Critical the trajectories of the original thinkers and also

Critical Theory:  the World through Andrew Linklater’s eyes

“Critical theory was the notion promulgated by the cultural Marxist of the Frankfurt school, that simply states there is nothing-no custom, institution, or moral precept that is beyond criticizing, and destroying. It is licensed to vandalize, and the fact that it was so swiftly embraced by American academe after World War II remains a national disgrace” –  Michael Walsh

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Introducing Critical Theory

Critical Theory is a set of international Relation’s theories made up of diverse sets of schools that have from a positivist and post-positivist stand point, challenged or criticized the theoretical, meta-theoretical and also the political status-quo in International Relations. Critical theory positivist critiques include Marxist and Neo-Marxist approaches and certain strands of social constructivism. Post-positivist critiques on the other hand include post-structuralist, post-colonial, critical constructivists, neo-Gramsci, feminist and also some English School approaches, and also critical geo-politics. It should be noted that all of these approaches differ from the two traditional approaches to International Relations; realism and liberalism in their epistemological and ontological stand points. Such theories have infiltrated academia in International Relations and its roots are far-fetched.

            The strings from which Critical theory draws its inspirations can be traced as far behind as to the famous works of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, (Devetak et al, 2013;163). Its usage today however are very much closely linked to the Frankfurt School (Devetak, et al, 2013; 163)1 and it was primarily concerned with understanding the pivotal characteristics of the contemporary society by first having a clear understanding of its historical and social progress, and then identifying the contradictions in the present, which may serve as a gate way into today’s world of inequality and domination. It should be noted that founders of this school as well as the Frankfurt School started their arguments based on the observations they had in their immediate environments. Thus, today’s critical theory in international relations seeks to extend the trajectories of the original thinkers and also the Frankfurt school from just domestic issues to the international realm and the globe at large. This line of thinking was provoked by the spread of capitalism and the capitalist state.  Linklater (1990a: 8) in theorizing this concept remarks that it is ‘committed to emancipation of the species’ thus something that is not just meant for some special group or class of people, but for all humanity.

            It should be noted that critical theory unlike realism and liberalism is a reflectionist strand of reasoning on international relations, that looks beyond nature to include purpose so as to explain the obvious and subtle forms of class domination and injustices that we see in the world. Critical theory thus tries to expose the problems and failures of the traditional theories and as such stands as a challenge to them. This paper is going to be in three parts as we shall see a brief layout of the critical theory paradigm, then much focus will be given to the general contributions of Andrew Linklater to the theory’s development and finally, the applicability of his theory on harm/violence and effects on the world of today.

Before embarking into the discussions of the issues, it is importance we note in mind that all theoretical perspectives sustain the interests of certain groups and theories in general are for someone and for some purpose. Theories in general can be classified into two, problem solving theories and critical theories; that is theories that sustain the existing social order such as realism and liberalism or theories that challenge the existing order. For example, critical theorists reject realist claims that the condition of anarchy and the self-regarding actions of states are either natural or immutable (Burchill, et al, 2013: 175), thus just like constructivists would do, critical theorists look towards the historical and social constructions of agents and structures of the states to explain international relations. With this in mind, critical theorists thus adopt a reflective attitude and depart on the link between knowledge and values.

            Problem solving theories are usually designed to function within a certain paradigm or mode of thinking that provides answers. Challenging theories such as critical theory on the other hand question these paradigms; adopt a position outside of the existing order in which we solve problems. The main focus of critical theorists is largely on the age of enlightenment, and inter-state relationships from where they upheld reason, emancipation, science and individual freedom as their guidelines to produce contradictory outcomes.

The Critical Theory Paradigm

Critical theory as an international relations paradigm refuses to identify freedom with any established and unchallenged forms of thought or institutional arrangements. This self-awareness theory thus stands to challenge, disrupt and also resist the existing relations of power in the world. The focus of this school unlike the two mainstream realist and liberal approaches to international relations which relies on prediction relies on description and explanation.

The goal of Critical Theory in the social sciences and in International Relations is to reveal hidden sources of domination in order to facilitate human emancipation. It should be recalled that realism is the oldest of the three mainstream perspectives of International Relations and both Liberalism and Idealism emerged as critical theories to Realism. So they stood out to challenge the things they thought realism was not explaining well and they ended up becoming mainstream theories.

Critical theory in contemporary studies of international Relations is made of its own perspectives, through which it expresses itself as theories, trying to explain human relations of domination in the world. They generally hold mainstream theories for missing out important relationships. These hidden relationships include revealing economic exploitation as foretold by the Marxist strand, which with the use of historical materialism shows how societies evolve from a dialectic clash between economic classes. This strand also emphasizes on economic exploitation which is embedded in power relations, especially post-colonial exploitation and by so doing tries to challenge the international system as an integrated capitalist system whose dynamics reflect only the needs of capitalism.

            Another very important of the critical theory concept is its focus on the exclusion of women in international relations. Based on its reflectionist tendencies, this theory holds that concepts like power, domination and security are traditionally masculine concepts.

            Critical theorists also have as major springboards, the highlighting of hegemony of western values and ideas, thus they stand to reject any theory of human life that claims direct path to ‘Truth’.

