Rejoinder: For Whom Do We Study International Politics?

Sophie HarmanThe last post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from the author herself. Sophie Harman is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. Sophie’s research focuses on visual method and the politics of seeing, global health politics, African agency, and the politics of conspicuously invisible women. She has pursued these interests through projects on Global Health Governance, the World Bank and HIV/AIDS, partnerships in health in Africa, the 2014/15 Ebola response, the governance of HIV/AIDS, and her recent film project, Pili, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA as in the category of Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. Apart from Seeing Politics, Sophie’s recent publications include ‘Why It Must Be a Feminist Global Health Agenda’ in The Lancet (with Sara Davies, Rashida Manjoo, Maria Tanyag and Clare Wenham), and ‘Governing Ebola: Between Global Health and Medical Humanitarianism’ in Globalizations (with Clare Wenham(. She is also a Co-Editor of Review of International Studies, and the recipient of numerous grants and awards.

The full collection of contributions to the Seeing Politics symposium is now accessible here.


 

Big Pili

When things get a bit much at work it is not uncommon to hide in the loo. When you are shooting a film scene in fields without a nearby loo, everyone demanding something from you (new, better umbrellas to shelter from the heat, more money for the field manager, colder water), you find yourself escaping for a pee in a pineapple field. It was during a trip to a pineapple field that the thought occurred to me, I wonder what notable Professors of International Relations (IR) around the world are doing right now? Quickly followed by, what on earth am I doing? Very few people in the field of IR seem to think what I’m doing is real research, why didn’t I just write a book about the 2014/15 Ebola outbreak? I’m peeing in a pineapple field: no-one is going to take this work seriously. Based on these five thoughtful and generous reflections on Seeing Politics, I was clearly wrong.

Not only is this type of work taken seriously, there seems to be genuine hunger or, at the very least, curiosity, for new, visual methods, and an honesty to the politics of co-production among academic researchers. As the excellent contributors to this Symposium clearly show, tensions and questions persist over the use of visual politics, narrative, co-production, representation, knowledge, and disciplinary boundaries that sit uneasily within not just International Relations, but academia more broadly. What is refreshing about the five interventions is a willingness to not dodge the discomfort in these questions. I am so grateful to each contributor for reading Seeing Politics in such detail, really engaging in what I was trying to do, and offering new insights that I had not even thought about. I am especially grateful for each of them taking time during busy periods of their academic life: each contribution was written in the midst of PhD reviews, marking season, research Directorships, and of course their own research and writing projects. Thank you Paul Kirby, editor of the Disorder of Things. n the Q&A that followed a screening of Pili at the European International Studies Association (EISA) in Barcelona 2017, Pablo suggested that he sort of wished I wasn’t writing a book about the film, so that it could just stand by itself. I don’t know if he’s changed his mind, but I am flattered he suggested the idea of this symposium and grateful for his patience and advice and for making this happen.

Several themes emerged across the five essays: narrative and story-telling, vocalisation and visualisation, experiencing and explaining politics, and not only why and how we research international politics, but who the research is for. Laura J. Shepherd’s introduction to the symposium begins with the importance of story-telling in the Western Anglophone. Story-telling is not limited to the Western Anglophone (something literary criticism is starting to recognise) but is a fundamental social and political practice throughout the world that helps make sense of the world and how it came to be. This can range from the stories out families tell us about our history, to what states and citizens tell themselves about their own history, to how we tell stories about our research and understanding of the world, and how stories and narratives contradict and challenge each other. Stories inform our identity, how we make sense of the world, and how we relate to each other. Given the importance of narrative and the stories we tell, see, and shape our world view, and what I was trying to do with Pili, I could have made more of the literature and debates in this aspect of IR. Perhaps. The cowards reply to Shepherd here would be that I was exhausted with ‘turns’ when situating the book: the problem in writing a book that does not fit within Shepherd’s ‘disciplining of the discipline’ is how and where to position the book. I had an unwieldy chapter 1 where debates on narrative, story-telling, and auto-ethnography all got chopped.

