水曜日, 12月 31, 2008

Israeli Spokesperson Syndrome

Is it possible that Israeli politics is in a state of psychosis? There are arguments against this claim, of course. Unlike most pathologies this one seems to be contagious throughout the Western world. Consider, though, the following aspects of the condition.

Freudian Projection

Every time Israel attacks its neighbours, Binyamin Netyanhu, Mark Regev or some other polished ghoul tells the BBC that the Palestinians, or Lebanese, or Syrians had it coming. Necessary self defence, no nation in the world would stand for this, so on and so forth. The usual and correct reply to this is to remind people that the clock did not start ticking with whatever incident Israel picks as its excuse.

It is simply a lie, however, to say that the current butchery is self defence against Hamas rocket attacks. If you disagree please identify the particular attack that has prompted Israel to kill 400 people in 4 days. Hamas and Israel agreed a six month ceasefire that has just expired. Throughout that period Israel kept the people of Gaza under blockade that has left them near starvation. On the 21st of December Israel killed, according to Reuters, a "Gaza militant" - to which act Qassam rockets were fired in response. The following day a Hamas spokesman announced that the movement was ready to make a new agreement with Israel and observed a 24 hour ceasefire (two homemade rockets were fired and they didn't hit anyone). The Israeli offensive was discussed in the Israeli media throughout the preceding week, including a comment in Ha'aretz by a military spokesperson who said the attack would begin 'soon'. True to his word, in this at least. The winter war in Gaza, like the summer offensive on Lebanon, is a premeditated attack not the 'disproportionate response' of liberal myth.

Narcisstic Rage

Not only does Zionism reserve for Jews the right to return to historic Palestine, the right to build freely and the right to travel without let in that land ; it even denies Palestinians the right to fear. One is constantly struck by the disproportion between the statistics that Israeli spokespeople sputter and the carnage that appears on the monitors behind them. There are, we are told, 10% of Israelis are living in fear . They are afraid of homemade Qassam rockets, which have killed 17 Israelis in the past 7 years. Israel has killed almost 400 Palestinians in a few days. As a pro-Israeli lobbyist puts it ' the numbers are not very flattering'.

One and a half million Gazans have lived in daily fear of sickness because their hospitals have been denied supplies, of darkness because their electricity has been cut off, of hunger because the bakers are without flour and the shops are without food. Now they live in fear that the fourth most powerful military might blow them up as they cower and shiver. That's where the 150 rockets fired on Sderot (Israeli spokespeople also seem to believe that if they recite a figure and add the word 'Iran' their audience will lose its reason) and its surroundings come from. Any nation in the world would do the same, no?

Impaired Learning Response

My regular reader will recall my writing similar posts about the 2006 war on Lebanon. The Israeli establishment seems to have learned nothing from that episode. Barak, Olmert and Lipni may be praised in the bourgeois press for their admittedly keen sense of timing, but they seem without a strategy of any kind. Mahmoud Abbas must face an election very soon. Does anyone think that his disgraceful comments will win votes? Ah, but forgive my naivete. Elections are for real people. If Palestinians elect the wrong person just bomb the hell out of them until, at some never realised point in the future, they give up. Why change the pathology of a lifetime?

土曜日, 5月 31, 2008

This is What an "Islamofascist" Looks Like

Well, it seems that some readers may have missed my admittedly cryptic point - the quotation marks are the key. I was pointing out precisely that the opposition in Lebanon is made up of diverse groups of people opposed to neo-liberalism and imperialism. I was attempting to ridicule the silly term 'Islamofascism' although admittedly using some pretty gender reductionist means. So I guess I should be more careful with my juxtaposin'.

火曜日, 3月 25, 2008

Revolutions from Above - A Popular Outline

Here's the first part of my latest piece on what the modern gentleman is wearing, for M'Lady's Boudoir.

Revolution, we are usually led to believe, is either impossible or undesirable. According to this view any attempt radically to transform society is at best a dream and at worst a plan for dictatorship. Yet the capitalist world in which we live today was brought about by revolution. The world before this revolution – a process lasting from the 17th to the 20th centuries – was very different to our own. Most people lived in small rural communities. They did not have to sell their labour to a boss. Instead they were forced to give some of their crops to landlords or taxmen. Nation states, with their defined borders, standing armies, and unified markets did not exist. These societies were transformed by force to create the modern system of competition, wage labour and nation states.

By which I mean a four-part series starting in this week's Socialist Worker.

金曜日, 2月 15, 2008

The Theory of Uneven and Combined Development in the Middle East

Leon Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development is vital for our understanding of the state in the Middle East. The theory, in particular a suggestive recent reworking of it by Justin Rosenberg, resolves the dichotomy of ideal types of states – the liberal, European contractual model need no longer be simply contrasted with the despotic Middle Eastern state. Rather, both emerge as forms of class rule under different conditions of the capitalist mode of production.

The argument is based on the assumption that modes of production exist and are important in Middle Eastern state formation. For the moment, I neglect those thinkers who do not accept this assumption so that I can outline the contribution of uneven and combined development to the theories of those who do. In the following essay I engage with the work of Nazih Ayubi and Simon Bromley. I outline their differences, and the different ways in which the theory of uneven and combined development can add to their work. Then I suggest how the theory of uneven and combined development might help analyse the state in the Middle East and the impact of external intervention on its transformation. I begin, however, with the foundational concept of the mode of production.

