The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (New Directions in Critical Theory)
While post- and decolonial theorists have thoroughly debunked the idea of historical progress as a Eurocentric, imperialist, and neocolonialist fallacy, many of the most prominent contemporary thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School―Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, and Rainer Forst―have defended ideas of progress, development, and modernity and have even made such ideas central to their normative claims. Can the Frankfurt School's goal of radical social change survive this critique? And what would a decolonized critical theory look like?
Amy Allen fractures critical theory from within by dispensing with its progressive reading of history while retaining its notion of progress as a political imperative, so eloquently defended by Adorno. Critical theory, according to Allen, is the best resource we have for achieving emancipatory social goals. In reimagining a decolonized critical theory after the end of progress, she rescues it from oblivion and gives it a future.
that, as Samuel Moyn puts it, “the past is more useful for challenging rather than conﬁrming our certainties.” Nor does rejecting the backward-looking notion of progress as a “fact” mean that we have to give up on the forward-looking notion of progress as a moral-political imperative. The trick here is disentangling the latter from the former. As I have already indicated, I will draw on Adorno’s idea that progress occurs where it comes to an end to think through this disentanglement. Somewhat
the contrast between the emancipatory vision outlined at the end of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which called, among other things, for a democratization of the economic sphere, and the less critical stance toward capitalism laid out in his work of the late 1980s, which held that capitalist markets and state bureaucracies are necessary features of social life in complex societies, and that the best we can hope for is a critical public sphere that serves as a check on their
history. Second, even as Habermas jettisons the metaphysical trappings of the traditional philosophy of history—its objectivistic assumptions about the necessity, unilinearity, and uninterruptibility of historical progress—he retains what is arguably its most controversial core: namely, the idea of historical progress itself and the assumption that European modernity can and should be understood as the result of a process of progressive historical development. These moves open him up to the
frequently leveled charge of Eurocentrism. Third, and ﬁnally, although Habermas adopts certain formal features of Marx’s philosophy of history, particularly its practical, political character, he nonetheless views Marx’s historical materialism as normatively deﬁcient, in two senses. Marx not only lacks a clear delineation between technical-scientiﬁc and moral-practical progress; he also lacks a clear normative grounding 50 From Social Evolution to Multiple Modernities for judgments of the
taken to be constitutive of practical reason threaten to become arbitrary, or, even worse, authoritarian. As Adorno points out in his critique of Kantian moral philosophy, to insist that “the given nature of the moral law should not be open to further questioning” is an “authoritarian gesture” which asserts that “the fact that it [that is, the moral law] exists is actually the most powerful proof of its validity” (PMP, 95). Raising this point need not reveal, on the part of the critic, a