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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Bad Infinity?: Hans J. Morgenthau’s Double Critique of Depoliticisation

VassiliosA guest post from Vassilios Paipais, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Vassilios holds a PhD in International Relations from the LSE and has published in Review of International Studies, International Politics and Millennium, and held various teaching posts at the LSE, SOAS, UCL and the University of Edinburgh. His work focuses on International Relations theory and international political theology. He is also co-founder of Euro Crisis in the Press and Associate to the LSE IDEAS Southern Europe International Affairs programme. You can read his Euro Crisis posts here, as well as follow him on Twitter.

This post is based on a recently published article in Millennium where he explores the implications of post-foundational political ontology for IR via a reading of Martin Heidegger and Oliver Marchart.


Hans Morgenthau

Post-foundational political thought offers the conceptual tools to theorise the experience of dislocation in politics signified by the difference as such between politics and the political. According to Žižek, the political designates the “moment of openness, of undecidability when the very structuring principle of society, the fundamental form of the social pact is called into question” whereas politics describes the positively determined outcome of that process, a “subsystem of social relations in interaction with other sub-systems”. The difference as such between politics and the political implies that any effort to cancel this gap or gloss it over by using ethical, political, juridical or economic arguments is nothing else but an attempt to hegemonise the social by ideologically displacing politics. The political signifies the moment of grounding/de-grounding of the social that is suppressed or forgotten by the operation of politics but can be reactivated at any time through dislocation and antagonism. Politics is incessantly trying to colonise the political but we are each time painfully reminded that an unbridgeable chasm separates the two. It is exactly the irresolvability of this gap that makes politics the name for a paradoxical enterprise which is both impossible and inevitable – which is why none has ever witnessed ‘pure politics’ either. The political cannot be brought about voluntaristically but, whenever we act, it is as if we always activate it or, better, we are always enacted by it. Both gestures of eliminating the force of the political (post-politics) or of introducing it unmediated into politics (total war, revolutionary terror) end up abolishing the political difference and ultimately result in an ideological displacement of politics.

Against this backdrop, I read the sophisticated realism of Hans Morgenthau as a promising but inconclusive attempt at a post-foundationalism political ontology. In fact, I argue that by equally shunning a facile surrender either to the immanence of power (ultra-politics) or to the technologisation of politics (post-politics), Morgenthau’s theory of the political strove to maintain a reflexive fidelity to the logic of political difference as such. At this point, the question naturally arises: why Morgenthau? Isn’t he the archetypical exponent of a tradition that prioritises a static view of international relations and the adoration of power politics? Well, for those who have been following the recent revisionist literature on classical realism, not really; Morgenthau, in contrast, emerges as an apparent candidate to discuss the crisis of foundationalism in (international) political thought and the paradox of its necessity and impossibility, not least because he is one of those rare thinkers that offers no facile solution to, or redemption from, the existential anxiety caused by the interrogation of ultimate foundations in late modernity.

Such an exercise highlights the strong affinities between Morgenthau and critical historicist currents in social and political theory, but this would come as a surprise only to those who equate Morgenthau’s realism with stasis and conservatism and are ignorant of his debt to the thought of Dilthey, Mannheim and Nietzsche. And yet, why inconclusive? Short answer: because of his failure to be radical enough in his Kantian antinomism or, to put it reversely, in his Nietzschean skepticism. And yet, my intention is not to award or withhold credentials of criticality, nor to indict Morgenthau for failing to live up to standards that he never set for himself. On the contrary, in an authentic act of immanent criticism, one does not seek to oppose the other(s) but, instead, to bring out a certain ‘internal contradiction’ to them, in a sense repeat all that they are saying but for an entirely different reason. The purpose of this critique is not to identify shortcomings in Morgenthau’s arguments but to interrogate the ‘transcendental’ conditions of his discourse: that which is in it more than itself. My thoughts on Morgenthau’s unfinished project then should be seen as a propaedeutic towards an investigation of the conditions and challenges involved in practicing international theory as a constant critique of depoliticisation.

