Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation

julianaugust13This is the second post in our symposium on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. We are delighted to welcome Julian Go, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University, and Editor of Political Power and Social Theory. Julian’s recent books include American Empire and the Politics of Meaning (Duke University Press, 2008) and Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688 to Present (Cambridge University Press, 2011), both of which have won numerous prestigious awards in various disciplines. He is currently working on a manuscript provisionally entitled Postcolonial Theory and Social Thought and a volume on Global Historical Sociology co-edited with George Lawson.

Update: Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now also live. Original post here.

In this magisterial work, Buzan and Lawson make two overarching claims: 1. the nineteenth century saw a fundamental “global transformation” in the “international order”, creating the essential aspects of the “global modernity” we inhabit today, and 2. disciplinary IR needs to recognize this transformation and reconfigure its identity and agenda accordingly. As a historical sociologist, I feel less certain about judging the second claim but more certain about the first. Was there a fundamental transformation in the nineteenth century that has shaped our contemporary global modernity? Yes. And Buzan and Lawson painstakingly and persuasively chart this transformation like none other.

What, then, to say about this important book – a book, by the way, which every serious historical social scientist needs to read? A book which, in my estimation, belongs among the great works of historical sociology like those of Wallerstein, Tilly, and Mann? Pushed to say something critical, I will instead say something didactic. More precisely, I will comment on two things: the relative absence of theory and the remarkable presence of empire. Put differently: what is the theoretical frame or theoretical considerations mobilized in the work? And why isn’t empire the fundamental organizing analytic category? Or, put simply: are Buzan and Lawson closet postcolonialists? Continue reading

The Global Transformation: The Making of the Modern World

This guest post by Barry Buzan and George Lawson marks the beginning of a symposium on their book The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Barry is a Fellow of the British Academy, Emeritus Professor in the LSE Department of International Relations and a Senior Fellow at LSE IDEAS. He was formerly Montague Burton professor in the Department of International Relations, LSE. Among his books are, with Richard Little, International Systems in World History (2000); with Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers (2003); From International to World Society? (2004); with Lene Hansen, The Evolution of International Security Studies (2009); and An Introduction to the English School of International Relations (2014). George Lawson is an Associate Professor of International Relations at LSE. His research focuses on the interface between International Relations and Historical Sociology, and on processes of radical change, most notably revolutions. He is the author of Negotiated Revolutions (2005) and the editor (with Chris Armbruster and Michael Cox) of The Global 1989 (2010).

Team BG

Update: Julian’s response, Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.

The core argument of The Global Transformation is straightforward: during the 19th century, a ‘global transformation’ remade the basic structure of international order. This transformation involved a complex configuration of industrialization, rational state-building, and ideologies of progress. What do we mean by these terms?

  • By industrialization we mean both the commercialization of agriculture and the two-stage industrial revolution, which together both shrank the planet and generated an intensely connected system of global capitalism. The extension of capitalism brought new opportunities for accumulating power, not least because of the close relationship between industrialization and dispossession. Indeed, industrialization in some places (such as Britain) was deeply interwoven with the forceful de-industrialization of others (such as India).
  • By rational state-building, we mean the process by which administrative and bureaucratic competences were accumulated and ‘caged’ within national territories. This process was not pristine. Rather, as we show in the book, processes of rational state-building and imperialism were co-implicated – most 19th century nation-states in the West were imperial nation-states, and imperialism ‘over there’ fed into rational state-building ‘at home’: the modern, professional civil service was formed in India before being exported to Britain; techniques of surveillance, such as fingerprinting and file cards, were developed in colonies and subsequently imported by the metropoles; cartographic techniques used to map colonial spaces were reimported into Europe to serve as the basis for territorial claims,. Domestically, rational states provided facilitative institutional frameworks for the development of industry, technological innovations, weaponry and science; abroad, they provided sustenance for imperial policies. Both functions were underpinned by ‘ideologies of progress’.
  • By ‘ideologies of progress’, we mean assemblages of beliefs, concepts and values that address how polities, economies and cultural orders relate to each other, how individuals and groups fit into these assemblages, and how human collectivities should be governed. In the book, we highlight the impact of four such ideologies: liberalism, socialism, nationalism and ‘scientific racism’, all of which were rooted in ideas of classification, improvement, control and progress (including ‘scientific racism’, many of whose proponents favoured a ‘forward policy’ in which European imperialism was hardened, both to safeguard white gains and to combat miscegenation with ‘backward’ peoples). Again, there was a dark side to these ideologies (and not just with ‘scientific racism’) – the promise of progress was linked closely to a ‘standard of civilization’ which served as the legitimating currency for coercive practices against ‘barbarians’ (understood as peoples with an urban ‘high culture’ – the ‘Oriental Despotisms’ of the Ottomans, Indians, Chinese, etc.) and ‘savages’ (understood as peoples without an urban ‘high culture’ – virtually everyone else). These ideas ended the long dominance of the dynastic state and defined the social framework of modernity. Nothing of comparable weight has come into being since, so these ideas, and the interplay amongst them, not only defined the dynamics of legitimacy and conflict during the 20th century, but continue to dominate the 21st

