This is the second post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book and laying out some provocations for sympathetic readers. In the next few weeks, we will have further posts from Srjdan and Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.
I was at an IR event last year where the speaker jovially declared that they just did not care about being, and being accused of being, Eurocentric. At the time, I found it both a little shocking and depressing that they could see fit to dispense with that fig leaf of serious acknowledgement that often accompanies discussions of Eurocentrism. And indeed I thought, glumly, that it perhaps reflected many scholars’ underlying attitudes to the issue – a tokenistic practice of acknowledgement underpinning a wider apathy or disconnection. What only struck me later was also the possibility that the speaker also didn’t really understand the issue which was batted away so carelessly. Indeed, it is unclear that many ‘mainstream’ IR scholars truly understand the problem of Eurocentrism, given the mythologised twin deaths of colonialism and scientific racism in 1945 (or so).
So, Hobson is knocking at the door more loudly, with a bigger stick, and much more paperwork. In that sense, what I have to say about The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics should be put in the light of the fact that I am thoroughly supportive of this broad and important intellectual project, and one of many also trying to knock on that door. I am very grateful for the chance to comment publicly on this important book, but I am really much more interested in the response of scholars working within paradigms discussed as Eurocentric by Hobson. Whilst I don’t expect all scholars who have washed their hands of the issue to be converted, the book lays out a serious and robust case for substantially re-thinking the orientation of the discipline as a whole; it is the sort of book that you can never un-read. And that is a Very Good Thing.
My comments in this post are in three parts: first, an assessment of the significance of this contribution to international thought and the IR discipline; second, a direct response to the questions raised in the author’s opening post about breaking up definitions of Eurocentrism; and finally, a discussion about where all this takes us for future theorising.
IR As So Much Parochialism
At the end of the book, Hobson concludes that the arguments he has raised make it impossible to see IR as a value-free, objective social science but as a series of evolving and recurring ideas fixated on, and often interested in defending, Western primacy. The core success of the book is that this is demonstrated convincingly as a systematic preoccupation at the very heart of international / IR theory through a careful and dedicated reading of primary texts across different theoretical sensibilities. This is Hobson’s principal, ambitious objective in the book, and it is one which is very well executed across the core of what we know as IR theory.
Such a painstaking demonstration is not to be taken lightly. Whilst it is true that IR’s Eurocentric tendencies have been pointed out in numerous places in the past, (such as here, here and here), anti-Eurocentric critique has perhaps tended to focus on a particular area or issue to unpick. Hobson’s Odyssey through the heart of the discipline is however illuminating, brutally inclusive and virtually no one is left untouched.
In truly Homeric style, however, the trade-off is that the visits to each thinker or theory can feel rather short. No doubt many will feel hard done by. In some cases this might be justified (more on this later). However, in the majority of cases, Hobson successfully demonstrates not simply that these thinkers carried the racist or Eurocentric assumptions of their day, but that this was central to how their thought actually worked. One of the most interesting examples of this is the treatment of Woodrow Wilson (p.167-177) who was so extensively resurrected in the 1990s as inspiration for a liberal and ostensibly anti-imperial project, but whose thought was firmly anchored in an anti-immigrationist racism which was underpinned by a rejection of black empowerment in the US. Another highlight is the controversial discussion in chapters 11 and 12 that the main preoccupation of contemporary realisms and liberalisms, such as those of Kagan and Finnemore, has been, effectively, the containment of a ‘barbarian peril’. Even to someone accustomed to seeing Eurocentrisms everywhere, having the case stated in this way was particularly illuminating.
Such an achievement is important as a research statement; yet this is almost eclipsed by its pedagogical potential. On a practical level, the book’s focused short-chapter structure and clear argumentation make it very accessible for students to dip into in relation to a particular theoretical approach. But at the broader level, it offers a clear and deep provocation to those thinking about world politics, which will likely have a bigger effect on people entering the discipline in this post-Western order than with those scholars who have already spent a career defending it.
Hobson is however also interested in reaching another audience – postcolonial scholars already working on the legacies of colonialism and imperialism in international theory. In his earlier post, he poses a particular question to this audience: is the disaggregation of Eurocentrisms in the book useful or unhelpful? He contrasts his position to that of Edward Said, who, he argues, exemplifies the tendency to run together Orientalism, imperialism, racism and paternalism as patterns of thought. Hobson by contrast argues that Eurocentric thought differs on several axes – scientific racist (offensive or defensive) vs Eurocentric institutionalism, paternalist vs anti-paternalist, imperialist vs anti-imperialist and manifest vs subliminal. Thus, Hobson argues in his post, the threat that is raised for postcolonial thought is that when we disaggregate these, the critic loses the anti-imperialist weapon to wield against the Eurocentric thinker.
