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Politics of the World Economy

by Adam David Morton on June 1, 2017
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One of the bits and pieces revealed by my moving to the University of Sydney and the Department of Political Economy has been a set of old undergraduate lecture notes, course reading lists, and revision commentaries that were previously filed away and forgotten about. In particular, some of the most intellectually interesting and motivating lectures that I took during my B.A. Hons in International Relations at Staffordshire University was the International Political Economy (IPE) stream of lectures and courses given by Alan Russell, who has just confirmed his retirement. His lectures that I attended included those on his third-year course ‘Politics of the World Economy’ that spanned a twenty week programme of lectures and seminars across 1994 to 1995. Why might this trip down memory lane be mildly interesting to today’s foci in IPE and contemporary debates?

Two documents that are reproduced here might provide an interesting platform from which to reflect on IPE today. The first is the exam paper from the preceding academic year (1993-94) that I used for the organisation of my revision. The second concerns a set of revision crib sheets that I prepared, in this case focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of World-Systems Analysis and wider themes within Marxist approaches to historical sociology as just one topic of revision for the course examination. Note that these were written on an electronic typewriter including typos and spelling mistakes!

The course itself covered among its themes a general discussion of the nature of IPE and its relationship to International Relations (IR); a focus on approaches, perspectives and ideologies; capitalist development and British hegemony or Pax Britannica; the inter-war period of the twenty years’ crisis and the subsequent establishment of the Bretton Woods system; the operation of the Bretton Woods system and US hegemony; the 1973 crisis of the world economic order; alternative perspectives on the liberal trade regime that covered Marxist currents of analysis as well as introducing me to Antonio Gramsci’s approach to historical materialism; transnational capital and the politics of finance; international economic management; the “third world” and the debt crisis; restructuring and “refolution” in East European states; globalisation; and the contemporary structure of the world economy.

Exam Paper: page one  // Exam Paper: page two

The exam paper from the course’s preceding academic year, included here as the first documents above, displays my original highlighting for revision purposes, which today draws attention to my interest in:

  • a focus on ‘hegemony’ in the study of IPE in and beyond the mainstream dominance of (neo)realism;
  • the role of the debt crisis in the post-colonial world as a draining ‘South-to-North resource flow’ with its continuities and contrasts with the period of colonialism;
  • the degree to which IPE represents a cohesive field in its own right, as the teacher rather than the apprentice, or a discipline rather than disciple, to IR;
  • the importance of dependency perspectives in understanding North-South politics within the world economy; and
  • issues of transition within and across East European states in their shift to neoliberalism.

One could point to exclusions or marginalisations in the design of the module not bound by the circumstances of time. For example, the lack of a focus on race and gender in IPE; a realisation of the construction and production of space in relation to modern concepts of territory; the neglect of regional studies in relation to sub-Saharan Africa; a lack of a more detailed focus on authoritarianism and neoliberal transition in Latin America; a more concerted focus on issues of climate change, resource use, and biodiversity; or attention cast to issues of counter-spaces of resistance and class-driven struggle. That said, my studies enabled me to cover courses on gender politics and South Asia (with Sita Bali); the politics of development (with Stephen Riley); nations and nationalism (with Don MacIver and Jonathan Gorry) and sub-Saharan Africa (with, again, Stephen Riley and Graham Harrison). Even in a twenty week course certain gaps could be expected. The bite size teaching of modules in ten or eleven weeks in the UK today raises these problems to an even greater degree (hence my preference for the sort of pedagogical coverage that can be extended in units (or modules) within the academic environment in Australia at the University of Sydney over thirteen weeks with twice-weekly lectures plus a weekly tutorial). It was in my taught courses at postgraduate level that I would subsequently specialise in Latin American and Mexican politics more.

The second document is the sort of crib sheet or aide-memoire that I would produce for each revision topic for the exam, usually five topics. Here I would whittle down all my readings and notes to two sheets of typed A4 notes. Rather than reading reams and reams of notes, then, these condensed sheets would enable me to revise a topic towards the end of my preparation while travelling on the bus; sitting in a café munching on some Staffordshire oatcakes in Stoke-on-Trent; or sitting in the sunshine (really) just before the three hour unseen examination along with fellow students such as Cerwyn Moore. Note that the examination period was three hours, three questions, in those days – heavier than current assessment guidelines in the UK.

World-Systems: Notes 1 // World-Systems: notes 2 // World-Systems: Notes 3

Again the documents above retain the original highlighting and hand-written marginalia from my revision days. Noteworthy here would be my interest in:

  • the relationship of Lenin’s view on imperialism and the ‘law’ of uneven development to World-Systems Analysis;
  • the embeddedness of World-Systems Analysis within wider historical sociological approaches to political economy;
  • Robert W. Cox’s historical materialist emphasis on a vertical dimension of power (class relations) alongside the horizontal dimension of rivalry (between states) in IPE;
  • the problem of how to study the world-system (holistic ontology) and state development (units) as internally related; and
  • tracing nuances between dependency theory and World-Systems Analysis despite the criticisms levelled against it, including problems raised by Theda Skocpol and issues of falsificationism linked to Karl Popper.

Quoting from the course handbook, it is stated that ‘Established concepts and new concepts must be selected wisely and underlying assumptions clarified, in both our own work and that of others’. Alan Russell was an inspiration to me in helping us as students to reveal back to ourselves our own ideologies, politicising ourselves, and thereby reflecting on the ideologies represented in the theories and practices of IPE.

These old notes about the continually changing terrain of IPE disclose a certain consistency in my intellectual and political concerns, perhaps even an emerging conviction and fidelity to political economy understood from a historical materialist perspective weaving together a class-relevant approach to historical sociology, uneven development, and neoliberal state restructuring. That these concerns are part of an ongoing emergence, a forever learning and re-learning, continually engaged in intellectual curiosity and development, should not need articulating. Perhaps these old notes might enable further reflection on all our origins within IPE, our consistencies and commitments, and the current gaps, silences, and marginalisations existent within the assumed new directions of international political economy today?

This post was originally published on For the Desk Drawer

Adam David Morton

Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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