Batman, White Saviourism and International Politics: A Colloquium

In this post we welcome a discussion by guest authors on the recent volume Batman Saves the Congo: How Celebrities Disrupt the Politics of Development, by Alexandra Budabin and Lisa Ann Richey (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). The authors appreciate the critical feedback from Johanna Jarvela on this discussion.


Alexandra Cosima Budabin is senior researcher at the Human Rights Center, University of Dayton, and contract professor in the Programme in Media, Communication, and Culture at the Free University of Bolzano.
Lisa Ann Richey @BrandAid_World  is Professor of Globalization in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark.

This book analyses what celebrity strategic partnerships are doing to disrupt humanitarian space by focusing on the relationships celebrities create with other donors, implementers, and Congolese recipients. The main argument is that while celebrity strategic partnerships claim to disrupt the usual politics of development and humanitarianism, they instead lay bare the practices of elite networking, visibility, and profitable helping that characterize these fields of North–South relations.

Celebrities like Ben Affleck accompany the increasing presence of other private actors in international politics with the ability to attract new funding, ideas, and support to establish their own organizations. These celebrity-led organizations have impacts, both material and representational, on the other actors in the development and humanitarian space and, even more consequentially, on the beneficiaries themselves. A deeper understanding of these new actors and alliances contributes to contemporary discussions across scholarly fields.  First, international development scholarship would suggest that in these new and “disruptive” celebrity strategic partnerships, celebrity humanitarians on the ground might have acted differently from experienced, old-fashioned, traditional donors and implementers. Instead, our book shows how celebrities and their partners (corporations, capital asset management firms, and philanthropists) are elite players in an elitist field who disrupt very little. Second, studies of celebrity politics would lead us to expect that the institutionalization of a long-term investment and collaboration in celebrity strategic partnerships would make them more accountable than the more commonly found short sighted celebrity do-gooding. Our book explains why they are not. Finally, understandings of global politics might have suggested that celebrity strategic partnerships’ ability to bring together a broader range of shareholders to direct the enterprise of development would have led to better representation of Congolese voices among them. This was not the case; instead, the post democratic politics of North–South relations was cloaked in the attractive guise of partnership. While celebrity strategic partnerships claim to disrupt the usual politics of development and humanitarianism, they instead lay bare the practices of elite networking, visibility, and profitable helping that now characterize North–South relations. This short intervention is excerpted from a panel from the International Studies Association in 2022 around the book, Batman Saves the Congo: How Celebrities Disrupt the Politics of Development (Budabin and Richey 2021).


Ilan Kapoor is a Professor of Critical Development Studies at York University, Toronto. His most recent book is Universal Politics (2022).

Neofeudalism, Batman, and White Saviorism

The title of your book is a wonderful coinage because it’s so evocative of the white man’s burden, the superhero saving the Congo—the Congo stereotypically being “the darkest corner” of the so-called “dark continent.” It resonates with celebrity humanitarianism’s roots in colonialism and empire, and I think it’s evocative as well of how popular culture—how Hollywood—is so imbricated today with humanitarianism and global charity—which is to say that Hollywood is so imbricated with questions of domination and imperialism.

I also appreciate as well that you chose to focus in your book on the case of Affleck in the Congo. I think you’re quite right in saying that it’s a specific case that reveals much about the neo liberalization of development, through celebrity strategic partnerships. It’s another example of how they can reveal and reflect a lot about the universal kind of like a prism that helps illuminate the universalization of global capitalist political and cultural economy, as well as the increasingly post-democratic landscape in which elites help propagate the privatization of development, while remaining largely unaccountable. And we shouldn’t forget that Batman himself is a masculinist and a highly unaccountable figure: it’s no mere accident that Affleck-as-Batman is also Affleck-as-elite-white-neo-colonial-patriarch-saviour. I would even go so far as to say that Affleck is more Batman than Batman—he reinvents Batman for the modern age, teaching Batman how to be a superhero in the age of the global: batmobiling into the Congo, with the mission of saving people by bringing them the “gift” of market capitalism, directing them on how to revitalize Congo’s coffee sector, as you’ve shown in your book.

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But I also wanted to reflect on your book alongside some of the recent work on neofeudalism that I have been reading, because I think there are some important parallels. There are those like leftist critics, Jodie Dean, but also drawing on rightist libertarians like Tyler Cowen and Joel Kotkin, who argue that we are moving, or indeed we have already moved, away from neoliberalism towards what they call “neofeudalism”: an age associated with extreme inequality, generalized precarity of labour, and monopoly corporate power, under which a property-less underclass services the needs of the highly privileged as child and elder care workers, trainers, cleaners, cooks, and, in our case, landless peasant coffee growers. I think these authors are mainly thinking of the “platform economy” and “gig economy,” under which a handful of mainly tech companies (Apple, Google, Uber, Airbnb, etc.) have become even richer and more extractive by turning their owners into billionaires on the basis of the cheap and precarious labour of their workers, the free labour of their users, and the tax breaks given to them by cities and states desperate to attract employment. But there’s certainly a parallel with celebrity charity in the way that you describe it in the book in relation to poor coffee growers in the Congo—servicing the needs of a global network of so-called “partners”: celebrities, corporations like Starbucks, financial companies, USAID, NGOs like ECI, and so on. Unlike the capitalist whose profit rests on surplus value generated by waged workers through the production of commodities, here the neo feudal lord extracts value through monopoly, coercion, and rent, and in our case through celebrity charisma and influence. So, for example you write about “the convening power of the celebrity humanitarian, who drawing on political capital, is able to promote the partnership to both mainstream and elite circles.” And all of this, of course, happens in the context of war-torn Congo, where violence, coercion, and dispossession are integral to people’s lives and livelihoods. So overall, a situation in which you have a handful of overlords and millions of impoverished peasant farmers, or as Jodie Dean puts it, “a few billionaires, a billion precarious workers.” I think to see it in this way makes us reckon with the extreme social apartheid of our time, the fact that celebrity multi-millionaires and corporate billionaires amass trillions of dollars of assets, walling themselves into their safe enclaves (or “batcaves”!), while millions become war and climate refugees and hundreds of thousands are reduced to “bare life.”

The point being made by Dean and Kotkin is that, just as feudal relations persisted under capitalism, so do capitalist relations of production and exploitation continue under neofeudalism, but the big difference are the non-capitalist dimensions of production that exist today: forms of expropriation, domination, coercion, dispossession, of which I would count celebrity charisma and influence (i.e., what in this case we might call “batmanization”!).

Another feature of neofeudalism is what is referred to as “hinterlandization.” This is a reference to the extreme spatialization—geographic forms of apartheid—associated with neofeudalism: protected and safe centres that exploit/live off agriculture, mining, and desolate hinterlands, of which much of the Congo is an extreme example. And in the “hinterlands,” this implies the loss of the ability of people to lead liveable lives.

Finally, like under feudalism of old, neofeudalism is characterized by the centralization of power, yet one that masks as localization. The “partnership approach” that you talk about in your book is precisely that, in my view: as you say, it “pretends to encourage local participation and decentralization, but all the key decisions are centralized for the benefit of many corporate actors.” Rather than meaningful and equal sharing, these “partnerships” in fact reinforce hierarchy and inequalities. Here neofeudalism intensifies the neoliberal strategy of undermining democratic authority and the authority of the nation state over its economy, in the interests of advancing global trade, finance, and corporate power, with celebrities as their handmaidens.