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It’s Really Kicking Off In Quebec

Despite some news coverage and discussions on Twitter, we’ve seen little on the continuing educational and political crisis in Quebec. Hence, a guest post from our friend and colleague Philippe Fournier. Philippe teaches political thought and International Relations at the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Montréal. He has published research on Foucault and International Relations, Governmentality in the contemporary United States and Violence and Responsibility. He is currently working on the government of security in the US and on the theoretical conflation of sovereign power and government in Foucault. His other research interests include critical cultural theory and political economy.


A little background info and some thoughts on the student crisis in Quebec, which has been going on for 101 days now and shows no signs of waning in the face of the government’s disturbing intransigence. The recent adoption of Bill 78, which circumvents the right to protest without prior notice and gives the police the right to change a demonstration’s itinerary, among other things, has shocked and angered many Quebecers and made the news worldwide. On Tuesday May 22, over 250 000 people expressed their discontent with the current government and it was quite a sight.

Ever since the ‘quiet revolution’ in the early 1960s, which saw the institution of important social provisions and the attribution of several socio-economic entitlements to the francophone majority, Quebec has been holding fast to its social-democratic heritage. Jean Charest’s liberal party, in power since 2003, is determined to fight off the modern-day antichrist of debt and rationalise state activity. The Charest government’s attack on hard fought social entitlements, including accessible post-secondary education (Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in Canada), has been going steady since 2003 but has intensified since 2008. Quebecers were told that it was no longer reasonable to expect affordable public services and that it was high time that we join the pay as you go party.

What is at play in this conflict is no less than the fate of social-democratic expectations in Quebec. These expectations are actively discouraged and discredited by the current political elite. The demands for a tuition freeze by sizeable portions of Quebec’s students are considered unreasonable in many quarters, and seen as a plane expression of bad faith and overindulgence by a majority of Canadians, seemingly stuck in a Stephen Harper induced stupor. The words ‘pragmatic’, ‘realistic’ and ‘rational’ have been duly appropriated by the partisans of deregulation, free-enterprise and individual responsibility. Any suggestions that the latter orientations are based on an ideological choice are ridiculed; they simply express a sounder and more logical way to manage society.

Up to now, there seemed to be a dour resignation to the decimation of our social programs. This young generation of Quebecers, which many had touted as completely apathetic and apolitical, has taken a resolute stand against restricting access to a public good, against the further commodification of knowledge and against the uncompromising law and order approach of an arrogant and irresponsible government. Those that have taken to the streets day after day and sacrificed their terms and put their professional lives on hold for the students that will come after them, have shown extraordinary resilience and bravery. It came as a surprise to many, because they did it on their own, with little or no help from their political science professors, who have long abandoned critical thinking for functionalist replications of reality sanctioned by government money.

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Has the Left given up on Economics?

With the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression continuing to slowly unfold, one of the most surprising consequences has been a non-event: the dearth of high-quality economic theorizing in leftist groups. [1] This is in spite of the opportunity the crisis presents for alternative economies, and in spite of the economic conundrum that developed economies find themselves in: too indebted for stimulus and too weak for austerity. This differend between austerity and stimulus indexes the insufficiency of either and yet few have taken up the necessity of thinking proper alternatives.

The leftist response to the economic crisis has instead been mostly been to focus on piecemeal reactions against government policies. The student movement arose as a response to tuition fee and EMA changes; the right to protest movement arose as a response to heavy-handed police treatment; and leftist parties have suggested a mere moderation of existing government policies. The project to bring about a fully different economic system has been shirked in favour of smaller-scale protests. There is widespread critique, but little construction.

Admittedly, the left is not entirely devoid of high-level economic theorizing. Rather, the more specific problem is that those few who do such work are a relatively tiny minority and are typically marginalized within the leftist scene. The attention and effort of the leading intellects of leftism (at least in the UK) are on social issues, race issues, rights issues, and identity issues. All important, to be sure, but there is no equivalent attention paid to economic issues.

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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

Human Rights In Crisis?

UPDATE (8 September 2014): Anthony is now with us permanently, but originally wrote this as a guest post after a stint as a Senior Visiting Fellow at the LSE in 2010, where most of us met him. It was in London that he presented an early version of this argument to the IR theory seminar. A response by our own Joe followed shortly afterwards.


