Jaime Allinson, The Struggle for the State in Jordan: The Social Origins of Alliances (London: IB Tauris, 2016).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jaime Allinson (JA): My motivation for writing the book came from two forms of dissatisfaction I had with existing scholarship on the state and its external relations in the Middle East: on the one hand, with the assumptions of much International Relations theory, which tends to divide explanations for phenomena into mutually exclusive categories of ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ and thereby renders processes of social change and conflict as merely ‘domestic’ and not part of the field; and on the other, the particular form this takes in the IR and political science literature on the Middle East wherein the state in the region is seen as an incomplete or defective version of the Western state that is therefore unable to police this boundary between domestic and international. A concentrated version of this idea is found in the concept of “omni-balancing” where regimes in the Global South, and especially the Middle East, are seen as entities independent of their societies, balancing between domestic and international opponents alike.
There is some empirical truth to this idea, but it always struck me as a very thin account of the IR of states in the Middle East. Were the rulers of states in the region – of the Global South in general – really so autonomous of, or insecure in, their societies? I turned to political economy and historical sociology in search of a more satisfying account, and began working with the concept of ‘uneven and combined development’, around which there was a lively debate in IR theory. Uneven and combined development, originally associated with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, seeks to overcome what Justin Rosenberg calls ‘the classical lacuna’, or the separation of international and social forms of explanation. In my deployment of the concept, uneven and combined development refers to the interaction of different patterns of social relations in a given social formation under the impact of global capitalist expansion, such that the distinct character of the resultant ‘combined social formation’ feeds back into the system that produced it. In other words, international relations are social, and social relations are international.
My interest in Jordan reflected in part the place the country occupies in these debates: Jordan has formed the case study for the most rigorous and impressive scholarship based on the assumptions of “omni-balancing”, in particular the work of Laurie Brand and Curtis Ryan. Jordan presents a ‘hard case’ for my argument in that it is traditionally seen as a very weak state buffeted between contesting forces in the region, without much place for the role of social forces and political economy to explain the resulting external alignments. Jordan also had the advantage, for me, of having been a British mandate with the archive consequently easily available as well as surviving protagonists of the struggles I document, who were willing to be interviewed.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JA: I address the issues of uneven and combined development and the IR of the Middle Eastern state through a case study of a particular period in Jordanian history, the high point of Arab nationalism in the mid-1950s. Discussion of Jordan in this and later periods is often framed through a series of clichés and assumptions about inherently loyal, “Bedouin” Transjordanians (not everyone from East of the Jordan is a Bedouin, nor are Bedouin absent from historic Palestine, nor do political positions flow automatically from being part of either of these groups) defending the monarchy against rebellious Palestinians. As with all clichés, there is a grain of truth to this but I argue it lies not in any ascribed cultural traits of pastoral nomads but rather the way in which agrarian relations East of the Jordan river were transformed in the late Ottoman and British mandate periods: a process of ‘primitive accumulation’ separating the owners of labour-power from the means of production that created a distinct relationship of militarized subsidy to formerly pastoral nomads. Jordan’s external alignments, I argue, emerged from struggles around that subsidy, a form of uneven and combined social relation.
I see this book as sitting equally at the intersection of literatures on the state in the Middle East, historical sociology of International Relations, and the political economy of Jordan. In the first, I see the book as an attempt to build on and expand the work of such scholars as Fred Halliday and Ray Hinnebusch. In the second, I hope the book will form part of a burgeoning literature on uneven and combined development. In the third, I take as interlocutors the magisterial work of scholars such as Tariq Tell, Eugene Rogan, Martha Mundy and Michael Fischbach and hope to contribute to what might tentatively be called ‘critical Jordanian studies’ as embodied in works such as those of Joseph Massad.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JA: The book emerged from my PhD thesis and the fieldwork I did for it in Jordan, as well as my reflections on that work while a research fellow at the British Institute in Amman in 2011-12. It really came out of the debates I encountered on uneven and combined development – having studied and visited the Arab world since my undergraduate degree in IR, the concept seemed to address a lot of dissatisfactions I had with the theoretical frameworks I encountered. I did some theoretical work on uneven and combined development with Alex Anievas, including some theoretical engagement with the Ottoman reform period of the 19th century, of which the book is in some ways an expansion and refinement.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JA: I hope that Jordanians will read it! It may have more of a historical and scholarly focus but I hope some people in Jordan today will find something useful in it, especially those working towards a more democratic and egalitarian polity, under a regime that is given a great deal of positive Western publicity partially for reasons documented in the book. I also hope that students and scholars of the IR of the Middle East will read it and engage with the critiques I make of omni-balancing and similar ideas, and with my argument for the utility of uneven and combined development as a theoretical framework.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JA: I am working on two projects at the moment. The first is on the theory and practice of counterrevolution in the Middle East since 2011. The grim outcomes of most of the revolutionary uprisings that occurred in the region in 2011-12 have confounded two paradigms in social and political science: the comparative historical sociology of revolutions, and the ‘democratization’ agenda for studying the region, leading to the reinstatement of assumed regional specificities – Islamists or sectarianism – as the reason for the ensuing civil wars, state collapse and renewed authoritarianism. However, I wish to explore the possibility that what is missing in our understandings of the post-2011 Middle East is not insufficient knowledge of those supposedly specific regional factors, but rather of a general phenomenon: counterrevolutions.
