April 4, 2013
John M. Hobson, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sheffield, is (or ought to be) known for his excellent and trenchant critiques of Eurocentrism in history and political theory. In previous works such as the seminal The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (which I reviewed here), he has exposed how mainstream thought from both left and right in these fields is beholden to Eurocentric conceptions of world history. This expresses itself not just in terms of the subjects considered important. It goes much further than that – Eurocentrism reveals itself often in speaking of European experiences as if they were universal experiences, in granting agency only to European actors and denying it to all others, presenting historical phenomena as the unfolding of a purely European logic with no reciprocal input from ‘the East’, and so forth; never mind outright imperialist, racist, or chauvinist narratives. Hobson has been a serious, scholarly, and systematic foe of such narratives throughout his career, and his books are a great contribution to the struggle, both political and scientific, against Eurocentrism, chauvinism, and racism.
The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010 is a systematic historical overview of the major theories and theorists in international relations and their relationship to Eurocentrism. Hobson’s thesis is essentially aimed against the prevailing smug quasi-positivism of IR theory today and its blindness to the reality of Eurocentrism both in present and past practice. Where IR theorists today like to present themselves as being value-free scholars, concerned exclusively with descriptive depictions of the real interactions between state actors and questions of sovereignty and anarchy, Hobson charges them with a great deal of Eurocentric baggage smuggled in through ostensibly neutral terminology. What’s more, Hobson also shows that their reading of their own discipline’s history is one that conveniently erases or elides the roots of the various schools of IR thought in explicitly Eurocentric narratives. To expose this, the book presents a chronological overview of all the major IR theorists, from Kant, Hegel and Montesquieu through Marx and Mill onward to such diverse figures as Karl Pearson, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Adolf Hitler and Woodrow Wilson, and finally onto the present day with the Kagans, Huntingtons, Friedmans and Boots of our time. In each and every case Hobson demonstrates the Eurocentric content of their thought and how it explicitly shaped the development of their theories of state power, sovereignty, and interaction of states, not least as concerns the legitimacy of cultural or economic imperialism and the expansion of Western power. Hobson’s ultimate thesis is to demonstrate that despite its self-conception, almost all of IR theory has, in the final instance, been dedicated in one way or another to one cause: “defending and celebrating the ideal of the West in world politics” (p.345).
Hobson spends hundreds of pages of intelligent, critical, and dense close reading of a considerable number of greater and lesser authors to establish this fact. There is no purpose in recapitulating all his arguments; for that I would heartily recommend reading this excellent critical book. What is worth pointing out is that this work constitutes not just an argument within IR theory about its origins and purpose, but at the same time also takes position in a certain debate regarding the position of liberal, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought in a global perspective. This critical re-reading of the history of ideas, often associated with ‘postcolonial thought’ although not really rightly limited to that, is an important development in the struggle against European/Western chauvinism masquerading as high theory.
But Hobson’s approach to this question in this book is subtle and in many ways better than that of many of his fellow critics. In The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, he makes a number of important distinctions that help us understand the different types or categories of Eurocentric thought prevalent in 18th, 19th, and 20th century political theory. Crucially, Hobson distinguishes basically three axes of viewpoint: racism vs nonracism, imperialism vs anti-imperialism, and paternalism vs anti-paternalism (the last one concerning the need for Europeans to support or intervene peacefully to help achieve Western levels of civilization). As Hobson shows throughout the book, taking up a position along one of these axes by no means implies a given position on the others, nor are they reducible to each other. Contrary to critics such as Thomas McCarthy, Hobson rightly notes that to reduce Eurocentrism and various kinds of imperialist thought to purely a question of ‘veiled racism’ actually allows the Eurocentric, chauvinist thinkers far too much leeway. Someone like Samuel Huntington never writes about race, biology, or heredity anywhere, yet his work is evidently strongly Eurocentric. Equally, one can have out-and-out ‘scientific racist’ thinkers of the fin-de-siècle such as Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, who were nonetheless generally opposed to Western imperialist ventures (for example because they would lead to white degeneration, or would stir up dangerous native activity). Hobson’s care to distinguish these different positions, presented in various helpful diagrams and classifications, not only sharpens and improves the political critique of Eurocentrism, but also generally aids in the process of a better understanding of post-Enlightenment thought and attitudes towards questions of empire, race, and political power.
