Ends and Means: a range of political subjectivities

photo Brendan.JPG
By Brendan Donegan · 2 April 2014
photo Brendan.JPG

 A few years ago some friends organised a meeting in central London to raise awareness about Operation Green Hunt, a name used by the Indian media to refer to an all-out offensive by state and paramilitary forces against Maoist insurgents in central India. Having reviewed the details of what was happening in India, the meeting concluded with a discussion of strategy. Some wanted to organise a protest outside the UK Department for International Development (DfID), on the grounds that DfID was partnering the government of Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state at the heart of Operation Green Hunt. Others at the meeting wondered out loud whether those present couldn’t come up with a more imaginative and potentially powerful action than standing in a street in central London waving placards and shouting slogans – again.

This blogpost is my final one for the Oecumene project. In this blogpost I seek to tie together and build on certain points I made in my five earlier blogposts. In so doing, I aim to identify a range of political subjectivities that differ from the figure of the citizen that has, in Isin’s words, “dominated the occidental tradition…an unencumbered and sovereign self in a direct contractual relationship with…the state” (2005: 31). One reason I think it worthwhile to set out this range of political subjectivities is in order to gain a sense of the possibilities and constraints of activism in the age of globalisation.
In other blogposts for the Oecumene project I have discussed a variety of activist campaigns. The framing devices adopted in these campaigns serve to identify different kinds of ‘others’ as their targets or as potential allies and constituencies, on the basis of different relationships of responsibility and/or solidarity. For example, my first blogpost focused on the ‘Students not Suspects’ campaign that sought to challenge UK government policy through an intervention in the relationship between academic staff and students. This campaign, initiated by academics concerned about certain aspects of the Points-Based Immigration System (PBIS) introduced across UK universities on 31 March 2009, could have taken the form of a letter-writing campaign, media articles, a protest outside the Home Office, or other established means by which citizens of a democratic polity communicate their concerns to the state. Instead, the campaign shifted the terrain of struggle to the teacher-student relation in the university, challenging university managers to either excuse or confront government policy. This move was an attempt to transform what could have been a citizen-state encounter into a public university-state encounter. I would suggest that one reason for this attempt is that these two types of encounter involve different possibilities and constraints.
One area in which citizen-state encounters are being sidelined in favour of potentially more productive forms of activist engagement is in relation to the business operations of First World-based Multi-National Companies (MNCs) in Third World countries. My third blogpost discussed a campaign that took as its target the French company Michelin and involved an appeal to Michelin’s self-interest (i.e. stop human rights abuses in Thervoy in India’s Tamilnadu state, or we will ensure your reputation gets tarnished). This entailed an encounter relying on exerting the force of opinion of a global public (‘citizens/consumers of the world’) on the company. In my fourth blogpost, I examined the UK-based campaign for justice in Kodaikanal, a town in Tamilnadu where UK-based Unilever's Indian subsidiary company has been accused of poisoning workers and contaminating the environment with toxic mercury. In that blogpost, my emphasis turned to dilemmas faced by activists engaged in this campaign. One strategy they could have adopted would be to put pressure on Unilever and the UK government by drawing public attention to the issue – in other words, an approach that would combine the strategy adopted in the Michelin case (directly threatening the company’s public image) with an attempt to use the citizen-state relationship (by arguing that Unilever, as a UK corporate citizen, must abide by UK law). I suggested that an alternative approach might be possible through workplace organising and the encounter between workers and management within this MNC.
Besides highlighting different kinds of encounters, I drew attention to very different conceptions of politics. In my second blogpost, discussing the Occupy movement in response to a blogpost by Alessandra Marino on that subject, I drew attention to the idea that the Occupy movement can be understood as a form of what Akshay Khanna and others have termed unruly politics – a politics that refuses to accept the grammars and procedures of politics as these have been defined by those in power, by, for example, refusing to present a list of demands. In my fifth blogpost, I discussed the relationship between a researcher (myself) and my research informants/collaborators/participants in order to draw attention to the political implications of different ways of conducting ethnographic research.
Following on from this, I want to conclude by drawing attention to another space for action: shareholder activism. The idea here is that a shareholder – someone who owns shares in a company – is an owner of the company and, if a majority of shareholders do not like the way the company is operating, they can change it. In 2012 some journalists proposed that a ‘shareholder spring’ of investor uprisings had taken place in the UK against what were perceived to be excessive pay increases for directors, with several companies defeated by their shareholders in votes at their Annual General Meetings (AGMs). Many activists have suggested that shareholder interventions in successive AGMs of Vedanta Resources Ltd in London (including encouraging the Church of England to disinvest from the company on ethical grounds) played an important role in the success of the campaign against the company's plans for a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills in India, in what Amnesty International described in a 2013 press release as “an unprecedented victory for indigenous rights in the face of business interests.” The Vedanta campaign recalls Keck and Sikkink’s notion of the ‘boomerang effect’ of transnational advocacy networks. When the rights and concerns of citizens are ignored by their own government, sometimes foreign activists exerting pressure on other powerful actors (e.g. foreign governments or the board of an MNC) can be decisive. In the age of globalisation this might be a way of achieving particular ends – but what kinds of citizenship, otherness and political subjectivity are produced in the encounter between shareholder and MNC?

About the author

  • Dr Brendan Donegan

    Activist Consultant
    Brendan Donegan
    Goldsmiths University of London
    The focus of my professional work has been teaching and social research, with a focus on poverty and inequality in India and in the UK. I completed my PhD in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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