Rethinking International Relations: An Interview with Benno Teschke

Pieter Snayers, Battle of Wimpfen, 1622
Pieter Snay­ers, Bat­tle of Wimpfen, 1622

In this inter­view, George Sou­vlis and Aurélie Andry talk with Benno Teschke, author of The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopol­i­tics and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Inter­na­tional Rela­tions, about the rela­tion­ship between Marx­ism and inter­na­tional rela­tions the­ory. As Teschke notes, Karl Marx never com­pleted a book on inter­na­tional rela­tions, and the lack of a coher­ent Marx­ist the­ory of inter­na­tional rela­tions has allowed dan­ger­ous assump­tions – such as instru­men­tal­ist ideas about the state, a stag­ist con­cep­tion of his­tory, or a uni­ver­sal­iz­ing cap­i­tal­ist world mar­ket – to take root within Marx­ism. Here, Teschke dis­cusses his intel­lec­tual tra­jec­tory, the main argu­ments of his work, and ways of under­stand­ing cap­i­tal­ist inter­na­tion­al­ist rela­tions, while also mak­ing some obser­va­tions about Polit­i­cal Marx­ism, the appro­pri­a­tion of Carl Schmitt, and the future of the Euro­pean Union.

George Sou­vlis and Aurélie Andry: How would you sit­u­ate your tra­jec­tory in the broader intel­lec­tual and polit­i­cal con­texts of West Ger­many?

Benno Teschke: I went to a Fran­cis­can Gym­na­sium in small-town West­ern Ger­many and when you were born, like me, in the late 1960s and had some left-lean­ing incli­na­tions, your intel­lec­tual for­ma­tion and path to Marx­ism was likely to be strongly influ­enced by the Frank­furt School – as it was in my case. It was actu­ally the works of the ear­lier Frank­furt School that fas­ci­nated me, the books that were more his­tor­i­cally and soci­o­log­i­cally grounded doing more polit­i­cal analy­sis as clas­si­cally under­stood rather than phi­los­o­phy or cul­tural the­ory: partly Franz Neu­mann and Otto Kirch­heimer on fas­cism, and partly Jür­gen Habermas’s early work on The Struc­tural Trans­for­ma­tion of the Pub­lic Sphere, even though I grew very quickly dis­sat­is­fied with Habermas’s later work. To sus­tain and deepen my inter­ests in polit­i­cal econ­omy and his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy I turned then more directly to Marx’s own work, but always felt that the the­o­ret­i­cal struc­ture of Das Kap­i­tal – the his­tor­i­cal chap­ters apart – and the body of lit­er­a­ture that goes by the name of Kap­i­tal-Logik or, more recently, the “New Dialec­tics,” remained ulti­mately ster­ile – an exer­cise in dialec­ti­cal abstrac­tions of a purely con­cep­tual nature that had left real his­tory largely behind. Still, the engage­ment with the Frank­furt School and West­ern Marx­ism more broadly left me with strong anti-pos­i­tivis­tic con­vic­tions and, if you want, a dialec­ti­cal sen­si­tiv­ity as to my con­cep­tion of the con­duct of social sci­ence.

Sub­stan­tively, much of the aca­d­e­mic debate in West­ern Ger­many – on the left and on the right – was still trans­fixed on the Ger­man cat­a­stro­phe and the Holo­caust, and this became also my first intel­lec­tual “prob­lem­atic.” But rather than look­ing at the cul­ture indus­try or grand philo­soph­i­cal nar­ra­tives of the “Dialec­tic of the Enlight­en­ment,” I felt ini­tially more drawn towards the left-lib­eral Biele­feld School – peo­ple like Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jür­gen Kocka – who grounded the Nazi expe­ri­ence in Germany’s pecu­liar long-term tra­jec­tory of socio-eco­nomic devel­op­ment and state-for­ma­tion, anchor­ing its deviance from pre­sumed West­ern Euro­pean stan­dard paths in the “failed” 1848 “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion.”1 The debate in the late 1980s between them and David Black­bourn and Geoff Eley’s posi­tion set out in The Pecu­liar­i­ties of Ger­man His­tory caught my inter­est and con­vinced me of the virtues of social his­tory and his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy.2 Against this nar­ra­tive, more con­ser­v­a­tive Neo-Rankeans kept insist­ing on Prussia-Germany’s unique geo­graph­i­cal posi­tion in the mid­dle of Europe, which allegedly forced a repres­sive author­i­tar­i­an­ism domes­ti­cally and an aggres­sive mil­i­tarism abroad. In other words, a deep ide­o­log­i­cal gulf opened up in this debate between social his­to­ri­ans who kept restrict­ing their explana­tory focus to the pri­macy of domes­tic social rela­tions and more tra­di­tional his­to­ri­ans who kept insist­ing on the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal, the pri­macy of for­eign pol­icy, and ‘high pol­i­tics’ – a tra­di­tion that retained echoes not only of Leopold von Ranke’s con­cep­tion of world his­tory as the rivalry between great pow­ers, but also the more sin­is­ter and intel­lec­tu­ally degraded tra­di­tion of Ger­man Geopoli­tik, from Ratzel to Haushofer.  Still, I found this divide between inter­nal­ists and exter­nal­ists always forced and unpro­duc­tive, map­ping onto nor­ma­tive-polit­i­cal pre­dis­po­si­tions rather than tack­ling the prob­lem head-on. This was a strong bul­wark against the ide­o­log­i­cal gulfs and lim­ited points of empha­sis affect­ing social his­to­ri­ans at the time – divi­sions over the pri­macy of domes­tic rela­tions or the pri­macy of for­eign pol­icy – and led me to ask what Marx and the wider Marx­ist tra­di­tion had to say about polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy and inter­na­tional rela­tions so that exter­nal rela­tions could be inter­nal­ized into a revised Marx­ist per­spec­tive.

In this con­text – we are approach­ing the early 1990s – I became more and more aware that there was no dis­tinct tra­di­tion of his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy left in West­ern Ger­many, broadly defined, that could re-inform Marx­ism, partly because many Weimar his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gists had emi­grated, and per­haps partly because this genre of schol­ar­ship had become dis­cred­ited by the more ortho­dox East-Ger­man lit­er­a­ture. This was a very pecu­liar phe­nom­e­non, really, given that soci­ol­ogy, his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy, is par excel­lence basi­cally a Ger­man inven­tion, deriv­ing its great­est impulses from the great Ger­man and Aus­trian clas­sics: from the Ger­man His­tor­i­cal School and the Meth­o­d­en­streit of the 1880s to Weber, Schum­peter and Polanyi, and of course Marx and Engels them­selves. That dis­course, in a way, had with very few excep­tions – Heide Ger­sten­berger’s work springs to mind – migrated out­side of Ger­many by the late 1980s, early 1990s. Simul­ta­ne­ously, I was struck when I stud­ied in the 1990s in France and Britain that the very same aca­d­e­mic reg­is­ter that was on the verge of extinc­tion in Ger­many was here fully alive – in France through the Annales School (Marc Bloch and Fer­nand Braudel) and in Britain through the great Marx­ist his­to­ri­ans (Eric Hob­s­bawm, E.P. Thomp­son, Perry Ander­son, etc.). In fact, the dis­ci­pline of his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy had been revived and reha­bil­i­tated in Anglo-Amer­i­can acad­e­mia, if decid­edly in a non-Marx­ist fash­ion, dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s in the writ­ings of Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, and Michael Mann. So, I would say that by the early 1990s a cer­tain prob­lem­atic was start­ing to crys­tal­lize which I would broadly call a search for a Marx­ist inter­na­tional his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy. I was look­ing for some­thing like that.

While I was doing my doc­toral work in the Depart­ment of Inter­na­tional Rela­tions at the LSE to pur­sue this theme, I came across the work of Robert Bren­ner and Ellen Meiksins Wood and in many ways this was an inspi­ra­tion. I con­sider this lit­er­a­ture a real break­through, in par­tic­u­lar the “Tran­si­tion Debate” on the rise of cap­i­tal­ism in late medieval Eng­land, because I think that it is rare to find Marx­ists that really step out­side their com­fort zones, out­side the core cat­e­gories and assump­tions which derive often from more or less deeply held ortho­dox con­vic­tions, and to engage his­tory in open-minded, inno­v­a­tive and rig­or­ous ways by tak­ing his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal research seri­ously.3 I wanted to see how I could use Brenner’s work in order to think through and fur­ther his­tori­cize polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy and inter­na­tional rela­tions. So I think that is essen­tially what brought me to my own work, i.e. draw­ing out the impli­ca­tions of the “Tran­si­tion Debate” for his­tori­ciz­ing inter­na­tional rela­tions and devel­op­ing Polit­i­cal Marx­ism for Inter­na­tional His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­ogy in the process.

GS and AA: You are one of the main ini­tia­tors of the Polit­i­cal Marx­ism Research Group at the Uni­ver­sity of Sus­sex. What are the aims of this research group and how do you posi­tion your­selves in rela­tion to the tra­di­tion of Polit­i­cal Marx­ism?

BT: The aim of the Polit­i­cal Marx­ism Work­ing Group is to provide a plat­form to not only pas­sively rely on the first gen­er­a­tion of Polit­i­cal Marx­ists, but also to try to develop the research pro­gram and the­o­ret­i­cal com­mit­ments in new direc­tions and in pro­duc­tive ways.

