Sneven Best The Politics of Historical Vision: Marx, Foucault, Habermas





History is the most dangerous product ever concocted by the chemistry of the intellect.


Despite their substantive differences, Marx, Foucault, and Habermas have important similarities as critical theorists, as writers who analyze history and society in order to criticize the prevailing social order, to further enlightenment and critical consciousness, and thereby to help bring about political change. All three break with the positivist goal of value-free theory by politicizing their work, by linking it to specific critical and political goals with liberatory intent. Even Foucault, heralder of the death of Man and slayer of utopian visions, came to adopt a discourse of freedom and liberty in order to speak more coherently about the raison d'etre of the political resistance that he sought to promote.

The critical thrust of each theory is directed against the oppressive aspects of capitalism and modern rationalization processes. Each theorist looks past the liberal and democratic rhetoric of capitalist modernity to find underlying mechanisms of exploitation, coercion, and distortion. A historically based critique of capitalism and modern forms of rationality is central to the work of each theorist. Hence, Marx compares capitalism with precapitalist social forms to dramatize the uniqueness of capitalist forms of exploitation and alienation; Foucault undertakes a genealogy of modern power that carries his research back to ancient society; and Habermas analyzes the colonization of the lifeworld that threatens the liberatory differentiation of rationality and cumulative advances in moral-practical learning.

In their historical analyses, each theorist identifies both continuities and discontinuities of the present with the past. Marx underlines the evolution of the human senses, the progressive development of technology, the constancy of alienation, and the recuring dynamics of class struggle, while also portraying capitalism as a dramatic rupture from all precapitalist social forms. Foucault shows how technologies of the self were transformed into technologies of domination and analyzes mutations in discursive formations and regimes of power. Habermas reconstructs the progressive advances in technical and moral learning processes while emphasizing the singularity of the capitalist principle of organization and the decentered worldview of modernity.

Through their use of a discontinuity perspective, all three employ historical analysis of the present to shatter the entrenched sense that it is given, necessary, or inevitable and to expose it as a contingent construct that can be changed. In each vision of history, the past is employed to disrupt the present; to show how reified economic, political, and technological imperatives rule over social life; and to allow an alternative future where human freedom can become a reality. In each case, history is not studied for its own sake; neither Marx, Foucault, nor Habermas adopt the strictly past-oriented outlook that Emerson and Nietzsche attacked for hindering action in the present and future. Rather, each writes a strategic history that applies a study of the past toward a critique of the present in order to help effect an alternative future.

All, therefore, attempt to overcome the split between theory and practice characteristic of modern positivism. Each theorist, consequently, abandons the traditional conception of philosophy as a self-sufficient, contemplative discipline that discovers eternal truths in the realm of theory while devaluing practice as the realm of the changing and false (see Dewey 1979). Each seeks to break down disciplinary boundaries, to recontextualize philosophy within the broader context of critical social theory, to historicize philosophy while philosophizing history, and to provide philosophico-historical analysis with empirical and political content. Hence, while all reject the "philosophy of history" tradition that seeks a totalizing, speculative theory divorced from empirical analysis, each combines history and philosophy in a supradisciplinary critical theory.

Yet underlying the various similarities among these three theorists at the abstract level of critical theory, we find substantive differences that arise over different understandings of the nature of history, power, and freedom; over what kind of social change is possible and desirable; and over which methodological perspectives are best for analyzing history and capitalist society.


In exploring the differences among Marx, Foucault, and Habermas, let us begin with some general issues regarding the epistemological status of theory. While all three deny a version of science that seeks ahistorical laws, that rigidly separates fact from value and theory from practice, and that assimilates the social to the natural sciences, Habermas and Marx maintain a critical and positive relation to empirical and scientific standards that Foucault largely abandons for a postmodern standpoint.

Clearly, Marx is the most influenced by scientific norms; he alone retains the positivist rhetoric and ambition of a theoretical science that grasps "laws" of social change. Against all forms of idealist, speculative, and utopian theorizing, Marx defines historical materialism as a "science of history" that uncovers the general causal dynamics of social change, that penetrates through the false consciousness of ideology to grasp actual social processes, and that generates predictions about the future through empirical observation and inductive reasoning.

Positivist impulses are strong in Marx from his earliest "humanist" works. Already in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx attempts to articulate a conception of social and historical theory that is rigorous, empirical, and scientific. He seeks to establish a theory that begins from "real premises" and "actual economic fact[s]" through study of human beings in their social relations and activities. Yet this same text was filled with speculative thinking influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach that greatly conflicted with these empirical tendencies. In his quest for science, Marx accordingly jettisons these elements (although they never entirely disappeared) and moves toward a more rigorous scientific view-point in The German Ideology. Here, Marx and Engels advocate the eclipse of philosophy by science: "When reality is [properly] depicted, philosophy as an independent branch loses its medium of existence" (1978:155). Philosophy, they claim, has no role in theory beyond summarizing empirically obtained results. This marks the end of Marx's philosophical anthropology and the beginning of his critique of political economy.

Yet the science of history Marx was struggling to develop was historical and critical in nature; he defined his materialism in opposition to all ahistorical, bourgeois theories. For Marx, all social phenomena are constituted within dynamic, changing social relations. He attacks bourgeois political economy for positing universal, ahistorical "laws" of social development that in fact only represent tendencies that vary according to different social formations. He claims that all forms of consciousness are historically relative and that even biology is socially mediated (1973:92). As we saw, however, Marx did not adequately acknowledge the historical rootedness of his own theory: there is a tension in his work between philosophy and science, empirical explanation and ideology critique that reflects the intellectual climate of his time.

There is also tension in Marx's work regarding the question of the unity of the sciences. His scientific ambitions lead him to conflate the logics of the social and natural sciences (see Chapter 3) and thus to adopt a positivist-inspired misunderstanding of his own position, later replicated by Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, and others, which he undercuts in other ways. Marx's belief in the ability of human agency to change consciously the social environment prevents him from analyzing human beings as mere things. Where bourgeois thought tries to naturalize features of human experience by abstracting them from the social relations that constitute them (seeing, for example, capital as "a general and eternal relation of nature" [Marx 1973:86]), Marx attempts to denaturalize them. Marx considered his most important scientific discovery the insight that the value of commodities is the expression of exploited labor power rather than the natural and inevitable operations of the market. He subverted the positivist attempt to limit analysis to mere surface appearances of reality in order to penetrate the underlying social relations that produce these appearances in fetishized form. He thereby undoes the Kantian distinction between essence and appearance to show how "social essence" (social relations) informs social appearace, and to claim that consciousness can grasp the noumenal as well as the phenomenal world.

Foucault and Habermas also underline the discontinuities between social and natural science, while effecting a more radical break with positivism. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault states "we should distinguish carefully between scientific domains and archaeotogical territories: their articulation and their principles of organization are quite different. Only propositions that obey certain laws of construction belong to a domain of scientificity" (1972:183). Foucault distinguishes between different "thresholds" of knowledge according to their degree of coherence and formalizability. For Foucault, the so-called "social sciences" fall well below the "threshold of scientificity," where certain forms of knowledge can be formalized according to rigorous criteria and abstract propositional laws.

Foucault radically undermines the core tenets of positivism by analyzing the symbiotic relationship between knowledge, truth, and power. A key goal of genealogy is to show how science is employed for purposes of social control. This analysis is directed against positivist and Marxist theories that see knowledge as neutral, objective, or unproblematically emancipatory. Foucault attacks the very enterprise of science as normalizing by claiming that a wide range of "knowledges," such as those uncovered by the genealogist, are disqualified because they cannot meet formalist criteria of truth. As an "antiscience," genealogy seeks to recuperate marginalized, nonformalized, disqualified knowledges and to put them in the service of political struggles. Supplementing the Frankfurt School's analysis of the use of instrumental rationality in the domination of nature, Foucault shows how scientific rationality disciplines individuals through the imposition of normalizing identities. Where Marx was uncritical of the fundamental norms of science, Foucault forcefully shows that science and technical rationality are bound up with forms of power and that critique must therefore extend to science and technology themselves.

Yet, ironically, in some ways Foucault emulates positivist positions. Identifying himself as a "happy positivist" (in sardonic gesture to Nietzsche's "gay science"), Foucault eschews hermeneutics and normative values for an allegedly disinterested description of successive power/ knowledge formations. In this light, it is no accident that Foucault not only refuses to defend normative values, but also brackets causal analysis since, according to positivism, causes are speculative, metaphysical entities. Both positivist and postmodern theories reject hermeneutic depth models and normative visions of the good life. In this sense, residues of a scientistic attitude inform Foucault's work.

As we have seen in Chapter 3, Foucault's critique of science does not mean that he denies the possibility of scientific objectivity. Compared to postmodern theorists like Baudrillard, Lyotard, Rorty, Feyerabend, or Seidman, Foucault is an epistemological moderate who grants objectivity to certain domains of knowledge. Yet, while Foucault does not reduce knowledge to power and sees the countersciences as a positive form of scientific knowledge, he does not incorporate scientific norms, moral categories, or truth claims into his own analyses to legitimate the implicit normative thrust of his work. "Truth" is reduced to "truth-games," to simulated contact with reality.

Adopting a postmodern aestheticist view, the only metatheoretical claims Foucault makes in reference to his analyses is to characterize them as "fictions" (1980a:12, 1991:33). Foucault claims that no one ever writes anything but fictions and in his work the search for truth gives way to the quest for experience. Examined carefully, however, Foucault's fictions are not defined in total opposition to truth. Foucault breaks down any firm distinction between fact and fiction and rewrites truth in a pragmatist context that speaks not of "truth," but "truth-effects":

I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or "manufactures" something that does not as yet exist, that is, "fictions" it. One "fictions" history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one "fictions" a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth. (1980a:193)

This should be read not as a full-blown Sorelian construction of myth to engender political struggle, but rather as a break with realist notions of truth and as a suggestion that truth is a practical reality informed by a political vision. Despite occasional references to scientific and mathe matical objectivity, Foucault demonstrates a postmodern sensibility (anticipated by many modern theorists) that "truth" is a perspective-laden construction, that the historian does not have an unmediated access to historical reality, that history is a text. With Marx, Foucault adopts a pragmatist attitude that truth is what works in practice. In Marx's words, "The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practices is a purely scholastic question" (1975a:422). The degree of truth, in other words, is dependent upon the power of vision and its practical consequences. Marx's and Foucault's own theories, therefore, become "true" to the extent that they change standard ways of thought and action and engender effective struggle and social change. Foucault's "reading" of social reality seeks to produce certain "effects of truth [that] could become implements within possible struggles" (1989:189). But, since total fictions also can engender effective struggle, since "history" can be sheer lies and propaganda, and since there still remains the problem of adjudicating between competing factual and normative claims, such claims to truth beg the question. We need a more substantive sense of truth and normative validity.

