Wilder on Çubukçu, For the Love of Humanity

This post is part of a symposium on Ayça Çubukçu’s book For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Ayça Çubukçu’s original and insightful book is an exemplary work of critical scholarship for our times. This ethnography of the 2003–2005 World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI), of which she was an organizer, boldly relates theory to practice as well as scholarship to activism. Her method, which she calls “political philosophy in action,” is to work through pressing questions by way of careful readings of theoretical texts, and analyses of political debates, in relation to the larger historical situations they express and with which they engage. I would locate Çubukçu’s work within a minor but crucial mode of social scientific inquiry, exemplified by figures like Talal Asad, Partha Chatterjee, and David Scott, that does not only draw upon political theory, but directly produces it by examining concrete problems generated by particular conjunctures. This mode of inquiry explores how seemingly abstract theoretical questions are in fact directly bound up with pressing worldly dilemmas.

More specifically, For the Love of Humanity is an ethnographic history of the present that explores the challenge of solidarity politics and anti-imperial internationalism under current geopolitical conditions. This work raises several questions that are among the most important for our world-historical present. How do we pursue global justice and planetary politics without doing so in the name of “humanity” in an age when Western imperial violence is so often and deeply mediated by human rights and humanitarianism? How do we disentangle global justice from the language and logic of international law which is itself largely responsible for securing the unjust world order that we now inhabit? How can we leverage the form of a “tribunal” in order to demand accountability and responsibility for criminal political acts, while trying, simultaneously, to unthink the seemingly natural equivalences between justice and law, law and experts, legality and legitimacy? In an era when, as she describes it, “the empire of law” and “law’s empire” have become so entangled as to be almost indistinguishable, how can we distinguish anti-imperial internationalism from cosmopolitan imperialism? On what grounds can a collective invoke and pursue global justice? Does this pursuit need to be conceptually or ethically grounded and justified? In a time when international law is the only actually existing idiom of global justice, is it possible to figure the subject of planetary politics in terms other than the individual, the national state, or humanity?

This the conceptual and political field in relation to which Çubukçu traces the ambitious attempt by transnational groups of social actors to pursue a fragile political experiment in global justice that was at once strategic and utopian. She offers a nuanced account of the messiness, contradictions, and conflicts that ensued. As importantly, she tacks back and forth between these immediate challenges and the longstanding theoretical dilemmas underlying such tensions. Among them are problems associated with constitutional founding and political legitimacy, authority and popular sovereignty, and the intrinsic relations between law and violence. Çubukçu’s sophisticated account reminds us that a political intervention like the WTI cannot be adequately understood apart from the theoretical issues in which is implicated and that such theory makes little sense apart from the political situations within which it is necessarily entangled.

Çubukçu skillfully traces how these abstract issues were rooted in, and produced, immediate organizational and political challenges for the WTI. Such challenges had to be negotiated by those involved in this international and internationalist effort to hold Western leaders and states accountable for their criminal actions in Iraq. They fueled many of the fundamental disagreements between the initiative’s more liberal and more radical participants. In turn, examining these disagreements allows the author to illuminate the deep political problems that are her central concern.

Among Çubukçu’s many insightful discussions, several struck me as especially astute. One addresses the activists’ difficult task of conceptualizing and constructing a network (of tribunals) as a political subject in the service of a vision of horizontal politics. Another addresses the idea of a tribunal designed to judge perpetrators that is composed of self-avowed partisans. A third notes that while these activists hoped to intervene immediately into a dire political situation, their actions were also proleptically addressed to future interlocutors. This study is also a remarkable exercise in self-reflexivity as the author deftly negotiates her dual role as activist-participant and ethnographer-analyst. Such discussions demonstrate how the WTI, as well as this study of it, struggled to reimagine (global) justice in the service of (translocal and transgenerational) solidarity, and vice versa. But while reading, I sometimes wondered whether the author would agree with this assessment. My only real concern about this powerful work is about where she chose to locate its analytic center of gravity.

