I have been very critical of Critical Theory (which I capitalize to avoid confusion with ‘a critical theory’) since the beginning of 2015, when I first came consciously into contact with the concept. As part of my course on legal philosophy, we explored many, seemingly diverse topics, including feminist legal theory, critical legal studies, and black consciousness. However, quite early during the course I came to realize two common themes were recurring throughout all of the concepts we were being taught: 1) rejection of objective logic, or reason, and 2) a rejection of individualism. That thing which united the theories in the course and the two themes I mentioned, is called Critical Theory.
As the first semester went on, I began to see the obvious interrelatedness of Critical Theory and many of the anti-libertarian occurrences happening nowadays. Granted, it was, and is, very subtle. Some feminists are calling for publicly subsidized childcare? Gender studies – Critical Theory. Some Africans are calling for a federal unification of Africa and a rejection of Western imperialism? Postcolonial Pan-Africanism – Critical Theory. The idea of white, straight, male privilege is increasingly becoming part of public policy? Intersectionality – Critical Theory. Critical Theory is ever-present in the Western world and most commentators appear blissfully ignorant.
A distinctively Western European ideology created by old white men, it has been transplanted into African postcolonialism and is now treated as an ‘authentically African’ philosophy by some ignorant intellectuals. Examples of these include works by people like Steve Biko or Frantz Fanon. The seemingly novel ideas they brought to the table, to ‘free’ Africans from ‘white values’, are based in the originally white ideology of Critical Theory.
In fact, the creators of this ideology were privileged. So much so that they were even able to flee Germany in fear of their lives before Hitler came to power. The brutal intentions of the Nazis sincerely scared them, and for good reason. So they fled to Liberia, a collectivist, postcolonial society filled with what they considered to be underdogs – unfortunate Africans disadvantaged by Western imperialism. They were going to help the struggling African nation to stand up to their former colonial masters and create a new, emancipated society. Oh, oops. I am reading off the wrong document here. I apologize. The old white male creators of Critical Theory fled Germany and ended up at Columbia University in the United States of America: the land of cold individualism, exploitative capitalism and cultural hegemony.
To date I have not found many non-overly-academic works which explore the similarities, differences and relationship between postmodernist Critical Theory and early modern classical liberalism. As an individualist libertarian myself, and now a student (yet opponent) of Critical Theory, I think it’s rather important to delve into this, given the pervasiveness of cultural Marxism throughout the West.
Given its summarative nature, I will be relying on Ben Agger’s Critical Theory, Poststructuralism, Postmodernism: Their Sociological Relevance, published in 1991 in the Annual Review of Sociology.
Critical Theory, also known as the ‘Frankfurt School’ (officially, the Institute for Social Research), originally wanted to explore the cultural and social reasons behind why Karl Marx’s glorious revolution of the proletariat (the working poor) never occurred, outside Russia, to the expected extent. Bill Whittle, an American conservative commentator I hold in high regard, phrased this simply in his video on the topic: they wanted to determine why the poor preferred the system (capitalism) they were supposed to hate! Thus, Marxism went beyond its largely economic character and delved into the social and the cultural. It is therefore not entirely incorrect to refer to Critical Theory as cultural Marxism, as is often done by American conservatives, albeit in a pejorative tone.
To make a long story short, the Critical Theorists concluded that the workers have internalized the positivist values of capitalism and thus were blind to their own exploitation (called ‘false consciousness‘), and there lies the reason for why no revolution occurred. Of course, this relates back to the Marxian theory of the superstructure. The capitalist base is supported by various traditions, institutions and customs which ensures its perceived legitimacy. The false consciousness of the underclass is exploited to keep the social and economic system running according to the evil capitalist plan. It does so to a big extent by convincing the workers that capitalism is “inevitable and rational”.
The idea is that the proletariat have an objective interest in their ‘liberation’ from the evil capitalist exploitation they suffer daily. It is for this reason that a cultural Marxist would argue that even if a pauper consciously chooses to be part of the free market system, their consciousness is false, or manufactured. This false consciousness blinds them to their objective interest. Referring to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, Agger writes “people are taught to fulfill their needs through repressive desublimation, exchanging substantive sociopolitical and economic liberties for the “freedoms” of consumer choice so abundant today.”
They further argue that capitalism has survived largely due to positivism: people are convinced to accept the world as it stands and should not accept change. Briefly, positivism is the assumption that how reality exists now, is rational and necessary. Critical Theory hopes to “[break] the identity of reality and rationality, viewing social facts not as inevitable constraints on human freedom, but as pieces of history that can be changed.” Nothing is objective, and everything, even reason itself, is informed by outside factors. They tend to focus on the characteristics of the people in question: their race, sex, gender, class, sexual orientation, and so forth.
