Capital, The State and War: Rethinking the Geopolitics of Capitalist Modernity in the Era of the Two World Wars

A guest post from Alex Anievas to inaugurate a brief symposium on his book anievasCapital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 (Michigan University Press, 2014), which will unfold over the next few days. Alex is a Leverhume Early Career Researcher at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is editor or co-editor of numerous books (including Race and Racism in International Relations and The Longue Durée of the Far-Right, both of which have previously previewed at The Disorder). His work has also appeared in the European Journal of International Relations, the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Millennium and the Review of International Studies.


The manuscript that would become Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflicts and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 developed, like so many first books, out of my PhD thesis[1] In its final form, Capital, the State, and War endeavours to offer nothing less than a systematic and radical reinterpretation and historical sociological reconceptualisation of some of the main geopolitical and socioeconomic fault-lines of the 1914-1945 period. It does so through the theoretical prism of uneven and combined development, demonstrating in the process the various problems with extant historiographical interpretations and IR theorisations of this crucial epoch in the development and remaking of modern world politics. But given the rather substantial differences between what I had originally envisioned the PhD thesis to be and what it became, it’s worth briefly discussing the origins of the project and how it changed in the process of researching and writing it.

I. Origins

My PhD project was originally conceived as an intervention into the contemporary debates on the ‘resurgence’ of US imperialism in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – very much a radicalising moment in my own intellectual and political trajectory – and the concomitant return to Marxist theories of imperialism and empire. My aim then was to essentially rethink and ‘update’ the classical Marxist theories of imperialism and, in particular, Lenin and Bukharin’s theory of inter-imperial rivalry which, whatever its faults, still captured an essential aspect of contemporary imperialism. I was then heavily influenced by a number recent Marxist works on imperialism, particularly David Harvey’s 2003 The New Imperialism (along with his earlier, more theoretically sophisticated The Limits to Capital) and Alex Callinicos’ The New Mandarins of American Power.

Both studies, in their different ways, sought to retain the fundamental insights of the classical Marxist theories of imperialism (e.g. the persistence of historically-differentiated forms of inter-imperial rivalries rooted within the inherently competitive dynamics of capital accumulation), whilst dispensing with their more economically determinist and instrumentalist features. They did so, in particular, by reconceptualising imperialism as the intersection of two analytically distinct, but historically interconnected, ‘capitalist’ and ‘territorial’ logics of economic and geopolitical competition. While critical of certain aspects of this kind of approach – particularly, Harvey and Callinicos’ relatively undigested incorporation of a ‘proto-realist’ conception of ‘the international’ – my initial thought was that, if rooted in a stronger conception of the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development and expansion that produced the somewhat porous but nonetheless identifiable ‘territorial logic of power’ – regionality – inherently arising out of the processes of capital accumulation in space and time, this perspective could provide a more adequate historical materialist theory of geopolitics.[2] At this stage in the development of the project, this is how I originally envisaged the role of Trotsky’s concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ – a kind of supplementary theory that could be employed in capturing the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development in reconstructing a modified Marxist theory of imperialism. Add in a more attentive focus to the relations between capitalists and state managers and the role of ideology in structuring foreign policymaking processes and I thought this would do.

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The Anglosphere, Part Two: Of Liberal Leviathans and Global Turns

Viewed from the perspective of liberal IR, Britain’s globe-spanning empire can be described as “Liberal Internationalism 1.0.” According to G. John Ikenberry, the “liberal ascendancy” had everything to do with the “growth and sheer geopolitical heft of the world’s liberal democracies.” The British may have been the first to harmonize national interest with the stability, openness and rule-following in the international systems, but it was the Americans who “fused” them. “If the liberal order was built after World War II primarily within the West, the end of the Cold War turned that order into a sprawling global system” [1].

The question that has always fascinated me is how we got from Liberal Internationalism 1.0 to Liberal Internationalism 2.0, or how, to freely borrow from Ikenberry, power shifted between two liberal Leviathans, Britain and the U.S. What is puzzling here is the absence of the Wars of Anglophone Succession. Instead of fighting each other at least once or twice, the two empires first found ways to cooperate and coordinate their imperial activities around the globe, then engaged in what can be described as a pacted transition, even as a corporate merger. Here’s one verdict, taken from “The imperialism of decolonizationpiece by Wm Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson:

The British were welcoming the Americans back into the British family of nations and, informally at least, into the Commonwealth . . . [the post-war empire operated] as part of the Anglo- American coalition . . . like a multinational company.

Putting aside the historiography debates about its scope, timing and sequencing, this historical process was no doubt of momentous importance for the evolution of the liberal order, both in terms of the accumulation of hegemonic power, and in terms of social and institutional learning. The Anglosphere, in other words, begins here. So how do we explain it? Strategic calculus and/or a putatively liberal predilection for cooperation, compromise, and conciliation (last word Churchill’s) are only parts of this story, as Charles Kupchan notes in his How Enemies Become Friends:

British appeasement of the United States and the practice of reciprocal restraint that followed cleared the way for rapprochement. But it was the emergence of a new discourse on both sides of the Atlantic – one that propagated notions such as a “shared Anglo-Saxon race” and an “Anglo-American family” – that produced a compatible identity, consolidated stable peace, and laid the foundations for the strategic partnership that exists to this day.

