Monthly Archives: March 2013

Two Boosts for Elitism

As every first year politics undergraduate will be aware, once upon a time there was a debate within political sociology between elitists and pluralists. Elitists in political sociology, represented by scholars such as C Wright Mills, argued that political institutions exhibit a systemic bias in favour of certain dominant groups within society, i.e. the ruling classes. Pluralists, such as Robert Dahl, argued that no one set of organised interest groups could maintain permanent control of the political process within modern democracies.

Events over the past decade make pluralism seem rather prima facie implausible. One would certainly want some strong evidence to support such a claim during a period of increasing inequality and displacement of the costs of risks taken by globalised financial sectors onto general publics.

Instead, there seems to be mounting evidence from political science – where a basically pluralist outlook tends to dominate – that the elitist theory provides an accurate account of the current state of politics in the OECD. Via Kevin Drum a summary of a pilot survey by Page and Bartels that suggests that the policy preferences of US politicians seem to track the policy preferences of the wealthy much more closely than those of average citizens. Via Chris Dillow a recent paper by Torija that argues that politicians of all major parties work to maximise the preference-satisfaction of the top few percentiles of the income distribution. He argues that this is a new phenomenon that has arisen since the 1970s, which is interesting as it suggests that the problem is less ‘structural’ and intrinsic to capitalist democracies than ‘conjunctural’ and reflecting recent historical circumstances.

What relevance is all of this to international relations? Well, it gives a boost to more elitist/structuralist theories of international relations and foreign policy such as neo-Gramscianism (Robert Cox, Stephen Gill), and might undermine some of the complacency of pluralist theories such as ‘new liberalism’ that regard states as neutral agents that act on behalf of shifting coalitions of social actors.

Tom Holland on ‘A Game of Thrones’

The ‘Game of Thrones’ series has provoked interest and discussion by IR scholars since it originally premièred – Charli Carpenter providing what were probably the most interesting and perceptive analysis of the series through the lens of IR theory. Whilst many people made good points and fair criticisms in those discussions (many of which apply with full force to the series but less so to the books themselves), I think that Tom Holland really has his finger on the pulse of the series in this article, emphasising the parallels between events in the saga and the historical realities of the bloody business of kingmaking and medieval statecraft. It’s the verisimilitude with the oppressive, patriarchal and violent era which inspires it that sets GoTs apart from the sanitised romantic fantasy that is often served up within the genre. Holland isn’t reserved with his praise:

The result, paradoxically, is that there are sequences where the invented world of Westeros can seem more realistic than the evocations of the past to be found in many a historical novel. No fiction set in the 14th century, for instance, has ever rivalled the portrayal in Game of Thrones of what, for a hapless peasantry, the ambitions of rival kings were liable to mean in practice: the depredations of écorcheurs; rape and torture; the long, slow agonies of famine. The pleasures of historical fiction and of authentic, adrenaline-charged suspense, of not knowing who will triumph and who will perish, have never before been so brilliantly combined. Imagine watching a drama set in the wars of the roses, or at the court of Henry VIII, and having absolutely no idea what is due to happen. No wonder Game of Thrones has been such a success – and that historians can relish it as much as anyone.

Cyprus and the Money Illusion

A bit late in the day to comment on the situation in Cyprus, but the fiasco provides an interesting example of what behavioural economists call ‘the money illusion’. The money illusion refers to the phenomena that most people, most of the time evaluate alternative outcomes in terms of nominal currency values rather than in the real value, the purchasing power of a currency. The money illusion was pretty central to Keynes’s approach. He argued that workers are more resistant to nominal wage cuts than real wage cuts, with significant consequences for unemployment and recovery from recession. Keynes’s folk psychology has been backed up by research in behavioural economics that provides evidence that individuals judge alternatives using fixed reference points such as nominal monetary values. So workers might well accept below inflation pay rises (real wage cuts) but respond with industrial action or withdrawal of effort in response to equivalent nominal pay cuts. Behavioural economists have connected these tendencies to widespread psychological biases that predispose people to treat losses very differently from gains.

Cyprus provides an example of how strongly people react to monetary losses. It is one thing for savings to lose their real value year on year due to imported inflation and ultra-loose monetary policy. It’s quite another to start knocking digits off personal savings accounts. People might grumble and complain about the former, but it isn’t perceived as directly confiscatory in the way that the latter is. Add to this the indignation that populations across the OECD have felt about the prospect of paying for the mistakes of others, violating a set of pretty basic norms about fairness and moral responsibility. Thus the furious response to the clueless bailout plan for Cyprus. Of course, this should have been obvious to everyone involved – it’s a testament to the disconnection between the worlds that elites and publics currently occupy that it appears not to have been.