Another important axis of analysis is the question of agency. Hobson includes many authors that would often be considered anti-Eurocentric into his Eurocentric panorama based on this crucial point. Rightly, he judges the various thinkers on Eurocentrism not just by their perception of the correct Western attitudes and actions towards the ‘East’, but also on the degree of agency they accord to the Eastern peoples in their analysis of world politics. Often authors will give full agency only to Europeans, and present the Eastern peoples as fundamentally stagnant, responding only to Western initiatives and changing only insofar as Western activity causes them to do so. They either have no independent agency at all – as in the myth of the eternal, stagnant East – or have only what Hobson calls ‘conditional agency’, that is, they can achieve independent activity only insofar as they become like the West.
Some versions of Eurocentrism, in particular the ones Hobson describes as ‘defensive racism’ or ‘defensive Eurocentrism’ do accord great agency to the East, but only a purely negative and predatory agency. These are the theories of the ‘yellow peril’ type, often presented in terms of the fear of Eastern power, mass migration, and the need to man the Western fortress. One finds this in racist forms in Stoddard, for example, and in nonracist form in Huntington and Lind. In all these cases, sovereignty, the obsession of IR theory, becomes the formal vehicle through which these ideas of agency tend to express themselves. Full sovereignty is only granted Western states; others have either no sovereignty, or gradated sovereignty, depending on their degree of conforming to Western demands and expectations of other states. Even for anti-paternalist anti-imperialist thinkers such as Kant (in his political works) and Smith, this gradation of sovereignty and agency still operated, and for this reason Hobson qualifies them as Eurocentric nonetheless.
What is interesting for the purposes of this blog is how he also shares a great number of Marxist analyses of international relations under this banner. In a lengthy reading of Lenin’s classic work on imperialism, he describes Lenin as Eurocentric despite his strong opposition to either imperialism or paternalistic activities of the West. For, as Hobson points out, despite Lenin’s disapproval of Western imperialism and its rapacious power and destructive effects, he accords virtually no independent ability to resist to the Eastern powers or peoples, let alone any independent initiative or serious interactive role in the process of globalisation. This goes also, in Hobson’s view, for many of the ‘Gramscian’ and ‘world systems’ neo-Marxist theorists of IR, such as Cox and Wallerstein, who are inclined to dismiss the independent Eastern contributions to the development and maintenance of capitalism as a system or are unwilling to grant the subjects of imperialism any other substantial role than as victims. While this depiction as ‘subliminally Eurocentric’, in Hobson’s terms, may be politically hard to swallow for many Marxists, it is difficult to deny that many Marxist theories of global capitalism do develop their ideas from a fundamentally Eurocentric ‘world outlook’ (as the Soviets used to say) in terms of agency, however much they may wish the downfall of Western imperialism and of the capitalist world order itself.
This brings me, however, to some residual problems with John Hobson’s framework. This book is a deeply impressive work of scholarship and critical reading in its own right, and the clear and cogent framework for a more subtle and thorough set of criteria for analyzing Eurocentrism is a great contribution in addition to that. Nonetheless, there remain in my view two problems. The first comes to the fore in his reading of Marx as Eurocentric. There is certainly no doubt that the Marx and Engels of the 1840s and 1850s were Eurocentric and saw imperialism, though they opposed it, as a fundamentally historically progressive force; they believed all nations would have to become part of the unfolding European logic of capitalism, and the sooner it was done with, the better. Hobson does not seem to note any of the vast literature on Marx and Engels’ change in position from the late 1860s or so onwards on these questions, instead taking the Marx of the early journalism on India as canonical for all of Marxism. He not only ignores the work of people such as Kevin B. Anderson on the ideas of the ‘anthropological’ Marx, but uses some dubious sources on his and other works. He takes the work of Bernal on 19th century interpretations of the classical world without criticism, despite these having been refuted at length, and his main source on Marx’s views appears to be an obscure Cold War tract, rather than any of the established scholarship on the question of Marxism’s relationship to the non-European world. This is not fatal just in one or two cases, but it makes one wonder how well he actually knows the scholarly debates around some of the material he references – a (minor) problem I also noted in his book The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation.
However, lest that seem mere pedantry, I would argue the case of Marxism points to a deeper problem. I am wholly sympathetic to Hobson’s critique of Eurocentrism and also his useful revisions of the content of that classification. But there remains one element that is not satisfactory. While Hobson is surely right to critique as Eurocentric not just those who explicitly proclaim (in one way or another) the superiority of the West, or of Western institutions per se, there is a problematic that he does not fully explore. Hobson foresees the common counterargument to critiques of Eurocentrism, namely the old refrain that ‘it is Eurocentric because Europe really did become more important’ or ‘because Western values really are better’, etc. Hobson and many other people have shown that these are wrong in empirical terms, as Western history has not been the unfolding of its own immanent logic, Europe has not always been ahead of the East by any criterion imaginable and often only became so through imperialism (and even there with the collaboration of Eastern powers), and so forth. Much of these ideas are based on a thoroughly discredited Eurocentric empirical narrative. But Hobson does not wholly address the problem emerging from the use of Western criteria for historical analysis tout court. He seems to suggest in the book that the use of criteria from the West as universals is itself inherently Eurocentric, and here I would dissent.