The three components of the global transformation were mutually reinforcing. Continue reading

The Chinese Logistical Sublime and Its Wasted Remains

Sent from Taipei, the last post in a container ship ethnography. The entire series can be viewed here.

“We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage”
– T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”


An APL vessel heads out of the port of Hong Kong

On our thirteenth day at sea, after having been battered by 6 meter waves and snow, gale-force winds and storm, having watched the ship’s skeleton snake and bend with the force of rough seas from within the depths of its passageways, I woke up on a calm, quiet morning to a sea that had turned a lighter shade of blue. From my porthole, delighted, I watched as seagulls weaved in an out of the wind currents above the containers, seaweed merrily skimmed the surface of the ocean, and fishing vessels began dotting the horizon. Land was near. Less than a day later, we drew into the port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Terminals stretched for miles from two harbor mouths, the air a humid, sticky breeze, the pilot’s Mandarin accent sounding suddenly like home.

The transition from sea to land has been almost too quick. After days suspended over liquid blue, spent imagining the ocean from what Derek Walcott has termed the “subtle and submarine”, the looming horizon of the sedentary state with all its territorial weight seemed almost churlish. Everything since touching land has been a blur. We spent 36 hours in Kaohsiung, during which a majority of the 4000 containers on the vessel were unloaded, then surged onward to Yantian, where 16 hours in port – aided by gantry cranes larger than I have ever seen – allowed not more than a hasty trip to the city center for a dinner of mushroom and chive dumplings (desperately welcomed after a six-week parade of meat and potatoes), before we set sail again for Hong Kong. Now, after a mere 15 hours there, we are in Kaohsiung once more. Tonight we leave for Taipei with four different currencies in my pocket and my head swirling from switching back and forth between two different tongues. After 42 days at sea, in less than twelve hours I will be off the Ever Cthulhu forever, never to return.

In the meantime, I am allowing myself to be taken in by the fearsome, monstrous smoothness of the East Asian logistical sublime. I had expected the delays we experienced on the US west coast to have created a massive backlog in China, but we arrived to clear seas and empty anchorages. The Chinese ports have a clockwork, kinetic edge. The transitions are quick – almost blinding. Once the ship berths, security rolls out a portable security checkpoint on the shore below, gangs of workers appear from under the towering gantries, and a rolling stream of workers climbs up the gangway. Lashings go off, trucks and straddle cranes slide into place, the agent appears, papers and loading plans are signed, and the cargo operations begin. There are no breaks, no pauses, no delays. The entire machinery of the port, already in gear, accommodates the ship in one smooth gesture.

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In Non-Places, No One Can Hear You Cry

Post 4 in a series of ethnographic notes sent from the Pacific Ocean. View more from the series here.


