Monthly Archives: June 2013

Blogosphere Round-up II: Kenneth Waltz, Rational Choice, People Power and Self-Promotion

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!

New Article in Millennium: Structural Inequality, Quasi-rents 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.

* I wouldn’t necessarily agree on this point, and there are some great counterexamples. But that’s the charge that has to be fought in order to make some headway.

A Storm of Scholars

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.

Taksim and Tiananmen: Some Thoughts on Popular Protest

teargasleapI 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.