In this editorial we take a step back to think about an operative term that has defined this journal: politics. The last few decades of political anthropological inquiry have demonstrated two seemingly contradictory trends. On the one hand, we see the rise of neoliberal forms of governance that have hived off and individualized domains of political action and engagement with state power, all while intensifying and deepening techniques of policing dissent. In this context, people increasingly express political claims and entitlements through the language of consumption, risk, and market access, even as markets have brought new forms of precarity. Many of those fighting for social justice have to work even harder to render their claims politically legible and legitimate. Economic inequality, bundled with raced, classed, and gendered exclusion, further institutionalizes the political status quo, making it difficult to challenge the secularist, settler colonial, and racist structures built into normative liberal political systems. Alongside this hiving off of politics and forms of political recognition, we are also seeing resurgent authoritarian means of crushing political action and growing populisms supporting that violence. Processes of lawfare, including the criminalization of activism, expression, and critique, violently suppress the domains of the politically “sayable.”
On the other hand, we are also living during a political and activist renaissance. Multiple media outlets dubbed 2019 a year of global protests, and these show no signs of slowing down. We see new social movements and practices of resistance and solidarity coming from reenergized labor movements, youth organizing (especially migrant youth), globally connected and grassroots environmental justice organizations, and abolition movements taking up incarceration as well as the prison‐detention industrial complex. There is renewed attention among activists and scholars to the form, scale, and spaces of coalition building as well as the temporality of social change. These movements often focus not only on finding politics in unexpected places but also connecting local forms of resistance to widescale transformation in both historically powerful and new ways.
How is it possible that even as forms of politics have narrowed, people have generated new spaces, paths, and practices for the exercise of political power and solidarity? We believe that, taken together, the articles in this issue provide answers as well as methodological ways forward for thinking and locating the political under conditions of constraint. Together, these pieces show the very malleability of the political in practice. This malleability is the condition for both narrowing and redefining politics in neoliberal times and its possible renewal, as strategies of organizing push politics back onto a collective agenda. This issue turns our attention to not only the proliferation of the political in unexpected ways and spaces but also to the challenges of exercising and contending with various forms of political power at different scales. This is not a happy story of resistance: we see in these pages people grappling with life‐and‐death stakes in situations of frustration, violence, segregation, and inequality. Just as the field of organizing is shifting and taking new forms, so too are state power and politics. At the same time, we think it is important to acknowledge, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that the rumors of the death of politics have been greatly exaggerated.
A number of the articles in this issue show that what counts as serious or worthwhile politics is socially negotiated and requires attention to less‐common frameworks or situations of analysis. Nataša Garić‐Humphrey calls attention to how we might find different conceptions of the political and the common good—and their potential outcomes—if we pay more attention to generations as she does in Bosnia. Salvatore Giusto and Jeremy Siegman each show us the very serious political work done through popular culture often rendered as silly, such as in televised music performances in Italy (Giusto) and jokes told by Palestinians working in Israeli‐owned grocery stores (Siegman).
In these articles, we also see the way that ongoing expressions of state power continue to work not only by locking down rights and entitlements through exclusionary categories but also by providing processes of redress, if only for some. Çağri Yoltar shows that when Kurdish citizens of Turkey make claims for benefits, the state presents these benefits as gifts, thereby obliging Kurds to inhabit certain moral relationships and vulnerable subject positions. Here state benevolence has the effect of increasing dispossession and intensifying racialized forms of policing. Similarly, Deepa Das Acevedo shows how liberal democratic norms, which seemingly provide equality, actually exclude certain forms of gendered personhood in India.
We also see instances of claims making in and through the state that exceed the normative categories on offer. Sophie Andreetta’s article shows how women in Benin use the symbolic power of the state (as opposed to customary law) to their benefit in inheritance disputes. Also in the realm of gender, Pnina Werbner and Richard Werber demonstrate that state categories for political and legal claims making are not set in stone. For example, by playing central categories in customary and state law against changing gender norms, women claimants in Botswana are able to transform legal practices and categories to be more in line with changing worldwide social norms and commitments to gender equity. When it comes to class, we see additional spaces of politics emerging. Allison Formanack argues that Americans who occupy manufactured homes push back against naturalized linkages between middle‐class homeownership and citizen rights.
Making political claims legitimate through institutions but in ways not contained by them may happen through case law and litigation and also through informal networking and lobbying processes that bypass the very institutions political actors are trying to influence. These situations can often serve to bolster other forms of dominant power. We see this in Ariane Berlanger‐Vincent’s examination of how diplomats bypassed the United Nations in their diplomatic work in ways that eventually led that body to adopt the Responsibility to Protect doctrine of military humanitarian intervention. Similarly, Anna Marie Weichselbraun shows how shoring up the distinction between politics and science was a way for auditors at the International Atomic Energy Agency to maintain the legitimacy of their work in a highly politicized context.
We encourage you to read these excellent articles, and we thank the authors for their significant contributions to our understanding of how politics is itself a process of shifting and shaping the terms of debate.
Jessica Greenberg and Jessica Winegar
“Bypass the UN”: Diplomatic Practics and Change in Multilateral Settings
Changing the Subject of Sati
Deepa Das Acevedo
Adultery Redefined: Changing Decisions of Equity in Customary Law as “Living Law” in Botswana
Pnina Werbner, Richard Werbner