One prob­lem that dis­tin­guishes dif­fer­ent ten­den­cies within Polit­i­cal Marx­ism – what may be called PM 1 and PM 2 – is the need to explore the unre­solved ten­sion between a resid­ual struc­tural­ism encap­su­lated in the cat­e­gory of social prop­erty rela­tions and its log­i­cally derived “rules of repro­duc­tion,” and the simul­ta­ne­ous adher­ence to a strong his­tori­cism, which cen­ters social con­flict, class agency, and unin­tended con­se­quences. Samuel Knafo and I speak to this prob­lem in our paper, “The Rules of Repro­duc­tion of Cap­i­tal­ism: A His­tori­cist Cri­tique.” This ten­sion, we think, has led over time to an ideal-typ­i­fied con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in PM 1, defined as “mar­ket-depen­dency,” in which mar­ket imper­a­tives seem to pre­scribe and auto-gen­er­ate class agency – a read­ing also present in Charles Post and Vivek Chibbers’s work.4

Over­com­ing this relapse into a func­tion­al­ist con­cep­tion of class agency and an econ­o­mistic under­stand­ing of the oper­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ism (even when grounded in a dis­tinct set of cap­i­tal­ist social prop­erty rela­tions) requires what we call a stronger com­mit­ment to a rad­i­cal his­tori­cism. This fore­grounds agency, sit­u­ated and con­tex­tu­al­ized, at all lev­els to retrieve a sense of the more open-ended con­flicts and insti­tu­tional inno­va­tions that char­ac­ter­ize diverse tra­jec­to­ries of cap­i­tal­ism. The ele­men­tary insight is sim­ple: if cap­i­tal­ism is con­ceived as a polit­i­cally con­tested social rela­tion, then we can­not con­cep­tu­al­ize agents as act­ing out a pre-ordained script or logic. We need to turn our think­ing around and estab­lish what peo­ple do in the face of “imper­a­tives” or pres­sures to pin­point the dif­fer­ence they make as they go along repro­duc­ing them­selves – often inno­vat­ing in the process. We can­not con­ceive of agents as pas­sive rule-fol­low­ers, but as actively devis­ing strate­gies of repro­duc­tion in speci­fic con­texts.

The prob­lem, in other words, is how to con­ceive of cap­i­tal­ism not as a the­o­ret­i­cally closed cat­e­gory, but as a his­tor­i­cally open praxis. This requires a move away from gen­eral model-build­ing towards his­tor­i­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tion. For me, this per­tains par­tic­u­larly to the issue of devel­op­ing an approach to IR that does not sub­sume for­eign pol­icy mak­ing and diplo­macy under wider struc­tural and sys­temic pres­sures, whether grounded in rei­fied “log­ics” of cap­i­tal­ism or rei­fied “log­ics” of state ratio­nal­ity, but that accords effi­cacy to polit­i­cal agency on its own terms. This is not to argue for some rad­i­cal state auton­omy, but to take seri­ously the fact that agency can rarely be fully resolved back into con­tex­tual imper­a­tives or antecedent con­di­tions, as peo­ple tend to inno­vate in unpre­dictable ways to respond to, cir­cum­vent, and escape from such pres­sures. His­tory is then not con­ceived as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of over­ar­ch­ing log­ics or laws – a sec­ondary reg­is­ter meant to con­firm apri­or­is­tic abstrac­tions and pre-con­ceived axioms – but itself the first-order ter­rain of inquiry, as peo­ple make their own his­tory.

This type of think­ing is also dis­tinct from David Harvey’s Marx­ist geog­ra­phy, which ulti­mately grounds the dynam­ics of “cap­i­tal out­bound” in deeply rooted sys­temic pres­sures, which require “spa­tial fixes” at the infra-struc­tural level and suc­ces­sive rounds of “accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion.” But this is essen­tially an econ­o­mistic and total­iz­ing con­cep­tion of the transna­tion­al­iza­tion of cap­i­tal­ism with­out inter­na­tional pol­i­tics, which is then re-cap­tured ex post through the prob­lem­atic and rei­fied addi­tion of a logic of power, appar­ently pur­sued by state-man­agers. Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-sys­tem the­ory, at least when it was ini­tially formed, is another exam­ple of sub­ject­ing his­tory to grand cycles – the cycles of hege­mony – and the sys­temic pres­sures of the rela­tions between core, semi-periph­eral and periph­eral states. Rosenberg’s cur­rent work, in turn, seems to embrace a pos­i­tivis­tic and nomo­log­i­cal con­cep­tion of uneven and com­bined devel­op­ment as yet another over­ar­ch­ing mas­ter con­cept and cov­er­ing law for world his­tory as a whole.5 Here, his­tory and agency are ulti­mately down­graded to man­i­fes­ta­tions of a sub­ject­less law that imposes its imper­a­tives regard­less of what peo­ple do, so that his­tory is slot­ted into a few a pri­ori omnibus cat­e­gories.

I will add that Clas­si­cal Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism also fell into the struc­tural-func­tion­al­ist trap, as monopoly cap­i­tal­ism was con­ceived as a sys­tem-wide stage, at least in the core Euro­pean cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, which imposed its require­ments on states and their for­eign poli­cies. This dras­ti­cally reduced the effi­cacy of diplo­macy and the active con­duct of inter­na­tional pol­i­tics. These the­o­ries all suf­fer from advanc­ing the­o­ries of inter­na­tional rela­tions with­out inter­na­tional pol­i­tics and, what I come think is key, the active for­mu­la­tion of “grand strate­gies” that tell us much more about the link between domes­tic pol­i­tics and for­eign pol­icy for­ma­tion – and, ulti­mately, inter­na­tional order­ing. It is this com­mit­ment to an anti-for­mal­is­tic rad­i­cal his­tori­cism that, to my mind, is the dif­fer­en­tia speci­fica of our under­stand­ing of Polit­i­cal Marx­ism.

So, this is essen­tially our goal: try­ing to go beyond the orig­i­nal “Tran­si­tion Debate” to more fully his­tori­cize cap­i­tal­ism and “cap­i­tal­ist” inter­na­tional rela­tions. I am look­ing now more at what I want to call the polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies of his­tor­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism: how you can think about for­eign pol­icy informed by a PM approach, empha­siz­ing the uni­lat­eral or mul­ti­lat­eral con­struc­tion and clashes of state strate­gies, whose inter­ac­tions often lead to unin­tended con­se­quences. What I have in mind here is to take seri­ously the fact that the his­tor­i­cal record of “cap­i­tal­ist” for­eign pol­icy – the struc­tur­ing and man­age­ment of spaces of cap­i­tal – is so incred­i­bly diverse: from the Peace of Utrecht that left a speci­fic polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy on the Con­ti­nent reg­u­lated by British power-bal­anc­ing, via the Vienna Set­tle­ment and the Con­cert of Europe, the con­struc­tion of the West­ern Hemi­sphere through the Mon­roe Doc­trine, for­mal and infor­mal impe­ri­alisms in the late 19th cen­tury, the Amer­i­can inter­war strat­egy to break up the old empires and replace them at Ver­sailles by push­ing mini-state pro­lif­er­a­tions through the prin­ci­ple of “national self-deter­mi­na­tion,” based on lib­eral and repub­li­can state forms and tied into notions of col­lec­tive secu­rity, Ger­man and Japan­ese notions of autarchic regional orders – Carl Schmitt’s “greater spaces” – to US hege­mony and the Euro­pean Inte­gra­tion Project. The polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies of his­tor­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism can­not be derived from a par­tic­u­lar “logic of cap­i­tal,” either with recourse to the generic con­cept itself, or par­tic­u­lar phases of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, but require a much more fine-tuned his­tori­cist approach that empha­sizes their con­struc­tion – rather than sub­sump­tion under some sub specie aeter­ni­tatis prin­ci­ple – be it the clas­si­cal IR trope of power pol­i­tics and states as secu­rity accu­mu­la­tors in a con­di­tion of anar­chy or the clas­si­cal Marx­ist trope of cap­i­tal­ist geopol­i­tics. For what is a cap­i­tal­ist for­eign pol­icy sup­posed to be, in the abstract? So we are broad­en­ing out into other fields, into other areas while try­ing to the­o­ret­i­cally refine or refor­mu­late the early bril­liant, but the­o­ret­i­cally some­what prob­lem­atic, work of Bren­ner and Wood.

GS and AA: Can you explain the argu­ment of your work, The Myth of 1648, and how it chal­lenges the reifi­ca­tion of the Treaty of West­phalia as the found­ing moment of mod­ern inter­na­tional rela­tions? If West­phalia was not the found­ing moment of mod­ern inter­na­tional rela­tions, what does that imply in polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal terms? What were some of the crit­i­cisms you received?

BT: This work came at a very pro­pi­tious moment, speak­ing to the “his­tor­i­cal and post-pos­i­tivis­tic turns” in the field of IR, which, as men­tioned, was at the time a very an unusual aca­d­e­mic dis­ci­pline, and very much focused on the United States. It pro­vided – and still does in the U.S. and else­where – essen­tially strate­gic advice for the pow­ers that be: advice for the Prince on mat­ters of state­craft, or Herrschaftswis­sen (knowl­edge of dom­i­na­tion) as Frank­furt School the­o­rists would call it. Here was a whole field of aca­d­e­mic inquiry that makes no bones about being directly sub­servient to state power, in which schol­ars moved effort­lessly between uni­ver­sity depart­ments, think tanks, and gov­ern­men­tal posi­tions – all united in sug­gest­ing ways of how the United States could main­tain or enhance its posi­tion at the apex of the inter­state hier­ar­chy – whether through con­flict or coop­er­a­tion. The result was an intel­lec­tual shal­low­ness that struck me from the start as scan­dalously out of sync with all the stan­dards of social-sci­en­tific and his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal inquiry.

In ret­ro­spect, I would say that I started the project with three big ques­tions in mind: First, how could I show the his­toric­ity of polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy, the poli­ties that com­pose geopo­lit­i­cal orders, and their “inter­na­tional rela­tions” by ground­ing this in con­tested social rela­tions? Hence the return to medieval his­tory. This was designed to dis­lodge the pre­vail­ing state-cen­trism and his­tor­i­cally incred­i­bly myopic and mis­lead­ing attempts of tran­shis­tor­i­cal gen­eral-the­ory-build­ing in main­stream Anglo-Amer­i­can IR, built around anar­chy, power-max­i­miza­tion, and power-bal­anc­ing, as if for­eign pol­icy had been played out since time immemo­rial accord­ing to the same tune.

