Susan Sell: Speaking Truth to Power

31 January 2024, 1239 EST

This is the fourth post in our series of remembrances on the late Susan Sell.

Susan and I were both conducting research in Geneva in the summer of 2022, she was at the World Trade Organization, and I was working in the archives at the International Committee of the Red Cross. Our hotels were right next to each other, so we met up one night and walked along Lake Geneva into town looking for a place for dinner. As we sat down, Susan, in her inimitable way, scrunched up her face in both disgust and disbelief—the man next to us was chain smoking and blowing smoke our way. I chuckled. Susan was always so extra. We talked about our children, our research, she told me about the murals in the WTO building  — conversations with Susan were always easy and eclectic.

At ISA 2023, we sat next to each other to listen to Deborah Avant deliver her presidential address. We knew Debbi would be brilliant and provocative and we were ready. We fist pumped at the zingers, nodded as Debbi articulated her vision for international studies, clapped and cheered along. Listening to Debbi’s speech with Susan was so special. In my first year in graduate school, Susan taught the Theories of International Relations seminar and Debbi taught Theories of International Security. Susan later served on my dissertation committee. They have both been so influential in my thinking and longstanding mentors. They also modeled kind and supportive academic relationships; they showed us that academia did not have to be cutthroat and competitive, we could champion each other and celebrate successes.

The most enduring lesson I learned from Susan was how to be a thoughtful, engaged scholar. Susan was a serious, prolific scholar, but she was also an activist. She understood the power of knowledge and expertise and believed we could leverage our research to shed light on the nature and production of global inequality. As a scholar of International Political Economy, Susan’s research on intellectual property, access to medicines, and multi-national corporations revealed the power of private authority in shaping the provision of public goods, the use and misuse of this power, and who wins and who loses in the global economy. She showed us how the misalignment between private interests and the provision of public goods like healthcare, impeded an effective response to COVID-19 and produced inequitable outcomes for the precariat, communities of color, and countries in the ‘Global South.’ Her more recent work on 21st Century Capitalism and the processes of financialization and Wall Street capitalism that have fundamentally restructured global markets in favor of private interests, serves as a clear analytical roadmap for diagnosing and remedying structural inequalities in the global economy.

Susan was guided by a strong moral imperative to understand the nature of global inequality and spoke truth to power, calling out Big Pharma, the billionaire class, and Wall Street for the pernicious effects of their practices on the lives of everyday people. She engaged in the policy community, serving on the Board of Directors of Intellectual Property Watch and regularly consulted with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). She modeled how to build a research agenda around social justice concerns, challenging assumptions in the discipline, and revealing the dark side of economic liberalization in a period when economic globalization was uncritically championed and touted as a panacea for global poverty. (Her episode on Global Governance Futures is brilliant). Her career was built around this broader purpose to make the world somehow better for millions of people. I entered graduate school after having worked for NGOs and was keenly interested in both theory and policy. Susan showed me it was possible to do both; that we could both analyze and expose the dark side of global governance and still believe that global solidarity is possible and work to make it a reality.

Our rowdy viewing of Debbi’s speech ended in a big hug; I still cannot believe it was the last. Thank you for sharing your intellectual prowess and advocacy with the world Susan, we will continue to speak truth to power.