‘Once more unto the breach’ – On Hilary Benn and Fighting Wars with Words

IMG-20150308-WA0003 (3)A guest post from Nadya Ali. Nadya is a Teaching Fellow in Politics and IR at the University of Reading. Her thesis was written on the topic of UK counter-terrorism and it’s role in the governance of the domestic Muslim population. Her research interests include gendered understandings of political violence and postcolonial approaches in IR. She is also a convenor of the BISA Critical Studies on Terrorism Working Group.


Shadow Home Secretary Hilary Benn has emerged as the unlikely oratory hero through his speech to the House of Commons during the debate on whether to carry out airstrikes in Syria. It has been hailed as ‘extraordinary’ and as one “that will go down as one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons”. Benn has been described as ‘the mouse that roared’ and now even as a potential leadership candidate. The effusive coverage of the speech comes in the aftermath of the successful vote which enables the extension of British airstrikes targeting Islamic State (IS) from Iraq into Syria. Leaving aside the context of internal Labour party politics, Benn’s words have a resonance and political utility that extend far beyond the party. Despite the plaudits and unlike Shakespeare’s Henry V, Benn did not deliver a great speech but simply the right speech.

His dramatic moment in the House of Commons was the culmination of the successful move to, once more, mobilise British military capability as part of the ‘War on Terror’. According to one journalist the speech was written while the debate took place with Benn sitting on the front bench. This was no doubt intended as a compliment but it needn’t be: everything he said was could have been lifted out of the ‘War on Terror Handbook of Justifications to Fight Wars’, if indeed it existed. Since 9/11 Western leaders have deployed the same set of claims about particular actors, states and terrorist organisations to make the case for military interventions. Benn ticked all the relevant boxes; he talked suitably about the ‘fascist’ threat of IS, of ‘our values’ and the necessity to use further violence.

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Post-Election Politics: Where Next for Britain?

Following the Radical Left Assembly #2 last weekend, Nivi and Kerem caught up with Luke Cooper to discuss the implications of the Conservative Party majority for British politics. What does the election result tell us about the political composition of Britain? What is the significance of the Tory pledge for a referendum on the EU? And what future is there for a politics of the Left?

Decolonising the Anglosphere

Alex at Red Fort

A guest post from Alexander Davis, who is a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Alex holds a research MA on India’s international colonial history from the University of Tasmania and his PhD dissertation is a postcolonial examination of India’s relationship with the Anglosphere, supervised by Priya Chacko, Kaniskha Jayasuriya and Carol Johnson. This post provides an outline of his critique of the ‘Anglosphere’, which follows from previous discussion on The Disorder of Things by our own Srdjan Vucetic, and acts as an introduction to the themes of his forthcoming dissertation. Alex can also be found over at Twitter.[1]


Why India? Why the Anglosphere?

The term ‘Anglosphere’ refers to a distinctly murky combination of states, peoples or cultures with an implication of both cultural superiority and closer international relationships on the basis of a shared identity. Even dictionary definitions of the term illustrate the difficult. For some, Anglosphere is based simply on the English language, for others it includes the ‘cultural values’ associated with the political development of Great Britain. Srdjan’s recent book on the Anglosphere shows excellently how the idea of the Anglosphere is rooted in its colonial history and is an expression of Anglo-western superiority. Because of my previous research and teaching interest in India’s colonial history, the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’ struck me as an assertion of cultural superiority and dominance, suspiciously similar to colonial justifications for imperial rule. Once we realize this, India, just as it was central to the British empire, becomes central to understanding contemporary discourse on ‘Anglosphere’. The first question I asked, sensibly enough I thought, was ‘is India in the Anglopshere?’ I have since realized deep inadequacies of this question, which in turn has led me towards to believe in need for a decolonisation of the Anglosphere subject.

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Thinking the Anglosphere through India

In order to understand contemporary Anglosphere discourse, and the position in which India fits within the concept, we first need to understand its historical context. An early form of contemporary Anglosphere debates on India can be in England on the future of the British empire at the turn of the 20th century which turned into a discussion on the concept of ‘Greater Britain’. This idea was to be federation between Britain and her colonies might look like. Some thinkers at this time saw India as central to the empire, and therefore central to any ‘Greater Britain’. Sir Charles Dilke originally began to use ‘Greater Britain’ as shorthand for the British empire as a whole, but later argued it should only be the ‘English-speaking, white-inhabited, and self-governed lands’. Others, such as historian John Seeley, took up the idea, initially including India on the inside as a territory of the Crown. However, later, in the same book, he argued Greater-Britain needed to be racially homogenous, declaring India to be ‘…all past and, I may almost say, has no future’.

