Neocon Realists and Global Neoliberals Dead on Arrival: A Theoretical Autopsy



Who are Neocons and Neoliberals today?

In the collapsing Mordor society of today we have two contending foreign policy theoretical tendencies, the Neocon realists and the Neoliberal globalists. The Neocon realists are represented by people like Robert Kagan, Victoria Nuland, Steve Bannon and other war hawks who go back to the Bush Years (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz) and back even further to Michael Ledeen, Irving Krystal and  Leo Strauss. The Neocons never found a war they didn’t like. Political domination is the name of their game. While they support capitalism, trade relations are seen as subordinate to political power.

The forces of Neoliberal globalism are best represented by people like George Soros, the Rockefeller brothers and Henry Kissinger. Going further back in time, Neoliberals can be dated with the founding of the Austrian school of Von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, later on by Milton Friedman followed by Paul Volcker and the Chicago  boys economists made notorious by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine. For the Neoliberals, opening up of free trade around the world is more important than defending their home state. Neoliberal globalists will go to war in reaction to free trade being threatened by a national government with protectionist policies, but they don’t go looking for war. However, Neoliberals are fine with a military capitalism that knows no boundaries, while arming the whole world whether or not its home country is at war.

The purpose of this article

There is no international policy that is not grounded in theory. In the discipline of politics, this field is called “international relations theory”. The aim of this article is to:

  1. show why neither of these Neocon or Neoliberal theories and their policies are working and how they are complicit in Mordor’s economic and political collapse;
  2. to show theoretically the bankruptcy of both Neoconservative and Neoliberal theories;
  3. to probe three other theories of international relations – liberal institutional liberalism, constructivism and world systems – to see how well they can explain or predict world events;
  4. to ask whether any of these theories could move Yankeedom away from collapsing;
  5. to inquire whether any of these theories can help us understand the rise of the multipolar world.

My sources for this article are International Relations Theory A Primer by Elizabeth Matthews and Rhonda Callaway; International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction by Cynthia Weber and The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations by Brian Schmidt.

Old vs Neoconservatives

Old conservatives

The word “neo” means new. But how can we understand what a Neoconservative stands for if we don’t know how to contrast it to the kind conservative that came before? Therefore, in this section I will make that  comparison. Old conservatives go all the way back to Edmund’s Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution. Other old conservatives are Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald and Michael Oakeshott. What these folks share in common is their criteria for solving social problems. This involves looking to the past, to history, to solve problems. Since they believe human beings are flawed with original sin, what has happened historically by trial-and-error that has continuity should not be tampered with. This is embodied in both law and especially custom.

Old conservatives are champions of moderation and caution and perceive change as dangerous. They prefer the familiar to the unknown; the tried, compared to that which must be experimented with. When solving problems, they stuck close the facts and were suspicious of anything mysterious. In political policy, they preferred the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, and the messy present rather than wasting time striving for the ideal. There was a romantic side to some conservatives who preferred poetry to the prosaic or stoic.

The lower classes constituted a “mob” and old conservatives hated both democracy and liberalism. The only good culture was the upper-class culture of aristocrats. The culture of peasants was perceived as gross and backward. Still aristocrats owed their inferiors something in return for their hard work, this was called “noblesse oblige.” Old conservatives believe in order and structure. The ideal society for old conservatives is feudalism where the structure takes the form of hierarchies with the king and aristocrats in charge. Obedience of the lower classes is highly valued. Some people found themselves in the lower classes due to accident or bad luck, yet old conservatives still felt that inequality was mostly inherited and based on the talents people were born with.

When feudalism reigned in Europe, old conservatives were skeptical of capitalism because it disrupted the class and status hierarchies they were used to. They felt that Adam Smith’s doctrine of the invisible hand was barbaric, not because it appealed to selfishness in individuals, but because it based itself on selfishness as an economic principle for society as whole.  Because many of the money lenders involved in trade in the Middle Ages were Jewish, conservatives did their best to exclude Jews from their social institutions.

Conservatives were dead-set against the engineering and experimenting with society through the use of reason. There was a place for reason in calculating the pros and cons of individual behavior, but not reason as it applied to nature. These conservatives were patriotic, not nationalists. Their patriotism was reactive, committing itself to defending a country against foreign aggression. It follows that they were isolationist in their foreign policy.


