Colonial Lives of Legality and Possibilities for Resistance?

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s new book, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership. First up is the symposium organiser, Alvina Hoffmann, a PhD student in IR at King’s College London. She is review article editor, social media officer and member of the editorial board of Millennium: Journal of International Studies. She is co-convenor of the research group Doing International Political Sociology. Her thesis investigates the annexation of Crimea, the Sami people’s struggle over land rights and the Internet users’ claims over digital spaces through the lens of rights claims practices which intersect in various institutional settings such as the UN.


Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property takes its readers on an analytical journey through various empirical and temporal contexts, excavating the racial assumptions underpinning the development of modern property law which animate contemporary settings of settler colonialism. In Bhandar’s own words, the book’s main focus lies “on the political ideologies, economic rationales, and colonial imaginaries that gave life to juridical forms of property and a concept of human subjectivity that are embedded in a racial order” (p. 22). The book is an impressive study which skilfully combines archival material, legal cases and fieldwork to showcase the various practices of appropriation of land and its rationalisation through property law regimes. It will appeal to scholars from various disciplines studying the development and contemporary manifestations of racial capitalism, Indigenous people’s dispossession and resistance struggles, and the history of property, territory and sovereignty more broadly. This interdisciplinary form of inquiry not only helps shed new light on questions surrounding the enduring forms of racial and economic inequalities, but also offers thoughtful reflections on new political imaginaries of property.

In this post, I want to draw out three points that Brenna Bhandar’s rich and thoughtful book raises. First, I will show how her historical analysis of processes of racialisation constituted political subjects in colonial settings. Then I will focus on practices of legality and consider ways in which her analysis can be applied in international law with regards to Indigenous peoples and their claims to land rights. The final part will consider Bhandar’s conclusive thoughts on alternative political imaginaries of property which draw on an array of scholars and resources which inspire critical theories and practices of such imaginaries.

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Booker’s Bitter Legacy: British Guiana after Empire

A guest post from Ben Richardson, Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Ben researches trade and development with a focus on agricultural commodities. He is author of Sugar (Polity, 2015) and is currently completing an ERSC project Working Beyond the Border: European Union Trade Agreements and International Labour Standards on which this post is based.   


Awarded annually for the best novel in the English language, the Man Booker Prize has established itself as a major event in the British cultural calendar. Its fiftieth anniversary was commemorated accordingly: a documentary on the BBC; a festival at the Southbank Centre; a reception at Buckingham Palace for former winners. But the prize harbours a darker history, one which this Anglocentric story of literary triumph firmly seals within the distant past. The prize takes its name from its initial sponsor, Booker McConnell, one of the preeminent companies of the British empire. The commercial lifeblood of Booker had been sugar and its heartland was British Guiana, a colony on the northern tip of South America. Indeed, so dominant was the company in the country’s affairs that it became known simply as ‘Booker’s Guiana’.

Bringing a rare shaft of light onto this imperial relationship, the winner of the Booker Prize in 1977, John Berger, used his acceptance speech to publicly denounce the company’s exploitative practices in what by then had become the independent state of Guyana. Fusing race and class politics, he symbolically dedicated half his prize money to the Black Panthers and their ongoing resistance in the West Indies “both as black people and workers”. While Berger’s intervention retains critical force, it requires contemporary renewal. Booker’s has long since gone, divesting from the country and diversifying into other activities like wholesaling, slowly erasing public memory of their colonial past. For Guyana meanwhile, the preeminent issue in the sugar industry is no longer exploitation but expulsion, with mounting economic pressures linked to trade reforms in Europe erupting in plantation closures, mass redundancy and political discontent. The ongoing celebration of the Man Booker Prize thus provides a way to reconnect these developmental stories and consider again what the legacies of British imperialism mean for both modern-day Guyana and the UK.

Formerly owned by the father of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, the Wales sugar estate was closed in 2017. Source: author.

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The Right to Maim: A Reply

In the concluding post in our symposium on The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability,  a reply from Jasbir K. Puar who is Professor and Graduate Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. The Right to Maim received the Alison Pipemeier best book award in feminist disability studies from the National Women’s Studies Association. Puar is also the author of award-winning Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007), which has been translated into Spanish and French and was expanded and re-issued for its 10th anniversary (2017).


Thank you for this opportunity to dialogue with International Relations scholars and for taking the time to read The Right to Maim. It is always an enormous privilege to engage new and unexpected audiences and I am grateful to Nivi Manchanda, Cynthia Weber, Darcy Leigh, Rahul Rao, Isis Nusair, and Sankaran Krishna for their thoughtful responses. Special thanks to Ali Howell for curating this forum in The Disorder of Things, and for organizing a roundtable on the book at the recent Journal of Millennium Studies conference that took place at the London School of Economics in October 2018. These scholars raise so many points of discussion that it would be impossible to be exhaustive so I will address the most salient points. To begin, while the responses have focused largely on the material that makes up about the last third of the book on Palestine/Israel, The Right to Maim is first and foremost about American empire, and therefore continues the inquiry about the violent global effects of U.S. exceptionalisms that I began in Terrorist Assemblages. In linking Palestine to a broader thesis about U.S. empire, I contend that it is impossible to address contemporary manifestations of U.S. exceptionalism without examining the ideological and material legitimization that Israel provides for U.S settler colonialism. It is therefore crucial that Palestine is neither produced as an external object to the United States nor exceptionalized as a site disconnected from other locations of settler colonialism and biopolitical population management more generally. While The Right to Maim could be read as intellectual solidarity scholarship, I prefer to situate it as a form of accountability to the field of American Studies.

