The End of IR Theory? Part II: Brown on ‘Late Modern’ Theory

Duck of Minerva is currently running a symposium on ‘The End of IR Theory’. Yesterday I wrote a post on Bennett’s contribution and Goddard’s response. Chris Brown’s post also caught my interest, so I thought I’d offer a few comments.

In addition to being one of the people most directly responsible for bringing normative concerns back into international relations and establishing international political theory as a sub-field in its own right, Brown has established a niche for himself as something like a curator of contemporary international relations theory, having penned several overviews of the state of the discipline over the years. In the latest installment he seems as cautious and ambivalent about the achievements within international relations theory as he was in a 2007 article and when I saw him speak at the SGIR conference in 2010. In his latest contribution, he focuses on the question of whether ‘later modern theory’ (post-structuralism, critical theory etc.) has made good on the ‘promissory notes’ it issued in the 1980s and 90s. Overall, his judgement is fairly negative.  Much sophisticated work has been done in this area, but it has remained ‘Grand Theory’ in C Wright Mills’ pejorative sense: focusing on the relationship between concepts rather than the application of those concepts to thorny social and political problems.

‘Problems’ are important in Brown’s article and accompanying article. He suggests that the more interesting work done within more mainstream currents of international relations theory has been worthwhile precisely because it has been fairly hard-headed ‘problem solving theory’ in Cox’s sense of the term in an era when the US government seemed to be in the grip of a strange right-wing variant of post-modernism that denied any objective limits on American power to reshape the world. I seem to recall that at a previous BISA conference he suggested that haute IR theory had become sophisticated but risked becoming arcane, perhaps he now believes this has come to pass. He thus calls for ‘critical problem-solving theory’ focusing on searching for solutions to the problems facing the marginal and the vulnerable in world politics – presumably, given his choice of examples, focusing on the extremes of physical and economic insecurity.

It’s hard to completely disagree with his judgement that a research programme has been slow to emerge amongst the ‘late modern’ perspectives. I wrote my MA thesis on the relevance of Adorno and the Frankfurt School for international relations theory, but I ultimately found that these conceptual frameworks did not have the purchase on the empirical (and some of the normative) questions I was interested in. I have found historical sociology and political economy to be much more useful. But maybe Brown’s skepticism about the absence of a research programme is too thoroughgoing: Columba Peoples drew on the Frankfurt School in his well-regarded analysis of US missile defence policy.

On the issue of ‘problem solving’, I wonder if Brown doesn’t stack the decks against critical theory. Mainstream theories have it easy, in some respects, as they have a clear addressee: those who currently wield power in international relations. This was part of the definition of Cox’s idea of problem-solving theory, it takes the currently configurations of power for granted and tacitly accepts the legitimacy of the present power-holders. The existence of ‘reality-based’ US politicians waiting in the wings during the Bush administration gave the mainstream ‘problem solvers’ a set of agents who might very plausibly put their proposed solutions into action. The difficulty for ‘critical theory’ is that it lacks access to equivalent agents, indeed part of the purpose of ‘critical theory’ is to help create an agent capable of bringing about radical change (Gramsci’s ‘modern Prince’). Unfortunately for critical theorists, labour movement is at present very weak in much of the Western world, depriving critical theory of a plausible potential agent of radical change. Notions of the ‘multitude’ remain fairly dubious, the ‘late modern’ contribution to the vacuous field of globalisation theory. This problem of absent agents (the ‘death of the subject’ if you really want to get late modern, I won’t judge) leaves critical theory spinning its wheels, with little torque exerted on pressing political problems. Milja Kurki wrote an insightful article in Millennium in 2011 on the problems currently that critical theory currently faces in its attempt to find influence inside and outside of the academy, I can’t help but think that the lack of agents is the root of the problems that she and Brown identify.

As for the nature of contemporary problems and the scholars who might address them, I agree with LFC’s point in the comments that a central problem faced by the dispossessed throughout the world is poverty and maldevelopment. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, such intensely political issues are at risk of being defined as outside the remit of IR due to the rather ridiculous barrier that has emerged between IR and IPE. Indeed, I’d argue that it is in IPE and development/heterodox economics that we find ‘critical-problem solving’ research seeking to address the tangible problems of poverty and inequality by refusing the solutions and explanations advanced by the powerful. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Ha-Joon Chang, Robert Wade, Peter Evans and Raphael Kaplinsky – but there are many others. As for agents, looking towards the democratic representatives of those who are marginal in the world economy might be a good start: Lula for one seems to have a keen understanding of both the structures of power that maintain global inequalities, as well as the concrete potentials for the amelioration and transformation of some of the least desirable aspects of the present world order.


Posted on September 11, 2013, in critical theory, End of IR Theory, international relations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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