Category Archives: Uncategorized

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?

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.

Chaos and Governance in 2015

The year draws rapidly to a close, time for a quick glance back at the past at the wreckage before the winds of progress blow us onward to 2016. Many of the disasters of 2014 continued to rumble on, but the year saw two major diplomatic successes in the Vienna and the Paris deals – impressive victories for the Obama administration strategy of taking the long view and sticking with multilateralism even when it didn’t produce immediate payoffs.

The Syrian conflict metastasised into Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, France and Lebanon (with secondary symptoms all over the world), Russia went all in on propping up the Baathist state and Britain and France chose to leap into the vortex. Along with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the war demonstrates that internationalised civil wars (a category that comprises almost all civil wars) are the most important form of large-scale organised violence in the contemporary world.

Russian involvement in two regional conflicts simultaneously proves beyond any doubt that the Russian elite are willing to pay high costs to try to maintain a role as a major power. The militarisation of the South China Sea shows that China is willing to risk diplomatic frictions and potential security dilemmas on matters it has identified as a core national interest – although perhaps the ‘one belt, one road’ strategy will move its focus West and away from areas in which there could be frictions with the US. For its part, the world’s only superpower has shifted from messianism to a relatively restrained posture under Obama – but the success of Trump demonstrates that belligerent nationalism may be no hindrance in seeking the presidency. Even under Obama the US remains entangled by its alliances to regimes in the Middle East pursuing their own goals and vendettas – as does Britain of course.

European populations continued to respond to terrorist atrocities with stoicism. Despite the vein of genuinely ugly racism and xenophobia in some quarters, the continued sympathy for refugees across large parts of Europe and the US was heartening, even if the situation was mishandled by Merkel. Her actions were poorly thought through and shockingly unilateral, just like the bullying mercantalist policies that Germany has adopted towards Greece during her Chancellorship. More generally, European neo-liberal politicians (including the Conservatives in the UK) have shown that they’re increasingly out of touch with the people that they claim to represent and lack the leadership to address the challenges that the continent faces.

Meanwhile, the campus ‘regressive left’ jumped the shark in Yale in the US and Goldsmiths in the UK. Hopefully, the censorious, relativist current among students comprises a tiny minority that is just howling over the rest – certainly the overwhelming majority of students I encounter are happy to debate controversial issues in a mutually respectful spirit of inquiry.

I disagreed with increased UK involvement in strikes within Syria, for strategic not moral reasons. There was an amazing amount of rubbish spoken in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, so much so that it caused me to change my evaluations of several commentators and politicians. But the decision was exposed to an impressive level of scrutiny, publicly and in parliament. It is important that such decisions are never taken lightly and that the threshold for war is set very high.

So plenty of chaos, less and worse governance than we might hope for. But some reasons for chastened optimism. The most important outcome of 2016 is likely to be whether there is a viable peace deal in Syria – as well as the small matter of the US election.

Is ‘Agency’ A Red Herring?

I’m writing a new IR module and, being a bit weary of the way that IR debates are usually presented, I’ve been trying to use the structure-agency debate as one of the unifying threads. Reading up on the topic, I found an interesting article by Loyal and Barnes – the latter of whom I first encountered on philosophy of science reading lists when I was an undergraduate. Describing (common uses) of the term ‘agency’ red herrings in social theory, they note some of the unconvincing features of arguments about the political significance of free will:

A voluntaristic style of discourse may have suited the libertarian socialism of Giddens, but it has also suited the objectives of repressive political and religious regimes, which have sought to constrain their subjects precisely by stressing their freedom of action and making them responsible and accountable for what they do—with their lives in some cases. Conversely, fully causal accounts of action, for example, those in the various theological doctrines of predestination and divine determination, have been adopted by collectives concerned precisely to ignore and contravene the authority of church and state and even actively to oppose and overthrow them. Oddly perhaps, but oddly only to us, through and beyond the Reformation, it suited creative and resourceful opponents of the political and institutional status quo to hold that, of themselves, they could not have acted otherwise.

