global politics, relationally

Modern social and political thought has its origins in imperialism – and perpetuates it


This is a guest post by Beate Jahn, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. It is part of the RI feature series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It describes her piece in that collection. 

We know that history and international relations are intimately related in reality. Why, then, are they pursued in different disciplines in academia? And why do attempts to bridge this gap tend to fail?

The gap between history and theory is detrimental for both disciplines. Historians borrow theoretical concepts from the social sciences, including IR. But they rarely engage in theoretical debates and thus leave these concepts unexamined. IR scholars, meanwhile, use historical data as building blocks or evidence for theories but overlook their contested nature. Their theories thus resemble castles built on sand.

Attempts to overcome this divide – including in International Origins of Social and Political Theory – take two forms. One is to build on common interests and methods – such as bringing military historians and IR security scholars together or to adopt process tracing. It turns out, however, that historians use such methods in order to explain particular cases while IR scholars use them to test generalizable theories. This suggests that the separation between history and theory occurs at a much more fundamental level.

The second approach to bridging this gap lies in reconceptualizing history and theory themselves. History is then not understood as providing ‘facts’ but contested narratives, and theory not as a rigid system of causal laws but as open contemplation and speculation. Yet, such conceptions do not overcome the history-theory divide. Our vision of the social world has not radically changed since the time of Marx, Freud, Weber or Durkheim. It appears, then, as if disciplinary fragmentation is itself very much a historical phenomenon that cannot be resolved through theoretical exercises.

The theoretical roots of this separation between history and international relations lie in the modern episteme. This modern structure of thought defines particular phenomena in terms of their internal nature. Each individual thing – plants, animals, human beings, nations, genders – develops in accordance with its own organic nature, following its own laws, in its own time. This way of thinking led to the development of the modern discipline of history in the 19th century. According to Herder, for example, each nation followed its own developmental path. Yet, nations so conceived were not any longer subject to the same pressures, the same laws, a common time. And so each phenomenon required its own historical analysis leading to the fragmentation of the discipline of history into national, social, military, diplomatic, economic, legal, art and a myriad of other histories.

Having abandoned the concept of universal time, historians were not any longer able to pull these disparate histories together. And it was this problem that gave rise to the need for theory. By abstracting from the concrete and particular nature of individual phenomena and linking them across time and space, theories filled the gap that modern history had created. Modern disciplines like economics, political science, anthropology, sociology and eventually also International Relations provided the theories necessary to reconnect disparate historical ‘facts’. The discipline of International Relations and its pursuit of theory is therefore dependent on a conception of history that produces disconnected ‘facts’ – and vice versa. This is why the gap between these disciplines cannot be bridged. And since all modern thought is structured in this way, attempts to bridge this gap – for example through interdisciplinary work – end up reproducing fragmentation. They overcome existing boundaries only by erecting new ones around the internal coherence of newly integrated fields of knowledge.

The historical roots of this modern episteme lie in a serious crisis of empire in the 18th century. At the time, empires were the major political actors. They were large and expansionist units made up of different populations, governed by different means and according to different laws. Scots were represented in parliament, the Irish not; the American colonies had governors, India was ruled by the East India Company which in turn relied on local rulers; Londoners had to pay high taxes, settlers in the American colonies almost none. Borders were often unclear and fluid. Politics in the imperial age was characterized by internal diversity, fuzzy borders, and fluid and expansive policies. In this situation, the distinction between domestic and international politics – which relies on internal homogeneity, external diversity, and a clear inside/outside distinction – was not possible.

Rivalries between these empires throughout the 18th century turned into ‘world wars’ which were fought out in all corners of the globe. Yet, these wars were extremely costly. In order to pay for them, rulers increased taxation. And this increasing pressure led to wide spread resistance, to colonial independence movements and ultimately, in America, France, and Haiti, to revolution. In the context of these struggles, new ideas about individual and national freedom developed and were pitched against imperial oppression. The result of these struggles, however, was not the constitution of nation states and international relations. It was an uneasy and volatile mix of new ideas about freedom and old imperial oppression. America became an ’empire of liberty’ complete with slavery and rightless indigenous populations, Brazil became an empire in its own right, Napoleon was crowned emperor of France and set out to conquer the European continent, and the British empire expanded despite the loss of the North American colonies. The 19th century is thus known as the imperial century. A world of nation states was only theoretically conceived in the UN Charter in 1948. And it became reality after decolonization in the 1970s.

This crisis of empire generated serious tensions and contradictions between the universalist structure of Enlightenment thought and the lived experience of the people. And it was to this crisis that the modern episteme provided a solution. By conceiving different people and peoples as endowed with their own internal nature and developmental trajectory, it naturalized political fragmentation. Tensions and conflicts did not appear any longer as the result of a dysfunctional political order but as rooted in the diverse natures and developmental differentials between different groups. This episteme also provided the basis for the modern concept of sovereignty which encapsulates the idea of the freedom of individual nations and their independence from others. It thus gave rise to the modern concept of international relations as relations between independent states.

This conception obscured the fact that these nations had not developed independently of each other but were actually the product of imperial politics. It also facilitated the continuation of imperialism – which now did not describe any longer the unequal relations between different peoples. Instead, imperialism was now seen as the result of the internal shortcomings of particular peoples. It was their lack in political, economic or cultural development that called for imperial rule – not the interests of the rulers. The modern episteme thus allowed political actors to endorse the principle of freedom even while they engaged in imperialist power politics.

There is, then, no historical time at which history and international relations were combined. Prior to their modern constitution as separate disciplines, we find imperial politics and not international relations. Tracing these historical origins, however, does reveal how modern social and political thought continues to facilitate imperialist policies.

Today, when we deny some states the right to sovereignty through sanctions and interventions, we do so with reference to their internal shortcomings: their failure to protect human rights or their lack of good government. When we impose free trade on states, we do so with reference to the internal laws of economics. What is missing from these accounts are the unequal power relations that really make these policies possible. And it is these relations between things that the modern episteme with its internalist structure hides.