Revisiting Genocide: From Hegemonic Narratives to Plasticity

The last guest contribution to our symposium is penned by Myriam Fotou,  Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the ethics of hospitality, inquiring into conceptualisations of Otherness within an increasingly securitised intellectual and policy migration framework. She is currently working on people smuggling.


Ben Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation constitutes a deeply nuanced and impressively thought-out genealogy of genocide, offering a detailed account of its complexities and interaction with global politics. Focusing on the hegemonic understanding of genocide – the one we, as IR scholars, have tried over the years to grapple with in our research and teaching – it moves beyond it in an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how such an understanding predefines and constrains our comprehension and conceptualisations of violence and its destructive processes. Bringing in the Deleuzian logic of sense and his and Guattari’s work on the theory of concepts as assemblages (and Malabou’s plasticity in the second part of the book), it succeeds in dealing with the elusiveness and unease the concept presents most of us (or at least the less initiated to genocide studies) with. It argues convincingly for genocide’s ontological independence as concept, an independence that we must take into account when considering the possibilities of its future forms.

Ben Meiches’s book identifies a series of “unique dangers” deriving from the hegemonic understanding of genocide’s tendency to limit and suppress such future forms and any conceptualisations beyond the canon in general. First, the hegemonic understanding acts as a barometer of what truly counts as genocide, constraining more nuanced or multi-aspect genocide discourses, namely limiting the politics that respond to genocide per se. Secondly, it engenders mechanisms, institutions and other tools of global governance imbued by governmentality that in essence define who and what should either be protected or abandoned, leading to serious inequities and exclusions. Thirdly and closely related to the above, it does not allow any space to understand, articulate or even foresee future, novel or more loosely formed destructive and deathly processes that could count as new forms of genocide.

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The EU Referendum: Brexit, the Politics of Scale and State Transformation

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


The choice facing Britain in the EU referendum is best understood, I suggest, using two concepts that I’ve used a lot in my work with Shahar Hameiri recently: ‘the politics of scale’, and state transformation. In a nutshell: the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies. Restoring popular control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in a progressive, internationalist direction.

In political geography, a ‘scale’ is a defined socio-political space, which is usually located within one or more hierarchies of related spaces. Examples can include tiers of established governance – boroughs, cities, provinces, nations, and regions, for example. They could be defined ethnically or religiously – a parish, the ummah – or even environmentally – habitats, bio-regions or the global environment. What’s fundamentally at stake in the EU referendum is the primary scale at which British citizens should be governed: the national (Brexit) or the regional scale (Bremain). The scale of governance is contested because different scales involve different configurations of actors, resources, power relations and opportunity structures, privileging some interests and agendas over others.

In the post-war decades, the entire Western-led global economic and political order was designed to consolidate the nation-state as a ‘taken-for-granted’ scale and space of governance. Within Western states, a new Fordist-Keynesian bargain was struck between key social forces, brokered by corporatist states: capitalists bought social peace from labour in exchange for steady expansion in wages and living standards. The Bretton Woods settlement supported this by restricting international finance and regulating currencies, which helped states plan their economies. The postwar order thus upheld ‘the primacy of national economies, national welfare states, and national societies managed by national states concerned to unify national territories and reduce uneven development’, as Bob Jessop puts it. Even the early phase of European integration was designed to support national development, thereby securing ‘the European rescue of the nation-state’.

This consolidation of the national scale and its associated institutions afforded unprecedented access to policymaking for organised labour. Moderate trade unions were directly inserted into decision-making forums alongside government bureaucrats and business representatives. Ordinary people could also hold governments to account through democratic practices. In this peak era of state sovereignty, lines of responsibility and accountability were clear.

This all began to change in the 1970s. That decade’s crisis of capitalist profitability eroded the basis of the Fordist-Keynesian social compact, which shattered amidst renewed labour insurgency. The new right’s solution to the crisis was to smash organised labour, deregulate industry and finance, and restore capitalist hegemony on the basis of a neoliberal social order. Scale was a crucial element in this struggle. The quest for nationally-based development was essentially jettisoned in favour of what we now call ‘globalisation’: the transnationalisation of investment, production and consumption. Allowing investment to flow globally – to wherever had the most ‘competitive’ wages and operating environment – was a vital means to erode the power of organised labour.