Free will is a will-o’-the-wisp of a concept. I’m with Spinoza, radical democrat and critical theorist: it can play no role in making sense of the world and human freedom is entirely possible in its absence. Although I don’t see ‘agency’ as intrinsically wedded to the idea of free will as Loyal and Barnes do, their alternative of ‘responsible action’ has a lot to recommend it.

Heraclitus and the Backwards Bending Bow

It has been an age since the last post. This is because I found myself a job for the coming academic year and as a result have been working flat out to prepare a slate of lectures and make sure I’m really on top of the material. I’m really looking forward to getting back to teaching though, especially as the topics I’ll be covering are democratisation, empire and globalisation – three areas where I can draw on the rich scholarship of historical sociology.

Since the last post I made, the situation in Egypt has deteriorated further. The revolution seems to be witnessing its Thermidor, although order looks like it is a long way from being restored.

Luttwak’s name keeps cropping up everywhere I look. Here’s some intriguing comments he made a few years ago about everyone’s favourite pre-socratic philosopher, Heraclitus:

“Men do not understand . . . [the coincidence of opposites]: there is a ‘back-stretched connection’ like that of the bow.” Thus Herakleitos or Heraclitus of Ephesus, thought very obscure by the ancients, but for us entirely transparent after the experience of the paradoxes of nuclear deterrence, whereby the peaceful had to be constantly ready to attack in retaliation, aggressors had to be meekly prudent, and nuclear weapons could be useful only if they were not used. Deterrence unveiled for all to see the paradoxical logic of strategy with its apparent contradictions, turning the “back-stretched” connection that unites opposites into a commonplace, except for those incurable innocents who fail to see that safety could be the sturdy child of terror.

With that, Herakleitos, the first Western strategic thinker… was finally vindicated, though long before him many a cunning fighter had won by instinctively applying the paradoxical logic to surprise his enemy, a thing possible only when the better ways of fighting, hence the expected ways, are deliberately renounced.

From The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Did Heraclitus really anticipate mixed strategy Nash equilibria? I’m not entirely sure. My favourite fragment from Heraclitus is ‘The sun will not overstep his bounds, for if he does, the Erinyes, helpers of justice, will find him out’. The arresting image of the furies exacting retribution on the sun hints, I think, at the hidden relationship between our notions of causal necessity and moral obligation.

More blogging soon.

A Storm of Scholars

What do international relations scholars love more than anything else? That’s right, arguing about cult TV series! Here’s Pablo K’s contribution to the long running discussion of Game of Thrones, looking at power, ideology and gender roles in the latest season. I stick my oar in further down in the comments. Condensed version of my comment: some of his critique goes a bit far, GoT is necessarily limited by its genre (European medieval fantasy) but is more compelling than much generic fantasy.  It’s compelling precisely because of its relatively authentic portrayal of feudal/dynastic society, which means it can’t explore some of the radical social alternatives that Pablo K would like to see examined. For that, you’re best off with science fiction, speculative fiction or slipstream.

Taksim and Tiananmen: Some Thoughts on Popular Protest

teargasleapI don’t know a great deal about Turkey, so I’ve been relying on accounts that I’ve been informed are reliable in order to stay abreast of the events spiralling out of the protest at Gezi Park. Well written analyses include this, this and this. Paul Mason continues his reports from the barricades, making some interesting (and potentially quite worrying) parallels to the Paris Commune. A consensus on a first-draft analysis seems to have emerged: the mass protests have been driven by the secular, urban middle class frustrated at the high-handedness of a provincial, neoliberal, moderate Islamist party that has governed for a decade in a majoritarian fashion. Without the alternation of power and with effective opposition to speak on their behalf due to a fragmented , people have taken to the streets. This, at least, seems to be the emerging picture provided by those who actually know about the context. At the time of writing, AKP politicians seem to moving towards a conciliatory stance but protests continue.

