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  1. 2014.08.13 [IR-Neorealism and its Competitors] Neo-Marxist Approach on IR (Critical Theory of Hegemony)

[IR-Neorealism and its Competitors] Neo-Marxist Approach on IR (Critical Theory of Hegemony)

[연구] Research 2014. 8. 13. 20:26

Cox, Robert (1981) “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” Journal of International Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 126-155.

*Neo-Marxist Approach to IR (Bringing Gramsci’s theory on hegemony)

- Realists-Marxists’s hegemony: domination by material capabilities

- Gramsci’s: hegemony separated from the idea of domination. Material capabilities-ethical-political ideology (강제가 아닌 합의-정통성에 바탕한 hegemony)

*Problem-solving Theories vs. Critical Theories


1. Overview: Changes in international relations (convention):

-          “actors (different kinds of state, and non-state entities)” (126)

-          “the range of stakes (low as well as high politics)” (126)

-          “greater diversity of goals pursued” (126)

-          “a greater complexity in the modes of interaction and the institutions within which action takes place” (126)


*In more specific (changes in intellectual conventions in IR)

-          18th & 19th century distinction between state and civil society (foreign policy as “pure expression of state interests”)

-          Replaced by society based on contract and market relations – state and civil society distinction blurred.


*Recent trends in theory:

-          “undermined” “conceptual unity of the state” (127)

Ø  “by perceiving it as the arena of competing bureaucratic entities” (127) : rational choice

Ø  “by introducing a range of private transnational activity and transgovernmental networks of relationships among fragments of state bureaucracies” (127)

ð  Yet these approaches are still limited, looking at the state as “a singular concept,” with “little attempt… to consider the state/society complex as the basic entity of international relations” (127) – Need for studies on the “plurality of forms of state” – “different configurations of state/society complexes” (127)


*Other attempts to fill “the gap” (127) – Breaking down the unitary concept of the state:

-          Marxist revival as alternatives to diversify the notion of state “by amplifying its social dimensions.” (127) – yet the implications are not strongly developed.

Ø  Defining the state as “a singularly-conceived capitalist mode of production” (127) (in reference to Althusser[1], Poulantzas[2])

Ø  Attention “away from state and class conflict to a motivational crisis in culture and ideology” (127) (in reference to Habermas[3])

ð  Yet, Limited Depth in the application of Marxism on IR: These approaches do not go “very far towards exploring the actual or historical differences among forms of state, or considering the implications of the differences for international behavior.” (127)

-          E.H. Carr and Eric Hobsbawm: social forces, the changing nature of the state and global relationships

-          Fernand Braudel: interrelationship between these forces in the 16th & 17th centuries

-          Immanuel Wallerstein (inspired by Braudel’s work): theory of world systems defined essentially in terms of social relations (exploitative exchange relations between a developed core and an underdeveloped periphery, different forms of labor control)

Ø  2 Main Weaknesses (Criticisms): state “as merely derivative from its position in the world system” and the “system-maintenance bias” – “Like structural-functional sociology, the approach is better at accounting for forces that maintain or restore a system’s equilibrium, than identifying contradictions which can lead to a system’s transformation.



2. “On Perspectives and Purposes”

(After the Overview of the ongoing tension against Neorealist assumptions, Cox goes on to illustrate his views on what theories are about. Here is where Cox distinguishes between the problem-solving and critical theories)


“Theory is always for someone and for some purpose. All theories have a perspective… When any theory so represents itself, it is the more important to examine it as ideology, and to lay bare its concealed perspective” (128)


-          Two distinct purposes of theory

Ø  1) “problem-solving theory”:

n  “solve the problems posed within the terms of the particular perspective which was the point of departure” (128); “It takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organized, as the given framework for action” (128); 

n  The general aim: “to make these relationships and institutions work smoothly” (129);

n  “fragmented among a multiplicity of spheres… each of which assumes a certain stability in the other spheres” – “the institutional and relational parameters assumed” (129)

n  Toward “subdivision and limitation of the issue” (129) – narrowing down the scope

Ø  2) “critical theory”

n  “more reflective upon the process of theorizing itself: to become clearly aware of the perspective which gives rise to theorizing, and its relation to other perspectives (to achieve a perspective on perspectives); and to open up the possibility of choosing a different valid perspective from which the problematic becomes one of creating an alternative world.” (128)

n  “does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted”; the “parameters” problem-solving theory accept are questioned.

