Reconstructing Human Rights

The first in a forum on Joe’s recently released Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry in Global Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming days.


hoover-reconstructing-human-rights-cover1Earlier this year I visited Sylvia’s Corner, the home of the Focus E15 campaign, to give a talk about the human right to housing. As I shared my research, based on work I had done with housing campaigns in Chicago and Washington DC, I was struck by how this specific moment illustrated what I most hope Reconstructing Human Rights might accomplish—namely, helping to reconstruct human rights as a more democratic idea, and practice.

In London, Focus E15 has been fighting for the human rights of those struggling to secure a decent home for themselves and their families, often struggling against the very public agencies who should be assisting them. Their work not only draws on an ethical and political language of human rights, but it also remakes that language, renders it suitable to their needs and responsive to their experiences. I have witnessed this same process with other campaigns, such as the  Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, and with community organising groups like ONE DC in Washington DC. It was revealing to act, even briefly, as a conduit through which the experiences of these distant groups could be relayed. Human rights are constantly being remade, repurposed—reconstructed—to serve the ends of those suffering from injustice. It is this reality that motivates my book, which is at its core an attempt to understand how human rights can be both an instrument of the privileged and powerful, and also a weapon for the oppressed and disempowered. I wrote this book because I wanted to know, what should we make of human rights?

Continue reading

White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Author’s Response

Bob’s response to Naeem, NiviSrdjan, and Meera completes our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics.


Four critical IR theorists have taken time away from other tasks to read my book carefully, generously, and thoughtfully. What a gift. The brevity of this response will appear stingy by comparison, but I don’t mean it to be. Rather, I am typing with my wrist in a splint, and it hurts, while I am also due to leave in the morning for a two-week vacation. Perhaps there will be another chance to show my gratitude. Many of the questions that Nivi, Naeem, Srdjan, and Meera raise have to do either with the book’s and my relationship to theory or with the limitations of my research strategy, as I anticipated and sought, self-servingly, to head off.

Continue reading

“But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

This is the fifth post in our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics, which will be followed shortly by a response from the author. Earlier responses are here from Naeem, Nivi and Srdjan. This piece expands on, and in some senses muddies, a short review I wrote of the book for a symposium in Perspectives in Politics.


This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives. [1]  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?

We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177).  It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:

The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.

The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]

What can we make of this? Continue reading

An African-American Social Science: International Relations

This is the third post in our book symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics. The opening post by Bob is here, and the earlier response of Naeem is here. Further responses will follow.


White World Order, Black Power Politics (WWOBPP) was on my reading list before it was released; it had come highly recommended by my supervisor who was then reviewing it for Cornell, it was a on a topic that was close to my heart, and it was written by Bob Vitalis, whose work had been an inspiration to me for years.

And yet I was unprepared for the full emotive and intellectual force of the book. WWOBPP is a genealogy of American International Relations, which it turns out is essentially an enterprise in systematic forgetting, in the writing out of and over an already established body of scholarship in the ‘discipline’ pioneered primarily by a cohort of black academics including Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan and Merze Tate from the 1920s to the ‘50s that ultimately coalesced around Howard University in the US.

The Howard School were veritable trailblazers in all their scholarship as Bob painstakingly documents, but two of their insights stand out for me in particular: (i) that imperialism was the core problematique of IR, that is, the “central problem for scholars seeking to grasp the nature of and threats to the existing world order” (86) and (ii) that racism and imperialism were mutually implicated, that there was an “elective affinity between the concept of race and empire” (87). Together these two insights revealed that international relations were essentially inter-racial relations, and IR a racial science that served as steadfast handmaiden to empire. Continue reading

No Less A Scream For It Being Artful

Naeem InayatullahAnother guest contribution from Naeem Inayatullah to our symposium on Vitalis’s White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s research locates the Third World in international relations through history, political economy and method. With David Blaney, he is the co-author of International Relations and the Problem of Difference (Routledge 2004), and Savage Economics: Wealth, Poverty, and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism (Routledge 2010). He is the editor of Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (Routledge 2011), as well as Narrative Global Politics: Theory, History and the Personal in International Relations (Routledge, 2016) with Elizabeth Dauphinee. His writing, research and talks can be discovered and devoured at his academia.edu page.

*Update* Nivi’s response is here, and Srdjan’s is here.


When I finished reading White World Order, Black Power Politics, I made three decisions.  I would read the book again.  Not because it is theoretically difficult or jargon heavy.  It’s not.  But because I want to absorb its details, re-orient my body through its revelations, savor Bob’s story telling skills, and anticipate his scarce but nevertheless Pharoah Sanders-esque screams.

