Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century
eBook - ePub

Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century

Darrow Schecter

Share book
224 pages
ePUB (mobile friendly)
Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century

Darrow Schecter

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents

About This Book

Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century provides a thorough overview of critical theory, looking at its history and shortfalls. First, the book explains the developments from the Frankfurt School and from more recent schools of thought, including Derrida, Deleuze, deconstruction, and post-structuralism. Then it looks at how critical theory has not kept pace with the changes and conflicts brought on by the post-Cold War world and globalization and how its deficits can be addressed. For the author, more than ever critical theory needs to synthesize theoretical perspective and empirical research. It also needs to be reconfigured in the light of the demands of new social movements, post-colonialism, and globalization. This volume is part of Critical Theory and Contemporary Society, a series that uses critical theory to explore contemporary society as a complex phenomenon and includes works on democracy, social movements, and terrorism. A unique resource, Critical Theory in the Twenty First Century will interest anyone researching issues in political theory, international relations theory, social theory, and critical theory.

Frequently asked questions
How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century by Darrow Schecter in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Politics & International Relations & Politics. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.


Chapters One and Two chart the theoretical, historical and sociological background required to understand how and why critical theory emerges. Following this preamble, Chapters Three to Five attempt to set out the broad lines of a critical social theory with relevance for the twenty-first century. Before the reconstructive work undertaken in the second part of the book begins, the first two chapters set the stage and briefly substantiate a number of issues touched on in the introduction, such as the claim that it is possible to distinguish between potential autonomy from unnecessary ignorance and dependence, on the one hand, and more or less successful modes of passive adaptation to unnecessarily rigid norms, on the other. This claim is linked to another hypothesis sketched in the introduction. The corollary to the thesis that the conditions of autonomy can be known and are socio-historical and cultural rather than abstractly moral or narrowly juridical, is that the phenomena which actively prevent the transition to freer forms of socio-economic and political organization (such as financial crisis or failure of the educational system, depending on context in every instance) can be known, subjected to critique, and eventually transformed. The failure to realize determinate political possibilities in practice is not simply a question of God’s will, individual or species destiny, the eruption of completely unpredictable social volcanoes or economic Tsunamis, etc., because each historical epoch indicates in different ways that humanity is not simply at the mercy of occult forces or secretly ordained hierarchies. This is not to say that there is no such thing as contingency or the exercise of social power issuing from contingency and uncertainty. But it does suggest there are more and less instrumentally rational ways of facing unpredictability and difficult choices. Societies accrue knowledge and planning capabilities as instances of monetary as well as non-monetary wealth, and indeed, a thinker like Hegel regards the capacity of the modern state to mediate public and private law as the ongoing institutionalization of such accumulated juridical, political and cultural knowledge. This point could be elaborated into a lengthy investigation of the rise and development of modern states and constitutions that is beyond the scope of this introduction to critical theory.1
What is an immediately pressing issue is assessing the extent to which the state can still be relied on to store and transmit this knowledge, and the mediation of private and public law remains the central task of politics. The relevant point for the discussion in this and subsequent chapters is that societies do not simply adapt to environmental scarcity and human conflict with purely technical or financial means. It seems clear that wealth and resources are not exclusively quantifiable or natural, and that there is a verifiable tendency for industrial societies to evolve as a series of simultaneous and plural processes characterized by polyvalent learning, individual choices and collectively binding decisions.2 Hence the terms learning, steering and planning are decidedly not synonymous with vaguely defined notions of progress or strictly balance sheet indicators of economic growth as a self-legitimizing means and end. They refer to the processes and institutions in and through which the relations between humanity and nature are mediated. In a variety of ways the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theorists claim that the specific ways in which these technical and non-technical processes are politically organized and socially embedded will have a great impact on the construction of reality principles informing prevalent conceptions of educational deficits, socio-economic dependence, political possibility and human emancipation. Just as the term socio-economic dependence refers to a set of phenomena which includes class but is not reducible to what are sometimes called class identity or class politics, human emancipation has a broader connotation than simply redistributive justice. While narrowly legalistic conceptions of justice can accommodate aspirations to negative liberty (liberty as non-infringement) and claims for redistributive justice (justice as punishment), it is unlikely that they can facilitate the realization of individual potential or the expansion of what a thinker like Gilles Deleuze might refer to as micro-political creativity.3 Existing social systems tend to regard such notions as matters of individual choice not susceptible to legal reform, so that any attempt to promote a positive conception of the good can be dismissed in advance as paternalist, interventionist, or undecidable in juridical terms. One of the questions to be taken up in Chapters Four and Five is whether or not this tendency on the part of late modern social systems can be attributed to the fact that they operate amidst the vestiges of early modern liberal-democratic political institutions and suppositions. Critical theory in the twenty-first century has to evolve so that it can address the inadequacies of prevailing notions of dependence, and at the same time develop a differentiated conceptual vocabulary capable of analysing systems as too formal, not formal enough, or both. While an excess of formalism is likely to be dogmatic and raises some of the problems related to paternalist interventionism, an insufficient degree of formalism raises issues connected with relativism and juridical undecidability. The second part of this chapter suggests that critical theory can best approach theoretical and institutional questions of form with a method capable of drawing attention to the socio-historical dimension of dialectics, while tempering the emphasis which theories of performance and recognition tend to give to its individual, subjective dimension.4
In somewhat overdrawn terms, it makes a great deal of difference if scarcity is regarded as a demon to be exorcised as well as a God to be placated, or if, by contrast, the deliberate marginalization of scarcity is approached as a simultaneous chance to institutionalize new forms of collective freedom and of individual self-overcoming. The implication is that the particular mode of production engaged to overcome scarcity is a crucial factor in determining whether production will serve to bring about the highest degree of freedom from natural as well as institutionally imposed necessity, including socially necessary labour time, thus making socially mediated self-overcoming a real possibility, or if production becomes the measure of productivity. In the latter case one has a tautological end in itself in analytical terms which in practical terms translates into the domination of the producers and the perpetuation of unnecessarily rigid norms dictating the terms defining what constitutes public and private wealth. These are obviously two very different scenarios. There is therefore a great deal more at stake than an academic argument if it can be shown that the first scenario can prevail over the second through a series of collective decisions. While such conscious and rational planning may well sound like either wishful thinking or dictatorship, the possibility of a gradual but palpable evolution towards the formulation of binding rational and consensual decisions has its origins in the emergence of the modern public sphere as a unique historical space not subordinated to economic necessity or the exercise of traditional political command. The appearance of this space documents the possibility that post-traditional authority can evolve towards the entrenchment of rationalized power in a Weberian–Luhmannian sense of the legal-rational domination of unbridled systems, but might equally become rational and legitimate in a far less arbitrary and instrumental sense.5 In what follows, this possibility will be interpreted as one salient part of a collective learning process at a specific juncture in European history, where two related possibilities accompanying social differentiation materialize for the first time. First, the struggle against scarcity and poverty no longer has to be an all-consuming necessity shaping economic as well as extra-economic communicative norms. Second, authority can be re-imagined beyond the hypothetical state of nature framework, that is, political legitimacy can be re-conceptualized in its political and pluralist dimensions rather than in fictional terms as ahistorical spontaneity and imagined unanimity.6 Hence the discussion in this chapter begins with a quick look at the discernible methodological innovation signalled by the shift from reliance on the state of nature in the writings of the social contract theorists, to the incipient sociology found in the writings of Kant, Hegel and Marx on the public sphere and civil society.
Natural rights, the state of nature and political philosophy in question
It can be argued that Kant occupies a kind of last outpost position among the state of nature and social contract theorists. It is from this vantage point that the ground is prepared for Hegel, Marx and a non-speculative historical approach to understanding the different possible modalities of transition implied by the shift from political emancipation and the destruction of feudal organic hierarchies, emblematically symbolized by the French Revolution, to the anticipated post-capitalist forms of human emancipation discussed in Marx’s writings of 1843–4, which to this day remain for the most part anticipated. If realized in practice, such a transition would signify a non-ideological, qualitative diminution in the degree of human dependence on nature and authoritarian political tradition, made possible by coordinating increased productive capacity with the capacity for increasingly specialized media of communication and dissemination of information.7 The coordination in question is not comparable to the patently false supposition that supply and demand are spontaneously adjusted by an invisible hand, nor can it be likened to the similarly flawed notion that changes in the economic base of society produce directly corresponding mutations in the ideological, cultural, juridical and political superstructure. It is suggested in this book that increased productive capacity and increasingly specialized media of communication are linked through the social-juridical production of rights. The implication is that rights are not, in the first instance, the legal instantiation of supposedly universal anthropological constants like the capacity for speech, labour, etc., which are imposed on political power. Instead, rights can be seen as constructs that allow complex, post-traditional societies to assess the reserves of power they rely on in order to function in a stable way.8 It is centrally relevant to critical theory today that stability in this context depends on de-centralized planning rather than hierarchical order or faith in the magical powers of the market. The distant echoes of this contemporary phenomenon are faintly audible in Kant’s ideas on law, politics and the public sphere.
