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.


Posted on June 17, 2013, in democratic peace, development, historical sociology, inequality, international relations, political economy, political order, publications and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Very interesting piece. I learned a lot about three literatures I wasn’t familiar with. The main thing that occurred to me is: How can anyone fail to be interested in why some parts of the world are rich and some are not, as well as why some are relatively pacified and some are less so?

    Protection (or quasi-rent) arguably is *the* basic interest and desire of the working class — to protect itself from the vagaries of the labour market. Unfortunately, as you point out a lot of that protection has been rolled back of late. The idea of a global labour market is a grim dystopia. As you say, democratic values would not likely survive long. The nation-state itself, and its immigration controls, are a major bulwark against this dystopia.

    Reminded me a bit of early Robert Cox. In the preface to Production, Power and World Order, he says the book is one of a series of four about “modes of social relations of production”: PPWO itself, two by Jeffrey Harrod (one on unprotected workers and one on established workers), and one by Cox on the Soviet system (this last one never appeared).

  2. Thanks. I agree that immigration is a problematic issue for egalitarians, there is not an easy solution given that immigration is probably one of the most effective ways to improve the material conditions of particular individuals from the global South and thus combat global inequalities (as argued by Milanovic for example). But yes, movement towards relaxation of restrictions on migration is part of a general process (project?) of removing the protections enjoyed by working people in the industrialised North. Promoting policies that actually help achieve conditions of economic security in the global South might be a good step though.

    Thanks for the tip about Jeffrey Harrod, I will certainly take a look at his work and other early contributions to the neo-Gramscian perspective. Subsequently, I think, the neo-Gramscians shifted some of their emphasis to ideologies, transnational elites and ‘resistance’ in the form of global justice campaigns, the World Social Forum and so on. However I think the pendulum has swung back a bit in this sub-field of research, for example Worth and Moore’s work is more traditionally structuralist and focuses on class, labour relations and so on.

    I should note that other scholars who I’d classify as structuralist (such as Chase-Dunn) argued before I did that the democratic peace may well rest on the wider systemic conditions within the world economy. But this was previously raised as a possibility, whereas in the paper I’ve tried to specify a set of plausible and empirically supported mechanisms.

    I don’t know why people wouldn’t think issues of distribution are political (Laswell’s definition of politics remains compelling). But past feedback on papers I’ve received has queried the relevance of such issues to IR. I agree that it is absurd, but it is a challenge that a structuralism-influenced perspective has to meet if it is to gain traction in the discipline.

  3. I read that Wallerstein in his recent 4th volume seems to have tired of writing about cores, semiperipheries, and peripheries, grown weary of materialism, and now just concentrates upon the ideological superstructure (19th century liberalism). How odd, and indeed, how ironic.

    The structuralist I have learned most from is Stephen K. Sanderson. At one time he tried combining cultural materialism (Harris) with WSA. Now, he has added a bit of Darwinism. He calls it Darwinian Conflict Theory.

    Perhaps these are 2 data points in the divergence of structuralism into several new and distinct lineages.

  4. I can’t help but feel a bit sad hearing that Wallerstein has abandoned interest in the material underpinnings of global inequality. I remember that some of his ideas on cultural/ideological aspects of the ‘world-system’ were quite interesting, but at some point he stopped publishing his work through scholarly channels such as journals. As a result, both the cultural and material aspects stopped speaking to present debates and so were no longer able to meet the challenges of critics.

    Sanderson sounds like another interesting scholar I should read up on. Structuralism in combination with Harris’s cultural materialism sounds very interesting (I discovered Mousseau’s work because I read somewhere that it drew on Harris). Thanks for the tip.

  5. A few things:
    1) as N.L. knows, I am in the (slow) process of reading his Millennium article and eventually hope to do a blog post on it.

    2) I’ve heard of Sanderson and seen his work cited (by Charles Kupchan as it happens, who’s not at all a structuralist himself) but haven’t read him.

    3) Wallerstein has not abandoned interest in the material underpinnings of global inequality. That’s just wrong. As I understand it (from having looked, e.g., at Jennifer Pitts’ review of the book in New Left Review), the 4th volume of the MW-S does deal with the ideological or ‘geocultural’ (to use his term) aspects of 19th cent liberalism, but the 3rd vol (which I have read only bits of) deals with a lot of the same time period from the economic/material perspective. So the 4th vol examines the geocultural aspects of an era whose material underpinnings he had already dealt w, to a considerable extent, in vol.3. Wallerstein is open to criticism on several fronts, but having abandoned interest in the material underpinnings of global inequality is, I’m quite sure, not one of them. Breviosity is under a misimpression on this pt.

    Btw I saw from the recent ISA newsletter (which linked it) that the PEWS (Pol Ec of the World-System) section of the Am. Soc. Assn. is having its annual (I think it’s annual) mtg at the Univ of Pittsburgh and has a call for papers. Wallerstein is one of the keynote speakers with others TBA.

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