The Priority of Injustice

So, finally, the book that I have been writing, on and off, for the last four years, The Priority of Injustice, has been published.  It arrived earlier this week – a rather hectic week, which has oddly meant I have been too busy to experience the strange sense of anti-climax that often accompanies the arrival of the finished form of something that you have been making for so long.

This is, in one sense, my Exeter book – the first thing I did in my very first week here, four years ago, was write the proposal and send it off to prospective publishers, It’s also, though, my Swindon book, a book which attempts to articulate an approach to theorising in an ordinary spirit which has been published just a few weeks after moving away from that very ordinary town where I have lived while writing it.

It’s a beautiful object, with a great cover image, by Helen Burgess (I bought one of her pictures once, in one of those open-house art trail events that you get in places like Bishopston in Bristol, so that’s why I knew of her work; it turns out she is part of a geography-friendly network of artists). And I am honoured and humbled to have the book published in University Georgia Press’s very excellent Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series.

I’m now faced with the challenge of promoting the book. I’m quite fond of the Coetzee-esque principle that books should have to make their own way in the world without the help of the author; on the other hand, I have some sense of responsibility towards the argument made in the book, a responsibility to help project it into the world. I’ve already realised that it’s not the sort of book that lends itself to an easy press release – ‘THEORY COULD BE THEORISED DIFFERENTLY’, SAYS THEORY-BOY doesn’t really work as a headline, does it?.

The book doesn’t even have any empirical case studies in it, upon which to hang a more popular pitch. It doesn’t really have much more than passing references to some real-world examples. In this respect, I might have broken one of the cardinal rules of writing in GeographyLand. But the book is about the different forms of theoreticism that one finds in contemporary political thought, where that refers to the ways in which  appeal to preconstructed examples is used to confirm ready-made philosophical perspectives. So, as a matter of principle, I couldn’t very well reproduce that same gesture myself.

I realise that this might sound defensive, although in this respect I’m in good company. Kant, in the Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason, starts by apologising for not having any examples or illustrations, which he knows would have helped the reader along (if you live and work among geographers, his discussion is actually very funny – it indicates that Kant really was a proper geographer, haunted by the same anxieties about ‘real world examples’ that we have drummed into us all the time!). I am going to resist the temptation to lay claim to his defence that “many a book would have been clearer if it had not made such an effort to be clear”. I am inclined instead to appeal to another grand Theory Master, Talcott Parsons (great name) – Parsons, in his 1968 Introduction to a new edition of The Structure of Social Action, also responds to the accusation that his work was all theory and no empirics – his book, he asserted, was “an empirical study in the analysis of social thought”, which treats the writings of various thinkers as “documents” that “present problems of understanding and interpretation”. Had I read that before I finished my own book, I would have used it, but I didn’t, but I am certainly going to use it a lot from now on. It’s pretty much exactly how I conceive what I am doing in The Priority of Injustice. This is not, mind, merely a matter of exegesis – it’s more like something described by Yi-Fu Tuan, in another preface (I do read past the first few pages of some books), to his Dominance and Affection. He describes his book as an essay, a preliminary undertaking that imaginatively lays out ideas, as a first step towards the focus on specific problems and their analysis. I see my book as doing a bit of what both Parsons and Tuan recommend, with only touch of the apologetic anxiety expressed by Kant.

I should have a go, shouldn’t I, at saying out loud what this very long book is actually about, what it actually argues (it does have a fantastic index!). There is a promotional jacket blurb, which does a quite good job of doing that, but let me try to give a little more substance.

The first thing to say is that this an argumentative book – it’s an argument for a certain way of thinking and theorising, and against certain other ways. The ways of thinking that I argue against can be variously characterised, for sure, but I have come to think of them a constituting a fairly coherent discourse, shall we say, that defines being in the true of avowedly ‘poststructuralist’ critical thought. That name might not quite capture the field, exactly, but what I have in mind is an intellectual world defined by two core features: a recurrent fixation on the dynamics of subjectification; and a tendency towards what I have called ontological trumping, expressed most clearly in the convergence of critical spatial theory with assertive ontologies of the political. Take those two features, splice them together, and you have entered into the unreflexive common sense of what it means to perform critique in contemporary TheoryLand.

