Meet Critical Theorists' Latest Target: Critical Theorists

Meet Critical Theorists' Latest Target: Critical Theorists

Kathrine Jebsen Moore
Kathrine Jebsen Moore
9 min read

Ole Wæver, a professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, would seem like an unlikely subject of academic controversy. He’s written extensively on Conflict Studies, and served as a member of the Danish Government’s Commission on Security and Disarmament Affairs, as well as the Danish Institute of International Affairs. He also is widely recognized as the co-founder of a discipline known as Securitization Theory, along with British international-relations professor Barry Buzan. “Securitisation theory shows us that national security policy is not a natural given, but carefully designated by politicians and decision-makers,” reads one introductory online text. “According to securitisation theory, political issues are constituted as extreme security issues to be dealt with urgently when they have been labelled as ‘dangerous,’ ‘menacing,’ ‘threatening,’ ‘alarming’, and so on by a ‘securitising actor’ who has the social and institutional power to move the issue ‘beyond politics.’ So, security issues are not simply ‘out there,’ but rather must be articulated as problems by securitising actors. Calling immigration a ‘threat to national security,’ for instance, shifts immigration from a low priority political concern to a high priority issue that requires action, such as securing borders.”

Wæver’s theories about the machinations of those in power are situated within the larger “critical theory” movement, an outgrowth of modish late-20th century literary theory, whose adherents seek to strip away outward symbols and challenge society’s power structures. It is a mainstream movement among progressive scholars. And Wæver himself is the furthest thing from an alt-right ideologue. Indeed, his entire oeuvre (which often is described as being part of the “Copenhagen School”) may today be seen as a rebuke to the demagoguery of bellicose populists. And so it is ironic that the scholar now has been accused of exploiting “power structures” within his own academic circles.

This sort of internecine dust-up has become common in academic, activist, artistic, and literary subcultures, of course, especially insofar as it manifests as an ideological purity spiral. And it is not a new phenomenon. More than two centuries ago, Jacques Mallet du Pan described the same pattern in his own era with the quip, A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants” (“Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”). But critical theory and its myriad offshoots (of which “Critical Race Theory,” itself a sub-branch of “Critical Legal Studies,” is perhaps the most widely known and influential variant) is especially vulnerable to such squabbles. That’s because, by its own explicitly espoused doctrines, critical theory purports to offer a totalizing moral critique of all power structures—including, as it turns out, the power structure within the critical-theory academic pantheon itself. It is one thing for Saturn’s lettered grievance hunters to metaphorically feast on children in hypocritical defiance of their own social-justice mantras. It is quite another when those same mantras not only formally excuse, but actually demand, such scenes of gluttony.

Like similar controversies, the furore surrounding Wæver emerged from sub-cultural obscurity. In August 2019, Security Dialogue, a peer-reviewed academic journal owned by the Norwegian Peace Research Institute Oslo, published an article co-authored by two young academics entitled Is Securitization Theory Racist? Civilizationism, Methodological Whiteness and Antiblack thought in the Copenhagen School. Given that Security Dialogue typically publishes articles with headlines such as Ontological insecurity in asymmetric conflicts: Reflections on agonistic peace in Turkey’s Kurdish issue, it should surprise no one that Is Securitization Theory Racist? quickly became a sensation within this narrow academic silo. This is owed in part to the authors’ dramatic claim that securitization theory is not only flawed, but so irredeemably racist as to be beyond salvation. To quote the abstract:

This article provides the first excavation of the foundational role of racist thought in securitization theory. We demonstrate that Copenhagen School securitization theory is structured not only by Eurocentrism but also by civilizationism [the belief that civilizations, especially in the West, are threatened by other civilizations], methodological whiteness [a vague term signifying the claim that white individuals presume their own aesthetics and experience as constituting an analytical baseline for wider thought], and antiblack racism. Classic securitization theory advances a conceptualization of ‘normal politics’ as reasoned, civilized dialogue, and securitization as a potential regression into a racially coded uncivilized ‘state of nature.’ It justifies this through a civilizationist history of the world that privileges Europe as the apex of civilized ‘desecuritization,’ sanitizing its violent (settler-) colonial projects and the racial violence of normal liberal politics. It then constructs a methodologically and normatively white framework that uses speech act theory [a critical practice that seeks to unmask the “normative structure implicit in linguistic practice”] to locate ‘progress’ towards normal politics and desecuritization in Europe, making becoming like Europe a moral imperative… We conclude by discussing whether the theory, or even just the concept of securitization, can be recuperated from these racist foundations.

