Mutual Aid and International Agency: Building an Anarcho-communist theory of International Relations

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Politics


One of the primary problems in IR theory is the relationship of agency to structure, and what constitutes both parts. A statist ontology prevails in these debates, where states are understood as actors, and structures are the institutions they build that constrain them. This view of the world tends to reinforce not only our standard ontology of international life, but also the politics of hierarchy and command and control that comes with it. While post-human and poststructural IR theory has drawn our attention to alternative forces in social life, and critical historical sociology has tried to move away from the epistemic and methodological nationalism these approaches take, few have challenged this world view as directly as the anarchists.

Anarchist IR theory is a small but not inconsiderable body of contemporary IR. Anarchist IR theory has questioned the way in which standard accounts of 'ontological security' reinforce fixed notions of agency and identity, highlighted the irreducibility of global order, and how an anarchist account of anarchy can help us rethink the constitutional framework of global order. Each of these accounts tends to present a foundationless and fluid form of social network order, with no concrete institutional or constitutional form for post-statist groups to aspire to.

The aim of my PhD will be to use the anarchist Peter Kropotkin's mutual-aid theory and revolutionary communism to develop existing anarchist and non-anarchist IR theory on collective agency in international anarchy. The primary focus will be the anthropocentric and relativistic nature of this literature. Theorising anarchy and collective agency from the standpoint of a Kropotkin's anarchist
theory will dramatically shift our understanding of the dynamics of global order from the human to the ecological, while his politics offers us a constitutional political alternative to relativistic networks. Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), a world renowned geographer, theorised that social animals, through mutual aid, develop coherent societies themselves (Kropotkin, 1989). Human society is on a range of social forms, and interacts intimately with this social order.

One of the few IR theorists to theorise this move is Adam Godwin (2010. See also Cudworth and Hobden 2010, 2011, 2013). He proposes that these societies form observable social ontologies called "complex systems", irreducible to their component parts. For Kropotkin, humans are amongst the most developed and successful examples of such societies, but coexist with other species. This
decentring of the human enables a form of social ontology akin to Latour's actor network theory, and recent forays into IR from this approach will act as an important foil in this regard. The aim of this thesis will be to develop a normative account of human agency that places the anarchist conception of non-domination at the heart of theorising social assemblages.

The main research question for this thesis is: How does a post-human social ontology, informed by the work of Peter Kropotkin, shed new light on the problems of agency and structure in IR theory?
This question is divided into three sub-questions:
- What are the limitations of collective intentionality for theorising global order?
- How does a post-human social ontology help us reframe emergent social order?
- How does Kropotkin's anarcho-communism meet the normative and institutional challenges of a post-human conception of global order?

The project will utilise broadly qualitative and textual methodologies of close contextual reading and normative and theoretical development. Both primary historical materials and secondary literatures will be analysed. This project speaks directly to three of the ESRC's strategic priorities: understanding the macroeconomy, climate change, and trust and global governance in a turbulent age. The project will benefit greatly from the cluster of expertise in this area at the University of Exeter.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2265458 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Christopher Beaumont