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6.1: The Basics of Critical Theory

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  • Although critical theory reworks and, in some ways, supersedes Kantian and Marxian themes, both authors remain at the base of the theory’s lineage. Through critical philosophy, Kant discussed the conditions in which we make claims about the world and asserted that the increasing interconnectedness of his time opened the door for more cosmopolitan (i.e. supranational) political communities. Marx’s critical mode of inquiry was grounded on the will to understand social developments in industrialised societies, including the contradictions inherent in capitalism that would lead to its collapse, the suppression of labour exploitation and the setting up of a more just system of global social relations. This way, the writings of Kant and Marx converge to demonstrate that what happens at the level of international relations is crucial to the achievement of human emancipation and global freedom. Consequently, the tracing of tangible social and political possibilities or change (those stemming from within existing practices and institutions) became a defining feature of the strand of critical thought entering IR via authors reworking Marxian and Kantian themes during the twentieth century.

    Of course, neither Marx nor Kant were IR theorists in the contemporary sense. Both were philosophers. We must therefore identify two more recent sources for how critical theory developed within the modern discipline of IR. The first is Antonio Gramsci and his influence over Robert Cox and the paradigm of production (economic patterns involved in the production of goods and the social and political relationships they entail). The second is the Frankfurt school – Jürgen Habermas in particular – and the influence of Habermas over Andrew Linklater and the paradigm of communication (patterns of rationality involved in human communication and the ethical principles they entail). There are two themes uniting these approaches that show the connective glue within the critical theorist family. First, they both use eman-cipation as a principle to critique, or assess, society and the global political order. Second, they both detect the potential for emancipation developing within the historical process, but consider that it may not be inevitable. The paradigms of redistribution and recognition relate to what Nancy Fraser (1995) has called the two main axes of contemporary political struggle. While redistribution struggles refer directly to the Marxist themes of class struggles and social emancipation, recognition struggles have to do with aspirations to freedom and justice connected to gender, sexuality, race and national recognition. Therefore, while Cox focuses on contemporary redistribution struggles, Linklater turns to questions of identity and community as more significant than economic relations in today’s quest for emancipation.

    Cox sets out to challenge realism’s assumptions, namely the study of interstate relations in isolation from other social forces. He stresses the need to see global politics as a collective construction evolving through the complex interplay of state, sub-state and trans-state forces in economic, cultural and ideological spheres. His purpose is to pay attention to the whole range of spheres where change is needed in contemporary global politics. For example, when realism focuses only on great powers and strategic stability, it ends up reinforcing a set of unjust global relations stemming from power and coercion. For this reason, Cox challenges the idea that ‘truth’ is absolute – as in realism’s assertion that there is a timeless logic to international relations, or liberalism’s assertion that the pursuit of global capitalism is positive. Instead, he asserts that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’ (Cox 1981, 128). Drawing on Gramsci, Cox comes up with a picture of the world political system brought into being by the hegemony and hierarchies of power manufactured in the economic arena. Therefore, power is understood in the context of a set of globalised relations of production demanding the transformation of the nation-state, and depends on the combination of material elements and ideas for acquiring legitimacy (Cox and Jacobsen 1977). Cox explores the economic contradictions spurring change in power relations and guiding transitions towards a fairer world order, even if acknowledging that emancipation is not inevitable.

    As Hutchings (2001) points out, the critical project connecting Linklater to Cox sets out to uncover all sorts of hegemonic interests feeding the world order as a first step to overcome global systems of exclusion and inequality. Linklater’s critical project aims at reconstructing cosmopolitanism, drawing not from some abstract or utopian moral principle but from non-instrumental action and ideal speech (open and non-coercive communication) assumptions developed by Habermas. Ideal speech is the critical tool used in the reconstruction of political communities (from local to global levels) through open dialogue and non-coercive communication, a process whereby all affected by political decisions put forward their claims and justify them on the basis of rational and universally accepted principles of validity. This method poses questions of the ‘good life’ (what a society ought to be like) and questions of justice (fairness in the way members of a society choose what their society ought to be like).

    Thus, emancipation is conceived not with reference to an abstract universal idea but based on a process of open discussion about who can be excluded legitimately from specific political arrangements and what kinds of particularities (gender, race, language) entitle people to special sets of rights. For Linklater, the historical development of citizenship attests to both the potential and the limitations of such a process of open discussion about rights – who is entitled to what in the context of the state system. Citizenship has been the critical concept and set of practices permitting the enjoyment of universal rights inside a community (freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, freedom of association), but also the protection of vulnerable minorities by granting them particular rights in order to avoid or mitigate the effects of discrimination. On the other hand, however, citizenship has divided humanity into national groupings and has therefore been a barrier to the universal fulfilment of human freedom.

    According to Linklater then, emancipation demands global interactions guided by open, inclusive and non-coercive dialogue about the ties that bind communities together. This also extends to our obligations to strangers and how fair it is to restrict outsiders from the enjoyment of rights granted to insiders. For Linklater, the answer lies in the potential for a more universal concept of citizenship, refashioned through open dialogue among those affected by the global processes that are changing the world. These processes are issues like non-state forms of violence (such as sexual violence and terrorism), forced migration, climate change and resource depletion. Therefore, critical theory can be seen as an instrument of the powerless to advance more equitable types of global relations. More importantly for us, within IR theory it combats the traditional approaches, mainly liberalism and realism, and shines a light on how they feed the imbalances of an unjust global order by failing to question (or critique) their foundational claims. Linklater’s work is marked by the awareness that modernity is an unfinished project in its potential for accomplishing human freedom, namely through the transformation of the competitive system of separate states into a global community.

    By admitting that immediate security needs press humans to set up bounded communities and to act according to national loyalties, Linklater recognises the limits to cosmopolitan politics. At the same time however, he underlines that there is a growing awareness that global interconnectedness and vulnerabilities impose their consequences on how communities define themselves and live side by side with others. Proximity with strangers prompts, for instance, a heightened sense of sharing a finite planet and finite resources and leads individuals to question exclusive obligations to the state in favour of a degree of cosmopolitan responsibility towards those who do not belong to one’s national community.

    Accordingly, Linklater explores the moral tensions emerging between humanity and citizenship (‘humans’ and ‘citizens’) in order to devise practical possibilities for creating more inclusive communities, with a civilising effect upon the conduct of international relations. Linklater does not underestimate the historical movement towards the creation of bounded moral communities (nation-states) but also sees potential within the historical process to enhance the expansion of rights and duties beyond the state. The fact that it has been possible for states in the modern international system to agree upon the protection of human rights and the political relevance of avoiding human wrongs is a sign of the relevance of these ideas.

    What unites critical theorists like Cox, Linklater and others, then, is a political inquiry with an explicit emancipatory purpose. It aims at uncovering the potential for a fairer system of global relations resulting from already existing principles, practices and communities that expands human rights and prevents harm to strangers.