This, of course, is Habermas' central preoccupation; he vehemently rejects postmodern attempts to erase boundaries between literature and philosophy and fiction and truth. The attempt to acknowledge the historical and context-dependent nature of validity claims without succumbing to relativism has been a characteristic aspect of Habermas' work from the start. Despite the interest structures guiding knowledge, Habermas holds that truth is still possible in two ways, which I call immanent and pragmatic. On the first model, the immanent claim, a norm is true if it conforms to the nature of language itself. Here, Habermas thinks that the emancipatory norms raised by critical theory are true, have normative correctness, because they are immanent within the nature of language itself, which seeks understanding and agreement within nondistorted conditions. As has been already suggested, this is a metaphysical model that is not successfully defended.

The second model, independent of the teleological assumptions of the first, holds that a claim is true if it can be successfully defended through argumentation within an intersubjective context. Under ideal conditions where all actors have equal chances to raise and defend validity claims, and where the conditions of communication are free of ideology and other disturbances, a claim is true when it can be successfully defended with good reasons. This is a pragmatic model of truth because it dispenses with the metaphysical assumptions of the immanent model and makes truth the result of a negotiated outcome among social actors. It challenges relativism on the grounds that not all claims are equally sound insofar as some will have the backing of better arguments—few would claim, for example, that the arguments of spokespersons from the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are equally valid. The better claim, the "truthful" claim, is the result of the "force of the better argument." Truth, then, is a matter of warranted assertability.

The pragmatic model is far more plausible than the immanent model because it dispenses with dubious metaphysical claims about innate interests and ties truth to nonarbitrary, falsifiable conditions of rationality. Habermas in fact, following Apel, makes a significant contribution to theories of truth by breaking the immanency of isolated subjects in quest of ahistorical truth through the unmediated, transparent medium of rational speech. This move links truth to a larger social context that includes not simply a community of actors, but ideals and conditions of freedom and justice. For how can a claim be "true," which implies accuracy and impartiality, under conditions where some have more power to speak than others and the conditions of communication are impaired from the start? The search for truth ultimately entails a free and just society.1

Yet Habermas' pragmatic theory remains problematic on at least two grounds. First, he has not provided an adequate account of the criteria of the "better argument," which would include, among other things, values of consistency and factual accuracy. Second, Habermas' argument appears to be circular: if truth is the result of a rational consensus, how do we judge this consensus itself as true, right, or accurate? If we answer because this consensus itself is validated by consensus, we are moving in a circle, or are trapped in an infinite regress. The fact that a community of actors freely consents to a claim does not guarantee that their consensus is not wrong or false. To the extent that certain claims will require assessment of factual accuracy in the way they relate to affairs in the world, one will also need a correspondence theory of truth that Habermas criticizes the Frankfurt School for not developing and holds is necessary for critical theory (1986: 99-100), but that he himself not yet developed.

Like Foucault, Habermas develops a strong critique of positivism by linking knowledge to action motivations, or "interests." Habermas deftly draws out the political implications of the positivist vision of society as a scientifically controlled field in the attempt to reduce the practical issues of enlightenment and democracy to mere technical issues of the command of resources by elites. But Habermas advances beyond Foucault's analysis in seeing that the interest structures of knowledge include not only the interest in power or strategic control, but also the interest in reaching an understanding and in attaining self-enlightenment. Since all three interests emerge from a prereflective lifeworld, hermeneutics has a priority in Habermas' work that it does not have in the theories of Marx or Foucault. For Habermas, hermeneutical approaches seek not only a method of interpretation, but also to promote "the intersubjectivity of mututal understanding in ordinary-language communication and in action according to common norms" (1971:176).

Far more adequately than Marx, Habermas draws on hermeneutics to distinguish the separate logics of the social and natural sciences. But unlike someone such as Winch, who conceives of these differences as incommensureable, Habermas identifies important continuities since, on the one hand, both the natural and human sciences are fallible and hermeneutical in nature, and since, on the other, both can make legitimate empirical and causal claims. Far from denying the social sciences adequacy, Habermas sublates philosophy into the social sciences, where its proclivities toward ungrounded speculation are to be reined in by empirical logic.

Yet, amidst numerous cries of the "end of philosophy" (see Baynes et al. 1987), Habermas claims that philosophy is still important as a critical voice and defender of universal values. Despite valid attacks on the metaphysical illusions of the whole Western tradition, Habermas claims that philosophy remains "the hitherto irreplaceable representative of a claim to unity and universality" (1986:32). These appeals to universality are not simply posited, but empirically discerned through historical study of past cultures. Drawing from Popper, Habermas insists that truth claims are falsifiable in nature, that they can be confirmed or proven wrong through the testing of hypotheses. In his project of rational reconstruction, Habermas employs procedures similar to those of the empirical sciences to gather data and test hypotheses; the purpose, however, is not to generate nomological hypotheses about observational events, but rather to reconstruct the intuitive knowledge of communicatively competent subjects. As first suggested by Horkheimer, Habermas believes that philosophy must abandon the claim that it alone represents reality, or that it has privileged access to truth, and instead must work with the reconstructive empirical sciences. A second role for philosophy here is to play the role of "stand-in," which mediates between layculture and expert knowledge in different realms (1986:131-132, 1992:28-51). In both cases, philosophy is "the guardian of rationality" (1990:20) and it employs knowledge to raise public consciousness about the deformations of the lifeworld.

Thus, Habermas develops an interdisciplinary project that combines philosophy, social theory, psychology, empirical science, and history, and attempts to trace the development of cognitive learning processes while also clarifying the presuppositions of rationality inherent in the process of communication. He seeks a synthetic position that combines the logics of explanation (of empirical phenomena), interpretation (of traditional complexes of meaning), and critique (of ideologies, distorted forms of communication, and illegitimate forms of power). Positivists were right that causal logic can be used to explain social dynamics, but the hermeneuticists were also right that human beings are intentional subjects and there is no presuppositionless theory. Yet the hermeneutic tradition, such as represented by Gadamer, assumed language to be a transparent medium rather than a vehicle of ideology and domination, and so the perspective of critical theory is also required.

What Habermas develops, therefore, is a historically and hermeneutically informed mode of explanation with the aim of clarifying the presuppositions of communication and deploying their normative thrust to criticize ideology and deformed modes of interaction. Habermas seeks to pursue "the rigor of science" but without sacrificing the "practical intentions of classical politics" (1970:144), and he thereby hopes to overcome the dualism between the ancient and modern political traditions. Where Marx abandons philosophy for science, and Foucault gives up science for historico-philosophical critique, Habermas seeks a position "between philosophy and science." With Marx and Foucault, Habermas eschews dogmatic, speculative, and metaphysical conceptions of philosophy, but he claims that both theorists have abandoned the epistemological resources of philosophy that are necessary to legitimate validity claims.


The attitudes of Marx, Foucault, and Habermas toward science directly bear upon their theoretical approach toward history as a general category. Unlike Foucault, Marx and Habermas seek to develop a "theory" of history, but in different forms where only Marx aims at a "science of history" and Habermas pursues a historically informed reconstructive science of communicative competence. A "theory of history" implies a comprehensive, explanatory analysis that seeks to grasp the main causal dynamics and outlines of the historical process as a whole. It attempts to discern basic laws or regularities of history and to construct some general narrative of historical development. While laws imply regularities, regularities do not imply laws, since there may be exceptions to the rule that the concept of "law" logically denies. Strictly speaking, a "law" holds only when an effect necessarily follows from a cause; but where there is contingency instead of necessity, freedom instead of determination, singularity instead of repetition, there can be no historical "laws."2

The distinction between law and regularity is important because, as the work of Dilthey shows (1962), one can deny the possibility of a "science" of history without denying that there are strong causal relations, regularities, patterns, developmental tendencies, and even "meaning" in history. The rejection of nomological science does not entail an acceptance of the empiricist-nominalist position that history is nothing but chaotic and random change that defies generalizing or developmental schemes, Marx, Foucault, and Habermas all attempt to analyze "history" as a general category with narrative import, while trying to avoid an essentializing or reductionistic approach that obscures historical differences and discontinuities.

Marx's theory of history breaks with metaphysics and idealism and develops a materialist theory that grasps the fundamental dynamics behind social change. As we have seen in Chapter 1, Marx tries to negotiate between empiricism and reductionism with his concept of rational abstraction. Empiricism is wrong because, at the synchronic level, it does not grasp the systemic interrelationship among different phenomena within a social totality structured by economics. It is wrong at the diachronic level because it fails to see important similarities among different forms of society insofar as they are governed by the dynamics of material production.

But, against reductionism and its search for universal laws of history, Marx insists that these basic dynamics operate in different ways in different societies. One cannot, therefore, identify any universal law of historical development that allows an a priori deduction of the basic characteristics of a given social form; rather, one must examine each society in an empirical, a posteriori way. A "rational abstraction" simultaneously grasps both what is general and particular about a given social phenomenon. It is because of the concern for specific historical differences in various modes of production that Marx claims that historical materialism is not an "a priori construction," a "lever for construction," or a "compulsory philosophical scheme of history." Except for his early Hegelian excesses and his misleading methodological summaries, Marx does not endorse seeking universal laws of historical development. Unlike his deterministic followers, Marx does not construct an a priori, linear model whereby social formations succeed one another through internal contradictions between forces and relations of production. Instead of the rigid primacy of the productive forces model that he articulates in theory, Marx analyzes a wide array of forces to explain social change. He employs a multicausal, contextualist approach that specifies different forces in different situations, showing how war, class struggle, technology, and other factors bring about social change. On this overdetermined logic, there are many engines of history that are nonreducible to the expansion of the productive forces.

