Anne Phillips is Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003 and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2013. She holds honorary doctorates from the Universities of Aalborg and Bristol and received the Sir Isaiah Berlin Award for Lifetime Contribution to Political Studies in 2016. Your most influential work is The politics of presence: the political representation of gender, race and culture (1995). She not only dealt with questions of democracy and representation, but also addressed the relationship between equality and diversity; the uncomfortable relationship between feminism and liberalism, feminism and multiculturalism; and the dangers of viewing the body as property. In her most recent work, she returned to a research topic for her PhD thesis (published as The riddle of colonialism) to explore the challenges of thinking political theory beyond the European-American axis. She recently published a book title Unconditionally the samewhere she questions “attempts to justify equality by reference to a common human nature” and advocates genuinely unconditional equality.
Where do you see the most exciting debates / research in your field?
I can best answer this by pointing out what I myself want to read the most at the moment: research that sheds light on current dilemmas by orienting itself on historical research. I am not a historian myself, although my first research project (for my PhD) involved historical research in the archives of the Colonial Office, and I have taught courses on the history of feminism from the 19th century onwards. For most of my working life, however, my focus has been almost entirely contemporary: debates in feminist and political theory, on issues of equality, democracy, representation, multiculturalism and so on. I only gradually noticed how much exciting work there is now that approaches all of these topics through a more systematic historical lens. The long-standing feminist study of classical texts has more recently been complemented by work in the post-colonial mode, with much fascinating work on the relationship between liberalism and empire, the canonical thinkers like Kant or de Tocqueville or John Stuart Mill and the way they think in questions of race and empire reproduced or even brought about the prejudices of their time.
It has become increasingly clear that understanding what was accepted, included and excluded in early versions of equality, freedom, democracy or rights provides vital clues as to the gaps in the way we currently apply these ideas. In a way, I already knew that: it is right there in the feminist criticism of liberalism that shaped my own thinking, works like that of Carole Pateman The sexual contract(1988), which showed how the exclusion of women became so deeply anchored in liberal tradition in early narratives of the social contract. But when I read some of the recent work on race, colonialism, and empire, I got a better understanding that it is not just about feminism’s relationship to a seemingly progressive liberal or enlightened tradition. In my own recent work, therefore, I have reverted to some of the early formulations of equality, not only to elaborate on how people can claim that all men are born equal without feeling obliged to justify the exclusion of women, but also how they apparently failed to notice that “all human beings” were the enslaved or colonized, or those too poor to be considered full human beings. I cannot accept the innocuous story of these exclusions which they portray as understandable failures of the imagination; the consequences were far more damaging than what one might think. So for myself I have the feeling that I learn a lot if I do more intensive historical research, which has not been an important part of my occupation until now. For me this is the most exciting current work.
How has your understanding of the world changed over time and what (or who) has triggered the most significant changes in your thinking?
In my adult life, my first self-definition was as a Marxist and anti-colonialist, and I wrote my doctoral thesis as a critique of colonial policy in British West Africa, particularly as a critique of the self-portrayal of the colonial rulers as benevolent protectors of their African subjects against the more rapacious forms of capitalism. I was a little embarrassed when it was released (like The riddle of colonialism), because my self-image was very feminist until then, but the work hardly dealt with gender issues. It was a very top-down story too. If I wrote it now, I would be much more immersed in the history of resistance to colonial power, in local politics, rather than focusing on what colonial officials thought of the risks of such resistance. But two aspects of this early work continue into the later work. First, it raised a lingering suspicion in me of ideas of tribalism or primal ethnic division that are still too often used in commentaries on African politics. It also gave me a lingering suspicion of progressive arguments reading history through the inevitable unfolding of a logic, be it a logic of capitalism or modernity or the ideals of the Enlightenment. History is full of continuities and discontinuities, and any advances we make in terms of democracy, equality or freedom can always be undone.
I mentioned Carole Pateman as a major influence on my thinking in the 1980s; Your work and that of Iris Marion Young and Wendy Brown were particularly important to me to show that feminism cannot limit itself to making liberalism more consistent. The message went well with my own skepticism about the liberal tradition, which until then had emerged from my socialism. This was a time when liberalism was thought to be preoccupied with individual freedoms and socialism was equality, and the choice between the two seemed clear and obvious (to me). One of the complexities since then has been that liberalism – both in politics and in academia – has been clearly reshaped as the flag bearer not only for freedom, but also for equality, democracy and human rights. This has made it harder to define yourself than against Liberalism, because it sounds like someone saying you don’t care about equality, democracy or human rights. But at the same time it has made clear how liberalism is used to mark the superiority of the West, to justify global hierarchies, and this further confirms reasons for skepticism towards tradition. In thinking through these new tensions, I found the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty particularly helpful, especially the arguments in Provincialization of Europewhich underline the violence and contradictions and denials that shape the history of so-called modernity without denying the ambitions for equality or human rights implied in that history. Sylvia Wynter’s work was also important to me, again because of a double movement that exposes the deeply impoverished and marginalized notions of “people” that shaped modernity and at the same time takes up the possibility of better humanism.
