Engaging Globalization: Critical Theory and Global Political Change

By Weber, Martin | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, July-September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Engaging Globalization: Critical Theory and Global Political Change


Weber, Martin, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Globalization implies global social and political change. Irrespective of whether one identifies globalization as primarily driven by economics or as a cultural phenomenon occurring in the context of technological change and a transformation of lifestyles, it is now clear that the social sciences face the challenge of somehow 'making sense of it." The study of international relations, it could be argued, has been complicated by this challenge, and as a result it begins to reach out in a more interdisciplinary manner, including an opening to more sociologically informed research agendas.

Approaches in international relations associated with various forms of critical theory have especially put forward theoretical work, sometimes accompanied by empirical findings, with which to assess and substantiate the nature, quality, and scope of social change in the era of globalization (whether this is understood as an ideology, masking trends that have essentially always accompanied the expansion of modern capitalism, or whether it is seen as something qualitatively new).

In the IR discipline, the term critical theory has become a shorthand reference for a variety of attempts to break with the molds of theorizing presented by the dominant strands of realism/neorealism, or liberalism/neoliberalism. Thus, it has come to represent the commentary from the margins of the discipline in manifestations as diverse as neo-Gramscian readings, reformulations of Marxist theory, the spectrum of feminist challenges, poststructuralist inquiries, and the theoretical work originating with the Frankfurt school. (1) Although the affinities among these strands of theorizing from the margins have frequently been stressed, (2) there remain serious disagreements over core issues of "theorising with a critical motive," which typically revolve around the claims that critical theorists make for their projects.

From among the plurality of critical interventions, Andrew Linklater's appropriation of the reformulated approach of Frankfurt school critical theory--mainly as developed in the work of Jurgen Habermas--has made the most consistent bid for integrating the widest possible range of critical concerns into a more unified version of critical theory for international relations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this gesture of embrace--still evident in Linklater's Transformation of Political Community (3) -- has invited the "embraced" themselves to reassert their positions with reference to the theoretical suggestions of the "embracer." More often than not, the response to Linklater's inclusiveness has been to question the validity of core elements of his theory.

In what follows, I want to engage with some of these criticisms insofar as they continue, as I see it, to misconstrue Habermas's grounding of normative theory and criteriology, which he advances through his conception of the discourse-ethical model of norm validation. These misconstruals, I argue, arise in part from the way in which Linklater himself integrates discourse ethics into his theory with emancipatory intent. Following this reconstruction of the potential of the discourse-ethical conception of norm validation for international-relations theory, I focus on what I perceive to be at the core of Habermas's critical project, the dialectic of lifeworld and systems, with a focus on its applicability in international-relations theory. Here, I take into account recent trends toward developing functionalist accounts of integration for the further study of globalization. (4) In my final section, I consider some issues on which Habermas's theory appears insufficiently refined and suggest them as items for furth er investigation.

The purpose of this investigation is to underline the relevance of critical theory for attempts to make sense of the globalization challenge. If political community and social bonds are undergoing significant changes, the self-conscious approach to theorizing social life and political authority from a critical perspective that avoids classification in either classical liberal or republican terms promises a more thorough understanding than approaches that remain couched in a conceptual language that is today challenged by actual change.

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