One should not judge a book by its cover, but it is certainly possible to get some sense of the state of a field of study on the basis of the titles of recent books. In the case of the study of human rights, this is quite an interesting exercise: at a time when many claim that human rights proponents have never had it better – the term now has great political respectability and legitimacy; human rights NGOs are thriving; the study of human rights takes place in all the great centres of learning and is taken seriously by previously sceptical disciplines (philosophy, anthropology, international relations). At such a time, one of apparent triumph, there has been a spate of titles which give precisely the opposite impression.

Can human rights survive? What is the future for human rights? Who believes in human rights? Does God believe in human rights? At least two titles claim that human rights are in crisis with one of these playing telos off against demise in questioning the end of human rights. This theme is continued with the important but ironic idea that human rights have been silenced – ironic and paradoxical given their loud presence in all manner of global fora. For many, the success of human rights is a triumph of appearance over substance, and what is often most disturbing to commentators (apart from the obvious hypocrisies of human rights politics) is the absence of a coherent theoretical basis for human rights – a question which in turn can only really be answered by going back to more basic questions regarding the idea of justice.

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What We Talked About At ISA: The Monstrous Masculine: War Rape, Race/Gender, and the Figure of the Rapacious African Warrior

If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is the desire – one might indeed say the need – in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.

Chinua Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa’ (1978)

Sometimes it seems that we’re merely Constructions made out of yarn, paper & wood with threads rising from our toes and fingertips. We pretend to talk and act as though we were alive but actually we don’t have any choice in the matter. Some secret power directs us.

Evan S. Connell, The Diary Of A Rapist (1966)

1. Rape, Ultra-Violence and Beethoven

When we speak of men in feminism, we might speak generally or specifically, of properties of maleness and masculinity or of things done by particular men (and usually some combination of the two). What is at stake is the distinction between masculinity as a set of internal properties and as a set of relational, and hence contingent, ones. Although this can be taken as denying any substance at all to that category ‘man’, it is perhaps just as well to say that we all build our own subdivided orders of maleness – from men we know, knew, or think we are; from our salient models of true and false and ambiguous masculinity; from the postures and poses we take as appropriate towards them; and from the frames we adopt for dealing with variety, with all the space for the exemplar, the exception, the masquerade and the average that they bring.

The monstrous masculine is one such model, or rather a set of models united by family resemblance. An object of horror, the monstrous masculine is a repository for tropes that identify the hideous excesses and obscene pleasures of maleness. Channelling Barbara Creed (and some Sjoberg and Gentry), it is a set of tropes and themes in our imaginaries of social action, frequently evoking, among others, ideas of a limitless and aggressive sexuality, a cold and calculating self-regard and/or a submerged, if frequently actualised, hatred of women and Woman that borders on the instinctual. In accounts of wartime sexual violence, this figure of the rapacious warrior (usually African) comes to be represented in terms of the calculating soldier-strategist (who chooses rape as a hyper-efficient means to an accumulatory end); the angry soldier-rapist (expressing a deep desire and sexuality); or the habitual soldier-ritualist (enacting the memes and symbolic imperatives of a community, culture or even race).

Think of the figure of the unreason-laced psychopath rapist, whether in the version Joanna Bourke examines as the ‘rapacious degenerate’ or that which Susan Brownmiller addresses as the ‘police-blotter rapist’: “[t]he typical American perpetrator of forcible rape…little more than an aggressive, hostile youth who chooses to do violence to women”. Such protagonists are common in popular representations of rape. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex and his droogs prowl the streets and lanes of town and country, opportunistically submitting the unlucky to attacks driven by a relentless juvenile machismo. And in the scandalous Irréversible, rape is also the product of a subterranean drive. ‘Le Tenia’ does not even search his victim for money as an afterthought – his priorities are only to enact his spontaneous lust and be called ‘daddy’ as he does so.

The monstrous masculine unites conceptions and intimations of masculinity as pathology. This is the Real of a “terrifying dimension, as the primordial abyss which swallows everything, dissolving all identities”. Put otherwise, it embodies in its most psychoanalytic inflection the idea (following Nick Cave) that the desire to possess her is a wound.

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