The case against Woodrow Wilson, after 100 years

This guest post is a collective statement, written by Philip Conway in consultation with several other current and former PhD candidates at the Aberystwyth University Department of International Politics. It is co-signed by a number of current and former Aber PhD candidates, not all of whom were directly involved in the drafting process. It does not, therefore, necessarily present a consensus. However, it does, we hope, present a constructive and forceful contribution to an important debate.

At Aberystwyth University, the year 2019 marks the Centenary of the Department of International Politics. A century, that is, since the philanthropists David, Gwendoline, and Margaret Davies donated a sum of £20,000—more than £1m in today’s money—in order to establish a Chair of International Politics (the first of its kind in the world). The Chair was established “in memory of the fallen students of our University.”[1] It was to be named after the then-current US President, Woodrow Wilson.

This was, and is, an appellation heavy with significance. At the end of the War, as Lord David Davies himself later wrote:

“Among the protagonists of the new Jerusalem stood President Wilson, towering head and shoulders above them all. […] By all those who sincerely desired a permanent peace and were prepared to sacrifice their imperialistic conceptions, he was acclaimed as the leader.”[2]

On 25th October last year, as part of the Department’s Centenary celebrations, a roundtable seminar was held, titled “Reflections on Woodrow Wilson.” It was instigated by the current incumbent of the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics, Andrew Linklater.

This instigation had, in turn, been prompted by a student request to take the occasion of the Centenary as an opportunity to re-evaluate the Department’s association with this particular historical figure.

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On the British Empire Among Empires, and on Property Beyond Sovereignty

This guest post, from Kerry Goettlich, is the second contribution to our symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s  Colonial Lives of Property. Kerry is a PhD candidate in the IR Department at the London School of Economics. His research is on the historical relationship between space and international politics, particularly the origins and consequences of linear borders. His latest work is ‘The rise of linear borders in world politics’ in the European Journal of International Relations. He was also recently co-editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies.


As part of the fieldwork for Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar witnessed the seventieth razing of the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib by the Israel Land Authority since 2010 (p. 116). Some Bedouin living under Israeli authority are now so used to having their homes destroyed that they have begun building them with particularly pliable materials in order to make reconstruction easier. Others destroy their own homes in order to avoid being charged bulldozing costs by the state. One of Bhandar’s interviewees ‘paid for someone to build his house and paid the same person to destroy it’ (p. 117).

This is just one of many ways in which Colonial Lives of Property powerfully demonstrates the meaning of a ‘history of the present’. The book is a compelling history of private property regimes in settler colonial contexts which never loses sight of what makes this material important for scholars—and, I think, particularly IR scholars—today. It takes us through many centuries of different articulations of the concept and practice of property, each abstracting land space in different ways, and shows us historically how property came to be the upholder of racial and gender inequalities that it is today. It brings together a wealth of theoretical resources to do this, from legal studies scholars such as Cheryl Harris and Alain Pottage to more general social theorists such as Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson, and many more. The book without a doubt demolishes any account of property as natural, as somehow separate from race and gender, or as emerging fully formed within a self-generating Europe. These, in my reading, would be the main counterarguments, and after reading this book, it would be quite difficult to sustain any of them.

With that in mind, what I want to offer in this post is less of a critique of Colonial Lives of Property than some reflections on some relevant questions it raises. In particular, I focus on two things that are not as prominent here as one might expect: non-Anglophone imperialism and the sovereign or imperial centre. The point here is not that these things are missing, but rather to think about how their relatively subdued roles might help us appreciate the book’s significance differently.

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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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States and Stilettos

The last commentary in our forum on Parashar, Tickner and True (eds.) Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations from Shine Choi. Shine is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Massey University, where her work focuses on North Korea, visuality and aesthetics. She is also an Associate Editor for the International Feminist Journal of Politics and a co-editor of the Creative Interventions in Global Politics book series. Her recent publications include ‘Questioning the International: (Un)making Bosnian and Korean Conflicts, Cinematically’, (with Maria-Adriana Deiana) in Trans-Humanities Journal. The complete set of posts in this series is available here.


 

Choi Shoe

In the Afterward essay to Revisiting Gendered States, Christine Sylvester suggests feminists focus on people’s experiences of the state, and as an aside, also asks us to take off our stilettos. Taking the state as an agent or structure in our studies impedes feminist objectives; it is too snug with power even if we critique it. Fashion choice is telling.

This is now the second time, in the last month, that a feminist IR reading has nudged me, as a parenthetical in a larger argument, to reconsider my fashion choice in wearing heels. And now that I think about it, I recall at least two other conversations with academics (one was a fellow IR theory friend, the other a colleague in anthropology who has now retired) where they confide how they would personally never wear heels because their colleagues would never take them seriously if they did. I had assumed their colleagues in reference were men but now I am not so sure.

These shared assumptions about heels – and stilettos perhaps being an extreme, and as a result, an easy type of heels to dismiss – in these conversations/readings are curious. They got me wondering why serious thinking, and more importantly, serious feminist politics cannot be done wearing heels. This is not the lesson we are learning from drag queens about stilettos, and I cannot help but wonder why it takes drag queens to teach us that serious affective embodied thinking and doing do happen in most ridiculous of heels, full makeup and by ‘eccentric’ looking people. Why do we have all these social, cultural gendered ideas around what serious work/wear look like?

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States of Intersection: Beyond womenandchildren

The next commentary on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series is here).


