Evolving Sociological
Critical Theory

There are two important inheritances which seem to come together within sociological critical theory. There is the inheritance of Marx, and the view that the economic base (capitalism) determines the superstructure (institutions) and that in its maintenance there is hegemony (capital's power and control over the exploited from its ideological thrust) and therefore a false consciousness over the working class. This false consciousness includes a sense of reification (Lukács) where something created by its labour power alone seems separate and distant and has power over labour power. Marxism is an in the end optimistic view that the working class with intellectual assistance can regain a true consciousness and take the system for itself, and it can then transform it to itself and take its real value of labour rather than surplus value, an economy based on need rather than capitalist interest, and end a distortion of the payments of the production process to capital away from labour. Whilst Marxism is highly economic base deterministic, there was some small room for issues of effect from ideology and culture (Engels). The later Marx produce real truth, a scientific analysis of the process bedded in unfolding history.
The point is not to criticise these inadequate economics (which rather undermines the theory!), but just for the time being to see this as a strand of thought going towards sociological critical theory. The second strand is the more pessimistic Weber. He offers far more a role for causality in culture and ideology working back then into the system, as demonstrated in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism. Weber is furthermore the pessimist of rationalisation, which finally encompasses all. This is important because developments to and from the Frankfurt School revision of Marxism are pessimistic - they are about "no escape", and the critical approach leads on to the inevitable collapse of history (and thus Marxism!). This is the essence of critical theory: it is about a pessimism of change. It is thus post-Marxist, if having various degrees of attachments to it.
Reality has always had to be grounded. Plato did it by mirroring the earthly in the heavens, and God too has always been ultimate truth. Descartes grounded his reality in "I think therefore I am", the ultimate individualist and dualist. The later Marx grounded his notion of realityin the unfolding of history, a scientific process of change from feudalism, to capitalism, socialism and communism. Weber gives more to the human subject (so did the earlier Marx!), and whilst history still shows change in a real world - from charisma to tradition to bureaucracy - his is truth through rationality not history, becoming a linear explanation of secularisation through time. Bureaucracy is organised rationality, so science and technology are important, the most efficient way to do things, of means calculated towards ends, and this brings about a disenchantment within this compulsory means to ends world. All mystery (once with the supernatural) has gone.
Note that both have this high view of the human individual, exploited in one case and oppressed by the weight of rationality in the other (the Weberian approach arguably being the more sophisticated and interesting about what makes human life valuable and interesting). In the end these are views about the full liberation of the self within society, but it is a perspective on society.
It's important to say here that when bureaucracy is adapted to business theory there is more optimism due to pyramidal bureaucracy being superseded by a more flexible expert based systemic authority (Burns and Stalker) and then a liberal-democratic human relations authority (Mayo). We think of technicians and experts discussing matters and improvement through empowering flexible systems. The investors and bosses of organisations have to listen to intelligent workers. Rationality in a technologically and intellectually complex society isn't just calculated means to ends... Who knows what Weber would have thought today? However the pessimism of this critical strand comes from the removal of all escape (revolution, even reform) and later the end of all grounding in reality sealing off all exits and all possibility of reform.
The pessimism exists because the capitalist system is able to look after itself. Gramsci brought together the functionalist view of parts fitting together, the conflict view that resides in Marxism and the more complex view with Weber. The ruling class doesn't just produce goods, it gives intellectual production and communication too, and all parts fit together. Gramsci did not believe that the system unfolded in history of its own accord, and therefore people had to take positive action for it to be changed. They had to know the truth and then act. He regarded the systematic historical view as fatalistic, and thus already this is becoming post-Marxist, because nothing would change without human decisions. Perhaps, however, a reader might respond that fatalism is now creeping in because Gramsci is producing revision from experience.
There is a greater emphasis already with culture, with ideas and beliefs as well as living standards. The shift is away from the economic base towards a greater examination of aspects of the superstructure. And what happens in critical theory is that the superstructure, so to speak, becomes more important. This gets more Weberian than Marxist, because causality is happening at the interface where people live and respond and have their being.
