Category Archives: theorists

Leaving exhausted theories behind

Two years ago prominent Neorealist authors Mearsheimer and Walt lamented the current inattention to grand theory in IR as an academic field (which they also summarised over at Duck of Minerva). They argued that ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ had replaced inquiry into the fundamental features of world politics and the debate among rival intellectual frameworks seeking to make sense of international relations. There probably is too much ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ in IR, the use of positivist methods to answer micro-questions that no-one has every actually cared about abounds in major journals. But Mearsheimer and Walt’s critique was odd and misdirected in lots of respects, as others noted at the time it was published. Notably, M & W are dismissive of any non-positivist approach such as critical theory and feminism – yet their commitment to positivism hardly sits well with their aversion to ‘normal science’.

I’ve got time for Stephen Walt as a theorist, his version of Neorealism is flexible and non-dogmatic. His analysis in his blog is measured and rejects nationalistic claims about US exceptionalism. But along with Mearsheimer, his criticism of ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ reads like rearguard action in support of a version of Realism that just doesn’t convince any more, doesn’t provide any useful leads for empirical research and doesn’t warrant any further theoretical refinement.

The example that they use to illustrate ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ is telling, as it does little to support their case. Research by conflict theorists on strategic rivalries, they claim, produced:

an expanding set of empirical findings but did not produce a broader synthesis or a general explanation of the various positive and negative results. Instead, we get generalizations of the following sort: ‘Dyads that contend in territorial disputes have a greater probability of going to war than is expected by chance,’ or ‘[Enduring] rivals have a greater probability of going to war than other dyads’ (Vasquez and Leskiw, 2001: 308–309). But we still have little idea why.

Glossed over here is the issue that these findings have been interpreted by scholars as running directly against the default assumptions of Neorealism! Conflict theorists in the steps to war tradition argue that war does not arise out of the general jockeying for power among states, the whirl and dance of military coalitions that states create and dissolve as they each seek to advance their own power or security at the expense of any and all others. Instead, conflict originates in specific issues over which pairs of states disagree – most often territorial issues – and self-reinforcing, reciprocated patterns of power-political behavior between such pairs of states. It is completely false to suggest that the claims in the strategic rivalries literature are atomic, atheoretical hypotheses – they are part of a well-established, elaborate research project set out most fully in Vasquez’s The War Puzzle. It’s also false to suggest that no attempts have been made to explain why territory is especially likely to generate conflict or why strategic/enduring rivals account for so much conflict in modern international history. Vasquez’s original arguments suggested links between the psychology of territoriality and aggression, he and others later emphasised the role of hardliners and the formation of pro-war coalitions within states in sustaining rivalries, others still emphasise the socially constructed aspects of territory and rivalry. The arguments and empirics presented by the steps to war approach might still fail to convince, but it makes no sense to claim that it is not a theoretically-informed research programme that attempts to contribute to our knowledge of fundamentally important features of the international system.
M & W’s example is badly chosen and interpreted uncharitably and misleadingly. On the other hand, Vasquez’s criticism of Neorealism as a research programme, made in 1997, still stands up:

The field hardly needs realism to tell it that states will oppose threats to themselves (if they can) or that revisionist states will seize opportunities to gain re-wards (especially if the risks are low).

Once again, Neorealism offers little more than the banal observation that international politics is a rough-and-tumble world and that states pursue their interests – if we define interests broadly enough to include just about any possible goal that a state might feasibly pursue. Walt has offered some well-judged observations about contemporary international politics, but these are often made in spite of Neorealism – indeed as corrections to the baseline Neorealist model developed by Waltz. The discipline of IR doesn’t need Waltzian Neorealism as a grand theory, certainly not to the exclusion of critical theory, or middle-range research programmes such as steps to war, or the much more convincing rival systemic theories that despite M & W’s protests are actually out there.

Changing My Mind III: Quantitative Research Doesn’t Have Much to Add to IR

For the first few years I studied international relations I was of the view that quantitative approaches didn’t have a great deal to add to the subject. This view was not, I should note, based on a general antipathy towards the natural sciences or a fear of numbers – both of which are common in the social sciences and the humanities. Instead, I thought that the most important issues in international relations were theoretical and related to issues in philosophy of social science. It also seemed to me that the quantitative research that I was aware often missed the point of the issue it was intending to address, operationalising concepts in a manner that was unconvincing and thus reducing fairly subtle processes to crude measures. It also seemed to be atheoretical and involved throwing a load of different variables into the hopper to see what would come out the other side.

