Another guest contribution from Naeem Inayatullah to our symposium on Vitalis’s White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s research locates the Third World in international relations through history, political economy and method. With David Blaney, he is the co-author of International Relations and the Problem of Difference (Routledge 2004), and Savage Economics: Wealth, Poverty, and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism (Routledge 2010). He is the editor of Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (Routledge 2011), as well as Narrative Global Politics: Theory, History and the Personal in International Relations (Routledge, 2016) with Elizabeth Dauphinee. His writing, research and talks can be discovered and devoured at his academia.edu page.
When I finished reading White World Order, Black Power Politics, I made three decisions. I would read the book again. Not because it is theoretically difficult or jargon heavy. It’s not. But because I want to absorb its details, re-orient my body through its revelations, savor Bob’s story telling skills, and anticipate his scarce but nevertheless Pharoah Sanders-esque screams.
In addition, I immediately designed a course titled “Race and IR” around Bob’s book. The course has been approved and I am scheduled to teach it in September. Third, I’ve suggested Bob’s name to my best students as someone they might consider as a future mentor in graduate study. So, boom! Immediate impact. Could a book and an author want more than this? Perhaps not. Still, I suspect Bob has larger ambitions for this book. It could change our field, if we are lucky. Count me in for this project as well.
The importance of Vitalis’ book is easy to articulate. It demonstrates the racist foundations of our discipline (IR). Bob recounts the narrative as two sides of one tale. There is the account of those who theorized and practiced white hegemony. And there is the story of those who rejected it. Our origin story is not about the three great debates, not the mythical line of realism going back to Machiavelli and Thucydides, not the immaculate conception of a Cold War politics, not anarchy as the founding condition, and not abstractions concerned with statics or dynamics of inter-state relations. Rather, Vitalis demonstrates, it is racist theories and institutions of imperialism constitute the actual origins of our discipline.
Here is how Bob puts it:
What is new and important in this book is the discovery that the intellectuals, institutions, and arguments that constituted international relations were shaped by and often directly concerned with advancing strategies to preserve and extend [the theory and practice of white hegemony against those struggling to end their subjection. (2)
…we can’t understand the history of the early decades of the discipline without understanding the long and globe-spanning freedom movements that are central to its intellectual, social, and institutional development. (9)
Each part of the tale is told in equal measure: the ying and the yang, the force and counter-force, imperialism and liberation.
Vitalis’ history leaves me both startled and relieved. Startled because I never imagined that our field’s originators could so coolly accept, justify, and reproduce the hierarchy of racism. This despite my knowing better…
…you see, I collect U.S. history textbooks. I still have my middle school text from the 1960s. I have one from every decade as far back as 1860s. My favorite is S. Augustus Mitchell’s School Geography (1866). Here is the full title: A System of Modern Geography Comprising a Description of the Present State of the World and Its Grand Divisions North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceanica, with their Several Empires, States, Territories, etc. Also on the title page is this claim: “Adapted to the Capacity of Youth.” It has incredible maps and drawings. Its staccato textual rhythm is produced by its numbered questions and their stone chiseled answers. Every so often an editorial riff punctuates this march of truth. Allow me to provide you a taste:
- What are the complexion and habits of the people of the Torrid Zone?
- They are generally of a dark or black color and indolent and effeminate in their habits.
- What is their character?
- They are seldom distinguished for industry, enterprise, or learning. (31)
- What are the various races of mankind?
- They are five; the European or Caucasian, the Asiatic or Mongolian, American, Malay, and African or Negro.
- How may they be classed in terms of color?
- Into the White, Yellow, Red, Brown and Black races.
- The European or the Caucasian is the most noble of the five races of men. It excels all others in learning and the arts, and includes all the most powerful nations of modern and ancient times. The most valuable institutions of society, the most important and useful of inventions have originated with the people of this race. (41)
My students are crestfallen when I teach Mitchell’s Geography. They can hardly decide what is more damaging — the denigrating content or the pedagogical assurance. But every time I read it, I am amused; happy that the usual murky shadows are illuminated and enlightened. I am relieved to have confirmed my nagging suspicions about the dark nature of our social reality. Most of my students cannot fathom my glee.