Sec­ond, why – and this is a more gen­uinely inter­est­ing ques­tion – does cap­i­tal­ism exist within a sys­tem of plu­ral states and what is the his­tor­i­cal rela­tion between the two? This was designed to query and desta­bi­lize the assump­tion, held for exam­ple by Wallerstein’s World-Sys­tems-The­ory, that the inter­state sys­tem, the mul­ti­ple polit­i­cal juris­dic­tion that splin­ter a cap­i­tal­ist space co-exten­sive with the world-mar­ket, is some­how the “nat­u­ral” or “nec­es­sary” (geo-)political form of cap­i­tal­ism, causally con­nected to cap­i­tal­ist require­ments – hence the need to go back to the Car­olin­gian Empire and to track the chang­ing polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies of medieval and early mod­ern Europe. The aim was to show the socio-polit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal con­struc­tion of the inter­state sys­tem dur­ing the abso­lutist-dynas­tic period as a his­tor­i­cal out­come, pre­ced­ing the rise of cap­i­tal­ism.

Third, what effect had the rise of cap­i­tal­ism in early mod­ern Eng­land, as set out by Bren­ner, on British state-for­ma­tion and grand strat­egy for the order­ing and, ulti­mately, trans­for­ma­tion of pre-cap­i­tal­ist geopo­lit­i­cal rela­tions in the rest of the world? In a sense, 1648 was a casu­alty of this research pro­gram, and not the prime tar­get – partly because it seemed obvi­ous to me that any­body semi-lit­er­ate in early mod­ern his­tory and peace treaties would not take IR’s claims on the West­phalian Settlement’s “moder­nity” seri­ously – though it turned out that I had under­es­ti­mated how deeply ingrained this idée fixe was in the col­lec­tive dis­ci­pli­nary mind­set. So, The Myth of 1648 and the sub­se­quent Deutscher Memo­rial Lec­ture had a wide recep­tion, inside and out­side IR, and inside and out­side Marx­ism.

The response from within the field of IR cen­tered less on these ana­lyt­i­cal ques­tions – which were more pro­duc­tively taken up from within the Marx­ist dis­course – and more on the revi­sion of the sta­tus of 1648. While few quib­bled with the empir­i­cal verac­ity of my inter­pre­ta­tion of the Set­tle­ment, three stan­dard responses emerged, apart from those, very few, that under­stood my account as a plau­si­ble alter­na­tive the­o­riza­tion.

The nor­mal tac­ti­cal move was first to say that while the notion of “West­phalia” was indeed widely accepted as a start­ing point for mod­ern inter­na­tional rela­tions, it was never meant to be a seri­ous his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal the­sis in IR as a sci­en­tific field. The anar­chy-assump­tion asso­ci­ated with West­phalia was just a con­ve­nient Polit­i­cal Sci­ence model, whose his­tor­i­cal verac­ity is really by the by. It is just a model of how to visu­al­ize inter­state rela­tions in an anar­chi­cal envi­ron­ment. The rea­son­ing was that there is no need to worry much about the speci­fic ori­gins of the inter­state order, as his­tory was in IR a sec­ondary con­cern that can be neglected.

The sec­ond answer was that there was some truth to my argu­men­ta­tion but that IR had never really main­tained that the mod­ern inter­state sys­tem fell overnight fully-fledged from the sky, that it was sud­denly insti­tu­tion­al­ized after the Thirty Years’ War, so that 1648 was a mere step­ping-stone in a much longer and drawn-out grad­ual process..

The third response, com­ing often from post-struc­tural­ists, was to say maybe you are right, but it is still a myth, a dis­cur­sive myth, and thus still a pow­er­ful per­for­ma­tive dis­course con­sti­tu­tive not only for the dis­ci­pline but also for real­ity to the degree that pol­icy mak­ers more or less use West­phalia as a rhetor­i­cal device or per­for­ma­tive praxis, so that the idea has taken on a his­tor­i­cal effi­cacy of its own. And in that sense 1648 still needs to be taken seri­ously. This kind of argu­ment is, of course in a way true – if peo­ple start believ­ing in false claims then they become ide­ol­ogy. But this does not really con­sti­tute an account οf how else to think about West­phalia, espe­cially from a crit­i­cal point of view.

GS and AA: How do you now assess the gen­eral effects of this work and your his­tor­i­cal approach for under­stand­ing cap­i­tal­ist inter­na­tional rela­tions? How has it affected the course of your cur­rent research?

BT: Ulti­mately, the debate over iden­ti­fy­ing a deter­mi­nate moment in time – a sys­tem-wide tip­ping-point for the arrival of mod­ern or cap­i­tal­ist inter­state rela­tions – leads into an intel­lec­tual impasse, charged with tele­o­log­i­cal assump­tions. The his­tor­i­cal impli­ca­tion of my research is sim­ply that the search for sud­den “sys­temic” changes across inter­na­tional orders is futile. It grates with the idea of his­tory as a process aller­gic to sys­tem-wide peri­odiza­tions of clear-cut “befores” and “afters,” given dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties of devel­op­ment in dif­fer­ent regions. It also imputes that we know what “mod­ern” or “cap­i­tal­ist” inter­na­tional rela­tions are sup­posed to look like, once that imag­i­nary thresh­old had been crossed. We don’t! What does it mean to say this or that is a dis­tinctly cap­i­tal­ist for­eign pol­icy, if cap­i­tal­ist for­eign poli­cies take on dis­tinct forms in con­crete cases? As we know, these can range from defen­sive pos­tures, to alliance-for­ma­tions and con­cert-sys­tems, for­mal to infor­mal impe­ri­al­ism, attempts to estab­lish dis­tinct regional spheres of influ­ence, as for exam­ple insti­tu­tion­al­ized in the U.S. Mon­roe Doc­trine or fas­cist Gross­raum-build­ing, to types of quasi-con­sen­sual hege­mony, decol­o­niza­tion, or regional inte­gra­tion, as in the case of the EU. Nobody in his or her right mind could deny that cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion is a pow­er­ful motive in the for­eign pol­icy cal­cu­la­tions of cap­i­tal­ist states, but this doesn’t tell us much about the speci­fic con­struc­tion of speci­fic for­eign pol­icy strate­gies, polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies, and their chances of real­iza­tion.

The whole point of my argu­ment is less about find­ing a moment in time where mod­ern or cap­i­tal­ist inter­na­tional rela­tions were enacted, but to think a lit­tle bit more about the vari­abil­ity in the con­struc­tion of for­eign pol­icy strate­gies for the geopo­lit­i­cal man­age­ment of inter­state rela­tions over time, even within a cap­i­tal­ist con­text. Now, this type of his­tori­cism is often quickly dis­missed by more pos­i­tivis­ti­cally-minded IR the­o­rists who equate IR as a social sci­ence with a con­cep­tion of the­ory that val­i­dates deter­minisms and gen­er­al­iza­tions, so that my work is some­times referred to as belong­ing more to his­to­ri­og­ra­phy or to inter­pre­ta­tion or to some­thing else. My epis­te­mo­log­i­cal strat­egy is then down­played and down­graded as some­thing that it is not sci­en­tific, maybe con­struc­tivist, inter­pre­tivist, or hermeneu­tic or so but con­sid­ered as being out­side the essen­tial field def­i­n­i­tion of IR – and this comes also from Marx­ists who assign struc­tural effi­cacy to cap­i­tal­ism and its expan­sion­ary ten­den­cies. But the key point for me is sim­ply to keep demon­strat­ing that it is mis­lead­ing to cen­ter a pre­con­ceived and ideal-typ­i­fied notion of cap­i­tal­ism as being struc­turally effi­ca­cious for inter­na­tional rela­tions in deter­min­is­tic ways. Rather what we need to do is to con­stantly his­tori­cize and when we do that we will start to see that the link, the medi­a­tion between the pres­ence of cap­i­tal­ism and for­eign pol­icy for­ma­tion is very var­ie­gated, often inde­ter­mi­nate, not only in terms of for­eign pol­icy for­ma­tion, but also in terms of polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy as such. So, this is to react against the com­mon idea that we have to start from firm axioms or firm expec­ta­tions derived from capitalism’s sys­temic pres­sures.

I say that some­where in the early work of mine where I sug­gest that from the 17th cen­tury onwards cap­i­tal­ism emerged and started to expand, but not as an organic process that could be rig­or­ously the­o­rized. Rather, what we see is an incred­i­ble diver­sity in the con­struc­tion of for­eign poli­cies and spa­tial orders from the early 18th cen­tury onwards up to now. So this for­ma­tive period is look­ing obvi­ously very dif­fer­ent from the early 19th cen­tury after the enact­ment of the insti­tu­tional, geo­graph­i­cal and prac­ti­cal inno­va­tions in inter­na­tional rela­tions – the Con­cert Sys­tem and the “Holy Alliance” after the Napoleonic Wars in the Vienna Con­gress, in which, inci­den­tally, Britain was unable and unwill­ing to impose any­thing like the hege­monic designs the­o­rized by Neo-Gram­s­cians in rela­tion to con­ti­nen­tal Europe; and this looks again very dif­fer­ently from the estab­lish­ment of the more for­mal­ized alliance-sys­tems and power-bal­anc­ing after the turn of the cen­tury in the run-up to World War I. Post-1945 United States hege­mony is again a very, very dif­fer­ent way to order cap­i­tal­ist inter­state rela­tions, then post-9/11 rela­tion, and so on and so forth. We all know this, of course, but Marx­ists still want to reduce this often to either some essence of cap­i­tal­ism or some stage of cap­i­tal­ism or some other grand explana­tory for­mula. I think the his­tor­i­cal record just shows how prob­lem­atic is to do a short­cut between cap­i­tal­ism, a par­tic­u­lar type of for­eign pol­icy, and a par­tic­u­lar type of geopo­lit­i­cal order. So, in short, I mean the research pro­gram that derives from this con­cep­tion is to do much more detailed work, his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal work.

