Critical Theory

Source:- Scott Burchill, Andrew Linklater, Richard
Devetak, Jack Donnelly, Matthew Paterson,
Christian Reus-Smit and Jacqui True


If there is anything that holds together the disparate group of scholars who subscribe to ‘critical theory’ it is the idea that the study of international relations should be oriented by an emancipatory politics. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent ‘war on terrorism’ showed, among other things, that unnecessary human suffering remains a central fact of international life. It would be easy, and perhaps understandable, to overestimate the novelty or significance of September 11 for world order. After all, the world’s greatest power was dealt a devastating blow in its national capital, Washington, and itsgreatest city, New York. In attacking the Pentagon and the World TradeCentre, the perpetrators were attacking two icons of America’s globalpower projection: its military and financial centres. For critical theory,any assessment of the degree to which September 11 changed worldorder will depend on the extent to which various forms of dominationare removed and peace, freedom, justice and equality are promoted. Theunfinished ‘war on terrorism’ fought by Washington and London has so far done little to satisfy the critical theorist’s concerns. Indeed, it hasbeen argued by many critical theorists that it is more likely to introduce‘de-civilizing’ forces into international relations.

This chapter is divided into three main parts: firstly, a sketch of the origins of critical theory; secondly, an examination of the political nature of knowledge claims in international relations; and, thirdly, a detailed account of critical international theory’s attempt to place questions of community at the centre of the study of internationalrelations. This will provide an opportunity to discuss how critical theory reflects on the events of September 11 and the subsequent ‘war on terrorism’.

Origins of critical theory

Critical theory has its roots in a strand of thought which is often traced

back to the Enlightenment and connected to the writings of Kant, Hegeland Marx. While this is an important lineage in the birth of criticaltheory it is not the only possible one that can be traced, as there is alsothe imprint of classical Greek thought on autonomy and democracy tobe considered, as well as the thinking of Nietzsche and Weber. However,in the twentieth century critical theory became most closely associatedwith a distinct body of thought known as the Frankfurt School (Jay 1973;Wyn Jones 2001). It is in the work of Max Horkheimer, TheodorAdorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, LeoLowenthal and, more recently, Jürgen Habermas that critical theoryacquired a renewed potency and in which the term critical theory cameto be used as the emblem of a philosophy which questions modern socialand political life through a method of immanent critique. It was largelyan attempt to recover a critical and emancipatory potential that hadbeen overrun by recent intellectual, social, cultural, political, economic and technological trends.

Essential to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory was a concern to comprehend the central features of contemporary society by understandingits historical and social development, and tracing contradictions in the present which may open up the possibility of transcending contemporary society and its built-in pathologies and forms of domination. Critical theory intended ‘not simply to eliminate one or other abuse’, but to analyse the underlying social structures which result in these abuses with the intention of overcoming them (Horkheimer 1972: 206). It is not difficult to notice the presence here of the theme advanced by Marx in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx 1977a: 158).

This normative interest in identifying immanent possibilities for social transformation is a defining characteristic of a line of thought which extends, at least, from Kant, through Marx, to contemporary critical theorists such as Habermas. This intention to analyse the possibilities of realizing emancipation in the modern world entailed critical analyses of both obstructions to, and immanent tendencies towards, ‘the rational organization of human activity’ (Horkheimer 1972: 223). Indeed, this concern extends the line of thought back beyond Kant to the classical Greek conviction that the rational constitution of the polis finds its expression in individual autonomy and the establishment of justice and democracy. Politics, on this understanding, is the realm concerned with realizing the just life.

There is, however, an important difference between critical theory and the Greeks which relates to the conditions under which knowledge claims can be made regarding social and political life. There are two points worth recalling in this regard: firstly, the Kantian point that reflection on the limits of what we can know is a fundamental part of theorizing and, secondly, a Hegelian and Marxian point that knowledge is always, and irreducibly, conditioned by historical and material contexts; in Mark Rupert’s words (2003: 186), it is always ‘situated knowledge’. Since critical theory takes society itself as its object of analysis, and since theories and acts of theorizing are never independent of society, critical theory’s scope of analysis must necessarily include reflection on theory. In short, critical theory must be self-reflective; it must include an account of its own genesis and application in society. By drawing attention to the relationship between knowledge and society, which is so frequently excluded from mainstream theoretical analysis, critical theory recognizes the political nature of knowledge claims.

