The Marxist Theories Of International Relations Politics Essay

Nothing to do with Marxism/Leninism as a State Ideology, although associated with it, and embarrassed by it. Marxism is a set of analytical theories, that experience a renaissance today, because it appears clearly again, after the triumphalism of the 1990s, that Capitalism is in a constant crisis. In Latin America, in Asia, and even here in the USA, financial crises happen quite frequently. Also, even when capitalism is working, it might not produce favourable outcomes for everybody. Globalisation is good for American companies, but not necessarily for the American blue collar worker.

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Strength of Marxism: to understand the role of the economy in politics and analyse why crises are part of it.

In International Politics: it investigates the role of global capitalism in world politics. It is a theory that is very disconcerting, for it demonstrates things that we usually don’t want to hear or know: that our wealth in the West is dependent upon the poverty and misery of the people in the other parts of the world. In Marx’s words; “accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality at the opposite pole’.

Hence, that

1/5 of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty,

30,000 children die every day from preventable diseases

1 bn people don’t have access to clean water

In 34 countries the life expectancy is now lower than it was in 1990

is not a god-given feature of our world, but to a significant extent caused by the way the global economy works.

Here we will talk about four different theories that take inspiration from Marxism. What do they have in common?

Society and Politics are a Totality. The division into History, Sociology, IR, Political Science, Economics and so on is misleading and problematic. Every issue, problem is part of this totality. Current example: USA vs. Iraq: what is relevant? Military power, nuclear weapons, balance of power, regime type, culture, religion, economic interests in oil… and so on. So to isolate one of these point always misses that the picture is always a large one and a complicated one.

A materialist conception of history. History is driven by the tension between the means of production (labour, tools, technology, capital) and the relations of production (the socio-economic conditions that prevail in a society: Feudalism, Slaveholder society, Capitalism…) Former transform and ‘improve’, straining against the latter: during Feudalism, manufacturing needed more free worker, undermining the bondage of peasants and the power of guilds. Slavery in 1865 was not only a moral depravity but also economically outdated. It is too inefficient to compete with modern manufacturing in large scale. This tension will over time lead to the transformation of social relations: the freeing of peasants in Europe, of slaves here in the USA, and so on. Also, the economic sector (means and relations of production) dominates the political, legal, and cultural system. This ‘superstructure’ reflects and reinforces the way the economic sector, the ‘base’ is run. We have a political system that supports and reinforces capitalist property, our laws protect property, our welfare states keep the people alive so they won’t revolt or starve. Our culture facilitates the reaping of profits for large companies and corporations: fashion, music, arts, entertainment, also education is guided towards profit maximisation of capital.

Class is a central concept: in every society there is class conflict. In capitalist society, there is the conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat. A bit too simple perhaps today, but if you know what Enron did to its employees, you get an idea that the interest of the capitalist are not always the interests of the workers or employees.

‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it’. Emancipation and change were the goal for him: to end capitalism and its exploitation of the workers, and to create a more just society. This is still on the agenda, not least in global politics.

World Systems Theory (Wallerstein)

Based on insights that globalised capitalism is creating a core-periphery in the world, and that all economic interactions take place within a global context. The location of states in this system determines their behaviour and their interactions.

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Core: industrialised and modern parts of world economy. Periphery: the exploited part from which we receive cheap resources and raw material. Terms of trade are deteriorating in the long run for Periphery: raw material gets cheaper, manufactured goods more expansive.

Semi-Periphery: plays an interesting part: stabilizes capitalism in Core by providing cheap labour and by taking up labour intensive industries that move out of core.

Temporal factor:

cyclical rhythms: expansion and contraction: stock market, trade, etc

secular trends: over time moving up or down through cyclical rhythms

contradictions: central part of capitalism: crisis of underconsumption laying off workers makes profits rise, but then no-one buys stuff, so even more lay-offs…

Crisis: of a whole world system, possibility for change


Problem that Antonio Gramsci dealt with: how come there is no revolution occurring in Western Europe? How can capitalism stabilize itself and make workers believe that Capitalism is also in their interest? Why is nobody really challenging it?

Hegemony: dominant ideology distributed through society via media, culture, education, churches, etc (civil society). It’s a soft form of power, complementing coercion. People are raised and socialized to accept no alternative to Capitalism, schools teach about its virtues, and everybody takes it for granted that we are a capitalist society. So the Superstructure (politics, culture, etc) feeds back and stabilizes the basis.

In international politics, Robert Cox above all has used and developed these fascinating ideas about the relationship between material reality (economics) and ideological superstructure (politics and culture) in investigating the way this works in the international economy.

Success of free trade and neoliberalism all over the world needs to be explained: How come everybody assumes that free trade is the solution to the economic problems of every country, when it so blatantly is not?

As Cox points out, theory is always a theory for some one, and for some purpose. It’s never neutral and objective, it always benefits some and does not benefit or oppresses others. Values about right and wrong are inherent and implicit in any theory.

And the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism does just that: it benefits the interest of the rich and powerful in world economics.

It opens up markets to their powerful and efficient companies.

It makes resources and raw materials available for a cheap price, as it forces these countries to focus on those resources for income, and forces them into a competition with each other.

It allows Western companies to snap up privatised companies in Third World countries at bargain prices.

. Thus, by forcing the countries of the underdeveloped world into the free market economy, we do this above all to support our own interests. By claiming and spreading the ‘news’ that there is no alternative to neoliberalism and free trade, we abolish alternatives for these countries. And if they still resist, ideology is enforced by international institutions. Case discussed in Box 10.3 is very good here.

It should be noted in this context that those countries that successfully developed their economies since the 1950s in the Third World (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, India) did so with a significant role for the state and protectionist policies. Education systems were crucial.

If countries resist, the IMF refused to give them financial aid that they need to get out of debt.

Also, further problem: West itself does not take ‘free trade’ all that seriously. OXFAM REPORT HERE.

Marxism and Globalisation:

The growing integration of national economies, the increasing interdependence of societies, and the proliferation of global organisations and networks are in a sense nothing new to Marxism. They have been looking at these developments for the longest time: Capitalism itself is the driving force behind it.

Capitalism is expansive, and transformative. It constantly seeks new markets for its products, and it transforms the societies it reaches in this pursuit. Traditional societies that have survived through centuries are melted down and turned into modern capitalist societies with all the repercussions this has.

And as economic developments and economic power will only increase in the future, these kind of theories will become more relevant than Realism and Liberalism. And as the globalising economy now produces more and more undesirable outcomes, not only in the Third World, but also here at home, we might also pay attention to the “emancipatory” aspect of Marxism and the question of transforming the global economy to make it fairer, and more just.