Imperial ‘common sense’ Versus the Post-modern Prince

Those readers concerned with issues of theory and practice in international relations may want to read an article I recently published in the LSE-based journal, Millennium: Journal of International Studies. Millennium (2012): Vol 40(3) 505–524.
Here is the abstract:

Abstract: Towards a Radical Concept of Praxis: Imperial ‘common sense’ Versus the Post-modern Prince

This article argues for a radical conception of praxis in international relations. By praxis is meant those forms of critical theoretical and practical activity that are not only linked to understanding, explaining and acting in international relations but also transforming those relations to help constitute a more ethical, just and sustainable world order. The argument is developed as follows:

(1) discussion of theoretical perspectives, and how they constitute dominant paradigms of International Relations in the West, particularly in the USA. Such dominant paradigms are shaped by a liberal ontology, opposed to Marxism and critical theory.

(2) A critique of ‘imperial common sense’ that is bound up with US supremacy in an unjust world of deepening crises, growing inequality, social dislocations and unsustainable accumulation. Here my argument involves a dialectical strategy that critically addresses the nature, self-evidence and global influence of mainstream American International Relations.

(3) A discussion of how new forms of praxis are emerging, seeking to develop radical alternatives that are sober, imaginative, sustainable and politically and ethically credible – in the multiple, diverse and new forms of political agency reflected in the figure of the ‘post-modern Prince’. The article concludes by outlining elements of a radical research agenda to address significant intellectual, ethical and public policy issues in the emerging world order.

Here are some short extracts:

“We seem to be at an historical crossroads. On the one hand, practices of global politics have tended towards maintaining a situation in which material and political priorities are primarily defined in terms of the interests of the affluent, and particularly a tiny global plutocracy, whilst inequality deepens to levels last seen in the so-called developed countries in the liberal capitalism of the 1920s. Many communities experience dispossession and intensification of exploitation of human beings and nature, often associated with debt crises (resulting in not only a politics of austerity but also privatisation of common property and resources to pay back loans). The contradictions related to the US military, economic, financial, imperial and ecological footprint associated with fossil-fuel intensive market civilisation and its attendant crises of capitalism are also features of our current moment. Prevailing structures of power and knowledge are for many a violent denial of social justice, human rights and dignity.

On the other hand, in response, we can discern an emerging, innovative form of global praxis, intimating potentials for a transformation of global politics. I have termed these potentials, following Machiavelli and Gramsci, the ‘post modern Prince’. By post-modern I do not mean not postmodernism as a mode of philosophical thought but a set of present-day political, material and ecological conditions. One response to these conditions is collective action and solidarity, associated with the post-modern Prince. It involves radical conceptions of the world that transcend neo-liberal and imperial common sense, to help ensure [intergenerational security on and for the planet, as well as democratic human development and human rights… As such, the multiple and diverse political forces that form the post-modern Prince combine both defensive and forward-looking strategies. Rather than engaging in deconstruction, they seek to develop a global and universal politics of radical (re) construction].

From the Introduction:

My argument develops a critique of dominant American IR frameworks and their links to powerful social and political interests. Premised on a liberal ontology of world order, their problématique can be traced back to the 19th century imperial system and to the birth of the modern study of IR immediately after World War I [in the opposition of the West to Soviet Communism]. The essay then sketches a radical perspective associated with the ‘philosophy of praxis’ and a corresponding form of political agency: the ‘post modern Prince.’ It concludes by briefly outlining elements of a radical research agenda.

For Gramsci, ‘common sense’ is the set of generally held assumptions and beliefs that form the ‘conception of the world which is uncritically absorbed by the various social and cultural environments in which the moral individuality of the average man is developed’ (Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1971: 419). Nonetheless, whilst much of common sense involves fallacies, contradictions and inconsistencies, as well as influences of religion and folklore, Gramsci noted it also has elements of ‘good sense’ (i.e. what is usually called common sense in English). Radical intellectuals must not only challenge ‘primitive’ common sense, but also develop and extend this element of good sense in their transformative praxis.

With this in mind, I critique leading US organic intellectuals, i.e. US ‘philosophers of war and peace’ by challenging the self-evidence of what I call their ‘imperial common sense.’ I focus on how such intellectuals ‘give advice to the Prince’, developing justifications and strategies to sustain the relations between global rulers and ruled, US strategic and military dominance and US leadership of world capitalism. I argue that imperial common sense assumes the maintenance of structures and practices of global inequality that permit the USA and its principal allies to consume the lion’s share of global resources in ways that are often violent, unjust and unsustainable and associated with the intensified exploitation of human beings and nature.

Second, I engage with ‘good sense’, radical modes of thought and collective action associated with an emerging ‘post-modern Prince’ that challenge imperial common sense. Indeed, such challenges to imperial common sense and its authoritative voices are found within the ranks of (critical) IR scholarship (e.g. historical materialism and critical forms of post-structuralism, constructivism and feminism) and in wider political contestation, resistance and organisation. The post-modern Prince, understood in the plural, reflects this dialectical movement. It not only interprets dominant power as supremacy or ‘dominance without hegemony’ but also, and more constructively, seeks to create new forms of knowledge and culture in an effort to found more just and sustainable forms of state, society and world order – the making of history. New forms of praxis engage with questions related to transforming structures of exploitation, dispossession and organised violence, as well as the creation and development of new theoretical and practical frameworks that promote solidarity, social justice and sustainability.

This set of radical potentials is developing in the plural, albeit unevenly and, in a variety of contexts, for example in the World Social Forum and other Left Forums throughout the world, entities that are beginning to cooperate and connect across borders. It is also reflected in the innumerable forms of revolt, resistance and uprising that have been developing for several decades throughout the world, e.g. those that exploded across the world in 2011, for example in many parts of Africa (and not only in Tunisia and Egypt, which have been widely reported). The uprisings are an attempt to draw the line against the combination of authoritarianism and capitalism in many parts of the Third World, which has resulted in mass impoverishment, mass unemployment and challenges to the basic means of livelihood. They oppose land grabs and dispossession of common resources, policies often carried out by governments beholden to the structural adjustment policies and stabilisation measures demanded by the IMF and World Bank.

More work is needed to connect these moments of resistance to more longstanding, but novel practices of regional and global politics, such as those associated with grassroots organisation and social movements such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, and to new configurations of interstate power such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) which reflects the new forms of 21st century socialism in Latin America. Such new political configurations reject North American and Western imperialism and disciplinary neoliberalism in favour of new forms of socialism and regional solidarity, with new concepts of regional defence and social development. Thus Canada and the US were explicitly excluded from the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States established in 2010. Many of these forces can be seen as a new kind of left, often involving young, well educated people, such as the Chilean student movement, with its left-wing leader Camilla Vallejo. Others are drawn not only from the professional middle classes but also from the ranks of workers and organized labour, the peasantry and indigenous leaders, as well as other elements of civil society who have never before been politically active.