Engaging superdiversity? Yes, very engaging

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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.

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Beyond ISDS: An international court for economic crimes?

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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.

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

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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.

Why?

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?

How?

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 Diggitmagazine.com 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?

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On banter, bonding and Donald Trump

language: a feminist guide

In my last post I argued that gossip–personal, judgmental talk about absent others–is not the peculiarly female vice our culture would have us believe. Both sexes gossip. But one common form of male gossip, namely sexualised talk about women, is made to look like something different, and more benign, by giving it another name: ‘banter’.

A week after I published that post, along came That Video of Donald Trump doing the very thing I was talking about–and trying to excuse it, predictably, by calling it ‘locker room banter’.

There are many things I don’t want to say on this subject, because they’ve already been said, sometimes very eloquently, in countless tweets and blog posts and columns. I don’t need to repeat that Trump is a misogynist (which we already knew before we heard the tape). I don’t need to upbraid the news media for their mealy-mouthed language (the

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A Planet Afflicted by a High Fever

The Pluto Press Blog - Independent, radical publishing

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. Leading anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen is the author of a new book Overheating:An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, which is linked with an international anthropological project, centered at the University of Oslo. In this post, he introduces the themes of the book, and the importance of the project.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has…

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Clashing scales of Brexit

Eriksen's blog

Mainstream newspapers, politicians and commentators across Europe instantly expressed dejection and bitterness in the face of the Brexit outcome, and avid Brexiteers have typically been portrayed as xenophobes and bigots, Little Englanders or foolish opportunists incapable of understanding the dangerous ramifications and likely Domino effects of their choice. This view is overbearing and inaccurate: complaints about Brussels may be perfectly legitimate, and it is thought-provoking that only right-wing populists have been able to listen to them. As a matter of fact, Brexiteers come in different shades, including leftists and radical humanists who are disappointed with the total marketisation of Europe, alienating standardisation resulting from centralism and the failure to deal with the refugee crisis in a coordinated, dignified and humane way. (Jan Blommaert has written well about this.) Besides, a different perspective may be more enlightening and constructive, not only in shedding light on Brexit, but also in identifying…

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