Reinventing the Future

It is an honour to have had Inventing the Future considered in such depth and detail, and we want to begin by extending our thanks to everyone who contributed to this symposium. This response is a useful moment for us to clarify our argument, to respond to the most significant questions, to acknowledge limitations of the book, and to correct some misunderstandings. We do so in a spirit of humility, given that – as we wrote in the introductory post – we see this book as a contribution to a larger debate and hopefully the spark for reflection on what we think are important issues for the contemporary left.

Post-Work Futures

In Joseph, Sophie and David’s pieces, some fundamental questions are raised about what precisely a post-work world entails, particularly with respect to concerns around the environment, labour, social reproduction, and colonialism. Does a high-tech post-work world entail the exhaustion of resources and the decimation of the earth’s climate? Does a post-work world mean the continued oppression and subjugation of low-income countries? These are essential questions to ask. In responding to these queries, it will be useful to draw up a series of alternative possible futures indicating how a post-work project may play out. Roughly speaking, we can imagine four broad and potentially intersecting futures: a neocolonial and racist post-work world, an ecologically unsustainable post-work world, a misogynist post-work world, and a leftist post-work world.

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Inventing the Future

The opening post in our latest forum, on Nick and Alex Williams’ new book, Inventing the Future. Commentaries will follow over the week, and Nick and Alex will respond soon thereafter with a rejoinder to points raised. All will eventually be available under this tag url.

Inventing the Future Cover - square

Today kicks off a symposium on our new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. On a surface level, it is a book analysing post-work, the global crisis of surplus populations, and the challenges of rebuilding the contemporary left. Yet it is also a book designed to intervene in the current political conjuncture. It is written to produce discussions, rather than close them down; to spark debate, rather than dictate; and hopefully to persuade people of the utility of its prescriptions. As such, this blog event is the perfect avenue to inaugurate what we hope will be a series of productive engagements. Rather than simply summarising the book here, it is perhaps more useful if we briefly outline some of the debates we sought to contribute to.

The first such debate is the question concerning the dismal state of the left. While some find elements of hope in the contemporary left, for most it has been a series of marginal successes at best, and outright defeats at worst. In the book we attempt to offer a new explanation for why this is the case. Without rejecting the contributing factors of objective changes in the organisation of capitalism, and subjective changes in the self-understanding of class, we try to add a third explanation based upon a widespread common sense amongst the left. It is what we call ‘folk politics’: an intuitive set of beliefs that leads those on the left to instinctually turn towards immediacy as the solution to political problems. It finds greater and lesser expression in a series of recent movements, and while sometimes explicitly valorised, more often than not it goes on unconsciously in practices and habits. Our argument is that this folk political common sense tends to lead movements to organise and do politics in a way which constrains the possibility of escaping a global capitalism. This does not mean that folk politics should be rejected or dismissed; rather we simply try to point to its wide circulation and strategic insufficiency.

On a second level, the book seeks to generate discussion about what the future should look like. Too often, the activist and academic left only offers visions of the future in negative terms: the end of wage-labour, the end of racism, the end of sexism, the end of colonialism. These are all agreeable, of course, but ultimately remain empty signifiers. If we want a better world, we need to have some idea of where we are going. This doesn’t mean taking the opposite tack, and outlining a detailed plan for a future society (as with Parecon and New Socialism, for example). Rather it means setting out a series of broad proposals for what should be desired, what can be achieved, and how to get there. We have no illusions about the errors, biases, and limitations that our own proposals will include. We are, indeed, keenly aware of the limits of a small book written for a general audience. But the point of setting out a vision of the future and a series of demands is to lay our cards on the table for others to take up, critique, or reject. It is too easy to adopt a comfortable critical stance against the world.

Finally, discussions about the problems of the left and visions of the future must come together in debates over how to rebuild the power of the left and bring about a new future. To this end, our argument is for a counter-hegemonic strategy across an ecology of organisations, intervening in newly discovered and constructed points of leverage. While we try to give some concrete content to these broad proposals, we have also intentionally pitched these ideas at a level which allows them to be taken up in different forms across different countries and under different conditions. It is our hope that people who are convinced by our analysis and proposals will then take up these broad ideas and translate them into their own specific circumstances. We offer the book as a possibility – one among many – of what the future could look like.

-Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

The European Gaze and the EISA Asylum Seekers Campaign





A reply to Federica’s recent post on the asylum crisis by Zeynep Gülşah Çapan from Bilkent University and Ayşe Zarakol at the University of Cambridge. Gulsah is a Post-Doctoral researcher at Bilkent University. Her research focuses on Eurocentrism in international relations theory and postcolonial and decolonial thought. Ayşe is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on social hierarchies in world politics. Her first book After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West explored the responses of defeated non-Western powers to stigmatisation.

The increasing attention to the European refugee crisis in Western media has also galvanized the IR academic community into thinking about possible ways to address the issue. There have been blog posts and Twitter discussions (On Doing ‘Something’ as AcademicsWant to Help the Refugees? Teach Migration as part of IRHow to Speak Out As An Academic Community? Help Needed!) about possible actions, especially with respect to the EISA conference that will be held in Sicily in two weeks. On September 11th, EISA section chairs received an email urging them 1) to sign and circulate an open letter to EU policy makers penned in the name of “the academic community”, 2) to bring up the issue in EISA panels and 3) to wear black ribbons/armbands as a sign of mourning and protest.

We applaud the motivations that led to this effort and agree that EU countries could be doing much more to help refugees. We also concur that European scholars could do much more to raise awareness about the complicity of their own governments in various global political crises. Nevertheless, for the reasons detailed below, we have some reservations about both the desire to frame this effort as an EISA effort involving section chairs and the claim to speak in the name of the entire “academic community”. In the blog post Ivory Towers and Sleeping Beauties that discusses these efforts the author urges the “academic community” to do two things; to check their privilege and make themselves feel uncomfortable. These are suggestions that we completely agree with and this post is an effort to continue the dialogue on how we might think of issues in the international system in a way that checks our privileges and makes us feel uncomfortable.

To begin with, the refugee crisis is not new and it is not primarily a European problem that can be solved by some small gesture from the EU. Most refugees from the Syrian War, for instance, are hosted in non-European countries. According to Amnesty International, more than 95% of the refugees (4 million) are in five countries: Turkey (1.9 million), Lebanon (1.2 million), Jordan (650000), Egypt (249,463), Iraq (132,375). Another region hosting huge numbers of refugees is East Africa – based on UNHCR’s latest numbers, Chad hosts about 450000 refugees, Ethiopia hosts 650000 and Kenya has 550000. In fact, almost every world region except Europe is hosting hundreds of thousands to millions of refugees and has been doing so for far longer than Western newspapers have been covering “the refugee crisis”. By most estimates, there are sixty million refugees in the world at the moment.

We understand why European colleagues may want to pressure their own governments to change policy and we wholeheartedly support their individual and/or collective efforts to do so. But to organise a professional effort only now (and without providing any of the larger context) in the name of the entire “academic community”  may actually reinforce the Western public misperception that this is a recent or a uniquely European problem or that European countries that have agreed to take comparatively small numbers of refugees are doing something unusually selfless. Continue reading

The Dissonance Of Things #3: The Arms Trade and Its Discontents

This month, I step into the role of host for our third ever podcast, on the topic of the arms trade, ways of thinking about it, and the various forms of opposition to it. Helping us make sense of all that are Chris Rossdale of the University of Warwick and Anna Stavrianakis of the University of Sussex. Chris is a participant observer of anti-militarist social movements and the author of numerous pieces on the politics of protest, as well as this post for us on political solidarity. Anna is the author of many pieces on the arms trade and militarism, including Taking Aim at the Arms Trade: NGOs, Global Civil Society, and the World Military Order (Zed, 2010).

The immediate context for our discussion is a whole series of protests against the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) Exhibit, due to take place next week in London. One part of that was an academic ‘Conference at the Gates’ earlier today at the ExCeL Centre, and it is on the notion of activist academia that we begin the conversation.

As ever, consume, cogitate, share, discuss and share again. You can also follow past and future casts on soundcloud.


Further resources, including articles discussed in the podcast:

Ivory Towers and Sleeping Beauties: On the Importance of Political Activism in Academia at EISA 2015

FCasoA guest post from Federica Caso on the recently created petition from academics to EU decision makers on the ongoing refugee/migrant crisis (you can see it and sign it), which has also been subject to discussion by Federica and Tiina Vaittinen over at the Feminist Academic Collective. Federica is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Queensland, where she is working on embodiment and the aesthetics of militarism in the context of the militarisation of society. Her research is informed by feminism and queer theory.

