Volume 11, Number 2, Summer 2020
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This essay interrogates Nicholas Kristof’s reporting on sex trafficking in Cambodia, examining the New York Times columnist’s narrative self-fashioning in the context of the neoimperialist rescue fantasies his writing perpetuates. It explores the intersections between Kristof’s writing and the various media he employs, and considers the effects of both on the audience he wishes to interpellate in the name of action. In his reporting, Kristof disseminates a set of truth claims about sex, work, and mobility; he presents himself as a global savior figure and encourages the “ironic” participation of his reader, who is moved less to take part in a cosmopolitan morality centered on justice for the Other than to identify with the savior and contemplate their own narcissistic performance of solidarity.
Beyond Humanitarian Logics: Volunteer-Refugee Encounters in Chios and Paris
Ludĕk Stavinoha, Kavita Ramakrishnan
Since 2015, grassroots volunteers have emerged as key actors in the humanitarian response to Europe’s “refugee crisis.” Based on ethnographic research on the Greek island of Chios and in Paris, this essay explores how volunteers navigate the ethical and political dilemmas inherent to humanitarian action in their everyday encounters with refugees. We argue that while volunteers sometimes mimic disciplinary humanitarian practices, the exchange of “biographical life” in and beyond camps allows volunteers to reimagine a more dignified provision of care and for creative solidarities to emerge. The presence of volunteers, we conclude, thus plays an important role in re-humanizing and re-politicizing refugee spaces, thereby challenging—even if momentarily—dominant humanitarian logics.
Dossier on the Moral Economy
This essay explores the history of the idea of the moral economy—and the moral economy as an idea. It shows the ways in which debates about the market since the eighteenth century have been shadowed by debates and concerns about the ethical foundations of economic life. The history of capitalism has contained within it an internal tension between a romance with the market and nostalgia for worlds it dissolved. Moral economy has been a concept with many, global origins and different temporalities, depending on when the “transition to capitalism” ignited social movements and social ideas. In India and Mexico, as well as France and England, a plenitude of ideas about moral economics emerged to flow into a single, varied language of opposition and anxiety about market life.
The Moral Economies of Early Modern Europe
Scholars as diverse as E. P. Thompson and Thomas Piketty posit a clear break between pre-industrial, status-based economies and modern, contract-based capitalism. This essay revisits this standard account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism by focusing on a central and yet rarely discussed tenet of economic justice in early modern Europe: the need to balance individuals’ contractual freedom with the privileges assigned to different groups in any hierarchical society of status. In so doing, it reconstructs the pre-history of contemporary debates about the tension between consent and identity-bound inequality in liberal economies.
R. H. Tawney
R. H. Tawney is readily mistaken for an uncompromising moralist for whom the return of a Christian ethics of medieval intensity was the only way forward. Tawney never used the term “moral economy,” but he initiated the critical tradition that later gave that term currency. The term today bears the marks of these origins and is frequently seen as doctrinaire and retrograde. What put Tawney ahead of his own time, however, was his perception that the economists’ spiritual blindness was spreading. His concern was not to fill the ensuing vacuum with some prescribed content, but rather to make the deepening void notorious.
The Imperfect Promise of The Gift
This essay analyzes the moral economy of the gift in the seminal and eponymous work by Marcel Mauss. I present Mauss’s argument and discuss the gift as a moral, or psychosocial, achievement. I conclude on the promises and pitfalls of the gift as an anchor to social solidarity.
The concept of moral economy stems from two theoretical traditions: that of E. P. Thompson, which corresponds to the norms and obligations involved in traditional economies, and has nourished the works of social historians and political anthropologists; and that of Lorraine Daston, which characterizes the values and affects regulating the activity of a given group in a given time, and has inspired historians and anthropologists of science. This essay offers a third reading attempting to reconnect these irreconcilable approaches by considering a moral economy as the production, circulation, appropriation, and confrontation of values and affects with regard to a significant social object, such as immigration or punishment, rather than to a social group. This new approach allows us to address some of the issues raised by R. H. Tawney’s analysis of religion and by Marcel Mauss’s interpretation of the gift. Particular examples are drawn from the capitalist devaluation of human lives and the humanitarian asymmetrical relation of obligation.
On the Mexican Ejido
Mexico’s indigenous villages (pueblos) have long been held as examples of functioning moral economies, spaces governed by principles of relative equity, reciprocity, communal landholding and collective responsibility. Guided by this enduring representation, the massive agrarian reform that followed the Revolution of 1910 created thousands of collective land grant communities (ejidos). This essay argues that the conception of pueblos and ejidos as natural, culturally-bound moral economies is founded on a longstanding historical mischaracterization of village social relations, and it outlines the complex intellectual and historiographic roots of that persistent and romantic image.
