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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The Causes of the Great War: An Autobiographic Take

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia on June 28, 1914 set of a chain of events that a few weeks later led to an all-out war involving virtually all key European powers and their enormous overseas empires at the time.   How did this happen?

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As a born and raised Sarajevan, I was socialized from an early age to think about the causes of the Great War – a question that happens to be one of the most studied in all of human history.  I vividly recall my first primary school trip to “Princip’s footsteps” – markings embedded into the sidewalk signifying the spot from where the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, fired at the Viennese couple.  We boys took turns to stand in the footprints and re-enacted the killing; the girls giggled.  There was no doubt that this behaviour was desirable:  with our teachers we read out the message on a nearby plaque that explained, in solemn Cyrillic script and even more solemn Aorist, how the assassin’s shots expressed the will of “our people” to be free of foreign tyranny.  Is it true that Sophia was pregnant?, a classmate asked.   Yes, said one teacher, but this was an accident. Princip’s bullet hit her only after it ricocheted off the car.  It was intended for General Potiorek, Austria’s military governor.

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Notes on Ex-Yu Justice, Part II

Following Part I, and in advance of Part III.


The court is political  

The smartass response goes something likes this: “Of course it’s political; what’s not political? Haven’t you read the ICTY’s website? It says clearly that the tribunal was established for explicitly political reasons, too, by the UNSC, which is political by definition.” But the smartass response is a rude interruption. The above assertive prefaces monologue, not dialogue. The monologue is a story about world politics as a dog-eat-dog contest in which the strong always devour the weak with a focus on the origins of the ICTY. “Of course an international judicial institution cannot be created on the basis of an UNSC resolution alone. Of course Chapter VII of the UN Charter does not specify the conditions under which war crimes tribunals can be set up. Of course the ICTY quickly discovered that it could not bother with the question of own legality. But when have great powers ever cared about law and institutions? Might makes right, right? The ICTY is based on the consent of states – big states, not our banana republics.”

This story varies in terms of breadth and depth, but its modal conclusion is that the tribunal cannot represent anything but “victor’s justice” and/or Western and specifically American oppression of those living on the periphery. As for the motive, the supposedly aggressive prosecution of Bosno-Serbo-Croat baddies practiced by the ICTY is a function of the desire for retribution for every case of ex-Yu insolence in recent history, starting with the Trieste crisis of 1945. As discipline and punishment at once, trials are also meant to serve as a warning to the rest of the peripheral and semi-peripheral world. This type of theorizing could be described as a cross between pop-realism and pop-Marxism with a whiff of the crudest forms of pop-anti-Americanism and some other, far less respectable prejudices. While it is not exactly a closed loop, for every new newstory indexing Western and specifically American double standards and double visions in international law, the theory gains strength. Who in the former Yugoslavia doesn’t have an informed opinion on the “Hague Invasion Act”?

imgfrontisThe two accounts of the origins of the ICTY that I have on my shelf make something of an opposite case. Pierre Hazan’s book, subtitled ‘The True Story Behind the ICTY’, suggests that the weak (international justice activists) outfoxed the strong (realist diplomats and state-centric lawyers) and, against all odds, managed to turn the tribunal into such a revolutionary achievement (more on this below). Hazan is no theorist of norms and transnational advocacy networks, but there are more than a few parallels with this literature. The second account is Rachel Kerr’s 2004 book, which begins and ends with the thorny issue of “politicization,” including the issue of “prosecutorial discretion” as its special subset. Kerr has the ICTY walking on a tightrope. Sidle up too closely to justice, and you alienate those who rule the world; let politics in, even to manipulate it for judicial ends, and you lose credibility. While infinitely more nuanced than Hazan’s, Kerr’s framework for analyzing politics (it, too, chimes with 1990s IR theory, namely the “bringing international law back in” literature) follows the same binary – let me personify it a little as a contest between “realists” versus “legalists” – and it reaches the same conclusion. And judging by both the quotidian operation of the court as well as its key decisions up to 2002-3, Kerr finds, “legalists” had the upper hand.

Antonio CasseseI am not sure what stock-taking exercises based on the realist vs. legalist framework look like today (again, this post is my attempt to reconnect with the literature I stopped following years ago), but what struck me in my conversations is how adamant my interlocutors were in rejecting even the most carefully drawn legalist claims. It’s simple, the typical response goes, the ICTY is subject to constant political pressures and it shouldn’t be surprising to see so much judicial malpractice. Lest one is keen to dismiss this as “typical” ex-communist (and transitionalist) disdain for the notion that law serves to ensure that valuable social goods are distributed in ways that protect equal respect for everyone, note that some of the most critical arguments about the “hopelessly political court” are drawn from the texts left behind by bona fide ICTY insiders like (he of  those great international law textbooks), Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, Louise Arbour, Graham Blewitt, Carla Del Ponte, Serge Brammerz, and Florence Hartmann (more below). Anyone can cherry-pick a few memorable lines from a few memoirs and journalistic accounts (Hartmann, if I recall correctly: “the ICTY was formed so that war criminals could negotiate on the level of their innocence”), but what I find interesting is that these types of arguments have gained more and more adherents over the years.

