Modernity Is Everything; Empires Are Everywhere

JMulich_squareJeppe Mulich brings us the third post in our forum on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. Jeppe is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History at New York University. He works on comparative empires, global history, and colonialism in world politics. His research on regionalism, law, and intercolonial networks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been published in the Journal of Global History and in the anthology The Uses of Space in Early Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

The authors’ original post, Julian’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.

Let me start off by stressing that The Global Transformation is a fantastic book. Buzan and Lawson manage to pack a host of information and analysis into a relatively short and very readable book, while at the same time keeping their fundamental argument sharp and coherent. It is one of those works that leave you wondering why it has not already been written, particularly in a discipline so intent on retelling the wrong stories over and over again.[1] It is also, incidentally, a book that strongly argues in favor of the relevance of my own field, something that any aspiring scholar should welcome with open arms. With this in mind, my comments and critiques in the following piece might come off as nitpicky, but if they do this is only because I agree with so very much of Buzan and Lawson’s core argument. I am not trying to offer a counterargument or even a corrective to their account, but rather a few friendly jabs and perhaps an opening for further research into and discussion of some of the wider themes and implications of this important book.

I will primarily provide comments on the book from the perspective of a historian, with the theoretical underpinnings which that classification implies. My comments are divided into three broad sections. The first section will deal with issues of thinking in time, in particular how to date the type of global shifts that Buzan and Lawson are interested it and, related to this, how to disentangle the historical forces of change and continuity. The second section will delve more into the specific substance of the global transformation – namely the notion of modernity and the potential problems and benefits of using this nebulous concept. The third section will focus more on a particular part of the puzzle of the nineteenth century – that of colonial configurations and the multitude of state-forms emerging at this time – and consider this phenomenon vis-à-vis Buzan and Lawson’s treatment of rational state-building.

Periodization and Eurocentric Narratives

BelleyWhile Hobsbawm (1962) introduced the idea of a long nineteenth century more than half a century ago, in the first of his three books covering the period from 1789 to 1914, the past decade and a half has witnessed a resurgence of interest among historians and historical sociologists. Unlike Hobsbawm’s work, which focused almost entirely on events and developments within Europe, many of these new accounts are in various ways attempting to grapple with the inherent Eurocentrism of earlier histories. Such projects are often accomplished by telling decidedly global stories of the nineteenth century, with the most widely read example being C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, joined in the past year by Jürgen Osterhammel’s 1000-page behemoth The Transformation of the World.[2]

What the works of Bayly, Osterhammel, and Buzan and Lawson have in common is their focus on the transformative nature of the nineteenth century, apparent with just a cursory glance at their titles. While these authors might be interested in a certain kind of big history, their work focuses on shifts, breaks, origins, and turning points – not on continuities and long trajectories. This is in many ways true for most academic history, which often ends up as an exhausting chase to find the origins of specific phenomena or practices or, when coupled with the peculiar obsession with modernity, an endless argument over when and where the first example of a truly modern state/revolution/economy/philosophy/society/ideology/science/war should be found. Increasingly relegated to the sidelines are the crotchety old contrarians who insist that nothing much ever changed anyhow.[3]

From this it follows that one can expect two different foundational historical critiques of The Global Transformation. The first critique is one of continuity and longevity – that the transformation Buzan and Lawson describe is overstated and overblown, because the periods before and after the nineteenth century are not all that different after all, at least not in any truly significant way. This type of argument often belongs to a sort of deep history, stressing the very, very longue durée, in which humanity is little more than a blip on the radar. It is also a fairly useless perspective when studying areas of actual human activity, such as International Relations. The other critique is an early modernists one, arguing that the changes the authors locate in the nineteenth century did not actually originate in this period, but rather stem from much older trends and trajectories, located in the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries, depending on the specifics of the phenomena and of the scholar. In the book itself, Buzan and Lawson have done quite a bit to counter such early modernist critiques. They make sure to point out antecedents to many of the dynamics they describe and draw on a rather impressive knowledge of the secondary literature on topics such as early capitalism, state formation, and imperial ideologies. These efforts are unlikely to be enough to satiate some critics, especially given the obsession with locating the origins of modernity.