I could not agree more. Racialized identities operate as social structures of power, and this was a time when they explicitly authorized unity and superiority for Us against Them in ways that had profound consequences for the evolution of the so-called liberal international order. Anglo-Saxonism enabled the U.S. and Britain – or their elites – not only to position themselves favourably vis-à-vis each other at the turn of the twentieth century, but also with respect to the rest of the world and in a longer term. The Anglo-American rapprochement was no “global turn” of the sort that Kupchan talks about in his latest book, but it arguably comes close to it in macro-historical term. For one, the paths, pace and outcomes of the 1945-1951 international institution-building spree – that foundation of Liberal Internationalism 2.0 –followed the patterns of UK-U.S. cooperation first established during the colonial wars and near-wars in the 1890s. The much-disclaimed “special relationship” has its origins in this period – something to keep in mind next time we hear that U.S.-hugging remains in someone’s national interest, as General Sir David Richards, the head of Britain’s armed forces, argued last week.

This story I wish to tell can be expanded and contracted empirically (Anglo-Saxonism is dead today, but its effects can be found everywhere from university scholarships to contemporary military alliances) and theoretically (through, say, an account of core-periphery relations that made global capitalism possible), but the main substantive point remains the same, and that is that we cannot fully understand the “liberal ascendancy” without pausing (as Siba Grovogui might say) over the pervasiveness and power of racialized identities that connected Liberal Internationalism 1.0 and 2.0 [2]. Continue reading

Administrative Offences; Or, In Terrorem, University of Nottingham Branch (The Sequel)

Like Ryan Giggs, the University of Nottingham is by now learning something of the Streisand Effect, where attempting to hide information and silence critics inadvertently leads to much greater levels of discussion and critique than would otherwise have been the case. Recall that Dr Rod Thornton was suspended in early May for a paper he wrote for the BISA conference (an academic gathering for those working on all matters ‘international’, from foreign policy to anti-globalisation). But the story isn’t going away and now the paper itself is available at Scribd (or in pdf if you prefer). It’s 112 pages of description and analysis which, among other things, charges named senior staff at the University of Nottingham as implicated in breaches of law and good conduct.

Particularly of interest is the disclosure in the paper that much of the documentation drawn on to build Thornton’s case is already in the public domain, having been the subject of a series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests in the years since the arrests. Much of the most damning material comes from a comparison of emails, reports and other documentation that has been released under FoI, or which is linked to written documents that Thornton says he possesses, and so which could be easily checked in a court of law. There is reference to meetings, but even here quotes are linked to transcripts. All of which rather puts into question Nottingham’s contention that defamation was a serious threat. Moreover, Thornton makes a good defence of naming names on other grounds – which is precisely that he is not seeking to bring the University into disrepute, but to single out those most responsible for a calumnious series of events.

It turns out, for example, that Thornton has been subjected to a series of investigations since 2008, apparently of increasing triviality. At one point he was charged with providing faulty reading lists on the grounds that he did not add his office hours to the front page and included too many essays on a module guide. The fallout for Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir has been somewhat more serious – in addition to continual stops-and-searches after the incident, both have been listed on Home Office documents enumerating ‘major Islamist plots’ against the UK.

But what of the trigger for the arrests in the first place? We might assume an innocent misunderstanding occurred, with regrettable consequences. But:

what were these three documents that had ‘no valid reason whatsoever…to exist’ [as the University Registrar described them to the police]; documents which were ‘utterly indefensible’ for Yezza (and, later, for Sabir) to have, and documents which count not be sent via the university’s computer system? Well, two were articles from the journals Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Policy Council Journal, while the other was a publicly available document downloaded from the United States Department of Justice (US DoJ) website.

It’s hard to say anything positive about anyone who thinks work published in Foreign Policy is illegal. Criminal in some slighlty different sense, perhaps, but not illegal. As Thornton dryly comments, you can buy it in airports. Sadly, it gets worse: Continue reading

The Patriarchal Dividend At War

Thursday’s Masculinity/Violence Symposium was lovely, thanks for asking. Lots of people came, which was heartening, and they all had great stuff to say, which was exciting. It bodes well for the International Feminist Journal of Politics special issue (*hint*). Here’s more or less what I said on the day, incorporating a splash of revisions and a dollop of answers and critiques provided by the audience. The day itself deserves some kind of report of its own, and I hope to make some time for it, or perhaps just extract some highlights from the papers presented.


Being part of something potent and comprehensible amid chaos, witnessing death and destruction as a participant and testing yourself in the masculine ritual of war remain elemental to the formation of soldierly identity. To tour as a soldier is to become a male exemplar, to take the chance of looking upon horror from the inside, to attempt to neutralize its voyeuristic allure through becoming its agent…The performance of soldiering is plastic and infinitely variable, shifting through the cautious cadences of the defense phase to the aggressive, rolling bounds of the ‘advance to contact’, always to end in ‘the fight-through’. ‘Fighting-through’ is the end of the dance, the culmination point where the dancers become the dance, where the fighting body achieves a sensuous unity with grenades, bullets and the bayonet.

