Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Just out: ‘Omnus et Singulatim’: Establishing the Relationship Between Transitional Justice and Neoliberalism by Josh Bowsher

Dr Josh Bowsher, Teaching Fellow in Sociology, has published a new article. This article has emerged out of his interdisciplinary doctoral research which used social and cultural theory to examine the intersections between transitional justice and neoliberal forms of globalisation. 

Bowsher, J. (2017) ‘Omnus et Singulatim’: Establishing the Relationship Between Transitional Justice and Neoliberalism, in Law and Critique: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10978-017-9198-3

First developed by human rights lawyers and activists, transitional justice began following the democratisations in Latin America as a series of experiments designed to address the human rights legacies of the authoritarian regimes from which many countries emerged. Transitional justice now denotes a range of mechanisms, including truth commissions, criminal trials, lustration, and so on, used to deal with human rights legacies in societies emerging from conflict or authoritarian rule. A ‘global project’ of global governance, transitional justice is now intertwined with the peacebuilding initiatives of the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank, which advocate the use of transitional justice mechanisms in much of Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and some parts of South-East Asia. 

Much of the scholarship on transitional justice has remained “normative”, and seeks to investigate the relative merits of different approaches to transitional justice, in order to advocate various practices for the field. More recently, some scholars have taken a more critical perspective, questioning the assumptions that underlie transitional justice. Increasingly, these approaches have focused on the enduring relationship between transitional justice and the project of liberalism, focusing on the ways in which its discourses and practices often obfuscate or even exclude questions of socio-economic injustice and structural violence that are integral to understanding the periods before, during, and after conflict.
Nevertheless, by locating the emergence of transitional justice within the global rise of neoliberalism, I argue that transitional justice serves an important function in regards to the particularly neoliberal contours of many transitions. This relationship, I argue, can be understood by turning towards the conceptual terrain provided by recent research emerging from the field of critical neoliberalism studies. More precisely, the article insists that understanding the relationship between transitional justice and neoliberalism can be best understood by utilising the term “omnus et singulatim”.

Before I continue, I should explain my recourse to this term. After all, in commenting on his decision to name his 1979 Tanner lectures “Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason’”, Michel Foucault apologised, perhaps in a rare flash of self-consciousness, that ‘the title sounds pretentious’. Nevertheless, the conceptual terrain inaugurated by Foucault’s use of the term has become fertile ground for criticisms of forms of liberal government and their social dynamics, particularly in the work of Wendy Brown. For both Foucault and Brown, “omnus et singulatim” captures the paradox of a liberal (and neoliberal) form of government that is, on the one hand, obsessively concerned with individual liberties, and, on the other hand, must gather its individuals together into some sort of social body. Omnus et singulatim is thus the double movement, that simultaneous act of gathering society together and individualising its members, ‘achieving’, as Brown remarks ‘each through its seeming opposite.’ 

For my part, this term captures 3 things. Firstly, what Brown understands as neoliberalism’s propensity to individualise us as enterprises seeking to invest and profit from our human capital, all the while, integrating us as stakeholders into technocratic and administrative projects, divorced from any of their political implications. Secondly, it captures transitional justice’s attempts to construct narratives about the conflicts it attends to in individualising ways, that is through the physical suffering of individual victims, which is done in the name of reconciliation, a “bringing together” which is infused with the technocratic language of consensus. Finally, then it captures the dynamic, or the concrete practices through which the latter can perform a service for the former, bringing together war-torn societies in ways that do not challenge, but instead prefigure, the neoliberalising demands of post-conflict transition.

In a world that is dominated, by flexible, unwieldy, and often devastating neoliberalism(s), understanding the relationship between it and practices that both legitimise and substantively contribute to its various unfoldings and reconfigurations in post-conflict contexts is important. Hopefully this article may provide one way of approaching this problem.

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