Category Archives: political order

H-Diplo Roundtable on Copeland’s Economic Interdependence and War

H-Diplo has published a very interesting roundtable on Dale Copeland’s book Economic Interdependence and War. I’d already noted the book as potentially worth a read, as it’s a major recent contribution to the long-standing debate on the relationship between geopolitics and economic interdependence – a topic that many great scholars from Waltz to Arrighi to Modelski have attempted to make sense of. But in the roundtable, it’s noted that Copeland is self-consciously working in the tradition of Kennedy and Gilpin – which piques my interest even further. I re-read some of Gilpin’s IPE scholarship recently, and in my view he is one of the most insightful modern realist thinkers. The relationship between the imperatives of economics and security is not straightforward, and so richly deserving of further exploration. I don’t think it’s much surprise that Copeland takes aim at offensive realism, as any realistic realist theory should acknowledge the difficult trade-offs between different facets of security – especially if it seeks to incorporate the role of political economy.

There’s some sharp disagreement in the roundtable, but it’s interesting to note that the controversies concern two issues that I’ve blogged on in the reasonably recent past. Some questions are raised about whether paradigms are really the best way to organise debates in international relations any more, or whether existing general theories ought to be decomposed into more specific middle-range theories. Classifying arguments into a theoretical taxonomy is a bit of a distraction from substantive debate. Second, a major point of substantive disagreement is over our old friend, relative gains!  Relative gains feature in Copeland’s argument concerning the conditions under which conflict might be preferable to trade. Maass argues that Copeland’s arguments relying on relative gains are flawed for similar reasons to those I discussed in the last post (and a couple of others to boot):

states may concede relative losses to one state in order to achieve relative gains compared to another that poses a greater security threat, they may see their peers engaging in trade and fear being left behind, or they may see the relative gains of trade as fluid rather than fixed and anticipate the balance turning in their favor

Copeland, of course, disagrees with this criticism and argues Maass has missed the wider argument – in which the relative gains issue only plays one part.

I thought the debate over relative gains was long dead, but apparently not. But is it encouraging that such issues are subject to continued debate and elaboration, or a worrying sign that the discipline hasn’t really moved on since the debates of the early 1990s?

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Mistaking Realism for Idealism

This academic year, I’ve been wondering why IR students frequently develop the mistaken belief that they are realists (in the IR theory sense). I say mistaken belief because I think that some of them are not actually realists at all, and if they understood realism as an IR theory and political tradition better they would realise this too. There are clearly students who really are realists, who grasp the theory and believe that it provides a good account of what goes on in world politics – and fair enough. But a sizeable number of students seem to suffer from a sort of false consciousness in which they mistake their own views for the realist perspective.

Previously on the blog, I’ve described neo-realism as a squatter in IR theory textbooks and introductory courses – occupying the role of the power-politics theory of IR even though it is not a very good theory of power-politics. Some theory of power-politics probably needs to be part of the debate in any academic discussion of international relations, and so neo-realism gets undue limelight because it is so familiar and so well-sedimented in teaching materials.  Some students latch onto neo-realism because it is the only theory of power-politics they are familiar with. The evidence for this is that such students tend to think that every power-political explanation is a neo-realist explanation (in fairness neo-realists have often tried to claim this, which led to accusations that neo-realism was a degenerating research programme) and that these students become confused when they are introduced to alternative theories such as Marxism that make very similar claims about the self-aggrandising nature of states.

I don’t think that this is the only reason why students think they are realists or neo-realists even when they might not be. This is because that I don’t think it’s just the specific claims about the operation of the balance of power, for example, that they would disagree with – but the underlying outlook and the normative and explanatory core at the heart of most realist perspectives. What students sometimes miss, I think, is that realism provides an endorsement rather than just a description of the use of power politics. To condemn a state’s behaviour as narrowly self-interested and power-seeking is to depart from a conventional realist perspective (although to condemn it as reckless is not). Realism doesn’t offer a critique of power politics: ruthless behavior is rational and necessary, given the way that the international system is organised.