So, I would have thought I should know better than to be surprised by Vitalis’ rendering. And yet, I am astonished, staggered, and befuddled. I berate myself: how could I not know all this about my own field?
I had that feeling as a thirty-something assistant professor while teaching L. S. Stavrianos’ monumental and still unparalleled Global Rift. When I re-arrived at the section on Toussaint L’Overture and the Haitian Revolution, I asked myself the same question: how could I know nothing about the first Third World revolution? Later, Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past helped me understand structured silences.
That the past is systematically hidden should no longer surprises me. And yet it does in learning about my own field. I wonder what that means. Does it mean I have cathected to my field? Perhaps it is time for me to check my investment portfolio. Time too to thank Bob for triggering me to further divest.
I have some questions for Bob that emerge form my notes on a panel we did on Bob’s book at the Northeast ISA last November. My notes don’t stand up to the standards of an immanent critique. More so, they comprise comments that I thought might be received as engaged, positive, but also critical.
There are heroes in this book. Not perfectly polished ones but the kind that bring their flaws to an ongoing battle. These scholars Vitalis dubs as members of the “Howard school of international studies.” Of these, Ralph Bunche, disallowed the homology between the internal colonization of U.S. blacks and external colonialism. Vitalis writes
Bunche also rejected the comparison of African Americans to a colonial people under imperialism, except in the limited sense that the semi-feudal conditions in the South would require “the shattering of the power of Southern landlords through nationalization of the land.” (99)
Here my lack of historical knowledge leaves me a bit confused. As with Amerindian “reservations,” blacks in “ghettos,” and in southern plantation enclaves, I take it for granted that “internal colonialism” is a fruitful direction for scholars critical of the received modes of U.S. history. While Vitalis vividly paints the details of how many of the Howard school lived within a tension between a race and a class analysis, I need Bob to provide more details on why the language of “internal imperialism” goes mostly unused. And, I need a sense of where Vitalis himself sits on this issue.
While he provides ample references to George Padmore, Eric Williams, and C.L.R. James — all from the Caribbean, Vitalis’ strongest emphasis is on the Howard school – all scholars who are U.S. citizens. The rejection of the homology between internal and external imperialism coupled with the emphasis on the Howard school makes me wonder if perhaps U.S. exceptionalism surreptitiously drives this book. If so, does the book also pursue a kind of methodological nationalism?
Why did Bunche reject the homology between internal and external colonialism? Does Vitalis? Should I? I need help here.
Then there is the great disappearance of race and imperialism from the scholarly study. As Vitalis puts it,
While arguments about imperialism proliferated across the globe after 1945, they completely disappeared from scholarship in a discipline that ten years earlier considered it to be the fundamental problem of world order. (120)
How did that happen? Maybe that question deserves a word or two.
As with John Hobson’s book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, I am left in awe as these two masters paint complex and nuanced details about the origins of our profession. I mentioned earlier that I berate myself for having missed this knowledge and for not participating in producing the history so vital to our self-understanding as empire’s tools. And yet, if one cannot or does not wish to build historical archives, one can still build frames. I am not suggesting that either Hobson or Vitalis are not building theory in their pointillist approaches. They are. But especially in Vitalis, an explicitly theoretical voice seems purposefully muted. I wonder why.
Shall I offer a diagnosis? Perhaps Bob has too much to say and he wants to quiet himself so as to let his work do the talking. I admire this strategy. Not least because by the books last paragraph, Bob provides the full bodied scream that he held back and for which I was waiting:
critics have exposed the many ways in which deep-rooted commitments to hierarchy continue to inform the discipline and its allied intellectual networks even now. Meanwhile, in the “real world,” the subjection continues through new-old policies of intervention, tutelage, and targeted killings in new-old zones of anarchy and civilization deficit. It leads one to ask what other unselfconscious factors of the day distort scholars’ understandings, given that so many in the American academy were hypnotized so long by the seeming truths of racism. (181)
Bob’s book shows us how IR is the effect of Empire. I interpret this also to mean that we scholars can never be liberators. Rather we are always but functionaries of empire. Bob’s work delivers an artfully controlled scream of hope against that history. Play it again, Bob.