2. Modes of Production

A mode of production is a ‘way of producing’ composed of production relations; ‘relations of effective power over persons and productive forces’ (Cohen 1978: 63). Productive forces are the means by which human beings sustain their lives in their given environment. Production relations are patterned and change over time, Marx argues, as a result of the internal struggles that they generate. We can therefore speak of different modes of production, the development of such and the determination, in a broad sense discussed below, of political forms by these modes. Marx’s logic works as follows;

‘ The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship between ruler and ruled… It is always the relationship of the owners of the means of production to the direct producers– a relation always corresponding to a definite stage of development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret of the entire social structure.’
(Marx cited in Callinicos: 87)

We face some puzzles when we account for actual historical development in this scheme. Those that concern the discussion of the Middle East most are;

i.) the ruler-ruled relation appears also to determine the ‘economic form’ of exploitation
ii.) The sequence of modes of production and the ‘correspondence’ of production relations both to productive technique and to political forms.

These two points are the main puzzles because, like the rest of what was once called ‘the Third World’, the Middle East seems very different to the English experience from which Marx abstracted. Middle Eastern societies remain apparently divided by cleavages not related to the modes of production. Those revolutions that have taken place have produced neither proletarian nor bourgeois democracies. The Middle Eastern state takes little notice, it seems, of any productive class and keeps a very large stake in surplus extraction itself. Much of the social and political development of Middle Eastern countries seems driven by external intervention and regional war rather than class struggles inherent in any mode of production. How have the theorists of modes of production in the Middle East tried to solve these puzzles?

3. Modes of Production and theories of the Middle Eastern State; Ayubi and Bromley

One attempt to reconcile the mode of production with the non-linearity of actual development is Nazih Ayubi’s concept of ‘articulation.’ Ayubi follows Laclau and Mouffe in defining articulation as ‘any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice’ (Laclau and Mouffe cited in Ayubi 1995:28). This definition seems tautological. Ayubi himself gives a more tangible account for the Middle East when he writes

‘modes of production in the Middle East are often not singular and uni-dimensional but rather are articulated (i.e. two or modes can often coexist and interlink)’(1995:28)

What are these interlinked modes, how do they co-exist and what effect does this articulation have? Ayubi argues, as do almost all modes of production theorists, that the pre-colonial Middle East was dominated by a tributary mode of production. Ayubi describes this mode as ‘control based’ (1995:24). That is to say, the central authority extracted surplus from the direct producers through a hierarchy of coercion. State functionaries holding non-inheritable positions, such as tax farmers, seized a physical surplus from the direct producers. The functionaries then had to give up this surplus to the centre, having taken a share of their own. The tributary mode differs from both feudalism and capitalism. In the feudal mode relatively independent non-producers coercively extract surplus from the direct producers (Brenner 1977:37). This mode differs from the tributary mode in the independence of the appropriators. In the capitalist mode appropriators are independent and physical coercion is not usually used to extract surplus from the direct producers. Ayubi contends that in the Middle East, where neither capitalism nor the state have native feudal antecedents, the tributary and capitalist modes are articulated.

The articulation of capitalist and tributary modes, according to Ayubi, is the structural cause of narrow and repressive nature of the Arab state. He uses the concept of articulation to rework the conventional analysis of Middle Eastern states as ‘rentier states’;

‘[the Arab] ruling caste is fairly autonomous from the production process and the social classes, but often excessively dependent on the outside world.’(Ayubi 1995:25).

The relationship between the Arab state and the core of the capitalist world economy is thus a ‘circulationist’ one. The ruling caste participates in the world economy only in the form of exchange.

The concept of ‘articulation’ is at first sight very close to that of uneven and combined development. It accounts for the persistence of apparently archaic forms alongside capitalist development in the Middle East. Yet rather than integrate the logic of mixed modes of production into the analysis of political forms, Ayubi removes the state from the effects of different but coexisting modes of production by arguing that the ‘fierce’ Arab polity is a result of the absence or weakness of classes in an articulated structure. A more integrated account of Middle Eastern state formation with the logic of different modes of production is to be found in the work of the political economist Simon Bromley.

Bromley begins with the same central concept of surplus appropriation proposed by Marx in my extended quotation above. For Bromley the ‘inner secret’ of Middle East politics is indeed uneven and combined development. Further – it is not only the impact of Western capitalism that was unevenly developed in the Middle East but the social formation that capitalism encountered. Bromley differentiates ‘three Islams’; that of the Ottoman Sunni urban domains where religious authority buttressed tributary extraction and merchant circulation of surplus; the pastoral nomadic lands where the Ottoman state was weak; and the more variegated Safavid Empire, which he does not fully discuss (Bromley 1994:43). This pre-existing social structure combined with the impact of capitalist penetration ‘set in train a process of uneven development’ that resulted in the distinctive characteristics of Middle East state formation. Bromley’s argument, to an even greater extent than Ayubi’s, is thus based on the concept of the uneven development of modes of production.

This uneven development of capitalism, according to Bromley, produces two problems for all late-developing societies. These are

‘first, that of consolidating state power rapidly and in difficult circumstances; and second, that of sponsoring socio-economic development in adverse international conditions.’(1994:2)

The agency that faces these problems and seeks to solve them is the state – which must transform itself in order to fend off or compete with external capitalist powers. In doing so, however, the pre-modern state encounters a quandary;

 ‘the emergence of a sovereign public sphere in conjunction with the privatization of command over surplus labour provide the basis for the liberal-capitalist form of state and economy.’(1994: 44)

The state can ensure the capital accumulation to reproduce itself only at the cost of decoupling coercive force and surplus accumulation. This is because of the late arrival of these states in the capitalist mode – the unevenness of development. Here a slightly difference notion of uneven and combined development can improve Bromley’s argument. Trotsky’s theory of capitalist development as not just uneven but combined, with attendant consequences on the class formations of the late developing countries, is the basis for this improvement.

