Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rallying Cries and the (Mis)use of Terms

Shalini Randeria

Shalini Randeria, in her talk on “Juridification in the Shadow of the World Bank,” unsettles the boundaries between theory and practice, academia and activism. Often, as academics, we become—contrary to the best of our efforts—overly reliant on monolithic terms and concepts. Neoliberalism, for example, becomes in many academic circles, an unexamined entity synonymous with exploitation: a hegemonic “technology of governance” (to use Aihwa Ong’s words) that, by opening markets and instituting a drive for privatization, unevenly benefits the West in lieu of the rest. Similarly, the World Bank, often rightly indicted for using the language of human rights to push structural adjustment programs, emerges as a singular entity: an oppressive regime unquestionably rejected by anti-privatization academics and activists alike. Yet, as our academic training continually reminds us, nothing is this simple. John Comaroff, speaking on the “Politics of Law” this past Thursday, emphasized that neoliberalism as a noun differs greatly from that which is labeled with the adjective “neoliberal.” As both scholars and activists—and this is a statement that has become a bit of an academic cliché—we must be meticulous in how we use our terms. On many occasions I have been guilty of homogenizing complex concepts under the sign of a singularity. It is much easier to rely on rallying cries, yet we must seriously commit to rigor if social activism and academics are to work together.

This brings me back to Prof. Randeria’s presentation, as her multifaceted approach to discussing the World Bank highlights the importance of ethnographic and theoretical rigor. The World Bank, in her formulation, cannot simply be discounted as an apparatus for ensuring the hegemony of US free market policies. In many cases, the bank can be used against itself to put pressure on individual states. As Shalini emphasizes, globalization has brought about a sort of global government made up of four major entities: NGOs, states, international organizations, and transnational corporations. By playing these governing bodies against each other, activists and social movements can enact changes that accord with their own agendas. Through a productive friction (a term championed by Peter Geschiere in his talk on Friday), organizations such as the World Bank can be used as leverage against the state and vice versa; activists can use bank policies to name and shame their own governments, thereby forcing a change in the status quo. Instead of outright condemnation of the World Bank, we must identify the tools that the organization and other such political bodies provide for enacting a progressive social and economic agenda. Similarly, other entities—NGOs, governments, etc—can be used to destabilize certain hegemonic policies of the bank. Of course, this will not bring about any sort of balance; that would be utterly utopian and unproductive. Yet openings exist where progressive change can occur.

Perhaps as one without knowledge of the interstices of the World Bank, I am contradicting my own call for rigor in this post. Yet, despite my inability to follow my own ideals at this point in time, I can still attest to their importance. This draws me back to the bridge (or gulf) between academics and activism. Through a commitment to careful ethnography and research, an endeavour championed by Prof. Randeria, academics can assist in developing a new pragmatic politics that can be mobilized by activists and academics alike.

Nicholas Matlin