The second, hazier, project also concerns the interaction of forms of social science with political practice in the Middle East, in particular with the growing discourse around the idea of the “Anthropocene”: the idea that we have entered a new geological epoch in which human impact on the world is simultaneously so great and its unforeseen consequences so severe that the distinction between natural and social worlds no longer holds. Despite the centrality of the Middle East both for the fossil fuel economy at the heart of the Anthropocene, and the dire predictions for the future of habitable environments in the region, there has been little work (with the exception of Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy) so far that looks at the politics of the Middle East through this lens – or indeed of the concept of the Anthropocene through a Middle Eastern lens.
Excerpt from Chapter 1, “Fragile Enmities: The International Relations of the Middle Eastern State Reconsidered”
The notion that the Middle Eastern state, or the Third World state more generally, is deficient in some quality that would render its behaviour comparable to its European or North American counterpart, is a widespread one. The states of the Arab world in particular seem to switch their allegiance from ally to enemy with violent alacrity, usually in concert with attempts by their ruling regimes to placate some domestic opposition or with the collapse that results from failure so to do. The contrast with the more enduring alignments of the Euro-Atlantic states is a marked one, and easily drawn.
Yet is there a deeper substance to this contrast? Why do the states of the Middle East make such geopolitical alignments? Do they do so on the same basis as the states of the Global North, or are they distinguished by the inapplicability of theoretical explanations derived from the Northern experience? Are the rulers of Middle Eastern states – of states in the Global South – really so autonomous of, or insecure within, their societies that they freely manoeuvre between external and internal allies, seeking only to maintain their hold on power?
This book answers these questions through the history of one particular state and one particular kind of phenomenon: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and its geopolitical alignments. However, the implications of the argument contained within it extend beyond these limits. The claim made in this book – that Jordan’s geopolitical alignments in the 1950s derive from uneven and combined development (UCD) – addresses the distinction between the politics of colonising and post-colonial societies. I argue against the idea of a teleological standard of modernity against which postcolonial (in particular, Arab) states are found lacking. The argument of this book, however, differs from postcolonial arguments on the region in presenting uneven and combined development as a process of contradictory universalisation, wherein the universalising imperative is that of dissolving ‘the different forms, in which the labourer is an owner and the owner labours’. The outcome of such a process, as I demonstrate in the case of Jordan, is quite remote from any notion of a homogeneous capitalist modernity and provides the material underpinning to the hybrid form ascribed to the postcolonial state. Jordan, then, tells us something about the state in the wider Middle East: but is this something that we need to know?
Realism without sovereignty?
The question of the post-colonial Arab state – its ‘stateness’ or lack thereof, the supposedly deficient character of its sovereignty, the apparent ease with which its internal conflicts become matters of regional or global interference – refracts a series of assumptions about the politics of the Middle East and the Global South as a whole. These assumptions are those of unilinear development and the passage to an ideal type of sovereign state. The argument that follows from these assumptions is that the distinctive external politics of Arab states results from their failure to meet some standard, established by and embodied in the states of northwestern Europe and its offshoots, of integration, legitimacy and representation of the national interest. As I demonstrate below, this argument informs most work on the international relations of the Global South, and offers only a form of explanation by absence that cannot illuminate the actual trajectories of a given state. Not only this: the theoretical engagement of International Relations with the Southern state reveals what Justin Rosenberg calls ‘the classical lacuna’. This term refers to the separation of geopolitical and social modes of explanation, to the extent that the ruling regimes of Southern states are seen as acting according to the rules of sovereignty under anarchy even within their own societies.
The engagement of mainstream International Relations (IR) scholars with the Global South has sprung largely from the apparent inapplicability of the prevailing model of the state to much of the globe. That model in International Relations theory remains stubbornly derived from the precepts of neorealism. Critics still largely take its assumptions as their point of departure. In brief, these assumptions hold that states are all the same kind of thing (‘like units’), concerned first of all with maintaining their security and effectively distinguished only by the power resources that they can bring to bear in this endeavour. The ‘national interest’ can be defined, and it consists first and foremost of assuring the security of the state. Scholars from the constructivist tradition might disagree about how this is defined and the degree of its incompatibility with other states but would nonetheless accept the validity of the concept of a national interest distinct from the interests of the ruling personnel. Where Waltz found his model confounded was in the case of states whose regimes were insecurely embedded in societies that could not be assumed to operate as sealed boxes identical to the state. Although further research fleshing out the neorealist programme made use of evidence from the South, mainstream IR theory has continued to be subject to the criticism that its core concepts and models of interaction are restricted to a particular Northern experience, insufficiently able to explain, understand or evaluate the geopolitics of the South.
What is the nature of this lack of fit according to the critics of mainstream IR theory as applied to states outside of Western Europe and its offshoots, and what are the solutions to it? The arguments are varied but convergence is visible around the notion of the Southern state as fundamentally different from the Northern experience – indeed, in some sense deficient in qualities that would allow traditional IR theory to apply to it. The basis of such theory in the notion of an autonomous state capable of carrying through its plans, at least within domestic society, results in difficulties in its extension to Southern states where this assumption does not hold. According to this view, the Southern state falls low down on the continuum of ‘stateness’ and allowance must be made for this condition when analysing its international relations.