There is, however, a very good reason to locate the type of transformation the authors are interested in in the nineteenth century rather than in any earlier period, which has to do with the Eurocentrism of history mentioned above. It is becoming clear for anyone engaged in scholarship on the non-Western world generally and on the dynamics of early colonialism specifically that something happened in the nineteenth century, which decidedly and fundamentally altered the relationship between Western imperial powers and the rest of the globe. With the notable exception of the Americas and the Caribbean, European imperial agents did not generally enjoy a position of clear dominance in their interactions with non-Western polities over the long course of European global expansion leading up to the nineteenth century. Even in places usually considered the colonial heartland of the European empires the power of imperial administrators were based on uneasy and uncertain relationships to local actors, relations that could potentially upset the precarious balance of power between them at any moment. Indeed, this situation was true in places such as the African West Coast and Sri Lanka as late as the first decades of the nineteenth century (Sparks, 2014; Sivasundaram, 2013). In other regions, most notably East Asia, the unequal relationship between Europeans and local polities lasted even longer and in the case of Japan, Western domination never amounted to more than a looming threat on the horizon (Clulow, 2014; Cassel, 2012).

Dividing China

It is clear that things did change at some point in the nineteenth century. European or Western global dominance became a historical reality over the course of the century, and the challenge for historians and historically-minded social scientists is to explain this development without writing non-Western agency out of the story and without presupposing the inevitability of such European divergence. Tackling this challenge by focusing specifically on the transformations wrought by the nineteenth century is a key component of avoiding a Eurocentric narrative and is part of what makes The Global Transformation an excellent book. Analyzing the events and trends of the nineteenth century is a crucial way of underscoring the very contingency of European divergence, as opposed to spending too much time attempting to locate perceived antecedents of this dominance. When we search for earlier explanations of eventual European success we consciously or subconsciously inscribing a level of inevitability, which is entirely unsupported when one looks at the actual situation on the ground prior to the nineteenth century.[4] While Buzan and Lawson thus avoid most of the pitfalls of Eurocentric historical treatments of the rise of Western hegemony or near-hegemony, they do not completely manage to dodge the conceptual follies of earlier historiography. This leads us to a discussion of what is perhaps, or perhaps not, one of the core concepts of The Great Transformation – that of modernity.

What good does modernity do?

In the seventeenth century, members of the Académie française were wrapped up in a heated debate over the merits of modernity vis-à-vis the virtues of the Ancients. Men such as Charles Perrault argued that even the most learned minds of antiquity could never have hoped to rival the wonders of contemporary enlightenment, best exemplified by the three great inventions of modern time – the printing press, the firearm, and the compass. At the same time, British Whigs were obsessed over the peculiar modernity of the political economy of the Dutch Republic, doing their best to copy the best practices of this innovative system. A similar obsession over modernity and political economy could be found among the Physiocrats of France a century later, and among a host of different groups of scholars throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, each with their own conception of what exactly “modern” meant. In the first years of the twentieth century, the Japanese scholar Naitō Torajirō located what he thought of as the paradigmatic form of modernity in the early years of Song Dynasty China, a good five hundred years before the European Renaissance (Naitō, 1983).[5]

  Chaplin cogs

Modernity is at once one of the most used and most disputed concepts in the social sciences, perhaps nowhere more so than in History. How are we to use the notion of modernity as a meaningful analytical category when it is so apparent that different people have used it to describe the particularity and startling newness of their own periods throughout the past half millennia? As a native category surely modernity can be useful, as long as the particular contemporary understanding of it is spelled out, but is it really helpful to use modernity as a universal social-analytical concept?

But as soon as one takes apart the fixity of his [Talcott Parsons’] package of pattern variables and posits multiple trajectories leading to multiple modernities, the intuitive salience of the label modern becomes more problematic. Everything is simultaneously modern; modernity is everything that history made; modernity is everywhere the constructed relationship of the modern to the traditional. (Cooper, 2005: 132)

This quote by Frederick Cooper encapsulates the fundamental problem of modernity: Either we operate with a hyper-specific definition of modernity, which tends toward a Eurocentric and narrow view of the world, or we disentangle this definition in order to create a framework with multiple qualitatively different conceptions of modernity, ending in a situation where all is in a sense modern and the concept thus looses much of its analytical usefulness. While Buzan and Lawson avoid relying on the concept of modernity overly much in their blog post, the term is more prevalent in the book. Indeed, it is part of its very title. This is, by the way, also true of most of the other accounts of the nineteenth century, referenced in the previous section, and the obsession with modernity is common to a large swath of historians of the nineteenth century as well as to the majority of contemporary historical sociologists.

