What We Talked About At ISA2015: A Debate Around John Hobson’s ‘The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics’

Below is the text of my intervention at a roundtable organized by Alina Sajed entitled ‘Race and International Relations—A Debate Around John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics‘. TDoT has hosted a symposium on the book: you can read an initial post by John, commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett, and a reply from John. I’ve tried not to cover the same ground.

While race and racism have recently become topics of increasing interest in the rather parochial world of IR scholarship, few books have ranged so widely across time and thinkers as John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. This is a monumental work of scholarship that accumulates a staggering amount of evidence, were further proof necessary, of the white supremacist and/or Eurocentric foundations of IR as a discipline (I use the ‘and/or’ advisedly, because much of the debate that the book has generated and some of my own critique focuses on the complex relationship between the formations that Hobson identifies as ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’, about which more in due course). So whatever my problems with the book, I want to endorse it as a deeply necessary intervention in the IR academy. Nonetheless, I find myself in sharp disagreement with some of its central claims in ways that have not been fully addressed in earlier discussions. I will focus here on two areas of disagreement: first, the book’s treatment of Marx, Lenin and Marxism in general; and second, its crucial distinction between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’.

Why focus on a critique of Marxism as Eurocentric and/or imperialist? (Again the ‘and/or’ seems necessary because Hobson’s careful mapping of European thought finds conjunctions of racism and/or Eurocentrism with both imperialist and anti-imperialist sensibilities). Partly this comes out of my own intellectual investment in denying what I believe to be the false choice that is often presented between Marxism and postcolonialism. As such, I find myself troubled as much by Marxist work that repudiates postcolonialism as I am by the opposite tendency (which I think is at work in this book). But partly this also comes out of a sense that if Marxism were in fact as Eurocentric and/or imperialist as Hobson suggests, this would leave inexplicable its enormous appeal in the Third World both in the heyday and aftermath of the great decolonization and liberation movements that it informed. More prosaically, I think Hobson’s readings of Marx and Lenin are temporally truncated and therefore somewhat misleading.

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Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller

Europe has the only classical tradition that is also considered modern.

Europe claimed Greece as its ancestor. But not anymore.

Europe once turned a Black god white.

Once upon a time Europe decided that it was a family of nations. This decision is commemorated as the beginning of international law.

Because indigenous peoples were not mentioned in a very old book, Europeans wondered if these peoples were human.

Some of the Europeans who cleared lands of their indigenous peoples liked to represent themselves as indigenous princesses.

Europeans once thought that if they left Europe they would degenerate. To this day they view their cousins over the seas with suspicion.

European scientists once found a way to break up human beings into a set of quantum parts.

Europe is proud of freeing itself from metaphorical chains.

Europe got rich out of African slavery. Then it freed the slaves.

Europe was so concerned with slavery that it colonized the African continent.

In Europe you can baptises yourself so as to be born again with a humanitarian soul.

Some of Europe’s top philosophers were bigots and racists, even for their own time.

Europeans were so fascinated with primitives that they created a space in the brain called the unconscious.

Europeans say that Unconscious bias is regrettable but that it doesn’t make a person bad.

Europe prefers to narrate its eras of global war as eras of “long peace”.

Europe once had a big war with itself when some Europeans started to practice in Europe what they had been practicing in their colonies.

Algeria was a part of Europe. But Algeria was not part of the pax-Europa.

Anyone can be European so long as you tell Europeans where you come from.

Europeans can only trust women who show their whole face. Exceptions apply.

Europe never said thank you to muslim scholars.

The Mediterranean is currently the deadliest sea crossing in the world

Europeans are experts on Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Europeans prefer to learn about Africa, Asia and Oceania from other Europeans.

Europe is the only cosmopolitan that is allowed to keep its own adjective.

Europe believes that if it wasn’t written down it didn’t happen.

Europeans like to write about themselves.

Only Europeans can know Europe.

Once Europe was narcissitic, but Europeans fixed that by turning the mirror into a window onto the world.

What We Talked About at ISA2015: State Transformation and the Rise of China

At this year’s ISA, Shahar Hameiri and I talked about our new research project on state transformation and rising powers, with specific reference to China. In a nutshell, we suggest that, like other states, those of so-called ‘rising powers’ are undergoing epochal transformations associated with transformations in the global political economy since the late 1970s, profoundly conditioning how they are ‘rising’.

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Why Tell Stories – Or Rather, Why I Tell Stories

This post has been slowly taking shape in my head since last year’s ISA in Toronto.  A year late, I know, but maybe now it can act as some kind of refresher as we head into this year’s festivities.  (In fact, as I write these words with a cup of tea in front of me, I’m watching the last of the sunrise over Faubourg-Marigny.)

