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News & Events Keynote Speech from Bram Büscher: Deepening Social Justice
Keynote Speech from Bram Büscher: Deepening Social Justice
Keynote Speech from Bram Büscher: Deepening Social Justice
Bram Büscher
Bram Büscher
Bram Büscher

In his keynote speech during the opening plenary session of the the IOS Fair Transitions - LANDac Conference & Summit: Land governance and the politics of fair transitions: Deepening the search for social justice on 3 July, 2024, Bram Büscher, Professor and Chair of the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University, poses a challenge  to the conference: how to rejuvenate the increasingly lost art of speaking truth to power.

To start with the obvious: in this day and age any thought of deepening social justice seems like a difficult proposition. What we witness instead is a massive deepening of authoritarian far-right politics and violent injustice, which renders the immediate outlook of the world increasingly dire for many people and many nonhuman communities. In this context, I want to highlight the fact that yesterday in The Netherlands the most right-wing government cabinet ever started. This is really bad news for the climate and bad news for justice. I could have chosen an evocative picture of something around the new cabinet, but I chose this image of Linda Nooitmeer, chair of the National Institute for the Dutch Slavery history and Legacy talking on national TV about why she disinvited the chair of parliament, Martin Bosma, to the national commemoration of the Dutch slavery history this last Monday. With respect for democratic institutions, she insisted that Bosma’s earlier racist remarks have weight and that his refusal to apologise for or even reflect on his remarks ruled out his presence at the commemoration. Bosma did not see the problem, because he argued that he made those remarks in a different position, as member of parliament, not as its chair. This reflects similar strategies by two of his PVV party comrades, now ministers in the new cabinet, Marjolein Faber and Reinette Klever, both of whom also believed that past racist remarks didn’t matter in their new role in power. Instead, Linda Nooitmeer spoke truth to power – not by being harsh in her words, but by confronting power and showing what power is made of, so that we can look beyond it.

This, for me, is the central challenge I want to pose to the conference: how to speak truth to power? Speaking truth to power is an art, but increasingly a lost art. This goes as much for academia as for the rest of the world. Indeed and unfortunately, much of academia reflects the world in which it functions and often makes the challenge of deepening social justice harder rather than smaller. To put it bluntly, much of academia has resorted to instrumental and naïve beliefs in innovation, technology and efficiency (which dominate the natural sciences) or (as in much of the social-economic sciences) increasingly arcane niche debates that too often revolve around virtue-signalling, methodological-theoretical wizardry or apolitical pragmatism. What we seem to have lost to a good degree – though to be sure: it was never a dominant endeavour and at the same time it has never been absent either – is the art of speaking truth to power. Part of my main challenge or dilemma, therefore is: how to bring back a deeper and renewed focus on power – historical as well as contemporary - that allows for more astute ‘speaking truth to power’ in academia and beyond to push for just transitions?


Some problems in speaking truth to power

There are several reasons, I believe, why speaking truth to power has become so difficult in academia. One is the relentless neoliberalization of academia over the past decades. This has had a fundamental impact on the types of questions that scientists believe can be asked, and the way they go about their ‘business’. Much of our leadership these days do not realize what the university is for, and why not being beholden to political or economic power is so critical to the place of the university in society. Instead, they often run universities as businesses, including all the lingo that goes with it, while shying away from the critique of power. In Wageningen, some refer to the relations between our university, political power (government) and economic power (business) as the ‘golden triangle’. The idea that we can all work together and fundamentally want the same thing is what drives this form of management – we bring knowledge and technical innovations and together we solve problems. This type of management is not just anti-intellectual, but actually makes it difficult to even acknowledge injustices and how this is related to power.

A recent example is about the dreadful situation in Palestine. Many of our students are bravely demanding justice, but all Dutch rectors recently came together to state that they really cannot say anything, because they believe it is a matter of ‘academic freedom’. This stance is fundamentally misguided. It confuses what academic freedom is about – to not be beholden to power so that you can analyse and point out injustices, contradictions and societal problems, while presenting possible ways forward. Instead, it forwards an idea of academic freedom as something that private academics do and need to decide on, which conveniently allows management to continue with ‘business-as-usual’.[1] This type of leadership is endemic in Dutch universities (and beyond) and it is part of the reason why speaking truth to power is so often not even recognised as an option anymore for academic conduct and impact. Impact, rather, comes from creating technological innovations, patents, start-ups and the like. Speaking truth to power is seen as ‘activism’, which is deemed not properly academic.


A second reason is that the term truth, for many academics, has become a word to be avoided. Making the case for the importance of seeking truth, as I want to do here, sounds archaic to much of the social sciences today. Instead, many discussions seem to be focused on deconstruction, building a politics around highlighting diversity, difference and plurality, including many incompatible ontologies, or about safeguarding rights for ‘diverse stakeholders’. My point here – to be sure - is not that these discussions are bad or not necessary. To the contrary – they are important! But they often leave little space to seek truth, not because people are not willing, but because seeking truth always demands one to go beyond one’s comfort zone, and hence also beyond the accepted boundaries of prevailing discussions. Perhaps this is also why the idea of truth has nearly lost purchase altogether; and that even the rise of post-truth has not led to major new effort to restore the place of truth in science: the neoliberalization of academia has forced many of us into a particular comfort zone, a niche that we specialize in to get tenure.


What, then, is truth?

This, of course, begs for more explanation about what I mean with truth. To be sure: truth is not some ultimate, universal authoritative knowledge. It is, in my conceptualisation and following Hannah Arendt, a deep acknowledgement and understanding of history, context and positionality in order to arrive at something in common, to relate to a broader common sense. Truth is about doing justice to context, history and positionality while also transcending these to link to what we have in common. At the same time, following Michel Foucault, truth is always power. One of his most famous statements is the following:


“The important thing here is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power... Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourses which it accepts and makes function as true” (Foucault, 1980: 131).


