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date: 24 February 2018

The International Political Sociology of Empire

Summary and Keywords

There are two primary reasons why empires are central to our understanding of International Relations (IR). First, the empire has been replaced by juridically equal sovereign territorial states over the past century. Formal empires no longer exist, and only one head of state retains the title of Emperor—Akihito of Japan. The second reason why the study of empire matters to IR is that much of the conventional distinction between hierarchy and anarchy has been subject to various criticisms from a wide array of methodological and political perspectives. In particular, International Political Sociology (IPS) has offered a framework for critical analyses of phenomena such as systemic transformation, international unevenness, and global inequality, or war, violence, and racism in international politics. Since the end of the Cold War, new theorizations of empire have placed empire and imperialism at the center of debates in IR. Contemporary investigations of empire in IR, and IPS in particular, have dwelled on a number of political debates and methodological issues, including the nature of American imperialism, the link between IR and global history, and the relationship between empire and globalization. The category “empire” continues to both illuminate the pertinence of IR to social theory more generally and at the same time highlights the shortcomings of the discipline in addressing the causes and dynamics of global inequality, violence, and uneven development.

Keywords: empire, International Relations, hierarchy, anarchy, International Political Sociology, international politics, imperialism, globalization, inequality, violence


An empire is a large, expansive polity that rules over, and economically exploits, a culturally diverse and territorially dispersed population from and for a metropolitan center. Until the twentieth century, and for the better part of human civilization before then, the bulk of the world’s populations were governed by one or another empire. The first reason why empires matter to our understanding of International Relations (IR) is quite simply that this form of political organization has over the past century been replaced by juridically equal sovereign territorial states. There are today no more formal empires, and only one head of state retains the title of Emperor (Japan’s Akihito). Conventionally, the origins and development of the modern international system of states are associated with the decline and disappearance of empires. This is why IR theorists speak of a shift from hierarchy to anarchy as the organizing principle of modern international politics.

A second reason why the study of empire is central to IR is that much of this conventional distinction between hierarchy and anarchy has been subject to significant criticisms from various methodological and political perspectives. International Political Sociology (IPS) has in particular offered a framework for critical analyses of phenomena such as systemic transformation, international unevenness, and global inequality, or war, violence, and racism in international politics. Since the end of the Cold War, a fresh wave of theorizations of empire have placed this category – and its more active cognate, imperialism – at the center of debates in IR, often challenging some of the comfortable certainties of our discipline.

The rest of this essay considers the diverse contributions to the study of empire from the IPS perspective, and in doing so also offers some historical illustrations of the place of empires in international politics. A first section briefly addresses the historical evolution of imperial rule and in particular the place of empire in our conception of hierarchy and anarchy. A second section surveys theorizations of empire and imperialism which, since the beginning of the twentieth century, have sought to explain the socioeconomic, political, and cultural structures of inequality, violence, and domination that have accompanied modern empires. The final part of the essay considers the contemporary investigations of empire in IR, and International Political Sociology in particular. It focuses on a number of political debates and methodological issues – including the nature of American imperialism, the connections between IR and global history, and the relationship between empire and globalization – where IPS has made important contributions to our comprehension of empires in IR.

Empire and International Systems

Perhaps the first – and still among the best – English-language study on empire from a self-consciously international sociological perspective is Michael W. Doyle’s Empires (1986). Written in response to questions surrounding the “imperialistic” nature of the US intervention in Vietnam, Doyle explained the relative absence of “empire” and “imperialism” in the mainstream lexicon of IR by suggesting that these categories straddled the ambiguous terrain between international and comparative politics. “Imperialism’s foundation,” Doyle suggested, “is not anarchy, but order, albeit an order imposed and strained. Comparative politics, on the other hand, concerned with independent political units, recognizes imperialism as at best one minor influence among many in shaping a state. Empire and imperialism are indeed not ‘words’ for scholars in these disciplinary traditions” (Doyle 1986:11).

In a testament to its path-breaking character, Doyle’s study set out to reverse this neglect, once again turning “empire” and “imperialism” into keywords of international politics. Doyle defined empires as “[r]elationships of political control imposed by some political societies over the effective sovereignty of other political societies” (Doyle 1986:19). His chief theoretical concern was to distinguish properly imperial control over the domestic and international affairs of other political societies from unequal power relations more generally which stop short of control of either internal or external sovereignty. Among the latter were “hegemony” (control over foreign but not domestic policy), “dependence” (unequal influence over both domestic and foreign policy), and the “sphere of influence” (unequal influence in foreign policy). Doyle furthermore sought to explain why empires exist at all, and subsequently to account for their rise and fall. He mobilized three broad explanations of empire – metrocentric, pericentric, and systemic – and combined them into a proposition regarding the “statics” and “dynamics” of empire and imperialism: “four interacting sources account for the imperial relationship: the metropolitan regime, its capacities and interests; the peripheral political interests and weakness; the transnational system and its needs; and the international system and the incentives it creates” (Doyle 1986:46). Different combinations of these relationships deliver varying dynamics of imperial rise, permanence, and fall across the centuries – from Mediterranean antiquity to modern European imperialism.

More recently, David Abernethy’s (2000) comprehensive overview of modern empires has offered a more detailed and systematic range of responses to questions of imperial ascendancy and decline. He identifies successive historical phases of European overseas expansion and contraction from 1415 to 1980 (including one interregnum of “unstable equilibrium”), and emphasizes the interaction between various peripheral and metropolitan actors at diverse levels of analysis in explaining the “dynamics of global dominance” during the modern period. Specifically, Abernethy argues that European polities and societies at the start of the “long” sixteenth century shared some general characteristics – a maritime orientation, a degree of sociopolitical homogeneity, an open and enterprising scientific outlook – which, combined with interstate competition within the “old” continent and, crucially, the functional activity of public, private, and religious institutions, provided the types of socioeconomic and political dynamics conducive to overseas empire building. However, like Doyle, Abernethy insists that extent, form, and staying power of modern European imperialism were equally conditioned by the dynamics of resistance and accommodation issuing from colonized peoples. Thus, a combination of cultural misconceptions of European motives, the absence of corresponding multifunctionality outside the “old” continent, and the European manipulation of intrasocietal and interstate conflict among conquered populations facilitated, according to Abernethy, the consolidation of European overseas empires. After all, the African, Asian, and American lands and peoples colonized by Europeans had large and long-standing empires of their own; and in most modern instances, the Europeans built on, or at the very least manipulated, existing imperial structures to their own benefit – by adopting Aztec and Incan tributary systems, securing commercial transactions through Mughal juridico-political infrastructure, or inserting themselves within the preexisting “pyramidal” structures of authority furnished by the African kingdoms and empires of Kongo, Songhai, or Benin (Wolf 1982).