It’s my hunch that a lot of students that think themselves realists are actually the opposite, they are outraged by the selfish use of power politics by major states – and again, this is an entirely reasonably position to hold. But mainstream IR realism doesn’t provide any foundations for this outrage, it offers a shrug and the insistence that this is the way that things have always been and always will be.

This conflation of realism and its opposite, idealism, is also why Noam Chomsky retains appeal and why he crops up to support ‘realist’ arguments in essays. Like many people encountering debates on international relations for the first time, he assumes that there is a robust framework of rights and duties beyond the state, and that self-aggrandisement is the product of the malfeasance of particular actors. Although Chomsky’s perspective anticipates that important states will act in a self-aggrandising power-political fashion, it is utterly different from mainstream IR realism in how it conceives of the international system. There’s not nothing in Chomsky’s viewpoint, just as there is something of value in some neo-realist arguments, but it’s a limited and reductionist perspective.

It’s not a Marxist or a critical materialist perspective either, as these perspectives reject the idea that the international system is governed by a set of universalistic legal principles that for some reason particular states keep trampling over. Rather, they hold that the rules are fixed from the very outset.

That Chomsky is unable to grasp this argument was revealed in a little spat with Matthew Yglesias from a few years ago that I missed at the time. Yglesias argued that many dubious actions of the US and other greater powers comply with international law, but that this is no great endorsement as these powers get to decide what international law is in the first place. Chomsky accused Yglesias of endorsing law-breaking by the US, to which Yglesias replied that Chomsky had missed the point and that the issue is that the deck is stacked – the US and others make the laws through the Security Council and through other means. Somewhat heroically, Chomsky misunderstood and misrepresented Yglesias again, presenting him as offering an endorsement of American law breaking. The fundamental problem is that Chomsky imagines that international law, and other norms and rules governing international relations, comply with what Chomsky would wish them to be. As Yglesias states, very clearly:

International law, as it exists, was not written by pacifists, political radicals, or grassroots communities in small or weak states. It was, rather, written by political elites who are not committed to pacifism or radical politics via a process in which militarily strong states have disproportionate weight. Therefore, people who are committed to pacifism or radical politics shouldn’t be surprised to find that the existing body of international law often fails to support their policy ideas.

Yglesias’s position is much closer to a critical perspective, but because it doesn’t conform to Chomsky’s idealism he misidentifies Yglesias’s argument as realist. For a realist, it really is silly and naive to think that great powers will (or should) submit themselves to the same rules that they impose on others.

So realist scholars are misidentified as idealists, idealists as realists, and critiques mistaken for apologias.

Rory Stewart, Elite Power and Structural Power

There was an interview in the Guardian yesterday with Tory MP for Penrith and all-round interesting chap Rory Stewart. He restates some of his level-headed, informed and compelling criticisms of NATO intervention and statebuilding. Simply put, these efforts do not work because foreigners cannot hope to understand the complex and diverse societies they are attempting to transform. These views were informed by his travels around Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he gained experience of the different systems of law, custom and political authority operating from region to region, hamlet to hamlet.

He’s now become an MP and has found the rules and customs of Westminster to be as baffling and intricate as those of any Pashtun jirga. His reflection that most MPs don’t reflect, don’t think very hard about Britain’s future and don’t have much of an understanding  of the society that they govern. So far, so in tune with the present (well justified) anti-politician zeitgeist: professional politicians form a discrete elite, insulated from the concerns of ordinary people, specialists only in the art of influencing the news-cycle, maximising expense claims and moving up the greasy pole. Rory Stewart is a bit of an outlier in such a world, a thinker and something of a neo-Victorian adventurer. Parliament otherwise bears testament to the arguments of Michels and other elitists that organised party machines would eventually give rise to new oligarchies.