But why? What good does this term do for us?

I would argue that the answer to this question is “very little.” Modernity is in most cases used as a shorthand for a variety of different phenomena, which we tend to bundle together into one more or less coherent process of social, political, economic, cultural, or even environmental transformation. But exactly because these phenomena and processes are so varied and because different uses of the concept of modernity emphasize different aspects of them, it is almost always necessary to specify which components are important for any particular analytical account. Indeed, Buzan and Lawson are very deft at pointing to the specifics of their use of the term, quite often referring to the separate components rather than to the bundle itself (namely the three phenomena of industrialization, state-building, and “ideologies of progress.”) But if they manage to speak very intelligently to these individual parts that make up their modernity, so to speak, then why even use the language of modernity? A prime reason for this choice, I suspect, is their attempt to engage in a wider academic dialogue over the dynamics of and transitions to modernity, a dialogue with the very historians and social scientists mentioned earlier. But because this dialogue is based on different conceptions of the idea of modernity, because the idea itself means so much and therefore so very little, and because the very word creates a dangerous dichotomy between the modern and the non-modern, I doubt that this is a conversation worth having in the first place. Much better to discuss the specific substances, processes, and practices described in such careful detail by the authors than to risk getting bogged down in meaningless discourse over how many stages of late modernity there are or what the grander theoretical implications are of talking about, say, reflexive rather than liquid modernity. Instead, let us turn to the more specific question of nineteenth-century empires and their operation.

Empires, states, and political experimentation

[T]he dynamics of colonialism cannot be understood if it is assumed that some unitary representation is extended from the metropole and cast across passive spaces, unmediated by perceptions or encounters. (Thomas, 1994: 60)

US Empire

The politico-legal landscape of the nineteenth century was first and foremost one of empires, Western as well as non-Western. While Buzan and Lawson do an excellent job of showing the entanglement between processes of state-building and of imperialism, I am still left with the feeling that not enough attention has been paid to the relational dynamics of colonialism in their analysis. The problem is not that the authors lack an appreciation of these dynamics, since significant parts of the book are devoted to explaining the variety of state forms created as a result of imperial expansion and competition (notably Chapter 5). Rather, the problem is that this careful description of the variety of polities is in some ways in tension with the broader argument of “rational state-building” taking place and transforming the units of the emerging international system of the nineteenth century. The issue here is that the very notion of units as making up the primary actors of world politics creates a distorted view of the world as being formed by discrete and controllable spaces. Despite the fact that Buzan and Lawson emphasize the unevenness and malleability of territorial sovereignty multiple times in their narrative, their core-periphery model still relies on political units as the fundamental building block of the international system. To be sure, their units do not fit neatly into the mold of nation-states, which so often mar other theoretical accounts in IR, but they still operate in a theoretical world where a certain type of rational state forms the basis of interaction and where the units of the periphery has to play “catch-up” in order to get nearer to this ideal-type (Buzan and Lawson, 2015: 197-209). In this sense they are dangerously close to falling into the Weberian trap of the modern state-form.

History presents us with a more messy and complicated picture than this core-periphery world of largely discrete units. I am not here advocating for a liberal view of a world made up of transnational networks and non-state actors. Rather, my point is that the relationship between these different units is so important for the conception and constitution of the units themselves that it seems hard to disentangle these two aspects – states and relations between states. Buzan and Lawson come close to arguing something similar on multiple occasions, but their return to rational state-building as one of the three fundamental aspects of the global transformation precludes them from making the leap into a fully relational approach. Perhaps one of the issues is that we lack a fully developed theoretical language to speak about these issues without reverting to notions of states and state-level units. The fact that Buzan and Lawson favors the term “polity” throughout much of the book is an important step in the right direction and is commendable for this reason alone, but it still seems insufficient.

