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Modern Liberalism Is Not Peace, It's Pacification

2 min

Readers of my work over the past few years will know that I have long been interested in how natural human rebelliousness gets pacified (1, 2, 3).

I recently had the pleasure of working on this question with a group of co-authors, from very different methodological backgrounds. The final result has now been published in International Studies Quarterly. In "Liberal Pacification and the Phenomenology of Violence," (Baron, Havercroft, Kamola, Koomen, Murphy, Prichard 2019), we substantiate the concept of pacification relative to political science literatures on violence. Our real target was the popular conception of the "Liberal Peace" (i.e., modern liberalism causes peace, à la Steven Pinker).

While the article does not offer an empirical demonstration or test any hypothesis, I believe that — for a so-called "critical" paper — we went much farther than usual to develop at least a positivist case for our perspective. We do not pretend to have empirically defeated the "Liberal Peace" story, but we have planted a flag of sorts, from which "critical" perspectives might proceed in this direction with greater positivist/empirical sophistication.

Here's a key slice of the abstract:

We argue that the spread of liberal institutions does not necessarily decrease violence but instead transforms it. Our phenomenological analysis captures empirical trends in human domination and suffering that liberal peace theories cannot account for. It reveals how a decline in direct violence may coincide with the transformation of violence in ways that are concealed, monopolized, and structured into the liberal order. We call this process liberal pacification.

And here's a snippet of our positivist gloss that — I think — makes this paper stand out from a lot of other so-called "critical" papers:

…by reinterpreting the liberal peace as liberal pacification we are able to grant the empirical findings of liberal peace theorists while maintaining that the Pax Americana represents an intensification of violence overall. In the language of positivist social science, our theory is observationally equivalent to that of liberal peace theory. We expect that the quantity of direct violence inversely associates with the degree of pacification in a society. Therefore, our interpretation challenges research that identifies liberal institutions as the cause of declining violence. Liberal institutions, as apparatuses of liberal pacification, ensure that direct violence is increasingly rare while leaving the structures of violence and domination in place. The observational equivalence on particular dependent variables (in our case, all forms of direct violence) produces a theoretical change requiring the generation of novel observable implications (King, Keohane, and Verba 1994, 30).

In other words, empirical social scientists interested in the Liberal Peace should not toss this one in the bin labeled "purely theoretical postmodern crap I don't need to deal with."


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