The more/less cowardly answer is a fear of the palimpsest. As Shepherd insightfully notes the book shows how making a film is a complicated endeavour and ‘Making a researcher is similarly so, and that, for me, is the text that emerges as a palimpsest.’ In many ways for all that Seeing Politics is about film, co-production, and knowledge, it can fundamentally be read as a book about research, researchers, and the stories we tell ourselves and write. I have an uneasy relationship with this palimpsest, in particular the problem of erasure inherent within it: that the palimpsest of the book does not erase the stories of Pili. It is a strength of Shepherd’s essay that in one sentence she hits the biggest source of my unease: the palimpsest is not just the book, as audiences for the film grow and people want to learn more about it in audience Q&As, marketing, and promotion, the voices and narrative that were so important to the film risk erasure to the bigger narrative of the politics of seeing how the film was made. Audiences ask me how ‘Pili’ is (despite her being a character), interviewers want to know why and how the film was made, and the visual narrative of Pili once the film was released is the face of Bello Rashid (‘Pili’) on posters with Director Leanne Welham and I on red carpets, answering questions as to what ‘Pili’ is doing now.

Q&As and responses to both the book and film, suggest audiences want a happy ending. They want the lives of women such as ‘Pili’ to improve. They want me to have a close and ongoing relationship with the women in film. They want the women in the film to show some sort of pleasure, or worse, gratitude, for being in the film. Craig Murphy pinpoints the difficulty with such happy endings. First, experiencing the world as it is leads to seeing some of the worst forms of inequality that exist, so packaging a happy ending narrative is wholly misleading to audiences, however they much they may want it. Second, experiencing the world and explaining it from this basis necessitates an honest reflection on the different relationships we have, both as researchers and as people in our everyday lives. As Murphy states, ‘The moral compasses of all successful field researchers may not point in the right direction, but they do have to be reliable, consistent, and always available’ – in many ways in writing Seeing Politics this is what I was trying to do. Finally, in a world of visual representation there is the happy ending we see – in the case of Pili, pictures of joy from the cast and I at the 2016 and 2018 Tanzania screenings, the fun I had in attending the BAFTAs – and the toll and aspect of people’s lives we don’t see. Murphy suggests he would have liked me to have reflected more on the psychological toll of research of this kind. The toll of the project resulted in me losing more skin pigment, eating too much, jolting awake at night (only in the first month back from Tanzania), writing Seeing Politics and then realising I should probably talk to someone (big thanks to those colleagues who sensed this may be a good idea before I did, with kind and well-timed ‘you okay hon?’ you know who you are Tim, James, and Kim). I deleted the previous sentence seven times as I don’t want this to be the focus of the project or have to discuss it on a future roundtable (I’m not a trained therapist or counsellor, I find it quite boring): I kept it in as I know others face similar dilemmas, and this should be destigmatised, especially for postgraduate researchers. More substantively, I am mindful of how my own well-being is linked with ongoing relationships with the lives of others long after a project has been completed who don’t want to share. As with my fear of the palimpsest, I don’t want Seeing Politics to become about me.

This latter point, highlights one of Jo Vearey’s key responses to the book, there are some voices missing in all this: what do the women think of the film, the book, and the whole process? I can guess; I can draw on their feedback from the 2018 Tanzanian premiere in Dar es Salaam; I can give you the limited responses I get via a third party production assistant/translator from time to time. But really, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the women and thus spoken directly to them for three years. The main reason I have not seen them in three years is the film has not made any money for them: as chapter 2 sets out in detail, no money was promised and expectations were managed, but hope and expectations still exist. I don’t want to disappoint them or let them down (maybe Murphy does have a point that perhaps I should have said more on this): I don’t want to have to defend myself against any accusation that I lied and have kept the money for myself. If asked about the process of making the film, I suspect some of the women would tell me what they think I want to hear or limit their response depending on what they need or want from me, and a handful will tell me what I don’t want to hear. Similar to Vearey’s reflection, this is an addition to the book’s longlist of discomforts: similar to the book, I want to confront this discomfort. My hope is to run a short follow up project for the women to reflect directly on the process five to ten years after production ended. I have some ideas as to how to do this – film and photo elicitation, working with a third party researcher – however as Vearey’s response clearly highlights doing so brings me back to one of the core issues explored in the book: how to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable tension between intent and process. Substantively, it is not my intention that matters: it’s up to the co-producers of the film – the cast, the crew, the community of women from which the story was drawn – and the interest and value they place in such a project.

