The advantage of teaching very different subjects is that it draws your attention to strange contrasts and parallels across the social world and human history. 1645, China:
“They sharpened their hoes into swords, and they took to themselves the title of ‘Levelling Kings’, declaring that they were levelling the distinction between masters and serfs, titled and mean, rich and poor… “They tied the masters to pillars and flogged them with whips and with the lashes of bamboo…They would slap them across the cheeks and say: ‘We are all of us equally men. What right had you to cal us serfs? From now on it is going to be the other way around!’”
Mark Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past 1973
Meanwhile, there was levelling going on in England
“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under”
Col. Rainsborough at the Putney debates 1947
Was the outbreak of ‘levelling’ at the opposite ends of Eurasia in the mid-C17th a coincidence? Presumably, I don’t know of any deep, structural process hypothesised by world historians or historical sociologists that would link the two episodes – it seems like a bit of a stretch. But the similarities tempt an explanation.
As I am incredibly busy I didn’t expect to write another post, but I want to note further excellent contributions to the ‘End of IR Theory’ symposium at the Duck of Minerva (previous posts here and here). Arlene Tickner argues that
core-periphery like logics similar to those described by world-system and dependency theory in the 1960s and 1970s are still operational in multiple spheres of (globalized) human activity, including knowledge building. International Relations (IR) is no exception.
This pattern is resistant to change, not least because
Strategies that acknowledge and embrace diversity are inadequate too because scientific cores are hard-pressed to recognize non-Western or Southern intellectual contributions as equals without undermining their own power, privilege and place in the world knowledge chain.
‘World knowledge chain’ implies that this feature of the IR discipline is but one facet of a wider pattern of asymmetric social organisation. But Tickner nonetheless claims that
Terms such as core and periphery (or third world) are largely passé, and may even be conceptually and heuristically objectionable on the grounds that they are rooted in dichotomous language that reproduces power differentials between diverse actors and sites around the world.
It seems odd for Tickner to describe the terms ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ as passé (although I agree that ‘Third World’ refers to a very specific conjuncture in world politics that has now passed) when her own argument appeals to ‘core-periphery like logics similar to those described by world-system and dependency theory’. What’s the difference between a core-periphery logic and a core-periphery like logic? In a superb, and beautifully written, response Inayatullah sketches the details of the political economy ‘implied’ by Tickner’s piece:
It is worth noting that under capitalism the competitive process requires all corporations to have research and development (R&D) facilities. The stream of capital dedicated to R&D is subsidized by the state, promoted by the military, and enriched by colleges and universities. Colleges and universities provide the training for future corporate employees, provide junior candidates for those jobs, and serve as incubators for social and technical innovations. Intensive and extensive cultivation of knowledge serves as the fuel for innovation – the driving force of capitalism. As participants in the discipline of IR, we are not passive bystanders in the accumulation process.
Why then does Tickner hesitate to actually embrace the wider structuralist perspective her contribution implies (and contributes to)? In part it seems to be her opposition to ‘dichotomous language that reproduces power differentials between diverse actors and sites around the world’. These concerns are widely held, but I would argue that some of the antipathy towards dichotomy is misplaced. It is very difficult to reveal, analyse and critique inequalities without drawing dichotomous distinctions. Identifying the location of power doesn’t necessarily contribute to its reproduction, sometimes quite the opposite. But these are issues that would have to be treated at greater length.
In any case, Inayatullah invites readers to un-forget the process by which concepts such as core and periphery were erased from disciplinary debates in favour of a concern with representation and social construction. For a brief period, core-periphery relations were the subject of major scholarly attention as dependency theory reached its apex. But
It wasn’t long before it was shelved in the curio cabinet. Caporaso himself was one of the few who soberly assessed the situation: Dependency Theory, he claimed, had died from neglect, not from critique.
Consider, in contrast, the case of what we call “Constructivism.” Not what emerged from Nick Onuf’s work but from Alex Wendt’s. Reflexivity? Dialectical sophistication? An awareness of the meta issues – ontology? epistemology? How shall we name that moment in the late 1980s and early 1990s when someone came up from the basement and said, “Hey, look what I/we found?” The result twenty years later: a booming mass-production of constructivism – the new liberalism, same as the old liberalism.
