Ce n’est pas une neoliberal agenga

Semiotics. No doubt that stuff is complicated. So is international policy. Sometimes I think they’re more or less the same thing, but try telling that to a macro economist. “Stop with the semantics,” I hear professors working with large data sets telling confused PhD students. “Just tell me plain and simple, what is it you are trying to say?”

Given the extent to which the data inclined are Derrida adverse, I find the UN’s recent discursive shift from Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals quite interesting. Is this linguistic turn as arbitrary as Saussure’s arbre? Is the __DG format indicative of a signifier without a sign? Well, no. I’d say the transition from MDGs to SDGs is hella loaded. It’s loaded with the ideological baggage and political power of 193 member states.

I kinda think of the UN as a monolithic ersatz linguistic department that has been given the task of creating a New World Order, but can use neither physical or political coercion, only semiotics. By New World Order I mean Human Rights as a framework for global cooperation and by semiotics I mean the constant coding, recoding and transmission of ideologies through acronyms in the hopes of getting genuine commitment from the individual and institutional powers behind the ether of the neoliberal agenda.

When the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” it was equally applauded and criticized for its vagueness. There were just so many interpretations. That was 1987. By 2000, international political support for sustainable development was waning. But, thanks to the private sector, concepts like Energy Star, LEED design, green architecture, fair trade, and buy one give one allowed sustainability to became big business.

Perhaps taking cue from the private sector’s ability to turn a vague concept into a profit margin, that same year, the UN announced its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight goals (‘Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’, ‘Improve maternal health’) and countless targets to be achieved through through the commitments and financial investments of states, corporations…and celebrity benefit concerts in which attendees Buy the Impact!

Example 1:

Person A: “Let’s get tickets to the Eliminate Poverty benefit concert, our money will go to a kid in Africa who lives on less than a dollar a day!”

Person B: “Wow! If my ticket is $54 dollars, it’s like I’m giving that kid 54 days of help and happiness!

Example 2:

Person A: “Let’s get tickets for the sustainable development concert, our money will go toward furthering the concept of sustainable development and the idea that we should live in such a way that our present actions aren’t at the expense of untold generations to come!

Person B: “But how do I know if the decision to take my pill during Tiesto’s set so that I can be seriously rolling for Jay Z will have an effect on global warming and the lives of others?”

I believe the linguistic shift from sustainable development to MDGs and the campaign to end poverty was motivated not by words, language, or meaning but rather by numbers and their ability to be arbitrary yet full of (financial) value. Numerical outputs taken from rigorous statistical analyses involving hundreds of independent variables, scrupulously examined for any kind of heteroscedasticity ensured that the global discussion was on whether or not poverty was increasing as opposed to the question of what poverty actually meant.*

See, until these new SDGs were announced, I thought sustainable development, like Ecstasy, was waning in popularity. I mean, this post isn’t about questioning the meaning of sustainable development or the utility of the SDGs but rather why the words keep changing and whether this has any impact on the ideologies behind them.

Writing on the immutability and mutability of the sign, Saussure tells us: The signifier, though to a appearances freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it. The masses have no voice in the matter, and the signifier chosen by language could be re placed by no other (General Course, 71).
Okay. A simple set of words are created to capture a political and policy agenda. The first set was too vague and so a second set was created, this time incorporating the word ‘goals’ so as to encourage quantifiable targets and thus dissolve any conceptual ambiguity. When these targets are not met by a set date (i.e. 2015), the international community falls back on a critique of the concept, the meaning of these words (e.g. are we talking about work or livelihoods? What is included in ‘maternal health’?) and the difficulty of financing such a project. The outcome is a new set of words that incorporates one (or two) from each iteration to thus reflect the revision of that agenda. And we begin, afresh.

Today is a beautiful October day, that time of warm, muted colors, when fashion magazines announce the ‘return’ of some classic and everyone runs to Soho to buy a new version of an old classic. Ever since the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I can’t help but feel that the UN and its various institutions have put all their energy into rebranding a classic that everyone keeps forgetting. I think part of the problem is the lingering idea of progress–that hangover of modernism we still wake up to and, of course, development–that stepmother of colonialism. These two concepts, I believe, are a true detriment to the actuality of human rights, because both make easy bedfellows of the neoliberal agenda.

* I’m not suggesting that this conversation was or is absent from UN publications or the concern of individuals. Only that this type of discussion doesn’t lend itself to donors.


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