I realised, however, that many of the issues that I was interested in could not be resolved through theory alone. It might seem strange that I ever believed (implicitly) that they could, but a lot of debate in IR and the humanities more broadly seems to involve the evaluation of a set of claims based on a set of theoretical desiderata alone. This is a rut, and its a rut that a lot of areas of scholarship fall into. Engagement with philosophy of science and social theory is important, but it can’t adjudicate between competing empirical claims about topics such as inequality, conflict, democratisation and state formation.

Reading more statistical research, I realised that there was much more in the way of theoretically sophisticated, historically informed quant research in IR than I had credited. I started to take quantitative contributions much more seriously, but interrogate them in more detail. Every statistical model makes theoretical assumptions and those assumptions can be questioned and problematised just like those of any other theoretical claim. Getting into the nuts and bolts of quantitative research on topics ranging from economic growth and inequality, to democratisation and economic development, to strategic rivalries between states gave me a more informed understanding of the contributions and limits of quantitative research in world politics. The most significant problems are that first, the entities social science works with are not stable over historical time, the social world is never really in equilibrium, and so the relationships between variables cannot be expected to be constant across time and space. The second problem is the issue of causal complexity, the way in which causal factors may interact and combine in specific configurtions to produce certain outcomes. The third problem is the lack of reliable data and measures based on well-operationalised concepts.

Many quantitative scholars and methodologists acknowledge these problems, however, and have attempted to devise ways to address these tricky issues. Braumoeller and Wimmer come to mind scholars who have made major contributions to world politics recently through the intelligent, theoretically informed use of quantitative methods. Paul Schrodt has made some searing criticisms of status quo quantitative practice in the study of politics and attempted to push analytical techniques forward in the discipline. His contributions to efforts to make event data useful for research in politics and international relations are very interesting, and I’ll be watching out for what he and others do with the huge new ICEWS database. It’s possible that with data at this level of granuality, quantitative scholarship can move beyond a focus on broad structural correlates of outcomes and towards a greater focus on political processes. Of course, there are pitfalls and obstacles, but I’m more optimistic about the prospects than I was before I really started to engage with this area of research.

Changing My Mind II: The Third Image is Where the Action is At

Yesterday I talked about how I’ve changed my mind about Neo-Realism, going back and forth on Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. The key issues in assessing Waltz’s opus is, I think, not the question of whether Waltz characterises this or that feature of the international system, but whether Waltz identifies a mechanism that emerges from the interaction of states that pushes the international system towards an equilibrium point, irrelevant of influences from other spheres of the social world.

I think that this project has not been successful and that there are significant implications for IR theory in general. Waltz wanted to put forward a ‘Third Image’ theory that would explain patterns of international outcomes in terms of international processes alone. If he had accomplished this, IR theory could be freestanding and IR could be studied independently of politics, economics and sociology more broadly. This notion was attacked by scholars such as Robert Cox quite early on, and in the long run they have had the better of this argument.

I am also very sceptical of alternative efforts at establishing a free-standing ‘Third Image’ theory of international relations, such as that advanced by Alexander Wendt. In Social Theory of International Politics he attempts to offer a Constructivist Third Image theory in which states establish their identity in relation to each other. One again, international relations is conceived of as a separate domain of social activity, Wendt intentionally brackets domestic political processes (1999: 11, 13). States are theorised as corporate actors who negotiate the norms of international conduct with each other as if they were individual persons. Wendt even introduced a teleological argument that does the same job as Waltz’s claims about general equilibrium, flattening the importance of particular actions of states over the long-run. Despite Wendt’s status in the discipline, the actual substantive theory offered by Wendt has been taken up by surprisingly few scholars – perhaps because it introduces a whole host of controversial Constructivist commitments without moving very far from Waltz’s framework.

So the prospects for a self-standing Third Image theory of international relations do not seem that great and much high theory in international relations has been misguided. I don’t think that this need cause to much concern, however, as there still might be important processes that operate at the system level, especially once we recognise that these processes are likely to shape and be shaped by other social, economic and political processes.

But a logical consequence of this is that sharp distinction between foreign policy and international relations cannot be maintained. If states do not adjust their policies to external circumstances rapidly  and the system does not exhibit strong equifinality, then the foreign policy of states will matter quite a lot as it will push the system in all sorts of different directions. This is what Braumoeller argues in Great Powers and the International System, in which he develops a partial rather than general equilibrium theory of international politics. Alternatively if the tendency in the international system is to concentration of power and not balance and the structure of the international system is conceived of as including institutional frameworks and ideology as well as physical resources, then the international system might evolve under the leadership of a series of hegemons. This is the argument put forward by scholars working in the tradition of Arrighi and Modelski (both now deceased, sadly).