Upon his death in May 2019, Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay ‘How to write about Africa’ was shared across social media. The response to Wainaina’s death was similar to many talented artists, sadness at the loss of life, particularly so young, but also a pleasure in re-reading or re-listening to their work. Re-reading ‘How to write about Africa’ I was struck by the sentence:

The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. (Wainaina, 2005)

No-one wants to tick one of the items on Wainaina’s list and I thank Simukai Chigudu for kindly not pointing this out in his discussion of chapters 4 and 5 on gatekeeping politics, especially given the lengthy discussion on visas and permits in chapter 4. Chigudu’s reflection on gatekeeping in the book is perhaps more generous in suggesting it serves as a reminder to study states, particularly African states, ethnographically given the diffuse and at times competing units of government. I concur here, but would also extend this argument for investigating various forms of gatekeeping. As the book explores, gatekeeping depends on the intersection between formal political processes and informal practices at both the state level in Tanzania and within the hierarchy of global film governance. To understand and see such gatekeeping, you need to engage with the gate.

A theme that runs across Chigudu’s essay is one of change in story-telling in and of Africa. Chigudu’s shift from a reflection on the impact of new and modern technology, most notably mobile phones and smartphones, to Black Panther is particularly revealing. Both, in different ways, have been highlighted as markers of change in perceptions of the continent, stories, and the stories that are told and seen. Both, in different ways, are subject to the same old questions of access, use, types of representation, and ownership of such technologies and stories. These two positions are well summarised by Jelani Cobb’s 2018 essay on the film, where he outlines ‘Africa—or, rather, “Africa”—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth’ yet the importance of Black Panther, and Wakanda specifically, is how ‘It is a redemptive counter-mythology’ (Cobb, 2018).

Wakanda may be located on the map in central Africa, feature a diverse range of black actors from around the world, and draw on themes of colonialism, coloniality, and Afrofutures, but it is a western, American film. It was produced by and makes money for Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures (IMDb, 2019), and the ‘hero’ ends up committing to the liberal internationalist cause at the UN General Assembly. This may not matter; when I left a packed London cinema on Valentine’s Day in 2018, there was an absolute sizzle of positivity among the predominantly younger audience (and me, who doesn’t love to suspend their critical mind and just enjoy militarized rhinos?), ‘this changes everything’ I overheard one young black man say excitedly to his friends. This points to an important question that someone asked me at the beginning of this project, who is the audience for this film? And which audience matters? As chapter 5 explores in the book, as Pili progressed to sales and distribution, this question changed from who is the audience, to which audience matters, to which audience counts. In film the audience that matters is the audience that makes money; ‘this changes everything’ is true of Black Panther not only in how it makes audiences feel and think, but the potential impact on Hollywood: a film set in Africa, with a majority black cast, made US$1.344 billion as of May 2018 at the Box Office (IMDb, 2019). As Chigudu alludes to, Black Panther in many ways is emblematic of the tech revolution in Africa: a source of promise, joy, optimism, global connection, new opportunities for representation, under western ownership, control, and profit.

Western ownership, control, and profit is a theme that runs throughout chapter 5 of the book, and is an issue drawn out by Dean Cooper-Cunningham’s point on ‘giving’ voice and the relationship between vocalization and visualization. Voices exist, people are seen throughout their lives: the politics is the context in which they are seen, how their voices are amplified, who amplifies them, who ‘gives’ and who takes space. As Cooper-Cunningham explores, part of the book shows and reflects the inequalities of who enters and controls entry into political spaces, be it the global response to HIV/AIDS or film production and cinema audiences. This point reminds me of bell hooks’ argument of the second wave feminist movement, wherein the white bourgeois women who dominated the movement shaped the spaces and ways women of colour, particularly black women, were involved, with white women concluding ‘that black women need not contribute to developing theory. We were to provide the colorful life stories to document and validate the prevailing set of theoretical assumptions’ (hooks, 2000; 33). hooks’ argument has important relevance to academic research, gatekeeping, and the role of different partners in co-production practices and how these roles are shaped and given space. As Seeing Politics suggests, this is about what knowledge counts, who counts, and, as Cooper-Cunningham insightfully reflects, who ‘gives’ or allows this voice or knowledge, and the politics therein.

