Colgan and Keohane, professors of international relations, say the liberal order is on the rocks right now, while a small elite lives sumptuously at the expense of the majority and so on. These are surely fair points in and of themselves. So, why does this article suck so fucking much? As the thread title might hint, the piece is an object lesson on the bankruptcy of the liberal school of thought within the already fraught field of IR — and of the failings of liberalism more broadly.
I wrote the first draft of this at the request of a friend, who handed me a copy of the magazine and asked me, open-endedly, what I thought of the piece. My written response wound up being a couple hundred words longer than the article itself, to my great shame. But it turns out my friend hated the article, too, and was having a hard time articulating why; I am told my little writing spasm helped.
And then I had the bright idea to tidy it up and expand on some stuff, for which I apologize in advance, because now it’s like twice as long, fuck.
On that note, I’ll end this preamble by quoting the first two paragraphs in full:
Colgan & Keohane posted:
Prior to 2016, debates about the global order mostly revolved around its structure and the question of whether the United States should actively lead it or should retrench, pulling back from its alliances and other commitments. But during the past year or two, it became clear that those debates had missed a key point: today’s crucial foreign policy challenges arise less from problems between countries than from domestic politics within them. That is one lesson of the sudden and surprising return of populism to Western countries, a trend that found its most powerful expression last year in the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, or Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
It can be hard to pin down the meaning of “populism,” but its crucial identifying mark is the belief that each country has an authentic “people” who are held back by the collusion of foreign forces and self-serving elites at home. A populist leader claims to represent the people and seeks to weaken or destroy institutions such as legislatures, judiciaries, and the press and to cast off external restraints in defense of national sovereignty. Populism comes in a range of ideological flavors. Left-wing populists want to “soak the rich” in the name of equality; right-wing populists want to remove constraints on wealth in the name of growth. Populism is therefore defined not by a particular view of economic distribution but by a faith in strong leaders and a dislike of limits on sovereignty and of powerful institutions. Such institutions are, of course, key features of the liberal order: think of the UN, the EU, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and major alliances such as NATO. Through them, the Washington-led order encourages multilateral cooperation on issues ranging from security to trade to climate change. Since 1945, the order has helped preserve peace among the great powers. In addition to the order’s other accomplishments, the stability it provides has discouraged countries such as Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons.
On The Vast Estate of “Populism”
It’s easy to see why Colgan and Keohane latched on to this word; it’s everywhere. Google Trends suggests it really exploded within the last year:
And it gives us shit like this:
“steve bannon: a real man of the masses” - WaPo
“It can be hard to pin down the meaning of ‘populism,’” they say. Vagueness, I think, is partly the point; it’s anodyne, safe. This quality makes it very well suited to concealing much more contentious terms.
To dig deeper: What is its opposite? Populism has many shades of meaning — and the definition the authors give is also contentious for another reason I’ll discuss later — but what they all share is an emphasis on the needs of common people. “Elitism” would thus be the clearest opposite. Certainly, plenty of people do go in for elitism, but it’s rarely if ever explicit. One way or another, you’ve got to be able to frame your favored elite as being on the side of “the people.”
So elitism must be encoded. On the other side of the equation, however, “populism” is the code, obscuring mortally opposed ideologies possessing polar-opposite contents — even with respect to elite structures themselves (e.g., capital), further undermining the term’s analytical value.
It didn’t take long, but we’ve already caught a glimpse of our quarry, one of those general problems with liberal ideology: specifically, liberalism’s idealist tendency to fixate on form to the exclusion of content, or a viewpoint more procedural than substantive. This tends to yield what Marx described as “violent abstractions,” divorced from the concrete — among which we can count the stillborn category of populism, leaving aside the authors’ half-assed attempt to stake out a “left” and “right” territory for it. As far as the overarching label is concerned, it’s not about what these “populist” politics actually consist of, but merely that they are other to those exercising power in the liberal order, the encoded elitism I mentioned.
In this light, populism is little more than a weird horseshoe-theory artifact, if almost flipped; it seeks to jam the forking ends together so it can rhetorically exclude the middle they originally implied. It makes sense only from the point of view of the entrenched ruling ideology — those politics that are so normalized as to be able to pass for apolitical. If you’ll permit me to indulge in paraphrasing Chesterton: “Like the sun at noonday, ideology explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.”
But then, a ruling ideology positioning itself as the sun that “symbolizes order and rationality” is nothing new, as rHizzonE alum and noted guy-I-don’t-know-well-enough-to-properly-slam Sam Kriss recently remarked. “It illuminates the world so long as you don’t look at it; once you do, it becomes an object of obscene violence.”
