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p. 1009. From resignation to renewallocked

  • Stephen Eric Bronner


‘From resignation to renewal’ examines where critical theory has gone wrong, and how it can reorient itself for the future. Critical theory was originally intended as an alternative to mainstream metaphysics and materialism. However, after the outbreak of World War II, the liberating alternatives vanished, and resistance became increasingly existential and arbitrary. The preoccupation of critical theorists with abstract preoccupations has left them open to ridicule. Max Horkheimer originally viewed critical theory as a public philosophy. To realise his goal, modern critical theorists must stop trying to express the inexpressible and instead offer practical solutions to the ways society stunts individuality.

Critical theory was originally intended as an alternative to mainstream forms of both metaphysics and materialism. Its aim was to illuminate hidden sources of repression and neglected transformative possibilities. Following the outbreak of World War II, however, the Frankfurt School concluded that liberating alternatives had vanished. Critical theory awoke in Hegel’s night where all cows are black. Resistance took an increasingly existential form. It now rested on intensifying the non-identity between the individual and society. The “system” became the point of reference. Negation confronted the ontology of false conditions. Hints of utopia contested civilization. “He wants all or nothing,” Brecht once wrote, “and in response to this challenge the world usually answers: then better nothing.”

A critical theory of society

The Frankfurt School first achieved popularity in the United States by appealing to what Martin Jay, its first historian, termed “the generation of 1968.” Well into the 1980s, critical theory was still considered eccentric in mainstream academic circles and somewhat exotic even among progressive intellectuals. With the collapse of the New Left, however, the Frankfurt School became institutionalized within the academy. Critical legal studies, critical p. 101race theory, and critical gender studies began interrogating prevailing paradigms and assumptions. As subaltern groups emerged from the shadows of public life, however, the integrated assault upon an integrated system of domination began to erode. New emphasis was placed on contesting master narratives, the established canons of the Western tradition, and even popular culture entered the mix. The critical theory of society was becoming imperiled purpose was taking increasingly arbitrary forms.

New proposals have not been forthcoming for dealing with imperialist exploits, economic contradictions, the state, mass media, and the character of resistance in modern society. The negation is casting a pall over critical theory. The intellectual heir of Hegel and Marx now lacks an understanding of power and, as a consequence, the ability to confront the imbalance of power. Correctives exist in some of the more neglected writings of the Frankfurt School.

Essays like “State Capitalism” (1941) by Friedrich Pollock provide a starting point. Its analysis of the “command economy” forces us to consider whether talk of the free market is anachronistic and whether old notions of nationalization are equivalent with socialism. “Confining Conditions and Revolutionary Breakthroughs” (1965) by Otto Kirchheimer warns of tendencies of the modern state to render emergency powers “normal.” Posthumously published essays like “A History of the Doctrine of Social Change” and “Theories of Social Change” by Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann speak to the presuppositions that a genuinely critical theory of society must confront.

Contemporary philosophical and literary offshoots of critical theory usually treat power as an artificial social or linguistic construct. The accumulation process disappears, the system takes on a life of its own, and individuals are left to find a common basis p. 102for solidarity in notions of recognition or care that lack any institutional or organizational referent. Domination is thereby severed from exploitation and principle is divorced from interest. An alternative to the overtly metaphysical and subjective trends within critical theory is offered by Jürgen Habermas.

Communication is seen by him as inherently grounded in the open character of the discourse, the recognition of each participant as equal, and the willingness of each to change his mind when faced with a better argument. Communication, in short, does not require some kind of metaphysical ethic separate from practice. It harbors its own “universal pragmatics.” Or, to put it another way, communicative ethics preserves autonomy while fostering solidarity in the very desire to communicate. Those who deny the norms of this ethic, or who exercise power arbitrarily, deny the very means they use to persuade: they find themselves caught, philosophically speaking, in a “performative contradiction.”

But the metaphysical turn in critical theory has resisted—or, better, incorporated—Habermas’s challenge. Robert’s Rules of Order embodies similar principles. Whether this handbook for guiding public meetings is taken seriously by the participants, of course, is another matter. The practical contribution of the universal pragmatics is not self-evident. Communicative ethics allows liberals and rationalists to congratulate themselves whenever they avoid falling into a performative contradiction. Many of their political adversaries, however, privilege intuition and experience in evaluating truth claims. Others who are more extreme have no interest at all in truth claims. Most of these people would probably respond, when caught in a performative contradiction, so what?