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The EU Referendum: The EU Mirage

This is the first post in a Disorder forum on the EU referendum. Click here for the forum introduction with the links to the other posts.

Chris BickertonOur first guest author is Christopher J. Bickerton. Chris is University Lecturer in politics at POLIS and an Official Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He has taught at Oxford, the University of Amsterdam and Sciences Po in Paris. He is author of European Union Foreign Policy: From Effectiveness to Functionality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford University Press, 2012) and, most recently, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (Penguin, 2016). Chris is a regular contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and The Wall Street Journal, and has written for the Financial Times, New York Times and Foreign Affairs.


 When I am asked to describe the EU, I often say that it is a bit like a mirage. We all know how a mirage works. From far away, the image is clear and strong. As you get closer, it starts to wobble and shimmer until eventually, it disappears.

The EU is like that. Seen from national capitals, from London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Bratislava or Madrid, it looks clear and distinct. It has its own institutions, its own buildings, even its own legal order. It can punish national governments for over-spending and close national banks. But as you get closer to Brussels, this image begins to wobble. Finally, when you are really up close, it disappears altogether.

What is left are our own national leaders – Merkel, Hollande, Renzi, Cameron – taking decisions between themselves in meetings closed to the general public. We also find our own civil servants and fonctionnaires filling the Thalys trains, the TGVs and the Eurostar, travelling from their own capitals to Brussels to take part in working group meetings that craft and shape EU legislation. Some power is delegated to EU institutions but it is closely policed by member states.

Traditional EU institutions, like the European Commission, have lost much of their power in recent decades, with a leading role played by the European Council which is made up of heads of state and government. Even an institution like the European Central Bank, with its shiny new headquarters in Frankfurt, is far weaker than many think. Its new powers were foisted onto it by national governments keen to distance themselves from the responsibility of solving the Eurozone’s economic and financial crisis.

Looking at the EU as a whole, we cannot say that it stands above its member states, dominating them and issuing orders that national governments must comply with. In fact, the EU is these member states. But why doesn’t it look that way? Continue reading

Ethical Encounters – Border Ethics: Autoimmunity as Ethics of Hospitality

s200_myriam.fotouThis guest post, by Myriam Fotou, is the first in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at LSE, she is also a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway and City University London. Joe’s post can be found here, Elke’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.


Let us consider this negative sentence: “death has no border”
J. Derrida, Aporias

Framing the problem

In mid-January 2014, approximately five nautical miles off the coast of Turkey and near the Greek islet of Farmakonisi, eleven non-Europeans, including babies and children, were drowned. Amid adverse weather conditions, their boat had capsized during an attempt by the Greek coastguard to tow the old smuggling boat. Accounts of what happened are contradictory: survivors argue that they were being pushed back to Turkey, shouted at and threatened, and that the drowned were not inadvertently killed; Greek authorities, on the other hand, argue that they were towing the boat to Greek waters and safety, that the conditions did not allow for the people on the old, adrift vessel to be taken aboard the coastguard’s vessel, that the “illegal” immigrants coming from Asia did not know anything about the sea and navigating, how to swim or orient themselves. By gathering on one side of the boat after one of them fell overboard, they caused the vessel to capsize themselves. These contradictory stories, which although might not make much of a difference in the end result (almost half of the people on board were drowned), in essence symbolise the contradiction between the law and its application, the inherent violence in both, and in European states’ backpedalling on their hospitality obligations.

