The variations of the question ‘What is the point of International Relations?’ have been asked by so many scholars over the years that there is now a veritable literature dedicated to analysing the discipline’s unending existential angst. In a snapshot of the debates on IR’s raison d’être, Dyvik, Selby and Wilkinson highlight that, while such self-interrogations are not unique to IR, the discipline does face challenges, most specifically in clarifying its ‘subject matter’ and demonstrating its ‘real world impact’. Among the barriers that hinder IR scholars’ ability to influence the world beyond academia, they single out the domination of the policymaking space by think tanks, the overlap between IR scholars’ expertise and that of the policymakers working on foreign policy and security, and a ‘heavy theoretical orientation’ that alienates those who are not well-versed in the vernacular of the discipline.
These are, indeed, significant issues, but it is also worth adopting a longer view and examining the paths of institutionalisation and socialisation in the discipline—particularly in its American incarnation—to question this disconnect between IR and ‘the real world’. We might, for example, start by recognising that for the better part of IR’s institutional history, the knowledge produced by the discipline has been geared towards a formal audience comprising states and international institutions. While the strictly positivist conception of IR that most clearly prioritised this mission has lost some of its structuring influence, and IR scholars have markedly expanded their conception of ‘the international’ in recent years, it is difficult to conclude that a similar reorientation in defining IR’s intended audience has taken place. In other words, it is still the case that many, if not most, IR scholars would identify a host of official actors—policymakers, various state apparatuses, international institutions—as their primary ‘non-academic’ audience. Amidst the hellish socio-economic, political and ecological landscape that confronts us all today, instead of asking ‘What is the point of International Relations?’ to examine the ‘relevance’ of our scholarly work, perhaps it is time to focus on another question instead: Who do we write and conduct our research for?This question brings me to the forum on Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton’s Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis we recently published in International Relations. The forum provides a platform for ten scholars (including Bieler and Morton) to examine not only the specific arguments of the book, but the broader implications of the authors’ call to realise ‘a necessarily historical moment’ in IR. The book itself rises to the challenge that it sets out for other IR scholars: It places capitalist social relations of production at the heart of its theoretical framework and demonstrates the centrality of struggles born from those relations to shaping ‘the international’. While Bieler and Morton are clearly not the first scholars to recast the study of IR through the prism of social relations (of production), they offer a decisively more ambitious agenda than the ones provided by their intellectual predecessors in IR à la Robert W. Cox. The authors’ call for taking class struggle seriously in the analysis of global politics is supported by an intricate theoretical edifice that borrows as much from Silvia Federici, Nancy Fraser and J. K. Gibson-Graham as it does from Marx, Gramsci and Luxemburg—a framework that remains attentive to the co-constitutive relationship between class, ‘race’ and gender.
This is not to say that the book offers equally convincing arguments in piecing together the role and function of forms of difference and exclusion in capitalism. On the contrary, there are significant tensions between the overarching theoretical framework and the authors’ valiant attempts to bring in complementary approaches to better address the questions of gender, ‘race’, and other embodied markers of difference in capitalism. Despite those limitations—many of which are discussed in detail in the interventions of Aida Hozić, Victoria Basham and Lara Montesinos Coleman—the book excels in refocusing the question of ‘audience’ in IR. As I wrote in my own contribution, the theoretical heavy lifting serves a key practical–political objective in urging the IR literature to ‘[centre] its analytical gaze on those who toil and survive in the “social factory” of contemporary capitalism’. Following the ethos of similar attempts of agenda-setting articulated by feminist and postcolonial International Studies scholars, Bieler and Morton envision a historical materialist IR that takes the discipline’s traditional macro-level concerns (e.g., war, geopolitics, economic competition/cooperation) seriously, but engages with them on a terrain shaped not by the interests of states and international institutions per se, but that of ‘subaltern’ forces, broadly conceived.
In short, the book does offer a compelling answer to the question ‘Who do we write and conduct our research for?’, but the problem of ‘real world impact’ remains. If our scholarship ought to address—and even support—the needs, concerns and interests of subaltern forces, what kind of methods and practices can help us achieve those objectives? Is it best to focus on what we do best and rely on a transmission model, i.e., hoping that our students will turn the lessons of our scholarship into concrete practices beyond our classrooms? Or should we actively take our work ‘on the road’ so to speak, by attempting to develop sustained relationships with social and political actors, preferably at the grassroots level? If we take the social function of ‘organic intellectuals’ seriously—as a good student of Gramsci would do—should not we focus on elevating the voices of those who are already theorising from within the politics of their own struggle, of the social forces we claim to champion in our work? It is clearly beyond the remit of the book to answer such questions, but perhaps we might find some instructive hints in the authors’ own practices, which have long revolved around sustained engagement with and commitment to the everyday politics of struggle beyond the academy.