Speaking truth to power presupposes the ability to render it visible—and concrete. The Authoritarian Personality (1950) renders an important service in this regard. Edited by Adorno, p. 103and various other collaborators, it notes psychological differences between individuals and calls for re-educating not merely the anti-Semite in particular but the parochial and bigoted personality in general. Using empirical techniques like the famous “f-scale” or “fascism scale,” its authors illuminate the reactionary character structure and castigate its effects. They emphasize how the authoritarian personality shows contempt for the outsider, the new, and the different. They highlight its penchant for violence, and they plead for policies fostering tolerance.

On first blush, of course, there is something strange about this coming from the inventor of negative dialectics. The study smacks of mass education and adaptation to establishmentarian standards. Potential now seemingly exists for intervening in what elsewhere is considered a seamless whole. But, then, there is the warning that the authoritarian and non-authoritarian personalities are different less in kind than in degree. The qualitative distinction between them appears more illusory than real. The authors vacillate between embracing reform and denying its utility.

In his Introduction to Sociology (2000), and other works, Adorno stated his opposition to civic passivity and his support for progressive reform. But the question of agency was left hanging in the abstract. He also never dealt with the impact of reform on the totally administered society or the ontology of false conditions. That Adorno should have undertaken a critique of the exchange relationship under capitalism does not change matters. The totally administered society and the genuine negativity it requires are both insulated from any commonly accepted notion of political action. In “Theory, Practice, and Moral Philosophy (2001),” therefore, Adorno can envision a new form of practice that “resists the call of practicality” and that, precisely because it rejects any instrumental usage, thereby “contains a practical element within itself.” Or, more simply, theory becomes practice—though it need contribute nothing with concrete implications for liberating society.p. 104

9. A new direction for critical theory finds its source in the famous inscription on the statue marking Karl Marx’s grave site in London: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it!”

Scrutiny is required of the metaphysical turn taken by critical theory along with categories like the totally administered society and the ontology of false conditions. The empirical claims of the Frankfurt School concerning the former are invalid and the p. 105philosophical reliance on the latter doesn’t help make them valid. Eliminating the proletariat as a revolutionary agent did not result in a totally administered society but rather in splits among the elite—or the ruling class—over particular social policies, cultural values, and institutional developments. These have very different effects upon working people and subaltern groups. Opposition also still exists between what Marx called the political economy of capital and the political economy of labor.

Neglecting real ideological and material conflicts of interest in the name of an image like the totally administered society hinders the ability to interpret events in meaningful and innovative ways. More is involved than communicative misunderstanding or the imperiled life-world. Meaningful notions of solidarity refer to actual conflicts within society. Without privileging them, indeed, both resistance and domination lose their historical specificity and, hence, their concreteness. They become just another pair of words.

Alienation and reification once spoke to the experience of domination and the imperative of transformative practice. Now they mostly serve to excuse inaction. In order to make these concepts salient once again, in my opinion, it is important to distinguish between them. It is probably best to begin in the following way: alienation was defined by the young Marx with an eye on overcoming the division of labor and reasserting human control over the production process.

In the twentieth century, however, alienation has taken on other connotations. Elusive and unyielding, it has become associated with feelings of guilt, fear, mortality, and meaninglessness. Utopia is the only response to alienation or, better, the existential problems that plague us and the anthropological foundations of our existence. Reification should, by contrast, be considered fungible—and the target for social action. It exhibits less the framework for advanced industrial society than the impact of its p. 106workings. Instrumental rationality is nothing more than a mathematical technique for dealing efficiently with scarcity. It can empower victims of pre-capitalist prejudices as easily as it can reduce the worker to a cost of production and human beings to disposable resources.

What counts is not the formal character of bureaucracy and instrumental rationality but rather the (often hidden) values and interests informing how they are employed. Critical theory should be scrutinizing the purposive ends or, better, the different priorities and interests embedded in the policies and institutions that are shaping our lives. Obsession with the formal character of instrumental rationality is itself an expression of reification that has had debilitating effects on the interpretation of science and its methods.

Critical theory originally confronted orthodox Marxism by severing the inquiry into society from the inquiry into nature. Treating instrumental rationality in terms of epistemological formalism, however, undermines that distinction. Sociological attempts to contextualize scientific theories and technological innovations are both legitimate and salient. It is another matter, however, for a normative theory to judge the internal workings of scientific theories and techniques. To put it crudely, critical theory can offer fruitful perspectives on the historical genesis and social uses of, say, the theory of relativity introduced by Albert Einstein. But it should not attempt to make philosophical judgments about its truth character.

