Liberalism's Others

Liberalism's Others uses the knowledges and practices of those marginalized in liberal or liberalizing polities in order to understand liberalism not as it imagines itself but as it is practiced.  Combining humanistic methods to understand the meanings people attribute to their lives, including the concepts and categories that animate them, and ethnographic and analytical methods developed in the social sciences to track the relationships between individuals and institutions of governance, economic forces, and global dynamics, "Liberalism and its Others" brings together dynamic groups of historians, anthropologists, scholars of literature, law, politics, and health to explore alternative models of life and to develop new ways of thinking about the politics of the present.  We draw on the deep intellectual resources of Columbia University, but collaborate closely with colleagues in Turkey, India, the UK and elsewhere, who are interested in exploring new social and political formations in the aftermath of decolonization and in the wake of neoliberal regimes.

This project seeks to better understand how and why, across various transformations in form and ideology, liberal markets, political formations, and law continue to focus—and depend—on the illiberal and the different “other.” We will be examining the ways that liberalism has historically opposed the normative subject to the “politically inadequate” subject stigmatized by religion, culture, race, gender, or sexual difference. How do such “others” continue to be salient in local and global forms of liberal reform? Through case studies of particular regions and specific biosocial domains, we ask how liberal and neoliberal economic, state, and legal transformations produce and rely on social difference.

This project will bring together an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars to examine discourses and practices of social difference in the context of the shifting organization of liberal markets, states, and law. Over the next two years (2008-2010), the group will hold private and public workshops at the CCASD and at other research centers outside the US, host international fellows, and present works in progress on the CCASD website.

This project will bring together an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars to examine discourses and practices of social difference in the context of the shifting organization of liberal markets, states, and law. Over the next two years (2008-2010), the group will hold private and public workshops at the CCASD and at other research centers outside the US, host international fellows, and present works in progress on the CCASD website.

The project arises from a shared interest in understanding how and why, across a set of significant transformations in form and ideology, liberal markets, political formations, and law continue to focus—and depend—on the illiberal or different other. Liberal orders, in the political sense, are premised on the idea of individual autonomy, rationality, bodily integrity and self-ownership, and individual interest. Scholars now use the terms neoliberalism and late liberalism to signal a shift in the organization of markets, states, and the law since the 1970s when an ideology that claimed that all social goods arise from open and free capital markets, underwritten by a legal structure that established and enforced property and contract rights, was promoted and exported around the world. Historically, liberalism and capitalist modernity, adapting to diverse conditions of imperial governance and control, have operated with a binary that opposes the normative subject to the “politically inadequate” subject stigmatized by culture, race, religion, or sexual difference. Such “others,” whether whole cultures/societies/civilizations or categories of embodied individuals within the fold, have been both objects of fascination and moral-political intervention. How such “others” continue to be salient in legitimizing global and internal liberal reform is what we seek to understand.

In a range of critical literatures--from those that examine the dark side of humanitarianism in colonial settings and human rights regimes in the present to those that uncover the legitimating functions of democratic reform or track the disjunctions created by global transformations such as the rise of Chinese economic power or the shifting of global economic flows to southern circuits--the pivotal role of social difference in the discourses and practices of power is clear. The emergence of neoliberalism in the 1970s, for instance, relied on the stigmatization of the “black welfare mother” in the U.S. and of the immigrant in Britain (where the working class was also vilified). Since then, in the US, Europe, and Australia, the immigrant, homosexual, and class radical have helped prop up conservative movements even as these neoliberal movements position themselves as the bulwark against the Islamic, colonial, and terrorist “other.” The challenge to secular states by some Christian and Muslim groups has simultaneously destabilized secularism as the self-evident mode of governmentality and provoked a complicated set of discourses and practices around liberal tolerance.

Our project seeks to understand how liberal and neoliberal economic, state, and legal transformations are both producing and relying on social difference even as the content of that difference shifts. Through comparative engagement with case studies of particular regions and specific biosocial domains we will explore the sometimes incommensurate relationship between the representations of liberalism and facts on the ground. As part of this exploration, we will examine overlaps and exchanges between liberal and illiberal practices in law, politics, and economic activity, using, among others examples, communist socioeconomic orders and practices of Islamic legal systems. In short, our project will rethink gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and race by questioning what historical and global conditions make these forms of sociality and identity matter. What makes them self-evident, palpable, visible, and relevant, and how do these socialities and identities contribute to the coherence and viability of liberal projects?

This two-day workshop was the second in a series of conversations and workshops conceived under the rubric Who’s Afraid of Shari’a? by CSSD’s working group on “Liberalism’s Others.” Please click here for conference report.  Conference program available here.

This exploratory workshop, preparatory for an international conference in 2011, will examine the relationship between Islamic law and gender violence in the Muslim world from two perspectives.

A discussion among  Professors Saba Mahmood (Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley), Lila Abu-Lughod (Anthropology and IRWAG,
Columbia) and Wael Hallaq (MEALAC Columbia) based on two precirculated papers: Mahmood's "'Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire" and
Abu-Lughod's "Anthropology in the Territory of Rights--Human, Islamic, and Women's."

ISERP’s project on “Gender and the Global Locations of Liberalism,” together with the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Columbia University, invites you to a talk and discussion with Mary E. John on “Reframing Globalisation and Internationalism: Feminism in India and the Question of Asia”
"Gender, Rights, and the Practices of Law," Friday, October 3rd, 9:30am-3pm. Workshop (by invitation only) organized by Lila Abu-Lughod and co-sponsored by IRCPL (Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life) and CSSD (Center for the Study of Social Difference) to launch the CSSD working group on "Liberalism's Others."
Seminar Discussion with Ayse Parla on "The Inclusive Exclusion of Turkish Immigrants from Bulgaria"

Who's Afraid of Shari'a?: A Conversation about "War, Law and Humanitarian Intervention" with Naz Modirzadeh (Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Harvard School of Public Health) and Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University).  Moderated by Katherine Franke (Columbia Law School).  Thursday, October 2nd, 4:10-6pm, 754 Schermerhorn Extension.  Reception to follow.

Image: Humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan as spectacle. Carnivale in Rio de Janeiros, BBC News in Pictures 2007.