11 May Symposium on ‘Marketing Global Justice’ – A Letter on Kafka, Coca-Cola, and Vergès
[Dr Christine Schwöbel-Patel is Reader at Warwick Law School and Co-Director of the Centre for Critical Legal Studies; she is currently based at the Humboldt University in Berlin as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow.]
Dear Asad, Filip, and Mark,
I’ll begin this letter, as so many letters begin, by apologising for its tardiness. Since you Mark and Asad sent your responses, many months have passed. You of course know the reasons for this – beyond the usual academic breathlessness. In our jobs, life can sometimes feel like an interruption – until you realise that you might not just be running out of academic-time but also life-time. What a rude awakening from the manic scramble from one deadline to another! We all have one final dead-line I guess, and I am extremely thankful that I have been granted an extension. But I am already starting to ramble. Thank you so much for your careful and thought-provoking engagements with Marketing Global Justice. Filip, thank you for agreeing to engage with my book in this symposium at short notice; I am so glad you did.
As you will have noticed, I decided to continue the correspondence form that Mark chose: the letter. Thank you Mark for the ‘post’! Letters are a more intimate form of conversation for sure. But there is also a sense of connection that transcends the more formal standardised conversations about scholarship. Do they have greater radical potential? There is of course the feminist premise of the private being political. And then I thought of the pen-comrade exchanges ‘in loving solidarity with Rosa Luxemburg’ in the collection of Post Rosa: Letters Against Barbarism. These letters are dispatches from academics struggling through the pandemic and the squeeze that came with universities doing ‘remote-everything’, and solidarity work, apart from the most immediate care responsibilities, being so, well, distanced. I also thought of another set of letters written during the pandemic in a desire for kinship and connection: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s and Robyn Maynard’s beautiful exchange on the multiple pathologies of the settler state in Rehearsals for Living. Many letters were never intended for public consumption, of course. Sometimes, it can feel voyeuristic to read letters not intended for you (here’s a theme that is important in Marketing Global Justice, and I will come back to it); there is a certain thrill in going to museums or purchasing collections of letters. We want to gain an insight into the author’s private thoughts and bilateral exchanges. I guess we are searching in them something familiar from our own thoughts and relationships; something that we don’t immediately disclose in our more public personas.
Before the Law
Mark, in your letter you mention the book The Tender Barbarian, which you were reading at the same time as reading my book. You explain that it is set in former Communist Czechoslovakia; and it so happens that I recently went on a short trip to Prague, where the book you read is set. Have you been? I assume you have. Anyway, it was my first time there, and I visited a museum dedicated to one of my favourite Czech authors: Franz Kafka (more moody than your Coca-cola museum experience no doubt). Some of his private letters are on display. One can only assume that if he wanted his manuscripts burned, then he definitely also wanted his private letters burned, particularly the letter to his dad, which never even reached its intended recipient. Sometimes, letters can also be cathartic I guess.
Apart from Kafka’s letters, there is a particular section in the museum dedicated to the famous passages from Kafka’s The Trial, Before the Law. I am sure you are familiar with it. It’s a parable, so open to interpretation, but I will offer one interpretation that chimes with the message in Marketing Global Justice: The beginning of the parable is quite famous:
Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.”
International Criminal Law is a bit like this, don’t you think? One comes to its gates in search of something important; it is desirable to enter through the gates. Victims of injustice may come before the law to search for remedies of their injustice. But there are gatekeepers. The plural, by the way, is true to the original.
I am powerful, says the first gatekeeper. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.
International Criminal Law promises justice, but the gatekeepers stand in the way – they might come in the form of barriers of race, class, gender, ablelism; linguistic barriers, cultural barriers. Indeed, this gatekeeping may even lead one to decide, like the man in the parable that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. Waiting before the law does not only cost time:
The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.”
Isn’t it insightful that we often believe we have done everything if it has cost us materially? Anyway, at the end of the parable, and at the end of the man’s life waiting before the law, it turns out that the waiting was futile. Weakened by many years of waiting, the man asks the gatekeeper why no-one else has tried to gain entry:
“Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.
This, for me, is representative of the abstract notion of global justice being impossible to grasp. In its marketised abstracted form, the law presents itself only as an appearance of justice, an illusion. Maybe, like me, you too had ‘what if’ questions. What if the man had got up and passed the gatekeeper? What if he had gone to a different gate? Why should one gate claim a monopoly over what the law is? Asad, you describe this as: ‘This concern with alterity reflects animating desires of Third Worldism’. Yes! The plight of the man before the law fits moreover quite well with what you were getting at, I think, when you highlight: ‘While the global justice brand is animated by a claimed concern for human rights, it is operationalized in ways that often dehumanize those at the centre of its work.’ The gatekeeper has dehumanized the man before the law. I wonder if that makes sense to you?
In marketised global justice, there is a particular sort of dehumanisation in the illusion of humanisation. This brings me to your account of your Coca-cola museum visit, Mark. Do you guys remember that hilltop-uniting-the-world-through-coke Coca-Cola ad from the 1990s with the catchy song ‘I’d like to buy the world a home’? I just looked it up on YouTube – I had forgotten that it has its own nostalgic part with a flashback to the original from 1971. Isn’t that a good example of marketised global justice? People uniting over that one common denominator. It’s a good ad, don’t you think? I mean, I don’t even like the taste of Coke, but I do love a fuzzy feeling. I didn’t realise at the time, but I was bought into the feeling of coke without even liking the product. That is strong marketing indeed. And with International Criminal Law, I think it might be something similar; we search for a fuzzy feeling in it, and it presents itself as being able to provide it, but really, it is short-lived and disappointing. You can only get a fuzzy feeling though real solidarity and camaraderie, not through buying (into) an idea of a product. Marketing Global Justice is about showing people that the fuzzy feeling is politically unproductive; that a marketised global justice sector that is interested in accumulation of capital ain’t gonna provide it in real life.
