The episode features a roundtable on Philip Cunliffe’s latest book, The New Twenty Years’ Crisis (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). And, in a bit of a break with tradition, this episode also sees me jump out of the host’s seat, and invite Shahar Hameiri (University of Queensland) to take over the reins.
Joining me in the panel to discuss the book is the author, Philip Cunliffe (making his third appearance on the show), and Patrick Porter (University of Birmingham). Tara McCormack (University of Leicester) was also scheduled to join us but had to withdraw at the last minute, due to illness.
It was great to have Phil back on the show, to discuss this important book. The last time he was on, we talked about his previous book, Cosmopolitan Dystopia, which was a survey of human rights discourse on global politics since the end of the Cold War. The new book takes the theme of liberal war-making from that book, and attempts to read it through the lens of E. H. Carr’s classic 1939 text, The Twenty Years’ Crisis.
On the eve of World War Two, Carr described the politics of his time as a kind of interregnum, or a time of passage between two regimes of world order. For Carr, the great tragedy of his time was that the normative commitments of the intellectuals of interbellum period — namely, to the power of public opinion, to sovereign self-determination, and to international law and institutions — were incongruent with the kinds of mass-mobilized politics that were rapidly sweeping away their world order, and undermining the very conditions of possibility for securing those commitments.
For Cunliffe, however, the lessons of Carr’s study of the 1919-1939 period must today be applied in a kind of inverted manner. For where it was mass politics that ultimately frustrated and undid the political project of the utopian idealists, we do not today live in such a massified moment. To the contrary, as scholars like Peter Mair have described, we live in a demassified moment, where the agendas of college-educated neoliberal Brahmins dominate, unchecked. Worse, as Cunliffe explores, these new elites are kind of anti-utopians. They detest the values of the interbellum period, deriding public opinion and breaching sovereign self-determination in the name of so-called responsibility.
Cunliffe explores this argument through a number of fascinating case studies, taking us from the salons of International Relations conventions, which have been overtaken by ‘critical’ theorists (a group of scholars whose methods are singularly symptomatic of the “imaginary” of our unipolar moment), to the hallways of Brussels, capital of that grandest of examples of “de-massified,” neoliberal democracy, the European Union. The overarching theme that emerges is one of a shocking lack of self-awareness on the part of our political and intellectual elites.
As you’ll hear, the panelists are on the whole friendly to Phil’s diagnosis, but they do push back on some of his normative suggestions. Despite these disagreements, however, I will say that I think this is one of the more important episodes we’ve done on this show. Diagnostically, Phil is one of the sharpest commentators around, on the contradictions of our postmodern moment. I want to thank Phil, Patrick, and Shahar for their time and effort in helping to make this conversation happen.