The Roots of Critical Theory – Resisting Neoconservatism Today
Geoff Boucher February 2007

Wrong Turn: Notes towards a
Critique of Habermasian Liberalism

Part I

The turn in the advanced capitalist countries towards a belligerent neo-conservatism, lined up against reactionary fundamentalism in the semi-colonial countries, but also preparing emergency legislation for use on their own populations, represents a call to action. Today, the defence of democracy, the struggle for human rights and the promotion of cultural tolerance are urgently mandated by an increasingly obvious slide towards authoritarianism. But at this very moment, the former socialist and the social democratic parties increasingly represent only an effort to meliorate the effects of imperial aggression and ecological destruction, and not a real alternative at all.

Any Critical Theory – any critical social theory with an emancipatory intent – must measure itself against the pressing tasks of the day. Politically, it is necessary not only to present democracy, human rights, redistributive justice and cultural recognition as defensible, but also to know how it is possible to go beyond a defensive position and recover some of the political liberties and social conditions lost in the last 30 years. Intellectually, it is crucial to break out of the sterile enclosure of scholastic debates over postmodern theory, the academic descriptions of micropolitical processes and the utopian evasions of present responsibilities, and articulate a powerful, credible alternative. It is necessary to challenge the hegemony of the neo’s: the neoliberal economic orthodoxy and the neoconservative political movement, embraced by both sides of mainstream politics. In short, what is needed is a dialectical social theory with intellectual scope and the ability to meaningfully shape political strategy.

The Critical Theory elaborated by the pioneers of the Frankfurt School once presented such a vision and strategy. But Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and the researchers in political economy such as Friedrich Pollock and Otto Kirchheimer all lost their way, in one way or another, in the postwar era. Today, Critical Theory is fragmented into specialised disciplines and politically diluted into a form of moral stiffening for social democracy. Often now, in the English-speaking world, Critical Theory is regarded as merely a variety of “Theory,” a recent branch of speculative Romanticism divorced from the political urgency of its Marxist origins and attached to the intellectual abuses of most postmodern theory. If this is so, this is because the giants who dominate the field of Critical Theory today, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, for all the impressive reach of their intellectual contributions, are political liberals. Nature, abhorring a vacuum, provides for it that hot air rushes into the empty space of radical critique, and so the many gaudy balloons of postmodern theory ascend towards the ether, unencumbered by serious political commitments. Somewhere, somehow, Critical Theory took a wrong turn. As a provocation, this year’s Hegel Summer School proposes that only a politically-motivated and intellectually-searching engagement with the roots of Critical Theory – with the work of Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer – can provide an answer to this question and thus an alternative to the sheer moderateness, the political lack of bite, of Critical Theory’s current direction.

Despite current impasses, Critical Theory remains the starting point for radical critique of globalising capitalism. Unlike the forms of social theory generated by combining Structural Marxism with post-structuralist philosophy, such as Laclau and Mouffe, Butler and Zizek, Critical Theory does not suffer from a persistent normative deficit, endorse performative contradictions or propose variants of new-New Left marginalism, such as the messianic Marxist doctrine of the singular universal. Nor does it seek to remedy the crypto-normativism of Foucault’s dystopian evolutionism with reference to a voluntarist return to ancient ethics meant to inspire a form of postmodern self-fashioning. On the other hand, Critical Theory rejects the evacuation of agency and the implied endorsement of technocracy that permeates functional systems theory, as well as the reduction of all social actions to instrumental relations that is entailed by regarding every social relation as a form of capital, as in Bourdieu’s anti-normative utilitarianism. Habermas argues for a normatively-grounded critical theory, one that understands the legitimacy of modern culture and representative government. Unlike politically disengaged forms of theoretical radicalism, Habermas does not repeat the fatal mistake of the revolutionary left in the twentieth century and denounce parliamentary democracy as part of the problem or human rights as mere window dressing. Nor does he hold civil rights and universal legislation in contempt as instrumentalised gains to be used “tactically” and repealed when “necessary.” Yet he refuses to go beyond this defensive stance – for Habermas, the capitalist economy and bureaucratic state are exempt from that claims of social justice on grounds of “system complexity,” while all efforts to imagine a form of rational life transcending the well-known dialectical contradiction between formal equality and substantive inequality are condemned as attempts to return to the normative totality of the ancient polis. The task, then, is to grasp why Habermas abandoned the critical programme of Western Marxism for a left liberal form of welfare statism.