What I am doing right now is to look at the Peace Treaty of Utrecht, which sounds again very anti­quar­ian, but this was a big peace set­tle­ment, much under-stud­ied in IR, that con­cluded the Span­ish Wars of Suc­ces­sion in 1713 and changed the rules of the game. It is sig­nif­i­cant for me because Utrecht allows me to draw out the dis­tinc­tions between the old regime char­ac­ter of 1648 and the first attempt by post-1688 Britain to develop a new and very dis­tinct type of grand strat­egy, call it cap­i­tal­ist if you want, pre­cisely with­out pro­mot­ing cap­i­tal­ism on the Con­ti­nent. So, after the Glo­ri­ous Rev­o­lu­tion in 1688, Britain starts to make its dis­tinct for­eign pol­icy designs felt inter­na­tion­ally, enforced and accepted mul­ti­lat­er­ally at Utrecht. What is inno­v­a­tive here, a point alluded to at the end of my book, but now fleshed out much more clearly, is that Britain devel­oped a new and unique insti­tu­tional basis for con­duct­ing for­eign pol­icy, as for­eign pol­icy is hence­forth answer­able to Par­lia­ment. This allows for the artic­u­la­tion of for­eign pol­icy in terms of a much more sober and sec­u­lar cal­cu­lus of the “national inter­est,” no longer con­nected to the whims of the Kabi­nettspoli­tik of abso­lutist rulers. This involves the attempt to re-order Euro­pean polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy in line with British secu­rity inter­ests and, on that new geo­graph­i­cal basis, to engage in power bal­anc­ing to avoid the re-emer­gence of a con­ti­nen­tal hege­monic rival.

Power-bal­anc­ing is there­fore not a law of world pol­i­tics, but a very speci­fic con­scious prac­tice – a con­scious con­struc­tion of a grand strat­egy devel­oped by sit­u­ated actors. Daniel Baugh wrote in the 1980s a great arti­cle on this, show­ing the emer­gence of the “blue-water strat­egy,” which had a dual aspect: the estab­lish­ment of uni­lat­eral mar­itime-com­mer­cial supremacy over­seas, while being much more defen­sive in rela­tion to Europe.6 But this was not a func­tional out­come of a cap­i­tal­ist con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy in which sov­er­eignty lay now with Par­lia­ment, but required the con­struc­tion of a very speci­fic wartime strat­egy and peace plan con­tested between the Whigs and the Tories, enacted at Utrecht, and nego­ti­ated with other peace par­ties. So, if you push this kind of work con­cep­tu­ally then you start very quickly to real­ize that notions like “mod­ern” in inter­na­tional rela­tions do not mean much, they do not give you much, because they imply com­mon­al­i­ties, rather than dif­fer­ences. The rise of cap­i­tal­ism in Britain and how this led to new for­eign pol­icy ven­tures and, later, the trans­for­ma­tion of Euro­pean and over­seas pol­i­tics is cer­tainly not a pat­tern­less process, but these broad pat­terns them­selves do not give you much in terms of the way that state politi­cians actu­ally inno­vate at the for­eign pol­icy level. So his­tory is a process – an inter­ac­tive con­struc­tion that is the obvi­ous point, the big point that I would like to make against any temp­ta­tion of relaps­ing into struc­tural expla­na­tions.

GS and AA: Could you explain how your work shows how Marx­ist the­ory, and in par­tic­u­lar the Polit­i­cal Marx­ist notion of “social prop­erty rela­tions,” can help chal­lenge and rede­fine some of the core assump­tions of IR the­ory and his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy? Do you think that, vice versa, IR can be used to help improv­ing Marx­ist the­ory?

BT: You have to under­stand that main­stream Anglo-Amer­i­can IR was, until very recently, built on the assump­tion that the­o­riz­ing departs from the exis­tence of the inter­state sys­tem as a nat­u­ral given, rather than some­thing that requires expla­na­tion in the first place. It posits the polit­i­cal as an autonomous sphere in which states are gener­i­cally endowed with a uni­tary ratio­nal­ity and ascribed cer­tain attrib­utes, fore­most sur­vival, secu­rity, and hence power-max­i­miza­tion. Once these axioms are in place, you can then estab­lish by means of a series of log­i­cal deduc­tions how ratio­nal state action in a con­di­tion of inter­na­tional anar­chy leads to cer­tain likely out­comes, includ­ing power-bal­anc­ing, lead­ing to some kind of self-equi­li­brat­ing sys­temic logic. This is a nice lit­tle exer­cise in abstract logic, actu­ally mod­eled, by Ken­neth Waltz, in anal­ogy to the work­ings of the anar­chy of com­pet­i­tive mar­kets self-reg­u­lated by the invis­i­ble hand. It is also said to be grounded in ancient wis­doms – si vis pacem para bel­lum – but bears hardly any rela­tion to real­ity. So the works of Hans Mor­gen­thau and later of Ken­neth Waltz are really premised on draw­ing an ana­lyt­i­cal Rubi­con between the state and sys­temic inter­state rela­tions and any­thing that goes on within soci­eties within these states. So the domes­tic and the social are excised from the remit of what could count as pos­si­ble influ­ences on state­craft and for­eign pol­icy – party pol­i­tics, busi­ness and sec­tor inter­ests, social crises and so on.

This is of course an incred­i­bly nar­row, impov­er­ished and ide­o­log­i­cal way to think about inter­na­tional rela­tions as a social sci­ence. More inter­est­ing than crit­i­ciz­ing these kinds of model-build­ing, which is often ped­dled as “hard sci­ence,” is the intel­lec­tual geneal­ogy that trans­posed right-wing and sta­tist Weimar think­ing, often through Ger­man schol­ars, to the post-WWII and early Cold War US-Amer­i­can scene, dis­plac­ing an older “lib­eral” approach to IR asso­ci­ated with Wilso­ni­an­ism. Mor­gen­thau, for exam­ple, was not only influ­enced by Max Weber but also by Carl Schmitt’s con­cept of the polit­i­cal, which con­ceives of the polit­i­cal as an autonomous sphere, acti­vated by “us” ver­sus “them” bina­ries. This was not so much a ref­er­ence to Schmitt’s def­i­n­i­tion of sov­er­eignty in terms of who holds the power to declare state emer­gen­cies that sus­pend the rou­tine work­ings of par­lia­men­tary sov­er­eignty in lib­eral poli­ties, but rather to his infa­mous idea that a dif­fer­ent, purely polit­i­cal, logic kicks in as soon as cer­tain pre-polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences reach a state of inten­sity that have a poten­tially lethal antag­o­nis­tic qual­ity. Appar­ently, Mor­gen­thau advised Schmitt to insert this idea of “inten­si­fi­ca­tion” of non-polit­i­cal issues into his tract on Der Begriff des Poli­tis­chen. So, a con­ser­v­a­tive and semi-fas­cist notion of the polit­i­cal, forged in the Weimar sit­u­a­tion to quar­an­tine class con­flict, was trans­posed into an altered US con­text, now char­ac­ter­ized by a Cold War logic.

Today, the field of IR is, of course, much richer, espe­cially out­side the United States, but it is hard to dis­lodge the preva­lence of Real­ism, Neo-real­ism and what is called Neo-lib­eral Insti­tu­tion­al­ism – another ver­sion of ratio­nal­ist think­ing about strate­gic state behav­ior. So, these tra­di­tions were directly tar­geted by my book by bring­ing his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy back.

His­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy, in turn, is dom­i­nated by Neo-Webe­ri­an­ism and the tau­to­log­i­cal argu­ment that “war-made-states and states-made-war” – and this is the pre­vail­ing con­sen­sus as to how the mod­ern state and the inter­state sys­tem at large emerged in early mod­ern Europe. Many his­to­ri­ans use John Brewer’s notion of the “fis­cal-mil­i­tary state” that ratio­nal­izes state struc­tures to pro­cure state rev­enues to con­duct war to say the same thing. Very few peo­ple con­nect these devel­op­ments with changes in social rela­tions, and, in par­tic­u­lar, with how social con­flict, in spite of sim­i­lar mil­i­tary rival­ries, diverted tra­jec­to­ries of state-build­ing into dif­fer­en­tial direc­tions – abso­lutism, con­sti­tu­tional monar­chies, republics, etc. This is why Brenner’s work was so sem­i­nal for me.

I would, today, stress though, as I said ear­lier, that I no longer fully sub­scribe to the con­cept of “social prop­erty rela­tions,” at least in the way it is styl­ized in more rig­or­ous ana­lyt­i­cal fash­ion by Bren­ner. Bren­ner sug­gested that prop­erty rela­tions gen­er­ate – almost auto-gen­er­ate – deter­mi­nate rules of repro­duc­tion on both sides of the class rela­tion, whether in feu­dal or cap­i­tal­ist “soci­eties.”7 These then lead either to “non-devel­op­ment” in feu­dal soci­ety or “devel­op­ment” in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties. This was use­ful to draw the con­trast, starkly, between two dif­fer­ent sets of social rela­tions for ana­lyt­i­cal pur­poses, but this con­cep­tion also relapses into reifi­ca­tions and rigidi­ties that do not square with the his­tor­i­cal record (cer­tainly not for “cap­i­tal­ism”) and sup­press the “lived agency” of peo­ple.