What can we do as academics and political subjects in face of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Europe? Probably not much, but I would like to take the time and energy to tell why I think signing the petition by IR academics and community to address the EU to open safe channels of entry and mobility for asylum seekers is important, and suggest what can be done to mobilise at EISA.

So, does it take a picture of a dead boy on the shore of Turkey to awaken political consciousness? These days, tons of memes about Aylan Kardi circulate on the internet. Even those who oppose what has been called ‘trauma porn’ of sharing pictures of dead bodies cannot do anything but see these images on their social networks feeds. Megan Mackenzie, Annick Wibben, and Tiina Vaittinen have provided some insights into the debate surrounding the ethics of sharing these pictures. Most importantly, they all have raised important issues about what academics and scholars can and must do. As has been rightly pointed out in the context of images of refugees, we need to understand how they shape our emotional and ethical attitude, we need more insights, but we also need more political action. When considering the political impact that an image can have, Tiina Vaittinen says “To share an image of a dead child’s body on your Facebook page! It is truly immoral – while simultaneously it may also be the most moral act to do”, to the extent that it is the act that starts the much needed political mobilisation.

Academia and the discipline of IR have long been accused of being at loss with political action, or better, with the ability to speak to real world problems in a timely and effective way, which I see as academia’s political action. The gap debate in the discipline of IR is quite well known to all of us. Academia provides for a comfortable Ivory Tower from which the academic speaks, and this voice feeds the clouds rather than address an actual audience. Continue reading

Steal This Conference

A guest post from the Ray Hudson Posse.

If you were to ask a handful of early career scholars for their impressions of the recent British International Studies Association (BISA) conference in London they would probably say: “I wasn’t there”. The reason for the dearth in young attendees is that the conference (like all conferences) was prohibitively priced. Its four days costs a whopping £120 for early birds and £150 otherwise. For undergrads and postgrads the fee is £100 (early bird) and £130 (late). Membership to BISA is compulsory, which costs another £30 a year. It’s a hell of an entry fee into the Ivory Tower.

The way in which the structures of academia are chewing up and spitting out the next generation of scholars-with-no-future is most clearly expressed in the ‘conference trap’, characterised by a double-fuckery – those most in need of attending are precisely those most priced out. While for established academics conferences are little more than an opportunity to blow research budgets on a piss-up with the lads, for aspiring researchers these events are crucial to bolstering the CV and (*shudder*) networking. That is, they are crucial to obtaining a job that will provide them with the means – a proper wage, research budgets, time off teaching etcetera – needed to go to conferences! (And, also, to live).

But it is precisely early career scholars in fractional, contract or zero-hours employment that have limited/ no research budgets and therefore struggle to attend. It is precisely early career scholars that are underpaid and thus unable to pay out of their own pocket. These structural constraints tend to be ratcheted up if you’re a person of colour, not-male, working class, and/or from the global south. On the one hand we can’t afford to go; on the other hand we can’t afford not to go. We need a job to go; we need to go to get a job. Something has to give.

We went to BISA. We didn’t pay. We stole this conference. You can too. Here’s how.
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Size Matters: Reflecting on Perspective, Positionality and Critique After #ISA2015

… so I tweeted on the last day of the 56th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association. I was exhausted by that point, numbed and overwhelmed at the sheer volume of thoughts I had asked my poor brain to process over the previous four days. I was ready to crawl into bed and sleep for a week, but I still had to get home, back to Sydney from whence I came, which I duly did, over the course of the next 37 hours.

I stared blindly out of the aeroplane window as we circled around Sydney, thinking about nothing much at all, noticing the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and how tiny they looked, how much like models, how insignificant. And in the taxi on the way home (and yes, I am acknowledging my privilege as I write this, that is kind of the point of this blog, I think…), I asked the driver to please take the bridge, not the tunnel. There is something about the view from the Eastern Distributor, which brackets Circular Quay with the Harbour Bridge on one side and the Opera House on the other, that feels to me like coming home.

photo of sydney opera house

Sydney Opera House. Photo by LJS.

As we drove, and the iconic structures came into view, I thought, somewhat mindlessly, how much bigger they seemed close up. Like I said, I was exhausted, not able to conjure much more than this rather banal observation. Objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear, but objects on the ground, when you’re close up, feel much more significant. Continue reading