On Abernethy’s calculations, over 100 of the independent states in existence at the start of the twenty-first century had been ruled by an overseas power for more than 60 years, while 60 such countries were subject to metropolitan domination for over 100 years. Foreign rule lasted more than 200 years in 37 countries, and over 300 years in 18 countries. This relative longevity and widespread nature of modern imperialism demands some explanation. For Abernethy it fundamentally resides in the hierarchical segregation of the colonial populations along a “vertical axis of inequality” which involved a gradated distinction between and within colonial officials, settlers, indigenous populations, and imported or hybrid “third parties” (coolies, slaves, intermediaries, mixed-race offspring, Creoles): “In the colonial situation a group was defined by socially acknowledged characteristics setting aside from others and simultaneously slotted in a hierarchy in which the rank ordering of groups was more or less fixed” (Abernethy 2000:282).

Although such strict and artificial hierarchies were subject to periodic resistance and contestation, they were also successfully policed and legitimated with the aid of collaboration and indirect rule of local social forces. African “native authorities,” Muslim sheiks, Amerindian caciques, and Indian maharajas all played an active role in sustaining and administrating European government over their territories, as did the various “martial races” that were recruited to defend, enforce, and police such rule. On this reading, the fraught dialectic between the administrative/political integration of empire and its socioeconomic and racial subordination emerges as one of the transhistorical features of modern empires and imperialism. Abernethy identifies in this very dialectic the contradictions which, spurred on by international rivalry and war, delivered the protracted demise of empires. “As the colonial government extended its way throughout a territory,” Abernethy contends, “the public sector came to look increasingly like the metropole’s. But the more closely the public sectors resembled each other in function and structure, the more obvious to all was the essential dissimilarity between them: the metropole’s monopoly of sovereignty” (2000:327). This monopoly was, in the course of the twentieth century, increasingly challenged by mass nationalist movements which sought to give democratic substance to Europe’s famed “civilizing mission” by removing its chief obstacle: European colonial rule. Yet Abernethy rightly insists that such “vertical” dynamics of imperial crisis were given extra impetus by the “horizontal” catalyst of the international system: “When metropoles trying to counter slowly evolving forces for internal dissolution were forced to confront rapidly moving external threats as well, it is not surprising that cracks appeared in the edifice of domination” (2000:360).

Doyle and Abernethy offer sophisticated historical accounts of the sociopolitical structures and processes that sustain empires. There is, however, a tendency, particularly acute in Doyle’s work, to ascribe transhistorical qualities to empires, whereas one of the notable contributions of IPS to the study of empires is to highlight the deep ruptures that have characterized imperial trajectories. An excellent example of such structural comparison in the political forms of empire is the synoptic work by Ellen Meiksins Wood (2003), who seeks to identify the specificity of contemporary capitalist imperialism by contrasting it with previous non-capitalist empires: the Roman and Spanish “empires of property,” the Han “bureaucratic empire,” or the Abbasid, Venetian, and Dutch “empires of commerce.”

Drawing on a rigorous Marxian perspective, Meiksins Wood starts from the axiomatic premise that, unlike previous modes of production, capitalism is reproduced through the structural separation between the private “economic” sphere of exploitation, mediated by the market, and the public, “political” domain of rule by the state. Whereas most empires have exploited their subject populations through the fusion of economic and political power – in the shape of slavery, by way of extracting tribute and taxes, or, in the form of mercantile imperialism, through the military control of lucrative trade routes – properly capitalist empires overwhelmingly rely on the market as a means of wealth creation and appropriation. This has not precluded the use of force, coercion, or indeed slavery and tribute in the global reproduction of capitalist empires, but these “extra-economic” expressions of direct coercion have historically been marginalized by the purely “economic” logic of the capitalist market. “Older forms of imperialism,” Meiksins Wood insists, “depended directly on conquest and colonial rule. Capitalism has extended the reach of imperial domination far beyond the capacities of direct political rule or colonial occupation, simply by imposing and manipulating the operations of a capitalist market” (2003:1).

In contrast to Doyle and Abernethy, Meiksins Wood anchors her understanding of empires much more firmly on the material sources of their expanded reproduction. She does so not by mechanically associating specific empires to this or that mode of production, but rather by emphasizing how the economic dynamics and political logic of empires have combined historically in different ways, depending on what the prevailing form of appropriation is under any given imperial epoch. Meiksins Wood’s differentiation between empires is certainly (and deliberately) archetypal, but it has the virtue of driving home one critical contribution to our understanding of empires from the perspective of International Political Sociology, namely to explain the historical variance in forms of imperial rule through the centuries with reference to the dominant forms of social reproduction. This allows us to identify capitalist imperialism as a distinctive form of exercising global economic reach, and contemporary US geopolitical power as the concrete manifestation of this peculiar empire without colonies. It also enables analysts of American empire, as the last section of the essay will suggest, to identify the specific limits and contradictions of this postcolonial imperialism.

We have thus far seen how empires shaped and at times actually defined the diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations between peoples and political communities across the centuries. In the modern era in particular, imperial circuits of exchange, violence, and communication variously invented, developed, and cemented many of the socioeconomic and political structures that characterize the modern international system, including the world market, total war, and the territorial state. This in itself warrants the attention to empire and imperialism by any sociologically or historically sensitive approach to international politics. But it is their pivotal role in the contrast between hierarchical and anarchical systems of states that gives empires a distinctive place in IR theory.

In his classic investigation into the origins of the modern states-system, Martin Wight (1977:23) makes a distinction between systems of sovereign states made up of “political authorities which recognize no superior” and a suzerain state-system where “there is indeed a group of states having relations with each other, but one among them asserts unique claims which the others formally or tacitly accept.” The modern Western system of states and the ancient Hellenic system of poleis and kingdoms comply with the former; the Chinese T’sin, Abbasid, and Byzantine empires correspond to the latter. Although Wight was clear that “[m]ost state-systems have ended in a universal empire” (1977:43), he also emphasized in realist vein how the historically distinctive feature of the modern, Western states-system was its non-imperial, anarchical nature. From an opposite methodological perspective, but still firmly in the realist tradition, Kenneth Waltz (1979) affirmed anarchy as the organizing principle of international politics, against the hierarchy that obtains within domestic politics. Waltz dedicated a whole chapter of his classic Theory of International Politics to what he labeled the “reductionist theories” of international-political studies represented in the works of, among others, Lenin, Hobson, and Galtung. For all their differences, Waltz contends that these approaches seek to understand “the whole […] by knowing the attributes and interactions of its parts” (1979:18) and thereby tend to (erroneously) reduce imperialism to the search for economic surplus abroad. According to Waltz (1979:35), such approaches at best confuse the perennial asymmetry in international systems with the specific inequalities of capitalist imperialism; and at worst amount to a redefinition of the facts in order to make them “fit their misinterpretations of an old theory.” These orthodox conceptions of IR have since served as a reference point for the international political sociology of empires by posing two sets of questions: what explains the shift from heteronymous hierarchy to homologous anarchy in international systems? And what, if any, is the place of hierarchy in the anarchical system of states?