Although it can no longer be claimed with any credibility that gender is at the fringes of International Relations as a discipline, consistently excellent and adequately nuanced analyses of the gendered nature of IR and its touchstone – the state – are still few and far between. In a field otherwise saturated by liberal feminism focused largely on the West (the US, the UK and Western Europe to be precise), Swati Parashar, J Ann Tickner and Jacqui True’s Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations provides a refreshing change. Bookended by an incisive forward by Spike Peterson and a compelling, almost poetic afterward by Christine Sylvester are eleven ‘substantive’, and uniformly thought-provoking chapters. In less than 200 pages the contributions to Revisiting Gendered States manage to traverse the whole spectrum of issues sacralized by IR: state formation, borders and bordering practices, terrorism, security, identity and belonging.

The text reopens the discussion the seminal Gendering States: Feminist (Re)visions of International Relations Theory published in 1992 and edited by Spike Peterson, initiated. Gendered States has the same point of departure – an examination, and concomitant critique of the centrality of the masculine, patriarchal state in IR but it does so in a distinctly 21st century context. The state is no longer a blackhole or a rarefied rational actor, but rather a set of complex and often confused practices: an effect, symptom and perpetrator of globalisation, securitisation, and nationalism. The chapters are truly global in scope, drawing on case studies from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, Indonesia and Australia. The contributions are not merely empirically heterodox, they are also theoretically pluralist, drawing variously on queer theory, assemblage theory, affect theory and postcolonialism alongside more mainstream IR theory. Continue reading

Gendered States: What We *Really* Talk About When We Talk About the State

The first of three critical commentaries on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series, including an introduction and posts from chapter authors Christine Agius, David Duriesmith and Katherine Brown, is here). This intervention comes from Megan MacKenzie, who is Professor of Gender and War at the University of Sydney. Megan’s research spans feminist theory, international security and transitional justice, and her latest publications explore (myths about) women in combat roles and masculinity nostalgia.


We talk about the state a lot within the field of International Relations. In fact, as a student of international relations I was taught that the state was the most important actor; everything below the state level was to be studied in other disciplines like sociology, anthropology, or development studies. But what are we really talking about when we talk about the state? It’s probably useful to state upfront- in a sort of full-feminist-disclosure-style- that I’m an unusual person to review a book focused on the state. I’ve always been suspicious and apprehensive about studying the state. I can trace the root of this apprehension back to my PhD training. I can still vividly remember taking an International Political Economy course from the formidable and amazing Professor Suzanne Soederberg. At some point during the first week I made an intervention into the class discussion, and used the word ‘state.’ Professor Soederberg stopped me and said, ‘what do you mean by the state?’ I was flummoxed. ‘Well, the state…you know…um, the institution…’ I’m sure I trailed off in embarrassment. Professor Soederberg then asked the rest of the class for a definition and got equally vague, yet more confident responses that included terms like ‘sovereignty,’ ‘borders,’ and ‘power.’ I can still remember her total exasperation as she drew a black box on the white board and explained that the state is not some singular “thing” that we can just lazily refer to and hope no one asks us what we mean. We were all busted.

Actually, most of IR as a discipline is busted when it comes to lazily using the term ‘state.’ From that moment on, there have been dozens of times I wished I had Professor Soederberg’s words recorded so I could play them at conferences, in other classes, and when reading articles. The state is consistently referred to as a given, or defined with such minimal attention or effort that it offers not much more than my answer back in my International Political Economy unit: ‘well, the state…you know.’ Years later, I still don’t know how most people are using the term ‘the state’ and often I don’t think they do either.

Rather than wade through the many, many definitions of the state, it is more useful to ask, ‘what do we talk about when we talk about the state?’

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To Be Or Not To Be? Islamic State as a Proto-State

The fourth contribution to our forum on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations, this time from Katherine Brown. Katherine is Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies and Head of the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, where her work focuses on the gendering of religious resistance and politics. Recent publications address social media and terrorism and the securitisation of human rights. The full series of posts is available here.


 

The so-called Islamic State (hence forth Daesh) offered a new world order to believers, one in which states were abolished, the pious ruled, and Allah’s will prevailed. The group offered adherents ‘Gold, God and Glory’, and in exchange members would help realise the group’s vision through extreme levels of violence and banditry. Alongside this was an everyday, mundane and tedious mode of governance, covering tax inspections, trading standards, fishing permits, Quran reading competitions, and fairgrounds. This dichotomy puzzled security analysts who struggled to classify the group. Daesh was both more and less than a terrorist group, or an insurgency, or a guerrilla movement. For IR scholars, if it wasn’t any of these then a new possibility opened up – were we witnessing the birth of a new state? It was therefore a perfect case study for the revisiting of Gendered States.

Daesh was set a series of tests by academics and others to determine its ‘right’ to call itself a state. Did it have autonomy, capacity, legitimacy to govern, was it a ‘bordered power container’, could it redistribute resources, did it have a monopoly on the use of force? Longobardo asks this question about whether or ISIS could be seen as a sate in international law, and Belanger-McMurdo also addresses whether it can achieve political domination. The problem is that it had all and none of these. As Nexon notes, there is a tendency to conflate the Weberian ideal-typical definition of the modern state with the concept of ‘state’ and secondarily, a tendency to read the literature exclusively with an eye toward asking when, if, and how particular polities crossed some imaginary threshold into ‘state-ness.’ The tests seemed ‘unfair’ in so far as setting a high bar for a state emerging as ‘fully functioning’; it was like expecting a PhD candidate to pass their viva just by having been accepted onto the programme. Continue reading