Thus, Marx's appeal to historical "laws" requires a two-fold qualification. First, he believes that the task of science is to uncover the laws only of specific modes of production, and not laws that apply without restriction to history in general. Marx was careful not to generalize illicitly from capitalism to all other modes of production. The "laws" Marx identifies, in other words, are synchronic rather than diachronic. Second, because he rejects determinism, Marx intends these "laws" to refer to the tendencies of a society to function in a specific way. As "tendencies," they may be realized or blocked, depending on a number of contingent factors related to the dynamics of production, the market, and, most importantly, social struggle. Marx does frequently speak as if these laws were incontrovertible, as when he employs phrases such as "logical necessity" or "iron necessity," but he is guilty more of misrepresenting his actual position than adopting a rigid fatalism or teleology. The general rate of surplus value, for instance, is to be "understood only as a tendency, like all other economic laws" (Marx 1966:213). When Marx speaks of "the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation," he then adds: "like all other laws, it is modified in its working by many circumstances" (Marx, quoted in Ruben 1979). Thus, as Ruben notes (1979), Marxian science is not incompatible with practice and does not obviate it, because if these "laws" are only tendencies which may or may not be realized, then it is crucial that the working class intervene to counter these tendencies (e.g., that lead toward greater exploitation). Thus defined, scientific knowledge facilitates rather than blocks revolutionary practice. Ultimately, Marx rejects functionalist analyses that dispense with human intentionality in favor of system autonomy, and he tries to show how human beings act within the structures that constrain them.

Like Marx, Habermas seeks a comprehensive theory of history that describes the main outlines and periods of history and tries to supply a causal analysis of the fundamental forces behind social change. Habermas too rejects both narrow and broad versions of technological determinism and grants an important role in history to subjective intention and knowledge. But where Marx speaks only of technical knowledge, Habermas argues that moral knowledge is equally or perhaps more important an evolutionary force. Thus, Habermas seeks to identify important historical continuities in the related, yet separate, dynamics of expanding technical-instrumental and moral-practical knowledge. In this emphasis, Habermas makes a decisive break with the determinist tendencies and scientistic language in Marx.

Traditionally, "causal analysis" signifies the attempt to link specific events to general laws in a universal and determined way that posits a simple relation of antecedent to consequence and arranges actions in a linear order. With the decline of determinism, causal analysis has fallen out of fashion and many see the job of the historian as being merely to describe events or construct narratives. If, with Leff (1969), we say the historian's task is to render the past intelligible, it would seem that this requires not simply narrating a random flow of events, but explaining the constituting forces of history, not just what happened, but also why. Casual explanation can be redefined in a postpositivist context that accounts for indeterminancy, overdetermination, subjective intentionality, unintended consequences of action, and the interpretive status of all historiography whereby the historian selects and arranges relevant facts in a narrative framework from a subjective point of view. The task is thus not to abandon causal analyis, but to complicate it, to renounce the old billiard-ball models of change (where B is explained through the determined force of A and only A), and to provide a more sophisticated, multicausal analysis.4

As we have seen, Foucault postpones causal analysis for the archaeological work he considers to be preliminary. Ultimately, however, he is not interested in explaining why things change, only in identifying points of discontinuity and describing various systems of power/knowledge.3 Unlike Marx and Habermas, Foucault never attempted to explain why a change occurred from one historical era to another, only to show where the breaks occur and to describe their incommensurably different features. This leaves Foucault without the means to ask why such breaks occurred and the resources to identify and understand the constituting forces of society. Like normative assumptions, causal analysis and explanatory logic can be suppressed but not eliminated. Foucault's analyses covertly assume a functionalist viewpoint that explains the existence of discourses, knowledges, and actions according to their role in achieving power over individuals. These forces are therefore deterministic in character and preclude analysis of individual intention, motivation, or choice.

Like Habermas, Foucault rejects the science of history, but he also rejects Habermas' attempt at an explanatory theory of social evolution. Instead of a comprehensive "theory" of history in the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, Foucault seeks a detotalizing "analytics" of history that breaks with evolutionist narratives and the universal logics of "total history." Foucault's work is a good example of the postmodern gestalt shift from universalism to localism, from a systematizing general theory to specific and fragmentary analyses that abandon the "big picture." In place of a broad, macroscopic account of a social totality, Foucault substitutes microanalyses of particular social institutions informed by "local critique."5

Postmodern theories abandon all forms of universal narrative and general theory. Lyotard rejects metanarratives and the continuist vision of history they project. Foucault attacks "the inhibiting effect of global theory, totalitarian theories" (1980a:80). Other theorists valorize local knowledges (Geertz 1983) or strictly regional analyses. While the post-modern attack on general theory rightly repudiates an ethnocentric Enlightenment universalism, and is helpful in pluralizing false totalities, such as Marx's assimilation of multiple historical subjects into the "universal working class," it produces a caricatured account of modern theory insofar as many modern theorists were themselves critical of totalizing, universal theories. Following Calhoun (1992), we need to distinguish between two kinds of general theory: one that seeks to produce universal, nomothetic statements applicable to all societies, and another which seeks broad and comprehensive accounts of the general forces structuring a given society, whose abstractions are empirically and historically grounded.

Similarly, Kellner (1988) draws an important distinction between "master narratives" that subsume all events and specific viewpoints into one totalizing theory and "grand narratives" that attempt to describe complex development patterns and trajectories. Kellner argues that in history we find continuous, long-term, general, and even universalizing processes such as the rise of capitalism, bureaucracy, or patriarchy that require general or large-scale theories to interpret them correctly. Even a radical postmodern theorist like Seidman (1991) recognizes the need for such general narratives. Seidman claims we should abandon metanarratives, but retain "general stories" and "broad social narratives" that can recount large-scale events and can offer critical alternatives to the dominant social narratives. As I argue below, even metanarratives can and should be reconstructed and have an important function in theory and politics.

The postmodern critique indiscriminantly discredits all forms of general theory through a critique of the most abstract and totalizing forms. Postmodernists evince a paranoid "aversion against universals" (Honneth 1985). They merely reverse the totalizing and essentializing logic of Enlightenment universalism by making everything into unrelated difference rather than abstract identity. Postmodern critiques fail to grasp the mediation of the local with the general or universal. Seidman (1992), for example, does not show how the analysis of a local issue such as homelessness is incomprehensible without a general analysis of capitalism as an international system whose effects reach into the most regional and private spheres of life.

Modern theories employ a systematic and comprehensive form of analysis that postmodern theories abandon in favor of partial and perspectival modes of analysis. Postmodern theorists like Foucault break up false continuities and totalities but leave things disconnected, failing to analyze systemic connections between economic, political, legal, cultural, interpersonal and personal domains. Where Marx and Habermas focus on the capitalist mode of production as a systematic whole, Foucault analyses modern society from numerous perspectives that, he believes, do not add up to a totality or "organic whole." Thus, Foucault claims that "The whole of society' is precisely that which should not be considered except as something to be destroyed" (1977:233). This approach, however, conflicts with Foucault's references to a "disciplinary society."

As Calhoun (1992) and Wagner (1992), argue a general theory of society is unavoidable. All social theory, if it illuminates anything at all, presupposes a general theory that integrates and guides the theoretical process. Even "local" theory issues general declarations about that nature of society and the proper role of theory. The denial of general theory leads to the aporia of renouncing the guiding assumptions of any local theory itself. Particular, local, or fragmentary analyses are blind when lacking a general context for reference, just as general theories are empty without concrete analysis, local reference, and specific application. Thus, it is no accident that Foucault himself issues general—indeed universal— statements about the nature of modern society as disciplinary and the ubiquity of power in all societies. Foucault acknowledges he is dealing with highly general problems—such as the nature of power or the constitution of the subject—but is trying to address them in strictly local and concrete forms. As he says, "Localizing problems is indispensible for theoretical and political reasons. But that doesn't mean that they are not, however, general problems.. What I take up is general, perhaps more so than anything else" (1991:152-153, 165). Foucault's genealogies, therefore, are hardly theory-free; they are constructed from theoretically general frames and perspectives. The problem is not with general theory or holistic analysis per se, but rather with an approach insufficiently empirical; insensitive to the cultural specificity of different periods, societies, and regions; and unfalsifiable.


I don't like judgments. Frivolity should take the place of



We judge without criteria.


This sucks.


In the Middle Ages, there was little controversy about epistemological questions regarding the nature of reality and the legitimacy of claims to truth and rightness. It was universally assumed that God existed, that the scriptures conveyed his word and teachings, and that the Church correctly interpreted his voice. God provided an unchanging, infallible foundation for ontological and ethical claims. Although many thinkers in the Enlightenment tradition continued to believe in God, they agreed that traditional ways of justifying knowledge claims were inadequate to the extent that they were unfounded and dogmatic. All knowledge claims were to be criticized and subjected to the new tribunal of secular reason. Modernity can no longer appeal to the past to find the resources for critique, which has now become self-referential. In Habermas' words, "Modernity can and will no longer borrow the criteria by which it takes its orientation from the models supplied by another epoch; it has to create its normativity out of itself" (1987a:7). Through appeal to rational principles discerned by enlightened minds, however early modern theorists thought one could find universal and nonarbitrary criteria for norms of truth and rightness, grounded in the natural order. Modern philosophy thereby embarked on its obsessive concern with epistemology and with the foundations—as well as the limits—of knowledge; "self-referential" critique quickly became a new form of foundationalism.

Following waves of critical reactions that began with Vico, Montesquieu, Montaigne, and others, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought a host of challenges to Enlightenment rationality and modern foundationalism. From a variety of perspectives, two key assumptions of Enlightenment thought have been questioned and overturned: that reason is a progressive, liberating force; and that it provides us with the means for an objective apprehension of reality and a legitimation of its own epistemological and normative claims. A key departure point for these critiques—from Heidegger to the Frankfurt School to feminism and post-modern theory—has been Nietzsche's claim that reason is limited to a perspectival apprehension of reality and that it is informed by a will to power. Such critiques show that while the Enlightenment initiated a process of demystifying reason through grounding it in secular values, many modern theorists created new myths about the universality, objectivity, and neutrality of reason.

