New Criticals

Against the Insurrection and Totalizing Theory

In a famous 1850 review in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Marx took what he called “officers of the insurrection” to task for attempting extreme radical action before anything remotely approximating a mature social movement had developed. Such an insurrectionary position, however, rests on the thought that the essentially determining features of the world are absolutely problematic. The illegitimate and all-pervasiveness of state, capital, and social powers add up to a total alienation that justifies any and all possible responses. This thought has its roots in Adorno’s critical theory, in particular, the framework of a historically negative dialectic which is supplemented to include a return of the repressed natural-other. In its most extreme version, this is a total and totally negative critical theory. The politics the theory sponsors, Adorno’s personal politics aside, are equally extreme.

The problem with such a broad, sweeping critical position is not only that it’s wrong or too general, but equally that it promotes either nihilism or the unnuanced, largely counter-productive earliness of insurrection. In other words, once Adorno’s yarn is fully played out, it ends in either meta-theoretical navel-gazing, cultural pessimism, or in propagande par le fait. Lack of historical care and respect for social nuances in critical cultural appraisal thus lends itself (at best) to radical, spectacular responses that exhaust their energy before founding or linking up with larger, more organized forms of social struggle. For this reason, thought that attempts to extrapolate a revolutionary strategy by starting from the thesis of a totally alienated, totally problematic, or otherwise doomed society, if it every overcomes abject pessimism, likely commits itself to an absolute faith in the powers of spectacular, radical insurrectionary negation. Despite our ability to see where it comes from, the insurrectionary position is ultimately untenable for the following related reasons:

1) It is internally inconsistent. Recognition of a totally problematic society ought to preclude the possibility of just such accurate, conscious appraisals. The position committed to such universality cannot make an exception for its own theorizing: theory and theoretical practice is a part of and non-divorceable from the universe of structures judged problematic.  The position then ought to be deeply skeptical about the legitimacy of its conclusions, but it is not. The position rests on an unearned assumption that the grounds for thinking it are illegitimate, an assumption directly contradicted by the position staked out.

2) Following on the first, since theorizing consciousness is indeed taken to be capable of recognizing and articulating the total alienation thesis, it must exist in a metaphysical space beyond the universally alienated world. It is thus committed to something like Kant’s homo noumenon or some other dualist, hierarchical metaphysics. Of course, unlike Kantian ethics, the insurrectionists are perfectly willing to treat others solely as means to their ends: their non-metaphysical political goals require it.

3) Since consciousness and the will it guides must exist in this metaphysical beyond, the project retains subjective moral purity as its orienting element. That is to say, as a project it is not in the least concerned with hard political or pragmatic questions: “full communism now, the world be damned,” or some such sloganeering even when the second half of the line is rarely explicit.  In this way the subjectively absolutely and pragmatically naïve call of conscience in the midst of total alienation produces little more than a will to retreat from the concrete challenges of transforming problematic structures. At the level of cultural critique, its strivings only try to invert bourgeois morality, not concretely overcome it.

4) The insurrectionary position has a social problem. It cannot work towards truly revolutionary theory or practice because it takes as its nourishment the entirely ungrounded hope that an analysis of hopelessness will be recognized as valid and adopted by all. This can only be accomplished, per impossible, if all witness to insurrectionary negations recognize the revelatory force of their practical activity. The deed’s propaganda must be clear, the message must reach all, and they must be persuaded by it. They are thus:

5) Vanguardists without organizational strategy or social following. Since there is nothing worldly to preserve or develop, responses to total alienation take metaphorical, symbolic, and spectacular form. Its practitioners operate in the precise position of a symbolic vanguard in that “examples” stem from a privileged position of consciousness removed from the thoughts and struggles of those lacking such advanced understanding. This is not a criticism of all possible vanguardism, although more refined versions are subject to other critiques. It is a criticism of those who are exclusively concerned with acting as if they were something that social conditions are far from fostering.

6) Finally, the position is married to what it tries to negate.  Since it can neither advance a social movement nor theorize beyond its blinkered horizons, the position cannot but receive its strength from working within the structures it wishes to overcome.

If the politics adjunct to total critique are deeply, constitutively problematic, then a more careful form of analysis needs to replace the unfortunately sweeping tendencies of the Frankfurt School. What is needed is careful analysis of the structures of oppression and their inter-relation. A more nuanced critical theory will then be capable of accepting a totality of constraining conditions without on one side, pointing to interstitial spaces as relatively pure sources of critical development, or on the other, succumbing to grand pessimism. Of course, there is little new in the thought that if things are bad and trending worse, theory then ought to figure out how and why that’s the case. But the point is not only adequacy of theory, the point is also that good theory can specify more precisely what we’re up against, an honest appraisal of which is needed to inform the best organizational forms and strategies for resistance. As we’ve seen, hastily general theory can serve as the ideological backdrop for not just logically problematic, but dangerously counter-productive practice.