Critical theory in Global Political Economy: Critique? Knowledge? Emancipation?1

Critical theory in Global Political Economy: Critique? Knowledge? Emancipation?1

Farrands, Christopher

This article reviews the number of different ways in which critical theory is applied within International Political Economy (IPE) and argues that, while a great deal of material claims to be ‘critical’, much of it fails to fully scrutinize the traditions of reflexivity and critique that are grounded in the critical tradition. While Cox, the neo-Gramscian ‘turn’ and Frankfurt-inspired accounts have made certain advances for the application of critical thought in IPE, these need to be articulated more explicitly, through a set of principles that allow critical thought to aspire towards a more feasible set of results.

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’s1 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). This failure to distinguish the necessary and sufficient conditions leaves the discussion incomplete.

The goals of critical knowledge follow Marx: ‘So far, philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx, 1977: 158). But Marx would almost certainly have dismissed as Utopian at least some of the projects that have passed for ‘critical theory’ in the late twentieth century.

Habermas has been much concerned with the possibility that the aims of critical theory might be contradictory (Habermas, 1999). Emancipatory thought is both more difficult and more provisional than some of its supporters imply. And it is necessarily difficult and provisional, if it is to count as ‘critical’ at all. The circus-trick view of critical theory-that, having put on the ‘magic’ critical thinking hat, with one bound you will be free-is perhaps an illusion. It may be that no critical or postmodern theorist really holds such a view. But even if writers do not hold the circus-trick view, many tend towards it in the claims they make, as we demonstrate below.

‘Critical’ thinking in IPE

As Susan Strange points out, the origins of the study of International Political Economy can be found in the dilemmas faced by students of International Relations in the late-1960s and early 1970s, as the ‘established’, but arguably quite exceptional, post-Second World War international economic order seemed to fray into disorder (Strange, 1995). The Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates collapsed between 1968 and 1971, and although initially there were serious attempts to replace it, the structure of floating exchange rates that emerged was much more the result of governments’ inability to control exchange and credit markets than it was a consequence of planning.

The 1973-4 oil crisis had important effects in terms of fuelling domestic inflation in the West, creating distortions in transport markets, concentrating power even more in the hands of major corpo-rations and, eventually, in driving the debt crisis in the developing world. But its greatest effects included its psycho-logical impact, in its creation of the sense that ‘orderly’ Western domination of world markets was under pressure as never before from new players in the global economy.

The move away from Keynesian economic policies, where they had actually been followed, and the increased questioning, in the 1970s and 1980s, of the role of key international economic institutions, also played a part. And while the US retained a capacity to dominate the rule-making process in international trade (as at the Uruguay Round), the increased volume and diversity of trade, the increase in grey or black economic activity, and the rise of private international regulatory mechanisms contributed to a sense of growing disorder. This gave rise to the question of whether hegemony in a globalising world economy remained possible or, if it carried costly international management responsibilities, even desirable. As Strange rightly suggests, the growth of IPE, and the willingness of major institutions to fund this new academic field and to use its products, often owed much more to these practical problems than to academic debate (Strange, 1995).

While IPE often responded to practicalities that were altering in the world economy, there was also academic debate within the sub-discipline, and very often it was framed in terms of a critique of International Relations. As Strange herself also argued, IPE could try to fill a gap between the studies of politics and economics in International Relations: a gap she identified as being far from accidental (Strange, 1970). The mutual neglect between international politics and international economics arose from the particular liberal assumptions of each and exposed a specific set of liberal biases in IPE, represented by Spero (1977) and Gilpin (1987), amongst others, and by a set of immediate policy concerns that drove the agenda at the expense of an understanding of structural and discursive formations, and at the expense of the variety of actors engaged in shaping IPE.

This has affected the vocabulary that is conventionally used: ‘International Political Economy’-IPE-is the term used to mean the more established, more practically-oriented, liberal-grounded approach to this subject; Global Political Economy-GPE-overlaps with the content of IPE in important respects, but denotes a broader agenda. More importantly, it implies a more critical epistemology: what Murphy and Tooze came to call the ‘new international political economy’ (Murphy & Tooze, 1991).