Contesting reification does not obliterate the need for disciplinary expertise and the ability to know what one is talking about. Utopian visions of a new science, especially one that lacks criteria for verifying its truth claims, are also defined by the reification they oppose. Critical theory would be better served by building upon the notion of “falsifiability” that Sir Karl Popper introduced p. 107in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959). The spirited “positivism debate” of the 1960s between the Frankfurt School and its more scientifically inclined rivals treat this matter and others from a number of fascinating perspectives. Advocates of critical theory, however, usually tend to underestimate the methodological importance and practical implications of viewing scientific truth claims as provisional and open to revision in light of future research. Such a stance, indeed, fits neatly into the critical enterprise.

To be sure: scientific paradigms and their criteria for verifying truth claims will change down the line. Even “paradigm shifts” will take place. Thomas Kuhn suggested in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), however, that they will occur because new problems are encountered that the old scientific methods cannot adequately address—not because philosophers engage in some abstract indictment of science based on an inarticulate utopian vision.

Engaging in critique need not require an anthropological break with reality. Norms are required in order to evaluate the alternatives on any given issue. But they hang in the abstract unless related to often conflicting interests and the ability to realize them. Power is an ineradicable element of modern society. It is neither an artificial construct nor an arbitrary determination of the will. Its mediations and determinations define the character of society and the political reaction to it. Freedom becomes, once again, the insight into necessity.

Franz Neumann alludes to these matters in his classic essays, “Approaches to the Study of Power” (1950) and “The Concept of Freedom.” He notes that the issue for modern society is much less the curtailment of political power than its reasonable employment. Only by drawing this distinction is it possible to prevent the theory of reification from itself becoming reified. Critique begins with its commitment to freedom. For this to p. 108become concrete, however, theory needs to engage institutional power. Just as institutions can retain too much power so is it possible for them to retain too little. Competing institutional visions will offer qualitatively different policy options. Criteria are necessary for distinguishing between rational and irrational forms of authority and policy. A genuinely critical theory of society should provide them.

The politics of enlightenment

Enlightenment theory and practice focused upon curtailing the arbitrary exercise of institutional power, fostering pluralism, and enabling the exercise of individuality. Not the “Great Refusal” but this complex of ethical and political themes informed the great progressive movements of the past. That was the case with the socialist labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the anti-communist uprisings in Eastern Europe, and the most democratic and egalitarian trends within world religions and the once colonized world. The implication is clear: invigorating the transformative purpose of critical theory calls for revising its primarily negative view of the Enlightenment legacy.

Walter Benjamin’s German People (1933) perhaps provides a place to begin. It is composed of letters that he collected over the years. They were written not by famous people but rather by their friends, relatives, or associates. These were everyday people inspired by enlightenment ideals like Kant’s brother or Goethe’s close friend. This little book rebukes the common wisdom. The Enlightenment extended beyond a small circle of intellectuals. Its political values and cultural concerns spoke to those who sought a more decent and liberal world.

The Frankfurt School was profoundly mistaken in thinking that the Enlightenment—or, better, its scientific rationality—should be interpreted as triumphant or in isolation from the theory and p. 109practice of its rivals. Enlightenment thinking has always been on the defensive. That remains the case. From the “Know-Nothings” of the early nineteenth century to the Ku Klux Klan to the “America Firsters” to the “Tea Party” of our own time, indeed, the United States has suffered from what Richard Hofstadter called a “paranoid” strain in its politics. The most cursory look at world events further justifies this assessment. Human rights, tolerance, cosmopolitan ideals (and even science) are most everywhere under siege—or, at least, contested—by forces of religious fanaticism, cultural provincialism, and authoritarian reaction.

In castigating the Enlightenment, the Frankfurt School ignored what Sir Isaiah Berlin first termed the Counter-Enlightenment. Luminaries of the reaction like Johann Georg Hamann were of an inferior intellectual caliber than their liberal opponents. They reveal themselves as so authoritarian, narrow-minded, and bigoted that they are barely worth reading today. In forgetting about them, however, criticisms of the Enlightenment offered by the Frankfurt School ultimately prove distorted. The phenomenon is judged out of context and with an abstract point of reference.