I suppose I do not really see the breaking of this link as a problem – on the contrary, I find this disaggregation useful and illuminating, both as an intellectual exercise and in terms of the political and normative questions raised by it. Ideally, that it forces more clarity and specificity around particular points of disagreement is surely to be welcomed, and everyone is a winner. Thus, I don’t see any real worry for Hobson here, nor for postcolonial critics.
The question I have instead is why Said? The experience of writing with an intellectual spectre at one’s shoulder is perhaps a common one, and often a useful one for keeping the argument on track. And indeed, Said is influential and distinctive enough to provide a good foil for Hobson’s overall argument. Yet, there are perhaps two more relevant figures who might have steered it on even further.
The first is Immanuel Wallerstein, who appears in the text for his writings on world-systems theory (p. 236-242), but not for his important statement on variants of Eurocentrism. In this, he argues, as Hobson does, that when we talk of Eurocentrism we at least five different things, some of which are contradictory. Moreover, he argues that often what is intended to be anti-Eurocentrism can involve new forms of Eurocentrism. As such, there are some broad overlaps between his argument and that which Hobson puts forward. Yet they also make different choices about how to disaggregate Eurocentrism and why. In particular, Wallerstein situates his argument in the broader question of social scientific knowledge rather than in terms of a particular discipline as Hobson does. For this reader at least, it would have been interesting to see what came of a staged dialogue between these positions. One interesting point of discussion might be around the difference between Eurocentric relativisms and Eurocentric universalisms, both of which are important to Hobson and Wallerstein but in different ways.
The second figure who could have been usefully engaged more deeply is Etienne Balibar, and in particular the argument on ‘neo-racism’. Hobson mentions Balibar in two passages in which he critiques critical race theory for conflating scientific racism with Eurocentric institutionalism in discussing ‘neo-racism’, instead of seeing them as fluid and evolving. Yet Balibar’s argument, if I have read it correctly, is precisely that neo-racism is functionally similar to earlier forms insofar as it permits hierarchical ordering and exclusions but it substitutes an ontology of culture for an ontology of race. As such, perhaps the distance between these positions is not so great – indeed, I cannot see any of these critical race theorists disagreeing with Hobson’s point that scientific racism is different to Eurocentric institutionalism in its basic claims, but functionally similar in terms of the positions it assigns to the West and the Rest in world history and political thought.
From The Ashes, A Phoenix? Theory After Eurocentrism
This latter point could help with fleshing out further what I suspect many IR people will find the most controversial part of the argument – the movement between manifest and subliminal forms of Eurocentrism, which is deeply connected to the divide between scientific racism and Eurocentric institutionalism. It is for this that, on the one hand, working more explicitly with the central arguments of the critical race theorists will bolster Hobson’s overall position in the long run. In particular, a case about the functions of social theory as an epistemic protector of the powerful, working through the persistent intellectual division of the world’s populations, entirely supports Hobson’s project.
But this does not deal with a deeper knot in Eurocentric thinking such as that of Held – that the ideas of e.g. liberal cosmopolitanism are simply right, irrespective of their Western origins. And this is, I think, a justification held by many in pro-Western IR – that the origins of ideas about the modern world and world politics do not matter as much as the ideas themselves, which can now be globally extrapolated thanks to decolonisation and globalisation. To this extent some variants of Eurocentric thinking can simply absorb the empirical historical critique about the rise of the West relatively easily, whilst pursuing a presentist project of liberal cosmopolitanism. They can even present themselves as non-Eurocentric to the extent that they reject cultural difference as a relevant issue or boundary in defining the political – the very issue that critical race theorists and Hobson himself pick up on.
For liberal cosmopolitans, this is a deeper problem about the broad inability and unwillingness to evaluate these ideas from other perspectives outside the citadel – perspectives which are embedded in the experiences of repression, dispossession, exclusion and violence that have been perpetuated in their name, not simply outside but also inside the West. These violences are both epistemic – in attempting to erase dissenting knowledge – and physical in attempting to erase dissenting bodies.
In the context of the book, Hobson can only gesture to the possibility of recovering these, but it is an important dimension of a future theory which is non-Eurocentric. Such a theory must necessarily be much more circumspect about the character of social-scientific knowledge in general, and must actively pursue knowledges which offer, in Harding’s sense, greater ‘objectivity’ about world affairs. They must offer a corrective, as argued by our colleague Robbie, to the tendencies of colonial amnesia which protect imperial power from critique. Thus historical critique needs also to be historiographical, that is, to deal with the practice of writing history itself, as well as the details of what happened when and who did it.