The Priority of Injustice is, primarily, a book about democratic theory, which isn’t just any old body of theory, but it’s also a book about the vocation of critical theory more broadly. It’s also in part a book in which I try to pay homage to the thinkers who have really influenced my own intellectual trajectory: thinkers including Stanley Cavell and Judith Shklar, Iris Marion Young and Amartya Sen, Linda Zerilli and Stuart Hall, Albert Hirschman and Partha Chatterjee, Nancy Fraser and Hannah Pitkin, Axel Honneth and Bernard Williams, Phillip Pettit and Cora Diamond. As well as old uncle Habermas, of course. Somewhere in that list there is, I think, the outlines of an account of the rapprochement between post-analytical political philosophy and critical theory of a big C and big T, post-Frankfurt School style (that might be the subject of the next book). It’s in the relationship between those two traditions that I situate my own vision of the tasks of doing critical analysis in a democratic spirit.

The book has three parts, and certainly in my head, these three parts hang together perfectly in a narrative sequence (but hey, you can dip and dip out too, I’m sure – nobody actually reads academic books from front to back, do they?).

In the first part (Democracy and Critique) – which I can’t help but think of as the equivalent of the ‘methods’ section – Chapter 1 (An Awareness of Politics) distinguishes between  different styles of radical democratic theory, arguing that it is not disputes about the meaning of democracy that are crucial so much as different understandings of the meaning of meaning. I argue that the rise to prominence of ontological trumping in political thought is associated with an attachment to the ‘etymological gesture’ in accounting for the meaning of key terms of democratic dispute (and I also suggest that Roland Barthes has much the most interesting thing to say about democracy as any twentieth-century French thinker). In the next chapter (Criteria for Democratic Inquiry), I try to articulate, for the first time in my own writing, why I love Stanley Cavell, outlining a view of how the meaning of democracy can be best approached as a problem by roving across discussions of exemplary thinking in Arendt and Derrida, ‘the ordinary’ and the projection of new meanings in Cavell and others, ‘essentially contested concepts’, and analogies of lake-formation, and the ideas of ‘the enactment of democracy’ and democracy as an ‘ethnographically emergent’ phenomenon. This is all as a preliminary to the discussion in Part 3 of the book (Phenomenologies of Injustice) about attending to the force of assertive claims against injustice.

Before getting to that bit, though, the book has a big middle section (Rationalities of the Political), consisting of three chapters in which I try to redeem something of value from what has become the deadeningly simple analysis of ‘the political’, the post-political, and (de-)politicization. In draft, this section was very long, 100,000 words or so, and it was largely negative in tone, but then I remembered the reason why I cut a very similar section from a previous book I wrote – because it seemed a waste of an opportunity to write so much about something that you didn’t actually feel was of much value. So I try to reconstruct the kernel of what is interesting about the tradition of predominantly Francophile discussions of the theme of ‘the political’ (a large part of the answer to what is most interesting about that theme is… the American strand of debates about the eclipse of ‘the political’). I argue (in The Ontological Need) that the splitting of politics into 2 parts (politics and the political, etc – a trick that is mind-blowing the first time you come across it, but quickly loses its allure) – needs to be saved from the prevalent ontological reading in which it has now been entombed. Discussions of the political, certainly in GeographyLand and related fields as well as in a great deal of political theory – qualify as metaphysical in the sense used by Cora Diamond: they impose requirements on what and how phenomenon should appear and how they should be apprehended in order for them to qualify as properly political. It is, really, a bizarre style of analysis, but one which is really good for reproducing certain sorts of spatialized romanticism. Along the way, I attempt to parse different vocabularies of antagonism in political thought (in The Scandal of Consent and The Significance of Conflict), suggesting that it a good idea NOT to ontologize conflict, struggle, and contestation.

I proffer instead a view of ‘the political’ theme that recovers the phenomenological inflection of this concept as it shows up in the often rather pessimistic viewpoints of Claude Lefort, Sheldon Wolin and Pierre Rosanvallon, with a backward nod to Merleau-Ponty’s Machiavellian account of political life. Finding the interesting aspect of discussions of ‘the political’ in the emphasis on the experiential (which is emphatically not the same as super-structuralist analyses of ‘distributions of the sensible’) allows me to seamlessly link the three chapters of this section of the book to the discussion in the final part of the book.

