“A period of enormous opportunity”: the crisis of ‘critique’
As the year closes, we return again to the thinking of Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt: this time, to find the contours for rethinking left populism in their concepts of ‘critique’ and judgment.
Tempting as it is to suggest that that we are re-living the 1930s, it is vitally important to maintain an attitude of skepticism. In a recent editorial of the New Left Review after the US mid-term elections, sociologist Dylan Riley notes the surfeit of invocations of fascism across the political spectrum. Yet, on the basis of four axes – geopolitical dynamics, economic crisis, the relation between class and nation, and the character of political parties and civil societies – he carefully and quite persuasively lays out the case against considering a figure like Donald J. Trump to be a fascist. While compelling, Riley’s brief is, ultimately, unconvincing because he fails to take seriously the undermining of the institutions of liberal democracy, against a backdrop of the chronic (rather than acute) socioeconomic crisis, in the name of collective identities which one witnesses not simply in the United States with the advent of the Trump presidency but globally. And, herein lies the core of contemporary fascism.
Today, the uncanny return of authoritarian populism can be situated between two key events: the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, and the financial crisis of 2007–8. The first event, devastatingly tragic though it was, became the justification for a full-blown neoconservative foreign policy of aggressive and direct (as opposed to by proxy) regime change. This had already been envisaged by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) think tank, co-founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan in 1997, that remained active until 2006. Including such neoconservative luminaries as Elliott Abrams, William J. Bennett, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Francis Fukuyama, Norman Podhoretz, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the PNAC sought to identify “challenges and opportunities” for the United States in the twenty-first century. It sought increases in military spending, the strengthening of ties with “democratic allies” in confronting its enemies, the promotion of political and economic “freedom” abroad and the assertion of the “unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity and our principles.” In the attacks of September 11, 2001, it found both such challenges and opportunities, as the then National Security Advisor to the Bush Administration, Condoleezza Rice, put it in a much publicized speech at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University:
If the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 bookend a major shift in international politics, then this is a period not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity. Before the clay is dry again, America and our friends and our allies must move decisively to take advantage of these new opportunities. This is, then, a period akin to 1945 to 1947, when American leadership expanded the number of free and democratic states – Japan and Germany among the great powers – to create a new balance of power that favored freedom.
Rice and the Bush administration, having hardly waited for the clay to dry, took cunning advantage of such an “opportunity.” By the time of Rice’s speech, the United States had already toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, weakened Al-Qaeda, and was training its sights on the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq under the false claim that it possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). It would commence the invasion of that country less than a year after Rice’s Johns Hopkins speech.
The policy of regime change tacitly articulated by Rice contributed massively not only to the rise of terrorist organizations such as ISIS in Iraq but also, consequently, a crisis of displaced persons not seen since World War II, if ever. According to the UNHCR, there are some 70 million displaced persons globally. The statelessness produced by these policies constituted, according to Hannah Arendt, “a new type of human being, the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.” This in turn authorized, as Agamben has shown, the exercise of sovereignty in a new form of biopower via the reduction of the human being as “bare life” to the status of homo sacer, the subject that legitimately could be put to death.
If neoconservativism produced a crisis of displaced persons of unimaginable proportions, then 40 years of neoliberal policies of deregulation and privatization, accelerated in crucial ways by the “extreme centre” (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair), created a social order in which crisis was no longer managed (as had been the case 1945–75) but has simply become normalized. This ranged from Black Monday, 19 October 1987, through the so-called Asian Flu of 1998 sparked by untrammelled currency speculation in south-east Asian economies, to a near meltdown of the global financial order provoked by the proliferation of subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations, by virtue of which high-risk investments were camouflaged amidst apparently low-risk vehicles in 2007–8.
The extreme centre, according to Tariq Ali, “is the political system that has grown up under neoliberalism. It has existed in the States for at least a century and a half, where you have two political parties with different clientele but funded by the same source, and basically carrying out the same policies.” The paradoxical neoconservative tactic of “humanitarian intervention” in the interest of regime change was coupled with the neoliberal remaking of the state via accumulation by dispossession, privatization, deregulation and upward (and outward) redistribution of wealth in Iraq. If the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 form one set of bookends, then 9/11 and the financial meltdown of 2007–8 form another set establishing the unique conjuncture within which the spectre of fascism haunts the present.
