Critical Theory Conference Write-Up

Last weekend a friend and I drove up to Northwestern University to attend the 2014 International Critical Theory Conference. Although we weren’t able to attend all the panels, having to leave on Sunday morning, we managed to hear a number of interesting presentations, including the keynote address by Jurgen Habermas on Friday afternoon. The following is a brief write-up of the conference, based on my notes and recollections.

Habermas’s talk was titled “The Troubled Future of Democracy: Inside and Outside Europe.” He began by stating that the process of transnationalization involved the establishing of democracy above the organization level of the state. A transnationalized democracy would have a federal character, lack the monopoly on legitimate force that would still be bestowed upon the constituent states, and based on the application of federal laws.

The current global situation, according to him, is the site of a tension between a fragmented state system and an increasingly interdependent global order. Today, states exist within systemic relationships and are increasingly incapable of addressing global problems. The European Union faces economic and structural constraints that need to be reformed through greater political integration. The need to effectively deal with these global problems, beyond the purview of any single state, makes transnationalization a necessity.

Habermas envisioned that this shift toward a transnational democracy would occur through a process of constitution-making in which European peoples would participate on an equal footing. This would be an act of democratic self-legitimation and the formation of public opinion, featuring the inclusion of all citizens in political decision making that would be mediated at a number of levels: sub-national, national, and trans-national.

In order for this to occur, we would need to resolve the problem of integrating international law and the laws of particular states into a single, federal framework. The integration of governments would mean a pooling of the sovereignty of the people in each member state. The key is that such a federal state would be supported by the national citizenry, not by their governments; the legal equality of states within the federal framework was meant to ensure the equality of its constituent peoples. In that sense, state sovereignty must be seen as a derivative of popular, constituent sovereignty.

Could this kind of process succeed in the face of rising nationalism and mistrust among the people of the EU? Habermas argued that the process of European unification has stalled because of a lack of trust on the part of citizens. But, importantly, this suspicion is not of an ethno-nationalistic kind, since nations today are primarily legal entities rather than ethno-national ones. Rather, the democratic suspicion of European integration is directed against the anonymous bureaucracy that the supra-national government of the EU has become.

Therefore, in order to mitigate this problem, Habermas was insistent that in a supranational entity the higher level should not overwhelm its constitutive parts. Instead, a form of shared sovereignty would need to be established – one that involved a limited conferral of power to the transnational entity and conserved the substance of national citizens’ claims that their constituted states have an emancipatory history. For this reason, the priority of EU laws over those of its constituent states would need to be of a functional, case-by-case sort rather than a legal sovereignty that was final and absolute.

Cristina Lafont, tasked with responding to Habermas, agreed that political decision making has migrated to the upper levels of the EU bureaucracy. She saw Habermas’s project as basically having two interlinked goals: 1) Overcoming the EU’s democratic deficit, and 2) Preserving the equal status of European peoples in a federal framework. But Lafont challenged Habermas’s affinity toward the nation state, and in particular his view that they are guarantors of their citizens’ autonomy, especially vis-a-vis the undemocratic bureaucracy of the EU. Is this a normative fiction? she asked. Furthermore, to maintain that it is every state’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of its citizens occludes the problems of economic integration. In other words, the reality of the transnational economy is at odds with the normative thrust of Habermas’s view of the state as a social guarantor.

Seyla Benhabib’s “International Human Rights and Democratic Sovereignty” addressed the question of how we can integrate democratic self-determination within a global, cosmopolitan framework. The notion of global constitutionalism raises a number of questions: Is it to occur with or without a state? Will it be constitutionally monist (international law would be integrated into the legal framework of individual countries) or dualist (the international and national legal dimensions would be kept separate)? Furthermore, is democratic self-determination at odds with global cosmopolitanism? And in that case, is a constitutional dualism or pluralism the best middle ground that we can hope to achieve?

Shifting to the example of human rights, Benhabib argued that transnational human rights norms strengthen democratic sovereignty rather than weakening it. She distinguished between two forms of cosmopolitanism: a moral form, and a legal form, where legal persons are entitled to rights as moral people regardless of their citizenship status. A legal cosmopolitanism with human rights at its core would include, first and foremost, the right to have rights, and bear on ideas of human dignity and equality.

At the same time, she also distinguished between the concept of human rights, and various conceptions of human rights. The concept of human rights is a general principle; conceptions, in contrast, are specific norms translatable to a variety of contexts. The latter are the reason why the right to self-government is a necessary condition for the translation of human rights principles into practice. Without self-government, human rights would stop being rights and instead become privileges granted by a higher authority. The normative gap between human rights principles (the concept of human rights) and their specific conceptions is precisely the space for the exercise of democratic sovereignty. Democratic authorship means that the people are both the authors and the beneficiaries of human rights.