I conclude this reply with one of Cooper-Cunningham’s final points on the book and Murphy’s initial insight on the distinction between experiencing politics and explaining politics as arbitrary markers of what defines ‘real’ social science. I began this project thinking about who or what my research is for. I had become slightly lost in the academic system, being critical of performance indicators while simultaneously being motived (and subsequently disappointed) by them, forgetting why I loved my job, becoming bored and frustrated by what I was reading and writing. I had my pineapple field moments and the book reflects a lot of the difficulty and discomfort involved with a co-produced project: but I regained a sense of interest and purpose in my research, however uncomfortable, by remembering the question that first got me interested in international politics, posed by Cooper-Cunningham: for whom do we study international politics?

References

Cobb, Jelani. (2018). ‘“Black Panther” and the Invention of “Africa”’ The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/black-panther-and-the-invention-of-africa (accessed August 2019)

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminist theory: from margin to center London: Pluto Press.

IMDb. (2019). ‘Black Panther’ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1825683/releaseinfo?ref_=ttco_ql_2 (accessed August 2019).

Wainaina, Binyavanga. (2005). ‘How to write about Africa’ Granta https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/ (accessed August 2019)

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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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Lenin Lives! A Disorders Forum: Let’s Take a Look at What You Could Have Won!

This is the second part of a Disorders forum on Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2007 (Zero Books, 2017). For the rest of the forum, click here.


How far might Marxism be considered a genre of science – or rather ‘speculative’ – fiction? Speculative fiction, to borrow Judith Merril’s concise definition, refers to that form of writing ‘which makes use of the traditional “scientific method” (observation, hypothesis, experiment) to examine some postulated approximation of reality, by introducing a given set of changes – imaginary or inventive – into the common background of “known facts.”’ Or, to put it another way, people make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing: what might happen if the circumstances, or the choices, were different? For all those who cleave to the idea of October 1917 as the highest point yet reached of human emancipation, and not the genesis of the grey tyrannies that took the Russian revolution as their founding myth, the mode of speculative fiction is indispensable. The main reason for studying the degeneration of the Russian revolution is to imagine how it could have been different. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the best centennial treatment of the Revolution has come not from a historian or political scientist but a Speculative Fiction author: China Miéville’s magisterial October. Shorter in length, and necessarily narrower in scope, Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives: Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017 is nonetheless to be commended for tackling the speculative mode dead on.

Lissitsky’s ‘Cloud Irons’, from the Architectural Review

Seizing counterfactual history back from the blimpish fantasies of the right, Cunliffe draws out the inherent speculative premise of any anti-Stalinist Left: the bad timeline hypothesis. As in Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’, and Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future II, we live in the bad timeline of modernity. At some point in the past things went badly wrong, skewing us into a world in which words such as ‘class’, ‘revolution’ or ‘justice’ have lost all meaning ‘ [p.6], ‘progress’ has become a taboo, and even capitalists have forgotten how to do their job of accumulation [p.12]. The point of divergence between our post-dystopian timeline and the world that should have been born, Cunliffe identifies as the failure of the Russian revolution in its early years to spread beyond its beyonds to the Western European core of the capitalist system.

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The Right to Maim: A Reply

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


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

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Feminist Allies: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly?

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Columba

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Amy

We welcome a guest post from Columba Achilleos-Sarll and Amy Galvin-Elliott from Warwick. Columba is an ESRC funded PhD student at the University of Warwick in the Politics and International Studies department. Her research lies at the intersection between feminist and postcolonial theory, UK foreign policy and the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. She recently published in the Journal of International Women’s Studies: Reconceptualising Foreign Policy as Gendered, Sexualised and Racialised: Towards a Postcolonial Feminist Foreign Policy (Analysis). Amy is completing her PhD in the History department at the University of Warwick. Her project on female experience of parliamentary spaces is generously funded by the ESRC and is jointly supervised by Warwick and the Parliamentary Archives. Her main research interests include gendered experiences of space and the 19th century political culture of Britain.