Influenced by the critical attitude of the Enlightenment, Marx, Foucault, and Habermas all develop critical theories that attempt to unmask the ideologies of capitalist society, to undo the distortions of thought in order to free critical consciousness, to facilitate the extrication of the body from disciplinary regimes, and to expose the forms of power and domination in modern society that limit human freedom. For any critical theory, the inescapable problem is the legitimacy of criticism itself, the validity of the claims it makes, explicit or implicit. Critical theory has to show that its perspective is the "right" or "true" one that is better than those of the social system it denounces; it has to show that its own perspective is not tainted by the norms and ideology it rejects. The raison d'etre of critical theory, therefore, is its ability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of power, true and false propositions, and right and wrong actions. Critical theory must prove as well that these distinctions are not arbitrary, but rather have some basis in rationality or empirical fact.

The question, then, concerns what kind of foundations or forms of objectivity are possible for normative critique. Is there a universally valid criterion of truth and rightness to which we can appeal to adjudicate competing claims? If not, is the extreme relativist position correct in its thesis that all claims are equally arbitrary? Or is there some alternative conception of foundations and objectivity possible that allows us to discriminate among different kinds of claims and to defend some as better than others? Are pluralism and relativism the same things?

Marx's critical method involves an immanent critique, whereby he exposes the glaring contradiction between capitalist ideals of freedom and justice and the actual reality of social life. Marx wishes to expose the inequalities behind the fiction of equality in the wage contract and to show that liberty, equality, and fraternity were nonexistent ideals in a society organized around the rule of private interests and and class power. Marx does not attempt to ground his critique in any extrahistorical foundation; rather, he claims that values are historical in nature and therefore relative to their time. What is "just" in ancient, capitalist, and communist society will greatly differ without any notion corresponding to an essence of "justice." Marx therefore does not confront the normative underpinnings of communism and the question of how his own critical perspective could transcend the ideological horizon of its historical perspective to achieve normative validity or factual truth. In his appropriation of Hegel's dialectical method, Marx jettisons its ontological underpinnings (truth as the development of Reason in history), and does not construct a materialist normative foundation. Thus, while Marx's immanent critique implies the legitimacy of a standpoint not purely context-bound and a positive normative vision of free and creative individuals interacting within a democratic polity, the issue of the rational justification of critique is not addressed.

Foucault too fails to clarify the normative dimensions of his critique, but his critical attitude is far more muted than Marx's. Foucault eschews Marx's moral rhetoric and diatribes and lacks even an immanent critique of modern power, since, unlike Marx, he finds no progressive or rational content in bourgeois norms. Against Marx and Foucault, Habermas takes as a central concern the epistemological status of theory and the question of the validity of normative claims. For Habermas, the main problem with Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer, and Foucault is the lack of reflection on the epistemological status of theory. Habermas rejects Marx's scientism, Adorno and Horkheimer's total critique, and Foucault's crypto-normativism. In contrast, Habermas employs philosophy to reconstruct the epistemological foundations of critical theory and to defend universal values. While rejecting traditional forms of absolutism, Habermas also wishes to avoid relativism by providing a foundation for critique.

For Habermas, postmodern theory is the culmination of a long process of decline of critical theory and its emancipatory vision. Beginning with the loss of the proletariat as the bearer of emancipation, and continuing with historical movements stabilizing capitalism and disqualifying socialism, as well as philosophical developments overturning transcendental, foundational, and universal perspectives, the project of critical theory was in danger of being snuffed out. In the hands of Adorno and Horkheimer, critical theory abandoned a political standpoint and limited itself to mere gestures of resistance confined to the realm of aesthetics. The emancipatory norms informing critical theory required rehabilitation; Habermas attempts this massive undertaking through a revival of Kantian transcendentalism and the construction of an immense, eclectic philosophical framework.

As Roderick (1986) shows, Habermas employs the method of immanent critique in his early works. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, he critically contrasts the bourgeois ideal of a free and democratic public sphere with the historical reality of capitalist control over and distortion of communication and political discourse. In The Logic of the Social Sciences, as well as in Theory and Practice, he continues to use this method, but in a more Adornoesque manner, focusing on internal contradictions within various philosophical positions in order to move toward a satisfactory, comprehensive theory. This method is still employed in Knowledge and Human Interests, but where the earlier work of Habermas implicitly relies on Hegelian-Marxist dialectics, he now adopts a Kantian-inspired search for the necessary and universal preconditions of critique. In this framework, the standard for critique is located not in the truth of the Absolute or in the worker's movement, but rather within communication and the cognitive interest in emancipation. Although Habermas replaces the timeless transcendental ego with a linguistically and historically constituted subject, he follows Kant in seeking the conditions of possibility for experience, in this case, for speech and action, that can provide an objective grounding for ethical norms.

This move is prompted by Habermas's awareness of the limitations inherent in the method of immanent critique. Habermas notes that the strategy failed since bourgeois consciousness has become "cynical" (1979: 97) and no longer acknowledges its revolutionary values, trading them in for a legitimation secured through a technologically secured rise in material well-being. Moreover, while immanent critique can demonstrate how capitalism falls short of its own emancipatory ideals, it cannot supply any positive concepts of what is right or state why there is rational and progressive content in capitalist norms such as freedom, democracy, and justice. Nor can immanent critique escape relativism, since it can appeal only to the values of a given culture and historical era. Thus, to provide critical theory with a foundation for critique, Habermas leaves behind the historicism of Hegel and Marx for the universalist and foundationalist approach of Kant. "The critique of ideology can no longer set out directly from concrete ideals intrinsic to forms of life, but only from formal properties of rationality structures" (Habermas 1982:254).

While Habermas identifies a key weakness in Foucault's refusal to defend his supressed normative committments, he fails to see other options available to Foucault.6 Rather than admitting to any contradiction between what his critique assumes and what it does, Foucault has at least two strategies available to him. First, he can take the Nietzschean position that he is only offering a perspective for consideration, another instrument for the toolbox of knowledge, without granting any special privilege to genealogy, and without burdening the theorist with the weight of justification. The task of genealogy is simply to problematize what is presented as necessary and eternal without needing to legitimate any positive visions or values. Second, he can give a pragmatist response and claim that the "truth" of his analyses are verified through their results; a theory is "right" or "true" if it works, if it facilitates struggle and empowers individuals against coercion.

This pragmatism is common to postmodern theory. Richard Rorty and Steven Seidman, two theorists whom Foucault's work has inspired, both formulate important challenges to Habermas' foundationalism. Following Foucault, Rorty finds justification of critical norms unnecessary and rejects universalism in favor of a historicist position that frankly characterizes critique as ungrounded. Rorty believes that the role of philosophy is not to lay the groundwork for a new metaphysics, ontology, or epistemology, but simply to develop new ideas and discover new social possibilities without providing them with a metatheoretical justification: "What is needed is a sort of intellectual analogue of civic virtue— tolerance, irony, and a willingness to let spheres of culture flourish without worrying too much about their 'common ground,' their unification, the 'intrinsic ideals' they suggest, or what picture of man they 'presuppose'" (1985:168).

Freed from abstract epistemological concerns, analysis can focus on concrete historical studies. "Detailed historical narratives of the sort Foucault offers us would take the place of philosophical metanarratives. Such narratives would not unmask something created by power called Validity'or 'emancipation.' They would just explain who was currently getting and using power for what reasons, and then (unlike Foucault) suggest how some other people might get it and use it for other purposes" (Rorty 1985: 173). On Rorty's aestheticist position (1989), no argument is better than another on logical grounds; rather, all the theorist—the "ironist"—can do is to counter one "description" of the world with another. This might be accepted because it is more new, interesting, attractive, or useful, but not because it is "true."

From a similar postmodern standpoint, Seidman (1991, 1992) has advanced a vigorous political critique of foundationalism. According to Seidman, the concern with foundations and metatheoretical justification makes social theory obscure, marginal, and irrelevant to social struggles and everyday life. The obsessive concern for rigor and justification shifts focus from immediate practical struggles to technical discourse and theoretical vocabulary. Theory becomes increasingly distant from the conditions it is designed to illuminate. Critical theory itself reflects contemporary trends toward increasing professionalization of discourse that only specialists can understand. An elite culture emerges around the production and consumption of theory. This actually contributes to the decline of citizenry and the depoliticization of the public sphere by promoting a culture of experts and transfiguring moral and practical struggles into analytical and metatheoretical battles. On Nietzschean grounds, epistemology is another expression of the ascetic ideal; we should be suspicious of attempts to privilege abstract ideals such as truth over concrete values that directly contribute to human well-being. Because of these unfortunate consequences, Seidman concludes that foundationalism should be abandoned and that modern metatheory should be replaced with a postmodern pragmatism that seeks strategic intervention at local levels without concern for analytical truth and ultimate justification.

The postmodern pragmatism espoused by Foucault, Rorty, and Seidman has definite advantages. It allows theory to stay close to concrete social and historical analysis and prevents it from bogging down in abstract metatheoretical issues. It is perhaps for similar reasons that Marx also rejects abstract epistemological concerns in order to focus on empirical issues and concrete political struggles. In the case of Habermas, despite his numerous political essays, we see a clear example of how the concern for providing foundations for critique has overtaken the initial goal of theory, which was to engage in social critique and political analysis. When reading Habermas' political essays, such as his intervention in the German historians' debates, little connection between these more concrete concerns and his massive theoretical apparatus is apparent, throwing into question the extent to which the metatheoretical emphasis is needed or helpful.7 All too often, Habermas' political "addressee" is not the new social movements or citizens, but rather fellow academics. The Habermas industry has engendered a new form of scholasticism that rivals medieval Aristotelianism in its arid, obtuse jargon.

Seidman articulates a serious problem with modern theory, along with a hope that social criticism would become more socially relevant as it becomes more local, pragmatic, and accessible. But Seidman fails to see that postmodern theory itself has become as specialized as any modern metatheory and even more esoteric—witness the work of Derrida, Lacan, or Kristeva, and their followers. More importantly, the postmodern positions advocated by Foucault, Rorty, and Seidman inescapably beg crucial questions. If, for example, we believe that all values and voices are equally valid, then we must also embrace those that espouse the suppression of conversation and liberal pluralism—a true "performative contradiction." To reject this conclusion requires some means of discriminating between which values are legitimate and which illegitimate, and thus to make normative claims in need of rational defense. The more voices awakened from silence, the more social heterogeneity and complexity, the greater the need to weigh and adjudicate among competing claims and interests. If, with Foucault, we speak of coercion, domination, discipline, and normalization and intend theory to create new forms of subjectivity and liberty, we need to know which forms are desirable and why. While Foucault technically can wriggle out of the performative contradiction, this escape comes at a great cost. In Bernstein's words, Foucault's "rhetoric of disruption forces us to raise questions and at the same time appears to deny us any means for effectively dealing with these questions" (1992:395).

