were English-speaking. Leaving the victims out of the ‘English-Speaking peoples’ is a final act of humiliation and dehumanization.

Just as the debaters over ‘Greater Britain’ were unsure of where India might fit with the concept, contemporary Anglospherists are unsure of what to do with India. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Rhythm, Time and History

With thanks to Elisabetta Brighi and Xavier Guillaume for putting together the Rhythms of the International roundtable and their inspiring contributions, to Robbie Shilliam for his song, and Kyle Grayson for his spirited and thoughtful engagement. And by no means least, to the pleasingly sizeable and lively crowd who gave the last panel of the last day such a buzz.

Below is a write-up of my contribution to the roundtable, in which I reflected on the relationship of rhythm and history, and drew out some of the potential disruptions that a different rhythmic sensibility might have on our conception of history.


What is rhythm?

To my shame, colleagues, and partly out of curiosity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Shame, because if you are looking something up in a dictionary before giving a talk on it, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk on it. Curiosity, because I wanted to know how they would define ‘rhythm’ in words rather than in noises.

The dictionary answers were not particularly edifying. One definition spoke of ‘repeated, regular beats’, another of a ‘regulated succession’ of beats. Thud, thud, thud. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, thud, boom, thud. These definitions felt flat, and rather forbidding. But I suppose this is because they were the generic definitions of all kinds of ‘rhythm’, and not just the samba playing in my head.

Using some thinking developed earlier in some work on music and politics, I started again, with a different question:

What is the relationship of rhythm and time?

This yielded a much more direct answer: it is the production of rhythm that makes time itself knowable. In the making of music, rhythm generates movement and flow, and makes it possible for sounds to synchronise and arrange themselves. Continue reading

A Right To The World: On Syria and an Idea of International Public Order

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A guest post from Amy Niang on the contours of ‘international community’, following previous interventions from Siba Grovogui in relation to Libya, Robbie on provinciality in International Relations and John M. Hobson et al. on Eurocentrism in international political theory. Amy teaches international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand and she is affiliated with the Centre of Africa’s International Relations (CAIR). She gained her PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2011. She has taught International Relations, political theory and African history in South Africa, Scotland and Japan. Her research interests are in the history of state formation, political theory and Africa’s international relations, and she has commented regularly on democracy, civil society and Western intervention in Africa.


The Syria crisis has sparked many debates in scholarly and media circles, not least around the way in which the ‘international community’ should exercise its responsibility to Syrians and to the protection of human rights, particularly in the aftermath of the alleged use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. The lack of consensus on the most appropriate response, within the limits of international law, raised a number of questions.

There were times when we were told that a military attack was imminent, others when cautious voices against a military campaign seemed to have the moral upper hand. In the days following the discovery of the use of chemical weapons, the U.S. made public its position on the question, based on the conviction that the Syrian government was responsible. In the general uproar that that ensued, the recent examples of Afghanistan and Iraq guided many deliberations on the wisdom of another humanitarian intervention. Like Barack Obama, many commentators believe in the existence of a red line that delineates the contours of a hypothetical morality, its alleged violation by Syria warranted punishment if the red line was to be pushed back. Many others however warned against acting on an impulse of outrage, Libya is a vivid example of how an ill-conceived intervention can be more damaging than the situation it originally sought to fix.

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From the polarized debates, two declarations in particular piqued my interest. The first one was Barack Obama’s Address to the Nation of September 10th, 2013. The second one was the Declaration of the Forum for Former African Heads of State and Government (the Africa Forum) on September 5th, 2013. The first one was as usual widely followed in America and beyond. The second went unnoticed partly because it was of little news worthiness for commentators of world affairs, partly because no one expected Africans to formulate any coherent view on the Syrian question. The first was delivered as an authoritative pronouncement on how a putative ‘we’ (i.e. the international community) should interpret international law and what shape its moral responsibility – here merely one embodiment of the West – should be engaged. Continue reading

Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy

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The Western Academy, especially in its social science and humanities wings, incorporates as a priestly caste. Perhaps Kant is the first high priest of this caste when he argues for the Aufklärer to become a corporate entity equivalent to the hierocracy and nobility but exceptional in its duty to provide a truly public service of reasoning. The psalm of this priestly caste is “have the courage to use your own understanding”, its catechism: to singularly possess and hold aloft the flame of revelation, known as science, or, nowadays, the modern episteme. Even Marx holds the flame aloft when he takes Hegel’s Philosopher, who breathes world spirit, and makes him inhabit the skin of the Communist.

This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour.  These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history –  differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. 

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Ultimately this mapping of difference works through race, gender and class coordinates so that even the “poor” living in the West, as well as un-mastered women and single mothers intersect with (post-)colonized subjects to become part of this opacity. The episteme of the Western Academy thus differentiates between the knowers and the known.

In this respect, the modern episteme is as seminal as gunboats to the maintenance of colonial difference. Key to this difference is not just the attribution of extra-ordinary exploitation, oppression and dispossession to colonized peoples but also their epistemic erasure, i.e., the outlawing of the possibility and desirability of intentional self-determining community amongst the colonized and their post-colonized descendents. It is in the colonial world and not Europe where Europeans develop the art of objectifying peoples into populations such that the basic competency of the colonized to self-define is deemed absent by the instruments and mores of European sanctioned international law. Postcolonial populations have only been able to become peoples under very specific conditionalities; and many who make the transition become the new police of colonial difference. Those who fall between or prefer a third way become the ungoverned, or ungovernable.

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Stop and Search: Race and the Politics of Suspicion

banksy-searchStop and search at Notting Hill carnival

BETWEEN me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (1905)

Video from excellent activist group Stop-Watch.

The political pause over Stop and Search

The riots of 2011, and the research that was conducted afterwards, have had multiple political effects. Of these, one of the most important has been a clearer public exposure of the deep animosities generated by police use of stop and search powers against young people and especially those of black and Asian backgrounds. Whilst the idea that stop and search causes animosity is not news to anyone interested in British race relations or human rights, it has unusually become the focus of increasing political attention. For many years the Independent Police Complaints Commission has warned that the use of stop and search powers may be being exercised in a discriminatory and unaccountable way, and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission have been investigating police forces on this front.  Yet it was only following the riots that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe began a large overhaul of the use of the power in London in 2012. Following this, parliamentary briefings were issued which pointed to the broader ineffectiveness and abuse of the powers, and the Home Office has launched a consultation into the use of stop and search. In launching this consultation, equality-sceptic Home Secretary Theresa May acknowledged, in very measly terms, the discriminatory ways in which these powers had been exercised:

The official statistics show that, if someone is from a black or minority ethnic background, they are up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than if they are white. Now we should not rush to conclusions about those statistics, but everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity. The law is clear that in normal circumstances, stop and search should only ever be used where there is a reasonable suspicion of criminality—and that is how it should be. I am sure we have all been told stories by constituents and members of the public about what it is like to be a young, law-abiding black man who has been stopped and searched by the police on more than one occasion. If anybody thinks it is sustainable to allow that to continue, with all its consequences for public confidence in the police, they need to think again.

- House of Commons Debate, 2 July 2013 Continue reading