This quote is fascinating in many respects, but Foucault, importantly, did not merely argue that truth and power are always interconnected. He also emphasized the politically liberating potential of this insight: “it’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time”.[2] This phrasing is interesting. It suggests that while truth is power, it is at the same time more than that, which gives it power. Precisely what Foucault means might be gleaned from what he stated shortly before his death in 1984. In his last lecture series, tellingly entitled ‘the courage of truth’, Foucault, according to Frédéric Gros, emphasized truth as “that which makes a difference in the world and in people’s opinions, that which forces one to transform one’s mode of being, that whose difference opens up the perspective of an other world to be constructed, to be imagined”.[3]

I take Foucault’s prompt seriously. If we wish to realistically understand and confront the climate crisis, then ‘the courage of truth’ in the sense of speaking truth to power is precisely what is at stake, both in theory and in practice.[4] But it is hard to promote the art of speaking truth to power if truth is hardly mentioned. Or, when it is mentioned, that it exists solely as something to be deconstructed rather than also constructed or sought after.[5] Speaking truth to power can render truth productive by saying something accurate about power such that one can see beyond it; such that “the perspective of an other world to be constructed, to be imagined” opens up. Hence why truth is not just power, but also more-than-power. And hence why speaking truth to power makes transformation and transition possible.


Back to main challenge

Here I come back to my main challenge namely that a deeper and renewed focus on power is critical. The good news is that, unlike truth, power is at least still often implicitly the focus of attention: the power of certain discourses, of rights and access to resource, of certain actors or institutions and of the power of structural forms of discrimination around race, gender, class and more. What is often missing, however, is a focus on how power changes, while making this explicit.[6] One way in which power has changed dramatically over the last 10 years is by becoming post-truth. This may sound odd, but if truth is power, then post-truth is also a form of power. In my recent book ‘the truth about nature’, I make the case for understanding post-truth as a form of power under platform or digital capitalism. This is because the algorithms that increasingly run and influence our lives literally do not care about whether something is true or not. Post-truth is therefore not about emotions in politics or something similar. It is literally beyond truth: truth no longer matters at all.

This is very dangerous, especially as a strategy of power that the likes of Trump have perfected: they believe they cannot and should not be held accountable for what they did or said in the past. Like Bosma believes that his racist remarks are part of the past; he and his colleagues who are now in power are beyond their previous remarks and they don’t want to be held to account for it. This type of power mimics the algorithm: they tap into the data or knowledge available to them, but never try to transcend these to speak truth to power. Rather: they want power to remain as it is, and deepen it. This is more than just ‘conservative’: it is regressive. It does not want to address past or present injustices that have happened to others: this is or should be in past; they are ‘beyond it’. Except of course when it comes to their own grievances, but that is another matter. In this regressive post-truth power, discrimination is the norm, and the norm they want to uphold is the dominant form of power that discriminates in their favor. It is worse than the status quo; it is truly regressive.

All this together clearly makes ‘speaking truth to power’ difficult. I am not saying it is not being done, but it is too marginal and not often enough explicitly pursued. And yet, if the climate emergency we are in is the outcome of the dominant power structures of our time, then the only way to push for justice is to analyse, debate, confront and challenge dominant and constantly changing power structures – over and over. It is this foundational assertion that is at the basis of my challenge for this conference. Based on this, three further points are critical and they also relate directly to land governance.

The first is a need to recentre capital/capitalism in our thinking, analyses and action. This is critical not only because the basis for capitalism is and always has been the land, but also because under capitalism the question of rights to the land, especially rights to relate to the land outside of private, capitalist forms, is central and never assured. Indeed, due to capitalism’s aggregate demand for growth and accumulation, rights will always be under pressure.[7]

The second is a focus on how capitalist power is continuously changing. Understanding land governance and the possibilities for justice and commoning depend on keeping up with these changes. What new forms of power influence and structure land governance, rights to land and continue to push ecocide over eco-social justice? This question, I believe, should be central. Two recent trends in the way that capitalist power has changed, those of finance and digital platforms, including artificial intelligence, are not very prominent in the call for papers but are critical going forward, particularly if we want to understand contemporary politics of knowledge and challenge post-truth.

Finally, to hone the art of speaking truth to power, we must organise this speaking truth to power better, hence my third challenge: Deepening social justice is and should be part of broader movements that combine speaking truth to power and astute political organisation across axes of difference and different institutional domains (academia, NGOs, governments, etc). This is, of course, a big challenge, but that is why we are here to discuss and debate. Moreover and thankfully, many of you already do, and one great example is Via Campesina that Morgan works for and who I will gladly yield the floor to. Thanks for your attention.

[2] Idem: 133; see also Foucault 2008: 356

[3] Idem: 356.

[4] Sullivan, 2019.

[5] Merrifield, 2011: 18.

[6] Though see Newel et al. 2021 Toward transformative climate justice: An emerging research agenda. WIRE’s CLIMATE CHANGE.

[7] particularly rights of indigenous,, marginalized and traditional communities. After all, as David Harvey (2006: 93) argues, “there is an aggregate degree of accumulation through dispossession that must be maintained if the capitalist system is to achieve any semblance of stability”. Clearly, a massive dispossession of resources, including land and income, has taken place across the world over the last decades, in favour of elite capitalist classes (poor Elon Musk just received his 50 billion $ bonus..), and in one way or another this will continue unless it is central to our politics to halt and reverse this. Formalization or recognition of rights will always be under pressure if alienation and accumulation-by-dispossession must continue under a deepening capitalism.