‘Indian Migration and Empire’: response from Radhika Mongia

This is the final post in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State, in which Radhika responds to her interlocutors.


Each of my interlocutors foregrounds and engages with different aspects of my book, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State. In this response, I want to dwell on four interrelated elements they stress: namely, (1) the distinction between free and forced migration, their differential management in migration regimes and the current incarnations of this distinction; (2) the place of processes of racialisation with regard to migration regimes, to understandings of citizenship and to the contours of nationhood; (3) the enduring Eurocentrism of certain disciplinary presuppositions; and, lastly, (4) the relationship between the colonial state and the modern state, that lies at the heart of the book.

One of the central concerns of the book, as I noted in my introductory post, is to interrogate the remaking of ‘freedom’ in the nineteenth century though a consideration of the distinction between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’/‘forced’ migration and their differential regulation. I unpack this distinction in relation to the 1834 abolition of slavery in the British empire and the state-supervised movement of Indian indentured labour that followed in its wake. Slavery and the memory of the slave trade (the latter abolished in 1807) were at the heart of the contentious legal debates on how, and whether, to regulate Indian migration. Animating these debates was an abiding concern with how to legally distinguish slavery from freedom, violation from volition, coercion from consent, and thereby not only enable, but facilitate, a movement that could be coded as ‘free’. At the centre of the regime that regulated indenture was the appearance of a renovated ‘free labour contract’ that elevated the metaphysical notion of ‘consent’ (a variant of ‘intension’ or of ‘will’), diminished concerns with ‘fairness’ and radically transformed understandings of ‘freedom’. Both Luke and Bridget draw out aspects of this theme and how it endures in our present, by directing our attention to how current migration regimes are also structured around the notions of ‘free’ or ‘forced’ movements. But now, as they point out, we see a twist. If, in the nineteenth century, the concern was to facilitate ‘free’ movement (to avoid charges of a second slave trade), the rationale of our prevailing dispensation is to prohibit ‘free’ movement. Currently, in many national-state spaces, it is only those who according to always-shrinking governmental criteria can be characterised as ‘forced’ or, in the new parlance, as ‘refugees’, who are allowed to move. Others, many more, understood as ‘economic migrants’, who attempt intentionally (and, thus, ‘freely’ and ‘willingly’) to escape the depredations of their circumstances are illegalised, rendered interlopers. Reading Luke and Bridget’s engagements alongside my argument concerning ‘historicising freedom’, it is evident that we have seen yet another profound remaking of freedom in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—one committed to a sedentary bias that demands that ‘freedom’ is best practiced in your ‘assigned’ place. Or, as Nandita Sharma puts it, increasingly, migrants are conceived as ‘people out of place’. Moreover, as both Luke and Bridget point out, a discourse of ‘protection’ underlies and makes possible the current distinction between ‘free’ (economic) and ‘forced’ (refugee) migration. It was precisely a discourse of protection of, on the one hand, Indian indentured migrants and, on the other, the formerly enslaved in the colonies of Mauritius and the Caribbean, that enabled state regulation of Indian indentured migration. Thus, returning to the details of how this regime was put in place (as I do in my book), serves as an important lesson in thinking about current articulations.

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‘Indian Migration and Empire:’ comment by Nadine El-Enany

The fourth post in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is by Nadine El-Enany, who is Reader in Law at Birkbeck School of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Race and Law. She is author of(B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (Manchester University Press, 2020), co-author of Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State (Pluto, 2021) and co-editor of After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance and Response (Pluto, 2019).


It is a pleasure to be part of this symposium, especially because Radhika’s work has been such an inspiration to me. Unfortunately for me, her book came out just as I was finishing my own book, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire. Though I managed to include some engagement with her work, I wished I’d had her book when writing my own. I have learned so much from it and can see various exciting links and possibilities for conversations with my own. For that reason, I’m particularly glad to have a chance to be part of this symposium. 

Radhika’s book takes the apparent ‘unremarkability’ of the monopoly states exercise over the movement of people and shows how, in actual fact, there is much to be said about this status quo that might lead us to rethinking and rearticulating scholarly and, indeed, activist approaches towards migration in a context of violently protected national boundaries. For me, one of the most salient contributions of the book is the revelation of the relationship between the metropolitan or modern state and the colonial state – in particular, the way in which the former has been shaped by the latter. The contours of Anglo-European nation-states, which once had empires ranging in scope and size, are historically contingent, having been moulded in the course of the formation and implementation of colonial migration regulations. In tracing the transition ‘from a world dominated by empire-states into a world dominated by nation-states’ (p. 1), Radhika thus points to a ‘fundamental colonial genealogy of the modern (nation-)state, in both the metropoles and the colonies’ (p. 3).

