The Global Transformation: A Response

The final post in our forum on The Global Transformation, in which Barry Buzan and George Lawson respond to the points raised by Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson. The original post, summarising the book is available here. The book will also be discussed further at the ISA conference in New Orleans and a launch at LSE.

[Editor’s note: The authors are not responsible for the images in this post. But it’s Friday.]

Given the ‘excess’ of contemporary academic production, it is a rare treat to have colleagues engage seriously with your work. We therefore offer our heartfelt thanks to Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson for their close reading of our book and for their thoughtful critiques of it. We offer our equally heartfelt thanks to the editors of The Disorder of Things, particularly Meera Sabaratnam, for investing a considerable amount of time in organising and publishing these commentaries.

The interventions by Go, Mulich and Allinson raise two main issues: the first relates to our use of, and contribution to, theoretical debates, particularly those around imperialism, and uneven and combined development (UCD); the second concerns the relationship between history and theory, most notably our use of macro-historical frames such as ‘modernity’. We discuss these issues in turn.

On theory

Julian Go is right that The Global Transformation ‘expressly rejects any grand theoretical narratives or systems’. He is also right that we do not use ‘categories derived from a larger and more comprehensive theoretical system’. And, however tiresome it is to keep agreeing with your critics, Go is once more right in saying that our use of uneven and combined development is not meant to correct this shortcoming – as we discuss below, we use UCD as an analytical shorthand rather than as a theoretical schema containing a range of causal claims.

Why is this the case? The first reason is strategic. At the beginning of the project, we had several choices to make: whether to pitch the book primarily to an IR audience or whether to also take some swings at cognate disciplines; whether to get drawn into internal debates associated with particular theoretical schemas or seek out a position in-between, or perhaps above, the fray; how to balance big picture and fine-grained historical analysis, and more. In each of these instances we chose the easy option – easy not in the sense of being straightforward to do, but in the sense of ‘less is more’. For example, rather than spend much time on the shortcomings of disciplinary historical sociology when it comes to its ‘occlusion of the global’, we concentrated on what historical sociology (and economic and world history) contributes to IR debates. Given that the answer to this was ‘quite a lot’, we made this our primary concern. Similarly, rather than distract ourselves – and readers – with the minutiae of debates internal to the whys and wherefores of ‘the global transformation’, we constructed a composite argument that assembled diverse storylines into a single narrative. To be clear – we are not saying that we neither built on, nor took a stand on, many of these debates, not least around the ‘internalism’ and Eurocentrism of many existing accounts. Rather, we made a deliberate decision to take an ecumenical approach, building on insights from a variety of theoretical churches rather than sticking to a single tradition.


If strategic requirements provided one rationale for the theoretical choices we made, there was also a second, more substantive rationale lying behind the status of our theoretical claims: we did smuggle theoretical contributions into our analysis. First and foremost, The Global Transformation rejects monocausal explanations (of any description) in favour of a configurational analysis that highlights the ways in which a series of interlinked events and processes concatenated in historically specific form to produce global modernity. When it comes to the scale of macro-transformation that we explore in the book, determinate analysis, whether of ‘ultimate primacy’ or ‘the final instance’, appears to us like a vain (perhaps vainglorious) attempt to ‘know the mind of God’. We rejected such monotheism in favour of an account that stresses the conjunctural intersection of events and processes that were causally, but contingently, interrelated. Behind this lies a broader argument about the relationship between history and theory that we do not have the scope to explore here. Suffice to say that our contention is that big events do not require big causes. If Ernest Gellner is right in saying that global modernity was a ‘near miraculous concatenation of circumstances’,[i] then no single theoretical schema can possibly capture the entirety of the global transformation. Hence our melding of diverse historical developments with equally diverse theoretical traditions.

Our second theoretical intervention concerns debates about power relations. Here, we stress the concept of the ‘mode of power’ – the material and ideational relations that are generative of both actors and the ways in which power is exercised. As we argued in our original post, contra most IR approaches, changes in the mode of power are more significant than changes in the distribution of power, effecting not just outcomes, but the basis for how interactions take place and are understood. This challenges a range of IR theories, most notably realism, something we emphasize in the book’s conclusion.

