The Politics of Naming

IAMCR President, Annabele Sreberny, writes about the theme of IAMCR 2012, South-North Conversations

asrebernyNames are political. Calling your child Ronald, Osama or Facebook is meaningful. City streets are often renamed after political upheavals or to memorialise significant events.  There is also a long history of discursive struggle about how to refer to the planet that we inhabit, especially in the post-World War Two context.

The “Third World” was coined in the 1950s. It was adopted politically to signify a plague on both the hegemonies – Western and sovietised!  It became connected to the Non-Aligned Movement,  triggering the naming of the other two worlds. When the Berlin Wall fell, so did the tripartite ‘worlds’ and a new period of American hegemony seemed to be ushered in on the wings of globalization.

With awareness of the continued discrepancy between economically-advanced societies and others, the geographic signifiers of North/South became a short-hand for on-going global inequality, even as some countries like the ‘tigers’ of south-east Asia grew rapidly while endemic pockets of poverty remained in the North.  Such crude geography couldn’t capture the complexity of pockets of wealth and poverty within regions and nations that Trinh-Minh-ha captured evocatively in the paradox of “A First World in every Third World, A Third World in every First World”.

Currently, as 2011 draws to a close, we witness political dynamism in parts of the Middle East and economic chaos in Europe and the US. There is a new recognition of the corporate capitalist production of inequality, embodied in the slogan “we are the 99%” and the ‘occupy’ movements being staged in over 200 locations around the world. National tax regimes seem to hardly touch the rich while entire national economies, as in the Turks and Caicos, support transnational tax avoidance. The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former leaders of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil report through the Global Commission on Drug Policy that global anti-drug policy has failed by fuelling organised crime, costing taxpayers millions of dollars and causing thousands of deaths.

The BRICS are touted as the new engines of economic growth although some of their political and cultural practices leave a lot to be desired while other voices warn against the planetary impossibility of growth without end and looming food and water crises.  Militarised struggles and natural disasters have created refugee and migrant movements that profoundly alter national demographics.

This is a moment of reversals and remakings. Which countries are so well ‘developed’ that they can tell others how to live? Where is the model of political practice that satisfies our human need for recognition and participation and that produces the kind of society in which people really want to live? How can the visible transnational inequalities of wealth and poverty and inequalities of opportunities for education and employment continue year or year? From where will the vision and the statesmanship emerge to offer alternative practices and can the new forms of political organization produce the desperately-needed solutions? New lines of division and of solidarity are opening up.  It is the moment for the South to speak up loudly and perhaps to provide some of the analytic approaches and policy answers that the North has conspicuously failed to offer. Of course, we must acknowledge that we share one planet with its limited resources and what happens in one place affects the rest.  Yet instead of searching for a singularity, a recognition of “many voices and many worlds” might be a more useful approach.

It is thus a wonderfully apposite time for IAMCR to be travelling to southern Africa for our 2012 conference in Durban, under the theme of “South-North Conversations”. In the annual international encounter that is the IAMCR conference, we stage such debates both formally - in our plenary gatherings, special sessions and IAMCR sections and working groups -  but also informally, amongst each other.

We need new ideas and new visions, new geographies and new politics. We can and must contribute to the solutions.

I look forward to a fascinating encounter. See you all in Durban!

Annabelle Sreberny,
IAMCR President