I propose that the central, massive and overwhelming fact about Habermas’s reconstruction of social theory in The Theory of Communicative Action is his renunciation of the Western Marxist problematic of “reification.” Where Lukács and the first generation of the Frankfurt School read Weber through Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism, Habermas reads Western Marxism through the lens of Weber’s diagnosis of modernity, in terms of the problematic of “rationalisation.” Weber’s question regarding modernity – especially in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – is twofold:

  1. Why is occidental modernity the only society to have completely developed the rationalisation of social and cultural life?
  2. Why does this rationalisation of life result in an “iron cage” of unfreedom instead of the promised liberation of the individual from tradition?

Weber’s position on modernity is the matrix for a series of subsequent positions – exemplified by Adorno and Foucault – that regard modernity and its discontents as resulting from a “dialectic of enlightenment,” according to which rationalisation is equivalent to objectification, so that the very social rationalisation that liberates the individual from tradition and scarcity ends by turning both nature and the subject into the objects of highly efficient but completely formal systemic processes.

Habermas’s reply is to develop a new conception of reason:

  1. Weber’s concept of rationality is one-sided. Weber considers only what Adorno later described as “instrumental reason,” the efficient manipulation of objects, neglecting what Habermas describes as “communicative reason,” the discursive process of reaching consensus between subjects. From this perspective, modernity represents an incomplete realization of rationality, or, to be more precise, a one-sided predominance of instrumental over communicative reason. This both articulates the unfulfilled potential of modernity and explains its apparent tendency to generate unfreedom.
  2. To reach this position it is necessary to abandon the modern philosophical assumption of an isolated epistemological subject as the foundation of objective reason, and to embrace a concept of a socially-embedded speaking subject as the basis for intersubjective reason. Accordingly, releasing the potential rationality of modernity involves renunciation of those schemas for liberation – for instance, classical Marxism – that propose to make free the isolated individual or the dialectical macro-subject.

In this presentation, I will argue that Habermas generates a reified position – one that naturalises capital accumulation and bureaucratic domination – but that within his own position, the problematic of reification lives a return of the repressed, in the problems that Habermas has with the concept of “strategic action.”

Weberian Sociology: The Rationalisation Problematic

Habermas explicitly proposes that the Theory of Communicative Action is a “second attempt to appropriate Weber in the spirit of Western Marxism.” Weber’s problematic of “rationalisation” is summarised by Habermas in terms of two research questions: (1) why, outside of Western Europe, “neither scientific, nor artistic, nor political, nor economic development entered upon that path of rationalisation peculiar to the Occident?” (Habermas, 1984: Weber cited 157); and (2), why once entered upon the path of rationalisation did this generate both an “iron cage,” where unintended consequences of instrumental action enmeshed the individual in the operation of anonymous nomological forces (the market; the bureaucracy), and a cultural condition of subjective diremption and value conflict (the notorious distinction between specialists without heart and sensualists without morals; a new clash of “gods and demons” between incommensurable and arbitrary value-orientations). Weber distinguishes between the rationalisation of action aimed at the realization of material interests through increasingly efficient means-ends calculations (purposive rational action, or, for Habermas, “instrumental reason”) and the rationalisation of worldviews aimed at the realization of ideal interests through increasingly consistent but autonomous value spheres (for Habermas, the “decentring of the world”), but he concentrates on instrumental reason. Accordingly, Weber’s conception of the rationality of modernity is influenced by this one-sided focus and his notion that rationality itself leads to an iron cage of unfreedom, in proportion to the mastery of nature, needs correction. For Habermas, the Weberian problematic needs to be re-framed:

“If we do not frame Occidental rationalism from the conceptual perspective of purposive rationality and mastery of the world, if instead we take as our point of departure the rationalisation of worldviews that results in a decentred understanding of the world, then we have to face the question, whether there is not a formal stock of universal structures of consciousness expressed in the cultural value spheres that develop, according to their own logics, under the abstract standards of truth, normative rightness and authenticity. Are, or are not, the structures of scientific thought, post-traditional moral and legal representations, and autonomous art, as they have developed within the framework of Western culture, the possession of that ‘community of civilised men’ that is present as a regulative idea?” (Habermas, 1984: 180).

