Politics of Resistance

Politics of Resistance
This semester, the final year BA and MA International Relations students will have the opportunity to critically engage with the study of politics of resistance in the module Citizens and Freedom. Through the analysis of various case studies from across the world, including Palestine, Egypt, Kurdistan, South Africa, and indigenous movements in Mexico and Colombia, students will engage with complex concepts. Among these will be the notions of mobilising structure (the structure around which movements are organised), strategic orientation (the direction they decide to take) or repertoires of contention (the frameworks that guide their resistance), which are critical to understanding the nature of the politics of resistance and the framing processes on which it builds.

Mainstream accounts within the field of International Relations (IR) tend to conceptualise politics and the political in narrow terms as an on-going power struggle between sovereign states in an anarchic international structure (one in which no single state has total dominance over another). Central to this “realist” conceptualisation of politics is the idea of power, essentially defined in relation to the military and economic capabilities of these state actors, and the different power mechanisms that try to impose some order upon the system as a whole, such as balance of power, diplomacy or international law.

Even with their influential alternative approaches to this realist conception of politics in the 1970s-1980s, pluralists and Marxists continue to be bound to be realist in the way in which they conceive politics as originating from a conflict of interests and as involving the actions of states and their accomplices or opponents. With the end of the Cold War, and as fundamental changes in the structure of world politics were taking place under the process of globalization, such as the appearance of challenges including health, crime, terrorism, drugs, the environment or migration, disciplinary ‘outsiders’ such as critical theorists, postmodernists or feminists started critiquing the reification of the state and state sovereignty (i.e. state-focus), structural determinism, ahistorical reading of state/society relations, or the anaemic view of social and political agency.

What remains from this discussion is that the conception of politics in the field of IR remains, until today, an undertheorised area. An important neglect that derives from the discussion around what politics constitutes is the place that politics of resistance has in the way politics and the political is conceived. Conceiving the political within the field of IR should necessarily result from the effort of understanding politics around two conceptions: politics of governance and politics of resistance.

Politics of governance, generally understood as ‘politics from above’, emerges from structures and processes where formal institutions play a central role and serve to bring order and regulation to international politics. The questions addressed by this conception of politics revolve around authority and legitimacy of state and international institutions or their role in political decision-making. The actors involved in politics of governance are therefore the ones associated with imperatives of management, rule-making and authority.

On the other hand, politics of resistance or ‘politics from below’ is conceived as being transformative in nature. This level of politics, despite having been of central concern in other fields such as Sociology or Politics, has until recently been largely ignored in mainstream IR. Actors involved in politics of resistance, including social movements, global civil society or NGOs among others, aim to contest and challenge the configuration of power relations, and their goal has been analysed as being concerned with democratising global governance or building emancipatory politics that can bring about social transformation and the end of relations of domination.

The extent to which these two conceptions are distinct or connected will be a matter of discussion throughout the module. Students will discuss whether the politics of governance and resistance can shape one another. There is also a question regarding the possibility of resistance movements to shift into successful governance models. Providing a space for students to engage with these fundamental questions, the Citizens and Freedom module aims to encourage students to broaden their conception of politics and the political, which is critical to understanding different organisational and discursive dynamics in international politics today.

By Maria Blanco Palencia