At the beginning of the nineteenth century Hegel wrote that every philosopher is a child of his time and none can jump over his own shadow: every philosophy, then, is “its time grasped in a concept.” In the twentieth century Adorno took up this idea again when he spoke of the irreducible “kernel of time” embedded in the center of any philosophical view, and of the “temporal index” of truth. Whatever these rather difficult doctrines mean, they clearly are not intended to imply that at any given time all opinions are equally true.
I started a small book in Heidelberg, Germany in 1973 and finally finished it in 1980 at the University of Chicago; The Idea of a Critical Theory was published by Cambridge University Press in late 1981. Looking back at the text from the present—from 2013 and my home on this small island off the northwest coast of Europe—I think I can begin to see rather more clearly than I could then some of the relevant features of the historical context within which it was conceived and executed. To return for a moment to Hegel, who is the major spiritual presence hovering over this book—and whose work is the more important for understanding what I was trying to do for not being mentioned at all in the main text—the reader will recall that he also holds that philosophy is essentially retrospective, a reflection of a historical moment or movement that when it finally takes philosophical form is essentially already over. This doctrine marks a distinction between what is “really” happening in the political, social and economic world and the subsequent reflection of this in philosophy (religion, art, law, etc.). As far as what was “really” happening is concerned, we can now see that the period of unprecedented economic growth and political and social progress which took place in the West after the end of World War II began to plateau in the 1970s when productivity began to stagnate. By the early 1970s, though, the assumption that economic growth would continue, levels of prosperity continue to rise, and the social and political structures continue to evolve in the direction of greater flexibility, realism and humanity had become very firmly entrenched in Western populations.
The period during which anything like that assumption was at all reasonable was ending just as I was beginning work on my book, although I, of course, did not know that at the time, any more than anyone else did. It would have been political suicide for any major figure in the West to face up to this situation courageously and to try to make clear to the population that the possibilities of relatively easy real growth were exhausted, that the era of ever-increasing prosperity was gone for good; this would have raised intolerable questions about the very foundations of the existing socioeconomic and political order. What the 1980s and 1990s had in store for us, then, was the successive implementation of a series of financial gimmicks which created financial bubbles and allowed the illusion of increasing growth for the majority of the population to be maintained for a while. This cycle was accompanied by a massive change in our culture and socioeconomic system which made possible and in fact actively encouraged individuals and institutions to incur increasingly significant amounts of debt. This, in turn, was attended by a massive shift in resources and economic power away from the majority of the population, a further concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few superlatively rich individuals and families, and a great increase in social inequality. Needless to say, the proliferation of debt ad libitum could not continue under existing conditions for long and the system began to collapse in 2007 and 2008. Catastrophe was averted only by a bizarre, not to say perverse, set of political interventions in the Western economies—interventions that have correctly been described as “socialism for the rich”: defaulting banks and failing industries were propped up by huge public subsidies, private debts were taken over by the state and profits continued to flow to private investors. This structure, which certainly bears no similarity whatsoever to the ways in which proponents of “capitalism” have described their favored arrangements, seems to give us the worst of all available worlds.
By the end of the 1970s at the very latest, it was visible that a huge counter-movement was in progress—it would be incorrect to call it a counterrevolution exactly, since the immediately antecedent period, although one of a certain relative progress, was hardly a revolution. The forms of economic regulation that had been introduced during the Great Depression of the 1930s and had stood the West in good stead for over forty years were gradually relaxed or abolished during the 1980s. Social welfare systems that had gradually been developed came under pressure and began to be dismantled; public services were reduced or “privatized”; infrastructure began to crumble. Inequality, poverty and homelessness grew.
