What We Talked About At ISA2015: A Debate Around John Hobson’s ‘The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics’

Below is the text of my intervention at a roundtable organized by Alina Sajed entitled ‘Race and International Relations—A Debate Around John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics‘. TDoT has hosted a symposium on the book: you can read an initial post by John, commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett, and a reply from John. I’ve tried not to cover the same ground.

While race and racism have recently become topics of increasing interest in the rather parochial world of IR scholarship, few books have ranged so widely across time and thinkers as John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. This is a monumental work of scholarship that accumulates a staggering amount of evidence, were further proof necessary, of the white supremacist and/or Eurocentric foundations of IR as a discipline (I use the ‘and/or’ advisedly, because much of the debate that the book has generated and some of my own critique focuses on the complex relationship between the formations that Hobson identifies as ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’, about which more in due course). So whatever my problems with the book, I want to endorse it as a deeply necessary intervention in the IR academy. Nonetheless, I find myself in sharp disagreement with some of its central claims in ways that have not been fully addressed in earlier discussions. I will focus here on two areas of disagreement: first, the book’s treatment of Marx, Lenin and Marxism in general; and second, its crucial distinction between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’.

Why focus on a critique of Marxism as Eurocentric and/or imperialist? (Again the ‘and/or’ seems necessary because Hobson’s careful mapping of European thought finds conjunctions of racism and/or Eurocentrism with both imperialist and anti-imperialist sensibilities). Partly this comes out of my own intellectual investment in denying what I believe to be the false choice that is often presented between Marxism and postcolonialism. As such, I find myself troubled as much by Marxist work that repudiates postcolonialism as I am by the opposite tendency (which I think is at work in this book). But partly this also comes out of a sense that if Marxism were in fact as Eurocentric and/or imperialist as Hobson suggests, this would leave inexplicable its enormous appeal in the Third World both in the heyday and aftermath of the great decolonization and liberation movements that it informed. More prosaically, I think Hobson’s readings of Marx and Lenin are temporally truncated and therefore somewhat misleading.

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The Qaddafi Controversy

Saif Gaddafi (PhD, LSE, 2008) has lost a lot of friends recently. Even Mariah Carey is embarrassed by him now. The institution to which I have some personal and professional attachment is implicated in a number of intellectual crimes and misdemeanours, as may be a swathe of research on democracy itself. Investigations are under way, by bodies both official and unofficial. All of this now feels faintly old-hat (how much has happened in the last month?), even rather distasteful given the high politics and national destinies currently in the balance. So let the defence be pre-emptive: the academy has political uses, and those with some stake in it need feel no shame in discussing that. If crises are to be opportunities, let us at least attempt to respond to them with clarity and coherence. After all, our efforts are much more likely to matter here than in self-serving postures as the shapers of global destiny.

Saif’s academic predicament is both a substantive issue in its own right and a symptom. As substance, there is now a conversation of sorts around complicity and blame. Over the last weeks, David Held has appealed for calm and attempted a fuller justification of his mentorship (Held was not the thesis supervisor and Saif was not even a research student in his Department at the time, although he, um, “met with him every two or three months, sometimes more frequently, as I would with any PhD student who came to me for advice”). Most fundamentally, it was not naivety but a cautious realism based on material evidence that led a pre-eminent theorist of democracy to enter into what we could not unreasonably call ‘constructive engagement’. [1]

Held characterises the resistance of Fred Halliday to all this as reflecting his view that “in essence, [Saif] was always just a Gaddafi”, which of course makes him sound like someone in thrall to a geneticist theory of dictatorship. The actual objection was somewhat more measured, and, if only ‘in retrospect’, entirely astute:

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Libyan cash and the LSE: a deeper problem

As Qaddafigate rolls on, and its luminaries publicly distance themselves or fall on their swords, a repeated line marks the public justification: there was no influence over research, there was no influence over research, there was no influence over research.  This is, as far as anyone can see, true – there is no evidence, even in the most scathing denunciations, to suggest that there was any attempt to influence the outcomes of the research programme. Even so, the School have rapidly appointed an investigation into this very issue.

Whilst many have been relieved by this, I find myself more deeply disturbed. Why is it that the regime of an eccentric and violent autocrat can slide into bed so easily with a research programme on governance and democratisation? Continue reading

Fred Halliday and ‘The Mid-Atlantic Journal of Inverted Abstraction’

The next few days at LSE will see a number of events celebrating the life, and exploring the ideas, of the late Fred Halliday. Indulging in some narcissism-by-proxy, we’re pointing out that there’s an early assessment of his intellectual trajectory and legacy by Alex Colás and George Lawson freely available from Millennium (already mentioned elsewhere).

The Mid-Atlantic Journal of Inverted Abstraction was an imaginary output for work Halliday deemed excessively introverted or self-regarding. There is some argument to be had about that attitude to (some) theory. But not now. Instead, a few other choice Fred-isms:

History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the third time as a fad in IR theory.

The ESRC is a four letter word.

One good post-graduate seminar is worth a thousand anti-ageing creams.

In his less charitable moments, he is said to have spoken of ‘Floor 7 Disease’, referring to the Millennium office, as a catch-all for the navel-gazing abstracters in our midst. It seems appropriate to point that many of the other Millennium articles currently (if temporarily) freed from the tyranny of the paywall, to my mind at least, resist such a dismissal. I would particularly recommend Gideon Baker‘s historical-reconstruction-cum-Derridean-intervention on hospitality and haunting in the colonial encounter:

The neglected history of hospitality teaches us that unconditional hospitality, such as that which Montezuma showed to Cortés, can unleash an annihilating violence in which sovereignty and identity, much more than being ‘problematised’, are obliterated in an orgy of violence. The ghost of Montezuma reminds us that unlimited hospitality is haunted too. The Spanish, totalling around 300 men, were outnumbered a thousand to one; Montezuma could have prevailed and his homeland could have survived, at least for a time, if he had not offered an unconditional welcome.