IPS has offered three broad kinds of responses to the first of these questions. John Gerard Ruggie (1993:151) pioneered a social constructivist account of the modern differentiation of international rule among “territorially defined, fixed and mutually exclusive enclaves of legitimate dominion.” For Ruggie, the key to understanding the “medieval-to-modern transformation” in European politics lies in changes that unfolded in that continent from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries in three irreducible domains: material environments, strategic behavior, and social epistemology. The first entailed marked increases in population, economic productivity, and access to arable land, which in turn delivered greater monetization, revenue collection, and military spending among European polities. New “situations of strategic interaction” among social actors constituted a second development, which identified both the institutional limits to feudal property relations and the possibilities of enhancing and expanding market-dependent forms of trade, commerce, and exchange. Finally, “transformations in social epistemology,” such as the increased use of vernacular language, changes in notions of civility and honor, or the development of single-point perspective in the visual arts, according to Ruggie facilitated the emergence of the sovereign state as the dominant spatial form of political organization in Europe. Although Ruggie was mainly concerned with the possibilities and character of postmodern territorialities, his study also throws light on the broader issue of the historical specificity of modern territoriality (“disjoint, fixed and mutually exclusive”) in relation to preceding organizations of political space, most notably that of empires.

If Ruggie’s account of systems transformation emphasizes the role of “social epistemes,” a second major contribution to our understanding of the emergence of modern sovereignty, that of Hendryk Spruyt (1994), underlines the role of competition in the selection of the sovereign state over other political units as the dominant form of international political organization. Spruyt offers an evolutionary but non-linear explanation for the eventual triumph of the sovereign territorial state over its organizational rivals. He suggests that the sovereign territorial state survived early-modern institutional competition as the fittest political unit, emerging not just out of the feudal crisis in Europe, but also synchronically in the face of its competitors – city-states and city-leagues. Spruyt posits that external systemic pressures and bottom-up bargaining among medieval social actors delivered a new set of institutional arrangements which crystallized in a modern territorial state that was best equipped to rationalize and mobilize economic and military resources, generate benefits for its ruling elites, and provide more “effective and efficient means of organizing external, interunit behavior” (Spruyt 1994:28).

The place of empire in this account is very much that of a “failed strategy” of international political institutionalization. Focusing on the experience of the Holy Roman Empire, Spruyt identifies a number of contradictions between the universal aspirations of imperial rule built on papal legitimization and the increasingly parochial manifestations of its secular power, and between its hierarchical claims to rule over subordinate kingdoms and the reality of a heteronymous interaction between various political units under the symbolic banner of the empire. The result was a “diffuse hierarchy” mediated through imperial, spiritual, and feudal institutions of rule and exploitation. “This duality of secular and religious legitimation,” Spruyt concludes, “led to the absence of clear hierarchical authority. From one perspective, the emperor had universal authority over all other rulers including the pope. The church, however, claimed the same scope of authority. There were two swords, but the secular was to serve the spiritual” (1994:56).

Echoing this complication of the tidy shift from hierarchy to anarchy in the “medieval-to-modern transformation,” Benno Teschke (2003) has recently made a powerful iconoclastic case within a Marxist idiom for the temporally protracted and geographically uneven transition to modern sovereignty in Europe. To simplify hugely a sophisticated theoretical and richly historical study, Teschke argues that the shift from Carolingian imperial hierarchy to Westphalian anarchy was in fact bracketed by an intervening period of “feudal anarchy” in Europe. Competition remains a critical dimension in this account, but in contrast to Spruyt it takes the form of class antagonism, not institutional selection. Moreover, the “feudal anarchy” invoked by Teschke is not the transhistorical, systemic ordering principle beloved of neo-realism, but rather the violent conflict and geopolitical rivalry between feudal polities. “Intra-ruling class struggle among late Frankish lords under outside pressure precipitated the implosion of the Carolingian Empire during the Feudal Revolution of the year 1000. Imperial hierarchy gave way to feudal anarchy” (Teschke 2003:111). This feudal anarchy, according to Teschke, issued into a Westphalian sovereignty epitomized by the absolutist states of eighteenth-century continental Europe, and France in particular.

The twist in Teschke’s tale is that such expressions of sovereignty were not in fact modern, but represented instead a dynastic reformulation of feudal lordship into absolutist “proprietary kingship.” Modern sovereignty – characterized by the formal division of political and economic power between state and market – first emerged in the one significant European state absent at the Westphalian settlement: England. It was capitalist England – and not absolutist France – that established the structural foundations of the modern anarchical system of states. But because these divergent paths to sovereignty unfolded synchronically, the emerging international system was characterized by competing logics of statehood, in turn rooted in different social property relations. “There was no ‘structural rupture’ that divided pre-modern from modern international relations,” Teschke argues. “Rather, international relations from 1688 to the First World War and beyond were about the geopolitically mediated and contested negotiation of the modernization pressures that emanated from capitalist Britain” (2003:250).

What these influential constructivist, institutionalist, and Marxist political-sociological accounts of modern sovereignty bring to bear is the problematic nature of the hierarchy–anarchy distinction in IR. Empires play a significant but background historical role in these assessments, chiefly as foils against which modern sovereignty emerges. This is partly because these theories of system transformation center on the foundational European experience. Once we extend our analysis of system transformation outside that continent, it becomes clear that the hierarchy very much coincided with the expansion of the anarchical states-system, and indeed still structures international relations in our contemporary postcolonial world.

David A. Lake (2007) has perhaps gone furthest in exploring what this proposition might mean substantively. In a recent contribution to the analysis of hierarchy in contemporary IR, Lake challenges the accepted disciplinary wisdom regarding the assumption of anarchy and posits “an alternative, relational conception of authority that uncovers hierarchical relationships between states now hidden from the formal-legal approach [to state theories]” (Lake 2007:49). He endorses a “relational conception of authority” where “Authority […] becomes a contingent relationship in which the ruler provides the order demanded by subordinates, and they in turn accept the authority of the ruler to […] provide that social order” (Lake 2007:54). This conception of hierarchy seems to fit the kind of pericentric dimensions of empire identified by Doyle and Abernethy, but Lake also applies it to instances where there is no formal-legal recognition of imperial hierarchy: “[t]he Soviet Union’s informal empire in eastern Europe; the United States’ protectorates over Japan, the Philippines, and Micronesia after World War II; and the weak protectorate formed by the United States and Saudi Arabia during the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War” (2007:56).

