Critical theory, the ideological child of Karl Marx, the grandchild of Georg William Friedrich Hegel, is a major intellectual force in present-day politics, being one of the main driving forces behind modern progressive politics around matters of race, gender, sexuality, etc. What critical theory ultimately is a complex question to answer as it, unlike Marxism, is not defined by the ideas of one or a couple people, but rather it started more like a collaborative project between many intellectuals such as Mark Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and more recently Jürgen Habermas.
However, critical theory can be understood historically as a process of the resolution of cognitive dissonance between the hopes that Marxism promise and the failure of it is to accomplish what it said was assured in history. Marx thought his vision of socialism and the emerge of a stateless society was an inevitable development of capitalism. To risk oversimplification and to put in different categories than Marx did, capitalism was a liminal phase in the social transformation from the authoritarian feudal society that would eventually lead to a non-authoritarian society. With the gradual accumulation of capital leading to investment to increase profits rather than given to labor, eventually, the proletariat would rise up against the bourgeoisie and the revolution would lead to the emergence of a stateless society.
This didn’t happen, however, particularly in Western Europe. Marxism failed to predict and deliver what was promised, and so those entranced by its ideals began to try to rationally understand why Marxism was failing. Communist party members like George Lukács in Hungary and Karl Korsch in Germany began to question the orthodox Marxism and set in process a reformulation and new understanding of the ideas of Marxism 1. While Lukács eventually recanted of his work under pressure, their and others work lead to the permanent creation of the Institute for Social Research at Geothe University in Frankfurt, which later becomes colloquially known as the Frankfurt School. It was here that people like Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse met and collaboratively worked together.
They ultimately found Marxism to have had weaknesses on multiple fronts, such as overemphasis on dialectical materialism at the cost of an understanding of subjectivity. In place of Marxism, they sought to bring the social sciences to bear upon understanding and changing society. However, at the core of their project was a similar vision to Marxism: that of liberation. However, even that changed. Marxism imagined the liberation of an authoritarian society to a stateless one. Critical theory is more concerned about the liberation of individuals. One implication of this is is that whereas Marxism was primarily a political and economic theory, critical theory is more concerned about the various aspects of personal and social life, hence it has been used to analyze and understand race, sexuality, and gender.
What I am going to suggest, however, is a criticism that is consistent capitalism that critical theory sought to criticize, but like the critical theorists criticism of Marxism leading to a view of liberation that is more personal than simply political and economic, I am seeking to understand the social foundations that both energized capitalism and lead to its ultimate dysfunction. It is this: human persons are primarily concerned about bettering their position in life and those closet in their social networks and they seek to position themselves in a way to gain the biggest advantage for the least disadvantage.
What the transition from feudalism to capitalism accomplished was a greater degree of freedom for individuals persons of the lower class to change their position than had previously been afforded to them. But by freedom, however, I do not mean the ability to determine the course of one’s life, but rather the freedom to redirect the course of one’s life. Early capitalism was still brutally oppressive, but there was less resistance to people’s attempt to change the course of their life than there had been previously. The lower class were still devalued, but at least the hierarchical control over their life had become more limited through the increasing recognition of personal rights. The emerge of liberalism allowed people to seek to define themselves, but they were never freed from the presence of social obligations and limitations but there were free, in a sense, to seek the modify their place in life and the limitations and obligations placed upon them.
What is known as classical liberalism had a particular power to it: it marshaled the natural human drive to personal betterment and allowed more people the opportunity to do such. While this freedom to redefine one’s position in one’s life was never universally offered, as various classes of people were neither really afforded the opportunity, such as women or ethnic minorities, or were given the resources necessary to take advantage of the opportunity, such that those living in long-term, systemic poverty, liberalism allowed for the transformation of society by allowing individual persons the opportunity to change their social standing.
However, this sense of liberty is a much more pragmatic understanding of liberty, rather than ideological. Freedom was not some idealized state that people were to reach, but rather it was something people were given and allowed to act based upon. Freedom was the condition of human action, not its consequence. As a result, freedom was moral imperative of a political society that was used to legitimate the potential to change one’s status, but it was not an ideological lens by which to understand society nor was it something to possess in any absolute or existential sense. That is why the United States, a society built on the concepts of liberty and freedom but not on its consistent application, only reluctantly and with struggle gave freedom from women and blacks and it is why libertarians are a rather small and relatively uninfluential political party. Freedom was never an overarching, moral ideology, but it was a moral concept with a pragmatic purpose: to allow people to change their standing in life.
This vision of freedom in classical liberalism and capitalism is different from freedom in Marxism and critical theory. While commentators such as Isaiah Berlin have tried to define positive and negative freedoms, I feel this is a much too abstract description of freedom. What I feel is fundamentally different is that classical liberalism does not free oneself from negative circumstances, but provides freedom to change one’s negative circumstances. Critical theory, by contrast, seeks to free people from negative circumstances. Put differently, the freedom of classical liberalism is about the possibility of creating change, whereas the freedom of Marxism and critical theory seeking some sort of guarantee, whether the historical inevitability of the revolution or the guarantee of rational institutions that govern life.
This begins to explain why I think Marxism failed and why critical theory will also eventually fall under its own weight. Part of what the critical theorists determined is that Marxism failed to bring about the promised and hope for change because of the failure to take subjectivity into account. Revolution happens when people decide to revolt; it is not simply some event that happens apart from people taking it upon themselves to see it out. But if you think it is an inevitable process of “fate,” you are disinclined to really take action yourself because you think it will inevitably occur. Thus, the critical theorists felt that the move towards liberation is only maintained and sustained through the ongoing impulse for systemic change and they sought to organize and educate people in such a way as to perpetually participate in the processes of change.