Çubukçu thoughtfully highlights the perils and pitfalls of an internationalist solidarity project such as the World Tribunal on Iraq. She attends closely to the ideological differences, language barriers, and power differentials (often marked by culture, nationality, and professional expertise) that beset every aspect of this remarkable initiative. She rightly demands that all would-be cosmopolitans remain mindful of such contradictions, limitations, and failures. But her overriding concern with challenging liberal cosmopolitanism, human rights, and humanitarian intervention—an important but by now familiar critique—risks obscuring some of what I regard to be this book’s most timely contributions.

Above all, I take this work to underscore that, in the face of UN sanctioned criminal wars by imperial Western powers, the need to pursue new forms of left internationalism (with corresponding visions of non-liberal global justice) has never been more urgent. For the Love of Humanity develops an incisive analysis of the myriad difficulties and dilemmas involved. Yet, it also offers the remarkable example of how such a heterogeneous and international network of groups actually managed to work across so many incommensurable differences to create such a powerful and beautiful medium through which to intervene directly and performatively on the stage of world politics. They did so in ways that displaced many of the impoverished oppositions that continue to govern political imagination today (i.e., form and content, procedure and partisanship, means and ends, realism and utopianism, the pragmatic and the performative, politics and aesthetics, the situated and the global, the singular and the universal).

We see, in fact, that the WTI discovered ways to act in the name of global justice without founding their practices reductively on either international law or “humanity” in the abstract. What emerges is something like a radical politics of translation, a translational universal, based not on some underlying or abstracted sameness but on a world-wide network of non-equivalent participants challenging a global injustice. The WTI initiatives posed an imperative to translate (the untranslatable) not only across different languages, but across conventional boundaries between law and politics, trained experts and ordinary actors, autonomous local initiatives and a translocal common project. Despite its multiplex tensions and contradictions, the WTI did act as a global political subject for a planetary politics whose framework, language, and institutional arrangements does not yet exist (and perhaps can never fully exist). Here is a kind of networked solidarity and translational universalism that did not depend on an ethical, cultural, institutional, or ideological meta-language. In other words, WTI activists and groups coordinated across incommensurable differences without the need to assume or construct a fictive unity or overarching identity. I would not conclude that the WTI simply acted in the name of humanity as such.

It is rare for a study to be as clear-sighted as this about the risks and limits of large-scale solidarity politics while also demonstrating the expansive possibilities opened by such a political initiative. Current debates often oscillate between uncritical affirmations of liberal internationalism and uncompromising critiques of internationalism in general (for assuming or positing a generic human subject). This book is so powerful precisely because the example and analysis points beyond these alternatives. I only wish that Çubukçu could have further emphasized this aspect of her account.

Certainly, the WTI could not find definitive ways out of the deep predicaments that Çubukçu perceptively enumerates. But its aims and efforts remind us that the international left cannot afford to let these risks forestall such attempts, that the way forward can only be traced through experimental praxis, and that even seeming failures can be politically productive. In light of mass population displacements, climate change, the prospect of another financial crisis, and the emergence of an international of the far-right, a new left internationalism is imperative. Despite its internal contradictions and inability to stop the Iraq war, the WTI initiative can still speak proleptically to actors today. For the Love of Humanity, at the intersection of engaged ethnography and critical political theory, is just the kind of work that can carry forward the tribunal’s legacy while also incisively analyzing the dilemmas a project like this must confront.

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About Gary Wilder

Gary Wilder is a Professor in the Ph.D. Programs of Anthropology and History and Director of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Duke University Press, 2015) and The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the World Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2005). In Spring 2018 he co-authored Theses on Theory and History, an open source digital publication, with Ethan Kleinberg and Joan Wallach Scott. He is co-editor of two books: The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries for the Global Present, with Jini Kim Watson (Fordham University Press, 2018) and The Fernando Coronil Reader: The Struggle for the Life is the Matter, with Mariana Coronil, Laurent Dubois Paul Eiss, Edward Murphy, David Pedersen, and Julie Skurski, (Duke University Press, forthcoming May 2019). He is currently completing a book entitled “Untimely History, Unhomely Times: On the Politics of Temporality and Solidarity” and working on a another about black radical humanism in the Atlantic world provisionally entitled “After the Revolution, or More Abundant Life.”