Indeed Lake (2007:56) carries out a systematic measurement of international patterns of hierarchical authority after World War II, where hierarchy is said to exist when “one actor, the dominant state [,] possesses authority over another actor, the subordinate state” and where authority is disaggregated into various security and economic variables. On the anarchy end of the economic continuum lies “free” market exchange; on the hierarchy end, absolute dependency. The security axis ranges from diplomacy on the anarchy end to a full protectorate on the hierarchy pole. Lake maps onto these two axes different levels of “relational authority” between the US and other polities from 1950 to 2000, measured by overseas military deployment and the number of independent alliances on the security side, and monetary autonomy and relative trade dependence as the economic indicators of hierarchy. The results in some instances confirm expectations: a number of Central American and Caribbean states, led by Panama, appear closest to the imperial end of the anarchy–hierarchy spectrum both in 1965 and in 1995. Yet, counterintuitively, so does Canada. Similarly, some states (e.g., the Philippines) move from a position of relative dependence in 1965 to fairly pronounced economic autonomy vis-à-vis the US in 1995. South Korea also appears consistently close to the anarchy end of the spectrum across both periods. One significant conclusion which Lake extracts from his analysis is the negative correlation between security subordination and military expenditure: “Lower defense expenditures are one of the benefits that subordinate states receive from giving up a measure of their sovereignty” (2007:71). Economic hierarchy is, however, statistically insignificant: “Countries that are economically subordinate to the United States do not enjoy lower defense expenditures” (Lake 2007:75).

Overall, Lake’s study demonstrates the continuing influence of hierarchical political relations in the anarchical system of states. But it does not challenge the central assumption in IR that, unlike in imperial systems, in an international system of sovereign states “none is entitled to command; none is required to obey” (Waltz 1979:88). A recent study by Alexander Cooley (2007), on the other hand, focuses on actually existing empires of the postwar era, offering a thought-provoking thesis regarding the dynamics, driving forces, organization, and contradictory outcomes of imperial hierarchy in contemporary international politics. Using master categories derived from management studies and conventionally applied to capitalist firms, Cooley suggests that we can usefully distinguish between unitary expressions of hierarchy (U-forms), where a central authority integrates and coordinates subsidiary bodies, and multidivisional (or M-form) types of governance, characterized by the devolution of power and functions to relatively autonomous subordinate entities. He argues that employing this overarching dichotomy to the related fields of IR, comparative politics, and historical sociology not only delivers a descriptive typology of imperial hierarchy at different junctures of modern international politics, but also enables us to explain the convergence in strategies of hierarchical rule among diverse polities. For Cooley (2007:11), it is “rationalist logics and incentive structures” rather than the ideological self-conception of any given imperial entity that encourage “similar behavior across many nominally different types of polities and political orders.” More specifically, he insists that the collapse and subsequent political evolution of multinational hierarchical polities like Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union are explained by the contradictions in their institutional make-up, rather than with reference to suppressed national identities or broader ideological legitimacy.

Cooley suggests that his organizational model helps to explain variations in the prevalence (or indeed combination) of U- and M-forms of governance across imperial peripheries. He also demonstrates how the two different institutional forms can vary across different sectors (economic, military, financial) within any given empire. Using contemporary imperial experiences, most notably that of Soviet Central Asia, but also stretching back to the Japanese colonial rule over Korea and the more recent US-led occupation of Iraq, Cooley applies his theoretical analysis to empirical questions surrounding the legacies of U- or M-forms of hierarchy on postcolonial and post-imperial development, or their effects upon experiments in exogenous state formation like those under way in the Balkans, Afghanistan, or Iraq. In the latter case, the US combined “the most negative attributes of both the U-form and M-form governance,” and so, once again, it is “poor incentive structures” (Cooley 2007:155) rather than the ideological motivations of Washington neoconservatives which explain America’s failed occupation of Iraq. Against constructivist IR theory, Cooley demonstrates how various processes associated with globalization are still very much beholden to hierarchical logics of both U- and M-forms, and less so to voguish conceptions of global governance as a “transversal,” “horizontal,” or “networked” expression of authority.

Theories of Imperialism

Despite the recent rediscovery of empire within IR, it is still symptomatic of our discipline’s solipsistic tendencies that notions of empire and imperialism continue to be discussed principally with reference to conventional categories of anarchy, hierarchy, and sovereignty. Yet from the start of the twentieth century social theorists outside IR fashioned various explanations of empire and imperialism, which, despite their influence and cogency, remained on the margins of our disciplinary canon. Unequivocally political in their motivation and overwhelmingly Marxist in their ideological orientation, such theories of imperialism have nonetheless much to contribute toward the international political sociology of empires. Specifically, these theories of imperialism, as this section endeavors to show, can offer deep insights into the nature of at least three imperial phenomena critical to the study of contemporary international politics: the global economy, war, and revolution. Indeed, these three aspects of modern international relations were broached differently at three distinct conjunctures of the twentieth century.

The first of these took shape during the decades either side of World War I, forming the so-called “classical” theories of imperialism. John Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (1965), published in 1902, remains to this day, together with Lenin’s later pamphlet of 1916, the reference point of this first phase of theorizations on the “new,” capitalist imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As an economic journalist with first-hand experience of the Boer War, Hobson’s starting point was the question of why European states had quite suddenly and rapidly launched a global land-grabbing campaign in the last decades of the nineteenth century. His answer was attractively straightforward: “The business interests of the nation as a whole are subordinated to those of certain sectional interests that usurp control of the national resources and use them for private gain” (Hobson 1965:46). Arms producers, capital exporters, and financiers were singled out as the chief “parasites upon patriotism” insofar as they were the principal beneficiaries of their respective states’ overseas military and territorial expansionism.

In explaining the ascendancy of these sectional interests behind the drive for imperialism, Hobson argued that the concentration of industry into “trusts” or “combines” and the attendant “underconsumption” of commodities by the home market had served as the “economic taproot” of the new imperialism. He emphasized the production glut which emerged in the industrial nations as a result of the competitive centralization of capital and insisted that such a crisis of overproduction lay not in industrial capitalism itself, but rather in the speculative investments in “rents, monopoly profits and other unearned or excessive elements of income” (Hobson 1965:84). From all this, he concluded that “[I]mperialism is the endeavour of the great controllers of industry to broaden the channel for the flow of their surplus wealth by seeking foreign markets and foreign investments to take off the goods and capital they cannot sell or use at home” (Hobson 1965:85).

It is not difficult to see how Hobson’s pioneering study came to influence later theories of capitalist imperialism. Aside from being the first such comprehensive statement on the new imperialism, Hobson’s study highlighted a number of themes and concepts – finance and monopoly capital, overproduction, underconsumption, class fractions, cartelization, the arms industry, militarism – that were to play a central role in subsequent economic theories of imperialism. The most significant of these was a succession of Marxist works which during the years either side of World War I sought to analyze the relationship between capitalism and imperialism and, crucially, develop strategies to avert war – or alternatively harness it to revolutionary transformation. As the international socialist movement began to address the “colonial question” and subsequently endorse revolutionary struggles for national liberation with the creation of the Third, or Communist, International, these theorizations of capitalist imperialism acquired added political urgency.