Winston Churchill’s work on the ‘English-Speaking Peoples’, itself an echo of Alfred Taylor’s ‘English Speaking Races’, emphasizes the supposed superiority and unity of these peoples. Conservative historian Andrew Roberts has recently taken it upon himself to follow up on Churchill’s work. Roberts cuts down the magnitude of his chosen topic by ignoring English-speakers outside the geographical centers of the Anglosphere. His approach to India and colonial history is revealed by his depiction, and ultimate defense, of General Dyer’s massacre at Amritsar. This is the worst example of ‘imperial’ history I can think of. Roberts goes so far as to defend Dyer from the propaganda of the nasty Indian nationalists. Even the British government no longer defends this event, though on a recent trip to India, David Cameron declined to apologize for it. Roberts defends the massacre even though many of Dyer’s victims were English-speaking. Leaving the victims out of the ‘English-Speaking peoples’ is a final act of humiliation and dehumanization.

Just as the debaters over ‘Greater Britain’ were unsure of where India might fit with the concept, contemporary Anglospherists are unsure of what to do with India. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: The God Complex – Biopolitical Ethics

The paper I presented at the ISA is part of a larger project in which I look at the ways in which ethics, in the context of certain political practices, is saturated with biopolitical rationalities. The (re)surfacing and framing of hitherto morally prohibited practices – torture, extraordinary rendition, extrajudicial assassinations – as justifiable, legitimate and even necessary acts of violence, paired with rapidly advancing and increasingly autonomous military technologies that facilitate these practices, has opened new dimensions and demands for considering just what kind of ethics is used to justify these violent modalities. I’m specifically frustrated by the emerging narrative of the use of drones for targeted killing practices in the interminable fight against terror as a ‘wise’ and ‘ethical’ weapon of warfare. The prevalence of utility, instrumentality and necessity in this consideration of ethics strikes me as dubious and worthy of a closer look. This keeps leading me again and again to the perhaps foolhardy, but inevitable question: what, actually, IS ethics? And more specifically: what is ethics in a biopolitically informed socio-political (post)modern context? My quest for an answer begins with the growing divergence in scholarship and philosophical inquiry of the ethicality of ethics, or meta-ethics on one hand, and practical conceptions of ethics, applied ethics, on the other.

It has been noted by philosophers and scholars across geographical and disciplinary divides, that, in recent years, there has been a growing focus in philosophical and political thought on the application of moral and ethical principles rather than the “ethicality” of ethics itself. This trend is particularly widespread in Anglo-American philosophy, and manifests itself in the striking surge of applied ethics as a subfield of ethics, which considers the chief role of ethics to be that of providing a practical guide for moral agents, based on rational analysis, scientific inquiry and technological expertise. In other words, considerations of ethics have become preoccupied with establishing practicalities and ways of application. While the practical side of ethics should, of course, not be dismissed, the domineering focus on ethics’ practicality over considerations of meta-ethics, or the ethicality of ethics, occludes any deeper engagement with what ethics actually is, how moral content is established and how we can understand ethics in modernity as something beyond a mere set of context specific norms and legal regulations, as something other than laws and codes. To make sense of this preoccupation with ethics’ practicalities, it is worthwhile to consider how ethics might, in fact, be determined by the characteristics of a specific form of society. This brings me back to the biopolitical rationalities with which (post)modern societies are infused. Continue reading

Dalston: A Worm’s Eye View

(…cheers…) Please welcome, in your traditional way, the latest in the expanding list of Disorder-ed contributors. Rahul Rao, currently Lecturer in International Security at SOAS, author most recently of the fascinating Third World Protest: Between Home and the World, as well as a number of articles on cosmopolitanism, world order and empire. He is currently working on projects aimed at provincialising Westphalia and introducing queer theory to IR.


There is a great deal that I don’t understand about the world, but I do know a little about that part of it where the Kingsland Road becomes Stoke Newington Road (London N16/E8, if that’s how you work). As the dust clears from what BBC Panorama recently called The August Riots – as if to distinguish them from those to come in September, October, November and December – it is difficult to walk around without wondering whether everyone is judging everyone else on the basis of age, race, class and sartorial preference. Multiculturalism in Dalston can sometimes feel like a polite version of separate-but-equal with the hipsters (mostly white, but equal opportunity for those with the right facial hair, skinny jeans, loafers with no socks, university education, fixie bikes and Apple accoutrements) patronising hipster cafés, the Turks hanging out in members-only social clubs, the Caribbeans in venues such as Open the Gate. Everyone goes to the Turkish restaurants, but gastronomy has always been the least challenging site for racial mixing. As gentrification has proceeded apace – a phenomenon driven by middle class professionals like myself – I cannot help but notice that Dalston Superstore is always full and the Caribbean restaurant in Centerprise (East London’s oldest and most famous black bookshop) often empty. (Oddly, the spell check on this blog thinks that the word ‘gentrifying’ does not exist and suggests replacing it with ‘petrifying’. There might be something to that.)