The Neocons are far more militant than the old conservatives. They are nationalist and expansive, seeking national greatness. They want a strong patriarchal state with a strong military, law enforcement and prisons. They resist any matriarchal functions of the state such as pensions, welfare or childcare provisions and clearly have imperialist ambitions. Neocons come out of World War II swinging with the Cold War on their minds. They include Daniel Bell, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Nathan Glazer and Samuel Huntington. Unlike the old conservatives, Neocons embrace corporate capitalism. They started out as isolationists economically in the 50s and 60s when out of power, but then were won over to neoliberalism economics beginning with Reagan.

Whereas old conservatives rely on a messy accumulation of wisdom over the years, Neocons believe in the Great Man Theory of history à la Leo Strauss. They look to great philosophers rather than traditions coming from below to help them. Whereas old conservatives are cautious and prudent, Neocons are fundamentalists and assume they have the right answers. They interpret opposition as hostility and need boogeymen like Russia and China to be paranoid about internationally, or they see the “counterculture” as enemies domestically. They are not afraid to spend militarily and use demagoguery in their political speeches. Their speeches include dualities like

“friend or foe” as exemplified by Bush’s “you are with the terrorists or with us”.

While it seems fair to say there was a streak of antisemitism in old conservatives, many Neocons are Jewish and support both Zionism abroad and Christian fundamentalism domestically. Like Neoliberals, Neoconservatives also use a kind “social rationality” in their use of game theory to make decisions about the likelihood of military invasions (Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy, by  S.M. Amadae). There is nothing romantic in their examining the past nor is there anything poetic about them. They are hard-headed and prosaic. Domestically, for Neocons, social hierarchies are the result of an aristocracy of talent and these aristocrats don’t owe the lower classes anything “noblesse oblige”). Their enemies at home are upper-middle class liberals. Unlike old conservatives, Neocons don’t hate the masses. They try to manipulate them through populism against effete relativist liberals.

Who Are the Neocon Realists?

Cold war origins

Early Neocon realists just before and just after World War II were E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan. The hard-ball drive of Neoconservative realism is inseparable from the Cold War. After two world wars, their realism was an attempt to bring “realpolitiks” into international relations following the naïve illusions of institutional liberals and typified by Woodrow Wilson.

Roots in Thomas Hobbes

Neo Conservative Realism is the application of Hobbesian theory of the political actions of the domestic state into the international arena. Instead of individual monads crashing against each other in a society, we have states as mindless monads crashing against each other internationally. States are inherently hostile to each other and in international relations states act as instrumental rationalists and utility maximizers. The priority of states are security and defense. States are like Hobbes’ billiard balls obeying the same laws of geometry and physics except at a macro level. Strategically Neoconservative realists draw inspiration from Machiavelli and even further back to Thucydides.

Roots in social Darwinism

It is not far-fetched to imagine Realists as Social Darwinists in which nation-states are like individual organisms struggling to survive. Ideas matter only in so far as states weigh the cost-benefits of past, present and future political actions. The use of reason or appeals to morality are dismissed as naïve pie-in-the sky schemes. It follows that human nature is competitive, aggressive and suspicious. Power is an end in itself, not a means to something higher or better. Just as the human nature of individuals is flawed, so too the political behavior of nation-states is flawed and myopic. The interactions between states is a zero sum game with winners and losers. There is no room for unintended consequences. While Neocons might be skeptical of pooled ideas when it comes to improving society, they are not opposed to the pooling of ideas among heads of state to develop think tanks, and foundations for combatting communist ideas.

States are static zero-sum games between Atlantic states

Neoconservative Realists have no sense of there being an evolution to the history of states. In a dog-eat-dog world, states rise and fall without any sense of an

accumulation of things getting better or worse. For Realism the focus is on the relationship between the great powers, north-north relations. The global south is looked upon as backward and there is no expectation of support for it. It accepts imperialism as a fact of life. There is no effort to help industrialize the global south if they are possessed as colonies.

The place of geography

There is a field of international relations which deals with geography called geopolitics whose closest affinity is with Neoconservative Realism. But whether the theories are of Ratzel’s political geography, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Sea Power, Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and the geopolitical pivot of history, Spykman’s Rimland, Kennan’s and Kissinger’s containment theory or Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard, all these theories are Anglo-American or German, with imperialism as their goal.  The ideological nature of this field can be seen as  geopolitics of Russia with Aleksandr Dugin or China are not even included in the field.

