Philip G. Cerny


On his book Rethinking World Politics: A Theory of Transnational Neopluralism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2011

The wide angle

My own trajectory has taken a number of twists and turns.

In the introduction, I mention only one of the many people who have influenced my own thought—a professor who at undergraduate level introduced a small group of us to the pluralist writers of the first half of the 20th century. I was wary of pluralism at the time, as it seemed too “nicey-nicey” in assuming that, as in a marketplace, the interaction of many groups would lead to positive-sum outcomes. At the same time, I was aware that underlying processes of groups jockeying for power and influence were often (if not always) more important than formal institutional structures in determining outcomes.

I was reminded of this years later when reading the granddaddy of all pluralist tomes, Arthur F. Bentley’s The Process of Government—published in 1908, one hundred years before I completed my manuscript.  Bentley wrote that when the United States Supreme Court made a particular decision, it could always find legal terms to justify that decision—whatever it was. But what ultimately determined the outcome was the fluid, “moving process” of the interaction of interest and pressure groups and the form that took at a particular time in history and politics.

That sort of pluralism came under fire at various times in the 20th century from both traditional sociological elite theorists and Marxist (and neo-Marxist) class theory. Nevertheless, like pluralism, these critical approaches stressed the underlying interaction of not merely socio-economic but also political forces, rather than the institutional “superstructure.”

At the same time, however, institutionalist and later neoinstitutionalist approaches developed that revalued the state and led into the “state theory” of the 1980s and 1990s, revaluing the role of superstructures and the “infrastructure” of states themselves, especially in the context of the “varieties of capitalism” literature.

As an observer in my early years as an academic of French politics in the context of Gaullism and the coming of the Fifth Republic, I went through a period of what might be called neo-statism in my analyses of comparative politics.

Ultimately, however, the interaction of all these approaches led me back (and forward) to a version of the “neopluralism” outlined in the domestic context by Charles Lindblom and Robert Dahl in the 1970s. In other words, while competition between groups is crucial—this is not traditional elitism or Marxist class analysis—“some groups are more equal than others” (to adapt George Orwell).

At the same time, it was the failure of Gaullist neo-statism in France under the Mitterrand presidency that first pointed me toward an interest in globalization. I therefore made the transition from a comparative European politics specialist to one with a focus on international political economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My book The Changing Architecture of Politics: Structure, Agency, and the Future of the State (1990) represented an intermediate stage in that transition. This culminated in the publication in 1995 of my best known academic article, “Globalization and the Changing Logic of Collective Action,” in the journal International Organization. It also led to the development, starting with The Changing Architecture of Politics, of the concept of the “competition state,” pursued in various articles and book chapters (see the special issue of Policy Studies on the competition state that appeared in January 2010); the concept is revisited in chapter 8 of Rethinking World Politics.

What intrigued me most about globalization therefore was what it meant not just for inter-state relations, but for the underlying political processes it represented. Rethinking World Politics is indeed for me a kind of magnum opus, bringing together in a single, comprehensive and—hopefully—consistent analytical framework all of the directions my thought has taken over the decades.

I see the book as a reply to the dominance of “realism” (and, of course, “neorealism”) and “liberalism” (in the sense of “liberal internationalism” or, today, “global governance”) in international relations theory and practice—i.e. as outlining what I believe to be a distinct and hopefully new (as well as old) paradigm for understanding world politics.  Indeed, I specifically decided to use the term “world” politics, as distinct from “international” relations or politics in order to stress the complex, multilayered character of the embryonic situation I was trying to identify and analyze.