If the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 form one set of bookends, then 9/11 and the financial meltdown of 2007–8 form another set.
Important as it is to understand this conjuncture, it is not enough. If we wish to grasp the nature of the crisis, it is necessary to dig somewhat deeper.
In attempting to map the contours of the Horizon of Crisis, one would do much worse than to re-visit a short article simply entitled “Critique” (“Kritik”) by Theodor W. Adorno that appeared as a radio address in the series “Politik für Nichtpolitiker,” for Süddeutscher Rundfunk on May 26, 1969 and appeared nearly one month later in Die Zeit (Adorno, 1998a). This was the same period in which Adorno was engaged in an important exchange of letters with Herbert Marcuse on the significance of the West German Students’ Movement and was particularly concerned about the integrity of West German constitutional democracy (Adorno and Marcuse, 1999). (Incidentally, it’s worth asking if Adorno’s position here could be reconstructed so as to respond to the criticism that The Authoritaraian Personality didn’t address “Left authoritarianism.”)
In myriad radio talks, interviews, newspaper articles, etc., Adorno shows himself to be deeply committed to the idea of “Pädagogik nach Auschwitz” (“Pedagogy After Auschwitz”) which is, itself also the title of an important example of another such radio address for Hessischer Rundfunk on 18 April 1966, published under the slightly altered title of “Erziehung nach Auschwitz” (Adorno, 1998b). Democratic institutions in Germany had never really been established on as firm a footing as they had been in France and the US and, after the failure of the Revolution of 1848, German nationalism took an increasingly authoritarian turn, particularly with the formation of the nation state under Prussian aegis. It scarcely needs to be re-iterated that both in Italy and in Weimar Germany, fascism came to power by democratic means. Once the fascists had seized power they immediately set about suspending the democratic constitution that had enabled it in the first place. The key point, though, as Peter E. Gordon has remarked, is that Adorno didn’t adopt an attitude of “resignation” but thought democratic renewal was, in fact, a possibility.
Once the fascists had seized power they immediately set about suspending the democratic constitution that had enabled it in the first place.
In his philosophical, social-psychological as well as political writing, Adorno seeks to contribute to preventing the re-emergence of fascism – one could call his work a philosophical “anti-fascism.” This is perfectly in line with Adorno’s oft-cited exhortation for the formulation of a “new categorical imperative” after the Holocaust. Adorno states in Negative Dialectics: “Hitler has forced a new categorical imperative on humanity in the condition of their unfreedom: to arrange their thoughts and actions in such a way that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will occur.” (Adorno, 2007, 365). Adorno’s public addresses and engagement with and through the media can be seen to be deeply motivated by this very ethico-political challenge.
What follows is a closer look at “Critique,” which poses the relationship between negativity and democracy, and I will relate it to the objective or institutional and subjective or psychological dimensions of the crisis. I conclude with some thoughts about whether Chantal Mouffe’s recent call for a “left populism” (2018) can be said to embody negativity and, as such, work to actualize the unfulfilled promises of liberal-democracy.
At one level, any form of “populism” would seem to be deeply inimical to Adorno’s political philosophy. At another, if it is possible to see the neo-liberal consensus since the late 1970s as the real target of populisms of whatever stripe, it is possible to see left populism as a challenge to the “totally administered society” – or, again, as Peter Gordon put it, “the authority of the given,” by reinvigorating politics (Mouffe, 2018) in a manner not unlike the APO in West Germany in the aftermath of the formation of the Grosse Koalition (Grand Coalition) between the Social and Christian Democrats from 1966-69. Adorno was a cautious supporter of the former.