Accordingly, Habermas seeks to rehabilitate the notion that the separation of value spheres in modernity (scientific thought, post-conventional morality, autonomous art) represents a cultural advance with universal implications. He proposes to clarify the latent distinction in Weber between cultural rationalisation (the decentring of the world through the constitution of separate value spheres oriented to increasing internal consistency) and societal rationalisation (the functional differentiation of institutionalised actions oriented to increasing efficiency in economics and politics). On this basis, Habermas suggests that the Weberian “iron cage” is an effect of “selective rationalisation,” that is, the predominance of instrumental reason and therefore the intrusion of the commodification and bureaucratisation into everyday life. Habermas will therefore defend:

  1. the supposed autonomy of cultural value spheres against every effort to rearticulate science, morality and aesthetics, in the name of a defence of a decentred worldview from a return to metaphysico-religious re-integration and/or substantive totalities of ethical life modelled on the Athenian polis;
  2. the unrestricted operation of capital accumulation and bureaucratic administration within their spheres of competence, in the name of a defence of “system complexity” and functional efficiency from programmes of “functional de-differentiation” that aim to control society from a political centre.

The Habermasian programme is opposition to selective rationalisation, not opposition to the form of rationalisation characteristic of capitalist modernity. The rationality potential in cultural rationalisation needs to be unlocked in terms of a transformation of everyday life (the renewal of the public sphere and civil society aimed at the rational scrutiny of moral norms) and increased functional efficiencies (the function of democratic deliberation is to improve the steering capacity of representative government). The problem, then, is that Weber’s notion of “rationalisation” regards the dominance of instrumentally-rational action – meaning the systematic conceptualisation of social activity and the pursuit of efficient means to value-determined ends – as what is “rational” about modernity as well as what “rationalisation” generally means. To develop this position, Habermas reconstructs Weber’s argument in four stages: (A) the distinction between cultural and societal rationalisation; (B) the way in which the rationalisation of religious worldviews leads to a decentred worldview; (C) the role of the rational conduct of life in anchoring cultural rationalisation in the functional systems of societal rationalisation; and (D), the one-sided nature of Weber’s diagnosis of the problems of modernity.

The distinction (A) between cultural and societal rationalisation is crucial because Habermas proposes that cultural rationalisation precedes societal rationalisation and this framework then re-emerges as the difference between rationalisation of the lifeworld and complexity of the system. The distinction involves the difference between the logical consistency of ideas and the efficient actualisation of interests. Cultural rationalisation – the logical consistency of intellectual systems – affects the generation of cultural meanings, the normative legitimacy of social institutions and the motivational anchoring of dispositions in the personality. As cultural rationalisation advances, different types of validity claims (cognitive, evaluative and expressive) separate into distinct value spheres (science, morality, aesthetics). During this process, actions become more rational under three aspects: the efficient selection of means to a given end; the consistent choice amongst various ends (informed by values); and, the coherence of values through their submission to ethical principles. The key to cultural rationalisation is the “methodically rational conduct of life,” which links together all three aspects of rationality (Habermas, 1984: 171-175). But note that this approach hypostatises procedural-formal concepts of rationality into “reason” as a whole. For Weber, formal rationality results from the unity of instrumental rationality in the selection of means, together with rational choice in the election of ends. These ends are chosen in the light of (culturally arbitrary) values whose substantive evaluation is rationally impossible – value precepts are arbitrary preferences for conceptions of the good life. Thus rationality in relation to values means the consistent organisation of ends in the light of the application of the generalisation of a value into a principle of the highest good (an ethics of conviction exemplified by the Protestant ethic of individual success). Hence, while it is rational to universalise a value orientation through formalising it, no decisive argument is possible regarding the ethical principles themselves – substantive evaluations are based on arbitrary grounds and so their clash is accordingly irreconcilable. Habermas, with Weber, rules out the possibility of a substantive rationality for a proceduralist morality.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber proposed that the rationalisation of social action was preceded by a cultural rationalisation of religious worldviews (B). The salvation religions, for Weber, directed the faithful to conduct life as a means to the realization of sacred values, which calls for the submission of all aspects of social activity to methodical principles. By means of the notions of “predestination” and “vocation,” Protestantism demanded that believers conduct their specialised mundane activities by means of the rationalised (non-magical) principles governing their faith. Habermas follows this argument because it leads to the conclusion that once an ethics of conviction overflows the religious-practical sphere and enters all other departments of everyday life, in combination with the disenchantment of nature promoted by the salvation religions, what results is a decentred worldview in which maxims action are generated through applying formal principles to means-ends problems, according to the sort of cultural value governing the validity claims in question (cognitive-science; evaluative-morality; expressive-aesthetic). The rational conduct of life leaves behind it the empty shell of a rationalised religious worldview and enters cultural modernity with its separate value spheres.