Reading Inayatullah’s post, it’s hard not to regret the unmet promise of that period of intense scholarly debate about core-periphery relations (it seems very strange to feel nostalgic about something I never experienced, but Inayatullah’s post really is well written). Caporaso’s assessment is accurate, dependency theory has a lot of weaknesses, but this was not why it was abandoned. As I noted in a previous publication, compare its fate to the benefit of the doubt that was extended to neo-realism after the end of the Cold War.
In the social sciences, if theories are to survive they need to be constantly updated and elaborated – reassembled mid-sea, with non-functioning parts thrown overboard and theoretical coastlines raided for new supplies. To contribute to contemporary debates in the IR discipline, which are increasingly focused on middle-range theory, remaining relevant requires a relentless focus on mechanisms and their interaction. But theorists also need to remain aware of the process of disciplinary forgetting that Inayatullah highlights, which – as argued by Arena in his comment on a contribution by Lake to the Duck symposium – in its latest incarnation has enabled scholars to represent the core assumptions of liberal international theory as neutral and non-paradigmatic. I’ve attempted to make my own contribution to a renewed analysis of systemic inequalities in world politics, but the path to theory (especially critical theory) is long and we in the discipline are prone to forgetfulness.
Duck of Minerva is currently running a symposium on ‘The End of IR Theory’. Yesterday I wrote a post on Bennett’s contribution and Goddard’s response. Chris Brown’s post also caught my interest, so I thought I’d offer a few comments.
In addition to being one of the people most directly responsible for bringing normative concerns back into international relations and establishing international political theory as a sub-field in its own right, Brown has established a niche for himself as something like a curator of contemporary international relations theory, having penned several overviews of the state of the discipline over the years. In the latest installment he seems as cautious and ambivalent about the achievements within international relations theory as he was in a 2007 article and when I saw him speak at the SGIR conference in 2010. In his latest contribution, he focuses on the question of whether ‘later modern theory’ (post-structuralism, critical theory etc.) has made good on the ‘promissory notes’ it issued in the 1980s and 90s. Overall, his judgement is fairly negative. Much sophisticated work has been done in this area, but it has remained ‘Grand Theory’ in C Wright Mills’ pejorative sense: focusing on the relationship between concepts rather than the application of those concepts to thorny social and political problems.
‘Problems’ are important in Brown’s article and accompanying article. He suggests that the more interesting work done within more mainstream currents of international relations theory has been worthwhile precisely because it has been fairly hard-headed ‘problem solving theory’ in Cox’s sense of the term in an era when the US government seemed to be in the grip of a strange right-wing variant of post-modernism that denied any objective limits on American power to reshape the world. I seem to recall that at a previous BISA conference he suggested that haute IR theory had become sophisticated but risked becoming arcane, perhaps he now believes this has come to pass. He thus calls for ‘critical problem-solving theory’ focusing on searching for solutions to the problems facing the marginal and the vulnerable in world politics – presumably, given his choice of examples, focusing on the extremes of physical and economic insecurity.
It’s hard to completely disagree with his judgement that a research programme has been slow to emerge amongst the ‘late modern’ perspectives. I wrote my MA thesis on the relevance of Adorno and the Frankfurt School for international relations theory, but I ultimately found that these conceptual frameworks did not have the purchase on the empirical (and some of the normative) questions I was interested in. I have found historical sociology and political economy to be much more useful. But maybe Brown’s skepticism about the absence of a research programme is too thoroughgoing: Columba Peoples drew on the Frankfurt School in his well-regarded analysis of US missile defence policy.
On the issue of ‘problem solving’, I wonder if Brown doesn’t stack the decks against critical theory. Mainstream theories have it easy, in some respects, as they have a clear addressee: those who currently wield power in international relations. This was part of the definition of Cox’s idea of problem-solving theory, it takes the currently configurations of power for granted and tacitly accepts the legitimacy of the present power-holders. The existence of ‘reality-based’ US politicians waiting in the wings during the Bush administration gave the mainstream ‘problem solvers’ a set of agents who might very plausibly put their proposed solutions into action. The difficulty for ‘critical theory’ is that it lacks access to equivalent agents, indeed part of the purpose of ‘critical theory’ is to help create an agent capable of bringing about radical change (Gramsci’s ‘modern Prince’). Unfortunately for critical theorists, labour movement is at present very weak in much of the Western world, depriving critical theory of a plausible potential agent of radical change. Notions of the ‘multitude’ remain fairly dubious, the ‘late modern’ contribution to the vacuous field of globalisation theory. This problem of absent agents (the ‘death of the subject’ if you really want to get late modern, I won’t judge) leaves critical theory spinning its wheels, with little torque exerted on pressing political problems. Milja Kurki wrote an insightful article in Millennium in 2011 on the problems currently that critical theory currently faces in its attempt to find influence inside and outside of the academy, I can’t help but think that the lack of agents is the root of the problems that she and Brown identify.