It is undoubtedly Eurocentric to conveniently present the world as an opposition between ‘Western’ moral ideas, decent and civilized, versus the barbarism and sadism of the East, and similar tropes. But what to do with ideas that explicitly criticize the West itself according to their criteria also, and that do not present an opposition between the good West and the bad East? Many ideas have been developed in the West, or become globally influential through Western-dominated channels, that are nonetheless not inherently in the service of Western supremacy. Marxism could well be an example of one set such ideas, but there may be various, even perhaps certain liberal ideas. Hobson is right to oppose the empirical narratives of Western hyper-significance as unfounded. But certain ideas may develop universality despite originating or becoming popularized in the West, without thereby necessarily being Eurocentric, and this complicates his schema slightly – though I do not believe it invalidates any of his critiques per se.
This in turn leads to the second problem: Hobson’s understated alternative. In opposition to Eurocentrism, Hobson does not offer us any clear vision of what type of theoretical development, seeing the above contradictions, he would consider non-Eurocentric. He speaks at some length, for example, about the IR tropes of sovereignty and balance of powers as universalizing certain aspects of European experience, and offers as single counterexample the Chinese warring states and their development of a tributary (thereby apparently non-imperialist) empire. This seems a little meagre. More seriously, in the theoretical or methodological sphere he opposes nothing theorized to the Eurocentric flaws: running throughout the book is the counterpart of Eurocentrism in ‘cultural pluralism’ or ‘cultural tolerance’, once described as a substantive equality of sovereignty. But what is cultural pluralism? It seems Hobson wishes to steer us to the familiar Charybdis of an undertheorized ‘cultural relativism’ to avoid the Scylla of Eurocentrism, but this will not do as a substantive proposition. One very easily here falls into the postcolonial trap described by Aijaz Ahmad, where one takes the ‘cultures’ or nations of the ‘East’ as essential givens, and in the name of tolerating and supporting them against the chauvinism of the West, elides the many conflicts and (class) struggles that operate within them. A cultural turn of this sort can quickly turn to a form of quietism or bad faith that does not do the cause of emancipation any good.
Of course, one cannot expect an author to do everything in one book, and Hobson’s other books have provided substantial support for his empirical-historical views on the interaction between East and West as well as some of his ideas on the function and origins of concepts like ‘sovereignty’, the ‘Westphalian order’, etc. To provide a brilliant and learned critique of the type demonstrated in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is a work on par with James Blaut’s brilliant critiques of Eurocentric historiography and the readings of political theory as in the service of power by Corey Robin and Domenico Losurdo, among others. It should be required reading in any Politics or IR course, and is a fundamental corrective and warning to the many who believe that IR is a positive science uninfected by the legacy of Eurocentrism, racism, and imperialism that underpin it. It also implies a subtle and perhaps more interesting critique of ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’ and the way institutions and culture become core categories replacing race and civilization after WWII, while fulfilling the same functions in the narrative of Western triumph. Maintaining clarity and structure with such a huge number of authors and such complicated theoretical oppositions is no mean feat, either. It is therefore wholeheartedly recommended.