In the final three chapters, I follow a hint by Axel Honneth and seek to reconstruct a lineage of radical democratic thought that develops not by reference to ever more refined ontologies of disruption and becoming, but by reference to the analysis of the rationalities of action. The final part of the book, the assertive part, has three steps, chapter by chapter: first, (in Claims of the Affected) I reconstruct how the theme of all affected interests has been revived in the geographical turn of certain strands of political thought, and add my own inflection (with due acknowledgement to Robert Dahl), suggesting that this idea needs to be thought of as a heuristic device rather than a prescriptive rule. That argument is then connected (in Subjects of Domination) to a consideration of how theories of democratic justice have come to pivot on the value of non-domination (partly but not only with reference to Phillip Pettit), and how this in turn implies a particular understanding of the grammar of justice claims, best articulated by the wonderful work of Iris Marion Young, my guiding light in all things democratic. The final chapter (The Sense of Injustice) then works through the implications of the argument about affectedness, non-domination and claims-making more fully, catching sight of and bringing into the open a somewhat under appreciated strand of thought that interrupts debates about how best to theorise justice not by ‘going ontological’ but by reordering the conceptual relationships between the idea of justice and the experience of injustice. That strand of thought is quite thin, it’s very recent, but it includes some heavy hitters – Shklar, Sen, for example, and it meets critical theorists like Honneth coming from another direction, and I seek in this last chapter to express why giving conceptual priority to injustice in the analysis of political life matters to the vocation of critique (the theme of the priority of injustice should not be confused with a more general preference, not least in GeographyLand, for practice over theory – I explain just why it shouldn’t in a new paper in Annals of AAG – and to be clear, that paper is a supplement to the book, it contains a discussion that isn’t in the book at all).

And then the book ends, with a claim – a reminder to me more than anything else – about that earlier point that the whole book is really an essay – a preliminary to further inquiry, a setting of a scene, if not of an agenda. If there is anyone out there who wants to give me loads of money to actually pursue the research programme laid out at the end of the book, do let me know.

 

 

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Geography and the Priority of Injustice

My paper on Geography and the Priority of Injustice is now available online at the Annals of the Association of American Geographers. The paper seeks to explain why the argument of my forthcoming book, The Priority of Injustice (available from all good booksellers anytime now, including Target), matters for geographers, and geographical thinking about the city in particular (it is part of a special issue of the journal on the theme of Social Justice and the City).

You can get a free online copy of the paper if you click here (this is free for the first 50 clicks – I guess after that you have to ask me for a copy). Here is the abstract:

“This article considers the challenges that follow from giving conceptual priority to injustice in the analysis of political life. Human geography, urban studies, and related fields of spatial theory meet this challenge halfway, insofar as expressions of injustice through social movement mobilizations are given primacy over philosophical elaborations of justice. The privileging of practice over theory, however, reproduces a structure of thought in which justice continues to be understood as an egalitarian ideal against which injustice shows up as an absence or deviation. The practical primacy accorded to expressed claims of injustice inadvertently displaces a model of authoritative, monological reasoning about the meaning of justice from ideal theory onto explanatory accounts and ontologies of space. Basic assumptions about how spatial theory matters to questions of justice are disclosed by tracing the recurrent disavowal of “liberalism” in debates on social justice and the city, the just city, and spatial justice. Thinking about claims of injustice in a double sense—as involving demands on others that require vindication—calls into question the value of inherited ideals of the political significance of the “the city,” by drawing attention to the enactment of distributed public spaces of claims-making, reasoning, and accountable action.”

Democracy for Geographers

The International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology, edited by too many people to mention, published by Wiley in collaboration with the Association of American Geographers, is now available (at £1500 or so – I guess this is one for Libraries). Murray Low and I wrote the entry for Democracy, still one of those concepts that Geographers mention a lot in passing, as a kind of ideal, without necessarily ever making it into a central theme of debate. Maybe.

