John M. Hobson
The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2012; 408 pp: 9781107020207, 60 [pounds sterling] (hbk)
Robbie Shilliam (ed.)
International Relations and Non-Western Thought: Imperialism, Colonialism and Investigations of Global Modernity, Routledge: London, UK, 2010; 272 pp: 9780415522847, 24.95 [pounds sterling] (pbk), 9780415577724, 85 [pounds sterling] (hbk)
In a recent brief on the state of the critique of Eurocentrism in social sciences, Sanjay Seth noted, 'being critical of Eurocentrism, or seeking to "provincialize Europe" ... is no longer a marginal project' (2009: 334). The burgeoning 'non-Eurocentric' literature which is producing an important cross-fertilisation between global history, historical materialism, historical sociology and postcolonial theory strongly attests to Seth's pronouncement. International relations (IR), too, has been a recipient of the wave of intellectual decolonisation, as a number of critical interventions has attempted to reorient the discipline's suffocating focus away from its Anglo-American Weltanschauung, and to incorporate non-Western agency into paradoxically provincialist theoretical frameworks. This essay examines two recent efforts in this overall endeavour: The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics (hereafter, ECWP) by John M. Hobson, and International Relations and Non- Western Thought (hereafter, IRNWT) edited by Robbie Shilliam, both of whom have been vocal critics of Eurocentric IR, and who have crafted a number of powerful publications in the interstices of non-Eurocentric, postcolonial IR and historical sociology.
While both books are located within and advocate for a post-Eurocentric research agenda, their components, namely the methodological discussion, points of critique and alternative forms of theorising, show considerable diversity. In ECWP, Hobson embarks on constructing an all-inclusive negative critique of Western international theory, whereas the contributions in IRNWT are geared towards accentuating the lost and hidden voices of the non-West, with a healthy dose of scepticism poured in the mix. Read together, the books not only complement each other, but also help uncover strengths and weaknesses in each other's empirical and conceptual discussions. With this reciprocity in mind, I will position ECWP at the heart of this exploration while simultaneously consulting and engaging with IRNWT in order to unravel the full intricacy of the task that underpins the two books, namely challenging Eurocentrism in international theory.
Drawing heavily from the revisionist global history literature, Hobson's critically acclaimed monograph, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (2004) was an extremely timely and decisive intervention that effectively debunked a whole swath of Eurocentric triumphalist myths in IR and historical sociology. Yet its prospects were crippled by the author's reluctance to conceptually re-situate the emergence of capitalism and modernity through a 'non-Eurocentric' lens. This theoretical gap, combined with the firm denial of the established Eurocentric narrative, led Hobson into a quagmire within which his analysis often bordered on a form of 'reverse Eurocentrism'--or what Wallerstein calls 'anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism' (1997: 101)--which projected similar essentialist civilisational identities that are diametrically opposed to each other in Hobson's own 'arbitrary temporalities' (Mielants 2009: 122, 72n.61; also Pomeranz 2006: 352). While correctly pinpointing the 'Eastern origins' of a number of 'resource portfolios' that transformed the trajectory of European development, Hobson ultimately disregarded the question of which social forces and processes led Europe to diverge from the East, wherein the initial mechanisms of the ensuing 'European miracle' originated. In ECWP, Hobson takes a step back from grand social theory and targets, in characteristic fashion, the relatively short lineage of Western international theory from 1760 to 2010. The result, in the author's own words, is 'a twin revisionist narrative of Eurocentrism and international theory' (ECWP: 1).
Divided into four timeframes (1760-1914, 1914-1945, 1945-1989 and 1989-2010), the book presents an elaborate spectrum in which both mainstream and critical approaches in international theorising are scrutinised using a well-developed non-Eurocentric framework. One of Hobson's main conceptual achievements here is rejecting a 'black-box' treatment of Eurocentrism, wherein different forms of homogenising claims to universality, hegemonic material and knowledge production and outright racist tendencies are blended into nebulous and internally contradictory epithets of Eurocentrism. Instead, Hobson outlines Eurocentrism as 'a polymorphous multivalent discourse', and thus his complex analytical taxonomy is 'pluralistic and multivalent' (ECWP: 1-3). Important here is the signal difference between Hobson's temporally specified utilisation of Eurocentrism and Edward Said's pioneering, yet irresolutely transhistorical discussion of Orientalism. Said's initial deconstruction of the Orientalist mindset in the West was paralyzed by his overextended scope, in which the existence of a more or less homogeneous ideology of difference had existed since time immemorial. The autopoietic character assumed by Said's orientalism rendered radically different forms of (non-) representation and the negligence of the 'non-West' as corresponding symptoms of the same disease which repeatedly manifested across temporal and civilisational lines. Thus, for Said, Aeschylus' The Persians and Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte became representatives of the same logic of exteriority that plagued a seemingly monolithic Western civilisation (Said 2003 : 21). The question of Eurocentrism, however, is not merely an instance of 'banal provincialism', nor an ordinary form of ethnocentrism, as Samir Amin has aptly observed (2009 : 154, 178), but is more specifically a commensurate ideology of Western capitalist development and imperialism. Thus a careful periodisation and the delineation of the specific nature and function of Eurocentrism should be at the heart of the discussion.
Hobson is acutely aware of...