Beyond these two contributions, we intervene en passant in a number of other theoretical debates: over polarity theory, varieties of capitalism, the possibility of making comparisons across time and place, and more. In this sense, if anchoring our analysis to a particular theoretical tradition is not one of our aims, it is not the case that the book has nothing to offer theory, even if it is fair to say that the primary purpose of the book lies elsewhere – in showing how much of IR, wilfully or otherwise, occludes the global transformation from its apparatus. And we tried hard to avoid turf wars, even if we couldn’t resist the odd skirmish.

Closet post-colonialists?

If you haven't seen R. Kelly's rap opera, you really should

This leads onto Go’s second critique – ‘the remarkable presence of empire’ in the book and why we did not use this as our motivating analytic. Good question. We agree with Go that empire and imperialism are central to the story we tell. And we also agree that IR as a whole (some critical scholarship aside) says far too little about imperialism in the making of modern international order. Until relatively recently, empires were the dominant unit of the modern international system and they are intimately bound up with the creation of the modern state – as Go notes, this is one of the central themes of our book.

However we don’t agree that ‘imperialism’ can be substituted for ‘the global transformation’ without this significantly altering (and not in a way we would support) some of the main arguments in the book. While it is superficially true, as Go contends, that the leap in interaction capacity during the ‘long 19th century’ occurred within a framework of empires, it is not obvious that imperialism was a necessary condition for this development. As the ongoing acceleration of interaction capacity during the second half of the 20th century shows, these developments are perfectly compatible with a (formally) postcolonial international order. At the same time, decolonisation and its attendant debates over (both political and economic) sovereignty mean that a ‘multi-centric neo-imperial formation’ is not the most useful frame for examining the post-World War Two era, and still less the period of ‘decentred globalism’ that marks the early 21st century. Such an optic stretches the concept of imperialism beyond breaking point – not all hierarchies are imperial, and not all asymmetries arise from colonial legacies. We prefer to differentiate ‘Western-colonial’ international society from ‘Western-global’ international society primarily to illustrate the ways in which colonialism and imperialism made way for a post-World War Two agenda of ‘development’. We stress the continuities between these two periods, but also their considerable differences, in Chapter 7 of our book.

In similar vein, deploying empire/imperialism as our principal analytic would have tied us to a framing that narrowed the appeal – and utility – of the book. As Go notes, empire is an immensely significant feature of the global transformation. But it is not the whole story. Even accepting that ‘theoretically-driven narratives … abstract, organize, and reduce’, our intention lay elsewhere: in providing a synthesis that an IR audience would be unable to wish away (although we may be guilty of overestimating the capacity of our colleagues in this regard). If others use our framing – or take from it an interest in how imperial relations constituted modern international order – then we would be delighted, even more so if such analysis served as ‘a theoretical bridge linking postcolonial theory, transnational history, historical sociology and IR’. But that is not the primary goal of our book. Beyond highlighting – with we hope overwhelming evidence – the importance of imperialism to the formation of modern international order, we also want to disturb realist accounts of power, English School accounts of the primary institutions of international society, liberal accounts of globalization, and constructivist arguments about the transformative potential of ideational schemas.

Go is right that there is something about IR that has stopped these approaches from apprehending the importance of imperialism to their core concerns. We channelled both critical IR scholarship and a lot of fairly standard (so hopefully not too scary) world/economic history to make this case. We therefore recognise, at least in part, his depiction of us as ‘closet postcolonialists’, even if we do not provide an epistemological challenge to existing social scientific concepts and categories, something that strikes us as fundamental to any such enterprise. But, in general, Go’s critique leads towards the writing of a different book for which we are not the best-qualified authors. The principal pay-off of The Global Transformation lies elsewhere: in offering an interpretative schema that can be used across the full range of IR’s theoretical spectrum.

Closet Marxists?

what_would_marx_do_boxer_shortsIn many ways, our response to Jamie Allinson runs along similar lines. Allinson’s claim that we channel Gellner and Trotsky, and produce a ‘Weberian body with Marxist and post-colonial limbs’, is appealing (analytically, if not figuratively). And we take his point that we could have intervened more in debates about uneven and combined development. But we didn’t, for the most part because of the reasons outlined above – that to do so would have taken us down a particular path that, in turn, weakened the overall aim of the book. Despite the temptations, we allowed ourselves only a few tangential transgressions, whether this was over the technological improvements of battleships or the relative size of draft horses. Becoming enmeshed in debates about uneven and combined development was not one of these transgressions.

