Hegemonic Understandings of Genocide and Ontologies of Mass Violence

The third post in our series on Ben Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation comes courtesy of Alexander D. Barder, Associate Professor of International Relations at Florida International University. His current research explores the relationships between nineteenth and twentieth century geopolitics, race and violence. He is the author of Empire Within: International Hierarchy and its Imperial Laboratories of Governance (Routledge, 2015) and (with François Debrix) Beyond Biopolitics: Theory, Horror and Violence in World Politics (Routledge, 2012).


There’s a curious moment in Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. In Chapter Six, Waltz argues that the recurrence of violence does not, in and of itself, distinguish international from domestic politics. “The most destructive wars of the hundred years following the defeat of Napoleon took place,” Waltz writes, “not among states but within them.” As he continues, “Estimates of deaths in China’s Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1851 and lasted 13 years, range as high as 20 million. In the American Civil War some 600,000 people lost their lives. In more recent history, forced collectivization and Stalin’s purges eliminated five million Russians, and Hitler exterminated six million Jews.”[1] To be sure, Waltz glosses over the fact that these examples actually reflect a combination of domestic and international factors. To simply situate them within the domestic realm is highly dubious historically.

What is interesting in Waltz’s gesture, however, is not only how a conceptualization of what the study of international relations is supposed to be essentially brackets the question of (genocidal) violence. What is also noteworthy is an amalgamation of violent events without necessarily discerning a specific genocidal event versus others. Benjamin Meiches’s text The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide takes this head on by problematizing not only how we should understand genocide as a crucial subject of international relations but also in terms of the very conceptualization of genocide as a discrete and self-evident event. In a very compelling but deeply sobering book, Meiches forces us to reflect much more carefully about the very conceptual scaffolds that genocide studies has erected since Raphael Lemkin’s coinage of the term. Part One is a convincing refutation of what Meiches calls the “hegemonic understanding of genocide” (12). Meiches shows how this hegemonic understanding of genocide, which developed through a mixture of academic studies and policy/political initiatives takes for granted objective metrics to discern a genocidal event, reifies the attributes of what is a (victimized) group, takes for granted a notion of juridical intent and normalizes what genocidal violence is supposed to look like. This hegemonic understanding of genocide is problematic, for Meiches, because it “depoliticizes” and “normalizes” mass violence within a constricted epistemology: only certain kinds of violence then merit the categorization of genocide which provokes a hierarchy of claims and counterclaims about its usage. Indeed, in contesting the hegemonic understanding of violence and its conceptual edifice, Meiches shows how its depoliticization actually reflected a political development and commitment to bracket certain forms of violence versus others, expand state powers to militarily address mass atrocities and to create legal and political institutions which serve and continue to serve the interests of great powers.

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Capital, the State and War: The Risks of Method

CraigA forum contribution from Campbell Craig, the first in our series responding to Alex Anievas’ new book, Capital, the State and War. Campbell is Professor in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, and the author of several books, including Glimmer of a New Leviathan: Total War in the thought of Niebuhr, Morgenthau and Waltz (2003), The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (2008, with Sergey Radchenko), and more recently America’s Cold War: the Politics of Insecurity (2012, with Fredrik Logevall). Campbell’s work has appeared in World Politics, Ethics & International Affairs and the Review of International Studies. He is also currently finishing an article on the nuclear revolution and neo-Trotskyism.


Woodrow Wilson 17c Stamp

In 1959 Kenneth Waltz published Man, the State and War, a study of three different levels of analysing international relations and their attempts to answer the question why war recurs. Waltz tackled his subject by demonstrating how the two most common levels of analysis – human nature, and regime type – ran into insuperable logical obstacles, and especially the problem of reductionism that social theorists such as Durkheim and Lakatos identified. His solution was to posit a third level – anarchy, or, as his title suggested, war – that could explain the recurrence of war without succumbing to the reductionist fallacy. The result was a study that has shaped the field of modern international relations more than any other single volume.

Anievas, as the title suggests, seeks to build upon Waltz’s ambition in his new book. He argues that the Marxian theory of uneven and combined development (UCD), a concept invented by Trotsky which explains international conflict by pointing to the uneven economic competition among more and less developed states whose economies are intertwined, can be used to theorise contemporary IR. This is a project being undertaken by other scholars, most notably Justin Rosenberg, but Anievas’s book is the most ambitious and thorough attempt yet to deploy Trotsky’s idea in a systematic way. However, Anievas’s method is quite different from the one used by Waltz (and Rosenberg). Rather than developing a logical or epistemological case for UCD, Anievas tries to use it as a means of shaping a detailed historical explanation of the two world wars of the twentieth century. What he is trying to do, as far as I can see, is to use UCD as a tool to explain and revise a key historical problem, as theorists in other schools of IR have done, rather than put forward an abstract case for the theory in the first place—a necessary move, for Anievas, because extant work on UCD suffers from “unsustainably high levels of analytical abstraction” (57). He concludes that the pressures of UCD upon capitalist states (particularly Germany, Great Britain, and the US) effectively explain the two world wars, and that they paved the way for a ‘proto-Cold War’ between the West and the USSR that began basically with the formation of the Soviet state in 1917.

