Critical Theory & Dependency Theory: A critical Review Through the Lens of Neo-Realism
Critical Theory & Dependency Theory:
A Critical Review Through the
Lens of Neo-Realism
Critical and dependency theories provide an interesting alternative to the mainstream concepts of realist and liberal international relations. In their development, they were designed to address specific issues that their authors did not think were properly covered by older schools of thought. In addition, their development, while around specific issues, was expanded to present an overall theory in international relations while primarily addressing their core issues.
Robert Cox and his alternative premise of critical theory specifically looks at the development and implementation of change. His essay Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory examined established international relations theories and set out to challenge their ability to deal with change. He challenged these theories in three ways, 1) while appreciating the holistic intent of some theories (realism & world systems theory) he warns against treating abstract conclusions as material as this may prevent the development of a true holistic approach. 2) Cox felt that state and social forces must be considered jointly to properly gauge the trajectory created by historical processes and 3) there needs to be a empirical-historical methodology developed to accommodate and explain change more effectively.
For Cox, there are two types of theory: problem solving and critical theory. Problem solving focuses on the existing theoretical framework and political conditions to isolate and address issues. Critical theory focuses on rejecting existing social and political order to favor an ideology instead of the status quo. With this said, he primarily supports the concept of critical theory while allowing for the periodic need of problem solving theory.
He then lays out five purposes for critical theory with the first being that, "action is never absolutely free." Second, theory and action are both shaped by the problematic and, "the task of theorizing can never be finished in an enclosed system but must continually be begun anew." Thirdly he states that, "the framework for action changes over time and the principle goal of critical theory is to understand these changes." Next is the point that frameworks have the form of historical structure helping them to influence action. Finally, Cox explains that the framework is to be examined from outside in terms of conflict so as to open the possibility of transformation.
Cox’s critical theory and its focus on change provide a valuable tool for addressing the specific, but as a general theory for international relations its attributes are not so appealing. The concept of rejecting existing social and political orders to effect change in support of a specific ideology every time an issue arises is simply not practical. Besides the fact that the solution to an issue may not require the changing of the system in the first place, but rather just the actions within the system. While Cox states that problem-solving theory is necessary, he feels that it is vastly inferior to critical theory. This places entirely too much emphasis on the later while not supporting the advantages of the former.
Critical theory does provide a thorough and detailed roadmap in developing solutions completely foreign to existing frameworks. An example of this trait might be the interaction of foreign cultures, especially on the economic level. This is the strong suit of critical theory in its ability to create frameworks that address different systems and bridge them together.
However, with the expansion of globalization and the vast global interaction that exists today, the need for this aspect of critical theory is questionable. With the ever-expanding global capability of communication, cooperation and coordination through current frameworks, the need to bridge dissimilar systems together is quickly fading. In reality it is the problem-solving theory that is what will provide the necessary tools for dealing with issues in today’s globalized society.
Dependency theory, as espoused by Thomas Lynch in Foundations of Radicalism, again provides a general theory to international relations that revolves around a single element. His heavy draw on Marxism and the ideological focus of class structure within the economics of the state call for a general theory on international relations while focussing on a specific issue.
Like realism or neo-realism, Marxism- the main contributor to dependency theory- is focused on the motivations and instincts of man stating that man’s fundamental nature is pre-disposed towards conflict. Unlike realism or neo-realism, dependency theory builds upon the notion of economically divergent classes looking specifically at the inequality of states based on international economic requirements of capitalism.
The social critique within dependency theory is that industrialized states in the capitalist system require the exploitation of impoverished colonies to survive economically. This inequality feature is a permanent element of the capitalist system, causing tension and conflict on a continual basis or until the end of this system. Couple this with the concept of dependent development were 3rd world states depend on 1st world states for technology, financing, and knowledge to such a degree that their growth is totally dependent on the "vicissitudes" of an economic system designed to abuse them. Based on this premise, dependency theory calls for the violent overthrow of capitalism with the justification of the parasitic nature of 1st world states on the 3rd world.
There are three Marxist fundamentals included in dependency theory: 1) is the ideology requiring the impoverished class, in this case 3rd world states, to rise up and seize power in the form of a revolution. 2) Calls for a blueprint or roadmap for brutal and oppressive/repressive political and economic actions to sustain the accomplishments of the revolution and 3) is the promotion of an appealing view of the future to placate the masses to allow for the consolidation of the new anti-capitalist system.
The overall-driving goal of dependency theory is first and foremost the destruction of the capitalist system, followed by the redistribution of wealth in the international economic system. The concept completely disregards the notion of power in that it inherently calls for a reorganization of the system anytime one-state gathers more power than any other does. This structure is therefore extremely violent and calls for continual repression on human rights.
One element similar to neo-realism in that it subscribes to the concept that states are not equal in their capabilities, but it diverges greatly in its solution to the discrepancy. Since the theory was developed during the bipolar system between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union, it has since witnessed the demise of the communist system and the vast expansion of capitalism placing dependency theory in a highly questionable state as to its validity.
A Tale of Two Theories…
Critical and dependency theories both focus primarily on specific issues within the international system, providing a framework that addresses a certain ideology. This element of ideology is the first obvious difference to neo-realism and realism in general. But more importantly, these concepts are designed to address and support states that have failed to prosper in the current system. In essence, since these states cannot succeed under the current rules per se, these theories simply call for new rules that are in favor of the failing states.
This mentality is ludicrous in that examples of 3rd world success in the capitalist system exist, providing great challenge to the soundness of their arguments. States like the four tigers (Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea) have managed to adapt their internal economic systems to take advantage of certain elements within the global economy. More striking yet is the fact that communist China, the strongest and most powerful communist state in the world today, is transforming its economic system to a more capitalist economy because it no longer has faith in the communist mantra. These states have become successful in the capitalist system not through changing the system or through revolution but rather by focusing on the current framework and applying its structure to their strong suits.
These theories may have continued life if they are refined to focus on their specific issues or elements instead of trying to force them into a general theory covering the vast school of international relations. Critical theory provides an excellent framework for states on a domestic level to reassess their current system and adjust to it. With this in mind, it can provide a viable tool for improvement to both realist and liberal theorists, especially neo-realists who need to focus on a state’s inability to meet certain needs, specifically security, and develop corrective action. However, the problem-solving element must not be discarded as it provides solution development once a new security system has been installed.
Dependency theory, however, is highly questionable in its ability to deal with not only its specific issue of economic disparity but also as a general structure in the international system. With the overwhelming and undeniable collapse of the communist system and the massive trend towards capitalistic tendencies, the arguments and solutions presented by Lynch seem not only outdated but also simply wrong. It would even be a stretch to try and claim any improvement on liberalism in general with this premise based again on the vast number of shortcomings and the extreme limitation of noting successful examples of the theory. Based on this, the employment of this theory would be regressive rather than an improvement.
Therefore, based on the analysis of the two theories, the former should be adapted and refined to the specific with the later being completely discarded. Critical theory has much to offer international relations when focused on its specialty, and is particularly useful for the neo-realist concept as they develop new security strategies for the state.