Towards a ‘field theory’ of global political economy

May 9, 2023

In 1976, Robert Gilpin distinguished three contrasting political economy perspectives: liberalism, Marxism, and mercantilism. Gilpin introduced these International Relations derived categories as theories and ideologies of political economy, sometimes conceived either as explanatory models or future scenarios. He recognises that the three ideologies ‘define the conflicting perspectives’ that actors have, but he does not go as far as to theorise how the perspectives may be part of the dynamics of the world economy and generative of its history and future. Gilpin’s models, scenarios, and theories are thus mainly cognitive attempts to understand reality from the outside. Since Gilpin’s main works, a large number of critical and constructivist IPE and GPE approaches have arisen, stressing the constitutive role of ideas and performativity of theories. Many of these studies, however, tend to focus on aspects of contemporary matters or specific issues and fall short of analysing broad historical developments and, most markedly, causation. [This blog was originally published at the Progress in Political Economy PPE-website in Sydney and can be directly accessed here.]

In a recent book that is coming out as a paperback this May, I develop the idea that the conflicting political economy perspectives are fields that generate the dynamics of the world system. This is a slight departure from my earlier understandings of agency and structure and causation (see interview part 1 conducted by Jamie Morgan). Causation is not restricted to material-efficient causation and practical open-systemic explanation in terms of so-called INUS conditions makes it difficult to analyse systematically and theoretically how the structure of a field or the organisation of an environment may be the cause of what happens within it, or how these structures and organisations may evolve. While my starting point is that everything is historical and the historicity, complexity, and heterogeneity of generative social contexts imposes limits on any general dynamic theory of historical society, the idea of a field theory is to get as close as possible to what ‘retroduction’ is in theoretical sciences, (for a lengthy discussion on this point, see interview part 2).

The Three Fields of Global Political Economy provides a systematic and future-oriented account of global political economy dynamics since the Industrial Revolution and argues that major changes and conflicting processes can be understood through the concept of three fields. The first field is constituted by the circuit of capital and is characterised by a tendency towards economic liberalism. The second field is brought about by reactions to, and learning through critique from, cycles and crises and various negative experiences. The third field is the field of the reason-of-state. It is evoked by struggles within and among states and has its own inner generative structures. This book analyses the generic dynamics of these three fields of global political economy and explores their most significant causal effects, such as growth, employment, distribution of income and wealth, wars, and ecological effects. Together, the prevailing three fields, as well as the ideas and causal forces which generate them, constitute the ‘holomovement’ of the global political economy.

Those who have access to the University of Helsinki website, can freely download the book. The publisher's webpage can be found at

This field theory owes a debt to Pierre Bourdieu, although I use many concepts quite differently. The concept of habitus introduced by Bourdieu is especially useful to understand and theorise the dynamics involved in fields. A field constitutes and bends social space–time and thus defines the relatively effortless or obvious direction of social activities in pursuit of the desirable values and things characteristic of that field. The habitus of embodied actors, which is acquired through learning, adopts and accommodates itself selectively to a dynamic field, while it is also a generative dynamic structure that can occasionally shape or even transform field(s). The dynamics work through tensions, conflicts, and learning within fields as well as through intra- and interactions between the fields. What is especially noteworthy is that the underlying learning process is at the heart of the planetary holomovement, which is the central theme of the book and the main topic of Chapters 6–8. However, learning can be also regressive or pathological.

Past collective learning is embedded in current practices and institutions involving causal mechanisms and complexes that generate real-world trends and oscillations for example in economic growth and distribution of incomes and wealth. In this framework, the inner code of the evolving whole comprises the contents and structures of human learning that co-generate – in a context of power relations and previous layers – the causal processes through which the forms and parts of the whole are being determined. The inner code is responsive, albeit often only indirectly and through complex processes, to the real causal effects of the prevailing social practices and institutions such as uneven growth, distribution of surplus, and crises – and through conflicts, also wars.

Reflexivity plays a key role in the book. On other hand, I rely on post-Keynesian and other heterodox economic theories in my analysis of the causal effects of fields and the holomovement of the world political economy. I take some of these theories tentatively as an adequate basis for understanding characteristic causal (joint) effects of the fields – even if only at a high level of abstraction, meaning they require contextualisation and further developments. Thus, when analysing the dynamics of the system, I rely reflexively on the critique and collective learning that has occurred within the second field in particular. There is no vantage point outside world history and we cannot help but to rely on the past collective learning in our theorisation.

On the other hand, I argue that a learning process towards qualitatively higher levels of reflexivity has the potential of generating new forms of global transformative agency, operating in the context of manifold multiscalar and multitemporal processes that have contributed to globalisation. While the contemporary dynamics of the three fields have the potential for catastrophic outcomes, these dynamics also result in collective learning and what I call holoreflexivity. Moreover, and more concretely, new forms of agency can facilitate attempts to resolve contradictions of the world economy through rational collective actions and by building more adequate common institutions, within the confines of what Bob Jessop calls ‘political economy of scale’.

The point of these reconceptualisations is, as already mentioned, related to retroduction and totalisation, but there is also a more practical interest concerning the future. The success of achieving goals set at different orders of purposes depends to a large extent on whether actors are capable of latching on to some tendential processes and stretching them in the desired direction. My ultimate hope is to identify those critical points and moments where transformative (emancipatory) actors and movements could make a difference in terms of steering a course away from a scenario that captures significant features of our increasingly competitive, conflictual, and dangerous world and toward a more rationally desirable direction.

While doing this, the book also tries to contribute to what I call the political economy of time, arguing that the future of the crises-critique-learning field depends, in important part, on the temporality of the overall conceptual framework. This means getting rid of the intellectual fictions of the age of the Industrial Revolution, without giving in to anti-Whiggish reaction, capitalist realism, or postmodern relativism. The potential for transformed transformative practice and agency depends on the politics of scale and the credibility of perceptions of hope about future possibilities.