Radhika and I share an interest in drawing out and subjecting to analysis ‘the formation of key techniques and technologies for regulating migration’ (p. 3). For Radhika, such a focus enables the illumination of the relation between ‘patterns of migration’ which would otherwise be ‘held distinct’ (p. 3). Crucially, this approach allows for the undoing of ‘methodological nationalism’, which, as Radhika writes, ‘sees the national as the privileged site and scale for investigating migration, and, thereby, misunderstands how definitions of the “national” are necessarily implicated in, and emerge from, non-national, cross-statal, transcolonial, and inter- and intra-imperial forces’ (p. 3).

To my mind, this is a crucial project – to begin to unsettle the methodological nationalism which pervades mainstream scholarship on migration. Those of us who teach migration law from a critical perspective, will be familiar with the wide-eyed looks from students who are asked to question the legitimacy of the supposedly sovereign states they have come to take for granted, both as having always existed, or always destined to somehow come into existence, and crucially, as the only way of organising human life politically and geographically. However, when we begin to chisel away at this seemingly unshakeable status quo, as Radhika’s book does so powerfully, the geographical and political remnants of empire begin to surface, and like re-found jigsaw puzzle pieces, create a much clearer picture of seemingly separate sovereign nation-states as, in fact, embedded in their colonial pasts, and I would argue, suffering from a crisis of legitimacy.

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‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Sanjay Seth

The third response in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is by Sanjay Seth, who is Professor of Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Marxist Theory and Nationalist Politics: The Case of Colonial India (Sage, 1995), Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India (Duke University Press, 2007 and Oxford University Press, 2008) and, most recently, Beyond Reason: Postcolonial Theory and the Social Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2020).


Radhika’s Indian Migration and Empire is subtitled ‘A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State’, and part of the book’s argument is that while it is assumed that control of migration ‘is a defining, definitive, unchanging, and unchangeable element of (state) sovereignty’ (p. 7), in fact control of migration within the British empire occurred late and helped to produce state sovereignty. In making this argument Radhika traces how, in the wake of the abolition of slavery in 1834, the British empire played an active role in facilitating the movement of its Indian citizens into its ex-slave plantation colonies as much needed indentured labour, and developed elaborate governmental machinery to do so; by contrast, the movement of peoples other than indentured labourers within the British empire was largely unregulated and not constrained. It was in fact the white dominions of the empire that sought to restrict and regulate the entry of non-white imperial subjects, finally achieving their aim following the Komagata Maru incident in 1914. It was only after this that the freedom of British subjects to move from one part of the empire to another was abandoned, and a passport system allowing race-based restriction was introduced. Mongia concludes, ‘control over mobility does not occur after the formation of the nation-state … the very development of the nation-state occurred, in part, to control mobility across the axis of the nation/race’ (p. 139, emphasis in original). The modern sovereign state thus has a colonial and imperial genealogy.

komagata maru

This book is a distinguished addition to a growing literature that requires us to recognise that the conventional picture of the sovereign state as the foundation of certain practices has things the wrong way around. Another recent example is Tarak Barkawi’s Soldiers of Empire (2017), which similarly challenges the assumption that modern wars between states have been fought by the armies of these states, such that we may assume a ‘sovereign territorial package of state, army, and society’. In fact, this has been the exception rather than the rule. The armies that fought in most of the colonial campaigns of the coloniser countries, and in the world wars, were imperial armies, most notably in the cases of France and Britain. The British Indian army numbered some one million men during World War I, and 10% of the soldiers who fought for the British Empire in this war were in the British Indian army; in World War II the Indian army comprised more than two million members and operated across three continents. The nation-state army is in significant measure an outcome of World War II, rather than the basis of it and the mode in which it was fought; it was only well after that war that national armies and sovereign states became isomorphous, and thus, as Barkawi colourfully expresses it, this war ‘consumed one world order and spat out another’.

Although her book crosses many disciplinary boundaries, Radhika writes, I think, above all as a historian (as do I, though interestingly, we are respectively in departments of sociology and politics), and part of the strength of the book is the varied and dispersed archive upon which it is able to draw. But the import of her argument, as she recognises and seeks to develop it, applies to all disciplines and forms of intellectual activity which take the sovereign, territorial state as a given – that is to say, almost all social science and humanities disciplines.

