Critical Theory versus All That Exists:
A Critique of the Critique of ‘Grievance Studies’

Critical theory maintains: it need not be so; man can change reality, and the necessary conditions for such change already exist.

    Max Horkheimer


One of our friends brought to our attention an article published by Areo Magazine, which lambastes what its authors refer to as “grievance studies” – essentially their term for academic disciplines informed by identity politics and grounded in (post-)postmodern precepts. The centerpiece of the article is a series of hoax scholarly papers fabricated by the Areo writers to lampoon and expose what they see as the flaws, biases, “corruption,” and unscientific nature of the “grievance studies” disciplines. As our New Institute for Social Research is highly critical of both academic identity politics and postmodern precepts, we read the piece with interest, and found it to be, in brief, reactionary tripe of the worst kind. Communists must recognize that in a society in which the ruling interests appear as myriad fractions competing amongst themselves, the enemies of our enemies are by no means our friends.

Because we have little interest in defending the targets of Areo’s attacks, we have not undertaken a close analysis or point-by-point refutation of their arguments. What follow are rather a few critical reflections on their perspective as a whole.

The Areo writers, in their spirited defense of liberal, scientistic positivism, are quick to denounce the work of their “grievance”-fixated opponents as "biased" or "ideological" while taking for granted that their own highly-prized falsifiable natural-scientific methodologies are unbiased and nonideological, that is, historically and socially unconditioned and neutral. Ironically, as thought unconscious of its own historicity, Areo's position is pure ideology, in the Marxian sense of that term (which Joshua Clover has recently defined with admirable clarity as, “an invisible framework that includes and excludes automatically, a set of unexamined beliefs that think our thoughts for us, in advance”). The Areo writers are mired in a positivist tradition that equates science tout court with the methods of contemporary natural science (which is effectively the R&D wing of capital accumulation), and assumes that these provide a correct model for the social and human sciences. At its most innocent, this results in the tendency to denounce apples for not being oranges. This is clearly demonstrated in their suggestion that the denaturalization of common sense is a fundamentally flawed or even senseless project, which they disparagingly characterize as "pretending to be mystified by common experiences" (as if this weren't a dumbass way of characterizing the methodology of the majority of philosophy, from the maieutic of Socrates, to Descartes's radical doubt, to Kant's Critiques, to say nothing of critical theory). But the problem is far from reducible to the inappropriate extension of the standards of some disciplines to others – indeed, disciplinary specialization and the intellectual division of labor are part of the problem. 

For all their fulminations against "standpoint epistemology" (a cod-Nietzschean absolute perspectivalism that must certainly be critiqued – Ernst Bloch spotted its reactionary implications in Spengler forty-odd years before it became fashionable with the academic Left), the Areo people's own epistemological perspective regresses to Kant, or even behind Kant. Their entire perspective rests (though of course they would deny it) on an antinomic separation between the knowing subject and the object of knowledge (which Hegel critiqued over two centuries ago, a critique carried forward and materialistically grounded by Marx, Lukács, Korsch, Lefebvre, Schmidt, Horkheimer, and Adorno, among others). This leads to a conception of knowledge as frozen, reified 'facts,' data that are 'out there' (like the Kantian noumenon) to be discovered and catalogued, thereby ascending into the misty heaven of Knowledge, far from the grubby earth of material social practice. 

Such a separation mirrors the separation of the sphere of circulation from the sphere of production constitutive of the capitalist economy: the sphere of circulation (of knowledge, in this case) appears as "a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham" (Marx, Capital Vol. 1) – in which all verifiable facts float free and equal, competing in the intellectual marketplace. But this perspective will not and cannot concern itself with the conditions of production of knowledge, will not enter "the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face 'No admittance except on business'" (ibid). The former is a public matter, the latter a private one, ruled by vulgar interests (what these jokers confusingly call "bias" or "ideology"), and therefore of no interest to science (pitifully narrowly conceived). 

The modern critique of epistemological precepts began with Hegel (though his idealism prevented him from concluding it) – the Phenomenology functions as, among many other things, a critique of Kantian and pre-Kantian epistemology. Hegel says that it is the wrong approach for Science [Wissenschaft] to take as its presupposition a verdict on abstract questions about the nature of knowledge as such, viewed as a passive instrument for apprehending ‘what truly is.’ In Hegel's view, the presupposition of Science is the entire past historical development of human activity and human consciousness. Truth is not "a minted coin that can be pocketed ready-made," "like some finished product in which one can no longer find any trace of the tool that made it” – truth is "essentially a result:" it is "the process of its own Becoming" (Phenomenology). Science is the comprehension of the self-movement of this process in thought, thus even "the false is a moment of the true" – there are no "facts" as such, "minted coins" separable and isolatable, but only moments in the unfolding of a determinate process that must be grasped in relation to the dynamic whole to which they belong. To ground truth in historical development, and knowledge in the dialectical comprehension of its process – this was the revolutionary contribution of Hegel. Marx deepened this perspective by connecting it explicitly to material social practice – Engels was dead right in calling the “Theses on Feuerbach” the "germ of a new world outlook:" "man must prove the truth." The so-called thing-in-itself and our knowledge of it are mutually imbricated, mediated in social practice, thus fact is revealed as process.

