Emancipation without agenda? A review of the 2015 roundtable

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Philipp Lottholz (University of Birmingham) organised a roundtable on Thursday 14th May 2015, entitled ‘Emancipation without agenda? – The recovery of non-Western subjecthood and its implications for the study of world politics‘.

This discussion assembled scholars from different fields and of diverse regional expertise to present the different forms of non-Western subjecthood that they identify or envisage in order to discuss the possibility and constellations of non-Western subjecthood and corresponding forms of agency. The event thus made an attempt to link recent theoretical debates about a ‘post-Western’ IR with insights from other disciplines to show how post-colonial agency operates both within the framework of the international state system, but also appears in more diffuse and less obvious ways that serve to challenge and re-shape this system. Here Philipp gives his reflections.

Multiple, fragmented, but inevitable: On the possibilities and limits of decolonial subjecthood

On 14 May 2015 I had the pleasure to organise a round table hosted and funded by the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, to discuss the idea of non-Western subjecthood and the implications of such a subjecthood for the study of world politics. The idea for such a discussion emerged when I attended a discussion at this year’s ISA global convention in New Orleans, which was dedicated to John M Hobson’s book The Eurocentric conception of world politics. A work of great intellectual depth and unique empirical analysis, the book and its author were still confronted with one core criticism, or at least hint as to what a decolonial research agenda ought to focus on. Hobson painstakingly reveals the racism and Eurocentric institutionalism that constitutes the very essence of world politics in the last century, as well a lot of thinking in the discipline of IR. Still, once this analytical view is established and consolidated, a decolonial agenda remains still to be forged. This is especially necessary given the (implicitly) Eurocentric substance that even critical theory approaches expose, as shown by HobsonSabaratnam and others. What could such a decolonial approach look like, then? Based on readings and discussions such as the round table back in May, it seems to me that decolonial subjecthood is the framing that can help us to find what we are looking for when asking who or what can realise the potential for a decolonial agenda both in academic inquiry but also in our political life. Still, such a subjecthood might be inherently limited, fragmented and multiple, making it hard to pin down and pull together into a solid, common effort. The following aspects of decolonial subjecthood, as partly discussed on the above round table, are worth considering. The main idea about decolonial subjecthood is to envisage in the way that comes to mind in the first instant. As I will show, the postcolonial subjects in the sense of persons or states may indeed not be the sole, or not even prime carriers of a decolonisation. On the contrary, decolonial subjecthood should be seen as a string of consciousness, thinking and agency that is hard to trace but constantly and inevitably at work.

Colonial-capitalist superego? The problem with postcolonial liberation

One would think that the last 60, 70 years offer abundant material for talking not only about postcolonial liberation but also the decolonisation effect they had. It appears, however, that these liberation struggles and, much more, the regimes that emerged out of them, fall short in terms of political and spiritual decolonisation – at best. At worst, on the other hand, it can be said that they perpetuate the colonialist-capitalist system that they purport to fight. It is worth flagging up two cases in point.

Vivienne Jabri has provided a good example of how the postcolonial subject can be traced and identified in those people who have taken their fate into their own hands and initiated the Arab uprisings. The latter might be seen to constitute the most significant recent upheaval in the name of social and political equality. Still the Arab spring also appears to be uncomfortably inconsistent and ineffective in terms of the trajectory it has affected. Rather than creating more equal and free, not to say emancipated, societies; turmoil, political disorder or recession into similarly authoritarian configurations appear to have become almost normality in the respective countries. The fragmentation and multiple instrumentalisation of the Arab spring agendas points to the fact that without unity and a clear common denominator, there is no way of realising a decolonial agenda.

Another, yet more global example are the independence movements throughout the postcolonial world. It is true that they might have contested the racist and colonising ideologies of western countries. On the other hand, it also appears that they partly reproduced these exact ideologies in their effort to create and consolidate social order of their own. The inherent problem of decolonising our world, if not a source of impossibility of doing so, is the capitalist-colonialist system that has been inscribed into societies across the globe, not only since the ascent and reign of western imperialism. Trajectories of postcolonial political liberation fit, more often than not, well in Zizek’s analysis of the inevitable catastrophe precipitated by the superego: The more postcolonial liberation movements tried to evade and emancipate themselves from the colonial-capitalist system, the more they ended up reinscribing it into their societies in the effort to generate enough momentum to withstand global (neo-)liberal integration. A case in point are the BRICS (but also any other ‘emerging’) countries and the levels of poverty, human slavery and precarious life they exhibit. Indeed, China is the best example put forward again by Zizek, as it rejects interference and attempts to make it comply with human rights standards, and thus manages to create the recently most successful model of capitalism. This is not, however, to conceal the fact that western powers, and also the second world, massively manipulated, steered and sometimes coerced these movements and thus made them what they were. The deaths and forced removal of liberation leaders like the DRC’s first legally elected president Patrice Lumumba or Mozambique’s socialist president Machel put their respective countries on very different trajectories, for sure. But this does not mean that countries that keep their strong and charismatic leader (and back him through a referendum), are able to forge their own path of recovery, development and integration. This has consistently been shown throughout Africa’s postcolonial history and, in an ironic parallel, is even witnessed in Europe as of late.