Like many of Adorno’s writings, this essay is at once compressed, wide-ranging and reflects upon political and social developments as they were unfolding. Adorno’s central proposition is that democracy is defined by “critique” or negativity in both the objective and subjective senses. From the outset, Adorno implicitly invokes Marx’s claim against Hegel, that the anatomy of the State was to be located in bürgerliche Gesellschaft, ( civil society) by suggesting that politics cannot be understood as a “self-enclosed, isolated sphere… but rather can be conceived only in its relationship to the societal forces making up the substance of everything political and veiled by political surface phenomenon.” (Adorno, 1998a, 282) Objectively, critique can be understood in relation to democracy in the form of the separation of powers, from Locke and Montesquieu, which “has its lifeblood in critique” (282) insofar as each branch of government, legislative, judicial and executive, holds the others accountable, by subjecting them to critique.
The form of the separation of powers, from Locke and Montesquieu,… “has its lifeblood in critique” insofar as each branch of government, legislative, judicial and executive, holds the others accountable, by subjecting them to critique.
Such an objective institutionalization of critique goes hand-in-glove with the subjective idea of, and of course capacity for, critique which is reflected in the Kantian idea of enlightenment understood as Mündigkeit which means political maturity or the notion that citizens must be empowered to speak for themselves as autonomous subjects (Kant, 1996, 58-64). The citizen is able to speak for him/herself, according to Adorno, “because he (she) has thought for himself and is not merely repeating someone else; he (she) stands free of any guardian”. Mündigkeit is vital, moreover, for the citizen’s capacity to resist conformity to prevailing opinion and stands in close relation to judgment. I want to examine the subjective conditions for critique in a little more detail insofar as these are entering into a particularly acute crisis.
Insofar as he identifies Kritik’s etymological roots in the Greek verb krino, meaning “to decide” (282), Adorno tacitly confirms Hannah Arendt’s argument that judgment is the key political faculty par excellence (see Gandesha, 2012, 246-279). If Kant, and the Enlightenment as a whole, can be understood as paving the way for an Ausgang or exit from “self-incurred immaturity” and making possible judgment and critique, then Adorno argues that the mature Hegel ultimately undermines critique by associating it with the vanity of what he called the Raisonner (literally according to Henry Pickford: carperer or argufier). That is, Hegel associated critique with the person who fails to recognize the subtle permutations of Der List der Vernunft or the cunning of reason (Hegel, 1995), which is to say the person who is “incapable of recognizing that ultimately everything is and happens for the best” (Adorno, 1998a, 283).
This divergence in the attitudes towards critique in Kant and Hegel points to a deep tension inherent in the project of the bourgeoisie as a whole: “that the logic of its own principles,” Adorno argues, “could lead beyond its own sphere of interests.” This point cannot be emphasized enough insofar as Adorno, again drawing on Marx, emphasizes critique as a determinate rather than an abstract negation, a canceling and preserving rather than a simple, outright rejection of bourgeois social structures, social institutions and thought. Adorno then turns to discuss the insufficiently developed idea of critique, paradoxically, in the insufficient nature of its bourgeois revolution. Germany, as Marx quipped, “shared the restorations of modern nations without having shared their revolutions” (1975, 176).
Adorno, again drawing on Marx, emphasizes critique as a determinate rather than an abstract negation, a canceling and preserving rather than a simple, outright rejection of bourgeois social structures, social institutions and thought.
Adorno presciently locates anti-intellectualism in the broader attempt to divest critique of its force by deeming only university professors, for example, as legitimate practitioners of it. Once critique is institutionalized in this way, it is easy, Adorno argues, to effectively disenfranchise the intellectual dissenter or non-conformist who is regarded as a “grumbler” and subsequently dismissed. There is, thus, a dubious “division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, those who cannot be held accountable for its consequences.” As a result critique is divested of its force. Another way critique is neutralized, in Adorno’s view, is to suggest that it must be constructive or positive. As long as critique is forced to affirm the existing order rather than to dialectically negate it, it can hardly be considered critique at all. Rather, it functions to legitimize the status quo and, insofar as the order affirmed represents the substance of “damaged life,”—a condition in which “life does not live,” such positive critique manifests what Freud called in Beyond the Pleasure Principle “Thanatos.”