Laura Seay is Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College.

Accountability

As the book roughly alludes to, I did have a front row seat to the circus – I was conducting dissertation research in Goma and Bukavu from 2005-2007 and have gone back many times since. And I really would mark the shifting point as once Lisa Shannon, this woman who decided to run a marathon for the Congo and went on Oprah. When she went on Oprah, everything changed and the circus came to town – and the circus has largely since departed, which I think the book does a good job at critiquing the reasons for. But I guess my comments here will be offered in the spirit of just really appreciating the book and thinking about what this means in the Congolese context, what this means in relationship to other literature on NGOs, and what we might think about as an alternative or positive way forward.

My first question is on the choice of focusing on celebrities instead of foundations. It seems to me that celebrities are useful conduits for foundations that want to work in the field of development, but we’ve also seen pretty good evidence that they’re not necessary, and I’m thinking here directly about the Buffett Foundation. Yes, it’s engagement with the ECI was important, especially for ECI’s survival, but the Buffett foundation has also been deeply involved in other initiatives in Congo and other parts of the region, that they really did not draw the celebrity angle for, they really did not pull in celebrities and I’m thinking here of the efforts to militarize conservation in Virunga national park, the efforts to hunt down Joseph Kony in Central African Republic. Where the work of the Buffett foundation and along with the Bridgewater foundation out of Texas, were sort of directly funding military activity in some ways buying equipment for the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces, like night vision glasses and even providing helicopters, and other expensive things to try to hunt down a warlord.

Foundations are already an expression of this accountability problem – to whom are foundations accountable? When Howard Buffett supplies the Ugandan army, not with lethal material, but with material that is nonetheless used for lethal purposes and then the Ugandan army goes back and uses those skills that it has developed and the equipment it has acquired in a domestic context to suppress political speech, who is accountable?

Given the extremely fragile state context that ECI and other organisations work in, in a place where development has never been accountable or democratic in any way, reaching back to misguided notions of “development” in the colonial period, it has never been democratic. What else works? And is there a danger of perfect becoming the enemy of the good? We have a lot of evidence that traditional development models fail in the DRC all the time, and lead to tremendous waste and are also completely unaccountable. For example, the Tuungane project, which was a series of community-development initiatives financed by DFID and implemented by the International Rescue Committee, that attempted to get communities to participate in deciding how to spend the grant for the public good together. Anyone who knew Congo who looked at the design of the original Tuungane project could and did tell the folks who were working on it “this is going to fail”, and there was a control trial and it showed absolutely no results. That was a 150 million pounds of British taxpayers’ money down the tube, gone, for nothing. It turned out that the process to get communities to work together, which had the goal to build accountability between local leaders and the community was little more than facilitated manipulation, and communities did not experience it as a process of building accountability.

What they experienced was— ‘here’s some white people coming from outside, they will give us some money to play along with their game and fill out their scorecard and do all those things and we will get a construction project out of it.’ And this had to do with the construction industry as well, because it turned out that local suppliers were not prepared to provide this level of service across communities all at once. But I’m wondering if the problem with this sort of development a lack of accountability is – I can’t think of any NGOs that are accountable to the Congolese. And groups that waste resources, implement experimental projects, do all kinds of bad work and are unaccountable to anyone who is affected when their projects fail, have negative consequences. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that traditional NGOs are at least accountable to governments in the Global North, and that because they are non-profit there is something less insidious about what they’re doing.


Ami V. Shah is Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at Pacific Lutheran University.

Teaching, Race and Gender

Your book demonstrates that this Batman is no hero. My understanding is that many in the public would agree with that sentiment in relation to the movies, but the idea of “saving” is often fraught, complicated, and never goes like in the movies. I must say that I love the title, and I could even see a playful subtitle that simply asks, “or does he?” 

Overall, I find this book to be very teachable, and my comments here are largely reflecting on how it might be used or received in an undergraduate classroom. First, so many concepts are clearly identified, contextualized, and explained. For example, the emphasis on the components of neoliberalism lays the groundwork for students on how these terms are going to be contextualised and used throughout the book. Further, for those of us, like me, who teach in interdisciplinary programmes, the authors highlight the input to IR from a variety of disciplinary fields – from geography to anthropology to political economy and communications, and more. In terms of supporting student research, there is a nice blueprint in the appendix on the research methods— clearly organized and nicely layered by theme.

Specifically in terms of global development, this text is a great starting point to consider the ideas of success and failure of global development interventions. It lays out the emphasis on capital, money, and profit in determining what ‘development’ success is. We often define both the seriousness and purpose of intervention through the money and resources that are organized around it, and we understand success through the idea of profit and access to markets. This system of development “progress” and success, as Batman Saves the Congo shows, is not disrupted or changed but constantly recreated, and our notions of success are inelastic, supporting the recreation.

More subtly, the book also addresses issues of race and gender, though I do think they could be emphasized more explicitly. Focusing on race, of course, Western views of the Global South are not just filtered through racial overtones but are absolutely raced themselves. We cannot forget that the first journal within international studies or international relations was the Journal of Race Development, and this case follows from that long history; “How do we develop the other races?”. Throughout the book, the racial dynamics of this development intervention are hinted at by the concept of white saviourism, the notion of elitism, and the visibility of the outsider and an American running this intervention.

As I have alluded to, the idea of disrupting the embedded industry of global development is seemingly futile. These “new” alternatives simply end up being part of a long continuation of constant colonial and unequal power dynamics which are simply part of how development and North-South relations work. And we, as scholars and students alike, are quick to critique and then dismiss, in a constant search for perfection. Yet, I tell my students that at times we need to embrace the grey. The idea that we can have public policies that are 100% good is wishful at best – there will always be winners and losers and we always need to step away from the demand of seeming perfection. Simultaneously, we are all products of the same society that raises up the white saviour and raises up this idea of doing good, and we can’t expect celebrities to be exempt from that. In many cases, celebrities and other do-gooders may just reflect ourselves, and how can we expect any other? Perhaps then, the book may also serve as an entry way for students to the process of self-reflection, supporting a re-entry to North-South relations with greater awareness and humility.


Andrew F. Cooper is University Research Chair, Department of Political Science, and Professor, the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo.

Andy Cooper on Complex Identity and Other Celebrity Humanitarians

We have been working on celebrity politics for a long time and the trends have been exactly what this book suggested:  towards strategic management, towards certainly a lot more of an elitist perspective, and certainly towards a sense of unaccountability. But what is fascinating to me is how multidimensional, multi-identity many of these celebrities are. So, if you look back to 2014, you see Ben Affleck, kind of coming out on some of these sensitive issues about Islam, about identity, about the Middle East.  He was involved in the Michael Moore project on Fahrenheit 9/11, so there’s two sides to his work. I mean, I agree that the dominant side is exactly the one that you suggest, but there is this other side – and I’m wondering if there’s something determined by whether it’s strategic management he moves in one direction, and then he gets pushed back, and perhaps that he worries about some components of his career, if he’s seen as too adversarial, too kind out there, and then he comes back to relatively safe, conformist grounds.

