How Facebook constructs me: a small analysis of advertisements


Jan Blommaert 

Facebook earns phenomenal income out of advertisement targeting tools based on the data and metadata generated by its users. We all know that. As an anthropologist, however, I am interested in how exactly this method of data-based targeting works. Because behind it, there must be a kind of worldview, a theory, if you wish, of how “normal” human beings run their daily lives, who they are, and what kinds of communities they form. A sort of Facebook “ethnomethodology”, in short, of considerable power and influence in today’s online-offline world.

There is, of course, no direct way in which we can examine this, for the algorithms defining the targeting strategies are among the world’s most carefully protected industrial secrets. But there is an indirect, ethnographic way.

On 2 December 2016, between 12 noon and 3PM, I did three long runs through my Facebook feed, and I collected all the advertisements it contained. What follows is an analysis of those advertisements. The assumption behind it is that the general patterns in these advertisements will reveal something of the underlying vision which Facebook, through its advertisement formulae sold to companies, has op people such as I – how Facebook constructs me as a person. This may not shed direct light on what Facebook knows about me, but it sheds light on one aspect of how that knowledge is enacted in this segment of its day-to-day operations.

In good ethnographic tradition, the materials need to be adequately contextualized.


-I have a main Facebook profile, which I maintain in Dutch. I use it as a news medium and a tool for what I call “knowledge activism”, explicitly on the left wing of the politican specter. This profile is five years old now, and has about 5000 “Friends” and about 1700 “followers”.


-I also maintain a “professional” profile page in English, mainly for international friends and colleagues, which as a half-joke I listed as a “nonprofit organization” with Facebook. It has about 800 followers.


-Facebook of course knows a few things about me. I presume it knows a lot about me, but have no idea what exactly is known. I am only certain of what I passed on, explicitly, to Facebook, in the way of personal information. Facebook knows, from profile information,

  • my name
  • the fact that I’m a man
  • that I was born in 1961, which makes me 55 years old presently
  • my location: Antwerp and Mechelen, both in Belgium
  • the fact that I’m an academic with advanced educational qualifications
  • the language I communicate in

I did not reveal my “relationship” type to Facebook.

The advertisements

I collected and screen-shot 56 advertisements in the three runs through my feed. Almost all of them are in Dutch, and in a first, rough scanning of the materials, three main categories could be distinguished:

  1. “Indiscriminate targeting”: Sponsored advertisements sent to me for no apparently specific reason
  2. “Friends’ interest”: Advertisements sent to me because friends liked them;
  3. “Age and biodata ads”: Advertisements of which I strongly suspect that they target “people like me” on bio- and user data grounds.

Let’s have a look at these categories.

Indiscriminate targeting

Just under 25% of the corpus, 13 items, were sent to me through sponsoring.

The sample was taken in early December, in the days and weeks leading to some of the biggest shopping periods in my country: Sinterklaas (6 December) and of course Christmas (25 December). Sinterklaas is an event in which, to cut a long story short, children receive toys and candy, supposedly from a mystery saint (Sinterklaas), but in actual fact from their parents. The latter may explain the “Leo” ad – candy. But unfortunately, my children are adults and they know that Sinterklaas does not exist.

This is not the only ad that seems to be quite clearly mistargeted. The “Beauty Men” ad is obviously aimed at men considerably younger than me, the clothing advertised by “Wish” equally does not – to my taste – suit a 55-year old man, and the ad for an MBA study program at “HEC Paris” to make me “grow as a leader” also seems to address people in another stage of life and career.

The other ads are commonsense ones. Yes, I could be interested in saving fuel (provided I would drive a car, quod hardly ever), in cheap Christmas stuff from “Lidl”, in a new version of Google Chrome to run on a new Huawei phone, in wellness, cheaper electricity, flowers and design products.

Friends’ interests

This is the largest category, accounting for 50% of the corpus (28 items). All of these ads were prefaced with names of Friends who endorsed or liked the page now sent to me.

This category  is obviously a bit of a dog’s breakfast. But I learn a lot about my Facebook Friends and followers, of course. Quite a few of them are deeply interested in art: there are ads for an art cinema, a publishing house, art and entertainment festivals and events. There appears also to be quite some interest in organic food, environmental issues, sustainable economy and climate change – several items make an appeal towards that (even if, weirdly, there is also one advocating nuclear energy). Quite a few of my Friends seem to be keen travelers and prefer the more adventurous off-road trips over standard packages or five-star resorts. And some fascinating gadgets are offered too – a piece of “spy tech” to locate my car and an amazingly sophisticated cycling helmet.

Age and biodata ads

This is the least clear-cut category – at least at first sight. I received 15 items (just over 25% of the corpus) in which obvious aspects of my “real” person appear to be targeted: my gender, my age, my (absent) relationship status. Several of these ads are also “Friends’ interests” – names of Friends preface the message – but an additional filter seems to be applied, in the sense that such ads would, I assume, not be sent to people with a profoundly different age, gender and/or relationship profile than me.

Things become a wee bit more scary here. I am constructed here as someone

  • with several health issues
  • who should start thinking about dying
  • but is looking for love affairs

No less than five advertisements have to do with age-related health issues. Prostate problems, cholesterol, depression or burnout, diabetes and smoking are the issues which someone like me – a 55-year old man – might suffer of and seek treatment for. This is nicely punctuated by the funeral insurance ad, which reminds me that funerals are very expensive events and that my children should not be facing such crippling costs – rather soon, possibly (you never know).

An ad for a Mechelen-based chips shop provides a counterpoint to this theme of “take care of your health”!

There is, however, a bit of a Last Tango in Paris twist to the plot. Since I did not give Facebook any information on my “relationship type” – it is frankly none of their business – the machines appear to conclude that this 55-year old Belgian, whose body is subject to decay, might still be interested in love affairs. Perhaps even more than ever, and perhaps even in an “it’s now or never” mode. Two dating sites target my attention, one of which specializes in Muslim potential partners.

The world, and I, according to Facebook

If I would be asked which of these ads would really interest me, I would be hard pressed to choose one. I could take a closer look at some of the art and culture ads from the “Friends’ interest” category, and I might be interested in some of the sustainable economy or climate change ads from that category too. But none of it I find compelling.

This is even less the case in the “Age and biodata” category. I do have adequate health support, I do not need to be reminded of the fact that I am mortal, and I do not need any support for my love life either. My children might be planning to buy me the “1961 Legends” T-shirt for Christmas, but not me. I stopped using the services of Amazon France and my “business” (the “nonprofit organization” of my professional profile page) has no need for additional IT support.

So, who is this person constructed by the advertisers’ algorithms on Facebook? Here are some elements of an answer:

  • That person has been constructed on the basis of mainstream behavioral characteristics: he is someone who does shopping and looks for “normal” shopping items: smartphones, car-related items, electricity provision and so forth.
  • His shopping habits are, on the one side, defined by statistical averages drawn from profiles. Since he is a 55-year old man in Western Europe, he might have cholesterol, diabetes or prostate issues, and since he has not rendered any information regarding his relationship status, he might be the kind of man who goes dating.
  • His habits are, on the other hand, defined by an assumption about the Facebook community built around him: this community is seen as a community of interests. Or to be more precise: a community of consumer interests.