The main protagonists of these debates – Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Kautsky, and Vladimir Illich Lenin – all understood imperialism as the militarized, geopolitical rivalry between European states, and, echoing Hobson, explained this phenomenon with reference to the power acquired by finance capital under a new, monopoly stage of capitalism. With the exception of Rosa Luxemburg, none of these theorists considered in any depth the impact of capitalist imperialism on the colonies, nor its consequences for the uneven development of global capitalism as such. They remained principally concerned with the impact of colonial expansion on European politics and society. Most Marxists at the time accepted the contradictory tendencies of an inherently expansive capital which nonetheless tended toward national concentration in large companies, and a footloose finance capital which simultaneously unified the world market and manipulated the foreign relations of powerful national states. They furthermore adopted Marx and Engels’ view that the apparatus of the state existed to serve ruling class interests. Their principal differences lay, then, not in their respective methodological assumptions, but in the political conclusions arrived at with this knowledge.

On one end of the political spectrum, Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1996, first published 1916) effectively summarized the earlier work of Hobson, Hilferding, and Bukharin in arguing that imperialism was defined by five features: the concentration of production to such an extent that monopolies “play a decisive role in economic life”; “the merging of bank capital with industrial capital” and the subsequent creation of “finance capital”; “the export of capital”; “the formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves”; and finally, “the territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers” (Lenin 1996:90). For Lenin, as for Hilferding and Bukharin before him, the domestic shift from competitive to monopoly capitalism, and internationally from free trade to imperialism, was an inevitable, structural feature of this latest stage of capitalist development. It was also the principal cause behind war and global inequality.

Lenin’s tract was published midway through the Great War, as the international socialist movement splintered into various factions and finally dismembered in August 1914. Lenin’s aim in Imperialism was thus as much to provide the “popular outline” of the subtitle as it was to demolish the mainstream Second International views of imperialism as presented by Karl Kautsky. The latter had in the years preceding the outbreak of war presented an account of imperialism that was in most respects analytically consonant with that of Hobson, Hilferding, and by extension Bukharin and Lenin. Imperialism was a phenomenon issuing from the cartelization of capital and the disproportionate influence of finance capital. It was, furthermore, fueled by the gaps between production and consumption, and characterized by violent competition and militarism. It was, however, Kautsky’s article Der Imperialismus (1970), published in September 1914, which drew the greatest ire from Lenin and Bukharin. For not only had Kautsky “arbitrarily and inaccurately” associated imperialism “only to industrial capital in the countries which annex other nations,” he furthermore “detaches the politics of imperialism from its economics, speaks of annexations as being a policy ‘preferred’ by finance, and opposes to it another bourgeois policy which, he alleges, is possible on this very basis of finance capital” (Lenin 1996:92–3).

Shorn of its polemical rhetoric, the fundamental difference between Kautsky and Lenin revolved around the degree to which the current phase of monopoly capitalism was irreversible, and therefore whether working-class movements could do anything to avert war. Both of these were essentially tactical questions. “From a purely economic standpoint,” Kautsky had ventured, “it is not excluded that capitalism may still live through another phase, the transference of the policy of cartelization to foreign policy, a phase of ultra-imperialism, which of course we must fight against just as energetically as we fought imperialism. Its dangers would lie in a different direction, not in that of the armaments race and the threat to world peace” (Kautsky 1983:88). For Lenin such views made Kautsky’s position indistinguishable from bourgeois reformism: “According to his argument,” Lenin concluded, “monopolies in economics are compatible with non-monopolistic, non-violent, non-annexationist methods in politics […] The result is slurring-over and blunting the most profound contradictions of the latest stage of capitalism, instead of exposure of their depth” (1996:92–3). Lenin and Bukharin thus insisted that imperialist warfare was a structural consequence of monopoly capitalism which could only be superseded through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, while Kautsky continued to claim that since imperialism was a policy adopted by a fraction of the ruling class, it could equally be reversed through political agitation and reform within the capitalist system.

One political outcome of such disputes was the creation of the Communist International in 1919, overtly committed to redressing the “social-imperialism” of its predecessor by explicitly supporting the national liberation of colonized peoples across the world. Paradoxically, very little of the classical Marxist theorization on imperialism had previously concerned itself with the colonized world: the focus of attention had been inter-imperial rivalry and war in the European metropole. Tragically, the one Marxist leader and intellectual who had dedicated considerable attention to the uneven and violent reproduction of capitalism beyond Europe, Rosa Luxemburg, was assassinated months before the founding of the Third International. Yet it is in Luxemburg’s monumental revision of Marx’s critique of political economy, The Accumulation of Capital (2003), first published in 1913, where we find the most sustained theoretical engagement by a classical Marxist with the problematic of capitalist imperialism.

Luxemburg was concerned in this work with the so-called “realization problem”: that is, how surplus value latent in the capitalist production of a given commodity is transformed into money through the medium of the capitalist market, and then is in turn spent in acquiring more capital. For Luxemburg (2003:330), the “expanded” or “enlarged” reproduction of capital through the continuous production and consumption of value is unthinkable within the confines of a closed capitalist economy: “the realization of surplus value for the purposes of accumulation is an impossible task for a society which consists solely of workers and capitalists.” Instead, Luxemburg proposes that expanded capitalist reproduction relies on the existence of “such social organizations or strata whose own mode of production is not capitalistic” (2003:332).

Whatever the merits of her answer to the “realization problem” (and the current consensus among specialists is that she was wrong), Luxemburg made at least two significant contributions to the theorization of imperialism by arguing, first, that capitalism reproduced itself globally in coexistence with – and indeed in requirement of – other non-capitalist modes of production; and that it did so necessarily through violent, militarized, and racist means. By shifting the focus from inter-imperialist rivalry in Europe to the forceful “destruction of the natural economy” abroad, and furthermore, by highlighting the dialectic of accommodation and resistance to this process in the periphery, Luxemburg reintroduced the historical dynamics of social and cultural antagonism into a predominantly economistic and structuralist conception of imperialism prevailing among Marxist discussion of the subject. She also considered at length the impact of capitalist accumulation on colonial social formations, and the persistence of seemingly archaic forms of oppression and domination under global capitalism – both themes which would concern postcolonial and development studies in later decades. In sum, as Anthony Brewer (1990:76) has indicated, Luxemburg’s real insight was “to insist that the mechanisms of primitive accumulation, with their concomitant use of force, fraud and state power, are not simply a regrettable aspect of capitalism’s past, but persist throughout the history of capitalism at the margin where capitalist and pre-capitalist economic systems meet.”