Thus, to the extent postmodern theorists wish their analyses to have any kind of truth status or political efficacy, they cannot avoid epistemology, metatheory, and foundationalist issues. Correctly understood, the postmodern position is not incompatible with normative justification. In addition to pragmatic appeals, the postmodern theorist can claim that adjudicating criteria can be found immanent within a specific sociohistorical context. For Seidman, "moral inquiry can be socially compelling only in a historicist, pragmatic mode. If offering universal principles carries no epistemic authority or (to put it differently) if the invocation of those principles has little or no social efficacy, moral inquiry must take the form of appeals to cultural tradition or current social conventions and ideals to justify social practices or norms" (1992:73).

Within a given culture, the postmodernist can argue, there are prevailing standards of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, which allow nonarbitrary factual, moral, and aesthetic judgments. For the postmodernist, unlike Habermas, there are no "foundations" of values that lie within the world itself, outside of language, social convention, a community of inquirers, and historically changing conceptions of logic and rationality. Criticism has to proceed immanently within a given culture and its standards. Within the culture of advanced capitalist nations, for example, prevailing liberal values allow people to criticize cer tain practices as being racist or sexist. By appealing to the ideals of autonomy, rights, and liberty, oppressed people can cry foul and unjust actions can be rectified.

Yet the appeal to immanent norms collapses from severe problems. It assumes a cultural homogeneity that does not exist anywhere outside of tribal communities. It therefore has no means to deal with the very conflict and diversity of voices it celebrates. Moreover, it prevents taking any critical position toward cultural tradition, as if all traditions were positive or emancipatory. What response can Seidman give if the prevailing cultural norms are evil or oppressive, if the culture he finds himself in is that of Wall Street, the Mafia, the New Right, or the Third Reich? Clearly, we need some critical, moral standards that transcend a merely local context and attempt to define a standpoint outside of some given principles in order to evaluate them. Strictly speaking, this is a "transcendental"—or better, transcontextual—standpoint, but it should not be confused with an ahistorical Kantian transcendentalism, since it acknowledges the historical character of all legitimating norms.

Thus, the problems Habermas and others find in Foucault's work are not imposed on it from the outside, as a kind of blackmail, as Bernstein (1992) suggests might be the case; rather, they arise unavoidably from the critical goals Foucault sets for his own writing. Against the ahistorical thrust of much modern theory, Habermas agrees with Foucault and postmodern theory that reason is historical and immanent to the cultural context from which it emerged. Yet Habermas believes that reason also has a transcendental quality insofar as it raises validity claims that can be criticized, defended, and revised beyond a merely local context, a specific point of view, or a particular historical set of circumstances.

But as we have seen, Habermas never successfully overcame a metaphysical standpoint. His quasi-transcendentalism combines contradictory logics, it is informed by unfounded teleological claims, and it does not fully overcome an ahistorical transcendentalism. Ultimately, Habermas provides no convincing argument for the factual reality of the alleged universality of ideal speech presuppositions and inherent interests in emancipation. His argument, therefore, cannot dispel a Foucauldian critique that such universal appeals are gained ficticiously and at the expense of real cultural differences.

But to disagree with Habermas' own attempt to provide foundations for critique does not disqualify the non-relativist argument itself. Habermas' error does not lie in seeking an objective or universal standpoint per se, but rather in seeking it ahistorically. Habermas is right to say, "I cannot imagine any seriously critical social theory without an internal link to something like an emancipatory interest" (1986:198). But this interest is not given; it must be formed. Rather than grounding norms in the ideal speech situation or inherent emancipatory interests, we can only appeal to historically constituted norms that, after rational consideration, are recognized as a valid court of appeal. Since this kind of foundation is historical, it has no fundamental, Archimedean point outside of any historically conditioned presupposition or human interest.

Democratic values are derived from the cultures of ancient Greece and the modern liberal tradition. These values can only be "grounded" within the assumptions of democratic discourse, having no external basis in God, natural law, Geist, language, or human nature. They are defensible to the extent that it is rational to believe that no person or group has a right to infringe on the freedom of any other person or group, that one's race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation are wholly irrelevant to moral considerations, and that power and domination have no nonutilitarian justifiability (since one may argue against democracy through appeal to the values of security or efficiency).

Ultimately, we can do no more than agree on the importance of autonomy and liberty as basic values, try to define their meaning, draw proper conclusions from them, specify their institutional requirements, provide them with legal guarantees, and struggle to realize them in concrete form. Not all people will agree with these values (since some people will be elitist, sexist, racist, or homophobic), but they must specify the reasons why they disagree and be open to the possibility that their position is not well founded. Habermas rightly claims that the only means of adjudicating competing claims is through the "force of the better argument," but the norms behind this force are not given in language itself. Rather, different values, norms, and policies have to be debated and chosen within conditions of a public discursive will formation. This scheme presupposes that people are rational and can be motivated by rational arguments, which cannot in fact be assumed and which raises important problems about dealing with dissent and the possibility of genuine democracy.

I draw three important conclusions from what I have discussed above. First, some appeal to universal values remains necessary. Normative claims for freedom lack progressive content unless they mean freedom and democracy for all, not just for some. If legally instituted by a court of deconstruction, postmodern theories could not guarantee the rights and liberties of all people. An appeal to universality is also necessary in order to criticize double standards that political leaders and representatives establish, applying legal regulations to everyone except themselves. As Marcuse said in 1937 (in reference to Heidegger, but he might as well have been addressing Derrida, Lyotard or Foucault):

That man is a [potentially] rational being, that this being requires freedom, and that happiness is his highest good are all universal propositions whose progressive impetus derives precisely from their universality. Universality gives them an almost revolutionary character, for they claim that all, and not merely this or that particular person, should be rational, freed, and happy. In a so ciety whose reality gives the lie to all these universals, philosophy cannot make them concrete. Under such conditions, adherence to universality is more important than its philosophical destruction. (1989:70)

Thus, the appeal to universals need not be merely obfuscatory and ideological; it may also have a utopian content and progressive function.

Second, the denial of objectivism does not entail the truth of relativism. Postmodern theory commits us to an either/or fallacy that blocks a third alternative to absolutism and relativism. This alternative provides a nonarbitrary, extralocal means of grounding normative claims, without appealing to any ahistorical criteria. Nevertheless, the postmodern critique of a totalizing modern universalism is important, and to preserve its validity we need to distinguish between an abstract universalism that dissolves important differences among diverse phenomena (at the same time presenting contingent phenomena as necessary and immutable) and a concrete universalism that carefully draws such distinctions while acknowledging contingency and upholding conditions that are binding for all. Postmodern theories help to recuperate important differences lost by universalizing, essentializing, and foundationalist modern theories, but they are unable to contextualize these differences within a more general framework that also grasps formal moral and legal conditions that need to apply to all individuals within a given society.8 Thus, against Habermas, postmodern theories do not necessarily destroy the attempt to provide foundations for critique, rather they can help to reconstruct them better. Habermas fails to recognize the difference between pluralism and relativism —both posit the incommensureability of values, but pluralism allows for shared understanding and potential accord.9

Third, while postmodern theorists wrongly deny good reasons to worry about epistemological, metatheoretical, and foundational questions, they are right that such concerns should not become so obsessive, detailed, and abstract that theory takes precedence over practice and degenerates into a specialist language removed from and irrelevant to concrete social issues. We need to formulate a means of sensible mediation between the metatheoretical silence of Foucault and the loquaciousness of Habermas. When arguments about the status of claims and rationality become selfreflexive, metatheory is useful and necessary. But if we have to wait for the perfection of metatheory, or if metatheory overwhelms both theory and practice, then it is better—to borrow a phrase from Camus—to live a life without appeal. We would then be like musicians who could play the tune without needing to read the music.

Rorty believes that society carries on well enough without existence of foundations; it seems certain that sound moral judgments can be made without having read Habermas' The Theory of Communicative Action. Perhaps, as Nicholson (1992) suggests, relativism is less a theoretical question than a practical problem of fragmented communities and divided practical interests. While the construction of a rational community of free social actors cannot take place without a theoretical critique of the prevailing social forms and an articulation of alternative forms, it also requires forging emotional bonds and common interests such that what Kant or Weber say about spheres of rationality or how Searle or Austin define speech acts ultimately is of no consequence.


As can be seen from the foregoing discussion, the theories of Marx, Foucault, and Habermas have a coherent narrative character. From the immense complexity of history, each constructs a narrative that imposes meaning and order on past events. Hence, Marx tells the story of the development of class society and the transition from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom; Foucault describes the transformation of technologies of the self into technologies of domination; and Habermas reconstructs the development of moral consciousness in stages of social evolution.

But while each theorist utilizes a narrative form, only Marx and Habermas articulate metanarratives. The ultimate goal of their theories, unlike that of Foucault, is to identify actual historical possibilities for human emancipation. The metanarratives of Marx and Habermas attempt to discern and help realize the possibilities for human freedom as they develop throughout history. For Marx and Habermas, human freedom is not a metaphysical property of human nature, but a historical property that evolves through time and can be actualized under certain social conditions. Their metanarratives attempt to locate past and present emancipatory dynamics that can be further advanced in a future state. Their visions of future freedom are inseparably linked with their dialectical evaluation of the past and present.

Despite their differing emphases on productive and communicative activity, both Marx and Habermas follow the basic Hegelian insight into history as an evolutionary process and synthesis of particularity and universality. In their theories of social evolution, each traces the progressive complication and differentiation of social and individual forms of existence. Marx's narrative describes the negation of abstract sociality in the form of primitive communism through the development of the productive forces and the division of labor and the subsequent emergence of class society. Within class societies, particularity develops in the form of class-based interests and emerging individualism. In capitalism, however, these dynamics lead to a new form of universality, a global capitalist culture, and the possibility of overcoming class divisions and private interests in a new form that combines sociality and individuality in a concrete unity and mediated universality.