3. Combined and Uneven Development; Trotsky and Rosenberg

Trotsky’s theory of the law of uneven and combined development integrates analytically the impact of different modes of production. It does so by specifying the logic of the relevant modes and their impact on the class politics of the countries subject not just to uneven (in the sense of late) but combined development (Davidson 2006:10). Trotsky begins from the now familiar premise that ‘backward countries’ are both forced to ‘under the whip of external necessity’ to adopt the social forms of the more advanced – indeed permits them to take up the most advanced of these and outrun their erstwhile superiors. The resulting society is thus governed by ‘the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey… an amalgam of archaic with contemporary forms’ (Trotsky 1997:27). Non-capitalist classes that seek to preserve their productive power must adopt capitalist forms of organization. By doing so, their very integration into the logic of global capitalism can extend pre-capitalist political and economic forms. Trotsky explains by reference to Russia

‘[T]he very process of assimilation acquires a self-contradictory character. Thus the introduction of certain elements of Western technique and training, above all military and industrial, under Peter I, led to a strengthening of serfdom as the fundamental form of labour organisation. European armament and European loans – both indubitable products of a higher culture – led to a strengthening of czarism, which delayed in turn the development of the country’
(1997: 27).

In contrast to Ayubi’s conception of articulation as a mélange of different modalities of power and Bromley’s treatment of uneven development, Trotsky treats the contradictory outcomes as the result of the ‘laws’ of development themselves. Thus we find that non-capitalist classes, facing external pressure on the state over which they require continued control, transform their societies; ‘the solution of the problems of one class by another is one of those combined methods natural to backward countries’ (1997:30).

Trotsky’s theory has very important implications for the contractual state/ liberal state opposition with which we began. These implications are contained in his theory of permanent revolution. Under uneven and combined development, the state does not have to seek a contract with the productive bourgeoisie. Rather the bourgeoisie is nurtured (in the face of foreign competition) and protected (against the working class) by the state. Thus Trotsky argues that:

‘[u]nder pressure from richer Europe the Russian state swallowed up a far greater relative part of the people’s wealth than in the West, and weakened the foundations of the possessing classes. Being at the same time in need of support from the latter it forced and regimented their growth.’

The confrontation between bourgeoisie and state depicted in the contractual Western model was impossible in the backward countries because of their combined development. The only class with the agency and interest to carry out a thoroughgoing democratic revolution was, Trotsky argued, the proletariat (1997:35). Again the combined and uneven nature of (Russian) development determined the clash. The Russian proletariat united the revolutionary fervour of the recently industrialized and oppressed with the power of mass concentrated workplaces characteristic of advanced capitalism (Trotsky 1997:32). Yet the workers could not be expected to stop at a merely national democratic revolution – rather the revolution would be permanent in two senses. The democratic revolution would pass over into the socialist revolution, and the revolution of the backward countries to the advanced.

Trotsky’s theory has recently been re-examined as a work of International Relations by Justin Rosenberg. Whereas Trotsky was concerned mainly with the impact of uneven and combined capitalist development, Rosenberg develops the theme of uneven and combined development as the most general law of historical development. According to Rosenberg political fragmentation, and hence international relations, results from the unevenness of all development – inter-societal relations result from the mutual combination of these differing developmental levels. Thus diplomacy itself is a result of uneven and combined development;

‘[T]he conditions of reproduction which define the concrete existence
of any given society are not limited to the internal structures of social relations which formed the starting point of classical social theory. They always include, by virtue of the bare fact of inter-societal existence, those external conditions which are the object of diplomatic management.’(Rosenberg 2006:320)

Rosenberg’s reworking of Trotsky thus takes the law of combined and uneven development as an overarching law. The particular distinction of the capitalist mode of production is to unite three levels of development. These are ‘empirical eventuation, societal trajectory and the ‘species-level’ increase of human capacities’ (2007: 6). That is, the overall course of human development, the development of particular societies and the conjuncture of actual events are united in the same process by the self-expanding logic of capitalism.

Rosenberg combines Trotsky and IR theory at a high level of abstraction, although applied to the case of Russian development. For a novel empirical implication of his case, we have to look to an earlier version of the argument;

‘Decolonization replaced a world of unsustainable European empires with a states system full of potential mini-czarisms, any of which might explode and drag other similar states down its new path of combined development,’
(Rosenberg 1996:12)

Uneven and combined development makes states volatile. It forces non and pre-capitalist ruling classes, which do indeed rule by personal and despotic methods, to abide by the logic of a subordinate position in the global capitalist system. They either challenge this position, or find themselves so weakened by it that another class attempts to overthrow them. In either case the result is political instability and the ‘catch-up’ policies of import substitution pursued in the sixties and seventies. Those polices and the prior phase of capitalist development produce a proletariat largely without the reformist traditions of Western European socialism. This proletariat is further subject not only to capitalist exploitation but to the international backwardness and repressive government that results from the uneven and combined development of their country. Even further; the proletariat is still connected to a large and usually poor peasantry. These are the conditions Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

Rosenberg’s contribution is in adding the element of ruling class strategy. The leading capitalist states are compelled to intervene in continual crises lest the revolution does indeed become permanent. Rosenberg thus reinterprets post World War II US policy as ‘the geopolitical management of uneven and combined development and its consequences on a world scale’ (1996: 12). This reformulation suggests a new way of looking at external intervention in the near revolutionary crises of the Middle East.