But Stewart doesn’t think that politicians or any other elites actually rule: ‘We’re not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere.’ In support of this claim he notes that journalists, politicians and financiers all regard themselves as powerless, that policy is not effective: ‘You get there and you pull the lever, and nothing happens.’

I think Stewart’s arguments are a bit misleading. Part of the problem is the myopia of power and privilege, the lack of experience of real powerlessness and the sense of being subject to forces completely outside of one’s control, forces that threaten to rip apart the fabric of one’s life. But another aspect of the issue is the concept of power Stewart employs. He focuses on the inability of politicians and other elite actors to pull and lever or wave a wand to effect change, to exercise power in the sense of Russell’s ‘production of intended effects’. Well, why should we expect that to be possible? Britain is a liberal democracy under the rule of law. Groups who disagree with a particular policy or law have the opportunity to oppose it electorally, legally and through civil society. Policymaking is the result of compromises struck between diverse interests, the government is limited in its ability to ride roughshod over opposition.

Moving from an account of the ability of elites to exercise ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ others, it seems clear that there is plenty of power to go around in the UK if we consider the power embodied in the arrangements that comprise the status quo. Every society is structured by a set of institutionalised bargains struck between different conflict groups, i.e. competing interests, at various points in its history. A society’s laws, institutions, distribution of resources and customs are shaped by such bargains. Because they reflect the interests of conflict groups and the balance of forces between them, such structures systematically privilege some interests above others.

As immediately pointed out in the comment section in the online version of the interview with Stewart, Britain’s financial institutions were bailed out at cost to the taxpayer after the financial crisis struck. Alastair Darling probably didn’t desire to preside over such a bail out, but structural features of the British economy meant that the alternatives were, at the very least, costly and difficult. Those in the financial sector were able to secure their interests, in contrast to disabled persons now forced to pay a bedroom tax, due to power inequalities embodied in the structural features of the British economy, political system and legal system.

The UK is not run by omnipotent politicians able to pull levers to reshape society in an instant or global elites who can make the masses dance like puppets. The UK and other industrial democracies may well be sclerotic, with vested interests preventing effective policy making. But this doesn’t mean that there is no power in Britain. There is, and it is structural power that makes society resistant to transformation.

Strange Parallels: Levelling, East and West

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.

Edward Luttwak in Cairo: On the Egyptian Military’s Pronunciamiento

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.

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.

Plough, Sword and Book: Gellner and the Structure of International History II

My previous post on Gellner’s  ‘Plough, Sword and Book’ (PSB) managed to attract an approving link from Brad DeLong, so I thought that I might as well write the promised follow-up.

To recap part 1, PSB is an extremely ambitious – and overlooked – magnum opus that attempts to outline the structure of human history in terms of the development of production, coercion and cognition from the hunter-gatherer past to the advanced industrialised present. Gellner’s thesis is that the three epochs of human civilisation (hunter-gatherer, agrarian and industrial) are distinct not just in their patterns of social organisation, the focus of other historical sociologists such as Mann and Tilly, but in the way that they conceive of the relationship between mind and world.

Of note is the significance Gellner attaches to Plato. I’ve never believed that Plato has much relevance to the study of contemporary politics or even contemporary political theory, his political concerns belong to a very different world to our own. Popper’s criticism of Plato as totalitarian or proto-totalitarian always struck me as completely anachronistic. But Gellner makes a fascinating case for seeing Plato’s philosophy as exemplary of the cognitive shifts of Karl Jasper’s ‘axial age’. Before this age, local ritual and custom (nomos) ruled human life. Nomos was authoritative because human beings lived within small-scale, closed communities. It was grounded in a meaningful, ritualised shared social existence. Metaphysical concepts, norms, aesthetic standards and empirical beliefs (all of which are merged together at this point in history) compelled human thinking but were socially bounded and could not transcend context.