As for the nature of contemporary problems and the scholars who might address them, I agree with LFC’s point in the comments that a central problem faced by the dispossessed throughout the world is poverty and maldevelopment. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, such intensely political issues are at risk of being defined as outside the remit of IR due to the rather ridiculous barrier that has emerged between IR and IPE. Indeed, I’d argue that it is in IPE and development/heterodox economics that we find ‘critical-problem solving’ research seeking to address the tangible problems of poverty and inequality by refusing the solutions and explanations advanced by the powerful. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Ha-Joon Chang, Robert Wade, Peter Evans and Raphael Kaplinsky – but there are many others. As for agents, looking towards the democratic representatives of those who are marginal in the world economy might be a good start: Lula for one seems to have a keen understanding of both the structures of power that maintain global inequalities, as well as the concrete potentials for the amelioration and transformation of some of the least desirable aspects of the present world order.
Duck of Minerva, increasingly well-established as the nexus of academic IR online, is hosting a symposium on the ‘The End of IR Theory?’ special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. Lots of interesting posts so far, including one by Mearsheimer and Walt in defence of bold ‘big picture’ grand theorising. Also interesting is Bennett’s take, in which he calls for ‘structured pluralism’ focusing on causal mechanism rather than unproductive inter-’paradigm’ debate between -isms. Goddard (who co-wrote what to my mind is one of the best discussions of Waltz in the literature) offers a sympathetic critique, arguing that the pluralism that Bennett advocates might not be all that easy to achieve in practice – as scholars cannot just suspend their pre-established beliefs and reach for the most appropriate mechanisms from a common toolbox when tackling a given problem of explanation. She also defends the pedagogical relevance of introducing students to argument over big ideas in world politics, ‘the lifeblood of the paradigmatic debates’. An overriding focus on the minutiae of mechanisms and nuance of particular theories could result in such a focus being lost.
There’s lots and lots to agree with in this two posts, both on the importance of causal mechanisms for research and advanced-level teaching as well as the relevance of ‘big ideas’ for getting students and aspiring scholars interested in the subject (and let’s be honest, this is why people choose to study and aspire to become scholars of international relations in the first place). In Bennett’s article he makes the important point that
Middle-range theories are not just theories about individual causal mechanisms, but theories about how combinations of mechanisms interact in specified and often recurrent scope conditions or contexts to produce outcomes (p. 470)
This I think provides a bridge from the debate over causal mechanisms within international relations theory to causal mechanisms as understood by historical sociologists such as Charles Tilly (see my post from last year). A central tenet of historical sociology, as I understand it, is that one can indeed locate recurrent causal mechanisms across time and space – but they combine and interact with each other in very different, historically specific ways. So scholars searching for trans-historical covering laws are on a hiding-to-nothing, but – against strongly idiographic approaches that see every historical period, every cultural context as sui generis and incomparable in its uniqueness – we can engage in careful comparisons and draw attention to recurrent sets of causal mechanisms. This is, I think, what Mann means in the later volumes of The Sources of Social Power when he describes the ambitions of his project as lying somewhere between those of Marx and those of Weber.
I’m uncertain, however, about certain aspects of Bennett’s taxonomy of theories of social mechanisms. One dimension of this taxonomy distinguishes between material power, institutional efficiency and normative legitimacy – mirroring the distinction between realism, liberalism and constructivism that seems to have become the orthodox trinity of theories in US IR. I wonder if this set of distinctions leaves room for ideas of social power, as employed by historical sociologists such as Mann. ‘Material power’ implies raw, unsocialised power – what Arendt refused to call power proper but instead termed violence. Institutional efficiency brings to mind Pareto efficiency, discussion of which obscures consideration of inequality and power – as argued by Sen. Mann’s idea of social power involves social organisation (institutions in the broad sense) but involves recognition of the ability of those at the apex of social organization to ‘outflank’ subordinate actors. This kind of power isn’t ‘material’ as such, and it doesn’t really relate to the question of efficiency among institutions. Mann’s notion of social power is quite close to the idea of structural power as employed in Barnett and Duvall’s influential article on concepts of power in IR theory. I’d suggest, therefore, that it’s omission from Bennett’s typology limits this version of ‘structured pluralism’ to some degree.