5. Uneven and Combined Development and Revolution in the Middle East

The theory of uneven and combined development adds something to analysis of revolutionary crises in the Middle East. To recapitulate the argument; the ‘fierce’ prevalent in the Middle East derives from the non-linear development of modes of production. Yet rather than being an ‘articulation’ of modes (Ayubi) or the simply uneven penetration of the capitalist mode (Bromley) the despotic state of the Middle East is a result of the uneven and combined development of the capitalist mode of production.
This uneven and combined development makes the states of the Middle East (and the Third World in general) sites of potential permanent revolution. The strategic object of the advanced capitalist states is therefore to manage the effects this uneven and combined development.

This argument suggests some lines of enquiry for the Middle East that combined external intervention with uneven and combined internal development. There is a continuum of the experience of revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East. This continuum seems almost coterminous with the strength of alliance between pre-capitalist classes and external imperialism in the context of uneven and combined development. We begin first with those countries that have had revolutions. Thus Iran, a country whose ruler was closely allied to the US but cut himself off from his traditional support base, experience perhaps the purest example of Trotsky’s permanent revolution based on the urban working class. Then we have countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq where mass working class organizations did exist and participated in mass upheavals against landlord governments supported by external powers. Yet those imperial powers, Britain and France, were no longer strong enough to guarantee the position of the landlord nor was the proletariat sufficiently organized to lead the revolution. Tony Cliff described this situation as ‘deflected permanent revolution’ (Cliff 1990:22).

Countries where revolutionary crises have been frustrated include Jordan and, one might argue, Lebanon. In the case of Jordan one could hypothesize that in 1970 a ruling class based on pastoral nomadic groups ( the Bedouin organized in the Jordanian army) was sustained by external intervention by Israel and hence at one remove, the US. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States again an originally pastoral nomadic ruling class is integrated directly into the capitalist mode of production as the guarantor of the most important source of energy in that mode of production.


Ayubi, Nazih. 1995 Overstating The Arab State :Politics and Society in The Middle East St. Martin’s Press, New York

Bromley, Simon 1994 Rethinking Middle East Politics University of Texas Press, Austin

Callinicos, Alex 1983 The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx Bookmarks, London

Cohen, G A 1978 Karl Marx’s Theory of History; A Defence Oxford University Press, Oxford

Cliff, Tony 1990 The Deflected Permanent Revolution Bookmarks, London

Rosenberg, Justin 2007 ‘International Relations - The Higher Bullshit; a Reply to the Globalization Debate’ Review of International Studies Forthcoming

Rosenberg, Justin 2006 ‘Why is there no International Historical Sociology?’ European Journal of International Relations Vol.12 No.3

Rosenberg, Justin 1996 ‘Isaac Deutscher and The Lost History of International Relations’ New Left Review I/125 Verso, London

Trotsky, Leon 1997 History of the Russian Revolution Bookmarks, London

Fearon's Rational Reason's for War: Notes on a Critique

James Fearon ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’ International Organization 49,3, Summer 1995

i. Main Concern
To explain war
3 types of explanation; 1) leader’s irrationality 2) leaders do not bear costs 3) rational leaders may still go to war
Fearon focuses on (3) because particular wars seem to have been started rationally; a rationalist explanation for war is essential for neorealism

ii. The Problem

States could reach a rational bargain without war based upon probability of winning or losing

Definition of A Rational Bargain

Fearon defines a rational bargain in the following way

2 states A and B, hold preferences over outcomes x∈X =[0,1]

A prefers outcomes closer to (1); B prefers outcomes closer to (0)

The preferences of A and B are represented in their utility function

Ua(x)= A’s utility for outcome x

Ub (1-x) is B’s utility for outcome x

These utility functions are continuous, increasing and weakly concave.

The Gains of War

A will win a war with probability p.

Ci=A,B= utility for the costs of war

Thus Ua for war= pUa (1)+(1-p) Ua (0)- Ca = pUa- Ca

For B
(1-p)Ub (1)+pUb(0)-Cb =(1- p)Ub- Cb

The Existence of a bargaining range

there exists a subset of X s.t. for each Ua (x) > pUa- Ca and Ub (1-x)>1-p- Cb.
the bargaining range, in which the outcomes for both A and B war.

So why do wars happen?

3 assumptions
i)‘there is some true probability p that one state would win’

ii) States are risk averse or risk neutral; there may have been risk acceptant leaders but ‘even if we admitted such a leader as rational, it seems doubtful that many have held such preferences.’

iii) issues are perfectly divisible on a continuous range [0,1] – possibility of linkages and side payments. Often violated by nationalistic attachment to territory

Rationalist Arguments
1) Anarchy
States go to war because there is no power to stop them.
Why? If states are rational then they know the costs of war and which one is likely to win, without reference to a central power anyway.
Does not address central question

(2) Benefits of war outweigh costs
Argument above shows that some ex ante bargain always exists that Pareto dominates war

(3) Preventive War
A declining power may attack arising power if it expects attack by that power in the future. But – doesn’t change bargaining solution

(4) Rational Miscalculation due to lack of information

States disagree about relative power – one side has private information. Why not share it?

iii. Fearon’s thesis
Private information + incentive to misrepresent => rationalist explanation for war
States have an incentive to misrepresent information in bargaining, ‘a rational state may choose to run a real risk of (inefficient) war in order to signal that it will fight if not given a good deal in bargaining.’