Liberal republicanism and democratic socialism both have their roots in the Enlightenment. Its partisans were in the forefront of those contesting the exercise of arbitrary power by unaccountable institutions. But they also contributed to the transformation of civil society through their attack on elementary forms of cruelty, religious dogmatism, illiteracy, superstition, xenophobia, and impolite behavior. The Enlightenment legacy has only gained in its social and political relevance. There are three basic political points for critical theory to consider:


Enlightenment ideals evince an elective affinity with anti-authoritarian movements. Left-wing movements tend to privilege cosmopolitanism over parochialism, reason over intuition, skepticism over tradition, and liberty over authority. p. 110It only makes sense that right-wing movements should embrace the Counter-Enlightenment. Two movements were in conflict from the start. The dialectic of enlightenment is a fiction.


Enlightenment norms have an inherently critical character. Victims of prejudice inevitably refer to them when calling for remedial action. No custom or tradition, moreover, is exempt from scrutiny. Universal norms associated with the Enlightenment contest the personal prejudices held even by many of its most notable representatives.


Enlightenment principles foster pluralism. They expressly reject integral nationalism and the organic community. They also highlight tolerance, experimentation, and autonomy. Only insofar as the liberal rule of law is operative is it possible to speak about the free and practical exercise of subjectivity.

None of this was fully appreciated by the inner circle of the Frankfurt School—and the implications are apparent in its treatment of mass education and the culture industry. Insofar as works of art are treated no differently than other commodities, the culture industry is seen by the Frankfurt School as standardizing aesthetic experience and imperiling subjectivity. An inevitable loss of intellectual standards takes place through its obsession with maximizing profits by constantly lowering the lowest common denominator. Popularity integrates the work into the system. Its critical character and its ability to project an emancipated alternative therefore necessarily diminish. Only highly complex and sophisticated artworks can subsequently elicit repressed utopian images and experiences of subjectivity capable of resisting the debilitating impulses of mass society.

However, there is nothing stagnant about the culture industry. Its aesthetic and technological inventions have been astonishing. It has fostered pluralism by generating multiple publics—each with its own standards of judgment and purpose. Many of its works challenge the status quo and reification. But that is not really the point. Insisting that genuine art must somehow contest the p. 111ontology of false conditions is nostalgia for the seminar room masquerading as radicalism.

Critical theory thereby lays itself open to caricature: its negation appears as the liberator incapable of either identifying the form that liberation should take or dealing with the embrace of oppression by the oppressed. Especially the adherents of negative dialectics never seem willing to put anything on the table other than their completely arbitrary taste for what constitutes resistance. Culture has always been used to maintain the rule of the powerful and the submission of the powerless. The ruling ideas,” wrote Brecht in Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1929), “are the ideas of those who rule.” With its abstract preoccupations, however, the Frankfurt School strips resistance to those ideas of any material referent.

Ideological conflicts within the cultural apparatus remain unspecified and indeterminate. Extreme populist tendencies on the Left may condemn complexity, ignore the canon, and dismiss the idea of classic works in ways that render it complicit in its own oppression. Yet critical theory might benefit from a bit less emphasis on the way in which the culture industry manipulates art than with its still untapped potential for shaping progressive political awareness.

Saturday Night Live and the comedienne Tina Fey helped demolish Governor Sarah Palin—the notorious vice-presidential choice of Senator John McCain and the Republicans in 2008—at least for that campaign. Mass media has, of course, been employed by right-wing demagogues. But the culture industry is best conceived as what the critical philosopher Douglas Kellner termed a “contested terrain” in which battles are constantly taking place between unequal combatants with opposed ideological visions and values. Or put another way, the culture industry is a branch of commodity production that can prove critical of its context.

p. 112Walter Benjamin treated such themes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1935). This famous essay juxtaposes the premodern against the modern experience of painting. Taking place in a religious context, the premodern encounter with a painting is bathed in an “aura”: the onlooker finds the work unique, authentic, a living symbol beyond the techniques used to produce it, and grounded within a palpable tradition. The technological ability to reproduce the work—think of a painting by Picasso turned into a poster adorning the wall of a college student—strips away its aura, its uniqueness, its authenticity, and its grounding in a fixed tradition. The loss of aura can intensify feelings of alienation and the appeal of reactionary movements intent upon providing an illusory sense of belonging. But the erosion of aura can also open the work to critical reflection or what Benjamin termed “a heightened presence of mind.”

Two possibilities subsequently present themselves: either the audience succumbs to emotional manipulation in an inauthentic attempt to experience what can no longer be experienced or it employs critical reflection to foster existential and political awareness. Too often, however, critics of the culture industry essentially deny that choice: the loss of aura is usually understood as presaging the manipulation of subjectivity and justifying the estrangement of art from the tastes and interests of the broader public.

