Varities of neo-marxian theory economic determinism

Download 226.07 Kb.
Date conversion17.05.2016
Size226.07 Kb.
  1   2   3   4





Georg Lukacs

Antonio Gramsci


The Major Critiques of Social and Intellectual Life

The Major Contributions

Criticisms of Critical Theory

The Ideas of Jurgen Habermas

Critical Theory Today


Capital and Labor

Fordism and Post-Fordism


The Modern World-System


The Production of Space

Trialectics Spaces of Hope


Analytical Marxism

Postmodern Marxian Theory

After Marxism

Criticisms of Post-Marxism

In this chapter we deal with a variety of theories that are better reflections of Marx's ideas than are the conflict theories discussed at the close of the preceding chapter. Al­though each of the theories discussed here is derived from Marx's theory, there are many important differences among them.


Marx often sounded like an economic determinist; that is, he seemed to consider the economic system of paramount importance and to argue that it determined all other sec­tors of society-politics, religion, idea systems, and so forth. Although Manx did see the economic sector as preeminent, at least in capitalist society, as a dialectician he could not have taken a deterministic position, because the dialectic is characterized by the no­tion that there is continual feedback and mutual interaction among the various sectors of society. Politics, religion, and so on, cannot be reduced to epiphenomena determined by the economy, because they affect the economy just as they are affected by it. Despite the nature of the dialectic, Marx still is interpreted as an economic determinist. Although some aspects of Marx's work would lead to this conclusion, adopting it means ignoring the overall dialectical thrust of his theory.

Agger (1978) argued that economic determinism reached its peak as an interpretation of Marxian theory during the period of the Second Communist International, between 1889 and 1914. This historical period often is seen as the apex of early market capital­ism, and its booms and busts led to many predictions about its imminent demise. Those Marxists who believed in economic determinism saw the breakdown of capitalism as inevitable. In their view, Marxism was capable of producing a scientific theory of this breakdown (as well as other aspects of capitalist society) with the predictive reliability of the physical and natural sciences. All an analyst had to do was examine the structures of capitalism, especially the economic structures. Built into those structures was a series of processes that inevitably would bring down capitalism, and so it was up to the eco­nomic determinist to discover how these processes worked.

Friedrich Engels, Marx's collaborator and benefactor, led the way in this interpreta­tion of Marxian theory, as did Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. Kautsky, for exam­ple, discussed the inevitable decline of capitalism as

unavoidable in the sense that the inventors improve technic and the capitalists in their desire for profit revolutionize the whole economic life, as it is also inevitable that the workers aim for shorter hours of labor and higher wages, that they organize themselves, that they fight the cap­italist class and its state, as it is inevitable that they aim for the conquest of political power and the overthrow of capitalist rule. Socialism is inevitable because the class struggle and the vic­tory of the proletariat is inevitable.
(Kautsky, cited in Agger, 1978:94)
The imagery here is of actors impelled by the structures of capitalism into taking a series of actions.

It was this imagery that led to the major criticism of scientifically oriented economic determinism-that it was untrue to the dialectical thrust of Marx's theory. Specifically, the theory seemed to short-circuit the dialectic by making individual thought and action insignificant. The economic structures of capitalism that determined individual thought and action were the crucial element. This interpretation also led to political quietism and therefore was inconsistent with Marx’s thinking (Guilhot, 2002). Why should individuals act if the capitalist system was going to crumble under its own structural contradiction? Clearly, given Marx’s desire to integrate theory and practice, a perspective that omits action and even reduces it to insignificance would not be in the tradition of his thinking.


As a result of the criticisms just discussed, economic determinism began to fade in im­portance, and a number of theorists developed other varieties of Marxian theory. One group of Marxists returned to the Hegelian roots of Marx's theory in search of a subjec­tive orientation to complement the strength of the early Marxists at the objective, mate­rial level. The early Hegelian Marxists sought to restore the dialectic between the subjective and the objective aspects of social life. Their interest in subjective factors laid the basis for the later development of critical theory, which came to focus almost exclu­sively on subjective factors. A number of thinkers (for example, Karl Korsch) could be taken as illustrative of Hegelian Marxism, but we will focus on the work of one who has gained great prominence, Georg Lukacs, especially his book History and Class Con­sciousness (1922/1968). We also pay brief attention to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci.

