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 Dissonance of Things #6: Logistics – Violence, Empire and Resistance

EXODUS-IV-Hong-Kong-China-2010
Source: Marcus Lyon

This May, The Dissonance of Things switches out British accents for those of the vaguely North American variety, as I serve as host for our sixth podcast on the topic of logistics and its role in the making of military, capitalist, and imperial relations. I’m joined by our very own Laleh Khalili of the School of Oriental and African Studies, and the wonderful Deborah Cowen of the University of Toronto. Together, we take a look at the increasing ubiquity and prominence of logistics as a mode for organizing social and spatial life. We discuss how this seemingly banal concern with the movement of goods is actually foundational to contemporary global capitalism and imperialism, reshaping patterns of inequality, undermining labor power, and transforming strategies of governance. We also ask: what might a counter-logistical project look like? What role does logistics play in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles across the globe?

Listen via iTunes or through the Soundcloud player below.

As always, listen, enjoy, argue, share, and leave us your thoughts below the line. You can also follow our past and future casts on soundcloud.

 

Further reading:
– Deborah Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics
– Laleh’s blog on maritime logistics, The Gamming

More Groundings

The final piece, and rejoinder, in The Disorder Of Things forum on The Black Pacific.


I have to say, I really didn’t know what to expect from my interlocutors. Perhaps that’s because I have little idea what kind of response to expect from the book and who its readership might be. In any case, these varied and passionate responses are a joy to engage with.

Heloise, you not only provide a lucid introduction to some of the key themes and provocations of my book; you also usefully connect its arguments to broader intellectual and political currents in the world of development, especially regarding indigenous struggles in and over the Americas. Olivia, you provide a striking engagement with the politics of intellectual investment, one that in many ways exceeds the strictures of my book to become a general mediation upon ethics and method. Ajay, you poetically and critically reflect on solidarity building across/besides territory and culture, and in so doing you begin to ask pertinent questions about “groundings” with reference to Turtle Island. Krishna, yours unfolds as a forceful defence of the urgency to focus intellectually upon the materiality of dispossession.

I’m going to engage with your response, Krishna, at some length. But firstly, I want to call attention to and amplify some of the questions that Olivia and Ajay ask.

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Critiquing the Social: Comments on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force

The last commentary in our forum on Economy of Force, from Andrew Davenport. Andrew is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, where he works on International Theory, with particular emphasis on debates in Critical Theory, materialism and idealism, and modern social theory. He is the author most recently of ‘Marxism in IR: Condemned to a Realist Fate?’ in the European Journal of International Relations. Patricia’s rejoinder to the four commentaries (from Pablo, Jairus, Elke and Andrew) will follow tomorrow.


In the concluding section of Chapter Two of this book, Patricia Owens quotes Robert Nisbet to the effect that the essential concepts and perspectives of the sociological tradition “‘place it much closer to … philosophical conservatism’, than we might otherwise think.” A basic theme of the book is that it ought to be more clearly understood that prominent categories in the work of Durkheim, Weber and Marx – community, authority, alienation and status – are in fact just “conservative moral categories … but in scientific garb”.[1] The conservative character of sociology’s origins is in fact no secret. At much the same time as Nisbet was writing, Theodor Adorno also noted it: near the beginning of his introductory lectures on sociology, he emphasised that any assumption of an intrinsic connection between sociology and radical politics (that sociology = socialism) would be seriously mistaken: “if the concept of sociology is understood as it came into being, with the historical meaning it has, it can be said that the opposite is actually the case.” Sociology’s interest, from the start, was always the maintenance and preservation of the existing order, not its critique and change. What does the character of these origins mean for social theory? How should it affect or condition our understanding of social thinking and its basic concepts: precisely, ‘society’ and ‘the social’? Owens’ answer is unequivocal: it should lead to profound suspicion, if not outright rejection. Social thinking, from the start, contained a poison and its natural affinity to conservative thought, attitudes and practices is simply indicative of this noxious nature. Especially damaging in its consequences for IR theory, so the argument runs, has therefore been the unthinking naturalisation of ‘social’ terminology virtually across the spectrum, from statist Political Realism to Foucauldian biopolitics – as if society and the social were neutral terms that do not themselves colour or prejudice the discourse.

The language of ‘society’ is indeed widespread, and often perhaps unreflectively used, in IR, and so its critique is surely an important theoretical project. Not the least of the book’s merits is that it poses uncomfortable questions to critical theory about how far it is possible to adopt social thinking for purposes of critique. Owens directs some pointed remarks at Marxists, Foucauldians and other critical theorists for, in effect, supping with the devil, and in the chapters on counter-insurgency she marshals enough evidence of a ‘homology’ between social theory and imperial practices of counter-insurgency to give even the most committed sociologist pause. Further, in demonstrating that the emergence of distinctly social thinking was coeval with the development of capitalist society, there is at least the implication that those who would pursue critique of capital ought not to accept social categories at face value. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are difficulties with the critique of the social elaborated in the book, both in how the argument is structured and with the categories employed, difficulties that lead to some of the work of critique remaining undone. As a result, the account of the social developed here, challenging and thought-provoking as it is, breaking new ground, nevertheless does not go as far as it might.