The Frankfurt School of the 1920s to 1930s (a diverse collection which included Horkenheimer, Adorno and Marcuse) did a lot of work on the details of popular and intellectual culture to give a kind of research basis that these cultural participations assisted a false consciousness. People's reasoning was directed towards capitalistic problems, and so this was instrumental reason, rather than considering matters of the wider, richer basis of human life. This critical theory was pessimistic, compared with Lukács and Gramsci, on any likely transmission of a true consciousness to the working class to overthrow the system, and the focus was on criticism. It was also pessimistic because not only was the working class well absorbed into the capitalist system but every class and every instrument was. The Frankfurt School agreed with Weber in the crushing march of scientific and technological rationality. Only some intellectuals, having risen above the system and some distance from it, could "see" the reality of everything. Everybody else was happily going along with the system that had the complex means to offer surface happiness, limited criticism of it and a sense of involvement (so we might say that systemic bureaucracy and human relations authority are part of the soft sell of the system - after all, how many people are given only a deceptive impression of empowerment in the workplace, because empowerment serves employer interests?). Marcuse called it repressive tolerance.
In the end the Frankfurt School was saying: perhaps people could be told about how the system works and then they might grow to offer criticism, even to take charge (if hardly likely), and that this was a real reading of Marx. The "real reading" (the earlier Marx?) introduces humanist understanding and critical reasoning ahead of any action, though still identifiably Marxist.
There is however an optimistic view that comes from the Frankfurt School tradition, but which loosens the connection with Marxism further. Taking up the point about the place of intellectuals is Jurgen Habermas. He thinks that if the detached intellectuals can engage in communication and reason on those rational grounds Weber had acknowledged, then they can come to rational outcomes. Reason stops being just about instrumental (capitalist) matters. In this scheme there clearly now is a shift from economic production as a primary cause of social development to institutions and culture itself, what Habermas calls the lifeworld. Rather Habermas sees liberatory communication based in education and its development of sophistication (Piaget) which is needed for bringing the complexity of modern societes together (Parsons' adaptation).
There is certainly reasoning that is instrumental, for economic organisation and functioning, and there is critical reasoning that is emancipatory, but there is a third which is communicative reason, which lies in the area of the liberty to communicate and democratic action. For Habermas the nub of the problem is that this is restricted by the distortions of ideology and capitalist operation. It's in this realm that the intellectuals operate.
They won't overturn society, and probably can't convince anyone else. Habermas is almost old fashioned in proposing that capitalism has crises of legitimation (not to argue that it doesn't, but it was the apparent success of legitimation which has generated so many revisionist Marxist theories). It has downturns and it has inequality. It tries to justify inequality (we think of rewards for success) and the state which wants to withdraw for capitalist enterprise is then forced to justify its intervention and preservation.
This seems like a sop to old fashioned Marxism via observed contemporary systemic problems. The nub of this approach is even more humanist and democratic than the Frankfurt School, and whilst that was still identifiably Marxist (if hinting towards the humanist) this is not. We see that when Weberian rationality is applied to thought, we can agree and come to rational outcomes. Secular humanism has come through.
Humanism is what Althusser wanted to reject. He wanted to focus on the later Marx alone, who wanted everything grounded scientifically. His is definitely a collective approach, but one where the "structure in dominance" ensures the success of the given order, the economic base that is determinant in the last instance. The modern state is the structure in dominance which protects capital interests and in a capitalist society this means methods and means of transmitting a highly complex ideology that ensures willing compliance. To do this successfully it creates a sense of public and private, and our sense of individualism for example is a reflection of us wanting to be fulfilled as private, autonomous people. But this is just ideology upon the subject, and one of the myths expressed by the state. Private institutions are therefore public; certainly they are part of the state system, because their plurality makes up the state ideological apparatus. The plural system is uneven, however, so there tends to be a dominant institution, for example education.
So again, even in this acceptance of the late classical Marx, there has still been a shift in explanation, and the shift takes account of the general compliance with capitalism that obviously has to be explained away.
What is seen here is adaptation by complexity, either through through the legitimation of capitalism by being socially unchallenged, or if it is challenged (yet no united social force against it) the application of rationality. In both directions the intellectual vanguard seems to be the only group who can detect what is happening over the waves, whilst everyone else swims or drowns well within the sea.