I think that Ellen Wood’s sem­i­nal New Left Review arti­cle on “The Sep­a­ra­tion of the Eco­nomic and the Polit­i­cal in Cap­i­tal­ism,” when read care­fully, points to a dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing, namely one cen­tered around the socio-polit­i­cal and non-econ­o­mistic char­ac­ter of cap­i­tal­ism.8 This was inspired much more by E.P. Thompson’s work at the time, and I feel much more com­fort­able with this his­tori­cist, rather than log­i­cal-ana­lyt­i­cal, con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. This really leads us back to very fun­da­men­tal and long-stand­ing con­tro­ver­sies that reach right back to Marx’s work, when he declares in the pref­ace to Das Kap­i­tal that it treats “indi­vid­u­als only as per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of eco­nomic cat­e­gories, the bear­ers of par­tic­u­lar class-rela­tions and inter­ests,” rather than as his­tor­i­cal actors.9 To my mind, Brenner’s work, at least in the orig­i­nal Tran­si­tion Debate, is the­o­ret­i­cally sus­pended between these two con­tra­dic­tory ori­en­ta­tions: class con­flict and his­toric­ity ver­sus abstract rules of repro­duc­tion and dynam­ics of devel­op­ment and non-devel­op­ment.

Inversely the ques­tion is: does Marx­ism need IR – less the sub­stan­tial body of IR schol­ar­ship, but more the prob­lem­atic of space and inter­spa­tial rela­tions for the Marx­ist con­cep­tion of his­tory, for Marx­ist his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and social sci­ence? I have been say­ing for a long time that inter­na­tional rela­tions are a big chal­lenge for Marx­ism, and this, again, goes right back to Marx’s own work. Marx never really sys­tem­at­i­cally thought about inter­na­tional rela­tions as a dis­tinct object of inquiry. Of course, we can look at his jour­nal­is­tic writ­ings, notes, and let­ters, and they are full of inter­est­ing insights on this or that con­tem­po­rary inter­na­tional cri­sis, though this never crys­tal­lized into some­thing that he took seri­ously, the­o­ret­i­cally speak­ing. He grew more inter­ested in inter­na­tional affairs dur­ing the 1850s at the time of the Crimean War, and then wrote exten­sively on the Amer­i­can Civil War, the “East­ern Ques­tion,” and India. Kevin Ander­son sets this all out nicely in his book.10 But the tone was set by the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, which is full of lovely metaphors on inter­na­tional issues – and pow­er­ful great metaphors – but, here, the key cat­e­gory that is doing all the work is the world mar­ket or “bour­geois world soci­ety.” And the world mar­ket keeps expand­ing, but it is expand­ing basi­cally along transna­tional lines “cre­at­ing a world after its own image.” Mean­ing it is, to quote, “not the heavy artillery that is bat­ter­ing down Chi­nese walls, but the cheap prices of com­modi­ties” that force all “bar­bar­ian” nations to capit­u­late and adopt the bour­geois mode of pro­duc­tion. And as we all know, of course, that’s not true: in each and every case cap­i­tal­ism had to force its way into non-cap­i­tal­ist ter­ri­to­ries by state force, and nor­mally through war – in this case the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties.

So, even where Marx spoke about inter­na­tional rela­tions, fleet­ingly or in this sec­ondary aspect, he seemed to under-prob­lema­tize the effect of inter­na­tional rela­tions on the course and devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism. Now, The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo and the Ger­man Ide­ol­ogy belong of course to the early phase of Marx, still very much influ­enced by Adam Smith, still a very lib­eral con­cep­tion, really, of how cap­i­tal­ism basi­cally uni­ver­sal­izes in paci­fic ways due to the grow­ing divi­sion of labor, rather than in terms of geopol­i­tics and con­flict­ual changes in prop­erty rela­tions. The world mar­ket appears as an agency to ren­der mul­ti­ple regions homo­ge­neous by sub­ject­ing them to a com­mon world mar­ket logic. So the Welt­markt becomes his mega-sub­ject and this sup­presses how world-mar­ket pres­sures are medi­ated by states, includ­ing how affected states and social classes within them respond to the encroach­ment of mar­ket imper­a­tives. How was this process man­aged geopo­lit­i­cally and how did later devel­op­ers insti­tu­tion­al­ize mar­ket rela­tions in very dif­fer­ent ways?

So the big point is that, as we know, Marx never wrote a dis­tinct tome on either inter­na­tional trade or on war and geopol­i­tics – a tome that would have prob­lema­tized the space­less assump­tions of either a stag­ist con­cep­tion of world his­tory or a uni­ver­sal­iz­ing cap­i­tal­ist world mar­ket. And in that sense IR – less as a dis­ci­pline but more as a prob­lem­atic – remains very press­ing and urgent for Marx­ists to reap­pro­pri­ate, notwith­stand­ing of course the work that was done by the clas­si­cal the­o­rists of impe­ri­al­ism: V. I. Lenin, Niko­lai Bukharin, and to some degree Rosa Lux­em­burg. But there the prob­lem was that they ended up with a func­tion­al­ist and instru­men­tal­ist account of states, and many peo­ple have shown how empir­i­cally prob­lem­atic it was to ground the scram­ble for Africa and the repar­ti­tion of the world in the tran­si­tion from mid-19th cen­tury com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism to turn-of-the-cen­tury monopoly cap­i­tal­ism.

So how­ever pow­er­ful an inter­ven­tion the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism were at the time, I think what really stands out as the most sys­tem­atic attempt to con­cep­tu­al­ize inter­na­tional rela­tions can be found in the anti-Marx­ist – Neo-Rankean and Neo-Webe­rian – tra­di­tion. While this is, in the end, dis­ap­point­ing, it forces us to open up IR to a much more com­pre­hen­sive need to rethink and to reclaim it for Marx­ism.

GS and AA: The recent cri­sis and the present-day era of aus­ter­ity have led to increas­ing ques­tion­ing about the legit­i­macy and via­bil­ity of the EU project. There are dis­agree­ments within the new Euro­pean left par­ties (Syriza, Podemos) about the pos­si­bil­ity of using the EU as a polit­i­cal vehi­cle to pro­pose pro­gres­sive social reform. What is your posi­tion on this issue?

BT: The sit­u­a­tion for a pro­gres­sive left pol­i­tics in Europe is invid­i­ous, yet not with­out hope. It seems to me that the con­tra­dic­tions of a pro­gres­sive pop­ulism, inspired by a Laclauian read­ing of Carl Schmitt, that revolves around an antag­o­nis­tic strat­egy of national mass mobi­liza­tion feed­ing on the raw dis­tinc­tion between “them” and “us,” and a left-lean­ing Euro­pean reformism are cur­rently play­ing out across Europe, par­tic­u­larly in Greece. Tac­ti­cally, it seems to me that this con­fronta­tional pop­ulism has gen­er­ated a much harsher response from the Troika than ever imag­in­able, and we are fac­ing a real prospect of the inter­nal self-destruc­tion of Syriza because of that. Worse, we may even see the right-wing coali­tion part­ner gain from this fail­ure of Alex Tsipras’s lead­er­ship, includ­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a right-wing mil­i­tary coup in Greece. A pro­gres­sive pop­ulism may be the right tac­tic domes­ti­cally, but it is the wrong strat­egy in for­eign pol­icy, as it hard­ens divi­sions with­out any real prospect of over­com­ing them. I am, of course, livid with Germany’s reac­tion to the Greek Cri­sis, mount­ing effec­tively an eco­nomic occu­pa­tion of Greece, an infor­mal coup d’état, rid­ing roughshod across all fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of the Euro­pean Union and the whole dri­vel of Euro­pean sol­i­dar­ity. The EU, for sure, stands exposed!

But we need to ask our­selves whether this con­fronta­tional-pop­ulist rhetoric, how­ever much war­ranted on fac­tual grounds, has not gen­er­ated its own hyper-con­fronta­tional response from within the Troika, both at the polit­i­cal and at the pub­lic-rela­tional level. It’s invid­i­ous, because rather than pre­sent­ing the cri­sis as a con­flict between transna­tional cap­i­tal and transna­tional labor – the tax­payer – it can be dis­cur­sively fab­ri­cated as an antag­o­nism between thrifty Ger­mans – or North­ern Euro­peans – and sloth­ful Greeks, rather than what it really is: Euro­pean tax­pay­ers – the lower and mid­dle classes – bail­ing out Euro­pean banks, investors, and pub­lic cred­i­tors who mis­lend in reck­less ways, while flee­ing Greek cap­i­tal is dri­ving up hous­ing prices in Berlin and Lon­don. And this is not even men­tion­ing the role of Gold­man Sachs in cook­ing the books upon Greece’s entry into the Euro­zone, mas­sive tax-eva­sions by and cor­rup­tion within Greece’s elite, the ben­e­fits of debt-financed invest­ments in silly Greek infra­struc­tural projects for Euro­pean, par­tic­u­larly Ger­man, busi­ness, and so on.

Now, of course, EU states are locked into that arrange­ment and given what has hap­pened to Greece, we see that there is not even a vel­vet glove around the hard fist of the Ger­man gov­ern­ment. It is direct impo­si­tion of restruc­tura­tion and adjust­ment pro­grams that are not even par­tic­u­larly effec­tive either; they’ve just pushed Greece and other states ever deeper into cri­sis with­out resolv­ing their under­ly­ing debt prob­lem in any cred­i­ble way. So, pop­ulism feeds both ways, as the Ger­man press – from the Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung to the gut­ter press of Bild Zeitung and the like – is por­tray­ing this prob­lem by play­ing very much on national sen­ti­ments, and that’s the wrong ana­lytic, serv­ing stereo­types of the worst kind, with­out, of course, look­ing at what Ger­man and French banks actu­ally did in dri­ving Greece and other EU states into debt – and their agency in recov­er­ing these debts through their social­iza­tion. So the Euro­pean tax­pay­ers are essen­tially bail­ing out Greece and, in the same process, bail­ing out Ger­man, French, and British banks. But this is not rhetor­i­cally con­nected to neolib­eral cap­i­tal­ism, but to Greek lazi­ness. Now there are forces in Ger­many – like the AfD [Alter­na­tive for Ger­many, a new Euro­pho­bic far-right con­ser­v­a­tive Ger­man party] – that cap­i­tal­ize on this dis­course, ask­ing for a shrink­ing of the EU, that just the hard core states sur­vive in a recon­sti­tuted and fully neolib­er­al­ized Euro­zone and the rest can be cut free and cut loose: a prospect that would demote the Mediter­ranean EU states to an unsus­tain­able periph­eral sta­tus for the fore­see­able future.

