This post is a little introduction to my recently published (open access) article in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, in which I use the scholarly literature on whiteness to examine three highly influential books in International Relations (IR) – Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony and Alexander Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics.
Of course, the answer is what you might expect (duh); but I hope the route to reaching that conclusion might be something worth considering, and maybe not exactly what you were expecting. It articulates an account of whiteness which is ultimately less pessimistic than the oft-caricatured ‘identity politics’ framings of race – indeed it argues that it is absolutely possible to overcome the limitations of whiteness as a standpoint, but that this would not be transformative without other structural changes.
Despite the care and precision with which the UCL collective expressed itself on the question of whiteness as an ideology, the media and the Right concocted a fevered moral panic around the issues, proclaiming an attack on Western Civilisation, free speech and academic freedom by the ungrateful, and the emergence of ‘reverse racism’ and so on. It did not help that some contributions from elsewhere in the movement seemed to be rather essentialist around the questions of race and racism (in ways which had been long abandoned with respect to gender, for example). From a political point of view, the ‘culture wars’ framing of matters was eliciting a set of destructive emotional responses anticipated in the whiteness literature itself – shame, guilt, anger, denial – which were a (sometimes intentional) distraction from more transformative and productive conversations.
Many Disorder-ers recently enjoyed the 2020 Annual Conference of Millennium: Journal of International Studies, held online last month on the theme of ‘Entanglements and Detachments in Global Politics’. A welcome excuse to meet up, we put together a roundtable on Lisa Lowe’s widely celebrated book The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke University Press, 2015) and recorded it for posterity in this podcast. Enjoy!
Disordering “The Intimacies of Four Continents”: A Reading Group
Chair: Meera Sabaratnam Participants: Rahul Rao, Joe Hoover, Paul Kirby, Nivi Manchanda, Charmaine Chua, Srdjan Vucetic
This panel brings together members of the collective blog The Disorder of Things to read and comment on Lisa Lowe’s book The Intimacies of Four Continents. Centrally concerned with the nature of historical entanglements, Lowe’s work locates what has been understood as liberal humanism within the matrix of empire, racial hierarchies and interconnectedness that transformed the world in recent centuries. The contributors to this round table will read the book and discuss its general arguments plus the specific contributions of each chapter, as well as reflecting on how the methods, analysis and conclusions of Lowe’s book may contribute to shifting our understanding of the international and future directions for research.
My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.
My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.
This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical. Continue reading →
The Disorder of Things‘ own founding contributor, Meera Sabaratnam, has published her first book: Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique, with Rowman and Littlefield International. We are delighted to host a symposium on the book, starting with Meera’s opening post, and to be followed over the next week or so by reviews from Marta Iñiguez de Heredia, Lee Jones, Amy Niang and Megan Mackenzie, and a final response from the author. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! The book is available as an Open Access free PDF download here.-LJ
Things look different depending on where you stand.
This is a simple proposition, but one which, if pursued a little further, deeply challenges dominant approaches to social science, many of which are premised on ignoring or denying the partial character of the social-scientific gaze.
I don’t disagree with the ambition per se of attempting to open up our own understanding of a phenomenon through deep and wide-ranging research; indeed this is what I love about being a scholar. Furthermore, just because things look different depending on where you stand, does not mean you cannot learn more about something, or learn to understand it better. I do not reject the possibility of a better and wider understanding just because points of departure are always partial.
Yet, the first step for studying complex social phenomena must be a recognition of and a grappling with this proposition.
Beyond this, various feminist, anti-colonial and Marxist thinkers have advanced a further proposition: that power relations can be better understood when you look at them ‘from below’, i.e. from the perspective of the disempowered parties.
This stems from the idea that relations of power put different cognitive demands on people by virtue of that relationship.
Patricia Hill Collins for example points out that domestic labourers must acquire an intimacy both with the ways of thinking of their employers/masters, and with their own sense of how to navigate and survive in this system.
And W.E.B. Du Bois famously drew attention to what many continue to call ‘double consciousness’ – that is, the idea that African-Americans had to apprehend and negotiate the racist negations of mainstream American society, whilst simultaneously cultivating a distinctive intellectual tradition rooted in historical and contemporary attempts at flourishing.
If they are right, then scholars engaging with relations of power from any field of study – and particularly in the field of ‘political science’ – should be especially interested in the perspectives and experiences of the relatively disempowered as a point of departure for analysis. Continue reading →
I take it as a given (by polls) that the most influential reason why people voted Brexit was not to restore British sovereignty in the abstract but more precisely to “take it back” in order to stop more of “them” coming over. I also take it as understood that this statement does not infer that all who voted for Brexit are racists. Structural racism does not make of every individual a racist but implicates every individual, variously, in the reproduction and/or contestation of racial structures.
I’m sorry I hard to start with Political Theory 101 and Political Reality 101 but I’m afraid that’s the quality of some of the responses to Brexit so far.
Glad that’s over with.
Because I want to move away from an analysis that puts the white English voter at stage-centre and key interlocutor of the Brexit drama. I haven’t got anything that’s too formulated; just some thoughts about the other kinds of…
This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives.  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?
We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).
Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex
The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177). It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:
The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.
The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]
Update 26th March: following much enthusiasm, the open letter is now available for all to sign and we have edited according. Please respond in the comments section with your name, role and institution where relevant, and do forward to colleagues.
M: Okay. Hello, everybody and welcome. Thanks very much for coming. My name is Meera Sabaratnam, I’m a lecturer here at SOAS in international relations. And tonight we’re delighted to host a roundtable on the Global Colonial 1914-18. So obviously this is triggered by a number of contemporary events, not least the centenary of World War One, which you’ll have seen all over the news. But one of the stories I suppose, that gets told less often is the role of the wider world in the way that the war unravelled but also as a theatre of war. And in the place of where the war stood as part of the global context. So what else was going on, multiple revolutions, uprisings. So this is a moment in which the war is an important part of a global order which is undergoing substantial amounts of change. I should say this event is also sponsored…has been organised through the British International Studies Association and their working group on colonial, post-colonial and de-colonial research questions.
And this particular group tries to look at the elements of coloniality and colonialism in how the modern world came to be and what that means for when we understand globalisation and global history. I’m delighted to have a roster of speakers here tonight covering not just all of the sort of main areas, the regions that we’re studying in SOAS, namely Asia, Africa and Middle East. But also researchers and teachers who have been involved in how World War One is remembered in the classroom as a form of public cultural memory. Each of our speakers is going to speak for about 10 minutes. And then after that we’ll open it up for questions. Please do be forthcoming with your questions and we hope to have a good discussion afterwards, okay. I’d first like to welcome Professor Charles Tripp who is professor of Middle East here at SOAS. Thanks.
C: Thank you very much, Meera. It sounds rather grand, I’m not the professor of Middle East, I’m professor of politics in the Middle East. But why not, grander? I was asked to talk today about the relationship between what was happening in the Middle East and what happened to the Middle East in and around the First World War. And I must admit straight off, I’m not a historian, so I don’t work on the first war particularly but clearly anybody who works in the politics of the Middle East is well aware of the fact that legacies of the First World War and what happened to the region are still very much there and indeed are being revived in the press in one form or another as they talk about Syria and Iraq at the moment. But what I wanted to really try and do is to pick out two themes if I can, in the time allotted. One is the notion that as with many other parts of the world, much was happening before the First World War that the First World War changed the course of, if you like. So in a sense one of the dangers of looking, which of course happens now to some extent in the press and elsewhere, is to see the Middle East purely as the Middle East as a political entity, whatever that is, as a kind of creation of European intervention, the First World War.
But what I’m trying to argue is that actually there were processes long before that that had been going on and that in some ways the European intervention set back in various significant ways that had an effect for the future as well. So the first part is really to think about what had been happening in the 50 years or so before the First World War in the region, we now think of as the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Qajar, Iran, North Africa. And I want to look at two themes which are intertwined but really revolve around the same emerging idea and notion which is the idea of the autonomous citizen, which again was quite a novel, a radical idea with hugely radical implications for the dispensations of power. But the two themes that they were intertwined with was, one, the struggle against despotism and the other, struggle against colonialism, both of these seemed to be deeply repressive of the idea of the autonomous citizen. And in some senses therefore what you’re looking at in the long…well, the period before the First World War in the 40 or 50 years, whether it’s in the Ottoman Empire, the Qajar Empire, Iran, in Egypt, you have a struggle against local despotism for constitutionalism. A precarious constitutionalism which is often of course therefore sabotaged by those who would rather not see it. But nevertheless very powerful in the mobilisation of the politics of these regions. Continue reading →