Here are some thoughts on your article, ‘Why is there no international historical sociology?’.
As I was reading. I was puzzling about where the ‘Development’ in Uneven and Combined Development was going to come in, and then I got to that section.
Why ‘development’ at all, I was thinking. Why did Trotsky not call his theory Uneven and Combined Change (hereafter by initials) rather than ‘development’, and does it matter? Well of course it does, because his theory presupposes a Marxist concept of development. What U&CD is counterposed to in his theory is even and uncombined development – an undifferentiated model whose reference point was an idealised version of Western Europe’s trajectory.
This theory of development, leaving aside its U and C aspects, was criticised by Mann and Giddens in their critiques of historical materialism. We are back to Weber again, since this is mainly where they were coming from! If one argues that different modes of power, not development of the mode and relations of production alone, are the causal agents, what model of development emerges? Well, possibly none, they suggest – or at least a much more contingent model of change and stasis. Here are two pieces on Giddens, both in disagreement with him).
Giddens’ view is really a different one – he implicitly takes up a liberal version of development, via globalisation theory, which has a different teleology. But that seems not to be his theoreticalposition.
Have you looked at WG Runciman’s evolutionist theory? This tries to model social change on a Darwinian basis, with innovations selected through competition, on the analogue of mutation and natural selection. There is a large problem with this, as he acknowledges more fully in his most recent book. This is because in social evolution the processes of innovation, replication and competitive selection are not radically separated as they are in Darwin’s account of biological evolution (even if Darwin’s account has become a bit more interactive in recent years). The processes of innovation are substantially controlled by those who have succeeded. The underlying dynamic seems to be a Weberian-Nietszchean (here we are again!) in that a struggle for power seems to be Runciman’s developmental motor.
Still, for all its problems, this model seems to me to be quite interesting, and does enable to map some developmental processes. It seems to me that it is worth discussing, especially as it seems to me that the Trotsky model is making a lot of tacit assumptions that one can no longer make tout court. There is a lot to be said for making the most of Darwin. Here are two things I have written about this.
The second question I have is about IR. It seems to me that some ‘sociology of knowledge’ is in order here. Your argument about the ways societies are constituted through their relations with each other is a very good one – I remember this from reading earlier work of yours – and a valuable complexification of our understanding of these supposedly separate bounded entities. But the problems in giving IR full theoretical depth seem to me to have a particular origin. Disciplines are not like Platonic forms of knowledge, with their own innate rationality, if only one could find it. They are instrumental enterprises, designed to serve specific social purposes, some more so than others. IR is surely a system of thought designed to inform entities that have constituted themselves as polities in their pursuit of what they define as their interests. Hence diplomacy etc. – I remember you got me to read the excellent Mattingly on this subject. It is not that states can be adequately defined in terms of their interests, as if they were individual subjects, as the Realist position as I understand it presupposes. It is rather that it is a convenient simplification for those who hold power in states to make this assumption, ‘black box’-ing all the other things that go on in societies in order to focus on the task in hand, namely gaining advantage in dealing with other states. It is rather like the rational interest assumptions that economists make – if one is producing a theory of how to operate in competitive markets, then assume that this is what actors do, and leave out the rest as needless diversion. One can only understand why these simplifications are made if one understands for what instrumental purposes they have been made.
Now one argument is that this is now less adequate as a modus operandi because state boundaries have become weaker, through globalisation etc. I believe you think little of this argument, since states have mostly had permeable boundaries and there have long been powerful non-state institutions, like the great religions, or the communist movement, impinging on and sometimes overwhelming states as actors. It has never made much sense to think about inter-state relations without regard for these other forces. But I wonder what the underlying argument is. Why does one want to situate in a broader theoretical framework states constructing themselves as rational agents in relation to competing states?
One reason might be, if one was still committed to the instrumental role of IR in guiding state power-holders, that more complex models of inter-state relations would lead to better statecraft. The distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power makes an adaptation of this kind, since it enables the State Department to include the influence of Walt Disney or Abstract Expressionism in its strategic thinking. (I believe Jackson Pollock and co were made much of in the 1940s by the US Government’s cultural arm.)
Another reason would be if one were a Marxist of the old school. Then an understanding of the respects in which states were complex effects of configurations of class relations would give one a better idea of how to conduct the class struggle. I guess the long project of New Left Review post 1962, with its attention to different states and regions of the globe, had this presupposition, at one time anyway. (Of course Critical Realism has a different ontology than IR Realism, much closer to your own way of thinking! )
But suppose neither of these purposes is quite it. For what purpose would one want to see a more complex explanatory discipline of IR, aside from the natural academic ambitions of those identified with the discipline as an enterprise? I doubt if you count yourself as one of them.
What is IR for, if it is not to add power to the elbow of the Henry Kissingers of this world? Where, in short, are the agencies which might give effect to improved IR insights to be found, or made?