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.
November 8, 2010
For a long time now there has been a debate within economic history about the question whether the usual tools of neoclassical economics for understanding historical change, such as utility maximization by individuals within a market context, can be fruitfully applied to premodern or precapitalist societies. Ever since Karl Polanyi argued in his seminal work The Great Transformation that “the role played by markets in the internal economy of the various countries (…) was insignificant up to recent times, and the changeover to an economy dominated by the market pattern will stand out all the more clearly”, it has been a hotly debated item whether the societies preceding our market capitalist one can be said to have been ‘market societies’, and if not, what this entails for the nature of economic behavior under such societies.1 Polanyi himself argued that the formation of a ‘market economy’ implied a ‘capitalistic psychology’, but that the pre-capitalist societies were characterized by structures he defined as being either based on the principle of reciprocity, such as gift economies, or on the principle of redistribution, such as the palace redistribution societies of the ancient Near East, or on ‘householding’ in the style as described by Aristotle. The motives of these societies were not primarily those of gain, but motives of “custom, magic and religion”.2 In his book Polanyi describes the gain-oriented motives of market economies, assumed (according to him) by economists’ prejudices to have held throughout history, as evolving as a result of state interventionism by absolutist states in the early modern period.3 This in turn evolved into a “self-regulating market” on the basis of competition, which brought with it the mindset of individualism and “economic liberalism [as] the basic organising principle of society” in the view of the capitalists.4 This again leads to the “tradition” or “prejudices” of the classical economists, which “attempted to base the law of the market on the alleged propensities of man in the state of nature”, namely man as gain-oriented, individualist, market exchanging etc.5
It is important to note in this context that Polanyi’s book is however not primarily a description of the change from premarket society to market capitalism in psychological-behavioral terms. The ‘great transformation’ of his book is not the ability of market society to disembed itself from society, thereby allowing everyone to behave according to the rules of liberal thought to the benefit of all – his argument is precisely that this cannot be the case, because a society that actually entirely consists of market interactions following market behavior would cease to exist entirely very quickly. The ‘great transformation’ Polanyi describes in his book is in fact the recognition in the 20th century that the basis of capitalist society as laid down in the 19th century cannot be allowed to continue, because it is based on requiring a type of economic behavior that is incompatible with the survival of civilisation. This is the qualitative change to capitalism, and it is in his view a negative and disastrous one. As he explicitly says: “Nineteenth-century civilization alone was economic in a different and distinctive sense, for it chose to base itself on a motive only rarely acknowledged as valid in the history of human societies (…) namely, gain. The self-regulating market system was uniquely derived from this principle.“6
Since the publication of this thesis much ink has been spilled about whether Polanyi was right in his broad historical analysis. Although Polanyi appears to entertain the idea of trade being extant to a serious degree in past societies, he nonetheless explicitly claimed that trade did not depend on markets, that markets were “local” and “had no tendency to grow”, and that the division of labor did not originate or exist in exchange, and that international trade up until recently was not trade between individuals.7 Many recent economic historians have contested aspects of this story. The impetus for this was to respond to a 1977 article by the famous Douglass North, reviving Polanyi as a challenge for economic historians, to see whether economic history done in the neoclassical mode could explain these precapitalist societies. As North put it: “I wish to make the affirmative point that as yet we have not even tried to see how far economic analysis will take us in explaining institutional arrangements”, whereby the “institutional arrangements” meant are those economic allocation mechanisms that are seemingly not analogous to capitalist, individualist markets.8 Sheila Ogilvie has done – and pointed to – studies which show that peasants in rural economies in the premodern era have clearly displayed “economic mentalities”, with “the poorest groups showing careful economic calculation and maximization”, and peasants “responded to market prices” and “transacted eagerly in markets”.9 Morris Silver has challenged his description of the societies of the ancient Near East as being free of market allocation of land and labor, by arguing that although there were prolongued periods of state regulation and redistribution in this area during this period, there were also long periods of “unfettered market activity”.10 Silver’s evidence is perhaps not as strong as he presents it, but the point of these and other rebuttals is clear: Polanyi was wrong in saying that precapitalist societies did not display ‘economic mentalities’, and markets in land and labor did exist. It would seem then that the economic historians have met the challenge: ‘economic mentalities’ and the corresponding markets can be found throughout history.
The interesting question is really not the question whether it is empirically correct or not that certain types of markets in land existed at a certain time or that certain risk-bearing initiatives were undertaken by peasants or merchants in a certain place. For the purposes of this article we shall assume that Polanyi’s critics are broadly right, and that in fact gain-seeking behavior by individuals has existed throughout history (which seems plausible) and that market-based trade has existed in almost every society, leaving the debate about gift societies aside (which is almost certain). Rather, I would argue that both Polanyi and his critics like Ogilvie are mistaken in their understanding of how economics can be applied to precapitalist history, but for different reasons.
