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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International Relations versus Punk Rock

Today I was re-reading a piece by Kevin Dunn, “Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication,” and it lead me to wonder how far one’s route into the study of world politics affects how one perceives the “object” of inquiry. Dunn starts out by stating:

I am increasingly concerned about the ways that International Relations (IR) as a discipline seems unable to communicate to everyday citizens about issues of tremendous importance. I am repeatedly struck by our inability to speak to the people whose lives are affected daily by the issues we are supposed to be studying. More importantly, I am struck by how irrelevant we and our work can seem to the world’s population.

In 2003, I grappled quite openly and vocally with this alienation. The annual International Studies Association (ISA) Conference was being held in Portland, Oregon that year. Throughout the hallowed halls of the soul-numbing conference hotel, the discipline of IR was displaying its strengths and weaknesses. The US and its ‘ coalition of the willing’ were on the verge of invading Iraq. But within the ISA, there was little attempt to grapple with what this meant. My few attempts to stage some form of protest and intellectual outrage proved heart-warming but ineffectual. Then, at the end of the week, I went to a punk club a few blocks from the hotel to see a Joe Strummer tribute show. Joe Strummer, the frontman for the Clash, had died suddenly a few months before, and now over twenty bands from all over the region were coming together to play a benefit show. Each band performed two or three Clash songs; one band getting up after the other, sharing amps and a drum set. On stage, the bands were using the songs to make sense of the dangerous world we all found ourselves in. The in-between song banter reflected this – comments about President George W. Bush, remarks about American fascism, concerns about the impending war on Iraq, and pleas to register to vote. The kids in the club were using the Clash and punk rock, much as I did years before, to help them understand the world they were inheriting. While the discipline of IR pontificated down the street to itself about world affairs, I swirled in the mosh pit wondering: what relevance did I and the ISA have to these kids? Sadly, it seemed to me that we as a discipline were doing a poor job communicating with most of the people outside that conference hotel.

Leaving aside Dunn’s very interesting analysis of punk rock’s role as a form of counter-hegemonic global communication and subversive political message, the opening lines resonated in a profound way for me, as I share Dunn’s experience of punk music providing a frame for engaging with world politics. This leads me to the question: how does our route into the study of world politics affect our work? Continue reading