Support of economic mercantilism

While neoconservative realists certainly support capitalism against communism, they are wary of international trade growing out of the control of the state. In its pure form Neoconservative Realists are mercantilists imagining that real wealth consists of positive balance of payments. Their economic policy is more protectionist rather than free trade. When it comes to scientific disciplines, it accepts the separation between politics and economics. It imagines state-state relations are driven by politics and it treats economics in a social schizophrenic way, as a separate discipline.

The place of socialism

Neoconservative Realists consider socialism as a completely separate system and it cannot easily explain the nature of trade relations between the two. It imagines all socialism as Stalinism and it is insensitive to the differences between Trotskyists, Stalinists, anarchists and social democrats. One size fits all! It is insensitive to the macro conflicts within socialism.

Relative criticisms of Neoconservative Realists from within International Relations Theory

The first criticism is that there is a mixing of descriptive and proscriptive statements which makes scientific testability difficult. In other words, its ideology of power politics gets in the way. Secondly, because it is wedded to conservative ideology it has no theory of how social movements arise to challenge the great powers. Further, because socialism is seen as flat and lacking in innovation it could not explain the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of China.  Lastly because it pays little attention to the evolution of capitalism it failed to predict the rise of collaborative multi-lateral institutions that support capitalism such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the SWIFT balance of payments system.

Who Are the Neoliberal Globalists?

Origins of Neoliberal globalism

While Neoliberalism began just after War World II with the Austrian school of Von Hayek and Von Mises, it had to wait a good thirty years for New Deal liberalism to have its “golden age” between 1948 and 1970. It really came into its own after the Keynesianism economic policy ran into trouble. It also was triggered by the oil crisis in 1973, along with the new competition from Germany and Japan that had recovered from World War II. Neoliberalism has always been inseparable from:

  • The declining standard of living in the United States;
  • The arrival of credit cards to soften the blow of the decline;
  • The increasing power of banks and finance capital.

Theorists of Neoliberal globalism todayinclude Francis Fukuyama in his claim to the “end of history” and the triumph of Neoliberalism all over the world when the Soviet Union collapsed. Also, Samuel Huntington in his books the Clash of Civilizations and the Soldier and the State which supported Neoliberalism.

Capitalist international institutions promote austerity for non-core countries

With the help of the World Bank and the IMF, Neoliberal neo-imperialism promoted austerity programs on the periphery of the world economy, placing those countries in impossible debt-trap. Unlike Neoconservative realists, Neoliberal globalists emphasize the international nature of the capitalist societies and they use the state militarily to support the reign of Anglo-American foreign capital in semi-peripheral and especially peripheral countries. The globalization of communication, transport, along with immigrant and refugee movements weakens the power of the nation-state to regulate all these transnational movements.

The state is subordinate to global capitalism

For Neoconservative Realists, the state is sovereign. For neoliberal globalists, the state is simply an aggregate of private interests. Neoliberal globalists have more confidence that wars can be controlled by multilateral efforts. At the same time Neoliberal globalists have no problem with military capitalism, where the military not only supports its home nation-states but it arms the whole world. To the horror of Realists, global Neoliberals are short on patriotism and long on making profits no matter where they come from.

Growing interdependence of states

Though in actually existing nation-states have been more interdependent than Realists like to imagine, with alliances prominent during both world wars, this interdependence has grown with the founding of NATO and the division of countries into capitalist and socialist blocs after the war. While geopolitical theory is mostly Realist in outlook, the work of Kennan, Kissinger and Brzezinski showed that Neoliberal globalists were just as anti-communist and coveted their potential markets of socialist states. These states had to form blocs and could no longer afford to be isolationist.

Think tanks and game theory

More than Realists, Neoliberals put a high preference on ideas. The first think-tanks came out of the Rand Foundation and global capitalists such as the Rockefeller brothers who set up not just think-tanks but foundations and organizations such as the Council of Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, all in the service of opposing communism. New Deal liberal gatekeepers acted as “controlled opposition” such as the Ford Foundation. The Neoliberal notions about human nature are not as bleak as Neoconservative Realists. Under certain conditions, state actors can cooperate. Game theory is a neoliberal attempt to understand the conditions that are likely to promote competition or cooperation among states.

