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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Eurocentrism, Racism: What’s In A Word?: A Response to Bowden, Sabaratnam and Vucetic

The fifth and final post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: a reply from John himself, responding to the commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett. John’s original summary post is, of course, still available too.

Introduction: All for one and one for all?

I would like to begin by thanking most sincerely my three blog interlocutors for having gone to the trouble of reading my new book, never mind taking the time to write up their extremely thoughtful and interesting blog responses. Of course, the cynic reading all of this might be forgiven for thinking that such a blog forum is hardly a ‘testing environment’ for Hobson’s book, given that his interlocutors are either postcolonialists or at least influenced by postcolonialism and have presumably, therefore, been “cherry-picked” for their potentially sympathetic tendencies. Even the titles that they have chosen, so the cynic might think, would appear to be symptomatic of this, with Meera Sabaratnam’s piece proclaiming – extremely generously I must concede – that my book has succeeded in ‘blowing up the disciplinary citadel of International Relations’, while Srdjan Vucetic’s title projects even further the meaning of the front cover of my book to that which I had intended, suggesting that IR is a ‘foolish discipline’ given his resounding agreement that it suffers from a pervading Eurocentrism. In this vein it might be thought that Brett Bowden’s title – ‘Eurocentrism and More’ – chimes in with yet another wholehearted rendition of the now familiar chorus of ‘IR is a Eurocentric discipline’. So why the fuss about all this and is there much point in reading on? For it would seem that we’re all agreed and there’s nothing to debate, right?

Well no, not quite all for one and one for all. Continue reading

A Foolish Discipline?

This is the third post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book, followed by Meera’s response. In the next few weeks, we will have a posts from Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.

Update: Brett’s response is now up.

Interest in the history of International Theory has grown, but the academic study of its origins has received relatively little attention to date.  The reasons are multiple: the complexity of the subject, a powerful commonplace view that ‘disciplinary history’ equates scholasticism and navel-gazing, and, I would hasten to add, a collective unwillingness to deal with racism that often pops up in the writings of mythicized fathers of international theory.  John M. Hobson is not hindered by any of these obstacles.  What he does in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is tell a story that begins in 1760 and ends in 2010, assessing hundreds of international theorists past and present, from Adam Smith to Anne-Marie Slaughter.

This wide-ranging, authoritative book is a continuation of the author’s previous achievement of note, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. There, Hobson argued, echoing Edward Said, that nineteenth century European imperialism was symbiotic with Europe’s “racist identity.”  This symbiosis has had many implications, but none as big as this: “had racism not existed and had the West viewed the Eastern peoples as equal human beings, imperialism might never have occurred” (2004: 241).  This meta-point is now revisited in a major way:

international theory is to this book what Western literature is to Edward Said’s Orientalism….given Said’s claim that Eurocentrism has a clear link with international politics – in this case imperialism – then international theory should logically constitute the ultimate litmus test for revealing this discourse in Western academic thought (p.2; all subsequent in-text references are to this book, unless otherwise indicated). Continue reading

The Anglosphere, Part One: What’s in a Name?

What do you get when you intersect indices that rank top two dozen nations of the world by political freedoms, GDP per capita, productivity, literacy, and patent applications in late 2000s? The answer is you get some kind of an “Anglosphere” – usually the quartet of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the U.S., but also, depending on the underlying measures and thresholds, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore and so on.

Using data from the World Development Indicators, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and International Labour Organisation, among others sources, I’ve played this game in my research methods classes quite a bit. No methods textbook endorses such mindless empiricism, but students, from what I can tell, tend to appreciate the loose structure of the exercise. This is because the objective – familiarizing students with comparison, measurement, scaling, and so on – almost always shifts onto the “why?” questions, at which point everyone (ok, not everyone) tries to come up with his/her social scientific narrative on what makes this or that grouping “interesting,” “different,” or “special.”

Joel Kotkin, one of America’s premier demographers, and his nine collaborators have shown me how this game can be played at an infinitely more sophisticated level. Their argument – developed primarily in a collection of the Legatum Institute papers entitled “The New World Order”, but also in two shorter pieces penned by Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar at NewGeography.com and in City Journal – is that globalized economy by and large operates in and through three large “tribal groupings” or “spheres”: the Indosphere, the Sinosphere, and the Anglosphere [1]. As the authors note, their narrative can claim a formidable intellectual pedigree: “we have followed the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s notion that ethnic and cultural ties are more important than geographic patterns or levels of economic development.”

Kotkin et al offer no shortage of interesting and novel observations and analytical points, but one of the project’s key punchlines is in the title of the Anglosphere section in the New World Order: “We are not dead yet.” The project’s foil, in other words, is the current wave of American declinism:

The era of unipolar domination by the United States and its key allies — which dates from the fall of the Soviet Union — has come to an end. Yet despite this, the core Anglosphere remains by far the largest cohesive economic bloc in the world. Overall it accounts for more than 18 trillion dollars, one quarter of the world’s GDP, far more than any other cohesive global grouping.