The key change in the axial era was the rise of putatively universal systems of normatively-loaded concepts that were ‘trans-ethnic, trans-social, trans-communal’. This is the birth of logos and the idea of reason and of the notion of a transcendent supra-sensory reality standing above, and giving meaning to, mundane existence. The death of Socrates might be seen as marking the historical juncture between the age of socially-circumscribed communal norms and the the axial age in which concepts transcend context.

Normatively-loaded concepts, now recognised explicitly as concepts, form the basis of explicit doctrines. The literate intellectuals of the axil age were deeply concerned with achieving coherence between these concepts in order to correctly understand and explicate the nature of the noumenal realm. The intellectuals, theologians and priesthoods pushed against the ‘easy cohabitation’ of many incompatible strands of belief that had characterised earlier periods of human history. But empirical investigation was not held in high regard within this new age of cognition and belief systems became largely non-referential:

Reality does not constitute a check on Ideas: on the contrary, they are the norms by which reality is to be judged and guided (p. 76)

The reality of the senses is only a flickering shadow cast by the true reality accessible only through reason and – once the world religions had established themselves – scripture, meditation, faith, veneration of saints and so on. The world is seen as a meaningful whole, each element accorded its proper place and imbued with a purpose. This axial age cognitive order, in which normatively-loaded concepts stand over and above mundane reality, helped to stabilise an agro-literate social order in which violence-specialists and legitimacy-specialists stand over and above the great mass of agricultural producers. The world religions offered salvation in the here-after but legitimated hierarchy on Earth.

Heaven, the circle, encloses Earth, the square.

Heaven, the circle, encloses Earth, the square.

Initially confined to the philosophically inclined elites, access to the noumenal order was restricted to priesthoods who interceded on behalf of the mass of the population in the mature agrarian societies. Effective monopolies were established on access to truth and salvation. Yet the salvationist aspect of many world religions always held the prospect of direct un-mediated access to the noumenal order by ordinary human beings. Thus under a specific set of circumstances at a particular point in history, the spiritual monopoly was broken and large numbers of people gained direct, unmediated access to salvation. Yes, this is Weber’s story of the rise of the Protestant Ethic and the swinging shut of the monastery door as essential to the rise of modernity. Indeed, I would argue that Gellner is much more neo-Weberian than the likes of Mann and Tilly – who are interested primarily in organizational rather than cognitive structures.

In any case, universalism managed to break free of the Universal Church and thus from the hierarchical social and spiritual order which it embodied. From there, Gellner argues, it was possible for the modern cognitive order to emerge. In this cognitive order  the noumenal, super-sensory realm is dethroned. Nature is regarded as a single ordered whole free from any intrinsic meaning or purpose but comprehensible through experience and the faculty of reason. No knower is unique or has specially privileged access to the facts about nature.

This was a huge inversion in the cognitive ordering of the world. Previously, nature presented a testament to the veracity of supra-sensory truths – it confirmed the divine order. After the Enlightenment, reality provides the external measure of systems of belief. How did the Reformation bring about this ‘dethronement of the concept’, considering that Protestant denominations continued to regard the Bible as Holy Scripture? This is the weakest link in the whole chain of Gellner’s argument, in my view. In fact, the answer to the question is split between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Gellner suggests that the scriptural criticism may have led towards the view that everything can be criticised and thus the destruction of the idea of sacred knowledge. He makes a more convincing suggestion that the acceptance of a stalemate in the Wars of Religion gave rise to toleration and the creation of a social space in which free inquiry could flourish. Thus the Reformation may have been instrumental rather than essential to the Enlightenment.

Although I think he leans on Weber too much to the exclusion of consideration of the material processes transforming Europe at the end of the medieval age, I’ll restrain myself in this post and save the critical discussion for a final post dealing with the contemporary world and Gellner’s relevance for international relations. But I’l make one final point. Gellner’s thesis is very much focused on Western Europe and the transition to and then away from the medieval era.  His rich discussion of the relationship between legitimacy-specialists (priests, scribes etc.) and violence-specialists, emphasising the role of mobilizing norms of legitimacy to decide between essentially equivalent groups of violence-specialists, has a great deal of applicability across cultural contexts.