Last year, as there has been for a few years now, there was a roundtable that consisted of people telling stories – personal stories, political stories, literary stories. The room was packed, as it always is for the storytelling roundtable. People stood leaning against the walls, cross-legged on the floor, and sometimes two to a seat. The air was warm and still. The stories were touching, wryly acerbic, and occasionally silly. One storyteller, though, both caught and divided the audience’s attention. She told a powerful story of victimisation in multiple voices, drawn from our own ranks at the ISA, and laid bare the systemic problem of sexism and sexual harassment in the academy. It was the sort of story that had half the audience stunned into silence and the other half nodding in knowing agreement.

In the wake of that story, the discussion took on a life of its own, with a number of audience members calling for solidarity, empathy, and action. Others were shocked and claimed no knowledge that such a world existed under their very noses. Still others shrugged it off, saying that the story lacked an understanding of the complicity of its own narrator (or rather, its narrators) – that it was a kind of call, but one that should not be answered. Sitting in the audience, I said nothing, watched and listened as the tension in the room crested and abated.

Two years earlier, in a similar conference room in San Diego, I had told a story of my own. I hadn’t planned to tell that particular story – in fact, I’d decided months earlier to present a piece I had written for my doctoral thesis that had gotten a warm reception in other settings, which has since appeared here in another form. That was someone else’s story, from my fieldwork in Cuba. But, about two weeks before the start of the ISA, a story of my own came to me all at once and I wrote it in less than an hour. I brought both with me to the roundtable and sat them on the table in front of me, in case I lost the nerve to tell my own story, but somehow I managed it, shaking hands and all.

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The Global Transformation: A Response

The final post in our forum on The Global Transformation, in which Barry Buzan and George Lawson respond to the points raised by Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson. The original post, summarising the book is available here. The book will also be discussed further at the ISA conference in New Orleans and a launch at LSE.

[Editor’s note: The authors are not responsible for the images in this post. But it’s Friday.]


Given the ‘excess’ of contemporary academic production, it is a rare treat to have colleagues engage seriously with your work. We therefore offer our heartfelt thanks to Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson for their close reading of our book and for their thoughtful critiques of it. We offer our equally heartfelt thanks to the editors of The Disorder of Things, particularly Meera Sabaratnam, for investing a considerable amount of time in organising and publishing these commentaries.

The interventions by Go, Mulich and Allinson raise two main issues: the first relates to our use of, and contribution to, theoretical debates, particularly those around imperialism, and uneven and combined development (UCD); the second concerns the relationship between history and theory, most notably our use of macro-historical frames such as ‘modernity’. We discuss these issues in turn.

On theory

Julian Go is right that The Global Transformation ‘expressly rejects any grand theoretical narratives or systems’. He is also right that we do not use ‘categories derived from a larger and more comprehensive theoretical system’. And, however tiresome it is to keep agreeing with your critics, Go is once more right in saying that our use of uneven and combined development is not meant to correct this shortcoming – as we discuss below, we use UCD as an analytical shorthand rather than as a theoretical schema containing a range of causal claims.

Why is this the case? The first reason is strategic. At the beginning of the project, we had several choices to make: whether to pitch the book primarily to an IR audience or whether to also take some swings at cognate disciplines; whether to get drawn into internal debates associated with particular theoretical schemas or seek out a position in-between, or perhaps above, the fray; how to balance big picture and fine-grained historical analysis, and more. In each of these instances we chose the easy option – easy not in the sense of being straightforward to do, but in the sense of ‘less is more’. For example, rather than spend much time on the shortcomings of disciplinary historical sociology when it comes to its ‘occlusion of the global’, we concentrated on what historical sociology (and economic and world history) contributes to IR debates. Given that the answer to this was ‘quite a lot’, we made this our primary concern. Similarly, rather than distract ourselves – and readers – with the minutiae of debates internal to the whys and wherefores of ‘the global transformation’, we constructed a composite argument that assembled diverse storylines into a single narrative. To be clear – we are not saying that we neither built on, nor took a stand on, many of these debates, not least around the ‘internalism’ and Eurocentrism of many existing accounts. Rather, we made a deliberate decision to take an ecumenical approach, building on insights from a variety of theoretical churches rather than sticking to a single tradition.

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When Ernest Met Leon

This is the fourth post in our forum on Buzan and Lawson’s The Global Transformation, from our own Jamie. The opening post, responses from Julian Go and Jeppe Mulich, and the authors’ rejoinder are all live.


Imagine that you are a collier in one of the mining districts of central Scotland in 1799. You spend your days hewing minerals from the earth, as your predecessor of one century before almost certainly did. You eat a similar, limited, diet and probably return from darkened pit to tallow-lit cottage on the same route and to the same few possessions as that of one hundred years previously. Perhaps most important, as vast proportions -possibly a majority – of the rest of humanity had been and remained at the time of your birth, you are not a legally or politically autonomous individual. You are a serf of sorts: your labour if not your entire body bound to the will of another. Should you attempt to flee this master, and were not returned to him within a year and a day, any person found to be harbouring you would be liable to pay one hundred pounds compensation for your person .