These approaches provide systemic theories that employ a notion of the system that is broader than the relations between states, narrowly conceived. They are theories of world politics, not just IR, as they try to incorporate domestic politics and transnational processes into their frameworks. Their notions of structure are broader than the spare accounts of Wendt and Waltz. We also seem to have brought politics back into the picture, which is missing from the classic Third Image theories (Liberal Institutionalist approaches are just as guilty on this score). This is the direction that I believe we should head in: developing theories of world politics by bridging foreign policy and IR, analysing the international dimensions of domestic political change and identifying the reciprocal effect of structure and agency on one another. This might seem ambitious, but a massive amount of knowledge about the historical development of world politics has accumulated and, if we take the Third Image blinkers off, there is no reason we cannot make use of it.

Changing My Mind I: Neo-Realism

As noted in my post a few days ago, I’m going to emulate Stephen Walt with a short series of posts about how I’ve changed my mind on some major issues in international relations since I first starting studying the subject way back at the beginning of the War on Terror. One of those issues is the status of the theoretical perspective that Walt is a major contributor to: Neo-Realism (or Structural Realism). The theory is still described as the orthodoxy within IR, even though that hasn’t been the case for a long while. Nonetheless, as Wohlforth has argued, it’s still an important foil for rival theories. Indeed, criticising the central Neo-Realist text, Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, is one of the few things that gives the discipline any kind of coherence.

Nearly everything I read on IR theory as an undergraduate and MA student was an attempt to refine or overcome the framework set out by Waltz. When introduced to the theory, I agreed with the criticisms that Waltz’s approach was fatalistic, mechanical and ideological: providing a set of rationalisations for callous and cynical foreign policy. But once I started to read ToIP for myself I realised that it wasn’t philosophically naive at all, but the product of serious reflection on the nature of social scientific theory. Although I disagreed with the substantive claims of the theory, I respected it as an intellectual achievement. When I started my doctoral research, I was persuaded by the more positive reappraisals offered by scholars such as Nexon and Goddard as well as PT Jackson, Richard Little and even Justin Rosenberg.

Nonetheless, I’ve cooled on the theory as a starting point for theorising. Waltz’s framework was an intellectually rigorous attempt to define international politics as a separate sphere of social activity governed by its own laws. The problem is that huge amounts of evidence and compelling theory has accumulated that international politics is closely, perhaps inseparably intertwined with domestic politics and the world economy. Waltz attempted to distinguish between theories of foreign policy, which explain particular courses of action, from theories of international politics, which identify recurrent patterns of behaviour. But this gambit depends on the identification of an equilibrium that the system tends towards: if the system has a natural rest point to which it will always tend, we don’t need to be too concerned with how it will get there.

The problem with this argument is that Neo-Realism has had huge difficulty in identifying this equilibrium point. The claim that the international system tends naturally towards a balance of power has proven difficult to defend theoretically and empirically. Scholars have tried to patch up the problems with BoP theory and with Waltz’s ambiguous statements about what Neo-Realism actually expects to occur in international poltiics, but the difficulties have mounted up much more rapidly. Wohlforth, a major proponent of Neo-Realism, has even argued that Robert Gilpin’s argument that concentration of power is the norm would have made a more compelling starting point for Neo-Realist theory – but Gilpin never attempted to separate international relations from politics and economics like Waltz did. Waltz made a compelling case for systemic theory and for a focus on structure, but I think the discipline has absorbed what it needs from Neo-Realism and can move on. The attempt to establish a general equilibrium theory that would enable us to understand any international interaction in terms of the system-wide balance of power has not been successful.

The End of IR Theory? Part III – Cores, Peripheries and IR Theory

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.

The End of IR Theory? Part I: Bennett and Goddard on Mechanisms

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.

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!

Farewell to Kenneth Waltz


Yesterday via The Duck I learnt that Kenneth Waltz has passed away. Waltz is a central figure in international relations theory, Theory of International Politics can be considered the founding text of the contemporary discipline. There are some tributes (including my own) and a pair of anecdotes/excerpts that illustrate Waltz’s independence of mind and his knack for pithy insight.