It has been an age since the last post. This is because I found myself a job for the coming academic year and as a result have been working flat out to prepare a slate of lectures and make sure I’m really on top of the material. I’m really looking forward to getting back to teaching though, especially as the topics I’ll be covering are democratisation, empire and globalisation – three areas where I can draw on the rich scholarship of historical sociology.
Since the last post I made, the situation in Egypt has deteriorated further. The revolution seems to be witnessing its Thermidor, although order looks like it is a long way from being restored.
Luttwak’s name keeps cropping up everywhere I look. Here’s some intriguing comments he made a few years ago about everyone’s favourite pre-socratic philosopher, Heraclitus:
“Men do not understand . . . [the coincidence of opposites]: there is a ‘back-stretched connection’ like that of the bow.” Thus Herakleitos or Heraclitus of Ephesus, thought very obscure by the ancients, but for us entirely transparent after the experience of the paradoxes of nuclear deterrence, whereby the peaceful had to be constantly ready to attack in retaliation, aggressors had to be meekly prudent, and nuclear weapons could be useful only if they were not used. Deterrence unveiled for all to see the paradoxical logic of strategy with its apparent contradictions, turning the “back-stretched” connection that unites opposites into a commonplace, except for those incurable innocents who fail to see that safety could be the sturdy child of terror.
With that, Herakleitos, the first Western strategic thinker… was finally vindicated, though long before him many a cunning fighter had won by instinctively applying the paradoxical logic to surprise his enemy, a thing possible only when the better ways of fighting, hence the expected ways, are deliberately renounced.
From The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Did Heraclitus really anticipate mixed strategy Nash equilibria? I’m not entirely sure. My favourite fragment from Heraclitus is ‘The sun will not overstep his bounds, for if he does, the Erinyes, helpers of justice, will find him out’. The arresting image of the furies exacting retribution on the sun hints, I think, at the hidden relationship between our notions of causal necessity and moral obligation.
More blogging soon.
Jamie over at Blood & Treasure has argued that actions by the Egyptian military are consistent with the advice given in Luttwak’s Coup D’Etat: A Practical Handbook. The book had been on my ‘to read’ pile for a very long time, so in the context of current events I decided to take a serious look at Luttwak’s manual. It’s very informative so far (although a bit outdated due to the advance of communications technology and the socio-economic changes that have affected much of the global South). But I think Jamie is wrong about event’s in Egypt being a textbook Luttwakian coup. According to Luttwak:
A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control over the remainder
Rather, what has occurred is closest to what Luttwak calls a Pronunciamiento.
In its original ninetheeth-century Spanish version this was a highly ritualised process: first came the trabajos (literally the ‘works’) in which the opinions of army officers were sounded. The next step was the compromisos, in which commitments were made and rewards promised; then came the call for action, and, finally, the appeal to the troops to follow the officers in rebellion against the government…the theoretical purpose of the takeover was to ascertain [sic?] the ‘national will’ … unlike the putsch, which is carried out by a faction within the army, or the coup, which can be carried out by civilians using some army units, the pronunciamiento leads to a takeover by the army as a whole.
This seems like a reasonably good fit for what has occurred in Egypt over the past week. As others have suggested, the relevant comparisons to the Egyptian situation might be pre-2002 Turkey, Thailand, and some C20th Latin American regimes where the army regarded itself as having a supra-legal duty to intervene in politics for the good of the nation. The Thai case is relevant because of the apparent support of members of the urban middle class for the 2006 military curtailment of electoral democracy. In fairness, this is not necessarily a scenario that Egypt’s secular democrats ever wanted to find themselves in – three-corner political struggles generate strange situations like this.
I’ve read a series of things recently that made me want to write something, but that probably wouldn’t support a full blog post. So here’s another round of discussions going on that are in some way relevant to past posts on this blog.
- via Martin Hewson/Breviosity, here’s an article by Ian Clarke on the significance of Waltz contribution to international relations theory. I agree with the opinion expressed over at Breviosity that, although Waltz gave realism a second lease of life, debates in IR might have actually turned out fairly similar even without Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. I think, however, that ToIP has helped tie the discipline together by providing different theoretical perspectives (as well as some atheoretical perspectives) a common foil (I think Wohlforth has argued something similar).