So, I really must turn to your specific queries:
Fashions, Fads, and Vergès
Mark, you ask whether the net of marketing should be cast wider – ‘It is also the entire chattering commentariat class, no?’. Absolutely. Neoliberal capitalism likes to feed on anything, particularly anything that can be otherwise imagined as a public space. But what irked me about the global justice sector was the use of humanitarianism for capital growth, thereby potentially harming any reparative work that needs to be done for past harms (settler colonialism, slavery, climate disaster). I said I’d come back to the theme of voyeurism, and this is a good place to do so. Don’t you think there is something particularly troubling about the stereotyping of Black bodies for a sense of white saviourism? Actually, I know you do, as you were one of the first to trouble these stereotypes in your ground-breaking work on child soldiers! Asad has shown how this is not just a one-way North-South dynamic, but rather that the ICC has willingly let itself become a partisan player.
Filip, your concern about Jacques Vergès practising a kind of marketised justice in the courtroom through his courting media attention, I suppose, is a similar concern about the ‘marketisation of everything’, including radical politics. Was Vergès in his anti-colonial lawyering also using the tools of branding? After all, in the trial of rupture, Vergès was using the media to garner the sympathy of the ‘court of public opinion’. He had understood that the courtroom can be a particularly useful place to do this. But, I do think there is a difference in that he wasn’t doing this by stereotyping victims. Quite the opposite, his clients retained their agency, don’t you think? By the way, I think there is a difference between Vergès acting as defence lawyer for Front de Libération Nationale activist Djamila Bouhired (as an anti-colonial move) and his defence of Klaus Barbie (as a ‘everyone has a right to a defence’ move). In his later years, as you have discussed in your own work, he mostly understood his defence practice as defending the indefensible. I think he was moving away from his original idea of the strategy of rupture as anti-colonial politics by then. What do you think? Naomi Klein’s critique of branding is useful here too, as she tracks the rise of branding in the 1990s through a shift to symbolism over content, and the outsourcing of production from the centre of, well, the brand in the 1990s. Is Vergès engaged in symbolism over content? Is he using his platform for capital growth? Although I don’t agree with you that Vergès’s anti-colonial tactics were ‘contaminated by branding’, I do see your point, that it could be a fine line. Maybe this links nicely to Asad’s point on partisan politics. Once we see that global justice is used for partisan politics (in the interests of capital, I would add) in the name of universality, one can be more comfortable with being partisan in the interests of anti-colonialism.
Perhaps this is why, as you put it Mark, I ‘remain taciturn about the internet’. I don’t think the internet is the thing to focus our energies on. Sure, I am sometimes tempted to romanticise an internet-less past, particularly as a parent to kids who are desperate for their own smartphones. But, I do think that it is worth thinking about harnessing the democratic and plural, and politically radical, aspects of the internet. Organising on the streets can be complemented with social media, no? It offers a platform for those who would be silenced in other places. I’m not only thinking about the power of social media to highlight repressive regimes (given where we are ten years on from the so-called Arab Spring, this could also be a case in point for the lack of change in the wake of social media revolutions). I am thinking here also of the amazing young organisers I have had the privilege to meet through the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation; their organising includes setting up queer Russian youth networks at great risk to themselves or Black community online organising.
Agency of Southern States
This is where agency comes in. Asad, you observe that the Southern States, except for South Africa, and briefly Cambodia and Uganda, occupy too small a role in Marketing Global Justice. You are right: Third World agency comes too short. While I was finishing the book, I read Adom Getachew’s magnificent Worldmaking After Empire and it blew my mind on how Third World agency can retell history. I suppose my reason is that a story on marketing, in particular one that is historically informed, necessitated an understanding of where all the noise was – the loud Western thrum of marketised global justice. But, I take your point entirely, and indeed, towards the end of the writing of the book, when I was looking at land-grabbing in Uganda, I started to think more seriously about the agency of the Third World state. It’s interesting that you pick out this as a promising start as this was how I started thinking about my current research project in which I have moved quite some way away from ICL. I am excited by all the recent literature that takes Third World agency in ICL seriously though, like Omoua Ba’s recent book, which I am sure you know, and Leila Ulrich’s wonderful forthcoming book The Blame Cascade, in which she demonstrates how victims are made into productive subjects of the global political and economic order. I do hope that we can all stay in conversation, by letter, in person, or through our scholarship.
Warm wishes, and thank you again!
This was a wonderful end to an insightful symposium! I particularly enjoy the line: ‘Marketing Global Justice is about showing people that the fuzzy feeling is politically unproductive’ and see many links to the notion of comfort/discomfort you have written about in previous works, Christine. The critical discussions on discomfort, some also coming from decolonial writing, make this a political productive antidote to the fuzziness, I think. Prickliness, perhaps. For the editors, long live the letter-writing form brought here by Mark and Christine, which I have found a brilliant, intimate, persuasive mode of engagement as a long-time reader, first-time commenter.