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

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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?


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.

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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

Shipboard Travels: A conversation between Charmaine Chua and Laleh Khalili (Part II)

Part One just over here.


LK: First of all, before we proceed, can I say how much I am enjoying this conversation?  Part of this is the ability to compare my experiences with someone of the same political disposition and theoretical commitments who can comment on the contrasts and similarities of the experience of travel aboard a containership, but part of it is also our gender identification.

I felt a kinship with you upon meeting you (as I did with Deb Cowen upon reading her amazing book) precisely because of us confounding gendered expectations of who would do this sort of research in an area –maritime labour, security, travel, and labour– that has always been –and continues to be– marked so profoundly as masculine. And I was really curious about your experience.

I think although I experienced one instance of ass-patting, by and large I think I had it a lot easier than you. One reason may have been that CMA CGM, the shipping company on whose ship I was steaming, actually takes onboard passengers as a matter of course, and there were two other women passengers, both in their 70s, on the ship with me. Whereas –and please correct me– my impression is that you were on a shipping line that doesn’t necessarily take on passengers. I also think my age –I am 46– probably to some extent insulated me from some of your experience. Two other factors also mattered hugely: one that there was a woman cadet being trained to be an officer onboard who could really hold her own with the male officers and crew; and the second, that the captain’s wife was also traveling with us, and her presence at the table, for instance, completely changed the tenor of the meals.  So there were 5 women on a ship of 37 people.

But what really struck me was the range of masculinities aboard the ship. The European officers certainly performed their manliness very differently than the Filipino and Keralan crew, and even within the rank of the Europeans (most of whom were Croat), the deck officers crafted their bodies in a different way than the deck officers: the latter worked out in the gym to build up their arm muscles and upper bodies into taut masses of muscles; the latter, not so much.

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Shipboard Travels: A conversation between Charmaine Chua and Laleh Khalili (Part I)

Following previous series on Charmaine’s slow boat to China, and introducing Laleh’s first contribution to The Disorder, the first of two posts (the second is here) on what it is to study the labour, politics and infrastructure of oceanic logistics.


Laleh Khalili (LK): Charmaine, both you and I have taken a containership trip in the last few months, you from the West Coast of the US across the Pacific to China and Taiwan, I from Malta through Suez Canal and around the Arabian Peninsula to Jabal Ali, Dubai.  There are lots of things we can talk about: shipboard labour, the politics of the ports, being women in overwhelmingly masculine spaces, etc.  And we both want to know different things about aspects of the other’s searoute which were not similar to our own.

So here is my first question:  What struck you the most about the daily routine of the ship?

Charmaine Chua (CC): I’m thrilled to begin this conversation, Laleh. I want to answer your first question in twenty different ways, but the first thing that comes to mind is the regimentation of everyday life, and the boredom it elicited: breakfast at 0630, work orders doled out at 0700, a coffee break at 1000, lunch at 1130, coffee again at 1500, dinner at 1730. On the days when I would do manual jobs with the crew, we agonizingly counted the mind-numbing hours to the next break. The hours were long, the jobs physically demanding, dangerous and intensive. There is so much repetitiveness to the work that the crew often fought over which of the less-boring jobs they would be assigned to – spraying the deck down with a hose was better than mopping it, taking soundings was better than cutting rags. For those who are watch keepers on the bridge, their work four hours on, four off, then four on again. Not only is sleep was hard to come by because of the shift structure, but shore leave has also become a thing of the past, since there is never enough time to get on land before having to be back for your next duties. When asked, most of the crew describe their jobs with these words: “maintenance, just maintenance. Just following orders.”

I’ve since been wondering about the implications of naming maintenance as the primary form of seafaring work. Ships are easy to romanticize: they remind us of adventure, our smallness, our finitude. But if the most important tasks on the ship are not the technical ones of circumnavigation and exploration (those romantic jobs that gesture to the ocean as an endless horizon of opportunity and freedom) but maintenance, then the primary task of the seafarer is prolong the durability of already existing value. Ships break in halfsinktip over, and are constantly threatened to be compromised by rust and corrosion; in order to continue the mundane task of commerce and transportation, they must appear as if they are running perfectly in order to protect the value already invested in them.

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Open Letter In Support of Surrey Politics Department

Last week, members of the Politics Department at the University of Surrey were told by their managers that they would be effectively closed down in the summer, with a reduction of 14 staff to five teaching-only posts, and no guarantee of employment for anyone presently in the Department. The Department had been ranked 6th in Politics in this year’s Guardian Subject League Table, 4th in the NSS 2014 with an overall satisfaction rate of 97%, and 17th in the Complete University Guide 2014. Thanks to a rapid reaction and online campaign immediately following this, as well as discussions with the Political Studies Association over the last week this decision appears to be under review. The initial proposal however remains on the table at the time of writing.  To follow unfolding events, please go to the Facebook page set up by a support group, and follow the Twitter account @surreypolgrads. Many are using the hashtag #savesurreypolitics.

The below is an open letter originating from members of the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London.

Update 26th March: following much enthusiasm, the open letter is now available for all to sign and we have edited according. Please respond in the comments section with your name, role and institution where relevant, and do forward to colleagues.

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The Chinese Logistical Sublime and Its Wasted Remains

Sent from Taipei, the last post in a container ship ethnography. The entire series can be viewed here.

“We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage”
– T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”


An APL vessel heads out of the port of Hong Kong

On our thirteenth day at sea, after having been battered by 6 meter waves and snow, gale-force winds and storm, having watched the ship’s skeleton snake and bend with the force of rough seas from within the depths of its passageways, I woke up on a calm, quiet morning to a sea that had turned a lighter shade of blue. From my porthole, delighted, I watched as seagulls weaved in an out of the wind currents above the containers, seaweed merrily skimmed the surface of the ocean, and fishing vessels began dotting the horizon. Land was near. Less than a day later, we drew into the port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Terminals stretched for miles from two harbor mouths, the air a humid, sticky breeze, the pilot’s Mandarin accent sounding suddenly like home.

The transition from sea to land has been almost too quick. After days suspended over liquid blue, spent imagining the ocean from what Derek Walcott has termed the “subtle and submarine”, the looming horizon of the sedentary state with all its territorial weight seemed almost churlish. Everything since touching land has been a blur. We spent 36 hours in Kaohsiung, during which a majority of the 4000 containers on the vessel were unloaded, then surged onward to Yantian, where 16 hours in port – aided by gantry cranes larger than I have ever seen – allowed not more than a hasty trip to the city center for a dinner of mushroom and chive dumplings (desperately welcomed after a six-week parade of meat and potatoes), before we set sail again for Hong Kong. Now, after a mere 15 hours there, we are in Kaohsiung once more. Tonight we leave for Taipei with four different currencies in my pocket and my head swirling from switching back and forth between two different tongues. After 42 days at sea, in less than twelve hours I will be off the Ever Cthulhu forever, never to return.

In the meantime, I am allowing myself to be taken in by the fearsome, monstrous smoothness of the East Asian logistical sublime. I had expected the delays we experienced on the US west coast to have created a massive backlog in China, but we arrived to clear seas and empty anchorages. The Chinese ports have a clockwork, kinetic edge. The transitions are quick – almost blinding. Once the ship berths, security rolls out a portable security checkpoint on the shore below, gangs of workers appear from under the towering gantries, and a rolling stream of workers climbs up the gangway. Lashings go off, trucks and straddle cranes slide into place, the agent appears, papers and loading plans are signed, and the cargo operations begin. There are no breaks, no pauses, no delays. The entire machinery of the port, already in gear, accommodates the ship in one smooth gesture.

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