Andrew Linklater and Critical Theory of International Relations

If problem solving theories settle down to positivist methods and end up reaffirming the prevailing system, critical theorists like Linklater are informed by the traditions of ideological critique. Standing out of the prevailing order, a major contributor to the Critical Theory school of thought has been Andrew Linklater, whose work and contributions have been often associated to the normative and explanatory components of critical theory. Patrascu and Wani, (2015) write that he draws his ideas basically from his predecessors like scholars of the Frankfurt School and Jürgen Habermas. His writings have all been centered around responding to the traditional realist approaches of international relations theory especially the works of Hobbes, by drawing on to social theories propounded by J.J Rousseau and Kant directed at challenging the statist styles of realist thinkers. Linklater in his works presents his thoughts in a fairly cogent and universal way, but in large promotes emancipation, which for him is a quest for self-determination and autonomy from the prevailing world order (Linklater, 1990a: 10, 135), one which is void of exploitation of others. Borrowing from both the ideas of Kant and Marx, Linklater’s writings mostly follow Kant’s instructive style which pursues the incorporation of power, order and emancipation. Closely following Kant’s ideas, he wrote that Kant ‘considered the possibility that the state power would be tamed by principles international order and that in time, international order would be modified until it conformed with principles of cosmopolitan justice (Linklater, 1992b: 36) Bringing Marx to life in his analysis of critical theory in international relations, Linklater, (1990b: 159) concluded that both E. Kant and Marx must be highly praised for both sharing ‘the desire for a universal society of free individuals, a universal kingdom of ends’

            Linklater upheld that emancipation and enlightenment is possible only through the removal of all socially produced barriers to human freedom thus possibly transforming inter-state relations (Linklater, 1990b: 1). For him, the achievement of equality, freedom and self-determination is possible through the development of a sophisticated knowledge of the community first, through which barriers to humanity’s freedom could be identified (Ibid, 7). Linklater’s ideas here thus promote the development of a social theory, the recognition of the forces of dominance within the sovereign state, and lastly, the development of alternative forms of political society which will foster human emancipation. A pertinent question however comes to mind concerning this approach which is that, how can the future be determined in the pursuit of universal freedom of individuals based on the fact that the world is plural and not homogenous? 

            Linklater and the Question of harm

One of the most researched and well written aspects of Linklater’s writings is his contributions to the issue of harm/violence in international relations theory. He gives an excellent and brilliant deconstruction of harm in his 2007 book, Critical Theory and World Politics: Citizenship, Sovereignty and Humanity. The importance of which made him to note that issues of community, citizenship and harm merit a more central position in Critical International Relations Theory (2007: 12). In line with this, he carefully and lucidly responds to people who criticize his ideas by identifying how the international community has failed to protect citizens and thus exposing them to harm (Ibid, 85). As a challenger of the capitalist system that governs inter-state relations, the question of harm becomes very instrumental in explaining the inequality and domination that has characterized the contemporary world.

Linklater thus tries to question how our civilization, how our life and cultures deals with harm and violence, and what implications it has had in the states-systems. He doesn’t end here, but try to identify how our civilizations have created the different categories of harm (2007: 151-153) that we find undoubtedly perceptible in the world.

His idea is that we live in a cultural setting in which certain kinds of harm and violence are almost going to be invisible to us and that the difference in these types of harm is as a result of how our culture and life organizes itself. He par example argues that the war on terror has de-civilized whole categories of people, making harm against the uncivilized, the savages, and unlawful combatants a non-problem (Linklater, 2013)2. Think about Islamic groups that are fighting the West. Following Linklater’s thoughts on harm, this category has almost completely come to imply to be terrorism and because it is equated to terrorism, they are understood outside of the realm of civil engagements, thus some violence against them becomes just legitimate. Baring this in mind, we need to recall that ‘one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’.

This makes the people fighting the terrorists the ‘harmers’ rather than the ‘harmed’. This means that whole categories of countries in Islamic states can be addressed violently in the name of fighting terrorism and we don’t particularly care very much about violence and because this practice hurts the whole population of Muslims and other sympathizers, it makes us (United States as in his context) or the fighters of terrorism, the ‘harmers’ and not the ‘harmed’. This assertion of harm can be clearly visible in the United States travel ban on citizens from all/some Muslim countries.

For Linklater, rationality cannot be the way out and with it, we cannot reason out our way out of this problem because rationality is just an expression of our culture and therefore its part of the problem. Linklater thus proposes that we need to return to emotions (cosmopolitan), (Linklater, 2007; 162-163), and also the need to have empathy, and through-out his career, he tries to make us act through this comparison.

            Implicit to Linklater’s arguments is the idea that the greatest threat to world order may not the terrorists who perpetrate such inexcusable harm, but the reaction of the United States. This is because it places itself outside the rules, norms and institutions of the international society in its prosecution of war on terrorism, thus it does not only shrinks the prospects of peaceful and just world order, but undermines the very ‘civilizing’ principles and practices on which it was founded (Booth and Dunne, 2011)


            Summarizing Critical theory will be without any doubts are made to its vital contributions to IR to greater awareness and a push to rethink on the capitalist system that has overtaken the world in every domain including the states-systems. It alongside proponents like Linklater set the ground works for a different set of arrangements to foster cosmopolitan peace, freedom, self-determination, justice and equality throughout the world.