Students at a ‘Fridays For Future’ protest march in Invalidenpark, Berlin [Mika Baumeister/unsplash]
‘Basically nothing is being done to halt—or even slow—climate and ecological breakdown, despite all the beautiful words and promises’. Greta Thunberg’s damning speech before the UK parliament last month highlights that the greatest challenge to international climate agreements is inaction by governments. The Swedish climate activist’s central message was: ‘You did not act in time’.
The norms within the Paris Agreement on climate change are challenged not just by climate change deniers and other open critics. Perhaps more dangerously, as Thunberg pointed out, they are also contested by states like the UK that pay lip-service to the agreement but fail to reach their emissions reduction targets. To capture these diverse forms of norm contestation, the special section on the ‘Dynamics of Dissent’ in the May issue of International Affairs makes a distinction between discursive and behavioural contestation.
Continue reading “‘You did not act in time’: Greta Thunberg and behavioural contestation”
[Photo: Alex Radelich/unsplash]
For lack of a better term– or for reasons of inexactitude– scholars have zeroed in on the term ‘backlash’ to describe our current political moment. I would like to take some time to unpack this historically, and to offer some tentative thoughts on how to re-frame contestation as distinct from mere ‘backlash’. To begin with, a ‘backlash’ is defined as a strong negative reaction to a social or political development. It often harkens back to a fabled past and represents an attempt to reclaim a set of privileges. Images of segregationists in the American South come to mind. And yet, not all those who contest the current order are reactionary. In fact, many social movements are born from a desire to emancipate. The concept of a ‘backlash’ precludes this possibility. It articulates a subtle suspicion of those who would question prevailing orthodoxies, regardless of the substance of their critique or the manner with which they engage politically.
In framing contestation as a ‘backlash’ we accept the grand narrative of a liberal teleology. That is, the almost evangelical belief in a rules-based international order, which privileges markets and individual autonomy. For better or worse, we are told that there are no real alternatives. This is a lethal form of intellectual inertia: it sanitizes politics and immobilizes debate precisely when we need it most.
Continue reading “Help! I have ‘backlash’ whiplash: Towards a progressive contestation”