Commitment problem leads to preventive war

For periods t=1,2,…, A demands x. B acquiesces or fights a war; A wins with pt. Future payoffs discounted at d =>(0,1).

Uat=(pt/(1-d))-Ca and Ubt ((1-pt)/(1-d))-Cb.
No third party to ensure bargain will be kept. Let p1> p2. At t2 A demands xt= p2+Cb (1-d). So at t1 B gets war or 1- x1+d(1-x2)/(1-d). If A sets x1 =0, max Ub = 1+d(1- x2)/(1-d). But if d(p2)- p1 >(1-d)Cb then B will attack at t1.
iv. Criticisms
(1)Fearon identifies rationality with certain preferences rather than the form of those preferences. Risk averse leaders are not so rare as he says – their utility function could be convex rather than concave.
(2)‘Indivisibility’ encouraged by nationalism introduces an external explanation.
(4) Probability of withholding information should appear in calculations of relative power
(3) Fearon’s concept of the bargaining range depends upon risk aversion and neutrality– also represented as discount rates. If discount rates differ there is an incentive to risk lovers.


The Nash Bargaining solution predicts that there is only one rational and feasible bargaining outcome

Claim #1;

There is an incentive for states to be risk lovers within Fearon’s bargaining range

I prove this by applying the Nash Bargaining Solution to the bargain between State A and State B in Fearon’s bargaining range. The Nash Bargaining Solution states that there is a unique solution to any bargaining game. In the 4 steps below I show that this solution will favour the more risk loving bargainer.

I. Assumptions

Let x∈X be an outcome in the bargaining range [p- Ca,, p+Cb].

II. Differing Utility Functions

Here I change Fearon’s assumptions by introducing different utility functions.

Let UA be a linear function UA=f(x).

To make B a risk lover, let UB be a convex function UB=yn=(1-x)n= (1- UA)n

III. The Nash Bargaining Solution

The Nash Bargaining Solution is the value of x that maximizes the product P of the
bargainers’ utilities.


P= UA(x) ∗ UB(1-x) = x(1-x)n

To find the maximum, we find the value of x that sets the first derivative of P(x) to 0.

dP(x)/dx=d(x)/dx ∗(1-x)n + (x)∗d[(1-x)n]/dx = 1 ∗ (1-x)n + x + n ∗ (-1) ∗ (1-x)n-1

= (1-x)n-1((1-x))-nx)= (1-x)n-1[1-x(n+1)].

This derivative is equal to 0 if x=1 or if 1-x(n+1)=0, i.e. x=1/(n+1).
For n>0 P(x) is positive when x<1 and 0 when x=1.

Therefore to maximize P set x=1/(n+1). This is the Nash Bargaining Solution.

IV. The Incentive to Risk Taking

In x=1/(n+1) x is the demand made by state A and n is the degree to which B is risk
averse or risk loving.

The larger n is, the more willing B is to take risks.

In x=1/(n+1) as n increases x decreases ( and consequently 1-x increases).

Therefore there is an incentive for states to be risk lovers even within Fearon’s bargaining range.

Historical Sociology and the “ontological problem of the international”

A few more theoretical posts from now on, mostly just to save my own work and get back in the habit of using this site.

‘How convincing is Historical Sociology as a solution to the “ontological problem of the international” in IR theory?’

International Relations theory is a body of thought whose main concern is whether it ought to exist at all (Rosenberg 2006:307). One might call the reason for this recurrent identity crisis ‘the ontological problem of the international.’ IR theorists face the question – do the relations between states constitute a separate reality to those of wider social theory? The ontological problem of the international connects the differing schools of IR thought to wider social science. The solutions that those schools, informed by the debates of broader social theory, propose to the ontological problem of the international determine their substantive arguments. In this essay, I critique both the Neorealist orthodoxy of International Relations and the constructivist alternative, and argue that Historical Sociology provides a firmer ground for inquiry into the international. I begin by defining the problem of the international. Then I examine the concepts that proceed from the problem of the international and that connect it to the philosophy of social science; language and its correspondence to an external social reality, and the related question of structure and agency in that social reality.

The Ontology of International Anarchy

When International Relations theorists speak of the international they presuppose a number of ‘nations’ that relate to one another. This point may seem tautological. Yet in this simplistic statement lies the essence of the ontological problem of International Relations. That problem is whether the international exists at all as a separate category – and if it does, what the implications of this category are. The traditional answer, made explicit in the opening sentence of this paragraph, is that there is such as thing as ‘International Relations’. The terms mean politics amongst nations, or rather, sovereign states (Brown 2001:4). An important proposition flows from defining international relations in this way. Relations between states thus defined are anarchical, in the sense that there is no higher authority than the states themselves. The claim that a system of sovereign states must be anarchical follows from nature of sovereignty. A sovereign authority holds exclusive power, and the exclusive right to use force, over a given territory. If one authority must obey another authority, it is no longer sovereign. International Relations thus differs from domestic politics, wherein a legitimate government holds the power to compel. This argument, the core of traditional realism , seems a parsimonious and logical answer to the ‘ontological problem’. Yet a problem persists, because the proposed solution rests on very shaky claims and produces some empirically questionable propositions. The claims concern social knowledge and the relationships between states and societies. The debates on these claims and propositions connect IR theory to wider social science.

