Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Unruly Politics in Unruly Times

The time is upon us - when the world is being turned upside down.
It can be seen in a million small interactions across the world.
Arab Spring. Donor organisations hastening to call themselves 'Southern'. And in a rather non-descript brick building at the University of Sussex, a room crowded with MA students and PhD students and staff at the Institute of Development Studies discuss 'unruly politics'. I've been to quite a fair number of IDS seminars, but this is my first one where an academic discourse was opened with a poem (is it time) set to the background of a song. A good beginning.

So what is this lens - this way of seeing the world that enables a juxtaposition of objects and motion and people that we have not been able to fully understand, appreciate or work with - for 'unruly politics' that my colleagues are trying to develop? They seek a framework of intersectionality. Something that can bring together race and class and sexuality. There seems to be something about these unruly times where what happens in one place - not just an idea or an idiom but the practices and processes of change over time - impact across scale and space in ways that have not occurred before. There is a growing recognition of the failures of capitalism within the West - even as BRICS continue to fly full-fledged ahead in their own variations of capitalism. They seek a politics where conflicts have a high level of legitimacy for the democratic process. It is shadows and discomfort and the hacker who is always one step ahead of Microsoft. A certain celebration of that which 'misbehaves' - and not only to celebrate, but to recognise the discomfort and a space for argumentation.

Looking around them, the researchers see a different kind of engagement of citizens with the sate; questions of representation, accountability and governance.... collective action of citizens in the form of movements. common to both : imagine politics to be about interests when it refer to the interests of individuals.
The state challenges these approaches: what are your demands? what is your leader? direct democracy a new voice of the people?
the voice of the collective was not being articulated through the logic of representation. the occupy movement, indiganodo, trafalgar square - they provide fundamental challenges to the way we understand politics in development. is it possible to hear that voice of the people, but they are not speaking in the same voice of the authorities. The body, the sexuality, becomes a place for substance and protest. A woman kisses the police man's helmet.
In their search to explain and find a framework for unruly politics, they went to Badiou, one of those impossible-to-read theoreticians who speaks to both mathematicians and philosophers. for this man, there is a return to seek truth and substance. But where do we find truth? In the abstract such as mathematics? There may be a moment of rupture, of revolution. There is, in general, an absorption of the unruly into the everyday. We can take for example Ghandi's mode of political action: the hunger strike, in which his own body becomes a way of speaking directly to the (im)moral economy. The British can not control this. But then that same experience of the hunger strike has since become so common in south-east asian political protest that it is taken up by those who are closer to the everyday protests and can take on a nearly staged effect. So older ideas come to be incorporated into new ones. We might be able to see this as a series of successes; or a series of failures. The unruly suggests modalities of political action. What are the conditions of those modalities? Social media is of course one of the current modalities of political action. Twitter starts as a way for the US military to communicate within itself and is taken up by the outside world and turned against the US military and the London Riots are co-ordinated by social media. There is a centrality of the body in these unruly politics.

The body, technology, moral economies (a claim to justice that is beyond the law and beyond politics as it is defined) and 'conceptualising a true politics in cynical times'. The last is worth teasing out - there is a cynicism about the potential of any political act. And yet people are seeking 'true politics'.

I appreciate the focus on the arts: the recognition that if we are, indeed, at the beginning of yet-another-new-world, we must dig into that part of ourselves that can infinitely create from the creative destruction around us. The need for continual creation and re-creation resonates across sectors, from science and innovation at this time.

But more than anything else, what struck me from the seminar is that this framework is giving students and staff here at IDS a space to seriously engage in these alternative ideas that move away from the technocratic bureaucracies reflected in programmes or projects. They were able to relate the theory to their personal lives, from Pakistan to Northern Indian tea plantations, and in so doing their experiences were greatly enriched. Regardless of the framework they are developing, just the chance to discuss the links between Occupy and Southern Movements is a real contribution to the individuals and the communities gathered here.