Blog Archives

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 II: Brown on ‘Late Modern’ Theory

Duck of Minerva is currently running a symposium on ‘The End of IR Theory’. Yesterday I wrote a post on Bennett’s contribution and Goddard’s response. Chris Brown’s post also caught my interest, so I thought I’d offer a few comments.

In addition to being one of the people most directly responsible for bringing normative concerns back into international relations and establishing international political theory as a sub-field in its own right, Brown has established a niche for himself as something like a curator of contemporary international relations theory, having penned several overviews of the state of the discipline over the years. In the latest installment he seems as cautious and ambivalent about the achievements within international relations theory as he was in a 2007 article and when I saw him speak at the SGIR conference in 2010. In his latest contribution, he focuses on the question of whether ‘later modern theory’ (post-structuralism, critical theory etc.) has made good on the ‘promissory notes’ it issued in the 1980s and 90s. Overall, his judgement is fairly negative.  Much sophisticated work has been done in this area, but it has remained ‘Grand Theory’ in C Wright Mills’ pejorative sense: focusing on the relationship between concepts rather than the application of those concepts to thorny social and political problems.

‘Problems’ are important in Brown’s article and accompanying article. He suggests that the more interesting work done within more mainstream currents of international relations theory has been worthwhile precisely because it has been fairly hard-headed ‘problem solving theory’ in Cox’s sense of the term in an era when the US government seemed to be in the grip of a strange right-wing variant of post-modernism that denied any objective limits on American power to reshape the world. I seem to recall that at a previous BISA conference he suggested that haute IR theory had become sophisticated but risked becoming arcane, perhaps he now believes this has come to pass. He thus calls for ‘critical problem-solving theory’ focusing on searching for solutions to the problems facing the marginal and the vulnerable in world politics – presumably, given his choice of examples, focusing on the extremes of physical and economic insecurity.

It’s hard to completely disagree with his judgement that a research programme has been slow to emerge amongst the ‘late modern’ perspectives. I wrote my MA thesis on the relevance of Adorno and the Frankfurt School for international relations theory, but I ultimately found that these conceptual frameworks did not have the purchase on the empirical (and some of the normative) questions I was interested in. I have found historical sociology and political economy to be much more useful. But maybe Brown’s skepticism about the absence of a research programme is too thoroughgoing: Columba Peoples drew on the Frankfurt School in his well-regarded analysis of US missile defence policy.

On the issue of ‘problem solving’, I wonder if Brown doesn’t stack the decks against critical theory. Mainstream theories have it easy, in some respects, as they have a clear addressee: those who currently wield power in international relations. This was part of the definition of Cox’s idea of problem-solving theory, it takes the currently configurations of power for granted and tacitly accepts the legitimacy of the present power-holders. The existence of ‘reality-based’ US politicians waiting in the wings during the Bush administration gave the mainstream ‘problem solvers’ a set of agents who might very plausibly put their proposed solutions into action. The difficulty for ‘critical theory’ is that it lacks access to equivalent agents, indeed part of the purpose of ‘critical theory’ is to help create an agent capable of bringing about radical change (Gramsci’s ‘modern Prince’). Unfortunately for critical theorists, labour movement is at present very weak in much of the Western world, depriving critical theory of a plausible potential agent of radical change. Notions of the ‘multitude’ remain fairly dubious, the ‘late modern’ contribution to the vacuous field of globalisation theory. This problem of absent agents (the ‘death of the subject’ if you really want to get late modern, I won’t judge) leaves critical theory spinning its wheels, with little torque exerted on pressing political problems. Milja Kurki wrote an insightful article in Millennium in 2011 on the problems currently that critical theory currently faces in its attempt to find influence inside and outside of the academy, I can’t help but think that the lack of agents is the root of the problems that she and Brown identify.

