Are any of us impervious to the pandemic’s moral economy? As COVID-19 blurs the lines between the global north and global south, the standard centers of power are being provincialized and oriented toward the margins, where the majority of humanity lives. In this unfiltered dialogue between Professors Robbie Shilliam and Ali Bhagat, the post-pandemic international is examined through discussions on Necropolitics, the eugenicists' origins of the welfare state, and the demasculinizing effect of mask-wearing. Two critical questions emerge - whether welfare can today escape its origins as a process first meant for the preservation and purification of the race, and whether the development project can exist beyond a desire to halt a dysgenic degeneration of populations. The two scholars argue that the grammar operating at local, national, and global levels is just another stable representation of how raced markets shape the ethics of both giving life and letting die.
Bianca Getzel: Today I have the pleasure to present Robbie Shilliam, who is a professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Professor Shilliam researches the political and intellectual complexities of colonialism and race in the global order. He is co-editor of Rowman and Littlefield book series and he also recently published two books on decolonizing politics. Meanwhile, Dr. Ali Bhagat is a Professor at the University of Manchester, UK. His most recent publications focus on refugee governance in Nairobi, Kenya, and Paris, France. Bhagat holds a PhD in Political Studies from Queen's University in Canada, and an MA in Political Science from McGill Unversity. Let’s begin.
So first off, I wanted to discuss "raced markets" and how our understanding of them has changed since COVID-19. To start off our conversation, could you both define what you believe raced markets are.
Dr. Robbie Shilliam: Raced markets, a term that Lisa Tilley and I have used, can be seen as a focus on expanded reproduction of capital that keeps front of mind how capital accumulation is always and has always been a racialized and imperial process.
Dr. Ali Bhagat: That is really succinct. I would just add that raced markets operate on multiple scales - the International, the National, the global, the local, and every day, and of course via the body as well.
Getzel: What new challenges do you think we have observed this year in our understanding of raced markets, and especially how they operate differently between a developing country context and a developed country context?
Shilliam: I don't think they operate differently.
I just think that what has become crystal clear once more is that the racialization of all market activity is and always has been global. Its instantiation, the unevenness of it, the inequality of it, the segregating nature of it, are all extremely clear when it comes to COVID deaths and vaccines. I don't think anything has changed; it's just become crystal clear for people who might have forgotten.
Bhagat: The pervasiveness of raced markets has definitely intensified, especially thinking about vaccine inequality. Let’s take India as an example. It is shocking not solely in terms of vaccines, but rather how quickly an authoritarian government went from celebrating its victory over COVID to running out of oxygen just some months later.
Now, there is a global push for charitable donations to get oxygen to India; this is really important and clearly needed to simply allow the country to breathe again. Meanwhile, Muslims and Dalits are blamed for the mutation, rallies are still being held, and there is a mass disregard for human life. I am interested in the ways that authoritarianism, capitalism, and COVID-19 have dovetailed.
In a sense, we are also seeing an intensification of Necropolitics around who deserves to die and who does not, and, in India, intertwined with this reality is that of nation-building operating through the selection of its own populous.
Shilliam: It is quite interesting how it has also given us a moment to think about what Necropolitics means. Beyond our standard conceptions, we are also seeing a self-inflicted Necropolitics emerge. In places like the US and the UK, there exists a clear intersection of race, climate, and health, wherein to show any kind of weakness is to somehow sacrifice or commit race suicide, in terms of one’s whiteness.
Today, there is a certain politicized messaging that underpins a refusal to wear masks, which is surplus to the individual calculus behind the decision itself: it is better to be dead and white than alive and anything other than white. In other words, to partake in socialized care is messaged as a blackening, and to partake in mask-wearing is seen to be de-masculinizing.
Thus, there is this other racialized element to Necropolitics, where it's not just about letting others die. It is about preferring death to non-whiteness. It is an extreme moment, which has clarified certain things in our current articulation of political economy in terms of the racialization of welfare, as well as externalities like climate and immigration. It is, at base, this imperative to purify particular populations, even if it includes a death drive.