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The New School for Privatised Inquiry

UPDATE (5 June): Now crossposted at Campaign for the Public University and at Critical Legal Thinking. The New College of the Humanities has already been called The Ultimate Scab University. I should have titled the post that.

Nina Power also has a call for boycott up and a running info post exposing, amongst other things, that many of the Professors involved have bought shares in the New College. A strange kind of workers’ management, but one apparently meant to incentivise its intellectual labourers through the lure of profits on thought. See also the expanding discussion at Leiter Reports and A.C. Grayling’s defence (in reply to the Birkbeck Student Union Chair).

In 1919, John Dewey and others founded The New School for Social Research, intended to offer a democratic and general education for those excluded by existing structures. On the faculty side, this meant a staunch defence of academic freedom in the face of increasing censorship and a climate of intellectual fear. For students, it meant evening classes, an open structure of instruction and the ability to engage in inquiry despite exclusion from the other universities of the time. A fascinating legacy even before it became a refuge for forces of critique fleeing Fascist Europe.

Now there is a new New School. A New College in fact. A.C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin and Peter Singer (yes, Peter Singer), amongst others, have inaugurated this new space for privatised inquiry. Tuition fees will be £18,000 a year. While the original New School aimed for “an unbiased understanding of the existing order, its genesis, growth and present working”, the New College gives you the skills “needed for success in this complex and competitive world”. There will be courses in how to do slick presentations and on effective working-with-others. Ironically enough, there will also be instruction in ‘applied ethics’ and ‘critical thinking’ (will education and the public good be topics of study I wonder?). The TV-friendly, rent-a-theory Professoriate glistens, although it seems unlikely that many classes will actually be taken by Niall Ferguson and Steven Pinker (visiting Professors only). Many other stars already hold other posts. And a closer look indeed reveals that ‘conveners and other teaching staff’ might bear somewhat more of the teaching load than advertised.

Four heads of major private schools sit on the Advisory Board. Intriguingly, the formal academic entry requirements seem rather low. Some funds are available for those from more deprived backgrounds (news reports suggest around 20% of entrants will get some kind of ‘assisted place’), but otherwise there is just some loose talk about ‘using a tuition fee loan’, although I assume this won’t be on the preferential rates and deferral plans available through the more antiquated public institutions. As Martin McQuillan intimated, it also seems that Grayling et al. have some inside info on the forthcoming White Paper, at least enough to calculate that their fees-and-hand-outs combination will not be penalised by standards on access and equality for degree-granting institutions (since it also seems that qualifications from the New College will count as endorsed by the University of London).

This is the hour for the experiment; and London is the place…

Which is all by way of saying that New College represents a new stage in business ontology. Today the public provision of humanities is framed again and again as unsustainable, unproductive and antiquated. London Met, which educates more black and ethnic minority students than the whole Russell Group combined, is facing the closure of 70% of its undergraduate courses, predominantly drawn from its humanities and arts provision, all overseen by a political elite who received their free educations in cognate subjects. UK higher education is systematically and chronically under-funded thanks to a governing class that has been spending less on schooling and free inquiry than any of its ‘competitors’ for several decades now. There is nothing natural about the emergence of a market which will bear the dubious pricing of Grayling’s project, and no objective need for the fresh sources of private investment that he cites as somewhere in support of the endeavour. We do indeed need ‘a new model’, but not this one.

The Offshore World

In amongst a typically judicious review of Treasure Islands and Winner-Take-All Politics, David Runciman draws a suggestive comparison between the contemporary politics of financial ‘mobility’ and the legacy of colonialism.

Shaxson’s book explains how and why London became the centre of what he calls a ‘spider’s web’ of offshore activities (and in the process such a comfortable home for the likes of Saif Gaddafi). It is because offshore is the offshoot of an empire in decline. It perfectly suited a country with the appearance of grandeur and traditionally high standards, but underneath it all a reek of desperation and the pressing need for more cash.

As Shaxson shows, many of the world’s most successful tax havens are former or current British imperial outposts…What such places offer are limited or non-existent tax regimes, extremely lax regulation, weak local politics, but plenty of the trappings of respectability and democratic accountability. Depositors are happiest putting their money in locations that have the feel of a major jurisdiction like Britain without actually being subject to British rules and regulations (or British tax rates)…

…The other thing most of these places have in common is that they are islands. Islands make good tax havens, and not simply because they can cut themselves off from the demands of mainland politics. It is also because they are often tight-knit communities, in which everyone knows what’s going on but no one wants to speak out for fear of ostracism. These ‘goldfish bowls’, as Shaxson calls them, suit the offshore mindset, because they are seemingly transparent: you can see all the way through – it’s just that when you look there’s nothing there.

In some senses this confirms an established story. Imperialism 101. For others, it will unsettle the idea of globalisation and inter-dependence as essentially the negation of great power politics.

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