Philip G. Cerny


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

Cover Interview of October 16, 2011

A close-up

Your “just browsing” reader should actually start with the blurbs on the back cover. I was blown away by the positive response I got from senior colleagues who are among those I respect most in the profession! I feel they accurately identify what I was trying to do.

Beyond that, I think I managed to summarize the argument as well as I could have done in the introduction, and then followed it up with a look at the key dynamics of the analysis in the conclusion.

The introductory chapter is entitled “Why Transnational Neopluralism?” Readers who are interested in the sort of issues I emphasize in this interview will find the questions set out, I hope, systematically.

The concluding chapter is entitled “Globalization is What Actors Make of It.” It emphasizes that the shift from a state-centric world order to a neopluralist one may take different forms, and that actors in a range of different structural positions will be able to shape different aspects of that transition—sort of the equivalent of what Bentley called the “great moving process” of pluralism (or, in this case, neopluralism).

I am skeptical about the possibilities of prediction in the study of politics, and indeed of the social sciences in general, but I believe one can sketch out a range of possible trajectories and look at the conditions under which one “pathway” might predominate rather than another. There will always be what are often called “multiple equilibria” inherent in social change (and continuity). As has often been said, the only thing we can really predict is the past. Explanation thus requires “process tracing” rather than pseudo-scientific models of the future. Therefore the closest we can get is what is sometimes called “scenario analysis.” I identify three of what I regard as key scenarios.

The first is, to pinch David Stockman’s famous term, the “rosy scenario.” In the rosy scenario, pluralism and democratization, often with a basis in a convergence across the world of legal rights, political cultures, and global governance, will lead to a better world. Positive views of the “Arab Spring” just this year—well after the book was written—tend to fall into this category, although the information technology, human rights, and new-middle-classes-led revolt is still fragile. Also the concept of the emergence of a genuinely “global civil society” rooted in the growth and increasing legitimacy of transnational non-governmental organizations (NGOs), “transnational advocacy networks,” and the like posits implicitly or explicitly that the spread of transnational “value groups” (to use Key’s original distinction) will come to dominate the globalization process and point the way to a better world. I remain highly skeptical of the rosy scenario, but it is nevertheless a key dimension of the emergence of a new world politics.

The second scenario is what for want of a better term I label “sectoral hegemony.” This view is often set out in more radical critiques of international politics and political economy. A range of authors such as Kees van der Pijl and Stephen Gill identify a “transnational capitalist class” or “transnational elite” or “new constitutionalism” wherein what I would regard as neopluralism congeals into the systemic dominance of particular economic sectors (and the linkages among them), leading to a version of neo-Marxist class domination. Such domination would be enabled by structural changes, as economic globalization gives business and finance new resources and new capacities to organize the world around their own interests.

The Financial Times writer Gillian Tett, writing about the global financial crisis, talks about the banks and other financial market actors “dancing around the regulators.”  This seems timely when we look at the way the Dodd-Frank Act in the United States is working—or not working—and the fragmented way European governments are responding to current sovereign debt crises. Can states keep the global financial system stable and safe, or are we on our way to the next crisis? These and other questions about the power and influence of international finance are crucial to whether world politics is going to be characterized by increasing sectoral hegemony.

The third scenario is what has been called “neomedievalism,” referred to above. This analysis goes back to the writings of the international relations theorist Hedley Bull in the 1970s and became fashionable in the mid-1990s. It sees not a coherent line of development like the rosy or sectoral hegemony scenarios, but rather a fragmentation of world politics, with nobody really being in charge except in particular regions or economic sectors, and even then not for very long and continually challenged. In the area of security, it can be summed up in the notion of warlordism, rooted in ethnic and cross-border warfare and violence, along with the increasing role of insurgency warfare, improvised explosive devices, etc. In economics, it means a combination of oligopoly, rapid change, and destabilization. In social matters, it means that social ties across borders lead to more strife, not less. James Rosenau has referred to “fragmegration,” or the mutual interaction of global integration and socio-economic as well as political fragmentation; this notion is also partly present in the concept of “glocalization,” or the interaction of global and local processes bypassing the superstructures of states and international organizations.