n  Towards “construction of a larger picture of the whole of which the initially contemplated part is just one component, and seeks to understand the processes of change in which both parts and whole are involved.” (129)

n  “lack in precision” (129) in comparison to problem solving theory (ahistoric – fixed point): critical theory must continually adjust to changes (historic)


-          Limitations of problem solving theory:

Ø  The “assumption of fixity” = “a convenience of method” “ideological bias” “conservative” (129)

Ø  “value-bound” (unlike the proponents’ view that they are value free”) “by the virtue of the fact that it implicitly accepts the prevailing order as its own framework” (130)

Ø  Moreover, unlike problem-solving theory, Critical theory: clarifies range of “alternatives” – “contains utopianism” that “it can represent a coherent picture of an alternative order” – thus can guide to “strategic action for bringing about an alternative order, whereas problem-solving theory is a guide to tactical actions which, intended or unintended, sustain the existing order.” (130)


Historic vs. Ahistoric

Critical (Changer) vs. Status-quo Parameters

Comprehensive vs. Precision

Utopianism vs. Conservatism..?


-   Note on World order and Critical Theory: “a condition of uncertainty in power relations beckons to critical theory as people seek to understand the opportunities and risks of change.” (130) ~ e.g. 1970s


“To reason about possible future world orders now,” critical theory is needed to broaden “our enquiry beyond conventional international relations, so as to encompass basic processes at work in the development of social forces and forms of state, and in the structure of global political economy” (130) – Neo-Marxist and political economy perspective as an alternative to realist theory driven field.



3. “Realism, Marxism and an Approach to a Critical Theory of World Order”


Marxism considered as a preliminary attempt to develop a critical approach to interstate relations and world orders



-          Origin in a historical mode of thought: Friedrich Meinecke (1957), E.H Carr, Ludwig Dehio (delineating particular configuration of forces in different periods to understand within their historical contexts) – historic view that things are susceptible to change

-          However, Since WWII: Realism transformed into a form of problem-solving theory (Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz), “coinciding with the Cold War” – “imposing bipolarity” upon IR (131)

-          Characteristics by three levels in this new realism: fundamental and unchanging 1) nature of man; 2) the nature of states; 3) the nature of the state system

ð  These core assumptions lead to “variations on always recurrent themes”; conclusion that “the future will always be like the past.” (131)

ð  The idea of rationality and game theories in this tradition reinforce “the nonhistorical mode of thinking” (132)


Debate against Realism(Problem-solving theory)

-          Debate between the civil philosophy of Hobbes and the natural-law theory of Grotius in the 17th (based on different perspectives on the nature of man, the state and the interstate system)

-          Against the Realist view, Neapolitan Giambattista Vico argued for continuity (Critical Theory): Vico criticized the “conceit of scholars” (Vico) who will have it that “what they know is as old as the world” (Vico) “consists in taking a form of thought derived from a particular phase of history… and assuming it to be universally valid. This is an error of neorealism and more generally, the flawed foundation of all problem-solving theory.” (133)


*“How does Marxism relate to this method or approach to a theory of world order?”


-          Two divergent currents in Marxism:

1)       Historical approach to social relations: HISTORICAL MATERIALISM (Marx, Eric Hobsbawm, Gramsci)

Ø  “a foremost source of critical theory and it corrects neorealism in four important aspects”(133):

i)                     Dialectic at two levels (logic and history): “exploration of contradictions” for truth seeking and “potential for alternative forms”… Neorealism sees conflict “as a recurrent consequence of a continuing structure, whereas historical materialism sees conflict as a possible cause of structural change” (134)

ii)                   Focus on Imperialism: Historical materialism gives a “vertical dimension of power” among the states. (134)

iii)                  Enlarging the realist perspective (the relationship between the state and civil society (134)

iv)                 Production process as a critical element


2)       Ahistorical approach – framework for the analysis of the capitalist state and society: STRUCTURAL MARXISM (Althusser and Poulantzas)


*Basic Premises of Critical Theory


1)       Embeddedness of our actions (Our actions within the shared paradigm)…? “an awareness that action is never absolutely free but takes place within a framework for action which constitutes its problematic” (135)