The events have a special resonance (not noted by the media) seeing as yesterday just past was the 24th anniversary of the massacre of protesters in Beijing (a harrowing eyewitness account recommended by Jamie bloodandtreasure argues that very little of the massacre actually took place in Tiananmen Square). Maybe I’m just unusual in making a connection between the two events – however imperfect, Turkey is a democracy and however heavy handed the Turkish police may be, the tanks and automatic weapons haven’t been turned on protesters. But recalling Tiananmen in the context of Taksim Square highlights the common playbook of popular revolutions: capture of a public square by a vanguard of young educated activists, the brokering of bridges between these activists and the urban working class, and the physical interposition of the bodies of the protesters in the way of violence directed at them by the security forces, thus weakening the regime’s legitimacy. This alliance between socio-economic classes (and the social aspect is important here, protesters are often able to enlist support from sections of the working class not only due to the economic location of the latter but because of their embeddedness in urban communities with whom protesters  may establish links) remains central to popular protest and the process of democratisation even today. It’s therefore pretty significant that at least one major union has thrown its support behind the protests. For all the overheated blather about social media, disruptive technology, globalisation, network society (anyone remember when Castells was the theoretical bees knees?), the multitude and so on, the classic lexicon of political sociology remains relevant. Events in Turkey readily suggest an old fashioned analysis in terms of urban-rural/secular-religious political cleavages, class, power elites and the ‘mobilisation of bias’ by the state  (although I admit that critical geography might have a fair bit to say about the politics of urban space in the context of the current saga).

A corollary of this is that supposedly obsolescent strategies of political organisation aimed at building mass democratic movements on the basis of broad commonalities between large numbers of disenfranchised actors, implied by quaint notions like ‘the labour movement’, might actually have some life in them. So, in addition to startling photos of photogenic women in fashionable clothes leaping over teargas cannisters, the protests in Turkey provide plenty to reflect upon regarding power, protest and political contention.


Not Dead, Just Resting

Although I’d intended to keep up with the blogging, a number of unexpected things landed in my lap over the last month and so I haven’t been able to muster the energy to write anything worthwhile. But after the weekend I should have a bit more time and mental space to write.

Adventures in Anachronistic Sociology: Dahrendorf ‘Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society’


Following up on a line of research that resulted in a paper recently accepted for publication, I’ve been digging into the sociological literature on class and stratification. Today I read relevant sections from Dahrendorf’s Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, which is widely cited in the literature and seems to have been a major influence on debates. His ‘conflict theory’ of class is interesting: he attempts to set out a theory of class in terms of ‘authority relations’ rather than economic relationships between actors. This schema has some oddities, not least Dahrendorf’s categorisation of postal workers as members of the ruling class. Michael Mann picks up on this quirk in The Sources of Social Power vol. 2, but Mann’s conceptualisation of the middle classes owes a lot to Dahrendorf. The middle classes in mature industrial society are, Dahrendorf argues, ‘born decomposed’ – they occupy various positions at different gradations within the administrative hierarchies that characterised contemporary industrial society. The working class(es) have also experienced decomposition, as industrialism has produced not a single mass of proletarians but several gradations in terms of skill and training. The skilled working class blends into the white-collar salariat. So far, so persuasive as an general account of changes within industrial society up until 1959. The distinction between ownership and control is pretty important, distinctions along similar lines were later made by other class theorists such as Goldthorpe and Wright. Dahrendorf also provides a pretty sharp discussion of other theories of class put forward by scholars such as Djilas and Burnham.