Critique is undermined, as well, as Adorno showed in the an essay written one year after the publication of The Authoritarian Personality entitled “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” by the increasing susceptibility of individuals to demagoguery. In this essay, Adorno draws upon Freud to explain the success of what Löwenthal and Guterman call the “agitator” in transforming socio-economic discontents into resentment against particular “outgroups.”
Adorno argues that late capitalism entails a deepening split between, on the one hand, a recognition of the autonomous individual as responsible for his or her own destiny, and on the other, diminishing resources with which to actualize such autonomy. Psychologically this opens an unbridgeable and unbearable chasm between ego and ego ideal and produces anxiety, fear and guilt in the individual. Authoritarian populists present themselves as “great little men” which their followers both idealize and identify with – these leaders are enlarged versions of themselves who manifest an authoritarian dominance toward the weak and subordination toward the strong. It is such an identification with the authoritarian leader and the group they embody that prompts individuals to sacrifice their own “objective” interests.
Adorno argues that late capitalism entails a deepening split between, on the one hand, a recognition of the autonomous individual as responsible for his or her own destiny, and on the other, diminishing resources with which to actualize such autonomy.
How can Adorno’s reflections on “critique” help us to understand the contemporary Horizon of the Crisis”? For reasons of space, I can only sketch out a provisional answer to the question I’ve set. Today we are confronted by an institutional crisis of liberal democracy which could be said to annul the long-standing tension Adorno notes between the Kantian Enlightenment and the Hegelian thesis of the “end of history” as announced already three decades ago by Francis Fukuyama (1992). While Fukuyama has since distanced himself from this thesis, it nonetheless persists in the idea that neo-liberalism has established a social order to which, as Margaret Thatcher suggested, “there is no alternative”, which is authoritarian to its core insofar as it posits the unassailable authority of the given. “It is what it is” as the ubiquitous locution has it. Through what Wendy Brown calls its “marketization” of democracy (Brown, 2017), the neo-liberal order seeks, in other words, to finally divest itself once and for all of liberal democracy’s promise of the genuine realization of freedom and equality.
The crisis of ‘critique’
There are many reasons for this shift, including the deep crisis of the Keynesian order, the steady weakening of the industrial working class and its institutions, the progressive ascendency of financial capital and the end of the Cold War conflict between the West and the Eastern Bloc, which maintained conditions in which a certain class compromise around the welfare state was held in place. With the advent of neo-liberalism, an order constituted by the confluence of privatization, deregulation, accumulation by dispossession and an upward redistribution of income (Harvey, 2005), we enter a period of a technocratic or post-political consensus (Mouffe, 2018). Neo-liberal capitalism is a one-dimensional society without apologies. What has come with this post-political consensus is a deep crisis of critique in both the objective and subjective senses understood by Adorno. This becomes especially apparent in the United States.
What has come with this post-political consensus is a deep crisis of critique in both the objective and subjective senses understood by Adorno.
If, institutionally, critique is grounded in the separation of powers, then such a separation is now in the process of being profoundly undermined. The foreclosure of critique can be discerned most clearly in terms of an increasing concentration of power in the executive branch of government. In the United States, the Republican-controlled Congress has bluntly reneged on its constitutional duty to act as a check on executive authority, which is to say, to hold the President to account, for example, in the claim that he has violated the Constitution or has possibly colluded with a foreign government in the election that brought him to power in 2016.
The Senate in particular will mostly likely continue with an expeditious exoneration of the President. The President has personally attacked members of the judiciary and assailed, in particular, the impartiality of the judicial branch. He was shocked and appalled that his Attorney General would have the temerity to recuse himself from the Russia investigation (see Woodward, 2018). He is in the process of fundamentally altering the complexion of the Supreme Court which will put abortion, labour and civil rights or the very right to dissent (and hence critique) into serious question. The President has continued the practice of the previous administration of governing by executive order most notably in restricting travel from certain Muslim-majority states he later vilified as “shit-hole” countries. Moreover, he has relentlessly charged that the mainstream media peddles “fake news” and has even declared it to be the "enemy of the people.” Journalists have been treated with profound hostility by the White House Press Secretary and Trump’s alt-right allies have publicly called for journalists to be violently attacked.
