When Ernest Met Leon

This is the fourth post in our forum on Buzan and Lawson’s The Global Transformation, from our own Jamie. The opening post, responses from Julian Go and Jeppe Mulich, and the authors’ rejoinder are all live.

Imagine that you are a collier in one of the mining districts of central Scotland in 1799. You spend your days hewing minerals from the earth, as your predecessor of one century before almost certainly did. You eat a similar, limited, diet and probably return from darkened pit to tallow-lit cottage on the same route and to the same few possessions as that of one hundred years previously. Perhaps most important, as vast proportions -possibly a majority – of the rest of humanity had been and remained at the time of your birth, you are not a legally or politically autonomous individual. You are a serf of sorts: your labour if not your entire body bound to the will of another. Should you attempt to flee this master, and were not returned to him within a year and a day, any person found to be harbouring you would be liable to pay one hundred pounds compensation for your person .

Compare now the grandson or great-grandson (for by this point, and unlike the case of 1799, daughters would not be working down the pit) of this collier in 1899. It is quite possible you or your forbears would have emigrated, as one-sixth of your European contemporaries did, to lands such as Canada and Australia cleansed of their aboriginal inhabitants to enable you to flourish. Where once you were the property of a mine-lord, you are now the citizen-subject of the world’s most powerful Empress: a ‘psychological wage’ available to you should you choose to take it. Your work remains back-breaking, but aided by machinery. Most of all, you are paid for it. This wage relationship creates not just a free individual but a potentially conscious collectivity. That collectivity, in which you may recognise yourself not just as miner, Briton or Scot but as a member of something called ‘the working class’, has its own flags, buildings, trade unions and – an entity unknown to your forbear of 1799 – political parties.

Has there ever been a century in which so much changed for so many? The wager of Barry Buzan and George Lawson in their magisterial book The Global Transformation is that – with the possible hazy exception of the early holocene transition to settled agriculture – there has not. In doing so, they are revising revisionism, with great consequences not just for historical sociology but for the discipline of IR.

The view of the ‘long nineteenth century’ from the French Revolution to the Russian as a ‘great divide’ in human history has fallen into disfavour, smacking as it can of the triumphal sense of European, male, bourgeois self that characterised the century in question. The institutions and social practices heralded as novel can usually be traced back to other times and places, and the picture of shocking change within a lifetime transformed into something less immediately perceptible. To the extent that there is a popular historical consciousness, in the UK at any rate, it thrives on finding the familiar in history: the ways in which the Edwardians, or Victorians, or Tudors or Plantanagets were ‘like us’. Buzan and Lawson’s reminder of the recent nature, and the strangeness, of the past is a lapidary one.


Tea-plantation workers in Tsarist-era Georgia.

In calling attention to the depth of the chasm between the nineteenth century and before, Buzan and Lawson are challenging the chronology both of mainstream IR, and historical sociology. If much of the evidence and historiography in the book will be familiar to audiences in the critical academy, it will be of shocking novelty to the North American mainstream. In particular, the 19th century disappears as a significant period in IR, as Buzan and Lawson demonstrate in their comprehensive survey of textbooks. The 21st century IR undergraduate is most often still confronted with a historical canon that does little to disrupt the patchy narrative with which they may have left school: a narrative that runs “Thucydides, Westphalia, Hitler, Cold War, Al Qaeda.” Amongst much else, Buzan and Lawson’s book will aid in correcting this disciplinary deformation of the mainstream.

The chronological move of Global Transformation is simultaneously a refreshing intervention in Historial Sociology of International Relations (HSIR). The two contending blocs of Historical Sociology, were one grossly to overgeneralise, remain Marxists and Weberians – occasionally with a Foucauldian undercurrent to one or the other. In both traditions, however, the beginning of the problem nexus of state-capital-international relations usually happens around the 16th or 17th century, if not before. When Marxists ask ‘does capitalism need the states system?’, the confounding factor is that in terms of chronological precedence the question might be more easily asked the other way round. By presenting IR as we know it as the product of the ‘dual revolutions’ of the long nineteenth century, Buzan and Lawson short-circuit this question – and, indeed, paradoxically make life much easier for those who wish to answer it in the affirmative.