Blogosphere Round-Up I: Ideas and Interests, Lyotard vs. Habermas Redux, Democide and Structural Violence

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been a bit busy submitting one journal article and revising another for publication. As a result I’ve gotten a bit behind with the blog. An empty page looks a bit daunting when you are out of the groove. So I’m going to do a bumper round-up of interesting debates on various blogs that have caught my interest over the past week:

There was a very interesting discussion of the role of ideas and interests in sustaining the policies of austerity over at Crooked Timber. The comments thread was particularly excellent, with commentators providing some excellent reasons why a hard distinction between ideas and interests is difficult to sustain. I particularly liked the  points made by Rich Puchalsky, who pointed out that if good-faith belief in a set of ideas motivated agents we would expect them to change their beliefs and actions when those ideas were demonstrated to be weak. This isn’t what we find with regards to austerity.  Also excellent was the distinction Peter Dorman made between four possible mechanisms for how ideas can arise from interests. This is the kind of high-level debate which, in all honesty, is often too difficult and time-consuming to find within the traditional structures of academia.

Second, I somehow managed to miss a spat from last October that span out of discussion of a review by Corey Robin of Daniel Rodger’s Age of Fracture. Nils Gilman, the author of an excellent book on the role of modernisation theory in US foreign policy, endorsed the view expressed in Age of Fracture that the 1980s and 1990s intellectual trend of post-modernism shared a great deal with the reactionary, individualist spirit of that era. This provoked Adam Rothstein to offer a rebuttal in an attempt to acquit post-modernism of the charges against it. He makes the fair point that we should properly distinguish between post-modernity and post-structuralism – the latter was developed as an attempt to make sense of the former and so can hardly be held accountable for it. As an intellectual historian, Gilman was able to provide a compelling contextualisation of post-modernism as a broad intellectual trend that helped to undermine the intellectual basis for collective action as well as, in its vulgarised forms, provide a ready-made set of anti-scientific arguments  for the political right. For my money, Gilman has the better of this one. The mini-debate was, as Gilman noted, a rerun of earlier Habermas vs. Lyotard/Foucault arguments. The problem with Rothstein’s attempted rebuttal, in addition to its descent into hyperbolic polemic in the last paragraphs, is that he doesn’t seem to realise the shape of the battle-lines. He rightly notes that post-modernism/post-structuralism was not just the product of the Reagan era, but had deeper roots in the 19th ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. But he doesn’t seem to realise that many have criticised Ricouer’s categorisation. Specifically, Marx can be interpreted as a theorist of depth whilst Nietzsche can be seen as a theorist of surfaces: the former is concerned with the way that appearances mask reality whilst the latter holds that it is masks all the way down. Simplifying massively, the latter position is more or less that held by contemporary post-structuralists, whilst the former is hewed to by Western Marxists and Critical Theorists. This is why the two camps of theorists have been at contretemps so often and why people in the latter camp such as Terry Eagleton had such a low view of the general post-modernist trend. Rothstein wants to have his cake and each it, he conflates two very different positions: there is an objective reality which appearances misrepresent; there is no objective reality, just an ever-shifting array of interpretations which have real social effects. If you’re going to make a stab at defending post-modernism, actually defend post-modernism.

Third, Martin Hewson has continued a discussion we began in the comments thread for my post on Django regarding genocide and mass-killing. I think he pretty much hits the nail on the head, but I’m less sceptical about the idea that poverty might be considered structural violence under certain circumstances – especially given the sliding scale between economic warfare and less direct imposition of conditions of economic deprivation.

Is there any link between these three topics? Well, maybe my interest in these three discussions arises from an issue I’ve been pondering since the Millennium Journal of International Studies conference last year: how best to work towards contributing to a non-dogmatic, analytically rigorous materialist account of world politics.

The Papacy in World System History

So, the world has a new pope. Coming from Argentina, Pope Francis I seems to be the first pope from the global South. Arguably, he’s the first pope from what some call the ‘semi-periphery’ – middle income nations that play an intermediate role in the world economy. I suppose though that it could be argued that Poland was part of the semi-periphery, but that depends on whether we regard the communist block as being part of the world economy or standing outside of it and opposed to it. I also have to admit that I’m not sure about the precise geographical parameters of the semi-periphery in the late classical or dark ages. I don’t think Immanuel Wallerstein saw the world-system of modern capitalism stretching that far back in time, as according to his account the capitalist world-system began in the 16th Centruy.

In any case, the papacy has been analysed within the context of the historical world system by Robert Denemark, who’s opposed to Wallerstein’s periodisation as well as other attempts to organise history according to transitions between epochs. According to Denemark, there were no clear patterns to changes in the class origins of popes during the whole period in which the capitalist world-system is supposed to have been emerging and the periods in which industrialism, modern nations, states and classes arose. Denemark suggests that talk of great transitions is bunk, supporting Frank’s view that world system history is best understood in terms of continuity and cylical repetition. Interesting, but isn’t it possible that this only shows the power of the Vatican and the Catholic Church as organisations capable of insulating themselves from external social pressures?

The historical significance of a pope from the global South (but still very much of the West) is left as an excercise for the reader… and countless op ed columnists I’m sure!