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Notes on Ex-Yu Justice, Part I

I don’t recall when I first heard of Radovan Karadžić, but I know it wasn’t any time before the run-up to the first democratic, multi-party elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Radovan, with sarcastic endearment called Rašo in my family, emerged as the leader of something called the Serbian Democratic Party, one of the three main “national” political parties that were formed to steer us away from Marxist politics and economics and towards Western, liberal, democratic capitalism.  I do recall voicing scepticism about their promises, and trying to convince my eight grade classmates that ‘national’ really meant ‘nationalist’ and that with “them” at the helm Bosnia would soon look like Lebanon rather than Switzerland. And forget Lebanon, one only had to look over to Croatia to see what parties with the same names were doing, and how well that particular Westernization was going. I remember arguing that there was an alternative, pointing to Ante Marković (a.k.a. Antara, but with slightly less sarcasm) and his “reconstituted” Commies (and to drive the point home I pasted Union of Reform Forces of Yugoslavia campaign posters all over my room).  But there was no alternative, not really. Not with the bad guys in Belgrade, far more powerful than Marković, itching for “armed battles,” and not with the vast majority of citizenry successfully interpellated into political, mutually exclusive Muslims, Serbs & Croats. A Cerberus coalition of said national parties won the elections in November 1990 and took us all to hell.

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Fast forward to June 2013: it’s a Monday morning and I am looking into Courtroom 1 of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Karadžić, sitting behind a huge glass screen, is complaining about some key meaning lost in translation. He appears uncomfortable, at least compared to the other nasty blast from my past: Vojislav Šešelj, a.k.a., Šešo. In the 1990s, he was Serbia’s one-man version of the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines; today, Šešelj is the tribunal’s bête noire. Those who follow the life of the ICTY are familiar with his mixed-methods approach to delegitimizing the court and its proceedings. Hissy fits, impossible demands, hunger strikes, insults, bullying, speechifying, filibustering. Then there is the regular uploading of confidential court documents onto http://www.vseselj.com‎ such that the names of protected witnesses are no longer protected. This certified political scientist (while writing a PhD dissertation on fascism in late 1970s Šešelj apparently spent a year teaching at the University of Michigan) knows how to assess the power of the strong as well as of the weakHe has repeatedly justified his behaviour as “only politics” (“this court is political, I am political, and I am here to destroy you”). And whenever he gets convicted of contempt of court (twice or thrice now), he laughs it off: “I don’t care, I am having the time of my life.”   

He was on fire that morning as well. Invited to Karadžić’s trial as a key witness, Šešelj manages to waste hours of the court’s time on stories that feature, among other things, Swedish prostitutes, Serbian folk heroes, and European medieval history (I paraphrase again, this time from my notes: “Magdeburg, the city that’s now flooded, yes, make sure it goes into the court’s record just like I explained in my book and on my website: it was the Croat armies that massacred its citizens back in 1631”). The little time devoted to answering the questions posed by the prosecutor Alan Tieger – Karadžić, recall, is indicted for genocide; extermination; murder; persecutions; deportation; inhumane acts; terrorizing of, and unlawful attack on, civilians; and taking of hostages – testifies to Šešelj’s focus and impeccable memory. “Absolutely not,” he concludes, Karadžić had nothing to do with any conspiracy to ethnically cleanse parts of Eastern Bosnia. “What happened was a natural population transfer, that’s all.” Continue reading

The Citadel Has Been Blown Up. Hurray! Next? A Response to Hobson

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.

Update: Srdjan’s post and Brett’s post are now up.


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).

Seriously?

So, Hobson is knocking at the door more loudly, with a bigger stick, and much more paperwork.  Continue reading

Re-visioning Eurocentrism: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to welcome a post from John M. Hobson, which kicks off a blog symposium on his new book The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010. Over the next few weeks there will be a series of replies from TDOT’s Meera and Srdjan, as well as special guest participant Brett Bowden, followed finally by a response from John himself. [Images by Meera]

Update: Meera’s response, Srjdan’s response and Brett’s response are now up. 


Introduction

As I explain in the introduction to The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, my book produces a twin-revisionist narrative of Eurocentrism and international theory.[i] The first narrative sets out to rethink the concept of Eurocentrism – or what Edward Said famously called ‘Orientalism’ – not so much to critique this founding concept of postcolonial studies but rather to extend its reach into conceptual areas that it has hitherto failed to shed light upon.[ii] My central sympathetic-critique of Said’s conception is that it is reductive, failing to perceive the anti-imperialist face of Eurocentrism on the one hand while failing to differentiate Eurocentric institutionalism or cultural Eurocentrism from scientific racism on the other hand. As such, this narrative is one that is relevant to the many scholars who are located throughout the social sciences and who are interested in exploring the discursive terrain of ‘Eurocentrism’. These, then, would include those who are located in International Relations of course but also those in Politics/Political theory, Political Economy/IPE, political geography, sociology, literary studies, and last but not least, anthropology.