To cash out their account of the 19th century, the blend of Ernest Gellner and Leon Trotsky (channelled via Justin Rosenberg) that Buzan and Lawson use is a most intriguing one. The basic structure remains that of Plough, Sword and Book. The transformation mapped in the 19th century is that a configuration of industrialisation, rationalised state administration and an ideology of -liberal, socialist, even nationalist – progressive modernity became the index of Great Power status. As a result a multi-actor and multi-civilisation world became one of states, and the non-state agencies and civil society oriented towards them. This configuration was both uneven, in that it was overwhelmingly concentrated in a core of Euro-Atlantic states, and combined, in that ‘[g]lobal modernity emerged in a context in which peoples lived in a variety of political, economic and cultural formations, from nomadic bands to city-states and empires’ [197]. Buzan and Lawson also recognise that central elements of their schema, such as techniques of surveillance and governance, as proceeding not from core to periphery but the other way around. Global Transformation seems to me to get the balance right between recognising the agency and plurality of polities in what came to be the colonised world, and seeing Euro-Atlantic domination as a historical fact that requires explanation.

The central criticism that might be made of the book lies, I think, elsewhere: in its implicit tendency to meld and re-mould theoretical categories. This could be highly productive, if the relationship between those categories was made clearer. Yet the result is something of a Weberian body with Marxist and post-colonial limbs – an agreeably combined and hybrid creature perhaps appropriate to the rich evidence offered, but one that can leave the reader with a sense of missed opportunity.

There is, of course, no more unfair criticism (or disguised praise?) than “why didn’t you write the book I wanted!” Given that Global Transformation does invoke Uneven and Combined Development (UCD) as an optic for its superb survey, however, one could legitimately point to two great theoretical advances the book could make but appears to avoid. One of these would be radically to accelerate the current tendency in the usage of UCD in International Relations theory and openly sever it from its Marxist background: instead using the concept as a heuristic for the asynchronous unity of explanatory categories from any tradition of social thought. This might provide, as John Hobson has begun to, a route to an uneven, combined, and decolonial Weberianism (2007, 2011). An even more tempting prospect along these lines, only hinted at by the book title, would be a truly uneven and combined account of global processes of commodification and their relationship to centralised coercive power a la Karl Polanyi. The second, perhaps less likely, road would be to draw lessons from the empirical centrality of industrialisation and particularly of the middle decades of the nineteenth century to support the position of a late, and primarily capitalist UCD.

peasant poster

‘Come! The day of mankind is dawning!’ All-Japan Peasants’ Federation Poster

While Buzan and Lawson’s emphasis on the importance of the nineteenth century and the evidence they bring to bear tends towards the latter position, their exegesis of UCD tends towards the former without this tension being acknowledged. This is unfortunate, because were it expanded upon we would have a work of enormous import for the conundrums around which debates on UCD revolve. It seems rather odd that the Global Transformation is not situated in, nor even considers at much length, those debates. Some IR scholars, historical sociologists among them, see the debates on UCD as a somewhat provincial dispute amongst Marxists, and only one breed of Marxist at that. Buzan and Lawson presumably do not share this view, having hung so much of the theoretical weight of the book on the concept. Not only this: the positions in these debates are highly germane to one of the dilemmas highlighted in the conclusion of Global Transformation, the clash between those who affirm (Ken Waltz) and those who deny (Fred Halliday) the ‘macro-comparability’ across historical epochs of interactions between multiple political communities [p.320]. Yet, the passages concerning UCD in Global Transformation largely affirm one reading of the concept, that of Justin Rosenberg – or rather, one interpretation of that reading.

This interpretation is contained within the footnoted statement:

[U]nevenness is a constant,necessary feature of the….The interactions between these diversely situated social orders are what drive historical development: powerful polities coerce weaker polities; those who experience their social order as “backward” attempt to “catch up” with those considered more powerful, and so on. During the global transformation, degrees of combination intensified because of both technological breakthroughs (such as steamships, railways, and electronic means of communication from the telegraph to the internet) and social practices (such as imperialism, colonialism and the expansion of the market. Yet such developments also heightened degrees of unevenness between those in possession of the new mode of power and those without it.The global transformation produced both convergence and divergence simultaneously. [p.21]

So far so good, but this position represents both a drawing upon and intervention within a long-running series of debates on UCD. In broad outline, there are three main camps: one, most associated with Justin Rosenberg that effectively places UCD within the ‘macro-comparability’ camp, seeing UCD as a fundamental tendency operative across historical epochs and generative of the interactive nature of political multiplicity itself (Rosenberg 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). A second position re-asserts what it takes to be Trotsky’s argument, that UCD is a fundamentally capitalist phenomenon, and that combination represents the result – an ‘unstable amalgam’ – inside states of the uneven nature of development between states (Ashman 2006, Davidson 2006, 2012). A third position sees UCD as a tendency present throughout historical epochs but only fully activated under the expansion of capitalist social relations (Allinson and Anievas 2009, 2010, Anievas 2014, Allinson Forthcoming 2015).