I remember sitting down to read Theory of International Politics as a Masters student, already broadly but superficially familiar with neo-realism from an introductory undergraduate course. At this point I was naively, arrogantly confident that theorists I didn’t agree with could easily be pigeon-holed and dismissed as either dogmatic methodological individualists, naive empiricists, or sophists playing word-games. Waltz fell into none of these categories: Theory of Politics is a rigorous, philosophically sophisticated framework for the analysis of international relations. Striving to establish a parsimonious account of international relations as a bounded realm governed by its own structural laws, it draws on microeconomics, Durkheim and Newtonian physics. Like most everyone else in the discipline, I also believe that it is wrong on many of its major points. But everyone who has attempted to think systematically and rigorously about the international system subsequent to Waltz has had no other option but to engage with him. It’s for this reason that even radical critics such as Rosenberg have acknowledged their debts to Theory of Politics.

In engaging with Waltz, scholars of international relations have subjected Theory of International Politics to innumerable criticisms. Many of these criticisms, which often consist of pointing out that Waltz’s theory ignores X or Y, were misconceived. The most convincing interpretation of Theory of Politics, that of Goddard and Nexon, sees Waltz as putting forward a ‘spare account of the dynamics of anarchy’ within a bounded sphere of international politics. This account is offered by Waltz, not as a description of the world as it actually is, but as an idealised framework to enable explanation of particular events against a baseline of expectations. The more serious criticisms, therefore, were those that accused neo-realists of sleight of hand by equivocating between methodological and substantive claims (i.e. outlining a model and then treating this as an accurate description of reality). In addition, arguments from social theorists and historical sociologists have put the validity of this sort of approach into question. Mann, for example, argues that it is impossible to convincingly separate bounded spheres of social life from one another and identify autonomous ‘system-logics’ of such spheres.

Nonetheless, much of the most interesting and insightful contributions to international relations theory – such as those of Cox, Buzan, Little, Rosenberg, Spruyt and Ruggie – have been direct responses to Waltz’s opus. The engagement with Waltz is one of the few things that gives International Relations any kind of coherence as an academic discipline. It is impossible to understand contemporary International Relations without a familiarity with Waltz’s work and for that reason he is sure to be studied for a long time to come.

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!

Free Market Fairness, Distributional Adequacy and Distributivism

There’s an interesting review of Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness by O’Neill and Williamson in the Boston Review. The thought struck me recently that there isn’t much in the way of centre-right political philosophy. Many political philosophers present a set of principles which are squarely centre left, accommodating the free market but underlining the need for the maximum possible level of equality compatible with economic efficiency. The usual foil for this brand of liberal egalitarian position is the sort of minarchist free-market libertarianism defended by Robert Nozick, according to which individuals have an absolute right over legitimately acquired property.

According to the review, it looks like Tomasi wants to defend a compromise position which starts from a basically Rawlsian position but accords special value to market exchange and property rights. But it’s difficult to make such a compromise work – the reviewers don’t seem to think that Tomasi manages it.

The basic problems are that Rawls’s position does not prohibit market exchange and, once we’ve acknowledged that property rights are not absolute and can be compromised for the sake of social justice and/or the provision of public goods, it seems difficult to think of reasons why we shouldn’t arrange institutions to benefit those who are least well-off. There’s not much space for centre-right political philosophers to work with here. The best argument against liberal egalitarian conclusions seems to be an empirical one about the levels of equality that are realistically compatible with economic efficiency. But that isn’t a critique of liberal egalitarian principles as such.

In the review, O’Neill and Williamson report that Tomasi addresses this challenge by proposing his own test of ‘distributional adequacy’ as an alternative to Rawlsian distributive equality (i.e. maximise the position of the least well-off). But I didn’t really understand the idea of “distributional adequacy”, which is defined as being the requirement that ‘each and all should benefit from political and economic arrangements; if all are better off, it is acceptable that some have much more than others’. Better off than what? What is the counterfactual for comparison? It sounds like it is the requirement for pareto-optimality, but pareto is dependent on a comparison with the status quo. So a change is only ‘distributionally adequate’ if the rich are no worse off than they are at present? Or is it some kind of ‘state of nature’ comparison between the present set-up and a life of banging rocks together? Neither are very satisfying. I feel like I’m missing something…

In any case, it seems like O’Neill and Williamson are suggesting that Tomasi’s own principles point towards something like distributivism, a variant of European Christian democracy according to which the problem with industrial democracy isn’t that we have too many capitalists, but too few and too big.

If I get the chance I might give Tomasi’s book a read. I’m interested in seeing where contemporary philosophers might take the arguments of Hayek, who seems to be under-recognised by political philosophers as one of the major conservative liberal thinkers of the last century. But I start from a position of scepticism; I think it’s pretty difficult to make a clear philosophical case for the sort of centre-right position favoured by Anglo-American conservative liberals.