To be effective in generating societal rationalisation (C), the decentred worldview of modernity has to become embodied in personal motivations and institutional systems (such as the scientific laboratory, the business enterprise, the administrative apparatus and the cultural industry). Once separate value spheres are anchored in individual conduct through a motivational pattern of socialisation into “rational life conduct” based on formal principles, and once the unity of the metaphysical worldview erode and the religious community that the Protestant ethic was to have fostered becomes merely a question of private conscience, social institutions begin to operate on formal principles. Habermas conceptualises this societal rationalisation as increasing functional differentiation due to the specialisation of social subsystems and he describes this shorthand as “increasing system complexity.” It is here that Weber makes his mistake, according to Habermas, for “the reference point from which Weber investigates societal rationalisation is therefore the purposive rationality of entrepreneurial activity as it is institutionalised in the capitalist enterprise” (Habermas, 1984: 218). Consequently, “Weber did not hesitate to equate this particular historical form of rationalisation with rationalisation of society as such” (Habermas, 1984: 221). One result is that the notion of “rationality” narrows to instrumental reason alone – this is the root of Weber’s one-sided diagnosis of the problems of modernity.

Weber’s diagnosis of modernity (D) concentrates not only on conflicts between the different value spheres – summed up in Goethe’s celebrated condemnation that modern society is characterised by “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart” and reprised in Weber’s notion of a new clash of “gods and demons” – and on the famous “iron cage.” He is also concerned with the decline of social solidarity and loss of meaning that seems to go with the disintegration of religious community and metaphysical worldviews (Habermas, 1984: 248). For Weber, the value spheres regulated by the good, the true and the beautiful deprive the ethic of solidarity of foundation and mean that no common cultural practice can unify the society, because these values are incommensurable. But Habermas argues that Weber’s pessimism results from an illegitimate identification of the particular contents of modern “cultural traditions with those universal standards of value under which the cognitive, normative and expressive components of culture become autonomous value spheres” (Habermas, 1984: 249). For Habermas, three aspects of Weber’s critique need to be reconstructed: (1) Habermas interprets the “iron cage” of modernity as a loss of freedom resulting from the dominance of economic calculation and administrative rationalisation; (2) the “loss of meaning” in modernity results not only from the collapse of a common worldview, but also from disruptions to cultural life caused by the invasion of economics and bureaucracy into everyday life; (3) both reject functionalist arguments and propose that cultural rationalisation precedes social rationalisation, but Habermas argues that functional differentiation can distort cultural rationalisation.