Race has also been mentioned, and the only leading black activist is found in a footnote, Harry Belafonte. African American celebrities deserve more consideration, even if it’s to try to probe why they’re not in the mix, why they’re not as central. I think maybe there are reasons for this. One example is from the kind of chumminess, the old boys’ network, and celebrity network. Don Cheadle did the voice overs of a book on Leopold’s Ghost back in 2006 which leads to a puzzle: if he can do voice over of a hard-hitting award-winning book, then what else is he doing or not doing, in terms of the Congo? Looking back to his work with George Clooney on Darfur, what sort of experience was this for an African American celebrity? As the Robin to the Batman at the time? Was he seen as a follower or an add-on to sort of give some credibility and legitimacy to the white celebrities who remained in the forefront?

And this is a whole other question, getting into the point of celebrities from the non-English speaking world, not just in terms of race but in language. One example is Shakira, from the Latin American, Colombian world, where Shakira was not only crucial to some of Howard Buffet’s activities, but to draw in people who were reluctant to give in money. Carlos Slim, being the real exhibit. Seeing a lot of this activity upfront over the years, maybe thinking celebrities are fading away, if you have a celebrity in your pocket, cohort, entourage it does bring people in. Going back to summits for presidents and prime ministers of secondary countries, if a Bono or a George Clooney turns up, who are the leaders of big countries going to sidle up to, who is the media going to sidle up to, it’s not going to be leaders from Italy or Canada etc. It’s going to be the cohorts, delegations around the celebrities. There is celebrity fatigue to some extent, but it is still an attractive component in that elite circle, there’s a lot of insecurity in that circle – people who made their money and want to do something else. Just because you’ve been famous or successful in one aspect of life doesn’t mean you have a huge amount of self-confidence in other dimensions of life.  There’s a real psychological aspect here that must be teased out, tackling all the rationalist institutionalists because without it, we have a totally misleading analysis of how global politics and institutions work.


Catia Cecilia Confortini @Peace_Wellesley (Twitter) is Associate Professor in the Peace & Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College, USA.

Catia Cecilia Confortini on Co-optation and Complicity

The bricolage methodology was able to reveal this complex interweaving of narrative, political economy, underlying messages, and logics of neoliberalism. As a feminist peace scholar, I am especially concerned with the normative aim to transform systems of power, planet, and people. We are also concerned about the radical restructuring of society. Your methodology covers the ways in which celebrity strategic partnerships are a long way from doing that, and I also appreciate how teachable the book is.

For me the first takeaway from the book is about the resilience of the system of business and development in a neoliberal age – about the co-optation of the language of empowerment, disruption, and transformation for neoliberal or feudal purposes rather than democratic purposes. And the second one is a direct reflection of our own complicity as IR or peace scholars: how come our research has been co-opted so easily?

Affleck and ECI present themselves as innovators with technocratic solutions, a modern ideological ethos, a neoliberal, perhaps even neo feudal state (in Ilan’s words), in its reliance on technocratic logic and politics, and a narrative on democratic ethos and politics. The book shows how cleverly ECI co-opts the rhetoric or language of from the critical nexus of peacebuilding, development, and humanitarianism and also the language of feminist literature. And through this, the book shows what ECI really is, a continuation of neoliberal logic of development and humanitarianism. Michelle Alexander in her famous book The New Jim Crow, talks about the system of social and racial discrimination in the US that began with slavery and has continued in the US, and continues to this day through different forms, and that now manifests itself in mass incarceration. Similarly, what your book shows, by starting with your genealogy with early celebrity humanitarianism (Morel and The Congo Free State), that the business of neoliberal development continues even as the language utilized may change.

To add a bit more on the co-optation of language: the literature in peacebuilding and development has emphasized the strengths of bottom-up peace building (the work of Pamina Firchow and Roger McGinty, Laura McLeod, and Sévérrine Autesserre, to name a few). And celebrity humanitarianism co-opts this literature’s lingo: for example, locally led initiatives, transformation, long term impact, to name a few. Your book exposes in fact how, despite the lingo, these partnerships miss accountability to the locals, so these interventions are not really community led. They talk about centring alternative narratives, embracing multiple voices, and your study exposes how really that is not the case.

When Affleck talks about long term involvement, it is in fact a short-sighted view of long-term. I don’t think that less than ECI’s less-than-10 years life is long term involvement. At least Elise Boulding, one of the founders of the field of peace studies, talks about “200-year present.” We need to think of long-term in this sense, what ECI is doing is not long-term.

ECI labels their work as transformation and disruption, but disruption is framed as proposing win-win solutions. That is not disruption at all: neoliberal development relies on the exploitation of some at the expense of others – there can be no win-win solutions within its logic. This is also happening in peacebuilding. For example, anthropologist Susan Ellison, talks about dynamics of responsibility in a different context, in Bolivia, where communities are seeing the language of conflict transformation imposed on them and being co-opted into a practice that is pushing not for the transformation of the system that generated the conflict (and that is external to the community), but rather to the transformation of the community itself, its cultures and practices, as if they were at the origins of violent conflict.

Then again, the language of women’s empowerment and feminism is being co-opted, with messages that portray women as victims (not agents), but also using the victimization of women for ends that benefit donors, interveners, and business as usual and boost the respectability of the companies.

The second takeaway is our imbrication in it: I mean we are in it. This is not a critique of the book, but more for us as scholars: How did this language that we have, that we use to express our quest for a different system of governance in global affairs, of relating to each other. How did it get co-opted so easily? Maybe our research is not so obscure that it gets co-opted, maybe it also has to do with how we position ourselves, academics in a neoliberal academia, how we must navigate this system and must make our research visible. What worries me is that critical research, research that is supposed to disrupt power, can be also complicit in the neoliberal project via the neo liberalization of the academy.


Annika Bergman Rosamond is Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Department of Political Science, Lund University, Sweden.

Annika Bergman Rosamond on American Charismatic Narratives

This book is a page turner, touching on a range of topics pertaining to celebrity diplomacy, humanitarianism, and advocacy. It is also an invaluable contribution to scholarship on celebrity-driven and endorsed business ventures as well as giving the reader a sense of Ben Affleck’s ethical ambitions beyond borders. Although the book does not centre on the individual charisma of Ben Affleck, rather engaging with the structures of celebrity humanitarianism, it inspires readers to reflect on the role of individuals in development, security, and global politics.