Bhagat: I wonder what the parallel between the death drive and this idea of fantasy; that some people believe that "we are impervious", and almost untouchable because we are white or American, or some other conception of strength that ties to racial and genetic superiority.
People that were not wearing masks have now started to wear them because they do not wish to receive a vaccine. The flip we are currently seeing is fascinating. It gets back to the idea that vaccines are now cast as a welfare-related program tied to big government. And, of course, that is undesirable.
Shilliam: It is undesirable because you are supposed to be independent. It’s possible that what we are seeing is the way in which eugenics always underpins political economy and policymaking in some way. Today, this is revealing itself in extremely stark languages, as in India.
Yet, of course, this rhetoric can be traced to the origin of eugenicists in the late 19th century who worried about the fact that civilization had created things like welfare and philanthropy such that those who would have "naturally" died out no longer did. So, the "worst" breeds reproduced, while the "good" breeds diminished in relative terms. In fact, it is very eugenicist the way in which people are currently linking government intervention with COVID and welfare, alongside the survival of these supposedly impervious populations.
Bhagat: It is interesting going back to my own work, looking at refugees in Paris. A lot of refugees live on the city’s riverbanks, for years their homes and shelters have constantly been taken away from them, yet now the new excuse is that they must leave because they spread disease.
In a sense, the multi-layered aspect of COVID is used as a vehicle to cleanse. This operates in what Rajaram calls the front stage and backstage of capitalism. Paris has a long history of keeping away the working class if we think back to the era of Haussmann. The central contradiction, of course, is that the working class needed to build the grand boulevards and transform Paris in the city of modernity that it allegedly is today. Paris needs it workers but also wanted the streets free of them and for the working poor to be housed and held elsewhere. What we are seeing today is another way in which this very same idea of cleansing is getting redefined over and over again. What differentiates refugees, though, is that they are not even seen as workers in Paris - their lives are disposable. The logic of disposability and cleansing though persist.
Getzel: Speaking of the political calculation of who ends up living and who ends up dying, this narrative is not far from what we witnessed in 2016. At that time political parties in the UK, for instance, were owning the term "left behind", yet now this wording is almost being rejected by those same parties as something that is to be completely ascribed to those susceptible to death or those who are receiving unemployment insurance. So, how do our changing narratives and rhetoric of how we classify our conceptions of the welfare state change and evolve, even though we end up using the same terminology for different people?
Shillam: I would say that the grammar is actually quite stable even if a lot of things change quite dramatically. There is always this reference to purification from the outside and purification from the inside.
In the Anglo West, the idea of a viable, productive, and orderly working class was always connected to two things. One was industrialization and urbanization, and the dysgenic effect that that would have on the so-called indigenous working class; and then the other, at the same time, was the fervid dysgenic effect of immigration and race mixing in those same urban populations.
With this foundation in mind, the question of who is deserving of welfare and who is not always has a valence of both an internal purification and an external purification. Those who are deemed to be "indigenous" – meaning those who are racialized as a familial part of the nation – for example, the white working class, have always been seen as more deserving of welfare than the racialized "interloper". But at the same time, amongst the white working class, there is always this sense that there are some who are deserving because they have habits of independence, orderliness, and patriarchy, and then others who are not. Remember, that before talk of the "left behind", there was talk of the "white underclass". The white underclass was considered to be totally undeserving.
If you look at any surveys, which ask people to define their class, there is always a tendency for respondents to define themselves above their class: everybody is, apparently, middle class. Via self-definition, we assure ourselves that there's always someone who's more undeserving than us. Yet there’s an important distinction to be made here. The undeserving white are seen as more redeemable than the non-white undeserving. Poor white people, it is assumed, can be trained out of their undeservedness whereas others, refugees, migrants, etc. are unredeemable, and thus must be excluded. For instance, no one talks about the black left behind; no one talks about the Muslim left behind. No one talks about the Bangladeshi left behind, or the First Nations left behind. The only left behind, it seems, are the white working class.