This year’s International Feminist Journal of Politics conference (IFJP) provoked serious thought about a question that was posed during a plenary session by Professor. Brooke A. Ackerly from Vanderbilt University: “How can I be a ‘good’ feminist ally, and is it better for me to be a ‘bad’ feminist ally than no ally at all?”

Feminism promotes equality, tolerance, understanding, and facilitates a space for the voices of those otherwise oppressed or marginalised. However, as academics, Ackerly’s question requires us to hold a mirror to our professional selves and ask just how far our work within the academy creates a space for the narratives of marginalised groups? And, where it does, do we allow them to speak for themselves? The very nature of academia serves to ‘legitimise’ certain forms of knowledge production, deciding, based on an assumed authority, whose voices are recorded and whose are not. As feminist scholars operating in and beyond academia, how can we conduct ourselves in a way that makes us a ‘good’ ally? And, what does it even mean to be a ‘good’ ally?

Responses to Professor Ackerly’s question were complex and a thoughtful reminder of how we, as academics and/or activists, position ourselves in relation to others. Perhaps this quote from Panellist Anasuya Sengupta best summarises the tensions around feminist allyship:

The conversation that followed prompted a number of questions: Who is a feminist ally? How are they produced? Where are alliances formed? Who has the power to be a feminist ally? And, what distinguishes a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ feminist ally? Continue reading

(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future

The fourth post in our (already pretty popular) forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, this time from Sophie Lewis and David M. Bell. Sophie is at the University of Manchester, writing up a PhD on surrogacy’s uneven ‘cyborg’ geography and thinking about its utopian potential. She has written about surrogates for JacobinThe New Inquiry, and The Occupied Times; currently, excerpts are included in the 2015 “Technotopia” symposium. She also writes with the Out of the Woods (anticapitalist ecology) collective. She has co-translated Bini Adamczak’s Communism For Kids and written things that appear in Mute, Open Democracy, the ‘Demanding the Future’ tumblr, and on Novara WireDavid M. Bell is a Research Associate on the ‘Imagine’ project in the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. He is interested in the potentials and dangers of utopia(nism) within, against and beyond capital, the state and itself. He has written on the politics of musical improvisation, utopian fiction and participatory arts practice; and is currently working on two book projects: Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect, to be published by Routledge in 2016; and A Future History of Sheffield: Art Practice, Hope and the City, with Jessica Dubow and Richard Steadman-Jones.


To The Future! But Whose?

To The Future! But Whose?

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Inventing the Future provides a ‘plausible programme for ‘a world free of work’. It ‘shows us how we can organise’ to ‘realise a postcapitalist world’. So state its back-cover endorsements by Mark Fisher and Paul Mason. You should never judge a book by its blurb, but these claims are not to be sniffed at: here are two prominent thinkers of the UK left positioning this book as, if not a blueprint for utopia, a blueprint for utopianism – a roadmap that doesn’t quite cover the future but certainly takes us to its outskirts. The hyperbole continues away from Verso’s official promotional campaign too: Novara Media founder Aaron Bastani has publicly suggested that Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet receive copies of the book’s chapters as bedtime reading pamphlets. We are not so sure. There is much of value in Inventing the Future (hereafter ItF); and it certainly opens up space for thinking about what might be and how we might get there. But there are serious questions about who this future is for, whose labour (re)produces it, and who it will continue to exclude.

Before the reader is let in on how we can invent the future, however, they need to be disabused of various notions that are holding it back. These are grouped together under the rubric of ‘folk politics’ – a supposed ‘constellation of ideas and intuitions within the contemporary left that informs the common-sense ways of organising, acting and thinking politics’ (p. 10). Its key features are the privileging of ‘local particularisms’; the spatially and temporally ‘immediate’ (and ‘unmediated’); ‘resistance’; and the ‘natural’. The attitude that Srnicek and Williams (hereafter S&W) take to this assemblage is remarkably similar to Marx and Engels’ position on utopian socialism: it was necessary in that it locally kept alive the possibility of alternative ways of living while large-scale political change was impossible, but once the material conditions for totalizing political change (supposedly) arrive, revolutionaries should embrace them and move beyond their quaintly uninspiring New Lanarks, exchange banks and workers’ associations. The time! is! (was!) now! (then!).