Free trade

Unlike Neoclassical Realism, Neoliberal globalism contends that state-state engagements can result in a positive sum game. It believes in free trade and David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. It holds out hope for peripheral countries if they play by the rules of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If Neoconservative Realists think that power politics is what is the most important determining factor in international relations, Neoliberals imagine that the field of economics determines the basis of state action. Like Neocon Realists, Neoliberal globalists imagine that economics is a separate discipline whose laws have nothing to do with politics. This way of thinking can be seen in theories of free market fundamentalists like Milton Freidman. Naomi Klein blew the roof off of this ideology when she exposed how the Chicago Boys muscled their way into Russia, Argentina and many other countries and turned their nation-states against institutional liberal FDR policies.

Failure to explain inequalities between the West and the rest

Neoliberal globalists are not much better than Neocon Realists in explaining the difference in wealth between core, periphery and semi-periphery countries. They imagine that peripheral countries face the same conditions as core countries did when they first developed capitalism. Like Neorealists, they imagine that nation-states are still internally driven and peripheral countries are poor because either their rulers are dictatorial or the population is uneducated and holding on to superstitious beliefs.

Attitude towards socialism

Neoliberal Globalists assume that centralized state socialism has no redeeming value. It sees these countries as poor and run by dictators. However, there is some recognition that social democratic states have some value, but in practice it is in the business of undermining them while demanding that their foreign policy allow for transnational corporations to make profits in their countries and leave with no strings attached.

Relative criticisms of Neoliberal globalism from within international relations theory

Like Neoconservative Realists, Neoliberal globalists have no theory of how social movements arise to challenge the great powers. While Huntington and Fukuyama celebrate the triumph of capitalism they have no theory to explain the failure of Neoliberalism, not only in other parts of the world but in the deterioration of their own home countries between 1990 and today. Neither can it explain the return of Russian nationalism nor the productiveness of the Chinese economy despite its leading industries being Communist state controlled.  

Absolute Criticism of Neoconservative Realists

Failure to face the world economy is centered in the East

The fundamental reality that Neoconservative Realists fail to face is that world economy is undergoing tectonic shift, moving from West to East. For the first time since the 16th century, the center of the world economy is settling in China, Russia and Iran. Because realist theory is relatively shallow historically, it traces the history of the world system back a couple of hundred centuries at best, when the Western world was the center of world power. The wars the Neocons want to start today are not powers of imperial expansion. Instead they are fighting to keep from losing control over its former colonies (like in Africa) who are placing their hopes with the multipolarists.

Cold War containment has backfired.

While China claims to be a communist country it has not insisted that its allies like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Brazil become communist. China’s attraction for these counties is China’s willingness to harness energy, build railroads within these countries while internationally constructing their vast Belt-Road Initiative. Realists sense the United States allies are dwindling and so it increases pressure on European countries in the EU to do its imperial dirty-work.

Bye-bye mercantilism

World politics today is hardly Hobbesian nation-states clashing in a war of all against all. Today nation states have allies and blocs. In this sense. Neo-realist theories are more sensitive to the relativeness of states than Realist theories are. To the extent that Realist theory is mercantilist, its capitalist economy hasn’t been protectionist for close to 100 years. When Neoliberals globalists uprooted the manufacturing industries in the mid 1970s and shipped their jobs overseas, it undermined its industrial economy from competing with other economies. These days, there are no infrastructural companies that can seriously compete with the countries in the multipolar world.

Neoconservative Realists are social schizophrenics. They concentrate on their political power overseas, but they fail to realize that the instability of their economic system both at home and abroad makes the power politics ineffective.

Failure to understand China

Neoconservative Realists know very little about what is going on in China. They fail to face that the Chinese Communist party knows how to make a profit. That 60% of its sources of profit come from state institutions. It imagines that the Chinese people, like the Russian people are unhappy with their “authoritarian” states and are just waiting for a Western politician like Navalny to liberate them. While Neoconservative Realists mock the power of ideas in international relations, the Chinese Communist Party values the moral appeal of communism. Culturally, Neorealists imagine that the Chinese have a repressive culture that has little appreciation for the arts because of imagined repression. But the truth is the Chinese population is very interested in national and international culture. Recently Russian ballet, music, theatre and literature have sold out Chinese audiences for whom to perform.

