Anglo-American Civilization and the Dynamics of Globalization

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Max Weber Lecture by Peter Katzenstein (Cornell university)
9 December 2015, Badia Fiesolana

Summary Brief by MW Fellow Nadav Kedem (RSCAS 2015-2016) 

Peter Katzenstein of Cornell University, one of the world’s leading political scientists, visited the EUI hosted by the Max Weber Programme. He gave his Max Weber Lecture, ‘Anglo-American Civilization and the Dynamics of Globalization’, on 9 December 2015. The lecture was also part of the activities of the thematic group, ‘Europe in the World’, run by Ulrich Krotz and Federico Romero.

Katzenstein deals with some of the deepest conceptual challenges cutting across the social sciences and humanities as a whole: power, civilizations, ideas, practices, risk, uncertainty etc. He tries to draw a map that enables some pattern recognition, rather than clinching an argument as most research does. In doing so, he is able to create synergy between philosophy, history, political science, sociology and economics. He talked to us about the latest in his three-book project (so far) on civilizations as well as his forthcoming work on power. The two seemingly unrelated topics were woven into one map.

A starting point for Katzenstein is his criticism of Huntington’s highly influential work on the clash of civilizations. Unlike Huntington, Katzenstein sees civilizations as contexts more than unitary actors prone to conflict. Politics happens more within civilizations than between them. However, the great influence of Huntington over the political discourse should be addressed and cannot be dismissed. Huntington had a political agenda, and he was honest and frank about it.

Katzenstein vividly illustrated how different ‘versions’ can compete within civilizations. Moreover, civilizations can change dramatically, including in their core elements, overtime. The West was constituted in the 19th century based on empire, liberalism and race as its core underlining principles. Unique to Anglo-American civilization is that in its exterior it is a security-community,  it is Lockean. Britons deported to Australia had a better connection to London than to the indigenous people living next to them. However, today is no empire (Katzenstein sees the US mostly as an imperium rather than an empire) and race was replaced with multiculturalism. However, the West remains.

Katzenstein does not only go against the realist world view of Huntington but also against a liberal world view. There is no single standard as liberals would argue. Thus, not only is global politics not about actors but about processes, it is also about human well-being and human rights. No form of political authority can afford to ignore the last two. However, they can be pursued in different ways.

Civilizations are contexts but are still embedded in something larger. Civilizations can also be seen as ‘meaning communities’‒ communities in which actors engage in politics.  However, how should such communities be explored? A major way, according to Katzenstein, is through norms and practices. Civilizations add the meaning of practices, the content of politics. Affecting practices or the ‘balance of practices’ essentially relates to forms of power. Thus, Katzenstein makes connections between his work on civilizations and his work on power.

Katzenstein introduced the concept of protean power, as different from power in the sense of control. He defines it as ‘the effect of actors’ evolving agility as they adapt in situations of uncertainty.’ In other words, the content of politics is highly uncertain. Unlike economists, who are on a crusade to eliminate uncertainty in favour of controllable risk, we have to recognize that we live in epistemic uncertainty. Our knowledge is simply incomplete and our ability to predict the future is very limited. Katzenstein gave various examples of how unsuccessful predictions in the fields of finance can be. However, such failures are not exclusive to finance. No one can predict how successful a movie will be. Nobody predicted the success of Titanic or the emergence, great success and influence of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry.

This is also the way we should understand power. Change does not necessarily come from the top. Innovation is polycentric. Katzenstein reviewed various agents of change in different fields of law; not only are governments and international organizations behind it but also private law firms (often with much greater success than the former).

The lecture attracted a large audience of professors, postdoctoral fellows and PhD students. During the Q&A phase, a lively discussion developed, engaging scholars from different disciplines. It is to be hoped that the map portrayed by Katzenstein will facilitate much new interdisciplinary thinking and research by members of the audience and beyond.