It was on the basis of this recognition that Horkheimer distinguished between two conceptions of theory, which he referred to as ‘traditional’ and ‘critical’ theories. Traditional conceptions of theory picture the theorist at a remove from the object of analysis. By analogy with the natural sciences, they claim that subject and object must be strictly separated in order to theorize properly. Traditional conceptions of theory assume there is an external world ‘out there’ to study, and that an inquiring subject can study this world in a balanced and objective manner by withdrawing from the world it investigates, and leaving behind any ideological beliefs, values, or opinions which would invalidate theinquiry.

To qualify as theory it must at least be value-free. On this view, theory is possible only on condition that an inquiring subject can withdraw from the world it studies (and in which it exists) and rid itself of all biases. This contrasts with critical conceptions that deny the possibility of value-free social analysis. By recognizing that theories are always embedded in social and political life, critical conceptions of theory allow for an examination of the purposes and functions served by particular theories. However,while such conceptions of theory r ecognize the unavoidability of taking their orientation from the social context in which they are situated, their guiding interest is one of emancipation from, rather than legitimation and consolidation of, existing social forms. The purpose underlying critical, as opposed to traditional, conceptions of theory is to improve human existence by abolishing injustice (Horkheimer 1972). As articulatedby Horkheimer (1972: 215), this conception of theory does not simply present an expre ssion of the ‘concrete historical situation’, it also acts as ‘a force within [that situation] to stimulate change’. It allows for the intervention of humans in the making of their history.It should be noted that while critical theory has not directly addressed the international level, this in no way implies that international relationsis beyond the limits of its concern. The writings of Kant and Marx, in particular, have demonstrated  that what happens at the international

level is of immense significance to the achievement of universal emancipation. It is the continuation of this project in which critical international theory is engaged. The Frankfurt School, however, never addressed international relations in its critiques of the modern world, and Habermas has made only scant reference to it until recently (see Habermas 1998, 2003; Habermas and Derrida 2003). The main tendency of critical theory is to take individual society as the focus and to neglect the dimension of relations between and across societies. For critical international theory, however, the task is to extend the trajectory of Frankfurt School – critical theory beyond the domestic realm to the international – or, more accurately, global – realm. It makes a case for a theory of world politics which is ‘committed to the emancipation of the species’ (Linklater 1990a: 8). Such a theory would no longer be confined to an individual state or society, but would examine relations between and across them, and reflect on the possibility of extending the rational, just and democratic organization of political society across the globe (Neufeld 1995: Chapter 1; Shapcott 2001).

To summarize, critical theory draws upon various strands of Westernsocial, political and philosophical thought in order to erect a theoretical framework capable of reflecting on the nature and purposes of theory and revealing both obvious and subtle forms of injustice and dominationin society. Critical theory not only challenges and dismantles traditional forms of theorizing, it also problematizes and seeks to dismantle entrenched forms of social life that constrain human freedom. Critical international theory is an extension of this critique to the international domain. The next part of the chapter focuses on the attempt by critical international theorists to dismantle traditional forms of theorizing by promoting more self-reflective theory.

The politics of knowledge in International

Relations theory

It was not until the 1980s, and the onset of the so-called ‘third debate’, that questions relating to the politics of knowledge would be taken seriously in the study of international relations. Epistemological questions regarding the justification and verification of knowledge claims, the methodology applied and the scope and purpose of inquiry, and ontological questions regarding the nature of the social actors and other historical formations and structures in international relations, all carry normative implications that had been inadequately addressed. One ofthe important contributions of critical international theory has been towiden the object domain of International Relations, not just to include epistemological and ontological assumptions, but to explicate their connection to prior political commitments. This section outlines the way in which critical theory brings knowledge claims in International Relations under critical scrutiny.

Firstly, itmconsiders the question of epistemology by describing how Horkheimer’s distinction between traditional and critical conceptions of theory has been taken up in International Relations; and secondly, it elaborates the connection between critical theory and emancipatory theory. The result of this scrutinizing is to reveal the role of political interests in knowledge formation. As Robert Cox (1981) succinctly and famously said, ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’. As a consequence, critical international theorists reject the idea that theoretical knowledge is neutral or non-political. Whereas traditional theories would tend to see power and interests as a posteriori factors affecting outcomes in interactions between political actors in the sphere of international relations, critical international theorists insist that they are by no means absent in the formation and verification of knowledge claims. Indeed, they are a priori factors affecting the production of knowledge, hence Kimberly Hutchings’ (1999: 69) assertion that ‘International Relations theory is not only about politics, it also is itself political’.