That valence between on the one hand inclusion under harsh manners and on the other complete exclusion - that valence is always there, tweaking forever back and forth. And this movement is not necessarily for the preservation of some expanding Empire but for the preservation of a system of rule, which runs along lines of race and exclusion.
Bhagat: I'm thinking also about the concept of the relative surplus population and the disciplining of these people in the context of COVID-19. Marx defined the relative surplus population in relation to the general law of capital accumulation. In following this logic, you need groups of people that actually are tied to capital and are easily put back into the system so the machine can always keep going. And then there is this other latent, floating, and stagnant group: the lumpenproletariat, who we don't even think about. These are what would be today homeless people or sex workers, deserving immigrants, or undeserving ones. I think this concept requires a lot of refining but the basic idea still resonates. Take refugees as an example which on one hand are accepted on humanitarian grounds, but then once they are here on the urban scale or the city scale, they become again undeserving. "We've let you in so the rest is up to you. Why are you taking our resources? Why can't you learn the language? Why are you stealing away our jobs?"
And it is through this very rhetoric that credit appears as a solution to say: "It doesn’t matter if we have welfare because regardless it's definitely not for you. So why don't you use credit and become a business owner."
Shilliam: Let us zoom out and look at what we understand today to be the development project. The development project is birthed actually not in the colonies, but in the industrializing towns in the north in the mid-late 19th century. At that time, the quintessential debate over all forms of state intervention boiled down to the question of how you intervene in such a way that doesn't induce dependency on the subject that you are trying to help.
On the one hand, you had people who were saying that welfare can only and must only be charity and that it mustn't involve the state. The argument followed that the charitable model makes for a paternalistic relationship that is a directly personal and moralistic one, whereby the person who is giving the aid is also charged with training the moral fiber and character of the people who are receiving it – usually men – so that they can be good little patriarchs, and they can hold their own and become independent.
On the other hand, you had people arguing that the charitable personable model did not work. When people were trying to make ends meet in an economy that had become so nationalized and so globalized and so impersonalized, the question of poverty could only be solved from a much more centralized location, i.e. the state, whose anti-poverty measures would be guided by statistical analysis and surveys.
Nonetheless, even if the indicators we use are quantitative, such as GDP, the grammar of development is always a more moralizing one. After all, development policies are never simply about increasing GDP, they always implicate some sense of a civilizing process whereby beneficiaries become orderly and independent. For me, the fundamental issue when it comes to development is that it arises from Western elites’ attempts to arrest the degeneration of their own populations, because of industrialization and migration, a process that we nowadays call the "globalization" of the economy.
Getzel: We've talked about how the role of the nation versus the role of globalized society within our understandings of both race and poverty, does that tension change when discussing one or the other? Or is it inherently intertwined?
Shilliam: So, if you think about someone like William Beveridge, famous for producing a report on Social Security during World War II, well he is widely seen as one of the models for what we would then call the welfare state in the West. Descriptively he is a eugenicist - he talks about preserving the British race. That's his concept of population, not class. And most of his interventions are about the preservation of the race from degeneration.
Child credit is all about that. Beveridge argues that one needs to give credit to every family that has a child. And it should not be means-tested. It must be universal, so that, for example, Harry and Megan can get child credit as well as the person in the poorest part of London. It should be universal, he argues, because the more able people, the more educated and the more skilled, are not going to be reproducing at the same rate as poorer ones. So, his solution is to give it to everybody; and even if poor people will then reproduce, at least the best of the stock, are reproducing as well. So in relative terms, you are preserving the best of the breed for the race.
The idea of universal benefit, which of course has so often been attacked by neoliberalism, has now been replaced with means-tested benefits. Despite being pro-universal welfare – I am - we must recognize that the people who created it were thinking about the preservation and the purification of the race. So, my point is that there is little distinction in political language: when you're talking about race, you're talking about poverty, and when you're talking about poverty, you're talking about race.