Compare now the grandson or great-grandson (for by this point, and unlike the case of 1799, daughters would not be working down the pit) of this collier in 1899. It is quite possible you or your forbears would have emigrated, as one-sixth of your European contemporaries did, to lands such as Canada and Australia cleansed of their aboriginal inhabitants to enable you to flourish. Where once you were the property of a mine-lord, you are now the citizen-subject of the world’s most powerful Empress: a ‘psychological wage’ available to you should you choose to take it. Your work remains back-breaking, but aided by machinery. Most of all, you are paid for it. This wage relationship creates not just a free individual but a potentially conscious collectivity. That collectivity, in which you may recognise yourself not just as miner, Briton or Scot but as a member of something called ‘the working class’, has its own flags, buildings, trade unions and – an entity unknown to your forbear of 1799 – political parties.

Has there ever been a century in which so much changed for so many? The wager of Barry Buzan and George Lawson in their magisterial book The Global Transformation is that – with the possible hazy exception of the early holocene transition to settled agriculture – there has not. In doing so, they are revising revisionism, with great consequences not just for historical sociology but for the discipline of IR.

The view of the ‘long nineteenth century’ from the French Revolution to the Russian as a ‘great divide’ in human history has fallen into disfavour, smacking as it can of the triumphal sense of European, male, bourgeois self that characterised the century in question. The institutions and social practices heralded as novel can usually be traced back to other times and places, and the picture of shocking change within a lifetime transformed into something less immediately perceptible. To the extent that there is a popular historical consciousness, in the UK at any rate, it thrives on finding the familiar in history: the ways in which the Edwardians, or Victorians, or Tudors or Plantanagets were ‘like us’. Buzan and Lawson’s reminder of the recent nature, and the strangeness, of the past is a lapidary one.

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Tea-plantation workers in Tsarist-era Georgia.

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Modernity Is Everything; Empires Are Everywhere

JMulich_squareJeppe Mulich brings us the third post in our forum on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. Jeppe is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History at New York University. He works on comparative empires, global history, and colonialism in world politics. His research on regionalism, law, and intercolonial networks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been published in the Journal of Global History and in the anthology The Uses of Space in Early Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

The authors’ original post, Julian’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.


Let me start off by stressing that The Global Transformation is a fantastic book. Buzan and Lawson manage to pack a host of information and analysis into a relatively short and very readable book, while at the same time keeping their fundamental argument sharp and coherent. It is one of those works that leave you wondering why it has not already been written, particularly in a discipline so intent on retelling the wrong stories over and over again.[1] It is also, incidentally, a book that strongly argues in favor of the relevance of my own field, something that any aspiring scholar should welcome with open arms. With this in mind, my comments and critiques in the following piece might come off as nitpicky, but if they do this is only because I agree with so very much of Buzan and Lawson’s core argument. I am not trying to offer a counterargument or even a corrective to their account, but rather a few friendly jabs and perhaps an opening for further research into and discussion of some of the wider themes and implications of this important book.

I will primarily provide comments on the book from the perspective of a historian, with the theoretical underpinnings which that classification implies. My comments are divided into three broad sections. The first section will deal with issues of thinking in time, in particular how to date the type of global shifts that Buzan and Lawson are interested it and, related to this, how to disentangle the historical forces of change and continuity. The second section will delve more into the specific substance of the global transformation – namely the notion of modernity and the potential problems and benefits of using this nebulous concept. The third section will focus more on a particular part of the puzzle of the nineteenth century – that of colonial configurations and the multitude of state-forms emerging at this time – and consider this phenomenon vis-à-vis Buzan and Lawson’s treatment of rational state-building.

Periodization and Eurocentric Narratives

BelleyWhile Hobsbawm (1962) introduced the idea of a long nineteenth century more than half a century ago, in the first of his three books covering the period from 1789 to 1914, the past decade and a half has witnessed a resurgence of interest among historians and historical sociologists. Unlike Hobsbawm’s work, which focused almost entirely on events and developments within Europe, many of these new accounts are in various ways attempting to grapple with the inherent Eurocentrism of earlier histories. Such projects are often accomplished by telling decidedly global stories of the nineteenth century, with the most widely read example being C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, joined in the past year by Jürgen Osterhammel’s 1000-page behemoth The Transformation of the World.[2]

What the works of Bayly, Osterhammel, and Buzan and Lawson have in common is their focus on the transformative nature of the nineteenth century, apparent with just a cursory glance at their titles. While these authors might be interested in a certain kind of big history, their work focuses on shifts, breaks, origins, and turning points – not on continuities and long trajectories. This is in many ways true for most academic history, which often ends up as an exhausting chase to find the origins of specific phenomena or practices or, when coupled with the peculiar obsession with modernity, an endless argument over when and where the first example of a truly modern state/revolution/economy/philosophy/society/ideology/science/war should be found. Increasingly relegated to the sidelines are the crotchety old contrarians who insist that nothing much ever changed anyhow.[3] Continue reading