But this is not a complete rescue from the traps of Eurocentrism in theory. Here I want to turn to the treatment of the neo-Marxists, who perhaps get the short end of the stick in the book. I don’t disagree with the broad thrust of Hobson’s conclusions on the whole, but I feel a little here for those Gramscians who find themselves accused of subliminal Eurocentrism in their apparent denial of Eastern agency. Hobson recognises of course that the Marxist project as a whole was anti-imperialist, although it credited the West with exceptional agency and sovereignty in world history. However, he sees this historical narrative as deeply Eurocentric, as he has dealt with in earlier work. I think, as with the cosmopolitans, however, the Gramscians could basically absorb the empirical historical critique without too much disturbance of the overall theoretical framework, indeed as many Trotskyist theorists have done.
Furthermore, there is at least a possible retort from them however that opens deeper questions; that it is not simply that the East lacks agency, but that everyone lacks agency, understood as the intentional power to shape politics, when we operate with materialist structuralist theory and categories. The practice of theorising itself works through processes of attribution and categorisation; in racist theory, race is considered to be the primary attribute governing human social relations and development. In variations of structuralist-functionalist theory, it is the accumulation of wealth and re-making of social relations via capitalist modes of finance and production that are the engines of human behaviour.[i]
Thus, on a more sympathetic reading, what is at stake is not whether the West or other parties in some configuration made capitalism happen, but the character of materialist theory itself as tending to push out both human agency and structures of shared meaning as conceptually significant. We can collectively (I hope easily) accept the proposition that racist theory is not just morally wrong but intellectually and empirically wrong in the core claim that biological differences between races are a key determinant of social behaviour. The core claim of the broad propositions of structuralist materialism are not so easily dismissed; on the contrary, they have been substantively important in attacking Eurocentric theories of world order. This is what leads Chakrabarty (2000) to argue for their ‘indispensable but inadequate’ character.
Having said that, there are elements within materialist theory, broadly understood, that need revision or re-framing in a non-Eurocentric project. The first, clearly, is the historical stagism built into many of its assumptions. Bhambra (2010) has discussed this lucidly, as have others. This means a fundamental querying of the categories of capitalist ‘development’ as proceeding temporally through modes of production; indeed, throughout human history, including in the present it is possible to see peoples switching back and forth between modes of production and the relations entailed within.
Second, a greater focus on accumulation-via-dispossession / primitive accumulation has much potential to make a materialist theory that works for the many rather than the few, but it needs to be re-interpreted to include a wider understanding of dispossession. In particular, we need to think about dispossessions not as single acts in history, but acts in perpetuity, constantly re-founded. In thinking about the struggles going on over the Marikana mine, few have even touched upon the basic problem of the racist colonial property relations upon which the mining company was founded and which have not been fundamentally disturbed. What we are seeing, I would argue is an underlying problem of dispossession-in-perpetuity, founded on racial entitlements, that is the basic sticking point of this struggle. Whilst this is connected in a general way to the mode of production, its importance is much more about the expropriation itself. Attending to present struggles and ongoing dispossessions is thus another way of using materialist theoretical insights in a non-Eurocentric way.
Third, non-Eurocentric theory of all stripes needs to find a way of dealing with the worlds of human meaning and agency that recognise their significance and do not reduce them to things to be explained via structural inequalities. In short, we need to make mental room for things that matter to people in a broad sense, even if we cannot immediately shoehorn them into wider meta-narratives about world history, development, capitalism, or even resistance and revolution. Of course, we will always have to make temporary choices and judgement about what is of interest and why. But it is only through an orientation which is permanently open to the complexities and complications of the world in the past and present that we may, eventually, escape the ‘straitjacket’ of Eurocentric theorising.
Such openings are made eminently possible – indeed necessary – by Hobson’s comprehensive critique of Eurocentrism in world politics. I would also like to say that this should also mark the opportunity also to start putting down many of the Eurocentric texts that have populated reading lists for so long, and in doing so re-make the discipline more fit for purpose – a truly inclusive account of global interactions and politics, told from many sides, alert to multiple layers of connectivity, relationality and resonance as well as violence, dispossession and conflict. Hobson’s excellent book highlights again just how short-sighted and parochial Eurocentric conceptions of world politics have made us. The question is, now we have recognised this, do we have the courage, imagination and ability to throw them away?
[i] As an aside, Wallerstein argues not just that the Western role in this is historically important, but that holding onto the exceptional rather than historically natural character of this is very important for understanding the possibility of a different kind of future in which the West is not hierarchically dominant. This is at odds with Hobson’s claim that such theory naturalises Western imperialism on p. 331