Five Examples of the Strength of Area Studies

Universities do not like to study people who live in places anymore. Instead, they emphasize the importance of theory and method. There are many good reasons for doing so, particularly as you consider the wide range of skills involved in analyzing the enormous amounts of data that the internet makes available. But there are also costs. Theory is a relatively poor guide for understanding why Russia invaded Ukraine, for example. You can make arguments from theory after the fact, but a close examination of developments in the country offered a better chance for anticipating what Russia did and where we are likely to go from here. The first book in this collection is a good illustration of what I mean with that statement. That book was published just weeks before the Russian invasion. The insights it offers on the war as it is unfolding are compelling.

The other books in this collection show the richness of area studies in different ways. What struck me as I read through them is how much they speak to one-another. This is the great strength of theory – making connections. These works are not atheoretical. The point of studying real places is not to generate unbounded description. On the contrary, it is to reveal aspects of human experience that are likely to shed light on developments elsewhere, which is essentially what theory is. Doing so, however, means investing in a sustained intellectual engagement with the people who live there, preferably in their own language(s) and with some understanding of how they choose to live together. Universities do not have to abandon theory to embrace this agenda. They just need to strike a better balance in the material they present.


Understanding Russian Strategic Behavior: Imperial Strategic Culture and Putin’s Operational Code. By Graeme P. Herd. London: Routledge, 2022. 248 pp.

This book was published just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. The basic thesis is that Russia’s political leadership operates primarily through informal power relationships. To understand a person’s influence, you have to know how they are connected either directly or through intermediaries to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s political leaders have to keep track of those relationships as well. They also have to signal their participation in these informal arrangements by embracing those beliefs that legitimate the exercise of power. In turn, those beliefs create a logic of interest, action, and intent. The people who rule Russia not only end up behaving in ways that are consistent with the legitimacy of their influence, but they also exercise that influence in ways that reinforce their own position, the strength and commitment of the group in power, and the broader conception of Russia that they represent.

This argument sounds abstract, but it distils down easily. Russian political leaders do not think or act like political leaders in countries that operate according to formal institutions. They have a different ‘operational code’. They use law to rule, rather than being ruled by law, for example. In such a situation, the weak obey the law and the strong ignore it. Indeed, rule breaking is a symbol of strength and status. Just think about what this means up and down the chain of command. Those in higher positions have greater room for manoeuvre, while those lower down face tighter constraints. This does not mean that there is complete freedom at the top of the pyramid. Even Vladimir Putin is constrained by the need to balance between competing interests and to mediate potentially destabilizing conflict. What it means is that there is little motivation for rebellion within the system because loyalty buys autonomy and privilege while disloyalty – including excessive ambition – puts that autonomy and privilege at risk.

Graeme Herd does an excellent job laying out this political dynamic. In doing so, he draws widely from the literature. His book is a powerful work of synthesis and a testament to the importance of area studies. Moreover, that synthesis is necessary not just to help us understand Russia but also to anticipate how Russian political leadership will engage with the outside world. Russia, Graeme argues, has a unique strategic culture. That culture is of Europe but not part of Europe. It is focused on power and status. Russian political leaders do not want to be accepted into a club; they want respect. Russian political leaders also want to achieve long-term objectives that they associate with their country’s unique historical experience. Importantly, this is a narrated experience and not a lived one. That history does not have to be accurate to be motivational; it is enough that both the history and the achievements reinforce the legitimacy of Russia’s internal structure of power.

This argument has powerful implications for how Russia’s political leaders will behave both relative to the United States and in the context of their immediate neighbourhood. Those implications extend to how Russians interpret and justify their own behaviour. They will break rules in ways that lesser powers should not, because obeying international norms is a sign of weakness. They will also act pre-emptively to preserve the status quo. In this sense, they are motivated by symbolism as much as self-interest. If they are concerned that Ukraine will drift into the arms of the West, for example, they will intervene decisively to stop that from happening. And if they worry the West will push back, they will escalate to prevent that too. Most important, they will pull together in the face of strong opposition. Western efforts to undermine Russian power are an essential part of their shared historical discourse. They will not topple Putin or turn against they system through which he governs, Herd explains. There are succession scenarios, but they leave the informal structures of power intact. This book is essential reading.