In many ways the book is an impressive work. The narrative chapters on German, British, and American foreign relations are rich with historical detail and focused, often polemical argumentation. The engagement with competing theories is intensive and Anievas’s mastery of the debates among the neo-Marxian left is evident. Yet I was in the end not convinced by some of the main historical claims of the book nor by the method Anievas has deployed. In the spirit of Anievas’s blend of historical and theoretical inquiry, I will now present two critiques of the work from the respective points of view of the historian and the IR theorist.

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A Kind Of Blank Spot

[M]y wife and I realized you cannot pay attention to everything, so I said to myself “one continent that I am going to leave aside is Africa.” I preferred to concentrate on Europe and China. I did a pretty good deal of work on China because I saw it ripe to become one of the most important parts of the world of which I knew nothing. So, I proceeded to do a lot of work on China in order to know something about it. But Africa is kind of a blank spot for me, apart from casual observation. Even though, I would say that the whole notion of anarchy applies very well to Africa.

In fact, a criticism people used to make to me was that Africa was clearly an anarchic arena, and yet African states did not fight much among themselves. How, then, would a Realist like myself explain that? Well, I did by invoking Turney-High’s book in anthropology, which was published—I believe—in the 1920s. There, he made the very valid point that countries have to obtain a certain level of self-consciousness as being a political entity, and a certain level of competence before they are able to fight one another. Turney-High’s illustration was very clear with his study of the peoples he referred to as the “Californians,” who were such a primitive people that they did not have the ability to form groups or fight as a group. A consciousness and competence at a certain level is needed before a group is able to systematically impose on another group—whether in the form of warfare or in other ways. I think that, for a long time, Africa was in that condition, and that, as it proceeds away from that condition, African countries will be able to fight wars against one another. In a historical sense, though, that is an implication of advancement.

Kenneth N. Waltz, ‘Theory Talks #40: The Physiocrat Of International Politics’, 3 June 2011

Of Consensus and Controversy: The Matrix Reloaded

This is the fourth and final post in a series of responses to Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s recent book The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. Paul began the discussion with comments on the problems of boundary setting, Joe followed up with an interrogation of the nature of Jackson’s pluralism, and Nick most recently gave an exposition of a missing methodological position in the typology.  We look forward to a reply from PTJ himself in the near future.


In this post, with the pleasure and pain of coming last in a hitherto excellent series, I want to tease out several issues that struck me in the reading of Jackson’s Conduct of Inquiry, which specifically relate to the success of the central typology, a possible alternative and the ‘science’ debate in this context.

I confess to having begun my reading of this work very sceptically – although not because of any doubt about the author or importance of the subject matter. Rather, like Joe, I doubted whether there would be much of interest for me as one whose work does not have too much invested in the ‘science’ claim as it stands in the mainstream IR debates. Whilst, along with my colleagues, and as I will discuss below, I remain unconvinced about the use of the term ‘science’ amongst other things, I found the book engrossing, stimulating, erudite and brilliantly argued.  The marketing people are free to recommend it particularly for graduate students, although my own view is that it contains very important intellectual challenges for the whole field at all levels. It is no small achievement that it reaches Jackson’s stated ambition to provide a platform for a much better philosophical conversation about inquiry than we have had thus far.

Perhaps controversially, however, I cannot pretend to have emerged from the book wholeheartedly sharing Jackson’s enthusiasm for the kind of pluralism in the field of IR that he aims to promote. I respect the sentiment and the generosity of spirit in which it is made, and I do recognise that it is essential for keeping important conversations on track, and that this is the best way forward for a less introspective discipline. Yet I feel myself torn, as perhaps critical pluralists are fated to be, between a desire to fight false dogmas and respect reasonable differences.  In some senses, it is Jackson’s own critical reading of different positions that subversively feeds this tension.

I. Of knowing and being: some questions

I was struck in the early set-up of the book by the distinction between scientific and philosophical ontologies upon which the central typology is built. Briefly, according to Jackson, scientific ontologies specify the catalogue of objects of investigation – states, individuals, classes etc. – whilst philosophical ontologies relate to the ‘hook-up’ between mind and world. Jackson presents this in a 2×2 matrix, with which I am sure readers are by now familiar:

Jackson’s key claim is that as researchers our methodologies flow logically from where we sit on these philosophical-ontological issues, and as such should not all be evaluated on neopositivist claims of how valid ‘science’ proceeds. Whilst I accept the broad point, what I want to pursue in more detail is whether this typology does in fact get to the heart of the core wagers that underpin each ontological position in the matrix. Continue reading