Social scientists, of which IR theorists are subspecies, confront a problem. They are humans studying other humans. Moreover, they are studying ‘societies’ - large groups of other humans. One cannot, except in a very limited sense, conduct experiments on those groups, nor assume fruitfully that their members are acting according to universal laws they do not themselves understand, since they seem to act according to intentions they have worked out for themselves just as the social scientist does (Winch 1958: 84). Debates on the ontology and epistemology of social science largely relate to this point and are replicated in IR, with a distinguishing factor. That distinction is that IR theorists are not just discussing humans within societies but societies, and the relation between them, within the globe. IR theorists thus orient themselves in relation to the following problems:

i) Of language and discourse -do international ‘facts’ exist independently of the means by which people perceive and talk about them?

ii) Of agent and structure – if an ‘international system’ does exist, what is the relationship between that system and its components?

These questions are the IR variants of the dilemmas of social science as a whole. They derive from the problem of the existence of the international I described earlier, and the answers given to these questions largely define the ‘paradigms’ of IR theory.

The mainstream schools of IR theory seem to have settled into two – neo-realist theorists influenced by Kenneth Waltz’s ‘Theory of International Politics’ and so-called ‘constructivists’ (Brown 2000: 52). The neo-realist or ‘neo-neo’ (so-called because of the common assumptions of rational choice theory by ‘neorealists’ and ‘neoliberals’) group largely follow the stream of positivist and empiricist social science. The constructivists, by contrast, derive much of their answers to the questions posed above from theories of language and discourse influenced by Witggenstein (Neufeld 1995: 89). In this essay I evaluate the positions of these schools in relation to the ontological problem of the international. I argue that historical sociology, provides a more satisfying solution to that problem.

By historical sociology I mean long-term theories of social change based on historical evidence (Mann 1994:37). Some historical sociologists of IR are influenced particularly by Marx, others by Weber others by both and more. They have in common an attempt to understand the ‘international’ as a property of social relations across time, whether those social relations be based on power or production (Abrams 1982:2) When I use ‘historical sociology’ in this essay, that is what I have in mind.


The question of the existence of a specifically ‘international’ sphere is bound up with a broader one – the relationship of language and ‘social fact’. If international anarchy is a brute fact, then there is nothing to be done but to act prudently in the face of that fact. To act prudently one needs effective knowledge, provided by hypotheses tested against the available facts (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998:383). Realist scholars proceed along these largely positivist lines. Constructivists stand on the other side of the discursive divide (Brown 2000: 52). If social ‘facts’ are actually artifacts of language, then those facts cannot be the arbiter of falsehood or truth for statements (Rorty 1989: 5). As ‘language games’ change so will the social facts, such as ‘anarchy’ they construct. I now examine the neo-realist and constructivist positions on the validity of statements about international relations and propose a historical sociological alternative to both.


The neo-realist view of theory (i.e. meaningful statements about the international) is clearly stated by its most famous exponent, Kenneth Waltz. Thus;

‘There are all kinds of attempts to understand and explain. And they are very interesting. But I think of theory as having to meet certain standards, and fulfill certain requirements. Otherwise it would fall into some other category, a perfectly fine category such as philosophy or historical interpretation.’
(Waltz 1998:382)

Kenneth Waltz insists, with goodish reason, that he is no kind of positivist. He makes clear that the main job of theory is to explain rather than to predict, and that ‘facts’ are already ‘theories’(Waltz 1997:913). Waltz thus goes much farther from the correspondence theory of truth than his critics concede. Even so, Waltz’s ‘standards’– the criteria to distinguish philosophies that interpret from theories that explain - are steadfastly positivist ones (Waltz 1998:380). He begins by restricting his theory – it is, he maintains, a theory of international systems, not of foreign policy, nor international trade nor anything else (Waltz 1998: 383). He goes on to deduce a theory of International Politics whose final outcome is the ‘balance of power’. Waltz is a logical if not Comtean (Neufeld 1995:25) positivist.

Waltz’s work, and by extension the ‘neo-neo’ project based on it, is positivist in the sense that it is deductive. Waltz begins with axioms and constructs falsifiable theorems upon them. His first test of the strength of a theory is whether it can be subject to the ‘analytic method of classical physics’(Waltz 1979:12). Even if theories cannot be thus analysed – IR theory being one such truculent case- they must still be subject to the rules of hypothesis testing (Waltz 1979:13). The interconnected sets of laws that Waltz proposes to test against international political reality derive from his deductive model. His first axiom concerns the organization of power. He states that there are only two ways of doing this – in hierarchical or anarchical systems (Waltz 1979:93). In anarchical systems, of which the present system of states is one, the units must be primarily concerned with their own security because there is no other guarantee of their survival (Waltz 1979:93). From these axioms about the structure Waltz derives the behaviour of states, such as the balance of power (Waltz 1998:377). I shall discuss Waltz’s ‘structural realism’ further below, but first I consider his position on the correspondence between language and social facts.

Waltz’s theory relies on positivist model of language. His picture of the international is composed of, by his own description, laws and is validated by the relation amongst those laws and between them and an accessible external reality (Waltz 1979: 7). Deduction relies upon fixed meanings of terms and axioms – if these are to be understood, in post-positivist fashion, according to context then the whole enterprise is redundant. By circumscribing the subject of his theory –to an anarchic international system- Waltz predetermines its outcomes. Waltz’s theory is indeed parsimonious. However, it is precisely the exclusion of historical and ‘second image’ factors i.e. domestic that cause the failures of his theory. I argue that historical sociology does better than Waltz’s theory because it takes account of these.

