#ScholarSpotlight with Milan Babić


Milan Babić is a postdoctoral researcher within the SWFsEUROPE project at Maastricht University and incoming Assistant Professor of Global Political Economy at Roskilde University. He is a member of the CORPNET research group at the University of Amsterdam. His work deals with the transition of the global political economy from a neoliberal towards a post-neoliberal global order. His book The Rise of State Capital will be out in 2022. 

In this chat with Global Policy: Next Generation, Milan discusses his current work on decarbonisation, the importance of understanding transformations of global order and how Susan Strange and other academics have inspired his work.


What is the focus of your research? 

My research centers around the question of how the transition from a neoliberal to a post-neoliberal global order plays out on different political, social, economic scales. I work in roughly three streams to capture these long-term transformations: 1.) The transformation of the state during and beyond neoliberal globalization, 2.) The crisis of the liberal order itself and newly emerging forms of global rivalries and 3.) Rapid and fair strategies of global decarbonization. 

In my PhD research, I focused mostly on an aspect of stream 1.), namely the rise and consequences of state-led investment in the last decades. For me, this rise does not so much imply the success of a new ‘state capitalism’ or state-led growth models, but the transformation of one aspect of state power under neoliberal globalization. I try to disentangle this phenomenon in a new book that is coming out next year and which develops the argument conceptually and empirically. At the moment, I am looking into how we can conceptualize and especially measure state investment in carbon assets, and what viable decarbonization strategies could look like.

Why is your research important to you? 

I’d say that the topics I work on are important to me because they concern the life chances and the wellbeing of present and future generations. This might sound abstract, but consider this: when (relatively) stable configurations of global power relations change, we all feel the consequences, some of us even drastically. Just think about the great transitions of the past: the end of British hegemony that ‘culminated’ in World War I, the rise of US hegemony that took off after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, or the end of colonial rule in many parts of the Global South the second half of the 20th century were not just political developments, they had grave consequences for millions and billions of people – positive and negative. 

So intuitively we might think that transformations of global order concern mostly those who hold power in the global system (or who aspire to do so). But this is really not the whole picture. The late John Ruggie coined the concept of the ‘social purpose’ of international orders, which is I think a great way to think about this issue from an everyday perspective. It makes a big difference whether you live in a world in which political authority is employed to create full employment, stable socioeconomic relations, and social mobility; or whether this authority is used to flexibilize labor relations, deregulate financial markets, and facilitate capital mobility. This comparison is of course schematic and lacks nuance, but I think we can acknowledge that different orders and especially the transition between them have serious implications for how different social groups will fare under different regimes. I think this is important to understand, not only for academic and analytical purposes, but also for developing viable strategies for political change for specific social groups.

Which academics’ work has inspired some of your key thinking?

I’ve been inspired by a lot of people on the way. When I was a student, work which is very far away from what I do today had a huge influence on how I viewed the world – think of Kant, Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Luhmann, Bourdieu – philosophical stuff really. That changed later, and I got inspired more by people I directly worked with or that worked in the same department or the same field. I think it is important to acknowledge that one’s own thinking evolves over time, in sparring with others (dead and alive). Everything else would be presumptuous I guess. 

If I would have to pin down key cornerstones for how I see the world today, it would probably be Marx (social relations are not always what they appear to be), Robert W. Cox (you have to ask big questions, even if it means to fail sometimes), and Susan Strange (schools of thought are often prisons of thought, so let’s be more eclectic). I think that through the intellectual power and boldness of Susan Strange’s work I have learned that disciplinary customs, habits and expectations often stifle true curiosity about how the social world really works. If you think in schools and camps and all of that stuff you often have already figured out how the world works. So why bother? I think that Strange’s work is an important corrective in this respect. It impressed and influenced me a lot in the way I try to ‘do’ IPE or GPE personally. It shows us how to really think outside the box. That also goes for other disciplines, not only IPE/GPE of course.

What issues do you see your field being focused upon in the next several years?

Broadly speaking Climate Change and China. I think these are the two main themes where most people interested in IPE/GPE and international politics will work on in some capacity. Both are of course only umbrella terms for a much larger and more differentiated research areas. The former entails questions of industrial re-organization, societal transformations, political backlashes, international coordination, distributional conflicts and much more. The latter means also understanding the role of other major powers in the system, the fate of the liberal order, questions of geopolitics and geoeconomics, and of course all the various dimensions contributing to China’s rise.

Another equally important theme is in my opinion inequality, but this research agenda is already very advanced within and outside the field. I am sure this focus will persist also in the next years. For political economy research in general, I also expect that we learn much more about central banking as a source of political power and what societies can do with it. This is already being tackled by a lot of smart people, and I think they should further educate us about how central banks and their (malleable?) mandates help or impede necessary social transformations. Just today I saw a new paper in RIPE by Fathimath Musthaq on central banks which I definitely have to read.

How does your research link to or have an impact on global policy issues?

I try to work on issues that I also care about as a politically interested person. The links to global policy issues are hence many: my work on foreign state-led investment is linked to recently emerging discussions within Europe and elsewhere on tighter inwards investment rules vis-à-vis state-owned capital. My work on business power in a domestic and global context is linked to the question of how we should evaluate and constrain corporate power in a post-neoliberal order. The work I am doing on decarbonization seeks to provide concrete strategies of how to decarbonize state-owned vehicles rapidly and justly and what possible pitfalls could be. The question about the impact is I guess something that is up to policy-makers themselves to decide.

What is the one piece of advice you wish you had been given when starting your academic career?

I must say I have been pretty lucky with my PhD supervisor and friend Eelke Heemskerk and the people I worked with at the University of Amsterdam. So in that sense I had people around me that helped me in making good decisions. I also have to add that I come from a non-academic background, so I did not really have a good idea of what a PhD and the rest of it is going to be like. It turns out that, like everything else in life, it is the people around you that make the difference. So I guess my tentative tip (not ‘advice’) would be to look for people in your department that you can have a beer or coffee with and with whom you can share (parts of) your journey. That makes things much nicer and it helps especially people with working class and other non-academic backgrounds to not feel totally alienated in a new environment.

What is one must-read book/ article for scholars not in your field?

That is a really good question. Shooting from the hip I would say definitely read everything Adam Tooze writes. He is not really in the same field as I am, but he knows a lot about the macroeconomic foundations of what people in IPE/GPE do. So if you read let’s say ‘Crashed’, you get a really good idea of why people in IPE/GPE care so much about the Global Financial Crisis as a watershed moment and why Trump might be more a result of this crisis than of US culture wars only. If you are interested in the academic discipline of IPE/GPE specifically, then read everything Herman Mark Schwartz produces. ‘States versus Markets’ is an entry-level book which probably tens of thousands of students have read and which brilliantly fuses economic history, comparative political economy, and IPE/GPE. Well, I guess it is really a ‘must read’ after all.