War of all against all does not explain the multipolar world

Neoconservative theories of human nature can be compared to the dynamics of the novel Lord of the Flies. But when we look at the way the multipolar world is working, human nature is much closer to the movie Society in the Snow. This was about how rugby players on a flight to Chile survived 72 days in the Andes after their plane crashed because they cooperated. In the multi-polar world today Chinese and Russian policies of either debt reduction or even debt cancellation in Africa resemble human cooperation in practice. State-state interaction is not a zero-sum game. It is a positive sum game, at least in the multipolar world.

No sense that the world economy evolves

Neoconservative realists have no sense that states evolve, that there are a set of accumulating political, ecological and economic consequences that will affect its power politics. It treats them as accidently unexplained mishaps rather than the consequences of past myopic political actions.

Absolute Criticism of Neoliberal Globalists

Its failure to have a deep analysis of how capitalism works

One of the major problems for Neoliberal globalists is that they do not understand their own system of capitalism. They see no problem in investing in military capitalism which destroys the productive forces. They see no problem in investing in fictitious capital which produces no social wealth. Consequently, its domestic economies are falling apart because it fails to invest in industrial capital. Secondly, their economists cannot predict or explain when crises occur. Thirdly, they make no effort to understand the history of capitalism which might enable them to reform the system. These capitalists cannot think further down the line than three months. It pays little attention to the steepness in the gap between the very wealthy and the working class, except to occasionally moralize about it at conferences every six months. They make no attempt to study social movements so any rebellions against it coming from unions, nationalist groups or Occupy are treated as surprises driven by external causes.

Failure to understand that most countries are against free market capitalism

Since neoliberal globalists treat their own state as weak and something to be used by capitalists, it comes as a great shock to them when non-Western nation-states elect leaders who want to treat their economy as in need of a domestic plan. These are the conditions where Neoliberal globalists trade in their invisible hand for a visible fist. They turn to the CIA and the National Endowment of Democracy to give these elected officials their walking papers at best, or assassinations at worst, whether their state is socialistic or not. Neoliberal globalists understand that domestic populations are no longer in love with capitalism. So, like Neoconservatives, they develop economic propaganda centers though think tanks, foundations, and universities. These attempts are no longer working.

The failure of the comparative advantage ideology

Neoliberal theory of comparative advantage, which worked well as an ideology on peripheral countries in the middle to the last third of the 20th century, has worn thin. Periphery countries now see through this ideology, especially because of the presence of Russia and China to provide real alternatives. Neoliberal globalists like to present their economics as not political. However, this is easier to do domestically than it is internationally. The book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is only the tip of the iceberg in showing how neoliberals play hard ball geopolitics whenever a peripheral country informs transnational capitalists that they will have to pay taxes.

Success against social democratic regimes

For Neoliberal globalists, communist parties are the devil incarnate with whom there is no compromising. However, they have shown a willingness to deal with countries that have elected social democrats. Between 1980 and the present Neoliberal globalists  have been very shrewd at isolating and weakening social democratic rulers, making them slide to the right on the political spectrum along with liberalism generally. The example of Norway, Denmark and Sweden is a case in point. These countries have slid to the right along with the overall rightward trend in the Western world and are currently supporting Mordor, sending troops against Russia in Ukraine.

With the exception of Chavez, to a lesser extent Maduro and Evo Morales, Neoliberal globalists have been able to stem the Pink Tide.

Other International Relations Theory:  Liberal Institutionalism, Constructivism and World Systems Theory

Liberal institutionalism

This is an older theory of liberalism applied to international politics after World War One. It was an attempt to bring reason, universal ethics and education into international affairs. At first glance, looking at today’s world, this view seems hopelessly naïve, but with the founding of the League of Nations at the end of World War I, there was an appeal to a higher human nature. They believed that the belligerence between states was not inevitable. International anarchy could be policed by international institutions. As opposed to Realism theory, liberal institutionalism understood states as semi-independent rather than Hobbesian billiard balls crashing into each other without rhyme or reason.

Following Grotius and later Immanuel Kant, the basis for international relations was understood to be international law. These laws could bring about an orderly, just and cooperative world. Human problems were the not the result of human nature but of flawed, irrational institutions. Liberal institutionalists were very different from Neoliberals as we have seen, and they expected capitalist institutions to be governed by reasonable international politics. Despite World War I, liberal institutionalists hung on to a belief in progress. They also believed that Western nation-states still were the model for any future society.