The book also invites readers to engage with the narration of celebrity humanitarianism across textual and visual contexts. The reader is presented with a thoroughgoing exploration of a range of celebrity and development narratives, as well as the ethical considerations and gendered and neoliberal logics that undergird such stories. The authors compare such narratives by bringing attention to variations and similarities across texts and visuals that centre on the brand, stardom, persona, and activism of Affleck. While I welcome the explicit focus on narratives throughout the book, I wonder whether it might have benefited the clarity of the book if the two authors had reflected more on the ways in which the stories were selected and what images and texts were left out from the book?  By locating the study of celebrity narratives more firmly within narrative theory and analysis, not least feminist contributions (Wibben 2011), readers would have acquired a stronger sense of the methodological choices that inform the book. Annick Wibben notes that there are external and internal narrators; the external narrator does not refer to herself as a character in the story while the internal one does. Employing this logic, the authors of the book would have been able to capture a wider range of voices, including those of the people that Affleck seeks to emancipate through his activism and business ventures. This seems important since Ben Affleck himself professes to want to work closely with the people of Congo in a spirit of solidarity. Here I might want to ask the authors what external testimonies they came across in researching their book, and what they made of those voices? In other words, what images and visuals are excluded from Affleck-centred narratives, and what are the ethical implications of such silencing?

Another question that we might want to consider is what might have happened had Ben Affleck acted on his interest in the Middle East? Had it changed the character of his activism had he turned himself into an expert at Middle Eastern politics?  Perhaps more relevant here is the question whether the book had evolved in another fashion had Middle East been its primary geographical focus?

The book could also be read as a contribution to feminist scholarship that critically takes on board the idea that women in the global south necessarily stand to benefit from the neo liberalization of aid? Do celebrity-induced business opportunities automatically lead to a sense of emancipation and empowerment? Feminist scholars of the international political economy have noted that transnational business feminism does not automatically transform individual lives in the global south. Indeed, the authors of the book put forth a compelling critique of business as a route to empowerment and healing. Indeed, the exposure to gendered violence, poverty and harm cannot be healed by business logic alone.  The book also provides a point of departure for interrogating the gendered effects of masculinist protection in global politics, not least the ways in which white saviour logics prevail in celebrity activism, diplomacy, and humanitarianism. Here I think more reflection on such masculinist protection would have benefited the feminist ambitions of the book, not least since Affleck himself appears to assign protection traits to his brand and persona. In many ways Affleck’s humanitarianism and emancipatory business ambitions are in line with the gender binaries that undergird global politics, a logic that tends to assign protector to white privileged men and the role of protected to non-western vulnerable women. 

Finally, the book speaks to scholarship on popular culture and world politics and development by showing how popular culture helps to constitute knowledge and ethical consideration. But how does celebrity humanitarianism translate across contexts?  Would this story have been fundamentally different if we weren’t dealing with an American celebrity going beyond borders and “doing good”?


Response: Lisa Ann Richey on Selling Authenticity and Values that Feel Good

With gratitude to our critics for their engagement with the text, there are some interesting things that I will respond to briefly.  Annika asked a question from the hypothetical case: “What if Affleck had actually gone to the Middle East?” Or as we provocatively say in our work: “What if he would’ve gone into US labour rights?” as Affleck actually did back in the day, something on which he could’ve claimed some “genuine” expertise and authenticity. I wrote an article in African Affairs (Richey and Christiansen 2018) about Afropolitanism, and one of the things we found out when we did this study, which is looking at Danish celebrity humanitarians – so definitely not Hollywood A-listers— is that the modality of the celebrity only works if you’re not too close. So, celebrities must have this necessary distance to make the entire sleight of hand function, to be able to produce this believable imaginary, and this owes a lot to Ilan’s work (2020) understanding the psychoanalytical side about why celebrity politics becomes so powerful. It is completely irrational, and Andy I’m really looking forward to your forthcoming work drawing on the role of individuals and taking issue with rational choice-making to build on this. But then we need to understand how celebrity politics work does, what is that power—the power of race, the power of class, the power of all those old school things that all our great grandparents started talking through decades ago in trying to analyse how power works. There hasn’t been any new thing, but what has happened is that celebrities are able to do this sleight of hand so effectively. It feels right.

Catia, you talk about how easily these discourses, which are genuinely progressive, are be co-opted. I’m in South Africa right now, and I just saw the most beautiful chandelier yesterday, in a fancy art gallery, made from the fence that contained Robben Island. I don’t know where to start with this:  with the biblical quotations from which they take a reference, with the fact that it was recovered by some well-meaning white person in South Africa who’s now selling it at an exorbitant profit because everyone really wants to buy into some of the power that got people through in Robben Island. Those are powerful moments, and that power is personal.

Laura asked about why do we not study foundations—why actors? As Andy pointed out as one of the first scholars of celebrities in international politics (2008), what’s fascinating about celebrities is that they are both individuals and institutions, all in one, and all the good media scholars have taught us how to think about them as ‘both, and.’ They’re basically both – exploited and exploiting themselves for profit in an interesting way that other new actors and alliances in humanitarianism can’t do. So, that’s what for me is still interesting in celebrity humanitarianism.

Whether or not Affleck per se is a particular kind of persona, as Andy and Annika have pointed out, is worth discussing. We (Richey and Brockington 2020) looked at the seven tropes of celebrity humanitarianism, and Affleck is interesting because he is a bit harder to type. He is a more interesting outlier, someone who absolutely all the people who worked with him—and we did interview quite a lot of people who had worked with Affleck— take seriously.  I mean, he’s serious, he’s smart, he’s not just some pretty face. And there’s no reason to think he doesn’t want to do good any more than anybody else. But the apparatus of this kind of elite politics doesn’t even allow for accountability or for celebrity humanitarianism to be successfully done differently.

No one would really disagree with the kinds of ‘helping’ values being promoted by Affleck’s organisation promotes. Yet in practice, what we found in our other work on the coffee, (Richey and Ponte 2021) was that there were already organisations working in Eastern Congo with the same coffee cooperatives doing basically a better job than ECI, Buffet, Starbucks, and USAID. And perhaps it was fine when they came in, of course, but they were not preparing those cooperative for surviving, and on the ground, we had lot of negative perceptions about how they came in, playing local politics in ways that were not very helpful. Laura asked, are we sure is it better than nothing? Well, I don’t think nothing is really the alternative – and that’s what often gets sold to us that there’s ‘nothing’ in the Eastern Congo, and that is quite frankly rubbish. There has long been this kind of humanitarianism going on in Congo in general and in Eastern Congo in particular. This is nothing new per se, as our historical work in the book documents. However, it is the way celebrity humanitarianism is being reconfigured and sold is ‘new’ that makes it interesting, and that’s what we hope makes it worthwhile reading a whole book about Batman.

Seeding Territory

The conclusion of our symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019), from Chris himself. Chris Rossdale is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Bristol. His research explores how radical social movements operate as incubators of critical knowledge and theory, with a particular focus on those contesting militarism and state violence. Alongside Resisting Militarism, his recent work considers anarchist approaches to critical security studiesexplores the limits of ontological security as a critical concept, and thinks with Emma Goldman about the radical potentials of revolutionary dance. He is currently editing a special issue of Security Dialogue on the relationships between militarism, racism and colonialism (to be published later this year), and writing about the Black Panthers as radical theorists of security, militarism and prefiguration. Chris is also a Director of Campaign Against Arms Trade. All posts are collected together here. And recall that the paperback of Resisting Militarism is currently discounted with use of the code NEW30 at the EUP site.