In an age of egregious inequality and rising authoritarian, many call for a new “moral economy” and turn to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation for inspiration. Yet Polanyi’s great insight is that those who cannot reckon with the moral economy of “market justice”—the claim that market outcomes, however unequal, are morally just—fail to understand the power of capitalism. Justified by its original claim to rest on natural science, market justice laid the predicate for democracy as mortal threat. Polanyi reveals market justice as based not on natural law but on predistributive political power, and builds his democratic socialist vision on the “reality of society.”
At a crucial juncture in his famous lectures on “Citizenship and Social Class,” English sociologist T. H. Marshall explained that the new social rights he associated with the invention of the twentieth-century welfare state were in fact a blast from the past—a bequest from the moral economy to a later age grappling with political economy run amok. Marshall’s celebrated theory of social rights that followed provides one aperture from which to intervene in a dispute brewing between starkly alternative views of the relevance today of the moral economy tradition he invoked.
E. P. Thompson’s classic 1971 article “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” turned a forgotten locution into a cottage industry. But Thompson was surprisingly ambivalent about this academic success story. As discussion of “moral economy” burgeoned within the humanities, he watched grimly as talk of the “market economy” flourished in the wider world. His language had survived, but he took little consolation in the popularity of a concept that, stripped of its context, threatened to become a catchphrase.
Despite appearances, James Scott doesn’t have much to tell us about the concept of moral economy. When he invoked the idea in his famous book The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott used it as a label of convenience, and he found it easy to drop in later work. Scott wanted a theory of peasant behavior that tracked actual peasant beliefs about fairness, reciprocity, and legitimacy. Only a genuine attempt to interpret peasant beliefs about their situation could hope to explain peasants' acceptance or (in extremis) rejection of the power of elites. Judgments of fairness concerning subsistence goods provided a kind of focal case, a threshold at which judgments of legitimacy could be expected to vary sharply. Scott derived this idea from sociological theories of exchange and reciprocity, not from Thompson, whose famous idea he grafted on to his already-completed book.
Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 2020
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Introduction: Technologies of Stateness
Nehal Bhuta, Guy Fiti Sinclair
The Introduction provides an overview of the dossier and its main themes. It situates the contribution in a wider literature and points towards new research horizons on the relationship between state-making and international organization.
The League of Nations, Ethiopia, and the Making of States
This article uses the case of Ethiopia to illustrate how the League of Nations refracted approaches to statehood. It shows the League 'making' states in multiple ways, formulating new standards for admission, but also changing the context in which such standards could be debated, applied, and contested. The article looks beyond intellectual debates about the nature of the state, into exchanges within foreign ministries and League committees, as well as state-making projects pursued in Addis Ababa. This illuminates the fragility of interwar definitions of the state, and challenges narratives that locate the pathologies of 'peripheral' statehood in the post-1945 era.
The India Round Table Conference (London, 1930-32) is presented here as a site of imperial internationalism, at which radical anti-colonialism was subsumed within the liberal technology of the conference. First, the influence of the League of Nations on the conference is examined, through exploring its role as model, precedent, potential arbiter and training ground. Second the paper explores the influence of other (Pan-Islamic, labour and spiritual) forms of internationalism at the London conference. New theorisations of the international are brought to bear on significant new archival and prosopographical material, making an original contribution through revisiting a founding moment in Indian political history.
This article examines the UN's programs of technical assistance for public administration as a "technology of stateness" during the postwar period of decolonization. Drawing on original research in the UN Archives, the article shows how these programs connected with a larger network of actors interested in promoting public administration reforms in decolonized states. Additionally, the article analyzes the assemblage of governmental rationalities and technologies advanced by UN technical assistance, finding both a tendency towards the centralization of state power and an effort to decentralize and disarm state bureaucracies. In doing so, the article suggests new lines of research connecting the colonial concept of "good government" to the more recent discourse of "good governance."
Development Projections: The World Bank in Calcutta in the 1970s
Corinna R. Unger
This article studies the World Bank's Calcutta Urban Development Project (CUDP) in the 1970s through the lens of institutional projection. Specifically, it focuses on the World Bank's effort to strengthen the administrative capacity of the state of West Bengal as part of and as a condition for the success of urban development. The article critically engages with the characterization of the World Bank as an 'anti-politics machine' and argues that case of the CUDP shows that the organization, rather than trying to depoliticize India's development problems, acknowledged the distinctly political nature of these problems and tried to solve them with managerial means.