But herein lines the unsustainability of critical theory: human motivation does not naturally incline towards wide-spread change. While there are individuals exceptions to the rule, most people prefer no or slow change. Those who naturally comfortable with rapid and sweeping change are a rare lot. Rather, the desire for rapid and sweeping change is more of an adaptive position out of feelings of desperation, and so people must be stoked towards change through a sense of grievance and vulnerability. However, *most* forms of grievance by individual persons dissipate overtime in so far as their life circumstances allow them to adapt and better themselves otherwise. Wide-spread and persistent unrest occurs when people “collaborate” together as a social group to remember their grievances in such a way as they see their grievances still operating and existing in the present. That is to state that revolution is essentially motivated by a persistent grievance narrative reinforced by the telling of grievances.
This didn’t occur in the West in large part due to classical liberalism’s defusing of such desperation and unrest by providing the possibility for people to change their circumstances as individuals. That combined with the Christian virtue of ‘forgiveness’2 allowed for the defusing of these social tensions. People’s freedom to try to change their personal circumstances was sufficient to defuse such revolutionary instincts among most people. And that classical liberal societies gradually, even if reluctantly, included more people into this freedom help to reduce the grievances.
As a consequence, the necessary conditions for the type of social change and transformation that critical theorists envision can only primarily develop within educational settings in a classically liberal society. It is in universities and other similar settings that people who have a natural, sustained motivation for a specific intellectual topic and passion congregate. Then, they take willing students who are relatively unformed in their thinking and helped them to see the world in a different way through readings, lectures, and various practices. While this defines higher education as a whole, it is in this setting that critical theory survives. A society that has otherwise immunized itself from long-term grievance narratives is vulnerable to the very institutions that are charged with challenging the way the society thinks and functions.
However, there is a real social limitation of being reliant upon university education. The traditional pedagogical methods of university education is a theory first education. That is to state that one is presented with a set of ideas and theories that are to explain a specific domain of inquiry and then after mastering the concepts, the students then begin to see how the theories apply to life situations and circumstances. The limitation of this is that critical theory requires mastery of the concepts to comprehend, but the ideas of critical theory are not readily apparent apart from the theoretical apparatus that undergirds it.
The result of this is that the impulse towards societal transformation as advocated for by critical theory is limited by its ability to educate people into its theory in the first place. In order for the transformation of society to occur that critical theorists and those they influence seek to inaugurate, it has to effectively escape the confines of the educational institution. That is to state, it must become popularized, much like Marxism become popularized and its popularizations served as catalysts for social revolutions. But Marxism had an intuitive feeling to it in drawing the battle lines in a simple way between the proletariat and bourgeoise, even if Marx’s own theory and analysis of capitalism was immensely more complex. In virtue of its highly critical, intellectual stance, critical theory can not be popularized in such a way as to readily understand its core principles. To try to popularize critical theory is to grievously distort it as its methods of social analysis are incredibly complex out of necessity in understanding subjectivity (a brief read Habermas reveals that readily).
By contrast, classical liberalism didn’t require people to truly understand freedom to transform society: it simply had to remove roadblocks to people’s natural inclination towards bettering their situation. Classical liberalism works with what is more generally true about human nature, whereas critical theory relies upon the nature of the intellectual elite. One can say that the way of thinking and living in classical liberalism can be learned in multiple ways. While one can come into it from a theoretical understanding of freedom to then have the practical understanding of seeking to better your life circumstances, it is much more easily learned by people being taught to act freely to better themselves.
Put differently, classical liberalism thrives due to its ability to appeal to what is more broadly true about people across the board, whereas critical theory thrives only within a bubble. In the West, it thrives in the bubble of higher education that allows for the development of a narrow range of highly intelligent people according to patterns of specific theories. I would compare critical theory more to a religious cult, with an insider language that only those initiated into it can readily comprehend. While religious cults typically do not target highly intelligent persons due to their ability to see through appearances and the rationalizations that occurs when the dogma fail, critical theory is the result of an incredibly complex process of cognitive dissonance (far more complex than what occurs in many religious cults) emerging from the failure of Marxism that it has an impressive set of rationalizations that can sustain even the most intelligent of people.
In presenting this, this is not intended as a criticism of many of the goals of critical theory, but rather the unsustainability of critical theory’s methodology and definition of freedom. The critique could extend further. For instance, the ever adaptive nature of human beings to resist attempts to be controlled in order to better their own life leads people to adapt to and resist the forms of social analysis that they deemed is used against their values and goals, thereby changing the very social landscape. In other words, the presentation of a social theory leads to a form of change and resistance to that social theory that makes the theory less reliably. While a meta-theory can take account for this type of change, one can not create reliable social theories that accurately predict and explain in the face of social and political resistance. But I chose to focus on the topic of human nature and learning to highlight its critical theories ultimately fragile, social standing.
This criticism is not coming from a classical liberal. I am not a classical liberal because I feel that this social and political project of the Enlightenment has grievously failed a wide range of the population. I considered myself to be a Christian that takes the vision of new creation of all people in a very serious way, and I find that classical liberalism and capitalism does not accomplish it. That said, I think classical liberalism is immensely more able to accomplish what it was set out to do in the Enlightenment than what Marxism was able to do and what critical theory will ever be able to accomplish.
- David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory. (Cambridge, UK; Polity Press, 1980), 19-23.
- Although, I will note here that the Western concept of forgiveness only partially corresponds to Jesus’ definition. However, this post is not intended as a Biblical or theological discussion so I will not further expand on that here.