Habermas proposes that the loss of social solidarity consequent upon the erosion of religious community is does not mean decline into anomie. Rational solidarity based on public deliberation of validity claims is the alternative: “the unity of rationality in the multiplicity of value spheres rationalised according to their inner logic is secured precisely at the formal level of the argumentative redemption of validity claims. ... Only [a universal pragmatic] theory of discourse could explicitly state wherein the unity of argumentation consists and what we mean by procedural rationality after all substantial concepts of reason have been critically dissolved” (Habermas, 1984: 249). Notice, though, that the neo-Kantian separation of interests and ideals in Weber’s rationalisation problematic excludes the possibility of focusing a relational nexus between persons that combines interests and ideals. For Western Marxism, the commodity relation provided the matrix for the mastery of nature, the instrumentalisation of action and the expressive subject because it involved social relations in the process of “real abstraction” and “commodity reification.”

Western Marxism: The Reification Problematic

The problematic of reification launched by Georg Lukács’s classic History and Class Consciousness involved an interpretation of Weberian rationalisation as an effect of commodification (Lukács, 1971). According to Lukács, commodity reification is “the central structural problem of capitalist society,” whose characteristic is “that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people” (Lukács, 1971: 83). Social relations between persons appear as objective relations between things, while the economic laws governing commodity exchange appear as natural forces operating behind the backs of the actual producers, “as invisible forces that generate their own power” (Lukács, 1971: 87). Consequently, “objectively, a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market). ... Subjectively ... a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself – it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man, just like any consumer article” (Lukács, 1971: 87). Where Marx analysed “commodity fetishism” (the ascription of subjective powers to objects and the corresponding reduction of subjects to objects manipulated by super-personal forces) in the marketplace, Lukács applied Weber’s insight into the rationalisation of administration and culture to propose that the commodity form held the secret of modern consciousness generally speaking. Lukács proposed that commodity reification extended “to all fields, including the worker’s ‘soul’” that “principle of rationalisation based on what can be calculated” which transforms all relations into relations between abstract, free subjects and an objective world (including the body of the subject) governed by natural laws impervious to human intervention (Lukács, 1971: 88). According to Lukács, “the commodity relation stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man; his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can ‘own’ or ‘dispose’ of” (Lukács, 1971: 100). The consequence is that human beings regard themselves as objects in the world and their activities become seen as “performances” in line with anonymous quasi-natural (because law-like) forces.

For Lukács the most profound effect of generalised commodity production is not the ascription of supernatural force to the world market, but the subjection of the worker to the process of “real abstraction.” The process of the creation and realization of surplus value demands that labour power generate products in the “average socially necessary labour time,” which means that human action is subsumed into market relations in the form of abstract, calculable, specialised and quantifiable performances. For Marx, every capitalist labour process is at once a concrete particular transformation of nature and an abstract general performance generating value, at once quality and quantity, concrete and abstract, expenditure of effort and timed performance. But the mediation of social production by exchange relations – implying the quantification in monetary terms of all labour processes and social performances – means that abstract labour subsumes concrete effort in actual fact. At the same time, in mental labour, real abstraction means the transformation of human activities into objectified systems that are the object of specialised disciplines, so that the contradiction between the local calculability of subsystems and the global irrationality of the total process becomes invisible. Thus the abstraction involved in commodity exchange is not a mental generalisation – a form of book-keeping – but a social relation with real effects. From this follows the peculiar relation between substantive inequality and formal equality characteristic of bourgeois contract law, the formal citizenship and political liberties of the modern subject, and the cultural gravitation towards a series of “antinomies” – or mutually opposed conclusions from the same premisses – whose centre is the philosophical opposition between subjective freedom and objective determinism, and its sociological correlate, the confrontation between isolated individual and monolithic society. Extending beyond the factory, the state and cultural forms, then, “reification” is reflected in the characteristic philosophy of subjectivity of modernity.