One unfortunate effect this on society has been the obsession over social offense. As Nicholas Woode-Smith wrote in his piece earlier this month, Critical Theorists would go to the ends of the Earth to elevate the status of being offended over rational discussion, or logic. In fact, Professor John Caputo wrote in March that reason itself is a white male construct. This is part of their criticism of objectiveness: there is no ‘objective’ – all narratives, ideas or memes are informed by outside factors. For example, in many common law jurisdictions, there is found the concept of the reasonable person, which is used to determine how someone should have acted from a objective perspective. A big question in these jurisdictions is, just who exactly is this reasonable person? Many in the leftist camp believe that he is based on the average straight white man. Caputo therefore appears to believe that the modern-day conception of reason itself is greatly informed by factors relating to white male privilege (social status, piece of mind, being at ease with one’s own existence, etc.). Nicholas is thus right in saying that leftist reasoning is quite dangerous, for it, quite unashamedly, wants to chip away at perhaps the only objective thing that exists: logic.
Despite my fierce criticism of this terrible ‘logic’ underlying Critical Theory, I do not oppose all their conclusions. It is common for me to agree with the conclusions reached by Critical Theorists, but inevitably I disagree with how they arrived at those conclusions. American progressives, strongly influenced by Critical Theory (usually unbeknownst to them), would claim that white supremacy is the root cause of the allegedly disproportionate victimization of blacks by the police. While libertarians may (and many do) agree that black people receive the worst treatment of the American justice system, we would usually argue that the core of the problem is the nature of the State and the statocentricm of the people – white and black included. One cannot call for drugs to be criminalized, but expect the poorest who are prone to use, to not be made victims in the process. One cannot call for welfare but still except the poor to leap out of their circumstances and thus away from the risks of drug use. Yes, blacks are definitely disadvantaged, but that is due to statism, not ‘white supremacy.’
An example of my, and I believe, most libertarians’ agreement with the Frankfurt School, is that no philosophy or ideology is objective. We do, generally, however, believe that logic is objective. We join the cultural Marxists in criticizing positivism for its claim that the status quo is inherently immune to criticism and change. While libertarianism espouses the values of capitalism, we certainly are not positivists (Ayn Rand would want to leap out of her grave and kill me for saying this!). Our belief in freedom and liberty are value stances and we believe passionately in societal change; among other things, the lessening or elimination of the role government plays in our lives.Indeed, I also agree with an element of Michel Foucault’s philosophy. He rejects the Marxist class analysis for its oversimplification of power dynamics. Translated into the relatively contemporary notion of privilege and social inequality, he would say that privilege (and its corresponding disadvantage) is found everywhere, even among the apparent underprivileged or ‘victim’ classes.
Further, I also find common ground with Jean Baudrillard on his idea of simulated reality. He says that reality is being “increasingly simulated for people, constructed by powerful media” as well as other sources. While I, like many libertarians and Objectivists, believe in an objective reality, the perception of reality across the globe is increasingly being undermined. As Baudillard argues, according to Agger, people are losing the “the ability to distinguish between these simulations and reality”. This speaks back to the idea of false consciousness in Critical Theory. I disagree with Critical Theorists that workers have been manipulated through society to accept capitalism. I firmly believe that most people prefer capitalism because capitalism works and has uplifted hundreds of millions, billions even, out of poverty, and sent humanity (and more so everyday, Africa) into an unprecedented era of prosperity. But I must agree that the corporate media and various other institutions in civil society, such as trade unions and assorted non-governmental organizations, are drawing a false picture of reality for the masses, which suits the authoritarian statist agenda perfectly.
In a way, libertarians also engage in a type of lite-deconstruction (referring to Jacques Derrida’s poststructuralist literary techniques) in that we do not accept the underlying assumptions – which are most often unaddressed by the respective authors – found in statist-inclined publications (read: most political, legal, sociological and philosophical texts). “The good of society is paramount” is a statement often made without further ado. What is ‘society’? How are the interests of that group determined? Why is it necessarily ‘paramount’? Authors may often answer that society’s needs must trump that of the individual to “preserve the social order” or “keep the public peace”. Clearly, these answers in themselves are worthy of further deconstruction; but that’s a story for another day. The point is that there is significant agreement, at least in methodology, between Critical Theory and libertarianism.
Much common ground is to be found between cultural Marxism and libertarianism, in the same way that libertarianism finds common ground with various other philosophies. But this should not detract from our general rejection of Critical Theory’s methodology. Theorists in this camp are guilty of the most obvious intellectual and argumentative fallacies, not limited to, but most prominently: guilt by association, and double standards. These two fallacies can be found in essentially every tenet of Critical Theory and every argument made by a Critical Theorist. Without them, I believe, Critical Theory’s fundamental form will change entirely. It will become something else. The default affection for the perceived underdog will vanish and the philosophy will fundamentally take on an individualist character.