To develop the latter: the Facebook advertisement system appears to presume that its communities are made up of people who, by and large, share the same lifestyle, sociocultural and socio-economic features, and sociopolitical value orientations. All of those forms of sharedness, subsequently, can be converted into consumer preferences.

Since my use of Facebook is, clearly, deviant – I post hardly any personal information and use my pages for the public purposes I specified above – the match between my community and myself is highly unclear, nonlinear. My community is very large and heterogeneous, with people of different age groups, gender and ethnicity, geographically dispersed over Belgium and The Netherlands, not homogeneous in terms of educational qualifications and professional status. The exercise I undertook here, therefore, teaches me more about specific Friends than about myself, since my use of Facebook constitutes a sustained “breaching experiment”: I appear to violate several key expectations of the “normal” Facebook user.

At least, it teaches me that Facebook, in this aspecct of its operations, constructs me through the lens of my community. I must mirror some of the characteristics of the people who are my Friends. Since my highly diverse community counts a good number of Muslim Friends, I must be potentially interested in a Muslim partner-in-love; since several of my Friends are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, I must be interested in cheap and second-hand shops as well. Since many of my Friends have a car (and talk about it or “like” car-related pages) I must have a car too and share these interests. And since rising fuel and electricity bills are a major topic of concern among middle-class house owners in Belgium, many of whom are Friends, I must be interested in lower fuel and electricity rates, of course.

Facebook, as we can see, uses a pretty simple , schematic and linear worldview in its algorithmic strategies. It is based on commonsense and statistical understandings of “normalcy” – everyone is designed as an Average Joe within his/her data-based category. It also uses a simple, schematic and linear view of human behavior, since these forms of normalcy are precipitated into equally “normal” consumption habits and preferences. Humans are essentially consumers, and when they congregate on Facebook, consumption must be a key interest; it must even be the determining interest that brings them together as a community. There is a disconcerting underlying assumption here: that Facebook is made for like-minded, highly similar people congregating in like-minded, highly similar groups. A rather suffocating, even disabling view of human communities, in my view.

It’s all quite amusing, were it not for the fact that this is one of the many identities I have. I have not constructed it myself – Facebook’s advertisers’ algorithms give me this identity. And whether I like it or not, it is a real and effective identity: I will continue to receive ads for funeral insurance, cars and car-related gadgets, Muslim date sites, cholesterol pills and so forth. For Facebook is very unlike to change its mind about me. For Facebook, this is me.



Engaging superdiversity? Yes, very engaging


Jan Blommaert 

Engaging Superdiversity is edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebaek, Max Spotti and Jan Blommaert, and will be published in December 2016 by Multilingual Matters, Bristol, in the Encounters series.

As all of us know, there is a tremendous pressure in the academic system at present to operate as an individual in a competitive “market” of science focused on deliverables – or more precisely, a market of money for science and other more symbolic and status-related perks. All of these elements – individualism, competition and result-driven orientation – are fundamentally unscientific, and render our lives as science workers increasingly less interesting. Science is a collective endeavor characterized by solidarity and focused on processes of knowledge construction. Why else do we need references at the end of our publications, than to illustrate how we have learned from others in a perpetual process of critical and productive dialogue?

This critical reflex motivated, almost a decade ago, a small team of scholars to join forces in a consortium called InCoLaS (International Consortium on Language and Superdiversity) – a “dream team” of people who decided to care and share, to explore domains only superficially touched by inquiry, mobilizing and maximizing each other’s resources in the process,  and to do all this without a pre-set target or road map. After all, exploration is not the same as driving in a limo on a highway with the GPS on: by definition, you don’t know where it will take you. There is no “draft proposal”; there are ideas.

This mode of collaboration turned out to be immensely “profitable”, to use the terms of the market. Several high-profile publications emerged, and our buzzword “superdiversity” has become a modest celebrity in its own right, attracting what must be seen as the ultimate intellectual compliment: controversy. There are “believers” and “non-believers”, and both camps have had, over the past years, sometimes heated debates over the value of the word “superdiversity”.

We ourselves don’t really care about that word. Sometimes one needs a new word simply to examine the validity of the older ones – the word is then just a sort of stimulus to shed some of the attributes and frames inscribed in the older ones; and not the word is central, but the ideas it points to and the data it can help explain. Whether research is convincing or not rarely depends on which words are used to write it down; usually it depends on the quality of analysis and argument.

“Engaging Superdiversity” offers another set of studies on language and superdiversity, drawn from one of the key features of our collective mode of work: team workshops in which we listen and discuss the work of our team members – senior as well as more junior researchers – and insert their results in the collective explorative process described earlier. In these workshops, all of us are “free” – free to come up with unfinished ideas, unsolved problems, struggles with complex data. The joint work of critical dialogue, usually, results in products that are, to say the least, engaging.

This collection of essays, more than any other publication so far, gives people a sense of the ambiance in InCoLaS activities. It covers the terrains we find important – inequality, the online-offline nexus, power – and expands the theoretical and methodological framing of the process of exploration. There is a very large amount of new things in this book (for the benefit of the “non-believers” who question what is so new about superdiversity), and some of the chapters will, I believe, have considerable impact in the field.

I joined the editorial team rather late in the game, and my gaze is thus, perhaps, a bit more that of a detached spectator than Karel’s, Martha’s and Max’s. So let me say this. When reviewing manuscripts for journals, book proposals, or even student’s essays, I always make a distinction between work that is good and work that is interesting. Most work I see is good, in the sense that there is nothing wrong with it, other than that I would never read it: it’s not interesting. “Engaging Superdiversity” is good and interesting – extraordinarily so – and I am proud to see it in print.




25 years of right wing extremism in Belgium: Lessons for the present


Jan Blommaert

The Brexit, followed by the election of Donald Trump in the US, have raised worldwide concerns about the rise of right wing extremism. The phenomenon is, however, 25 years old in Belgium. Lessons can be drawn from that longitudinal experience.

24 November 1991 is known as “Black Sunday” in Belgium. On that day, a relatively new party called Vlaams Blok radically redefined the electoral landscape in the country with a first massive victory at the polls. Prior to that national breakthrough, the party had won the local elections in Antwerp. But Black Sunday sent shock waves through the Belgian political system, and its effects are enduring.

The Vlaams Blok program

Vlaams Blok (“Flemish Block”, later renamed Vlaams Belang – “Flemish Interest”) won its seats in Parliament due to a mixture of three powerful elements. The mixture will sound familiar to observers of the present.

  1. Extreme nationalism. While in Flemish Belgium moderate forms of nationalism had been common – most Flemish parties would support a degree of autonomy for Flanders, and some more radical ones would demand a federal structure for Belgium – Vlaams Blok demanded the unspeakable: Flemish independence.
  2. An anti-immigrant program. Vlaams Blok was the party that put immigration and Islam not just on the political agenda, but made it into THE electoral trump card.
  3. Charismatic and undisputed leadership. Vlaams Blok won its first election with two highly articulate and technically competent young politicians, Filip Dewinter and Gerolf Annemans. Unbeatable in media debates and easily perceived as champions of the “common man”, these two figureheads survived several generations of politicians and are still active today. Their leadership in the party remained unqualified until very recently.

