Against Soft Anarchism: Challenging Liberal Cooptations of Anarchism in International Relations Theory

By Roxburgh, Shelagh | Anarchist Studies, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Against Soft Anarchism: Challenging Liberal Cooptations of Anarchism in International Relations Theory


Roxburgh, Shelagh, Anarchist Studies


INTRODUCTION

In recent years there has been a growing academic interest in the applicability of anarchism in the field of international relations (IR). However, many studies have failed to provide a thorough and challenging analysis of anarchism, often rejecting its core principles and concepts. In many cases, academics shy away from the transformative criticisms anarchism has to offer by avoiding questions of violence, power and agency, and instead focusing on concepts that are more amenable to a wider construction of modern liberal politics: cooperation, negotiation and radical democracy. As a result of this lack of willingness to test both anarchist theory and the limits of academic tolerance, 'critical theory of (IR) ... ha[s] not engaged substantively with the potentials and promises of anarchist political philosophy and practice' (Rossdale, 2010, p483).

This article will assess one authors' approach to anarchist theory in IR as an example of discursive and analytical approaches that risk reducing anarchist theory in order to make it more compatible with liberal theories of IR. Soft anarchism here, refers to this dilution of anarchist principles in order to make anarchism amenable to mainstream political science. The focus of this article is not to provide a summary of anarchist theory or an assessment of applications of anarchism to IR. This argument focuses on a specific trend based on Scott Turner's article 'Global Civil Society, Anarchy and Governance', looking at the dangers of linking anarchism to liberal concepts such as global governance, civil society and citizenship. The primary caution advanced by this paper is that liberal appropriations of anarchism in IR, a field that strongly produces and reproduces knowledge of the state, serve to legitimise the state project rather than contribute to its deconstruction.

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS THEORY AND THE STATE

The field of international relations 'concerns the emergence of the European state system' and the central 'principles of sovereignty and non-intervention' (Armstrong, 2013, p36). The emergence of these sovereign states and the complexity of their relations were first characterised by the concept of 'international society' (ibid.). This concept dominated IR studies and debates which began with the theory of realism and its core interests in statism, self-help and balance of power as a guard against the Hobbesian disorder and chaos of a society of states (Dunne, 2013). This disorder is attributed to classical conceptions of human nature, as demonstrated in the works of Morgenthau, as well as to the anarchical nature of the international system itself, as in the works of Bull and Waltz (ibid.).

Anarchy in IR refers to the absence of a ruling state or overarching singular authority within international politics (Bull, 1977). Bull established this concept as a turning point between realist theories that had dominated international relations, creating an opening for liberal interpretations of anarchy as permitting cooperation and order between states (Armstrong, 2013; Bull, 1977). Theories promoting peace studies had long been derogatorily referred to as Idealism, however works such as those by Bull and the emergence of the League of Nations and later the United Nations, paved the way for the legitimate inclusion of liberal optimism as a counter to realist pessimism (Dunne, 2013). Liberal IR theory is built on the core principles of civic rights and freedoms, equality, and the role of free market as a constraint against conflict to advance the ideas of 'order, liberty and justice' in international society (Dunne, 2013, pi 15).

Through liberal interventions, international society came to represent 'common interest, rules and institutions [which] maintain a certain degree of order' without a common government (Cudworth & Hobden, 2010, p401). From an anarchist perspective, international society in this respect connotes an order that is built upon inequality and values force over consensus, thereby tending towards a uniformity that privileges the state system. …

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