No matter how well hidden, those politics have content, too, complete with their own beneficiaries and their own obligors and even victims.
bourgeoisie enjoy the sun; laborers enjoy the sun
But the authors deploy populism in a way that at first seemed even more puzzling, pitting the (or perhaps a) people against “institutions,” a favorite catch-all mantra of liberals. The most charitable reading I can muster would go something like this: Populisms, by virtue of operating outside of the institutional constraints of society, are therefore the forms of politics that are fully capable of acting upon said constraints, rather than ultimately being subjected to them. Perhaps this can be rendered into a serviceable point, but it still doesn’t suffice as a definition of populism; it merely describes one of the powers of a political movement, especially one outside of the status quo.
So, the authors have really come up short in the articulation of what they’re even writing about. And it only gets worse from here.
When evaluating a populist position as thus far described, our ultimate measure is how well said institutions are meeting the needs of the people — since, in the terms of the article, it becomes a referendum on some manner of change, period. The authors acknowledge that these institutions are not, for a variety of reasons, meeting the needs of the public. Yet they spend the length of the piece proffering suggestions for how the status quo may yet postpone its reckoning. They’re upfront about why: They are defenders and celebrators of the liberal order. Accordingly, there is no indication that they recognize any immanent failure or contradiction within said order — all negative outcomes are described as contingent externalities. To them, the system does not fail, for it represents the greater good as such; rather, it is failed.
This raises another of liberalism’s problems: the tendency to universalize rather than historicize. It transforms rights, which are social and historical products, into timeless “natural” constructs of which the liberal state is seen as the ultimate guarantor. It takes humans, natural beings, and bills them distinct from the rest of creation, with a capacity for free activity that faces no constraint from our material powers, but rather derives wholly from some antecedent abstract transcendental potentiality. In this way, atomistic individualism receives ontological priority, with no (or circumscribed) recognition of reality in structure (and often a failure to grapple with stratification and emergent properties generally). The individuals it describes, forged in the Enlightenment, are taken to be egoistic actors, prior to any concept of community — islands of Platonic rationality, if with occasional qualification.
As Marx noted in “On ‘The Jewish Question,’” this worldview, and the social relations that underlie and reinforce it, “leads every man to see in other men not the realization, but rather the limitation of his own liberty.”
From this vantage point, we can see that the authors’ analysis halts at what amounts to a “structure-agent problem.” They don’t introduce the idea in those terms, but they nevertheless undertake to highlight a mass of agents acting in concert — which somehow does not warrant consideration as even a notional structure — to rail against an extant structure. This seems bizarre enough on its face, but they are prepared to double down, going so far as to counterpose, e.g., legislatures (which they lump alongside “external restraints”) with a vaguely-defined “national sovereignty” — because legislation apparently is not an expression of that very same thing?
They moreover describe a gross opposition to said institutions as categorical rather than contingent, eliding the distinction between means and ends. The authors will no doubt agree that a common “populist” demand is to restructure or outright replace institutions seen as ineffective or corrupt. Yet this still, at core, expresses not a disdain but a desire for institution.
Against the authors’ hodgepodge of conventional wisdom and uninterrogated priors, I would offer a materialist — or what amounts to the same thing, critical realist — position, as here summarized by sociologist Philip Gorski: “There is no ‘structure/agency problem.’ Human agents are bio-psycho-social structures with emergent powers of intentionality. Conversely, social structures have agency, an agency that transcends and influences the intentions of the individual agents that co-constitute them. The important problems are ‘structure/structure’ or ‘agent/agent’ ones.”
The authors’ take of “I guess people got problems with institutions qua institutions, huh” is an unhelpful gloss over the substantive issues at stake — again, form over content. But what underlying mechanisms do existing institutions actualize? What manner of system do they ultimately reproduce? These lingering questions are critical at a time when many people, including in the imperial core, are thinking again about class struggle for a variety of reasons only covered by the authors in only the most narrow, US/Euro-centric way — despite, one hastens to note, the prominence of the word “international” in their specialization.
Globalism and Imperialism
On page two, the authors wax ecstatic about various supra-national institutions. “Peace,” “stability,” “billions of people rising out of crippling poverty.” This ahistorical self-congratulation reads as viciously callous, even crass, in a world where tens of millions have died from war and diplomacy alike since World War II. It particularly takes some gall for liberals to take credit for poverty reduction, when poverty is not some natural state of humanity (and so, as Darwin noted, “great is our sin”) but rather overwhelmingly the result of centuries of interrelated economic and political processes — ones often prescribed by agents of the liberal order.