The main innovation brought by Vlaams Blok was point (2) in this list. Until 1988, immigration and multiculturalism were marginal as political themes. As a policy domain of very modest scope, these themes had emerged in Belgium in the late 1970s only, and they had emerged in the broader context of the socio-economic issues following the economic recession of the mid-1970s. Immigrants had been particularly hard-hit by the economic contraction, and politicians felt that specific measures should be taken. The problem with immigrants was defined as a socio-economic one.

Vlaams Blok brought a radically different definition of the problem. Immigrants presented a cultural and political threat to Flemish society. Their presence distorted and threatened the fundamental identity of Flanders as a white, Christian and Dutch-speaking region characterized by a set of values and preferences with which those of – notably Muslim – minorities were profoundly at odds. Since, in addition to this, the economic role of immigrants had declined due to the recession, immigrants should be turned back to their countries of origin.

Onto this anti-immigrant theme, several others could be grafted.

  1. Vlaams Blok strongly advocated a law-and-order approach openly focused on immigrant youth, seen as the source of urban unrest, waves of petty crime (often drugs-related) and widespread feelings of insecurity in some urban neighborhoods. Of course, 9/11 and the proclamation of the worldwide War on (Muslim) Terror provided powerful boosts to this aspect of the Vlaams Blok agenda.
  2. The party also advocated the restrictions of social welfare benefits and civil and political rights to “native” Flemish people, excluding immigrants from the welfare state and/or creating a dual system of social policy. Naturally, full citizenship (including the right to vote and seek political mandates) should be the privilege of “native” Flemish people only.

The most dramatic impact of Vlaams Blok, however, was more general:

  1. They redefined the meaning of “democracy”. They did so with a simple slogan: “we are saying what you are thinking”. And they added a simple argument to that, directed at their political adversaries: since we win elections, we represent “the voice of the people” and you don’t. The other parties were defined as “traditional”, an enclosed “political elite” alienated from the “common man”, and this traditional elite politics had created a “gap between citizens and politics” which Vlaams Blok had filled. The party systematically presented itself as the champion of freedom of speech, and would never stop complaining about media censorship and silencing tactics performed against them by the “elites”.

Vlaams Blok was proud of its extreme right-wing roots and program; prominent members would attend events celebrating Flemish SS-veterans of World War II, and the party established a strong network with other extreme right-wing and neofascist movements across Europe. Vlaams Blok members would proudly call themselves “right wing”, “radical” and “uncompromising”, thus adding previously unheard political self-qualifications to the political-discursive register of Belgian politics.

The impact of Vlaams Blok

The political adversaries of the Vlaams Blok reacted swiftly to the electoral shockwave of Black Sunday. A cordon sanitaire was declared by all other parties, promising never to enter into formal political collaboration with the party. Politicians would, until this day, explicitly proclaim their fundamental differences with Vlaams Blok and their refusal to enter into coalitions with them. Much later, in 2004, the party was brought to court on racism charges. The controversial trial led to a conviction, and the party was forced to change its name into Vlaams Belang.

Implicitly, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments.

This was the explicit part of the reaction. Implicitly, however, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments, in a kind of pied-piper reflex aimed at regaining the lost electoral ground. Even more: the six points listed above have, 25 years after the electoral breakthrough of this right-wing extremist party, become mainstream. Thus, while the cordon sanitaire excluded the party from power, its influence was pervasive and persistent. The party caused a decisive political-discursive shift – the same shift as the one now witnessed elsewhere in Europe and the US.

By opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted

This shift can be described as follows. By introducing new “extreme” topics and modes of political speech (qualified, systematically, as “simply stating facts” and therefore matters of “freedom of speech”), all previously “extremist” positions became “moderate”. Thus by opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted along. Concretely, when one demands that all illegal aliens ought to be deported, every proposal for repression short of deportation becomes “moderate” and reasonable in comparison to the “extreme” one. Similarly, if one demands independence for Flanders, proposals for a confederal state can be presented as moderate and reasonable, even if they are vastly more radical than previously held plans for a federal state. And so forth. The entire specter of Belgian politics moved, quite dramatically, in that direction.

Thus, after 1991, all parties embarked on large-scale exercises of rebranding and reorganization, aimed at “closing the gap” with the citizens defined by Vlaams Blok. The traditional system in which parties articulated the interests of large and well-organized civil society organizations (trade unions, religious and socio-economically defined communities, local and regional constituencies) and relied on a large membership of militants was rapidly replaced by an entirely new format of political practice based on high-profile personalities, marketing, polling and mass mediatized propaganda, later significantly expanded by the use of internet-based new media. Politicians became celebrities (and celebrities became politicians), and the voter was, henceforth, approached as a “customer” rather than as an ideologically affiliated fellow-traveler. The era of the glib and quotable one-liner and “politics-as-lifestyle-option” had arrived, replacing that of the slow and careful technical explanation of policy options. All parties desperately wished to avoid being trapped in the label of “elite”, and all claimed to express “the voice of the common man”. Populism, in short, became the default mode of politics. New types of political leaders, new types of political style, discourse, tactics and strategy were established, and new themes started dominating the political landscape.

For the same shift towards the Vlaams Blok could be seen in all the thematic domains listed above. Far more radical versions of Flemish nationalism became mainstream. And when an erstwhile “moderate” Flemish-nationalist party exploded in the early years of the millennium, a far more radical one succeeded it, called N-VA. Article 1 of their Statute identifies Flemish independence as the ultimate political goal. This party is currently the largest Flemish party, and dominates both the Flemish and the Federal Governments. More on this below.

Immigration and multiculturalism became overwhelmingly culturalized, and the socio-economic line previously followed was all but entirely abandoned and replaced by Huntington-ian discourses of “integration problems” caused by fundamental cultural-religious differences between “us” and – increasingly but incessantly – Muslims. Law-and-order repression replaced softer approaches aimed at employability, education and training, and improved social mobility for minority members. Voting rights became a taboo issue, and immigrants acquired voting rights only as part of the implementation of EU-directives in 2004. The dominant discursive and policy model now is that minority members “need to take responsibility” for their own position of inequality, that racism is too often used as an excuse for failing to use the opportunities “we” offer “them”, and that Muslim “extremism” means that “integration has failed” and that a more coercive approach is warranted.

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too. Black Sunday was explained in the media in precisely the terms defined by Vlaams Blok: yes, there was a problem of democratic legitimacy for the “traditional” parties, and yes, Vlaams Blok asked “the right questions” (but gave undesirable answers). Throughout the 1990, the mass media provided encouraging commentary for the shift towards populism and the adoption of important parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda. In a political system increasingly dominated by mass-mediatization, this support mattered, it mattered a great deal.

Lessons for today?

Vlaams Blok became the single most consistently successful political formation in Belgian politics since World War II. From its first electoral success in 1988 until 2006, the party won 13 consecutive electoral victories. It did so in spite of a cordon sanitaire which deprived voters from any hope of real executive power, and in spite of the mass copying and imitation acts of all other parties. This success story also turned Vlaams Blok from an early mover in the European extreme-right-wing universe into an exceptionally consistent political formation, and a model for several more recent similar European parties.