But Dahrendorf takes his argument further, in a direction that seems absurd today, arguing that industrial society is no longer capitalist. This is because of the separation of ownership and control between capitalist shareholders and managers. Marx accurately described the conditions of his own age, in which capitalist owners managed their factories in person, directly facing propertyless, non-organised workers at the coal-face of production. Dahrendorf argues that this all changed with the rise of the joint-stock company. The intensity of class conflict in the late C19th and the early C20th was merely the result of an overlapping set of conflicts over authority relations, which have now been diffused more generally through society and the economy. Not only has the struggle between capital and labour been overshadowed by other complex and cross-cutting conflicts, but capitalists no longer seem to exercise a great deal of agency within society on Dahrendorf’s account. What I found extraordinary about Dahrendorf’s account, however, was the bizarre claim (from a 2013 vantage point) that

Never has the imputation of a profit motive been further from the real motives of men than it is for modern bureaucratic managers

If that claim was true in 1959, it certainly isn’t one that anyone would make in 2013. It seems fairly obvious that the interests of managers of capitalist enterprises are closely aligned with shareholders, indeed the right argues that managers ought first and foremost act to maximise shareholder value as agents of shareholder principals. The left, meanwhile, argues that managers and capitalists have effectively become a single profit-driven class. Dahrendorf’s claim looks like it originates on another planet rather than from half a century ago. What does this imply? That Western societies were, for a brief interlude in the post-war era, post-capitalist ‘industrial societies’ but reverted to capitalism between then and now (presumably sometime after 1979)? Or perhaps that, despite his sharp conceptual analysis of the new middle classes, Dahrendorf was mistaken and Western societies were always capitalist and that economic relations – rather than generalised authority relations – have always underpinned their social structures? Or that, as Mann might argue, certain sources of social power oscillate in terms of their relative importance, with economic power now reshaping Western societies because of global economic integration?

Still, there’s a strong anti-authoritarian spirit that runs through the book, emphasising the role of conflict in a pluralistic society and rejecting the demand for enforced consensus made by its enemies.

DeLong on the ‘Lesser Depression’

Good article by DeLong on the scale of the damage caused by the Global Financial Crisis and the subsequent recession:

In the Great Depression that struck the U.S. in 1929, the subsequent twelve years before American mobilization for World War II erased the last shadows of the Great Depression, production averaged roughly 15% below the pre-Great Depression trend, for a total depression waste output shortfall of 180% of a year’s production. Today, even if U.S. production returns to its stable-inflation potential by 2017–a huge if–we will as of 2017 have incurred a depression waste output shortfall of 60% of a year’s production.

The losses from what I have been calling the Lesser Depression will not be over in 2017. As best as I can foresee, there is no moral-equivalent-of-war on the horizon to pull us into a mighty boom to erase the shadow cast by the downturn, and when I take present and values and capitalize the lower trend growth of the American economy as a result of the shadow into the future, I cannot reckon the present value of the additional cost at less than a further 100% of a year’s output today, for a total cost of 160% of a year’s production. The damage is thus equal to that of the Great Depression, counting a 1% of production shortfall as equally painful whenever it happens.

The U.S. economy today, however, has two and a half times as many people as the U.S. economy of 1929. And the U.S. economy today is five–or perhaps more–times as rich as the economy of 1929. In terms of the sheer real value of goods and services lost due to the depression waste output shortfall, the fact that the U.S. economy today is some 12.5 times the size of the economy of 1929 means that the absolute size of this downturn looks to be some fourteen times the size of the Great Depression.

DeLong also makes a concise, empirically supported argument that the US remains a long way from its debt capacity. As he also argues here, there seems to be enormous, unmet demand for safe assets in the form of treasury bonds. But rather than prevent painful deleveraging by issuing debt to meet this demand, policy elites seem set on inducing further liquidation through austerity. If bleeding the patient fails, fetch more leeches. The mistakes of the Great Depression are blindly repeated as if Keynes had never put pen to paper. 

The obvious difference between the Great Depression and now, noted by DeLong, is that no geopolitical crisis looms to provide a deus ex machina for the economic travails of the US or Europe and the opportunity to reconstruct the world’s economic architecture.