But much of the discussion assumes a certain division of labour between the two groups, the division of labour present in medieval Europe. India is recognised as being on a very distinct sociological and cognitive path, but isn’t examined in any depth.  Although the role of ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ in traditional Chinese thinking does fit with Gellner’s account of the cognitive structures of agrarian society, priests and mediators with ‘heaven’ have not held the authority or autonomy in China that Gellner assumes as the norm. The discussion of Islam is very limited, with Gellner commenting on the ‘anti-rational theocracy’ of that world religion without mentioning the Islamic Golden Age. Nonetheless, he has some much more interesting things to say about the position of Islam in the modern world – but that will have to wait for another post!

Thug Politics

Oh dear, over a month since I said that I would be reviving the blog and this is the first post to follow. In my defence, I had a busy August teaching at a Summer School in Oxford.

Anyway, there’s an interesting mini-article by Murad Batal al-Shishani and Dalia Elsheikh over on the BBC website about the rise of the thug as an important political actor in the Middle East.

The term “baltagi” is Turkish in origin. “Baltaci”, which means “axe-man”, was adopted into Arabic during Ottoman rule.

In modern day Egypt, baltagi came to mean “thug”. But after mass anti-government unrest erupted in January and February 2011, it began to be used to describe regime supporters who were used to disperse and attack protesters.

The Assad regime in Syria has of course been utilising the Shabiha militias, made up of criminals, to terrorise supporters of the armed opposition. Similar groups are wielded by the Yemeni regime as well, according to the article.

As a non-specialist, the article suggests to me that the political capacity of the regimes of the MENA region must have significantly declined if they are now dependent on hooligans and gangsters to cling on to power. In his recent book on political order (which I blogged on quite a bit) he makes the case for seeing the emergence of such retinues, which orbit strong-men able to keep doling out the loot, as a feature of political decay. Away from West Asia, bands of thugs have been utilised by various regimes whose hold on power and the conventional levers of government was slipping: from the Shanghai gangsters who massacred of workers and communists at the behest of Chiang Kai Shek at the start of the Chinese Civil War, to the squads of football hooligans who formed into ethnic paramilitary units during the Yugoslav wars after the disintegration of the federal state.

As these two example might indicate, the rise of the thug isn’t a good sign for the MENA region. Arguably, democracy requires an existing political order and the institutionalisation of the principle that political disagreements should not be resolved through force. Democracy seems a distant prospect where the state has privatised and farmed out its monopoly on the use of force.

Fukuyama Blogging: Part 5 ‘Conclusion’

IntroPart 1Part 2Part 3China/Russia detourPart 4

Much delayed post on Fukuyama’s conclusion to The Origins of Political Order. I’ve had this post sat on my hard drive for over a month, but I wasn’t feeling the blogging vibe. Let’s have another go!

Having reached the French Revolution and the highest forms of political development through the emergence of the modern state, the rule of law and political accountability vol. 1 of Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order concludes. The entire history of politics from our primate ancestors up to the dawn of the modern world: done and dusted. Time to wrap up and look at what Fukuyama hopes we will take away from the book:

1) Modernisation not a general process, nor is political modernisation. Fukuyama’s goal is, in one sense, to rehabilitate modernisation theory and to make a case for the existence of an evolutionary ladder in political development. But at the same time he wants to reject the idea, promoted by classical social thinkers such as Weber, Durkheim and Marx, that all the components of modernisation are linked as part of a general process. Political modernisation inChina ran ahead even absent technological development. Nor is political modernisation a singular process, it can be decomposed into three aspects as I examined above. Fukuyama makes a strong case here, but as I argued in Part 4 its questionable whether he really succeeds in separating the ideas of accountability and the rule of law. The two seem pretty much intertwined empirically, even if they are conceptually distinct.