The tactic of copying and imitation, thus, did not pay off for the other political parties. The Flemish Social-Democrats, for instance, lost half of their electorate in the period since Black Sunday. Filip Dewinter himself would provide a simple explanation: people would always prefer the authentic brand product above its imitations or counterfeit versions. He was right, of course: given their adoption of substantial parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda, parties found it increasingly difficult to wage a convincing and consistent opposition against Vlaams Blok. And given the technical brilliance of the latter’s leaders in media performances, defeat was almost inevitable for the “traditional” parties.

The party lost some of its electoral force after the worldwide crisis of 2008, when socio-economic themes regained prominence in political discourse and programs. But the first really bad defeat only occurred in 2014, when the previously mentioned recently created N-VA party captured about one third of the Flemish electorate, led by a charismatic and highly media-friendly leader Bart de Wever. Interestingly, this party did copy and imitate Vlaams Blok – it did so almost entirely in the six domains sketched earlier – but it combined this Vlaams Blok agenda with an outspoken and radical neoliberal economic platform. Thus, the Vlaams Blok program has now acquired executive power. N-VA has cleverly exploited the huge discursive shift mentioned earlier, moving as closely as possible to the positions held by Vlaams Blok, and just adding a “moderate” (essentially a more “rational”) stylistic inflection. And it drew most of its voters in the 2014 ballot from the existing Vlaams Blok electorate.

Copying and imitation does pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift performed by “illegitimate” political actors has been normalized.

Thus, copying and imitation does appear to pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift – the expansion of what is politically thinkable and publicly sayable, performed by “illegitimate” political actors such as Vlaams Blok – has been normalized. N-VA needed the overtly extremist (and legally racist) Vlaams Blok in order to create a “normal” political place for itself. Likewise, Boris Johnson can only be explained by Nigel Farage and the English Defence League; and Donald Trump capitalizes on the efforts of an extremely radical neoconservative movement that started under Clinton and took the shape of the Tea Party under Obama. Thus, the new, radical right-wing politicians we now have emerge in a new, reshaped discursive field in which much of what was seen as shocking and politically transgressive two decades ago can be presented now as just a statement of fact, the performance of which is a matter of freedom of speech, and, ultimately, a vital sign of of a true and vibrant democracy.

“We are saying what you are thinking” has become the single most powerful political motif in recent years. In Belgium, it has profoundly transformed the political arena for 25 years, and it has been consistently successful. Witnessing the more recent re-enactments of this process of transformation elsewhere in the world is, therefore, a highly frustrating experience – the same patterns evolved, the same errors were made, and the same outcomes define a present which, looking back, was in fact highly predictable.


Anachronism as power


Jan Blommaert 

What follows is part of the “Durkheim and the Internet” project – a self-conscious attempt at drawing theories of wider relevance from recent sociolinguistic studies and evidence. The theories are designed to provide a generalizable heuristic for new research, a set of potentially productive “grounded” hypotheses to be deployed in a wide variety of domains of investigation.

One of the theories emerging from this project is a theory of power – not a general one (power per se) but a specific one, about one kind of institutional power. Two points of departure underlie the effort here.

  1. In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber describes the fundamental stupidity of contemporary bureaucratization, observing the spread of what he calls “power without knowledge”: “where coercion and paperwork largely substituted for the need for understanding (…) subjects” (2015: 65). The contemporary power of bureaucrats often involves an assumption of total knowledge (articulated, e.g. in Foucault’s work). Graeber, however, disagrees: “situations of structural violence invariably produce extremely lopsided structures of imaginative identitification” (69): rulers have no clue about who and what their subjects are, what it is they do, what they attach importance to, how they live. The schematization and simplification of bureaucracy serve as a substitute for intimate and experience-based knowledge, but evidently fail to match up to that.
  2. A decent amount of applied-linguistic work, notably on bureaucratic procedures such as asylum applications, shows how transnational subjects, often carrying the traces of a checkered diasporic biography, are nonetheless caught in administrative templates in which their “origins” are determined on the basis of imaginations of nation-state regimes of bureaucratic identity and on “modernist” theories of language (cf. Maryns 2006; Blommaert 2001, 2009; Jacquemet 2015). Concretely: if applicants’ claims as to origin (being from country X) are being disputed, knowledge of the official, national languages of Country X is used as a definitive test. If one fails this criterium, asylum is being denied. The same happens whenever an applicant provides discourse which is sensed to violate the rules of denotational purity: whenever s/he produces contradictions, silences, a muddled chronology or a lack (or overload) of detail, the applicant is judged to be untrustworthy and the success of his/her application is jeopardized.

The “lopsided structures of imaginative identitification” described by Graeber, we can see, in actual fact assume the shape of anachronisms: schemes of social imagination, and thus of patterns of meaning-making,  perhaps valid in an earlier stage of development, but not adjusted to recent changes and thus inadequate to do justice to the phenomenology of present cases. At the same time, these obsolete schemata are strongly believed to have an unshakeable, persistent relevance as a rationality of administrative information-organization, and are enforced from within that rationality. Thus, an important part of contemporary institutional power is based on anachronisms.

Anachronisms are, of course, an inevitable feature of social change, and we know that governmentality – the logic of institutional bureaucracy and governance – is widely characterized by inertia. It represents a segment of society which develops more slowly than the segments it is supposed to deal with. The gap between the phenomena to be addressed, and the schemata by means they are addressed, is a grey zone of uncertain understanding and often arbitrary judgment – and thus, increasingly, of miscarriage of justice and of litigation.

In terms of research, such anachronistic gaps offer a very rich site for investigating social change itself. It is based on the general image of social change described elsewhere: an image of different layers developing at different speeds. The different speeds manifest themselves in actual, situated cases of misunderstanding (or rather: the incapacity for understanding) and/or of experienced injustice.

The awareness of anachronisms is nothing new, needless to say. Durkheim’s own efforts, we have seen, were grounded in his convicition that “society” had not been adjusted to an important range of innovations caused by the industrialization and urbanization of France. Similar views, of an old social order being crushed under the weight of a new one, are widespread in the sociological literature. What this theory of anachronisms as power now offers, is accuracy. When earlier generations saw “society” being ill addapted to innovation, they couldn’t possibly mean all of society, for the parts that had been innovated were also very much part of that society. What we can contribute, therefore, is a highly precise focus when we look at such phenomena. The anachronisms are particular modes of organizing social interaction through specific patterns of meaning-making: categorization, the connection of different phenomena, objects or persons in specific sets of relationships to each others (as when an asylum seeker is brought in a certain relationship with national languages in determining his/her origins), patterns of argumentation and the ways in which we attribute judgments of persuasiveness to certain such patterns. Our theory enables us to look for very precise objects of analysis that can document change and the anchronistic effects that accompany it.

Evidently, the internet as a technology that has brought substantial innovation to the modes of social interaction now common around the world, is prone to such anachronisms. It is a segment of contemporary social life that develops at very high speed, while our modes of meaning-making are slow to be synchronized. Thus, we talk about, and in, new modes of internet communication very much in ways reflecting an pre-internet complex of social relationships.