I read the contributions from Anna Stavrianakis, Erica Chenoweth, Rachel Zhou and Elena Loizidou with joy and fascination. Each has seen things in the book that have entirely eluded me until now, and all have challenged me to think again about the political, strategic, ontological and ethical arguments at play. It’s a rare privilege to have one’s work read with such generosity, clarity, and thoughtful critical attention. So, to begin, I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to these four brilliant scholars, and to Pablo for his wonderful work in bringing us together for this symposium.

In this spirit, I’d like to take the opportunity to think with the other contributors about how we are situated and might situate ourselves in relation to the shifting but sticky constellations of martial power that structure our world. To do so, I want to focus on the themes of pessimism, failure, prefiguration, success and violence, and think about the registers by which we have each engaged with these ideas differently. My hope is that through this we can think about the challenges we face as scholars and activists committed to resisting militarism.

Failure and Prefiguration

A theme that runs through all four responses, albeit in quite different registers, is attention to Resisting Militarism’s pessimism, manifested in my scepticism that we can ever situate ourselves outside of militarism, and accompanying critiques of anti-militarist politics that proceed with this aspiration. Loizidou appreciates the caution that this attitude brings to reflecting on movement politics, but is concerned that refusing to imagine a world beyond militarism is itself a trap. Chenoweth too laments the lack of a vision of a world beyond militarism, while also calling for a standard by which we might be able to measure the success of anti-militarist politics. Contrarily Zhou appreciates the attention given in the book not only to how anti-militarist resistance is shaped by military power, but also to the processes by which anti-militarism reproduces militarism. All three are naming a refusal in the book to locate anti-militarism outside of militarism.

Stavrianakis’ account of the same draws on a shared experience between the two of us, which I’d like to extend as a route into this. We did indeed share a delightful sunny afternoon in Brighton in the summer of 2019, during which we discussed the previous week’s Court of Appeal judgment, which – whatever else is to be said about it – did have the effect of temporarily stopping the UK government from granting export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The judgment was unprecedented, the result of years of careful and tenacious work by Campaign Against Arms Trade and others, and for all its complexities was deserving of celebration. I was there to celebrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the morning of the verdict. When the target of your political work is the international arms trade, there are few real opportunities to mark a win. And when there is a glimpse of possibility of limiting some of the relentless assault visited on Yemen by the UK-backed Saudi coalition, that must be taken seriously.

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Subjects and (Dis)obedience

The last commentary in our symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019), from Elena Loizidou. Elena is Reader in Law and Political Theory at the School of Law, Birkbeck College. Her research interests range from anarchism and political theory to theories of gender and sexuality, law and culture. Her recent publications include Disobedience: Concept and Practice (edited, 2013), Judith Butler: Ethics, Law, Politics (2007), ‘What is Law?’’ in The Anarchist Imagination: Anarchism Encounters the Humanities and the Social Sciences (2019), ‘Law, Love and Anarchism’ (2018), and ‘Dreams and The Political Subject’, in Vulnerability in Resistance (2016). A rejoinder will follow shortly; all posts will be collected for future perusal here.


Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion is a beautifully written book and one of those very rare academic books where the concrete (ethnographic) and the theoretical critique each other and reveal the complexity of socio-political phenomena such as anti-militarist actions. The contributions to knowledge that this book offers is immense: (a) it provides us with an ethnography of anti-militarist groups in Britain including, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), Stop the Arms Fair (STAF); Smash EDO; Plowshares (or Ploughshares) and Space Hijackers emanating either from Rossdale participating or study over the last 12 years; (b) it widens our understandings of concepts such as (but not only) militarism (through linkage of war, conflict, state violence “to more intimate relations of power, authority domination” (p. 4), anti-militarism (through questioning the prefigurative claims of the groups he has studied) and disobedience (by drawing our attention to its attachment to obedience); and (c) it expands the methodological teachings of ethnographical studies by relating them to theoretical claims. Indeed Rossdale should be congratulated for his ability to navigate effortlessly between the concrete and the theoretical and challenge our perceived notions of concepts and politics.  His method of study will guide and should guide ethnographic studies in the future.

Anyone that studies social movements, whether it is the anti-militarist, anti-capitalist or anarchist movements (as I do), tends to present such movement in radical and pure ways. More specifically we tend to present such movements them as being diametrically opposite to what the social/political order that it is contesting. Resisting Militarism presents us with a delicate and nuanced reading of the anti-militarist movement. In doing so it exposes that there is a much more intimate relationship between the anti-militarist movement and militarism, or as Rossdale puts it anti-militarist actions and militarism are ‘mutually constitutive’ of each other (p. 12).  I will go a step further and suggest that as the book reveals they are not only  ‘mutually constitutive’ but rather they depend upon each other in the way in which Judith Butler interpreted Hegel’s ‘masterand servant dialectic’ in Subjects of Desire (1999); the existence of both parties (master (militarism) and servant (anti-militarism) ) somewhat paradoxically– as the former produces and sustains war, domination, authority and the latter contests them – depends on the non-destruction of each other.  If the servant for example annihilates the master their existence – as it is inextricably link to the master’s recognition, will cease to be. Rossdale very carefully tracks down how our protesting, direct actions, blockades, and other activist actions at times resemble the very master that we may want to undo, and how prefigurative politics (politics associated with anti-militarist movements) at times fall short of their very aspirations, namely not reproducing the violence associated with militarism.  Rossdale for example, shows how gender hierarchies may permeate such groups and how such a hierarchy works against the anti-hierarchical structures and aspirations of anti-militarist groups. Nevertheless, the intention of the book is not to suggest that anti-military resistance should be abandoned. On the contrary, by demonstrating the distance between word (e.g. anti-hierarchy aspiration in the structure and organisation of resistance) and the practice Rossdale, is asking us to cultivate a more mindful ‘ethic of resistance’. It is possible as he suggests that if we become more reflective of our actions that we stop from reproducing militarism – racism, sexism, homophobia and authority, the very things that anti-militarist actions desire to challenge and change. Put differently the book teaches how we are all implicated in the production of violence despite our desires or best intentions and how we can attend to this problematic.

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Deconstructing Power and Resistance: A Response to Rossdale

A third commentary in our symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019), from Rachel Zhou. Rachel is a Phd candidate in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. Her doctoral research focuses on the making of female soldiers in the post-WWII era. Rather than taking the “existence” of female soldiers for granted, she examines “female soldiers” as historically constructed subjects which are constitutive of the politics of war. In particular, she looks at how “small” wars in the post-1945 era as transnational and imperial encounters render thinkable and possible the emergence of female soldiers and shape the subjectivities/experiences of (different) female soldiers. She takes a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses the fields of military/war history, poststructuralist feminist, critical race and postcolonial theories. She is the review article editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies. Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism is currently discounted with use of the code NEW30 at the EUP site, and the last reply and a rejoinder will follow in the next days; all posts will be collected for future perusal here.


Is resistance possible? How could resistance be carried out? Is resistance outside or external to power it resists? Is a radical escape from power possible? These questions are perennial but now further ignited by movements taking place during a global pandemic which accentuates and exposes systems of power. Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion offers answers but poses more questions.

