Caught Up in the Madness? State Power and Transnational Organized Crime in the Work of Susan Strange

By Friman, H. Richard | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, August-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Caught Up in the Madness? State Power and Transnational Organized Crime in the Work of Susan Strange


Friman, H. Richard, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Susan Strange left an impressive legacy of scholarship on international relations. (1) She consistently challenged the field for its tendency to privilege the state and discount the role of markets and transnational actors. For Strange, power was contested by states and nonstate actors, and bargaining between these actors in the context of transnational relations remained a central theme in her work. In two of her last major books--The Retreat of the Slate: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy, and Mad Money (2)--Strange extended her approach to the challenges to state power posed by transnational organized crime. In many ways, this extension was a professional risk. Transnational crime lies on the fringes of international relations (IR) scholarship and is often seen as too journalistic, as an issue plagued by the absence of reliable data, and even as too dangerous for the researcher to pursue. Strange's work in this context helped to legitimize scholarly inquiry on transnational crime.

However, Strange's overreliance on the very field she sought to challenge limits the insights of her approach. The problems are at least twofold and center on questions of theory and threat. On questions of theory, Strange chastises the field of IR for the problematic concepts and assumptions of its state-centric approach. Nonetheless, she runs into similar pitfalls by drawing on elements of this approach to explain the nature and influence of nonstate actors. On questions of threat, Strange chastises the state-centric approach for failing to capture the erosion of state authority in the face of transnational crime. Nonetheless, she largely accepts as given the arguments of state actors concerning the nature and extent of this erosion. By failing to explore the extent to which crime threats are socially constructed and the array of state and nonstate actors involved in this process, Strange falls short in offering a critical inquiry into the threats posed by transnational organized crime.

The first section of this article briefly summarizes Strange's core arguments as presented in The Retreat of the State and Mad Money. The remaining sections address Strange's approach on questions of theory and threat.

State Retreat and Financial Madness

A central theme in both The Retreat of the State and Mad Money (made explicit in the subtitle of the former work) is that state power is becoming more diffused in the world economy. Strange sees power spreading from states to nonstate actors and, more broadly, to world markets. The process of diffusion is complex, shaped by the interaction of technological change, financial markets, and the decisions and nondecisions of state and nonstate actors. (3) Strange's arguments on the state's retreat and the resulting madness of financial markets build on her earlier work concerning the nature of power and politics. (4) This section of the article briefly discusses these concepts before turning to Strange's arguments on the challenges posed by transnational organized crime.

Strange sought to broaden the parameters of IR scholarship in her conceptualizations of power and politics. In The Retreat of the State, she builds on these themes by noting that the importance of power lies less in the relative capabilities or resources of states seeking to influence each other and more in the ability of state and nonstate actors to influence broader structures or "relationships of power." (5) Strange defines structural power in terms of authority, or "power over," outcomes in global frameworks of security, finance, production, and knowledge relationships. Structural power involves the ability to "affect outcomes," such that the "preferences [of a person or group] take precedence over the preferences of others." (6) Strange sets the stage for her broader argument on diffusion by contending that states as well as nonstate actors can exercise structural power. Actors can consciously seek to affect outcomes or, in the case of powerful state and nonstate actors, they do so "unconsciously" by virtue of simply "being there. …

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