Bhagat: I think this speaks to how we fetishize welfare today. In fact, what you are referring to we see in Denmark. Denmark is now saying "get rid of all the refugees, they can go back to Syria, we have a welfare state to protect."
This might be a stretch, yet this abject kind of ethnic cleansing we may also be seen in Israel and Palestine. Israel has been so advanced vaccination-wise, and yet the Palestinian population still remains relatively unvaccinated. Thus, when we think about COVID vaccination as a welfare program, the argument about population control, and the welfare state, and who welfare is for is still kicking around in obvious ways today. It has not disappeared at all.
Getzel: Despite us having these conversations, how do both of you who at the end of the day, have the wonderful privilege of teaching 20-30-year-olds translate this type of conversation into the classroom? Robbie, you have spoken at length about how we can start to decolonize the classroom. How does this actually work?
Shilliam: So, I think there is actually a quite simple method. Let me explain what I mean. My experience over the last few years is that even when you're teaching a group of quite privileged students in terms of socio-economic status, issues to do with poverty, exclusion, violence, oppression - locally, nationally, and globally - are actually at the forefront of their mind far more than they would have been 10 years ago. And part of the reason is to do with shifts in the global economy, which had already been happening but became explosive during the last year with COVID.
Young people now see that a good job and a good wage is not going to protect you all that much from downward mobility. It's a very precarious time. The good jobs that you could have had in your parents or their parents’ generation, which would have given you a house and a nice summer holiday, today no longer exist. Even a really good job is not going to afford you that. Then add in climate change to the mix. So, these intergenerational dynamics awake even socio-economically privileged students to the potentially precarious nature of their future.
So, with that in mind, it would be good to build curricula around the issues with which young people are already directly engaging. These shifting foci might decenter the curriculum that you learned and are teaching. The materials and issues through which the deeper fault lines are experienced could be different, as could the scales and the categories.
For instance, I teach in Baltimore, where there are significant disparities between vaccination rates amongst West and East Baltimore, predominantly populated by poor and black communities, and the North and Harbor areas, predominantly populated by richer and white communities. And that's not to do simply with vaccine refusal, but more tellingly implicates the whole infrastructure of actually getting vaccines to marginalized communities. Thus, it becomes speculatively plausible that a student can relate to what Ali was saying about vaccine rollout in Israel. Students in this moment have gotten a sense that these things are connectable, across population groups, classes and countries. These are problems and challenges which they have to put at the forefront of their learning in order to grasp the world as they experience it and project it. Our job as instructors is to follow up with that via critical and creative guidance.
Getzel: Yet your phrasing of that answer, has made me wonder as to whether the decolonizing process can only be successful in so far as we center the classroom around the experience of the privileged student. To borrow from Dipesh Chakrabarti; how are we supposed to effectively provincialize Europe and our understanding of history as the West if our access point to these conversations is contingent on finding that one thing in the affluent student experience that might provide an anxiety through which we can talk to them about how they live and experience the world? Is that not already Western-centric? Can it lead to success? Or does this further propagate the narrative of us living through Europe?
Shilliam: I get what you're saying. Let's put it like this. Which countries in the world have had the most deaths from COVID? US, Brazil, and India. So, in what way at all is the West unique or exemplary? There's the opening.
That why I said before that it was simple, at least relatively speaking. In the past one might have had to do quite a few tricks to break the provinciality that comes with privilege. Well, in order to provincialize something, it has to be held exceptional in the first place. But are people's living experiences now in any way so exceptional?
