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.

Continue reading

UNESCO and Research Agendas Concerning Race

Antigua was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty – a European disease … Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master … you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

Jamaica Kincaid suggests that abolition and emancipation are bitter-sweet affairs. For the enslaved, freedom furnishes them with a human being that nevertheless awaits a meaningful personhood. Out of slavery the master fares better, redeeming his human being from being human rubbish. Kincaid’s suggestion is insightful. After all, abolition had a vibrant nineteenth century afterlife. White abolitionists enthusiastically allowed their humanitarianism to colonize Africa so that God’s chosen could sanctify themselves through the act of saving the natives from their selves. Meanwhile, William Wilberforce et al, convinced that slaves were human biologically yet lacked the social and cultural competencies of humanity, looked on fascinated at the experiment of self-government in Haiti. From this point onwards all future failings would be attributed to the epidermis, not the colonial relation. Presently, argues Kincaid, the landscapes of the old Caribbean plantations have been consumed by a white tourist gaze that has once again disavowed the living legacies of enslavement and colonization and denied meaningful personhood to its peoples. What remains of these places and peoples is only an “unreal”, picture-book beauty.

What are our narratives of race and racism? Whom do we follow in order to tell the tale: the masters or the enslaved – the humanitarians or the “sufferers”? Which tale confesses the episteme –the scientifically valid study – of race?

The 1950-51 UNESCO “statements on race” answered such questions in favour of the master’s narrative. Announcing a new era in human understanding after the terrors of war and irrationalities of genocide, the main purpose of the statements was to separate the “biological fact” of race from its “social myth”. The biological fact in and of itself was rendered harmless, pertaining only to “physical and physiological” classifications. Thus genetic inheritance, it was affirmed, could have no bearing on mental or cultural competencies and capabilities. Conversely, the social myth of race was considered extremely dangerous in that it rendered cultural difference as biological thus sundering the “unity of mankind”. This myth had to be dispensed with; hence ethnicity – as a social/cultural classifier – was proposed as a preferable classificatory regime to that of race. Ethnicity, after all, had not been tainted with supremacist hierarchy and could signify instead non-hierarchical diversity.

Although the scientists who collectively produced the statements on race were by no means all white, the majority hailed from Western academies. And the particular kind of anti-racism evident in UNESCO’s statements had already been formulated by famous Western anthropologists such as Franz Boas. They had sought to undermine scientific racism on its own grounds, i.e. by proving the un-scientific nature of the social myth of race. And this endeavour required debunking racialized identity – that which confessed their legal and natural inequality – as myth not fact. However, as part of this manoeuvre these identities had to be subsumed under a harmless social science of ethnic categorization. While this move redeemed white identities, it de-politicized the meanings of the sufferers’ cultural complexes and complexions, extricated them from inherited hierarchies of power, and thus segregated them from the inherited and living struggles against (post-/neo-)masters. In short, as Alana Lentin puts it, the effect of the statements was to separate race from politics.

Continue reading

Dalston: A Worm’s Eye View

(…cheers…) Please welcome, in your traditional way, the latest in the expanding list of Disorder-ed contributors. Rahul Rao, currently Lecturer in International Security at SOAS, author most recently of the fascinating Third World Protest: Between Home and the World, as well as a number of articles on cosmopolitanism, world order and empire. He is currently working on projects aimed at provincialising Westphalia and introducing queer theory to IR.

There is a great deal that I don’t understand about the world, but I do know a little about that part of it where the Kingsland Road becomes Stoke Newington Road (London N16/E8, if that’s how you work). As the dust clears from what BBC Panorama recently called The August Riots – as if to distinguish them from those to come in September, October, November and December – it is difficult to walk around without wondering whether everyone is judging everyone else on the basis of age, race, class and sartorial preference. Multiculturalism in Dalston can sometimes feel like a polite version of separate-but-equal with the hipsters (mostly white, but equal opportunity for those with the right facial hair, skinny jeans, loafers with no socks, university education, fixie bikes and Apple accoutrements) patronising hipster cafés, the Turks hanging out in members-only social clubs, the Caribbeans in venues such as Open the Gate. Everyone goes to the Turkish restaurants, but gastronomy has always been the least challenging site for racial mixing. As gentrification has proceeded apace – a phenomenon driven by middle class professionals like myself – I cannot help but notice that Dalston Superstore is always full and the Caribbean restaurant in Centerprise (East London’s oldest and most famous black bookshop) often empty. (Oddly, the spell check on this blog thinks that the word ‘gentrifying’ does not exist and suggests replacing it with ‘petrifying’. There might be something to that.)

On August 8 when the riots reached Hackney, Dalston hit the headlines as the place where the riots caused little damage, its Turkish and Kurdish business owners much feted for their role in beating back the rioters. I have to confess to an immediate reaction (always a betrayal of one’s class identification) of gratitude to a local community of people who trusted and knew each other well enough to work together at a moment’s notice – a community to which I do not belong, but on whose efforts I was able to free-ride (like Zoe Williams, I watched these events on a live feed, it never having occurred to me that I could have gone on to my high street to defend anything). In the cold light of dawn, second thoughts: when the facade of the Leviathan had cracked, security had become a function of ethnic solidarity. Welcome to Sarajevo.

The reaction of the local business owners in Dalston poses two questions. Continue reading