What role does the protection of women’s rights play in justifying colonialism or newer forms of imperialism in Western Asia and Afghanistan?
This has a long history. It is part of the way in which first the European colonial powers and later the US claimed modernity almost as their personal property and took on a missionary role in promoting values of gender equality or women’s rights. However, it would be a mistake to overestimate this. In the history of colonialism, justifications have been low on the list, although there has always been some type of narrative that people have used to make sense of what they did. In the Spanish conquest of America, justification was to bring the word of Christ to otherwise dazed savages. But it is impossible to read reports from that period without feeling overwhelmed by cynicism and hypocrisy. In the 16th century, Spanish colonists were encouraged by a licensing system to clear the land, burn the villages of the indigenous peoples and transport them to settlements where they could be used as slave labor; but in order to preserve the appearance of legitimacy, every episode of slave robbery and land grabbing should read the so-called requerimiento, calls for obedience to the King and Queen of Spain and access for religious orders to preach the true faith. According to Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican priest who became a passionate defender of the indigenous peoples, this document in Spanish was often read in the middle of the night and at some distance from the village, and if the villagers did not comply immediately, they could be as “Christ deniers” are considered and legally enslaved.
The parallel use of women’s rights in self-justification narratives is a much later phenomenon – as it had to be, since little attention was paid to women’s rights in the colonial centers before the 20th century. Colonial administrators intervened against what they saw as unacceptable practices, sometimes in connection with local reform movements: this was the case, for example, with the ban on widow burning in British India, an initiative promoted and supported by many Indian social reformers. Colonial administrators were also dissatisfied with polygamy and child marriage (although some adopted both practices themselves), but even the most noble of their criticisms rarely did much to defend the rights of women and girls. The imperatives of colonial rule usually required the cooperation of local notables, and this tended to dampen any reform spirit. We also know that colonial rule tended to bring with it notions of the firstborn that greatly reduced the opportunities for women to own land, and assumptions about the main role of women in the household who rejected any previous role as spokespersons for their communities . It is more of an ideology than a practice that colonialism presented itself as reparation for the cruel and brutal treatment of women, but it became a potential resource as anti-colonial movements and sentiments began to place colonial empires more on the defensive.
If anything, I see the justifying use of women’s rights in the Post-Colonial era in which we see the mobilization of protective narratives as a justification for military interventions, for example in Afghanistan. This reflects less a heightened awareness and sense of responsibility for the well-being of women – even if there are of course those for whom this is imperative – but rather a general unease about unjustified interventions. I believe that people today are less certain about the legitimacy of interfering in other countries’ affairs – after all, self-determination has become one of the supposedly defining values of the 20th assure yourself that interventions are not just about oil or other geopolitical concerns goes. In this context, the issue of women’s rights has come to the fore.
How have feminist movements in the Global South contributed to the prevailing understanding of feminism in the West? Have you shed light on the contradictions underlying Western feminist theory?
The biggest contribution is to ask all of us to think of our feminism in the context of a world marked by imperial conquest and still face the consequences of it. But there are two more that were particularly important to me. The first concerns the understanding of agency and autonomy. The agency has always given feminism trouble. If you look at gender as a pervasive system of power relations that structures not only our societies but also our way of thinking (and although we may use different languages to capture this phenomenon, I think all feminists work with one version of this view) , then at least some of what we as women claim to want or enjoy will be an expression or a surrender to this gender power. So there is a side of feminism that tends to believe that women don’t really know what they want or need yet. In 1970s western feminism, that was part of what the “awareness raising” practice was about: it was about reviewing what was previously taken for granted and realizing that practices you considered normal or problems who were peculiar to you, were part of a patriarchal power structure. The risk (and why no feminist I know now willingly uses the term “elevation”) is that, although this is out of the notion of we all Entangled in patriarchal power, it can promote the idea that this is particularly true of less enlightened “other” women who live in societies that are even more gender-structured than their own. Just as the protection of women’s rights has played a role in justifying imperialist interventions, so too can skepticism about women’s self-definitions contribute to a “savior” mentality that assumes a dichotomy between the West and the rest. Feminist movements from the Global South have been quick to question this, and this challenge has been one of the really important contributions to me over the past few decades. It has forced a more thorough exploration of what is meant by agency, a re-examination of the importance Western feminists have attached to autonomy, and greater recognition of the dangers of this “savior” mindset.