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‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Bridget Anderson

The second response in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is from Bridget Anderson, Professor of Mobilities, Migration and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of its Specialist Research Institute Migration Mobilities Bristol.  Her interests include citizenship, nationalism, immigration enforcement (including ‘trafficking’), and care labour. Her books include Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Controls (OUP, 2013). She has worked closely with migrants’ organisations, trades unions and legal practitioners at local, national and international levels.


This is a phenomenal book. At only 150 pages (minus the copious footnotes) it condenses detailed and meticulous archival and legal research into a ground-breaking analysis of the making of modern states. It offers a new critique of methodological nationalism that is, to quote Antoinette Burton’s blurb, ‘A corrective to facile transnational arguments’, but importantly it moves beyond critique to understanding how the production of difference lies at the heart of state-making. As Radhika puts it: ‘The histories presented … point, unmistakably, to the lineaments of a world produced through processes of relationality and coproduction, not autochthony’ (p. 147).

Like any good title, the title of Radhika’s book is the concentration of her argument. Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State analyses how the global organisation of the world into nation-states is not a consequence of the diffusion of Westphalian states over the globe, but rather was a co-production of contingency and muddle, a response to particular historical circumstances, not the simple application of doctrines and laws to already existing nations and territories. The book explores the key distinction between imperial states and the facilitation of movement and nation-states and the logic of constraint, arguing that it is not simply that these different state formations give rise to different kinds of responses to migration, but that attempts to control human movement are critical to the development of contemporary state forms, even as these contemporary state forms continue to be entangled in colonial logics.

People’s movements and the huge efforts to govern it are, quite literally, world-making, shaping how ‘migrants’ and ‘citizens’ alike are governed. In her chapter ‘The Migration of “Free” Labor: Contracting Freedom’ Radhika examines how the importance of being able to characterise the movement of indentured labourers as ‘free’, in contrast to the slave trade, gave rise to the emphasis on consent as the distinctive element of freedom in contract law. This is of huge significance to liberal ideas of freedom. Hagar Kotef has asked how it is that although the lack of ‘external impediments’ to physical mobility was foundational to liberal ideas of freedom in classical liberalism, in contemporary debates on freedom, physical movement is no longer central. Radhika demonstrates the key role of indentured workers in this. In the nineteenth century, state intervention in the regulation of the movement of indentured workers was, in line with this ideal of freedom, viewed as an exception to the assumption of freedom of movement. In order for it to be rendered acceptable including, crucially, to differentiate it from slavery, the control over movement claimed to protect not only the formerly enslaved and the general population but also the workers themselves. This has been fully integrated along with all its contradictions into contemporary understandings of immigration controls and enforcement. The distinction between forced and free movement is fundamental to global mobility controls as it structures the differentiation between asylum and economic migration. Significant restrictions are typically placed on economic migrants – they may be tied to employer, sector or region; they may not be allowed to marry, required to live in particular premises, deported if they do not comply with employer demands, subjected to inferior terms and conditions in comparison with citizens – yet still this is entirely un-ironically constructed as ‘free’. These restrictions can be so onerous that in some circumstances people avoid regularisation exercises or prefer undocumented crossings. Yet these restrictions may be cast as protection, not only protecting the labour market for citizen workers, but also protecting migrants from exploitation. More specifically, anti-trafficking laws typically represent border enforcement as a means of rescuing migrants and saving them from ‘modern slavery’. Processes of identifying this ‘slavery’ can stretch the notion of consent to breaking point and rely on state paternalism and migrant voluntarism. As state regulation of indenture was justified in terms of the ‘necessary ignorance’ of colonial subjects so anti-trafficking policies are justified in terms of the ‘vulnerability’ of migrant women. The entanglement of the colonial and the contemporary are clearly illustrated: the lived contradictions of freedom and contract are often pushed to their limits in immigration controls.

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‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Luke de Noronha

The first response in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is from Luke de Noronha, who is an academic and writer working at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London (UCL). He is the author of Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica, and producer of the podcast Deportation Discs. He has written widely on the politics of immigration, racism and deportation for the Guardian, Verso blogs, VICERed Pepper, openDemocracy, The New Humanist, and Ceasefire Magazine. He lives in London and is on Twitter @LukeEdeNoronha.