- There’s been a very interesting debate over on the Duck of Minerva about rational choice theory and whether it conceives of actors as autonomous from their environments (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This debate is of especially interest because I’m reading a book by Jon Elster (philosopher of science and advocate turned critic of rational choice theory) that is specifically concerned with methodological individualism and the way in which we different kinds of relations amongst actors should be characterised. I might write a short post on this topic soon. Over on the comments thread at Howl at Pluto I took issue with Jackson’s Kantian-Weberian characterisation of moral decision making during the course of this debate. From memory and from the bits and pieces I’ve read more recently, I don’t think contemporary political philosophers/philosophers of action draw such a sharp distinction between ‘value-rational’ and instrumental action.
- The wave of popular protests against the world continues to rumble on, prompting attempts to explain the connections between the events as well as derision of some of those attempts (I’ve commented on the Blood and Treasure post). In the course of reading round this topic, I’ve discovered the really rather good Political Violence @ A Glance blog (which provides interesting analysis of some of the facets of protests in Brazil and Turkey).
- Via a Tweet by Pablo K, I discovered that my article in Millennium and the rest of the pretty damn interesting special edition on ‘Materialism and World Politics’ is currently open access. It’s never been easier or cheaper to read my thoughts on the connection between global inequality, labour markets and the democratic peace!
An article I wrote was published a week last Friday in a special edition of Millennium: Journal of International Studies focusing on the topic of Materialism and World Politics. The special edition features papers presented at the rather excellent two-day conference at the LSE in October 2012, including my own. The title of my article is ‘ Structural Inequality, Quasi-rents and the Democratic Peace: A Neo-Ricardian Analysis of International Order’. Here’s the abstract:
This article employs the neo-Ricardian concept of quasi-rents – temporary above-market returns – to vindicate the structuralist claim that patterns of international order are shaped by global inequality and the transnational division of labour. Developing a framework linking the distribution of quasi-rents within the global economy to the process of class formation, the article examines the implications for the influential ‘social market democracy’ explanation of the democratic peace. It argues that the democratic peace is in part predicated on the quasi-rents enjoyed by substantial sections of the workforces of the ‘core’ advanced industrial states. Such a political economy provides the foundations for a ‘social market democracy’ in which economic security can be enjoyed by substantial sections of the population, giving rise to the system of values on which the democratic peace rests. Thus, present patterns of international order result from a historically specific unequal distribution of quasi-rents within the world economy.
The abstract is somewhat technical, due to the need to locate the article in ongoing theoretical debates in less than 150 words. For the non-initiated, here’s what the article seeks to accomplish: Structuralism is a materialist theory of international relations which focuses on asymmetric relationships beyond the nation-state and how they result in global patterns of inequality. Structuralism has lost favour in international relations theory, partly because scholars feel it doesn’t have much to say about core issues of international politics such as authority, order and the use of organised violence*. This article seeks to present a fresh defence of structuralist arguments, arguing that patterns of war and peace may in fact be linked to patterns of global inequality and the organisation of the global division of labour. It does this by engaging with an influential position in the debate over the ‘democratic peace’ (the observed regularity that democracies very rarely engage in inter-state war with one another), Michael Mousseau’s ‘social market’ theory. He argues that peaceful, human rights-respecting values become dominant when large numbers of individuals in a society can enjoy economic security when they participate in the market. When markets do not provide economic security, those peaceful values will be weakened.
In the paper I investigate the circumstances under which markets may provide economic security, drawing on the labour market sociology of Aage Sorensen. He argued that individuals enjoy security when they occupy certain semi-insulated niches within labour markets, such as within occupationalised careers or professions. The ‘rungs’ of the ‘ladders’ of such internal job markets provide a greater degree of security than fluctating, unfettered markets. These niches arise out of the process of bargaining over quasi-rents, temporary returns above the normal market rate for an economic resource such as land, labour or capital. The local availability of quasi-rents will therefore determine the ability of actors in a common economic position (members of a class, if you like) to establish themselves within a niche in the labour market. The article uses research from the global value-chains literature to analyse some of the features of the distribution of quasi-rents. Until recently, the lion’s share of quasi-rents were located in the advanced industrialised North due to the compounded technological advantages of the early industrialisers. Economic actors in the global South found themselves stuck in industries producing generic products and were forced to compete on price.
