Contextualizing the Rise of Comparative Political Theory

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By guest contributor Josey Tom

If the creation of subfields within a discipline indicates its development rather than its demise, then political theory is expanding and glowing in a new light. Founded in the mid-1990s, the sub-field known as Comparative Political Theory (CPT) attempts to decolonize the canon of political theory by incorporating non-Western political ideas, texts, concepts and epistemic resources hitherto ignored by political theorists. Roxanne Euben (University of Pennsylvania) who coined the term, introduced it as the project of bringing “non-Western perspectives into familiar debates about the problems of living together, thus ensuring that ‘political theory’ is about human and not merely Western dilemmas” (Euben 1997, 32). The subfield is a reminder that there are still songs to be sung by political theory beyond the West, lest the field’s only song be a dirge—a funeral song for non-Western political concepts, categories, and canons. CPT is the logical culmination of the geopolitical context of decolonization and internal debates about the aims and methods of political theory since the 1950s. These anxieties were amplified by trenchant critiques of eurocentrism by postcolonial and Subaltern Studies scholarship in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world.This piece will argue that CPT is an immanent critique in political theory that builds on the legacies of mounting internal critiques.

In an essay that attempts to chart the scope of CPT, political theorist Diego von Vacano (Texas A&M) explains the emergence of CPT in terms of both “critical disciplinary” and geopolitical factors (Vacano 2015, 467). The first contextual factor is the void opened up starting in the late 1970s by critical perspectives on modernity from Western Marxism, critical theory, the genealogical method of Michel Foucault, Edward Said’s study of orientalism, and the Subaltern Studies school, each of which challenged Western paradigms of modernization. The second factor is dissatisfaction with existing formal explanatory paradigms employed in the subfield of comparative politics. The third factor is the backdrop of end of the Cold War and contemporary globalization: The liberal triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal 1989 article “The End of History and the Last Man” and the pessimistic prognosis of the post-Cold War era embedded in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996) provided an opening for CPT to offer alternative paradigms.

However, neglected in Vacano’s broad contextualist account are the three important critiques internalto the discipline of political theory in the twentieth century. The method-centric critique emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from the behavioralist school, which sought to explain and predict political behavior in a value-neutral manner using quantitative methods, as well as from theorists who found their field on the decline. The second critique focused on the Western-centrism of political theory, and is exemplified by the writings of John Gunnell (SUNY Albany), Jeffrey Isaac (Indiana), and Bhikhu Parekh. This critique was fragmented, as dominant understandings of disparate concepts including modernity, liberalism, and universal human rights received flak from different parts of the globe. CPT should be seen as the third major critique of political theory: It is a collective and systematic effort to challenge the Western-centrism of political theory, especially by rethinking existing categories and concepts and incorporating themes, thinkers, and cultural insights from non-Western societies.

The First Critique of Political Theory

In the 1950s and 1960s, the behavioralist school triggered intense self-reflection in political theory. Seminal essays by John Plamenatz (“The Use of Political Theory” [1960]), Isaiah Berlin (“Does Political Theory Still Exist?” [1962]), and Sheldon Wolin (“Political Theory as a Vocation” [1969]) testify to a period of soul-searching within the discipline. While these writings questioning the basis of the field were “marked by the ashes of the Cold War” (Vacano, 468), other seminal reflections on the aims of political theory were written while the Second World War and the early Cold War were still in full swing—notably Leo Strauss’s most important essays on political theory (“Persecution and the Art of Writing” [1952] and “What is Political Philosophy” [1957]).

Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rawls also contributed to self-reflection of political theory through their meditations on political philosophy. In his essay “The Indispensability of Political Theory” (1983), MacIntyre employs the metaphor of a map to suggest that political theory illuminates the political landscape, helping people navigate their social and political world. Political theory does not diminish in significance despite its lack of comprehensiveness, just as a grossly inaccurate map still holds some practical utility (MacIntyre 1983, 32). In his work Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), Rawls similarly describes four roles political philosophy has in a society, namely achieving social co-operation in divisive societies, orienting members of a political community, reconciliation, and carving out feasible political arrangements (Rawls 2001, 1-4).

What motivates all these writings is the hope and promise political theory offers for political life. Political theorists and philosophers ranging from Leo Strauss to John Rawls illuminated the gap between how political theory has been conceived and how it has been practiced. The emergence of CPT should be seen in light of the inability of political theory to live up to its promise and hopes for political life—both within Western societies and globally speaking.