Bhagat: For a while we witnessed more affluent kids be really open to anti-poverty stuff and saving the world. They got on board, hook, line, and sinker particularly in development studies programs like the ones I was trained in. Now I think there is a switch here, where, in fact, everyone feels that they're in the same boat. This isn’t to say that people aren’t poor and there isn’t a massive divide in terms of our student body. But, and particularly this year, we found that there is this intense anxiety. There are no jobs, there is no other planet, university and the promise of meaningful work is now again a fantasy. Nonetheless, university brochures love to state that "we will get you to meaningful employment if you take our course." It is nonsense, unfortunately. It is not true and students know it but are fed this idea of employment and a job in the UN or something else from studying politics.
Coming back to decolonization, I think it's not abstract. It's a lived reality. And we're seeing it in all these places. And also blurring what we think about as the global north and the global south. Because the US is really the Global South. The UK in various parts of the country, particularly racialized parts of it that are targeted and treated as though they are now prototype colonies of the center of London. The Global South is here. The inequalities are here, and we have to deal with them.
With this in mind if we think of International Relations, particularly International Political Economy, the Cold War stuff, and the lore of the discipline amidst great power politics - I mean who cares? Who is it speaking to? It is not speaking to anyone now, it's not lived reality. So political economy as the mother discipline is one way for us to connect these abstract concepts and scales to what students see as necessary.
Getzel: It’s funny you mention that because here at SAIS there is a course titled "International Political Economy" as such, and despite a brief preface, the syllabus is composed of all readings around the 1980s by white men starting with the likes of E.H, Karr and ending with Adam Tooze. Maybe us females will get lucky and see a work by Susan Strange. Courses like this are still being advertised as a summary of political economy at places like SAIS and many institutions like it – how do we move past this? How do we understand and move forward our understanding of IPE, while also recognizing that part of academia that still values IPE through its (partly) American origin within a white man’s literature?
Shilliam: You could take a line from the feminists: if you're not looking at the gender dimension of political economy, you're just not doing very good political economy. It’s simple. It's not an ideological thing. It's an intellectual thing: you're not undertaking rigorous analysis. And it’s the same with race and colonialism. For example, a good deal of the financial instruments we are used to began as instruments of imperial expansion and trade. So that's first. Then the second element is that if you are teaching political economy, and if you've been hired to teach political economy, then political economy is what you teach. It’s as simple as that.
I'm a political economist, and I teach political economy. Now, of course, there's power in the academy. Power is power because it survives you; power is inherited. How do you inherit power? Through institutions. So, we have to build institutions.
Of course, the complicating factor is that none of this is driven simply by individual choice. Much of this is a confrontation with existing academic institutions – disciplinary and otherwise - which, to my mind, don’t teach political economy adequately.
Bhagat: I think in the US, predominantly, there's, a discipline: this is what you do, this is what IPE means and it is still problem-solving theory. Thus, everyone that does anything different, is a critical political economist. Therefore, in the production of knowledge, those critical authors are over there, they produce, they write in these journals that we don't have to engage with, and there's a space for them – over there.
Getzel: So, are we stuck, or can we move forward and place critical theorizing into our mainstream?
Bhagat: Well, I mean, critical theory always needs something to rub up against, right? That is what is dialectical about the problem-solving vs. critical theory debate. And it’s a wider commentary about the left and the right too. The goal posts are always shifting for better or for worse. So, I don't think we're ever stuck. I think we're moving.
Shilliam: That's a good way of putting it. To concretize this idea, let us say you have space for one reading on political economy in a class reading list. Who do you put? You can put in Ricardo as he will do lip service to the liberals. You could put in Marx, who engages with the liberals and provides the critique. You could, alternatively, put in Angela Davis because she critically engages with the liberals, the Marxists, the feminists and the Black radical tradition. So, in other words, some readings can be more adequate than others, even when you are hamstrung in terms of what you can put on a reading list.
For instance, when compiling our reading lists, how can we forget that today, the majority of people who labor in the world do so under some kind of direct coercion, not purely under contracts. If you are not teaching a political economy that can make sense of this basic fact, what world are you teaching about? If we want as academics to enable students to adequately and critically examine the world they live in, why are we giving them fantasy worlds?