In addition, I immediately designed a course titled “Race and IR” around Bob’s book.  The course has been approved and I am scheduled to teach it in September.  Third, I’ve suggested Bob’s name to my best students as someone they might consider as a future mentor in graduate study.  So, boom!  Immediate impact.  Could a book and an author want more than this?  Perhaps not.  Still, I suspect Bob has larger ambitions for this book.  It could change our field, if we are lucky.  Count me in for this project as well.

The importance of Vitalis’ book is easy to articulate.  It demonstrates the racist foundations of our discipline (IR).  Bob recounts the narrative as two sides of one tale.  There is the account of those who theorized and practiced white hegemony.  And there is the story of those who rejected it.  Our origin story is not about the three great debates, not the mythical line of realism going back to Machiavelli and Thucydides, not the immaculate conception of a Cold War politics, not anarchy as the founding condition, and not abstractions concerned with statics or dynamics of inter-state relations. Rather, Vitalis demonstrates, it is racist theories and institutions of imperialism constitute the actual origins of our discipline.

Here is how Bob puts it:

What is new and important in this book is the discovery that the intellectuals, institutions, and arguments that constituted international relations were shaped by and often directly concerned with advancing strategies to preserve and extend [the theory and practice of white hegemony against those struggling to end their subjection.  (2)

But also:

…we can’t understand the history of the early decades of the discipline without understanding the long and globe-spanning freedom movements that are central to its intellectual, social, and institutional development. (9)

Each part of the tale is told in equal measure: the ying and the yang, the force and counter-force, imperialism and liberation. Continue reading

White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium

vitalis-e1458738905580This is the first post in the symposium on Robert Vitalis’s, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Professor Vitalis (who also answers to ‘Bob’) teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995. His second book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, published in 2005 was named a book of the year by The Guardian. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009), Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), the American Council of Learned Societies (2002), and the MacArthur-SSRC International Peace and Security Program (1998). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998. Below is his introduction to our symposium.

*Update*

Naeem’s response is here; Nivi’s is here and Srdjan’s is here.


80140100646100L

White World Order, Black Power Politics may well be the only book discussed in this symposium series that isn’t primarily concerned with theory, or at least the only one by an author who does not self identify as a theorist, teaching in a department that does not recognize what I do as “IR.”  It is also less an intellectual history, which might allow it to pass as theory, than it is an institutional history. So I am grateful for the interest in it here.

28522646._UY1280_SS1280_That said, it is indeed a critical history. The records of professors, schools, research organizations, and foundations in the early twentieth century United States reveal a past that bears scant resemblance to the “practitioner histories” or insider accounts of great debates invented about the discipline of international relations in the second half of the century, which are the ones most specialists tell themselves and their students until now. In fact, the more I learned and labored in the archives the more I came to see the problem as similar to the one I wrestled with in my last book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. The history that U.S. oil companies invented after World War II about their early and unshaken commitment to a “partnership in progress” with the Saudi people, at a moment when criticism of U.S. imperialism was on the rise in the Eastern Province and across the globe, is the one that books repeated uncritically for decades. The firms’ private records though revealed a dramatically different reality. I developed an account of the exploitative order in place in the oil camps, the racial science that justified it in the minds of the American engineers and managers, and the failed efforts of Arab and other workers to bring about its end. I likened what I did in that book to “reverse engineering” particular processes of mythmaking. I’ve done more or less the same thing for a sector of the U.S. academy in White World Order. Continue reading

The EU Referendum: Taking over democracy on the right side? The implicit nationalism of the left case for Brexit

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.


Our final contributor is Catherine Goetze, Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Catherine is fluent in three languages and has lived and worked in various countries in Europe, America and Asia. Her research focuses on the sociology of global and transnational politics. Catherine’s book, The Distinction of Peace, on the sociology of peacebuilding is forthcoming this summer with the University of Michigan Press. Her publications can be found on her academia.edu page and she blogs occasionally at www.catherinegoetze.org/blog.


Reinvigorating’ sounds like spring, youth, detox and fun… so, who would not want to participate in ‘reinvigorating democracy’? And yet… the problem with the left-wing case for Brexit is that it remains utterly unclear why such a their proposed renaissance of democracy is predicated on Brexit. Contrary to Lee Jones I believe that of all political crucial moments the referendum of 23 June seems the most unlikely opportunity to re-invent democracy. Whether they like it or not, left-wing Brexiters are in the same boat as nationalists across Europe, and for two reasons. Brexit already bears the enormous risk of strengthening the UK’s and Europe’s nationalist and right-wing forces simply by setting a precedent. More importantly, however, left-wing Brexiters will only reinvigorate nationalism and not democracy because they are unable to identify the acting subject of their political project.

The rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe is real

Left-wing Brexiters haughtily dismiss the risk of Europe’s fascism as betrayal and ‘fear mongering’. Yet, the danger is real: In the Austrian presidential elections the right-wing candidate missed victory by 0.6%. If last year’s regional elections in France had been the first round of presidential elections, Marine Le Pen would have been one of the ‘dual’ candidates of the second round. In Germany, where right-wing nationalist discourses have long been taboo, the ‘Alliance for Germany’ has made a spectacular entry into several federal state parliaments; currently, the same party would receive 11% in federal parliamentary elections, hence becoming ‘king maker’ in parliament. The situation is the same in almost every single European country, from Sweden (13% for Sweden Democrats) and Denmark (21% for Danish People Party) in the North to Hungary (21% for Jobbik) in the East and Greece (7% for Golden Dawn) in the South. Although they didn’t win any seats, UKIP won 12.9% of votes in last year’s parliamentary elections.

The rise of right-wing nationalist parties cannot be easily explained away with conspiracy theories that this all is elite manipulation of masses; on the contrary, it is one response to the same crisis of politics that also generated the loss of confidence in the EU. Such crisis moments are nothing new so a look at historical experience might help explain what is at stake now.

Tragedy and farce of history: Democracy’s unravelling in Weimar

History does not repeat itself, that’s true, yet it is timely to remind democrats in Europe just how much this situation looks like the final years of the Weimar Republic. In the November 1932 elections, the NSDAP became the strongest party with 33.1% yet this alone did not assure Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. Crucially, all those political groupings whose first objective was to disavow established parties and Weimar’s democracy were complicit in his appointment; and that includes, indeed, everyone, even left-wing parties and public intellectuals (Carl von Ossietzky, Karl Kraus, Kurt Tucholsky, Bertolt Brecht, etc). Of course, they were horrified by the Nazis and many were subsequently killed or exiled; nevertheless, it needs to be remembered that in the early 1930s they did little to save the Weimar Republic which they found insufficient in too many ways: inegalitarian, bourgeois and capitalist, too removed from people’s real concerns, corrupt and ridiculously bureaucratic. “Germany is the only country where the lack of political competence is rewarded with the highest offices,” commented Carl von Ossietzky with dismay on elections in the 1920s.

The NSDAP’s rise to power was the final stage of popular disaffection with the Weimar Republic which was mainly due to the dissociation of representative institutions and Germany’s social structures. After the disaster of the First World War, the end of monarchy and the economic turmoil of the 1920s, political parties and social classes did not divide up neatly along party lines. Both sides of the fundamental political question, ‘who gets what?’, were disputed as Germans were desperately seeking Weimar’s demos. Communists asked whether workers were Germans or universal proletarians. Inversely, was the bourgeoisie part of the people or its (international and/or Jewish) enemy? Anti-Semites asked if Jews could be part of ‘us’, and liberal Jews rejected the idea that East-European orthodox Stedtl Jewry would be part of the civilized German nation. ‘Völkisch’ nationalists and historians argued about whether Romanian-speaking Suabians belonged to Germany and if, indeed, language and culture was the decisive criteria, then what about Austrians and Alsatians? Rhinelander Catholics had serious doubts that Protestant Prussian Junkers were really part of the German nation; and the Junkers themselves contended that they were the same kind of Germans as their land labourers…

The end of the Weimar Republic is not a tale of nationalism as external evil force; Nazism was home grown. Yet it was in no way specific to Germany. The Weimar Republic died because those who should have been its subject refused to recognize this democracy as theirs, and everyone did so for their own good reason.

The crisis of politics is not a matter of spatial distance

The contemporary lack (or loss) of confidence in the European Union is symptomatic of a crisis of politics that resembles the Weimar experience. If the EU is singled out as ‘undemocratic’, then not because of its institutions. In fact, constitutionally, the EU offers more opportunities to participate in legislative processes than the UK. What is questioned is the EU’s capacity to ‘truly’ represent the European demos. Brexiters deny this and reclaim their own: ‘we’, ‘I’ or ‘us’ want to decide and make politics, tackle the challenges ahead. They demand to reduce the ‘scale’ and to bring politics close to home (particularly well expressed in the juxtaposed movement words of the leave campaign: ‘Leave! Take back!’). This is Lee Jones’ plea. Its emotiveness, however, eludes the question of who the ‘we’ are. And yet, this is a crucial question: Who is the subject of that reinvigorated democracy?

Lee’s proposal, the national scale, is conveniently agentless. He explains that the national scale ‘is far smaller than the regional scale, local actors have a greater sense of mutual identification, and the structures of representative democracy, however flawed, do exist’. Who local actors are and who they represent, and if this representation is warranted remains obscure. The underlying assumption is that the crisis of representative democracy is simply a matter of spatial distance.

