an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 6, May-June 2009, ISSN 1552-5112




Rethinking Critical Theory…


Stefano Petrucciani





The philosophical reflections developed by the first and the second generation of the Frankfurt School (through the work of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas) constitute, in my opinion, a contribution of vital importance to the construction of a critical theory capable of responding to the current challenges of society and politics. However, in order to reconstruct a critical theory for the present times, it is necessary to start from the problems that the Frankfurt tradition left open. With regard to this, my thesis is that the evolution from the first to the second generation of the Frankfurt School, in particular from Adorno to Habermas, can be framed as a passage from a social theory of domination to a normative theory of democracy. I am convinced that, if isolated from each other, both perspectives are insufficient. In my view, Habermas was right in underlining the normative deficit of the critical theory of the first generation, but his normative theory of democracy – developed in Between Facts and Norms and in the following books – lacks a conceptualization of the reality of power as social domination. Despite his awareness of the problem, Habermas failed to embed it into an adequate theoretical framework. Apparently Habermas has also abandoned the attempt, developed in Theory of Communicative Action, of conceptualizing the pathologies of modernity in terms of a “colonization of the life-world.” This account was meant to be a viable alternative to Adorno’s totalizing account of domination, but it seems that Habermas took no interest in developing it further.

      In my view the separation between a theory of domination and a normative theory of democracy reveals a theoretical problem. Hence, a reconstructed critical theory should aim at the reconciliation of these two dimensions (theory of power and theory of democracy), both fundamental for a critical understanding of the present. However, a concrete development of this theoretical proposal requires broader conceptual tools than those of the critical theory of the Frankfurt school. As far as the theory of power is concerned, it is necessary to undertake a critical confrontation not only with the Marxist tradition, in particular with some neo-Marxist approaches, like the one proposed in recent years by the French scholar Jacques Bidet, but also with other aspects of the contemporary research on power. As far as the normative perspective is concerned, it is important to critically consider the revitalization of normative political theory put forward by John Rawls and by many other scholars.


In my opinion, the normative question cannot be neglected from a Marxist point of view; my claim (a claim which I share with many so-called “analytical Marxists”) is that the Marxist critique to capitalism presupposes some non-declared normative assumptions. These are grounded on the idea that a just society is the one that guarantees positive freedom, understood as conscious control over one’s own life and a free development of all individuals. The normative question, which is present in Marx as a non-explicit assumption (see the whole debate on “Marxism and morality”) needs to be systematically clarified.

If we assume  this point, we understand very clearly the importance of the definition of a normative perspective as outlined by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. The ultimate rationale for the proposal advanced in different ways by these philosophers can be expressed as follows: whoever discusses the principles of a good political order is already accepting rational argumentation and its rules. However, argumentation requires the ability of equally considering the reasons of everyone. If everyone has an equal right to have his/her own reasons considered, it follows (this point has been made particularly clear by Apel) that everyone has an equal right to have his/her claims met and his/her needs and interests satisfied. This implies a normative principle according to which only those norms are valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of the participants in an ideal discursive procedure.

Having defined this starting point, which is a very abstract and very general point (we could say that this is the meta-principle of discursive research of valid norms or principles), we can now approach more directly the question concerning the just principles of the social and political order. From this point of view, it is important to develop a confrontation with the theoretical tradition that, in modern times, has most thoroughly engaged with the issue of the normative principles of a social and political community: the contractualist current of thought. Critical theory therefore needs in my view to confront the paradigm of the social contract, as developed in the classics of modernity such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant and represented by Rawls in the last part of the 20th century. However, if we want contractualism to play a meaningful role as a normative paradigm of politics, it should be more precisely defined: its theoretical advantage certainly does not rely on the account it gave of the genesis of the state (from this perspective contractualism is one of the weakest theories) but on the definition it provided of the question of legitimacy: a legitimate social and political order is the one that free and equal individuals would choose for themselves if they had to establish, at an ideal starting point, the fundamental rules of their coexistence. 

In my opinion the systematic question of contractualism is not so different from the one Habermas poses in Between Facts and Norms; Habermas asks: which rights would citizens reciprocally attribute to each other?[1].   Rawls asks: how should rights and duties be distributed, and how should the costs and benefits of social cooperation be divided[2]? So, reading the contractualist paradigm from the perspective of discourse theory, we can ask the following question: which principles of a legitimate political order for a modern society would be chosen by citizens in a rational and egalitarian discourse aimed at reaching an agreement?