What I want to do in this short piece is to draw out some of the political implications of the arguments in Indian Migration and Empire, and to discuss how Mongia’s analysis of Indian migration from 1834 to the early twentieth century, resonates with and informs our present (or not).

Freedom and consent

The first chapter on indentured migration explores the emergence of the ‘contract’ as a guarantor of consent and freedom, particularly for indentured migrants whose movement had to be constructed as ‘free’. This was especially important because the system of indenture began in 1834, the year that Britain abolished slavery across the Empire. As Mongia puts it: ‘Since indentured labor was transported to replace slave labor, the primary concern animating these early regulations was to ensure that the migration was “free” and distinguishable from the slave trade’ (p. 16). She goes on: ‘the debates occasioned by Indian migration in the wake of abolition were one crucial site where we witness the rise of “consent” as a definitive element of freedom, which characterizes nineteenth-century transformations in contract law’ (p. 16). In short, if we sign a contract, we are free.

This distinction between freedom and unfreedom is central to liberalism: people should not be coerced or enslaved; they should be free to choose, even if that freedom amounts to little more than freedom to choose to be exploited by one boss or another. As Mongia explains, this means that slavery is simply the absence of contract, and with indenture, ‘freedom was merely the ritual of consent to a contract, severed from the material conditions it stipulated’ (p. 48, emphasis in original).

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Symposium On Radhika Mongia’s ‘Indian Migration And Empire: A Colonial Genealogy Of The Modern State’

The Disorder of Things is pleased to host a symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (Duke University Press, 2018 and Permanent Black Press, 2019), the introduction to which can be read here. Radhika Mongia is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at York University, Toronto. Her current research examines recent transformations in the citizenship regime in India. In this introductory post, she outlines some of the key arguments of the book.


This set of blog posts on my book, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State, is the result of a panel held at Birkbeck, University of London, in the halcyon days before the Covid-19 pandemic. My very sincere thanks to Sarah Keenan and, especially, Nadine El-Enany, co-directors of the Centre for Race and Law at Birkbeck, for organising the panel, to the panelists, Bridget Anderson, Luke de Noronha, Nadine El-Enany and Sanjay Seth, for their generous and generative readings of the book, and to the audience for their astute engagements. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to capture the warmth and conviviality of the evening in these remarks. My thanks also to the forum provided by The Disorder of Things, to respond in more depth, and with more care, to the panel’s provocations, which I do in the closing post. In this introductory post, I briefly outline some of the chief arguments of the book.

Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is an investigation into the history of state control over migration. At the heart of the book are two main questions: First what histories can we chart of the increasing and incremental state control over migration that culminate, by the early decades of the twentieth century, in a state monopoly over migration? Second, what can these histories tell us about state formation, inter-state relations, state sovereignty and modern subject constitution? The book considers colonial Indian migration from about 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in its plantation colonies, up to about 1914, when, with the onset of World War I, the world confronted a new geopolitical reality. In the course of less than a century, we see profound transformations in the logics, rationales, institutions and legal forms of state control over mobility. My analysis argues that the formation of colonial migration regulations was dependent upon, accompanied by and generative of profound changes in normative understandings of the modern state. Traversing a diverse array of British colonial formations, including Mauritius, the Caribbean, India, Canada and South Africa, the book foregrounds the analytical modality of co-production to inquire into the relational processes, across these varied sites, that produced a state monopoly over migration. This monopoly, accompanied by the ‘nationalisation’ of migration, is an integral part of a fundamental shift, in the twentieth century, from a world composed of empire-states to a world composed of nation-states.

Mongia Cover Small

Studies of Indian indentured migration note that the system followed the abolition of slavery. However, with rare exceptions, the scholarship has simply seen abolition as a mere backdrop and not adequately examined what the regulation of indenture can tell us about state (trans)formation or how indenture was implicated in redrawing the contours of the central antinomy that haunted and shaped the nineteenth century: the distinction between freedom and slavery. By tracking how slavery was at the heart of the contentious legal debates on how to facilitate Indian migration in the aftermath of abolition, the book shows how various features of ‘freedom’ were thoroughly recalibrated. In particular, we see a decidedly profound change in what constituted a valid ‘free labour’ contract, where the nebulous, metaphysical notion of ‘consent’ becomes the most significant characteristic of the contract and of freedom—dispensing with notions of ‘fairness’ or ‘equality-in-exchange’, as minor elements. In other words, the regulation of Indian indentured migration that followed in the wake of abolition would irrevocably transform both the meaning of freedom and the extent of state authority in regulating migration.

