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International Relations History Development Economy

Towards a Marxist Geopolitics?

Mineral deposits
“The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights” Photo: theKerb/flickr

If it is true that Marxists “are people whose insides are torn up day after day because they want to rule the world and no one will even publish their letter to the editor,” and also that “few modern ideologies are … as likely to start a third world war as the theory of ‘geopolitics,'” then we may one day look back on the February 2011 forum of the journal Geopolitics — “Towards a Marxist Geopolitics” — as the publisher of those dead letters that would ultimately set the world ablaze.

Or — which is more likely — we may not.  On paper the alliance seems natural.  As Daniel Deudney has argued, both Marxism and classical geopolitics were originally forms of historical materialism.  And both Marxist thought and geopolitical considerations (of various textures) drove much of world history in the last two centuries. A hundred years after the publication of an obscure manifesto in London, the People’s Republic of the world’s most populous country was proclaimed, and one need only recall the doctrines of ‘containment’ and ‘domino theory’ to appreciate the influence of geopolitical anxieties more recently.

For Alejandro Colas and Gonzalo Pozo — the authors of the forum’s flagship article — this theoretical common ground plays itself out through a process they call “the valorisation of territory by capital.”  Because certain features of the social, political and natural environment are more conducive than others to the reproduction of capitalist relations of production — such as”mechanisms of private contract and open competition,” the absence of class antagonisms, and (of course) the presence of commodified hydrocarbons —  certain geographical areas become more valuable than others and therefore ‘pivots’ in world history.   To support these arguments, Colas and Pozo point to the Ukraine as “an important geopolitical center of international rivalry.”

Though broadly sympathetic to the endeavor, Stefano Guzzini disagrees, describing the forum as a “missed rendezvous,”  for “hardly engaging critical geopolitics or political geography” or existing knowledge in IR or IPE. In the end, he argues, this means that a Marxist geopolitics becomes hard to distinguish from discredited versions of classical geopolitics.

Felix Ciuta, in his article “Deja vu Geopolitics: Marxism and the Geopolitical Undead,” is also not convinced, though for the opposite reason.    For him, “a spectre is haunting Marxism — the spectre of  geopolitics” –which leads to the implication that a Marxist geopolitics would be “virtually indistinguishable from Marxism writ large.”

Up next is John Agnew, who offers a more direct assault on the forum’s premise, suggesting that a Marxist geopolitics would actually just be fascism and that ‘territorial socialism’ was also Mussolini’s favorite euphemism.

And when Jeremy Black appears, to have a tilt at the forum’s originality, pointing out that “Immanuel Wallerstein and a host of scholars” have been integrating Marxism and geopolitics for decades — and in ways far more interesting than anything suggested at the forum — the damage is mostly done.

Though Colas and Pozo return, at the end, to thank and disagree with their interlocutors, the prospects for a Marxist geopolitics seem decidedly bleak.

This may be for the best.

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