December 11, 2012
In the discussions on the question of anti-imperialism versus the necessity of intervention in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’, the gender dimension has been a much undertheorized one. While I am by no means a scholar of gender studies and barely qualified to speak at length on the topic, it has struck me that in the political dynamic around the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan this dynamic presents itself at least in part in the form of a politics of masculinity. This is true, it seems to me, of many of the major participants in the political and military conflict regardless of which ‘side’ they were on, and with an underlying drive not as dissimilar as has often been suggested. I can do no more than to vaguely sketch out my impression of this politics of masculinity, in the hope that some greater specialist can perhaps correct or elaborate upon this hunch. Nonetheless, I think it is a point worth making, because the interaction between gender and the ideology of politics is a potent one and has been throughout history, and it may serve to deflate somewhat the arrogance and pretensions of the different parties concerned with regard to their own significance and motives. Read the rest of this entry »
June 13, 2012
It is right to rebel. For anyone of a revolutionary mind, even within bourgeois-Jacobin boundaries, there can be no doubt that this is the beginning of all political wisdom. As Corey Robin has recently narrated in his excellent history of the political right, The Reactionary Mind, the decisive political differentiation has rested since the French Revolution itself on this: the right supporting the power of elites against those rebelling in opposition to it, whereas the left has been on the side of the insurgents.(1) In many societies and many historical cases, things are of course not as simple in practice as an oligarchic and oppressive Ancien Régime opposed by a great mass of popular will. The recent revolts and transformations in the Arab world have proven this. In Tunisia, the situation was still relatively straightforward. In Egypt, the overthrow of the tyrant Mubarak has left the country with a situation where power is precariously balanced between the Jacobins of Tahrir, the army-bureaucratic interest and its ‘temporary’ rule, and the parliamentary power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Libya, the overthrow of Ghadaffi has predictably led to a split of the country among its major geographic division, that between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. But perhaps more significantly, the real power, which grows out of the barrel of a gun, is in the hands of militias located in the desert cities and whose reach does not extend beyond a local military rule in the name of this or that clan, or this or that area. Of course, under such conditions any political or economic developments are stifled until these immediate contradictions are resolved, which almost inevitably requires either a civil war, or a new dictatorship, or both. And then there is the shadow of Iraq, where the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime after Western intervention brought the country years of massacres and sectarian civil strife, its parliamentary government reigning on the most precarious basis, and its the illusory nature of its national unity now shown for what little it practically is.
But it is always easy to point to the chaos of a transition. This is not itself a response befitting revolutionaries. The above cases are by no means all identical in origins, nor in their legitimacy – there is a world of difference between an invasion of Western powers into a country to merely lop off the head of a hated but effective regime, leaving the body politic to fall apart; and on the other hand, an uprising of popular-democratic power, establishing a t least the formal trappings of democratic legitimacy and thereby opening up a political struggle that had been artificially repressed for decades. Iraq is not Tunisia or Egypt. Moreover, the countries themselves are not necessarily similar in their social structure, so the structure of each uprising is not identical any more than overthrowing a monarch in Austria-Hungary was the same as doing so in Russia. Algeria has not too long ago seen a prolonged dirty war between the government and a coalition of shadowy ‘Islamist’ organizations, characterized by massacres with unknown perpetrators, and leading to a climate of terror and stagnation destroying any prospects for extending popular power.
This may well be the future of Syria, on its current course. The Assad regime cannot be overthrown outright, for it has maintained too much support, not least within the army; but the insurgency, largely operating from the northern and eastern areas of the country, supported by various armed columns of disparate origins and ideology, is likely also too strong to be simply quelled. Each has their popularity and their unpopularity; neither provides a clear revolutionary programme capable of resolving the contradiction. “Between equal rights”, Marx said, “force decides”, and this then is sadly the only real prospect. Already, massacres of civilians by mysterious militias, accusations back and forth of atrocities, and the bombardment of cities and neighbourhoods are a daily phenomenon. Effectively, this means civil war, as the Western powers for their own reasons now also allege; and the very fact it is denied by both the government’s supporters and opponents proves its truth. (This paradox is easily explained by the fact both sides have imposed an effective ban, on penalty of death, on the presence of foreign journalists to observe the facts on the ground.) Even if the process towards a domestic war with the full participation of the general population is by no means complete, the strength of each side and the impossibility of a clear resolution on the basis of their demands proves that civil war has become a necessity outcome.
This is tragic, for such wars are often the most bloody, and their resolution into a positive result the most difficult to achieve, with their legacy lingering for decades. But it is important to understand that such a scenario is not the fault of the uprisings as such, and that one cannot condemn the insurgents on the basis of having ‘divided the country’ or the like. The very fact that only force can decide the contradictions of Arab politics is the consequence of the artificial repression of all political movements by decades of tyranny. It is first and foremost the tyrants whose fault the violence is. This is not the fault of the uprisings against oppression. One blames the Czar for the violence of the Russian Revolution, and the intervention of the Whites and the ‘fourteen armies’ for that of the Russian Civil War. This applies not just to Syria, but to Egypt, to Bahrain, to Tunisia, even to Libya. No imperialist intervention can be accepted any more than Western conspiracy can be blamed, precisely because the act itself is legitimate: it is right to rebel.
This does not, of course, tell foreign observers sympathetic to revolutionary politics how to read the evolution of Syrian affairs. Class societies ruled by quasi-monarchical dynasties of tyrants for long periods have one common trait: the more nationally united the tyranny makes them seem, the more divided they really are. In Syria, the Alawite (or Alevite) minority often supports the regime, which belongs to this denomination and has given its elite a strong grip on the country’s political and economic commanding heights. The Sunni majority for this same reason may often oppose it. But the divisions between the south and the north of the country, supporting and opposing the regime respectively, are at least as significant. Moreover, all these are, as always, mediations of the class divide in a capitalist society. With regard to the great imperialist powers, the case is clear enough. Israel and Syria have long been in strife; but the Israeli government knows well enough that like any man without legitimacy, Assad can survive only by making deals, and it will prefer him to the unknown alternative.