The rise of expert knowledge in constitutional matters marks a turn toward "constitutional technicity," where constitution drafting is regarded as a domain of technical expertise inhabited by neutral and politically divested actors. This article considers the constitution drafting manual or handbook as a genre in which technical expertise confronts the political. These documents consolidate a view of what constitutes "best practice" in the production of contemporary state identity, yet they also act into the field of state-building, naturalizing particular understandings of the state that reflect liberal legalist norms. In this sense the constitution-drafting manual is a consequential legal material that enlists values and actors in the production of contemporary stateness.
The State and International Law: A Reading from the Global South
Luis Eslava, Sundhya Pahuja
In this essay we re-describe the relationship between international law and the state, reversing the usual imagined directionality of the flow between the two. At its most provocative, our argument is that rather than international law being a creation of the state, making the state is an ongoing project of international law. In the essay, we pay particular attention to the institutionalised project of development in order to illuminate the ways in which international law gives form to, and actualises, states, and then recirculates from a multiplicity of points "within" them.
Afterword: International Organizations and Technologies of Statehood
Ole Jacob Sending
The afterword discusses the contributions to the symposium by drawing links to cognate fields such as international relations, international law, and organisational studies. It reflects on the many insightful observations and arguments in the different contributions, and points to areas for future research, but also to areas where more extensive engagement with cognate fields may have been warranted.
Volume 10, Number 3, Winter 2019
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Scholars of human rights have grappled with tensions between universal rights and state sovereignty. By incorporating the turn of the century anarchist conception of human rights against the state into the broader history of human rights, we gain an alternative vantage point to assess this fraught relationship. This article briefly surveys transnational anarchist activism against state atrocities before focusing on the implications of anarchist conceptions of natural, equal, universal rights for our understandings of freedom and autonomy.
In recent years, anti-trafficking NGOs in New Delhi have highlighted the exploitative aspects of domestic work in India, rescuing impoverished young rural migrant girls brought by unregulated “placement agencies” to work in urban homes. This article examines how these donor-driven NGOs employ the U.S.-driven, globally pervasive frameworks of human trafficking and “modern-day slavery,” while working within the provisions of postcolonial Indian laws, and conducting rescues with the local police. Through ethnographic observations of a rescue operation, the article explores what it means to save a slaving child from domestic labor. It argues that the tensions between and among those subjected to exploitative work conditions and those rescuing them reveal conflicting constructions of slavery, trafficking, child labor, and childhood itself.
Introduction: Human Rights and Economic Inequality
Daniel Brinks, Julia Dehm, Karen Engle
The introduction situates this dossier on “Human Rights and Inequality” within broader scholarly and policy debates about the relationship between human rights and economic inequality, specifically about the extent to which human rights do, can, or should attend to economic inequality. It draws out the key arguments of each of the contributions and puts them in conversation with one another by describing the different strands and traditions of human rights scholarship and practice with which the various authors engage. Along the way, the introduction specifies the various types of economic inequality that have too often been lumped together—inequality within countries, among countries, and among individuals from around the world—and identifies the questions of measurement that must be addressed for a fruitful debate to take place. It concludes by recognizing that, notwithstanding their differences, all the contributions share an outrage at the scandal of inequality in our present and a commitment to imagining paths towards a more egalitarian and just world. The dossier demonstrates the continued need for engaged, ongoing, conversations about the multiple forms of economic inequality and the potential roles of human rights in addressing them.
Inequality, Human Rights, and Social Rights: Tensions and Complementarities
Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes, Sergio Chaparro Hernández
Economic inequality is increasingly recognized as one of the main problems of our time. But what human rights have to say about it? Are human rights effective tools for tackling inequality, as human rights practitioners have argued, or are they powerless and inadequate tools to challenge inequality in the age of neoliberalism, as stated recently by Yale’s professor Samuel Moyn? This article examines the complex relations between economicinequality and human rights, especially economic and social rights (ESR), by exploring the arguments behind these two opposite views. We propose an intermediate position: while human rights and discussionsabout inequality predominantly take place in autonomous fields, it is not onlypossible but crucial to overcome some of the pitfalls ofhuman rights law in relation to inequality in order to use it as an equalizinginstrument. Extreme inequality poses not only strong empirical obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights but alsoundermines core tenets of human rights law, such as the principle of equality of opportunity.These links allow us to bridge the gap between the two fields and to speak of inequality as ahuman rights issue. We explore five pathsto reinforce the equalizing potential of human rights law: 1) moving towards ‘empirical based normative standards’, 2) advancing interpretations of human rights law more sensitive to economic inequality, 3) enhancing the equalizing potential of human rights accountability mechanisms; 4) incorporating human rights concerns across different regimes of internationaleconomic law, and 5) providing strategies and arguments for supporting redistributive policies between and within countries.
