Rising to the Challenge: Critical IR in the Corbyn Moment

David WearingA new post in our loose series on left foreign policy, this time from David Wearing. David is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he specialises in UK foreign relations in the Middle East. David is author most recently of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain (Polity, 2018), reviewed in a recent issue of the LRB, and of many interventions on the arms trade, the war in Yemen, and the Gulf monarchies. He is also a frequent commentator at The Guardian.


In the academic field of international relations, up until recently, the division of labour was pretty clear. Some of us were engaged in ‘problem solving theory’ and others in ‘critical theory’, as per the distinction famously drawn by Robert Cox.[1] Here, I want to address those friends and colleagues who count themselves in the latter group, arguing that the current historical moment presents us with a unique (perhaps fleeting) opportunity to have a significant impact on British politics and international relations, but one which also demands a willingness to recognise the urgency of that moment, and adapt.

According to Cox’s distinction, problem solving theory ‘takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships’, and looks for patterns or regularities within those parameters. It is a small-c conservative, technocratic approach, suited to advising policymakers on how best to manage the status quo. Therefore, notwithstanding claims made by those who fall under this heading to be apolitical, objective and scientific, problem solving theory has an inescapably political character, attracting those on the right and centre of the political spectrum, and primarily serving those who benefit most from the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’.

Critical theory, by contrast, ‘does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing’. As such it attracts those further to the left on the political spectrum, for whom the point of interpreting the world is not to manage it better but to change it in fundamental and transformative ways. Under the hitherto familiar division of labour in IR, our task was not to advise policymakers, but step back from and critique the historical conditions within which policymaking takes place: shedding light on what is taken for granted, looking for moments of disruption and crisis in the established patterns, and engaging with those civil society actors who shared our commitment to challenge the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’ head on.

I say ‘the hitherto familiar division of labour’ because we in the UK are now living through precisely one of those moments of disruption and crisis that much of our analysis seeks to identify. Call it ‘the Corbyn moment’, for want of a better term. And if our focus and activities as scholars are defined by our ‘position in…social and political time and space’, as Cox says, and if the present moment is different from the familiar norm, then our focus and activities must surely be different as well.

What is the nature of that moment?
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