Positivists seek (among other things) laws that hold given certain antecedent conditions – without regard to the history of those laws. As Waltz himself puts it, Newton did not present a theory of apples falling in 1666 but for all time (Waltz 1998:383). The problem here is what Waltz consider analogous to the falling apple in IR. He argues that the job of theory is to explain continuities (Waltz 1979: 69). One might argue it does not go much beyond description – in Waltz’s theory moreover this description of a particular time bound system (international anarchy) is transformed into a timeless law. Yet the system of states is a historical phenomenon, not a logical syllogism. Having endowed ‘anarchy’ with very wide explanatory powers indeed one must then consider the conditions for anarchy (Rosenberg 2001:76). To do so requires a historical theory, and hence a theory of historical change such as that found in Weberian and Marxist historical sociology (Hobson 1998: 285).


The core of constructivism, as the name suggests, is the argument that social ‘facts’ are constructed through the conventions of language (Brown 2000:52). The facts with which IR constructivists concern themselves are those of the international states system. Alexander Wendt, the best known constructivist, draws a distinction between ‘materialist’ and ‘idealist’ theories of the international (Wendt 1999:93). Materialist theories are those, such as realism and Marxism, that hold that ‘the most fundamental fact about society is the nature and organization of material forces’; idealists, by helpful contrast believing that ‘the most fundamental fact about society is the nature and structure of social consciousness.’ (Wendt 1999: 24). Wendt, and other constructivists are concerned to investigate the ‘constitutive relationships’ of international social consciousness (Wendt 1999: 25).

Constructivists thus base their arguments on an idea of social science that distinguishes between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ kinds (Wendt 1999:69). The most important social kinds in IR theory are the components of the state system –sovereign states and anarchy. In contrast to neo-realists and neo-liberals, who follow Waltz’s deductive model of international politics, Wendt adopts a positivist epistemology (in the sense of replicable enquiry into the validity of falsifiable hypotheses) but an ‘idealist’ ontology of the international (Wendt 1999:90). The international system, for Wendt, does indeed exist as a system of states – however those states and the system that is ‘emergent’ from their interaction is composed of ‘ideationist’ material. In common with other social kinds, this existence of the international system depends on ‘the interlocking beliefs, concepts or theories held by actors’ (Wendt 1999:69).

Wendt’s ontological disagreement with Waltz leads him to stress the role of language and culture in the international system. This is not language in the sense of everyday speech but rather the shared system of meanings by which actors constitute and understand their own practices (Wendt 1999:312). Wendt criticizes other theories – which he describes as materialist or ‘base-superstructure’ models- on this basis. First he rejects the dichotomy between ‘ideas’ and ‘interests’. Rather, Wendt argues that ‘interests’ are only ever constituted by ‘ideas’ and it makes no sense to divide up causal powers between the two (Wendt 1999:135). Further, Wendt claims, one cannot give any substance to the notion of an international anarchic system outside of the inter-subjective practices of the members of that system. Wendt identifies three such cultures each producing very different kinds of behaviour – the Hobbesian, Lockean and Kantian (Wendt 1999: 246).

Other constructivists have criticized Wendt for conceding too much to neo-realism (Kratochwil 2000: 76). The constructivist concern for the historical building of social kinds also has much in common with historical sociology (Hobson 1998:285). However, Wendt’s inter-subjective ontology of the international is also flawed in ways that historical sociologists can remedy. First, Wendt holds that ‘states are ontologically prior to the state system’ (Wendt 1999:143). Now, if one is only concerned with states and their system abstracted from the societies in which these are embedded, then this claim is a truism. However, and as historical sociologists such as Mann, Tilly and Spruyt have demonstrated, it is not ‘true’ in the sense of supported by empirical evidence (Halliday 1994:35). It makes more sense to consider both states and system as part of wider processes of social change (Hobden 1999:257).

The question of social change leads us to another – Wendt’s ontological distinction between the ‘ideational’ and the ‘material’. Wendt takes ‘material’ to mean simply physical (Wendt 1999:73). He then criticizes ‘base-superstructure’ models such as Realism and Marxism for failing to understand that their ‘bases’ are as much ideal as their superstructures. Social facts confront individuals as apparently solid things only because individuals cannot change them on their own (Wendt 1999:74). Now, neither Marxists nor Weberian theorists of power such as Michael Mann argue that modes of production or social power are like tables and cats. What they do argue is that there is indeed some ‘final instance’ from which such relations develop. Wendt certainly does not claim that people could simply stop believing they lived in a states system or under capitalism (Wendt 1999:311). But why not? Historical sociology provides explanations of how people hold the interests and capabilities to constitute or change social forms. In this respect it does better than constructivist ‘ideas all the way down.’

Agents and Structures

The discussion so far has concerned what the international is. As soon as one defines the international as a system of states, one must ask the question; ‘what is the relationship between the system and the states?’ Again, IR theory here joins in the wider debate on structure and agency with which social scientist occupy so much of their time (Callinicos 2006: 184). Neo-realist and constructivists have applied to states models of structure and agency derived from broader schools in social science. Claims about structure and agency in IR are particularly connected to the ontology of the international because the international is commonly assumed to be a structure above states. Below I consider the neo-realist and constructivist accounts of agency, which are closely connected to the respective arguments on the ontology and language of the international system that I have already discussed. I then present critiques of both theory grounded in historical sociology.