Problem-solving and critical theories In his pioneering 1981 article, Robert Cox followed Horkheimer by distinguishing critical theory from traditional theory – or, as Cox prefers to call it, problem-solving theory. Problem-solving or traditional theories are marked by two main characteristics: first by a positivist methodology; second, by a tendency to legitimize prevailing social and political structures. Heavily influenced by the methodologies of the natural sciences, problem-solving theories suppose that positivism provides the only legitimate basis of knowledge. Positivism is seen, as Steve Smith (1996: 13) remarks, as the ‘gold standard’ against which other theories are evaluated. There are many different characteristics that can be identified with positivism, but two are particularly relevant to our discussion. First, positivists assume that facts and values can be separated; secondly, that it is possible to separate subject and object. This results in the view not only that an objective world exists independently of human consciousness, but that objective knowledge of social reality is possible insofar as values are expunged from analysis. Problem-solving theory, as Cox (1981: 128) defines it, ‘takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for action.

It does not question the present order, but has the effect of legitimising and reifying it’. Its general aim, says Cox (1981: 129), is to make the existing order ‘work smoothly by dealing effectively with particular sources of trouble’. Neo-realism, qua problem-solving theory, takes seriously the realist dictum to work with, rather than against, prevailing international forces. By working within the given system it has a stabilizing effect, tending to preserve the existing global structur of social and political relations. Cox points out that neo-liberal institutionalism also partakes of problem-solving. Its objective, as explained by its foremost exponent, is to ‘facilitate the smooth operation of decentralized international political systems’ (Keohane 1984: 63). Situating itself between the states-system and the liberal capitalist global economy, neo-liberalism’s main concern is to ensure that the two systems function smoothly in their coexistence. It seeks to render the two global systems compatible and stable by diffusing any conflicts, tensions, or crises that might arise between them (Cox 1992b: 173). As James Bohman (2002: 506) says, such an approach ‘models the social scientist on the engineer, who masterfully chooses the optimal solution to a problem of design’. In summary, traditional conceptions of theory tend to work in favour of stabilizing prevailing structures of world order and their accompanying inequalities of power and wealth.

The main point that Cox wishes to make about problem-solving theory is that its failure to reflect on the prior framework within which it theorizes means that it tends to operate in favour of prevailing ideological priorities. Its claims to value-neutrality notwithstanding, problem-solving theory is plainly ‘value-bound by virtue of the fact that it implicitly accepts the prevailing order as its own framework’ (Cox 1981: 130). As a consequence, it remains oblivious to the way power and interests precede and shape knowledge claims. By contrast, critical international theory starts from the conviction that because cognitive processes themselves are contextually situated and therefore subject to political interests, they ought to be critically evaluated. Theories of international relations, like any knowledge, necessarily are conditioned by social, cultural and ideological influence, and one of the main tasks of critical theory is to reveal the effect of this conditioning. As Richard Ashley (1981: 207) asserts, ‘knowledge is always constituted in reflection of interests’, so critical theory must bring to consciousness latent interests, commitments, or values that give rise to, and orient, any theory. We must concede therefore that the study of international relations ‘is, and always has been, unavoidably normative’ (Neufeld 1995: 108), despite claims to the contrary. Because critical international theory sees  an intimate connection between social life and cognitive processes, it rejects the positivist distinctions between fact and value, object and subject. By ruling out the possibility of objective knowledge critical international theory seeks to promote greater ‘theoretical reflexivity’ (1995: Chapter 3). Cox (1992a: 59) expresses this reflexivity in terms of a double process: the first is ‘self-consciousness of one’s own historical time and place which determines the questions that claim attention’, the second is ‘the effort to understand the historical dynamics that brought about the conditions in which these questions arose’. Similarly, Bohman (2002: 503) advocates a form of theoretical reflexivity based on the ‘perspective of a critical-reflective participant’.

By adopting these reflexive attitudes critical theory is more like a meta-theoretical attempt to examine how theories are situated in prevailing social and political orders, how this situatedness impacts on theorizing, and, most importantly, the possibilities for theorizing in a manner that challenges the injustices and inequalities built into the prevailing world order. Critical theory’s relation to the prevailing order needs to be explained with some care. For although it refuses to take the prevailing order as it finds it, critical theory does not simply ignore it. It accepts that humans do not make history under conditions of their own choosing, as Marx observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1977e), and so a detailed examination of present conditions must necessarily be undertaken. Nevertheless, the order which has been ‘given’ to us is by no means natural, necessary or historically invariable.