The watchword of the Party of Order is always ‘stability’, and this is why the ‘stability’ of tyrants is favored by the likes of Israel over the ‘chaos’ of political struggle. No observer sympathetic to revolutionary politics can be deceived by this – it is identical to the support for the Gulf monarchies by the Western powers, the same ones who now seek Assad’s deposition and an armed intervention in Syria. This does not prove Assad’s virtues, but on the contrary, simply the hypocrisy of the Americans and the Europeans; they have no interest in a Syrian revolution, merely in establishing a new ‘stability’, one favorable to their third remaking of the Middle Eastern map. Russia and China support Assad in turn because of their own desire for a ‘stability’ of lesser powers against the great ones in the West – again no motive or argument that can be of interest to revolutionaries, other than by denouncing it. The affairs of the Syrians must be settled by the Syrians themselves, even if this does mean that “force decides”. It is right to rebel.
Nothing is therefore less coherent than the argument of ‘principled anti-imperialism’. The question is not of supporting this regime or that, in the vain hope that one strengthens revolutionary politics by substituting the imperialism of Russia and China for that of the United States and the European powers. This is to play the game of 1914. It is also the error of the ‘lesser evil’; where a real possibility for a third option, a rejection of the choice between evils, exists, this path must be followed. This is not always the case, but certainly nothing necessitates upholding the rights of the likes of Assad and Ghadaffi. Not just because such a move is strategically ineffective – for any revolutionary politics, the greatest development of the last decade must be this opening up of the political sphere in the Middle East. This is perhaps the world’s most contradictory region in Mao’s sense, and full of potential for a much greater blow against the rule of the exploiting classes and states than would be a rhetorical support for some militarist clique or another. Such a move could only weaken revolutionary forces by making them look opportunistic and ridiculous, without actually affecting events on a broader scale.
But the most important argument is that it rests on a misunderstanding of the potential involved for our Party, for our side – a consistent underestimation of the power of the peoples in rebellion to create their own path, even through the fires of civil war and through the depths of sectarian strife. Indeed, one may make different strategic decisions in terms of rhetoric or domestic opposition, but it is not for us to delineate what Bassam Haddad has called “the threshold of pain“. This is for ‘reason in revolt‘ to do. The very struggle itself, on both sides, will work out the contradictions. Perhaps such an acceptance of violence as a political phenomenon may seem cynical, and it should certainly never be glorified. But this is the nature of revolt, and, as mentioned, revolt is the fault of the oppressors. Perhaps it is cynical, but faith in people’s own ability to take a stand and make a move is less cynical than the cynicism of ‘principled anti-imperialism’. We may then also be spared the cynicism of its opportunistic appeals to vague, unprincipled reformism in the form of bribery on the part of this or that ‘enlightened ruler’, as we heard so often about Ghadaffi. As Haddad has pointed out, “no other contradiction surpasses the one that exists between the state’s professed political-economic principles and its actual policies, regarding matters that concern the left: social justice, equity, class, empowerment, exploitation, labor, peasantry, and so on, especially since 1986″.(2)
Let us be clear then where we draw the line: The Czar is not better than Wilhelm and Wilhelm not better than the Czar; Putin is not better than Obama and Obama not better than Putin; the Islamists are not better than Assad and Assad is not better than the Islamists; but it is right to rebel.
1) Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind (New York, NY 2011).
2) Bassam Haddad, “Hizballah, Development, and the Political Economy of Pain: For Syria, What is ‘Left’ (Part 3)”. Jadaliyya, op cit.
January 26, 2012
There have been many theories of imperial overstretch in the past, but surely none of them would have expected any empire or its allies to be so foolish as to attack three immediately bordering targets in a row. As the sophisticated statesmen and -women of the West once again steer us all towards an unnecessary and artificial conflict, one would do well to reflect on the nature and consequences of a war zone stretching from Iraq through Iran to Afghanistan and the western regions of Pakistan. None of these areas are known for their good governance, their stable political and economic structures, or their previous history of allowing easy conquest and rule. Yet this does not appear to restrain the dogs of war from once again throwing themselves at another country of the greater Middle East, this time under the pretext of the imminent danger of nuclear weapons. Read the rest of this entry »