2)       Embeddeness of theory “a realization that not only action but also theory is shaped by the problematic” (135)

3)       Changes… “the framework for action changes over time and a principal goal of critical theory is to understand these changes” (135)

4)       “historical structure” – combination… “the context of habits, pressures, expectations and constraints within which action takes place” (135)

5)       “the framework or structure within which action takes place is to be viewed… from the bottom or from outside in terms of the conflicts which arise within it and open the possibility of its transformation” (135)



4. “Frameworks for Actions: Historical Structures”


= “a particular configuration of forces”


*Three categories of forces within a structure:

1) material capabilities: e.g. technological and organizational capabilities, accumulated forms of resources

2) ideas: 2 kinds – intersubjective(organized/commanded by states) or those shared notions (“collective images of social order held by different groups of people”) (136)

3) institutions: “means of stabilizing and perpetuating a particular order. Institutions reflect the power relations prevailing at their point of origin and tend, at least initially, to encourage collective images consistent with these power relations.” (136)


*The method of historical structures:

- “limited totalities”: it does not “represent the whole world but rather a particular sphere of human activity in its historically located totality; static is avoided by “juxtaposing and connecting historical structures in related spheres of action.” (137)

- “contrast models”: “a simplified representation of a complex reality and an expression of tendencies… rather than fully realized models.” (137)


*The method of historical structures applied to the three levels/spheres of activity (while these three levels are “interrelated”:

1) the organization of production (“the social forces engendered by the production process” (138))

2) “forms of state as derived from a study of state/society complexes” (138)

3) “world orders”

=> “Considered separately, social forces, forms of state, and world orders can be represented in a preliminary approximation as particular configurations of material capabilities, ideas and institutions… Considered in relation to each other, and thus moving towards a fuller representation of historical process, each will be seen as containing, as well as bearing the impact of, the others.” (138)


Shortly after: how the configuration of the three categories of forces allows us to see and determine the changes in the world order (social forces shaped by production relations – between capital and labor).


Main assumption: social relations as the basis of World Order; States as institution as any other in history (State as a distinctive form of political community with its own particular functions, roles, and responsibilities that are socially and historically determined).



5. “Hegemony and World Orders”

(Towards Cox’s Critical Theory of International System Neorealist static explanation of hegemony and world orders vs. Historic view…)


> Neo-realism – material forces focused


> Viewed in historical structures:

Ø  Pax Britannica

1)       Material capabilities: sea power

2)       Ideas (norms): free trade, gold standard, free movement of K&L – neoliberal economics

3)       Institutions: None but the ideological separation between economics and politics -> presence of universal rules

Ø  In transition (late 19th ~WWII)

1)       Material capabilities: weakened

2)       Ideas (norms): faltered with the rise of protectionism, the new imperialisms, and ultimately the end of the gold standard

3)       Institutions: as result, collapsed into a world of rival power blocs


Ø  Pax Americana:

based on greater number of formal international institutions; increased role of state after WWII and the Great Depression. – “ideology is a determining sphere of action which has to be understood in its connections with material power relations”


6.Cox’s Redefinition of Hegemony: “Social Forces, Hegemony and Imperialism”

– often called as Cox’s Critical Theory of Hegemony



*Despite the explanatory power of using the configuration of material power, ideology and institutions, the theory still cannot explain why and how of a hegemony:

Ø  “hegemony may seem to lend itself to a cyclical theory of history; the three dimensions fitting together in certain times and places and coming apart in others… What is missing is some theory as to how and why the fit comes about and comes apart” (141)

ð  Cox’s Explanation here: by “social forces shaped by production relations” (Capital and Labor Relations) – Political Economy Perspective on IR – which he argues to be more fit as a critical and historic view, able to illustrate the processes of a hegemony:

By taking this perspective (political economy) “we move from identifying the structural characteristics of world orders as configurations of material capabilities, ideas and institutions… to explaining their origins, growth and demise in terms of the interrelationships of the three levels of structures” (141)


ð  (Example: Rise and fall of hegemonic order in terms of capitalism that mobilized social forces in specific directions (power seen as “emerging from social processes rather than taken as given in the form of accumulated material capabilities[(neorealists-power fetishism)], that is as the result of these processes [(Marx)] (141))