Critical internationaltheory takes the global configuration of power relations as its object and asks how that configuration came about, what costs it brings with it and what alternative possibilities remain immanent in history. Critical theory is essentially a critique of the dogmatism it finds in traditional modes of theorizing. This critique reveals the unexamined assumptions that guide traditional modes of thought, and exposes the complicity of traditional modes of thought in prevailing political and social conditions. To break with dogmatic modes of thought is to ‘denaturalize’ the present, as Karin Fierke (1998: 13) puts it, to make us ‘look again, in a fresh way, at that which we assume about the world because it has become overly familiar’. Denaturalizing ‘[allegedly] objective realities opens the door to alternative forms of social and political life’. Implicitly therefore critical theory qua denaturalizing critique serves ‘as an instrument for the delegitimisation of established power and privilege’(Neufeld 1995: 14). The knowledge critical international theory generates is not neutral; it is politically and ethically charged by an interest in social and political transformation. It criticizes and debunks theories that legitimize the prevailing order and affirms progressive alternatives that promote emancipation.

This immediately raises the question of how ethical judgements about the prevailing world order can be formed. Since there are no objective theoretical frameworks there can be no Archimedean standpoint outside history or society from which to engage in ethical criticism or judgement. It is not a matter of drafting a set of moral ideals and using them as a transcendent benchmark to judge forms of political organization. There is no utopia to compare to facts. This means that critical international theory must employ the method of immanent critique rather than abstract ethics to criticize the present order of things (Linklater 1990b: 22–3). The task, therefore, is to ‘start from where we are’, in Rorty’s words (quoted in Linklater 1998: 77), and excavate the principles and values that structure our political society, exposing the contradictions or inconsistencies in the way our society is organized to pursue its espoused values. This point is endorsed by several other critical international theorists, especially Kimberly Hutchings, whose version of critical international theory is heavily influenced by Hegel’s phenomenological version of immanent critique. Immanent critique is undertaken ‘without reference to an independently articulated method or to transcendent criteria’ (Hutchings 1999: 99).

Following Hegel’s advice, critical international theory must acknowledge that the resources for criticizing and judging can be found only ‘immanently’, that is, in the already existing political societies from where the critique is launched. The critical resources brought to bear do not fall from the sky, they issue from the historical development of concrete legal and political institutions. The task of the political theorist is therefore to explain and criticize the present political order in terms of the principles presupposed by and embedded in its own legal, political and cultural practices and institutions (Fierke 1998: 114; Hutchings 1999: 102).

Fiona Robinson (1999) similarly argues that ethics should not beconceived as separate from the theories and practices of international relations, but should instead be seen as embedded in them. In agreementwith Hutchings she argues for a ‘phenomenology of ethical life’ rather than an ‘abstract ethics about the application of rules’ (Robinson 1999: 31).

On her account of a ‘global ethics of care’, however, it is necessary also to submit the background assumptions of already existing moral and political discourses to critical scrutiny. Hutchings and Robinson agre with Linklater that any critical international theory must employ a mode of immanent critique. This means that the theorist must engage critically with the background normative assumptions that structure our ethical judgements in an effort to generate a more coherent fit between modes of thought and forms of political organization, and without relying on a set of abstract ethical principles.

Critical theory’s task as an emancipatory theory If problem-solving theories adopt a positivist methodology and end up reaffirming the prevailing system, critical theories are informed by the traditions of hermeneutics and Ideologiekritik. Critical international theory is not concerned only with understanding and explaining the existing realities of world politics, it also intends to criticize in order to transform them. It is an attempt to comprehend essential social processes for the purpose of inaugurating change, or at least knowing whether change is possible. In Hoffman’s words (1987: 233), it is ‘not merely an expression of the concrete realities of the historical situation, but also a force for change within those conditions’. Neufeld (1995: Chapter 5) also affirms this view of critical theory. It offers, he says, a form of social criticism that supports practical political activity aimed at societal transformation.

Critical theory’s emancipatory interest is concerned with ‘securing freedom from unacknowledged constraints, relations of domination, and conditions of distorted communication and understanding that deny humans the capacity to make their future through full will and consciousness’ (Ashley 1981: 227). This plainly contrasts with problemsolving theories which tend to accept what Linklater (1997) calls the ‘immutability thesis’. Critical theory is committed to extending the rational, just and democratic organization of political life beyond the level of the state to the whole of humanity. The conception of emancipation promoted by critical international theory is largely derived from a strand of thought which finds its origin in the Enlightenment project.

This project was generally concerned with breaking with past forms of injustice to foster the conditions necessary for universal freedom (Devetak 1995b). To begin with, emancipation, as understood by Enlightenment thinkers and critical international theorists, generally expresses a negative conception of freedom which consists in the removal of unnecessary, socially created constraints. This understanding is manifest in Booth’s (1991b: 539) definition of emancipation as ‘freeing people from those constraints that stop them carrying out what freely they would choose to do’. The emphasis in this understanding is on dislodging those impediments or impositions which unnecessarily curtail individual or collective freedom. More substantively, Ashley (1981: 227) defines emancipation as the securing of ‘freedom from unacknowledged constraints, relations of domination, and conditions of distorted communication and understanding that deny humans the capacity to make their own future through full will andconsciousness’.