Georg Lukacs

The attention of Marxian scholars of the early twentieth century was limited mainly to Marx's later, largely economic works, such as Capital (1867/1967). The early work, es­pecially The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1932/1964), which was more heavily influenced by Hegelian subjectivism, was largely unknown to Marxian thinkers. The rediscovery of the Manuscripts and their publication in 1932 was a major turning point. However, by the 1920s Lukacs already had written his major work, in which he emphasized the subjective side of Marxian theory. As Martin Jay puts it, "His­tory and Class Consciousness anticipated in several fundamental ways the philosophi­cal implications of Marx's 1844 Manuscripts, whose publication it antedated by almost a decade" (1984:102). Lukacs's major contribution to Marxian theory lies in his work on two major ideas-reification (Dahms, 1998) and class consciousness.

Reification Lukacs made it clear from the beginning that he was not totally reject­ing the work of the economic Marxists on reification, but simply seeking to broaden and extend their ideas. Lukacs commenced with the Marxian concept of commodities, which he characterized as "the central, structural problem of capitalist society" (1922/1968:83). A commodity is at base a relation among people that, they come to be­lieve, takes on the character of a thing and develops an objective form. People in their interaction with nature in capitalist society produce various products, or commodities (for example, bread, automobiles, motion pictures). However, people tend to lose sight of the fact that they produce these commodities and give them their value. Value comes to be seen as being produced by a market that is independent of the actors. The


fetishism of commodities is the process by which commodities and the market for them are granted independent objective existence by the actors in capitalist society. Marx's con­cept of the fetishism of commodities was the basis for Lukacs's concept of reification.

The crucial difference between the fetishism of commodities and reification lies in the extensiveness of the two concepts. Whereas the former is restricted to the economic institution, the latter is applied by Lukacs to all of society-the state, the law, and the economic sector. The same dynamic applies in all sectors of capitalist society: people come to believe that social structures have a life of their own, and as a result those struc­tures do come to have an objective character. Lukacs delineated this process:

Man in capitalist society confronts a reality "made" by himself (as a class) which appears to him to be a natural phenomenon alien to himself; he is wholly at the mercy of its "laws"; his activity is confined to the exploitation of the inexorable fulfillment of certain individual laws for his own (egoistic) interests. But even while "acting" he remains, in the nature of the case, the object and not the subject of events.
(Lukacs, 1922/1968:135)

In developing his ideas on reification, Lukacs integrated insights from Weber and Simmel. However, because reification was embedded in Marxian theory, it was seen as a problem limited to capitalism and not, as it was to Weber and Simmel, the inevitable fate of humankind.

Class and False Consciousness Class consciousness refers to the belief systems shared by those who occupy the same class position within society. Lukacs made it clear that class consciousness is neither the sum nor the average of individual consciousnesses; rather, it is a property of a group of people who share a similar place in the pro­ductive system. This view leads to a focus on the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie and especially of the proletariat. In Lukacs's work, there is a clear link between objec­tive economic position, class consciousness, and the "real, psychological thoughts of men about their lives" (1922/1968:51).

The concept of class consciousness necessarily implies, at least in capitalism, the prior state of false consciousness. That is, classes in capitalism generally do not have a clear sense of their true class interests. For example, until the revolutionary stage, mem­bers of the proletariat do not fully realize the nature and extent of their exploitation in capitalism. The falsity of class consciousness is derived from the class's position within the economic structure of society: "Class consciousness implies a class-conditioned un­consciousness of one's own socio-historical and economic condition.... The `false­ness,' the illusion implicit in this situation, is in no sense arbitrary" (Lukacs, 1922/1968:52). Most social classes throughout history have been unable to overcome false consciousness and thereby achieve class consciousness. The structural position of the proletariat within capitalism, however, gives it the unique ability to achieve class consciousness.