Similarly, Habermas describes a relatively undifferentiated, primitive social form that develops with the evolution of its subsystems and the emergence of the state and social classes. As Habermas characterizes it, the shift from the mythic to the modern worldview involves a differentiation of spheres of rationality with their respective validity claims and modes of argumentation. The universal conditions in modernity that Habermas focuses on involve the postconventional moral consciousness that allows for the redemption of validity claims, the attainment of social consensus, and the realization of rational autonomy.

For Marx and Habermas, progress is defined in terms of advances in freedom. Freedom is understood as freedom from external constraints and ideology, as well as freedom to pursue creative activity, to develop one's individuality, and to communicate with others under distortion-free conditions. For both, external constraints on freedom include those of nature, in the form of want and need, and those of society, in the form of domination and exploitation. For Marx, the key historical dynamic that creates the preconditions of freedom is the development of the productive forces. Marx holds that human freedom requires an advanced technological apparatus to overcome need and the drudgery of work, From his understanding of freedom, Marx can argue that capitalism is a progressive historical form compared to feudalism insofar as it develops the productive forces of society, creates more democratic social conditions, and allows for greater differentiation of individual being. Whatever its shortcomings, bourgeois democracy is "a big step forward" (Marx 1975a: 221) toward human emancipation. But Marx argues that capitalism, initially a revolutionary force, quickly became a conservative force, and restricted its democratic elements to a formal level. Communism, on the other hand, has the goal of developing the democratic dynamics capitalism initiated abstractly in concrete institutional forms.

For Habermas, progress relates to both "capacities for cognitive-instrumental mastery of natural processes and for consensual resolution of morally relevant conflicts of action" (1982:228). Communicative rationality develops to the point where individuals can democratically debate the practical and normative issues that arise in the governing of their lifeworld, and can formulate a consensus under conditions free of domination. In their ability to distinguish among different "worlds" and in their reflective, postconventional forms of learning, Haber mas claims that modern cultures are superior to early cultures. As he understands it, the evolution of theoretical and practical knowledge involves a transition from nonreflective to reflective forms of learning. Only in modernity does the possibility of a "rational society" and a rational "conduct of life" emerge, once validity claims are no longer naively accepted, are subject to rational scrutiny, and are accepted or rejected on the basis of argumentation. Habermas claims that the formal features of bourgeois institutions "demonstrate a conceptual structure or moral-practical thought and interpretation which must be considered superior in relation to the built-in moral categories of traditional legal and political institutions" (1986:101). Thus, he adopts a kind of Hegelian or Comtean scheme that traces the development of rationality from cultural traditions organized around myth, religion, philosophy, and ideology, to those organized around moral and factual truth claims that require intersubjective redemption.

Foucault's abandonment of a progressivist vision of history is symptomatic of the "postmodern condition" diagnosed by Lyotard (1984), which finds metanarratives to be implausible. Foucault rejects metanarratives because he believes they rely on (1) essentialist notions of subjects whose freedom exfoliates from their inner essence; (2) continuist, linear time schemes that posit a rectilinear march toward rationality and autonomy; (3) a teleological logic whereby history moves toward this predetermined goal; and (4) a totalizing vision of the good life that implies coercive social engineering.

Marx and Habermas are indeed vulnerable to some of these objections. Each makes references to a unified "species subject" or "human species" that obscures fundamental cultural differences. Both lapse into teleological positions. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx posited a unified macrosubject that unfolds its potentiality throughout history, and he saw communism as the "goal of history" (1975a:365). In Capital, he abandoned the notion of human essence, but spoke as though the demise of capitalism were inevitable. Such rhetoric aside, Marx's actual position, shared by Habermas, is that there are tendencies in history toward progress, toward establishing the preconditions of freedom, toward a liberatory mediation of the universal and concrete. The realization of these tendencies, however, is entirely dependent on the contingencies of social action. While Habermas abandons a teleology of history, he advances a teleological conception of language as striving toward mutual understanding and consensus and as the carrier of an innate interest in emancipation.

Both Marx and Habermas, however, reject a logic of linear development and claim that the subject is socially and historically constituted. For both, subjectivity and freedom are historical constructs, not essences, which have evolved throughout history, although Habermas confuses the picture by also assuming transhistorically given human interests and moral intuitions. As Marx says, "Liberation is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the [development] of industry, commerce, [agri]culture, the conditions of intercourse" (1975a: 169). Autonomy, freedom, and maturity are possible only with the evolution of society, technology, and individuality itself, "within the wealth of previous periods of development" (348). Neither Marx nor Habermas push dogmatic normative positions defining the nature of the good life. Marx refuses to speculate on the concrete nature of communist society, which he thinks is the task of future generations, and Habermas argues that normative values should be developed through debate and consensus within a rational community rather than dictated ex cathedra by intellectuals.

Where the postmodern critique would throw out a theory of social evolution along with teleology, a theory of social evolution is defensible on a nonteleological basis that may speak of a developmental logic, but that harbors no internal goal such as the optimization of rationality. Such a theory would describe developmental dynamics that result from contingent means of structural adaption, and that lead to advances in rationality and to moral and legal institutional forms that facilitate human freedom and individual development. For someone like Schmid, however, if "reconstructed developmental logics appear to us as cumulative sequences, this is only the result of the reconstruction itself (1982:179). Any reconstruction of a developmental logic is "theoretically arbitrary." Schmid illuminates the unfounded philosophical underpinnings of Habermas' allegedly empirically rooted theory, but his argument reduces the progressive-developmental tendencies of history to the Eurocentric biases of the interpreter, and thereby discounts the possibility that such tendencies may actually exist. The "reconstruction" of such tendencies can lay claim to the universalizing, rationalizing, individualizing, and differentiating dynamics of Western history. Against some postructuralists, history is not simply a "text."

While postmodern theory offers effective critiques of linear, essentialist, and teleological metanarratives, the rejection of all forms of metanarrative disables emancipatory theory and practice. We must distinguish between plausible and implausible notions of progress. If we reject the idea (held by Comte, Spencer, Condorcet, and others) of progress as a necessary and invariable development in human knowledge from primitive to modern societies that leads to enlightenment and freedom, we can recast the notion as a sum of contingent, successive changes in which patterns and tendencies for freedom can be discerned, appropriated, and advanced in a new social form, but that carry no guarantee of realization.

The abandonment of teleology does not mean that history has no order, meaning, or direction. One clear tendency in Western history, however halting or broken, is the development of individuality, rationality, and democratic ideals. Hegel was not completely wrong in characterizing history as progress from the freedom of one, the oriental despot, to freedom of many, Greek and Roman citizens, to freedom for all in the modern world. As Marx forcefully showed, however, the ideal of universal freedom and democracy was a reality only at a formal level, and true historical progress requires that these ideals receive concrete reality through institutional embodiment. Yet the ideals of democracy, however abstract, distorted, or incomplete, are difficult to contain because they inflame the passions of the exploited and underprivileged. They tend to spread and assume an increasingly universal character. In the modern tradition itself, they have become increasingly inclusive, incorporating women and minorities, and inspiring social change in non-Western countries such as China. Moreover, there have been important tendencies in the last two decades toward extending the ideals of rights, democracy, and community to animals and the earth. Despite false starts, wrong turns, reversals, repetitions, and betrayals, progressive ideals continue to advance.

A theory of progress—far from "an unhelpful distraction from what Dewey calls 'the meaning of the daily detail'" (Rorty 1986:175)—provides a normative yardstick with which to assess the legitimacy of the present era and possible future social forms by analyzing the ways in which it is or is not creating conditions of freedom. One era constitutes "progress" over another insofar as the conditions of human freedom are more developed in that era than the ones preceding it. Without a theory of progress, we cannot say that one society is better than another; rather, one is led to the conclusion that all are of equal value and thus no society is worth struggling for. The rejection of progress, therefore, has quietistic and conservative implications. The rational principles called into being by capitalist modernity can be used to judge the inadequacy of capitalist social forms themselves and to assert the necessity for further advances in rationalization, democratization, and individualization processes.

A valid theory of progress of course will have to specify what it means by freedom (such as gains in critical rationality, individuality, and social harmony); to construct a plausible account of this notion; to provide empirical evidence supporting the claim that conditions of freedom have developed cumulatively (which is not the same as linearly) throughout history, or at least from one society to another; and to establish clear criteria for differentiating stages of social development. An adequate theory of progress must capture the complexity and ambiguity of historical developments. Since there is no single criterion for human freedom, one must look at multiple levels of social development—economic, technological, poli tical, moral, and so on—and avoid a simple linear narrative. As Marx makes clear, progress and regress occur simultaneously in history and are inseparably connected. Increased differentiation of individuality, for example, occurred concomitant with the loss of communal values and a renewal of slave labor in capitalism. Increases in scientific and technical rationality come at the expense of a holistic relation between human beings and nature and the destruction of the environment. Because societies develop unevenly and history is marked by gains and losses, Habermas claims that he is only reconstructing certain aspects of social evolution (1986:169).

As Vico, Herder, Montesquieu, and other anti-Eurocentrists argued, each human culture has its own form of value beyond what it contributes to the teleological triumph of rationality in modernity, and therefore needs to be assessed on its own terms. On Berlin's metaphor, "winter is not a rudimentary spring; summer is not an undeveloped autumn" (1982:108). Marx did not respect this principle when he justified the British colonization of India as necessary for the advance of history. Habermas, similarly, tends to view the value of premodern societies mainly in terms of what they contribute to subsequent developments in rationality. We see that a key danger in progressivist theories of history, whether teleological or not, is that they can reduce the value of a particular culture to an abstract historical whole, which can easily justify imperialism and aggressive modernization policies. But the pluralist conception of culture does not preclude a narrative account of progressively developing tendencies in history, for any culture could in fact, whatever its autonomous value, contribute in different ways to a multifaceted developmental process.

Finally, an adequate theory of progress must also justify its own hermeneutic standpoint as adequate; it must defend the normative assumptions it starts out with and show that it has correctly grasped or reconstructed the nature of historical developments without falsely projecting present forms of understanding onto the past. This last necessity brings us to our next topic.


Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived forward.


The attempt to analyze the specificity of past historical eras raises difficult problems: how can one comprehend past history from the standpoint of the present? How can one successfully understand past cultures standing on this side of a historical discontinuity? How is it possible to reconstruct the past as intelligible without imposing one's own values and perspectives? Are all theories of history necessarily ethnocentric? Is objective historical description ever possible?

Unless we actually live in another culture, obviously impossible in many cases, the only way to understand it is to construct an interpretation from textual sources. Dilthey thought that the interpreter could bridge cultural gaps and recreate the original intelligibility of a culture through an empathetic process. Employing a similar move, Gadamer spoke of a "fusion of horizons" where one field of meaning intersects with another. Whatever the problems with their hermeneutics, Dilthey and Gadamer are correct that historical writing requires that the historian try to enter into the lifeworld under study to render it intelligible for readers from another culture.

Such historical understanding cannot be perfectly objective, since the historian can never fully overcome the presuppositions and prejudices of his or her existential situation (one's racial, sexual, class, and national identity). Unless one seeks the fictitious standpoint of the Husserlian epoche that pretends to bracket the natural attitude and remove any finite historical constraints through a methodological sleight of hand, one can do nothing but write history from the standpoint of the present, from a local cultural situation, from within a more or less prejudiced preunderstanding. Unlike the object of natural science, historical data are not known through observation or experience, but rather through the interpretation of documents, inferential reasoning, and imaginative reconstruction. Although historical writing is always a rewriting, the hermeneutical distance between the present and the past can be lessened with careful and sensitive intepretation aware of the cultural and temporal barriers that may lie between the historian and his or her object. As Trevalyan insisted, history is as much an art as a "science."

Thus, good historiography requires hermeneutical sensitivity, empathetic and imaginative reconstruction, and reflexive methodological sophistication. Both Marx and Foucault suppress the hermeneutical dimension of historiography that Habermas foregrounds as an important epistemological issue. Marx buries the methodological problems concerning the validity of his own historical standpoint under positivist rhetoric. In similar bad faith, Foucault rejects hermeneutics because he believes it relies on a metaphysical surface-depth model that assumes essential or ideal meanings and because he adopts the position of a detached observer. In contrast to both theorists, Habermas frankly acknowledges the hermeneutical character of theory and takes on the difficult philosophical problems of interpretation, critique, and justification.

Despite their different emphases, both Marx and Habermas believe that there are substantive continuities in history that allow one to reconstruct a developmental logic from the standpoint of the present. In other words, we do not need a Diltheyian empathy of historical otherness if we can read our own historical dynamics accurately enough and work backwards from the present to see how they have developed since then.10 If, as Hegel says, the owl of Minerva only flies at dusk, Marx and Habermas both believe world history is now in the twilight period where the main developmental logics of history are either completed or sufficiently developed such that they can be accurately reconstructed. Hence, Habermas repeats Marx's claim that "the anatomy of bourgeois society is a key to the anatomy of premodern societies; to this extent the analysis of capitalism provides an excellent entry in the theory of social evolution" (Habermas 1979:123).

But the obvious danger of the retrospective method, besides the seduction of teleology, is the temptation to overemphasize the continuities of the present with the past and thereby to project onto the past dynamics that apply only to the present. All too often, historical narratives are the product of a distorting hindsight that arbitrarily selects specific phenomena from a welter of facts to tell the story it wants and to give a misleading impression of a linear development. Despite their sensitivity to this problem, both Marx and Habermas lapse into Eurocentric positions that fail to grasp the full degree of difference between capitalist and precapitalist societies and forms of consciousness. Marx, as I have argued (see Chapter 1), illegitimately abstracts economics from other precapitalist social dynamics, fails to grant noneconomic phenomena sufficient importance, and naturalizes bourgeois logic by reading all human modes of exchange as utilitarian. Habermas overcomes Marx's productivism by emphasizing that, until capitalism, the dynamics of production were inextricably embedded in tradition and were not of primary importance in premodern societies, even in "the last instance."11

Yet where Marx falsely projected a utilitarian logic onto premodern societies, Habermas does the same with communicative rationality. Given his distinction between mythic and modern worldviews, Habermas is aware that the ability to distinguish among and redeem different validity claims and their respective "worlds" is not universal. His argument is that the communicative competence evident in the modern West represents the realization of a species-wide potentiality for discursive rationality whose development culminates in postconventional liberal morality.12 Rather than creating a new logic characteristic of its own time, modernity universalizes and makes explicit the logic implicit in all forms of communicative action through a process of increasing reflexivity (1986:209). Despite this qualification, Habermas projects a uniform logic of communicative rationality—if only implicit—throughout history and obliterates fundamen tal differences between modern and premodern forms of communication. Any attempt to substantiate the claim that all acts of human communication employ the presuppositions of the ideal speech situation will reveal a huge empirical deficit. To the extent that Habermas employs empirical research at all, he uncritically relies on the work of Piaget and Kohlberg, whose "universal" claims have been shown to be biased and incomplete.13 Habermas' search for the "general and unavoidable" presuppositions of communicative action turn out to be specific and contingent aspects of rationality in the modern West. His Kantian analogy of early cultures as the childhood of humanity is a biased reduction of cultural sophistication and complexity to simple technical and moral forms of knowledge. Habermas falls behind the contribution of Claude Levi-Strauss (1966), who showed that premodern cultures have highly developed analytical capacities but employ them in different ways than modern cultures. Overall, Habermas fails to do justice to the historical plurity of incommersurable standards of rationality, reducing them to a single universal form.14 Habermas' universal individual looks less like humanity in general than like a tenured liberal academic in a tweed jacket debating a colleague near the departmental coffee pot.

Foucault's discontinuity perspective frees us from the notion of a singular history and breaks up the linear narrative pattern that accompanies the conception of Humanity as unified, in order to untangle history in its complex differences. Foucault exposes the unwarranted metaphysical assumptions behind progressivist and teleological visions of history, including the assumption of a unifying subject—such as Habermas' "human species"—of history. The liberation of different histories from the straight-jacket of universal history, in which each stage of history is allegedly better than the preceding stage allows a less prejudiced and more dialectical evaluation of different historical eras and cultures. Postmodern theories such as Foucault's provide resources to criticize Eurocentric theories that privilege the modern West as the telos of history. Postmodern history and ethnography seeks to free premodern, non-Western histories from colonial narratives in order to appreciate their difference and value.15 These post-modern theories side with the oppressed, the marginal, and the subaltern against the dominant powers of the world.

Foucault avoids the Eurocentrism of Marx and Habermas because he refuses a theory of social evolution and universal proclamations about the meaning of history. Foucault's problem is a different one. While his postmodern suspicion of metanarratives and universal values and his emphases on historical differences and discontinuities provide an important counter to teleological and evolutionist theories, he fails to grasp other important lines of continuity involving developmental tendencies toward technological advances, differentiation of rationality, individuation of sub jective experience, and democratization of social life. Except for the qualifications of his later work on ethics, Foucault constructs a metanarrative in reverse which, in Nietzschean fashion, describes a progressive movement toward more effective forms of domination with the expansion of Western rationality and disciplinary technologies. Although his later work acknowledges historical gains in cognitive learning, unlike Marx and Habermas, he has no evolutionary framework to contextualize them as progressive advances.


Without the imagination, all philosophical knowledge remains in the grip of the present or the past, severed from the future, which is the only link between philosophy and the real history of mankind.


Man's self-esteem, his sense of freedom, must be re-awakened.

—MARX (1975a:201)

We have seen that Marx, Foucault, and Habermas all break with positivist notions of value-free theory and attempt to connect theory with practice and political change. Marx and Habermas operate from Enlightenment assumptions that social subjects can employ rationality to become conscious of their social and historical existence, to understand the conditions of their domination, to criticize and overthrow illegitimate forms of power, and to conceive of alternative forms of social existence. Despite a postmodern orientation toward theory and politics that devalues rationality, Foucault becomes modernist enough to hold with Marx and Habermas that knowledge and critique are important for social change. For all three theorists the general purpose of critical theory is to expose the operations of domination and reveal the arbitrary and contingent character of modern institutions and practices. As Foucault says, "Knowledge can transform us" (1988d:4) through defetishizing social conditions presented as neutral, inevitable, or the best of all possible worlds. Foucault's differences with Marx and Habermas result from his rejection of the universal standpoint, of generalizable interests suppressed by domination, of teleological dimensions to rationality or history, and of a foundational grounding of social critique.

Habermas and Foucault theorize from a contemporary standpoint where the organic connection between theory and practice that once existed for Marx is decisively broken. Marx's optimistic tendencies for the possibility of revolutionary change and his privileging of the working class as the universal subject of history have been abandoned by successive generations of the Frankfurt School and by postmodern theorists. Before the postmodern embrace of new social movements, Marcuse (1969, 1989) argued that the sources of change would come not from the working class but rather from various marginalized groups such as students, blacks, and women, who were not as absorbed into the system as the proletariat. With its emphasis on plurality, there was a natural affinity between postmodern theory and new social movements. Postmodern theories articulate a "politics of limits" that abandons teleology, metaphysical guarantees, and the norm of revolution; a "politics of margins" that validates the political potential of groups excluded by Marxism; and a "politics of identity" that seeks to foster different political and cultural identities essential for the self-recognition and autonomy of different social groups and individuals. Postmodern theorists attempt to link totalizing theories to totalitarian politics and they challenge what they think to be the elitist values and authoritarian core of modern theories.16 For postmodernists, the theoretical project of subordinating differences to a system or conceptual center has its ominous political analogue in the repressive and centralizing aspects of the modern state. Similarly, the Marxist theoretical privileging of production inevitably entailed the political primacy of the working class and the subordination of racial and sexual politics to class struggle.

