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Toward a Radical IR

November 28, 2018

David Brook’s latest column in the New York Times, banging on the same themes about “the kids are just not right,” raises some questions about what it means to engage in radical politics in the Trump era. Brooks compares the younger generation’s belief “that the system itself is rotten and needs to be torn down” to accomodationist and gradualisms.  He continues on to speculate about how these new attitudes might affect older, more “pragmatic,” liberals who desire to work within the system. Brooks, as usual, uses a conservative argument to position himself in the “middle.”

I have been thinking a lot about this issue of “radicalism” contra arguments about working within systems that are unjust in thinking about liberal world order and its futures. It has led me to a question I am currently exploring in a work-in-progress about what the possibilities are of radicalism as a way of approaching international politics. Against arguments like Brooks’, and even more sophisticated arguments about agonistic democracy developed by thinkers like Chantal Mouffe, I think there is a place in IR for radical conceptions of transformation, order, and politics.

What is radicalism? Brooks never fully fleshes out this concept. Philosophy and political theory have engaged with the issue of radicalism as a concept, though the results are often divergent. To quote Agnes Heller, in her treatise on radical philosophy, it “can give the world a norm, and it can will people to want to give a world to the norm.” Radicalism as an idea, and as a form of critique, mobilizes many different modes of thinking about the social and the political.

The most comprehensive definition of radicalism is that provided by Paul McLaughlin, who defines radicalism “in terms of (i) a fundamental orientation (toward fundamental objects) (ii) in the political domain (iii) of an argumentative nature.”More than that, though, we can add that radicalism intervenes in the political domain with the goal of fundamental transformation.

Additionally, though radicalism indeed proceeds in an argumentative nature, this methodology for argument is one that is aimed at critiquing, and seeking the destruction/replacement of existing institutions. A revised working definition of radicalism, therefore, is: a way of thinking about politics that focuses on totalities, praxis and political action, and the deployment of historicist methods with an eye toward “getting to the root of things.” Thus, radicalism is both a broad range of critical thought and practice, but also is specific in the realms of focus, action, and method.

If Brooks is right that there is a major clash between a radical younger generation and a more pragmatic and moderate older generation in American politics, these differences are not well expressed in contemporary thinking about IR. Some of the biggest divisions are between what Robert Cox called “problem-solving theories” and theories that critique such approaches, but provide little argumentation aimed at tearing structures of injustice down altogether. In short: IR, even at its critical ends, is not radical (for an excellent exception see here and here).

Why is this important? This morning, I taught a seminar on the question “Is Liberal World Order Finished?” I asked my students to think about what makes a liberal order “liberal,” and then asked: “Can we fix the liberal world order, or can we imagine a world without it?—and what would that look like?” The students were quick to point out the violences, inequities, and problems inherent in a liberal world order, but it took a good bit of pushing and prodding to get them to articulate whether/how we should/could take this order apart and rethink it. This was not just a difficult task for the students—it is something IR has not spent enough time meditating on.

There is a lot to be critical of these days. And, I disagree with Brooks’s pessimism about a younger radical generation. Politics is deeply intertwined with engagements with radicalism. What I think is missing when we consider global politics, though, is that many of our pressing questions about institutions, order, and state action proceed from the same sort of moderation, accomodationism, or—at the most—an immanently critical vein. If we want to intellectually and politically approach issues like: What do we make of the future(s) of liberal world order? IR needs to engage with radicalism.

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Dillon Tatum is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Geography at Francis Marion University. His research and teaching focuses are at the intersection of international relations and political theory—with a specific interest in the international liberalism, military intervention, and global ethics. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled Liberalism and Transformation: The Politics of Violence in World Politics, which is a critical history of international liberalism’s relationship with military intervention from the nineteenth century to present. He can be found on twitter at: @dstonetatum