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R. B. J. Walker
Keele University

The international is already constituted through the legitimation

of specific forms of inequality. This paper explores four: world-
wide patterns of economic inequality; the principle and histori-
cal experience of the great powers as a guarantee of international
order; the capacities of specific kinds of political community
to participate in the modern system of states; and the constitu-
tive value field in which the international is judged as the nega-
tion of the positive values ascribed to statist forms of political
community. It does so in relation to claims about freedom, scale
and the necessary practices of modern discrimination. This explo-
ration leads to the conclusion that the primary significance of
claims about new inequalities in an international context is that
they express the increasing difficulty of thinking about equality/
inequality in political terms, let alone of responding adequately
to the violences and injustices that might be attributed to mul-
tiple kinds of inequalities in various settings.

laims about inequality enter into the established practices of inter-
national relations in many well-known ways. Four of these are espe-
cially obvious, and together express the primary distinctions through
which various theoretical traditions have sought to make sense of the broadest
structures of political life in the modern world. These distinctions (or discrim-
inations as I prefer to say here to emphasize both the active historical practices
through which distinctions are made and the ambivalent judgments they enable)
permit a broad contextualization of the concept of inequality as it might be
applied in relation to claims about the international. They also offer some sense

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8 R. B. J. Walker

of what it might mean in political terms to claim that the international is now
the site of novel forms of inequality.1
The relatively simple but often ignored point I want to make to begin with
is that the international is already constituted through the legitimation of spe-
cific forms of inequality. This implies that new forms of inequality might be
understood in terms of the categories through which the international has been
constituted historically, or they might be understood as challenges to the legit-
imacy, and perhaps even the possibility, of the international. The first option
permits some familiar accounts of what it means to identify and respond to
inequality in an international context, and I will not say much about them. The
second option opens out a range of questions that are much more difficult to
evaluate, and I will only seek to suggest a few lines of thinking about what
these questions might imply.
First, we might focus on worldwide patterns of global economic inequality,
patterns that while difficult to delineate or evaluate in precise detail are clearly
at odds with the claims to formal equality in the system of modern sovereign
states which constitutes the primary ground of modern political life. In this
context we are likely to engage with various traditions of international or global
political economy, and thus with questions about how we are supposed to dis-
tinguish both between the international and the global and between the eco-
nomic and the political. These questions usually lead us to engage with various
legacies of liberal, Marxist and other traditions that have sought to reconcile
tendencies toward unequal economic accumulation and distribution with the
normative ambition for political equality that has been a defining feature of
most modern political ideologies. The prevailing tendency here has been to
define equality in rather narrowly conceived political terms, usually of various
mechanisms of democratic representation, and to legitimize greater or lesser
degrees of economic inequality as a necessary aspect of social life under explic-
itly capitalist conditions. Moreover, claims about political equality have been
articulated primarily in relation to the domestic communities of sovereign states
whereas processes of economic accumulation and distribution have increas-
ingly come to be understood in relation to the globalizing dynamics of contem-
porary capitalism, dynamics that are in uneasy tension with the political authority
of sovereign states. Hence all the long-standing uncertainties about the relation
between the determining logics of the modern states system and a globalizing

Space constraints inhibit direct engagement with specific literatures on this theme,
so I will simply note that I have in mind discussions represented by three recent texts:
Robert Biel, The New Imperialism: Crisis and Contradiction in North/South Relations
(London: Zed Books, 2000); Andrew Hurrell and Ngaire Woods, eds., Inequality, Global-
ization, and World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Michael
Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000).
International/Inequality 9

system of capitalism, as well as about the capacity of modern states, under

distinctly uneven conditions, to sustain their functional capacities and legiti-
mate authorities given the contradictions and convergences between these logics.
Second, we might focus on accounts of the principle and historical experi-
ence of the great powers as a guarantee of international order, again in
relation to the formal claims to equality expressed in the system of sovereign
states. Here we might engage with the institutional distinction between the
Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations, with broad
readings of Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, and with the strange duopoly
of the Cold War and the even stranger unipolarity that followed, or with the
conceptual ambiguities buried in claims about hegemony. In the background,
always implicit but now again increasingly explicit, is the worry that while
hegemony might indeed be necessary for the maintenance of interstate order, it
simultaneously threatens to undermine the most fundamental principles of the
international system by crossing the vague but crucial line that distinguishes a
great power from an empire. Hence, to be specific, a broad range of contem-
porary anxieties about the degree to which U.S. military force and the pursuit of
various unilateralist policies by the second Bush administration signal less a
quantitative adjustment in a familiar world of hegemons in a states system than
a qualitative shift to structures of global power and authority fundamentally at
odds with a system of sovereign states.
Third, we might focus on the capacities of specific kinds of political com-
munity to participate in anything more than a formal or even token way in the
modern system of sovereign states. Here we might look at the historical pro-
cesses of colonization that accompanied the construction of a modern system of
sovereign states first in Europe and later, largely in the mid-twentieth century,
in most of the world. In this way we might be drawn to look at how the process
of internationalization worked as both a form of inclusion and a form of exclu-
sion, thereby enabling consequent distinctions between North and South, devel-
oped and underdeveloped, properly democratic states and failed states and all
the other tropes through which we have been encouraged to read the process of
internationalization simultaneously as a process of modernization. It is in this
context that claims about inequality are likely to refer less to the principle of
modern political life expressed in claims about state sovereignty, or the Treaty
of Westphalia in 1648, than to various claims about civilization and its absence
that might be traced back to the Crusades or the voyages of Christopher Colum-
bus and Vasco da Gama and forward to contemporary predictions of civiliza-
tional conflict and the so-called war against terror.
Fourth, we might focus on the constitutive value field in which the inter-
national is judged as the negation of the positive values ascribed to statist forms
of political community. Here we would have to engage with the core principles
expressed in what has come to be known as the theory of international rela-
10 R. B. J. Walker