Late Capitalist Fascism. By Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen. London: Verso, 2022. 144 pp.

Imagine taking the whole debate about the role of ‘populism’ in western democracies and recasting it as a debate about a modern form of ‘fascism’. This is effectively what Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen has done with his short exploration of some of the more disturbing trends in recent democratic performance. Where the political science community talks about the ‘Populist Zeitgeist’, following the title of Cas Mudde’s much-cited 2004 article, Rasmussen refers to fascism as ‘an emerging Zeitgeist’ (p. 66); and where Mudde has famously characterized populism as a ‘thin ideology’, Rasmussen points to ‘the thinness of fascism’ (p. 131). There are many other parallels as well. The big difference is that readers can be ambivalent about whether populism is left or right, good or bad; it is hard to find anyone who expresses ambivalence about fascism.

That seems to be Rasmussen’s point. It is time for us to take sides because feigning ambivalence about what we see happening in democratic politics ‘legitimizes all kinds of political compromises to prevent fascism’ (p. 129) as an abstract threat we vaguely recall from the interwar period rather than the political challenge we confront in the present. As politicians struggle to avoid taking a strong normative stance in the debate over substance, they depoliticize many of the real issues that draw people to fascist political movements in the first place. In many cases, they wind up taking positions or adopting policies that fascists advocate. The result is that we not only start believing in fascist fantasies, like the possibility of a ‘classless class society’ or ‘capitalist accumulation without fragmentation’ (p. 132), but we also wind up in a weird place where ‘fascism can become common sense’, as Rasmussen suggests it has in Denmark (p. 131).

Rasmussen’s book warrants attention because it highlights the power of narrative framing and – borrowing from his professorial title – ‘political aesthetics’. In Graeme Herd’s book on Russian strategic culture (see above), historical narrative plays an important role in shaping Russian politics. Alas, Russians are hardly unique in believing their own version of history. That vulnerability is ubiquitous. Rasmussen’s provocative use of the term ‘fascism’ matters because it forces those of us in the West to reconsider our past. In particular, Rasmussen argues, we need to reflect on how that terrible political history is interwoven with the development of modern capitalism. Rasmussen’s point is that fascism did not suddenly disappear in the West at the end of the Second World War. It simply retreated into marginalized parts of society, waiting for a sufficient crisis to create the opportunity for political entrepreneurs to bring it back into the mainstream again.

This link between fascism, capitalism, and crisis is important for Rasmussen’s argument. If capitalism evolves and if capitalist societies experience a crisis unique to late capitalism, why should we expect fascism to look the same as it did in the past? If, like Rasmussen, we use fascism to mean ‘an extreme nationalist ideology intent on rebuilding an imagined organic community by excluding foreigners’ (pp. 3-4), then it is possible to see fascism combine with socialism in one period and liberalism in the next. It is also possible to see fascists change their position relative to democratic institutions. Where once they might have wanted to overturn democracy, now they are more content to dominate from within.

Rasmussen’s argument is overtly Marxist. That is another reason it is worth reading. He goes through many of the standard debates about the hollowing out of politics and the rise of inequality, but he adds a different perspective. The most interesting aspects relate to the spectacle of modern politics and the changing nature of ‘class’. He explores how the ‘working class’ became the ‘dangerous class’ (p. 58) in the eyes of democratic elites, and how even as ‘the working class disappeared … class struggle did not’ (p. 98). It is not necessary to agree with all Rasmussen says in this short volume; what matters is that he is very clear about where he stands.


The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the Origins of France’s Political Crisis. By Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini. London: Verso, 2021. 173 pp.

It feels strange to read a book drafted during Emmanuel Macron’s first run for the presidency in the aftermath of his second victory. The time required for translation cannot be bridged easily with light editorial changes or a short afterword for the English edition. The argument needs to have a shelf life to warrant the effort. It also needs to offer a useful message. This book checks both boxes.

The central claim that Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini make could apply to many countries. The electorate on the left and right is deeply divided. In turn, those divisions complicate coalition building around encompassing ideological programmes. Therefore, it is easier for politicians to lift important issues out of the democratic arena than to engage in continuous bargaining. In Europe, politicians can escape from democracy in three ways: they can delegate responsibility to independent agencies, they can lift responsibility up to European institutions, or they can shift that responsibility into the markets. Unfortunately, the more politicians take issues away from democratic deliberation, the less interested citizens become in democratic processes. The short-term solution for making policy creates lasting damage for political institutions.