The question of the principles of social cooperation has generated in contemporary political theory a plurality of responses, all normatively articulated. The most significant ones are, in my opinion:


a) the Habermasian theory of democracy based on a system of rights that consists in civil, political, and social rights.

b) the Rawlsian theory of egalitarian liberalism based on the two principles of liberty and balanced equality.

c) neo-Aristotelian, neo-Hegelian and neo-republican theories, which theorize the different dimensions of human development, reciprocal recognition, and the central role of interactive spheres as a primary condition for individual development.

d) libertarian theories based on the priority of individual freedom, basically understood as market-freedom.


Yet none of these theories seems to me to be satisfactory. I believe it is possible to suggest a different, clearer and less unilateral solution to the problem of social contract principles, or normative principles of a just society in the conditions of modernity. I will try to summarize them at a high level of abstraction by also referring to the different theoretical traditions that have contributed in their elaboration.

The first point is that we need to prevent arbitrariness and violence through the creation of a legal system. There is an immediate need for security and self-preservation, that in a large and complex society, only the law can guarantee. But what is a legal order? Clearly there are many possible legal regulations, but in order to count as “right” such forms should posses some intrinsic characteristics. In fact, the assumption of positivist theories according to which law may have whatsoever content (Kelsen) is false; on the contrary, in order to count as such, law should implement some basic moral principles (for example: the prohibition of violence) and cohere with some fundamental formal principles (for example: nullum crimen sine lege). This is the fundamental requirement advanced by liberalism in a very precise and restricted perspective, that of the rule of law and of the legal guarantees in favour of individual protection (Bobbio).

A second point is related to the fundamental claim suggested already by Hobbes and clearly developed already in Spinoza and Rousseau: if society is to be defined as a free association of individuals, it can only be ruled according to a democratic method. From the question of law we are necessarily led to the question of democracy, since law (although not entirely disposed of) must be determined and specified, and no other subject is more suitably entitled to provide that than the democratic legislator.

The third fundamental principle (derived from the socialist thought) is the one that regulates participation in the costs and benefits of social cooperation. I think it might be defined (going back to a suggestion of Apel) as a principle of justice, solidarity and co-responsibility of all for human development and welfare of everyone.  This principle, which is related to the theme of fraternité, could seem difficult to justify only from a liberal point of view according to which the collective body should only guarantee security, whilst each individual should autonomously provide his own welfare. However, this separation (which reflects precise class interests) is in my view completely arbitrary; the subjects who subscribe to the social contract, or to say it with Marx, that generate an “association of free human beings”, do that not only for the sake of security but also to live in the best way, to reach the common welfare. Therefore the productive and economic sphere cannot be excluded from the social contract (as required by Lockean liberalism) but is fully entitled to be subsumed within it.

Now, if this is true, the choice for a principle of co-responsibility can be defended in various ways. On the one hand, one can reasonably argue that the principle of co-responsibility of each one for the good of everyone follows from the principle of democracy and develops it further. In order for citizens to be equally sovereign, they should have access to equal possibilities for development and to realize their own good. However, if one does not agree on such an extended interpretation of democracy, the principle can be defended even a different way.

Let us start from the question addressed by Rawls: assuming that the participants in the social contract are rational individuals equally willing to pursue their own good, what principles would they choose in order to distribute the benefits and costs of social cooperation?

This question requires, in my opinion, a very different answer from the one that Rawls provides when he problematically assumes that the participants are rational individuals, neither envious nor benevolent, and thus interested only in their own good and indifferent to that of others.

I think that one should argue as follows (we can find a similar reflection in Axel Honneth's theory of recognition): the participants of the social contract are individuals whose personality is constituted through their taking part in social interaction. If this is true, then actors who want to realize their own good understand that it depends significantly on the good of others because: a) if other individuals do not have the possibility to develop themselves and realize their own good, they cannot produce the positive interactions capable of enriching all participants; b) enjoying social goods to which others do not have access is an incomplete and imperfect gratification, since it is often accompanied by a sense of guilt and especially by a conflict that inevitably has a negative effect on human relations when they are characterized by the fact that some have access to certain social goods while others are deprived of them. From these reflections it follows that the individual who wants his own good must also want the good of those to whom he is related.

