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The liberal international order is in crisis – here is how we can analyse it

by Milan Babic on March 10, 2020
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The crisis of the liberal international order (LIO) might appear as an abstract process, but we experience its consequences on a daily basis: the effects of Brexit on people’s lives, far right backlashes around the world curtailing social and human rights, or the comeback of global rivalries and looming new conflicts around the world are some of the more visible crisis effects. It should hence be in the interest of International Relations (IR) and International Political Economy (IPE) research to delineate, analyse and better understand the current crisis of world order as a distinct phase between what is slowly dying – the LIO – and what might come in its wake. In a recent paper for International Affairs, I delineate an analytical framework and offer a range of empirical entry points drawing on a lot of already existing fantastic research on different crisis aspects.

This framework is inspired by the crisis-understanding of Antonio Gramsci, who can offer us an unique perspective on changes of world order. His Prison Notebooks can be in part read as a live-commentary on the unfolding crisis of world order in the 1920s and 1930s. As the most prolific analyst of this interregnum, Gramsci analysed a period of world history which largely shaped the post-war order we still live in today.  While we should be careful in projecting historical analyses to the present, Gramsci’s ability to grasp the crisis while living through it is a quality which my paper calls to rediscover. Existing crisis-analyses of the LIO often either reconstruct the LIO’s history (often uncritically as the heyday of American hegemony) or speculate about its future, whereas a Gramscian perspective allows us to study the crisis as it unfolds. This perspective is especially relevant if we take into account that crises and transitions of world order can be a long-lasting process: the hegemonic decline of Britain at the beginning of the twentieth-century and the creation of a post-war order almost half a century later illustrate that we should make an effort to better understand this period that could last decades and change the world we live in lastingly.

The aim of the paper is hence not so much to “translate” Gramsci’s ideas to today, but, to paraphrase Stuart Hall, to think the crisis of the LIO in a Gramscian way. For this, I focus on three characteristics of Gramsci’s crisis-understanding and locate them on different analytical levels relevant for the LIO. The first concerns Gramsci’s insight that crises are always processes. While we often tend to think about crises as critical junctures that interrupt otherwise well-established social orders, Gramsci understands the crisis of the 1920s and 1930s as a long-term process originating in contradictions capitalism bears in itself. Against the idea of being unpredictable manifestations of randomness, crises are hence processes that can be analytically studied. For studying the LIO, I focus on two long-term processes on the macro-level of the global political economy: financialisation and the rise of potential challengers to American hegemony. To get a grasp of these long-term processes, I recommend Adam Tooze’s Crashed, Greta Kripner’s Capitalizing on Crisis (both on financialisation and finance), and the late Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing (on the rise of China).

The second crisis characteristic concerns the question of which type of crisis we live in. Gramsci differentiates between short-to-medium long conjunctural, and more long-term, deep-running organic crises. Conjunctural would be an “everyday” political crisis that does not fundamentally imperil the functioning of a social order. Organic crises however carry the potential of disrupting and destroying otherwise stable orders. Gramsci diagnoses an organic crisis when the ideological split between the ruling and the ruled – or between represented and representatives – becomes too wide to sustain, which leads into a lethal “crisis of authority”. For the LIO, this means a mismatch between the represented states and the LIO itself as representing those states through international institutions. This national-international divide, reinforced by the global far right surge, can be best studied through the lens of a political economy of global populism that takes both, the discursive and material aspects of this divide seriously. I recommend a Globalizations special issue edited by Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel on authoritarian neoliberalism as well as a recent study by James Bisbee et al. as relevant entry points for this crisis dimension.

The third point I raise in the article is related to Gramsci’s famous crisis definition [1]. Organic crises tend to develop over time and render the old order increasingly obsolete. This is also the time when morbid symptoms occur in everyday political life that first seem at odds with the norms and working mechanisms of the old order. An example of this is the rise and success of political leaders that openly reject and aim to destroy core elements of the old order; or the depletion of once core ideological pillars of the LIO like global democratic solidarity. Since those symptoms represent only the tip of the iceberg, a core task described in the paper is to study their sources on the societal level. In order to understand what feeds into the the rise of problematic and often enigmatic political projects like Trumpism, a study of the drivers of these morbid symptoms is necessary. I recommend Wendy Brown’s  Undoing the Demos, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Stangers in their own land and a special issue on everyday narratives in world politics edited by Liam Stanley and Richard Jackson as relevant vantage points for understanding the drivers of morbid symptoms.

Taken together, this outline is by all means only a first stepping stone to a much broader effort in IR and IPE studies to make sense what at some points seems morbid and confusing. To be clear, the crisis of world order is not only a perilous terrain that might lead us into the abyss of ecological catastrophe, fascist renewal, and other dark prospects for what is to come. While these are possible outcomes of the current interregnum, it also opens up the political space for progressive forces to shape the coming world order through projects like real global equity, a workable Green New Deal, or mitigating global corporate power. The ability to positively shape our future also crucially depends on a better understanding of our present. Gramsci’s thinking can help us to kickstart this process.


[1]     “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” (Gramsci, A. 1971: The prison notebooks, p. 276)

Milan Babic
Milan Babic is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, where he works on the rise of foreign state investment in the global political economy and the future of the liberal international order and neoliberal globalisation. You can find out more on milanbabic.com

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