This book is rooted in an intimate and careful interrogation of “the performances, negotiations, and debates which surround” anti-militarist direct action in UK, but transcends the ethnography with its major contributions to debates on the politics of resistance and the relations between power and resistance. Treating direct action practices as “a fruitful site through which to read the politics of both militarism and resistance” (p. 6), it successfully and provocatively unpacks how anti-militarist politics resist, subvert, are shaped by, and reproduce militarism. The intimacy between militarism and anti-militarism is critically reflected on through meticulous accounts of the “internal” politics of antimilitarist resistance, which are read in relation to, not apart from, what it is against. Sherry Ortner points out there is an “impulse to sanitize the internal politics” of resistance in studies of resistance so that “the ambivalent complexity” of resistance is usually rendered invisible, which contributes to an inadequate analysis (1995, pp. 176-180). Resisting Militarism does not repeat this pitfall and also moves beyond just taking the “internal” politics of anti-militarist practices seriously. Instead, it would challenge the very binary between “internal” and “external”. The “internal” politics identified by Ortner is “within all the local categories of friction and tension” (p. 177). But Rossdale reads these frictions and tensions among anti-militarists, including those surrounding how an anti-militarist group is organised, whether focusing on the spectacular, how to approach security, illegality, pacifism and nonviolence, and the gendered and racialised politics of the movement”, not as “internal” politics per se. In Resisting Militarism they are interrogated in relation to “external” politics not only because how “internal” politics matters to its engagements with militarism, but more importantly as attempts to determine the particular nature and micro-politics of militarism and the imperatives of resistance as well as the relationship between militarism and anti-militarism (pp. 6-7). With a particular understanding of power and the concept of prefiguration, the book provocatively disrupts the boundaries between means and ends and between resistance and power.

Thus, Resisting Militarism brilliantly demonstrates how militarism and anti-militarism are antagonistic and co-constitutive (or antagonism is always already co-constitutive) and that while power relations can be revealed by examining attempts to uproot them, spaces and practices of resistance are always already produced by and, “potentially, reproductive of precisely that which is resisted” (p. 139). This move is rare even among the works situating power and resistance in the same analytical framework and taking their intimate relationships seriously. Usually they only focus on how a certain form of resistance is produced by a form of power but not on how resistance is complicit and reproduces what it is against. Thus, they still tend to eschew a deconstructive approach to resistance taken by Resisting Militarism, as if being critical of resistance could give more ground and energy to power. Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons by Banu Bargu (2016) is another example which places power and resistance in one framework. Similarly, it also successfully demonstrates how resistance is shaped by power. However, its analysis might be criticised for overlooking how necroresistance could reproduce the logics of a “biosovereign assemblage” (Bargu, p. 53) that it is against. Rendering resistance innocent could simplify the operations of power as well as the complex relationships between power and resistance, and create spaces for imaginations of easy and straightforward resistance and thus a clean escape from power. Resisting Militarism is more cautious and actively seeks to be self-reflective. Not only (some) antimilitarist practices take a deconstructive approach to militarism. Resisting Militarism also seeks to deconstruct anti-militarism and calls for keeping antagonistic contestation in play as well as “a ceaseless openness to deconstruct that contestation” (p. 270). Remaining open to deconstruction and affirmative gestures in resistance could be the best hopes for resisting in a world where the subject, freedom and resistance are shaped and fundamentally entangled with power.

The brilliant book thus has made significant contributions to debates on the politics of resistance. My review should stop here. Also, to offer any critique is difficult because of its constant self-reflections. However, no critique could be exactly against what this book calls for — “antagonistic contestation and a ceaseless openness to deconstruct that contestation” (p. 270). The critiques may not be antagonistic since they follow the approach Resisting Militarism takes but seeks to make some implications more explicit, ask what could be further elaborated on and whether it reproduces what it critiques, and thus they are immanent critiques.

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On Prefiguration, Diversity of Tactics, and a New Anti-Militarism

The second post in our symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019), currently discounted with use of the code NEW30 at the EUP site. Today we feature Erica Chenoweth, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, where they research and teach on international politics, social movements, and political violence and its alternatives. Erica directs the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, where they study how people can create transformative social and political change using creative, disruptive, people power. They are currently writing a book with Zoe Marks on the role of women’s frontline participation on the outcomes and aftermath of mass movements over the past 120 years. Erica is the author of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2021), co-editor of Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence (Oxford, 2019) with Deborah Avant, Marie Berry, Rachel Epstein, Cullen Hendrix, and Timothy Sisk, co-editor of the The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism (Oxford 2019) with Richard English, Andreas Gofas, and Stathis Kalyvas, co-author of The Politics of Terror (Oxford, 2018) with Pauline Moore, and co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works (Columbia, 2011) with Maria J. Stephan. Erica also co-hosts the blog Political Violence @ a Glance and is an occasional contributor to The Monkey Cage, where they publish regular reports about trends in US protest, counter-protest, and state response based on data collected with Jeremy Pressman through the Crowd Counting Consortium. Further posts and a rejoinder will follow this week; all will be collected for future perusal here.


I thank Chris Rossdale for the opportunity to read his excellent book, Resisting Militarism: Direct action and the politics of subversion, and I am glad to engage with his ideas here. The book recounts the current state of the UK’s anti-militarism movement, as well as debates and faultlines within the movement. This is also a book written for a movement by one of its protagonists. Rossdale is motivated to study the anti-militarism movement as a participant and observer of the movement so as to better resist militarism (p. 8). It is a critical read for those concerned with anti-militarism, the peace movement, and broader debates within progressive and radical left movements more generally.

At the outset of the book, Rossdale defines militarism as “ ‘the social and international relations of the preparation for, and conduct of, organized political violence’ ” (p. 3, quoting Stavrianakis & Selby 2013). Rossdale views anti-militarism as “a particular politics which seeks to reveal, disrupt, and subvert the social processes through which violence is made possible. It is an ethic of resistance, which recognizes that its task is never complete, and that it must adapt to new forms and sites of militarism just as militarism adapts to new constellations of resistance” (p. 270). The book therefore emphasizes prefigurative politics—the process of creating and negotiating intentional relationships between those involved in the movement to experiment with new and equitable political realities.

Rossdale’s autoethnographic approach adds credibility to the work, and it provides numerous avenues for engaging directly with key fault lines and movement dynamics that might otherwise be easy to overlook from a distance. The book is chock-full of useful reflections about what motivates (and what ails) the contemporary anti-militarism movement in the UK in ways that resonate far beyond the anti-militarism struggle in this case. The book is important and well-researched. Rossdale should be commended for his thorough citation practices, as well as his engagement with a variety of critical approaches—particularly those of queer theory and feminist theory. The book makes numerous productive critiques about the anti-militarist movement’s need to overcome its perpetual whiteness and to center the most vulnerable in the movement’s articulation of its vision and in participants’ relationships with one another. It is also very productive that Rossdale keeps the focus on the largest sources of violence—state-led violence and the military industrial complex—while advocating for the interpretation of violence in context.

Taking Rossdale on his own terms, I first make one general observation, and then I engage with three unresolved issues that arise over the course of the book.

