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Christine Unrau, Erfahrung und Engagement. Motive, Formen und Ziele der Globalisierungskritik. Bielefeld: transcript 2018.

‘Experience and Commitment’ - Christine Unrau has examined the production of ideas in the Global Justice Movement

30.05.2018 Christine Unrau, head of research at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg, examines the ‘motives, forms and goals of the global justice movement’ in a recently published monograph. In deliberate differentiation from the sociological perspective, it poses the basic question of political theory as to the justification of political commitment by the actors themselves. The object of the analysis is thus the production of ideas in the global justice movement, ‘whose core is the conviction that intervening political action is possible, meaningful and even a duty’.


At the very beginning the author argues against the widespread perception that  the Global Justice Movement consists of  opponents - or deniers - of globalization. Rather, these are movements and actors who criticize a certain (neo-liberally connoted) form of globalization and at the same time consider an alternative form of shaping the globalization process to be possible and necessary ("alter-globalization"). The phenomenon of criticism of globalization thus describes a pole of the globalization process that has long been conspicuous. 

With reference to Isaiah Berlin ("Does political theory still exist?"), Unrau is interested in the  situation of a constellation in which valid reasons for action are sought, and it is (still) open - or controversial - to which moral authorities one refers. The study therefore aims to reflect on the ‘implicit political theory’ of political commitment in the global justice movement (12*).

The passage through the material, i.e. the primary sources, is a special challenge in such an open - contemporary - situation. Unrau selects influential publications from three fields of knowledge:

a) Philosophy

  • Ejécito Zapatista de Liberación National (EZLN): various communiqués
  • Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri: Empire, Multitude. War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Commonwealth

b) Sociology / Economics

  • Pierre Bourdieu: Contre-feu, Contre-feu2
    Joseph Stiglitz: Globalization and its Discontents
    Susan George: Another World is possible if

c) Theology

  • Leonardo Boff: Ecologia, munidializaçāo, espiritualidade. A emergēncia de un nuovo pardigma
  • Ulrich Duchrow and Franz Joseph Hinkelammert: Life is more than capital, alternatives to the global dictatorship of property
  • Néstor Miguez, Jörg Rieger, and Jung Mo Sung: Beyond the Spirit of Empire. Theology and Politics in a New Key.


She is struck by the fact that the concept of ‘experience’ is consistently and prominently referred to here and spelt out in many different ways. Starting from Leidhold's concept of experience as ‘conscious participation’, the author chooses the dimensions of rational, spiritual, emotional and creative experience and analyses - the entire material (a, b, c) in four passages - always with the tension of direct vs. narrated experience in mind.

Unrau, who expressly distances herself from the ‘suspicious hermeneutics’ of discourse analysis, does not want to relativize the statements of the material but contextualize them, and she does so in particular by identifying points of reference in the history of ideas.  For the articulation of experience (Voegelin) is dependent on such points of reference and a genealogical perspective on the various dimensions of experience is not a linear history of progress; rather, experience dimensions buried in a certain historical context are updated (62) and politically articulated as alternatives.

This results in interesting entanglements. Unrau regards the historical-philosophical positions of Western philosophy as an immanentized form of revelation belief and the positions of Hardt/Negri in this tradition. Negri's striking affinity with Augustine is demonstrated in both a decidedly anti-cyclical understanding of history (172) and a half-facetious comparison  of the role of the intellectual in Negri with that of the Church Fathers ("a new partistic", 299).

Experience is often used to argue when a dominant discourse is to be unmasked and thus exposed as illusory. Unrau identifies strategies of unmasking as an important expression of rational experience and cites Joseph Stiglitz' experience of an ‘offence against reason’ with regard to the handling of known facts by the World Bank and the IMF as a concise example. The critics of globalization are concerned with unmasking but also with generating new knowledge in changed communicative settings. Elements of decentralisation and local autonomy play a role here, as do non-hierarchical negotiation strategies and forms of cooperation, including the organisation of work (Lazzarato). The use of Spinoza's ‘common notions’ and the common good of Hardt and Negri (‘Commonwealth’) also stands for a post-rationalist justification of common action.