The authors, professors Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit, included a line to the effect that “the argument presented here is not a personal indictment of any particular author,” a caveat presented as a corollary to the general principle that “epistemic racism is intrinsic to Western knowledge structures, and not merely a failure of individual scholarship.” The (largely semantic) conceit here is that the movement’s creators and stewards, i.e. Wæver and Buzan, should not be regarded as morally culpable in and of themselves. Rather, they are merely to be regarded as ignorant conduits of institutionally racist subcurrents buried so deep in the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition as to be invisible to all but an ultra-enlightened vanguard (into whose ranks Howell and Richter-Montpetit naturally place themselves).

I have exchanged emails with Wæver, who was forced to walk a line between defending his scholarship and exposing himself to further accusations. In our correspondence, he seemed exasperated and fatalistic, because it had become clear that good-faith debate was impossible. This is because a key precept of anti-racism studies is that the very act of defending oneself from charges of racism may itself be interpreted as an act of harm or even “violence.”

In an interview with the Danish university magazine Uniavisen, Wæver described how painful it was to see his life’s work being attacked in this way. He also called out the editors of Security Dialogue, who, he says, undermined his and Buzan’s right of reply, insisting on delaying publication for months as they combed through the text for any word that might be seen as offensive. “Personally, this has been a real low point,” he said. “I’ve never felt so bad about my job, my career and my life as an academic. I’ve really never felt so alienated. What the hell am I doing here? Why have I spent my life on this?”

In their published reply, Wæver and Buzan dispensed immediately with the claim that this was anything but a personal attack. “We are the main architects behind securitization theory, and thus we must be responsible for placing this allegedly racist thought at the theory’s foundations,” they wrote. “[The] target is ‘classic’ securitization theory, sourced uniformly to our texts, so we obviously stand accused of a racist deed, their disclaimer notwithstanding.”

Wæver and Buzan also criticized the bombastic tone of the article, which often lapsed into almost comically broad claims, such as: “Securitization theory overlooks the power politics of social security and cannot see how Western welfare state social security systems support white (settler) heteropatriarchal forms of life, such as the nuclear family.” In a May 15th tweet, following Security Dialogue’s decision to finally publish Wæver and Buzan’s reply, he described his critics’ methodology as follows: “Strange combination of extreme conclusions & aggressive allegations with very weak textual analysis: the article miscites, misunderstands, makes things up, demonstrably misrepresents, use guilt by association: You cite Durkheim? Arendt? You’re racist!” In his thread, he also echoed others who’ve criticized the ideological overreach of Critical Race Theory insofar as it devalues real racism by defining the term in such a diluted way so as to swallow up every imaginable strand of Western thought.

“What’s most problematic is that there are more and more people on all sides who feel more and more frightened,” Wæver told me in a phone conversation. “It is harmful that both people on the Right, and also people on the Left—to simplify the map a bit—operate simplistic categories that deny legitimacy to whole fields of research. That goes for concepts like ‘identity politics’ and ‘grievance studies’ as well as using the term ‘racist’ on everything that is not organized around anti-racism as a key concept.”

Despite all his concerns, Wæver said he still supports the larger ideas behind critical theory, and pronounced Critical Race Studies, in particular, to be “a legitimate and important field of study for uncovering forms of power too long left unchecked within and beyond international relations.” Perhaps anticipating the manner by which any third-party criticism of Howell and Richter-Montpetit would be weaponized in a way that portrayed him as a bully, or even a misogynist, Wæver pre-emptively sought to “call upon all those who have supported my criticism of the paper to abstain not only from direct acts that make wider circles of critical scholars feel unsafe, but from rhetoric that facilitates such acts.” As described below, this effort was in vain.