But the new global division of labour has shaken this picture up. Many economic actors in the global South still lack access to quasi-rents and find themselves squeezed by large multinational buyers that control supply chains. But in other parts of the world, SE Asia and the S American cone for example, the shift in manufacturing capacity from the North may have led to opportunities to bargain for quasi-rents. Workers in the North, however, have been fighting a rearguard action to protect their niches within labour markets and defend systems of social welfare and insurance. Employers in the North have, due to a conjuncture of political, economic and technological factors, gotten much better at eliminating their workers from shares of quasi-rents. This seems to have led markets to become much more fluid, ‘flexible’ is the preferred term. But as Sorensen argued, freer markets might mean more insecure lives. More insecure lives might mean weaker support for pacific, liberal values. Of course, pacific values might actually strengthen amongst the new industrialisers in the global South. The point is that there are a set of compelling reasons, based on established empirical literatures within three different disciplines, to believe that the democratic peace is in fact underpinned by the specifics of the present global division of labour. This means that structuralism really does have something big and important to contribute to debates in international relations theory and the study of international security.
That’s the gist of the article (reversing the structure of the argument), but the real thing really attempts to nail down each step and present a rigorous, plausible restatement of structuralism using the idea of quasi-rents. I’m really happy with how the paper turned out and delighted to be part of what looks like a great issue of Millennium.
What do international relations scholars love more than anything else? That’s right, arguing about cult TV series! Here’s Pablo K’s contribution to the long running discussion of Game of Thrones, looking at power, ideology and gender roles in the latest season. I stick my oar in further down in the comments. Condensed version of my comment: some of his critique goes a bit far, GoT is necessarily limited by its genre (European medieval fantasy) but is more compelling than much generic fantasy. It’s compelling precisely because of its relatively authentic portrayal of feudal/dynastic society, which means it can’t explore some of the radical social alternatives that Pablo K would like to see examined. For that, you’re best off with science fiction, speculative fiction or slipstream.
I don’t know a great deal about Turkey, so I’ve been relying on accounts that I’ve been informed are reliable in order to stay abreast of the events spiralling out of the protest at Gezi Park. Well written analyses include this, this and this. Paul Mason continues his reports from the barricades, making some interesting (and potentially quite worrying) parallels to the Paris Commune. A consensus on a first-draft analysis seems to have emerged: the mass protests have been driven by the secular, urban middle class frustrated at the high-handedness of a provincial, neoliberal, moderate Islamist party that has governed for a decade in a majoritarian fashion. Without the alternation of power and with effective opposition to speak on their behalf due to a fragmented , people have taken to the streets. This, at least, seems to be the emerging picture provided by those who actually know about the context. At the time of writing, AKP politicians seem to moving towards a conciliatory stance but protests continue.
The events have a special resonance (not noted by the media) seeing as yesterday just past was the 24th anniversary of the massacre of protesters in Beijing (a harrowing eyewitness account recommended by Jamie bloodandtreasure argues that very little of the massacre actually took place in Tiananmen Square). Maybe I’m just unusual in making a connection between the two events – however imperfect, Turkey is a democracy and however heavy handed the Turkish police may be, the tanks and automatic weapons haven’t been turned on protesters. But recalling Tiananmen in the context of Taksim Square highlights the common playbook of popular revolutions: capture of a public square by a vanguard of young educated activists, the brokering of bridges between these activists and the urban working class, and the physical interposition of the bodies of the protesters in the way of violence directed at them by the security forces, thus weakening the regime’s legitimacy. This alliance between socio-economic classes (and the social aspect is important here, protesters are often able to enlist support from sections of the working class not only due to the economic location of the latter but because of their embeddedness in urban communities with whom protesters may establish links) remains central to popular protest and the process of democratisation even today. It’s therefore pretty significant that at least one major union has thrown its support behind the protests. For all the overheated blather about social media, disruptive technology, globalisation, network society (anyone remember when Castells was the theoretical bees knees?), the multitude and so on, the classic lexicon of political sociology remains relevant. Events in Turkey readily suggest an old fashioned analysis in terms of urban-rural/secular-religious political cleavages, class, power elites and the ‘mobilisation of bias’ by the state (although I admit that critical geography might have a fair bit to say about the politics of urban space in the context of the current saga).
A corollary of this is that supposedly obsolescent strategies of political organisation aimed at building mass democratic movements on the basis of broad commonalities between large numbers of disenfranchised actors, implied by quaint notions like ‘the labour movement’, might actually have some life in them. So, in addition to startling photos of photogenic women in fashionable clothes leaping over teargas cannisters, the protests in Turkey provide plenty to reflect upon regarding power, protest and political contention.