Critical Theory in Global Political Economy: Critique? Knowledge? Emancipation?

By Farrands, Christopher; Worth, Owen | Capital & Class, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Critical Theory in Global Political Economy: Critique? Knowledge? Emancipation?


Farrands, Christopher, Worth, Owen, Capital & Class


So much literature in the field of International Relations stakes a claim for its author taking a 'critical' position. But the expression 'critical' is overused. It appears everywhere, and in a promiscuously wide range of contexts: critical theory of different kinds vies with critical realism, and with the 'simply' critical. The term has become ambiguous, so much so that it can do violence to the English language. 'Critical' theory was one of the great achievements imagined by Kant and developed in Marx's writing (Marx, 1973; Kant, 1993), and intended by both--in different ways--to be radical. But it has increasingly become a form of orthodoxy. Alternatively, it may be a code for a kind of radicalism; but a radicalism that is grounded in a liberal position, as Beate Jahn has argued, indisting-uishable from more or less radical internationalist utopianism (Jahn, 1998). And, when it retains a radical edge, critical writing often still lacks coherence about its radical purpose: failing to define the conditions for 'emancipation', it is emancipatory in hope more than in substance.

This article's (1) major aim is to look more explicitly at how critical theory has been applied to International Political Economy (IPE)--or 'Global Political Economy' (GPE), as certain 'critical readings' now insist that it should be called--which is a sub-discipline in the field of International Relations. In particular, it aims to outline and then critique the methodology behind its usage in IPE, and the way in which certain authors describe themselves as 'critical' when discussing the global political economy. Before subscribing to the claim of being critical, we enquire as to what conventions and ideas of conventional knowledge lie behind these claims. In assessing this, particular reference will be given here to the viability and theoretical relevance of the 'Gramscian School', which has often been at the forefront of 'critical development' in IPE. By looking at this, we argue that many Gramscian-inspired readings, and those that borrow from critical theory in mainstream International Relations (Linklater, 1996), tend to adopt certain generalisations in their methodological framework.

In addition, and perhaps more substantially, the application of neo-Gramscian and critical thought often lacks the main focus of what it is attempting to achieve and, as a result, can appear to be deterministic in its results. The central argument here is not that it is impossible or incoherent to make the claims that critical theory seeks to establish, but that there are rules of practice, as well as of theory, which shape the way that this might be done: rules that much critical theory tends to neglect.

The article thus explores the philosophical debate not very far beneath the claims of critical thinking in International Political Economy. It makes a particular set of claims about the ways in which Global Political Economy produces and reproduces itself. Critical theory aims to produce thought, which is in itself emancipatory. While 'emancipation'--along with emancipatory thought--is mentioned in key critical textbooks in IPE (e.g. Gill & Mittleman, and especially Gills), it is given far greater emphasis within mainstream International Relations. In particular, Linklater's work broadly provides a point of departure for emancipation in global society.

His view implies a significant but relative (rather than absolute) move towards a social (not only individual) form of freedom, and one which entails three elements: greater self-awareness on the part of the student, without which a politics of reflexivity is imposs-ible; greater empowerment for those previously oppressed by structures of domination, so as to enable them to resist and transform those structures in their favour; and a recognition that shared knowledge provides a key element in an emancipatory strategy (Linklater, 1990).

However, Linklater's criteria impose restrictions on what can be called 'critical' without defining the term; or, alternatively, one could say that in proposing the necessary conditions for 'being critical', Linklater does not offer sufficient conditions (Linklater, 1996). …

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