A very clear example of this is the fact that Facebook, the largest social media platform in the world founded in 2004, uses one of the oldest and most primitive terms in the vocabulary for human relationships as its core tool: “friends”. Evidently, Facebook “friends” are not necessarily coterminous with offline friends. Facebook also uses a similarly ancient and primitive term to describe the most common interaction function on its platform: “like”. And evidently, this “like” function covers a very broad and extraordinarily heterogeneous range of actual meanings. No-one needs to actually like an update in order to “like” it, and no-one needs to be an actual friend in order to become a Facebook “friend” (which is why s/he can be easily and swiftly “defriended” whenever differences of opinion arise).

Those are of course innocent phenomena, merely indexing the anachronistic gaps caused by developments in social media. Less innocent, but very difficult to pinpoint, are the effects of some of the organizing principles behind social media: the algorithmic engines used by e.g. Google and Facebook to bring people, messages and zones of social activity together on the basis of aggregations of huge amounts of data and metadata generated by users. These algorithms belong to the world’s best-kept industrial secrets, and the assumptions on which they are based can, consequently, not be directly researched. But some of their effects are known.

All of us, I am sure, have at times error-clicked some advertisement on a social media page – let’s say, an advertisement for the newest model of urban SUV by Peugeot. All of us must have noticed how in the days following that erroneous click, multiple advertisements for cars appear on almost any page we open, usually cars in the same price range as the Peugeot we error-clicked. Less visible, perhaps, is the fact that in our social media newsfeeds, we are likely to encounter more people who recently clicked such advertisements in the days following our error-click, most likely people from our contacts network and people in the same geographical area as us. And also less visible, perhaps, is the fact that our perceived interest in cars of a certain brand and price range will be correlated with other data we produce through our social media usage – other products we express an interest in, other aspects of lifestyle, other persons, perhaps political views or preferences for certain sports or sports teams – all of this resulting in a permanently updated “algorithmic identity”, of certain interest for marketing and security professionals, over which we ourselves do not have any control, let alone agency.

Altough we can, as I said, gauge these procedures from a distance only, we can infer from what we know that these algorithms are anachronisms too. They are overwhelmingly linear and reductionist: linear, for clicking an item is interpreted as necessarily rational and deliberate – the mind-reading procedures of the algorithm exclude the possibility that we clicked the button by acccident. And reductionist in the sense that clicks are seen as inspired by very specific forms of interest in the thing we clicked – an interest, for instance in buying that object rather than to just admire it or confirm our opinion that such things are absurdly expensive.

The algorithmic identities thus ascribed to us may be light years removed from the actual motives driving our social conduct and from the ways in which we see ourselves. Well known, for instance, is that at a certain time when terrorism alert worldwide was red-hot, googling for information on pressure cookers was algorithmically flagged as suspicious because these mundane receptacles happened to be widely used in manufacturing home-made explosive devices. Which is an activity performed, fortunately, by very few individuals; but in order to locate these individuals, a great many more must have come under close scrutiny by security and intelligence officials – for no reason other than, perhaps, they contemplated buying a very nice pressure cooker so as to boost the quality of their bowl of evening soup.

Patterns of human interaction and meaning-making are the most sensitive indicators of social change – every neologism in our everyday language usage demonstrates this. If we wish to understand the fine grain of social change, close attention to these patterns is therefore sure to offer far more analytical purchase than almost any other aspect of social life. Power, too, can be investigated by looking at the anachronisms characterizing patterns of interaction and meaning-making deployed in governance; it can be looked at in very great detail.


Blommaert, Jan (2001) Investigating narrative inequality: African asylum seekers’ stories in Belgium. Discourse & Society 12/4: 413-449

Blommaert, Jan (2009) Language, Asylum and the National Order. Current Anthropology 50/4: 415-445.

Graeber, David (2015) The Utopia of Rules: On technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Jacquemet, Marco (2015) Asylum and superdiversity: The search for denotational accuracy during asylum hearings. Language & Communication 44: 72-81.

Maryns, Katrijn (2006) The Asylum Speaker: Language in the Belgian Asylum Procedure. London: Routledge.




Obama’s presidency and the superhero frame


Jan Blommaert

At the heart of any high-stakes electoral campaign there is a lie: the suggestion that the candidate is a superhero who will change everything when elected. This superhero frame is the reason why widespread dissatisfaction, disappointment, disgust and cynicism capture the electorate after elections.

Barack Obama got elected to the US Presidency in late 2008 after an overwhelmingly enthusiastic campaign revolving around the slogan “yes, we can”. He was not the first African-American presidential candidate, but like Jesse Jackson before him, he was, of course, a long shot at the outset of the campaign. His election, therefore, was experienced in large parts of the globe as a watershed, a profound change in how the US would be governed and how the country would relate to the rest of the world. His Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 underscored the great expectations provoked by his election.

The Nobel Committee applauded Obama’s diplomatic efforts towards nuclear nonproliferation, as well as the “new climate” in international relations he had caused, notably by reaching out to Muslims worldwide. This was, note, within the first year of Obama’s term, and therefore more a promissory note than a reward for goods delivered. Obama followed the notoriously war-happy George W. Bush, who deployed his troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, who had created the Guantanamo prison camp and sanctioned diverse forms of torture and drone-delivered death as part of his War on Terror. The same reason had, domestically, led to the Patriot Act and its spin-offs in global surveillance and privacy restrictions.

Hopes were high, and Obama was seen as holding the promise of radical change. He had made many promises himself, of course. Guantanamo would be closed; wars would be ended; the US economy would be boosted; the American poor, native as well as immigrants, would benefit; education would be promoted and supported; democracy and human rights would be restored and Americans would get – at long last – a mandatory healthcare system. Obama was the superhero who would bring the US back on track, back to the days of prosperity associated with the presidency of Bill Clinton and the Great Society associated with that of Lyndon Johnson.


Two terms in office later, the score sheet can only be disappointing. Guantanamo is still in use; US troops are still active in wars across the globe and Obama’s terms actually saw an increase in the use of drones as weapons of targeted destruction, as well as the killing of Osama Bin laden by American special forces in Pakistan; race relations in the US have dropped, because of incidents in Ferguson and many other places, to a historic level of acrimony and violence; Obamacare in practice is a faint shadow of its original plan; the Patriot Act is still in vigor; US international policy remained status quo, with enemies remaining enemies (with one semi-exception: Iran) and friends remaining friends; and poverty and unemployment levels peaked during Obama’s Presidency.

The latter, of course, cannot be entirely blamed on Obama. Just weeks before his election, and as an effect of a debt bubble created by banks and supported by Greenspan’s Federal Reserve, Lehman Brothers went down. The Clinton-Bush bubble burst and caused a worldwide recession rarely seen since the legendary crash of 1929. The US GDP dropped by more than 6% overnight. And unemployment shot up from 5% (2007) to 9.5% (2009), with African-American and Hispanic communities getting a particularly raw deal, and with the expected economic effect of dropping wages across the US labor market. In addition, millions of US citizens, often middle-class and fully employed, lost their houses and were thrown into the precariat. Eight years on, the US economy has still not completely recovered from the crash of 2008.