Entertainment and reflection are not always mutually exclusive. Alternative media and cyberspace offer new options for progressive forces. Technical virtuosity also need not prove self-indulgent. Karl Krauss, who was much revered by Adorno, attacked the press and the conformist intellectuals of his time with satirical venom and a linguistic facility rarely found today. But Kraus’s assault on the “failure of the imagination” that marked his time had a concrete focus: it was directed at cultural luminaries who were unable to envision the practical implications of their words.

p. 113Similar concerns mark an experimental—if highly controversial—novel like Human Smoke (2008) by Nicholson Baker. That work about the interwar period and the genesis of genocide employs hundreds of citations and anecdotes for the reader to organize in a constellation that analyzes the terrible dynamics of political violence, disparages mythical icons, reclaims forgotten men and women of conscience, and crystallizes the dignity of pacifism. It is possible to disagree with the author’s conclusions, but impossible to ignore the critical perspective on history that he brings to bear or the ethical impulses informing his work. Enough popular intellectuals inside and outside the culture industry are engaged in producing new constellations and rubbing history against the grain—often with a political purpose.

The transformative impulse

Critical theory was originally intended as an interdisciplinary enterprise to which each might bring his or her unique disciplinary talent and expertise. Its representatives highlighted the relation between philosophy and politics, society and psychology, culture and liberation. They conceived of the totality and changed the way in which the social sciences, the humanities, and even interpreters of the natural sciences look at the world.

The Frankfurt School called outworn concepts into question. Its members looked at cultural ruins and lost hopes and what hegemonic cultural forces had ignored or repressed. They demanded that those committed to the ideals of liberation respond to new contingencies and new constraints. They also intimated the need for a new understanding of the relation between theory and practice. Theirs is a proud legacy that is worth preserving—although without slavish devotion to this or that position or prophecy. Critical theory has new conditions to confront: the world has grown larger, new encounters with old civilizations have taken place, identities have multiplied, and—perhaps for the first time—it is possible to speak about a global economy and cultural system.

p. 114When Max Horkheimer took over the Institute, he hoped that critical theory would become a kind of public philosophy rather than yet another academic specialty that catered to an audience of experts. If this is still the goal, then critical theorists need to stop using the style of a tax form and abandon a one-sided analysis of mass culture based on the proposition that popularity—or clarity—is somehow inherently detrimental to the radicalism of a work.

Fostering a radical public philosophy is possible only by interrogating public problems and offering alternatives to the ways in which society stunts individuality. Critical theory has too long indulged what Thomas Mann first called a “power-protected inwardness.” New aims and methods are necessary to illuminate imbalances of social, economic, and political power with an eye on the prospects for intervention.

Such an enterprise rests on clarifying the values and interests that existing ideologies and institutions tend to hide—so that everyday people can judge them and respond appropriately. C. Wright Mills made just this point in The Sociological Imagination (1960). In that classic work, which was strongly influenced by critical theory, this noted radical thinker called upon academics and intellectuals to transform “private troubles into public issues.” Women have already turned incest and spousal abuse from private into public concerns; gay and lesbian citizens have advocated the need for legislation against “hate crimes”; people of color are challenging institutional racism; and countless other attempts have been made—and are still being made—to render the myriad institutions of the powerful accountable to the disempowered.

Agency has not disappeared from the world. Radical social movements still exist. But they are divided by deep and abiding differences. There is competition for resources, loyalty, and publicity. Incentives exist for organized interest groups to engage in the moral economy of the separate deal—so that the whole of the Left becomes less than the sum of its parts. Critical theory can p. 115help in coordinating interests with new categories and new principles. It has other tasks as well.

Democracy remains unfinished; cosmopolitanism is challenged by identity; socialism requires a new definition; and class ideals still await realization. The cultural inheritance of the past has still not been reclaimed; our experience of the world is still too narrow; and the ability of audiences to learn still requires criteria concerning what needs to be taught. New forms of redemption may still exist for the neglected utopian shards that have been littered throughout history. Engaging these matters requires an interdisciplinary outlook informed by liberating norms. There is always room for the discussion of regulative ideals like justice, liberty, and the like.

That is also the case for ontological categories dealing with the structure and meaning of existence. But there are better things for critical theorists to do than indulge what has become an obsession with attempting to express the inexpressible. Better to identify what is apparent but unrecognized, painful yet remediable, and repressed yet empowering. Only by confronting the world with a multifaceted transformative project can critical theory reassert its uniqueness and the salience of its animating ideals: solidarity, resistance, and freedom.