The foreclosure of critique can be discerned most clearly in terms of an increasing concentration of power in the executive branch of government.
Furthermore, political movements arising within the sphere of civil society such as, for example, Black Lives Matter or Antifa challenging the current administration have been aggressively targeted by law enforcement agencies. In marked contrast, far-right political organizations, such as Patriot Prayer and the Ku Klux Klan, have been legitimized. Indeed, the President has been very reluctant to condemn racially motivated violence as in the case of Charlottesville, for which he has earned the gratitude of Klansman David Duke. Similar tendencies, to varying degrees, can be discerned throughout the world in democracies as diverse as Erdogan’s Turkey, Sisi’s Egypt, Modi’s India, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Johnson’s UK and, even, Trudeau’s Canada.
Subjectively, the crisis of critique can be understood in the waning commitment to the Enlightenment idea of Mündigkeit which, in a crucial way, was prepared for by post-modern and post-colonial writers who see in it only a one-sided apologia for Eurocentrism and continued colonial domination. Such perspectives fail to measure up to the insight and self-understanding of philosophers such as John Stuart Mill who recognized the potentially explosive, anti-colonial power of his own “liberty principle” and therefore the direct threat it posed to his own interest in the British East India Company. This is why Mill bluntly denied that it was applicable to what he called the “lesser races” (Mill, 1956). Mündigkeit, the capacity to think, speak and judge for oneself, is undermined by the return of authoritarianism which entails the unification of the interests of capital, labour and the state through an “identification with the aggressor” (Gandesha, 2018). We see such an identification on the right as well as the left.
Mündigkeit, the capacity to think, speak and judge for oneself, is undermined by the return of authoritarianism.
On the right, we’ve witnessed a dramatic turn towards right-wing populism in the US, the UK, Canada, many parts of Europe as well as in countries such as Brazil, Turkey and India, as I previously suggested. Right-populism encourages the identification with the aggressor via a constitution of the people by way of an antagonism with its enemies. Such enemies – Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, migrants, etc. – translate economic into cultural anxieties by becoming transformed into objects of fear. With the steady withdrawal of state provision of resources and a deepening commodification of social life, subjects become ever more indebted to financial institutions. Nietzsche had long ago drawn the connection between debt (Schulden) and guilt (Schuld) (see discussion in Lazzarato, 2012). As Adorno puts it:
The more freedom the subject – and the community of subjects – ascribes to itself, the greater its responsibility; and before this responsibility it must fail in a bourgeois life which in practice has never yet endowed a subject with the unabridged autonomy accorded to it in theory. Hence the subject must feel guilty. (2007, 221)
This, I think, captures the essence of the inherent authoritarianism of neo-liberal capitalism. Heightened guilt, as Franz Neumann observed (2017), is the product of the translation of the real into neurotic anxieties that feed a Caesaristic identification of the group with a strong leader. Social media and right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart encourage precisely such an “expression” of the fears, anxieties and frustrations of the masses, without challenging the obscenely unequal conditions of contemporary capitalism. If the authoritarian personality could only express himself in slogans, as Arendt notes (1963), then what I elsewhere call the neo-liberal personality (Gandesha, 2018) can only express himself in “memes.”
Identity politics and the left
By no means has the left been immune from certain authoritarian tendencies, itself. This has taken the form of “identity politics” which is to say, a grounding of politics not in will formation though rational discourse (thinking, speaking and judging) based on arguments and evidence but rather a reified and proprietory understanding of experience. Just as Adorno had argued that the West German Students Movement not only manifested authoritarianism but also drew out pervasive and deeply authoritarian tendencies in society, so too does Left identity politics fuel the rise of White nationalist “identitarianism.”
Contemporary “Critical Theorists,” paradoxically, themselves, betray the very idea of critique from which they derive their own identity. One particularly egregious example of this was the demand for the retraction of a philosophy paper on trans-racial identity that was found to commit “epistemic violence” against trans-persons. In another example, a mixed-race artist, Hannah Black, called not simply for the critique of a painting by a white woman artist, Dana Schutz, depicting Emmett Till’s broken body as a result of a racially-motivated murder but for the artwork’s destruction which, of course, calls to mind the Nazi prohibition on “entartete Kunst.”