So, we have reached a cri­sis point, but this needs to be exploited. Tac­ti­cally, I would say that the argu­ment needs to be won – won within the EU – and it can be won, given the evi­dent facts on the ground, par­tic­u­larly as I am cer­tain that there is a numer­i­cal left-of-cen­ter major­ity in EU states, even in Ger­many and France. And the demo­graph­ics of the most affected – the young – could play in this direc­tion. But left pol­i­tics, to my mind, can­not rely on nation­al­ist projects or nation­al­is­tic antag­on­i­za­tion, but needs to build strong inter­na­tional alliances. This will require mas­sive extra-par­lia­men­tar­ian and intra-par­lia­men­tar­ian mobi­liza­tion, ori­ented towards a com­plete rebuild­ing of the EU’s insti­tu­tional set-up. In this, oppor­tunis­ti­cally or abstractly call­ing for a break with the EU, espe­cially in cases where such a demand is monop­o­lized by the right and where the left pos­sesses no coher­ent strat­egy, is a dead end. The option of strate­gi­cally work­ing through Euro­pean insti­tu­tions – even when these are undoubt­edly unde­mo­c­ra­tic – should not, there­fore, be dis­carded out of hand.

GS and AA: Let’s return to the work of Carl Schmitt. His thought has received increas­ing atten­tion from left-wing intel­lec­tu­als dur­ing the past two decades (Chan­tal Mouffe, Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan, Ernesto Laclau). Do you think that the con­tem­po­rary intel­lec­tual and polit­i­cal left should engage with the dilem­mas that Carl Schmitt poses? Or is this trend a sign of polit­i­cal defeat?

BT: Schmitt’s work is poly­va­lent and can be read in mul­ti­ple ways. I can under­stand why schol­ars engage with his analy­sis and cri­tique of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, par­tic­u­larly in rela­tion to his acute insights about changes in inter­na­tional law relat­ing to the abo­li­tion of clas­si­cal inter­state war­fare and its replace­ment by a dis­crim­i­na­tory con­cept of war, human­i­tar­ian pan-inter­ven­tion­ism, and con­di­tional forms of lib­eral sov­er­eignty stretch­ing back to the Treaty of Ver­sailles and the League of Nations. So, the left can cer­tainly engage with the dilem­mas he iden­ti­fied, but I would not rec­om­mend the polit­i­cal solu­tions he pre­scribed. An abstract re-asser­tion of the polit­i­cal, orga­nized in sov­er­eign states, or a retreat into par­ti­san-war­fare, are clearly not cred­i­ble and sus­tain­able alter­na­tives for a left pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics. A left national pop­ulism, feed­ing on a crude dis­tinc­tion between “them” and “us” may be appro­pri­ate for some coun­tries, but not for deeply inte­grated and small states within Europe. If any­thing, Schmitt advo­cated highly author­i­tar­ian solu­tions to social crises in lib­eral-con­sti­tu­tional states – in his case the Weimar cri­sis – premised on the invo­ca­tion of the state of emer­gency by the state exec­u­tive, sus­pend­ing con­sti­tu­tions. Inter­na­tion­ally, he argued for the divi­sion of the world among four or five great pow­ers, each cre­at­ing their own regional spheres of influ­ence, what he called Gross­raeume or pan-regions.

Thus, I was sur­prised how uncrit­i­cally he was remo­bi­lized dur­ing the last decade or so in the Anglo-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing in IR, as an appar­ently rad­i­cal and crit­i­cal thinker. Now, to some degree I can see why that is the case. But there is some­thing like a col­lec­tive amne­sia going on around Schmitt, and non-Ger­mans don’t nec­es­sar­ily assoc­iate his thought with his role dur­ing the Nazi period, how con­tex­tu­ally polit­i­cal his work was, and how com­plicit he was intel­lec­tu­ally in launch­ing a blue­print for Nazi for­eign pol­icy. His cri­tique of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism does not mean that his pol­i­tics has much to offer for the left – quite the con­trary!

He was not one of the clas­si­cal geo-politi­cians, but through first admir­ing the Mon­roe Doc­trine in the West­ern hemi­sphere, and then resist­ing its infla­tion to global pro­por­tions through Wilso­ni­an­ism, he pro­vided essen­tially a tem­plate and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a Ger­man con­quest in the East, which he por­trayed as being more or less within the nor­mal power-polit­i­cal logic of world his­tory. Vic­to­ri­ous pow­ers basi­cally artic­u­late after con­quests the rules for inter­na­tional law, so that law fol­lows con­quest, gen­er­at­ing a “nomos” – a com­bi­na­tion of ter­ri­to­rial sov­er­eignty and law. This may be an accu­rate, if de-soci­ol­o­gized, descrip­tion of the rela­tion between law and inter­na­tional power, but do we really want to renege on the pos­si­bil­ity of intel­lec­tual, rather than just power-polit­i­cal, prin­ci­ples of inter­na­tional law and order?

So I do two things with Schmitt in my work: on the one hand I decon­struct his his­tory of inter­na­tional law and order, as out­lined in his Nomos of the Earth, and show how the attempt to provide an ide­o­log­i­cal coun­ter-nar­ra­tive to lib­eral sto­ries of inter­na­tional law is actu­ally his­tor­i­cally defec­tive and sim­ply not accu­rate.11 And sec­ondly, I’m try­ing to chal­lenge what is a very thin the­o­ret­i­cal vocab­u­lary – “con­crete order think­ing” and his con­cept of the “polit­i­cal” (the friend/foe dis­tinc­tion) – that is meant to hold and to ground this his­tor­i­cal anti-lib­eral coun­ter-nar­ra­tive. At the same time, I think it is symp­to­matic that left thinkers, includ­ing Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan and Chan­tal Mouffe and so on, have turned to Schmitt to provide the miss­ing Marx­ist geopol­i­tics, par­tic­u­larly of the inter­war period.12 So, in that sense, this relates back to my ear­lier point: because IR is still a rel­a­tive absence in the Marx­ist lit­er­a­ture, peo­ple are grop­ing around to find con­cepts, to find sto­ries that could help us to make sense of the cri­sis of law and inter­na­tional order from the late 19th cen­tury onwards, through the Thirty Years Cri­sis, and into the 20th and early 21st cen­tury with­out hav­ing fully explored the intel­lec­tual archi­tec­ture of Schmitt’s thought as a whole. Strange bed­fel­lows indeed!

What I hope to have done is to show how mis­guided and how prob­lem­atic it is to use Schmit­tian cat­e­gories and tack them onto notions of cap­i­tal­ism and class con­flict. Par­tic­u­larly because Schmitt con­ceived him­self from the start as a decid­edly anti-soci­o­log­i­cal thinker, and this con­nects him much more with the real­ist and author­i­tar­ian tra­di­tion than with any­thing else. Just remind your­self that his def­i­n­i­tion of sov­er­eignty derives from polit­i­cal the­ol­ogy, the papal plen­i­tudo potes­ta­tis and abso­lutism, and val­i­dates exec­u­tive power as some­thing out­side and above social con­flicts and social strug­gles. So he is attempt­ing to iso­late and insu­late pol­i­tics and the polit­i­cal from any form of social con­tes­ta­tion and account­abil­ity. Sov­er­eign is he who decides over the state of excep­tion. And the invo­ca­tion of his con­cept of the polit­i­cal revolves around a crude notion of volk­ish homo­gene­ity dri­ven by an exis­ten­tial­ized pol­i­tics of fear designed to drown out soci­o­log­i­cal fault-lines within socio-polit­i­cally het­ero­ge­neous and class-con­flict riven civil soci­eties.

How that can be com­pat­i­ble with Marx­ism – either the­o­ret­i­cally or polit­i­cally – requires a big leap of faith because the min­i­mum that you have to think about in rela­tion to sov­er­eignty is two things: first, sov­er­eignty is a social rela­tion. This may sound broad, but any­body who is invok­ing the state of excep­tion has to have thought prior to its dec­la­ra­tion about its likely chances of imple­men­ta­tion. What is the social sit­u­a­tion on the ground? What kind of resources do we actu­ally have in place – mil­i­tary, polit­i­cal, admin­is­tra­tive – to imple­ment that state of excep­tion? The state of excep­tion is always a deeply social­ized rela­tion, quite the con­trary of what Schmitt was try­ing to argue. Sec­ondly, what kind of cri­sis calls forth the like­li­hood of emer­gency pow­ers? Since polit­i­cal the­ol­ogy is not inter­ested in an expla­na­tion of cri­sis, in con­trast to his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­ogy or polit­i­cal econ­omy, Schmit­tian think­ing does not provide the cat­e­gories to under­stand socio-polit­i­cal crises – thus the crude relapse into an abstract notion of “the polit­i­cal”: prim­i­tive group-think­ing of “them” ver­sus “us.” And of course in rela­tion to ter­ri­to­rial con­quests – land grabs – again, Schmitt held to a deeply de-social­ized affir­ma­tion of a real­ist logic of geo-polit­i­cal dynam­ics and pow­ers that are con­sciously dis­so­ci­ated from every­thing that is going on within soci­eties. States, by nature, he insisted, expand and com­pete for space! So whether you go back to the dis­cov­er­ies of 1492 or the late 19th cen­tury period of impe­rial rivalry, Schmitt would always read this as an affir­ma­tion of the law of the stronger. That this is sim­ply what states do: self-preser­va­tion through expan­sion, cre­at­ing a nomos, rather than a cos­mos or a logos.