Keeping watch at sunset from the bridge

The 3rd mate’s seafaring career began with a desire for basketball shoes. “When I was really young, I saw these guys coming home – seamen from my province – and they looked really amazing,” he shares one afternoon as we stare across the ocean from the bridge, where he is on watchkeeping duty for 8 hours a day. “They had these fancy dresses, basketball shoes… at that time I really liked basketball, so when I saw those brand new shoes, I said, ‘ok, I want that too’. The other men in my town, they were not the same. Even if they had a higher degree of education, they didn’t have those things the seaman were having. So I thought, why study those courses the other guys are studying when I can go with being a seaman?”

Not that his family, in particular two uncles who were seamen, approved: it would be a very hard job, they warned him, and very painful – especially if you have a family. One cousin had died on board a vessel that had sunk over the Atlantic. But the 3rd mate does what he sets his mind to, and so on he went to a Bachelor of Science in Marine Transportation – the college degree a majority of the crew holds.

“And in reality?” I venture, “Is it what you imagined?” The answer is an unequivocal no. “If I had a chance to go back, I would not be here,” he says. “Life on the sea, it’s very different from what I fancied. The stories from previous generations I’ve heard are all quite interesting: no hardships, everything’s ok. But when I got here, I found that everything is saturated. The six months on board… it’s six months of hell. I am constantly missing my loved ones. When I go home, the three months of vacation are even not completely vacations for me.”

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Deciphering ‘The International’ in History and Theory

The final post in our symposium in our symposium on Alex Anievas’ Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945, in which Alex himself replies to his critics and interlocutors.

It brings me great pleasure to be invited to respond to such thoughtful and challenging critiques of my book Capital, the State, and War (CSW). On the (meta-)theoretical front, Mark Rupert and Kamran Matin question my use of uneven and combined development (UCD) as a transhistorical ‘general abstraction’ to be incorporated into a historical materialist framework. On the more historical/historiographical front, Campbell Craig challenges my interpretation of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policies during and after the First World War, arguing that I rely too heavily on the extant historiographical literature, specifically N. Gordon Levin’s 1968 New Left ‘revisionist’ critique Woodrow Wilson and World Politics. Craig further criticizes my theoretical approach for being overly structuralist and consequently ‘devoid of agency or praexeology’, while pushing me to consider the relevance of UCD to contemporary world politics.

While disagreeing with some of my interlocutors interpretations of what I was trying to do in CSW, it is a breath of fresh air that they have all offered substantive engagements with my work in ways dealing with genuine theoretical disagreements; though, as I hope to demonstrate, in the case of Matin and possibly Rupert, these theoretical disagreements may be less serious than they first appear. So I would be remiss not to express my deep gratitude to Rupert, Matin and Craig for their highly stimulating critiques. In what follows, I engage with the precise standing of UCD and ‘general abstractions’ in filling out of a distinctly historical materialist theory of ‘the international’ before turning to the more specific historical-theoretical issues raised by Craig.

I. Method, Abstraction and Historicity in Marxist Theory

While being ‘largely convinced’ by the ‘relational, historical, and dialectical conceptual apparatus’ I deploy in explaining the interstate conflicts of the Thirty Years’ Crisis of 1914-1945, Rupert remains sceptical of my conceptualization of UCD as a ‘general abstraction’. He raises the question: “In a world where a great deal of epistemological and actual violence is done by universalizing abstractions, why create another as the basis for a theory whose basic impulse is de-reification, re-contextualization, and re-historicization in the interest of opening potentially emancipatory horizons?”. As such, Rupert is ‘unpersuaded’ by my argument that UCD is best understood as a transhistorical phenomenon which can be employed as a ‘general abstraction’.

Kamran Matin, by contrast, argues that I have not realized the full potentials of deploying UCD as a transhistorical abstraction, Continue reading

Capital, the State, and War: A Note on the Relation of Uneven and Combined Development to Historical Materialism

A guest post from Kamran Martin (also the author of this popular and important piece on Kobani, recently liberated from the forces of the Islamic State). It is the third and final commentary in our symposium on Alex Anievas’ Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945. Kamran is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, and the author most recently of Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change, as well as ‘Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner-Life of Eurocentrism’. Kamran is also the incoming co-convenor of the BISA Historical Sociology Working Group, and is beginning work on a project tracing the international history of the Kurdish national liberation movement.

