Reconstructing Human Rights

The first in a forum on Joe’s recently released Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry in Global Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming days.


hoover-reconstructing-human-rights-cover1Earlier this year I visited Sylvia’s Corner, the home of the Focus E15 campaign, to give a talk about the human right to housing. As I shared my research, based on work I had done with housing campaigns in Chicago and Washington DC, I was struck by how this specific moment illustrated what I most hope Reconstructing Human Rights might accomplish—namely, helping to reconstruct human rights as a more democratic idea, and practice.

In London, Focus E15 has been fighting for the human rights of those struggling to secure a decent home for themselves and their families, often struggling against the very public agencies who should be assisting them. Their work not only draws on an ethical and political language of human rights, but it also remakes that language, renders it suitable to their needs and responsive to their experiences. I have witnessed this same process with other campaigns, such as the  Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, and with community organising groups like ONE DC in Washington DC. It was revealing to act, even briefly, as a conduit through which the experiences of these distant groups could be relayed. Human rights are constantly being remade, repurposed—reconstructed—to serve the ends of those suffering from injustice. It is this reality that motivates my book, which is at its core an attempt to understand how human rights can be both an instrument of the privileged and powerful, and also a weapon for the oppressed and disempowered. I wrote this book because I wanted to know, what should we make of human rights?

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Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future

The third post, and second guest, in the Disorder’s forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future. Joseph Kay writes on climate change and libertarian communism with the collaborative blog Out of the Woods.


Having drafted the following comment on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ (henceforth S&W) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, it reads more critically than I expected. In mitigation, I should say that I’m on-board with many of the key themes of the book. I am wholly sympathetic to anti-work politics, generally in favour of automating away toil (with qualifications which will become apparent), and agree that the replacement of global capitalism requires scalability, comfort with complexity, long-term strategy, utopian imagination, and a plurality of organisational forms and infrastructure.

The critical tenor of what follows arises less from disagreement as such, than from my focus on what appear to be the ecological silences in the text. In particular, I focus on the implied conception of nature imported through S&W’s adoption of an avowedly modern rhetoric of progress and control, and on the unmentioned premises of both the project of full automation, and their more general contention that “we are usually not better off taking the precautionary path” (p.177). My argument is not to reject a high-tech, low-work future, but to outline some of the problems to be addressed in rendering such a ‘hyperstitional’ image ecological.

Modernity and the Ideology of Nature

Early on in Inventing the Future, S&W summarise their thesis:

If complexity presently outstrips humanity’s capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity’s capacities. We endorse the latter position.

Read in an ecological light, the conjunction of ‘think and control’ affords two readings. The first and obvious reading is that their argument is situated within what Neil Smith called the ideology of nature. Smith argued that the ideology of nature had two poles. The first, a modernising politico-theological argument which saw scientific progress as the means to conquer and subdue nature. Here, the imaginary is mechanical, and separation from – as dominion over – nature is understood as an emancipatory process.

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Reading across the ‘Colour Line’: Texts, Traditions, and Academic Solidarity

ShowFullImageA guest post by Prof Gurminder K Bhambra, University of Warwick

Four incidents in the last week have caused me to check the calendar and confirm that I hadn’t accidentally time-travelled back a generation. Debates on which I had believed there to have been some (positive) movement over the last couple of decades seem to have made such little impact on many colleagues that it was as if the earlier debates had never happened. I outline the first three incidents briefly before going on to discuss the fourth in greater detail; I do so in order to reflect on their implications and consequences for academic work and engagement.

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bebop-2014-flyer-names-low-resA community statement was circulated by colleagues in Germany protesting against the development of an academic programme of Black Studies that did not include Black scholars or thinkers or engage with Black scholarship. It seems astonishing, in 2015, to have to rehearse the arguments, again, about why setting up a programme addressing the distinct experiences of a particular group of people and not including people – academics, activists, and others – who have had such experiences and have produced scholarship articulating that experience is problematic. Just so that people don’t misunderstand me here: I am NOT saying that only people with the experience can ever study or talk about such experiences. However, I am saying that to set up a programme for study without the participation of people whose experiences and writing are putatively central to it is problematic. There has been so much discussion on this topic that to repeat the mistakes of earlier times seems deliberately willful and it is this willfulness that requires to be addressed.

Since starting to write this piece, the director of the programme has disbanded it, apparently temporarily, in favour of an open debate about how to move forward in light of the criticisms being raised. Instead of disbanding, why not restructure on the basis of the criticisms and by taking them into account? They are not new.

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europeislamSecondly, the professional association that I consider to be my academic ‘home’ has advertised its forthcoming annual conference theme as ‘Fragmented Societies: Migrating Peoples’. As another colleague suggested, why not just call it ‘Migrating Peoples Fragmenting Societies’ and do away with the niceties and apparent distance created through the use of the colon. Thus far, there has been no response from the professional association to the suggestion that the wording of the conference theme be changed to avoid it sounding like a UKIP-sponsored conference.