Obama, thus, had to enter the game with a poor hand of cards dealt to him. In his inaugural speech of January 2009, he made an appeal for “a new era of responsibility”; invoked solidarity across parties and segments of the population; referred to the “greed and irresponsibility of some” that caused the crisis; called for a choice of “hope over fear”; and he pledged to restore America’s greatness through daily and unrelenting efforts – the latter an electoral motif running through presidential campaigns from Kennedy to Trump.

Looking back, he got nothing of that. The “some” who caused the crisis were never punished for their “greed and irresponsibility”, for instance. On the contrary, the post-2008 era saw an unprecedented rise to power for global financial behemoths such as Goldman Sachs, as well as the consolidation of neoliberal market ideologues, and now carries the danger of further financial cataclysms over to the next President. As for “greatness”, Obama’s Vice-President Biden made a trip to Beijing in which he publicly begged China to make direct investments in the US – read: to buy American assets and extract profit from them. I saw his speech on Chinese TV and realized that US economic hegemony had come to an end. And the Chinese were happy to oblige: the US economy is now based on debt massively financed by China and has, thus, lost much of its autonomy.

As for solidarity among Americans: Obama had to enter fight upon fight with perhaps the most outspokenly hostile Congress since the days of Wilson. The Republicans gave birth to the extremist Tea Party, who brought unprecedented levels of aggressive and utterly destructive populism to the American public sphere. Amidst the Republican candidates running for the Presidency in 2015-2016, Bush would have been a moderate – which explains why George W.’s brother Jeb was sidelined early on – and this bunch got Donald Trump as a worthy champion.


The Congressional Democrats, by contrast, remained as much a “non-party” as before Obama. And their eventual champion Hilary Clinton, recall, was Obama’s main conservative opponent in the previous election. The fact that her leading primaries challenger, Bernie Sanders, was initially seen as an oddity on the left fringes of the Democrats reveals a lot about the disunity in the party, and about the alienation of large chunks of the electorate craving for a far more substantial change than the one promised by others.

So if Obama intended to bring America together behind shared ideals of prosperity, freedom and democracy, he got the exact opposite: a political field more polarized than ever, and less inclined to compromise and cross-party reconciliation. This hostile division ran through debates on every major social issue. Obama’s healthcare plans were branded as “communist”, and even the extreme frequency of public shootings could not coerce the gun lobby towards a more complacent attitude vis-à-vis restrictive gun possession legislation. The Presidential campaign saw a hike in publicly stated racism and sexism, with Trump insulting about every possible minority and promising a Great Wall on the US-Mexican border to keep the thieves, drug dealers and rapists out. American society, at the end of Obama’s tenure, looks more dangerously divided than ever, and the next President will, like Obama, have to start office with a nasty hand of cards.

Finally, when we look back at what the Nobel Prize Committee saw as grounds for awarding Obama his prize, we notice that there, too, very little has been delivered. Nuclear weapons are still stockpiled in the US and elsewhere, and a new collision course with Putin’s Russia – for which Obama cannot go uncharged – holds no promise of improvement. The détente with Muslim countries, as well, has not materialized. Unmitigated support for Israel (with the usual hostile effects across the Muslim world) remained a fixture of US international relations, as did the support for regimes of doubtful record such as the Saudi monarchy. The role of the US in the Arab Spring, and especially in the Lybian civil war, remains contested as well and has not improved US-Muslim relations at all. Obama got a Nobel Peace Prize for very little effort, one can remark.


In every high-stakes electoral campaign, candidates easily slip into the superhero frame. They articulate the problems and frustrations of their electorate, acknowledge them and boldly promise drastic and radical change. Elect me and I shall save the world – that is the baseline. And the more we see such campaigns being captured in scientifically doctored media formats, the more radical such promises become and the more focused on the extreme uniqueness of the individual candidate – the first African-American, the first woman, the first I-don’t-know-what. Along with the dirt poured over the opponent (and the 2016 campaign also shifted benchmarks in that respect), such extreme projections of individual competence, power and agency have become the bread and butter of political campaigning.

They are extreme in just one sense: extremely unrealistic. For politicians have to operate within a highly complex system in which nothing of any magnitude can be reduced to the will power of an extraordinary individual. Obama – the first African-American President of the United States of America – was individualized to an unseen degree. While his presidency can be viewed, in actual fact, as an example of the apparatchik-President, someone whose room for manoeuver and individual initiative was reduced to almost nothing, leaving the US after his presidency in very much the same way as when he entered the White House. In spite of promises of radical change, unusually grand even by American standards.

The sobering observation in 2016 is: he proved to be incapable of subverting the real power brokers; in fact, his presidency made them stronger.

And the electorate? I can imagine that not-too-many African-Americans are under the impression that Obama’s high office has profoundly changed their predicament when statistics show that their community still represents about one third of the prison population in the country, that young African-Americans have become more not less likely to be hurt by police bullets, that unemployment among them is about 5% higher than in the US white population and that the average wealth gap with the white population remains unchanged.

In a broader sense, the astonishing success of the Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrates that at least a large part of the Democratic electorate is fed up with the kind of politics professed by Obama. Remember that calling oneself a socialist turns one into an even longer shot than being an African-American or a woman Presidential candidate. And Sanders ran a non-formatted, anti-glamorous and content-focused campaign, demotic but not populist – something which must have triggered, at least initially, roaring laughter from the professional kingmakers of Washington DC.

Obama’s legacy will, thus, forever be unfavorably measured against the superhero role he articulated and embodied. He fell victim to his own frame, and others will too. A superhero who, after all, turns out not to be able to fly and save the world can only be a disappointment. Once the flimsiness of the format becomes understood (and this may take a couple of elections more) the electorate will tend to prefer more realistic, down-to-earth, less stellar politicians. And, perhaps, that is when real change may happen.

Pending that, Obama’s legacy is now in the hands of Donald Trump. One superhero was replaced by another one. Who looks dead set to demolish whatever the previous one claims to have achieved.

Beyond ISDS: An international court for economic crimes?


Jan Blommaert

The negotiations between the EU and Canada about the CETA treaty have been stalled, initially by just two regional parliaments in Belgium, but gradually by a broader front of EU members, all of whom take exception to the Investment Court System (ICT), a specific variety of what has become knowm as ISDS – “Investor State Dispute Settlement”. The objections are not technical but profound – they revolve around a principle.

The principle was laid down a couple of centuries ago, as part of what we now call Enlightenment: it is the principle of equality under the law. Put simply, it implies that a Duke and a beggar must be subject to the same laws, be tried in the same way for the same crime, receive the same sanctions, enjoy the same rights and have access to the same legal instruments and procedures. It’s the very foundation of what has now, almost universally, been accepted as the democratic system of law and order.

Remarkably, ISDS is an exception to that. In the current ISDS systems, of the two parties involved – investors and states – only one of them has the right to initiate procedures. And that is the fatal flaw in the system.

Advocates of ISDS do have a point though: scale. They invoke economic globalization as the compelling reason why supranational jurisdictions are necessary. The logic is: transnational business and finance operate on the basis of a global strategy, and the scale level of nation-state legislation should not impede or disrupt the structure of such global manoeuvers. Hence ISDS, as an instrument to “correct” nation-state impediments and stay on track of the chosen business strategy.