That said, we do not think that our argument supports Allinson’s contention that uneven and combined development became ‘fully activated’ only in the 19th century. He is right to point out that the dynamics associated with UCD became particularly intense during the 19th century, but this is not the same thing as saying that they were ‘fully activated’ during this period. Making this claim would take us beyond our use of UCD, which is analytical-heuristic rather than causal-explanatory. Using UCD as a framing device allows us to construct a relatively simple account of macro-historical periodization: during the early phases of the global transformation, ‘development’ became both more uneven and more combined; in recent years, there has been a (partial) reduction of the former and a (powerful) intensification of the latter. We resist deploying causal dynamics often associated with UCD: ‘the privilege of historical backwardness’, ‘the whip of external necessity’, etc. Nor, more importantly, do we deploy a ‘subterranean historical materialism’ in which industrialization serves as ‘the basis’ of our analysis. The book is premised on the interplay between the three dynamics we see as constituting the global transformation – it is the whole package rather than any hierarchical relationship between them that fostered the modern mode of power. Hence, colonialism was legitimized by one or more ideologies of progress, and enabled through military superiority, mechanisms of state control and infrastructural developments that were closely bound-up with industrialization. We spend roughly equal time in the book between ‘ideational’ and ‘material’ factors (ungainly as these categories are). And we stress time and again how global modernity was an interrelated revolution of productive, coercive and ideological forces. As with Go’s ‘closet postcolonialists’, we must therefore resist Allinson’s attempts to out us as closet-Marxists.

On History

Jeppe Mulich’s ‘few friendly jabs’ relate mainly to the relationship between history and theory.


Of his first jab – 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’ – we can only agree. Our argument is that the 19th century was a culmination as much as it was a starting point. Aspects of industrialization, for example, were forged in 18th century ‘industrious revolutions’ in which households became centres for the consumption of global products ranging from Javanese spices to Chinese tea. Trade routes connected entrepôts such as Malacca, Samarkand, Hangzhou, Genoa and the Malabar Coast well before the 19th century. Long-distance commodity chains operating for many centuries leading up to the global transformation established trading networks in silks, cotton, sugar, tea, linen, porcelain and spices.

However, until the deepening of interaction capacity that took place during the long 19th century, most economic activities took part in ‘microeconomies’ with a 20-mile circumference. Those activities that went beyond the micro-scale, such as long-distance trading ‘corridors’, were only lightly connected. Commodity chains were an uneven archipelago of cities, caravans and trade fairs. The 19th century marketization of social relations fuelled the growth of a global system of much more densely connected networks, governed through the price mechanism and structured via hierarchical core-periphery relations. Western polities established dependencies around the world that forcibly restructured local economies, turning them into specialist export-intensive vehicles for the metropole. To take but one example of this broader dynamic, Indian textiles were either banned from Britain or levied with high tariffs, while British manufacturing products were forcibly imported into India without duty. Between 1814 and 1828, British cloth exports to India rose from 800,000 yards to over 40 million yards, while during the same period, Indian cloth exports to Britain halved.[ii]

The global transformation was not, therefore, any kind of ‘big bang’ – the emergence of industrialization, the rational state and ideologies of progress was gradual and uneven. Rather, our contention is that, during the long 19th century, a concatenation of dynamics, many of which had long antecedents, combined to produce a major transformation in terms not only of how social orders were organised and conceived, but also of how polities and peoples related to each other. Significant changes were underway well before the last quarter of the 19th century. But, from the early-to-middle decades of the 19th century, these changes combined to generate a new mode of power that, in turn, reconstituted the foundations of international order.