The common thrust of these understandings is thatemancipation implies a quest for autonomy. ‘To be free’, says Linklater Richard Devetak (1990a: 135), is ‘to be self-determining or to have the capacity to initiate action. The objective of critical international theory therefore is to extend the human capacity for self-determination’ (Linklater 1990b: 10). In Linklater’s account of critical international theory two thinkers are integral: Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx. Kant’s approach is instructive because it seeks to incorporate the themes of power, order and emancipation (Linklater 1990b: 21–2). As expressed by Linklater (1992b: 36), Kant ‘considered the possibility that state power would be tamed by principles of international order and that, in time, international order would be modified until it conformed with principles of cosmopolitan justice’. Kant’s theory of international relations is an early attempt to map out a critical international theory by absorbing the insights and criticizing the weaknesses in realist and rationalist thought under an interest in universal freedom and justice. While Linklater believes Marx’s approach to be too narrow in its focus on class-based exclusion, he thinks it nevertheless provides the basis of a social theory on which critical international theory must build. As Linklater observed (1990a: 159), both Marx and Kant share ‘the desire for a universal society of free individuals, a universal kingdom of ends’. Both held strong attachments to the Enlightenment themes of freedom and universalism, and both launched strong critiques of particularistic life-forms with the intention of expanding moral and political community.

To conclude this part of the chapter, critical international theory makes a strong case for paying closer attention to the relations between knowledge and interests. One of critical international theory’s main contributions in this regard is to expose the political nature of knowledgeformation. Underlying all this is an explicit interest in challenging and removing socially produced constraints on human freedom, thereby contributing to the possible transformation of international relations (Linklater 1990b: 1, 1998).
Rethinking political community:-

Informing critical international theory is the spirit, if not the letter, of Marx’s critique of capitalism. Like Marx, critical international theorists seek to expose and critically analyse the sources of inequality and domination that shape global power relations with the intention of eliminating them. Since the mid-1990s one of the core themes that has grown out of critical international theory is the need to develop more sophisticated understandings of community as a means of identifying and eliminating global constraints on humanity’s potential for freedom, equality and self-determination (Linklater 1990b: 7).

Linklater’s approach to this task, which has set the agenda, is first to analyse the way in which inequality and domination flow from modes of political community tied to the sovereign state, and secondly to consider alternative forms of political community which promote human emancipation. This section elaborates three dimensions on which critical international theory rethinks political community (see Linklater 1992a: 92–7). The first dimension is normative, and pertains to the philosophical critique of the state as an exclusionary form of political organization. The second is sociological, and relates to the need to develop an account of the origins and evolution of the modern state and states-system. The third is the praxeological dimension concerning practical possibilities for reconstructing International Relations along more emancipatory and cosmopolitan lines. The overall effect of critical international theory, and its major contribution to the study of International Relations, is to focus on the normative foundations of political life.

The normative dimension: the critique of ethical particularism and social exclusion One of the key philosophical assumptions that has structured political and ethical thought and practice about international relations is the idea that the modern state is the natural form of political community. The sovereign state has been ‘fetishized’, to use Marx’s term, as the normal mode of organizing political life. Critical international theorists, however, wish to problematize this fetishization and draw attention to the ‘moral deficits’ that are created by the state’s interaction with the capitalist world economy.

In this section, I outline critical international theory’s philosophical inquiry into the normative bases of political life and its critique of ethical particularism and the social exclusion it generates. The philosophical critique of particularism was first, and most systematically, set out in Andrew Linklater’s Men and Citizens (1990a). His main concern there was to trace how modern political thought had constantly differentiated ethical obligations due to co-citizens from those due to the rest of humanity. In practice, this tension between ‘men’ and ‘citizens’ has always been resolved in favour of citizens – or, more accurately, members of a particular sovereign state. Even if it was acknowledged, as it was by most early modern thinkers, that certain universal rights were thought to extend to all members of the human community, they were always residual and secondary to particularistic ones. Men and Citizens is, among other things, a work of recovery. It seeks to recover a political philosophy based on universal ethical reasoning which has been progressively marginalized in the twentieth century, especially with the onset of the Cold War and the hegemony of realism.

