The Injustice of Publicity — Melissa Aronczyk

[This is the second in a series of posts comprising a symposium on Christine Schwöbel-Patel‘s recently published book, Marketing Global Justice: The Political Economy of International Criminal Law (2021).]

What happens to the tenets of global justice when they become resources to achieve ends other than those for which they were intended? How are transformed visions of global justice made legitimate in international practice?

These questions form the subject of Christine Schwöbel-Patel’s book, Marketing Global Justice. It takes an unflinching look at the conceptual and institutional distillation of global justice in international criminal law, and how this phenomenon has fallen so far short of its ethical principles. If the philosophy of global justice underscores our obligations to one another and the human right to self-determination and equality, its realization in the International Criminal Court has distorted both these ideals and their practice. To make global justice into a marketable phenomenon is to ignore the complexity and systematicity of historical and political injustices in favor of presentist (Western) donor concerns, popular perceptions of violation and reconciliation, and simplified narratives of right and wrong. In the process, the ICC promotes a reductive and morally bereft image of global justice. 

Schwöbel-Patel explains in detail how this transformation came about. First is the concern by NGOs, international institutions, states, and individuals with the aestheticization of justice. To conform to the vagaries of the attention economy, global justice projects are narrated in the media with an emphasis on conflict, catastrophe, and a lack of complexity. The visual spectacle of the lone criminal brought to justice, as in the crime thrillers or courtroom dramas of popular films, appears to emphasize the moral rightness of the ICC and its powerful authority to international audiences, even as it diminishes the capacity to recognize the persistence of structural violence. Broader and more fundamental questions of social discrimination, economic disparities, or imperial histories are swallowed up by the emphasis on individual capture and punishment. 

Second is the valuation of justice by global civil society institutions and actors as a source of competitive advantage . The ICC shifted the value of the global justice mission: from the pursuit of justice in the name of international legal responsibility to the question of which NGO or which state-level agency can acquire the benefits of attaching their name to the project and thereby the status and other resources that accrue to it. If the architects of the ICC helped to create and institutionalize this commodified version of global justice, international stakeholders perpetuate this version in order to construct their own authority as a scarce resource.   

Third is the Westernization of justice in the form of donor–recipient philanthropic models and culturally specific evaluations of what constitutes fairness amidst established hierarchies of geography and history. In this hegemonic and neoliberal conception, we see not only how global justice is (mis)represented in the media or used as currency to attract economic and symbolic capital; we see how the real-world experience of global justice has itself been depleted (as Schwöbel-Patel details in her chapter on the infamous case of KONY 2012) and with what implications for how society apprehends deep breaches of fairness or equality. The political economy of international criminal law favors publicity over the ethics of decency; and this is replicated in our social constructions of global wellbeing. 

A particular strength of this book is its ability to weave all three of these themes – aestheticization, competitive valuation and Westernization – throughout the case studies, showing how these themes manifest in practice. For example, Schwöbel-Patel analyzes advertising campaigns promoting the ICC, highlighting how this publicity surfaces neocolonial hierarchies in which the Global North is the dispenser of justice and the Global South is its recipient. This representational politics is found not only in promotional materials for the ICC itself but also in related place-branding campaigns – the slogan for the Hague is “International City of Peace and Justice.” This publicity further reinforces power differentials over who has agency and who does not. As Schwöbel-Patel explains, marketized global justice solidifies the binary distinction between the “just” Global North and the “injust” Global South through these representations as well as other media. Digital media campaigns push hashtags and collect followers to promote “awareness” and “information” about the ICC, but offer no historical or geopolitical context. Values of capital accumulation and publicity promote transactional ethics and political gain rather than developing capabilities or international reforms. 

Marketing Global Justice is, crucially, about the NGOs, states and transnational institutions and individuals who promote and uphold this vision of global justice. Here I see important parallels between Schwöbel’s work and studies like Clifford Bob’s The Marketing of Rebellion (Cambridge, 2005) and Monika Krause’s The Good Project (Chicago, 2014). Each addresses the strategic “knowing” of non-governmental organizations driven to create projects or design icons to attract funders, which inevitably complicates the ostensible drive to “help the world.” In the context of markets, supply chains, and networks of accountability, we are forced to reflect on how the very structure of global civil society lends itself to categories of meaning and value that favor transnational discourses of weak and strong, South and North, villain and hero. 

One key to understanding the mechanisms of marketized global justice is to pay close attention to the technologies of legitimacy by which they are expressed. That is: what are the logics, the techniques, by which certain ideas are made to seem more legitimate than others? And what social and political conditions enable these technologies to make certain ways of thinking available to us while others are foreclosed? The principles of marketing (along with PR, lobbying, advertising and so on – what I call promotional industries) are not value-neutral ideas of communication; they are value-laden propositions. We must first acknowledge that these principles and practices are endemic to liberal democracy. They are not fetters on “truer” or “realer” politics; they are part of the system of resource distribution, information, and mediation that currently structures our political and social lives. As such, we are bound to consider the extent to which these industries are themselves creative agents in the process of knowledge production. They are purpose-built to create the world according to a particular image, one that is structured by international governance through markets, hierarchies of capital and class, and Western hegemony. 

One of the most important things I retain from Schwöbel-Patel’s account is that the pursuit of global justice need not be carried out this way. There are alternative processes we may adopt to bring the moral fabric of society into a tighter weave. But in order for alternatives to appear and be made legitimate, we have to be able to imagine them. And this starts with dismantling what is: showing the contradictions, failings, and anachronisms currently in place. Marketing Global Justice achieves this goal.

Melissa Aronczyk is an associate professor in the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University (USA). She is the author of Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity (Oxford, 2013) and the co-author of A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism (Oxford, 2022). Her journal articles appear in New Media & Society; Big Data & Society; Environmental Sociology; Enterprise & Society; the International Journal of Communication; and others. She is on twitter @M_Aronczyk.