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Reflections on Critical Theory and Process Sociology

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I am grateful to Bryant Sculos for his stimulating thoughts whilst reviewing Violence and Civilization in the Western States-Systems which were published in E-International Relations. The review raises important points about the relationship between Frankfurt School critical theory and the process-sociological approach that informs the argument of the book. I take the opportunity in this article to highlight elements of process sociology that are still little known in the study of international relations. As Jocelyne Cesari (2019) has noted, it is indeed peculiar that Norbert Elias’s process-sociological writings have been largely ignored in the field. In responding to Sculos’s essay, I develop that point by focusing on core Eliasian arguments about social-scientific inquiry that may be of particular interest to students of critical international relations theory. The discussion is in four parts. It begins with a brief summary of the aims of Violence and Civilization and then considers three areas that are central to Sculos’s review. They are the relationship between critical theory and process sociology; the relationship between the argument of Violence and Civilization and the ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’; and the balance of power between civilizing and decivilizing processes in contemporary world politics.

Core Aims of Violence and Civilization

The central objective of the book was to develop preliminary arguments about the impact of the idea of civilization on the most recent phase in the history of the Western states-systems. Early chapters discussed several concepts in the Graeco-Roman and in the medieval and early modern periods that embodied support for restraints on violence or, in Elias’s language, for ‘taming the warriors’. Later chapters analysed the development of discourses of civilization that became especially prominent in French court circles in the late eighteenth century. Those chapters focused on their role in the justification of imperialism and slavery but also in the condemnation of colonial cruelties. They included reflections on how those narratives underpinned the humanitarian laws of war from around the middle of the nineteenth century and on how conceptions of civilization shaped the liberal human rights culture.

In the spirit of process sociology, Violence and Civilization aimed for a relatively-detached analysis of how ideas of civilization have shaped the dominant understandings of violence in the recent period. It identified important directions of change in the relations between the former European powers and the non-European colonies, in the struggles between the great powers, and in the relations between state structures and citizens. Those trends were not described as completed or irreversible. They were not connected with triumphalist claims about the uniquely progressivist achievements of self-defining civilized peoples or about the magnificence of the West. The final chapter which discussed those three trends stressed the additional role of ‘organised irresponsibility’ or the increasing importance of social and economic processes that lock marginal groups into unequal or exploitative arrangements. The same bourgeois civilizing process that drove efforts to restrain the use of force in world politics also released traditional controls on economic behaviour and on market competition.

Violence and Civilization attempted to explain those overall trends by extending earlier attempts to forge connections between process sociology and the English School analysis of international society (Linklater 2011). Comparisons were made between different phases in the history of the Western states-systems. There was no enthusiasm for using ethical criteria to evaluate the achievements and deficiencies of the modern society of states. Such a project runs against the ethos of process sociology and it was alien to foundational works in the English School perspective. That might appear to place process sociology at odds with critical social theory but that is far from the case, as the following section shows.

Critical Theory and Process Sociology

Sculos notes that Violence and Civilization contains several references to critical theory, a position I have supported over many years. He proceeds to ask ‘what makes this book a contribution to Critical Theory’ and ‘what is the ethical argument presented in the book? He comments on the ‘somewhat detached intellectual voice’ that may be ‘troubling for some readers’ including ‘those who, not unjustifiably, expect such horrific examples of barbarism, in the name of civilization, to be treated much more harshly and emotively than Linklater’s intellectualism allows’. He asks ‘where Linklater leaves us on emancipation’, and adds that silence on that matter is a ‘problem’ for assessing the book’s contribution.

In short, drawing on Frankfurt School inquiry, Sculos criticizes the absence of a morally-charged analysis. There are rough parallels with post-colonial criticisms of Violence and Civilization in the Forum on the book which was published in the Review of International Studies in 2017. The absence of moral condemnation of Western civilization and the history of colonialism, racism and slavery was highlighted there. The lack of such engagement might suggest that a process-sociological investigation of civilization is manifestly ‘not on our side’ (Linklater 2019). In fact, the opposite is the case. Sculos does not endorse the postcolonial critique Violence and Civilization but doubts that the volume contributes to the critical tradition as developed by Kant, Marx and the Frankfurt School. The argument of this paper is that process sociology takes forward core elements of that tradition.

The tone of detachment to which Sculos refers does indeed reflect key differences between critical theory and process sociology. The principal contrast is evident in Elias’s express commitment to explaining as opposed to passing moral judgment on social processes – to engaging in a ‘detour of detachment’ in the attempt to understand more about uncontrolled social processes that have dominated human societies (Kilminster 2011, 2014). But detachment was not an end itself. It was defended in the belief that a deeper understanding of such processes may enable societies to take initiatives that do not simply add to the history of failed and often destructive interventions to improve human conditions. A critical or ‘secular humanist’ orientation to social and political........

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