Susan Strange was (mostly) Right

30 December 2009, 1748 EST

I just re-read Susan Strange’s article, “The Westfailure System” in the Review of International Studies 25, 3 (July 1999). In either early 1999 or late 1998 (depending on the editorial schedule of RIS), she wrote:

“I have put the financial failures of the state-based system first because my current research has convinced me that it is the most acute and urgent of the current threats-without-enemies. If we do not find ways to safeguard the world economy before a succession of stockmarket collapses and bank failures eventually lands us all in a 20-year economic recession — as the history of the 1930s suggests it might — then no one is going to be in the mood to worry overmuch about the longterm problems of the environment.”

I doubt she would be rejoicing at the accuracy of her predictions about the fate of the Copenhagen climate talks in the face of the global financial crisis. OK, maybe not a 20 year recession, but the insight is still pretty good.

What I find less satisfying in the article, but only because the argument is only sketchily developed, is her “What is to be done?” section. She asks for the emergence of a viable opposition to the hegemony of a transnational corporate class (TCC), an opposition grounded in “an emerging global civil society”. Not anti-market or anti-business (she draws a distinction between small and medium-sized firms and the TCC), but transcending the state and existing multilateral institutions. She concludes with a message to academics:

“We have to escape and resist the state-centrism inherent in the analysis of conventional international relations. The study of globalisation has to embrace the study of firms no less than of other forms of political authority. International political economy has to be recombined with comparative political economy at the sub-state as well as the state level. It is not our job, in short, to defend or excuse the Westphalian system.”

Go Susan. Which is why the sort of increasingly rare investigative journalism evident in today’s Washington Post story about AIG is worth highlighting — great material for tracing the inner workings of the inciters of the herd, the “animal spirits” in action…
I suspect you enlightened readers of the Duck already know this stuff (Strange herself repeatedly says that the ideas she is presenting are “kids-stuff”), but I would be interested to hear comments on whether the global civil society approach has really gained any traction in the last decade.