The ability to achieve class consciousness is peculiar to capitalist societies. In pre-capitalist societies, a variety of factors prevented the development of class consciousness. For one thing, the slate, independent of the economy, affected social strata; for another, status (prestige)


consciousness tended to mask class (economic) consciousness. As a result, Lukacs concluded, "There is therefore no possible position within such a so­ciety from which the economic basis of all social relations could be made conscious" (1922/1968:57). In contrast, the economic base of capitalism is clearer and simpler. Peo­ple may not be conscious of its effects, but they are at least unconsciously aware of them. As a result, "class consciousness arrived at the point where it could become con­scious" (Lukacs, 1922/1968:59). At this stage, society turns into an ideological battle­ground in which those who seek to conceal the class character of society are pitted against those who seek to expose it.

Lukacs compared the various classes in capitalism on the issue of class conscious­ness. He argued that the petty bourgeoisie and the peasants cannot develop class con­sciousness because of the ambiguity of their structural position within capitalism. Because these two classes represent vestiges of society in the feudal era, they are not able to develop a clear sense of the nature of capitalism. The bourgeoisie can develop class consciousness, but at best it understands the development of capitalism as some­thing external, subject to objective laws, that it can experience only passively.

The proletariat has the capacity to develop true class consciousness, and as it does, the bourgeoisie is thrown on the defensive. Lukacs refused to see the proletariat as sim­ply driven by external forces but viewed it instead as an active creator of its own fate. In the confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the former class has all the intellectual and organizational weapons, whereas all the latter has, at least at first, is the ability to see society for what it is. As the battle proceeds, the proletariat moves from being a "class in itself," that is, a structurally created entity, to a "class for itself," a class conscious of its position and mission. In other words, "the class struggle must be raised from the level of economic necessity to the level of conscious aim and effective class consciousness" (Lukacs, 1922/1968:76). When the struggle reaches this point, the pro­letariat is capable of the action that can overthrow the capitalist system.

Lukacs had a rich sociological theory, although it is embedded in Marxian terms. He was concerned with the dialectical relationship among the structures (primarily eco­nomic) of capitalism, the idea systems (especially class consciousness), individual thought, and, ultimately, individual action. His theoretical perspective provides an im­portant bridge between the economic determinists and more modern Marxists.

Antonio Gramsci

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci also played a key role in the transition from eco­nomic determinism to more modern Marxian positions (Salamini, 1981). Gramsci was critical of Marxists who are "deterministic, fatalistic and mechanistic" (1971:336). In fact, he wrote an essay entitled "The Revolution against 'Capital"' (Gramsci, 1917/1977) in which he celebrated "the resurrection of political will against the eco­nomic determinism of those who reduced Marxism to the historical laws of Marx's best-known work [Capital]" (Jay, 1984:155). Although he recognized that there were historical regularities, he rejected the idea of automatic or inevitable historical develop­ments. Thus, (he masses had to act in order to bring about a social


revolution. But to act, the masses had to become conscious of their situation and the nature of the system in which they lived. Thus, although Gramsci recognized the importance of structural factors, especially the economy, he did not believe that these structural factors led the masses to revolt. The masses needed to develop a revolutionary ideology, but they could not do that on their own. Gramsci operated with a rather elitist conception in which ideas were generated by intellectuals and then extended to the masses and put into prac­tice by them. The masses could not generate such ideas, and they could experience them, once in existence, only on faith. The masses could not become self-conscious on their own; they needed the help of social elites. However, once the masses had been influenced by these ideas, they would take the actions that lead to social revolution. Gramsci, like Lukacs, focused on collective ideas rather than on social structures like the economy, and both operated within traditional Marxian theory.

Gramsci's central concept, one that reflects his Hegelianism, is hegemony (for a con­temporary use of the concept of hegemony, see the discussion of the work of Laclau and Mouffe later in this chapter; Abrahamsen, 1997). According to Gramsci, "the essential ingredient of the most modern philosophy of praxis [the linking of thought and action] is the historical-philosophical concept of `hegemony"' (1932/1975:235). Hegemony is defined by Gramsci as cultural leadership exercised by the ruling class. He contrasts hegemony to coercion that is "exercised by legislative or executive powers, or expressed through police intervention" (Gramsci, 1932/1975:235). Whereas economic Marxists tended to emphasize the economy and the coercive aspects of state domination, Gram­sci emphasized "`hegemony' and cultural leadership" (1932/1975:235). In an analysis of capitalism, Gramsci wanted to know how some intellectuals, working on behalf of the capitalists, achieved cultural leadership and the assent of the masses.