It seems to me that the very phenomenon of states and empires was so in flux during the nineteenth century that we need a different way to talk about the processes surrounding them. Perhaps part of this stems from a continued lack of understanding of some of the core dynamics driving colonialism. Indeed, Buzan and Lawson can hardly be blamed for paying relatively little attention to areas of history that so few historians have been studying in much depth until very recently, especially when it comes to the nineteenth century. It is perhaps telling that the primary referents in the IR literature on some of these issues continue to be works that have, in many respects, fallen behind the more recent historical scholarship. I am here thinking in particular of Hendrik Spruyt’s The Sovereign State and its Competitors and Janice Thomson’s Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns, which, while both marvellous books, ultimately get a great deal wrong with regards to timing and process.

The fundamental dichotomies associated with state-units, namely those of inside/outside, domestic/foreign, and public/private, at times preclude us from appreciating the degree of political experimentation taking place in the nineteenth century. Adaptive strategies abound throughout the period and many indigenous polities went through sometimes radical shifts in their practices and institutions well before any full-fledged colonial incursions had taken place, in part as a way to stave off potential colonization. This was true in the Pacific, as in the case of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, and in Africa, as with the Fante Confederation and the Asante Empire. The Japanese imperial project of “modernization” is in some sense remembered more for its success than for its uniqueness, since multiple other non-western empires went through their own processes of adaptation and innovation. These projects were also not examples of a one-sided process of “westernization,” but rather projects combining contemporary forms of statecraft with indigenous cultural components and wholly new inventions at the local level.[6]

Hawaiian dollars

What is more, this type of political experimentation with the state form did not come to an end with the nineteenth century. To the contrary, throughout the long period of twentieth century decolonization political experimentation continued across the globe, a point to which Buzan and Lawson themselves allude to. Alternative state forms ranged from bottom-up attempts at establishing a Balkan Union by left-wing thinkers in the 1930s to the more top-down experimentations with federation in Francophone Africa and the Anglophone Caribbean two or three decades later. While many of these alternatives resulted in failure of one kind or another, other polities managed to coopt the language of nation-states to a sufficient degree to fit into the post-United Nations world. The most notably example of this type of non-nation nation-state today is arguably the People’s Republic of China, which has more in common with its imperial predecessors than with any sort of ideal-typical nation-state, despite what some contemporary Chinese scholars might argue.

All of this is perhaps less a direct critique of The Global Transformation than a way of pointing out that there is still a whole lot to be done in the area of historical world politics. This is true both for our empirical knowledge of the practices and institutions of international relations as they played out across history and for our more theoretical or conceptual ways of understanding and discussing these dynamics. While coming to terms with the transformations brought about in the nineteenth century is one important aspect of a larger project, it should not be the final word in this matter. Thus while The Global Transformation is one of the best examples of a deeply informed work of IR scholarship taking large historical questions seriously, it is hopefully only the first step on a journey towards a more historically aware discipline of world politics.


[1] This point is of course old news to anyone reading this blog (Carvalho, Leira, and Hobson, 2011).

[2] Another variation on the genre is the anthology of monograph-length individual contributions. Akira Iriye and Jürgen Osterhammel have employed this format for their ambitious new series A History of the World, the first volume of which was, not surprisingly, focused on the second half of the long nineteenth century (Rosenberg, 2012).

[3] For a paradigmatic case of this sort of insistence on continuity, see J. C. D. Clark’s work on early modern England, in which he essentially argues that the Age of Reason never happened and that the period from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century was instead characterized by “continuities, collectivities and man’s sense of the sacred.” (Clark, 2000: x)

[4] It is telling that the best new large-scale histories of non-Western regions all tend to end around 1800, at the exact moment when the power dynamic between European empires and local polities began to change (e.g. Lieberman, 2009; Gunn, 2011).

[5] Interestingly, at least parts of Naitō’s argument seem to be restated in the recent work of Fukuyama (2011) on political order.

[6] For some treatments on different aspects of these nineteenth century “modernization” projects, see the recent work of Bayly (2011), Mishra (2012), and van de Ven (2014).

8 thoughts on “Modernity Is Everything; Empires Are Everywhere

  1. In what specific ways are Hendrik Spruyt’s ‘The Sovereign State and its Competitors’ and Janice Thomson’s ‘Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns’ “ultimately .. wrong with regards to timing and process.?” This isn’t a rhetorical question, I havent read either (but want to read both) Im genuinely interested in the answer.
    This was a great post by the way, very informative, and an enlightening seminar so far.