*Social Forces & Pax Britannica: Rise and Fall both explained by the development of social forces

- Ascendancy: class based social forces of manufacturing capitalism (bourgeoisie in Europe)

- Demise: emergence of industrial workers – industrialization and mobilization of social classes (liberal form of state “slowly replaced by the welfare nationalist form of state”) changed the international configuration of power

- Capitalist production & periphery: new social forces created in the periphery (liberal imperialism):

“imperial system is a world order structure drawing support from a particular configuration of social forces, national and transnational, and of core and periphery states… Actions are shaped either directly by pressures projected through the system or indirectly by the subjective awareness on the part of actors of the constraints imposed by the system”(144)


Two main questions to answer whether pax Americana come apart:

1)       “What are the mechanisms for maintaining hegemony in this particular historical structure” (144)

-          “internationalization of the state” (144)

-          “internationalization of production” (146)

-          Idea of FREE TRADE


2)       “What social forces and/or forms of state have been generated within it which could oppose and ultimately bring about a transformation of the structure?” (144)

-          “international production and class structure” (147) – “international production is mobilizing social forces, and it is through these forces that its major political consequences vis-à-vis the nature of states and future world orders may be anticipated.” (147)

-          But this idea of Free Trade is for a specific class structure (지배계급) – beneficial for hegemony, and not for the third world countries…


7. “Social forces, state structures, and future world order prospects”


Predictions of future world order (one of the functions of critical theories) – “social forces generated by changing production processes are the starting point for thinking about possible futures” (149)


i)                    New hegemony based upon the global structure of social power generated by the internationalizing of production (inter-state power configuration among US, Germany, Japan and other OECD countries, coopted third worlds, OPEC)

ii)                  Non-hegemonic world structure of conflicting power centers (neo-mercantilist coalitions…)

“more remotely possible outcome” (150): Development of a counter-hegemony based on a Third World coalition against core country dominance…




*an attempt to sketch a method for understanding global power relations

*Cox’s critical international theory = a social approach; historicist mode of understanding world order (influenced by Vico, Gramsci, and Braudel); international system must consider the social and historical construction of both agents and structures that underlie economic and political interaction.

*theories are for someone and for some purpose. Therefore if the structures of the time changes, then the ideas and values change. Unlike the realist view on what they call fundamentals, Cox’s view is transformative. *Realism in this sense is a mere reflection of the current hegemon and 지배계급, which can be used to as a tool to maintain the status-quo power structure.

*Brief sketch of Neo-Marxist Approach to IR


Rather than problem-solving preoccupation with the maintenance of social power relationships, a critical theory of hegemony directs attention to questioning the prevailing order of the world. It ‘does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and whether they might be in the process of changing” (p. 129) Thus, it is specifically critical in the sense of asking how existing social or world orders have come into being, how norms, institutions or practices therefore emerge, and what forces may have the emancipatory potential to change or transform the prevailing order. As such, a critical theory develops a dialectical theory of history concerned not just with the past but with a continual process of historical change and with exploring the potential for alternative forms of development. Cox’s critical theory of hegemony thus focuses on interaction between particular processes, notably springing from the dialectical possibilities of change within the sphere of production and the exploitative character of social relations, not as unchanging ahistorical essences but as a continuing creation of new forms.[4]




[1] Structural Marxism

[2] (1936-79) Greek neo-Marxist – the concept of the ‘relative autonomy’ of the capitalist state –the ‘structural position’ of the state – the status of state as a servant of capitalism <Political Power and Social Classes> (1968) - despite its formal separation from the institutions of economic production, the state promotes accumulation by maintaining the cohesion of capitalist society and its characteristic class system. Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/nicos-poulantzas#ixzz3AEuQOSDu

[3] Theory of “cognitive interests”- all knowledge is constituted through one of the three generic domains of human interest: 1) technical knowledge (scientific research domains); 2) practical knowledge (social interaction realm – historical-hermeneutic disciplines); 3) Emancipatory knowledge (self-knowledge, self refelction)

[4] Bieler, Andreas and Adam David Morton “A critical theory route to hegemony, world order and historical change: neo-Gramscian perspectives in International Relations,” Capital & Class, Vol. 82, pp. 85-114.

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