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.


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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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Capital, the State and War: The Risks of Method

CraigA forum contribution from Campbell Craig, the first in our series responding to Alex Anievas’ new book, Capital, the State and War. Campbell is Professor in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, and the author of several books, including Glimmer of a New Leviathan: Total War in the thought of Niebuhr, Morgenthau and Waltz (2003), The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (2008, with Sergey Radchenko), and more recently America’s Cold War: the Politics of Insecurity (2012, with Fredrik Logevall). Campbell’s work has appeared in World Politics, Ethics & International Affairs and the Review of International Studies. He is also currently finishing an article on the nuclear revolution and neo-Trotskyism.


Woodrow Wilson 17c Stamp

In 1959 Kenneth Waltz published Man, the State and War, a study of three different levels of analysing international relations and their attempts to answer the question why war recurs. Waltz tackled his subject by demonstrating how the two most common levels of analysis – human nature, and regime type – ran into insuperable logical obstacles, and especially the problem of reductionism that social theorists such as Durkheim and Lakatos identified. His solution was to posit a third level – anarchy, or, as his title suggested, war – that could explain the recurrence of war without succumbing to the reductionist fallacy. The result was a study that has shaped the field of modern international relations more than any other single volume.

Anievas, as the title suggests, seeks to build upon Waltz’s ambition in his new book. He argues that the Marxian theory of uneven and combined development (UCD), a concept invented by Trotsky which explains international conflict by pointing to the uneven economic competition among more and less developed states whose economies are intertwined, can be used to theorise contemporary IR. This is a project being undertaken by other scholars, most notably Justin Rosenberg, but Anievas’s book is the most ambitious and thorough attempt yet to deploy Trotsky’s idea in a systematic way. However, Anievas’s method is quite different from the one used by Waltz (and Rosenberg). Rather than developing a logical or epistemological case for UCD, Anievas tries to use it as a means of shaping a detailed historical explanation of the two world wars of the twentieth century. What he is trying to do, as far as I can see, is to use UCD as a tool to explain and revise a key historical problem, as theorists in other schools of IR have done, rather than put forward an abstract case for the theory in the first place—a necessary move, for Anievas, because extant work on UCD suffers from “unsustainably high levels of analytical abstraction” (57). He concludes that the pressures of UCD upon capitalist states (particularly Germany, Great Britain, and the US) effectively explain the two world wars, and that they paved the way for a ‘proto-Cold War’ between the West and the USSR that began basically with the formation of the Soviet state in 1917.

In many ways the book is an impressive work. The narrative chapters on German, British, and American foreign relations are rich with historical detail and focused, often polemical argumentation. The engagement with competing theories is intensive and Anievas’s mastery of the debates among the neo-Marxian left is evident. Yet I was in the end not convinced by some of the main historical claims of the book nor by the method Anievas has deployed. In the spirit of Anievas’s blend of historical and theoretical inquiry, I will now present two critiques of the work from the respective points of view of the historian and the IR theorist.

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Capital, The State and War: Rethinking the Geopolitics of Capitalist Modernity in the Era of the Two World Wars

A guest post from Alex Anievas to inaugurate a brief symposium on his book anievasCapital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 (Michigan University Press, 2014), which will unfold over the next few days. Alex is a Leverhume Early Career Researcher at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is editor or co-editor of numerous books (including Race and Racism in International Relations and The Longue Durée of the Far-Right, both of which have previously previewed at The Disorder). His work has also appeared in the European Journal of International Relations, the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Millennium and the Review of International Studies.


The manuscript that would become Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflicts and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 developed, like so many first books, out of my PhD thesis[1] In its final form, Capital, the State, and War endeavours to offer nothing less than a systematic and radical reinterpretation and historical sociological reconceptualisation of some of the main geopolitical and socioeconomic fault-lines of the 1914-1945 period. It does so through the theoretical prism of uneven and combined development, demonstrating in the process the various problems with extant historiographical interpretations and IR theorisations of this crucial epoch in the development and remaking of modern world politics. But given the rather substantial differences between what I had originally envisioned the PhD thesis to be and what it became, it’s worth briefly discussing the origins of the project and how it changed in the process of researching and writing it.