As for the nature of contemporary problems and the scholars who might address them, I agree with LFC’s point in the comments that a central problem faced by the dispossessed throughout the world is poverty and maldevelopment. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, such intensely political issues are at risk of being defined as outside the remit of IR due to the rather ridiculous barrier that has emerged between IR and IPE. Indeed, I’d argue that it is in IPE and development/heterodox economics that we find ‘critical-problem solving’ research seeking to address the tangible problems of poverty and inequality by refusing the solutions and explanations advanced by the powerful. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Ha-Joon Chang, Robert Wade, Peter Evans and Raphael Kaplinsky – but there are many others. As for agents, looking towards the democratic representatives of those who are marginal in the world economy might be a good start: Lula for one seems to have a keen understanding of both the structures of power that maintain global inequalities, as well as the concrete potentials for the amelioration and transformation of some of the least desirable aspects of the present world order.

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!

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.

Fukuyama Blogging: Part 4 ‘Political Accountability’

IntroPart 1Part 2Part 3; China/Russia detour

Continuing my efforts to blog my progress through Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order vol. 1, here’s Part the 4th. This section could be subtitled ‘a brief history of accountable government’, as it deals with how broadly responsive government emerged in the pre-modern era. Again,Fukuyama is engaged in another plate spinning exercise. Accountability can only exist under very specific ‘goldilocks’ conditions under which the central estate and elite actors are roughly in balance.

Fukuyamapresents a typology of three different kinds of regime: Strong absolutism (his conception of which I discussed in my last post on China and Russia), weak absolutism, failed oligarchy and genuine accountable government. The last three are found primarily inWestern Europe, where the lateness of the development of the state made strong absolutism unlikely.

Ironically, although he makes many criticisms of Marx, it is clear that Fukuyama views class struggle as a pretty major determinant of the type of regime a society ends up with. Weak absolutisms occur where elite actors are co-opted by the state but retain their privileges. This produces a systematically corrupt form of government with a dependent elite above the rule of law and an oppressed peasantry. The exemplars Fukuyama provides are France and Spain, where caste-like gradations between different noble office-holders and elite exemptions from taxation produced societies dominated by rent-seeking.

What’s particularly interesting here is Fukuyama’s examination of how this venal system crossed the Atlantic and was transplanted to the Spanish Americas, giving rise to the legacy of oligarchic and patrimonial politics in Latin America. Indeed,Fukuyamamakes some fascinating comparisons between the travails of weak absolutist regimes and contemporary developing nations, likening Louis XVI’s minister Anne-​Robert-​Jacques Tur­got to technocratic neo-liberals parachuted into finance ministries inLatin America. He also notes that this kind of elite-co-opting state is chronically unable to institute a sensible system of taxation, so it has a strong tendency to default on debts as a surreptitious form of financing its expenditure. The centre cannot truly eliminate well entrenched elites, only chip away at their independence. Networks of patronage take the place of negotiated settlements between organised social groups, the norm in accountable regimes.

Irascible French nobles causing trouble for Edmund Blackadder

Those elites eh? Nothing but trouble. They make a similar nuisance of themselves in ‘failed oligarchies’, the exemplar of which is medieval Hungary. The Hungarian kingdom is not exactly well known as a crucial case-study in the making of the modern state, but it is of pivotal importance to Fukuyama’s argument. Indeed, maybe too much rests on this single case study. Hungary is important because Hungarian elites were able to thoroughly check the powers of their monarch and reduce him to their agent through the Golden Bull of 1222, a kind of super Magna Carta. The church, high nobles and lower gentry were all arrayed against the centre. The result was a weak state that failed to institute the kind of fiscal-military reforms pioneered elsewhere inEuropein the late middle-ages. At the mercy of large noble estates, the peasantry was crushed:

The “free­dom” sought by the Hun­gar­ian no­ble class was the free­dom to ex­ploit their own peas­ants more thor­ough­ly, and the ab­sence of a strong cen­tral state al­lowed them to do just that. Ev­ery­one un­der­stands the Chi­nese form of tyran­ny, one per­pe­trat­ed by a cen­tral­ized dic­ta­tor­ship. But tyran­ny can re­sult from de­cen­tral­ized oli­garchic dom­ina­tion as well

So we hit another dead end.

The Hungarian example is important because it buttresses Fukuyama’s belief that too much of anything (state power, elite independence) is a bad thing. The path to political development is the golden mean between alternatives. Down this path walked England, where a strong state faced a coherent landed elite. Unlike in Russia or China, English elites retained their independence. Unlike in France, they had deep roots on their estates in the country, they did not become office holders clustering round the royal court like flies. Why didn’t England go down the path of Hungary, however? Alternatively, why didn’t Englandend up like France? Why were the tendencies towards weak absolutism in the Stuart period defeated? For Fukuyama the important factors were the established liberties enjoyed by all social groups and the more open and less caste-like nature of social class in England.