The authors must at least be aware that the actual remediation of poverty in recent decades (setting aside for a moment the criticisms leveled at the world’s various “official” measures) has chiefly been the work of China, the liberal order’s post-Cold War bête noir. Global poverty reduction studies often publish separate graphs for global figures and global figures excluding China. The trend lines of the latter tend to be closer to horizontal. In short, they are putting that feather in the wrong cap.
While it must be said that the authors are correct to note the shortsightedness of business leaders short-changing the middle classes of the imperial core, they’ve nevertheless missed what those strata represented in the first place — a segment of workers essentially bribed to bring their interests into closer alignment with capital. The decline of the labor aristocracy is not just some whoopsie undermining an otherwise perfectly good system, but an inevitable outcome of the very same set of processes that, under earlier conditions, caused its rise.
This is not a small matter. The middle classes (mostly a mix of small proprietors and, since the mid-19th century, labor aristocrats), held up in first world as proof of the possibility of class collaboration, have been sustained in the last analysis by extractive relations — in the USA’s case, this once took the form of slavery and indigenous genocide. Now it’s largely a matter of uncompensated value transfers in exchange from the third world, rejuvenated here or there periodically through an otherwise endless process of destabilizing warfare. This feature of international economics has only become more important over time. For example, Zak Cope has illustrated that the value transferred to OECD nations from non-OECD nations is roughly equivalent to the entire sum of profit reported in the former. World-systems economists such as Minqi Li counterpose the movement of surplus from “periphery” to “core” with global middle-income growth as China, and to a lesser extent India, shift from peripheral to semi-peripheral status. It’s becoming clear that the surplus generated by a shrinking periphery will be less and less capable of sustaining the current world order over time.
It stands to reason, under these conditions, that wealthier nations would be under increasing pressure to look within and cannibalize what they can. Neoliberalism is one form this has taken. Another is increasing tensions with de facto internal colonies of disadvantaged and particularly exploited groups. Certainly immigrants find themselves increasingly in the crosshairs, as liberalism’s conceit of universalism is ever undercut by its need to stake out what Domenico Losurdo refers to as sacred and profane spaces — chiefly witnessed today in the difference of regard for those who have or lack citizenship, but also stretching back to its beginnings, when “liberalism and racial chattel slavery emerged together in a twin birth.” In extreme cases, we see the kind of broad oppression we associate with Nazism. Indeed, the mass base of fascist movements has generally been a middle class struggling with downward mobility; the resurgence of fascist ideology in the last few decades has thus been as predictable as neoliberalism itself.
But more on this later.
Ultimately, capitalism didn’t “hijack” globalism, but rather underpinned its dominant expression thus far in history. Imperialism structures the entire global political economy. But comprehensive and open economic relationships can also exist without exploitation. For example, circulation within the highly interdependent Soviet bloc proceeded equitably through the standards set by its “system of trade planning and centralized prices,” Al Szymanski notes, which also “more or less requires bilateralism in trade relations.” The USSR likewise famously purchased sugar from Cuba well above the frequently depressed world market rates, thereby avoiding “the process whereby extra surplus-value is transferred from one (group of) nation(s) to another through trade ... known as unequal exchange,” to use Zak Cope’s words.
Cope illustrates the pedigree of the idea with a quote from Marx (emphasis Cope’s):
Capitals invested in foreign trade can yield a higher rate of profit, because, in the first place, there is competition with commodities produced in other countries with inferior production facilities, so that the more advanced country sells its goods above their value even though cheaper than the competing countries. In so far as the labour of the more advanced country is here realised as labour of a higher specific weight, the rate of profit rises, because labour which has not been paid as being of a higher quality is sold as such. The same may obtain in relation to the country, to which commodities are exported and to that from which commodities are imported; namely, the latter may offer more materialised labour in kind than it receives, and yet thereby receive commodities cheaper than it could produce them. Just as a manufacturer who employs a new invention before it becomes generally used, undersells his competitors and yet sells his commodity above its individual value, that is, realises the specifically higher productiveness of the labour he employs as surplus-labour. He thus secures a surplus-profit. As concerns capitals invested in colonies, etc., on the other hand, they may yield higher rates of profit for the simple reason that the rate of profit is higher there due to backward development, and likewise the exploitation of labour, because of the use of slaves, coolies, etc. Why should not these higher rates of profit, realised by capitals invested in certain lines and sent home by them, enter into the equalisation of the general rate of profit and thus tend, pro tanto, to raise it, unless it is the monopolies that stand in the way. There is so much less reason for it, since these spheres of investment of capital are subject to the laws of free competition.