What was lacking, for the most part, was an engagement with either political economy or social theory, including critical theory. Equally as important are ontological and epistemological contrasts, and it was not until the end of the 19805 that the IPE orthodoxy represented by Stero and Gilpin was contested.

Two major advances in the literature were represented by Strange’s own States and Markets, and Robert Cox’s Production, Power and World Order. Cox himself initially held a mixture of radical (‘liberal’, in US parlance) and Marxist views, which were reflected in the Cox and Jacobsen collection The Anatomy of Influence. He did not discover Gramsci until The Anatomy of Influence was in the process of being printed, and he read Gramsci and the Frankfurt School avidly over the next five years.

The first fruits of this encounter appeared in two fundamentally important articles in Millennium in 1981 and 1983. There can be no doubt that Cox’s writing in the 19805 provided an alternative approach that ‘critiqued’ orthodox approaches. But an over-reliance on-and a frequent reluctance to critique-Cox’s reading of Gramsci, discussed below, came to be a matter of concern. Following on from Cox’s work, Murphy and Tooze and their collaborators added further depth to alternative interpretations in their The New International Political Economy.

Contributors not only confirmed the interest in Gramsci, but also borrowed from feminist and post-colonial theory, and provided some insights for the use of post-structuralism, defined here as an amalgam of critical theory and postmodernism, rather than as a specific sub-set of the second (Murphy & Tooze, 1991).

All this, in turn, suggests that International Political Economy came face-to-face with critical theory rather late: even later than the encounter between International Relations theory and critical theory, which became important to mainstream International Relations in the 19805 (and, despite an often-repeated but rather lazy construction, before, rather than after, the end of the Cold War).

Critical theory mainly influences IPE through the impact of the Coxian-inspired ‘neo-Gramscian turn’, which has come to dominate much of the field in Europe and Canada. But outside quite narrow circles, neo-Gramscian writing has quite a shallow reach into both IPE and International Relations, especially in the us.

Gramsci and critical theory

Before looking at the way Cox has used and borrowed Gramsci and Gramscian terminology, it is essential to examine the extent to which neo-Gramscian thought actually contributes towards critical methodology. In other words, what about Gramsci’s own relevance to ‘critical’ theory? Gramsci’s work clearly constitutes an important resource for emancipatory thought in International Relations and GPE. His work, however, is not without problems, and has sometimes been too-easily translated into a kind of key to be turned uncritically: the claim to write ‘critically’ is, in itself, no guarantee that anything critical or emancipatory is actually going on in a text. It is worth stressing that Gramsci was writing in an age when orthodox Marxism was dominant. What he says is interesting, and significant to critical theory; but not only had he not read the Frankfurt School, Schumpeter or Polanyi, for the obvious reason that none of this work had yet been written during his lifetime, but he had also not read the young Marx, whose manuscript and draft work was beginning to become available in German in the 1930s, but which did not appear in Italian (or English) until after the Second World War, long after Gramsci’s death. Furthermore, Gramsci retained an optimism about the possibility of a scientific socialism that is little muted by the trajectory of communism in the USSR in the 1920s, when the often fruitful ideas of Luxemburg, Bukharin and Trotsky basked in a range of dismissive epithets from ‘left-infantilism’ to ‘right-reactionary’, without ever gaining serious consideration as a basis for an emancipatory alternative to orthodox Marxism-Leninism.