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Resisting the Attractions of Anti-Militarism

After an overlong hiatus, we return to our mission with a symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019). The introductory chapter of Resisting Militarism is available to read here, and the whole book is soon to be released in paperback, discounted with use of the code NEW30 at the EUP site. For the first post in our series we are joined again by Anna Stavrianakis, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, UK, where she researches and teaches on the international arms trade, (in)security and militarism. Anna is the author of Taking Aim at the Arms Trade. NGOs, Global Civil Society and the World Military Order (Zed, 2010) and co-editor (with Jan Selby) of Militarism and International Relations. Political Economy, Security Theory (Routledge, 2012)She is an editor at Security Dialogue, where she co-edited (with Maria Stern) the special issue on “Militarism and Security: Dialogue, Possibilities and Limits” (2018). Anna is currently working on a variety of projects associated with the arms trade and the war in Yemen, one recent result being ‘Controlling Weapons Circulation in a Postcolonial Militarised World’ in Review of International Studies. Further posts will follow this week; all will be collected for future perusal here.


As a fellow traveller in the world of anti-militarist activism, it was both a pleasure and an education to engross myself in Chris Rossdale’s new book, Resisting Militarism. I happened to see Chris on a sunny summer’s day in Brighton in June 2019, shortly after the Court of Appeal issued its judgment that the UK government had acted unlawfully in continuing to licence weapons exports to Saudi Arabia given its conduct in the war in Yemen. I wanted to raise a toast to the tenacious persistence of Campaign Against Arms Trade and to celebrate their legal victory. But even with my caveat that the hard work of translating a legal decision into meaningful political change remained, Chris was reluctant to savour the moment and curious as to how I could be in celebratory mood, given what we both know about the UK government’s commitment to arms sales, in particular those to the Middle East. Resisting Militarism helps me better understand Chris’ sceptical curiosity and his relentless questioning of what constitutes success and what an anti-militarist politics entails.

Through the combination of detailed, fine-grained ethnographic description that can only emerge from years of being part of a movement, and high theory dispatched with a light touch, Resisting Militarism helps readers understand (anti)-militarism as both concept and practice. Chris is very much present in the analysis but unassumingly so. Centering gender, sexuality and race as the social relations that scholars and activists need to foreground in understanding, engaging with and challenging militarism, he outlines a prefigurative politics of engagement with power, authority and domination as the thread that weaves the intimate and the geopolitical together.

There are two core contributions that I find particularly compelling about Chris’ analysis. First is the way he breathes life into abstract definitions of militarism. Mobilising the definition that Jan Selby and I gave in our 2012 edited volume Militarism and International Relations, of militarism as “the social and international relations of the preparation for, and conduct of, organised political violence”, Chris gives purchase to it for the study of contemporary British anti-militarism by filling it with a focus on gender, sexuality and race as the core social relations that variously bolster and challenge, and always permeate, militarism and anti-militarism. In short, “militarism is not a thing that can be smashed, but a series of social relations that must be disassembled by relating otherwise” (p. 38). Crucially, this means there is no ‘outside’ of militarism: there is no separating everyday life from the preparation for organized violence. No-one is exempt from it – not even the anti-militarist movement. Chris is interested in “the depths of our imbrication within militarised relations of power” (p38) – and once we acknowledge that, the question of how we agitate for an anti-militarist present and future looks rather different from what many accounts of militarism and anti-militarism offer.

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An Essay on Pandemic Borders: From ‘Immunitary Dispositif’ to Affirmative Ethics

An eighth entry in our coronacrisis series, from Umut Ozguc. Umut is postdoctoral research fellow in International Ethics at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Australia. She is a critical IR scholar working on critical security and border studies, settler colonialism, spatial theory, resistance and posthumanism. Currently, she is working on a research project on the ecological impacts of border walls. Her current research aims to challenge the overly anthropocentric focus of the contemporary debates over borders and mobility.


Those applying for temporary or permanent residency in Australia know well that you can only be granted a visa if you meet the health requirements set by the Australian Government. That is to mean, you should not pose a threat to the public health of the nation. The Department of Home Affairs website states that  it says, if you have any health condition it should not pose a significant cost to the Australian community ‘in terms of the health care or community services required to manage [the] condition.’ The result of the health examination is not revealed to applicants; it is a confidential document used only for migration purposes and a powerful document that as determines whether you are eligible to cross the border. I cannot recall how many times I had to undergo a medical examination for my visa applications, but I do remember the anxiety I felt each time. The medical examination is not a neutral process; it is a performative act that classifies, occupies and eventually transforms your body into a border- line between you and Australia.

Borders are not lines on the map, they are an affective experience produced by our everyday movements, narratives and codes that simultaneously define our relations with the world. We tend to think of borders as legal administrative lines separating sovereign units. They are indeed lines, but not simply legal and administrative ones. And they are certainly not straight lines, but floating ones that could act as boundaries between life and death. For some, borders are everywhere. For others, they are imperceptible. That is why, as Achille Mbembe (2019, 99) suggests, it is necessary to talk about the process of ‘borderization’—how certain spaces are turned into ‘impassable places’ for certain people, while always being accessible to others.

This essay is about how, during the current public health crisis, certain bodies are turned into a border between life and death and how different practices of ‘borderization’ continue to operate to intensify global inequalities, racism and narcissistic celebration of established modes of politics and its economy of violence. My aim is to define the pandemic border from the perspective of those who experience it. I argue that the pandemic border, like all other borders, is not a static construction having a final form, but an affective experience. It changes our perception of time and space and is altered by those perceptions. It shapes our bodily experiences and is affected by our bodily movements. And, perhaps most importantly, the border determines who we are and is determined by our encounters with others. In the contemporary operation of biopolitical borders, COVID-19 operates as a political actor, as an ‘actant’, which is, as Bennett (2010, 9) reads it, ‘neither an object nor a subject, but as an ‘intervener’,  or a ‘parasite’ (Serres, 2007), an intermediary, a mediator that causes disruption and a new system within the system. Continue reading

Are We at War? The Rhetoric of War in the Coronavirus Pandemic

The seventh contribution to our growing collection of writings on Covid-19 and this moment of crisis. Federica Caso is currently a teaching assistant at the University of Queensland, where she also completed her PhD in 2019. Her expertise is on militarisation and war memory in liberal societies. She also works on the politics of culture, art, and gender. Her most recent publication is titled “The Political Aesthetics of the Body of the Soldier in Pain” which features in Catherine Baker’s edited volume  Making War on Bodies.


In this pandemic, the war rhetoric has spread as fast as the coronavirus itself. Recently, US President Donald Trump has characterised himself as a wartime president. Hospitals are preparing for war and healthcare workers are heralded as the frontline soldiers in the war against COVID-19. Economists ask how the coronavirus war economy will change the world. Wartime terms such as shelter-in-place, panic-buying, and lockdown have entered our daily and most mundane conversations.

The language of war is so normalised that in a recent episode of the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, a medical doctor answers questions from US American children about the coronavirus using war metaphors. We have come to believe that these children, aged no more than 6 and raised in ‘peacetime’ and prosperity, naturally know about invasion, bombing, weapons, and strategic warfare. We have come to believe that this is the best language to teach them about life processes.

It is important to pay attention to the language that we use to describe the coronavirus pandemic because it determines how we respond to it.