Conceptions of human rights are then various “democratic iterations,” in which these principles are interpreted and given new content by democratic citizens in the public sphere. This involves a series of disaggregation processes, in which human rights principles are adopted at a variety of levels: the local, the national, and the transnational. These rights are also what prevent democratic sovereignty from becoming democratic populism, an absolute of its own that can violate rights in the name of the majority. The boundaries of the demos are not a given but need to be democratically iterated themselves; as such, the formation of democratic sovereignty involves a moment of normative transcendence.

Rainer Forst’s “A Critical Theory of Human Rights” took Benhabib’s argument to a more philosophical, neo-Kantian level by looking into the transcendental conditions that make grounding human rights possible. Forst saw human rights as social weapons that outline certain standards of mutual treatment. He argued that the moral and social/historical account of rights forms a single unity, insofar as that the transcendental point of critique is the most historical one – the countless times in history in which people stood up to defend their integrity against oppression. For this same reason, critical theory must begin not from the ideal conditions of a freely constructed discursive situation but from the assumption that domination is a regular occurrence of human interaction.

Forst outlined three elements of human rights, which together amount to a critique of domination without reason. First, humans claim to have a right not to be subjected to an order they have not assented to or that has not been justified to them. Second, justification is a practice; rights express the autonomy of the people and make the right to justification a substantive principle. Third, rights possess an emancipatory function in that they make possible a discourse-theoretical view of non-domination.

In contrast to functionalist, consensus-based accounts of human rights such as found in John Rawls’s Law of Peoples, as well as the minimalist views of Michael Ignatieff and Jean Cohen, all of whom share an account of rights as politically effective even if morally ungrounded, Forst argued that it is possible to ground rights on the principle of justification. Although human rights cannot be grounded on a notion of the good life that extends to all cultures, the principle of justification can be used as a grounding point insofar as people cannot be forced to live in an order that has not been justified to them. In that sense, human rights are veto rights against impositions.

Is this a foundational conception of human rights? Forst argues that it both is and isn’t. The principle of criticism of authority is the foundation – but this makes it a self-destructive foundation. Such a “foundational” conception necessarily involves a larger list of human rights than one that uses rights as “thresholds” to legitimate humanitarian intervention. This is because human rights are not a possession of liberal societies (contra Rawls) but of all those denied equal political rights; there is a notion of dignity that each individual possesses when it comes to not being subjected to rules that others define for him or her. For this reason, rights contain three dimensions: those of authorship, interpretation, and use. Like Benhabib, Forst argued that a constructive argument involves both general rights that consist of what we owe others in a normative social order, and particular, democratic iterations where these rights take specific legal forms.

Coming from a radically different perspective, Wendy Brown’s “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism and the Economization of Political Rights” drew upon Foucault’s genealogical approach to argue that neoliberalism is converting democratic institutions into economic ones. Although the origins of neoliberalism lay in a historical accident – the unexpected rise to prominence of a marginal economic theory (Milton Friedman and the Chicago school) – today it has expanded far beyond the realm of the economy, growing into an entire order of normative reason and governing rationality. This development has resulted in the merging of a national security apparatus with an ongoing process of neoliberalization that turns all facets of social life into the production of human capital.

In Brown’s point of view, the traditional homo economicus of classical and neoclassical political economy has been reshaped into financialized human capital. Whereas previously this meant the harnessing of human productive power for the purposes of generating surplus value, the economization of today is not reducible to this older conception of wealth generation. Competition and financialization, not exchange, are the dominant logics of this new order. Alongside this, the neoliberal hostility to the political has remade the purpose of the state from being a public power to a corollary of the economy.

The final (and best) presentation I attended was Nancy Fraser’s. Unfortunately, I couldn’t write down its title in time, although her argument was largely based on her recent piece in New Left Review titled Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism.” Fraser argued that Marx’s socio-economic critique contains many important insights about the nature and functioning of capitalism that have been unfairly dismissed. In particular, Marx was prescient enough to see that at the heart of capital is a self-expanding value, and that in a capitalist society, capital itself, not human beings, becomes the subject.