That is, it seeks to recover and reformulate the Stoic–Christian ideal of human community. While elements of this ideal can be found in the natural law tradition, it is to the Enlightenment tradition that Linklater turns to find a fuller expression of this ideal. Linklater here is strongly influenced by the thought of Kant, for whom war was undeniably related to the separation of humankind into separate, self-regarding political units, Rousseau, who caustically remarked that in joining a particular community individual citizens necessarily made themselves enemies of the rest of humanity, and Marx who saw in the modern state a contradiction between general and private interests. The point being made here is that particularistic political associations lead to inter-societal estrangement, the perpetual possibility of war and social exclusion. This type of argument underlies the thought of several Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century, including Montesquieu, Rousseau, Paine and Kant among others, for whom war was simply an expression of ancien régime politics and a tool of state. Marx extended the critique of the modern state by arguing that, in upholding the rule of law, private property and money, it masks capitalism’s alienation and exploitation behind bourgeois ideals of freedom and equality.

Marx, of course, viewed the separation of politics and economics as a liberal

illusion created to mask capitalism’s power relations. In Rupert’s words (2003: 182), one of Marx’s enduring insights is ‘that the seemingl apolitical economic spaces generated by capitalism – within and across juridical states – are permeated by structured relations of social power deeply consequential for political life’. From this Marxian perspective, modern international relations, insofar as it combines the political system of sovereign states and the economic system of market capitalism, is a form of exclusion where particular class interests parade themselves as universal. The problem with the sovereign state therefore is that as a ‘limited moral community’ it promotes exclusion, generating estrangement, injustice, insecurity and violent conflict between self-regarding states by imposing rigid boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Cox 1981: 137, Linklater 1990a: 28). Such arguments have led in recent times, and especially in a century which saw unprecedented flows of stateless peoples and refugees, to more general and profound questions about the foundations on which humanity is politically divided and organized. In particular, as Kimberly Hutchings (1999: 125) notes, it has led critical international theory to a ‘questioning of the nation-state as a normatively desirable mode of political organisation’. Consistent with other critical international theorists Hutchings (1999: 122, 135) problematizes the ‘idealised fixed ontologies’ of nation and state as subjects of self-determination.

Hutchings goes further than Linklater, however, by also problematizing the individual ‘self’ of liberalism. Her intention is to examine the status of all normative claims to self-determination, whether the ‘self’ is understood as the individual, nation, or state. But insofar as her critique is aimed at placing the ‘self’ in question as a self-contained entity, Hutchings’ analysis complements and extends the philosophical critique of particularism undertaken by Linklater. Richard Shapcott (2000b, 2001) also continues this critique by inquiring into the way different conceptions of the ‘self’ shape relations to ‘others’ in international relations. Shapcott’s main concern is with the possibility of achieving justice in a culturally diverse world. Although the main influences on his argument are Tzvetan Todorov and Hans-Georg Gadamer rather than Habermas, Shapcott’s critique of the self is consistent with Linklater’s and Hutchings’. He rejects both liberal and communitarian conceptions of the self for foreclosing genuine communication and justice in the relationship between self and other. Liberal conceptions of the self, he says, involve a ‘significant moment of assimilation’ because they are incapable of properly recognizing difference (2000b: 216). Communitarians, on the other hand, tend to take the limits of political community as given and, as a consequence, refuse to grant outsiders or non-citizens an equal voice in moral conversations.

In other words, ‘liberals underestimate the moral significance of national differences, while communitarians overestimatethem. Both, in short, fail to do justice to difference’ (Shapcott 2001: Chapter 1). The common project of Hutchings, Linklater and Shapcott here is to question the boundedness of identity. A less dogmatic attitude towards national boundaries is called for by these critical international theorists, as national boundaries are recognized as ‘neither morally decisive nor morally insignificant’ (Linklater 1998: 61). They are perhaps unavoidable in some form. The point, however, is to ensure that national boundaries do not obstruct principles of openness, recognition and justice in relations with the ‘other’ (Linklater 1998: Chapter 2; Hutchings 1999: 138; Shapcott 2000a: 111). Critical international theory has highlighted the dangers of unchecked particularism which can too readily deprive ‘outsiders’ of certain rights. This philosophical critique of particularism has led critical international theory to criticize the sovereign state as one of the foremost modern forms of social exclusion and therefore as a considerable barrier to universal justice and emancipation. In the following section we outline critical international theory’s sociological account of how the modern state came to structure political community. The sociological dimension: states, social forces and changing world orders Rejecting realist claims that the condition of anarchy and the self-regarding actions of states are either natural or immutable, critical international theory has always been a form of small-‘c’ constructivism. One of its essential tasks is therefore to account for the social and historical production of both the agents and structures taken for granted by traditional theories.