The War Metaphor

This is not the first time that the language of war is stretched to contexts that are not legalistically wartimes. In the last fifty years, we have heard of the war of drugs, the war on poverty, the war on crime, and the war on plastic.

War is a powerful metaphor. It is an effective, immediate, and emotive tool to communicate urgency to the general public. It also conveys a sense of struggle and righteousness that can justify exceptional measures.

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We, the Subjects of Surveillance: In Conversation with Giselle Stanborough

The sixth entry in our coronacrisis series, an exhibition commentary at a distance from Charlotte Epstein. Charlotte is Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where her work straddles surveillance studies, international relations and political theory. Her latest book is entitled Birth of the State: The Place of the Body in Crafting Modern Politics will be coming out later this year with Oxford University Press. All photos included below were taken by Mark Pokorny.


In early 2020, I was commissioned to write a text for a forthcoming exhibition Cinopticon by a Sydney-based performance artist, Giselle Stanborough. The exhibition was just about to open, and then from one day in March to the next, along with the rest of the globe, Sydney woke to a world that was retreating into itself under the onslaught of a virus. As I watched the cultural life of my city shrivel, I realised that, while the exhibition could no longer happen, the conversation that it had opened up must, since the profound intensification of surveillance is one of the effects of the fight against the pandemic.

What does it mean to be subjects under a constant, unrelenting surveillance, one to which we also, however, seem to willingly contribute? This is the contemporary paradox Giselle Stanborough wrestles with, in ways that only an artist knows to, by joining dots we had not thought to connect; yet a joining that resonates somewhere deep in our minds and our beings. Before considering how Stanborough invites us to join her in grappling with this tension, let us take a step back and consider where we have gotten to, in our states of surveillance.

When Michel Foucault first identified ‘surveillance’ as a historically distinctive and highly efficient mode of social and political control that works from within, by the quasi-magical effect of someone knowing that they are being watched, the phenomenon was still limited to closed spaces: the prison, the school, the factory, or the army barracks. ‘Discipline’ is how he termed this social power that makes someone toe the line under the gaze. He defined the kind of space where it is deployed as ‘the panopticon’, borrowing the term from Jeremy Bentham, who invented the model of the prison organised around a central watchtower that offers an all-seeing (‘pan-optic’) vantage point from which to see without being seen. In Foucault’s time, however, the surveilled subject was the prisoner, the student, the factory worker, the army recruit, or the office clerk. Today it is every one of us. The panopticon is no longer confined to bounded or, for that matter, to physical spaces. It has become digitised and diffused throughout the virtual spaces that we (or our data doubles) now inhabit and where we (or they, rather) meet others. The use of the fingerprint for identification has been transformed from a repressive prison technology to the key that unlocks our phones. This little object we carry around in our pockets and to which we have become so attached is also the most effective of disciplinary devices. It monitors our every step, and how long we sleep or peer at the screen for. Through it, we put our lives, our tastes, our thoughts, and our moods on display for all our friends, and those who are not our friends, to see. By it, we are constantly solicited to react and to emote via ever more ‘applications’ in order to generate very personal information about us that is relentlessly beamed off to the Googles, Apples, Facebooks, and Amazons of this world, or ‘GAFAs’, as the French term them.

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The Body Politics of Covid-19

The fifth entry in our coronacrisis series, from Kandida Purnell. Kandida is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Richmond, the American International University in London. Having previously published on the body politics of aspects of the Global War on Terror, war commemoration, and army/artist collaboration, Kandida is currently finalising her monograph Rethinking the Body in Global Politics (Forthcoming 2020, Routledge Interventions). Kandida is also continuing to collaborate with Natasha Danilova and Emma Dolan on the Carnegie-funded ‘War Commemoration, Military Culture, and Identity Politics in Scotland’ project while her solo research into Bringing Bodies Back: Repatriation and War Performance within Forever War is ongoing.


Bodies are contested sites of global politics. Some of you realised this before I did; some of you might want to know more about body politics; and some of you may not be used to thinking about bodies and ‘embodiment’ (that is, the unending and intensely contested process through which bodies come to be) at all. You might also be wondering if and/or how these things (bodies and embodiment) ‘belong’ within the discipline of International Relations (IR).  This post is for you all, and reluctantly yet hopefully ‘uses’ the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it as a way into and forward for the study of body politics within IR and beyond.

Given the gravity of events unfolding around us and written in haste, this short post is intended as a ‘teach in’ on and introduction to thinking about body politics highlighting and providing some initial analyses of two interrelated, crucial, and particularly disturbing aspects of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic currently playing out. In part 1 I explain and discuss the metaphoricity of the body politic in relation to the ‘British’ response to Covid-19 and in part 2, and again within the UK context (due to my situation and for ‘convenience’ within the scope of this blog post) I discuss the necropolitics of body (un-)counting. This analysis is preceded by the brief contextualisation and situation of my thoughts within existing IR and other literature and the provision of a brief overview of my arguments on body politics to date (feel free to skip this bit and jump straight to the Covid-19 analysis).

 On Bodies, briefly

Bodies are contested sites of global politics. However, for the most part, IR has left the politics out of bodies by denying and/or occluding intensely contested processes of (re)embodiment while preferring to analyse, scrutinise, and politicise, the contest other units arriving with and/or comprised of already made bodies (namely “man, the state, and war”). In my endeavour to ‘rethink the body in global politics’ (this it the title of my first book forthcoming 2020), I have therefore followed some in IR – namely, but not only, Lauren Wilcox (2015) on bodies and violence, Stefanie Fishel (2017) on the body politic, Jessica Auchter (2014) and Tom Gregory (2016) on dead bodies and body counting, and Jenny Edkins on missing bodies (2011) and trauma (2003) – but also many from beyond. These include Achille Mbembe (2003 and 2019) on Necropolitics, Sara Ahmed on emotion bodies, wilfulness, and use (2004, 2014, and 2019), Judith Butler on performativity (1993), precariousness (2004), and vulnerability (2015), Diana Coole (2005) on agency, Jane Bennett (2010) on the vibrancy of matter, and Kathleen Stewart (2007) and Teresa Brennan (2004) on affect.

Through this theory and intensive empirical research (see Purnell 2015, 2018, and forthcoming 2020), I have described bodies as performative, lively, and ontologically insecure – always a process and always in process and explained and underlined the role of emotion/affect in this. However, in my previous studies – into for example the 2013-2015 Guantanamo Bay hunger strike and treatment of suffering and dead American soldiers – I have researched and written about extremely exposed and very obviously contested bodies. However, I have done this as a means to reveal the more subtle ways and logics informing how every body is contested as a site of no ‘less’ amounts of global politics. As a crisis concerning everybody, the Covid-19 pandemic has therefore done a lot of work for me – by revealing the management, manipulation, and pervasive political interventions into the lives/deaths and (re)embodiments of not only ‘extremely’ placed and exposed bodies, but including the ‘everyday’ bodies of you and I. In the following paragraphs, intended to demonstrate the merits of thinking/re-thinking the body in global politics, I provide some initial analyses highlighting particular ways bodies are being (re)produced, (ab)used, and contested through responses to Covid-19 I am currently witnessing in the UK.

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