The result, Cope says, quoting Charles Bettelheim, is that “on the world market the poor nations are obliged to sell the product of a relatively large number of hours of labour in order to obtain in exchange from the rich nations the product of a small number of hours of labour.”
Apart from the role of wage differentials, the matter is further complicated by differences of returns to scale — increasing production in a capital-intensive field usually comes with decreasing unit costs, while unit costs tend to increase in, say, a more land-intensive sector, as economists such as Nicholas Kaldor have elaborated.
Through unequal exchange, systems of capital export, and other related processes, “free trade” exemplifies how a system that is procedurally equal (and thus satisfying to liberals) creates substantive winners and losers.
The authors make a point of mentioning that they study globalization, and I’m sure that’s true. Problem is, they’re generating the wrong abstractions, drawing the wrong conclusions, and in general reading the wrong books. But that’s how you get the cushy tenure track spots, I guess — as Keohane, we’ll see later, would probably agree.
The Imperial Other and Fascism
The article soon takes an even darker turn when they start urging “othering.” No, I’m not making this up:
Colgan & Keohane posted:
Much ink has been spilled on the domestic causes of the populist revolt: racism, growing frustration with experts, dysfunctional economic policies. But less attention has been paid to two contributing factors that stemmed from the international order itself. The first was a loss of national solidarity brought on by the end of the Cold War. During that conflict, the perceived Soviet threat generated a strong shared sense of attachment not only to Washington’s allies but also to multilateral institutions. Social psychologists have demonstrated the crucial importance of “othering” in identity formation, for individuals and nations alike: a clear sense of who is not on your team makes you feel closer to those who are. The fall of the Soviet Union removed the main “other” from the American political imagination and thereby reduced social cohesion in the United States. The end of the Cold War generated particular political difficulties for the Republican Party, which had long been a bastion of anticommunism. With the Soviets gone, Washington elites gradually replaced Communists as the Republicans’ bogeymen. Trumpism is the logical extension of that development.
To cooperate, the authors maintain, societies require an enemy. (Though no citation is given, I believe they’re referencing noted social psychologist Alan Moore’s seminal monograph, fucking Watchmen.)
What set of priors likely support this bullshit? The authors’ methodological individualism, a liberal foible already mentioned, commits them to a reductionistic picture of society as being derived purely from the workings of logically and ontologically prior individual actors, which of course then requires the aforementioned rationality much beloved of Enlightenment thought. However one feels about his political interventions, which usually don’t strain beyond the immediate “Democrat vs. Republican” spectacle, George Lakoff provides a useful look at how our understanding of reason and rationality has evolved since then:
Philosophy in the Flesh, Introduction posted:
• Reason is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. ...
• Reason is evolutionary, in that abstract reason builds on and makes use of forms of perceptual and motor inference present in “lower” animals. The result is a Darwinism of reason, a rational Darwinism: Reason, even in its most abstract form, makes use of, rather than transcends, our animal nature. ...
• Reason is not “universal” in the transcendent sense; that is, it is not part of the structure of the universe. It is universal, however, in that it is a capacity shared universally by all human beings. What allows it to be shared are the commonalities that exist in the way our minds are embodied.
• Reason is not completely conscious, but mostly unconscious.
• Reason is not purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative.
• Reason is not dispassionate, but emotionally engaged.
Above all, reason is deeply contextual, and our context for reason is society. Whatever role in-group belonging actually plays in cognitive development, an even more fundamental part of being human is our incredible elasticity, adapting on the basis of social structure in a huge variety of ways. The base natural developments of the mind are to no small extent tempered by our systems of relations. The mere existence of the former has no normative implication for the mores generated by the latter. To wit, we become humans through our socialization; even our limited experience with “feral” or otherwise unsocialized humans makes this abundantly clear. Human beings, in any form we recognize, are constituted by society, and reproduce that society in turn, in ever-changing fashion.
As social scientists, Colgan and Keohane ought to be aware that extrapolating from a notion in developmental psychology (a field outside their specialty in the first place) to the whole of society is at the least a fallacy of composition — even in their own philosophical tradition, riven with bullshit as it is. There is no excuse for such sloppy thought, especially when they’re mistaking for a positive something that manifests as social pathology. One need not belabor how othering became ideological bedrock for colonialism, to say nothing of Auschwitz.
