Demonstrative Theory

Current events ‘out there’, in the streets no less, have been an occasion for the rehearsal of various theoretical standpoints on the meaning of democracy and the status of politics. Some writers have presented recent politicizations of public space as models of a purity of political action consisting of the expressive presence of bodies in space, as confirming both that this is all that is left politically and that this is what is most proper to left politics (a shout-out here for my old friend Andrew Merrifield, who provides a most eloquent variant on this theme in the latest New Left Review). I’m in no position to evaluate or assess the contours of these movements (there is no Occupy Swindon movement, nor do I expect there one to be anytime soon), but there is something about this sort of interpretation that doesn’t quite ring true for me.

There are some interesting blog discussions sparked by a piece at Critical Inquiry’s new blog site on Occupy Theory. What this piece raised for me was the question of how far one thinks of theory as essentially an interpretative device, used to give meaning to an event or events; or how far one thinks of theory as a hypothesis generating machine, something that raises questions about an event. There is a new site at Possible Futures that does some of this latter sort of theory work, including essays by Saskia Sassen and Craig Calhoun (newly announced as the next Director of the LSE – what a great appointment). Calhoun’s piece, for example, raises some interesting questions about how policing of protest has changed time. At TomDispatch, Rebecca Solnit has a piece about the Occupy movement in the US connects with longer traditions of civil society and non-violence movements, and this reminded me of arguments about the idea of the US in particular as a ‘movement society’ – there are interesting generational effects at work behind these protest movements which deserve more attention.

The fascination with the occupation of real space also surely needs to be put in the context of how this form of ‘presencing’ reverberates through other spaces, including mediated ones (it was all kicked-off by Adbusters, remember), but also through time, and above, there is the vexed question of how this moment of protest (not just the Occupy example, but also the return of street protest in Egypt) interacts with the sequencing of electoral cycles. Given the likely geographical dynamics of the 2012 US Presidential election, for example, it is interesting to speculate on how far the populist sentiments expressed by the Occupy movement will be articulated in the coming year, and by which side. Sidney Tarrow had an interesting little piece in Foreign Policy a month or so ago, on OWS as a ‘we are here’ movement akin to the women’s movement, the point being about the long-term effects of this ‘event’. Tarrow and Doug McAdam also have an interesting piece on the relationship between social movement scholarship and electoral studies, from 2010, but which is rather prescient in light of recent events in the USA – one of their points is that analysis of movements tends to be overly movement-centric, and underplays the role of electoral politics in generating and orienting non-electoral, non-party mobilisations, campaigns and protests: this point appears to be well supported by the resurgence of protest in Egypt these last few days, as Mariz Tadros argues at the IDS blog, in which the relationship between street mobilizations and elections is central.

LSE Director resigns

Howard Davies, Director of the LSE, has resigned over the acceptance of money by the LSE from the Gadaffi regime, and a formal inquiry into the whole affair has been announced. Davies’ resignation letter is clear that he has fallen on his sword because he accepts responsibility for the reputational damage done over the last week or so – not for entering into the arrangements per se.

Back to Syracuse?

One sidebar to political upheaval this week in Libya has been the story about Saif Gaddafi’s academic credentials, holding as he does a PhD from the LSE. In re-posted profiles from 2006 and 2009, he is presented as a reformer in waiting, and credited with influencing the relative normalisation of Libya’s international relations. Now it looks a little like a means of providing intellectual respectability for the anointed son. Gaddafi’s PhD was supervised by David Held, who has professed a certain degree of disappointment at the conduct of his former student this week. There is some discussion on the blogosphere suggesting that somehow the cosmopolitan theory that Gaddafi used in this thesis is now shown to be complicit with state-sponsored violence. A bit of a stretch, that argument.

The more interesting aspect of this story is the funding relationship between the LSE and the Libyan regime, which has suddenly become very embarrassing indeed, provoking sit-ins and rapid disavowals (this particular deal was opposed at the time it was established by the late Fred Halliday). This is hardly the first time that a University has been embroiled in potentially dubious relationships wfide runders. But it is timely, in the current context of UK debates about the future of University funding – the long term trajectory of institutions such as the LSE is to seek greater ‘independence’ by substituting public funding for a varied portfolio of private funding. Anyone who has received alumni literature from an Oxbridge college in the last few years will have had this aim more or less explicitly acknowledged. Again, not new, an old story in the US. Nevertheless, this is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, and it remains the case that the putative ‘brand value’ of elite universities in the UK as private players in an international marketplace for higher education does depend on a massive, century old public subsidy. So the sorts of reputational risks involved in diversifying university funding are likely to be heightened for quite some time into the future. Cosmopolitanism can be a bit grubby, it turns out.