2) Ideas matter.Fukuyama seems quite irritated by perspectives which fail to acknowledge the independent weight of ideas in the evolution of human societies. He insists that it’s ‘a fool’s er­rand’ to attempt to make sense of the specifics of religion in terms of material circumstances, ideas ‘are tur­tles far down the stack that do not nec­es­sar­ily stand on the backs of tur­tles re­lat­ed to the econ­omy or phys­ical en­vi­ron­ment’. As a partisan of the opposite point of view, however, I wasn’t convinced thatFukuyama provides enough support for this thesis. In his account of political development it seems that it’s the way religious institutions  are socially organised that really matters. This in fact fits in with an ‘organizational materialist’ perspective of scholars like Mann and Tilly very well. At other times,Fukuyama’s account acknowledges the direct material interests of religious actors. It’s pretty rare in the book that the actual substantive content of belief systems makes a big difference independently of other factors.

On the subject, I was slightly disappointed how rarely the idea of the ‘struggle for recognition’ comes up in the book.Fukuyamais a well known for his Hegelian view that the search for recognition – reciprocal acknowledgement by one’s peers – is the driving force in human history. Yet the idea only has a walk on part in this book, with the biological drive to favour friends and family doing the heavy lifting.

Move over, bub, you're History.

3) Violence plays a central role in political development. Following the well known arguments of Hintze, Tilly and others in IR such as Spruyt and Ayoob, Fukuyama places a lot of weight on conflict as a driver of the rise of the state and of political accountability (but not the rule of law as far as I can tell). Violence has a Darwinian function in generating selective pressure amongst political units and generating one of the few impetuses to overcome vested interests (see #7).

Okay, sure, fine. This is a well-established thesis that has been the subject of extensive debate. But it’s worth noting that there are other kinds of competition, for migrants, political supporters, allies and for mobile capital (the latter examined by Arrighi and Silver in the context of early modern Europe), many of which probably drove political development as well.

4) Property rights aren’t everything – oh and Mancur Olson was wrong. Fukuyama spends a lot of time criticizing economists and political scientists who think that everything turns on robust property rights and that all strong states are predators who bury commercial activity with onerous taxes. The story is much more complex than the account inspired by political economists such as Olson, he insists.

Pretty much wrong, apparently

Here there’s not much to disagree with, the property rights uber alles brigade are pretty wearying. But it is worth noting that very often the people that Fukuyama bothers to engage with are all from the conservative side of academic debate, making specific mention of the specifics of arguments by neo-liberals and even neo-conservatives. In one sense, these are probably the people who Fukuyama debates with and is addressing in the book. But it’s notable that, although he often criticises Marx, he doesn’t actually engage with modern scholars influenced by Marx such as GA Cohen or Hobsbawm. There’s some irony in this deployment of straw-man Marxism, as contemporary Marxists such as Brenner and the IR theorist Teschke have made arguments which are of a similar format to Fukuyama’s, stressing the specifics of different systems of property rights and the relations between classes in explaining how capitalism originated in England.

What’s more, for all his attempts to distance himself from the Whig view of history, his account of the development is quite rose tinted in certain respects. It stresses the strong property rights of English subjects and established traditions of political accountability, but makes no mention of enclosure and the colossal theft by elites that it constituted. Both within Britainand overseas in its colonies, the establishment of property rights for some was quite closely related to the loss of property on the part of others. Turning to the modern world, things don’t seem to have changed much: witness the land grabs by unscrupulous local officials in China and the resultant images of ‘nail houses’.