The second – and related contribution – deals with the idea of gender equality. For me, equality has always resulted in breaking the multitude of conventions that assign certain roles, occupations, responsibilities and rewards to one gender rather than another: ending the worldwide assumption that women are the main concerns of the young, sick and old will be; Ending the worldwide assumption that men will be the main decision-makers; basically the ending of all those gender-specific division of labor that assigns us roles and positions and possibilities according to our presumed gender. I have been impatient with what I see as selfish justifications of “same but different” or “separate but same” that have helped disguise and naturalize inequality throughout history. I am not suggesting that this is the view of all Western feminism, but it certainly was my view, and this notion of equality “beyond gender” I think is more widespread in the West than anywhere else.
Feminist movements in much of the Global South have focused less on this and, in particular, less on the idea of near-arithmetic equality within the household. You fight against violence against women; they want women to have equal access to land and opportunities and decision-making; but by and large they were less preoccupied with the even distribution of care work or household chores. With this in mind, feminists in the West have had to think more seriously (or shouldn’t yet) whether they operate with overly specific notions of equality that are not in line with the ambitions or concerns of feminist movements elsewhere. In truth, this has not changed my own vision of a gender-equitable world significantly, and I still believe that there should be no gender-specific division of labor! But I agree with the kind of reasoning that Serene Khader, for example, develops in her Decolonization of universalismwhere it encourages us to focus on what we are feminists against and not what we are for: it encourages us to challenge oppression and inEquality, rather than promoting singular and overly specific visions of what ideal equality would look like. This seems to me to be correct and is one of the ways in which southern feminist movements have helped reformulate prevailing notions of feminism in the west.
In your last book Unconditionally the same, suggest that equality should be interpreted as the belief that people maintain when they “refuse to be seen as inferior”. How does this contribute to current debates about “equal” citizenship for immigrants / refugees?
What I want to convey there is an understanding of equality as something that people claim and assert and not as something that is bestowed on them, an understanding of equality as a staging and not as recognition. The central argument in my book is that equality has historically been made conditional on fitting a certain prototype of the human being, a prototype in which (to adopt the term Sylvia Wynter used) the white male European is “over-represented”. For centuries, what appears to be a commitment to human equality has been systematically undermined by the tendency to create conditions so that proclamations on human equality could coexist with the exclusion of the overwhelming majority of humanity. The status of equality was not assigned to all people, but to those who conformed to a certain human norm; Equality was justified with a reference to a supposedly divided human nature, but the way in which nature was determined turned out to be a reason for exclusion. The specification sometimes includes a certain image of rationality (often used to deny women any right to equal rights); sometimes an idea of the moral faculties that separate those believed to be civilizable from those considered impossible to educate (a standard line justifying slavery and colonialism); and in the current era of global migration, the specification often relies on ethno-cultural-religious characteristics that are considered conditions for equality.
The obsession in large parts of Europe with what Muslim women wear on their heads is a particularly crazy example of this: These women may have an ideal equality of citizenship, but unless they are more like the prototype of man as he is in contemporary versions of national identity are understood, they are not treated alike. Laws are being introduced that forbid face covering, forbid “open” expressions of religious identity and prescribe what citizens can and cannot wear. It is quite ironic, in these times of the Covid pandemic, when everyone is instructed to cover their face at public gatherings, that so much political capital could be drawn from the few women in Europe who choose to give niqab bear to make so much political capital. But the resistance is also striking – and encouraging. Even where there are no legal prohibitions, there is a lot of harassment on the streets by Muslim women in headscarves, and the temptation in such cases is to meet pressure and possible harassment with bowed heads – more precisely in this case: by being exposes the head. But immigrants and refugees increasingly refuse to accept unconditional alignment with prevailing norms as the price for equality. They refuse to accept the status of underdogs. I think my idea of equality as unconditional and equality as something we claim rather than given is appropriate here.
How can anti-colonial manifestations of equality and emancipation (especially race and gender) complement and refine the same ideas that have developed in Europe?
I think the only answer I can give is that they do, albeit often with a significant time lag. As I said in a previous reply, there is a lot of fascinating work going on in Europe and America right now that explores the intimate way in which the ideals of the Enlightenment were linked to the violence of colonialism and explores what Devin calls Vartija (in his most recent book) The color of equality. But Aimé Césaire wrote in 1950 (that was more than seventy years ago!) Rather working to cover up and justify this. Ideas seem to swim in and out of sight, and it’s shocking how often you rediscover something that was clearly laid out decades ago, how often past knowledge is lost. In fact, I sometimes think that the movement of ideas between countries and continents, with refinement and learning in all directions of travel, is more consistent and more sophisticated than the movement over time. The ideas that inspire anti-colonial movements have both resorted to and transformed the European notions of equality and emancipation: It is not so much about “how can they”, because they have and have done it. In many European discourses, however, this is conveniently forgotten; the story is retold as if it were entirely Euro-American.