Shane Brighton, ‘The Embodiment of War: Reflections on the Tour of Duty’ (2004)

War is not simply a breakdown in a particular system, but a way of creating an alternative system of profit, power and even protection.

David Keen, The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars (1998)

From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.

Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women & Rape (1975)

Conceptualising masculinity in terms of relations of hegemony and subordination and marginalisation and authorisation, Raewyn Connell proposed that men receive rewards as participants in male gender orders, and that this takes the form of status, command and material assets. This is the patriarchal dividend. Inequality on the scale observable in contemporary societies is, in Connell’s words, “hard to imagine without violence”, which is taken to have an important enforcement role both in terms of maintaining men’s power over women through acts like rape and in setting patterns among men. Extending this reasoning to the practice of war, it is plausible to see violence in general, and extreme acts like rape in particular, as an instrument of this enforcement, protecting or extending the patriarchal dividend. Soldiers in this sense become the frontline troops for the collective of men, just as domestic violence, street-level intimidation and rape fulfil the same functions outside of the war system.

Evidence from Chris Coulter’s work in Sierra Leone exemplifies how such a process may work. She reports that the majority of those abducted as ‘bush wives’ by the Rebel United Front (RUF) appear to have been raped. The creation of RUF rebel villages where commanders lived and the abducted were taken reflected the sociological structure of ‘peacetime’ arrangements: a pseudo-family structure with commanders at the head of a number of ‘bush wives’, subordinate males and occasionally elderly residents. The forms of labour assigned to women also followed the patriarchal imperatives of reproduction: fetching water and firewood, cleaning, and preparing food. Traditional roles like the ‘mamy queen’, who would look after young girls and prepare them for marriage, were also replicated within the camp structure. These arrangements were stable, to the extent that hierarchies among bush wives also manifested themselves, with the favoured wives of powerful commanders themselves taking on responsibilities for distributing arms and ammunition and holding power over other wives and children within camps.

In the context of masculinities, I take this kind of perspective to suggest that there are what we might call enforcer masculinities at work in war. This is to say that there are patterns of behaviour, representations and identities which, in the practice of violence, secure benefits for patriarchy as a system. A Debt Paid in Coin and Sweat.

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‘The only answer was slaughter, and the only way to do it was fast’; In which others read the autohagiography of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair so I don’t have to

The publication of Blair’s recollections and rationalisations has been a gift to many of us. Not content with the material for satire he provided during office, he has now furnished us with further damning evidence in his own hand. A weighty (non est) mea culpa. Pat psychologising, quasi-religious conviction, the hamfisted use of historical analogy and that overwrought prose (now infamous: “I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct, knowing I would need every ounce of emotional power to cope with what lay ahead“). All of this has enabled some incisive commentary, and some barely contained rage: Tony as Captain Stanhope; Tony as the ‘preacher on a tank’ (Dick Cheney’s apposite barb); Tony as delusional Christ-Pope in waiting.

Three thoughts. First, there is the question of how we can now read Blair, and Iraq as the exemplar of his style of thought. What were the mechanisms that allowed the clear advice of experts of all stripes, and the opposition of most of the population, to be translated into an unbending commitment to the projection of American power? A familiar answer is that the New Labour project was driven by the energies of Blair’s religious (or religious-like) faith, his commitment and earnestness and belief. But the scene set by A Journey and its deconstructions is far more prosaic. On the one hand, there is plenty of garden-variety ‘misperception’. Actors chose the analogies that fit their pre-established understandings, over-emphasised the pressures for action in their calculations, and failed in their responsibility to examine situations from more than one angle. These are the kind of slippages that pop up enough for some systems- and cognitively-minded scholars to trace their role in wars across the ages.

On the other hand, there is Blair’s extraordinary decisionism. Something must be done, and someone must do it. But this is in some ways the reverse of a faith-based politics. It was not belief that guided Blair, and certainly not carefully delineated actions set out by dogma or doctrine. It was the absence of such a schema which mattered, at least on his own account. “The pieces are in flux”. Hence the insistence on leadership, on grasping the truth and necessity of the moment. What continues to intrigue is this movement between an over-abundance of values and the hardened core of Machiavellianism. The necessity was never one dictated by the ends of justice, but only that of power and its demands.

Yes, ideology was at play. But structurally so. Not in the bible readings and personal psycho-dramas of two little rich boys from New Haven and Edinburgh, but in a much less appreciated, and much more insidious sense. A subjectivity with a sociology. There is something typically Žižekian about this apparent paradox. As with others nominally committed to grand projects, the issue is not one of hypocrisy, so much as of the means by which raw power and purity of purpose can be experienced as synonymous:

the figure of the ‘big Other’ as a background against which [to] exert… ruthlessness and drive for power. They had displaced their belief onto this Other, which, as it were, believed on their behalf. Continue reading