The Critical Theory of Adorno and Horkheimer was developed through a combination of Lukács’s pathbreaking essays and the actual political disappointments of the 1920s. The programme of Western Marxism which was to explain the delay in the revolution with reference to culture and the theory of reification seemed to provide the basis for such as explanation: class consciousness was impeded by the prevalence of reification, leading to the confrontation between isolated individual and objectified social structure, rather than the recognition that the working class constituted the subject of history. Critical Theory refined this prognosis while breaking with the messianic elements of Lukács’s Hegelian philosophy of history, developing theories of the state capitalism, authoritarian state and culture industry. Yet by the time of the Second World War, Adorno and Horkheimer began to believe that the powers of recuperation of the capitalist system necessitated drastic revision to the programme of Critical Theory, while the disaster of a bureaucratic state socialism in the USSR and the catastrophe of fascism on the continent indicated a bleak prognosis for humanity: “mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition is sinking into a new kind of barbarism” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1989: ix). Where Lukács proposed that the commodity form was the mainspring of a form of consciousness that focused on rational calculation of efficient means to (irrationally given) ends, Adorno and Horkheimer decided that this “instrumental reason” actually has anthropological roots in the struggle for self-preservation (Horkheimer, 1974: 40). The natural history of the human species involves the domination of a hostile nature; human rationality engages in mastery of the object in the interests of individual self-preservation. But although the human drive to self-preservation is primordial “in the first man’s calculating contemplation of the world as prey,” nonetheless, the capitalist mode of production provides the fullest possible scope for the development of this form of instrumental reason (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1989: 90; Horkheimer, 1974: 176). Linking the Enlightenment to capitalism, Horkheimer proposed that the aim of Enlightenment was to replace the moral anchor of religious conviction with the notion of objective reason, a world order rational and external to human beings. This would control the inherent tendency of human reason to dominate the world and one another. But the dissolution of religious belief also resulted in the disenchantment of nature, so that what was actually liberated by the Enlightenment was not a meaningful world order, but a subjective conception of reason as the calculation of means to ends, in the service of self-interest. Thus for Horkheimer, “the system the Enlightenment has in mind is the form of knowledge which copes most proficiently with the facts and supports the individual most efficiently in the mastery of nature. Its principles are the principles of self-preservation” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1989: 83). Accordingly, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer link this dialectical reversal of hope for liberation into system of rational mastery, to the dialectic between the mastery of the external world and the domination over internal desires. “The individual’s self-preservation presupposes his adjustment to the requirements for the preservation of the system,” so that socialisation involves the increasing repression of natural instincts and an accommodation to increasingly abstract and calculating social relations (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1989: 95-96). For both Adorno and Horkheimer, the postulation of self-preservation as an absolute end results in the absolutisation of subjective calculation – instrumental reason – as “rationality” tout court, with a corresponding evacuation of what makes a specifically human – that is, socially harmonious and naturally integrated – life possible. Instrumental reason, as the calculation of means to arbitrary ends, leads to the instrumentalisation of human beings and finally, to the collapse of moral values in relativism (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1989: 118; Horkheimer, 1974: 93). The path of Western civilisation leads to the denial of all values except for self-preservation, while the socialisation of the ego into increasing constraint results in unconscious resentment against the civilisation responsible. Irrational violence, amoral individualism and the treatment of humans as ciphers in the holocaust – that is, nihilism – are inherent results of this form of life. Searching for an exit from this bleak perspective, Adorno endorsed the notion of “reconciliation” to nature (a renunciation of the universality of instrumental reason) and advocated the reconciliatory power of what he called “mimesis,” the non-cognitive imitation of the external and internal worlds. For Horkheimer, replicating Lukács’s analysis of the distinction between speculative totality and specialised knowledge, proposed that instrumental reason failed to yield the truth, as the whole transcending subjective reason, and so kept open the possibility of a speculative dialectics and normative totality in opposition to instrumental reason (Horkheimer, 1974: 180). Nonetheless, their concrete social theory tended to deny the possibility of any emancipatory social action. For both Adorno and Horkheimer, the victory of instrumental reason involved a triumph of efficiency not only over an unruly humanity, but also over the irrationality of the market. The theory of state capitalism proposed that the fusion of state and capital – and therefore the efficiency of state intervention into monopoly capitalism – had rendered obsolete Marx’s predictions of economic crisis. Meanwhile, the authoritarian potential of the state had modulated into a rationalised bureaucracy capable of superintending all aspects of the reproduction of social labour, and so able to functionally integrate human beings seamlessly into the machinery of state capitalism through the welfare state. This “totally administered system,” the proto-types of which were Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, required a subjective outlet for the repressed desires for a non-instrumentalised world, and the culture industry of mass entertainment provided compensatory pseudo-satisfactions and diverted unconscious dissatisfaction into conformist fantasy, to defuse incipient revolt. Instead of a critique of reification, Adorno and Horkheimer had generated a reified social theory: from such a perspective, only sending a “message in a bottle” to some unimaginable future makes sense; the irony was that Adorno arrived at this conclusion at the very moment that the New Left – and Habermas with them, as a member of the new generation – began to question the postwar settlement.

