Global Poverty, Injustice, and Resistance

| October 1, 2020
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Global Poverty, Injustice, and Resistance, Gwilym David Blunt (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 298 pp., cloth $99.99, eBook $80.

In this work of nonideal theory, Gwilym David Blunt flips the existing narrative on ethics and extreme poverty by examining the global poor’s right to resist. This is a refreshing intervention in a debate that has consistently focused on the duties of the affluent, at the expense of taking seriously the ethical dilemmas of the oppressed. It is particularly welcome given the concern that taking the perspective of the affluent contributes to a process of “othering” that disempowers the subjects of oppression and adds to their already weighty burdens.

The book contributes to an emerging movement in political philosophy that examines the duties of the oppressed. Beginning from the assumption that the global institutional order violates the human rights of the poor, Blunt asks what they may do in order to fulfill their rights. The content of the book follows directly from this flip in perspectives. He begins with a thoughtful reexamination of global poverty and inequality (chapter 1), before considering the enforceability of human rights—subverting the perennial theme to examine whether right holders themselves can enforce their rights (rather than whether foreign powers can do so) (chapter 2). Blunt proposes that those who have their rights systematically violated by the international order have a right to resistance. The book then proceeds to argue that extreme poverty triggers this right (chapter 3), before evaluating the justifiability of various strategies of resistance. Blunt includes injustice-avoiding strategies such as illegal immigration (chapter 4) and forming breakaway communities like the Zapatistas in Mexico, as well as attempts at justice promotion through transnational social movements (chapter 5), redistributive war (chapter 6), and sabotage and terrorism (chapter 7). In doing so, he moves the debate on resistance beyond actions that seek to promote justice toward injustice-avoiding actions through which the oppressed seek to escape injustice. This is a particularly relevant focus given the extreme unlikeliness that activists will succeed in producing institutional or political changes that end extreme poverty. The book concludes with a discussion of duties of resistance that fall on the affluent (chapter 8).

Throughout the book, Blunt seeks to eschew the thought experiment approach that has recently dominated contemporary political philosophy, instead drawing on legal conventions and historical examples. However, he struggles to fully move away from the thought experiment–based literature, often returning to it to bolster his conclusions. Furthermore, the book suffers from not including a methodology section outlining the rationale for the innovative approach adopted and from not explaining the role of legal convention in the normative arguments it proposes.

The book is admirably pluralist: Following a strong tradition in practical ethics, it aims to show that the conclusions advocated can be accepted by those with a range of theoretical approaches. However, covering so much ground means that some of the arguments are a little rushed. The book could also benefit from being a bit bolder: the subconclusions are often tentative, and the author seems to shy away from advocating truly controversial conclusions.

The strongest contribution of the book is the discussion of the moral status of illegal immigrants and those that support or undermine their efforts (chapters 4 and 8). It is here, in tackling a real-life moral issue of immense practical significance and giving a novel interpretation of the problem, that the book is at its best. Blunt calls on us to consider illegal immigration as an instance of “injustice avoiding” and of “impure” resistance (pp. 105–6). Seen in this light, it is a moral act that other people should support and not undermine. This is a strong and controversial stance that is defended in a number of distinctive ways.

Blunt uses the analogy of runaway slaves to suggest that illegal immigration is a justifiable act of escape from oppression, and likens the immigrants’ supporters and enablers to the underground railway that helped slaves in the United States escape north to enjoy relative freedom. His view is that extreme poverty constitutes a human rights abuse and that global economic injustice is so profound that it warrants the comparison to slavery. An issue with Blunt’s arguments here is that it is not clear that illegal immigrants actually do succeed in avoiding the violation of their human rights, given the fact that they are extremely vulnerable to the abuse of these rights once they arrive in their new country of residence. In fact, there is a case to be made that because illegal immigrants typically have no effective recourse to law, they are in fact more vulnerable to having their human rights violated in their new country than they were in their country of origin. Among other things, in their new country illegal immigrants have no political rights, are intensely vulnerable to extreme forms of exploitation and modern slavery, and are subject to both interactional and systemic domination, constantly living under the threat of deportation. Using the framework Blunt adopts in this chapter (p. 107), we can see that an illegal immigrant will often face myriad new and difficult challenges, making it difficult to argue that illegal immigration can always be seen as a means to evading injustice. Thus, Blunt’s claim that illegal immigration provides respite from the worst effects of poverty (p. 4) can be questioned.

As Blunt rightly points out, escaped slaves likewise were still oppressed, exploited, subjected to racism, and vulnerable to recapture once they escaped slaveholding states, and yet we should still consider their escape an injustice-avoiding act of resistance. The 1793 and 1850 Fugitive Slave Acts allowed escaped slaves to be chased into the North, and the Dred Scott case in 1857 showed they were not protected by the U.S. Constitution. Thus, the threat of being reenslaved if caught meant slaves who escaped north could not securely enjoy a free existence or free access to public institutions. However, in spite of the injustice and alienation they faced, their situation in terms of human rights and dominations was unquestionably improved rather than worsened by their escape from slavery. The same cannot be confidently asserted of illegal immigrants, except in cases where they must flee to avoid imminent death or significant harm, as is the case with war, famine, natural disasters, and extreme forms of political persecution.

Blunt does recognize that illegal immigration does not provide a “permanent exit” from oppression. He suggests that impure resistance expresses the desperation of the oppressed and is a means through which they “undermine norms and operational structures by challenging them” (p. 106). In proposing as much, he appeals to the concept of “infrapolitics,” a term coined by the political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott that identifies actions as “political” that are not traditionally characterized as such. These acts tend to be nonpublic and even anonymous, but when brought together with many other such acts, can lead to political change. These strategies work by eroding support for dominant social and political institutions from the bottom up, undermining existing laws and practices, and, in some cases, replacing them with alternatives. Acts of infrapolitics present a threat to hegemonic norms and dominant political structures through irreverent and covert action. When acts of illegal immigrants become pervasive, they could lead to the erosion of borders and the injustices these borders perpetuate. However, many contemporary states systematically tolerate large numbers of undocumented workers (sometimes on a seasonal basis), as their economies rely on exploiting this labor pool. For example, studies show that over half of U.S. farm laborers are undocumented. This suggests that instead of being denied opportunities by tightly enforced borders, a large portion of the global poor are in fact absorbed into the socioeconomic system of neighboring affluent states, acting as an exploited underclass without legal protection. In this context, there is a risk that acts of illegal immigration, rather than undermining an unjust socioeconomic system, actually help reproduce unjust intranational social structures that enrich the affluent and violate the rights of the poor. If this is the case, it is unclear how these acts are a productive form of infrapolitics.

Global Poverty, Injustice, and Resistance is a provocative intervention that offers a fresh perspective on ethical and political questions of real-life import. Blunt’s book subverts debates on global poverty and immigration in a way that demands serious attention from scholars interested in these topics and should provoke significant debate.

—Elizabeth Kahn

Elizabeth Kahn is an assistant professor of political theory in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her research considers the relationship between structural injustices and the obligations of individuals.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 34.3

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