Susan Strange: The Mother of International Political Economy

Susan Strange is considered to be the mother of international political economy (IPE) since she was the first one to address the importance of taking care of the typhoon and not of your house to see your house not destroyed by a typhoon. This metaphor is the synthesis of Strange’s thought: you cannot grasp how the economy of one single country works if you do not understand how the economy of the world in which it is set moves.

I will refer mainly to The Retreat of State (1991), trying to skim her thought in a few points that I found particularly interesting: power, the market-state transition, the politicization of the self, the vacuum and the Pinocchio’s metaphor.



She reflects on who-gets-what of world society based on four basic structures (in other words, what is power):

•“those who are in positions to offer security, or to threaten it”

•“those who are in positions to offer, or to withhold, credit”

•“those who control access to information and who are in a position to define the nature of knowledge.”

•“what is produced, where, and by whom on what terms and conditions”


Transition from State-Centrality to Market 

Then, she explores how the market gained the main stage and some implications caused by this shift.

“Where states were once the masters of markets, not it is the markets which, on many crucial issues, are the masters over the governments of states. And the declining authority of states is reflected in a growing diffusion of authority to other institutions and associations, and to local and regional bodies, and in a growing asymmetry between the larger states with structural power and weaker ones without it.”

“Competition for world market shares has replaced competition for territory, or for control over the natural resources of territory” 

Now a query: if governments were the masters of war and they were at the same time the masters of the market (because warfare is a market) will the shift analyzed by Mrs. Strange make markets even more fearless masters of war since markets have no soul?

She also considers the incentives for world leaders to change the rusty nuts and bolts to be over. Indeed, “now that the world market economy has outgrown the authority of state, national governments evidently lack both the power and the will to make good the deficiencies of inequality and instability that have always gone with growth and change in market economies.” 

Is there room left for political activism? Room for change? In answering this question, Strange claims that change is three-fold: “technology, markets and politics.”


‘The Self is Political’

How Strange considers the penetration of public life in the private one, it is not exactly what we think of when we say that the self is political. It is rather “that less and less of daily life is immune from the activities and decisions of government bureaucracies.”

Therefore, our lives are more and more and more permeated by political events but we are less and less political. Paradoxical and sharply true?

The Vacuum

Susan Strange also discusses the vacuum at the core of IPE. This vacuum, she argues,  cannot be “adequately filled by inter-governmental institutions or by a hegemonic power exercising leadership in the common interest.” In other words: “what some have lost, others have not gained. […] ungovernance it might be called.” 


Conclusion & Pinocchio

To conclude a very broad discourse, Strange refers to Gilpin’s basic equation in order to schematize her thought:

States + Markets = Political / Economy (Political Economy) 

Lastly, she considers the Pinocchio’s metaphor to circumscribe a solution, that is how, in such chaos, “our individual consciences are our only guide.”

She says: “the strings that held each of us to the nation-state seemed to me rather like the strings that were attached to Pinocchio, making him the puppet of forces he could neither control nor influence. His problem, at the end of the story, was no longer that when he told lies his nose grew longer. He had already learned that lies were wrong. His problem when he finally turned, magically, from a wooden puppet into a real boy was that he had no strings to guide him. He had to make up his own mind what to do and whose authority to respect and whose to challenge and resist”

For sure, food for thought.

About Diletta Bellotti

I am bizarre. Yet I have mainstream passions: I like beautiful things like art, nice people and silence. I hold firmly my values of peace and respect, I may sound very strict and annoying at this point. I used to paint but I quit, I used to read lot of poetry but I quit. I basically quit lots of things since the whirl of daily news absorbed my time and my energy. I am an optimistic fatalist and go with the flow, a flow I dammed myself.

Have a tip we should know?


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