Critical theory, by contrast, develops through a critique of Marxism-Leninism, especially of its account of social action, social being and subjectivity, as well as through a comprehensive ontological and methodological attack on simplistic forms of historical materialism. Critical theory, we would argue, is best understood as a post-war, Western Marxist debate that engages a particular problematic: one that is precisely concerned with how to make sense of the world, and of our consciousness of the world and our being-in-the-world, and of our capacity for subjectivity and agency, set against a background of enormous political forces and structures that appear to render us without voice, agency or critical reflexiveness. These debates, which were taken up-rather inadequately-by Sartre and Lukács in, respectively, Existentialism and Humanism and History and Class Consciousness, in the late-1940s and 1950s, give little encouragement to the more open sense of human potential that critical theory yields. One issue that they recognise, but leave for later writers to explore satisfactorily, is the question of the relationship between consciousness and subjectivity in a material culture. Gramsci has some insights into this question, but it remains a critical and insufficiently clarified issue in terms of how we deal with post-communist Marxian theory. In short, Gramsci is an important precursor of critical theory in some, albeit quite restricted, ways.

This brings us closer to a definition of critical theory in terms of a set of debates and images which are historically specific to the post-war world, however much we might find evidence for the positions it adopts in the young Marx or anywhere else. For it is not in ‘being critical’ alone that critical theory has its identity, nor in the epistemological critique that it embodies. While critical theory attempts to give an account of modernity, it wrestles from the start with the question of how our consciousness can grasp any kind of reality critically, if we are gripped by structural conditions that forestall a radical apprehension of the world around us. Whether in individual form, or in a more collective form (the ‘sociology of knowledge’ question), critical theory has to give an account of its own possibility before-or while-it gives a coherent account of itself. Here, Gramsci’s writing on consciousness and hegemony is important, and far more emancipatory than the tepid step Lukács made in the same direction. Nonetheless it should be stressed that, as it is, Gramsci’s writing on consciousness is also problematic. It is still highly materialist; it seems to owe more to Plekhanov2 than to the young Marx (whose manuscripts, unknown to Gramsci, were one of the bases of Frankfurt School innovation); and where it strays from materialism, it is shaped by a nationalistic idealism (certainly from Croce), and that is a different kind of diversion.

However, the importance of Gramsci’s work appears in the way that he leads, fashions and frames new questions, and with hindsight we can see that these are questions of great importance to the opening up of Western Marxism after the 1950s. However, whether Gramsci succeeds in doing much more than finding important new questions to ask is an open question itself. The work of Cox, and the subsequent neo-Gramscian inspired form of critical theory that has become dominant within ‘critical’ studies of IPE, may have fashioned an opening for a critical epistemology but, by assuming the Coxian mantle, many studies have both neglected Gramsci’s own (arguably limited) questions, and have been quick to dismiss the foundations on which critical social enquiry has been built.

Cox, hegemony and critical IPE

As mentioned above, Gramscian-inspired ‘critical’ theory has entered the discourse of IPE through the works of Robert Cox; and Cox’s often brief methodological musings have dominated the development of these critical readings. The growth of this ‘legacy’ seems to have stemmed, as already noted, from the two pieces written by Robert Cox in Millennium in the 1980s, and from the book Power, Production and World Order. The first of these develops Gramsci’s models of hegemony and historic blocs (referred to here as ‘historical structures’) as a framework for an analysis of global practices, by demonstrating that historical structures at a global level are applied within a configuration of interrelated spheres: the organisation of production, determined by the character of social forces; state formations; and world orders, which define the positioning and functioning of both production and the nature of state formations on a global stage (Cox, 1981). Thus for Cox, and for his more recent disciples, a hegemonic global order is fashioned when the institutions and norms of a particular structure are internationalised, led, in part, by the economic might of a particular state, but consolidated by the acceptance of its ideological construction and universal workings (Cox, 1981).