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The third incident involves the setting up of expert panels at an international conference where all the experts chosen are from north America. There is not a single all-male panel; but all the panelists on all four panels are white. When concern about this was expressed on social media, one response was:

“Moronic tokenism, mk 2. Not satisfied with gender equality on panels at XXX? Rant about people’s skin colour instead”

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What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: Poststructural and Postcolonial Thought

…(drumroll)… We are collectively joyous at being able to introduce a new contributor to The Disorder Of Things: Robbie Shilliam, currently at the Victoria University of Wellington and author of a slightly staggering array of critical texts (on the impact of German intellectuals on IR; the Black Atlantic in modernity; the Haitian Revolution; race and sovereignty; and the imperatives of decolonial thinking, among others). Cross-posted at Fanon/Deleuze.


At the recent ISA conference in Montreal, I participated in a lively, weighty and difficult roundtable on postcolonial and poststructural approaches to International Relations. Alina Sajed had supplied the panellists with a provocation by way of refuting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s famous injunction that Europe was the inadequate and indispensible to frame the epistemological constellations of “modernity”. Sajed challenged the panellists to debate whether Europe was in fact dispensable as well as inadequate. There was certainly a spectrum of opinions given and positions taken on the function, possibility and desirability of the relationship between poststructural and postcolonial approaches. As a form of reflection I would like to lay out some thoughts by way of clarifying for myself what the stakes at play are in this discussion and where it might productively lead.

For myself I do not read the Europe that Chakrabarty considers in terms of the historical expansion and exercise of material colonial power. I read it in terms of a fantasy that captures the imagination. At stake is a conception of the whys, hows and shoulds of people suffering, surviving, accommodating, avoiding, resisting and diverting the colonial relation and its many neo- and post- articulations. In this particular respect, I take Frantz Fanon’s position and agree with Sajed: “Europe” must be dispensed with. In any case, as Ashis Nandy has shown, the monopolisation of the meaning of Europe by a fascistic figure (rational, male, hyper-patriarchal, white, civilized, propertied) has required the re-scripting of the pasts of peoples in Europe and a concomitant distillation of the traditions of European thought themselves so as to accord to this fantasy figure. Europe is a fantasy through and through, but one that damages different peoples with different intensities. And those who look in a mirror and experience no significant cognitive dissonance when they proclaim “European” can still count themselves, to different degrees, as being a thoughtful protagonist in a contested human drama. For others, there is only the promise of living this drama vicariously through the thought of others. That is why “Europe” is dispensable, even though for some peoples Europe has never been indispensible; regardless, it must be dispensed with.

Let me explain a little more what I mean by all of this. Europe is first and foremost a sense of being that constructs its empathy and outreach in terms of a self whereby all who cannot intuitively be considered of European heritage are categorized into two entities. First, they might be the “other” – foils to the understanding of the self. Their emptied presence is to be filled as the verso to the internal constitution of the European self. If they are lucky, they are given a kind of non-speaking part in the drama. In fact, they usually are lucky. Much critical European thought – and certainly almost all of canonized European thought – speaks volumes about the ”other” but only so as to fill in the European “self” with greater clarity.

Second, they might be the “abject” – the entity that is impossible for the self to bear a relationship to, although even this impossibility will be instructive to the inquiring European self. Abjects, under the European gaze, are reduced to a primal fear out of which an intensity of feeling is engendered that wills the drama of human (European) civilization. Defined in excess to the other/abject, the internal life of the European self can substitute itself for humanity at large in all times and spaces, and develop itself as a richly contradictory being that overflows its meaning and significance.

I do not know whether other colonialisms predating and contemporaneous to the European project matched this audacity. And in a significant sense, it really does not – and should not – matter. After all, the lure of making comparison is the precise methodology through which the European self overflows to define all others by a lack. I do though want to hazard a particular claim at this point, which might or might not bear up to scrutiny: the prime “others” of European colonialism were the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And while we owe much to Kristeva’s work on the term, the prime “abjects” of European colonialism were the enslaved Africans bought over to the Americas.

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New Scholarship on Human Rights

Human rights in politics and academia is ubiquitous and the literature on it ever-expanding. Yet much of what I hear and read is much of a piece, which is why I thought it would be interesting to highlight three (relatively) recent books that, I think, are developing the most interesting studies and new understandings of human rights. The texts don’t represent a cohesive agenda but rather reveal lines of connection through three (at least) different disciplines – and as I suggest below, collectively they contribute to an important and emerging way of rethinking human rights, particularly for those who are critical of the role human rights play in justifying the actions of powerful states and coercive interventions.

The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local, edited by Mark Goodale & Sally Engle  Merry (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Human Rights and Social Movements, by Neil Stammers (Pluto Press, 2009)

Silencing Human Rights: Critical Engagements with a Contested Project, edited by Gurminder K. Bhambra & Robbie Shilliam (Palgrave, 2009)

My own research on human rights is in global ethics and international political theory, but I have found myself increasing dissatisfied with the account of human rights as a political practice offered in many contemporary works. Within philosophy and political theory, empirically grounded human rights research is particularly lacking, but even within political science and international law there is a dearth of good critical work based in historical or contemporary analysis of how human rights are actually put to use. Continue reading