At the same time, her critique was premised on the idea that certain elements of Marx’s thought cannot be reconciled with our contemporary problems, such as ecological crisis and the aspects of social reproduction concerned the formation of human subjects, such as gender divisions. For one, Fraser disagreed with the Frankfurt School’s understanding, taken from Georg Lukacs, that capitalism is a reified view of ethical life characterized by the expanding commodification of all life. In contrast, she sided with Immanuel Wallerstein in suggesting that capitalism to this day depends on non-commodified goods and forms of social life in the periphery, including the gendered division between wage labor and unpaid domestic labor. Wallerstein’s idea of “semi-proletarianization” figures largely here, in the sense that capital can only sustain itself by siphoning off value from informal gray zones that are not entirely under its sway. Markets depend on non-marketized social relations. As Marx alluded to in his chapter on primitive accumulation in Capital Vol. 1, exploitation is driven by expropriation.

Therefore, there are three epistemic shifts that we need in order to supplement Marxism: 1) The shift from focusing exclusively on commodity production to social reproduction (the formation of human subjects outside markets and in public institutions such as schools), and the gendered division; 2) The ecological turn, since capital treats nature both as a source for raw materials and as a deposit for waste; as well as the development of new enclosures and technologies that blur the relationship between the natural and the human; and 3) The question of public power, since neoliberal capitalism is mutating the structural division between polity and economy (public and private power) upon which the territorial system previously rested.

All three are potential flash points from which capitalist crisis could emerge. Fraser argued that we need to see capitalism not simply as a form of economic organization, but as a structurally differentiated social order, containing a number of distinct and functionally-interrelated ontologies. As an institutionalized social order, it is akin to the integrated form of life previously found in feudal societies, including gender oppression, political domination, and ecological degradation. Since the notions of “society,” “polity,” and “nature” arose alongside “the economy”, they are its Others rather than being wholly external standpoints of critique. But precisely because they are the boundaries (or as she put it, the background conditions) of capitalism, being both internal and external to it, they, and not the internal contradictions of the economy, are also the points from which a systemic crisis could unravel.

As I wrote, Fraser’s account resonated the most with me because it provided the kind of materialist, historical critique that I think was also the best aspect of Marx’s work, while supplementing it with a number of other elements that he did not address. Habermas’s, Benhabib’s, and especially Forst’s accounts, while important, remained too distant from the socio-economic conditions of the present moment, since their primary focus was almost exclusively on the political dimension (namely, rights and sovereignty). Brown’s talk, while insightful, too often seemed to reify neoliberalism into a totality. Not only that, but her emphasis on the decline of public power in the face of neoliberalization revealed a blind spot to the Marxist critique of the state, which has always posited the interrelation between state and economy as an outcome of the capitalist mode of production.

This will have to be it for the time being. I hope to return to this soon in another post, in which I will try to draw some broader implications of these arguments, in terms of what contemporary critical theory (if we can even talk about it as a single discourse) gets right and wrong in its analysis of the current moment.


David Harvey on the Crisis

This great animation of one of David Harvey’s lectures has been making the internet rounds in the past few days.

Explaining the current crisis from a Marxist perspective, Harvey does a great job of listing the various other ways it has been accounted for: human nature/psychologism; institutional failure; bad economic theory; cultural explanations; and a failure of policy. None of these explanations take into account what Marx called the internal contradictions of capitalism: that the need for a constant expansion of markets, coupled with the pressure of keeping employee wages down, would lead to a falling rate of profit. Havey also makes the insightful point that the crises of capitalism are never resolved but simply shifted around geographically (Greece, Spain), thereby perpetuating a different kind of crisis: one of sovereign debt.

My only complaint is that he doesn’t delve deeper into this problem. By about the 8:30 mark of the video, after stating that capital accumulation requires getting over barrier points like resolving matters of finance and investment, Harvey points out that this ultimately results in the increased influence of financiers, who are needed to fund the expansion of capitalist enterprises. As many scholars have pointed out, the economic boom of the 1990s was premised almost entirely on wealth created through financial manipulation, just as the domestic manufacturing sector was suffering and jobs were exported. But if this is the heart of the problem, then it requires a more deeper structural analysis of how and why this shift from manufacturing to finance occurred, also involving questions of geopolitics and technological development. Pointing to the power of financiers alone can’t account for this transition, and I think risks falling back into ‘institutional failure’ explanation – namely that the financial ingenuity and the short-term profit motive of Wall Street was able to circumvent institutional regulations meant to prevent such a crisis from happening. This was part of it, to be certain; for example, see Jeff Madrick’s essay “At the Heart of the Crash” in the New York Review. But if crisis is a constant feature of capitalist economies, then there has to be more to the explanation than just that.

Saramago and the Allegory of the Cave

See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which see a wall, built like the partitions puppet-handlers set in front of the human beings and over which they show the puppets.

So begins Plato’s famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of the Republic. This myth, vivid in its description and message, has fascinated writers and thinkers in the West for hundreds of years. Following in this path, Jose Saramago’s novel The Cave uses the allegory as a critique of a hyper-capitalist society built on the principles of progress and free markets.