It is not a bad argument; but it, once again, begs the question as to why an ISDS should not be built on the equality principle, recognizing that the nation-state scale level is also an obstacle for the other party in the game. Concretely: corporations have access to an international legal procedure when their global interests are endangered, but Volkswagen can only be prosecuted nationally for its software fraud, even if that fraud was a global phenomenon.

And a government cannot, for instance, internationally prosecute a corporation for the social and collateral costs of making thousands of its workers redundant in spite of very large profits made in that country (think of the worldwide reorganization announced by ING bank some weeks ago). Such actions, motivated by – exactly – the global corporate strategy, force governements to spend enormous amounts of cash in unemployment benefits, retraining and reskilling of laid-off workers, sometimes the reconversion and sanitation of abandoned industrial sites with severe and lasting ecological damage, and so forth – costs often weighing heavily on precarious national budgets for many years. And they are direct effects of economic globalization.

One can easily think of numerous other issues in which the weakness of the nation-state scale level as an actor in global economic processes is exploited by business and finance. The Panama Papers and Offshoreleaks brought shocking evidence of the complex systems of tax evasion deployed by business and finance corporations, all based, exactly, on movements of money, legal statuses and accounting practices from one country’s jurisdiction to another, keeping profits out of reach of the tax offices of the countries where they were earned. At present, very little can be done against it – the legal system of one country reaches its limits where that of another country starts. And within this fragmented world of jurisdictions, those forms of tax evasion are “not illegal”, as it is often repeated. But the scale of economic damage done in several parts of the world matches the scale of profit made from such practices of playing off these parts of the world against each other.

So why not take ISDS one step further, and recognize that the globalization of business and finance does indeed require an international jurisdiction, but a real one, one in which all parties have access to the same legal instruments. Why not think of an international court for economic crimes, modeled, perhaps, on the present International Court of Justice in The Hague – an idea which has been around for a while? It would add a quite commonsensical dimension lacking from the present ISDS system: that “Investor State Disputes” may have either one of both parties in either of the roles in the dispute – perpetrator as well as victim. And that true justice can only be done when this elementary principle is restored.




How and why Wallonia opposes CETA. Elements from a David-Goliath debate


Jan Blommaert 

Upheaval in Europe: the Walloon and Brussels regional parliaments in Belgium have raised serious obstacles to the conclusion of a massive Free Trade Agreement with Canada called CETA. Given Belgium’s rather complex constitutional make-up, the refusal of CETA by these regional parliaments means that Belgium, as an EU member state, cannot approve the agreement; and given the EU’s rule of unanimity, this in turn means that the entire EU cannot legally conclude the CETA agreement with Canada. Obviously, this David versus Goliath battle has become international headline news over the past week.

David versus Goliath

The battle is waged in the Brussels negotiation rooms as well as in the masss media, and for obvious reasons, it has become quite heated in the Belgian media. Here are some arguments that were widely used over the past week, mainly by spokespersons for the (Flemish) business community and political world..

  • Wallonia, which is ruled by a Social-Democratic/Christian-Democratic coalition, opposes CETA just to spite the Federal government, from which both parties were excluded. In Flanders, politicians add that Wallonia also wants to spite the Flemish region, which would benefit most from CETA. Opposition to CETA, in short, is merely an internal conflict in the complex Belgian state.
  • The Walloons articulate petty interests, infinitely smaller (in fact, insignificant) when measured against the tremendous benefits that CETA will bring. The Walloons defend the interests of their small farming industry against the giant agro-industries of Canada. They do not understand how much CETA would bring to the economic development of their region.
  • Wallonia makes Belgium look bad; Belgium has always been the EU’s best pupil and hosts its institutions; being the only member state to block this enormous agreement causes dramatic reputational damage to the country.

All of these points are, no doubt, real. But they are peripheral in the range of arguments raised by the Walloon and Brussels parliaments. Walloon and Brussels, yes – narrowing the conflict to the Walloons bypasses the fact that two Belgian regions oppose CETA. The Brussels Region coalition, incidentally and ncomfortably, includes the Liberal parties, who are also in the Federal coalition – which instantly cripples the first of the arguments listed above.


The second argument is simply untrue. The opposition of the Walloon and Brussels parliaments is not against “a free trade agreement”; it is against a particular concrete element of such treaties. That element has in the meantime become infamous: the so-called “Investor-State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) provision. This provision has been included in several large trade agreements (such as NAFTA) and, in its simplest formulation, grants private corporations the power to legally challenge national governments when legislation is judged (by the corporations) to damage real or expected profits – often cleverly called “indirect expropriation”. Damage claims by corporations against national governments can reach hundreds of millions of Euros per case.

ISDS has a bad track record, for several reasons. One, it has been used by corporations to fight legislation which is grounded in pretty sound public interest concerns. Thus, reports Guy Standing in a recent book, the tobacco multinational Philip Morris attacked Australia’s “plain packaging law”. with a multimillion dollar damages claim because, obviously, it may dissuade people from smoking. While this claim was unsuccessful, the same corporation has filed ISDS complaints against numerous other governments. Similar cases have been filed by pharmaceutical companies against governments leggaly capping the cost of medicines, and, cynically, also against the government of Spain, in full economic crisis, for withdrawing subsidies for sustainable energy investments. Ecuador has to pay $1.8 billion to Occidental Petroleum for the (lawful) termination of an oil concession contract – a staggering 2% of the national GDP, according to Standing.

Second, ISDS procedures are unilateral: corporations can prosecute states but states cannot prosecute corporations in the same way. It is explicitly seen as an “investor protection” measure. Rulings are also ad-hoc, in the sense that the judges are not held to jurisprudence and precedent and can decide by majority vote – without access to appeal. Unsurprisingly the majority of cases brought forward were concluded in favor of the corporations. Third, the procedure is terrifically expensive, and even if states win the case, they face millions of Euros in legal costs. Standing writes that the average trial cost is $8 million, with some trials costing as much as $30 million. Combined with the fear of astronomical damages, potentially affecting, as in the case of Ecuador, the macro-economic situation of the country, governments adopt a “prudent” attitude and prefer to avoid passing particular kinds of legislation – notably stricter social, public health and ecological rules – rather than to risk having to face an ISDS battle. Standing bitterly remarks that ISDS claims have become an industry in their own right, with large corporations and venture capital funds active in direct overseas investment increasingly viewing it as a new source of substantial income – which explains the rise in ISDS claims over the last handful of years.

Finally, however, there is a larger argument. ISDS-model procedures enable private multinational corporations to challenge and overrule democratically constituted regulations – a privilege not awarded to anyone else, and an acknowledgment of a new relationship between economy and democracy. Traditionally, economic actors need to comply, like anyone else, with the laws of the country where they deploy their activities. Under an ISDS system, this is no longer true: multimational business becomes a jurisdiction of its own, no longer entirely subject to democratically constituted legal arrangements to which their activities must be adjusted. Equality under the law is no longer the unshakable principle of the democratic rule of law, and the sovereignty of the polity – another cornerstone of modern democracy – has been substantially reduced. In a democratic system, recall Montesquieu, the laws represent the public interest, and private interests are subordinate to it, whether they like it or not. This is surely not a detail but a principle which is, perhaps, worth fighting for?