While his follow-up book takes a more extensive look at the historic formation and character of differing world orders, Cox’s methodological approach, outlined in the Millennium article, is often reproduced by International Relations textbooks as a ‘guide to critical theory’. The approach aims to distinguish between ahistorical problem-solving theory, evident within all forms of neo-realism, and ‘critical theory’, which recognises the process of historical change and ‘adjusts its concepts to the changing object it seeks to understand and explain’ (Cox, 1981). Based on the premise that both International Relations and International Political Economy have been drawn from positivist arguments about human nature, and about the role of the state, the market and the state systems that have their roots in the Enlightenment, Cox argues that both international policy and international institutions have been moulded around relative ideals that reflect these debates (Cox, 1981). He builds his Gramscianinspired critical enquiry via the work of Gianbattista Vico.3 In New Science,Vico argued against the concepts of universal ‘laws’ and ‘truth’, arguing instead for a ‘philosophy of authority’, in which social relations combine to create rules and norms that appear to facilitate forms of universal justice (Vico, 1999). It is from this methodological brand of positivism that problem-solving theory within International Relations and IPE has been derived. For Cox, Vico provides a valid critique of problem-solving methodology, as he demonstrates that such logic is derived from a rationale that locates itself within a particular phase of history (Cox, 1981). Cox’s brand of critical enquiry is thus placed within a Vichian form of historicism, and applied to the practical arena within IPE as one that demonstrates how institutions are constructed from a set of interchanging principles, positioned within a particular historical structure. His tool of study has been to convert Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to the global level, through the understanding of world orders.

In the 1981 article, Cox sets up some foundations that allow for a methodological form of critique in IPE. His subsequent work on hegemony, and the rather uncritical way in which others have mimicked Cox’s models through further study, have rather stagnated the potential for critical epistemological development. Coxian historicism has largely been used as a point of departure for many of the ‘new Gramscians’ within IPE. The ‘new Gramscians’ have constructed their various ‘Gramscian’ models of global hegemony by taking the historical methodological basis, used in Power, Production and World Order to interpret different forms of hegemonic world orders, as ideologically constructed within the confines of liberal economic practices. Hence, differing forms of both American-inspired (embedded) liberalism (e.g. the post-war, Bretton Woodsinspired form) and the more deregulated style of neoliberalism, emergent since the 1980s, have been interpreted within Cox’s own perceptions of the nature of hegemonic civil society on a global stage. As such, we have witnessed scholars creating notions such as ‘the trans-Atlantic ruling class’, and a global hegemonic order born out of the Trilateral Commission (Gill, 1990; van der Pijl, 1984). Terms such as ’embedded liberalism’, ‘internationalisation of the state’ and ‘hegemonic and non-hegemonic orders’ have all been accepted and largely uncontested, having been effectively defined in Cox’s use of them, with authors altering them slightly in the pursuit of their own theoretical projects.

The main critiques of Coxian forms of methodology have come from both the discipline of IPE and from the more materialist Marxist tradition. In the former, Germain and Kenny have argued that the Gramscian-inspired school of critique in IPE has relied far too much on Cox’s foundations, without building upon other areas of critical enquiry. This is especially true of the concepts of hegemony and historicism, on which Coxian forms of critical theory have largely focused. Indeed, as Germain and Kenny argue, there appears to be a tendency to oversimplify the work of Gramsci (who, as argued above, was working both within a different era and with a different agenda) to the study of the ‘global’ and GPE (Germain & Kenny, 1998). One could argue from this that, rather than contributing a commitment of critique, knowledge and emancipation, which we believe to be fundamental principles of critical theory, the legacy left by Cox has provided a series of ‘neo-Gramscian’ research projects that, methodologically, appear to slip back towards the more orthodox structural materialist form of Marxism that Cox himself warned against in his 1981 article. Indeed, further reflection on this is indicated in the light of the reactions of many Cox-inspired scholars to Burnham’s materialist critique of Gramsci. For Burnham, not only are Cox’s students misled, but the use of Gramsci as a critical or alternative form of Marxism is also flawed (Burnham, 1991). For Burnham, Cox’s critical theory and his use of Gramsci ultimately leads to ‘little more than a version of Weberian pluralism orientated to the study of international order’, which slips towards an ‘idealist account of the determination of the economic’ that undermines the key Marxist principle of economic materialism. Rather than responding to Burnham by re-stating the goals and commitments that critical theory should provide (which Cox does start to outline in his methodological work), fresh ‘critical’ responses seem to argue that his critique outlines the dangers of investigating the dynamics of the superstructure, over the more dominant materialist base (Bieler & Morton, 2003). Here, it seems that ‘critical approaches’ in GPE intend to discard an approach synonymous with postwar Western (post) Marxism, and to re-engage with orthodoxy.

