Critical Theory and Discursive Designs
Critical Theory has been dogged with criticism that it is so far removed from empirically grounded analysis it is void of relevance to social problems. In his paper John S. Dryzek attempts to counter such charges by defending the central practical thesis of Habermasian Critical Theory, positing a program of discursive designs for political institutions. This paper examines the relevant Habermasian concepts and critically assesses Dryzek’s application. It argues that whilst Dryzek’s cause is a noble one for Critical Theory, he does not push Critical Theory enough to remedy the pervasive structural inequalities that would inevitably play a distorting role on communicative practices if they were to be successfully embedded in existing political institutions.
As the product of the first Marxist-oriented research institute in Germany, informally known as the “Frankfurt School”, Critical Theory has direct ancestry from the works of Marx and Engels. Emerging from the Second World War, headed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the Frankfurt School was severely critical of capitalist modernity. This disillusionment is perhaps most acutely expressed in Adorno and Horkheimer’s co-authored book, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which they assert a damaging critique of modernity and modern capitalist life; characterising the Enlightenment project as a totalitarian dictator that is intent on making ‘the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities. To the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 7: 1997). In the wake of the holocaust the Enlightenment project was analysed and deconstructed in an attempt to try and understand where within modern thought such an atrocity could have found license. The critique of modernity put forward was so severe that it can be suggested that it theorised itself into depression. It called the role of social theory into question; any attempts to reformulate aspects of modernity were in danger of making the same mistakes again, asserting new normative grounds that could engender original forms of oppression – raising the question of whether a dialectic of Enlightenment was possible or even desirable.