Farmakonisi

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The Irruption of the Event

As the inevitable Greek exit from the eurozone seemingly approaches, it’s worth comparing current statements about Greece to how the financial press and regulators considered Lehman Brothers the week before its collapse set the global markets into panic mode. (See below for a selection of illuminating comments from officials about Lehman Brothers pre-collapse and about Greece pre-exit.) Reading these misplaced predictions, one thing becomes clear: the contemporary financial system is far too complex and opaque for anyone to determine the precise consequences of a Greek exit. Add into that the unpredictable nature of crisis politics (e.g. today sees rumors of Greek governing coalitions flying all over the place), and one has a system that quickly surpasses our capacities for forecasting. In this regard it’s interesting to read reports about the current Greek exit fears versus the reports in February when it also looked like Greece might leave (prior to the second of ECB’s long-term refinancing operations (LTROs) that managed to calm markets for a short while). In the earlier reports many commentators considered that French and German banks had largely separated themselves from Greek exposure, while the initial LTRO had purportedly given the financial system the flexibility it needed to survive any temporary disruption. Intriguingly, today’s fears about Greece, after the failure of the LTROs to significantly improve the situation and combined with fears over Spain’s banking system, are much more apocalyptic than in February.

The unfortunate truth is that while a Greek exit will be devastating to the Greek people (of this everyone is confident), it is still a better option than the continued austerity regime. Even the most optimistic IMF estimates of Greece’s economy under the austerity regime only see them returning to 120% debt-to-GDP ratio by 2020 – i.e. the same level that so worries commentators about Italy today. What is being asked of Greece is a state of permanent austerity and permanent social chaos. 

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

September 9, 2008 – http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/10/business/10place.html?pagewanted=all

Unlike Bear Stearns, which effectively collapsed when customers fled for the exits and the firm could not finance itself, Lehman Brothers has more sources of long-term financing and like other broker-dealers, access to emergency financing from the Federal Reserve. Mr. Fuld said that the existence of that lending facility should take any question of Lehman facing a liquidity crisis “off the table.

September 12, 2008 – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b3506214-80d5-11dd-82dd-000077b07658.html#axzz1mXeJ33ET

While the crisis at Bear stunned the markets, other financial institutions have had six months to prepare for the possible failure of Lehman. In the Bear crisis, the risks were extreme in part because they were unknown and unmanaged. The New York Fed has conducted extensive stress tests in order to attempt to evaluate the impact of a Lehman failure on markets such as the CDS market and it believes the systemic risk is quantifiable and lower than the risk that was posed by the imminent collapse of Bear back in March. Regulators have also evaluated the risk mitigation strategies put in place by other banks and the authorities believe them to be robust. That suggests the risk that a Lehman collapse could trigger a domino effect of failures at other financial institutions ought not to be great.

September 14, 2008 – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/f3586ede-80ca-11dd-82dd-000077b07658.html#axzz1mXeJ33ET

Mr Paulson believes that the systemic risks associated with the potential failure of Lehman have been reduced because the market has had time to prepare for its possible demise, and a new Fed funding facility would assist an orderly unwinding of its positions.

February 15, 2012 – http://blogs.channel4.com/faisal-islam-on-economics/eurozone-reaches-its-lehman-moment-as-germany-insults-greece/16278

All the while, the chatter in euro policy circles, as I wrote on Monday, is that the Greek rot will not infect the rest of the euro area. A default could be managed. Even the odd French bank has managed to dispose of much of its exposure. We’ve had months to prepare. And, so the Lehman moment comes full circle. Three and a half years ago we were told exactly the same by Hank Paulson and co re Lehmans: The system, we were told, was strong enough. Finns, Dutch and some Germans increasingly think the same about a Greek default.

On the Abstraction of Contemporary Crisis

On the Abstraction of Contemporary Crisis
Or, Why Today Feels Different From the 1930s

One of the oddities of the ongoing economic crisis is its apparent separation from everyday life.[1] Consumers still consume, luxury items are still produced. Starbucks is still filled with coffee drinkers, and Apple still sells its overpriced goods. Scanning the media, one finds its coverage devoid of lengthy soup lines or surges in tent cities. While most have had to cut back on their indebtedness, there hasn’t been a collapse on the scale of the Great Depression. This is in spite of some measures suggesting the current crisis is as deep in some ways.


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The Politics of Austerity: Emergency Economics and Debtocracy

austerity |ôˈsteritē| noun – sternness or severity of manner or attitude

It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.

– George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”

Why what have you thought of yourself?

Is it you then that thought yourself less?

Is it you that thought the President greater than you?

Or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

 I do not affirm that what you see beyond is futile, I do not advise that you stop,

I do not say leadings you thought great are not great,

But I say that none lead to greater than these lead to.