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Is IR Theory White? Racialised Subject-Positioning in Three Canonical Texts

This post is a little introduction to my recently published (open access) article in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, in which I use the scholarly literature on whiteness to examine three highly influential books in International Relations (IR) – Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony and Alexander Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics.

Of course, the answer is what you might expect (duh); but I hope the route to reaching that conclusion might be something worth considering, and maybe not exactly what you were expecting. It articulates an account of whiteness which is ultimately less pessimistic than the oft-caricatured ‘identity politics’ framings of race – indeed it argues that it is absolutely possible to overcome the limitations of whiteness as a standpoint, but that this would not be transformative without other structural changes.

Screenshot 2020-11-29 at 12.37.32

I began thinking about this issue because I was simultaneously excited, provoked by and wary about a framing emerging from the student movement at UCL: “Why is My Curriculum White?” – a moment in which both Nathaniel Coleman and Adam Elliott-Cooper played leading roles. We were also increasingly having conversations with students and colleagues at SOAS about race and decolonisation in the curriculum whilst we witnessed what was going on in South Africa and elsewhere.

Despite the care and precision with which the UCL collective expressed itself on the question of whiteness as an ideology, the media and the Right concocted a fevered moral panic around the issues, proclaiming an attack on Western Civilisation, free speech and academic freedom by the ungrateful, and the emergence of ‘reverse racism’ and so on. It did not help that some contributions from elsewhere in the movement seemed to be rather essentialist around the questions of race and racism (in ways which had been long abandoned with respect to gender, for example). From a political point of view, the ‘culture wars’ framing of matters was eliciting a set of destructive emotional responses anticipated in the whiteness literature itself – shame, guilt, anger, denial – which were a (sometimes intentional) distraction from more transformative and productive conversations.

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Fatal Collaborations

A guest post from Chris Rossdale, issued in the midst of the latest round of UK university strikes over pensions, pay, precarity, workload and inequality. Chris is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Bristol. He writes about militarism, race and colonialism, social movements and political resistance. His book Resisting Militarism was published last year with Edinburgh University Press, and will be the topic of a Disorder symposium coming to a screen near you soon. You can also find Chris on Twitter here.


In January 2020, hundreds of students at SOAS staged a walk out, joining staff on the steps of the Bloomsbury campus to protest against yet another round of budget cuts. Once again, the institution was at the front line in the long struggle against the neoliberal restructuring of British universities, its position here an enduring product of the collision between aggressive management and well-organised staff and students. This time, administrators had announced that a budget shortfall would be filled by cancelling unfunded research leave for lecturers. Activists expect that this will also entail slashing the hours of sessional teaching staff, the ‘fractionals’ whose inspiring and successful unofficial strike action in 2014 presaged the more determined University and College Union (UCU) action we see today.

SOAS also made headlines last year when students learned that the institution was taking money from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in return for providing academic expertise and training to the British armed forces. Research by the Decolonizing Our Minds society revealed that SOAS has received at least £400,000 since the end of 2016 to deliver ‘Regional Study Weeks’ to the MoD’s ‘Defence Cultural Specialist Unit’ (DCSU). Currently active in at least 22 countries including Afghanistan, Chad and Chile, the DCSU is similar to the widely-criticised Human Terrain System developed by the US to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves the MoD supplementing its forces with specialists in the culture of societies where British operations are active, in pursuit of a gentler form of domination in ‘rapidly expanding neo-colonial context[s]’. The Regional Study Weeks are opportunities for academics to teach DCSU staff about the social and political contexts of particular regions, while highlighting the resulting ‘implications for UK military missions’. SOAS academics made up the largest portion of those teaching, but the weeks have included faculty from LSE, St Andrews, Cambridge, KCL, UCL, Lancaster and De Montfort. As the students’ report states, this academic collaboration with the armed forces facilitates a project that, at best, ‘is useful for crafting more inclusive forms of imperial governance’, and at worst, is used to ‘either destroy or “neutralize” potential sites of resistance with insider information’.