As you might imagine, this theory would be laughed out of court by Neoconservative Realists as being utopian and out of touch. Neoliberals might agree with institutional liberals about the importance of law but this was only on paper. Neoliberal globalists do not want transnational corporations hemmed in by any state, let alone any potential world government. Neoliberals now believe in an unregulated global capitalism and any state had to dance to the tune of the international capitalist band.

As paradoxical as it might seem, it is not the current Western transnational finance capitalists who might give institutional liberalism the time of day, but the multipolar countries of China and Russia. These so-called authoritarian states have made some surprisingly liberal international statements about the nature of the future multipolar world. It is they that hold out the claim for free and equal development of all multi-polar states, whether they be in BRICS or in the Shanghai Cooperative network. Of course, whether or not they put this into practice is another matter.


Constructivism is a theory that first developed in the field of sociology with the work of Berger and Luckman, in their book The Social Construction of Reality. It was first applied to international relations in the work of John Ruggie, Nicholas Onuf, Kratochwil and later Alexander Wendt. Constructivists reject the rational self-interest of the Realists and they claim that Realists reify international relations and state policies as things rather than processes. International relations are constructed and reconstructed based on the interaction of diplomats. They seek a more sociological conception of international relations by introducing the dialectic between structure and agency. Neoconservatives Realists behave as if there was only structure and no agency. For constructionists, material interests are not transparent and uncontested. They grow and change based on interaction with other states. For constructionists, states are not unified actors, as realists claim, but that they are impacted by political pressures.

Constructionists are rightfully skeptical of modernization theories of progress, but cautiously hold out hope for improved international relations. Constructionists are critical of Neoconservative realist theories that treat periphery countries as backward political entities that need to “catch up.” They accept Dependency Theory that Western countries are wealthy in part because the wealth of peripheral countries has been stolen. Constructionists look at peripheral countries as having corrupt rulers in need of internal political reform. The main scientific problem with constructionism as a theory is sometimes not testable.

Neoconservative Realists would dismiss constructionism as some woolly-headed  academic discipline which muddles the waters, attempting to make processes out of things, and destabilizing hard facts with various interpretations. They are naïve in believing that diplomats rather than the forces of the deep state are responsible for public policy. Neoliberals might pay lip service to constructionist processes when it comes to law and politics, but they would hardly stand for constructionists mucking around with international market forces. Chances are likely they would be ignored.

Again, paradoxically it is the multipolar country of China that would be open to some of the process-orientation of the constructionists. Of course, as Marxists, China’s leaders would emphasize structure over agency, but they would agree with constructionist insistence of not reifying material interest and state policies and being open to international policies that are win-win.

World-Systems Theory

Origin and founders

World-systems theory is by far the most radical of all international relations theory, an explicitly Marxist theory based on the four-volume work by Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System, whose first volume came out in 1974.  Along with Paul Baron, Sameer Amin and Andre Gunder Frank, system theorists were sensitive to the imperialism of the core states. Core countries exploited the peripheral countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America and this explains why they are poor, have growing debt and don’t seem to be able to catch up. The IMF and World Bank exploit peripheral countries in the service of core countries. It is these reasons they are poor  more than any internal state dynamic lack of economic willpower or superstition. Other family members of world-systems theory were Oliver Cox, George Modelski and Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers). The roots of world-systems theory is not only in political economy, but history and sociology rather than the high politics of Neoconservative Realists.

Beyond politics and economics to political economy

Unlike either Neoconservative Realists or Neoliberal globalists world-systems theories do not accept the separation of politics (political science) from economics (neoclassical). There is only one field: political economy. This means all capitalist economics is partly political and there is no economics that is not also about power and politics. State diplomats do not make independent decisions but are mostly “talking shops of the bourgeoise” as Marx put it. Nation-states take their marching orders from transnational capitalists. The priority of states is to defend the world-capitalist ruling class.