Yet it must also be said: They are correct to suggest that othering is a crucial element of the present state of world affairs. The trouble is, it doesn’t seem to occur to them to wonder whether there might be something inherently wrong with a social order that reinforces this, or why the broad solidarity of thoroughgoing internationalism is virtually impossible under capitalism, steered as it is by the competition of national capitals.
But this shouldn’t be an impediment, they believe. In fact, they argue that “all economic and social classes” should “share the gains from globalization,” casually using the language of inclusiveness in the realm of class. Thus, peak liberalism manifests as the deployment of universalism to enshrine and protect injustice itself.
They argue that the international order should “prevent overreach, especially when it comes to the use of military force.” This is surely a lovely sentiment in their minds, but, as ever, uselessly broad. I guess carefully defining and delimiting “overreach” was outside the scope of the piece, oh well. But it will surely be a great buzzword to litigate endlessly in high offices while all the substantive atrocities have already happened on the ground.
And then we reach this part:
these motherfuckers posted:
Third, Washington should nurture a uniquely American social identity and a national narrative. That will require othering authoritarian and illiberal countries.
Just look at that shit.
Our authors, shedding their human skins, actually pontificate on fostering “ein volk, ein reich” while othering — and to be clear, we are speaking of framing as alien and pernicious — entire nations. Of course, these are professors of international relations, and not of history. Presumably, also, they don’t imagine they’ll number among the millions of dead this course prefigures.
This, incidentally, is also the sordid quirk of their definition of “populism” to which I said I’d return: in addition to elites, they’ve included “foreign forces” as being opposed to the people in question, even referring to the “collusion” of foreign forces with domestic elites. Though they wait until halfway through the piece to sing paeans to othering, we can hear the opening strains as early as the second paragraph. This is the song that invariably accompanies nationalist purges, to drive out vehicles of foreign infection — “a bacillus which, by its very presence, imperils the health of the social organism,” as Losurdo summarizes the charge leveled against Jews by the Third Reich.
Thus have we veered hard into the territory of straightforward, even classical, fascism. “Scratch a liberal, and a fascist bleeds,” as the saying goes.
Never fear, though, because our extremely conscientious authors do have the faintest inkling that this might have unintended outcomes. Othering illiberal countries, they clarify, “does not mean imposing democracy by force.” They instead advocate the use of safe, gentle words.
Unspoken liberal conceits creep across the page, descended from those already mentioned. In the first case, “democracy” is regarded as univocal (of course in this case exclusively meaning bourgeois democracy), when even a cursory look at its history would indicate otherwise. In the second, speech is conceptually isolated from action — a permutation of the familiar liberal fetishism of “free speech” (much like the earlier “free trade”) as a universalized Good, considered once again in form and not content.
On one hand, liberal ideology is quick to name free speech as the most important of our natural rights, being that which that makes tyrants quake and so on; on the other hand, it consistently diminishes the role and importance of speech against other forms of action, coincidentally in a fashion that often serves to defend or even privilege hate speech. So is speech action, or something less than action? Is war propaganda “mere speech”? (And, relatedly, what should we think about military exercises expressly designed as provocations?)
Much has been written problematizing their separate treatment — usually in connection to the universalized, absolutist variant of free speech. For example, at the end of “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, And It’s A Good Thing, Too,” Stanley Fish summarizes:
The thesis that there is no such thing as free speech ... merely says that there is no class of utterances separable from the world of conduct, and that therefore the identification of some utterances as members of that nonexistent class will always be evidence that a political line has been drawn. ... It is the job of the First Amendment to mark out an area in which competing views can be considered without state interference; but if the very marking out of that area is itself an interference (as it always will be), First Amendment jurisprudence is inevitably self-defeating and subversive of its own aspirations. That’s the bad news. The good news is that precisely because speech is never “free” in the two senses required — free of consequences and free from state pressure — speech always matters, is always doing work; because everything we say impinges on the world in ways indistinguishable from the effects of physical action, we must take responsibility for our verbal performances — all of them — and not assume that they are being taken care of by a clause in the Constitution.
In the realm of the political, perhaps even more clearly than in the personal, words and actions form a continuum. The class of diplomatic utterances also includes those that can harm the populace of an othered nation, such as sanctions — for example, the ones estimated to have killed in excess of half a million Iraqis between 1990 and 2003.
An obvious example also prances right in the authors’ field of view; the violence hidden behind the phrase “America First” is considerable. The authors, as they take pains to voice their admiration for the slogan’s effectiveness, seem not to notice its prominent white hood.