None of this is an endorsement of radical perspectivalism, of the relative validity of whatever nonsense anybody happens to think, giving pride of place to the ideological conceptions of the 'marginalized' in a kind of patronizing epistemic privilege-redistribution scheme. The validity of knowledge lies neither in an aggregation of abstract, isolated, 'falsifiable' data, and certainly not in the so-called 'identity' of the knowing subject, but in its essentially "practical-critical" engagement with the actually unfolding social process. 

This is the meaning of critical theory, as defined by Max Horkheimer – who must be spinning in his grave at the antidialectical (post)structuralist hogwash that gets incorrectly referred to by that name, which is as sad as it is ridiculous. Positivism (of which our Areo folks are staunch defenders) assumes an absolute distinction between objectivity and partisanship: a perspective which is objective cannot be partisan, and vice versa. This is, of course, itself a partisan perspective: it is a defense of what is as natural and inevitable, as all that can be, as fact. Critical theory on the other hand grasps that in a class society founded on an antagonistic mode of production, there are opposing partisan positions which are no less objective on that account. This social objectivity is itself the result of the social form of production for exchange, which in reality identifies the incommensurable, at once reproducing and concealing antagonistic relations beneath the movement of economic quantities.

The Areo writers, with their ascetic prohibition on thought, make the mistake of attributing objectivity solely to the method of the scholar, when it exists in the material itself, in society, and this is what must be explained. Identity-political scholars make a complementary error, not in registering the antagonistic character of society, but by doing so in a totally unreflected manner. Their mistake is not that they denaturalize common sense, but that they do not do so radically enough — they take their identitarian categories as given, albeit often with some fashionable qualifier, e.g. that they are ‘unstable’ or ‘hybrid,’ but do not enquire into their social constitution. Contrary to popular opinion, identity-political scholarship’s weak point is precisely theory. It mouths the dogma of ‘social construction,’ but has no insight into this process that is not entirely subjectivistic — in short, it judges society by what it thinks about itself, rather than enquiring into how this appearance necessarily arises from the objective total social process. In this, it has joined positivists of the Areo variety in banishing the distinction between appearance and essence from thought as if that would also banish it from reality. The quarrel is only over whether this conceptless immediacy should appear in the scholar herself or in an aggregate of data. Critical theory, on the other hand, does not displace the antinomies of subject and object to the level of method, but rather seeks to grasp the domination of a total social process that reduces human beings to objects, as well as the contradictions inherent in it which open up the possibility of its overcoming — that is, of the emergence of the human as self-determining subject. All thought that takes the latter as empirically given does nothing but provide self-consoling cover for its real suppression, while thought (say, of the structuralist variety) that disqualifies its possibility a priori simply joins in the lackey chorus singing the praises of the reified world.

Horkheimer averred that critical theory "seeks to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them;" Theodor Adorno contended that the "malevolence" of this unfreedom "requires as little philosophical proof as does its existence," and that to demand some would be "an outrage" (Negative Dialectics). If the truth of human practice understood as both "substance and Subject" (Hegel, Phenomenology) is "the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and self-change," (Marx, “Theses”) then the present social totality in motion (that is, capital) is at once objective and untrue – "the true is the whole, and the whole is false" (Marcuse, Reason and Revolution) – an "enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world" (Marx, Capital Vol. 3) defined by "the inversion of the subject into the object and vice versa," "the rule of the object over the human, of dead labor over living, of the product over the producer" (Marx, Results of the Immediate Process of Production). In this society, we cannot consciously determine the use of our own lives: the activity of individuals is alienated from their needs, desires, and potential, and appears as an objective force over and against the individuals themselves. The "changing of circumstances" and "self-change" do not coincide. This is the moment of truth in the above-discussed reified, contemplative, ideological conception of 'scientific facts' – it is the truth of a false society. 