Strategic anti-essentialism: Decolonial subjecthood as an amorphous ‘non-unit’

The conclusion then is that any attempt to scale up, solidify, and make tangible an emancipatory, not to speak of decolonial, approach is potentially dangerous as it might become instrumentalised and inverted by hegemonic agendas. This finding was consolidated, among others, by Alberto Moreiras who sums up discussion from cultural studies finding that identity politics a la postcolonial liberation movements will not create much more than counter-hegemonies, which will be complicit with the capitalist colonial system:

a strategically conceived identity politics is doomed to failure not simply because it can never be strong enough to counter neoliberalism, but rather because it is not different from it: it belongs to its logic, it is produced by it. … A counter-politics of the local, insofar as it is itself a result of the movement of global capital, is always essentially open to hijacking by the movement of global capital itself: it can be tamed and reduced to a mere mechanism for identity consumption in much the same way as one is prompted to consume products of various kinds.

These inherent limits of political, social and economic liberation movements – given their inevitable embeddedness in a capitalist-colonialist global system – should make us refocus. Rather than trying to create a movement, organisation, or body, it seems that subjecthood is the most unit, or even non-unit, in which decolonial thinking and agency can take place with the least interference. Moreiras invokes a ‘specific structure of subaltern consciousness within (capitalist) modernity’, a subaltern or ‘double consciousness’ as invoked by Paul Gilroy and W.E.B. Du Bois, which is situated in a hybrid realm in between hegemony and counter-hegemony.

It is worth pursuing the idea of such a subaltern, sophisticated strategy, which does not, in Spivak’s sense, use essentialisms when they appear handy, but which capitalises on the advantages of not constituting or declaring itself in an explicit manner at all. In this sense, thinking decolonisation in our heads, living it in our lives and social relations, exploring it in our research – such things seem to constitute the most subaltern and literally undercover approach in which we can decolonise our world. These, and other items that appear tangible and empirically observable, make up what can be called subjecthood. It is dispersed across time and space, it is multiple and momentous. Hence, it is also inherently limited if not ephemeral. But it is also irresistible and indestructible. It is, in Foucault’s dictum, the resistance ever present where there is power.

Departing from this idea, and on the basis of significant body of work of postcolonial scholars such as Fanon, Balibar and Cesaire, a more active(ist) pathway of forging the decolonisation our minds and ultimately the world we live in, is possible. It would entail the adoption of different strategies as individual teacher, researcher, activist or as individual in general. On said roundtable, Olivia Rutazibwa introduced her strategies that can be pursued in such an endeavour, namely de-silencing voices unheard in the accounts of the world we know and pass on, de-mythologising the usual assumptions and givens that we work with and live by, and thus decolonising the web of political-economic relations in which we live and which we reproduce. These strategies are useful tools in many life situations, both in teaching, in talking to friends, and making personal decisions.

But as the term suggests, they are just one set of strategies alongside others, which might be more complicit with the racist and governmentalising world we live in. And further, as human beings, we may be susceptible to forget to keep using these strategies, might sustain them for periods and in relation to hopeless cases. Even worse we might be complacent of our not being racist or otherwise complicit with the global order that we reproduce – including all its marginalisations and exclusions. All of this compounds the issue of double, or, multiple consciousness of individuals, which potentially render decolonisation efforts temporary and inconsistent. This is the downside of an anti-essentialism that dispenses with a consolidated, unified body of knowledge and theory, the cultivation of which is advocated and investigated by Robbie Shilliam, for instance. Such a manifestation and consolidation of decolonial knowledge is at least possible in the academic and more intellectual world. The ‘lay’ part of our global population (or at least people not discussing these things as explicitly), will espouse decolonial thinking in an inevitably frail, momentous and dynamic way. This trajectory will of course be subject to mechanisms of consumer markets and the political economy of knowledge. At the very least, it is worth keeping an eye on the multiple consciousnesses and agencies this gives rise to.

The practicality of forging decolonial subjecthood

Once again, institutionalising de- and anticolonial thinking may be an even more effective way, as the creation of new study programmes, departments and organisations (such as the CPD group) shows. It might be desirable to create conditions to secure researchers’, activists’, and people’s livelihoods and give them an opportunity to practise decolonisation as their main and bread-winning activity. I am personally the last one to oppose any material and financial means being employed for doing so. But still, the question remains as to how much it is possible to decouple such structures from the capitalist-colonialist-racist system that we live in. It comes back to the old question of whether having an academic debate or doing work in academic institutions is even remotely relevant and conducive to affecting such a trajectory in the ‘real’ world. On the contrary, the funding received for such activities is yet more money that is not spent on devising strategies and concrete approaches of unlearning the silences, myths and mental colonisation, or on actual activities targeted at helping people to do so. Yet, discussing further pathways of decolonial approaches to theory and practice is a vital precondition for further forging this agenda. It can generate concrete ideas both for academic research and concrete activism.

If you'd like to find out about this roundtable in a different format, there is also a podcast:

University of Birmingham · Emancipation without agenda?