Not only does the concept of hegemony help us understand domination within capi­talism, it also serves to orient Gramsci's thoughts on revolution. That is, through revo­lution, it is not enough to gain control of the economy and the state apparatus; it is also necessary to gain cultural leadership over the rest of society. It is here that Gramsci sees a key role for communist intellectuals and a communist party.

We turn now to critical theory, which grew out of the work of Hegelian Marxists such as Lukdcs and Gramsci, and which has moved even further from the traditional Marxian roots of economic determinism.


Critical theory is the product of a group of German neo-Marxists who were dissatisfied with the state of Marxian theory (Bernstein, 1995; Kellner, 1993; for a broader view of critical theory, see Agger, 1998), particularly its tendency toward economic determin­ism. The organization associated with critical theory, the Institute of Social Research, was officially founded in Frankfurt, Germany, on February 23, 1923 (Wiggershaus, 1994). Critical theory has spread beyond the confines of the Frankfurt school (Calhoun and Karagunis, 2001; Telo.s, 1989-90). Critical theory was and is largely a European ori­entation, although its influence in American sociology hits grown (Marcus, 1999; van den Berg, 1980).

The Major Critiques of Social and Intellectual Life

Critical theory is composed largely of criticisms of various aspects of social and intel­lectual life, but its ultimate goal is to reveal more accurately the nature of society (Bleich, 1977).

Criticisms of Marxian Theory Critical theory takes as its starting point a critique of Marxian theories. The critical theorists are most disturbed by the economic determinists--the mechanistic, or mechanical, Marxists (Antonio, 1981; Schroyer, 1973; Sewart, 1978). Some (for example, Habermas, 1971) criticize the determinism implicit in parts of Marx's original work, but most focus their criticisms on the neo­-Marxists, primarily because they had interpreted Marx's work too mechanistically. The critical theorists do not say that economic determinists were wrong in focusing on the economic realm but that they should have been concerned with other aspects of social life as well. As we will see, the critical school seeks to rectify this imbalance by focus­ing its attention on the cultural realm (Fuery, 2000; Schroyer, 1973:33). In addition to attacking other Marxian theories, the critical school critiqued societies, such as the for­mer Soviet Union, built ostensibly on Marxian theory (Marcuse, 1958).

Criticisms of Positivism Critical theorists also focus on the philosophical under­pinnings of scientific inquiry, especially positivism (Bottomore, 1984; Halfpenny, 2001; Morrow, 1994). The criticism of positivism is related, at least in part, to the criticism of economic determinism, because some of those who were determinists accepted part or all of the positivistic theory of knowledge. Positivism is depicted as accepting the idea that a single scientific method is applicable to all fields of study. It takes the physical sciences as the standard of certainty and exactness for all disciplines. Positivists believe that knowledge is inherently neutral. They feel that they can keep human values out of their work. This belief, in turn, leads to the view that science is not in the position of advocat­ing any specific form of social action. (See Chapter 1 for more discussion of positivism.)

Positivism is opposed by the critical school on various grounds (Sewart, 1978). For one thing, positivism tends to reify the social world and see it as a natural process. The critical theorists prefer to focus on human activity as well as on the ways in which such activity affects larger social structures. In short, positivism loses sight of the actors (Habermas, 1971), reducing them to passive entities determined by "natural forces." Given their belief in the distinctiveness of the actor, the critical theorists would not ac­cept the idea that the general laws of science can be applied without question to human action. Positivism is assailed for being content to judge the adequacy of means toward given ends and for not making a similar judgment about ends. This critique leads to the view that positivism is inherently conservative, incapable of challenging the existing system. As Martin Jay says of positivism, "The result was the absolutizing of `facts' and the reification of the existing order" (1973:62). Positivism leads the actor and the social scientist to passivity. Few Marxists of any type would support a perspective that does not relate theory and practice. Despite these criticisms of positivism, some Marxists (for example, some structuralists, analytic Marxists) espouse positivism, and Marx himself was often guilty of being overly positivistic (Habermas, 1971).


