International relations

Capitalism and Geopolitics

Module code: L2062S
Level 6
30 credits in spring teaching
Teaching method: Seminar
Assessment modes: Essay, Coursework

This multi-disciplinary module is designed to examine the relations between capitalism and geopolitics and how their interaction has shaped different political communities and world orders from the 17th century up to the 21st century. It explores the major theoretical traditions and debates, old and new, on the nexus between capitalism and geopolitics and combines these theoretical perspectives with in-depth interrogations of the historical material the key events, processes, actors that shaped this turbulent international history of war and peace; crises and revolutions; conquest and exploitation.

The terms 'capitalism' and 'geopolitics' have made a remarkable comeback in the public discourse and in academia. Until very recently both terms were regarded as almost obsolete, if not 'beyond history', given the relative absence of major inter-state wars since WWII and the apparent achievements of social market economies in the advanced capitalist countries. The sudden resurrection of both vocabularies in 21st century debates across a wide range of disciplines (IR/IPE, sociology, political geography etc) indicates a return to a harsher social and international climate. This calls for a critical re-examination of their origins and co-development as real historical phenomena and associated discourses, and a closer inspection of these two fundamental dimensions of the world we inhabit.

However, in conventional literature, 'geopolitics' and 'capitalism' tend to be treated as two separate phenomena. 'Geopolitics' is conceived as the sphere of strategic conflicts between states over space and resources, conceptualised primarily at the level of inter-political relations. 'Capitalism' is seen as the sphere of conflicts between social actors over chances of reproduction, sometimes simply seen in the economic literature as the market-mediated allocation of resources, and conceptualised primarily at the level of society. In this module we challenge this persisting dualism and opposition by probing their inter-relation across various historical periods and diverse theoretical registers. This specific research course is at the center of the emerging sub-fields of International Historical Sociology and the Political Economy of Geopolitics.

The first part of the module starts with an overview of the three classical traditions that have most centrally informed this discourse:

  • The writings of Max Weber and Otto Hintze that assert the primacy of military competition for geopolitical orders and that have - since the mid-1980s inspired a Neo-Weberian turn in Historical Sociology and IR
  • The works of Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, updated and extended by neo-Gramscian IR Theory, that stress the rise of commercial exchange and the construction of successive world hegemonies
  • The ideas of Karl Marx that, although short on specific arguments on geopolitics, have more recently led to intense debates within the Neo-Marxist literature on how to conceptualise capitalist social relations and class conflict in their effects on inter-state conflict and co-operation across the centuries.

Against this theoretical setting, the second part of the module examines sequentially a number of different historical geopolitical orders (dynastic-absolutist, 19th century British Hegemony, imperialist, fascist, liberal and contemporary) and the transitions between them on the basis of divergent and contested interpretations deriving from the three classical traditions. The aim is to provide a set of theoretically-informed and empirically-controlled analyses of the ways in which capitalism and geopolitics have shaped each other and constituted varieties of territorial orders in historical perspective.

The assessment for this module is a long term paper of 7000 words. The teaching method is a three-hour seminar each week.

Module learning outcomes

  • Develop a systematic and critical understanding of the key debates in International Historical Sociology that helps to explain and interpret the historical co-development of capitalism and goepolitics.
  • Develop a detailed conceptual understanding of the historical development and expansion of the European system of states from the 17th to the 21st centuries.
  • Effectively synthesise and communicate the theoretical and empirical uncertainties, ambiguities and limits in the way that International Historical Sociology explains the emergence of the European system of states.