Contemporary “Critical Theorists,” paradoxically, themselves, betray the very idea of critique from which they derive their own identity.
As with the West German Students’ Movement, such an identity politics has gone hand in hand with a prioritizing of the “anti-imperialist struggle” above all else, in which the West is construed as “evil” and its enemies as “good.” This leads to a politics of ressentiment that amounts to a defense of profoundly authoritarian parties, organizations and figures such as Hamas, Vladimir Putin, and Bashar al-Assad as part of what Judith Butler once ill-advisedly called the “global anti-imperialist Left.” It also betrays the genuinely democratic opposition in these states.
In what sense can a resurgent left populism – in Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos etc. – be seen to represent a genuine alternative to the authoritarian definition of the “demos”? In the short-term, left populism is vitally important to confront the post-political one-dimensionality of the neo-liberal consensus by re-introducing negativity and conflict back into political life in such a way as to challenge authoritarian populists on their own terrain. This breaks decisively, I think, with the “authority of the given.” In the process, it establishes what Chantal Mouffe in For a Left Populism calls the “antagonistic frontier” between the oligarchy and the demos on the basis of principles of freedom and equality. While the right agitates for what could be called an abstract negation of liberal democracy, left populism can be understood as manifesting a radically democratic, immanent critique or determinate negation of concepts of freedom and equality.
Yet, antagonistic frontiers can get established in many ways and there is no reason why a left populism couldn’t strive for “equality and freedom” within the context of an exclusionary political community, which is to say, the nation state. As Rosemary Bechler has argued, populism is too indebted to a binary logic that is ultimately unable to allow for genuine multiplicity or what Hannah Arendt called the human condition of plurality. For example, the Left populist formation in Germany Aufstehen, led by Sahra Wagenknecht, has come out against ‘economic migrants” (although, to be fair, Wagenknecht has said that the cases of “genuine” refugees ought to be heard).
Nonetheless, in the short-term, Left populism must take aim at inequality and economic precarity in order to counter-act the strategy of the right to translate economic anxiety into the fear of the other. However, this must be a prelude to a longer-term strategy of thinking about how the subject of left populism, namely the people can be reconciled with pluralism and therefore be defined in a non-exclusionary way. The people can be understood as comprised of a kind of solidarity with what Adorno calls the “non-identical” or what Arendt calls “conscious pariahs” who inhabit a shared political space without being subsumed by a larger identity ie. “nation.” The “people” may also be understood in terms of what Jacques Ranciere calls the “part that has no part” those who remain invisible and unheard within a given “distribution of the sensible.”
Left populism must in the long run be rethought, and indeed, reinvented, in ways that are grounded in genuine hospitality to, and solidarity with, the other.
In other words, left populism must in the long run be rethought, and indeed, reinvented, in ways that are grounded in genuine hospitality to, and solidarity with, the other. This is, incidentally, why left populism in Spain – Los Indignados and Podemos – is particularly interesting insofar as it has been nurtured by a radical municipalism central to which, of course, is the creation of “Sanctuary cities”. Bechler quotes Carlos Delclos:
"The key to the indignados was how they organised in the midst of the hopelessness dominant in Spain prior to their emergence, pushing developments in a virtuous, subversive, emancipatory direction, as opposed to this game of, “How can we play with xenophobia without being xenophobic? ” which was going on in the rest of Europe. They said, “We have to be the protagonists of our own change. We have to break down borders in our own practise.”
Such radical municipalism might be seen as having been articulated in light of Adorno’s beautiful essay on Marx’s comrade-in-exile, Heinrich Heine (1991, 85): “…there is no longer any homeland other than a world in which no one would be cast out any more, the world of a genuinely emancipated humanity.”
This article is based on a piece published in Spanish in Constelaciones: Revista de Teoría Crítica Vol 10 (2018) entitled “Crítica y Crisis”.
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