Criticisms of Sociology Sociology is attacked for its "scientism," that is, for mak­ing the scientific method an end in itself. In addition, sociology is accused of accepting the status quo. The critical school maintains that sociology does not seriously criticize society or seek to transcend the contemporary social structure. Sociology, the critical school contends, has surrendered its obligation to help people oppressed by contempo­rary society.

Members of this school are critical of sociologists' focus on society as a whole rather than on individuals in society; sociologists are accused of ignoring the interaction of the individual and society. Although most sociological perspectives are not guilty of ignor­ing this interaction, this view is a cornerstone of the critical school's attacks on sociolo­gists. Because they ignore the individual, sociologists are seen as being unable to say anything meaningful about political changes that could lead to a "just and humane soci­ety" (Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, 1973:46). As Zoltan Tar put it, sociology becomes "an integral part of the existing society instead of being a means of critique and a ferment of renewal" (1977:x).

Critique of Modern Society Most of the critical school's work is aimed at a cri­tique of modern society and a variety of its components. Whereas much of early Marxian theory aimed specifically at the economy, the critical school shifted its orientation to the cultural level in light of what it considers the realities of modern capitalist society. That is, the locus of domination in the modern world shifted from the economy to the cultural realm. Still, the critical school retains its interest in domination,1 although in the modern world it is likely to be domination by cultural rather than economic elements. The critical school thus seeks to focus on the cultural repression of the individual in modern society.

The critical thinkers have been shaped not only by Marxian theory but also by Weberian theory, as reflected in their focus on rationality as the dominant development in the modern world. In fact, supporters of this approach often are labeled "Weberian Marxists" (Dahms, 1997; Lowy, 1996). As Trent Schroyer (1970) made clear, the view of the critical school is that in modern society the repression produced by rationality has replaced economic exploitation as the dominant social problem. The critical school clearly has adopted Weber's differentiation between formal rationality and substantive rationality, or what the critical theorists think of as reason. To the critical theorists, for­mal rationality is concerned unreflectively with the question of the most effective means for achieving any given purpose (Tar, 1977). This is viewed as "technocratic thinking," in which the objective is to serve the forces of domination, not to emancipate people from domination. The goal is simply to find the most efficient means to whatever ends are defined as important by those in power. Technocratic thinking is contrasted to rea­son, which is, in the minds of critical theorists, the hope for society. Reason involves the assessment of means in terms of the ultimate human values of justice, peace, and hap­piness. Critical theorists identified Nazism in general, and its concentration camps more specifically, as examples of formal rationality in mortal combat with reason. Thus, as George Friedman puts it,

1This is made abundantly clear by Trent Schroyer (1973), who entitled his book on the critical school The Critique of Domination.

"Auschwitz was a rational place, but it was not a reasonable one" (1981:15; see also Chapter 12 and the discussion of Bauman, 1989).

Despite the seeming rationality of modern life, the critical school views the modem world as rife with irrationality (Crook, 1995). This idea can be labeled the "irrationality of rationality" or, more specifically, the irrationality of formal rationality. In Herbert Marcuse's view, although it appears to be the embodiment of rationality, "this society is irrational as a whole" (1964:ix; see also Farganis, 1975). It is irrational that the rational world is destructive of individuals and their needs and abilities, that peace is maintained through a constant threat of war, and that despite the existence of sufficient means, peo­ple remain impoverished, repressed, exploited, and unable to fulfill themselves.

The critical school focuses primarily on one form of formal rationality-modern technology (Feenberg, 1996). Marcuse (1964), for example, was a severe critic of mod­ern technology, at least as it is employed in capitalism. He saw technology in modern capitalist society as leading to totalitarianism. In fact, he viewed it as leading to new, more effective, and even more "pleasant" methods of external control over individuals. The prime example is the use of television to socialize and pacify the population (other examples are mass sports and pervasive exploitation of sex). Marcuse rejected the idea that technology is neutral in the modern world and saw it instead as a means to domi­nate people. It is effective because it is made to seem neutral when it is in fact enslav­ing. It serves to suppress individuality. The actor's inner freedom has been "invaded and whittled down" by modern technology. The result is what Marcuse called "one­-dimensional society," in which individuals lose the ability to think critically and nega­tively about society. Marcuse did not see technology per se as the enemy, but rather technology as it is employed in modern capitalist society: "Technology, no matter how 'pure,' sustains and streamlines the continuum of domination. This fatal link can be cut only by a revolution which makes technology and technique subservient to the needs and goals of free men" (1969:56). Marcuse retained Marx's original view that technol­ogy is not inherently a problem and that it can be used to develop a "better" society.