For both political and theoretical reasons, Marxism has been the dominant idiom in the analysis of modern imperialism. But its heavy emphasis on political economy left the terrain open for non-Marxists to explore the political and sociological dimensions of imperialism. Though separated by a generation, two towering figures of central European social theory, Joseph Schumpeter and Hannah Arendt, produced the most influential non-Marxist accounts of imperialism after Hobson. Both these authors start from the premise that capitalism and imperialism are driven by different logics and, consequently, that the explanation for the imperialist turn of European capitalism must be found in social forces other than those characteristic of what Schumpeter ideal-typically labeled the “purely capitalist world.” While not completely discarding the economic dimensions to the new imperialism (Arendt approvingly cites Hobson, Hilferding, and even Luxemburg, while Schumpeter recognized the sociopolitical changes wrought by finance capitalism and cartelization), both authors proffered essentially sociological reasons for this phenomenon.

Schumpeter (1951:7) defined imperialism broadly as “the objectless disposition on the part of state to unlimited forcible expansion,” in contrast to the pursuit of concrete state interests. He identified in the English experience a “pure capitalism” that ostensibly drew no profit from such objectless expansion, and so for Schumpeter, contemporary imperialism needed to be explained through its “atavistic character” (Schumpeter 1951:84), as a throwback to the socioeconomic and geopolitical logic of the ancien régime. Specifically, Schumpeter ascribed imperialism to a peculiar combination of old and new social classes, which, without saying so explicitly, he considered unique to late industrializing societies like Germany and his own native Austria. The national chauvinism, militarism and the autocracy characteristic of such states and societies were on this account remnants of a previous chivalric era, attaching themselves like parasites onto the new, properly bourgeois age and developing a symbiotic relationship with capitalism. “Nationalism and militarism,” Schumpeter concluded, “while not creatures of capitalism, become ‘capitalized’ and in the end draw their best energies from capitalism […] And they in turn, affect capitalism, cause it to deviate from the course it might have followed alone, support many of its interests” (1951:128).

Some 30 years after Schumpeter wrote these lines, Hannah Arendt would echo such themes in her own postwar and post-Holocaust reckoning of the Origins of Totalitarianism. In the central essay of the book, Arendt distinguished “Imperialism” from “empire-building” by suggesting that the latter implied some political integration between metropole and colony, while in the former “national institutions remain separate from the colonial administration although they are allowed to exercise control” (1966:131). Like Schumpeter, Arendt believed that there was no structural connection between imperialism and capitalism and, following Hobson, that national aggrandizement in the creation of political colonies was entirely different from the “spectacle of a few capitalists conducting their predatory searches around the globe for new investment possibilities to the profit-motives of the much-too-rich and the gambling instincts of the much-too-poor” (Arendt 1966:132). They only became conflated in the last decades of the nineteenth century as a result of sociopolitical crisis. In fact, for Arendt it was two social forces, rather loosely defined as “the bourgeoisie” and “the mob” which, in the context of deep sociopolitical antagonism at home, sought to resolve their differences by expanding abroad under the banner of nationalism. “The new fact in the imperialist era,” Arendt proclaimed,

is that these two superfluous forces, superfluous capital and superfluous working power, joined hands and left the country. The concept of expansion, the export of government power and annexation of every territory in which nationals had invested either their wealth or their work, seemed the only alternative to increasing losses of wealth and population. Imperialism and its idea of unlimited expansion seemed to offer a permanent remedy for this permanent evil. (1966:150)

These two non-Marxist accounts, then, drew out the sociological and ideological dimensions of capitalist imperialism by highlighting the role of nationalism, racism, and class antagonism in ways which – with the possible exceptions of Kautsky and Luxemburg – had been elided in Marxist political-economic analyses. After World War II, a new wave of Marxist and radical scholars returned to the theme of imperialism, this time chiefly with reference to the political economy of development and underdevelopment. The conjuncture facing analysts of postwar imperialism was, however, entirely different to that of the early decades: empires were crumbling, not annexing fresh territories; communism and revolutionary nationalism had triumphed across half the world; the dominant capitalist power now exercised global hegemony through states, not over them. Consequently the problematic of imperialism also changed. Uneven development and global socioeconomic and political inequality replaced war and Great Power rivalry as the major areas of concern for theorists of imperialism.

It was particularly in the field of so-called “development economics” – itself an expression of the new power relations in a postcolonial world – that a fresh wave of theories of imperialism was to emerge under the label of “dependency theory” (Kay 1989; Larrain 1989). Most of the dependency theorists stemmed from Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean, and their concern was no longer with geopolitical rivalry in Europe but the consequences of global capitalism in their own countries and regions. Their inspiration was still Marxist, but their approach married history, sociology, and anthropology with political economy. The use of the term “imperialism” during these postwar decades shifted notably from the realm of militarism and violence to denote the economic inequalities inherent in world capitalism.

The diverse body of writings that comes packaged under the neat label of “dependency theory” in fact encompassed scholarly investigations into class formation and antagonism in colonial and postcolonial social formations, the integration of extra-European peoples and territories into the world economy, and more polemical interventions into the nature of “sub-imperialism” in dependent states like Brazil or the persistence of neocolonial “underdevelopment” in a postcolonial world. Notwithstanding these variations, the common denominator to dependency theory was the assumption that capitalist development in the metropole required economic underdevelopment in the colonial periphery.

The intellectual force of such assertions derived in large measure from the political power of Third World nationalism and radicalism. Like preceding debates over imperialism, research into development and underdevelopment carried a strong polemical content. For one trenchant critic of dependency theory, the thesis of underdevelopment was a useful fiction which “with its emphasis on parasitism and its pillage of the Third World, was perfectly suited to the psychological needs and political requirements of the Third World nationalists” (Warren 1980:8). The reality and prospects of Third World economic growth were on this account not only highly feasible, but had furthermore been facilitated by the experience of capitalist imperialism in the periphery: “The overall, net effect of the policy of ‘imperialist’ countries and the general economic relationships of these countries with the underdeveloped countries actually favours the industrialization and general economic development of the latter” (Warren 1980:10). Other, more dispassionate evaluations have broadly concurred with this view, offering substantial statistical evidence in support, while the methodological presuppositions behind dependency theory and its cognate, “world-systems” theory, have also been subject to devastating critique (Brenner 1977; Bairoch 1986).

The net result of a century’s theorization of capitalist imperialism has in many respects returned us full circle to the problem of violence and force under capitalist social relations. For all their political and theoretical differences, Marxists and their contenders alike have accepted that the capitalist market has a logic and dynamic that is in principle antithetical to imperialism. Yet plainly the militarism, territorialism, and racism associated with the latter are not foreign to the former. Markets and empires are not as inimical as many have assumed (generally during periods like the 1890s and 1990s, of relative stability and prosperity for the privileged). Recent developments in world affairs have, however, once more brought the troubled relationship between contract and coercion into sharp focus, opening a fresh round of intellectual and political discussion on the subject of empire today.

