Theory of the global state revisited

Posted: June 17, 2008 in globalization and democratisation

A book is rather like a child: once you give birth to it, it has a life of its own. So to discover a highly critical review, which appeared shortly after publication, of a book you published 8 years ago is a bit like finding out that your child got into trouble when it was young, but you never knew so at the time. So it was for me to discover William I. Robinson‘s review in the American Political Science Review (95, 4, 2001, 1045-7; find it online via your University library website) of my Theory of the Global State (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Robinson, who has himself written on the ‘transnational state’ from a Marxist international political economy (IPE) perspective, credits my book as ‘an important and innovative study’ but concludes, ‘I do not want to negate the importance of this work, especially since it explores uncharted terrain, but nevertheless it remains inconclusive, contradictory, and deeply troubling on several counts.’ ‘Inconclusive’ I can live with, since this book was manifestly ambitious, tackled a (very large) moving target, and certainly raised more questions than it resolved. But I think Robinson’s ‘contradictions’ and ‘troubles’ mostly reflect his own theoretical and political prejudices rather than problems in the coherence of my argument.
Robinson claims that my theory has an ‘idealist core’ because I define the ‘global’ and ‘globality’ primarily in terms of ‘the development of a common consciousness of human society on a world scale’. But I do not suggest that this idea has a transcendent existence, like Hegel’s world spirit; rather I suggest that it has emerged from the historical developments that have made people think in ‘global’ terms, which take up the major part of my book. Robinson recognises this historical account, and so asks: ‘how does Shaw reconcile the antimony of his idealist definition of globality as consciousness with his material emphasis on the rise of a global state?’ My answer is that, like most social scientists who have escaped from the vulgar Marxist antinomy of ‘ideas’ and ‘material reality’, I don’t see ideas as existing outside social relations – or social relations as possible without consciousness and ideas.
Perhaps more serious than this ‘idealist’ label is the ‘realist’ tag which Robinson also wants to pin on me. I offer, he says, ‘a neorealist theory of hegemonic stability account [sic] of the capitalist core as a new hegemon within an otherwise anarchic system of states and state blocs.’ Here he is on to something, as clearly I do argue that states are defined by relations of violence and so my world-picture corresponds superficially to what critical realists might come up with if (quite a big if, actually) they fully recognized the changed relations of violence in today’s globalized world. Yet, as he recognizes, I am not really a realist in any traditional sense, but a ‘neo-Weberian historical sociologist'; but since my historical sociology (unlike most) is present/future-focused, I don’t fit simply into any of Robinson’s preconceived intellectual categories. And so my theoretical position is described as ‘an eclectic admixture of neo-Weberian, realist, liberal, postmodern, and institutional analysis’. I’m not quite sure where all these additional labels come in, but what I think this says is that Robinson is obsessed with the boxes – I freely confess that thinking outside them has always seemed rather important to me. Yet engaging in normative argument doesn’t make one a ‘liberal’, recognizing changing categories a ‘postmodernist’, or discussing institutions an ‘institutionalist’. All are quite compatible with my core historical-sociological perspective.
Robinson seems to have particular problems with the ‘normative and ideological’ element of my argument. It is ironic that a Marxist-influenced scholar should have such a problem with the idea of ‘progress': of course what really irks him is that I attach a ‘progressive’ label to Western state forms compared to those of the old Soviet bloc and contemporary authoritarian or semi-authoritarian non-Western states. His own prejudices here are indicated by the charge that ‘The narrative is laced with strong doses of crude anticommunism’. This is supported by no stronger evidence than that ‘Adjectives such as “brutal” “genocidal”, “totalitarian”, “stagnant”, “bureaucratic”, and “repressive” … abound in Shaw’s discussion of the former Soviet Union.’ I had Bill Robinson down for a rather enlightened sort of Marxist but I seem to have touched a Stalinist raw nerve. Anyone familiar with the historiography of the USSR will know that these adjectives are hardly overstated; for example, the relationships between Stalin’s (and Mao’s) socially destructive, mass-death-producing episodes and the wider pattern of genocide are a burgeoning topic in contemporary genocide studies.
These engagements, however, are all consequential on the core arguments of my book:

  • Against the assumptions of critical IPE (with which, contra Robinson, I did engage – witness critiques of his own and Stephen Gill’s work, for example) I dared to argue that the major, direct determinants of state transformation lay in the history of modern warfare, and hence largely although certainly not exclusively in interstate relations. Robinson does not confront me directly on this issue – which is an enormous lacuna in IPE generally, not excluding its critical, neo-Gramscian and Marxist variants.
  • I argued that there had been a major transformation in the state system from the inter-imperial system (which produced two world wars) to the bloc-system (the Cold War) and finally today’s ‘global’ system. Robinson does not dispute these transformations, but nor does he engage with my argument about them – or indicate a better explanation.
  • I argued that social movements, primarily in the non-Western world, had also contributed substantially to ‘global’ change through worldwide movements for democracy which had challenged Cold War structures in the Soviet bloc, the post-colonial world and the West – so it was simply inaccurate for Robinson to claim that ‘linkages of the non-Western world and a larger global system dominated by a Western capitalist core play no causal role or are not any determination or explanatory value’. Again, the problem seems to be that (in this dialogue of the deaf) I highlighted linkages of a different type to those that he thought important, namely those that can be explained by more traditional Marxist categories of colonialism and imperialism.

It is not that I think colonialism and imperialism unimportant; but in their classical forms they belonged to the old inter-imperial system which, for all its many legacies, exploded during and after the Second World War. Social theory needs to engage too with contemporary dilemmas. There, it is absurd for Robinson to suggest I showed a ‘one-sided enthusiasm’ for today’s emergent global society, or provided ‘a renovated colonial tale of Western superiority’. My recognition of the relative superiority of internationalized, democratic Western state forms to the doggedly national, semi-authoritarian forms of major non-Western states like China and Russia was no paean to contemporary Western globalism, whose contradictions and limitations were highlighted. I stressed not the ‘arrival’ of a ‘global state’ but the indeterminacy of a messy, contradictory ‘Western-global state conglomerate’. As my 2003 introduction to the Italian translation suggested, the 2000s have a seen a ‘regressive globalism’ in Washington which has sharpened the contradictions further. But this development, too, was conditioned by military-political developments (9/11 and the ‘war on terrorism’) rather than socio-economic forces. That is something which my model helps to explain, but on which Robinson’s has less to offer.

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