Cox’s influence in IPE has both demonstrated the way in which critical enquiry can provide an epistemological alternative to the positivist problem-solvers that have dominated the discipline of International Relations since the Second World War, and shown how Gramsci, read through the lens of the Italian tradition rather than along more materialist lines, provides certain theoretical and explanatory conceptions that are useful for the development of a critical discourse. However, with the exception of a few (most notably Rupert, 2000, and Murphy &Tooze, 1991), there has been a reluctance to engage with other areas of critical thought

within the social sciences. This is especially evident in the lack of dialogue on how a critical IPE discourse should deal with critical and practical thought and knowledge, and with emancipation.

Critical and practical thought

At the heart of the debate over critical thought in IPE is the distinction between practical and critical reasoning. However, in this section we want to argue that this distinction is at once mistaken and harmful. Its consequences are potentially catastrophic – although most scholars who want to be critical and practical at the same time get around the problem by simply ignoring it, and carrying on as they wish. It is here, perhaps, that IPE needs to build upon Gramsci’s insights and engage with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. While, in the more mainstream study of International Relations, the Frankfurt School (or at least its second generation) appears influential, in IPE it is overlooked. Linklater, in particular, examines Habermas and his perceptions of knowledge as a way of untangling bounded communities in International Society (Linklater, 1990). In Knowledge and Human Interests, Habermas argues for a strong distinction between that practical knowledge which tends to serve the interests of established orders, and a more critical knowledge (Habermas, 1987), pointing out that this is not a superficial distinction. Critical knowledge is grounded in a reflexiveness that practical knowledge lacks. Some practical knowledge, in Habermas’s account, might be critical or might, at least, not serve the interests of an established order; but if it does so, it is by accident. Critical knowledge uses theory to seek self-understanding, and from self-understanding finds a place in which to stand outside existing knowledge practices, in order to critique them (Habermas, 1997). This Archimedian ambition reflects an ontological revolution-the assertion that such a position exists, and that it can be mirrored in our consciousness and language use at all-as well as an epistemological challenge.

Global political economy needs to be both critical and practical at the same time. Of course, this is to use the distinction between critical and practical knowledge rather differently from the Frankfurt School usage, and reflects a part of the strategy of creating ideal speech situations within which, according to Habermas, emancipatory thought and action can be combined. But Habermas is an unreliable witness, and the formulation raises serious practical and conceptual problems.

Indeed, Cox’s own formulation of the critical-practical dilemma is a much more effective, and perhaps more honest, solution for usage in IPE. It is worth underlining its importance. Cox points out that ‘all knowledge is for someone and for something’: there is no such thing as disinterested knowledge, which is to say that all knowledge claims imply an orientation towards the matter studied; Objective knowledge’, therefore, is impossible (Cox, 1981).

This is a well-recognised principle of much social science. But it is not the same as the claim that knowledge cannot be critical unless it rejects attempts to be practical. And Cox reminds us, although the reminder is rather implicit, that all knowledge claims commit the claimant. This commitment, one might say, is an ethical commitment of a kind; but it is also an ontological, epistemological and practical commitment. While Cox leaves us with a methodological framework with which to analyse knowledge, Habermas at least reminds us of the necessity of reflexivity-a methodological prerequisite that is often missing from critical theory centred on global political economy.

Negotiating emancipatory strategies

This brings us to the last dimension inherent in critical theory-that of emancipation, and the need to open up emancipatory dialogue both within the discourse of critical thinking on the nature of the global political economy, and within the actual practical problems that need to be engaged in order to precipitate change at the global level. For, as mentioned above, the study of IPE was created as a response to what was happening at the practical level and, as such, it has developed as a discipline in which both theory and practice are necessarily interconnected. As such, ‘critical’ emancipatory strategies need to achieve the same convergence of the critical and the practical referred to above in terms of thought and knowledge.

