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Since the late 1990’s, global attention to the issue of human trafficking (particularly sex trafficking) has skyrocketed within international institutions and among fascist aspiring conspiracy theorists. This talk turns to the last period in global history when international anti–trafficking campaigns were this widespread, the interwar era. I focus on how liberal internationalist supporters of the League of Nations used the putatively “non–political” issue of the “traffic in women and children” to negotiate tensions in the League’s world vision between its universal rhetoric and its ongoing commitment to racial hierarchy and imperialism. Rather than focus on how trafficking helped League internationalists deflect attention away from this disconnect, however, I draw upon Edward Said’s notion of “imaginative geography” to better understand the generative quality of trafficking. Read in this light, an investigation of the League’s archives reveals a complex discursive and bureaucratic process of knowledge production about a globe–spanning, criminal underworld – populated by anti–Semitic caricatures of traffickers and helpless victims – against which the League could invent and instantiate itself. A closer interrogation of interwar, anti–trafficking politics thus has much to tell us about the relationship between world making and underworld making in the liberal internationalism imaginary, and about the overlap between that imaginary and the dreamworld of fascism, both then and now.
Jeanne Morefield is an Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford, a Fellow at New College (Oxford), and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute. Her scholarship sits at the intersection of political theory, international relations, and intellectual history with a particular focus on the relationship between liberalism, imperialism, and internationalism in Britain and America. She is the author of Covenants Without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (2005), Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo American Decline and the Politic of Deflection (2014) and Unsettling the World: Edward Said and Political Theory (2022). Her next book project, Underworld, examines the role of sex trafficking panics in the shared global imaginaries of liberalism and fascism. Morefield’s popular work has appeared in The Boston Review, Jacobin, Responsible Statecraft, and The New Statesman.