Buzan and Lawson seem to be taking up the third of these versions of UCD, especially when they argue that ‘[w]hile uneven and combined development has been a long-standing feature in human history…the revolutions of modernity both intensified unevenness between polities and, for the first time, tied the world into a single structure’ [p.172]. Indeed, the thrust of the book is to support this argument. It is curious, then, to find the analytical context of UCD omitted: even more so when one considers the current research on the 19th century that takes up some of the themes of Global Transformation. One can find this, for example in the constructive deployment and immanent critique of UCD in dialogue with post colonialism (Matin 2013a,b, Nisancioglu 2014, Tansel 2014) or in the explanation of the origins of the ‘Thirty Years’ Crisis’ of the 20th century in Alex Anievas’ superlative Capital, the State and War.

It is possible that this omission may derive from the very tension between the melded theoretical elements mentioned above. The explicit categories of the book are the familiar trio of coercion and administration, production and exchange, and persuasion and belief. No single one of them is held pre-eminent. Yet, although Buzan and Lawson insist on the transformation of the ‘mode of power’ as part of a ‘contingent concatenation’ that has come to be known as modernity, the drivers of the unevenness and combination seem to come from a more infrastructural level. The usage of UCD goes along with a subterranean historical materialism at odds with the professed Weber-Gellner model. It is the two distinct waves of the industrial revolution, and the technologies they both draw upon and expand, that seem to force the compulsive adaptation of a rationalised state apparatus and the -often highly traumatic- adoption of new ideologies. The very first type of change identified as central in the book is ‘industrialisation and the extension of the market to a global scale’ [p.3]. The general model of social transformation used in the book, from hunter-gathering to agriculture and/or nomadism, likewise seems to begin very firmly in what Marx called ‘the basis’: it is, for example, the ‘vastly more productive political economy’ of agriculture that makes ‘more complex forms of society’ possible [p.18]. One wonders: just how contingent is the concatenation of the global transformation?

Of course, this is not a question that is likely to be answered satisfactorily any time soon. If it were, historical sociologists would be out of a job. The Global Transformation has not closed the debate: it has, without doubt, moved it significantly further on.


Allinson, Jamie (forthcoming 2015) The Struggle for the State in Jordan: The Social Origins of Alliances in the Middle East, IB Tauris, London

Allinson, Jamie, and Alexander Anievas. (2010a) ‘Beyond Political Marxism: Their Politics and Ours’ in Marxism and World Politics: Contesting Global Capitalism, edited by Alexander Anievas. London: Routledge.

Allinson, Jamie, and Alex Anievas. (2009) ‘The Uses and Misuses of Uneven and Combined Development:an Anatomy of a Concept’ Cambridge Review of International Affairs 22:1 , 47-67

Anievas, Alex (2014) Capital, The State and War, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Ashman, Sam. (2006) ‘From World Market to World Economy’ in 100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects, edited by Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice, Pluto Press, London.

Davidson, Neil (2006) ‘From Uneven to Combined Development’ in 100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects, edited by Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice. Pluto Press, London.

– (2012) How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Haymarket, Chicago.

Hobson, John. (2011) ‘What’s at Stake in the Neo-Trotskyist Debate? Towards a Non-Eurocentric Historical Sociology of Uneven and Combined Development’, Millennium 40:1

—(2007) ‘Back to the Future of ‘One Logic or Two’: Forward to the Past of ‘Anarchy Versus Racist Hierarchy’? Cambridge Review ofInternational Affairs 20:4, 581-97.

Matin, Kamran.(2013a) Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change. Routledge, London.

— (2013b) ‘Redeeming the universal: postcolonialism and the inner life ofEurocentrism’. European Journal of International Relations, 19:2

Nisancioglu, Kerem (2014) ‘The Ottoman Origins of Capitalism: Uneven and Combined Development and Eurocentrism’ Review of International Studies 40:2

Tansel, Burak Cemal (2014) ‘Deafening silence? Marxism, international historical sociology and the spectre of Eurocentrism’ European Journal of International Relations Online First, 14th March 2014


2 thoughts on “When Ernest Met Leon

  1. “Uneven and Combined Development”
    Took me a fair bit of googling to figure out what UCD stands for- not everyone reading this blog is an academic yeah!


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