Although these developments initially attracted attention among academic specialists, little of it gained wider international attention. It was only in mid-May, when a group of more than 200 feminist and Critical Race Theory scholars signed a letter denouncing Wæver’s attempt to defend himself, that the issue went viral on social media. Unfortunately for the signatories, most of those learning about the issue had little knowledge of (or interest in) the complex backstory. They were simply bemused by the strange mash-up of academic jargon and inexplicable patois employed by Swati Parashar, the Gothenburg University professor who helped lead the effort to publicize the manifesto.

The signatories accused Wæver and Buzan of not only conducting an “orchestrated assault” against Howell and Richter-Montpetit, but also of conspiring to more generally “silence women, persons of colour, queers, feminists, anti-racist scholars and other critical voices.” The Wæver-Buzan critique of Howell and Richter-Montpetit’s methodology, the signatories contended, was simply a ruse aimed at allowing the two men to “evade accountability or authentic engagement.” As Howell and Richter-Montpetit had done implicitly, Parashar and her co-signatories sought to present the creators of securitization theory as not only misguided, but morally contaminated, or even malevolent. Their manifesto ended by explicitly accusing the two men of perpetrating “a form of violence.”

Despite Wæver’s own public pleas to confine critiques of Howell and Richter-Montpetit to “specific problems [with] this article,” the social-media response to Parashar’s overwrought text was precisely what one might expect. “The right is having a field day,” lamented Wæver. “Exactly as we warned about, the original article is feeding a backlash.”

This in turn precipitated yet more counterclaims. “No, Ole,” tweeted Lisa Tilley, a lecturer in politics and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. “The abusive hard right backlash was generated by your multiple coordinated public interventions.” As with most fights of this nature, both sides came off the worse for the exchange.

Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, University of Exeter lecturer James Muldoon lamented that efforts to “decolonize” academia are still facing “scepticism and resistance.” He admonished such sceptics to “realise that the campaign is not a witch hunt, but a legitimate concern about addressing how the forces of racism and colonialism have shaped our past and present… This is a campaign that all academics should be actively promoting in their departments—as many already do.”

Putting aside the often arcane debate about just how much “racism and colonialism” is embedded in school curricula, the saga of Wæver and Buzan helps illustrate why even many liberals now greet such seemingly well-intentioned “decolonization” campaigns with “scepticism and resistance.” Few would object to the proposition that including voices from all corners of the world is important. But the impulse to read hidden forms of bigotry and power abuse into every imaginable text inevitably has caused critical-theory-inspired movements to overshoot their mark, and even to turn in on themselves. Many progressives cheered when heterodox thinkers such as Noah Carl and Bo Winegard were academically deplatformed. But Wæver’s theories aren’t even at odds with standard critical-theory dogma in regard to international security—at least, not until two scholars suddenly denounced his legacy as racist.

If men such as Wæver and Buzan, widely-feted leftists and giants of their field, are subject to academic lettres de cachet, then no one is safe from arbitrary denunciation. Yes, the enterprise of academic inquiry has always relied on the necessarily corrosive cycle by which one generation of scholars challenges the presumptions of its precursors through a steady accumulation of new research and theoretical understandings. But that is not what happened here. What played out in Security Dialogue was character assassination dressed up in semi-coherent academic argumentation. And when the targets complained about it, they simply got more of the same.

Wæver has dedicated his career to the idea that some of the most consequential forms of political activity and statecraft should be viewed through the lens of unspoken societal power hierarchies. And like critical theory more generally, his theory contains a grain of truth, and may even be useful as an analytical tool in some contexts. Unfortunately, critical theory and its offshoots often are invoked not as mere analytical tools, but as totalizing creeds, complete with the attendant schisms and inquisitions.

Wæver himself now has been denounced as a heretic, and his professional prognosis remains uncertain. My last email to him got a bounce-back reply, indicating that he was away on sick leave. Given the state of his field, one might ask why he’d ever choose to come back.

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Kathrine Jebsen Moore

Kathrine Jebsen Moore grew up in Norway, studied Media and Print Journalism in London, and worked at Bloomberg News until 2009. She is a freelance writer and avid knitter.