The most original and challenging reformulation of the concept since the classical Marxist debates is unquestionably Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000). Remarkably, for a hefty theoretical text written by two relatively obscure Marxists, Empire became an international bestseller and acquired considerable political influence worldwide. Its core thesis is as follows: “In contrast to imperialism, empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers” (Hardt and Negri 2000:xii). From this opening gambit, Hardt and Negri spin out a sophisticated, if often inchoate and elusive, case for the constitution of a new world order built on supranational, post-imperialist “figures of power,” which are in turn inscribed in a properly “imperial notion of right.” Such reconfigurations of juridical power are expressed in the shift from national to supranational authority in the shape of the United Nations; the supplanting of domestic law by universal law; the development – in a Schmittian vein – of a permanent state of global exception; and the concomitant transition from the postwar norm of absolute sovereignty to the post-Cold War right of intervention. This novel constitution of world power is furthermore premised on the accumulation of consensual interventions in the name of universal rights. It does not issue from any specific location, nor does it serve particular national interests.

The reconstruction of political space under the empire is buttressed by a parallel reorganization of production. True to their Marxist heritage, Hardt and Negri emphasize the interconnections between the manifold transformations in our socioeconomic, political, and cultural lives. Capitalist globalization has not just changed the relationship between states and markets; it has also revolutionized our collective metabolism with nature. For Hardt and Negri the widening and deepening of the capitalist world market has been facilitated, and has itself been accelerated, by the increasing use of information and communication technologies, flexible production chains (“Toyotism”), and the “tertiarization” of the economy in the exploitation of labor. Such networked organization of production and its accompanying empowerment of deterritorialized financial markets, service industries, and multinational corporations have in turn put a premium on the “immaterial” labor derived from affective or communicative capabilities embodied in phrases like “customer care” or “knowledge economy.” Here Hardt, and Negri marry notions of “informatization” and “post-Fordism” to Foucault’s concept of biopower, arguing that under empire production is increasingly geared toward the direct control of human nature and the reproduction of social life generally: “In the biopolitical sphere, life is made to work for production and production is made to work for life. It is a great hive in which the queen bee continuously oversees production and reproduction. The deeper the analysis goes, the more it finds at increasing levels of intensity the interlinking assemblages of interactive relationships” (Hardt and Negri 2000:32).

This emphasis on the biopolitical dimensions of capital ushers in a final key category introduced in Empire, its nemesis in the form of the “Multitude.” Hardt and Negri draw on an “autonomist” Marxist understanding of labor’s relation to capital, where the capital relation constantly produces not just commodities, but new subjectivities which themselves bear the potential for shaping and indeed transcending capitalism. Thus, the very networks of immaterial labor and deterritorialized forms of rule that constitute empire carry within them the latent possibility of immanent power. On the one hand, the strength of empire resides in its capacity to increasingly permeate ever more dimensions of our lives through the mechanisms of biopower. On the other hand, this very requirement of capital to constantly colonize greater areas of our life world – to impose itself “throughout unbounded global spaces, to the depths of the biopolitical world” – generates networks of communicative, linguistic, and cooperative interactivity which, in one of their more exuberant moments, Hardt and Negri consider to prefigure “a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism” (2000:294).

Empire and IR Today

The return of empire and imperialism to the front line of contemporary international affairs has raised fresh questions about the disciplinary foundations of IR. Rumblings from IR’s post-positivist margins increasingly found greater echo within mainstream IR during the 1990s. One such study was Roxanne Lynn Doty’s (1996) pioneering study on the power of imperial encounters in framing representations of postcolonial North–South. At play in the historical encounters between US imperialism and Filipino or Cuban insurgents, Doty claimed, was not only the generation of discourses of sovereignty, identity, hierarchy, and inequality that shape modern global politics, but also the construction of exclusionary binaries within the discipline of IR itself. “Exclusion,” Doty concluded when analyzing the discipline’s engagement with the experience of empire, “has in many instances resulted in the complicity of international relations scholarship with particular constructions of the South and of the ‘reality’ of the South’s place in international relations” (1996:5).

Several other IR theories subsequently followed in Doty’s footsteps, unearthing the imperial roots of IR (e.g., Jahn 2000; Chowdhry and Nair 2002). Naeem Inayatullah and David L. Blaney (2004) undertook an extensive audit of the legacies within IR of both colonialism and the “religious cleansing” during the European Wars of Religion, in the process attempting to “explain the failure of IR to confront the problem of cultural difference and, perhaps less modestly, to begin to reimagine IR as perhaps a uniquely placed site for the exploration of the relation of wholes and parts and sameness and difference” in contemporary world politics (2004:3). Modern empires play a central role in such accounts of IR’s disciplinary blind spots and absences. For not only are the foundational oppositions of the discipline – between inside/outside, domestic/international, hierarchy/anarchy – premised on the early-modern European attempts at reconciling the necessary “otherness” of their colonial subjects with the universal claims of their imperial rule, they are recycled, Inayatullah and Blaney claim, in contemporary formulations of democratic peace, global civil society or cosmopolitan democracy where “difference is almost preconsciously treated as simultaneous with disorder, fear, suspicion, and condescension” (2004:123). The image of a truly postcolonial and non-imperialist discipline, they insist, would be an IR

based on the conversation among cultures: theoretically, we call for a practice that, while taking seriously both global structures and the meanings and intentions of actors, also focuses on the actual history of cultural contact […] Such reformulation may allow us to uncover IR not merely as composed of the residual stuff of other social theories but rather as a necessary point of departure for all forms of global theory and practice.

(Inayatullah and Blaney 2004:125)

Most of these postcolonial critiques of IR combined post-structuralist techniques of discourse analysis with subaltern historiographies concerned chiefly with the genealogy of “modernity.” They could reasonably be seen as contributions toward the sociology of knowledge of IR, but, beyond that, are perhaps best understood as meta-theoretical interventions into the philosophy of (world) history and the ontology and epistemology of “the global.” A postcolonial critique of IR in a properly political-sociological idiom has probably been most powerfully articulated in the work of Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey who, in a series of illuminating articles (1999; 2002; 2006), have challenged the dominant conception of political geography in our discipline as one that willfully overlooks the centrality of imperial circuits of power, violence, and exchange in constituting the contemporary international system.

Inspired by the work of critical geographers John Agnew and Stuart Corbridge (1995), Barkawi and Laffey (2002) suggest that, by falling into a “territorial trap” which reifies sovereign states as “impermeable containers of social relations,” mainstream IR empties world politics of the “’thick’ set of social, political, economic, cultural and military relations” that have historically constituted the modern international system. Empires have, according to Barkawi and Laffey, been privileged conduits of such relations – relaying and constructing modern expressions of culture, politics, and economics through war, exploitation, domination, and segregation. “Throughout the era of European power politics,” Barkawi and Laffey assert, “the source of many of IR’s archetypal categories, European politics and society were complexly interpenetrated with an imperial periphery […] It is only in a juridical, not social, sense that the imperial domains were subsumed under the sovereignty of the European powers, which are more accurately conceived as imperial social formations” (2002:113).