A Democratic Theory of Judgment – Linda Zerilli’s new book

lzFollowing up on previous posts recommending the work of Linda Zerilli, I see that her new book is now out. A Democratic Theory of Judgment collects and synthesises and augments themes from her recent writings, including a sustained critical engagement in critical debates about affect in political theory (a critique that takes my own engagement with nonrepresentational ontologies seriously, in a critical way, alongside the arguments of Ruth Leys, which is flattering). But there is much more than that going on in the book it addresses what I would argue is a resolutely geographical problem of making critical judgments in new situations where inherited criteria don’t work (or, perhaps, where inherited understandings of how criteria work don’t work). My own attempt to elaborate on this problem, in my bookThe Priority of Injustice, out sometime this year,  owes a very great deal to what I have learned from reading Zerilli’s work, going back to her fantastic critique of skeptical residues in feminist cultural theory.

Towards a Geography of Injustice

IMG_0166Just in time for anyone still wondering what they should pack to read by the beach this summer, here is a short paper by me entitled  Towards a Geography of Injustice, available open access at the Finnish journal Alue & Ympäristö (Region and Environment – my paper is not in Finnish, just to be clear), which I’m told is “unofficially” the “critical geography journal of Finland”.  This is pretty much the tidied up script of the Keynote Lecture I presented at the Annual Meeting of Finnish Geographers in Tampere back in October last year. I learnt lots and met nice people at the meeting, and thanks to Kirsi Pauliina Kallio for asking me to write the talk up properly.

This is a short and quite discursive version of only one part of a longer, and I hope deeper, argument about ‘the priority of injustice’ that I have been working out in my head while writing a book, which I think I have just completed this very week – it’s called, well,  The Priority of Injustice.  Somewhere between presenting a talk on ‘geography and the priority of injustice’ at Kentucky in April 2015, writing a first draft and then second draft in Vancouver last summer while on ‘research retreat’, and giving the Lecture in Tampere, I worked out what the book I have been writing was actually about – it’s about theories of democracy, substantively, I’ve always known that, but more specifically it’s about how to think about the vocation of thinking critically about democracy democratically, if you see what I mean. But it’s become a book about ‘the priority of injustice’- and this doesn’t mean favouring practice over theory, or even the empirical over the conceptual; it might mean not ever writing “(in)justice”, and not thinking of justice as an ideal; and not saying ‘post-political’; it might also mean thinking more about the meaning of domination, and freedom. Above all, it might mean thinking that politics is ordinary (but, obviously, in a not immediately obvious sense of ‘ordinary’….). 

This particular paper is an attempt to summarise all of that, and connect it to some thoughts about how these matters are and are not addressed in GeographyLand.

Unlikely incarnations of democracy

clSo, let’s re-cap:

  • Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in 2015, having secured enough nominations from MPs to appear on the leadership ballot because, back then, we all took it for granted that the point of being the leader of the Labour Party was to lead the Labour Party in Parliament, and at elections to this and other representative bodies in Scotland, Wales, EU, and locally.
  • Once elected as leader, Jeremy Corbyn demonstrates a complete inability to develop meaningful policy, of any sort, but especially on economic issues. His Shadow Chancellor, meanwhile, does draw up a good reading list.
  • As leader, he demonstrates culpable incompetence, perhaps mendacity, in the biggest single electoral decision since 1945, the result of which recalibrates British politics decisively to the right for at least a generation, if not forever.
  • He happily cultivates the idea that all of his failures to make any impression with the wider electorate are due to ‘media bias’, thereby demonstrating a certain degree of contempt for the cares and concerns and interests of the people he is meant to be persuading.
  • As both candidate and leader, Jeremy Corbyn is consistently presented as the embodiment of honesty and integrity and, above all, that most undemocratic of virtues,  of authenticity.
  • Jeremy Corbyn loses the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the body, remember, without whose nominations he would not have been able to run for leader in the first place, because the point of the Labour Party etc, etc, etc.
  • This is a ‘coup’, apparently. Because the PLP has no other reason to exist than to follow the ‘mandate’ of the Authentic One.
  • Jeremy Corbyn refuses to resign. Because he would not, after all, want to be mistaken for Iain Duncan-Smith, or Margaret Thatcher.
  • Anyone who disagrees with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, (lack of ) actions, principles, pomposity, is called by his supporters either a Blairite, or a Red Tory, or a Neo-Con, or a Neoliberal (did I miss anything?). Because Jeremy Corbyn is The Vindicator.
  • And because if you have no doctrine, or if the doctrine you have is silly and unconvincing and poorly formulated, then all you’ve got to fall back on is an appeal to the ethos of unity.
  • Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is formally challenged because at least one MP is able to muster enough nominations from amongst the PLP.
  • All of this is apparently an affront to the ‘mandate’ held by the Leader, which seems to extend into infinity.
  • And all of this generates another rapid spurt of people joining the Labour Party, as if Corbyn’s leadership is all a cunning ploy to boost membership by encouraging both supporters and opponents to sign up (I’m not a terribly active person, politically. But I have slogged around streets in Swindon delivering leaflets for the Labour Party. If all those 10s of 1000s of new Corbyn recruits to the Labour Party put in even that minimum effort, the Labour Party’s performance in elections in May and at the Referendum would have been very different. My point is not a holier-than-thou one, it’s that the growth in membership under Corbyn over the last year does not necessarily mean anything).
  • A kerfuffle ensues over whether the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party should be treated equally, by all being required to secure a threshold of nominations from the PLP. It turns out, because this is politics remember, that they do not have to be treated equally in this way at all.
  • So Jeremy Corbyn will again be a candidate for leader. Because, despite not being able to command the support of the PLP, he would not want to be mistaken for Andrea Leadsom.
  • The Labour Party NEC then decides to rather arbitrarily limit the franchise through which the forthcoming leadership election will be decided. Because, again, its politics, which is fine.
  • Somewhere down the line, though, depending on the outcome, the Labour Party NEC may well have just inadvertently, perhaps not, sought to redefine the meaning of what it is to be an MP in the UK – the lifting of the requirement that an incumbent leader should have to seek nominations again for a leadership election, even after massively losing a vote of confidence of his MPs in Parliament, implies that in the event of Corbyn being re-elected, MPs (the same ones, or some freshly selected ones perhaps) should function not as representatives of their constituents, but primarily as delegates accountable to the ‘membership’, the size and shape of which is, remember, just revealed to be easily manipulated through political horse-trading (although actually, this bit is open to alternative interpretations – does it indicate a prefiguration of the Labour Party anticipating a move to full PR and therefore a list-based system of selecting candidates…?).

As politics, this is wonderful, grubby, full of spite, so who could complain. ‘Democracy’ is a word being claimed by different sides in all of this, especially where it helps to close down an argument or potentially silence critics or de-legitimise opponents. It’s a very good word with which to do that. It does not belong to one side or the other, but different versions of what ‘democracy’ means are certainly at stake in this rolling drama (roughly speaking, narrowly narcissistic activist-centric ones versus compromised ‘polyarchic’ ones). But it’s politics, in the end. Properly political politics, too.

 

 

 

 

Mandates and other democratic chimera: why Jeremy Corbyn does not embody democratic virtue

UntitledThe last few weeks in the UK have been a bit like living through a natural experiment in the politics of democracy. All sorts of different claims about what does count as democratic legitimacy – a majority decision, for example – or what delegitimises such a seemingly democratic decision – lies, misinformation, mendacity – are flying around, and of course, in this moment, these arguments really seem to matter.

I tend to like the idea that democracy is not really embodied in the will of the people, or in particular procedures, or in particular types of action (whether polite chatting or loud protest). The value of democracy is relational, by which I mean that it depends on the quality of relationships between different dimensions of action – deliberating and voting and participating and deciding and reflecting and being held to account and revising and so on and so on.