Critique of Culture The critical theorists level significant criticisms at what they call the "culture industry," the rationalized, bureaucratized structures (for example, the television networks) that control modern culture. Interest in the culture industry reflects their concern with the Marxian concept of "superstructure" rather than with the eco­nomic base. The culture industry, producing what is conventionally called "mass cul­ture," is defined as the "administered ... nonspontaneous, reified, phony culture rather than the real thing" (Jay, 1973:216). Two things worry the critical thinkers most about this industry. First, they are concerned about its falseness. They think of it as a prepack­aged set of ideas mass-produced and disseminated to the masses by the media. Second, the critical theorists are disturbed by its pacifying, repressive, and stupefying effect on people (D. Cook, 1996; Friedman, 1981; Tar, 1977:83; Zipes, 1994).

Douglas Kellner (1990) has self-consciously offered a critical theory of television. While he embeds his work in the cultural concerns of the Frankfurt school, Kellner draws on other Marxian traditions to present a more rounded conception of the television industry. He critiques the critical school because it "neglects detailed analysis of the political economy of the media, conceptualizing mass culture merely as an instrument of capitalist ideology" (Kellner, 1990:14).


Thus, in addition to looking at television as part of the culture industry, Kellner connects it to both corporate capitalism and the po­litical system. Furthermore, Kellner does not see television as monolithic or as con­trolled by coherent corporate forces but rather as a "highly conflictual mass medium in which competing economic, political, social and cultural forces intersect" (1990:14). Thus, while working within the tradition of critical theory, Kellner rejects the view that capitalism is a totally administered world. Nevertheless, Kellner sees television as a threat to democracy, individuality, and freedom and offers suggestions (for example, more democratic accountability, greater citizen access and participation, greater diver­sity on television) to deal with the threat. Thus, Kellner goes beyond a mere critique to offer proposals for dealing with the dangers posed by television.

The critical school is also interested in and critical of what it calls the "knowledge in­dustry," which refers to entities concerned with knowledge production (for example, universities and research institutes) that have become autonomous structures in our so­ciety. Their autonomy has allowed them to extend themselves beyond their original mandate (Schroyer, 1970). They have become oppressive structures interested in ex­panding their influence throughout society.

Marx's critical analysis of capitalism led him to have hope for the future, but many critical theorists have come to a position of despair and hopelessness. They see the prob­lems of the modern world not as specific to capitalism but as endemic to a rationalized world. They see the future, in Weberian terms, as an "iron cage" of increasingly rational structures from which hope for escape lessens all the time.

Much of critical theory (like the bulk of Marx's original formulation) is in the form of critical analyses. Even though the critical theorists also have a number of positive in­terests, one of the basic criticisms made of critical theory is that it offers more criticisms than it does positive contributions. This incessant negativity galls many scholars, and for this reason they feel that critical theory has little to offer to sociological theory.

The Major Contributions

Subjectivity The great contribution of the critical school has been its effort to re­orient Marxian theory in a subjective direction. Although this constitutes a critique of Marx's materialism and his dogged focus on economic structures, it also represents a strong contribution to our understanding of the subjective elements of social life at both the individual and the cultural levels.

The Hegelian roots of Marxian theory are the major source of interest in subjectiv­ity. Many of the critical thinkers see themselves as returning to those roots, as ex­pressed in Marx's early works. In doing so, they are following up on the work of the early twentieth-century Marxian revisionists, such as Georg Lukacs, who sought not to focus on subjectivity but simply to integrate such an interest with the traditional Marxian concern with objective structures (Agger, 1978). Lukacs did not seek a fundamen­tal restructuring of Marxian theory, although the later critical theorists do have this broader and more ambitious objective.

We begin with the critical school's interest in culture. As pointed out above. the critical school has shifted to a concern with the cultural “superstructure” rather than with the economic "base."

