This piece calls for bringing “the ordinary” into the study of international relations. Although many of us (whoever ‘we’ might be) would instinctively think we know what ordinary might entail, the definitions offered in dictionaries are surprisingly diverse. First, ordinary means something common place, repetitive and habitual, something we have gotten used to; events, habits and outcomes we can expect and potentially anticipate. As opposed to something “out-of-the ordinary”, it might be seen as contrary to change or as nothing special. Second, and relatedly, the ordinary also acquires meaning through the sphere and perhaps the politics of “everyday life”. In rather negative terms, the ordinary might also be understood as “deficient in quality: poor, average. E.g. An ordinary wine.” In following this – arguably unpleasant – analogy, average and ordinary folks are routinely left out of the study – and most importantly, the practice – of global politics. Yet, current political events, and scholars of (international) political sociology, anthropology and theorists of urban studies for instance, have long shown the importance of exploring the linkages – discursive, material and ideational – between the global political realm and its real-world applications in daily life, however trivial they might seem. In the Mundane Matters, Cynthia Enloe reiterates the feminist creed, which asserted loud and clear back in the late 1960s that the “personal is political.” While the “everyday” might seem “pre-political” and “devoid of any decision-making”, it is crucial, Enloe reminds us, to not only see but also address the fact that:
“The sites for research, these pioneering feminists argued, were not just states’ corridors of power, not just political parties’ or insurgencies’ strategy sessions, not just corporations’ board rooms. The sites where we would have to dig for political causality were kitchens, bedrooms, and secretarial pools; they were pubs, brothels, squash courts, and factory lunch rooms—and village wells and refugee camp latrines. This was an astounding revelation: that power was deeply at work where it was least apparent.”
At the same time, the works of Henri Lefebvre on the “Right to the City” in capitalist and (neo)liberal processes of the production of (urban) spaces and his “Critique of Everyday Life” have spurred enthusiastic interrogations of the world we live in. Behind our collective but tacit acceptance of our daily routines in wealthy democracies – something the French somewhat bitterly capture through the disheartening mantra “Métro, Boulot, Dodo” (“subway, work, sleep”) – hide the implacable logics of capitalism and consumerism. Internet memes and “street terms” such as “You don’t hate Mondays, you hate capitalism” are calls to interrogate and maybe reject the routines of working life, the harsh demands of the labor market, and a global society structured along the lines of production and profit. They are the are the popular, ordinary manifestations of Lefebvre’s intellectualized critique.
Exploitation is therefore not limited to overseas factories. Relatively wealthier classes throughout the western world partaking in the so-called “shared” economy (e.g. Airbnb, Uber and others) reveal the mystifications of the sacrosanct figure of the “entrepreneur” and the social fractures caused by an increasingly liberal and globalized mode of production that places profits over human beings. The “migrant” crisis, the election of far-right leaders throughout the world, the contestation of the EU’s public policies, and seemingly “spontaneous” grassroots upheavals taken on the streets of Paris, Dakar or Washington DC attest to a collective fatigue to see one’s daily life dictated – and for millions destroyed – by a system where ordinary people are either disfranchised or used as dispensable pawns in the games of authoritarian leaders and/or wealthy and opportunistic politicians.
Even though recent disruptive events – the lingering electoral crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the heterogeneous masses of the “Gilets Jaunes” in France, or the anticipated environmental catastrophe in Brazil’s Amazonian forest under Bolsonaro’s rule – may all seem as disconnected events, they all have a common denominator. They are the manifestations of ordinary individuals from Brazil to France to the Democratic Republic of Congo carrying the uncomfortable sentiment of helplessness, injustice, and prejudice. While some (re)discover redistribution schemes through versions of socialism via figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States, others turn to far-right populism and neo-fascist ideologies. The movements mobilize an increasing number of people who are promised a voice against “elitism”, a fuzzy category comprising everyone from journalists, to academics and scientists, to the liberal bourgeoisie. Emerging through protectionist, conservative, xenophobic and racist socio-economic policies, the global malaise our (“post-truth”) world is now facing seemingly unfolds away from the usual centers of power: governments, superpowers, international institutions and other supranational bodies responsible for the conduct of international governance in the fields of foreign policy, trade, labor, criminal law, and security. This has begun to spark a quiet but growing academic and political debate over the role, place and future of ordinary and sometimes second-class citizens in shaping, understanding and experiencing global politics as they struggle through their everyday lives.
Moving towards a “politics of the ordinary” may take us away from primary concerns over individual responsibility and accountability, with a view to reconnect ordinary individuals to the broader and collective “smooth functioning” of our current global political and economic system. Some notions of “ordinary” – racism, sexism and injustice – are fundamentally embedded in institutionalised structures that promote exclusion and entrepreneurial individualism over mutual care and public, collaborative politics. These links – between the everyday and the global “social whole” – are consistently rendered invisible by a sheer lack of inclusion of ordinary voices and experiences in higher politics. It is rather unsettling that the actors and instruments of international politics and governance have shown relatively strong disregard to the manifestations of global politics within the ordinary experiences of billions of people, precisely as scholars, experts and politicians have contributed to decision-making that has affected their lives in profound and irreversible ways. If the recent, worrying world events are to be made sense of – and hopefully addressed – it is high time for global politics to become entrenched further in the intricacies of the many real impacts it bears on the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. It is the only way international relations can be truly global, and by this, I mean, for everyone.