Thinking like this means that you are not inclined to presume that any one event, or decision, or instance of a procedure, is inherently democratic, or not. Referendums, for example, are poor devices for all sorts of issues (complex ones, like remaining or leaving in the EU), but they are not inherently undemocratic (in the UK context, of course, they just happen to expose the degree to which the exercise of power is rather unconstrained by the much lauded principle of “parliamentary sovereignty”, and therefore not quite as democratic in a much deeper sense as one might suppose). Likewise, the system for choosing the leader of the Conservative Party seems uncontroversial on the face of it – a process of nomination by MPs, followed by a vote of Party members. Used to be much worse. It begins to raise some democratic concerns when it is put into practice on occasions when that Party is already actually in government, so that it then becomes the system for choosing the next Prime Minister, who as we know, has all sorts of unchecked executive authority (to make bad decisions about invading other people’s countries, or to hold Referendums).

Of course, the Labour Party has been holding its own little side experiment in the last couple of weeks to establish the relative merits of different understandings of democracy. Jeremy Corbyn, elected in 2015 with a smacking great majority of votes from members and supporters, has been challenged by the majority of the MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), either because they are a bunch of unreconstructed ‘Blairites’ if you hold to one view, or because they have some grasp of political reality if you hold to another. Of course, this is a political dispute, not a dispute about the meaning of democracy – the latter only ever arise as one aspect of examples of the former. There are substantive issues at stake on the different sides, no doubt (but one of the reasons why the Corbyn faction rely so heavily on the appeal to democracy is because there has been very little of policy substance to arise from his leadership). But the dispute is also, and not tangentially, about ideas of what democracy means within parties and beyond them. Corbyn’s unprecedented insistence on remaining in his role as leader of the PLP despite an overwhelming vote of no confidence by his Party’s MPs (an insistence which, remarkably, makes him appear rather less honourable than Iain Duncan-Smith) depends on a claim that his position gains its legitimacy solely from the ‘mandate’ secured when he was originally elected. And thinking that one’s democratic credentials are all about the size of one’s mandate is to presume that democracy is all about authorisation, rather than, say, accountability, or competence, or indeed, effective representation.

One way of looking at this claim is that it is an attempt to restrict the relationships of democratic process to just one vector: that between the Leader and the Membership. The other dimensions – the relationships of representation between Labour MPs and their constituents (Labour and non-Labour voting), as well as the role of other elected representatives at local and EU level, the role of the Trade Unions and other affiliated organisations, and the relations of ‘virtual representation’ between the Labour Party nationally and locally and Labour voters and supporters not represented by a Labour MP – all of these find no significant place within the seemingly airtight claims to embody democracy by fulfilling the mandate of Party members. Given the sweep of the history of the Labour Party, it’s certainly a radical departure from previous understandings. As Neil Kinnock has reminded us, and as Tom Watson has reiterated, the whole point of the Labour Party is to provide a Parliamentary presence for the labour movement. This is why the Leader of the Labour Party is an MP, nominated to an election process by other MPs, and then elected by members and supporters. Leading the Labour Party in Parliament is not an optional extra of the job. Not being able to do so is also, rather obviously, more than a mere incidental detail.

Lurking behind the claim that Corbyn’s mandate can somehow trump the loss of PLP confidence is actually a rather dubious investment in ideas of ‘direct democracy’, derived from different sources, and a deep suspicion with the values associated with representative democracy (values like compromise, complexity, and pluralism, for example). David Graeber makes the hilarious claim that Corbyn’s ascendancy actually embodies an authentically ‘grassroots’ movement that eschews what he claims is the deeply ‘anti-democratic’ concept of ‘leadership’. ‘Leadership’ isn’t, of course, an anti-democratic concept at all, any more than supposing that cosy deliberations amongst the mostly like-minded guided by an authoritarian ethos of consensus are inherently democratic. I would be inclined to suggest that the only concept that is, actually, inherently anti-democratic is the idea of direct democracy. And anyway, when it comes to concepts of leadership, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be the perfect Blairite – he is clearly a man of strong convictions and firm beliefs, and he holds to them with a degree of self-righteous certainty that is rather unbecoming for a leader of a leading political party in an imperfect but functioning liberal democracy.

In its commitment to a singular relationship between only two of the actors, leader and members, in what is in fact a more complex and distributed field named ‘the Labour Party’, Corbyn’s position may or may not work out for him politically. The rhetoric surrounding Corbyn’s leadership has always been about the importance of a whole movement. But when it comes down to it, he is acting not as if he thinks of Labour as a movement at all, and much less as a party, but as if it were a private club.