But then, given the section making mealy-mouthed excuses for “calibrating” immigration levels to something marketed as moderate and sensible, it’s more likely they notice it but don’t care. After all, their supposedly softer line still culminates in ICE terrorizing immigrant communities. Yet, gluttons for self-congratulation, the authors bill themselves as “cosmopolitan,” patting their own backs for observing that “immigrants ultimately offer more benefits than costs.”
In “The Apprentice’s Sorcerer,” Ishay Landa discusses how, though fascism ideologically postures as anti-liberal, in reality the two share the same root. In terms of the book’s central metaphor:
Liberalism, like the sorcerer’s apprentice in the famous poem/story, called into existence forces, immensely useful at first, but which it subsequently could not control, those unruly, and uncannily multiplying mops, the modern workers, which refused to accept their role as mere tools in the production process and were gaining lives and wills of their own. So the liberal apprentice conjures a sorcerer, too, in order to re-establish order, re-transform the animated brooms into plain wood. Fascism, in spite of words and gestures, came not really to do battle with liberalism, but primarily as an ally, albeit a bullying, patronizing one, offering much needed succor.
The book subjects to withering scrutiny numerous claims meant to “drive a wedge between fascism and liberalism” and finds them wanting. The later chapters focus specifically on “liberal myths,” the fourth of which frames “fascism as a nationalistic attack on liberal cosmopolitanism”:
I propose to re-visit such conventional dichotomy. I wish to argue, firstly, that liberalism was far less opposed to nationalism—indeed, even of an expansionist and aggressive variant—than is commonly assumed and, in continuation, to claim that fascist nationalism was to a significant extent a prolongation of, and an emanation from, the contradictions of the liberal stance.
Now, I could quote the book at length and draw out the full richness of his argument. Or, to keep things simple, I could just point to the shit Colgan and Keohane are suggesting right in front of our eyes. They advocate “solidarity” in the pure nationalist sense — uniting classes against a national enemy — to say nothing of staking out the need for a “national narrative” where the very first suggestions are fundamentally oppositional in character. Make no mistake, our cosmopolitan liberals truly seek a Kinder, Gentler Fascism: one that recognizes that, all that other stuff aside, immigrants are an exploitable resource.
Herein, ironically, lies the simple inhumanity of their liberalism — the cost-benefit analysis of human beings. It is the language of the prevailing structure, of capital, the ultimate rule of private property. And far from a perversion of noble principles, such is exactly as Locke, the “father of liberalism,” would have it. To close out this section, here’s one final quote from Landa:
Historically, liberals were never particularly keen about democracy. From the start, the notion of representative government, to which most liberals were willing to subscribe, meant a limited suffrage, which would yield results favorable to the propertied classes. For a constitutive liberal such as John Locke, democracy was not yet a problem, since the bulk of the working people were not yet politically articulate or, rather, no longer so, after the diverse radical movements of the English revolution had been subdued; he thus took it for granted that “the rule of the majority,” which he espoused, would entail little more than the rule of the propertied. A postulate which an eminent historian of early modern England summarized as follows:
Locke argued ... that the executive may forfeit its rights if it endangers the stability of property, maintenance of which is the reason for the existence of the state. ... Locke talked ambiguously of government deriving from and being responsible to ‘the people,’ but it was perfectly clear that by ‘the people’ he meant the propertied class. Their control of society had been established against monarchical absolutism (and) against the lower orders by the defeat of the radicals during the interregnum ... (Hill 2006: 295–6).
Only the members of the propertied class were thus truly of civil society—entitled to and capable of politically managing it—rather than simply being in it: subjected to its authority, laws and discipline but deprived of active political rights. ... It must be borne in mind that the whole purpose of the liberal civil society from a Lockean point of view was to shore up nascent capitalist property and production. The political aspect of liberalism, namely parliamentary and constitutional rule, far from being an autonomous sphere alongside the economic one, was entirely a function of capitalism, conceived at all times as fully subservient to it. Civil society was essentially a mechanism for guaranteeing that capitalism would function smoothly, and for imposing on individual capitalists an indispensable modicum of class cohesion and concerted action—for example agreeing on taxation so as to allow the state to finance its role as defender of property—without which the system would have been untenable. But taxation emanating from the outside of capitalism, independent of the initiatives of property owners and contrary to their wishes, was anathematized. “Locke’s primary and overriding interest,” as underlined by Peter Laslett (1988: 107), “was in taxation, arbitrary taxation and its iniquities.” Under such terms, there can be no question whatsoever of the political domain making independent demands on the economy, of a “social” or “moral” nature. Any such demands, unless agreed upon by “the majority” of the propertied and hence as serving their class interest, would simply mean an act of spoliation. Property and capitalist production were not, Locke insisted, a political arrangement, which could thus be potentially subject to political modification. Rather, they were inscribed in natural law, and hence preceded the political.