Okay, plausible enough. But I wonder if an alternative explanation could be thrashed out by focusing on the terms of the settlement between elites and the state in the late medieval period. Whereas once lords had vied for the crown and acted as kingmakers, under the Tudors the elites were largely disarmed. However, the monarch depended on parliament to raise taxes for the purpose of war-making. So, perhaps by accident, the UK happened to hit on a compact between nobles and the state in which an accountable state secured a monopoly on the use of force. I’m not a historian of this period (yet alone of medieval Hungary for purpose of comparison), but I believe Mann makes the argument that by Elizabeth I the outlines of constitutional government were already in place.

Once again,Fukuyama’s argument might seem rather Whiggish, with its story of the rights of freeborn Englishmen triumphing over the plots of popish Stuarts, but he tries to head off the criticism with an example of how it could all go wrong as it did in Hungary, and how it went right for slightly different reasons in Denmark. In the home the best lager in the world, the monarchy supported literacy amongst the peasantry for religious reasons and attempted to build a peasant-based conscript army to avoid dependence on the nobles. This established traditions of corporate organisation amongst the upwardly mobile peasantry, setting the stage for gradual political mobilisation and the demand for accountable government. So the English Goldilocks had sister.

What Britain and Denmark shared was a synchronicity between state-strength, rule of law and accountability – providing a virtuous circle which created conditions for further political development. These nations were able to deal with the strains of modernisation, whereas (as Fukuyama acknowledges in the conclusion of the book) absolutist regimes such asFrancecould not cope with the demands of newly mobilised social groups during the dawn of the modern era. In any case,

The three com­po­nents of a mod­ern po­lit­ical or­der—a strong and ca­pa­ble state, the state’s sub­or­di­na­tion to a rule of law, and gov­ern­ment ac­count­abil­ity to all cit­izens—had all been es­tab­lished in one or an­oth­er part of the world by the end of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry.

Returning to form as a disciple of Hegel and Kojeve, he notes that history effectively ended in 1806 at the battle of Jena. All that follows is epilogue.

But before the owl of minerva takes flight, lets go back a bit. First, I’m not really sure how separable the rule of law and political accountability in Fukuyama’s narrative. The problem is that England (and sometimes Denmark) is the exemplar of both of these aspects of political development. Both require a balance between state and elite power. Fukuyama suggests that Prussia under Fredrick the Great was an absolutism constrained by the rule of law, a Rechstaat, and it might have been enlightening if it had been used as a case study. But it is difficult to think of a state with political accountability (which we might define as the ability of corporate actors representing both elite and subordinate social classes to constrain the state) in which the rule of law was unknown. It’s hard to think of any likely candidates.

Second, I think that there is still a lot to be said for an alternative perspective that sees Britain as one of a chain of capitalist polities of increasing scale and ‘nation-ness’, from the city state of Genoa to the United Provinces of the Netherlands. This family of polities, which also might include Switzerland and the Hanseatic League, has been of interest to scholars such as Tilly, Arrighi and Deudney. It’s not as if the international aspect of political development is missed by Fukuyama. But whilst the importance of conflict is acknowledged, he pays little attention to the development of worldwide capitalism and how it drove processes such as urbanisation in early modern Europe. War, trade and political development have always been related, however. The maritime orientation of Britain, for example, has been seen as pushing it towards developing a navy and seeking colonies overseas instead of remaining involved in continental European geopolitics. Its decision to become a sea rather than land power may have pushed it down a very different path to Spain, which Tilly suggests it otherwise resembled. Navies are expensive, but they cannot be used as a tool to oppress and extract wealth from domestic actors.

But in Fukuyama’s account, the rise of urban commerce and the burgher class depended more on domestic factors than international relationships. Capitalism arose in Europe because a deadlock between elites and the state prevented it from being strangled in the crib by either.

But enough, onwards towards the final post, where I’ll cover the conclusion as well as sling out some more reflections onFukuyama’s opus.