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Discursive Discipline

Studies of development, aid and policy-making routinely document the ways in which institutional power-holders silence those beneath them. Either through setting the terms of engagement such that they exclude non-conformist would-be engagers, or through wielding the threat of sanction, those with greater material and symbolic power deploy that power to limit what subordinates say and do, and to have them fit their words and actions to pre-existing institutional requirements. Giddens has these dynamics in mind when he writes of ‘processes of selective “information filtering”,’ whereby strategically placed actors use their power to govern the flow of information in order to maintain or change the status quo (1984: 27-8). In the anti-trafficking field, the sanctions used for this governance range from the simple—a warning or a public dressing-down—to the more complex—a blocked promotion or even a demotion. In extreme cases, they may even involve terminating an employment contract or blacklisting the individual concerned. Either way, what matters is that the dominant can exercise economic power over the subordinate to ensure their discursive discipline. And that they often do so.

This is why it can be so useful to talk to anti-traffickers behind closed doors and in anonymity. When I did, I heard things like, ‘Our wages are the price of our silence,’ or ‘I’d love to resist, but who’s going to pay my mortgage if I do?’ My interviews thus revealed that what is not said in official anti-trafficking parlance is at least as important as what is said. And that the process of deciding who says what or not has a great deal to do with preserving dominant discourses and defending governing ideologies.

For example, when it came to Neoliberalism, I knew that many of my anti-traffickers saw poverty in the apolitical terms they used to describe it. But I still wanted to know whether they would have been free to talk about it differently had they wished to do so and in terms of political economy, poverty-making or injustice. Fortunately, circumstances provided me with a kind of natural experiment. At about the time that child trafficking had exploded as an issue in Benin, Benin and a number of neighbouring countries took a major case to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) against the US cotton subsidies that they argued were both anti-competitive and immiserating for their cotton farmers. The David-and-Goliath nature of this case attracted worldwide media attention and a good deal of international support, with development agencies, anti-globalisation groups and global justice organisations all getting involved, and with OXFAM in particular playing a major role. It was very topical when I conducted the first phase of my research with anti-traffickers and was familiar to anyone working on or in Benin. So I asked my interviewees directly: ‘Would it be possible for you or your employers to advocate removing US cotton subsidies as part of your fight against the poverty that we all seem to agree is at the root of child trafficking?’ Unsurprisingly, to a person they said that doing so would be inconceivable. Rose, for example, was a senior EU figure working in Cotonou when I asked her. She explained that she would love to address such ‘structural issues’ but that it would be ‘politically unacceptable’ for her to do so. Sandra was also an EU employee working on child trafficking in Benin, and she offered a similar, yet even more damning assessment:

We can take account of the effects of these things at the ground level - people being poor in Benin and the like. But we can’t talk about the top level. Our last reference is the national level, the Beninese government. The Westerners who work here know that their policies cause poverty and trafficking, and many of them would like to change it. But they can’t.

US employees said likewise. Cheng, for example, was a former US government agent who had worked in Washington on child trafficking. When I asked her whether she would have been able to speak openly about things like cotton subsidies or criticise dominant political economic paradigms from within her bureau, ‘Absolutely not’ was the response she gave. ‘We’re constrained by US interests and restricted to corridor discussions.’ More revealing still was a conversation I had with Matt. Matt worked for the US TIP Office for nearly a decade and has an intimate knowledge of the US anti-trafficking hierarchy. ‘I’ve tried and will try again to raise the issue of subsidies,’ he told me when we spoke. ‘But the chances of success or of public discussion are basically slim-to-none, as there are very big interests to fight.’ 4 In this policy-world, then, formal discussion of the political economic forces that create poverty is off limits. Anti-traffickers are required to frame poverty apolitically and as a matter of ‘development,’ since doing otherwise may rock the boat. In classically neoliberal fashion, wealth and the relations of power that sustain it are taken not only as given but also as beyond questioning, with powerful actors using their influence to ensure that this remains the case.

The same is also true for the ideologies of the Ideal State and Western Childhood. With regard to the latter, one of the major debates in international child protection is between those who advocate what has been termed an ‘abolitionist’ stance towards child labour and those who advocate its ‘regulation’ (Bourdillon et al. 2011) The former see all child labour as problematic and argue that all of it must be outlawed. They ‘aim to clear all labour markets of children and assume that work itself is the problem’ (ibid. 64). Although they endorse ILO Convention 182, in practice, they tend to pursue the harder and aged-based line of 138—much in the way that anti-traffickers in Benin have done with Benin’s anti-trafficking law. The ‘regulationists,’ by contrast, ‘allow a differentiation of children’s work into more and less harmful forms as a basis for setting priorities in intervention’ (ibid.). They reject blanket exclusion along 138 lines and argue that abolition can be (and sometimes is) impractical or counterproductive for the children concerned. They thus seek to make context-relevant decisions—in consultation with children themselves—about how best to advance children’s interests and to protect them at work.

In private, many anti-traffickers agree that regulation is superior to abolition and question the abolitionist tendency within mainstream antitrafficking. Yet in public, they are prevented either from admitting this or from acting on it. When I asked senior IPEC figures, for example, why they didn’t actively pursue a softer, more regulatory line in the face of evidence that children clearly do choose their exploitation and sometimes need to, I was told that doing so would be impossible because it contradicted institutional discursive-ideological requirements. ‘What if a 13 year-old has no alternative but to migrate for work?’ I asked Handel, who was IPEC’s most senior anti- child trafficker at the time. ‘Wouldn’t it be better to say “This isn’t ideal, but it’s not trafficking, so let’s find a way to help her”?’ ‘Absolutely not,’ he replied. ‘We can’t finance or endorse anything that disagrees with our normative framework. We have to be consistent, even if children are working. Otherwise, in 20 years, where will we be?’ ‘What if the child is fully cognisant of the work she’ll be doing?’ I came back at him. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘We must stick to the party line.’ And stick to the party line he did. As one of the ILO’s most senior anti-traffickers, he was able to require each of his country office subordinates to send him all potential publications for ‘terminological clearance’ before release.5

What does this discussion tell us? Primarily that discursive and ideological discipline sometimes has to be constructed. Not everyone ‘buys-in’ to mainstream thinking, and many people inhabit subject positions that would otherwise lead to challenge. This is where power becomes important, for the threat of sanction can breed compliance on the part of those whose erupting subjectivity could otherwise trigger dissent. When those threats come from someone like Handel, who has quite clearly ‘bought in’ to the dominant ideology and inhabits his ideological subject position with what Lacan would call ‘enjoyment,’ you have no choice but to listen.6

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