One factor motivating this shift is that the critical school feels that Marxists have overemphasized economic structures and that this emphasis has served to overwhelm their interest in the other aspects of social reality, especially the culture. In addition to this factor, a series of external changes in society point to such a shift (Agger, 1978). In particular, the prosperity of the post-World War II period in America seems to have led to a disappearance of internal economic contradictions in general and class conflict in particular. False consciousness seems to be nearly universal: all social classes, including the working class, appear to be beneficiaries and ardent supporters of the capitalist system. In addition, the former Soviet Union, despite its socialist economy, was at least as oppressive as capitalist society. Because the two societies had different economies, the critical thinkers had to look elsewhere for the major source of oppres­sion. What they looked toward initially was culture.

To the previously discussed aspects of the Frankfurt school's concerns-rationality, the culture industry, and the knowledge industry-can be added another set of concerns, the most notable of which is an interest in ideology. By ideology the critical theorists mean the idea systems, often false and obfuscating, produced by societal elites. All these specific aspects of the superstructure and the critical school's orientation to them can be subsumed under the heading "critique of domination" (Agger, 1978; Schroyer, 1973). This interest in domination was at first stimulated by fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, but it has shifted to a concern with domination in capitalist society. The modern world has reached a stage of unsurpassed domination of individuals. In fact, the control is so complete that it no longer requires deliberate actions on the part of the leaders. The con­trol pervades all aspects of the cultural world and, more important, is internalized in the actor. In effect, actors have come to dominate themselves in the name of the larger so­cial structure. Domination has reached a complete stage where it no longer appears to be domination at all. Because domination is no longer perceived as personally damaging and alienating, it often seems as if the world is the way it is supposed to be. It is no longer clear to actors what the world ought to be like. Thus, the pessimism of the criti­cal thinkers is buttressed, because they no longer can see how rational analysis can help alter the situation.

One of the critical school's concerns at the cultural level is with what Habermas (1975) called legitimations. These can be defined as systems of ideas generated by the political system, and theoretically by any other system, to support the existence of the system. They are designed to "mystify" the political system, to make it unclear exactly what is happening.

In addition to such cultural interests, the critical school is concerned with actors and their consciousness and what happens to them in the modern world. The consciousness of the masses came to be controlled by external forces (such as the culture industry). As a result, the masses failed to develop a revolutionary consciousness. Unfortunately, the critical theorists, like most Marxists and most sociologists, often fail to differentiate clearly between individual consciousness and culture or specify the many links between them. In much of their work, they move freely back and forth between consciousness and culture with little or no sense that they are changing levels.

Of great importance here is the effort by critical theorists, most notably Marcuse (1969), to integrate Freud's insights at the level of consciousness (and unconsciousness) into the critical theorists’ interpretation of the culture. Critical theorists derive three things from Freud's

work: (1) a psychological structure to work with in developing their theories, (2) a sense of psychopathology that allows them to understand both the nega­tive impact of modern society and the failure to develop revolutionary consciousness, and (3) the possibilities of psychic liberation (Friedman, 1981). One of the benefits of this interest in individual consciousness is that it offers a useful corrective to the pes­simism of the critical school and its focus on cultural constraints. Although people are controlled, imbued with false needs, and anesthetized, in Freudian terms they also are endowed with a libido (broadly conceived as sexual energy), which provides the basic source of energy for creative action oriented toward the overthrow of the major forms of domination.
Dialectics The second main positive focus of critical theory is an interest in di­alectics (this idea is critiqued from the viewpoint of analytical Marxism later in this chapter). At the most general level, a dialectical approach means a focus on the social totality.' "No partial aspect of social life and no isolated phenomenon may be compre­hended unless it is related to the historical whole, to the social structure conceived as a global entity" (Connerton, 1976:12). This approach involves rejection of a focus on any specific aspect of social life, especially the economic system, outside of its broader con­text. This approach also entails a concern with the interrelation of the various levels of social reality-most important, individual consciousness, the cultural superstructure, and the economic structure. Dialectics also carries with it a methodological prescription: One component of social life cannot be studied in isolation from the rest.

