Thursday, May 18, 2006

Notes on Critical Theory

Critical theory

The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (CT) has as its object “human beings as producers of their own historical form of life.” It is dialectical at least in the sense that it seeks to understand object and subject developing together in the course of history, rather than dogmatically giving one or the other priority.

CT and critique are sometimes elided, but in my view the latter can be specified as one characteristic activity Frankfurt School, among others such as genealogy, traditional sociological research, and polemic.

Critique retains the Kantian spirit of the association (cf. What is enlightenment?) of reason, freedom and principled nonconformism. Critique furthermore preserves the equivocal genitive in Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” – in critique, reason must reflect on its own conditions of employment.

In the tradition of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, such conditions are primarily socio-material. But the Kantian transcendental project cannot be entirely discarded, since any effort to entirely replace metaphysical thought with material investigation will make unexamined metaphysical commitments. Above all, materialism risks positivism, as demonstrated by the contemporaneous orthodox Marxist ideology of the immutable “dialectic” laws of nature.

Thus Adorno’s critique regularly foregrounds what Marx might have called “the fetish character” of Kant’s transcendental subject. Although the idea is shown to be false, it must be used, since demystifying it does not undo the socio-material antagonisms with which it is dialectically connected – that is, which continue to establish it in thought, and which it in turn sediments.

Thus we come to the characteristic critique of CT. It is immanent in that it extrapolates its normative strategy from its object of critique, rather than relying on a priori ingredients. Immanence owes something to the Socratic elechnus, insofar as it uses an orientation to truth to provoke latent crisis in its adversary, and to the tacit ad hominem, insofar as it erodes its adversary’s trustworthiness by making clear how simultaneous affirmations are incompatible. But it is important not to overgeneralise this rhetorical dimension.

State and society

Notwithstanding the agent-theoretic approach of The 18th Brumaire, the caveat that men make their own history though not just as they please, and other well-known cruxes of Marxist exegesis, Marx’s dominant view of the state was as an instrument of class rule.

Vulgar Marxism took this to mean that, when confronted with a non-economic phenomena (“superstructure”), they should scurry towards economic phenomena (“base”) by the most direct route, however tenuous the causation implied.

In The State in Capitalist Society (1969) Miliband uses empirical research to criticise the pluralist concept of the state as a mediator of different interests. The state has no interest in forging popular sovereignty through the arrangement of irreconcileables on a temporal dimension of different constellations of interest-realisation. Rather, it is part of a coalition of the elite, who have their own interest, generalised as the imperative of accumulation.

Miliband argues that the state routinely separates itself from ruling class factions when their short-term interests conflict with their long-term ones. From a rational-choice perspective, the state can be seen as the ruling class’s solution to its “commitment problems”; apparent conflict between the state and the elite falls within the agent-principle problematic.

Poulantzas sees Miliband’s “subjectivism” or “humanism” as a regression to a pre-Marxian position. Class for Marx was objective, in the sense that it defined a qualitative function, or moment, within capital’s self-realisation.

*Why* won't Marx deduce domination other than economically?

(1) An axiomatic "anthropological" division between necessity & luxury, he thinks, would set us on the path to ideology (esp. idealism, a kind of sublimation of class struggle, focussed in the infinitely hospitable media of language and thought). If we decide those things in advance, at best we can superimpose abstractly reconciled antagonisms on a material world still riven with conflict, & look cross-eyed & constipated.

(2) Ideology in this sense is segregated from praxis because it has no resources against equally dogmatic counter-anthropology, which posits domination as an ineradicable feature of human nature. In fact, the first move of such conservative opponents will be to point out how falsely conceiving of material antagonisms as errors of thought can exacerbate those antagonisms and raise their stakes. This is political Realism
through and through.

But the elite are moved, in Miliband, by motives which lack objective analysis. Poulantzas points out that the conceptual coherence of the state comes not from the socio-cultural class origins of its members, but by its objective function. The state is a condensation of class interests, participating in class contradictions. It politically organises class fractions and disorganises working classes.