Telling the story of a potter’s struggle to come to terms with the lack of demand for his work and art, Saramago grinds away at the bureaucratic and streamlined efficiency of the commercial process. Personified in the nameless administrators with whom the protagonist has to negotiate with and prove his worth to, the social order’s duplicity becomes revealed. The administrators are friendly and accommodating on the surface, pretending that they only have one’s best interests in their minds. They even insist on compensating him for his labor, even if it comes as a monetary loss to them. Yet despite this gesture, it is difficult not to notice the ruthless efficiency and ultimate disregard with which they are capable of cutting off a craftsman’s means of livelihood in accordance with the logic of supply and demand. It is this logic that dictates the lives of The Center’s inhabitants.

The Center itself represents the gravitational pull of the novel. A labyrinthine fifty-story complex of shops, cafes, attractions, hospitals, and everything else, like an irresistible force its existence looms over the main character’s minds. A semi-living entity, as The Center continues to physically expand in all directions, including underground, it also seeps deeper into the characters’ mutual interaction. In effect, it acts as both the physical and ontological horizon, defining and conditioning the range of future possibilities the characters have to choose from. There is no escaping it.

This dystopian overtone, as well as the plot of a fallible character struggling against circumstances he cannot truly understand, owes much to Kafka. Yet whereas Kafka’s work, despite its dark humor, recoils from any identification with human warmth, Saramago masterfully injects his story with a sense of mutual respect and understanding that is so prominent it is almost tangible.

It is this appeal to human closeness and an ethics of care for the Other that ultimately leaves the reader hopeful that the characters are able to overcome the structural logic of a society that, in its quest for efficiency and leisure, has collectively embarked on the road to nowhere. Most disturbing is the tranquility with which Saramago conveys this political message. One never gets the feeling of an impending crisis that can rattle the foundations of this civilization unless things change for the better, but only the feeling of a slow, dull existence continuing into the hazy future.

It is on this last point that the allegory of the cave, which only manifests itself in the final twenty pages of the novel, proves to be especially poignant. It is only upon seeing a hoax of mythic proportions being prepared for mass consumption by an unwitting public that the characters decide to cut their final ties with The Center. The novel ends with them driving away from the city, their destination unknown. Yet even then, they carry with themselves the knowledge of The Center’s upcoming plans–a knowledge and a memory that is likely to stay with them long after they have commenced their new lives elsewhere.

The BBC reported yesterday that Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown have called for ‘global market changes,’ primarily by proposing to tax banks that give out large bonuses to chairpeople. As it states: “Various proposals to reform the sector “deserve examination”, they said, but a one-off tax on high bonuses paid to bankers “should be considered a priority”. This is just another example of politicians drawing attention from the central issue that no one wants to touch: the state of the European economy in the neoliberal age. Instead of focusing on this elephant in the room, politicians seem to think that the current economic crisis was the result of individual greed and not a systematic by-product of neoliberalism itself. (Obama milked this explanation for all it was worth during his campaign last year.)

As Alex Callinicos summarizes in his book An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (which was released in 2003, but still very relevant today), “The process of competitive accumulation is responsible for capitalism’s chronic tendency towards crises of over-investment and profitability: financial speculation feeds this tendency but is not its primary cause” (p. 65). Callinicos maintains a strong Marxist framework in his analysis (while also drawing upon Polanyi), arguing that the nation state is still a significant actor in the global economy. As a result, revolutionary movements must take advantage of their decentralization but still strive to wrest control of the state. 

Tying in with this is Chantal Mouffe’s argument in The Democratic Paradox, in which she puts forth an agonistic conception of politics in contrast to the neo-Kantian theories of deliberative democracy made by Rawls and Habermas. Reading the book, I found myself agreeing completely with her critiques of both the deliberative democratic approach and the Third Way proposed by Giddens. However, Mouffe’s alternative was less clear. At times drawing upon anti-liberal thinkers like Schmitt and, in a different way, Derrida, she at other times insists on the importance of the left-right spectrum and of a liberal-democratic form of political order.

Ultimately it seems that she is a proponent of a robust and politically active democratic form of citizenship. However, the agonistic model she puts forth (and distinguishes from a purely Schmittian antagonism) is not forward enough on what concrete instances of political participation it would entail. While she is at pains to distinguish herself from Schmitt, she affirms that force and violence “can never be eliminated and cannot be adequately apprehended through the sole language of ethics of morality” (p. 130). While she rightly views power as constitutive of social relations, it is unclear as to how this constant possibility of violence is to be reconciled with her emphasis on a stable, liberal-democratic framework for agonistic politics.