This perspective, inspired by Marx (for whom the free development of everyone is a condition of the free development of all) challenges the thesis shared by the modern acquisitive imaginary according to which social goods are analogous to a sort of cake and individuals live better if the piece they get is larger. For the reasons that I mentioned above, I believe this thesis to be wrong. So I think also that the good to be maximized cannot be identified, as in Rawls, with a list of primary goods; rather, it should be framed in a Marxist-Aristotelian perspective, inspired by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, which focuses on self-realization of the individual and development of his human capabilities and relations.

This choice also involves a significant transformation of the Rawlsian account of modern liberalism: while the latter affirms the priority of right over good (according to which society grants to each an amount of primary goods that everyone uses to develop his own good), the account I am trying to defend establishes a reciprocity between the right and the good and holds that society should make human development its own end. This account cannot avoid relying on a precise conception of man and good, which may still need to be validated in the democratic dialogue. (A similar position can be found in the writings of Amartya Sen, who actually is, from some liberal perspectives, charged with paternalism).

This framework could be completed with an analog of the Rawlsian difference principle: inequalities in the level of self-realization and human development are legitimized only insofar as they are able to increase the level of self-realization and development of the capacities of less-advantaged people in the society.

Perhaps we can define “democracy” as a society that is inspired to the above-mentioned principles; democracy is, as C. B. Macpherson puts it, “a kind of society, a whole complex of relations between individuals rather than simply a system of government”. This kind of democracy, Macpherson continues, is not limited to the principle of “one man, one vote”, but completes it by claiming “one man, one equal effective right to live as fully humanly as he may wish.”[3]


Posing these normative and abstract principles, however, would be totally useless if one fails to consider the real structures of society and the way in which such principles are effectively applied in the real world. The normative dimension needs to be connected with the analytical one: this is the claim correctly made by Jacques Bidet, and rather neglected in the perspectives of Rawls and Habermas.

Basically, I think that we cannot avoid the following question: how do we have to think the relationship between these very general normative principles and real social structures? Is it not necessary to theoretically articulate this relationship instead of considering it a kind of unimportant appendix? The concept, couched in different terms, is: normative theories are concerned with a possible modernity, whereas the relationship between possible modernity and real modernity, theoretical models and real social structures, remains totally obscure.

Rawls and Habermas give no clear answer to this question. Nevertheless, we can retrieve from their texts some hints at the ways in which they evaluate the degree of implementation in the real society of their normative principles. With regard to this topic, two thoughts are, in my opinion, meaningful. Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice:


Historically one of the main defects of constitutional government has been the failure to ensure the fair value of political liberty. The necessary corrective steps have not been taken, indeed, they never seem to have been seriously entertained. Disparities in the distribution of property and wealth that far exceed what is compatible with political equality have generally been tolerated by the legal system…thus inequities in the economic and social system may soon undermine whatever political equality might have existed under fortunate historical conditions.[4]


The Rawlsian principles of political justice are, thus, principles far from being realized.

Let us read what Habermas writes in The Future of Human Nature:


 A universalistic understanding of law and morality rests on the assumption that there is no definite obstacle to egalitarian interpersonal relations. Of course, our societies are marked by manifest as well as structural violence. They are impregnated by the micropower of silent repression, disfigured by despotic suppression, deprivation of political rights, social disempowerment, and economic exploitation. However, we could not scandalized by this if we did not know that these shameful conditions might also be different.[5]


From these two thoughts I think that we can derive the idea that both Habermas and Rawls consider the current societies, consistently with their normative principles, as characterized, in some respects, by injustice and exploitation. But they do not explain why, at least partly, society is not congruent with normative principles. They do not examine a theme which I regard as fundamental, namely how we can think a historical-social reality which, on the one hand, incorporates (as their objective spirit) some normative  principles and, on the other hand, fails to meet them.

Therefore, the normative theory must somehow connect itself with a more concrete theory of  modernity. From this point of view, I think that we might improve our theoretical framework if we integrate some Habermasian theses with the perspective Jacques Bidet developed in many and important works.[6] In his perspective, capitalistic modernity is characterized by a paradoxical and, somehow, contradictory nature: his assumption is that the pretension to equality, freedom and rationality, asserted in the Declarations of Rights (namely in terms of what Bidet names “meta-structure”), “emerges in a social order in which it is undermined and reversed in its opposite: inequality, exploitation and domination”.

Thus, we come to the crux of the matter: a critical-normative theory should tackle, unlike Habermas and Rawls, the question of how the principles of freedom, equality and rationality reverse themselves in patterns of domination. How do we have to consider the contradiction between these two levels?