The very purpose of political civil society, a point which could not be emphasized enough, was to outlaw and exclude any such possibility, turn it into a logical absurdity and a moral outrage:
The Supream Power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his own consent. For the preservation of Property being the end of Government, and that for which Men enter into Society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the People should have Property, without which they must be suppos’d to lose that by entring into Society, which was the end for which they entered into it, too gross an absurdity for any Man to own. ... Hence it is a mistake to think, that the Supream or Legislative Power of any Commonwealth, can do what it will, and dispose of the Estates of the Subject arbitrarily, or take any part of them at pleasure (Locke 1988: 360–1; emphases in the original).
By natural right, politics thus dutifully ends where property begins and, if the government mistakes its place, the propertied are entitled to avail themselves of force against the unlawful law. As Domenico Losurdo (1988: 249) observes, with regards to Locke’s position: “Even if mediated by the legislative power, the intrusion of those without property in the sphere of property is always an act of caprice and of plunder, an act of violence, and therefore an act which may be legitimately countered by the violence of the victim.” Parliamentarism and the rule of law were thus from the very beginning not the liberal end itself, to be defined, say, in terms of guaranteeing political pluralism; rather, they were mere means to an end, that of protecting capitalism. And means are by their very nature not absolute; they might change along with changing circumstances. That is why Locke himself, far from absolutizing parliament, at different times could and did envisage alternative political models. As C. B. Macpherson observed (1964: 261), Locke “was consistent throughout in wanting a civil authority which could secure the basic institutions of a class society. In 1660 this required the recall of the Stuarts and the doctrine of the magistrate’s absolute and arbitrary power in things indifferent; in 1689 it required the dismissal of the Stuarts and the doctrine of the Second Treatise.” Liberal doctrines are thus amenable to change, as long as class society persists.
Rather than being limited by a political framework, liberal capitalism was in fact equipped with a built-in option to bail out of constitutionalism and revert to the rule of force, upon seeing its economic interests imperiled.
A Conclusion Nobody Stuck Around For, and A Note On The Authors
The liberal order cannot nor should not be saved, but overthrown tout court. Its failures are its own, not accidental hiccups but immanent contradictions in its basic functions. And these, in the end, are killing humanity and the very planet we inhabit.
Keynesians, premier liberals, celebrate the 25 or so years after World War II as capitalism’s “golden age.” Frankly, they ought to get the fuck over it; it’s been more than that long since, and the conditions that led to it are none we should strive to repeat — the restoration of the global rate of profit through the mass destruction of capital, and a world struggling to bury its dead and rebuild. Permissive fiscal policies come and go, but the underlying private economy calls the tune under bourgeois democracy, and Treasury Department waterings would have availed little without the blooded soil of Depression and war. This is the threat before us, the course we currently retread. Ahead of us lie only two roads: socialism or barbarism.
Defenders of the liberal order, by way of various analytical limitations imposed by their very philosophical foundations, are blind to the intrinsic connections between their vaunted world system and its current trajectory. If Colgan and Keohane’s article were representative of the entire field of IR, the whole edifice ought to be torn down and burnt as the ruinous, toxic cesspit of ideology it is. However, much of worth has come from a small but vibrant Marxist section, which has in turn birthed or influenced such sub-schools as dependency theory and world-systems theory.
Of our two defenders of the liberal order, I have little reason to suspect Jeff Colgan has even a passing familiarity with a Marxist perspective. In 2013 he authored a book entitled “Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War” that appears to essentialize oil production as a factor in the conflict-proneness of a state — with “revolutionary governments” coming in for the remainder of the blame, of course. The word “imperialism” appears six times within: once in the index, and the other times framed purely as a rhetorical boogeyman deployed by Chavez, Qaddafi, etc. One use even included scarequotes. But according to his CV, he’s currently working on another book entitled “Empire, War, and Peace: Political Economy of Modern Energy.” Unless the man has had a Damascene moment in the last few weeks, I suspect it’ll be rife with all manner of violent, empty abstractions and false universals. Perhaps, in line with his love of othering, it’ll even feature some choice Orientalist tropes.
The second author, Rob Keohane, is a more interesting character. He has been influential enough to net a Wikipedia page, with a picture, separate “early life” and “career” sections and everything. “A 2011 survey of International Relations scholars placed Keohane second in terms of influence and quality of scholarship in the last twenty years,” it proclaims.