    • That’s a good question and I realize I was a bit glib on the point of Spruyt and Thomson in the post (it already seemed overly long at that point).

      In essence I think the stories about state formation that Spruyt and Thomson tell are insightful and important correctives to earlier views of the state, but also a bit too neat and somewhat dated compared to newer historical scholarship. They have helped to debunk the key role previously ascribed to the Westphalian Peace and the seeming inevitability of the nation-state, but at the same time they tend to reproduce other aspects of the state-centric narratives. In part due to their primary focus on Western Europe, they mostly ignore the connections between overseas colonialism and European state-formation and often work more towards a re-periodization than an outright (and in my eyes necessary) deconstruction of the emergence of the sovereign state system. In this way their accounts tend to describe polity variation as happening along a continuum tied to a certain historical path, from pre-modern feudal states through early modern absolutist states to modern nation-states, in a way not unlike Perry Anderson’s lineages of the absolutist state. I think this constitutes a problematic view of historical development and the variation between polities, and, importantly, it misses the entanglement between state formation and colonial expansion.

      In the case of ‘The Sovereign State and its Competitors,’ it seems to me that the “victory” of the sovereign state-form is dated too early by Spruyt. Sovereignty and territoriality were less clearly defined and more contested features of the European political landscape, which still relied on empire as the dominant state-form well into the nineteenth century. Part of the problem might lie in the different pictures of European history one would get from focusing on political and philosophical treatises vis-à-vis a more practice-oriented perspective. I’d refer to the works of Lauren Benton and Fred Cooper and Jane Burbank here, among several others.

      In the case of ‘Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns,’ my criticism is primarily of Thomson’s reliance on the dichotomies of national/foreign and public/private. These distinctions seem hard to make for her period of change when one considers the colonial and imperial aspects of European state-formation and warfare, and the story of the decline of privateering and mercenaries miss some important ways in which these very practices were used to make claims of sovereignty well into the nineteenth century. I’d recommend Tarak Barkawi’s article ‘State and Armed Force in International Context’ for more on these points.

      Sorry for, once again, being overly long in my response.


      • @Jeppe and Ronan:
        I’m a little reluctant to stick my oar in here because I haven’t yet read this book forum properly, but I can say something about Spruyt 1994 (which I discussed in my dissertation [2005], not published).

        Jeppe M. writes:
        it seems to me that the “victory” of the sovereign state-form is dated too early by Spruyt. Sovereignty and territoriality were less clearly defined and more contested features of the European political landscape, which still relied on empire as the dominant state-form well into the nineteenth century.

        I basically agree with the first part of this statement, i.e., up until the last clause. Spruyt says the “essential features of modern statehood” (in terms of sovereignty and boundaries) existed in Capetian France in c.1300. No, I don’t really think so (though obviously the question is debatable and turns partly on definitions). Hein Goemans published a piece in an edited volume (Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization, ed. Kahler and Walter, 2006) that tended to support aspects of Spruyt’s argument w/r/t the reign of Philip the Fair (1285-1314), but I took a different view in my diss. (which I finished before the appearance of Goemans’s piece).

        As for Jeppe’s last clause — “which still relied on empire as the dominant state-form well into the nineteenth century” — I’m somewhat uneasy about that. This is more or less what Nexon argues in The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, but I have reservations about it. I will skip them here, otherwise this comment would be even longer than it is.

        Finally, Spruyt does miss the entanglement of state formation and colonial expansion (doesn’t discuss the latter much at all) and does date the emergence of sovereign territoriality too early, but that doesn’t mean that the general narrative of European state formation “along a continuum” is necessarily wrong, in my view. At some point — not as early as 1300, to be sure — there is a convergence on something that looks like what we think of as ‘the sovereign-territorial state’. In terms of precise boundary definition, it doesn’t happen until quite late (and I think Jordan Branch’s work, which I’m only very cursorily familiar with, confirms this). In terms of certain other features, probably somewhat earlier (depending on specific polities). Nexon’s emphasis on composite states and quasi-imperial forms complicates matters, but as I said I have certain reservations about that. (Sorry for such a long comment.)


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