Clearly there is a sense, also due to so many competing ideologies and opinions which perhaps have stronger evidential claims than Marxism and its revisions, in which truth as history is breaking down. Truth as history is a metanarratives, but there are just too many metanarratives for us to know which. What is true seems to be shifting. The basis for truth with Habermas is communicative rationality, not history, but now he is often seen as a "traditional" maintainer of modernism, because even rationality has been questioned.
Foucault instead thinks that reason is about power. No one can control unreason, as it goes in paths and ways that are unpredictable. Unreason, such as in the mentally ill, is excluded. Ways of talking come from specific institutions - a type of talk does not lead to institutional development, but the other way around. Institutions and the talk they generate is for their power. But this power is not repressive, always, but productive, brought out into the open in public discourse where the control takes place. Such is the case with sexuality, which runs from repression in the past to surveillance now, for surveillance is everything. Because the rational comes from actual institutions and is about power, there is no independent rational as with Habermas. As with Marxism, talk is power, but unlike Marxism there is no objective grand base. It is just institutions carrying out their own surveillance under the guise of freedom in contemporary society. Foucault in one sense follows on from Nietzsche who saw us imposing reality by reaon on to the outside world as the will to power.
Reason needs communication. Communication is focussed upon by those social theorists who conclude that language must be a key component of transmission. This is the impact of philosophy and specificially language and semiotics into social theory. It's fine to have communication but what are people saying? How do the patterns of power and ideology pass through the means by which social systems maintain their cohesiveness? Just as with phenomenology and with symbolic interactionism, in the end social theory manifests itself in the detail, at the local level, in the actions of individuals. Weber knew this, which is why he analysed forms of rational action. Language allows the detail to be analysed, yet always it is collective because it is something every child is born into. And that fact itself allows a kind of psychoanalytical semiotics to take place.
So language is collective, and structuralists (principally de Saussure) claimed that actual spoken and written language is like the superstructure of the base (to borrow from Marxism). What we speak, parole, is a manifestation of what is structural, langue. Langue is collective and base, so language as a whole gives meaning, and therefore the individual sign is not its own autonomous creation, but is part of the collective. Each sign though it acts as if it signifies something out there, in fact points to another sign to gain its meaning within the system. This is especially important because we know of nothing "out there" without describing it first in language, so we only know what is true within the system, not beyond it. Truth is preserved, however, in a kind of binary mathematics, through the opposite sign defining the sign in question. Language is difference, according to structuralists.
Levi-Strauss believed that social anthropology whilst it describes a society should show these fundamentals. Following on from Durkheim and Mauss, he showed binary truth operating in the reciprocity of give and take within the binding together of social systems. Culture and nature stand as defining opposites, but more important the cultural was a manifestation of natural. The most natural thing was the taboo of not marrying one's own brother or sister, though he also considered this cultural (which Derrida used to attack binary opposites). Brought out in culture it necessitated give and take, and therefore the binding of society. Done by women marrying out, and others coming in to family groups, this essential binary law of reciprocity is a form of communication, as is trading. Argued to be universal (ie natural), he believed that he found the truth behind social systems. In effect social anthropology was a means to show a deeper truth. Because it matches in language, it works right through to how we even think in communication. There is a harmony of structure from society to language and to us.
Also it can be said that nothing is more fundamental than the binary - either it is or it isn't. Thus is truth grounded.
Lacan could say that the child born into language wants to unite itself with the collective all. It never can, of course, and so language is a kind of father figure. This adaptation of Freud is a psychoanalytical means to establish the existence of alienation. Alientation was key to Marxism and to Weber with disenchantment, but this uses language to come to the same conclusion. The subject is left with desire to unify (even supercede) with the language that defines him/ her, but it is never quite him or her (because language is collective: the authority of the father) and so desire is left unfulfilled. Again, this is pessimistic.
The other Freudian inheritance here and in structuralists like Levi-Strauss is that the mind operates in unconscious ways. The collective comes into the individual through the unconscious. We don't see it, but it is how the individual is a subject, how the individual is made, how society is in the person more than the person is in society.
So a deepening cultural analysis and its importance both reformed and abandoned Marxism, and scepticism became central to radical theory because the old Marxist project was impossible. However, humming along in the background still was the economics of production. This too had to change.