I also thought about this in the context of women’s engagement in international relations, stimulated by reading a collection recently edited by Patricia Owens and Katharina Rietzler that deals with key figures in history, many of whom are now almost completely forgotten from International thinking of women. It is astonishing to learn how central women scientists were to the development of international relations and how much some of them engaged in anti-colonial struggles. So much history is being erased.
In your work, You describe yourself as “skeptical multiculturalists and reticent cosmopolitans”. What drives you to adopt these beliefs? How are debates on these topics shaping up in the midst of a moderate globalization due to COVID-19?
The skepticism towards multiculturalism is largely a skepticism towards cultural concepts. When one talks about the existence of many cultures, or engages in discussions about how to deal with tensions between cultures, or debates whether there are cultural rights, it is all too easy to fall into a reification of “culture” that they almost like one thing. We live our lives as cultural beings, yes, sure. We pick up certain ways of thinking, speaking or living from the communities in which we grow up or in which we currently live, yes, of course. But talk of “cultures” conjures up something stronger. It bears the suggestion of a more strictly defined, internally coherent, clear differentiation from other “cultures” and exerts an almost decisive force on us. There are people in cultural communities who really want their culture to be like this. They would like to think that their own culture is unique among cultures; they want everyone in “their” community to adhere to what they consider appropriate cultural norms; Attempts to modify one of these norms – for example in a more egalitarian direction – see them as a betrayal of the culture. This is the conception of culture that feminists fight against in country after country, decade after decade, for it is a conception that appeals to the way things have always been done as an alibi to oppose change. Unfortunately, it is also the view of culture that some feminists fall into when they speak of misogyny at the heart of a “culture”, almost always other than their own. This also reifies culture, treats it as coherent, clearly delimited from other “cultures” and exerts a downright determining force on its members.
We need multiculturalism – the alternative is monoculturalism, which offers people equal citizenship only on condition that they conform to the norms currently prevailing – but I have argued in Multiculturalism without culture for a conception of multiculturalism that rejects this static, material ‘culture’. This is my skeptical multiculturalism. My reluctant openness to the world is a kind of reflection. Insofar as openness to the world demands universal equality for all people, which crosses national, cultural or religious borders, and is committed to a policy that promotes this equality, then I am for it. But there are risks in transcendence, which often consists of projecting from one’s necessarily limited experience onto what one then believes to be true for everyone around the world. I could project the importance I attach to the opportunity to make my own decisions about my own life onto the idea that this is most important to everyone in the world; or I could project from the importance I attach to my family and community that this is what everyone needs most in order to thrive. In being open to the world, there is a potential for arrogance that needs to be watched very closely.
As far as the Covid effect is concerned, in the first few months of the pandemic I briefly hoped that we would come out of this time into a time of greater solidarity on a national and international level. In Britain, as elsewhere in the world, the appreciative public applauded the courage and dedication of an army of previously unrecognized workers. We had realized that our life depended not only on the doctors and nurses, but also on the often poorly protected and almost always poorly paid nurses, cleaners, transport workers, ambulance drivers, security guards, supermarket staff. Scientists worked day and night to make vaccines that would make the world safe, and in the case of Astra-Zeneca, they promised to make those vaccines available worldwide at cost. Countries drafted their plans in a burst of international cooperation, and for a brief moment it looked as if this better, less transcendental side of cosmopolitanism was about to materialize. But the reality soon prevailed again. It found that the virus disproportionately affected the poor, migrant workers, people living in crowded conditions, those belonging to an ethnic minority; international initiatives to unite against the pandemic have been watered down by the tendency to put one’s own citizens above those of any other country; and it found that the economic consequences of the lockdown weighed far more heavily on women and women in lower paid and precarious jobs. This has been a moderate globalization indeed, both in the way it reduced global levels of trade and exchange and in terms of the failure of more ambitious global initiatives to address the challenge of the pandemic.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to young International Relations Fellows?
Note that I am not an international relations scientist myself. I consider myself a political theorist, and although I try to think theory in a way that is internationally informed and avoids the most glaring pitfalls of provincialism, I have largely focused on Europe in my occupations and readings. I always have to re-educate myself in the bigger world. Hence any advice is more general than specific to international relations. Ich würde nur sagen: Fordere weiterhin die erhaltene Meinung heraus. Ich weiß, dass dies als junger Wissenschaftler schwieriger ist, weil Sie immer noch Schwierigkeiten haben, sich zu etablieren und Ihre Position zu sichern, und möglicherweise die Unterstützung von Gönnern benötigen, die übermäßig in diese erhaltene Meinung investiert sind. Aber es ist auch in anderer Hinsicht einfacher, weil Sie noch nicht den Orthodoxien erlegen sind, die alle Bereiche der Wissenschaft umgeben. Wir brauchen Ihren Ideenreichtum und Ihre Kreativität mehr denn je.
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