The strength of Amable and Palombarini’s argument is how they trace this process in France and through the two mainstream blocks in French politics – the centre-right and the centre-left. Those blocks were never homogenous. Nevertheless, they could unite disparate groups around discrete political projects. The centre-right would favour the interests of capital and so create more space for the market; the centre-left would favour the interests of labour and so rely more heavily on the state. The origins story is familiar, particularly on the centre-right.

What is less well-known, and what Amable and Palombarini do well to highlight, is the fractured nature of the centre-left. They focus on the division between the more traditional centre-left and a more modernist or reformist component. The traditional component hews closely to long-standing socialist or communist projects related to the promotion of the working class. The modernist component embraced the market. Since embracing the market relied on the ability to make significant institutional reforms, the modernist centre-left in France also embraced the European project. The problem is that these two centre-left components did not point to the same political program. That tension became apparent when the centre-left came to power in the early 1980s. Then President François Mitterrand quickly faced a choice between siding with one group or the other. He lined up with the modernists, which meant not only embracing the market and the European project, but also losing touch with those group aligned with the traditional centre-left.

Mitterrand’s choice fractured the centre-left just as deeply as the centre-right was divided. It also exposed a cleavage in French society between those who are more supportive of the European project and those more inclined to look for national policy solutions. The modern French political landscape can be mapped with those two cleavages. That mapping shows no obvious way to create a viable political coalition. The modernist group on the centre-left could unite with like-minded elements on the centre-right, but they would have to do so outside the traditional party system. They will also leave much of the traditional working classes behind. This is what Macron tried to do in 2017, using his pro-European credentials to broaden his coalition. Once he came into office, however, his policy agenda lurched to the centre-right. That move was consistent with his modernist origins, but it made it more difficult for Macron to sell himself to the broader electorate in 2022. He may have retained the presidency, but his support is much narrower now than it was when he was first elected. That is what makes him the ‘last neo-liberal’ in the book’s title. The coalition he represents will be very hard for any successor to repeat.


Ever Closer Union? Europe and the West. By Perry Anderson. London: Verso, 2021. 250 pp.

Perry Anderson introduces this collection of essays by lamenting that the most prominent voices in current debates about Europe never receive ‘sustained intellectual scrutiny’ (p. x). He is right. The kind of sustained engagement that he offers has lost currency among academics, who prefer to cram their notes with long lists of citations rather than focus too much attention on any specific author. Reading these essays is a potent reminder of why more focused engagement is important. It is also a lesson in the power of composition. The essays have all be published separately and yet they are more effective when read together. The book is stronger than the sum of its parts.

The two voices Anderson singles out for attention are Adam Tooze and Luuk van Middelaar. Given the dismissive tone Anderson deploys at different points in his analysis, it is hard not imagine both authors wondering what they did to deserve this ‘distinction’. It is clear, though, that Anderson is paying them his highest compliment. Paraphrasing what Anderson points out as van Middelaar’s citation of Stendahl’s plagiarism of Nietsche, he only picked them because they are such good opponents. Anderson wants to earn his points, even if he also wants to run up the score.

The pairing of Tooze and van Middelaar works to challenge the liberal conception of Europe. In Anderson’s view Tooze is a left-leaning liberal who has too much admiration for American global leadership and too little scepticism about the virtues of European integration. Both tendencies reflect Tooze’s focus on events and personalities rather than the deeper structures that frame them. Anderson points out, for example, that the United States was in no position to exercise global leadership in the interwar period and no position to escape global responsibilities during the more recent economic and financial crisis. He also questions why Tooze pays so little attention to the rules set out in the Treaty on the European Union or the relative weakness of European economic performance despite the advance of integration.

The critique of van Middelaar comes from a different perspective. Anderson asks whether it really makes sense for van Middelaar to celebrate a political project that is so undemocratic. He highlights the way van Middelaar focuses on moments when European jurists, bureaucrats, or politicians use procedural tricks or other sleights of hand to strengthen their authority or expand their jurisdiction. Anderson also points to the role van Middelaar attributes to the secretive backroom deals made in the European Council. The problem, Anderson insists, is that these institutions are so inconsistent and unrepresentative. This may make for better policy – which is open to question given Europe’s relatively poor economic performance – but it makes for a very cynical politics.

These critiques are important because they force us to reconsider the putative triumph of neoliberalism in Europe and to question the virtues of having an elite so detached from the people. If Emmanuel Macron is indeed the last neoliberal (see review above), that might not be a bad thing. They also make it easier to cast an understanding eye on the more solidly left-leaning case for Britain to leave the European Union. Anderson openly admires Chris Bickerton’s analysis of how EU membership transformed nation states into member states and seems implicitly to support Bickerton’s more controversial stance during the British referendum. Such positions merit attention.

Finally, Anderson’s polemical writing makes for an engaging read. The problems arise, however, when the rhetoric overreaches or becomes contradictory. Twice Anderson points to a discussion paper by Andrea Boltho and Barry Eichengreen that suggests the European project added little to growth. That is hardly a broad survey of the evidence; it is also a strangely limited view of what Europe’s economic contribution might be. Then again, it is likely Anderson would welcome a sustained engagement with the arguments he makes. Turnabout is fair play after all.


Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics. By Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. 244 pp.

Although left and right still exist as political concepts, the traditional parties that represented left- and right-wing interests do not. In their place, new political movements have emerged to represent ‘the people’ as a whole. These movements promise to offer the ‘best’ public policies. They also use technology to connect directly with the electorate. In this sense, they provide a new formula for democratic politics — one that requires no formal intermediation to deliver effective action on what the voters want. The only problem, of course, is that these movements rarely achieve any of their stated objectives. Once in office, they confront the reality that ‘the people’ do not exist as a coherent political group, that expertise is never neutral once it is translated into policy, and that unmediated interaction with the electorate gives no clear direction for government. An appeal that promises to rejuvenate democracy often winds up damaging public confidence in the democratic process as a consequence.

Chris Bickerton and Carlos Invernizzi Accetti build this argument on three important observations. The first is that the promise to represent the people — populism — and the commitment to deliver the best policies — technocracy — not only co-exist, but they tie neatly together in a new technologically-sophisticated style of politics. This politics not only connects directly to voters, but also celebrates politicians as individuals who have a unique capacity to deliver. Emmanuel Macron is a good illustration. However, rather than seeing Macron as trying to build a coalition of discrete groups on the centre-right and centre-left (as Amable and Palombarini do, see review above), Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti focus on Macron’s appeal to the whole of the French electorate.

The second observation is that there is no necessary ideological commitment for politicians to adopt this ‘technopopulist’ combination. The emergence of these groups is not an expression of late-capitalist fascism (see review of Rasmussen above). If anything, the resort to technopopulism is a result of the end of ideology in domestic politics, which has loosened the bonds between traditional political parties and the constituents they once represented.

The third observation is that the combination of technocracy and populism is bad for democracy. Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti are explicit in this normative assessment. They are also clear about the necessary remedy. Politicians need to strengthen political parties and other forms of institutionalized intermediation, like trade unions. In doing so, they need to democratise these organisations to ensure that the voters feel connected to them. And they need to underscore the importance of political intermediation to the process of democratic representation. This may seem to be an idealistic recommendation, but the alternative of resorting to a technopopulist style of politics is too riven with internal contradictions and prone to disillusionment to be an effective formula for legitimation.

Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti offer a compelling analysis of the democratic predicament. They also raise important questions about why political ideologies have lost their influence, why political parties have become so disconnected, and why democratic institutions rely so heavily on the existence of intermediates between the voters, politicians, and public policy. The underlying causal mechanisms are not always obvious, particularly in terms of whether the sources of change lie with the voters or politicians. The links to deeper social forces need elaboration. For example, it would be useful if Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti could engage with the debate about the ‘end of ideology’ and its connection with the ‘coming of post-industrial society’, in Daniel Bell’s provocative formulation. Of course, no slender volume can do everything. The book is a great provocation that leaves the reader wanting even more help in understanding the challenges democratic systems have to face.


These reviews were originally published in Survival. You can find the edited version here.