At uni, it is the end of week 3 in our examination of the way the International Political Economy has been understood in undergraduate textbooks. We have explored some of the history behind 3 general theories; Realism, Liberalism and Marxism. We've added complexity, by exploring strands of thought within (and in relation to) these theories: Realism (Structural Realism, Historical Realism, mercantilism, nationalism), Marxism (Marxist, Structuralist, Radical and Critical), etc.. We've compared British to U.S. schools of thought, and hinted at moving toward an examination of more recent, sophisticated critical theorists, including feminist and environmental academics.
We have discussed the influence of key events in the organisation of the 'modern' world and the international political economy, including the Treaty of Westaphilia, the rise of nationalism, the industrial revolution, the Corn Laws, the Great Depression and the Oil Shocks of 1973 and 1979.
We examined the way many theories have been misread and oversimplified, in the textbooks that teach them (and by the organisations/governments/policymakers/ individuals who utilise them). One of our readings examined the extent to which two of the foundational theorists of liberalism, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, have been misread and misused. According to Watson (in Ravenhill 2008), in International Political Economy textbooks, Smith is interpreted as uncritically endorsing market based liberalism. Watson goes on to argue that Smith, at the time of his writing, accused the business classes of being "almost pathologically incapable of acting according to the demands of a genuinely liberal economy" (Watson in Ravenhill 2008: 42). He accused them of "fundamentally illiberal activities of conspicuous profit-taking from the economy" (Watson in Ravenhill 2008: 42). In examining Ricardo, Watson argues that most International Political Economy textbooks fail to contextualise adequately Ricardo's notion of comparative advantage. The author goes on to argue that Ricardo's perspectives emerged within "a deep seated contempt for the commercial policy enacted in the Britain of his day...Ricardo objected most forcefully to the influence that an unaccountable cadre of landowners had been able to exert over commercial policy. At one point in his treatise he even calls the landowning classes 'parasites' in his attempt to signal as clearly as possible that they were responsible for the immiseration of others through their illiberal and wholly self-serving activities" (Watson in Ravenhill 2008: 43-45).
While I would find it entertaining to prescribe the term "pathological parasites" to modern day politicians and theorist prescribing to ultra neo-liberalist practices, Watson (in Ravenhill 2008) actually reveals the extent to which theories overlap. We can see Marxist elements in Liberal theorists, Liberal elements in foundational Marxism...all theories have problems, depending on the case study...all theories and ways of thinking have elements that can be drawn from, in understanding/minsunderstanding modern events. I think I might be particularly interested in the way the uncritical adherence to capitalism and to the concept of nation states permeates our current understands of, and adherence to, neoliberalism.
On a more personal level, i've begun to understand some of my own fundamentalist biases, and my tendencies misunderstand (and to generalise about the negative aspects of), in particular, liberalism. I've begun to revisit the foundations of my knowledge of social scientific theory, questioning the extent to which my own uncritical allegiances shape my ability to think critically. I also feel like I have to revisit the basic theories on which a lot of current thinking is based, with a more enhanced capacity to read in order to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the International Political Economy.
Watson, Matthew (2008) 'Theoretical traditions in global political economy' in John Ravenhill (ed.) Global Political Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 27-62.