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Settler Colonial Sovereignty: Some implications of Jasbir Puar’s conception of the sovereign right to maim

The fourth contribution to our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim comes from Darcy Leigh and Cynthia Weber. Dr Darcy Leigh currently teaches decolonial and queer legal perspectives, as well as interdisciplinary ‘widening access’ programming, at the University of Sussex Law School. She has previously been a Teaching Fellow and/or Research Assistant at the universities of Edinburgh, Ottawa and Alberta. Dr Leigh has also worked as a facilitator, researcher and/or consultant with decolonial higher education projects Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning and the Akitsiraq Law School, as well as in the equalities and policy sectors in School, as well as in the equalities and policy sectors in Scotland. Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.


State sovereignty, as a central analytical category in the field of International Relations (IR), has been too often uncontested (Walker, 1993). In spite of a wave of critical sovereignty studies in the 1990s (Ashley, 1988; Bartelson, 1995; Weber, 1995; Biersteker and Weber, 1996; Walker, 1993), with few exceptions those debates largely skirted or ignored altogether how state claims to sovereignty are woven through and require specific relationship to race and sexuality (Doty, 1996; Peterson, 1999; Weber, 1999). Only very recently have IR scholars come to recognize the centrality of sexuality and race in sovereign state formation (Anievas, Manchanda & Shilliam, 2015; Agathangelou et al 2008; Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004; Leigh, 2017; Manchanda, 2015; Rao, 2012, 2014; Richter-Montpetit, 2007, 2015, 2016; Sabaratnam, 2017; Shilliam, 2015; Weber, 2016). More recently still, IR scholars are beginning to recognize the centrality not just of sexuality and race, but also of settler colonialism and disability (Beier, 2005, 2009; Crawford, 1994, 2007; Howell, 2011, 2018; Leigh, 2015; Shaw, 2008).

Jasbir Puar’s challenging and provocative new book, The Right to Maim, pushes these discussions further, demonstrating the inextricability of state sovereignty from settler colonialism as configured through racialized and sexualized relations of debility, capacity and disability. In so doing, Puar contests the function and meaning not only of sovereign statecraft, but also of settler colonialism.

In this short piece, we focus on the implications of Puar’s reworking of sovereignty and settler colonialism.

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Spectrums of Debility and Resistance

The second post in our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s Right to Maim is by Isis Nusair, who is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and International Studies at Denison University. She is the co-editor with Rhoda Kanaaneh of Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender among Palestinians in Israel, and translator of Ramy Al-Asheq’s book of poetic prose Ever Since I Did Not Die. She is the writer and director with Laila Farah of Weaving the Maps: Tales of Survival and Resistance; a one-woman show based on research with Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian refugee women.  Her upcoming book is titled Permanent Transients: Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan and the USA. She is currently conducting research on the narratives of crossing of Syrian refugees into Germany. Isis previously served as a researcher at the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability makes an important contribution to our thinking about the connection between debility, capacity and disability. The book challenges binary thinking and offers a continuum when thinking about dis/ability. Puar argues that “capacity, debility and disability exist in mutually reinforcing constellation and are often overlapping or coexistent, and that debilitation is a necessary component that both exposes and sutures the non-disabled/disabled binary” (Puar, xv).

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A Palestinian Perspective on Labour’s Anti-Semitism Row

Nimer SultanyThis is a guest post from Nimer Sultany. Nimer is is Senior Lecturer in Public Law, SOAS, University of London. His book Law and Revolution: Legitimacy and Constitutionalism After the Arab Spring won the 2018 Book Award of the International Society of Public Law, and is shortlisted for the Society of Legal Scholars’ Peter Birks Prizes for Outstanding Legal Scholarship.  

 


Imagine the uproar if the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn were to cite Mahatma Gandhi on the question of Palestine (November 1938): “But my sympathy [to Jews’ conditions in Europe] does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me… Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.” It is unlikely that Corbyn would cite Gandhi on this, however. According to the controversial IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which the Labour Party is set to adopt in full, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is anti-Semitic.

The timing of this suppression of free speech is troubling. At the very time the Israeli government is implementing ever more extreme policies that solidify Jewish supremacy vis-à-vis Palestinian citizens inside Israel like me, Corbyn’s critics seek to expand the definition of anti-Semitism to the extent that it would stifle criticism of these very racist policies. At the time Israel routinely kills scores of Palestinians with impunity, Corbyn’s critics seek to deny him the ability to express unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equality, and deny us Palestinians the means by which we can express our suffering and name our oppression.

Whereas Corbyn’s critics seek to portray him as “palling with terrorists”, they have no qualms about celebrating, as Mark Regev did, Zionist leaders like Menachem Begin who was the leader of a breakaway alt-right group that murdered British officials and Palestinian civilians. Begin’s actions were part of the Zionist movement’s audacious armed robbery of the Palestinian people’s homeland to establish an ethnocracy.

Are Corbyn and his critics equally selective? Are Begin and Arafat both terrorists-turned-to-peacemakers?  This discourse that makes Corbyn on the defensive is one that supports the violence that maintains colonialism and apartheid but condemns violence that seeks to resist it. It sanctions violence that sustains the longest military occupation since World War II. Yet, it is anti-colonial militants who seek to put an end to this systematic violence who are routinely condemned. The context in which violence occurs is eradicated.

Zionists like Andrew Feldman, the former chair of the Conservative Party, reduce Zionism to “Jewish national self-determination” in order to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Yet, the opposition to Zionism is precisely because it is not “a national self-determination” movement, but rather a settler-colonial movement. Continue reading

On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

The final post in our symposium on Decolonising Intervention. A massive thanks to Lee for organising and editing; errors in this final part are mine.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention. The earlier posts can be seen here: my introduction, Marta’s response, Lee’s response, Amy’s response and Megan’s response. The whole book is available for free Open Access download here.


My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.

My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.

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This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical. Continue reading