The situationists changed the focus on production to consumption. Advanced capitalist society is driven by consumption. This is the fulcrum of the distortion of need into want. Consumption consists of "spectacles" and indeed the whole of the real becomes consumed. Nevertheless the situationists still believed that this essentially false consciousness consumerism could be explained and people would see the error of this consumer capitalism.
This is where Baudrillard will come in. He takes up the consumer economy and links it to the language system, that which brings itself to us and by which we "know" everything.
So langauge comes first. The original linguistic turn was realist, but later, along with the "death of history", and all other anchors, language only depended on its own internal mathematical logic of binary opposites. But relying on an internal system was to make structuralism its own gravedigger as regards the real. What if these opposites are not quite opposite? What if opposites are no more than a convenient way of categorising to make communication possible, so that signs work, but indicate no more than this function? Derrida shows a sign signifying contains something of its opposite, and indeed one of the most significant distinctions was between the literary and the philosophical. For Derrida, writing is always literary, always up to its own definitions and separations, and therefore philosophy, the truth game, is indeed a game of tricks to produce its own kind of categorising writing. Once we see this, philosophy collapses into the literary, and indeed this brings everything down. In fact everything can be so reversed and collapsed - deconstructed - as a task of the reader who wishes to uncover all the overt and covert meanings of any text. Coherent writing is always a deception of the different messages within fighting to be released.
Think of this when an essay is written to be organised - it is just an act of writing, a kind of deception of neatness and by its artificial exclusions ("answer the question!") demonstrates that there are other themes and arguments. So they are there even by their absence, and therefore the principle and reality of the organised essay collapses. We carry our deceptions and opposites with us, because they are not.
Baudrillard was such a poststructuralist. But what he did uniquely was to express how the consumer economy follows the semiotic system. What determines consumption is a system of signs. As there is no way of going outside these signs, and no possibility of any objective rooted real use-value of the comsumable item being recovered, then the value and reality of anything is just fleeting simulacra. In advanced capitalism everything becomes a condition where not only is there no reality, but there is no illusion either to be compared with reality. We end up in a hyperreal world of sensations, which lead us to experience through fatal extremities. Power is illusory (not this is a description of convenience), and those who think they are powerful enjoy the illusion of power, whilst those who respond do so by strategies of seduced engagement in a heightened raising stakes of give and take, or by withdrawal from the reformers and their objectivist deceptions. There are shades of Goffman here (and with Althusser).
Still, not everyone accepts this fatalism. There are still modernists who reject the totality of the postmodernist conclusion. They would still focus on capitaism and its institutions doing more intensively what it has done before (Jameson). Whilst there seem to be more changes, it is just another turn of ideology and hegemony. And others retain hope through a link to the transformative nature of a truly interest free rationality.
And then there are those, like the philosopher Richard Rorty, who are more optimistic and are therefore pragmatic postmodernists. He's like a postmodern Habermas. Whilst there is no foundationalism, it is still better to create space for meeting and discussion. Irony itself creates this space, because to be critical and see the other side is to undermine oppression. This space that is private and thoughtful is also good for the public realm. Liberal meeting discussion spaces are good in themselves, just as is toleration. We listen and we speak, and anything oppressive and cruel is to be opposed. Whilst, yes, philosophy has collapsed into the literary, the literary is also a kind of philosophy. Through stories we generate discourses of human solidarity. Life is itself story. This is not revolutionary but it is reform through plurality. Optimism is revived even with this hermeneutical revolution in understanding beyond the dualism of real and unreal, where text is primary and self contained.


Written by Adrian Worsfold

Base and selected sources:

Best, S., Kellner, D. (1997), The Postmodern Turn, London: The Guildford Press.

Burns, T., Stalker, G. M. (1961), The Management of Innovation, London: Tavistock Publications

Cuff, E. C., Sharrock, W. W., Francis, D. W. (1990), Perspectives in Sociology, London: Routledge, 109-140.

Gane, M. (1993), Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, London: Routledge.

Goffman, E. (1991), Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, London: Routledge.

Haralambos, M, Holborn, M. . (1995), Sociology: Themes and Perspectives: London: Collins Educational.

Horrocks, C., Jevtic, Z. (1996), Baudrillard for Beginners, Cambridge: Icon Books.

Mayo, E. (1933), The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Rorty, R. (1989), Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, M. (1930), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Allen and Unwin.