tions, a discourse that draws its primary conceptual resources from an insis-
tence that modern politics is organized around a capacity to distinguish between
competing sovereignties, and thus between friends and enemies. Here claims
about inequality are always in danger of reducing to an absolutist and radically
dualist account of all values, an account of those who are to count as proper
human beings and those who are notand of the sovereign capacity to decide
who gets to count as the former rather than the latter, the Other.
Obviously much can and has been said about all these ways of beginning to
think about (in)equality and the international. Such a brief and broad sketch
necessarily effaces many indispensable but also problematic categories of class,
race, gender, culture and technology, and obscures most of the crucial debates
among different theoretical traditions that are at play in each of these four
contexts. Nevertheless, such a sketch is sufficient to underline several impor-
tant points. Again, four seem fairly obvious.
First, before trying to make sense of claims about new forms of inequality
in an international context, it is necessary to understand the specific understand-
ings of the legitimate relationship between equality and inequality that is already
expressed in the principles of a political life that is somehow international. This
might take us initially into discussions about the different meanings of equality
empirical, philosophical, legal, opportunity-oriented or outcome-oriented, indi-
vidual or collectivethat are at play in the practices of modern states. It would
certainly take us eventually into dense debates about the practices of modern
Second, while it is often tempting to assume that modern politics is pred-
icated on assumptions about equality as a regulative norm, and thus to under-
stand inequalities as aberrations from that norm that might somehow be
eradicated in order to bring us back to our proper normative principles, it is
necessary to understand how the international is already constituted, in prin-
ciple, as a normative account of the proper relationship between equality and
inequality. It expresses this relationship in the various ways politics and the
state are distinguished from economics or the market; in the ways principles
of sovereign equality and domestic jurisdiction are reconciled with princi-
ples of great-power hegemony and various kinds of intervention; in the in-
corporation of a linear account of history as modernization and development
into a structural account of international order that depends on various histor-
ical practices of exclusion that render specific practices of inclusion necessary
and natural; and in the way the most basic premises of the states system affirm
the primacy of the internal as the ground on which to affirm the inferiority of
the external.
Third, there is no single ground on which we can speak about inequality, no
universal standard against which to measure the equal and the unequal, even
though each of the four themes I have identified expresses very powerful assump-
International/Inequality 11

tions about what equality must involve. On the contrary, we have a range of
accounts of how the relationship between equality and inequality ought to be
expressed in the primary constitutive practices of modern life, and especially in
the practices of the modern state.
Finally, in order to engage with claims about novel forms of inequality in an
international context it might be possible, though necessarily misleading, to
initiate analysis on any one of the specific grounds identified here, but quite
difficult to take them all into account at once. The modern division of scholarly
labor is used to solving the contradictions of modern politics by constituting
theoretical discourses on either side of a distinctionpolitics and international
relations, the international and the colonial/modernizingbut these discourses
necessarily run into trouble when novelty implies less a new variation on an
established theme than a challenge to the distinctions that enable the estab-
lished principles of political life. It is in this context, for example, that we are
likely to run into all the conceptual difficulties, and rhetorical possibilities,
expressed in claims about globalization. It is in this context also that we are
likely to encounter increasing difficulties in saying what we now mean when
we use terms like hegemony or empire. Contemporary inequalities are multi-
faceted, but only the most conspiratorial and reductive are likely to claim they
are all simply facets of the same thing, the same singular logic, and only the
most myopic defenders of the universalist claims of particular academic disci-
plines are likely to claim they have the resources to understand the dynamics of
our times in this or any other respect.
Other difficulties arise in relation to all four lines of analysis, of which I
want to highlight only two. First, claims about equality or inequality express
only one aspect of the characteristic claims of modern political life. Such claims
are especially difficult to disentangle from claims about freedom or liberty. In
many respects it is the relationship between claims about freedom and claims
about equality rather than either value in isolation that poses one of the central
problems of modern politics. Hobbes derived his famous account of conflict in
the absence of a sovereign authority from his portrayal of modern individuals
as precisely both free and equal. He derived his much less than famous account
of a less ferocious condition of conflict among states partly because states are
not equal in the way he assumed individuals to be.2 Various traditions of liber-
alism and socialism have shaped competing accounts of the meaning of each
term and especially of their relative priority. The regulative principles of mod-
ern politics tend to affirm that both freedom and equality might be possible, in
a condition of Kantian autonomy, for example, but every institution of mod-

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1991), chapter 13, p. 90.
12 R. B. J. Walker

ern political life affirms that one comes first and the other second. The claim
that great-power hegemony is necessary to ensure the perpetuation of an inter-
state order in which all states can equally aspire to sovereignty understood as a
capacity for self-determination is only one dimension of a broader pattern in
this respect.
Second, to refer to a concept of equality, and thus to establish a ground on
which specific forms of inequality might be measured, is to invoke some under-
standing of what it means to establish a scale of measurement. Again we might
begin to think about Hobbes in this context given that part of what Hobbes was
up to in seventeenth-century Europe involved a profound challenge to estab-
lished ways of thinking about scales; or rather, a challenge to established ways
of thinking about qualitative hierarchies, about superior and inferior modes of
being, part of a broader movement toward thinking about hierarchies in math-
ematical terms. Hobbes account of the so-called state of nature offered a radical
challenge to an age in which qualitative superiorities and inferiorities were
assumed to both explain the way the world is and to inform the way human life
should be organized. Indeed, for people of Hobbess era, politics came to be
posed as a problem precisely because the newly identified free and equal mod-
ern subject seemed to be so radically incompatible with the natural hierarchies
of theological, aristocratic and feudal order. With archetypal modern thinkers
like Hobbes, Descartes and Kant, qualitative distinctions of higher and lower
were essentially recast in quantitative or at least geometrical terms, with the
consequence that relations between higher and lowerheaven and earth, God
and man, sovereign and subject, universal reason and particular willbecame
intensely problematic, framed less in terms of qualitative continuities than of
gaping discontinuities.
Again, even to point to the possibility of sketching such themes is to be-
come aware of the vast literatures that might be engaged, and of the many
scholarly traditions that might be invoked in order to think about the relation
between the international and novel forms of inequality. Nevertheless, taken
together, the themes I have tried to invoke so far suggest a line of thought that
might open up ways of thinking about what it might mean to speak about
novel forms of inequality in the context of the international. This is a line of
thought that is concerned less with any specific form of inequality than with
what it means to distinguish equality and inequalitythat is, with practices of

The ability to discriminateto make distinctions, to categorize, to make com-
parisons and evaluations on the basis of judgments about what is similar or
different, central or marginalis constitutive of all human endeavors, not the
International/Inequality 13

least of which are the practices through which humans distinguish themselves
from nonhumans. Discriminations enable our accounts of the good, the true and
the beautiful, the saved and the damned, the primitive and the modern and the
natural and the social, as well as of the legitimacy of the incarceration, the
execution, the torture, the intervention, the declaration of war. The capacity to
discriminate is not only always necessary, a condition of the most mundane as
well as of the most sophisticated social practices, but in some sense always
It is in the context of politics that the necessities and dangers of discrimi-
nation, as well as the need for sustained scrutiny of the conditions under which
certain discriminations enact a ground, a starting point, for public judgments,
are supposedly most intense. Not surprisingly, many if not most of the impor-
tant developments in contemporary sociopolitical analysis now express a judg-
ment that discriminationboth in relation to the construction of analytical
categories and in the practices generating sociopolitical distinctionsmust
become increasingly contested, whether in relation to globalization, post-
modernity, identity politics, postcolonialism, post-Newtonian science
or post-something-or-other philosophy. Claims about (in)equality are simi-
larly vulnerable to suspicions about the ways in which modern political dis-
courses work with questionable concepts of discrimination.
Modern politicsthat is, the kind of politics we associate with the forms of
statist political community in a system of statist communities that took shape in
post-Renaissance Europeis explicitly constructed as a precise and intricately
articulated system of discriminations. It works especially on the basis of con-
stitutive distinctions between legitimacy and illegitimacy, rulers and unruly,
insiders and outsiders. Among many other things, it is, or has come to be, a
practice that tells us what politics is, or is not, and thus a practice that has to be
understood in terms of how it has come to be defined rather than in terms of
stipulative definitions of what it is. As such, modern politics enacts systems of
discriminations that in turn enable sequences of subsequent discriminations,
including those that tell us when we should and should not discriminate, or
under what conditions we might consider ourselves to be discriminating, or
when we should and should not challenge the discriminations that make all
subsequent discriminations possible.
Here one might want to privilege Lockes fateful distinction between the
world that God gave to man in common and the right to private property, as
well as the subsequent reworking of this theme in Marxs theory of value on the
one hand and the marginalist school of market economics on the other. Or one
might prefer to privilege the struggles between sacred and secular authority that
continue despite the stakes buried in Gods long dead ghost; or between public
and private ethics despite the stubborn elusiveness of any clear distinction
between public and private. Or perhaps one might begin to unravel the reified
14 R. B. J. Walker

dualisms of male and female, the West and the rest, the human and the animal
and so on, through which characteristically modern accounts of political iden-
tity and subjectivity are enacted, legitimized and sometimes subverted. Or we
might think about the ways in which the discriminations of modern politics
enact novel ways of making discriminations, a modern challenge to a world
that could envisage Plato carving nature at the joints or Saint Thomas filling in
the gaps between time and eternity articulated by Saint Augustine, and an affir-
mation of the need to impose names and definitions on a phenomenal world
that does not conveniently disclose itself through a name.
All these established entries to the politics of modern discriminations and
the discriminations of modern politics are undoubtedly important. They enable
and are enabled by specific political practices. The capacity to make a differ-
ence, to act in such a way that differences are made, is crucial to the mysteries
of political power. The capacity to act on the basis of differences made, of
discriminations enacted between the legitimate and the illegitimate, between
the properly political and everything else, is crucial to the mysteries of political
authority. Thinking about modern practices of discrimination can take us in
many directions and to many engagements with many different forms of analy-
sis across many scholarly disciplines and traditions. In whichever direction we
go, however, we are likely to become aware very quickly that modern politics
expresses the demand for some sovereign power/authority to distinguish that
which is properly political and that which is not, or, to follow Carl Schmitts
awesome summation of our Hobbesian legacy in this respect, that which is the
general rule and that which is the exception to the general rule.3 For all that
accounts of political power might be informed by the capacity of states to make
a difference, to mobilize physical force and administer the differences made,
and for all that accounts of legitimate authority might be informed by claims
about the ethical, cultural or democratic sources of legitimation, modern poli-
tics ultimately affirms a claim that the capacity to act, and to claim to act
legitimately, rests with the sovereign, conceived largely as a constitutional, and
constitutive, abstraction.
It was perhaps Hobbes who most clearly articulated the distinction between
the political and the nonpolitical as an achievement of modern sovereignty; a
sovereignty, that is, expressed not in the body of any particular being but in the
abstract embodiment of a particular ensemble of beings. It is this that marks
Hobbes as the most important textual expression of the convergence between

Hobbes, Leviathan; Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (1932), translated
with an Introduction by George Schwab and New Foreword by Tracy Strong (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1996); and Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters
on the Concept of Sovereignty (1922), trans. George Schwab (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT
Press, 1985).
International/Inequality 15

specifically modern forms of discrimination and the practices of modern polit-

ical authority, and that ensures his centrality to contemporary attempts to come
to terms with the limits of modern politics. Hobbess account of sovereignty
rested, in turn, on all the new distinctions and discriminations shaping the emer-
gence of a modern cultural formation, not the least of which are those express-
ing (to cut a long, complex and contested story very short) Galilean, neo-
Platonist, nominalist and other challenges to the prevailing essentialisms and
Thomisms of the age. It rested especially on a prior distinction between what
could and could not be said in properly rational or scientific discourse, and on
some distinctive accounts of what it means to engage in such rational and sci-
entific discourse.4 It is in Hobbes, especially, that we can see the meshing of
our distinctions between the political and the nonpolitical and the rational and
the nonrational. It is in Hobbes that we can see our most basic assumptions
about what is properly political being shaped by new discriminations in space
and time, by new accounts of here and there, then and now, and new accounts
of who it is that can be properly political given these new discriminations.
Schmitts less widely known twentieth-century account of sovereignty was
especially framed by a distinction between friends and enemies, a distinction
that harks back at least to Platos fateful contrast between Greek and non-Greek
in the fifth book of The Republic, or the schemes of comparison and valuation
worked out in Aristotles Politics, but which could now be made with all the
sharpness expected by a post-Hobbesian and post-Cartesian culture. Schmitt, a
Nazi jurist, remains one of the great embarrassments as well as one of the great
enigmas of modern political thought. Still, the elegant economy, and residual
ambivalence, of his claim that sovereign is he who decides on the state of
exception 5 is difficult to shake off. The deep resonance of this claim not only
with the most crucial founding texts of modern politics but also with the para-
digmatic failure of modern politics, on the one hand, and with many attempts to
read political possibilities in relation to the potentialities and limits of modern
accounts of rationality on the other, gives us some sense of what is at stake in
challenging the grounds on which we now make distinctions.
The voice of modern sovereign authority, we have come to learn, will always
be most insistent in its delineations of the limits of what is permissible, that
which is legal and that which is not, that which is in and that which is out, that
which is us and that which is Other, that which is pressing and that which is
trivial, that which is properly political and that which is merely civil, or cul-
tural, or social, or economic, or biological, or private. Similarly, the theorists of
international relations are always the most insistent of all contemporary schol-

See esp. Hobbes, Leviathan, chapters 19.
As he puts it in the opening sentence of his Political Theology.
16 R. B. J. Walker

ars in their delineations of what is real and what is necessary. Someone, it

seems, has to do the dirty work of modern political analysis, has to face up to
the extremes, the worst-case scenarios, the limit conditions. The theorist of
international relations emerged in the mid-twentieth century as the most appro-
priate candidate for the role, perhaps challenged only by the anthropologists,
those experts in limits marked in historical time, the perfect complement to the
experts in limits marked in territorial space.
As the designated students of the limit conditionthe security policy, the
national interest, the necessary violence of the state of emergencytheorists of
international relations have had the distinctive merit of insisting that modern
politics is indeed supposed to be a matter of making the most difficult distinc-
tions, of discriminating between friends and enemies, between the normal and
the exceptional, between the realistic and the merely aspirational, between la
politique and le politique, die Politik and das Politische, polity and policy. In
focusing on the necessity of limit conditions, on a sovereign capacity to dis-
criminate between the political norm and the necessary exception to that norm,
on the fundamental difference between politics as usual and the extrapolitical
(or hyperpolitical) world of secret agents, security analysts, the machinery of
war or, in Karl von Clausewitzs terms, politics by other means,6 they also point
to the constitutive role of the sovereign act of discrimination in our most cher-
ished and normalized accounts of where and what political life must be.
Much of contemporary political life is plausibly characterized by an in-
creasing difficulty, and an increasing cost, in many currencies, of drawing the
line in the way recommended by Hobbes, Kant and the like. Both the grounds
on which and the practices through which we discriminate are increasingly
contentious. Moreover, they are contentious not only because of the violent
decisionism that marks the limits of a statist political community always caught
between unity and a pluralism that always threatens dissolution, as Schmitt
suggested, but also, and increasingly, because the limits within which the con-
tradictions of modern politics have been contained seem so fragile, or porous,
or elastic, or mobile, so problematic on more than two dimensions.
We can still grasp the spatiotemporal framing of here and there, before
and after, that Hobbes mobilizes in his story of the founding of modern sov-
ereignty, in large part because this framing has been conveniently updated in
more historical and sociological modes by Kant, Hegel, Weber and all the
other canonical theorists of the modern state as the spatiotemporal container
of modern politics. Still, this framing, even when updated, seems disconcert-
ingly at odds with the spatiotemporal contexts in which we now live. We can

Karl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).
International/Inequality 17

also see firm declarations of a state of exception, the suspension of estab-

lished laws and procedures, of democracies, laws and rights, in the name of
some new extremity, some new state of emergency, some new danger that
legitimizes the sovereign decision to kill, to torture, to incarcerate. Yet this
state of exception does not correspond easily to the limits of the sovereign
state in a system of other sovereign states. The limits of modern politics are
not easily kept where they are supposed to be. We have shifted rather quickly
from the monstrous edifice of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the paradigm of a se-
curitized territoriality, to a war on terrorism, and to forms of securitization,
enacted anywhere.
This is perhaps what is ultimately at stake in all those contemporary claims
about how sovereignty is being challenged, transcended or erased by emerg-
ing economies and technologies, by new sites of governance, new forms of
cultural identity and human rights, by various claims about a democratic def-
icit, a global civil society, a cosmopolitan humanity, planetary ecologies, trans-
national social movements and so on. While it has now become conventional
to think of sovereignty merely as an attribute of states that are somehow
either enduring or fading away, modern forms of sovereignty also express a
much more generalizedand increasingly problematicunderstanding of how
we should discriminate, how we should make judgments, how we must
choose between the legitimate and the illegitimate. It is one thing to indulge
in the familiar debates over whether states are here to stay or on their way
out. It is quite another to engage with the fate of sovereignty as an expres-
sion of specifically modern accounts of what it means to discriminate and to

To think about the practices of discrimination and the ways in which these
practices have been authorized in specific ways under specific conditions is to
get some sense both of the practices through which claims about inequality and
the international have been constituted historically and of how these claims can
be understood in relation to what seem like four quite distinctive framings of
how the relationship between inequality and the international must be under-
stood. Not surprisingly, perhaps, we are led to think about ways of dividing up
the world which have been expressed partly in a vertical plane (the inequalities
of economic accumulation and class antagonisms, the discrepancy between sov-
ereign equality and great-power hegemony) and partly in a horizontal plane
(the inclusionary/exclusionary logics of the system of territorial states and prac-
tices of alterity associated with categories of race, gender, culture, colony, civ-
ilization and so on), and thus to various puzzles about how these different
expressions might be related or reconciled. Modern political life tends to affirm
18 R. B. J. Walker

the natural necessity of a world that can be organized partly as a system of

horizontal inclusions/exclusions and partly as a set of vertical hierarchies within
these inclusions/exclusions; that is, to affirm a specific set of practices of dis-
crimination. Modern accounts of what it must mean to invoke categories of
equality and inequality also express these practices, though they do so mainly
by focusing on hierarchies in a vertical plane rather than the horizontal inclusions/
exclusions that make these hierarchies possible. The key difficulty posed by
contemporary accounts of inequality is that they tend to suggest that the dis-
criminations that enable modern politics to sustain its characteristic inclusions
and hierarchies seem less and less persuasive to the contemporary political
imagination. Let me work backwards.
Modern politics is conventionally understood in relation to some version of
a story about the gradual dissolution of medieval, or feudal, or theological
forms of social organization and obligation and its replacement by, or mutation
into, the flat territorial spaces expressed by modern states and modern subjec-
tivities. Sovereigns came to monopolize authority in their own territory. Indi-
vidual subjects came to aspire to autonomy, to a capacity to internalize universal
reason within their own particularities. At least this is the story that stands as
the regulative ambition affirmed in the standard claims of modern states and the
most refined (Kantian) accounts of what it means to be a modern subject free
from dependence on other subjects.
Within modern states politics came to be organized around a series of prob-
lematic relations between the sovereign and the subject, a relationship that
could be constructed in some now familiar ways, especially by privileging the
sovereign authority to deny or permit the freedom of particular subjects or by
privileging the capacity of particular subjects to constitute a sovereign author-
ity to limit particular freedoms. Hierarchy was thus rewritten in a modern abstract
scale reaching from the many individual subjects to the unitary sovereign that
both constituted and was constituted by many abstract subjects. Other forms of
hierarchy, sometimes feudal, or aristocratic, or theological, sometimes the prod-
uct of new relations of production distribution and exchange, were largely orga-
nized so as to fit in with this new abstract relation between sovereigns and
subjects, an organization understood primarily in terms of a story about democ-
racy and the mechanisms through which the (particular) many might be repre-
sented in the deliberations and decisions of the unitary sovereign that successfully
claim to speak for the (particular) many. Between states, sovereigns had rela-
tions with other sovereigns, sometimes coexisting, sometimes exercising sov-
ereign capacities to declare an exception to normal life and go to war, and
always fearful that the system of states that enabled them to sustain their claims
to universality in a field of particularities would collapse. Hierarchy emerged
here precisely because sovereigns were not as equal in practice as they might
have claimed to be in principle. The hegemonic role of particular states, or
International/Inequality 19

coalitions of states, or even quasi-institutional regimes generated by coalitions

of states, could therefore be tolerated so as to permit some kind of stability and
order in the system despite the dangers associated with competition for heg-
emonic status and the possibility that hegemons would start acting like world
powers, to use Martin Wights term,7 hyperpowers to use a term of current
European diplomatic usage, or, the most worrying case, emperors.
This modern world of sovereign subjects generated new problems, not the
least of which being how to reconcile claims about freedom with claims about
equality. Both claims came to have foundational status as definitive principles
of modern political life. At least from Hobbess account of the anarchical con-
sequences of putting these two principles into motion as a competition for
desire after desire, and not least from Marxs analysis of the inequalities deriv-
ing from the necessary contradiction between the value of human labor and the
value of exchange in a capitalist market, these definitive principles of modern
political life have been understood to be radically at odds with each other. This
has generated much of the dynamism of modern democratic societies, as well
as the characteristic puzzles of liberal political theory. In relations between
states, however, the contradiction is rather more straightforward. Although some
people with an excessive fondness for the elegant models (and models of
elegance) favored by certain forms of economics often speak of an inter-
national anarchy, hardly anyone imagines that they are thereby referring to two
hundred or so agents acting in the way portrayed in Hobbess account of atom-
istic individuals.
Whether read as anarchy or as hegemony, however, the international is under-
stood to be radically different from, and in a crucial sense inferior to, the world
of a proper politics within states. In a tradition that might be taken back to the
classical polis, it is only within a defined community that it is possible to live a
properly political life, or, in a more modern format, a life in which democratic
practices of some sort make it possible to reconcile freedom and equality, among
other things, in a responsible and authoritative manner. Between states, in the
system with no overarching authority, war remains the final resort. The limit
condition of modern political life is marked by a capacity to declare an excep-
tion to all domestic norms and to inscribe an absolutist discrimination between
friend and enemy on a spatial ground of statist inclusions and exclusions. This
limit condition is widely felt to be unacceptable. Human life, it is not difficult

Martin Wight, Power Politics, ed. Hedley Bull and Carsten Holbraad (Leicester,
U.K.: Leicester University Press with the Royal Institute for International Affairs,
1978), chapter 4. Wight concludes his discussion with the observation that it may
simply be pointed out that, if either the Soviet Union or the United States did not exist,
the other would have probably a rather better prospect of unifying the entire world than
had Rome of unifying the Mediterranean world after the defeat of Hannibal (p. 60).
20 R. B. J. Walker

to argue, especially on the basis of a rich tradition of liberalism and humanism,

cannot be reduced to a simple binary of friend and enemy. Yet what is widely
considered to be unacceptable is in fact the constitutive condition enabling the
modern account of a political community within a sovereign state. Many con-
tradictions are at play here. Many people wish they would simply go away, or
simply assume that the limits of the modern state are not the limits of modern
politics, or at least of modern liberalism. Many others wish that modern polit-
ical analysis, and especially modern liberalism, would confront the statist lim-
its of modern politics in a more serious way and recognize the fundamental
antagonism, and valorization, that enables us to speak of equality on a political
ground that insists on the priority of the particular (even if universalizing)
state/community/friend over all other states/anarchies/enemies. Some of the
most powerful modern stories about equality and inequality start here.
The regulative antagonism between friends and enemies that both defines
and limits, enables and threatens, political life in the modern state is itself
shadowed and enabled by a constitutive antagonism at the limit of the modern
system of states. This antagonism is usually framed in temporal rather than
spatial terms, as the necessity for modernization as a process that will bring all
societies into the system of sovereign states that guarantees their membership
in a particular sort of community of humankind. The most influential narratives
here derive from Kants articulation of the possibility of a cosmopolitan his-
tory, a temporal shift to a condition of maturity and independence, the shift that
expresses all the most seductive rhetorics about progress and growing up, about
the potential unity of humanity to be realized in a universalizing History. Told
from the inside, this is always a beguiling story, unless one is suspicious of a
human society that is afraid of dependence on others and celebrates a conform-
ist egoism as a model of autonomy. Told from the outside, it offers a paradig-
matic expression of modern racism, and an open door to rabble-rousing clichs
about a coming anarchy or a clash of civilizations. 8
The key difficulty here, however, is less the genealogy of a set of categories
than the historical practices through which these categories have been instan-
tiated within structures in which the North and the developed have indeed
been distinguishable from the South and the undeveloped. Various tradi-
tions have tried to explain these structuresaccounts of colonialism, neocolo-
nialism, imperialism, dependency, centerperiphery relations, the rearticulation
of capitalstate relations and so on. In whatever form, however, claims about
inequality have been framed largely as a pattern of spatial exclusion that expresses

In this context, see the interesting discussion in Robert Bernasconi, Who Invented
the Concept of Race? Kants Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race, in
Robert Bernasconi, ed., Race (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).
International/Inequality 21

a quasi-Kantian narrative about the necessary process of inclusion into the mod-
ern states system as its key legitimation. The relative ease with which various
kinds of liberalism have converged with ostensibly illiberal invocations of ter-
ror or Islam after the violence of September 11, 2001 illustrates the tenacity of
modern theories of international relations as a set of claims about the temporal
incorporation of all others into modernity quite as much as a set of claims about
the consequences of sovereignty in a system of sovereign states. Indeed, the
temporal story, the bringing in of an historically excluded outside into a system
of states that is itself constituted as a structure of insides and outsides, is a
condition of the possibility of the modern international. Kant simply affirms
Hobbes in this respect. A story about time enables a story about space that in
turn enables a legitimation of inequality.
Entry into the modern system of states enables any particular sovereign to
decide on an exception to the norms of human conduct within a particular
territory. Sovereigns make the final discrimination. Yet while sovereigns may
be supreme in this respect, they are neither alone nor universal. Sovereigns
depend on the system of sovereigns that enable their particular sovereignty.
Sovereignty may be the highest authority within a particular territory, but any
particular authority depends on the even higher authority of the principle that
the states system itself must survive in order to enable sovereigns to claim the
highest authority. In this sense, the states system affirms a unity, even a univer-
sality, first and a plurality, or anarchy, only second. The difficulty with this
instantiation of modern discriminations between unity and diversity is that the
pluralities that are enabled are inherently unstable. The modern states system is
always susceptible to war, to the necessity of sovereigns declaring a state of
emergency and an exception to all norms. It is also susceptible to processes
through which the states system itself dissolves into something else: into empire,
and the substitution of a vertical hierarchy for a horizontal field of spatially
differentiated political communities. Most accounts of international relations
have been preoccupied with the problem of war, and quite properly so. The
other problem has remained largely in the background, largely because it has
seemed reasonable to hope that the absence of empirical equality in a system of
formally equal states would be a primary pillar of an interstate order rather than
a fundamental threat to the balance between unity and diversity that sustains
that order. In this context, the primary difficulty is to know how to judge between
hegemony in a system of states, an inequality that implies unequal responsibil-
ities, and a hegemony, or a unilateralism, or an empire of some kind that finally
turns the constitutive principle of sovereign equality into little more than a
token gesture.
All of which is to say that the problem of inequality is already deeply inscribed
in our modern accounts of the international, and thus of modern politics, even
before any consideration of the dynamics associated with modern capitalism as
22 R. B. J. Walker

a specific form of economic life that thrives on the production of inequality as

a condition of its own dynamism. Moreover, until relatively recently at least,
most analyses of capitalism as a globalizing dynamic with a capacity to dis-
solve and recast all existing discriminations and jurisdictions offered some
account of its articulation within the political categories and institutions of the
modern state. This articulation has been most frequently cast in functional terms,
capital being understood as having political needs that could be performed by
modern states that were, consequently, only relatively autonomous, and with
only a limited capacity to wrestle capitalism into some sort of accommodation
with other values. While one of the strengths of this form of analysis was to
show that there is a relation between the inequalities produced by capitalism as
a globalizing dynamic and inequality within any specific jurisdiction, it remained
the case that analysis tended to affirm the political distinction between the
domestic and the international. More recently, of course, international political
economy has begun to give way to various kinds of global political economy.
The distinction may not say very much about the changing character of capi-
talism as a form of economic life, but it certainly poses massive problems for
those seeking to understand the political implications of contemporary shifts in
the relation between capitalism and the modern state. The official statistics still
measure patterns of capital accumulation and distribution in statist categories.
States no doubt have an interest in keeping it this way. It is far from clear,
however, that global inequalities are best measured on an international scale.
Two basic modes of inclusion/exclusion, then, and two basic tensions between
a formal claim to equality and a quasi-legitimate acknowledgment of a vertical
hierarchy. The sovereignty narrative reads a pattern of inclusion/exclusion on a
spatial ground: friends here, enemies there. The colonial narrative reads a pat-
tern of inclusion/exclusion on a much broader spatial ground that enables a
temporal story about modernization as the bringing in of the undeveloped, the
nonmodern, into the civilized world of statist inclusions/exclusions. The hege-
mony narrative tells us about the formal necessity but empirical impossibility
of equality among sovereigns on a spatial ground of competing sovereigns, as
well as about the legitimacy of hegemons as a condition of international order
as long as that order remains pluralistic. The narrative of a globalizing capital-
ism brings in another temporal dynamic that might be reconcilable with the
spatial articulation of the modern state system. Or it might not.

My remarks so far offer little more than a highly simplified sketch of how many
sophisticated literatures have sought to make sense of various patterns of inequal-
ity in relation to various claims about the international. At this level of gener-
ality, however, a number of important themes begin to take on a certain clarity.
International/Inequality 23

First, to use concepts like equality and inequality, and to treat inequality as
a problem, is to work with a specifically modern discursive field. In part, this
leads us to think about the shift to a modern quantitative understanding of scale,
and the degree to which fundamental notions of higher and lower have largely
been recast as a problem rather than as a condition of a properly ordered (aris-
tocratic) society. In part it leads us to think about the ways in which this prob-
lematic relationship between higher and lower was articulated symbiotically
with two crucial framings of inclusion and exclusion, one involving the spatial
limits of the modern state, one involving the spatial limits of the modern system
of states. Modern accounts of equality and inequality assume a common ground
on which something can be measured, and compared across jurisdictions. But
this common ground is traversed by sharp limits, by massively institutionalized
capacities to discriminate between the inside and the outside, whether between
friends and enemies within and between sovereign states or between those who
can be brought into the system of states and those who cannot or will not. Part
of the brilliance of Hobbess story of the shift from state of nature to a state of
society is that it conflates these two very different narratives of inclusion/
exclusion into a single story about before and after, anarchy and community,
the primitive and the modern. Theories of international relations are thereby
enabled to treat the international as synonymous with the world as such, to read
all forms of inclusion and exclusion as a relation between friends and enemies,
and either to leave the temporal process of modernization, of bringing the unmod-
ern into modernity, to some other discourse, or to use all the half-buried tropes
of civilizational difference as a way of building up a statist logic of friends and
enemies into a battle between the civilized and the damned, those who are
capable of becoming equal because they are unequal and those who seem to be
incapable of becoming equal because they are unequal.
Second, the relation between equality and inequality works because, as mod-
erns, assuming some common ground on which to measure the equal and the
unequal, we are able to discriminate in specific ways. We have developed var-
ious measures for doing so, measures of material wealth, measures of the qual-
ity of life, measures of power. Where we do not rely on practices of inclusion/
exclusion, we tend to work with measures of hierarchy within those spaces that
are demarcated by inclusions/exclusions. We have lists, class systems and com-
parative measures of national production. To the extent that we can imagine
alternatives to a system of sovereign states, we also tend to relapse into various
hopes for some kind of hierarchical organization, for the growth of some kind
of supranational authority to keep the worst effects of the states system in
check. Maybe some kind of quasi-empire, or at least cosmopolitanism, might
be desirable, many people seem to suggest, as long as it somehow remains
international. Above all, our measures affirm the possibility of drawing very
sharp lines between authorities and jurisdictions, of discriminating between
24 R. B. J. Walker

friends and enemies, moderns and nonmoderns, sovereigns and sovereigns. Under
conditions of modernity, sharp discriminations are a primary virtue, though
they may also be a bit worrying under some circumstances.
Third, our prevailing understandings of equality/inequality rest on an expec-
tation that the primary discriminations of modern political life, discriminations
in horizontal or vertical space and the discriminations in time they enable, are
indeed both natural and necessary. This expectation may prove to be reliable.
Many analysts offer plausible readings of current trends that encourage a cer-
tain optimism in this respect. On the other hand, the simple reminder that we
tend to think of modern politics in a field delineated partly by spatial or terri-
torial inclusions/exclusions and partly by vertical hierarchies erected within
specific jurisdictions under singular authorities is enough to provoke a sense of
incongruity with the fluidities, movements, overlapping networks of relations,
proliferating identities and disaggregating boundaries of contemporary politi-
cal life. The sovereigntist narrative of friends and enemies still finds expression
in many dangerous places. The colonial narrative of moderns and nonmoderns
is not difficult to mobilize. There are good reasons to be uncertain whether the
line between hegemony and empire has finally been breached. Many states
retain impressive capacities to wrestle symbiotically with capitalism.
Nevertheless, patterns of inclusion/exclusion seem increasingly complex,
and not reducible to the territorial boundaries of sovereign states or the geo-
graphical directions of North and South. The vertical categories of class have
long been muddied by various assertions of a politics of difference and accounts
of multiple forms of social inclusion/exclusion. The four framings of equality/
inequality I have relied on here seem increasingly artificial, yet it is certainly
not becoming any easier to integrate these or any other framings into a singular
In effect, the primary significance of recent claims about new inequalities
in an international context is that they point to the increasing difficulty of
even thinking about equality/inequality in political terms, let alone respond
adequately to the violences and injustices that might be attributed to multiple
kinds of inequalities in various settings. Questions about inequality are fre-
quently reduced to economic categories. They are, however, first and fore-
most questions about political life. They are questions not only about how to
respond to problems of inequality in the terms set by established accounts and
institutions of modern political life but about how the accounts and institu-
tions of modern political life already legitimize and reproduce specific forms
of inequality while claiming to rest on a universalizing aspiration to equality.
They are also questions about whether the practices of discrimination that
have sustained the contradictions of modern political life in this respect can
remain effective. Perhaps the earth is flat. Perhaps the Great Chain of Being
will return. But probably not.