The second narrative rethinks international theory as it has developed across a range of disciplines. It stems back to the work of Adam Smith in the 1760s and then moves forwards down to 1945 through the liberals such as Kant, Cobden/Bright, Marx, Angell and J.A. Hobson, Zimmern, Murray and Wilson, onto the Marxists such as Marx and Engels, Lenin, Bukharin, and Luxemburg, and culminating with the realists who include Mahan and Mackinder, Giddings and Powers, Ratzel, Kjellén ,Spykman, von Bernhardi, von Treitschke and, not least, Hitler. After 1945 I include chapters on neo-Marxism (specifically neo-Gramscianism and world-systems theory), neo-liberalism (the English School and neoliberal institutionalism) and realism (classical-realism, hegemonic stability theory and Waltzian neorealism). This takes the story upto 1989. I then have two chapters on the post-Cold War era which examine what I call ‘Western-realism’ and ‘Western-liberalism’. The final chapter provides an overview of the changing discursive architecture of Eurocentrism and scientific racism, while also revealing how international theory has, in various ways, always conceived of the international system as hierarchic rather than anarchic. Although this is clearly a highly controversial and certainly counter-intuitive claim, it nonetheless in effect constitutes the litmus test for the main claim of the book: that international theory for the most part rests on various ‘Eurocentric/racist’ metanarratives. And ultimately my grand claim posits that international theory in the last quarter millennium has not so much explained international politics in an objective, positivist and universalist manner but has sought, rather, to parochially celebrate and defend or promote the West as the pro-active subject of, and as the highest or ideal normative referent in, world politics.

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The Crisis of Europe and Colonial Amnesia

Recent commentary on the Eurozone crisis has started to pick up the grammar of colonial rule. The centre for Research on Finance and Money at SOAS, for example, has published an influential report wherein northern Europe (Germany especially) is framed as the core and southern Europe (especially Greece) as the periphery. Meanwhile, Ulrich Beck, European cosmopolitan par excellence, wonders whether the European Union will become “a European Empire with a German stamp”. Beck notes that Merkel’s sense of power “conforms to the imperial difference between lender and borrower countries.” At stake, agree many prominent European intellectuals in the pages of The Guardian, Eurozine and Der Spiegel, is no less than the promise of freedom and democracy immanent to the European project itself. All variously agree that, against the imperial sclerosis spread by capitalist and bureaucratic functionaries at the highest levels of governance, what is needed is a rejuvenation of meaningful democracy at a grass-roots level.

Faced with a dismantling of democracy Jürgen Habermas mounts a plea to save the old “biotope of Europe”. The constitutive components of this threatened ecosystem are freedom and democratisation, and its genesis lies in the Second World War and the fight against fascism and “internal” barbarism. The president of the European Central Bank has himself proclaimed that Europe now faces its “most difficult situation since the Second World War”. Alternatively, for many social democratic and leftist commentators, the danger of the situation lies in the loss of the “internal” struggle of labour and capital that defined the Cold War landscape. In the new context of EU institutional “empire” and its neoliberal tentacles, the defeat of labour quickens the erosion of social democracy, thus deciding the fate of the European project.

Europe, then, is perceived to be “colonizing” itself and in the process destroying freedoms and democratic structures that had been hard fought for by the general populace against political oppression and economic exploitation. But this angst-ridden imaginary of European crisis has very little to say about the substantive historical and global dimensions of European colonialism. Does cosmopolitan and social democratic angst cover these legacies and contemporary effects? In fact, in most recent treatises on the crisis the struggle for decolonization is given no integral status, even though these particular struggles were inseparable to and spanned the formative time period of the European project – the Second World War (and the Cold War). Some do mention current issues of migration and xenophobia. Nevertheless the implication, in general, is that colonial legacies are derivative of, or additional to, the core struggle for democracy and freedom in Europe. Fascism, Cold War, class struggle: yes; colonization, imperialism, decolonization and liberation struggle: not really.

Not all intellectuals suffer from this colonial amnesia. A number of scholars including Robert Young, Pal Ahluwalia, Paige Arthur and Alina Sajed have argued that in some key strands of post-War French thought, the issue of colonialism and decolonization was integral to discussions of European re-democratization and humanist concerns. This engagement reached a peak in the Algerian war of independence in the late 50s before falling into abeyance. And this was precisely the same time, we should note, as the Treaty of Rome, which bound European countries together in a tighter economic union simultaneoulsy sought to re-bind (post-)colonial African polities, peoples and resources into this union.

More generally, there has accumulated a significant amount of scholarship that reveals the colonial influences that shaped and were woven into quintessentially “European” intellectual/political movements such as Enlightenment and modernity. Continue reading