So I keep being sur­prised about attempts to reap­pro­pri­ate par­tic­u­larly the his­tor­i­cal Schmitt but also the con­cep­tual and polit­i­cal Schmitt by Marx­ists. To me, that’s a cul-de-sac – intel­lec­tu­ally and polit­i­cally, it’s self-defeat­ing. Yes, it is uncanny how the con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion resem­bles the inter­war cri­sis and Schmitt’s Weimar sit­u­a­tion. We have a mas­sive cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis on our hands with right-wing nation­al­ist forces in most EU coun­tries, absorbing social dis­con­tent, and a col­laps­ing lib­eral cen­ter. To advo­cate in this sce­nario, as Stef­fan Wyn-Jones reminded me, a left-wing pop­ulism and nation­al­ism that often over­laps with right-wing polit­i­cal recipes – even find­ing a tem­po­rary, if ambigu­ous, com­mon ground (whether Golden Dawn in Greece, AfD in Ger­many, the Front National in France, or UKIP in Britain) – by invok­ing Schmitt seems to me dis­as­trous. After all, National Social­ism thrived on the same amal­ga­ma­tion of left and right motives and con­stituen­cies dur­ing its rise to power, before any dreams of pop­ulist social­ism were ended in the “night of the long knives” once the Nazis were in power. It may be naïve, but a broad-based transna­tional alliance of pro­gres­sive forces seems to me the only remotely accept­able and real­is­tic way for­ward.

GS and AA: It seems that focus­ing on the “inter­na­tional” also requires us to rethink the state. Although some have done this by look­ing to non-Marx­ist thinkers, what value do you see in return­ing to trends within Marx­ism – such as the Ger­man “state debate,” which tried to pair an under­stand­ing of the form of the cap­i­tal­ist state with an analy­sis of its entan­gle­ment in rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ist com­pe­ti­tion and the world-mar­ket, or the debate between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulan­tazs, which in part tried to con­nect a the­ory of the state to ques­tions of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy and orga­ni­za­tion? How might these cur­rents of specif­i­cally Marx­ist state the­ory help us think about the “inter­na­tional” today? And con­versely, how might your renewed atten­tion on the “inter­na­tional” help us bet­ter under­stand state power and polit­i­cal strat­egy?

BT: The notion of ‘the inter­na­tional’ is, for me, a trou­bling inven­tion that keeps buy­ing into the same lan­guage of tragic neces­sity and time­less imper­a­tives advo­cated by Real­ists and Neo-real­ists in IR. I sug­gest replac­ing it with an aware­ness of how dif­fer­ently polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy and rela­tions between poli­ties were organ­ised his­tor­i­cally. Oth­er­wise, we keep on think­ing under the sway of a sta­tic mega-abstrac­tion that can­not be removed. It freezes cre­ative thought and pro­gres­sive strate­gies for eman­ci­pa­tory change and action. That is way his­tory mat­ters. It is, for exam­ple, not true - or, at least: one-sided - to say that rev­o­lu­tion­ary states, what­ever there inter­nal make-up and for­eign pol­icy strate­gies, become over time socialised into the con­ven­tions of its sur­round­ing state-sys­tem, char­ac­terised by the remorse­less logic of power pol­i­tics and self-help, as Neo­re­al­ist keep on say­ing and as Neo-Webe­rian his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gists, like Theda Skocpol argue, when she looked at the French, Rus­sian, and Ira­nian cases. It is truer to the his­tor­i­cal record to say that rev­o­lu­tion­ary states, 17th cen­tury Britain, 18th cen­tury France and the US, the 20th cen­tury Soviet Union, and, per­haps, even con­tem­po­rary Ger­many, have fun­da­men­tally changed the ‘rules of the game’ in which inter­na­tional pol­i­tics is being played out. This lead also, in many cases, to domes­tic adap­ta­tions to the inno­va­tions - con­sti­tu­tion­ally, mil­i­tar­ily, strate­gi­cally, finan­cially, socially - that rev­o­lu­tion­ary states pio­neered with­out cre­at­ing exact repli­cas. This is not an argu­ment for the paci­fic char­ac­ter of for­eign poli­cies of lib­eral or social­ist states, or a gen­eral tele­o­log­i­cal argu­ment about ‘pro­gress’ in world his­tory, but much more an argu­ment about the vari­abil­ity of for­eign poli­cies and strate­gies of con­flict and co-oper­a­tion that can­not be derived from either sys­temic inter-state log­ics or domes­tic ‘modes of pro­duc­tion’. Why does the US pur­sue mul­ti­lat­eral hege­mony after WWII, rather than either iso­la­tion­ism or impe­ri­al­ism, when it did the for­mer in the inter­war period and the lat­ter under Theodore Roo­sevelt? Can we answer this with ref­er­ence to either inter-state imper­a­tives or the logic of cap­i­tal? Why did early 18th Cen­tury Britain adopt bal­anc­ing and non-inter­ven­tion ver­sus the Con­ti­nent and impe­rial expan­sion over­seas, rather than merely power pol­i­tics and impe­ri­al­ism in all the­atres simul­ta­ne­ously? Why does con­tem­po­rary Ger­many pur­sue regional hege­mony within a frame­work of mul­ti­lat­eral atlanti­cism, rather than resort­ing to regional autarchy designs?  Cap­i­tal­ism and the inter-state order may, but only may, provide cer­tain pres­sures, but the answers states develop to cope with these pres­sures, an essen­tial PM argu­ment, can­not be ‘derived’ from these con­texts. What, then, is log­i­cally or con­cep­tu­ally a dis­tinctly cap­i­tal­ist state and cap­i­tal­ist for­eign pol­icy - out­side his­tory?

It seems to me that it is pre­cisely this kind of argu­ment that makes me scep­ti­cal towards the Ger­man State Deriva­tion School that devel­oped in the 1970s. If I recall cor­rectly, Staatsableiter, tried to make log­i­cal argu­ments about how the ‘bour­geois state form’ and ‘bour­geois law’ and its func­tions were a nec­es­sary result of the require­ments of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, or even com­mod­ity-exchange. Its ‘rel­a­tive auton­omy’ - the fact that the rul­ing class did not rule - con­cealed the fact that it had to carry out struc­turally, but not instru­men­tally, the require­ments of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Rel­a­tive auton­omy was derived from the idea that the state func­tioned in the gen­eral inter­est of cap­i­tal to co-ordi­nate the will of may cap­i­tals. While ‘rel­a­tive auton­omy’ was con­ceded, the state was not neu­tral, but did struc­turally the bid­ding for gen­eral cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion. This debate was not only highly abstract and the­o­reti­cist, I found it always deeply un-his­tor­i­cal and un-speci­fic, as argu­ments were made about the ‘cap­i­tal­ist state’ in the abstract and in gen­eral. Heide Gerstenberger’s writ­ings pro­vided for me bet­ter insights into the his­tor­i­cal ori­gins and growth of the ‘bour­geois state’ as tied up with speci­fic social and polit­i­cal con­flicts, show­ing its diverse ‘man­i­fes­ta­tions’ and tra­jec­to­ries, even though she largely excised the for­eign pol­icy dimen­sion from her stud­ies. And this neglect of for­eign pol­icy was also preva­lent in the Marx­ist debates of the 1970s.

GS and AA: What do you see as the lim­its of tra­di­tional Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism, and how might your work allow us to rethink the his­tory of impe­ri­al­ism, espe­cially impe­ri­al­ism today?

BT: I’ve already men­tioned that tra­di­tional Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism were already prob­lem­atic at the time, mainly because they over-gen­er­alised across the key cap­i­tal­ist states that com­posed the inter-state sys­tem dur­ing the belle épo­que, and pro­vided struc­tural­ist-func­tion­al­ist expla­na­tions of state pol­icy and inter­na­tional pol­i­tics. They assumed an imme­di­ate iden­tity between state and monopoly-cap­i­tal. Speci­fic ‘stages’ of cap­i­tal­ism, in this case: monopoly cap­i­tal­ism, were regarded as pro­vid­ing the deep expla­na­tion for how inter­na­tional rela­tions, in this case: inter-cap­i­tal­ist rivalry and the descent into World War I, played out. Dif­fer­ent state strate­gies of how to organ­ise inter­na­tional rela­tions, and diplo­macy did not mat­ter! Yet, Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism remain admirable in so far as they, for the first time, forced peo­ple to think more sys­tem­at­i­cally about for­eign pol­icy influ­ences other than those that were iden­ti­fied either with a rei­fied state ratio­nal­ity and the pri­macy of for­eign pol­icy, or prim­i­tive relapses into bio­log­i­cal analo­gies which saw states, from the late 19th cen­tury onwards, being trapped into neo-Dar­winian zero-sum strug­gles of sur­vival on a ter­ri­to­ri­ally finite planet in which Leben­sraum was at a pre­mium. This kind of think­ing was not only con­fined to Ger­many, in which Friedrich Ratzel’s polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy and Karl Haushofer’s Geopoli­tik became dom­i­nant, but also alive in the UK, where the for­mer direc­tor of the LSE, a geo­g­ra­pher, called Hal­ford Mackinder, wrote in 1904 an influ­en­tial arti­cle called ‘The Geo­graph­i­cal Pivot of His­tory’, whose heart­land the­ory informed British geopo­lit­i­cal strat­egy and the declin­ing Empire. Sim­i­lar things hap­pened in the US through Admi­ral Thayer Mahan’s naval­ism and the strate­gic pri­macy of sea power. Rudolf Kjel­len, who coined the term ‘geopol­i­tics’, was a Swedish polit­i­cal sci­en­tist. Italy and Japan had their own designs for supra-national regional order.