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Between Truth-Telling and Doom-Saying: Sanctions and Activism

933This is the fourth in a series of posts on Lee Jones’ Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work. We are delighted to welcome Dr Katie Attwell, she is the Capstone Co-ordinator at Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs, Murdoch University. Her book, Jewish-Israeli National Identity and Dissidence: The Contradictions of Zionism and Resistance, considers the contradictions faced by left-wing Israeli Jews trying to connect with their Palestinian Other. Ethnicity, nationalism and identity politics remain her fundamental academic interest, but she now focuses on health policy, pursuing research into how to engage with vaccine-hesitant parents. Lee’s original post can be found here. With responses from Dr Elin Hellquist here, and Dr Clara Portela here.


I became familiar with the project that would become Societies Under Siege in 2013. A mutual friend shared a conference paper by Lee Jones, reflecting on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign called for by Palestinian nationalist activists, and eagerly adopted by their international counterparts. I was one such international enthusiast, in addition to being a political scientist researching how progressive Israeli Jews were attempting to reform their society from the inside. My work took a different approach to Lee’s, looking at how discourses of identity, nationalism and ethnicity constrain notions of what is morally and politically possible. I never saw much crossover between our approaches, though some of my subjects were BDS advocates. I suppose my work could contribute to an understanding of the kind of impact that sanctions might have (or not) on a fraction of the target society.

I was far more captivated by what Lee’s early conference paper meant for activism. Outside of academia, I wanted to talk about Palestine with anyone who’d listen, and I had been inspired to join a tiny collective of mostly radical leftists in my home city of Perth, Western Australia. Working within this collective, I believed that the first step to changing minds was education and awareness, and soon BDS became the catchphrase by which we’d do this. Or so we thought.

By the time I read Lee’s paper – soon to be a chapter in Sanctioning Apartheid: Comparing the South African and Palestinian BDS Campaigns, edited by David Feldman and out next year with Palgrave Macmillan – I had dropped out of activism for Palestine somewhat, primarily due to life (a young family and a PhD) getting in the way. But the fire still burned within. I read Lee’s contribution with eagerness and interest. It elicited in me the same sentiments that followed my consumption of Societies Under Siege: enlightenment and admiration, combined with frustration. Thanks to this work, I understand the world in ways that I did not before – which has to turn on any academic who genuinely enjoys engaging with inquiry, wherever it may lead. However, thanks to that new understanding, I also understand – to quote another colleague’s rather jaded perspective on Social Conflict Analysis – that everything is f$*#ed. This is somewhat less a cause for celebration. Continue reading

Mind the Gap: Evaluating the Success of Sanctions

This is the third in a series of posts on Lee Jones’ Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work. We are delighted to welcome Dr Clara Portela,  she is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University. She is the author of the monograph European Union Sanctions and Foreign Policy, for which she received the 2011 THESEUS Award for Promising Research on European Integration. She recently participated in the High Level Review of United Nations sanctions, in the EUISS Task Force on Targeted Sanctions and has consulted for the European Parliament on several occasions.

A further response will follow from  Katie Attwell, followed by a response from Lee. You can find Lee’s original post here and Elin Hellquist’s here.


The volume undoubtedly makes a key contribution to the field – indeed, one that was sorely needed: an evaluation of how sanctions interact with the economic and political dynamics in the target society, and more specifically, how they affect domestic power relations. This agenda is not entirely new in sanctions scholarship. It had been wisely identified by Jonathan Kirshner in a famous article as far back as in 1997. However, having pointed to the need to ascertain how sanctions affect the internal balance of power between ruling elites and political opposition, and the incentives and disincentives they faced, this analytical challenge had not been taken up by himself or any other scholar so far. The book also contributes to a highly promising if still embryonic literature: that of coping strategies by the targets, briefly explored in works by Hurd or Adler-Nissen.

Departing from the idea that whether sanctions can work can only be determined by close study of the target society and estimating the economic damage required to shift conflict dynamics in a progressive direction, the study proposes a novel analytical framework: Social Conflict Analysis. The volume concludes that socio-political dynamics in the target society overwhelmingly determine the outcomes of sanctions episodes: “Where a society has multiple clusters of authority, resources, and power rather than a single group enjoying a monopoly, and where key groups enjoy relative autonomy from state power and the capacity for collective action, sanctions may stand some chance of changing domestic political trajectories. In the absence of these conditions, their leverage will be extremely limited” (p.182).

World of Sanctions

Source: Peterson Institute for International Economics

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Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work

This is the first in a series of posts on Lee Jones’ Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work. Responses will follow from guest authors Elin Hellquist, Clara Portela and Katie Attwell over the next few days.


It doesn’t seem to matter what the international crisis is: be it an inter-state war (Russia-Ukraine), civil strife (Syria), gross violations of human rights (Israel), or violent non-state actors on the rampage (ISIS, al-Qaeda), the ‘answer’ from governments and civil society always seems to be the same: impose economic sanctions. In the mid-20th century, only five countries were targeted by sanctions; by 2000, the number had increased tenfold. Once an obscure, rarely used and widely dismissed form of statecraft, sanctions are now clearly central to the exercise of power in international relations – particularly when dominant powers are reluctant to put ‘boots on the ground’.

My new book, Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work, is the first comparative effort to explore how these sanctions ‘work’ in practice – on the ground, in target states. This post introduces the book and the forum that will follow.

Societies Under Siege cover. The image is an engraving of a (failed) siege during the Albigensian crusade.

Societies Under Siege cover. The image is an engraving of a (failed) siege during the Albigensian crusade.

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