Kant’s republican version of sovereignty and individual natural rights is preceded by a long history of conflict between pro-papal and early proto-national-monarchical positions which crystallize at decisive moments during the Reformation and its aftermath, in the period roughly spanning the years 1517–1648. Bodin, for example, in his Six Books of the Republic, affirms the right of sovereign authority to make laws to which the legislator, re-presented in the person of the monarch, is not directly subject. He thus raises what remains a crucial question for all secular polities in which the authority of the state to mediate between private interests and public goods becomes functionally separated from the authority of the church to mediate between theological doctrine and daily religious ritual. From the moment that this separation is accomplished, a reflexively immanent and constantly modifiable response to the question can take the place of a fixed, dogmatically transcendent and predetermined solution. That is, how can the legal framework for making collective decisions be accepted as legitimate by those individuals, groups, classes and parties who think that they have been disadvantaged by the decisions taken? The simple answer for many thinkers from Bodin to the social contract theorists and beyond to conservative-authoritarian legal theorists like Carl Schmitt, that is, from perspectives both before and well after 1789, is the notion of sovereignty.9 Before explaining why the notion of a unitary concept of sovereignty is incompatible with reflexive immanence and therefore unsuitable to the realties of complex industrial societies, it might be mentioned that Six Books of the Republic (1576) can be seen as an early stage on the path to Leviathan (1651) and the historical transition from late medieval practices conceding special privileges to estates, parliaments, corporations, communes, etc., to the positivization of law and the centralization of early modern state authority. In the specific case of the pioneering British road to post-feudalism, this movement is accompanied by the rise of London as a financial and commercial centre, as well as a decisive displacement of power from the almost completely naturalized privilege of the aristocracy, to the more rationalized social power exercised by the gentry and the upper bourgeoisie through control of banking and finance. In relation to the point above concerning rights and reserves of power, however, it may be time to revise a number of existing historical accounts of class domination in light of the concomitant factor of gradual, qualified independence of banking and finance from direct political control and religious interference. If there is an analytical dialectic of insufficient and excess form, there may also be an historical dialectic of social stratification and functional differentiation. An overemphasis on either stratification or differentiation in accounts of the rise and development of capitalism may contribute to a misunderstanding of the issues at stake.10
The emergence and partial autonomy of the economy is not an isolated phenomenon at this time, which also witnesses the subordination of the church to the throne under Henry VIII. There are a number of ways of interpreting this conflict. It can be seen as a first step towards the differentiation of political and religious authority within the framework provided by national territories, in a manner analogous to Swiss Calvinism and German Lutheranism, later to be accelerated in Great Britain as a result of the subsequent break with Rome and the ascendance of Anglicanism. The general tendency across Western Europe around this time is that the external political independence of modern nation-states from Rome proceeds in tandem with the internal differentiation of executive power and legislative authority at the national level, bearing in mind that each national context exhibits particular dynamics and peculiarities.11 There is no need here to summarize the well known events punctuating the conflict between crown and parliament which intensifies with the ascent to the throne of James I and the inevitable clash between his conception of the divine right of kings and demands for parliamentary sovereignty, the ascent of Charles I, and the advent of the Short and Long Parliaments. These developments leading up to the English Civil War are of interest to the extent that they foreshadow a way of thinking about political authority and the state of nature that comes to fruition in the writings of Hobbes and other social contract theorists.12 It is a way of thinking that is challenged by Kant and especially Hegel’s thesis that the simple dichotomy between state of nature and civil society must give way to a more complex picture capable of theorizing the distinctiveness of the ear...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century
APA 6 Citation
Schecter, D. (2013). Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Schecter, Darrow. (2013) 2013. Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Schecter, D. (2013) Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Schecter, Darrow. Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.