Anarchy, Security, Hierarchy: Reading IR with Jasbir Puar

The first post in our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim is by Sankaran Krishna who teaches politics at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. His latest essay (“Manhunt Presidency: Obama, Race and the Third World”) will be published in the journal Third World Quarterly in 2019.


Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Duke, 2017) sensitizes us to how binary categories organize our thinking and our disciplines –and often do so in ways that obscure important ethical issues. In this brief essay, I first adumbrate Puar’s thesis in her remarkable book and then take a critical look at the role that a certain binary – anarchy/security – plays in constructing the discipline of IR in specific ways, and end with some speculations on what the introduction of a third term, hierarchy, does to re-center issues of inequality, domination, racism and violence in the study of our world.

To peremptorily summarize Puar, she argues that the western discourse of disability rights is a quintessentially “white” political, economic, social, cultural and racial formation. Disability rights are fought for by and accrue primarily to affluent or middle-class citizens of western, developed societies even as these societies are themselves –through their military, economic, political, social and other interventions- responsible for much of human and planetary pain.

Disability rights discourse in the west is characterized by, among other things:

(a) a form of individualism, that is to say, disability happens to individual people who then often heroically overcome or learn to live with this condition (and even have Paralympic games to attest to such overcoming);

(b) disability is seen as an event or interruption in a life: there is a pre-disability life, the rupture (could be an accident or illness), and a post-event life of disability, rather than it being seen as part of a wider and frequently lifelong process or an outcome of structural violence;

(c) societies are graded as liberal, civilized and progressive or as illiberal, backward and primitive on the basis of how they treat their disabled population calibrated in terms of the rights secured by such a population;

(d) disability rights are abstracted from a larger world in which physical, mental, and emotional deficits when it comes to living a full and good life are the existential condition, rather than the exception, for billions of people;

and (e) contemporary Israel is the reductio ad absurdum or exemplary instance or limiting case (any of these metaphors work) of this conjoined production of disability rights and debility. This is best reflected in the fact that the IDF shoots to maim rather than kill Palestinians– so that it may keep fatalities low and their resistance off-balance, even as Israel renews its membership in the liberal-democratic west by the “progressive” ways in which accords disability rights to Jewish (ex)-soldiers, to (white) civilians, and to queers.

Puar exposes the racial, class, national and other biases of this discourse of disability rights by introducing a third element or category to the able-bodied versus disabled binary: that of debility. Debility is the active production of disabled people across the Global South and among the poor and non-white minorities within the west. This is produced in a variety of ways: through rapacious forms of capitalism that are now dismantling even limited welfare programs via mandated austerity; liberalizing and deregulating various sectors of their economy; outsourcing dirty and dangerous occupations to countries in the global south and to racial minorities in the west; polluting their environment by dumping toxins or selling products deemed unsafe in the first world; destroying labor unions; overthrowing regimes committed to social justice and favoring those hospitable to western investment. A second major means for the global production of debility is war – especially the ongoing and endless war on terror concentrated on some of the poorest regions of the world which has produced hundreds of thousands of amputees, paraplegics, and the like. Armaments exports, playing both sides of ethno-nationalist conflicts, and inciting rebellions to destabilize third world regimes are related to this as well. And a third is racism: economic discrimination against brown-black populations domestically and abroad, their disproportionate incarceration, their shortened lifespans due to poverty and location amid toxic wastes, and related factors.

Though debility is actively produced, it is read as ontological to the global south or racial minorities, as something always-already there. Puar argues debility is the silent, ignored, but pervasive backdrop against which an individualist, capitalist, agential movement for Disability Rights emerges in a highly vibrant and white form across the affluent west. She, following many others, argues that we need a discursive shift from Disability Rights to Disability Justice – and the means to do this is not through an excessive focus on the individual rights of the disabled within a liberal democratic order, but to focus on the massive production of debility on a global scale.

Critical to my argument in this brief essay is Puar’s brilliant use of the third category, debility, to reveal what the binary of able-disabled has successfully concealed: that the fight for the rights of the disabled to gain full access within a market-driven, liberal democratic capitalist system in order to be all they can be is, in its own way, a form of white privilege. Debility draws our eyes to the unmarked, systemic, structural and global production of injury, shortened lives, and slow violence for the vast majority of the world on whose backs white privilege exists and reproduces itself.

Inspired by Puar, I problematize the binary of security/anarchy that undergirds the discursive formation of IR by a third term, hierarchy, that reveals all that is gained and lost by a preoccupation with the dialectics of that binary. I first briefly unpack the work that the security/anarchy does for IR before I turn to an examination of what focusing on our third term, hierarchy, can do for us.