Controversies within Marxism about actually existing socialism, imperialism and domestic class struggle

What makes world-systems theory controversial within Marxism is that world-systems theory claims that there are no real socialist states. All claimed socialist societies are really state-capitalist societies which are subject to the laws of capitalist world- economy. This directly challenges the claim made by Leninists that the former Soviet Union, China and Cuba really are socialist societies. For world systems theorists Stalinism has little to do with socialism. A second difference between world-systems theorists and Leninists is over the stages of imperialism. Lenin argued that imperialism was the last stage of capitalism, a new stage of the capitalist system. But Giovanni Arrighi, in his book The Long Twentieth Century claimed that there were four cycles of capitalism: a) merchant capital b) agricultural capitalism (slavery); c) industrial capital and d) finance capitalism, which includes imperialism. Over capitalism’s 500 year history, the Italians, the Dutch, the British and the United

States each went through these four cycles. So, imperialism didn’t happen once, but four times, each time expanding wider and deeper into the capitalist world-system.

Please see my article for a more complete explanation of world systems theory: Tectonic Shifts in the World Economy: A World Systems Perspective. Lastly, Leninists insist that world-systems theory overemphasizes international dynamics between countries and understates the class struggle within nation-states.

Nation-states policy is determined by international core-peripheral relations and class struggle

For world-systems theorists, the material interests of states are determined on the one hand internationally by core-periphery relations and on the other hand domestically by class struggles. International relations are more powerful than state domestic relations. Like for Neoconservative Realists and Neoliberal globalists ideas are not very important in explaining international relations for world-systems theorists.

Human nature is fundamentally cooperative

While world-systems theorists agree with Neoliberal globalists that human nature is both cooperative and competitive, they believe that human nature is primarily cooperative. It becomes competitive due to social scarcity brought about by capitalism. Most human problems are due to flawed capitalist institutions. State-state relations are neither a zero-sum game claimed by Neoconservative Realists where one state wins and one loses. Nor are they a positive sum game where both states win as the Neoliberals claim. In world-systems theories state-state relations are negative sum gains where all states decline due to war, ecological disasters and international economic crises. Only socialist states are capable of positive sum games.

Socialism is too new to be judged a failure

All things considered, capitalism has had 300 years to develop after it overthrew the feudal system. Socialism has had about 160 years under which has never been free to develop autonomously. When we look at the state of the world today with the rise of China and the multipolar world, it is way too soon to judge the long-lastingness of socialism. On the other hand, if we look at the bleak landscape of the failure of Neoliberal capitalism over the last 30 years, it is more likely to say capitalism is the system that is on the way out.

Criticisms of World-Systems Theory

  • Dependency theory is weak in explaining why some peripheral states are not immiserated but relatively successful.
  • It is too hard on actually existing socialism and its achievements for middle-class and working-class people, especially given the backward nature of society before socialism came into being.
  • Given that world-systems theory is more sympathetic to the social democratic experiments in socialism, it doesn’t explain well its rightward turn in the last 40 years, especially the Scandinavian countries.
  • With the exception of work by Christopher Chase-Dunn, the late Terry Boswell and Charles Tilly, most world-systems theory does not make social movements within states and its global implications a very high priority, though it is better than any other theory.

How Useful is World-Systems Theory to Western Powers?

World-systems theory might be useful to the West if the West was able to elect a social democratic party which could put into practice some of its insights. But the entire Western world seems to be sinking and at best might occupy a peripheral position within a new multipolar world led by China, Russia and Iran. There is currently no place for world-systems insights to be applied in Mordor or any of its European satellites.

How Useful is World-Systems Theory to the Multipolar world?

World-systems theory would be very helpful in explaining a problem that has plagued classical Marxism. Why has socialism arisen in countries that were not industrialized? World-systems theory argues that in the history of capitalism, new leading hegemons arise from the capitalist semi-periphery. Russia, China, Iran and India all fit this bill. The multipolar world would be in complete agreement (at least China, Cuba and Venezuela) that political economy rather than politics or economics taken separately will explain international relations. The multipolar world would feel quite at home with world-systems theory claims that cooperation between states is natural and that the zero-sum games of the Neoconservative Realists are out of touch with the new world they are building. They agree with world-systems theorists that neoliberal globalist claims of a positive sum game between states are ideological window dressing to mask the exploitation by core countries of peripheral countries. Lastly, there is nothing I can see that is threatening to multi-polar socialist states to consider world-systems theories cycles of imperialism rather than a linear stage.