Hirst: Either economism, or the non-correspondence of political forces and economic classes -- that is the choice which faces marxism.

Offe argues that the state is constitutively contradictory, inasmuch as the arbitration of interests is key to its legitimation, and tax revenue from private accumulation is key to its material reproduction. Intervention in the economy is inevitable, yet risks challenging the traditional basis of the liberal social order.

Habermas further develops Offe’s conception of the liberal democratic capitalist state. Habermas understands “late capitalism” (LC) to import the thesis that the capitalist system of production incorporates endogeneous contradictions which it cannot necessarily overcome.

In its Habermasian form it immune from criticism as economism: a crisis may originate in any subsystem, and by the time of TCA Habermas has even reformulated late capitalism within an action-theoretic framework. By contrast “industrial society” (IS – “organised capitalism” in Legitimation Crisis) involves the idea that through corporatism, the managerial revolution, the welfare state compromise and other restructurings, capitalism has learnt to contain its contradictions indefinitely. LC involves an objective class concept, IS does not.

Dependency and world-systems approaches fall somewhere between – e.g., the core may indefinitely sublimate its contradictions in imperialist relations, but they remain inside the totality of the international system.

Through its syntheses of Lukacs’ reification and Weber’s rationalisation theses, its analyses of the superstructural and socio-psychological dimensions of domination via the culture industry, and Pollock’s state capitalism thesis, the Frankfurt School is closely affiliated with IS. But it is a complex, even aporetic affiliation. In “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society” Adorno proposes what at first glance may seem a compromise: modern societies demonstrate late capitalism in their relations of production, and industrial society in their forces of production. Examined more closely, Adorno’s thesis seems to be a paradox or category error, inasmuch as the Industrial Society position encourages us to discard the explanatory priority of the forces of production.

The weight of Adorno’s essay is an invective against methodological pre-deformation of the object of critique. In Adorno’s view, the argument against the class concept is absolutely successful. Without any experience to fill it out, there can be no objective class, and to insist on its objectivity turns it into an arbitrary point within an abstract and recursive system of symbols (exactly Miliband’s complaint against Poulantzas). Yet the argument in favour of the class concept is absolutely successful. Because to surrender it is to introduce a non-economic element to domination, at a point when domination is more economic than ever before.

That which determines subjects in themselves as means of production, and not as living purposes, increases with the proportion of machines to variable capital. The pat phrase, the “mechanization of man,” is misleading, because it understands the latter as something static, that adapts to conditions of production external to him, and is deformed by external influence. But there is no substrate of such “deformations,” nothing ontically interiorized, which social mechanisms merely act upon from outside: the deformation is not a sickness in men, but in the society whose children arrive with that “hereditary taint” which biologism projects onto nature.

Only when the process that begins with the transmutation of labour-power into a commodity has permeated men through and through, and objectified each of their impulses as formally commensurable variations of the exchange relationship, is it possible for life to reproduce itself under the prevailing relations of production. Its consummate organisation demands the coordination of people that are dead. The mimetic impulse

The success of two incompatible arguments is not a subjective mistake, but an objective one. Adorno is delineating the aporetic problematic which is founded in real social contradictions.

It would be a mistake to say that Adorno sees “no way out,” since this would then be his moment of unexamined positivity, perhaps comparable with a Nietzschean affirmation of will to power or a very gloomy and bloodthirsty postmodernist celebration of difference.

Rather, Adorno advocates the continual self-cancelling elaboration of a problematic imposed by history, in favour of its false transcendence, or its cheap pragmatic dissolution as a dead-end. If the prospects for emancipation improve, this excruciating conceptual activity will not have been a senseless gesture; it will have kept knowledge alive “through darkness.” If they do not improve (and loosely speaking, according to Adorno they will not) it will have been the only gesture that is ultimately worthwhile, valuable, useful, functional, and positive; it will have been, in other words, the only senseless gesture.

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