This leads neatly onto Mulich’s second ‘jab’ about our use of the term ‘modernity’. We accept his point that ‘modernity is ‘at once one of the most used and most disputed concepts in the social sciences’. But we don’t agree that the term is without utility. Rather, despite its different connotations, modernity has a ‘can’t live with it, can’t live without it’ quality, whether this is witnessed in Eisenstadt’s notion of ‘multiple modernities’, post-colonial accounts of ‘colonial modernity’, or in our depiction of ‘global modernity’. We reject the first of these labels for two reasons: first, because it retains a sense of Europe as the original, definitive modern experience – it is analytically prior to the regional variations that are compared to it; and second, because the concept of multiple modernities rests on a comparison of internally driven modernities, mediated by cultural differences, rather than deriving from the transnational interconnections that produced the modern mode of power. We reject the second label for the same reasons that we rebuff the attempts by Go and Allinson to ‘out’ us as post-colonialists or Marxists – it singularizes ‘modern’ history around the master-process of colonialism, which we see as one (vital, but not sole) driver of modern world history. Rather, we use the term global modernity in order to illustrate the ways in which modernity has been a global process both in terms of origins and outcomes. This means emphasizing the ‘entangled histories’ and ‘multiple vectors’ that combined to vault ‘Western’ polities into a position of (temporary) pre-eminence, from dynamics of industrialization/dispossession to state-building/imperialism.[iii]

Global modernity, therefore, does considerable analytical work in the book. At the same time, we need to find some expression for the enormous shift in power and wealth that took place during the 19th century and which we highlighted in our original post. So we acknowledge Mulich’s point that using the term ‘modernity’ comes with baggage, whether in terms of its engulfing of specific historical dynamics or in its association with unhelpful binaries: modern/traditional, advanced/backward, civilized/barbarian, etc. But, for us at least, there needs to be a term that captures the scale, intensity and global character of historical development over the past two centuries. And, as and until someone comes up with a label better suited to these dynamics, global modernity appears to us to be the least-worst option.

This brings us to Mulich’s third and final ‘jab’ – over the messiness of history, particularly as it pertains to the enormous variety of political units that have existed over the past two centuries. To accommodate this variety, the book tends to use (as Mulich notes) the term ‘polity’ rather than ‘state’. We also spend some time, particularly in Chapters 5 and 9, discussing varieties of political units, both in the 19th century and the contemporary world. Mulich is right to note that ‘the degree of political experimentation’ during the 19th century was vast. For one thing, empires were fragmented, ‘irregularly shaped corridors and enclaves’ that had porous borders and fluid sovereignty regimes.[iv] British India included several hundred ‘Princely States’ that retained a degree of ‘quasi-sovereignty’, as did nearly 300 ‘native states’ in Dutch East Asia. Where imperialism was successful, it relied on establishing partnerships with local power brokers: the Straits Chinese, the Krio of West Africa, the ‘teak-wallahs’ of Burma, the Chettiar of South India, and others. At the same time, prophetic movements attempted to establish domains over widely diverse territories, from New Zealand to China. And the contemporary world is also home to diverse forms of governance: varieties of capitalist governance, international governmental and non-governmental organisations, and private militias and non-state actors that act as units of governance in many parts of the global south.

In many ways, therefore, the question of how to apprehend such complexity comes down to relative ‘levels of abstraction’. The Global Transformation does a fair amount of historical heavy lifting, but it uses this history in order to sustain a macro-historical argument. Because our purpose is primarily geared at sustaining this macro-historical argument, some of the ‘messiness of history’ drops out of our analysis. This is not to say that such analysis is unimportant, or that history and theory are two different things. Far from it. Rather, our point is simply that there is always a trade off between issues of scale, and between analytical frame and historical detail – we needed just enough of each to assess how and why the global transformation emerged, and why it was significant. Such an enterprise necessarily simplifies detail and compresses complexity. There are, as there always must be in an exercise of this kind, historical gaps in our account. Our main contribution is the overview itself, which we see as providing stronger foundations for the discipline than any currently provided.

With that in mind, we close our book – and this forum – by expressing the hope that scholars continue to historicize the global transformation, whether in support of macro-historical accounts such as ours, or more granular accounts of particular events and processes within global modernity, as favoured by Mulich. Either way, our aim is the same: the construction of superior accounts of the formation and embedding of modern international order.

[i] Ernest Gellner (1988) Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (London: Paladin), p. 16.

[ii] Jack Goody (1996) The East in the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 131.

[iii] Jan De Vries (2013) ‘Reflections on Doing Global History’, in: Maxine Berg, Writing the History of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 32-47.

[iv] Lauren Benton (2010) A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. xii, 3.


3 thoughts on “The Global Transformation: A Response

  1. Pingback: 再,見十九世紀;再,見國際關係-讀 II – 菜市場政治學

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