The Habermasian Critique of Western Marxism

Habermas rejects the messianic Marxism of Lukács – and with it, the problematic of reification – on three grounds: (1) “reification” relies on an unreconstructed Hegelian logic for its category sequence in the critique of political economy (Habermas discards the labour theory of value as empirically false and metaphysically suspect); (2) Lukács shifts the burden of evidence for “reification” from economic crises to supposed philosophical problems of antinomic reason, a position which implies the unity of theoretical and practical reason on part of Lukács, i.e., a speculative totality on the Hegelian model; (3) Lukács relies on a suspect teleological philosophy of history and the dubious notion of an “identical subject-object” to make the reification hypothesis into a practical programme (Habermas, 1984: 358-364). By contrast, Habermas emphasises the convergence of Weber and Horkheimer. “Instrumental reason” is Weberian “formal rationality” regarded as destructive and therefore as explanatory for the theses of the modern “loss of meaning” and “loss of freedom.” Loss of meaning results from cultural rationalisation: with the decline of religion, subjective faith and cultivated knowledge separate, followed by the conflicts amongst value spheres sharpening to a “return of gods and demons,” i.e., a cultural clash between incommensurable (because arbitrary) values. The paradoxical conclusion of Dialectic of Enlightenment (enlightenment leads to mythologisation) accords with Weber’s “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions” (Habermas, 1984: 349). Loss of freedom results from societal rationalisation: the motivational bases for personal involvement in capitalist modernity (the Protestant ethic, liberal individualism) sheer off from system operations of economy and state; progressive bureaucratisation enmeshes the individual in an administered world or iron cage of formally rationally procedures that work independently from individual’s moral judgements. Thus the Eclipse of Reason substantively agrees with The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Habermas, 1984: 350-355).

Habermas’s response to the pessimism of Adorno and Horkheimer is to question the ubiquity of instrumental reason and the supposed anthropological basis for human society in the mastery of nature (Habermas, 1984: 366-399). Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of instrumental reason is supposed to resuscitate the insights of the theory of reification without the Hegelian baggage and with empirical plausibility. They reject both Lukács’s reliance on a teleological philosophy of history and his supposition that the psyche of the labourer remains (as substance) unaffected by reification, proposing that the culture industry demonstrates how cultural reification takes the form of manipulated wish-fulfilment. But in this condition of total reification, and under conditions of the impossibility of a return to either metaphysical worldviews or speculative totality, critique faces the embarrassment of having undermined its own grounds. The anthropological turn reaches back before capitalism to do two things: (1) it generalises reification as instrumental reason, the unity of identity thinking (formal rationality) and the mastery of nature and expands this into a world-historical schema of the gradual advance of domination (of human beings and the natural world) through the unleashing of the self-preserving drive of the ego; and (2), it implicitly postulates a pre-lapsarian origin in the “universal reconciliation” of nature and spirit provided by an anti-identitarian “mimetic thinking.” But Adorno and Horkheimer’s alternative of mimesis looks suspiciously like mysticism, and their narrative of decline seems merely a dystopian teleology, i.e., Lukács inverted. They are left in the position of affirming that reason indicts itself, which means that their critique is based on a performative contradiction: “the critique of instrumental reason conceptualised as negative dialectics renounces its theoretical claim while operating with the means of theory” (Habermas, 1984: 387). Adorno shakes off this performative contradiction by embracing an aestheticisation of reason: henceforth, instead of mute gestures towards non-identity, thinking must adopt the characteristics of avantgarde art. But Habermas suggests that the alternative is to shift paradigms from the opposition between subject and object characteristic of the philosophy of consciousness, to the new paradigm of the linguistic turn. Instead of thinking the rationalisation of society as the reification of consciousness, the notion of linguistically-mediated intersubjectivity provides for “a subjectivity that is characterised by communicative reason resists the denaturing of the self for the sake of self-preservation” (Habermas, 1984: 398).