To me, as I said, there is no way back to a Neo-Lenin­ist or a Neo-Kaut­skyan analy­sis, even if refor­mu­lated in terms of two ‘log­ics of power’ - one reify­ing state power and ter­ri­to­ri­al­ism, the other reify­ing cap­i­tal­ism and de-ter­ri­to­ri­al­i­sa­tions - to under­stand the his­tor­i­cally diverse ways in which ‘the spaces of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion’ were con­structed and con­nect to con­cerns about state secu­rity. In the Marx­ist dis­course we see the return to argu­ments about deep log­ics ema­nat­ing from cap­i­tal­ist ‘require­ments’ and ‘imper­a­tives’ from which ‘for­eign pol­icy’ is sim­ply ‘derived’. This also leads to con­cep­tual over-stretch, where notions of impe­ri­al­ism, whether for­mal or infor­mal, abound rather indis­crim­i­nately. Are the Iraq and Afghanistan fias­cos impe­ri­al­is­tic in the way the late 19th cen­tury scram­ble for Africa or the Viet­nam dis­as­ter was? Obvi­ously not! It is hard to for­malise some essence of how a Marx­ist analy­sis of geopol­i­tics is sup­posed to look, but the first require­ment is to get away from the struc­tural­ist-func­tion­al­ist trap by focussing on the processes of for­eign strat­egy for­ma­tion and the often unat­tended out­comes of these strate­gies, as we have seen in the Mid­dle East, where democ­racy and the ‘rule of law’ did not mush­room mirac­u­lously as soon as the dic­ta­tors were removed, as the Neo-Con­ser­v­a­tives believed, but rather lead to state fail­ures, dis­place­ments, migra­tions, and the regroup­ing of ter­ror­ists on a tran­si­tional basis, that is now stronger as before ‘the war on ter­ror’. One good exam­ple of how to con­duct such an analy­sis is Neil Smith’s study ‘Amer­i­can Empire’ that shows in much more detail how strat­egy and pol­icy are being shaped by plan­ners - the fig­ure of Isa­iah Bow­man stands at the cen­tre - in ways that are actu­ally much less ‘planned’ and ‘coher­ent’ then we tend to assume when we re-impose in hind­sight cer­tain ‘log­ics’ that are sim­ply car­ried out as if politi­cians merely enact a pre­de­ter­mined script. Is this still Marx­ist? I would say, yes, and I would like to refer the reader back to Marx’s cri­tique in the Grun­drisse of abstract and gen­er­al­is­ing think­ing sub specie aeter­ni­tatis in favour of iden­ti­fy­ing and recon­struct­ing sui generis cases. It is this pro­ce­dure of con­duct­ing empir­i­cally rich and case-speci­fic inquiries, immune to gen­er­al­i­sa­tions and log­ics, that I think recon­nects back to my read­ing of Polit­i­cal Marx­ism - or Geopo­lit­i­cal Marx­ism - so as to recover the effi­cacy of mul­ti­ple agents in the shap­ing of for­eign pol­icy and the unpre­dictable responses it pro­vokes by other coun­tries.

GS and AA: How do we explain the resur­gence of right-wing nation­alisms in Europe and the United States, but also other parts of the world? The mat­ter of inter­na­tional trade and inter­state com­pe­ti­tion is cru­cial here, with many par­ties and move­ments posi­tion­ing them­selves accord­ing to anti-glob­al­ist or pro-glob­al­ist stances.

BT: It is clear that the term glob­al­i­sa­tion was always an ide­o­log­i­cal con­struc­tion that sup­pressed the dif­fer­en­tial social con­se­quences of lib­er­al­i­sa­tion and neo-lib­er­al­ism in dis­tinct regional and national locales. As even neolib­er­als admit now, there are a few win­ners and many more losers, within and between cap­i­tal­ist states. We are fac­ing obscene lev­els of wealth and income inequal­i­ties and life-chances, espe­cially amongst the younger gen­er­a­tions, cor­rup­tion and fraud on a gar­gan­tuan scale from Brazil to Turkey, Spain to Greece, and also within the cap­i­tal­ist core, the destruc­tion of the wel­fare state, wage repres­sion for most, and the accen­tu­a­tion of pre­car­i­ous work­ing con­di­tions. In the process, the Mid­dle Classes that pro­vided the social bedrock for the post-WWII con­sen­sus, are almost every­where squeezed in OECD coun­tries. Addi­tion­ally, there is a wide-spread feel­ing that the bankers and their ‘neo-lib­eral pol­icy experts’ that caused the finan­cial cri­sis of 2008 got largely away with impunity and keep preach­ing the same failed reme­dies while lin­ing their pock­ets: more easy credit, a loose mon­e­tary pol­icy and liq­uid­ity, which simul­ta­ne­ously erodes and depletes the sav­ings of the pop­u­lace, while Tax Havens pro­lif­er­ate. As a result, rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy is often regarded as pow­er­less by dis­af­fected and alien­ated vot­ers, and soci­eties are deeply polarised. In this con­text, left­wing and rightwing protest against the estab­lish­ment and elites is sus­cep­ti­ble to pop­ulist and nation­al­ist options. As I men­tioned ear­lier, the left is ill-advised to fol­low a nation­al­ist strat­egy, as this risks being swal­lowed by neo-nation­al­is­tic move­ments. The choice is not between a retreat into anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion and neo-lib­eral pro-glob­al­i­sa­tion, but between regres­sive nation­alisms and pro­gres­sive inter­na­tion­al­ism. This requires some­thing like a regional and, per­haps, global ‘New Deal’. We had this before, so why not now? Yes, social democ­racy, wel­farism, and ‘embed­ded lib­er­al­ism’ was admit­tedly learned the hard way after two World Wars and arguably only pos­si­ble in the pres­ence of a rad­i­cal alter­na­tive, the Soviet Union. The world-his­tor­i­cal con­text today is dif­fer­ent, but if polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, con­certed and inter­na­tional, flanked by mass protest, is to mean any­thing, then we require this now! Any­body can see the likely inter­na­tional con­se­quences if we keep spi­ralling towards a new Weimar Sit­u­a­tion, which will seal the decline of the West.


  1. See Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The Ger­man Empire, 1871-1918 (Dover, NH: Berg Pub­lish­ers, 1985). 

  2. David Black­bourn and Geoff Eley, The Pecu­liar­i­ties of Ger­man His­tory: Bour­geois Soci­ety and Pol­i­tics in Nine­teenth-Cen­tury Ger­many (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1984). 

  3. The Bren­ner Debate: Agrar­ian Class Struc­ture and Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment in Pre-indus­trial Europe, ed. T.H. Ash­ton and C.H.E. Philbin (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1987); Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Marx­ism and the Course of His­tory I/147 (Sep­tem­ber-Octo­ber, 1984): 95-107. 

  4. Cf. Charles Post, The Amer­i­can Road to Cap­i­tal­ism: Stud­ies in Class Struc­ture, Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment and Polit­i­cal Con­flict 1620-1877 (Lei­den: Brill, 2011); Viviek Chib­ber, Post­colo­nial The­ory and the Specter of Cap­i­tal (Lon­don: Verso, 2013). 

  5. See Justin Rosen­berg, “The ‘Philo­soph­i­cal Premises’ of Uneven and Com­bined Devel­op­ment,” Review of Inter­na­tional Stud­ies 39, no. 3 (2013): 569-97; also his “Uneven and Com­bined Devel­op­ment: The­o­riz­ing the “Inter­na­tional” in The­ory and His­tory,” in His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­ogy and World His­tory: Uneven and Com­bined Devel­oped in the Longue Durée, ed. Alexan­der Anievas and Kam­ran Matin (Lan­ham: Row­man & Lit­tle­field Inter­na­tional, 2016). For a detailed dis­cus­sion, see Benno Teschke, “IR The­ory, His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism, and the False Promise of Inter­na­tional His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­ogy, Spec­trum: Jour­nal of Global Stud­ies, 6, no. 1 (2014): 1-66.  

  6. Daniel A. Baugh, “Great Britain’s ‘Blue-Water’ Pol­icy, 1689-1815,” The Inter­na­tional His­tory Review 10 no. 1 (Feb­ru­ary 1988): 33-58. 

  7. Robert Bren­ner, “The Social Basis of Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment, in Ana­lyt­i­cal Marx­ism, ed. John Roe­mer (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1985), 23-53. 

  8. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Sep­a­ra­tion of the Eco­nomic and the Polit­i­cal in Cap­i­tal­ism,New Left ReviewI/127 (May-June 1981). 

  9. See Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1976), 92. 

  10. Kevin Ander­son, Marx at the Mar­gins: On Nation­al­ism, Eth­nic­ity, and Non-West­ern Soci­eties (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 2010). 

  11. See Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the Inter­na­tional Law of the Jus Pub­licum Europaeum, trans. G.L. Ulmen (Can­dor, NY: Telos Press, 2006). For crit­i­cisms, cf. Benno Teschke, “Deci­sions and Inde­ci­sions: Polit­i­cal and Intel­lec­tual Recep­tions of Carl Schmitt,” New Left Review II/67 (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 2011); and Teschke, “‘The Fetish of Geopol­i­tics; Reply to Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan,” New Left Review II/69 (May-June 2011); and finally, Teschke, “Fatal Attrac­tion: A Cri­tique of Carl Schmitt’s Inter­na­tional Polit­i­cal and Legal The­ory,” Inter­na­tional The­ory 3 no. 2 (2011); 179-227. 

  12. Cf. Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan, The Enemy: An Intel­lec­tual Por­trait of Carl Schmitt (Lon­don: Verso, 2002), and his “The Geopol­i­tics of Sep­a­ra­tion: Response to Teschke’s ‘Deci­sions and Inde­ci­sions,’” New Left Review II/68 (March-April 2011); Chan­tal Mouffe, The Return of the Polit­i­cal (Lon­don: Verso, 1993). 

Author of the article

is a Reader in the IR Department at the University of Sussex. His research interests comprise IR Theory, Historical Sociology, Marxism, and the Philosophy of Social Science. He is the author of The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2009).

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