Polanyi based his case on the wrong foundation when he argued against the Whiggish view of history as being the history of capitalist individualism coming into its own by arguing that this was impossible because significant market activity and gain-oriented behavior did not exist earlier. This was not an effective criticism, not just because it was empirically wrong, but because it took neoclassical economics‘ assumptions at their face value. By effectively assuming that the relevant question was whether “economic behavior” existed in the past, and by assuming that such behavior can be understood in terms of “economic calculation”and markets sec, he opened the door wide for ‘formalist’ economic historians like Ogilvie and others to criticize him by ‘finding’ such instances in the past. What Polanyi should have done, and what would turn the discussion in a direction that has not been discussed by Polanyi’s recent critics, is to criticize the implicit assumption in such thought that the understanding of the economic structure of past societies depends on individual behavior in exchange. Because this is what the formalists mean, and what they want to formalize, when they speak about “economic behavior” as such: they do not mean the whole range of behavior in past societies that in some way interacted with economic institutions, since that would be virtually everything, but they mean specifically the behavior of indidivuals insofar as they took part in market exchange.
But there’s the rub: why should we take this as the main explanandum? I would argue that we can save a substantial degree of Polanyi’s thesis about a significant qualitative change between capitalist society and precapitalist society by focusing not on this narrow neoclassical concept of “economic behavior” in the past, but by understanding such behavior as being part of a wider system of economic production and reproduction of society. The relevance and irrelevance of the evidence regarding markets then comes nicely into view: although, say, ancient Athens definitely had individual international trade, and although it had substantial markets in which no doubt the individual actors behaved according to economic calculation, ancient Athenian society as such did not reproduce itself by means of these market activities; it reproduced itself first and foremost through the Aristotelian oikos subsistence agriculture.11 Similarly, feudal society had significant trade, both local, international and long-distance, but again whether or not economic calculation was shown can be taken as an irrelevant given: the question is whether feudal society reproduced itself qua feudal society by such trade, and the answer is no. It was manorial agricultural production that reproduced feudal society.12 Under capitalism markets and trade also exist; but capitalism is the first society that reproduces itself through commodity production, which exists only in and through markets. This is the qualitative difference, the Great Transformation.13
People always and everywhere have had interaction with each other, trade and gift economies alike. It is precisely a sign of the narrowmindedness and limited nature of neoclassical understandings of what ‘economic behavior’ is that they worry about whether such economies can be understood as ‘utility maximizing’ and the like. One can always make any society fit these definitions simply by expanding their meaning to cover the behavior shown – this, pace North, has absolutely no value whatsoever for understanding them. To understand the economic structure of societies one should not search for psychologizing explanations about whether individuals showed ‘economic behavior’, which is either tautological, when taken in terms of utility, or irrelevant, when taken in terms of maximization within a market structure. One should look at how the means of survival of a given socio-economic structure, including its cultural elements, were (re)produced and distributed. Markets in virtually all societies have played a role in this, but when looked at from this angle, it becomes clear how despite the transhistorical persistence of markets, a market under capitalism simply is not the same economic phenomenon as a market in ancient Athens. Capitalism is a qualitative change, and in the long run a negative one. To understand this is truly Polanyi’s challenge for economic historians.
October 30, 2010
It may sound like light-hearted news from the ‘human interest’ section of the newspapers, but for the unions and film industry in New Zealand it is a serious affair: the struggle over the unionization and contractual terms of the workers who are to work on the new Hobbit movies for fabled ‘Kiwi’ filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson. For a long time the movie plans were dormant due to the bankruptcy of would-be producer Metro Goldwyn Mayer, leading among other things to the prospective film director Guillermo Del Toro giving up on it, but Jackson himself has taken on the film production project and the whole thing seems to have been given the green light. Now, however, a full-blown industrial and legislative dispute has arisen over the plans by Sir Peter Jackson to employ most of the technical workers as well as minor actors as freelance contractors rather than full employees, meaning they would not be entitled to sick leave and similar workers’ rights. Due to the nature of film production, with cycles of little activity followed by period of intense and long work days to get shooting, prop and technical work done on time, the common ‘worker bees’ in the film industry are already subject to relatively harsh conditions compared to most skilled labor in Western countries. Read the rest of this entry »
October 27, 2010
Despite all the violent efforts of the Indian armies and the government death squads known as the ‘Salwa Judum’, the Naxalite rebellion in India is far from suppressed. The Indian government recently claimed victory in forcing the Naxalites out of the poor state Andhra Pradesh, but current reports on the ground contradict the idea that the Naxal militias have actually been driven off. What’s more, the Indian state has hardly gained the propaganda war in the state either: a recent poll in the ‘Naxal-affected areas’ of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra indicated that among the group aged 25-50 (basically the young and middle aged workers, the basic constituent group for either side in terms of support) in the lower income categories B and C on the socio-economic scale indicated that 58% felt the Maoist movement had actually done the area good. Another one-third said the movement had the right intentions but used the wrong means to go about it, with just 15% being willing to describe them as bandits (‘goondas’).(1) For a movement repeatedly described by government and major media in India alike as “India’s biggest security threat”, this is a revealing figure. Read the rest of this entry »