Kenneth Waltz, and the ‘neo-neo’ school that draws on his work, gives a very definite answer to the question of structure and agency. Although his theory is essentially based on the methodological individualist model of neo-classical economics, Waltz styles it a ‘systems theory’ (Waltz 1979:71). He argues that because differing domestic arrangements produce like outcomes, a theory of international politics must concern itself with structures. Waltz says that a structure is defined by three features: its ordering principle (whether this is anarchic or hierarchical), the specification of functions of differentiated units and the distribution of capabilities across units (Waltz 1979:71). In international politics the ordering principle is anarchy and hence the units are not differentiated but alike. Waltz argues that this is so because the structure conditions the units to be alike by force of competition (Waltz 1979: 128). The only aspect in which units will differ is the distribution of capabilities, understood as power. States, all being of like kind, will thus act to increase their own power to ensure their own survival and balance against a predominant power in the system. The most stable such balance is between two superpowers. These are the claims Waltz makes for the impact of his deductive structure on its units (Waltz 1979: 128). Any attempt to understand outcomes at the unit level will bring on the dread fallacy of ‘reductionism’ (Waltz 1979:377).

Waltz’s theory either explains too little or too much. He is not concerned to explain actual state policies, only the tendencies operating on those policies. If the structure forces the agents to be alike, and like agents react in like ways to similar distributions of capabilities then there seems to be little point to these agents at all in the theory. The distribution of capabilities varies but since we know that the units always seek to increase their capabilities (i.e. power) we have already explained any interesting change in those capabilities. Once these tendencies have been deduced there seems little left to say – except perhaps analyze how the system came about, a move that Waltz explicitly rejects. Such a move would not be ‘reductionist’ but rather an expansion of knowledge to the social systems of which societies, states and their relations all form a part. By rejecting a historical analysis of structure and agency in IR, Waltz gets into empirical difficulties particularly in his illustration of how the structure forces the agents to be alike.

Waltz points to the USSR to make the claim that the system overrides unit. Waltz argues by the nineteen twenties Soviet leaders who had once asserted the downfall of the state system accepted that system because it forces states to compete as like units (Waltz 1979:127). This is reasonable argument – one might even accept stronger ones that suggest the internal social relations of the USSR were transformed by international competition (Callinicos 1991:31) Yet aside from a chance to savour the idea of Bolsheviks in a top hat and tails, this example actually gives Waltz little. The Bolsheviks were not forced to retreat because of military competition – they managed to defeat fourteen invading armies and then swept into Poland – but because the expected West European revolutions failed, not to occur but to take power (Haynes 2002:48). Why those revolutions failed is an open debate – but that debate must concern both ‘international’ and ‘domestic’ social and historical explanations. Historical sociology, by considering society, state and international system as part of wider social change provides the means to have that debate. Waltz’s theory of international politics does not.


Constructivists take particular aim at the Neo-realist concept of structure and agency, probably because it is an easy target. The constructivist argument bears some resemblance to that of historical sociology. The constructivist position is closely related on structure and agency is closely related to the inter-subjective conception of the international system. For Wendt, neo-realism engages in questionable ‘two step’ – units and their preferences are first constituted and only then engage in interaction governed by the logic of anarchy (Wendt 1999: 368).

Wendt rejects the neo-realist model of agent structure interaction. Instead he maintains that agents are structured by their interaction, just as structures are the creations of agent’s inter-subjective understandings – interaction is an on-going process of production and re-production of subjectivity (Wendt 1999: 368). On this basis, Wendt argues that ‘anarchy is what states make it.’ The interlocking understandings of states – agents in interaction with one another- comprise the content of anarchy and hence back to the ideas that constitute state agents. Where Waltz poses the distribution of capabilities as the only worthwhile variable in the international system Wendt proposes that ‘[d]istributions of ideas are social structures’(Wendt 1999:309). The distribution of these ideas – and the degree to which agents accept them – make up the Kantian, Hobbesian and Lockean cultures of anarchy that Wendt identifies. Moreover, these cultures can become ‘self fulfilling prophecies’ but, because they emerge from the self-construction of agents, are also subject to change (Wendt 1999:309.) For Wendt such change amongst and between agents is purely contingent – he argues there is unlikely to be any regress from the present mostly Lockean, partly Kantian system but there is no guarantee of progress to a purely Kantian order (Wendt 1999:311).

Questions of agent, structure and social change are a particular concern of historical sociologists (Abrams 1982: 3) Where historical sociology can do better than constructivism, as with neo-realism, is in the conception of agent and structure. Wendt holds on to the conception of the state as prior to the system. Historical sociologists do not fetishize the sovereign state in this way (Hobson 1998: 295). This is an important distinction because of the indeterminacy of the constructivist account of agency and structure. Now, it might be that an indeterminate theory is the best thing for an indeterminate reality. However, because constructivist theory concerns states and the states system alone as much as neo-realism does, the fluid boundaries of the two levels make for confusion. In what context do cultures take root or change? It makes more sense for the agent and structure of international politics to be embedded in a wider account of social change.


I have sought in this essay to present historical sociology as a more satisfactory solution to the ‘ontological problem of the international’ than the mainstream IR theories of neo-realism and constructivism. I have done so by a critique of the positions of these theories on the questions of language, agent and structure as they relate to the state and the system of states. In so doing I have relied on the alternatives provided by historical sociology – in which social facts are accessible and external but also historical, and in which states and the states system are embedded in wider historical processes.


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