David Alfaro Siqueiros - Lucha por la Emancipacio

Over the past 10 years or so Leon Trotsky’s idea of ‘uneven and combined development’ has gained considerable traction within the fields of International Relations (IR) and historical sociology. It has been critically and productively deployed or rethought to address a diverse group of international and sociological problematics ranging from anarchy, contingency, and eurocentrism to the rise of capitalism, premodern societies, and non-western modernities. Alex Anievas’s new book Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 is an extremely invaluable addition to this rich and growing body of scholarship on uneven and combined development.

Through a masterful deployment of uneven and combined development, Anievas provides a compelling alternative account of the two world wars that fundamentally challenges the existing polarized ‘internalist’ and ‘externalist’ modes of explanations. Weaving social, economic, (geo)political and ideological moments of the making of the ‘Thirty Years Crisis’ into a theoretically informed, historically grounded and empirically rich account Capital, the State, and War is a tour de force for anyone interested in Marxist historiography of the World Wars and the rise and demise of the twentieth century world order.

As someone who’s also contributed to the literature on uneven and combined development I’m particularly interested in Anievas’s explicit discussion of the precise relation of the idea of uneven and combined development to historical materialism in Capital, the State, and War. Explicit interrogations of this relation have been relatively neglected in much of the publications on uneven and combined development. As a leading Marxist thinker and political activist Trotsky himself saw his idea of uneven and combined development as simply derivative of Marxist dialectics and materialist conception of history and as such did not seem to have believed that the idea had any transformative implications for materialist conceptions of history.

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Capital, the State, and War: Reflections of a Codger

A guest post from Mark Rupert, the second reply in our symposium discussing Alex Anievas’ Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945. Mark is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University and the author of three books: Producing Hegemony: The Politics of Mass Production and American Global Power (1995), Ideologies of Globalization: Contending Visions of a New World Order (2000) and Globalization and International Political Economy (2006, with Scott Solomon). His recent papers focus principally on the politics of the far right.

I’ve been following Alex Anievas’ project for a while. Now that it’s come to fruition in this book, I find myself both delighted and saddened. I’m delighted to see that Alex has produced such a superb book, perhaps as close as any I’ve seen to realizing the potential of an historical materialist approach to IR. I’m also saddened that the book arrives in an intellectual context – some thirty years after the project of critical IR was launched – in which critical approaches to IR-IPE have been largely neutered or marginalized, at least in the US academic community where I work. I congratulate Alex on his achievement. I thank him for all I have learned from his work. But I fear that the role of IR theory as ideology, and the sociology of knowledge so powerfully operative within the still-dominant US wing of the profession, mean that this book might have the ability to convince but it will not win (if I may appropriate and invert the courageous words of Miguel de Unamuno).

This book takes direct aim at the very foundations of IR theory, laid down in attempts to understand the great crises of the early twentieth century. Much of our intellectual discipline, as well as the 20th century world, was constructed in this epic conjuncture. Deploying a theory of uneven and combined development, Alex re-narrates it well. The intersection of various temporalities of capitalist development – the “whip of external necessity,” the “privilege of historical backwardness,” and the “contradictions of sociological amalgamation” – play crucial roles in his analyses of 1914, Wilsonian statecraft, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the so-called policy of “appeasement”. His command of the relevant bodies of scholarship is deeply impressive (the bibliography alone would make this book worth buying). And at the end of the book I find myself largely convinced that this formative era cannot be understood without a relational, historical, and dialectical conceptual apparatus such as the one Alex deploys, and that a quest for parsimonious covering laws based on hyper-abstracted “levels of analysis” is an analytical trap that has radically decontextualized and dehistoricized prevailing modes of IR scholarship.

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