5) Extreme levels of path-dependence characterises development. AlthoughFukuyama is resurrecting the idea of political modernisation and evolution, his account makes it clear that societies do not pass through a sequence of similar changes. Rather, their different paths are shaped by very deep social institutions:

New in­sti­tu­tions are more typ­ical­ly lay­ered on top of ex­ist­ing ones, which sur­vive for ex­traor­di­nar­ily long pe­ri­ods of time.

There’s no smooth and automatic progression along a simple evolutionary pathway either:

The ac­tu­al his­tor­ical roots of dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tions of­ten seem to be the prod­ucts of a long con­cate­na­tion of his­tor­ical ac­ci­dents that one could nev­er have pre­dict­ed in ad­vance.

Borrowing the idea of spandrels from Gould and Lewontin, he argues that an institution that arose for one purpose might play a totally different purpose further down the line – a notion that Mann referred to as a kind of institutional promiscuity.

This all makes political development seem pretty haphazard. Indeed, if this is true, then it seems that actually existing historical civilisations probably did not exhaust all the various possible ways of organising agrarian societies.

It makes me wonder as well, what of all the paths of socio-political development off the main linesFukuyamaexamines? All the societies he focuses on are patrilineal, but what about matrilineal cultures such as the Israelites or Sumatra’s Minangkabao people. Were these dead ends or did circumstances just prevent them from achieving the prominence of other world civilisations?

6) Political development should be understood in within-nation terms. Fukuyama actually contradicts himself on this issue I think. His focus is on the internal (endogenous if you like) development of political institutions, not looking at the position of societies in wider webs of relationships. Hence, turning to contemporary questions of development he argues that:

In more re­cent so­ci­eties, it is easy to blame so­cial fail­ures on the machi­na­tions of var­ious out­siders, whether Jews or Amer­ican im­pe­ri­al­ism, rather than look­ing to in­dige­nous in­sti­tu­tions for the ex­pla­na­tion.

Well, yes. But its also easy for those in wealthy nations to blame feckless Mexicans or Africans for the problems of maldevelopment, rather than ask uncomfortable questions about the global division of labour or the architecture of transnational finance. But Fukuyama isn’t so interested in understanding the interlinked global process of development, save for when he examines the second serfdom and can’t avoid acknowledging that the enserfment of those East of the Elbe was causally linked to the economic development of the West.

Suddenly at the end of the book, however, Fukuyamatakes a different perspective on the drivers of political development:

 It is there­fore no longer pos­si­ble to speak sim­ply about “na­tion­al de­vel­op­ment.” In po­lit­ical sci­ence, com­par­ative pol­itics and in­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions have tra­di­tion­al­ly been re­gard­ed as dis­tinct sub­fields, the one deal­ing with things that hap­pen with­in states, the oth­er with re­la­tion­ships among states. In­creas­ing­ly these fields will have to be stud­ied as an in­te­grat­ed whole.

I’d agree, but I’d also say that the international dimension of development is nothing new in human history.

7) Political decay is a general phenomena. Taking up the baton from Huntingdon,Fukuyama wants to provide a sophisticated general account of political decay. Here I think he is quite successful. He sees two main sources of political decay: legacy investments, where previously successful social institutions are imbued with intrinsic value and thus are preserved long after they cease to be adaptive, and repatrimonialisation, which I examined in other posts. Yes, these are both variants of Olson’s idea of vested interests and ‘distributive coalitions’ gradually ossifying societies, butFukuyama develops the ideas with a lot of empirical and theoretical detail. I think there are other sources of political decay in the post-Malthusian world, but I’ll wait to see what Fukuyama says in the sequel.

One of the most interesting consequences of his argument is that decay generates novel social formations, not simply a reversion to previous forms. Sorry Heraclitus, but the way up is not the same as the way down. The Western Roman Empire had to fall before the possibility of feudalism arose. Decay therefore introduces novelty and can actually open up new pathways for political evolution.

That’s my scattershot appraisal of the threads of argument that run through the whole book. This post is already too long, so I’ll write a coda on the implications for the modern world to follow.