On Uses of Intellectual History: Past and Present in the Critique of Liberalism

For the final post in our symposium on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World, a reply from Duncan himself. Here he responds to the commentaries from Dan Gorman, Inder S. Marwah, Lucian Ashworth, Kathy Smits and Richard Devetak. You can also read Duncan’s original summary post here. 

Before turning to the substance of the comments, I’d like to reiterate my thanks to The Disorder of Things for hosting this symposium, to Nivi Manchanda for co-ordinating it, and especially to the respondents for writing such sharp and incisive responses. It has been a pleasure to read them, and I have learnt much from each one. I am delighted that Daniel, Inder, Luke, Kathy, and Richard found value in Reordering the World. But rather than dwelling on points of agreement – and I agree with almost all of what they say! – I’ll use this brief reply to sketch out some thoughts on a few of the questions they raise.

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Trump’s new empire: Thoughts on American imperialism in the age of Trump. A sneak peek from Israel/Palestine

A guest post by Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir. Hagar Kotef is a Senior Lecturer of Political Theory and Comparative Political Thought at the Department of Politics and International Relations, SOAS, The University of London. She is the author of Movement and the Ordering of Freedom (Duke University Press, 2015). Dr Merav Amir is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) of Human Geography at the School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast. Her recent publication is titled “Revisiting Politicide: State Annihilation in Israel/Palestine”, and is due to be published in Territory, Politics, Governance.

In trying to understand the horror that unfolds post Trump election, two main threads seem to dominate left discourse and blogosphere. The first rightly focuses on the horror itself, on the unprecedented coup-d′état unfolding before our eyes, on the attacks on the constitution, on fascism or other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism, and on brute institutionalized racism of a regime that does not even seek to pretend it adheres to the rule of law and good governance.

Credit: GPO

Credit: GPO

All this is true, and yet this narration often fails to account for three main facts. (i) Such brutal constitutional changes and violent re-demarcations of the contours of the polity are hardly unheard-of, both historically, and at this very political moment in many places across the globe. Portraying this horror as unprecedented and unique, indeed as an unbelievable horror, is a form of American exceptionalism that plays into the normalization of violence in regions that are not considered part of the ‘West’. (ii) Many of these violent regime-changes across the globe have been occurring with at least the passive, if not the very active, involvement of consecutive US administrations. Finally, (iii) such modes of foreign “interventions” (we might want to call them wars or imperialism—“neo” or just that, “imperialism”) are often what allowed the Western metropoles of the American empire to remain largely peaceful and relatively prosperous. That is, it is by externalizing its violence that the US could be “exceptional” in the meaning suggested in (i). We should therefore be careful in reproducing a pattern in which “the real crime”, as Arendt put it in regard to a previous age of totalitarianism, was when totalitarian violence moved out of Africa (at first to Asia and then to Europe) “since here [unlike in the case of “African savages who had frightened Europeans literally out of their wit”] everyone ought to have known what they were doing.”[1]

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The Dissonance of Things #6: Logistics – Violence, Empire and Resistance

Source: Marcus Lyon

This May, The Dissonance of Things switches out British accents for those of the vaguely North American variety, as I serve as host for our sixth podcast on the topic of logistics and its role in the making of military, capitalist, and imperial relations. I’m joined by our very own Laleh Khalili of the School of Oriental and African Studies, and the wonderful Deborah Cowen of the University of Toronto. Together, we take a look at the increasing ubiquity and prominence of logistics as a mode for organizing social and spatial life. We discuss how this seemingly banal concern with the movement of goods is actually foundational to contemporary global capitalism and imperialism, reshaping patterns of inequality, undermining labor power, and transforming strategies of governance. We also ask: what might a counter-logistical project look like? What role does logistics play in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles across the globe?

Listen via iTunes or through the Soundcloud player below.

As always, listen, enjoy, argue, share, and leave us your thoughts below the line. You can also follow our past and future casts on soundcloud.


Further reading:
– Deborah Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics
– Laleh’s blog on maritime logistics, The Gamming

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.

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Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation

julianaugust13This is the second post in our symposium on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. We are delighted to welcome Julian Go, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University, and Editor of Political Power and Social Theory. Julian’s recent books include American Empire and the Politics of Meaning (Duke University Press, 2008) and Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688 to Present (Cambridge University Press, 2011), both of which have won numerous prestigious awards in various disciplines. He is currently working on a manuscript provisionally entitled Postcolonial Theory and Social Thought and a volume on Global Historical Sociology co-edited with George Lawson.

Update: Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now also live. Original post here.

In this magisterial work, Buzan and Lawson make two overarching claims: 1. the nineteenth century saw a fundamental “global transformation” in the “international order”, creating the essential aspects of the “global modernity” we inhabit today, and 2. disciplinary IR needs to recognize this transformation and reconfigure its identity and agenda accordingly. As a historical sociologist, I feel less certain about judging the second claim but more certain about the first. Was there a fundamental transformation in the nineteenth century that has shaped our contemporary global modernity? Yes. And Buzan and Lawson painstakingly and persuasively chart this transformation like none other.

What, then, to say about this important book – a book, by the way, which every serious historical social scientist needs to read? A book which, in my estimation, belongs among the great works of historical sociology like those of Wallerstein, Tilly, and Mann? Pushed to say something critical, I will instead say something didactic. More precisely, I will comment on two things: the relative absence of theory and the remarkable presence of empire. Put differently: what is the theoretical frame or theoretical considerations mobilized in the work? And why isn’t empire the fundamental organizing analytic category? Or, put simply: are Buzan and Lawson closet postcolonialists? Continue reading