On August 8 when the riots reached Hackney, Dalston hit the headlines as the place where the riots caused little damage, its Turkish and Kurdish business owners much feted for their role in beating back the rioters. I have to confess to an immediate reaction (always a betrayal of one’s class identification) of gratitude to a local community of people who trusted and knew each other well enough to work together at a moment’s notice – a community to which I do not belong, but on whose efforts I was able to free-ride (like Zoe Williams, I watched these events on a live feed, it never having occurred to me that I could have gone on to my high street to defend anything). In the cold light of dawn, second thoughts: when the facade of the Leviathan had cracked, security had become a function of ethnic solidarity. Welcome to Sarajevo.

The reaction of the local business owners in Dalston poses two questions. Continue reading

A Slow Motion Moral Collapse, or, the Principle of Magic?

Belief in magic did not cease when the coarser forms of superstitious practice ceased. The principle of magic is found whenever it is hoped to get results without intelligent control of means; and also when it is supposed that means can exist and yet remain inert and inoperative. In morals and politics such expectation still prevail, and in so far the most important phases of human action are still affected by magic. We think that by feeling strongly enough about something, by wishing hard enough, we can get a desirable result, such as virtuous execution of a good resolve, or peace among nations, or good will in industry. We slur over the necessity of the cooperative action of objective conditions, and the fact that this cooperation is assured only by persistent and close study. Or, on the other hand, we fancy we can get these results by external machinery, by tools or potential means, without a corresponding functioning of human desires and capacities. Often times these two false and contradictory beliefs are combined in the same person. The man who feels that his virtues are his own personal accomplishment is likely to be also the one who thinks that by passing laws he can throw the fear of God into others and make them virtuous by edict and prohibition.

-John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct

Primitive Accumulation; Or, A Virtual Read-In on the London Riots

The blogosphere has a million corners, countless nooks and several large echo-chambers, complete with their own centres of self-congratulatory gravity. All have been aflame over the last week, saturating events, riots and insurgencies with the weight of historical expectation, the political memory of past iteration and the awesome condescension of easy interpretation. Gaps persist: gender and the dynamics of formally opposed masculinities have escaped all but the most cursory attention. It is one paradox of all this profuse commentary that decrying the statements and manifestos of others is the most satisfying and patronising manifesto of all. At its worst, it engages in the fullest of narcissisms (let’s make this about us and the quality of our analysis) whilst proudly displaying its contempt for thought (now is not the time for theory!). And of course, the problems and challenges are real. Much more real than we can face, too real for the sordid postures of moralising (I denounce Satan and all his works!) and liable to stay as real once we paper over them and return to our default settings.

Oh, and I find myself in unsurprising agreement with Joe and Meera (although I think Ken Livingstone’s attempts to make the link to cuts and social marginalisation is more ham-fisted than shameful). Which is all by way of introduction. There are reams to be written on the way the punditocracy and assorted commentariat are deploying (and misapplying) categories of cause, the unstable and multiple uses made of ‘politics’, the questions of historical precedent and historical return, and on and on. Exhaustion at the war of position prevents any such post. Instead, a mix-tape of diagnosis and critique, with both the smooth joins and the subtle dissonances that implies. More useful than a 1,000 faux-fresh words.

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These looters are doing what they’re supposed to; grabbing the goods they see in the shops and can’t buy in a recession. They loot the bling – the sports shoes, gold watches, mobile phones and plasma TVs; and you can recognize the very poor when you see a woman looting potatoes from a corner shop. These acquisitive looters are certainly copying the gold standard of a social contract eroded by and evaporating with the money. These are riots in the cause of consumer goods. Burning and robbing other people’s things is one thing, but soon enough, and with no social cause or justice worth the name, people too become indistinguishable from things: witness the widely-circulated photo of the woman leaping for her life from a burning building; such potential deaths still threaten to bring the house down on top of us. This whole distressing episode began with the police shooting dead a black man in north London they said was a gunman; no evidence he fired a shot, we’re told, but the man was already indistinguishable from his gun.

Gabriel Gbadamosi, ‘The Blazing Light In August’

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