The academic reflection of the massive social and economic changes that took place between 1970 and 1981 could be seen in the gradual marginalization of serious social theory and political philosophy—and of “leftist” thought in particular. The usual story told about the history of “political philosophy” since World War II holds that political philosophy was “dead” until it was revived by John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice appeared in 1971. This seems to me seriously misleading. The Forties, Fifties and Sixties, after all, saw the elaboration of major work by the Frankfurt School (including Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man), a rediscovery of Gramsci, various essays and books by Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, Debord’s La Société du Spectacle, early pieces by Foucault—all works roughly speaking “on the Left.” Meanwhile, Popper, Hayek, Leo Strauss and Oakeshott (to name only a few) were active “on the Right.” If Anglophones took no notice of this material it was not because serious work in political philosophy failed to exist, but for some other reason. To those engaged (in 1971) in the various and diverse forms of intense political activity which now collectively go under the title of “the Sixties,” Rawls’s Theory of Justice seemed an irrelevance. I completed and defended my doctoral dissertation in the spring of 1971, and I recall my doctoral supervisor, who was a man of the Left but also an established figure and full professor at Columbia University in New York, mentioning to me that there was a new book out by Rawls. In the same breath, he told me that no one would need to read it because it was of merely academic interest—an exercise in trying to mobilize some half-understood fragments of Kant to give a better foundation to American ideology than utilitarianism had been able to provide. Many will think that that was a misjudgment, but I think it was prescient. I cite it in any case to give contemporary readers a sense of the tenor of the 1970s.
Rawls did in fact eventually establish a well-functioning academic industry which was quickly routinized and which preempted much of the space that might have been used for original political thinking. He was one of the forerunners of the great countermovement, proleptically outlining a philosophical version of what came to be known as the “trickle-down” theory. Crudely speaking, this theory eventually takes this form: “Value” is overwhelmingly produced by especially gifted individuals, and the creation of such value benefits society as a whole. Those who are now rich are well-off because they have contributed to the creation of “value” in the past. For the well-off to continue to benefit society, however, they need to be motivated, to be given an incentive. Full egalitarianism will destroy the necessary incentive structure and thus close the taps from which prosperity flows. So inequality can actually be in the interest of the poor because only if the rich are differentially better-off than others will they create value at all—some of which will then “trickle down” or be redistributed to the less well-off. Rawls allows people who observe great inequality in their societies to continue to feel good about themselves, provided that they support some cosmetic forms of redistribution of the crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich and powerful. The apparent gap which many people think exists between the views of Rawls and, say, Ayn Rand is less important than the deep similarity in their basic views. A prison warden may put on a benevolent smile (Rawls) or a grim scowl (Ayn Rand), but that is a mere result of temperament, mood, calculation and the demands of the immediate situation: the fact remains that he is the warden of the prison, and, more importantly, that the prison is a prison. To shift attention from the reality of the prison to the morality, the ideals and the beliefs of the warden is an archetypical instance of an ideological effect. The same holds not just for wardens, but for bankers, politicians, voters, investors, bureaucrats, factory workers, consumers, advisers, social workers, even the unemployed—and, of course, for academics.
In counterpoint to Hegel’s view about the philosopher as a child of his time, one might note the views of some other nineteenth-century German thinkers. Nietzsche, for example, took the opposite view. Philosophy is not “its time grasped in concept,” he thought, but is by its very nature unzeitgemäß (“out of synch with the present time”). The ideal is to be not behind the time but ahead of it, to write a work that would be a philosophy of the future (as Feuerbach tried to do). It is the great hope of many philosophers, particularly political philosophers, to accomplish something like this. If I am right, Rawls did succeed in this aspiration. His project of 1971 came to fruition really only after Reagan, Thatcher and their neoliberal allies had destroyed much of the existing legal, cultural, social, political and economic framework—which patient struggle had built up for several generations in the interests of at least minimally regulating the worst excesses of capitalism.
For these reasons The Idea of a Critical Theory was unzeitgemäß when it appeared in 1981, espousing views that were about to lose philosophical and political traction in a very serious way. With the current visible collapse of the neoliberal order, though, perhaps it has a chance that was denied it on its original publication. That, of course, does not depend on me.1
Art credit: Dane Patterson, Reread or Returned To (Book Pile), 2011