Against the positivism and empiricism of various forms of realism, critical international theory adopts a more hermeneutic approach, which conceives of social structures as having an intersubjective existence. ‘Structures are socially constructed’ – that is, says Cox (1992a: 138), ‘they become a part of the objective world by virtue of their existence in the intersubjectivity of relevant groups of people’. Allowing for the active role of human minds in the constitution of the social world does not lead to a denial of material reality, it simply gives it a different ontological status. Although structures, as intersubjective products, donot have a physical existence like tables or chairs, they nevertheless have real, concrete effects (1992b: 133). Structures produce concrete effects because humans act as if they were real (Cox 1986: 242). It is this view of ontology which underlies Cox’s and critical international theory’s attempts to comprehend the present order. In contrast to individualist ontologies which conceive of states as atomistic, rational and possessive, and as if their identities existed prior to or independently of social interaction (Reus-Smit 1996: 100), critical international theory is more interested in explaining how both individual actors and social structures emerge in, and are conditioned by, history.

For example, against the Westphalian dogma that the state is a state is a state (Cox 1981: 127), critical international theory views the modern state as a distinctive form of political community, bringing with it particular functions, roles, and responsibilities that are socially and historically determined. Whereas the state is taken for granted by realism, critical international theory seeks to provide a social theory of the state. Crucial to critical international theory’s argument is that we must account for the development of the modern state as the dominant form of political community in modernity. What is therefore required is an account of how states construct their moral and legal duties and how these reflect certain assumptions about the structure and logic of international relations. Using the work of Michael Mann and Anthony Giddens in particular, Linklater (1998: Chapters 4–5) undertakes what he calls an historical sociology of ‘bounded communities’. Linklater’s Beyond Realism and Marxism (1990b) had already begun to analyse the interplay of different logics or rationalization processes in the making of modern world politics. But in Transformation of Political Community (1998), he carries this analysis further by providing a more detailed account of these processes and by linking them more closely to systems of inclusion and exclusion in the development of the modern state. His argument is that the boundaries of political community are shaped by the interplay of four rationalization processes: state-building, geopolitical rivalry, capitalist industrialization and moral–practical learning (Linklater 1998: 147–57). Five monopoly powers are acquired by the modern state through these rationalization processes. These powers, which are claimed by the sovereign state as indivisible, inalienable and exclusive rights, are: the right to monopolize the legitimate means of violence over the claimed territory, the exclusive right to tax ithin this territorial jurisdiction, the right to demand undivided political allegiance, the sole authority to adjudicate disputes between citizens and the sole subject of rights and representation in international law (1998: 28–9). The combining of these monopoly powers initiated what Linklater refers to as the ‘totalizing project’ of the modern, Westphalian state. The upshot was to produce a conception of politics governed by the assumptionthat the boundaries of sovereignty, territory, nationality and citizenship must be co-terminous (1998: 29, 44). The modern state concentrated these social, economic, legal and political functions around a single, sovereign site of governance that became the primary subject of international relations by gradually removing alternatives. Of crucial concern to Linklater is how this totalizing project of the modern state modifies the social bond and consequently changes the boundaries of moral and political community.

Though the state has been a central theme in the study of international relations there has been little attempt to account for the changing ways that states determine principles which, by binding citizens into a community, separate them from the rest of the world. Linklater’s focus on the changing nature of social bonds has much in common with Cox’s (1999) focus on the changing relationship between state and civil society. The key to rethinking International Relations, according to Cox, lies in examining the relationship between state and civil society, and thereby recognizing that the state takes different forms, not only in different historical periods, but also within the same period. Lest it be thought that critical international theory is simply interested in producing a theory of the state alone, it should be remembered that the state is but one force which shapes the present world order. Cox (1981: 137–8) argues that a comprehensive understanding of the present order and its structural characteristics must account for the interaction between social forces, states and world orders. Within Cox’s approach the state plays an ‘intermediate though autonomous role’ between, on the one hand, social forces shaped by production, and on the other, a world order which embodies a particular configuration of power determined by the states-system and the world economy (1981: 141). There are two fundamental and intertwined presuppositions upon which Cox founds his theory of the state. The first reflects the Marxist–Gramscian axiom that ‘World orders … are grounded in social relations’ (Cox 1983: 173). This means that observable changes in military and geo-political balances can be traced to fundamental changes in the relationship between capital and labour. The second presupposition stems from Vico’s argument that institutions such as the state are historical products. The state cannot be abstracted from history as if its essence could be defined or understood as prior to history (Cox 1981: 133). The end result is that the definition of the state is enlarged to encompass ‘the underpinnings of the political structure in civil society’ (Cox 1983: 164). The influence of the church, press, education system, culture and so on, has to be incorporated into an analysis of the state, as these ‘institutions’ help to produce the attitudes, dispositions and behaviours consistent with, and conducive to, the state’s arrangement of power relations in society. Thus the state, which comprises the machinery of government, plus civil society, constitute and reflect the ‘hegemonic social order’ (1983). This hegemonic social order must also be understood as a dominant configuration of ‘material power, ideology and institutions’ that shapes and bears forms of world order (Cox 1981: 141).