  • The putative anarchy of the international system is the possibility condition for the emergence of its twin: security. The endless quest for national security is explained and justified in IR by the claim that we live in a condition of preternatural anarchy. And in turn, the claim that we live in an anarchic realm is justified on grounds that the milieu is occupied by self-interested actors (nation-states) that are on an endless quest to, at minimum, secure their national security, and at all times, further their national interest. This is commonly termed the ‘security dilemma’ in IR literature, viz., the effort of each to ensure their own security in an anarchic milieu cannot but increase the collective insecurity of the system as a whole. Clearly, anarchy and security are co-constitutive terms in IR discourse and neither has an existence independent of its twin.
  • The anarchy/security binary implicitly or explicitly evokes a system of supposedly equal (or equally sovereign?) actors whose differences in terms of capacities or capabilities are less central to the system. Akin to the foundational fiction within neoclassical economics of a free market comprising of individuals or firms motivated by self-interest and driven by competition, and whose unequal outcomes are therefore fair or just in many senses of those words, the interstate system’s a priori equality serves as the backdrop against which global inequalities, the patterned concentrations of wealth and poverty, the fracture into a global north and south, can all be redeemed as the fair (if unfortunate for some) outcome of a basically just process.
  • Nothing succeeds like success in such a world and nothing fails like failure. In other words, the anarchy/security binary operates to affirm the consequent. If a nation or a region or some other collective fails to afford the good life to its denizens, it must have been because it was not a virtuoso player when it came to securing security and furthering interest. Conversely, the affluent and powerful nations, regions and classes deserve their success because they prevailed in a fundamentally egalitarian competition. Through the binary of anarchy/security, mainstream IR affiliates its underlying logic both with neoclassical economics and with a social Darwinist ontology.
  • Finally, the dyad anarchy/security draws our eyes away from history and anchors itself in a form of eternal present-ism. Even if systems that were once anarchic have now evolved in ways that have made them deeply hierarchical, rather than explore the consequences, depths and ways to overcome such hierarchy, the binary continually hits the “reset” button to forego those explorations and instead stay preoccupied with the most contemporaneous forms of the operation of security/anarchy. To illustrate: it asks “how does North Korea exemplify the dangers of an anarchic interstate system and how shall “we” respond to that threat to “our” security?” – rather than ask “what might be the impact of one of the most horrendously racist and violent wars even by the standards of the bloodiest century, followed by partition, followed by decades of economic sanctions, and followed by the multiple examples of third world leaders deposed for their recalcitrance, on the perceptions, worldviews, calculations, and actions of the current North Korean regime?”

Bringing hierarchy to triangulate the security/anarchy binary offers some interesting and enabling possibilities for the study of IR. I outline a few preliminary thoughts in this regard here:

  • Centering the hierarchy of the global interstate system may draw greater attention to the active production of inequality and poverty through the historical and contemporary transfers of wealth from the global south to the north, and the role of transnational institutions and regimes in perpetuating this neocolonial world order. Inter alia, this would allow for an expansion of our understanding of security to include the right to livelihood, safety, avoidance of precarity, and control over economic decision-making and related aspects of national life.
  • Highlighting hierarchy allows us to deconstruct the myth of fairness produced by the claim that we live in an anarchic self-help system. Instead of regarding the global south as a space that is deservedly poor – either because of race or climate or natural resources or weak institutions and/or leaders or flawed developmental models and all the other usual reasons trotted out in this regard- we are able to see their poverty as intimately and causally related to our wealth, and as a consequence of the workings of a fundamentally unjust and exploitative world order.
  • Focusing on hierarchy allows us to see more closely the collusion between various powers of the global north – who, for all their ‘anarchic’ differences and alleged competition with each other invariably present a united front when it comes to (i) global economic policies vis-à-vis the South, especially as reflected in the organization and voting power of institutions like the IMF, World Bank, WTO and others; (ii) military and covert interventions, and intelligence sharing and gathering, and (iii) policies regarding immigration controls, refugees, asylum seekers, and related matters – in short, in maintaining a global color line when it comes to the location of peoples.
  • Finally, centering hierarchy allows us to see both the whiteness of IR and to demoralize its ethical conceits. What has been and is going on in the world today in terms of inequality and violence is neither a result of ontological deficits among certain races, peoples, regions, or nations; and nor is it an outcome of a fundamentally fair process.

The claim to anarchy serves as the alibi for a relentless pursuit of security for the few at the expense of the many. Consistently focusing on hierarchy is one way to reconstitute the discipline of IR, to move it from the prose of statist counterinsurgency towards a poetry of justice, and to bring it more into alignment with the world it purports to describe. Puar’s work may help us queer IR in all the best senses of that term: to bring awareness to the foundational inequalities based on racist violence and economic exploitation that has produced our present worlds.

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