'Make A Sad Painting Happy', by Karl Habegger,

‘Make A Sad Painting Happy’, by Karl Habegger.

The Disorder Of Things is five. Five years old. Very almost 780,000 views from over 326,000 visitors. 12,000-odd email subscribers (surely some of whom are not bots). Two plastic ducks. An accelerating series of book symposia, the new aural assault of podcasts, a gang of regular contributors (finger-clicking their way, West Side Story-like, through a conference corridor near you), 81 guest spots, and even some official and really real academic products. Along with all our, ya know, blog posts. Popular ones on tele-fantasy politics, bullshit jobs, left solidarity, open access, and bad dissertations. Lesser read ones on Blairite exculpation, humane indexing, and Barry O in Ohio. Everything in between. But then we’re also established cynics on the possibility of capturing the ephemera of quality with the crude tools of quantity, so take that all with a fist of salt.

Blogs are dead, yet we persist, zombie-like, refusing to just let it go. We’ll be eating jelly and ice cream until we throw up to celebrate. Maybe you should too.

Thinking Internationally About The Arms Trade

A guest post, following our recent podcast on the arms trade and its discontents, from Anna Stavrianakis. Anna is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the arms trade, arms transfer control and militarism.

Zapiro - Russia Syria Arms Trade

September 2015, ExCel Centre, London: Stop The Arms Fair activists block the road and prevent military vehicles entering the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition. They are protesting against one of the largest arms fairs in the world – sending a message to the UK government and arms companies that “inviting representatives of repressive regimes and their armed forces to hob-nob and do dodgy deals at DSEI … with representatives from the UK government and unscrupulous arms companies from around the world IS NOT OK.” Two weeks previously, Cancun, Mexico: Control Arms activists build a life-size sand sculpture of a Stormer 30 tank on Baracuda Beach, Cancun, calling on states to save lives! by ensuring the toughest possible standards at the first Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, the biggest game in town for contemporary international arms transfer control.

These two campaigns share the language of “dodgy deals” but are otherwise quite different visions of the arms trade and its control. The Control Arms campaign focuses on encouraging, informing and embarrassing diplomats into agreeing a multilateral treaty that enshrines higher common international standards and establishes stronger norms against arms transfers that violate human rights and international humanitarian law. The Stop The Arms Fair coalition, meanwhile, takes direct action to halt the operation of arms fairs in the UK by physically blockading the exhibition centre, in protest at the relationship between arms companies and the UK government, and the relationships between the UK government and authoritarian, repressive and war-fighting foreign governments.

I’ve written in the past about the international politics of NGO and campaign group strategy – whether reformist, insider approaches are more effective than transformist, outsider ones – in the context of debates about global civil society. Yet what continues to trouble me, intellectually and politically, is a raft of questions about the operation of the arms trade itself. Namely: where, or with whom, does political responsibility lie for the negative effects of the arms trade in a world of formally national states that are home to internationalising arms companies and operate in a multilateral system based on sovereignty? What social forces drive the arms trade, how does their power operate, what is the character of the problems they generate, and how should scholars and activists best respond? Competing understandings of the operation of the arms trade can be seen in the varied activist responses to it: is the problem one of lack of regulation, the need for improved multilateral action, improved normative standards and international law, as per the Arms Trade Treaty? Or is the problem the relationship between the state and arms capital, and government promotion of the trade, as per the anti-DSEI protests? In the case of DSEI, how are we to understand the operation of internationalising arms capital that has an intimate yet fractious relationship with national states? And in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, how should we make sense of efforts to create a level playing field of respect for human rights and humanitarian law in the context of a vastly asymmetric and hierarchical world military order?

Thinking theoretically, I have come to see that a large part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the grip that methodological nationalism continues to hold on IR as a discipline. Continue reading

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

‘Quality Assessment’ and ‘Student Outcomes’: An Open Letter

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on HEFCE’s Quality Assessment consultation. This post elaborates the reasons why using student outcomes data to assess educational quality is unacceptable, in the form of an open letter that all academic colleagues are invited to sign. To do so, just add your name, title and institutional affiliation in the comments.

UPDATE 23.09.15: UUK has just circulated their response to HEFCE, which endorses the use of student outcomes data, making this letter all the more urgent and necessary. They write:

We agree that a core set of quantitative student outcome metrics should be included in institutional reporting. These should be the benchmarked UK performance indicator set, covering retention, widening participation, 6 months destination of leavers from higher education, plus relevant benchmarked results from the national student survey, primarily question 22 ‘overall satisfaction with course’…

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To: HEFCE and Universities UK

We are university educators who are deeply disturbed by the proposed use of ‘student outcomes’ metrics as proxy measures of teaching quality in HEFCE’s proposed new ‘quality assessment’ regime and the mooted ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’. We call upon HEFCE to reject, and upon UUK to campaign vociferously against, this use.

The use of ‘student outcomes’ to measure teaching quality is completely inappropriate for the following reasons. Continue reading

‘Quality Assessment’ and Completing the Market in UK Higher Education

Amid all the talk of a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF), a consultation on Quality Assessment (QA) launched by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on behalf of all UK funding councils has received considerably less attention. But academics, students and others should be paying close attention because HEFCE’s proposals are clearly intended both to soften up the sector for the TEF and – more importantly – spur its hitherto partial marketisation.

I have written a response to the consultation, with very useful input from Meera and from John Holmwood, cofounder of the Campaign for the Public University. You can read the full thing here (it is signed by 50+ other academics). There is still a little time to associate yourself with the document if you wish (email me directly by 18 September). Below I highlight the core points, and in a follow-up post I also provide an open letter that colleagues can sign to oppose the worst aspects of these plans, which are also likely to be reflected in the proposals for a TEF, expected later this autumn.

Continue reading

The Corbyn After-Effect

Corbyn LOL

Win he did. And how. Although the petty vindictiveness of the #LabourPurge was real, it wasn’t enough to materially affect the result, and has arguably strengthened Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate. Even as dodgy expulsions and dodgier retentions sour the taste, nobody can claim that the Labour elite were too lax in their efforts to hobble him. For those who have felt blackmailed and maligned by New Labour and its outriders this past decade or two, the moment of joyful disbelief is to be relished. A social democrat as leader of the Labour Party! What a notion. Negative solidarity is giving way to a new structure of feeling, not just resisting but asserting positively the horizon of a more egalitarian, less parochial politics. It was fitting that Corbyn’s ascent took place on the same day as the major London march in defence of refugees, and that he moved amongst us.

The euphoria won’t last, is indeed already muted, tempting us to get our disappointment in early. 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: