Book review by Federico Jensen: The Contested World Economy: The Deep and Global Roots of International Political Economy by Eric Helleiner.

by Federico Jensen (Copenhagen Business School)

The Contested World Economy: The Deep and Global Roots of International Political Economy by Eric Helleiner. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press. 2023, 306 pp. 29,99$ (paperback) 22,49$ (e-book) ISBN (online): 9781009337489.

Every student who has taken an introduction to International Political Economy (IPE) course has learned about the three main intellectual roots of IPE: liberalism, mercantilism, and Marxism. They have also heard about the key figures in these approaches: Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Alexander Hamilton, Friderich List, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin. Eric Helleiner’s new book attempts to move beyond these three orthodoxies (as he calls them) and the mostly European, white male figures that represent them. Focusing on the contested nature of these three schools of thought and the debates in political economy pre-1945, Helleiner showcases the rich diversity of ideas within each school, their adoption by different countries, and the contributions of thinkers outside of the West. The book also discusses ways of thinking about International Political Economy that these three orthodoxies do not cover. In this short review, I will discuss the structure of Helleiner’s book and its key contributions. Lastly, I will also discuss how this book can inform a new syllabus for an introduction to IPE.

Helleiner first discusses the three orthodoxies of IPE (chapters 2, 4, and 6). He does this, however, not to show what these schools of thought teach us about the global economy, something we all already know. Instead, he aims to disaggregate how the different schools of thought were built, and to analyze how early thinkers influenced later theorists. Although chapters 2, 4, and 6 highlight the diversity of thought within the different orthodoxies and some key disagreements, such as debates between different liberal thinkers regarding colonialism, most readers of international political economy will recognize the majority of the thinkers being discussed. The richness of the book and the deep research it is based on is highlighted when Helleiner discusses less well-known scholars and thinkers from around the world that developed and adapted the three orthodoxies to their geographical contexts.  Whole chapters are dedicated to analyzing the ways in which ideas from each of the three orthodoxies travelled and were adapted (chapters 3, 5, and 7). Helleiner highlights thinkers such as Domingo Sarmiento (later president of Argentina), who argued that the newly independent nation of Argentina would profit from selling raw materials and agricultural products to Europe, based on ideas of free trade from Adam Smith (p. 40). This adaptation of ideas can also become contradictory. For example, Takahashi Kamekichi, a Japanese Marxist/socialist thinker who defended the actions of imperial Japan as being justified because the Japanese should not be subsumed by European imperialism and should avoid the submission of Japanese workers to the pressures of global capital (p. 108-110).

The second part of the book opens new avenues for thinking about the developments in IPE in the pre-1945 era. With chapters on Autarkic thought (ch. 8), Environmentalism (ch. 9), Feminism (ch. 10), Pan-Africanism (ch.  11), Religion and Civilizations (ch. 12), and Regionalism (ch. 13), Helleiner discusses a wide range of ideas in IPE that were discussed pre-1945. Today, many of these approaches are taught in introductory IPE courses as ‘new approaches’ to IPE. Helleiner demonstrates instead that these are neglected discussions of these orthodoxies with deep historical roots. Again, Helleiner covers here a plethora of neglected non-Western thinkers:  José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, Peter Kropotkin, He-Yin Zhen, Marcus Garvey, Sayyid Abu Ala al-Mawdudi, and Akamatsu Kaname, to name just a few. The structure of the chapters also shifts, as rather than discussing these strands of thought in relation to each other, as in Part One, Helleiner uses Part Two to discuss each idea/approach and its groups of thinkers in a more isolated manner. This has both advantages and disadvantages: it allows for further discussion of how European thinkers engaged actively with thinkers from around the world and how ideas were flowing in both directions. This strengthens the argument of the book that conversations were truly global, and not simply European thinkers influencing global adaptations of their thought in other regions. At the same time, this has the disadvantage of losing some of the connections between the different thinkers from different perspectives who nonetheless were in conversation about similar topics covered in Part Two.

Interestingly, although Helleiner is trying to showcase that the history of ideas in IPE has global origins and is not uniquely a western European story, Helleiner still considers Adam Smith as the historical originator of ideas in IPE. His argument is two-fold: first, the other two orthodoxies of mercantilism and Marxism position themselves as direct reactions to the writings of Adam Smith. Second, Helleiner argues that Adam Smith is the first globally read IPE author, since scholars engaged with his work around the world and The Wealth of Nations was widely translated. Following this line of thought, within Part One of the book, the European perspectives on each orthodoxy were therefore presented first, even when thinkers presented in the consequent chapters had perhaps built their foundations of thinking on their own political economy first and foremost, and not on western perspectives. More emphasis on the local origins of ideas from specific thinkers, such as, for example Sun Yat-Sen, and the ways their ideas diffused globally, could have aided in creating a better picture of the multi-directionality of ideas in IPE’s global conversation. Sun Yat-Sen’s main point of departure was not neo-mercantilist thinking, even as his ideas of competitiveness in manufacturing resonated with Western thought on the topic. Rather, his main point of departure was the Confucianist ethic and the civilizational position of China as a way to understand the need to industrialize and the nationalist politics associated with it. Sen’s writings were hugely influential in Asia and the rest of the Global South, as a specific alternative to Western thought. Thus, sometimes the author’s emphasis on the ways ideas influenced each other leads him to unfortunately focus less on moments of rupture or disassociation between ideas. Furthermore, the independent development of parallel ideas from different geographical contexts is seldom discussed as a possibility.

Another potential weak point is that Helleiner does not provide many insights on the broader historical (and political) context in which these IPE thinkers developed their ideas. Of course, the book is extensive enough as it is. But the need to historicize IPE is a reminder that ideas are not created in a vacuum, rather in specific social and material contexts. Furthermore, the translations, adaptations, interactions, and diffusion of these ideas are similarly built upon specific geographies, histories and politics, which must also be taken into account.

By using the category “influential thinkers” when discussing the development of ideas within IPE, Helleiner allows himself to discuss the ideas of political leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, as well as journalists and activists like Kotoku Shusui and Marcus Garvey. These influential thinkers would not be included in a narrower categorization of IPE scholarship engaging in theory/idea development, but their ideas have nonetheless been tremendously influential. This practice of broadening the debate and looking at less discussed thinkers (not scholars/academics) who have engaged in global IPE debates is important to expand the horizons of IPE further than the orthodoxies to include varied perspectives. It also highlights a very important point on the nature of IPE as both an academic field and a practice. Ideas become practice and policy, and “practitioners”, through their decision and thought, influence academic development.

Eric Helleiner has, once again, provided a key reference for the IPE field, while also helping to review the curriculum for future generations of undergraduate students in introductory IPE courses. These students can now appreciate the global and diverse nature of the field and acquaint themselves with a broad base of key schools of thought and their backgrounds thanks to Helleiner’s extensive research. We can all use this exciting new book as a springboard for our own global IPE conversations, which not only go beyond the three orthodoxies of liberalism, mercantilism, and Marxism, but also truly globalize the history of the field. This book encourages all of us to think more deeply and widely about the history of IPE, the development of global ideas, and global engagement in academic debate. By globalizing the history of ideas in IPE, Helleiner also opens the door for further research to further historicize the evolution of IPE as an academic field, a necessary task both in research and teaching.