Yet, the crisis of representative democracy is a matter of socio-political, cultural and ideational-identitary distance. The causes for the dissociation of citizens and representation are manifold and by no means reducible to neoliberal governance. Enormous social transformations have dissolved those collective identities and social hierarchies which have shaped the party political structure of European democracies. These social transformations do not only involve the neoliberal dismantling and financialisation of the welfare state and public services, but also the accompanying shift from manufacturing, mining and agriculture to service industries, the introduction of new forms of production and organization, the participation of women in the workforce and the resulting changes in gender roles and families, the rise of ‘alter’ politics like queer or post-colonial politics, changes in education, the heightened mobility of Europe’s and global populations, the inversed age pyramid, the rising awareness and urgency of global environmental problems, and the changed nature of knowledge and communication.

Consequently, nations and social classes are not the ‘self-identifying collectivities marked by a common purpose and some sort of ethos’ anymore (Tormey 2015, 73). Societies have become infinitely more differentiated and ‘intelligible only as the result of aggregation and the overlapping of particularities’ (Rosanvallon 2012, 222). For the nation state the consequence is, as Tormey says, that ‘[…] we are left with an increasingly random assortment of individuals sharing territory, not community’ (op.cit.).

The crisis of representative democracy is, indeed, a crisis of representation in its double sense of delegation of decision-making power and of the interpretation of the citizen’s persona. Citizens more and more often do not wish to delegate their participation but want to act themselves; the tides of large social movements like Attack, the World Social Forums, Occupy or the current Nuit Debout movement in Paris clearly show that complexification, social individualization and political pluralisation have not resulted in apathy.

In the sense of impersonating the citizen, most people find it increasingly difficult to identify with any of the established political parties, politicians and other political organizations like labour unions, whether on local, national or European level. Political identities are not anymore those IKEA flat packs of class politics; rather political identities have become more fluid, diverse, multidimensional and, also, more globalized. Political identities often transcend predefined geographical spaces with citizens engaging in acts of political solidarity with communities in far-away places or addressing problems of transnational scale.

The missing democratic subject of the national scale

Given this complexity, fluidity and globality, who is comprised in the left-wing Brexiters’ ‘national scale’? Is the subject of national scale democracy the ethnic Briton (and then the English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, too? And only the Protestant Irish or alos the Catholic Irish?), the people who live in Great-Britain no matter their original national belonging, only those people who think they belong (how will we know?), or those people who are affected by the political decisions taken whether they reside in Great-Britain or not, those who contribute constructively to the politics of national scale (and then what does that mean)?

The left-wing project of national rescaling needs to answer these questions beyond simply rejecting the EU representational mechanisms. The default option is the UKIP one: the white, English, male, straight, authoritarian tabloid reader (if he reads at all). Not only exactly the kind of citizen who is most unlikely to support a left-wing experiment in reinvigorating democracy.

As Rosanvallon so concisely says: “One of the most important transformations in our societies reside in the fact that the ’mode of production’ of generality has been transformed. Traditional regimes of generality were conceived in a unitary and aggregate sense […] while present-day generality more often has to be understood as rooted in the partial parallelism of singularities” (Rosanvallon 2012, 222). People’s political and social choices are not made in two-dimensional hierarchies anymore but in three-dimensional, variable, movable and multiple spaces that might or might not include the national scale. This makes politics so much more disorderly, erratic, singularized, glocalized and multifaceted. The attractiveness of right-wing parties resides in their capacity to seemingly reduce this multiplicity by replacing it with a simple binary: in or out. They, indeed, rescale complexity to linear two-dimensionality: White vs. Brown, Christian vs. Muslim, Occident vs. Orient, Native vs. Immigrant, and National vs. European. Being defined in opposition to the transnational and globalizing political project of European integration, Lee Jones’ ‘rescaling’ does not look any different.

There is, certainly, much wrong with the EU. Without doubt, there are still many emancipatory struggles to fight in Europe. Clearly, the project of European federalism is ill designed to respond to the crisis of politics. Yet, although the geometrics of politics have changed, these changes do not follow the linear patterns of the old nation-state’s socio-political structures. Although the identity crisis of the EU shows that recalibration of identity and politics is in order, it is not national rescaling that will reinvigorate democracy; particularly not if the rescalers are not able to positively identify the democratic subject. National rescaling can only reinvigorate nationalism, that’s all. So, if we want to re-create spaces for democratic innovation, it is not by ‘rescaling’ the horizon of possible participation(s) that this will happen.