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.

I find myself nodding enthusiastically as I read passages such as this (p. 215):

Typical IR rehearsals of transhistorical resemblances can no longer suffice as explanations of historically specific geopolitical conflicts and wars. The historical identity of the international relations in the era of the two world wars far outweighs any putative transhistorical comparisons evoking spurious analogies with such classic great power conflicts as the Thirty Years’ War (1619-48) or the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

Perhaps because these kinds of broadly historicist commitments have become second nature to me, I’m skeptical of the assertion that uneven and combined development is best understood as a transhistorical abstraction. I claim no expertise in these theoretical precincts – indeed I am at best a latecomer to the “uneven and combined development” party. So I’m not equipped to mount a deeply informed theoretical challenge, and won’t pretend to. Instead I’ll just raise a question, motivated by a broadly historical materialist outlook: 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? It strikes me as counterintuitive. While I recognize that Alex is building on theoretical work by Rosenberg and others, he does endorse this transhistorical claim without persuading me that it is best understood as such. On the other hand, his historical re-interpretations are powerfully persuasive and clearly indicate to me that some such analytical framework (if not necessarily a transhistorical meta-theory) is necessary to make sense of twentieth century world politics.

So I am pleased to see the publication of such fine and important scholarship. But I’m also saddened when I consider it in the context of the intellectual culture, the sociology of knowledge, in which I have worked for the last thirty years or so. I took the PhD in the 1980s, in a heady time when powerful critiques of intellectual orthodoxy bloomed like spring flowers. Forms of knowledge premised on radical decontextualization, violent abstractions that mystified or rationalized historically specific relations of social power, came under fire from a variety of meta-theoretical directions. Perhaps naively, I expected to follow down some of these new pathways and participate in the restructuring of an intellectual discipline. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) the power of these critical arguments, their potential to shake IR at its foundations, IR as it is practiced in the US academy simply refused to be shook. It doubled down on its positivist commitments, responding that these new forms of critical scholarship would be taken seriously to the extent that they accommodated themselves to the very project of decontextualized, dehistoricized, reified knowledge construction at which they had aimed their critiques. In this way, some emergent research programs with substantial critical potential were tamed and domesticated, encouraged not to pee on the carpet and admitted to the house as full-time residents. Those who refused to observe household rules were, by and large, kept outside, occasionally admitted as guests when those inside felt the need to demonstrate their broad-mindedness.

In recent years, surveys of scholars and teachers of IR in my home country have deepened my gloom about the prospects of the profession. (for example). Only tiny minorities of scholars openly identify with any of the explicitly critical schools of thought about which I was so hopeful in the 1980s. Despite what I considered to be intellectually devastating critiques of mainstream approaches, positivism has only tightened its grip on the American academy. At the pinnacle of the profession, leading IR-IPE journals promote positivist, and especially quantitative, forms of inquiry as if these were the sine qua non of valid knowledge claims. While lip service is frequently offered to methodological pluralism, this is often conceptualized as a diversity of tools employed to promote the shared goals of normal science, rather than an acknowledgement of fundamentally different forms of inquiry with different purposes as well as different tools. Since I began my professional life three decades ago, the horizons of the American-dominated field of IR have narrowed palpably. Partly for these reasons, I have become progressively estranged from IR as a field of inquiry, and recoil at the fiction that the power of the stronger argument will prevail in open and scholarly debate. IR scholarship is overdetermined by politics, ideology, political economy. So part of the project of reconstructing IR involves not just confronting its radically decontextualized and reified representations of world politics, but also the politics of its reproduction. Sadly for me as I approach the last years of my career, the latter has proved very much more difficult. All the more reason, perhaps, to welcome a new generation of scholars, like Alex, who will continue to fight the good fight.


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