On the negative side, China, Cuba and Venezuela would be very upset that world-systems theory would argue they are not really socialist countries. They would claim that the standards world-systems theory holds for socialism, such as the levelling of classes, the absence of wage labor, the shortening the work week are too strident for a socialist world still surrounded by decaying and desperate capitalist states. In addition, world-systems theories would criticize socialist multipolar states for the continued existence of class struggles within socialist states, especially China. There are no unions and strikes by workers going on.

A Conclusion and Autopsy

In this conclusion, my aim is to pull together all the criticisms of both Neoconservative Realism on the one hand, and Neoliberal globalism on the other. For each one I will state relative criticisms from within International Relations Theory. That will be followed by criticism of these theories based on the current tectonic shift in the world economy from the Western world to the East.

Neoconservative Realism

Relative criticisms on International Relations Theory

  • The mixing of descriptive and proscriptive statements makes scientific testing difficult.
  • It has no theory of how social movements arise to test the great powers.
  • Because it sees socialism as flat Stalinism, it has no theory of why the Soviet Union fell or how China arose.
  • Because it pays little attention to the evolution of capitalism, it failed to predict the rise of collaborative multi-lateral institutions that support capitalism (World Bank or IMF, and the Swift method of balancing payments).

Criticisms based on the current multipolar movement from West to East

  • Failure to explain or predict the tectonic shifts in the world-economy from West to East.
  • Failure to explain or predict the loss of former colonies.
  • Failure to explain why the Cold War containment policy of Kennan and the influence of Mackinder has failed.
  • The decline of protectionism and mercantilism. Realism has been forced by market fundamentalism to give up any hope of an insular, mercantile economic policy.
  • Failure to explain how finance capital has undermined its claim for power over resources. These days profits are counted based on stocks and bonds, not material resources.
  • Failure to explain inequalities between the West and the rest.
  • Failure to understand the Chinese source of power. If Neoconservative Realists were right, Realist war drums against China would be based on its military threat. But China’s superiority stems from its economic superiority in producing goods and services, and building infrastructures.
  • Failure to understand the popularity of the Chinese and Russian leadership among their populations. The picture of these states as dark totalitarian nightmares is out of touch with how people are actually living in these countries.
  • The Hobbesian war of all against all, does not explain the cooperative relations between members of the multipolar world (China, Russia and Iran) and their followers in BRICS as well as in the global south.
  • There is no sense that states evolve. They break down, built up in the context of an irreversible, accumulating process that is not static and beyond the intentions of state actors or great men.

Neoliberal Globalists

Relative criticisms of International Relations Theory

  • They have no theory of how social movements arise to challenge the great powers.
  • It has no theory to explain the failure of Neoliberal capitalist economics around the world and the deterioration of its home countries such as Europe and the U.S.
  • It cannot explain the return of Russian nationalism under Putin.
  • The world’s most productive country, China, is successful despite its claim to be a communist country and its substantial profits derived from state-run institutions.

Criticisms based on the current multipolar movement from West to East

  • Failure to explain or predict the tectonic shifts in the world-economy from West to East.
  • Failure to explain or predict the loss of former colonies.
  • Failure to explain why the Cold War containment policy of Kennan and the influence of Mackinder has failed.
  • Failure to explain inequalities between the West and the rest.
  • Failure to understand the popularity of the Chinese and Russian leadership among its population. The picture of these states as dark totalitarian nightmares is out of touch with how people are actually living in these countries.
  • Failure to understand the necessity of expanded reproduction for capitalism to continue. It invests in non-productive forces like the military and finance capital.
  • Failure to explain when, where and why capitalist crises occur. There is no long-term planning to stop future crisis.
  • Failure to understand that free-market fundamentalism has more adversaries than friends either among multi-polar rulers nor their populations and this country despite their best propaganda techniques in think tanks, foundations and universities.
  • Failure of the comparative advantage ideology. The Global South has had roughly three generations to see how productive it is to specialize in the production of coffee, sugar and tobacco has been. They have had enough, especially now that Russia and China have offered to cancel their debt and build their industries, rather than “brain-drain” exported to core countries.
  • Neoliberal globalists have been successful in stemming the Pink Tide in South America, as the tide has become white domestically and become imperialist in its support of Mordor against the multipolar world.

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his four books: From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World Co-Authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present and Lucifer’s Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia WA.

Originally published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism 

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