As observed by Linklater, critical theory is rooted within the Kantian tradition of enlightenment and universalism and, as such, ‘judges social arrangements by their capacity to embrace open dialogue’, so that it can ‘envisage new forms of political community’ that overcome exclusion and inequality (Linklater, 1996). Here again, Linklater follows Habermas’s notion of ‘discourse ethics’ as a model for providing emancipatory potential within global society.

However, this move is problematic. Habermas’s work moved into an increasingly liberal mode as it evolved during the 19903. His work on liberalism, democracy and constitutionalism is theoretically interesting, but conservative by the standards of critical theory, and perhaps he would no longer claim to be a critical theorist (Habermas, 1990). Some ideas from critical theory remain important, including its idea of the dialogic discoveries of truths, and its resistance to a very fragmented sense of what counts as truth, which can be found in Foucault and in much Foucauldian work (Rainbow, 1991), although Foucault’s own slide towards an increasingly liberal position parallels that of Habermas.

If emancipation starts with the creation of the possibility of alternatives, as Foucault proposes, and if this is the essence of critical thought, then this is an important position for a critical GPE. But it is also woolly and inadequate in itself. One reason why emancipatory thought tends to be woolly, we might hazard, is because when it has sought to be specific, it has failed. For instance, one only has to look at the ‘enlightenment projects’ associated with members of the social sciences who borrow from, or are indeed part of, the Frankfurt School, in order to realise this. Thus ‘democratisation projects’ or projects concerned with ‘restructuring’ society, to which a whole range of critical theorists and ‘critical realists’ have committed themselves, as forms of emancipation, have fallen into the categories of either being too idealist, or of remaining too much within the liberal status quo.

So what is the more useful model here for IPE? It is not Strange, whose theoretical inconsistency is legendary. This is nowhere more sharply revealed than in The Retreat of the State, where she spends much of the book imagining ways in which the state has declined, using the broadly structural approach she had developed in States and Markets and elsewhere, only to overturn the logic of her own argument in a much more liberal conclusion which re-asserts the role of the state (Strange, 1996).

Both arguments are plausible; but they cannot sit together, and their methodologies are at war. This is not an acceptable face of eclecticism. Tooze and Murphy suggest a more open eclecticism, and underline a radical purpose for the openingup of epistemological debate in GPE, away from liberal-realist orthodoxies (Murphy & Tooze, 1991). But the model of critical thinking that seems to make most sense, to maintain consistency, and to offer a way of avoiding some of the traps identified here, remains the methodological approach adopted by Cox.

While, as we argue above, Cox’s interpretation of Gramsci and his idea of how to use Gramscian thought contain problems, the importance of neo-Gramscian thinking is not that it solves all of the problems it faces, but that at least it remains true to its own intentions.

This is even more noticeable when neo-Gramscians such as Rupert use Cox as a point of departure (rather than as a model) from which to engage in critical enquiry (Rupert, 2000), and in order to open up and apply concepts of hegemony and the potential of the counter-hegemonic to the very real arena of global political economy. Later scholars such as Gills, Birchfield and Chin and Mittelman have extended this potential, in recent studies, by exploring further avenues that allow for a greater influx of theoretical ideas that remain consistent to the study of political economy (Gills, 2000; Chin & Mittelman, 2000; Birchfield, 1999)4.


This paper has set out to analyse forms of critical theory that have been applied within the study of Global Political Economy, and to emphasise other avenues of influence along which critical study can go. All of which leads to the following question: has knowledge in the study of Global Political Economy moved on, and has it moved ‘forward’? Does a continuous search for critique take us where we want to go?