This idea has both diachronic and synchronic components. A synchronic view leads us to be concerned with the interrelationship of components of society within a contem­porary totality. A diachronic view carries with it a concern for the historical roots of to­day's society as well as for where it might be going in the future (Bauman, 1976). The domination of people by social and cultural structures--the "one-dimensional" society, to use Marcuse's phrase--is the result of a specific historical development and is not a universal characteristic of humankind. This historical perspective counteracts the common-sense view that emerges in capitalism that the system is a natural and in­evitable phenomenon. In the view of the critical theorists (and other Marxists), people have come to see society as "second nature"; it is "perceived by commonsensical wis­dom as an alien, uncompromising, demanding and high-handed power--exactly like non-human nature. To abide by the rules of reason, to behave rationally, to achieve success, to be free, man now had to accommodate himself to the `second nature"' (Bauman, 1976:6).

The critical theorists also are oriented to thinking about the future, but following Marx's lead, they refuse to be utopian; rather, they focus on criticizing and changing contemporary society (Alway, 1995). However, instead of directing their attention to so­ciety's economic structure as Marx had done, they concentrate on its cultural super­structure. Their dialectical approach commits them to work in the real world. They are not satisfied with seeking truth in scientific laboratories. The ultimate test of their ideas is the degree to which they are accepted and used in
2Jay (1984) sees "totality" as the heart of Marxian in general, not just of critical theory. However, this idea is rejected by postmodern Marxists (see the discussion later in this chapter.)


practice. This process they call au­thentication, which occurs when the people who have been the victims of distorted com­munication take up the ideas of critical theory and use them to free themselves from that system (Bauman, 1976:104). Thus we arrive at another aspect of the concerns of the critical thinkers-the liberation of humankind (Marcuse, 1964:222).

In more abstract terms, critical thinkers can be said to be preoccupied with the inter­play and relationship between theory and practice. The view of the Frankfurt school was that the two have been severed in capitalist society (Schroyer, 1973:28). That is, theo­rizing is done by one group, which is delegated, or more likely takes, that right, whereas practice is relegated to another, less powerful group. In many cases, the theorist's work is uninformed by what went on in the real world, leading to an impoverished and largely irrelevant body of Marxian and sociological theory. The point is to unify theory and practice so as to restore the relationship between them. Theory thus would be informed by practice, whereas practice would be shaped by theory. In the process, both theory and practice would be enriched.

Despite this avowed goal, most of critical theory has failed abysmally to integrate theory and practice. In fact, one of the most often voiced criticisms of critical theory is that it usually is written in such a way that it is totally inaccessible to the mass of peo­ple. Furthermore, in its commitment to studying culture and superstructure, critical the­ory addresses a number of very esoteric topics and has little to say about the pragmatic, day-to-day concerns of most people.

Knowledge and Human Interests One of the best-known dialectical concerns of the critical school is Jurgen Habermas's (1970, 1971) interest in the relationship be­tween knowledge and human interests-an example of a broader dialectical concern with the relationship between subjective and objective factors. But Habermas has been careful to point out that subjective and objective factors cannot be dealt with in isolation from one another. To him, knowledge systems exist at the objective level whereas hu­man interests are more subjective phenomena.

Habermas differentiated among three knowledge systems and their corresponding interests. The interests that lie behind and guide each system of knowledge are gener­ally unknown to laypeople, and it is the task of the critical theorists to uncover them. The first type of knowledge is analytic science, or classical positivistic scientific sys­tems. In Habermas's view, the underlying interest of such a knowledge system is tech­nical prediction and control, which can be applied to the environment, other societies, or people within society. In Habermas's view, analytic science lends itself quite easily to enhancing oppressive control. The second type of knowledge system is humanistic knowledge, and its interest lies in understanding the world. It operates from the general view that understanding our past generally helps us understand what is transpiring to­day. It has a practical interest in mutual and self-understanding. It is neither oppressive nor liberating. The third type is critical knowledge, which Habermas, and the Frankfurt school in general, espoused. The interest attached to this type of knowledge is human emancipation. It was hoped that the critical knowledge generated by Habermas and others would raise the self-consciousness of the masses (through mechanisms articu­lated by the Freudians) and lead to a social movement that would result in the hoped-­for emancipation.

  1   2   3   4

The database is protected by copyright © 2016
send message

    Main page