Against ‘folk politics’, S&W believe that a return to universalism is necessary for the invention of the future. Whilst acknowledging the colonial history (p. 76) of the universal and rejecting ‘Eurocentricism’ (pp. 77-78), they nonetheless argue that abandoning this structure of thought entails ‘licensing all sorts of oppressions as simply the inevitable consequence of plural cultural forms.’ (p. 77) This seems odd given that so many Indigenous and pre-colonial practices, identities, sexualities and cosmologies with liberatory potential have been destroyed in the name of universalism; and whilst these are acknowledged with the claim that there are non-European forms of ‘reason’, ‘science’, ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’ (p. 77), we are not convinced that these decidedly European terms are the most suitable labels for them. (What does ‘progress’ mean for cultures whose temporalities are nonlinear, for example?). We are more heartened, however, by the call for a universalism that is ‘pluri-versal’ and ‘does not entail homogeneity…does not necessarily involve converting diverse things into the same kind of thing’ (here, S&W refer to capitalism’s ability to sustain and draw power from diverse forms of social organization); and which ‘must recognise the agency of those outside Europe…in building truly planetary and universal futures.’ (p. 78) Continue reading

Inventing the Future

The opening post in our latest forum, on Nick and Alex Williams’ new book, Inventing the Future. Commentaries will follow over the week, and Nick and Alex will respond soon thereafter with a rejoinder to points raised. All will eventually be available under this tag url.


Inventing the Future Cover - square

Today kicks off a symposium on our new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. On a surface level, it is a book analysing post-work, the global crisis of surplus populations, and the challenges of rebuilding the contemporary left. Yet it is also a book designed to intervene in the current political conjuncture. It is written to produce discussions, rather than close them down; to spark debate, rather than dictate; and hopefully to persuade people of the utility of its prescriptions. As such, this blog event is the perfect avenue to inaugurate what we hope will be a series of productive engagements. Rather than simply summarising the book here, it is perhaps more useful if we briefly outline some of the debates we sought to contribute to.

The first such debate is the question concerning the dismal state of the left. While some find elements of hope in the contemporary left, for most it has been a series of marginal successes at best, and outright defeats at worst. In the book we attempt to offer a new explanation for why this is the case. Without rejecting the contributing factors of objective changes in the organisation of capitalism, and subjective changes in the self-understanding of class, we try to add a third explanation based upon a widespread common sense amongst the left. It is what we call ‘folk politics’: an intuitive set of beliefs that leads those on the left to instinctually turn towards immediacy as the solution to political problems. It finds greater and lesser expression in a series of recent movements, and while sometimes explicitly valorised, more often than not it goes on unconsciously in practices and habits. Our argument is that this folk political common sense tends to lead movements to organise and do politics in a way which constrains the possibility of escaping a global capitalism. This does not mean that folk politics should be rejected or dismissed; rather we simply try to point to its wide circulation and strategic insufficiency.

On a second level, the book seeks to generate discussion about what the future should look like. Too often, the activist and academic left only offers visions of the future in negative terms: the end of wage-labour, the end of racism, the end of sexism, the end of colonialism. These are all agreeable, of course, but ultimately remain empty signifiers. If we want a better world, we need to have some idea of where we are going. This doesn’t mean taking the opposite tack, and outlining a detailed plan for a future society (as with Parecon and New Socialism, for example). Rather it means setting out a series of broad proposals for what should be desired, what can be achieved, and how to get there. We have no illusions about the errors, biases, and limitations that our own proposals will include. We are, indeed, keenly aware of the limits of a small book written for a general audience. But the point of setting out a vision of the future and a series of demands is to lay our cards on the table for others to take up, critique, or reject. It is too easy to adopt a comfortable critical stance against the world.

Finally, discussions about the problems of the left and visions of the future must come together in debates over how to rebuild the power of the left and bring about a new future. To this end, our argument is for a counter-hegemonic strategy across an ecology of organisations, intervening in newly discovered and constructed points of leverage. While we try to give some concrete content to these broad proposals, we have also intentionally pitched these ideas at a level which allows them to be taken up in different forms across different countries and under different conditions. It is our hope that people who are convinced by our analysis and proposals will then take up these broad ideas and translate them into their own specific circumstances. We offer the book as a possibility – one among many – of what the future could look like.

-Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams