What is This Thing Called IR? A View from Howard U

This is the fourth post in our symposium on Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s post is here, and Nivi’s is here. Further responses, including from the author are to follow…


It was a party for DAAD-funded scholars from all over Germany and our hosts at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg invited to us a historical costume play.  It was childish, and therefore well-suited for us international Stipendiat/inn/en, many of whom still struggled with basic German: some students and faculty dressed up as famous scholars from various periods in the university’s 500-year history and said a few things about themselves.  I have now forgotten all of the names but one: Anton Wilhelm Amo. A West African slave of a German duke who in 1734 successfully defended a dissertation in Halle’s philosophy department. The (black) guy who played Amo spoke loudly and clearly, but I recall turning to the (black) DAADer sitting next to me, a fellow poli sci student from France: “1734?” “That’s what I heard, too”, she said, “1734.”

Since this was in the era of the (dial-up) Internet, a few days later I was able to learn more about this Amo fellow, including the details eluded in the university play. Vitalis’ latest book, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell, 2015) is a powerful reminder of another lesson I learned then: that work by non-white scholars tends to be “denied”–that is, ignored, temporized, ornamentalized and outright purged [1]. How many students of international law or of the German Enlightenment today know anything about Amo’s “On the Right of Moors in Europe” (1729)?  Not many given that the essay has been lost to history, probably because its copies were deemed unworthy of those meticulously maintained rare book collections.  And this is a huge loss given the relevance of historical “rights of Moors” debates for the constitution of “Europe.”


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White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium

vitalis-e1458738905580This is the first post in the symposium on Robert Vitalis’s, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Professor Vitalis (who also answers to ‘Bob’) teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995. His second book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, published in 2005 was named a book of the year by The Guardian. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009), Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), the American Council of Learned Societies (2002), and the MacArthur-SSRC International Peace and Security Program (1998). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998. Below is his introduction to our symposium.


Naeem’s response is here; Nivi’s is here and Srdjan’s is here.


White World Order, Black Power Politics may well be the only book discussed in this symposium series that isn’t primarily concerned with theory, or at least the only one by an author who does not self identify as a theorist, teaching in a department that does not recognize what I do as “IR.”  It is also less an intellectual history, which might allow it to pass as theory, than it is an institutional history. So I am grateful for the interest in it here.

28522646._UY1280_SS1280_That said, it is indeed a critical history. The records of professors, schools, research organizations, and foundations in the early twentieth century United States reveal a past that bears scant resemblance to the “practitioner histories” or insider accounts of great debates invented about the discipline of international relations in the second half of the century, which are the ones most specialists tell themselves and their students until now. In fact, the more I learned and labored in the archives the more I came to see the problem as similar to the one I wrestled with in my last book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. The history that U.S. oil companies invented after World War II about their early and unshaken commitment to a “partnership in progress” with the Saudi people, at a moment when criticism of U.S. imperialism was on the rise in the Eastern Province and across the globe, is the one that books repeated uncritically for decades. The firms’ private records though revealed a dramatically different reality. I developed an account of the exploitative order in place in the oil camps, the racial science that justified it in the minds of the American engineers and managers, and the failed efforts of Arab and other workers to bring about its end. I likened what I did in that book to “reverse engineering” particular processes of mythmaking. I’ve done more or less the same thing for a sector of the U.S. academy in White World Order. Continue reading

The EU Referendum: Brexit, the Politics of Scale and State Transformation

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.

The choice facing Britain in the EU referendum is best understood, I suggest, using two concepts that I’ve used a lot in my work with Shahar Hameiri recently: ‘the politics of scale’, and state transformation. In a nutshell: the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies. Restoring popular control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in a progressive, internationalist direction.

In political geography, a ‘scale’ is a defined socio-political space, which is usually located within one or more hierarchies of related spaces. Examples can include tiers of established governance – boroughs, cities, provinces, nations, and regions, for example. They could be defined ethnically or religiously – a parish, the ummah – or even environmentally – habitats, bio-regions or the global environment. What’s fundamentally at stake in the EU referendum is the primary scale at which British citizens should be governed: the national (Brexit) or the regional scale (Bremain). The scale of governance is contested because different scales involve different configurations of actors, resources, power relations and opportunity structures, privileging some interests and agendas over others.

In the post-war decades, the entire Western-led global economic and political order was designed to consolidate the nation-state as a ‘taken-for-granted’ scale and space of governance. Within Western states, a new Fordist-Keynesian bargain was struck between key social forces, brokered by corporatist states: capitalists bought social peace from labour in exchange for steady expansion in wages and living standards. The Bretton Woods settlement supported this by restricting international finance and regulating currencies, which helped states plan their economies. The postwar order thus upheld ‘the primacy of national economies, national welfare states, and national societies managed by national states concerned to unify national territories and reduce uneven development’, as Bob Jessop puts it. Even the early phase of European integration was designed to support national development, thereby securing ‘the European rescue of the nation-state’.

This consolidation of the national scale and its associated institutions afforded unprecedented access to policymaking for organised labour. Moderate trade unions were directly inserted into decision-making forums alongside government bureaucrats and business representatives. Ordinary people could also hold governments to account through democratic practices. In this peak era of state sovereignty, lines of responsibility and accountability were clear.

This all began to change in the 1970s. That decade’s crisis of capitalist profitability eroded the basis of the Fordist-Keynesian social compact, which shattered amidst renewed labour insurgency. The new right’s solution to the crisis was to smash organised labour, deregulate industry and finance, and restore capitalist hegemony on the basis of a neoliberal social order. Scale was a crucial element in this struggle. The quest for nationally-based development was essentially jettisoned in favour of what we now call ‘globalisation’: the transnationalisation of investment, production and consumption. Allowing investment to flow globally – to wherever had the most ‘competitive’ wages and operating environment – was a vital means to erode the power of organised labour.

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Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech (A Black History Month Perspective)

Truman and Churchill in Missouri

Churchill’s Westminster College audience, March 5, 1946 (Life/Getty Images)

This year is the seventieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, a.k.a. “Sinews of Peace,” a.k.a., the Fulton address, which means that we will soon be hearing all about it once again. The speech is central to the iconography of the Cold War, of anti-communism, and of Anglo-American specialness. Countless historians, biographers and rhetoreticians have examined almost every aspect of it: when and where it was written, whether it was pre-approved by others, including President Truman, and, indeed, how it was received. On the last point, we know that the speech was met with a mixture of cheers and boos. The reactions tended to be politically and ideologically determined. Conservative politicians and the media praised the speech for its realism about the nature of the postwar settlement: at last someone had the courage to publicly say that the victor nations could not forever be friends.  In contrast, most liberals, socialists, and communists condemned the speech as inflammatory. With so many hopes pinned to the newly created United Nations Organization (UNO), the last thing the world needed was geopolitical tension between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, they argued. But that was not all. Some leftists went further still. Churchill’s notion the Anglo-American “special relationship” and “fraternal association” constituted the ultimate sinew of world peace smacked of racial supremacism, they said.

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Economy of Force: A Reply

In which Patricia Owens responds to our four commentaries (on patriarchy, colonial counterinsurgency, biopolitics and social theory) on her Economy of Force.

I’m extremely grateful to Pablo K, Elke Schwarz, Jairus Grove, and Andrew Davenport for their serious engagements with Economy of ForceAs noted in the original post, the book is a new history and theory of counterinsurgency with what I think are significant implications for social, political and international thought. It is based on a study of late-colonial British military campaigns in Malaya and Kenya; the US war on Vietnam; and US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq against the background of the high colonial wars in the American Philippines and nineteenth-century French campaigns in Tonkin, Morocco and Algeria. Probably the emblematic case for the book is Britain’s colonial state terror against Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army and civilians in the 1950s, a campaign that was closer to annihilation than ‘rehabilitation’. Although the so-called ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in Malaya is held up by generations of counterinsurgents as the model for emulation, the assault on Kikuyu civilians shows the real face of Britain’s late-colonial wars. It also points to some profound truths about the so-called ‘population-centric’ character of more recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though offering new readings of some better-known counterinsurgency cases, Jairus Grove suggests that this choice perpetuates an erasure of America’s ‘Indian Wars’.


Researching Economy of Force, I certainly became aware of the general significance of these wars, including through Andrew J. Birtle’s and Laleh Khalili’s histories of counterinsurgency. However, Grove draws attention to something more relevant to Economy of Force than appreciated before: “one of the first federal bureaucracies with jurisdiction over the home and social issues”, he writes, “was created by and administered by the War Department”. Decades before the distinctly ‘social’ engineering during the Philippines campaign (1899-1902), the Bureau of Indian Affairs was administering indigenous populations on the mainland. In focusing on overseas imperial wars, Economy of Force surely neglects settler colonialism, its genocides, and how “warfare, pacification, and progressivism were an assemblage in the US context from the outset”. While the book was not centrally focussed on US state making, I’m grateful to Grove for insisting that settler colonialism is necessarily a form of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the Philippines campaign was examined not as the founding moment of American counterinsurgency, but because it was explicitly conceived by contemporaries as a form of overseas housekeeping; to problematize progressive social policy; and to challenge the effort to separate good (domestic) social engineering at home from bad social engineering (overseas). I would hesitate to wholly assimilate the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) into earlier Indian Wars, though its ‘social reforms’ shaped indigenous administration. But these are quibbles. Grove is right that I have neglected something of significance in the ‘historical trajectory from Thanksgiving to Waziristan’. I hope to be able to rectify this in future work.

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Critiquing the Social: Comments on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force

The last commentary in our forum on Economy of Force, from Andrew Davenport. Andrew is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, where he works on International Theory, with particular emphasis on debates in Critical Theory, materialism and idealism, and modern social theory. He is the author most recently of ‘Marxism in IR: Condemned to a Realist Fate?’ in the European Journal of International Relations. Patricia’s rejoinder to the four commentaries (from Pablo, Jairus, Elke and Andrew) will follow tomorrow.

In the concluding section of Chapter Two of this book, Patricia Owens quotes Robert Nisbet to the effect that the essential concepts and perspectives of the sociological tradition “‘place it much closer to … philosophical conservatism’, than we might otherwise think.” A basic theme of the book is that it ought to be more clearly understood that prominent categories in the work of Durkheim, Weber and Marx – community, authority, alienation and status – are in fact just “conservative moral categories … but in scientific garb”.[1] The conservative character of sociology’s origins is in fact no secret. At much the same time as Nisbet was writing, Theodor Adorno also noted it: near the beginning of his introductory lectures on sociology, he emphasised that any assumption of an intrinsic connection between sociology and radical politics (that sociology = socialism) would be seriously mistaken: “if the concept of sociology is understood as it came into being, with the historical meaning it has, it can be said that the opposite is actually the case.” Sociology’s interest, from the start, was always the maintenance and preservation of the existing order, not its critique and change. What does the character of these origins mean for social theory? How should it affect or condition our understanding of social thinking and its basic concepts: precisely, ‘society’ and ‘the social’? Owens’ answer is unequivocal: it should lead to profound suspicion, if not outright rejection. Social thinking, from the start, contained a poison and its natural affinity to conservative thought, attitudes and practices is simply indicative of this noxious nature. Especially damaging in its consequences for IR theory, so the argument runs, has therefore been the unthinking naturalisation of ‘social’ terminology virtually across the spectrum, from statist Political Realism to Foucauldian biopolitics – as if society and the social were neutral terms that do not themselves colour or prejudice the discourse.

The language of ‘society’ is indeed widespread, and often perhaps unreflectively used, in IR, and so its critique is surely an important theoretical project. Not the least of the book’s merits is that it poses uncomfortable questions to critical theory about how far it is possible to adopt social thinking for purposes of critique. Owens directs some pointed remarks at Marxists, Foucauldians and other critical theorists for, in effect, supping with the devil, and in the chapters on counter-insurgency she marshals enough evidence of a ‘homology’ between social theory and imperial practices of counter-insurgency to give even the most committed sociologist pause. Further, in demonstrating that the emergence of distinctly social thinking was coeval with the development of capitalist society, there is at least the implication that those who would pursue critique of capital ought not to accept social categories at face value. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are difficulties with the critique of the social elaborated in the book, both in how the argument is structured and with the categories employed, difficulties that lead to some of the work of critique remaining undone. As a result, the account of the social developed here, challenging and thought-provoking as it is, breaking new ground, nevertheless does not go as far as it might.

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Reinventing the Future

It is an honour to have had Inventing the Future considered in such depth and detail, and we want to begin by extending our thanks to everyone who contributed to this symposium. This response is a useful moment for us to clarify our argument, to respond to the most significant questions, to acknowledge limitations of the book, and to correct some misunderstandings. We do so in a spirit of humility, given that – as we wrote in the introductory post – we see this book as a contribution to a larger debate and hopefully the spark for reflection on what we think are important issues for the contemporary left.

Post-Work Futures

In Joseph, Sophie and David’s pieces, some fundamental questions are raised about what precisely a post-work world entails, particularly with respect to concerns around the environment, labour, social reproduction, and colonialism. Does a high-tech post-work world entail the exhaustion of resources and the decimation of the earth’s climate? Does a post-work world mean the continued oppression and subjugation of low-income countries? These are essential questions to ask. In responding to these queries, it will be useful to draw up a series of alternative possible futures indicating how a post-work project may play out. Roughly speaking, we can imagine four broad and potentially intersecting futures: a neocolonial and racist post-work world, an ecologically unsustainable post-work world, a misogynist post-work world, and a leftist post-work world.

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