– Walt Whitman, “A Song for Occupations,” Leaves of Grass

The Politics of Austerity – Part I

This is the first in a series of posts that look at the political implications of the ongoing global economic crisis. I begin by examining the way that crisis is being used to attack the very idea of democracy through an assertion of the political imperatives of “the market” and the violation, bending and re-writing of the law by capitalist elites. I conclude by laying out how understanding the economic crisis in political terms shapes our ability to respond to it.

In the second post I’ll look at the ethos of austerity, which justifies the pain inflicted on largely innocent people, while suggesting that an affirmative democratic response to the economic crisis must begin with its own ethos, which I suggest should be an ethos of care for the world – which can provide orientation and inspiration for political struggles seeking to address the deeper causes of our current crisis. In the third post, I turn to the structures of the economy and of politics that define the current crisis, looking at the banking crisis, the bailouts, the politics of recovery/austerity and also reflecting of the structural imperatives of capitalism that led us to crisis. This, then, leads to the question of how to respond to the politics of austerity, and of what alternative actions are available to us, which is where the fourth and final post will pick up – with an affirmation of a caring ethos that supports a radically democratic economic vision.

Emergency Economics

In a previous post I briefly highlighted Bonnie Honig’s work, Emergency Politics, to examine the way that the ethical case for austerity is made; most basically, the existence of a supreme emergency, in this case economic, justifies actions that would normally be considered unacceptable. Honig’s work looks at how the appeal to emergency is used to reassert the exceptional political power of the sovereign over and against the law, with a focus on the reassertion of sovereignty witnessed over the past ten years in response to the threat of terrorist attack in the US and Europe.

Rather than accepting the necessarily intractable conflict between the power of the sovereign and the power of the law, Honig attempts to deflate this paradox by turning her attention to the always ongoing contestation that defines democratic politics, a contest over both the content of the law and the institutional embodiment of sovereign power. She suggests, then, that attending to the ambiguities of the “people”, who are both the democratic sovereign and a diffuse multitude, as well as the political element in the law – as new laws come into being through political action – enables us to avoid thinking about emergencies as moments of exception in which the rule of law is lost to the play of political power, while also acknowledging the limits of established law in moments of profound crisis. By undermining the exceptional nature of crises and emergencies Honig alters the challenge we face when circumstances force us to make choices or carry out actions we know are harmful and wrong by asking what we (democratic publics and citizens) can do to survive an emergency with our integrity in tact.

What do we need to do to ensure our continuity as selves and/or our survival as a democracy with integrity? Our survival depends very much on how we handle ourselves in the aftermath of a wrong. We will not recover from some kinds of tragic conflict. But when faced with such situations, we must act and we must inhabit the aftermath of the situation in ways that promote our survival as a democracy.

I continue to find this a useful way to understand our current economic crisis. Appeals to austerity depend upon the exceptional state created by crisis in order to justify the pain inflicted upon masses of people and the priority given to private interests (the markets, investors and bankers) over democratic publics. So, as democratically enacted laws must bow before the sovereign power threatened by exceptional attacks, so economic justice and democratic equality must bow before the commands of market forces, of economic inevitability, in this time of crisis.

The economic version of this argument is stronger still. While the space of political contestation that remains open when we accept the framing of emergency politics is limited, it does exist in the clashing of opposing sovereigns. The prospect of a substantive alternative to neoliberal economic ideology is dim, a light flickering weakly on antiquated appeals for a return to Keynesianism or watered down triangulations of the moderate-middle that sell off dreams of a just economy bit by bit – capitalist realism in action.

Honig awakens us to an important aspects of our current crisis: that “the market” is not in fact supremely sovereign, and the move to re-establish and further neoliberal policies and push through austerity measures requires an engagement in democratic politics – albeit one that undermines the notion of the public itself and seeks to use the power of the law to subvert democracy. Recognising the current crisis in these terms not only challenges us to consider how to survive our current troubles without giving up democratic virtues, it also reinvigorates and clarifies the political challenge we face. Emergency economics – with its assertion of debtocracy over democracy – is not an inevitable response to the crisis, it is a political one that we can, and should, fight against.

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