I. Origins

My PhD project was originally conceived as an intervention into the contemporary debates on the ‘resurgence’ of US imperialism in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – very much a radicalising moment in my own intellectual and political trajectory – and the concomitant return to Marxist theories of imperialism and empire. My aim then was to essentially rethink and ‘update’ the classical Marxist theories of imperialism and, in particular, Lenin and Bukharin’s theory of inter-imperial rivalry which, whatever its faults, still captured an essential aspect of contemporary imperialism. I was then heavily influenced by a number recent Marxist works on imperialism, particularly David Harvey’s 2003 The New Imperialism (along with his earlier, more theoretically sophisticated The Limits to Capital) and Alex Callinicos’ The New Mandarins of American Power.

Both studies, in their different ways, sought to retain the fundamental insights of the classical Marxist theories of imperialism (e.g. the persistence of historically-differentiated forms of inter-imperial rivalries rooted within the inherently competitive dynamics of capital accumulation), whilst dispensing with their more economically determinist and instrumentalist features. They did so, in particular, by reconceptualising imperialism as the intersection of two analytically distinct, but historically interconnected, ‘capitalist’ and ‘territorial’ logics of economic and geopolitical competition. While critical of certain aspects of this kind of approach – particularly, Harvey and Callinicos’ relatively undigested incorporation of a ‘proto-realist’ conception of ‘the international’ – my initial thought was that, if rooted in a stronger conception of the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development and expansion that produced the somewhat porous but nonetheless identifiable ‘territorial logic of power’ – regionality – inherently arising out of the processes of capital accumulation in space and time, this perspective could provide a more adequate historical materialist theory of geopolitics.[2] At this stage in the development of the project, this is how I originally envisaged the role of Trotsky’s concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ – a kind of supplementary theory that could be employed in capturing the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development in reconstructing a modified Marxist theory of imperialism. Add in a more attentive focus to the relations between capitalists and state managers and the role of ideology in structuring foreign policymaking processes and I thought this would do.

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Landlessness and the Life of Seamen

This post is Part 3 in a series of dispatches posted from a 130, 000 ton container ship. More here.


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The bow of the ship is the only place on the Ever Cthulhu that affords a modicum of silence. To get there, you walk down the length of the narrow grey deck, flanked on one side by containers crowded into towering stacks that scrape and creak against each other as the ship cuts through the waves, and on the other by the powerful sweep of a wind so strong that you have to fight not to be blown backwards. At the foremost tip of the ship, you climb a few steps onto a large open deck painted grey and surrounded by giant chains and fat coils of synthetic rope, and suddenly, the mechanical roar of the ship falls away.

Having finally wended our way out of the US ports, the Ever Cthulhu has been traveling across the massive pacific ocean for more than a week now. Yesterday, we cleared the frigid Kamchatka Peninsula. The snow and ice beating against the ship for the past week has melted away, and the deck crew that has been trapped inside cleaning the walls and floors of the accommodations are now back to work on the endless task of the seaman: fighting against perpetual rust. “You know Sissyphus?”, The captain asks one day as we take a walk around the deck. “Working on a ship, it’s like that. You are fighting forever against the saltwater eating away at your vessel. The biggest enemy of the ship is not pirates, it’s corrosion.” Today, the ship has been awash in the sounds of grinding, scraping, hammering and drilling, scraping rust off and painting over it in an endless cycle that repeats itself every two months. All of this is set to the background soundtrack of an endlessly roaring engine that suffuses the air and shakes the accommodations with a throbbing, pulsating, machinic hum.

But on the bow, penned in from the wind and rage by the Ever Cthulhu’s bulwark, you can look outward onto an endless, unbroken horizon of ocean in near quiet, and almost think that the ship is barely moving. A quick step up onto a grilled ladder quickly dismisses this fantasy of a softly drifting ship: peering over the edge of the ship’s prow towards the churning waters below reveals the ship’s bulberous bow, a 1,000 ton snout-like protrusion of pure aerodynamic steel that cuts through the ocean, almost heaving the liquid blue upwards before pushing it back powerfully against the hull, where the waves churn themselves into a cerulean blue froth and then crest outwards in a diagonal wake. I can’t judge how far we are from the ocean’s surface, so I spit into the sea – crude, really – and count the seconds it takes to hit the waves. Seven. By the time it reaches the sea below, my ball of spit has already flown several meters behind me. We are forging ahead at a speed (18 knots per hour) beyond my bodily comprehension of motion. When you are surrounded by nothing but this limitless, shifting, liquid expanse, stretching in all directions for days before hitting land, all distance becomes incalculable.

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