I located an older paper of his, entitled “International Liberalism Reconsidered” — what amounts to a defense of his own liberalism, contrasted with realist and Marxist positions. Unsurprisingly, his critique of Marxism is unimpressive: “the constraints pointed to by Marxist (sic) ... are hardly sufficient to determine state action.” That’s the crux of it. He throws out a footnote recommending the reader see his previous book, and then concludes: “This suggests that any claims to theoretical closure made by Marxists or realists in moments of theoretical enthusiasm should not be taken very seriously. Neither Marxism nor realism constitutes a successful deterministic theory, and the most thoughtful Marxists and realists have always recognized this.”
(By “the most thoughtful Marxists,” he of course means “Marxists,” since Marxism has never fit the “deterministic” caricature others have been painting since time immemorial. Engels made this point forcefully.)
But then Keohane gives us a twist in the very next paragraph (emphasis mine): “The absence of a successful deterministic theory of international relations is fortunate for us as agents in history, since determinism is an unsatisfactory doctrine for human beings.” Truly, the failure of Marxism is its inability to provide us with something unsatisfactory.
Still elsewhere: “Seeking to predict international behavior on the basis of ‘the effects of commerce’ ... is no more valid than purporting to construct comprehensive analyses of world politics solely on the basis of ‘the constraints of capitalism,’” he says, whiffing another swipe by fudging the categories of prediction and analysis — a conflation he would, at least presently, recognize as faulty — not to mention smuggling in a straw “solely.” Ho hum.
Again, none of this is surprising. Nor are his more straightforwardly deluded claims (e.g., suggesting liberalism fueled the protest movement that ended the war of imperial aggression in Vietnam, claiming that “international liberalism fosters a world economy that gives timely early warning of economic disaster,” etc). But what does surprise me, and what prompted “more interesting,” is that the majority of the essay actually reads as a critique of his own position.
“Even sophisticated liberalism is morally questionable,” he says, “since the international political economy defended by liberals generates inequalities that cannot be defended according to principles of justice.” The entire article is littered with such observations. “As a reformist creed,” he says, “liberalism does not promote justice or equity.” It is “open to charges of immorality ... and of naivete ... and depending on the context, liberals may be guilty of either charge, or both.”
Moreover, liberalism “accommodates easily to dominant interests” and “is also relatively insensitive to exploitation,” he says, and then hurls this dinger: “Liberals may be inclined to downplay values such as equality when emphasis on such values would bring them into fundamental conflict with powerful elites on whose acquiescence their institutional reformism depends.” This, for once, is fucking legit. “To satisfied modern elites and middle classes, liberalism seems eminently reasonable, but it is not likely to be as appealing to the oppressed.” Hell yes.
Especially damning, he admits its effect on world peace “may not be benign”:
Keohane (1990) posted:
The extension of economic interests worldwide under liberalism in search of wider markets requires the extension of political order: insofar as that order is threatened, protection of one’s own economic interests may entail the use of force.
So, in a nutshell, imperialism is kinda-sorta a drawback of liberal international relations.
There’s a great deal more I won’t examine in depth: more admissions of his school’s failings, and even recognition that much of its useful content is essentially swiped from Marxists or realists anyway. But at the end of the day, what is his ultimate claim for why liberalism should be preferred?
“The weakness of orthodox Marxism,” he says near the conclusion (emphasis his), “is its inability to show that the alternatives it proposes as they are likely actually to operate in practice are morally superior to feasible reformist alternatives.” Couched in academic prose, we find that classic refrain: BUT TOTALITARIANISM.
Yet this alleged supreme weakness of Marxism in fact reflects manifest weaknesses of liberalism — an inability to see beyond the propaganda of the very interests he admits predominate; a failure to generate substantive analyses that go beyond violent abstractions such as “authoritarianism” as an independent position, or a questionably derived and speciously deployed “totalitarianism”; even the failure to look beyond the category of “inequality,” the ultimate horizon of liberalism’s left wing, to recognize the more fundamental exploitative relations that create it.
“Unlike Marxism, (liberalism) subjects proffered ‘new orders’ to skeptical examination. ‘No liberal ever forgets that governments are coercive,’” Keohane says near the end, mounting a too-limp, too-late defense of his school’s “critical” faculties. If there’s a spot of humor, here, it’s that a liberal authority has confirmed once and for all how to classify the vulgar “anti-authoritarianism” of petty-bourgeois socialists, especially in the imperial core — not coincidentally part of the stratum Keohane billed as apt to find liberalism “eminently reasonable.” They can smell their own.
If I’ve left anything unsaid after all these words, then here it is: Fuck liberalism.