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

‘Immediate Commodifiability’; Or, A Virtual Teach-In on Austerity in Education

As a public service, some of the best of recent (and older) diagnosis and critique, largely an extension of work already done over at Infinite ThØught:

It is fascinating, and very revealing, to see how Browne’s unreal confidence in the rationality of subjective consumer choice is matched by his lack of belief in reasoned argument and judgment. The sentence that immediately follows the vacuous one about students’ ‘wants’ reads: ‘We have looked carefully at the scope to distribute funding by some objective metric of quality; but there is no robust way to do this and we doubt whether the choices of a central funding body should be put before those of students.’ It is, first of all, striking that the only alternative envisaged to the random play of subjective consumer choice is an ‘objective metric of quality’, i.e. some purely quantitative indicator. And second, it is no less striking that instead of allowing that an informed judgment might be based on reasons, arguments and evidence, there are simply the ‘choices’ made by two groups, treated as though they are just two equivalent expressions of subjective preference. We can have the money for a national system of higher education distributed either in accordance with the tastes of 18-year-olds or in accordance with the tastes of a group of older people in London: there’s no other way to do it.

Stefan Collini, Browne’s Gamble

György Lukács used to say that the objective unity of the capitalist order was never so apparent as in a phase of crisis. Then, the relative autonomy of expansionary times, which were so often asserted as the reality of social relations, would be abruptly suspended. The power of discretion would flow back to the centre, to the strategic politics of the state and to those prepared to launch a fundamental challenge to it.

What is objectionable is the ascendency of quantification, the emergence of quantifiability as a qualifying condition of relevance and admissibility. A species of transcendental reductionism. We need look no further than the familiar, degraded world of academic research. Scientific and scholarly projects, we all know, do well in these times to internalise the definitions, the priorities and the timescales of the REF as a main condition of finding institutional support. Reputation – the regard of one’s peers and serious audiences – is a frothy measure of achievement if it cannot be captured in scores and tables…League tables generally do not only reduce particular and distinct activity to a single numerical scale. As numerical procedures, they offer perverse compensation by generating distinctions where none can credibly be thought to exist in reality. 10 or 15 institutions differ within the space of 1%. But the visual code of the table – equal spacing in the plane of the vertical – renders such trivia grave and lapidary, carves them in stone…These processes of quantification and financialisation are effecting a progressive abstraction of university functions, in which exchange value is the homogeneous substance of working life. Now the labour of perfecting and defending these processes calls for an equally abstract organisational stratum of leader-managers, in a classic process of bureaucratisation.

Francis Mulhern, Humanities and University Corporatism

Wendy Brown, Why Privatisation Is About More Than Who Pays

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