Tag Archives: W.E.B. Du Bois

A Global Story of Psalms 68:31 | Against the Provinciality of the Twenty Years Crisis

9 Nov

‘Moses and his Ethiopian Wife’, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650

Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God

Psalms 68:31 is part of the global story of colonialism, enslavement, the “civilizing mission” and self-liberation. It is a story that is central to the Twenty Years Crisis that constitutes the originating point of International Relations as a self-proclaimed discipline. But it is a story that is largely absent when this originating point is commemorated.

We can pick up the story of Psalms 68:31 with the King James version of the Bible, translated into the vernacular in 1611. At this time it is practice to denote things African through the name Aethiops. More than just a polity south of Egypt, Ethiopia also encompasses Black Africa as a whole. By 1773, catechisms are being developed around Psalm 68:31 that directly address African enslavement in the Americas and the prospects of abolition, emancipation and liberation.

There are two key interpretations. One, cultivated by white abolitionists and subsequently used by Europeans who embark upon an African “civilizing mission”, holds that it is they – white/Europeans – who are God’s children. Hence, it is white/Europeans to whom Ethiopia is stretching for her hands for deliverance from slavery and primitivism. The other, cultivated by the enslaved and their downpressed descendants, holds that the Bible is their story –  the “half never told“. Africans will therefore righteously deliver their own selves from bondage.

The first catechism appears as early as 1773 in the letters of Anthony Benezet, a French-born Quaker living in North America. Scouring through the Bible to find  divine authority for the abolitionist cause, Benezet notes: “beloved friend, the passage we are seeking for is Psalms 68, 31.”; and “the people called Ethiopians are definitely African negros due to Jeremiah 13,23 – “can the Ethiopian change his skin?”. Abolitionists – especially British ones – are most concerned that the enslavement practised by white and European “Christians” would denigrate their status as the most civilized amongst humanity. By Benezet’s time, it is already a belief amongst the intellectual caste of  white/Europeans that they are the people chosen by God to express his Providence, through commerce and colonisation.

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The Crisis of Europe and Colonial Amnesia

28 May

Recent commentary on the Eurozone crisis has started to pick up the grammar of colonial rule. The centre for Research on Finance and Money at SOAS, for example, has published an influential report wherein northern Europe (Germany especially) is framed as the core and southern Europe (especially Greece) as the periphery. Meanwhile, Ulrich Beck, European cosmopolitan par excellence, wonders whether the European Union will become “a European Empire with a German stamp”. Beck notes that Merkel’s sense of power “conforms to the imperial difference between lender and borrower countries.” At stake, agree many prominent European intellectuals in the pages of The Guardian, Eurozine and Der Spiegel, is no less than the promise of freedom and democracy immanent to the European project itself. All variously agree that, against the imperial sclerosis spread by capitalist and bureaucratic functionaries at the highest levels of governance, what is needed is a rejuvenation of meaningful democracy at a grass-roots level.

Faced with a dismantling of democracy Jürgen Habermas mounts a plea to save the old “biotope of Europe”. The constitutive components of this threatened ecosystem are freedom and democratisation, and its genesis lies in the Second World War and the fight against fascism and “internal” barbarism. The president of the European Central Bank has himself proclaimed that Europe now faces its “most difficult situation since the Second World War”. Alternatively, for many social democratic and leftist commentators, the danger of the situation lies in the loss of the “internal” struggle of labour and capital that defined the Cold War landscape. In the new context of EU institutional “empire” and its neoliberal tentacles, the defeat of labour quickens the erosion of social democracy, thus deciding the fate of the European project.

Europe, then, is perceived to be “colonizing” itself and in the process destroying freedoms and democratic structures that had been hard fought for by the general populace against political oppression and economic exploitation. But this angst-ridden imaginary of European crisis has very little to say about the substantive historical and global dimensions of European colonialism. Does cosmopolitan and social democratic angst cover these legacies and contemporary effects? In fact, in most recent treatises on the crisis the struggle for decolonization is given no integral status, even though these particular struggles were inseparable to and spanned the formative time period of the European project – the Second World War (and the Cold War). Some do mention current issues of migration and xenophobia. Nevertheless the implication, in general, is that colonial legacies are derivative of, or additional to, the core struggle for democracy and freedom in Europe. Fascism, Cold War, class struggle: yes; colonization, imperialism, decolonization and liberation struggle: not really.

Not all intellectuals suffer from this colonial amnesia. A number of scholars including Robert Young, Pal Ahluwalia, Paige Arthur and Alina Sajed have argued that in some key strands of post-War French thought, the issue of colonialism and decolonization was integral to discussions of European re-democratization and humanist concerns. This engagement reached a peak in the Algerian war of independence in the late 50s before falling into abeyance. And this was precisely the same time, we should note, as the Treaty of Rome, which bound European countries together in a tighter economic union simultaneoulsy sought to re-bind (post-)colonial African polities, peoples and resources into this union.

More generally, there has accumulated a significant amount of scholarship that reveals the colonial influences that shaped and were woven into quintessentially “European” intellectual/political movements such as Enlightenment and modernity. Continue reading

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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Colouring Lessons: Bet 115 and the End of Racism

22 Dec

…(fireworks)… Please welcome, in our now well-established way, another new contributor to The Disorder Of Things. Srdjan Vucetic is currently Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is most recently the author of The Anglosphere: A Genealogy of a Racialized Identity in International Relations (on which he may blog soon), as well as of a number of articles on the ‘special relationship’, ‘Anglo’ coalitions of the willing and genealogy as a research tool in IR. Images by Pablo.


The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ lucid remark, published in The Atlantic in 1901 (and elsewhere), continues to unify and motivate thinking on race and racism in International Relations. ‘Colouring Lessons: Race, Colour, Nation and Colony in Contemporary IR Theory’, an upcoming BISA-ISA conference panel featuring Meera, Omar, Pablo, Robbie, and myself, will consider how the “problem of the color line” might lead us to think differently about the structure and processes of world politics today. There are many good questions to cover; so many, in fact, that we best start our discussions early. Here’s one: when will racism end?

Let us begin by locating the question in the wonderful world of popular online betting. Thanks to the internet it is now possible to make and take wagers on almost anything, including on the future of phenomena such as racism. Recorded in May 2003 by a certain Bill Moore under the title ‘Bet 115′, one such wager can be found on the Long Bets website (Long Bets is run by a California-based non-profit foundation specializing in public education, including “enjoyably competitive predictions, of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake”). It goes like this: “By 2100 racism will no longer be a significant phenomenon in most countries of the world”. The author qualified his thinking thus:

This prediction simply puts a date to a trend that is well underway. Racism is a set of learned attitudes and behaviour, and as such it can be eliminated. There has been a great deal of movement toward the elimination of racism in the past century. Racism plays a much less significant role in access to employment, housing, education, in distribution of wealth, etc., than it did 100 years ago. Racist attitudes are no longer acceptable in any mainstream, political, social, religious, corporate, or other public figure.

At the time of this writing, Bet 115 goes unchallenged, but thirty or so comments posted by assorted visitors to the site provide us with an interesting repository of ordinary and extraordinary language definitions of race and racism. (A discussion of the boundary conditions of the prediction follows one on human nature, which in turns follows an exchange regarding the “semantics and scope”). Also interesting is that 68% of the registered users of Long Bets (N=249) have voted “against” the prediction, suggesting that the majority expects the global colour line to outlast the end of the twentieth first century, two hundred years after Du Bois wrote (voting has been “temporarily disabled” this fall).

So what would the recent philosophical and socio-historical research on the subject say about Bet 115?

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The Racial Empire of International Relations

4 Jan

Primarily, our action is based on national self-interest. In other words, it is patriotic. A certain limited number of persons are fond of decrying patriotism as a selfish virtue, and strive with all their feeble might to inculcate in its place a kind of milk-and-water cosmopolitanism. These good people are never men of robust character or imposing personality, and the plea itself is not worth considering. Some reformers may urge that in the ages’ distant future patriotism, like the habit of monogamous marriage, will become a needless and obsolete virtue; but just at present the man who loves other countries as much as he does his own is quite as noxious a member of society as the man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife. Love of country is an elemental virtue, like love of home, or like honesty or courage. No country will accomplish very much for the world at large unless it elevates itself. The useful member of a community is the man who first and foremost attends to his own rights and his own duties, and who therefore becomes better fitted to do his share in the common duties of all. The useful member of the brotherhood of nations is that nation which is most thoroughly saturated with the national idea, and which realizes most fully its rights as a nation and its duties to its own citizens.

Theodore Roosevelt, The Monroe Doctrine (1896)

Roosevelt’s imperial condescension is but one of the historical anecdotes mobilised in a recent paper by Robert Vitalis to trace the legacy of empire and race in the development of International Relations as a discipline. Although eschewing a direct critique of the contemporary field (since “the likelihood is small that self-identified specialists in international relations will seek out an account of the discipline’s past in a journal that has no standing in the field”), he nevertheless provides a wealth of historical detail on the complicity of scholarly ancestors in ‘colonial administration’ and its attendant euphemisms.

Take A. Lawrence Lowell, a political ‘scientist’ who went on become President of Harvard and used that lofty perch to impose a  dormitory colour bar for freshman in 1915 (and a man now also revealed as the convener of homophobic secret trials). A proponent of professionalised training for colonial administrators, Lowell also set legal arguments before Congress explaining that the requirements of the Constitution need not be upheld in those violently-acquired territories where the racial capacities of the indigenes fell short of proper statehood. And, like a rather more recent over-flattered Harvard globetrotter, he was particularly interested in the wisdom to be gleaned for such bold endeavours from British experiments

Or take the institutional delivery rooms of International Relations itself. At the first ever APSA conference in 1904, ‘Colonial Administration’ was designated one of the five fundamental branches of Politics. One prominent speaker that September was William Frank Willoughby, an APSA founder, its 10th President, and the author of Territories and Dependencies of the United States (1905). He crafted this work in a particularly applied setting (pay heed ye  assembled bridgers of theory and practice), serving as both Treasurer and Secretary of Puerto Rico from 1901-1907. It seems reasonable to assume that auto-ethnographic reflexivity did not feature heavily in his work. A decade later he became director of a new research body, soon re-christened as The Brookings Institution.

And what of our learned fora? Perhaps most symbolically of all, the debates over the proper governing of lesser peoples were carried out in the discipline’s first publication, The Journal of Race Development. It was founded in 1910 by G. Stanley Hall, who headed up a centre on the psychology of the races at Clark University, and who also pioneered the idea that the developmental stages of individual humans mirror the hierarchies of race, with children being to adults as savages are to the civilized. The twist being that in 1922 The Journal of Race Development became Foreign Affairs, still the go-to publication on global ‘administration’ (although this particular legacy is mysteriously absent from its current autobiography).

Several general themes emerge from the detail. First, far from positing states as the central actors of global politics, the comprador intellectuals of the early 20th century saw race, both within and without the United States, as the salient frontier. The earliest IR scholars all included American racial relations (to wit, the Southern ‘Negro problem’) within their disciplinary remit. In a racial supremacist twist on W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘colour line’ “the world’s biological boundaries mattered much more to theory-building than did territorial boundaries”.

Second, the centrality of race as a category was not a mere function of scientific ignorance. Continue reading

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