A consistent critical theory, in my opinion, should criticize modernity by articulating the paradoxical relationship between the normative assumption of modernity, asserted in the Declaration, and the structures of domination which shape it. To clarify this problem, it is necessary to understand first of all, that the modern principle, which establishes that all men have equal rights, is not implemented in an ideal situation, as contractualism claims, but in a society already marked by class divisions and power relationships. Prima facie, we can focus on two problematical aspects, which regard the interpretation of the modern principle of equality of rights and its range of application.

As for interpretation, the decisive point is that this principle is implemented in a specific manner, characterized by: a) the primacy of individual autonomy (and of private property) as opposed to public autonomy and social solidarity, and b) the close link between individual freedom, the market and entrepreneurship freedom. So interpreted, the principle implies that all men are equally free to operate in the market, although their assets are unequal. The modern principle of equality reverses itself in domination/subordination, because freedom and equality are interpreted, in a liberal-Lockean sense, as guarantee of property and free disposition over it. In this way, the pre-existent class division is incorporated within the new framework of modernity and reproduced through the forms of capitalistic economic organization.

To sum up, one might say that the modern principle of equality of rights, because of the cultural and social structure within which it is incorporated, is selectively implemented: the right to self-realization and human development is subordinated to the right of private property and of the market. Private freedom has primacy over public freedom and the acknowledgement of democratic rights is cautious (at the beginning overcautious), since the democratic rights are considered suspicious and kept, as far as their range of application, within narrow limits.

As for the range of application, the problem is that the modern principle of equality of rights, what Etienne Balibar names egaliberté, is enforced only by a state apparatus and is only applied to those who are citizens of a state or member of a demos; and, inside the limits of the State, only to those recognized under the title of ‘human being’ (this is the reason why this principle has been compatible with racism, which violates the rights of those whom it denies the title of ‘human being’, and with sexism). The principle of equality of rights, tied to the Nation despite Kant’s cosmopolitan claims, has never been applied on a global (or interstate) level, where raw power and domination prevail. This, through colonialism and imperialism, slowly opens up a civilization process, in virtue of which only now we can catch a glimpse of the possibility of a global social contract. However, this is still devoid of any enforcement mechanism.

So, in my view the task of a critical theory for present times is to develop a theory of democracy which is fully aware of the limits of existing liberal democracies and of systematic forms of domination which limit equal freedom in modern societies. Hence, a real democracy has to be qualified, first of all, as an inversion of dominant contemporary priorities and as a deconstruction of unjustified inequalities, both from the perspective of power relations and from that of welfare opportunities. Inverting priorities means first of all emphasizing the primacy of social solidarity over competition according to the principle of: solidarity – the maximum possible; competition – the minimum necessary. Competition is a means to create wealth, while solidarity is an end that society should consciously pursue. Secondly, inverting priorities means to accept the primacy of those goods which are essential for human development: living in a non-polluted environment, having appropriate housing, health care, culture, social relations, spheres of self-realization in the working place and out of it—all this is more important than increasing the amount of goods available for consumption.

Moreover, the deconstruction of unjustified inequalities, which has always been an issue for democratic struggles, involves not only inequalities of wealth and income but also those of power. A democratic society is not only the one that promotes policies of wealth redistribution and fighting inequality. It is also a society that limits to the minimum necessary level, the subordination of workers to private enterprises and to public organizations, and that supports the expansion of democratic control even in these places.

Finally, a democratic society is one that acts in order to bring politics closer to the interested people—to the citizens by expanding the occasions for direct participation instead of representative occasions, by privileging active participation on small scale instead of delegation, and by denying every superfluous privilege that is not necessary to the exercise of a specific role.

The incessant labour of democracy represents, in my opinion, the still actual and vital part of the heritage of critical theory.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 6, May-June 2009, ISSN 1552-5112



[1]           J. Habermas, Faktizität und Geltung, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1992, pp. 151-152.

[2]           J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1972, p. 7.

[3]           C. B. Macpherson, Democratic Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1973, p. 51.

[4]           J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Chap. IV, § 36 (p. 226).

[5]            J. Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, London, Polity 2003, p. 63.

[6]           See J. Bidet, Théorie générale, Puf, Paris 1999 and J. Bidet, G. Duménil, Altermarxisme, Puf, Paris 2007.