Reports of SOAS’s links with the MoD caused a scandal, but this apparent deviation masked a deeper reality. Collaborations between British universities and military institutions are no aberration – they are the overwhelming norm. A recent report by students at the University of Oxford revealed that the institution’s research council grants active in 2019 included over £80m linked to the MoD, and that nearly 40% of its £420m in science council grants are paired with military-related bodies. BAE Systems has spent millions partnering with over ten universities developing new technologies for stealth drones. Thales, Europe’s third largest arms company, are proud to announce that they are involved with over £146m in Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) funded research, working with over 20 institutions. My own institution, Bristol, received £3m from the Atomic Weapons Establishment between 2010 and 2016, while researchers at Surrey have worked with Lockheed Martin on improving components in armored vehicles. These examples are indicative, not exhaustive; very few institutions can claim to be free of these connections. Universities disingenuously attempt to emphasise the civilian applications of this research in their public-facing communications; however the reality is that the British university system is intimately entangled in systems of military production.

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Mendacious Fictions

Buried in Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s dismissal as a ‘mendacious fiction’ of the Labour Party’s claim that it is ‘doing everything’ it can to tackle anti-Jewish racism in its ranks, are some mendacious fictions of his own. Take his protestation that ‘we have endured quibbling and prevarication over whether the party should adopt the most widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism.’ The definition that he refers to is that offered by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Labour faced criticism from some Jewish groups after it adopted the definition, but left out one of the eleven examples that followed it, which said that it would be antisemitic to claim ‘that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’.

Cast your mind back to July 2018, when the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph attacked the Party’s decision not to adopt the definition in full. In that month, the Israeli Knesset passed a Basic Law explicitly declaring Israel to be a Jewish state and restricting the right of national self-determination in Israel to the Jewish people. In response, an editorial in the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz branded Benjamin Netanyahu ‘the apartheid prime minister’ and critical Israelis such as Daniel Barenboim had no difficulty describing the law as ‘racist’. Yet the example in question in the IHRA’s definition would have us brand these voices anti-Semitic. Mirvis’s ‘widely accepted definition’ might not command full assent even in Israel. You might say that the example does not preclude a criticism of the actually existing State of Israel as racist, only the more extreme position whereby a (i.e. any) State of Israel would be considered racist. But here it would seem that it is the very ambiguity of the definition that invites ‘quibbling and prevarication’. Indeed this is why Geoffrey Robertson, QC, argued in an independent opinion that the definition was ‘not fit for any purpose that seeks to use it as an adjudicative standard’ on account of being ‘imprecise, confusing and open to misinterpretation and even manipulation’.

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Rising to the Challenge: Critical IR in the Corbyn Moment

David WearingA new post in our loose series on left foreign policy, this time from David Wearing. David is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he specialises in UK foreign relations in the Middle East. David is author most recently of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain (Polity, 2018), reviewed in a recent issue of the LRB, and of many interventions on the arms trade, the war in Yemen, and the Gulf monarchies. He is also a frequent commentator at The Guardian.


In the academic field of international relations, up until recently, the division of labour was pretty clear. Some of us were engaged in ‘problem solving theory’ and others in ‘critical theory’, as per the distinction famously drawn by Robert Cox.[1] Here, I want to address those friends and colleagues who count themselves in the latter group, arguing that the current historical moment presents us with a unique (perhaps fleeting) opportunity to have a significant impact on British politics and international relations, but one which also demands a willingness to recognise the urgency of that moment, and adapt.

According to Cox’s distinction, problem solving theory ‘takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships’, and looks for patterns or regularities within those parameters. It is a small-c conservative, technocratic approach, suited to advising policymakers on how best to manage the status quo. Therefore, notwithstanding claims made by those who fall under this heading to be apolitical, objective and scientific, problem solving theory has an inescapably political character, attracting those on the right and centre of the political spectrum, and primarily serving those who benefit most from the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’.

Critical theory, by contrast, ‘does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing’. As such it attracts those further to the left on the political spectrum, for whom the point of interpreting the world is not to manage it better but to change it in fundamental and transformative ways. Under the hitherto familiar division of labour in IR, our task was not to advise policymakers, but step back from and critique the historical conditions within which policymaking takes place: shedding light on what is taken for granted, looking for moments of disruption and crisis in the established patterns, and engaging with those civil society actors who shared our commitment to challenge the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’ head on.

I say ‘the hitherto familiar division of labour’ because we in the UK are now living through precisely one of those moments of disruption and crisis that much of our analysis seeks to identify. Call it ‘the Corbyn moment’, for want of a better term. And if our focus and activities as scholars are defined by our ‘position in…social and political time and space’, as Cox says, and if the present moment is different from the familiar norm, then our focus and activities must surely be different as well.

What is the nature of that moment?
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