Political theory has not been able to fulfill its potential due to a parochialism that limits or omits non-Western political constellations and concerns. An indispensable task of political theory is to contemplate desirable and feasible political arrangements that might ensure good life for peoples. But what if the proposed political arrangements are predicated on assumptions that privilege a particular part of the globe by effacing dimensions of race and imperialism? When Huntington wrote about the clash of civilizations and Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberalism, they were, despite their biases, performing what George H. Sabine regarded as a crucial function of political theory: “an estimate of probabilities and an estimate of values” (Sabine 1939, 5). Yet when Wolin conceptualizes political theory as a tradition embodying an “inherited form,” he is thinking about a rich inheritance that is definitively Western (Wolin 1969, 1070). If political theorists are tasked with generating political knowledge, they cannot ignore the ideas and perceptions of good life in non-Western societies. The gulf between the lofty visions of political theory and its exclusive character leads us to the second critique of political theory.

The Second Critique of Political Theory

The early 1990s saw the emergence of a critique of the ethnocentrism at the heart of the discipline of political theory. The first strand of this critique targeted particular Western concepts but did not implicate political theory as a whole; it limited its critique to certain categories in light of the non-Western political realities. For instance, scholarship emerging mainly from India challenged hegemonic Western understandings of secularism and modernity, pointing out their inadequacy for understanding non-Western social and political worlds (Bhargava 1999 and Kaviraj 2002). Also under scrutiny was the ethnocentrism embedded in liberal democracy. Bhikhu Parekh’s “The Cultural Particularities of Liberal Democracy” (1992) and “Decolonizing Liberalism” (1993) illustrated the provincialism of liberalism. Debates about Asian values versus Human Rights also questioned the universality of liberal democratic values. The second strand of this critique levelled loftier charges at the discipline as a whole, as exemplified in the writings of Isaac (“The Strange Silence of Political Theory” [1995]) and Parekh (“The Poverty of Indian Political Theory” [2010]). Criticizing the reluctance of American political theorists to contemplate the “events of 1989” in Eastern Europe, Isaac pointed out that political theory was a prisoner of Western European tradition, which, despite constituting a “secure reference point for our political thinking” engenders “intellectual conformity.” Parekh, meanwhile, lamented the absence in non-Western societies of a robust critique of the central categories of the West, despite an awareness of the ethnocentrism and limited explanatory power of those categories.

The Third Critique of Political Theory: Comparative Political Theory

While reflecting on the nature and task of political theory, Wolin also drew attention to its inherent limitations. Despite its sophisticated categories, political theory can offer only a limited understanding of political phenomena, as there exists a “vast range of political experience” that is inexhaustible by such categories (Wolin 2016, 21).Wolin reminds us, taking his cue from the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer, that statements and propositions in political theory are, after all, “abbreviations of reality.” He uses the metaphor of a net to represent the concepts and categories that are employed to understand political phenomena: those suitable for explaining European contexts are often ineffective and erroneous in a non-Western context.

Abstractions are indispensable in the construction of theory. But the problem with political theory these thinkers highlighted is that its “abbreviations” long remained oblivious to non-Western lifeworlds. Abstractions in mainstream political theory continue to be informed by the social and political imaginary of West while ignoring the rest. The net is seldom cast out on the non-Western world. It is in this context that CPT assumes its significance: it functions as the third critique in political theory by pointing out the inherent bias of ethnocentrism that still besets the field’s canon, concepts, and methodologies.

If CPT is to bridge the gap between the promises and practice of political theory, it also needs to examine contemporary global political issues such as right-wing populism.CPT also remains a conscript of the East-West divide: it has yet to engage the strand of decolonial scholarship that shows the non-Western pedigree of concepts often thought to be European in their origins. Laura Marks, for instance, has argued that Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “univocity of being” has its source in the great Persian philosopher Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina—a history that was erased when philosophy “underwent an ethnic cleansing.” An engagement with strands of European thought that have appropriated the intellectual contributions of the non-European world has the potential to rattle some of the basic assumptions of the subfield and to provide an opportunity to rethink the reluctance of CPT scholars to accept the universality of certain political ideas.

Comparative Political Theory has finally cast its net wide. The catch might indeed be splendid. But for the catch to reach the table, the net must be stronger and the sharks kept at bay.

Josey Tom is a Research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. This piece is adapted from his M.Phil. dissertation, entitled “Comparative Political Theory: Contexts, Plurality and Political Action.”

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