If knowledge is only provisionally so, and if there is no foundational criterion for truth-or even for validity-then there is one possible path, sketched by the Frankfurt School and marked out by Habermas, which enables us to engage with a ‘real world’. We could also take a different path, not discussed here: one that moves away from the principles discussed above, and moves more towards engaging with Foucauldian discourse analysis.

From here we could, of course, just stay in the garden and play, as a version of post-modernism might encourage. Or we might, more seriously but not more purposively, conclude that we do not yet know enough, and perhaps cannot ever know enough, to found knowledge claims sufficiently firmly that they might constitute grounds for actions which cannot be imperial, oppressive or ineffective. But we have to admit to an assertion here. It seems to us that Global Political Economy does not allow us the luxury of inaction, even if we run the risk of mistake. GPE is still founded, as it always has been, on the questions that Cox raised: knowledge for somebody and for something in a given context.

This imposes a responsibility that we cannot shrug off in play, or in a retreat to inward contemplation. It also returns to what we have argued are fundamental questions in critical theory: the attempt to bring together accounts of symbolic and material forms of power and domination; the impact of the interaction of the aesthetic and the political in ordering the economic imagination; and the problem of giving an account of consciousness, and of the sociology of knowledge. This places emphasis, in turn, on the need for reflexive thinking, and for reflexive imagination in research. And it underscores the need for practical and critical knowledge to be grounded in a common project: the two are not separate, nor are they possible if one is securely grounded and the other is tagged on as an afterthought. But it also calls to mind the provisional nature of any critical knowledge that we might claim: critical knowledge is fragile, and the conventions which encode it are always, and unavoidably, in danger of being taken away or co-opted back to an orthodoxy.

We cannot doubt that critical-practical knowledge is possible, which is to say that we cannot allow ourselves to doubt, although the lived experience of writers such as Gramsci might help us to recognise the struggles involved. But the fact that it is-while possible-always difficult, always provisional, always fragile, is vital to understanding the ways in which we might approach it.

Much that claims to be ‘critical’ is interesting; some of it is repetitive; but relatively little seems to appreciate the commitments involved in the claim to be critical. If we are to take and hold to the three-pronged virtues of critique, knowledge and emancipation, as the signs of a prerequisite for critical theory, then the building of ‘schools’ developed either to hold to one set construction of historicism (as is the case with the Coxian-inspired neo-Gramscian School), or to promote a certain form of problematic emancipation, needs to be critiqued within the tradition of critical theory.

To be properly critical is to engage in a commitment to a certain mode of working, and one in which we cannot expect definite, permanent results. There is no continuous, unfolding telos; but the results that we obtain are significant, not just because they are all we can expect, but because they are sufficient for the grounding of a critical, elaborated radicalism.


1. We would like to thank Jason Abbott for his input on an earlier draft, which was presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention in Chicago in 2001. Some of the main arguments here were developed by Chris Farrands in his chapter ‘Being critical about being “critical”‘, in Jason P. Abbott & Owen Worth (2002) Critical Perspectives in International Political Economy (Palgrave) pp. 14-33.

2. Plekhanov was responsible for first translating Marx into Russian. Highly materialist and orthodox in his approach, he was to fall out with the less orthodox Lenin, largely over the question of revolution and the development of capitalism within Russia.

3. This is certainly not a novel approach to understanding Gramsci. Indeed, the Italian philosophical traditions of Vico and, more prominently, Croce appear far more in Gramsci’s writings than in those of more orthodox Marxists of the time, or those involved in the Soviet experiment. As Gramsci’s son recently observed, Gramsci was Croce’s, not Lenin’s pupil. See Jeremy Lester (1995), Modern Tsars and Princes (Verso).

4. It is very seldom explained by neo-Gramscians within IPE that Gramsci was not a political economist. Birchfield and Mittelman have managed to combine Gramsci’s notions with those of Polanyi and Scott, whose work is more recognised in the various fields-whether they be macro, as in the case of the former, or micro, as in the latter-of political economy as constructing possible strategies of contestation and emancipation.


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