Human Rights in an Unequal World: Structural Inequalities and the Imperative for Global Cooperation
Radhika Balakrishnan, James Heintz
Efforts to realize social and economic rights are currently being exercised in a context of extreme inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. This question of the impact of global inequalities on the realization of rights and development objectives extends to inequalities in power dynamics and policy space. The economic interdependencies that structure the global economy mean that the actions of governments in influential economies frequently constrain the ability of other countries to fully support the enjoyment of rights. This essay explores the relationship between global economic inequality and human rights. It demonstrates how inequality affects the enjoyment of rights worldwide, and how the human rights framework has implications for how we think about global inequalities.
In the current phase of global and national economic development, income inequality has become a widespread concern. This article focuses on what it calls “toxic inequality” in the United States that is attributed to several elements including the underlying individualism associated with capitalism and the tendency of neoliberal globalization to exert pressures that minimize social protection of vulnerable parts of the population. International law has not been effective in protecting societies against the disruptive effects of inequality, including its de-democratizing effects brought about by the reaction of the state to social rage directed at the established order. The article argues for a revised human rights approach to overcome toxic inequality, including the conditions that bring it about. One aspect of such an approach would be more energetic efforts to implement the norms of the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, taking political steps to persuade the Unitec States to become a party to the treaty regime.
Legal scholars worry that the human rights framework offers little leverage against the problem of economic inequality. By contrast, I argue that Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the right to an adequate standard of living) does provide such leverage. Given the realities of ecological overshoot, if we want to ratchet up the incomes of the poor in order to satisfy their rights under Article 25, we can no longer rely on the usual strategy of aggregate economic growth. Instead, this objective requires shifting existing income from the global rich to the global poor.
Redressing global inequality was one of the key concerns of the Third World campaign to create a New International Economic Order (NIEO). However, human rights played no role in the NIEO which focused instead on transforming the international investment and trade regimes. This essay argues that the Third World countries were largely correct in their analysis of the limits of human rights. It draws upon insights of the NIEO experience to suggest why, in more recent times, human rights have largely failed to address the problem of global inequality in the face of neo-liberal globalization.
This essay examines how UN human rights bodies engaged with the problem of economic inequality at different historical moments. It considers how the question of economic inequality was taken up in three different periods: in the period of human rights standard setting and implementation (1945-1968); during a period of global contestation and demands for a New International Economic Order (1968-1989); and finally during a period of growing neoliberal hegemony (1990-present). It suggests that considering the ways in which institutional debates within the UN have grappled in different periods with the problem of economic inequality – among countries, within countries and among citizens of the world – often at the instigation of countries of the global South, can enable critical thinking about possibilities and limits of human rights in our starkly unequal present. Moreover, retrieving these forgotten struggles and alternative conceptions and formulations of rights might provide impetus for reimagining the more redistributive possibilities for human rights in contemporary debates.
What can we learn from the data on economic inequality? First, that comparisons should be made very carefully. That said, inequality connects to human rights in many ways that may elude precise measurement but not common sense. For example, oligarchy is the enemy of the demos, as the Athenians have known since Socrates. An inherent imbalance stems from the fact that wealth is power, which creditors exercise over debtors. In considering how to reduce this power, when it comes to mobilizing people, high theory has uses, but it is much better to offer specific measures that will affect their lives.
This essay examines the relationship between national tax policy and inequality. Tax policy changed dramatically in the last two decades of the 20th century with the rise of neoliberal economic policy insisting on a dramatic reduction of maximum marginal rates of income tax and a lowering of corporate tax rates. The essay deconstructs the justification for these policies, and argues that they have helped to increase levels of inequality.It also addresses the tax problems that have arisen by virtue of the globalization of economic activity and proposes measures to bolster the ability of the nation state to protect and indeed promote its tax base.
“I Don’t Want to Live in a World Where People Die Every Day Simply Because They Are Poor”: From the Treatment Action Campaign to Equal Education, from Stories of Human Rights to the Poetics of Inequality
This essay explores the rhetorical and genre differences between human rights arguments and inequality arguments, speculating that the former privileges narrative as a dominant mode of representation and that the latter frequently require a poetics—paradoxically the poetics of numbers. Two South African NGOs—the Treatment Action Campaign, whose rationale deployed a health and human rights framework, and Equal Education, an organization deeply invested in arguments about inequalities in education and opportunity—are presented as examples of the defining contrast between the ways that human rights and inequality arguments broach the question of justice.