Analyzing modern international relations through the framework of “imperial social formations” rather than through the lens of fetishized anarchical systems not only retrieves the complex, hybrid, and interdependent history of the modern international system, but also radically challenges mainstream notions of security, strategy, and war. Barkawi and Laffey (2006) carry out their own “retrieval of the imperial” in a critique of contemporary security studies, demonstrating how “the resistance of the weak profoundly shapes events and outcomes” in international conflicts, ranging from the Peloponnesian War, World War II, the Cold War, and the contemporary “War on Terror.” Incorporating and, where necessary, privileging the agency of the “subaltern” and the “peripheral,” Barkawi and Laffey argue, throws up more accurate accounts of these major conflicts. Thus, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis cannot merely be interpreted through the language of superpower “perception” and “misperception” but also requires understanding the rationale and motivation of Castro’s actions against the backdrop of a long and complex history of Cuban anti-colonialism. Similarly, on this account the multiple theaters of World War II did not simply stage a straightforward struggle between Allied democracy and Axis fascism, but also – and in many places, fundamentally – represented wars fought by occupied populations against colonial empires. The upshot of these reformulations and critiques is to “open up space for scholars to analyze the strategic and security dilemmas confronting the weak and their use of force” (Barkawi and Laffey 2006:352).

Looking at the world through the prism of empire has “decentered” both the actual history and the discipline of international relations, unquestionably leading to richer, more reflexive, and ultimately more accurate explanatory accounts of the international system. Theories informed by international political sociology have been at the forefront of such critical reappraisal, delivering analyses of international socioeconomic and political change and continuity that challenge the uncritical and undialectical state-centrism still underpinning mainstream IR. Paradoxically, however, it is the continuing global power-projection of one state – the US – that arguably still eludes a distinctively international political-sociological explanation. There have, to be sure, been innumerable attempts at identifying the particularities of the American empire – some of them of considerable historical sophistication and sociological depth (Ikenberry 2001; Mann 2003; Cox 2004; Gindin and Panitch 2004; Maier 2006). Yet the conceptual framework deployed in the analysis of American empire rarely goes beyond the notion of the US as an “informal” or “indirect” empire, operating through the hegemonic coordination of capitalist states and economies rather than the colonial imperialism of old.

One notable exception is the recent study of David Harvey (2004) who, in a reformulation of Giovanni Arrighi’s distinction between the “territorial” and “capitalist” logics of power, has offered one of the most original recent explanations of US-led “capitalist imperialism.” While territorial power is invested in the spatially delimited military, diplomatic, and juridical apparatus of the state (or collection of states), capitalist power is exercised through the footloose dynamics of transnational markets – be these in commodities, money, or labor: “The capitalist operates in continuous space and time, whereas the politician operates in a territorialized space and, at least in democracies, in a temporality dictated by the electoral cycle” (Harvey 2004:27). Moreover, the class antagonisms and socioeconomic crises generated domestically are, in the absence of radical reform, experienced internationally through the processes of forceful and often violent commodification Harvey labels “accumulation by dispossession.” For Harvey, the contradictory interplay between these two logics – the territorial and capitalist; national and global – is critical in fathoming the behavior of capitalist empires, most notably the US. Far from representing a functional complementarity, or opposing poles of so-called “unilateralist” and “mulilateralist” foreign policy options, territorial and capitalist logics share an internal, dialectical relation which makes them at once irreducible to one another yet simultaneously interconnected. The political and socioeconomic tensions and contradictions that emerge when the “two logics […] tug against each other, sometimes to the point of outright antagonism,” are for Harvey (2004:29) the starting point of concrete analyses of contemporary capitalist imperialism. Thus, Harvey insists, a critical political sociology of empire requires constant and detailed attention to the ways in which military and economic power, political and market dynamics, combine rather than play off each other in upholding the global hegemony of capital.

Whatever the analytical and political merits of Harvey’s injunction, it does at least drive home the point that has informed much of this contribution, namely how the category “empire” continues to both illuminate the pertinence of IR to social theory more broadly, and highlight the shortcomings of our discipline in addressing the causes and dynamics of global inequality, violence, and uneven development. The IR problematics of hierarchy and anarchy elegantly pose the question of why the sovereign state has become the dominant form of political organization across the globe, given the long history and possible future of rival forms of juridical authority. The challenge for IR remains to explain the “pluriversal” tendencies of the international system, whilst recognizing the continuing power of “universalist” claims attached to empire, in all its economic, political, or sociocultural expressions.


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Bairoch, P. (1986) Historical Roots of Underdevelopment: Myths and Realities. In W.J. Mommsen and J. Osterhammel (eds.) Imperialism and After: Continuities and Discontinuities. London: Allen and Unwin, pp. 19–216.Find this resource:

Barkawi, T., and Laffey, M. (1999) The Imperial Peace: Democracy, Force and Globalization. European Journal of International Relations 5 (4), 403–43.Find this resource:

Barkawi, T., and Laffey, M. (2002) Retrieving the Imperial: Empire and International Relations. Millennium 31 (1), 109–27.Find this resource:

Barkawi, T., and Laffey, M. (2006) The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies. Review of International Studies 32 (2), 329–52.Find this resource:

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Gindin, S., and Panitch, L. (2003) Global Capitalism and American Empire. In L. Panitch and C. Leys (eds.) The New Imperial Challenge: Socialist Register 2004. London: Merlin Press, pp. 1–42.Find this resource:

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Luxemburg, R. (2003) The Accumulation of Capital. London and New York: Routledge. Originally published 1913.Find this resource:

Maier, C. (2006) Among Empires: America’s Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

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The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. At, accessed July 2009. Recently opened London museum dedicated to the British Empire and Commonwealth, with some good links and resources.

Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. At, accessed July 2009. Influential radical pan-African and internationalist research center focusing on issues of contemporary imperialism.

Encyclopedia of Life Support Stystems. At, accessed July 2009. A UNESCO-sponsored initiative that covers, from a genuinely global perspective, multiple socioeconomic, political, environmental, and cultural perspectives on questions of empire, both contemporary and historical.

Focus on the Global South. At, accessed July 2009. Another important resource from the global South on contemporary empire and imperialism.

Latin American Council of Social Sciences. At, accessed July 2009. Foremost Ibero-American social science research center with significant southern perspectives on empire and imperialism.

Marxists Internet Archives. At, accessed July 2009. Plainly partisan, but contains many of the key Marxist contributions to the study and theorization of the international-political sociology of empire.