Tongue-in-cheek one can add that accepting ISDS seriously reduces the democratic choice of citizens. Whether one votes for left- or right-wing parties, for neoliberal or socialist and ecological political agendas: it doesn’t really matter. Any government attempting to introduce policies perceived to run counter to the business strategies and profit expectations of multinational corporations will be welcomed by lawyers filing colossal ISDS claims anyway.

And as for “free trade”: small and medium-size local enterprises do not benefit from the ISDS system, and large global businesses and finance groups acquire a fundamentally unfair advantage over their smaller competitors. It’s a story of the big becoming bigger and the small becoming smaller – not exactly what Adam Smith had in mind.

This is why the Walloon and Brussels parliaments oppose CETA. For, while chapter 8 of the treaty acknowledges some of ISDS’s shortcomings and prefers the term “Investment Court System” (ICS), the ISDS template remains almost entirely intact – and the arguments against it as well.

Over the past day or so, the real issue – ICS – has finally emerged as a topic of debate in the Belgian mass media. Its defenders are playing it down: ICS is actually a mere detail, an “operationalization”, a hardly relevant practical implementation of restricted scope, an innocuous gesture to reasssure investors, and so forth. Which begs the question: if ICS is that unimportant, why not remove it from the treaty then, knowing that this is the problem preventing its conclusion?


Let us now turn to the third argument: the Walloons make Belgium look bad. Negotiating ISDS has taken seven years of hard diplomatic work, defenders argue, and such work should not be dismissed by the silly whims of some small political community.

The ISDS agreement has indeed taken quite a bit of work to be drafted. But this work was done, mostly, in deep secrecy and by negotiators who did not feel constrained by the silly whims of some small political community. It was, like most of the EU’s large legislative initiatives, the work of lobbyists. And in fair EU tradition, the treaty was offered for approval only when the texts were “final” – meaning that only small proviso- and exception statements could be added by national bodies, but that substantial re-negotiation is out of the question. Which is why the EU took the questionable step to issue a real ultimatum to the Walloon and Brussels governments: a firm yes or (strongly dispreferred) no had to be given before the end of the EU Council meeting in Brussels on October 21. Tremendous pressure was put by the entire EU-top on the Walloon Minister-President, quite reminiscent of the way Greek PM Tsipras was treated during the Greek debt crisis in 2015.

To be sure, the Walloon and Brussels governments are not alone in their resistance to ICS and other ISDS-type mechanisms. They may be the only governments raising objections, but for several years now, a major EU-wide campaign has been going on against large trade agreemens such as CETA and, even more intensely, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, which also contains an elaborate ISDS procedure. Civil society organizations advocating environmental, sustainable economy and social economy policies have constantly provided detailed and critical information and analyses of the negotiation documents that were available. Millions of EU citizens have signed petitions and marched in protest against the structure of such treates as well as the lack of transparency by means of which they were drafted and concluded. And in several EU- member state parliaments as well as the European Parliament serious concerns were raised. They have been overruled.

The Walloon and Brussels parliaments employ what cannot possibly be presented as an “abnormal” method in voicing their objections: they proceed along the only legally binding route available in EU-decision making: that of subsidiarity. The EU needs the consent of its member states and respects their internal structures of decision-making. As I explained at the outset, that means, in practice, that the Belgian government needs the approval of all of its subordinate governments – an effect of the never-ending reorganization of state power in Belgium over the past decades. And this is the only legally valid democratic procedure by means of which the EU can conclude the CETA agreement.

The Walloons did not offer their reservations in a “whim”, and neither in a knee-jerk reflex of resistance against the Belgian federal coalition. Their objections were voiced long ago, and repeated over and over again, but no satisfactory response was forthcoming. Since their consent is not a matter of choice but one of necessity, the defenders of CETA could have had some more respect for the – ultimately quite powerful – democratic institutions, and negotiated with them long prior to the self-imposed deadline that now triggers a huge crisis.

Tremendous amounts of scorn have, in the past, been poured onto populations who rejected EU proposals by means of referendum – one can check the Brexit file on for evidence, and return to the Greek “no” of 2015 for further support. Referendum voters were misinformed and ingnorant of the real issues, they could not understand the complexity of the topics they had to vote on, and were generously helped in this by malicious and dishonest populist politicians, it was said (begging the question as to why such flaws would be asbent from regular election campaigns?) The results of referendum votes, many of which have only advisory powers, have, consequently, been dismissed, overruled, or converted into minuscule adjustments of the original plans.

The Walloon and Brussels parliaments have not opted for this controversial and too-often discredited tool, and just use “ordinary” political-professional work: parliamentary debate, resolutions, vote – decision, period. And the EU Treaties solemnly repeat, over and over again, that the Union shall be ruled not by force but by consent and respect for the democratic sovereignty of member states wherever it applies. So, perhaps this incident is highly unpleasant and exceptional. But that in itself is an indicator of a malaise, because the procedures used by the Wallon and Brussels parliaments are … entirely and compellingly normal.

The EU and its problem

The EU has a huge problem, and even its leading functionaries are sharply aware of it. The malaise I hinted at is the highly questionable legitimacy of the “actually existing EU” – not the one so voluntaristically described in its treaties, but the one that does its daily business in Brussels. Especially in 2015, the EU’s annus horribilis, issues of democratic legitimacy erupted all over the Union. In the Greek debt crisis, the EU showed a decidedly oppresive face, utterly destructive of, and even openly hostile to, democratic tradition. In the refugee crisis it showed a repressive side which was for many a violation of its most loudly proclaimed principles; and in the terrorism crisis it opted for the reduction of privacy and civil liberties – again violations of what it is supposed to stand for. Add to this the sustained emphasis on neoliberal austerity policies, and it is easy to see why the EU has ceased to be the inspiring project of peace, solidarity and prosperity it used to be for a generation of its citizens.

In fact – and elections and referenda increasingly demonstrate this – the EU now counts many millions of its citizens who are not against the Union per se, but reject the Union in its present state. Such people, thus, are not “Eurosceptical” in the sense of, e.g., Wilders and Farage, but Eurocritical. In the public debate (and the views of the EU-leadership) this crucial distinction is missed and Eurocritics are lumped together with Eurosceptics. While, to name just one, Jeremy Corbyn and his UK Labour Party demonstrated how hopelessly inadequate – and manipulative – it is to present people with a black-or-white option: either you endorse the EU as it is, or you get no EU at all. A similar simplism has been used in the CETA crisis now: either you approve the agreement as it is, or you get no agreement at all.

In any decent politics, a third choice should be available: “yes, but”. Yes, we wish to maintain this system, but on the condition that changes, that it is profoundly, not cosmetically, improved. The Walloon and Brussels parliaments, just like several other parliaments and millions of citizens, have demanded precisely that. And if the EU does not understand how normal such a political demand is, it is unlikely to recover from its malaise. In fact, the malaise may prove to be a fatal disease.

There is, once more, a crisis in Brussels. But who is looking really bad here? Who risks profound reputational damage?