Ofira Seliktar: ‘Tenured Radicals’ in Israel ... From New Zionism to Political Activism

Roundup: Talking About History

... Critical theory, also known as post-modernism, is an umbrella term denoting a loose amalgam of theories that have come to dominate American and European universities in the past half a century. They can be traced to a number of philosophical and epistemic traditions in Europe and the United States. Perhaps the best known is the deconstructionist philosophy of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, who argued that the accepted ‘societal narratives’ reflect the power structure of a given society. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas enriched this approach by positing that the discursive practices of a society ‘privilege’ the ‘linguistically competent’ middle classes at the expense of lower classes, minorities and other ‘second class citizens’.

The neo-Marxist approach, as epitomized by Frank Andre Gundar, Henrique Cardozo and Samir Amin, among others, provided a comprehensive critique of market democracy, leading to the birth in the 1970 s of the popular dependencia (dependency) movement that celebrated Third Worldism and world system theories. Dependencistas argued that the ‘peripheral’ status of the Third World is a function of colonial and/or capitalist exploitation and called for a more egalitarian global distributive justice. Invoking Habermas’ prediction that capitalism was headed toward a crisis of legitimacy, dependency scholars proclaimed that socialism rather than market democracy was the ultimate destiny of humankind.1

Adopting the essentially economic critique of Samir Amin, Edward Said developed his own highly influential cultural criticism of the West known as Orientalism. In a book by the same name, Said claimed that the West misrepresented Arab societies, depicting them as backward and menacing ‘others’ in order to justify its colonial conquest. The Oriental construct, it was argued, was manufactured by a long line of European ‘orientalist’ scholars who projected their own notions onto the Middle East, either out of ignorance or, as one critical Middle East expert put it, ‘in the service of colonialism’.2

Critical approaches in international relations (hereafter, IR) evolved into constructivism, which posited that the foreign policy of a country is shaped by deeply seated identity needs and anxieties, including the view of the ‘other’. During the Cold War constructivist scholarship promoted the idea that, far from being a menace to the West, the Soviet Union was a bogeyman created by the American military-industrial complex. Similarly, in the 1990s, a prominent Harvard IR scholar argued that militant Islam was a new bogeyman invented by the West to fill the void left by the collapse of communism, a theme that Said endorsed in a revised edition of his book Covering Islam.3 Finally, critical scholarship includes an array of gender theories which attempt to deconstruct reality from a feminist perspective, including a feminist critique of IR. Feminist IR scholars contend that foreign policy and international conflicts are driven by a maledominated, militaristic establishment.

What enabled critical scholars to form these postulates was their assumption about the nature of political reality. Whereas behaviouralist scholarship derives from positivist ontology and postulates the existence of a relatively easily identifiable and measurable social reality, critical academics have adopted a mix of radical structuralism and radical humanism. Ontologically, the former is positivist but follows the Marxist notion that once structures are established, individuals would reproduce them in spite of their ‘repressive’ characteristics. In this sense, belief in capitalism is a form of ‘false consciousness’.4 The latter claim is based onthe ‘other’. During the Cold War constructivist scholarship promoted the subjective ontology and relies heavily on discerning subjective ‘states of consciousness’ and ‘potentiality’ to provide a radical critique of society. By adopting this ‘rebellion from method’, as one prominent critical radical humanist called it, critical scholars became liberated from the empirically based social inquiry practised by their behaviourally oriented colleagues.....

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