The key issue for Cox therefore is how to account for the transition from one world order toanother. He devotes much of his attention to explaining ‘how structural transformations have come about in the past’ (Cox 1986: 244). For example, he has analysed in some detail the structural transformation that took place in the late nineteenth century from a period characterized by craft manufacture, the liberal state and pax britannica, to a period characterized by mass production, the emerging welfare–nationalist state and imperial rivalry (Cox 1987). In much of his recent writing, Cox has been preoccupied with the restructuring of world order brought about by globalization. In brief Cox, and his colleague Stephen Gill, have offered extensive examinations of how the growing global organization of production and finance is transforming Westphalian conceptions of society and polity. At the heart of this current transformation is what Cox calls the ‘internationalization of the state’, whereby the state becomes little more than an instrument for restructuring national economies so that they are more responsive to the demands and disciplines of the capitalist global economy. This has allowed the power of capital to grow – ‘relative to labour and in the way it reconstitutes certain ideas, interests, and forms of state’ – and given rise to a neo-liberal ‘business civilization’ (Gill 1996: 210, see also Cox 1993, 1994; Gill 1995). Drawing upon Karl Polanyi, and in a similar vein to John Ruggie, Cox and Gill see the social purposes of the state being subordinated to the market logics of capitalism, disembedding the economy from society, and producing a complex world order of increasing tension between principles of territoriality and interdependence (Cox 1993: 260–3; Gill 1996). Some of the consequences of this economic globalization are, as Cox (1999) and Gill (1996) note, the polarization of rich and poor, increasing social anomie, a stunted civil society and, as a result, the rise of exclusionary populism (extreme right, xenophobic and racist groups). The point of reflecting on changing world orders, as Cox (1999: 4) notes, is to ‘serve as a guide to action designed to change the world so as to improve the lot of humanity in social equity’. After all, as both Cox (1989) and Maclean (1981) argue, an understanding of change should be a central feature of any theory of international relations. So it is with the express purpose of analysing the potential for structural transformations in world order that critical international theory identifies and examines ‘emancipatory counter-hegemonic’ forces. Counter-hegemonic forces could be states, such as a coalition of ‘Third World’ states which struggles to undo the dominance of ‘core’ countries, or the ‘counterhegemonic alliance of forces on the world scale’, such as trade unions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and new social movements, which grow from the ‘bottom-up’ in civil society (Cox 1999; Maiguaschca 2003; Eschle and Maiguaschca 2005). The point of critical international theory’s various sociological analyses is to illuminate how already existing social struggles might lead to decisive transformations in the normative bases of global political life. This has prompted Linklater (2002a) to undertake what he calls a ‘sociology of states-systems’. More specifically, Linklater wishes to compare statessystems across time on the basis of how they deal with harm. What kinds of harm are generated in particular states-systems, and to what extent are rules and norms against harm built into these states-systems? Linklater’s initial research suggests that the modern states-system may be unique in its development of ‘cosmopolitan harm conventions’ that have the effect of eroding the domestic jurisdiction of states and promoting moral duties (Linklater 2001).


There can be little doubt that critical international theory has made a major contribution to the study of international relations. One of these contributions has been to heighten our awareness of the link between knowledge and politics. Critical international theory rejects the idea of the theorist as objective bystander. Instead, the theorist is enmeshed in social and political life, and theories of international relations, like all theories, are informed by prior interests and convictions, whether they are acknowledged or not. A second contribution critical international theory makes is to rethink accounts of the modern state and political community. Traditional theories tend to take the state for granted, but critical international theory analyses the changing ways in which the boundaries of community are formed, maintained and transformed. It not only provides a sociological account, it provides a sustained ethical analysis of the practices of inclusion and exclusion. Critical international theory’s aim of achieving an alternative theory and practice of international relations rests on the possibility of overcoming the exclusionary dynamics associated with modern system of sovereign states and establishing a cosmopolitan set of arrangements that will better promote freedom, justice and equality across the globe. It is thus an attempt radically to rethink the normative foundations of global politics.