It is the job of a critical theory to reveal the function of such ideological conceptions in the social totality to which they belong. It is against this mission that academic identity politics must be judged, and found wanting: the peddlers of identitarian niche markets answer ideology not with radical critique, but with more and different ideology. Despite their weak, idealist notion of 'social construction,' they cannot truly grasp all present conditions of 'Being' as determinate historical products that can and must be revolutionized in practice, and thus in their effort to 'deconstruct' reified, naturalized categories at a purely ideal level, they in fact further reify and naturalize those categories. Moishe Postone sums up this problem well: "[Some contemporary theorists are] critical of both homogeneity and totalization. However, rather than denying their real existence, [the Marxian] critique grounds processes of homogenization and totalization in historically specific forms of social relations and shows how structural tensions internal to those relations open up the historical possibility of abolishing those processes. The problem with many recent approaches that affirm heterogeneity is that they seek to inscribe it quasi-metaphysically, by denying the existence of what can only be historically abolished. In this way, positions intended to empower people often prove to be profoundly disempowering, insofar as they bracket and render invisible central dimensions of domination in the modern world." This is the approach that Amadeo Bordiga long ago criticized in those who “seek to abolish the forces that operate in the real process of history with empty verbal and literary denials.” A critical theory, on the other hand, must, as Gillian Rose avers of the dialectic of Hegel and Marx, “focus relentlessly on the historical production and reproduction of those illusory contraries which other systems of scientific thought naturalize, absolutize, or deny.”

The practically-minded lefty is by this point no doubt getting impatient with our intervention into this scholarly squabble, but none of this is merely 'an academic issue,' and the problem is certainly not 'too much theory,’ but 'what kind of theory?' Every theory is bound to a determinate social practice. The anti-theoretical attitude which bemoans 'too much talk, not enough action' and is always eager to act 'because at least I'm doing something' is the quickest route to self-deception, opportunism, and political cooptation. For all the handwringing about academicism these days, it is this kind of 'activism' that has historically characterized the Left, as its role is to serve as deal-broker in the sale of the commodity labor-power to the owners of the means of production, and thus to contain and manage proletarians' revolt against the very condition of their life-activity being reduced to a commodity (against "subject-object inversion," to put it in more philosophical terms). 

The Left cannot ask: why does human activity appear in the shape of the commodity-form of labor? Why are incommensurable forms of activity abstractly equated and homogenized? Why can time be exchanged as money? Why is the physical subsistence and social reproduction of a class of people tied to the sale of their time ("be their wages high or low") and what would it really take for it to be otherwise? What is the historical and social nature of the State? Of the political sphere as alienated from the private sphere? The Left cannot critique these phenomena, in theory or practice, because its own existence is predicated on them remaining the case. The thought of Leftist opportunist activism conceives of 'class' and 'labor' as purely positive, quasi-eternal categories, purporting to 'get more for the working class' rather than put an end to work and classes: only in terms of the "affirmative recognition of the existing state of things," but not in terms of "the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up" (Marx, Capital Vol. 1). 

Academic identity politics merely extends this traditional conception (dressed up in whatever abstruse pseudo-subversive Franco-Heideggerean garb) to an ever increasing array of positive identity categories. Thus it is ultimately at one with its opponents of the Areo variety in its essential positivism: this conflict between atomizing, identitarian, abstract particularism and liberal, scientistic, abstract universalism is a conflict waged within traditional bourgeois theory. Both rest on an additive logic that sees society as a mere aggregate of monads rather than as a negative totality reproducing itself in and through a systematic logic, the logic of capital, self-valorizing value in process (even, or perhaps especially, when the former mystifies society's subjection to its own unconscious activity in terms of an ultimately contingent assemblage of impositions of and resistances to 'power'). Both are divergent ways of reproducing in thought a practice which preserves the present state of things: picking sides in this false opposition will do nothing but befuddle the emancipatory movement. 

Only critical theory is able to uncover the negative moment in what Is, to recognize with Engels that "all that exists deserves to perish," and to align itself with the real forces of negation at work in society (or to recognize their absence or inadequacy, instead of chasing chimeras to cop the immediate satisfaction of 'at least doing something'). To invert E.P. Thompson's famous complaint, the rigorous admonitions of one critical-theoretical mouse are worth a mountain of opportunist political practice. Critical theory is thus the conscience of revolutionary practice: the "thought of history" (Debord). It is not ipso facto impossible for it to emerge from an academic context (and when revolutionary contestation is in abeyance, as it has been since the '70s, it will be increasingly sequestered there), but for reasons that should be obvious, it is unlikely, and it cannot remain there if capitalism is to be determinately overcome. For that to happen, "the workers must become dialecticians" (Debord). As workers bent on the abolition of our existence as workers, this is the project to which we hope our independent research collective can make some small contribution. 

A New Institute for Social Research