For Habermas, A & H have mistakenly conflated rationality as a whole with one form of reason, the control of the natural world through instrumental action. Accordingly, they cannot “do justice to the rational content of cultural modernity” – denouncing it as a culture industry without recognising the tremendous advance constituted by the decline of the sacred aura of art – and they cannot grasp the advance represented by constitutional government. Habermas’s concept of communicative action will limit the scope of instrumental reason and complement adaptive goals in the anthropological basis of human community with the goal of reaching understanding through speaking. By rethinking “rationalisation,” Habermas aims to grasp the distinction between social rationalisation (functional differentiation) and cultural rationalisation (rationalisation of the lifeworld). Then he proposes that the problematic of rationalisation can be understood as the predominance of social over cultural rationalisation – as “system” against “lifeworld.” This enables Habermas to explain the normative claims of critical theory and the moral anchoring of modern existence and to thereby address the pessimistic claims of Weber and Western Marxism regarding the decline of the ethic of brotherliness and the rise of nihilism.

Yet it is important to highlight how much Habermas agrees with Adorno and Horheimer’s basic perspective on contemporary capitalism as an “administered system.” For Habermas, contemporary capitalism renders invalid the crisis theory of classical Marxism. Additionally, the labour theory of value needs to be rejected for its anthropological assumptions and entanglement in a teleological theory of history. Finally, the working class is not the agent of social transformation for which Critical Theory generates intellectual arguments. Impressed by technological innovation and state management of the national economy, struck by the shift in the industrialised countries, from the export of capital searching for raw materials and cheap labour in the Third World, to a system of military oppression based on geostrategic interests, Habermas proposes that capitalism has mainly solved its economic crises and imperialist rivalries. As a consequence, social class and class conflict are merely “latent,” while the underclasses of the metropolitan countries are protected by social welfare. It is not only that this now appears – in the light of neoliberal globalisation – to have been mesmerised by the transient prosperity of the postwar social settlement. It is also indicative of a restriction in the field of struggle from political economy to cultural questions that Habermas will subsequently defend on grounds of “system complexity.” Nonetheless, Habermas insists that crisis tendencies remain, in the form of normative demands for legitimation of the state. In place of the political perspectives of classical Marxism, Habermas proposes to detect new lines of conflict centred on the processes of discursive will formation in contemporary capitalism: legitimation of the existing order and the motivational anchoring of social performances by individual members of that order. Habermas argues that the interventionist state of the postwar era has disturbed two key ideological illusions: (1) that capitalist relations are the result of the free contractual relations of private individuals in the marketplace; and (2), that the state is a neutral guarantor of the autonomous logic of the market through its legal sanctioning of contracts. With the emergence of social welfare and the development of a “political wage” through tripartite bargaining, it becomes clear that the state intervenes as a partisan in the maintenance of social relations, and this function needs to be legitimated without appealing to divine sanctions or pre-reflexive tradition. For Habermas, the interventionist state responds to the legitimation problem with a “substitute programme” of improved living conditions and continued economic growth and the educational promotion of the merit principle. This combination promotes what Habermas calls “civic privatism,” a “syndrome” of private satisfaction through family life and individual career that replaces the moral requirement for normative legitimation of the state apparatus. In Legitimation Crisis, Habermas detects crisis tendencies converging on the state: “loaded up” with political expectations the state must legitimate its partisan role through material prosperity or democratic participation, neither of which it can afford as capitalism began to stagnate in the 1970s. The notion of crisis tendencies concerning the normative justifications for legitimate orders and personal motivations addresses the bleak perspectives of the “total system” advanced by Adorno and Horkheimer.