While rational experience uses images from the religious realm to label grievances (Stiglitz’s critique of the ‘belief’ in free markets; Bourdieu's ‘vulgata économique’; René Girard's consumption as a religion of sacrifice, Boff's ‘technomessianism’), variations of rationality are regarded as one-sided, incomplete or misguided (‘madness of ends’, Duchrow; instrumental reason as ‘Satan of the Earth’, Boff).

Religious experience seems to be the only dimension of experience to have a fundamental and thus also historically verifiable reference to the historical and ecological dimension.  Leonardo Boff's ‘sentio ergo sum’ opens up several dimensions of experience simultaneously, it includes the natural environment, is also emotional in that anger and compassion are valued as part of a ‘spirituality of change’ (with Sung, ethical indignation is qualified similarly as spiritual experience), a change that is approached to the process of revelation, because this happens ‘in history’. With Boff, the "immanentisation" of religious experience seems to have been completely achieved in a certain sense.

The emotional experience is assigned as a variant of the rational experience (Nussbaum) but also of sensory perception (William James, Damasio). Beyond Leidhold, to whose concept of experience she relates but who does not deal with the emotional experience, Unrau encourages us to think about a third type of dimension of experience (besides representational/non-representational), where spiritual and physical participation exist simultaneously (209).

It is interesting that emotional empowerment is considered by the authors both as an analytical and strategic possibility. Bourdieu's ‘legitimate anger’ and Sen's ‘reasoned scrutiny’ stand for the former; ‘emotional intelligence’ (Shaftesbury) for the latter possibility. Incidentally, it plays a precisely defined role in the diplomatic discourse of the Federal Foreign Office (see ‘Greeting’ by Andreas Goergen in the Annual Report of the Centre 2015, p. 9). The Zapatistas value emotions in that they can extend the actors' identities beyond group boundaries. Hardt/Negri speak of affective networks, Martha Nussbaum of the necessary ‘cultivation of emotions’, Rorty advocates ‘emotional narratives’ that promote development.

Against this background, Unrau makes the interesting observation that techniques of distanceing have already accompanied a reduction of emotional experiences in the Renaissance. While in those days it was the introduction of firearms and hygiene measures in the face of plague epidemics, the exponentially growing use of drones and various virus epidemics has now led to a further experience of distance on a global scale. Unrau indicates that such proceedings suggest a possible ‘regaining of lost abilities of closeness and charity’.

Creative experience seems special, as far as it seems to integrate all other dimensions of experience. The author does not go that far, although the order of experience dimensions in the book may be interpreted in this direction.

Representatives of the global justice movement emphasize the importance of creative group processes. Significant for this is the post-individualistic reformulation of the concept of genius by Hardt and Negri, who speak of a genius of the multitude. There are ideas of cooperation, especially in the context of immaterial processes (digitization, creative industry, services), interactivity, immateriality, regeneration, the (carnivalesque) polyphony of actors and processes. A post-rational creative experience follows or complements the rational experience of unmasking and deconstructing (295, note 132). The mobility of migrants and marginalized people makes them habitually creative, although it should perhaps be pointed out that precisely this situation seems highly exploitable. Creativity also arises from destructions of sovereignty and the status quo; ideas of a ‘creation from chaos’ lead to the desire for an equilibrium that would never be completely harmonious, but rather maintains tension (Miguez, Rieger, Sung, 314). Against the scepticism with regard to the disignability of reality which characterizes  poststructuralism and systems theory, ideas of creation and renewal are formulated that use images of vegetal growth (280).

Christine Unrau's monograph makes a systematic contribution to the typology of  experience in political theory and advocates a further conceptual development of emotional experience in the political context.  The author's in-depth and prudent analysis of the sources appreciates the significance of the works dealt with in terms of the history of ideas and neither approves nor disagrees with their content. With unusual skill Christine Unrau succeeds in arousing an understanding for the messages of the treated texts by spelling them out and contextualising them, which always remains discreet and at the same time demonstrates a thoroughness, , which is the only indicator of  the author's personal commitment to her subject . The sources from French, Spanish and Portuguese are translated in footnotes, English is usually quoted in the original. 

* Page numbers in brackets refer to the work discussed.


Publication (German)

Christine Unrau, Erfahrung und Engagement. Motive, Formen und Ziele der Globalisierungskritik. Bielefeld: transcript 2018.

Christine Unrau at the Centre

Christine Unrau bei transcript (publisher)