For both Habermas and Foucault, the starting point for theory and politics today is skepticism for grand schemes of social change and a politics of limits. This new sensibility is fostered by developments in philosophy that undermine confidence in truth, progress, and teleology and by sociopolitical conditions characterized by the decline of the industrial working class and the extension of domination throughout social life. In reference to the contemporary situation, Habermas states that both "revolutionary self-confidence and theoretical self-certainty are gone" (1982:222). Claims to truth are abandoned or tempered, and ontological guarantees for revolutionary norms are replaced by a "new arbitrariness in the relation of theory to practice" (223). Politics can no longer take as sufficient the critique of political economy and the task of developing working class consciousness. Two key facts of the twentieth century are that the development of technology has not had emancipatory effects, and that the working class has become neither unified nor revolutionary.

Theoretically, Habermas evinces a new awareness of fallibility that requires empirical verification of theory and skepticism toward totalizing philosophical schemes of analysis and change. With this skepticism, he is in agreement with Foucault. Politically, Habermas finds uncertainty about the possibility of revolution and the very concept of revolutionary change. Both he and Foucault reject the norm of "revolution" on the grounds that the cure may prove worse than the disease by bringing about social upheaval favorable for breeding a political system even more oppressive than capitalism. For Habermas, Marx's ideal of revolution is imaginable now only as a long-term process that allows for "'acclimatization' to new democratic forms of life, through a gradual enlargement of democratic, participatory and discursive action" (1986:68).

With Marx, Habermas emphasizes a need for enlightenment and political consciousness, but he rejects tendencies in Marx to privilege intellectuals and the working class. Habermas sees scientific rationality itself to be an ideological force that thwarts the democratic process by legitimating expert knowledge and elite rule. Building on the Frankfurt School critique of instrumental rationality, Habermas analyzes the ways in which scientific rationality has been used for purposes of domination rather than emancipation. He opposes all forms of elite engineering of consciousness, be it through an intelligensia or a technocratic elite. For Habermas, enlightenment and democratic social change can only come through a collective process of rational discussion of social values and public policy that privileges practical over technical rationality.

This requires breaking the power of technocratic elites over the political process, revitalizing the public sphere, and appropriating the "avenging force" of communicative rationality for purposes of social change. Habermas believes that once the distorting influences of power and money are eliminated from communication, individuals will be able to act from their shared interest in emancipation and to articulate the social conditions necessary to bring it about. Within this process the philosopher or critical theorist assumes a modest role as an engaged citizen along with others. The role of intellectuals is to influence public debate with critical viewpoints that promote democratic change. From Habermas' perspective, Marx begged important questions as to how the working class could attain enlightenment if the conditions of communication were distorted from the start, a fact recognized by Marx as he lost faith in the demystifying effects of bourgeois rule and analyzed the new phenomenon of commodity fetishism.

Habermas emphasizes that current social conditions are drastically different from Marx's time and that the class struggle model is obsolete. Because of the welfare-state compromise, class conflict is defused and institutionalized. With the colonization of the lifeworld, the capitalist economy and state have penetrated further into social and personal existence and created new forms of domination. Like Foucault, Habermas holds that in advanced capitalism struggles have shifted toward the "margins" of society where they involve groups and issues that do not directly relate to the exploitation of labor. Both see the new social movements—feminism, people of color, gay and lesbian coalitions, ecology and antinuclear move ments, and so on—as critical responses to the growing administration of social and personal life.17 While Habermas finds that these movements unleash "new potentials for protest" (1986:105), he argues they must not fragment into competing projects that obscure the need for reorganizing society around the identification of general interests. Moreover, he embraces them as potential challengers to the extension of instrumental rationality that is destructive to social life so long as they do not falsely generalize their critique into a rejection of reason tout court.

Clearly, there are strong political affinities between the post-Marxist approaches of Foucault and Habermas. In many ways Habermas has a postmetaphysical, postmodern conception of politics that acknowledges the collapse of teleological guarantees for politics, rejects ontological grounding for critique, and abandons a workerist standpoint. Both Foucault and Habermas develop a politics of limits that seek a more modest conception of political change than the Marxian revolutionary tradition. Both attempt to overcome the antidemocratic legacy of Marxism and embrace the more pluralistic politics of the new social movements. Habermas is in agreement with Foucault that the nature of power in contemporary society cannot be understood solely through a critique of political economy and that it involves forms of political, administrative, and cultural control that Marx did not, and to some extent could not, analyze. Their different theories converge on the general point that the development of modernity represents the increasing domination of administrative structures over social and personal existence. As Habermas says, "The power of technical control made possible by science is extended today directly to society" (1970:56). Habermas therefore acknowledges the validity of Foucault's insight that power involves normalization and surveillance (1987a:362). Both break with the pretension of the theorist to know the real interests of oppressed groups. For both, the task of theory is not to impute needs and interests to the public, but rather to break the bonds stifling thought and initiate a process of critical reflection.18 Both, therefore, promulgate versions of what Foucault calls the "specific intellectual" and reject the authoritarian assumptions of the Leninist model whereby an enlightened avant garde will lead the masses to truth. As I have argued, this also characterizes Marx's position.

But the political differences between Habermas and Foucault are substantial. Habermas acknowledges the validity of a microanalysis of power (1986:69-70); like Marx, however, his focus is macroanalytic and he interprets modernity in terms of expanding political and economic subsystems. For Habermas, advances in power come from macrostructural forces, from the expansion of the economy and state. Foucault, in contrast, insists on the primacy of disciplinary power that originates at the micrological levels of society and is subsequently concentrated at the level of the state. Habermas' postmetaphysical orientation to theory and politics stops short of a postmodern rejection of core values and tenets of modern philosophy and politics. His emphasis on progress, his teleological conception of a historically developing rationality, his search for general interests and foundations for critique, his belief that the goal of communication is agreement and consensus, and his attempts to deepen the democratic content of bourgeois social life through an appropriation of liberal values and institutions put him at odds with Foucault and much postmodern theory.

Although Foucault in his later work lays claim to the Enlightenment tradition, he initiates a more radical break with Enlightenment values than Habermas. Where Habermas proposes an "enlightened suspicion of the enlightenment," Foucault abandons the search for universal values, the discourse of progress, and a dialectical critique of modernity that attempts to redeem the progressive content of bourgeois law and morality. Given his belief in the efficacy of knowledge and in some possibility for greater individual freedom, Foucault's pessimism does not match that of Baudrillard, who declares that all meaning has imploded in the masses (1983b), but it runs deep enough to reject normative visions and any positive conception of collective change, social justice, or the good life. Foucault's later embrace of Enlightenment critique retains links to the modern tradition, but it hardly amounts to a Habermasian theory of communicative rationality. Habermas attempts a far more positive and systematic defense of the liberal tradition than do either Marx or Foucault, both of whom dismiss the language of rights, justice, and liberty as bourgeois ideology or normalizing discourse.

Unlike Habermas, Foucault thinks that the central political objective is to break from the grip of normalization and disciplinary power and to recreate one's own identity and desiring existence in a creative, selfchosen manner. While Foucault's theoretical positions regarding the plurality of forms of power are directly compatible with a postmodern politics of new social movements, and while he himself intervened on behalf of different political groups and causes, the thrust of his political remarks is toward the highly individualized project of creative self-transformation. Foucault appropriates and redirects concepts from Greco-Roman ethics and aesthetic modernism to decenter the role of collective struggle, moral consciousness, and critical awareness in favor of individualist and aestheticized modes of being. Foucault's politics of identity, which rejects normalized identities in order to recreate one's own self and desires as different from others, sharply contrasts with Habermas' discursive politics, which emphasizes rationality and intersubjectivity.

Marx, Foucault, and Habermas all understand that power and domination engender struggle. Marx understands class struggle as the key to history, Foucault sees power and resistance as inseparable, and Habermas claims that disturbances to the lifeworld inevitably engender conflict and protest. While Marx worried about the ability of capitalism to absorb conflict and retain its ideological power over the working class, he did not relinquish the belief that capitalism was an inherently crisis-ridden system. Habermas concurs with Marx on this point and tries to develop further the concept of crisis in order to address not just economic crisis, but also political, legitimation, and motivational crises.

Despite Foucault's abstract remarks about resistance, he is extremely parsimonious in his concrete references to actual struggles, tending to paint modern disciplinary society as a totalizing, one-dimensional system that maintains near-complete control over its subjects. Foucault's work gives the impression, explicitly argued for by Luhmann and other systems theorists, that advanced modern societies are largely self-reproducing and innoculated against crises, that they are no longer held together by normative structures and intersubjective communication. Such cybernetic claims assume, as argued by both Luhmann and Foucault, the "end of the individual"—no longer the critical, autonomous actor championed by Goethe, Kant, Rousseau, and other Enlightenment theorists, but the totally conforming subject. As I have claimed, Foucault abandoned this position after paying greater attention to Greek and Enlightenment ideas.

Habermas is keenly aware that advanced capitalism is approaching a cybernetic state of self-reproduction unchallenged by critical rationality, a condition where "the steering imperatives of highly complex societies could necessitate disconnecting the formation of motives from norms capable of justification [such that] legitimation problems per se would cease to exist" (1975:122). In such conditions, Habermas sees that, in Foucault's language, norms could become solely vehicles for normalization. But Habermas argues that these processes have not advanced so far as to negate individuality and preclude persistant motivational and legitimation crises.19

Habermas feels that as long as subjects retain vestiges of communicative rationality, norms will always require justification and capitalism will generate needs it cannot satisfy. Because of its system dysfunctions and ideological deficits, capitalism remains prone to legitimation crisis; because it has irretrievably dismantled the cultural traditions it has been dependent on and has failed to create new ones, capitalism is still vulnerable to motivation crises. "Only if motives for action no longer operated through norms requiring justification, and if personality systems no longer had to find their unity in identity-securing interpretive systems, could the acceptance of decisions without reasons become routine, that is, could the readiness to conform absolutely be precluded to any degree" (Habermas 1975: 44). Habermas finds, therefore, not only external limits to economic and technological expansion, such as cause disturbances to ecological balance, but also internal limits to socialization that result in "violation of the consistency requirements of the personality system" (41).

Unlike Habermas, Foucault fails to appreciate that all social orders, particularly those that develop past the kinship form and its blood ties, require legitimation and are subject to legitimation crisis when the systems function poorly, cannot justify asymmetrical power distribution, and cannot meet human needs. Foucault could hardly analyze legitimation and motivation crises given his initial rejection of the individual and his later failure to flesh out the psychological conditions of autonomy, to articulate a theory that would discuss human needs, values, and interests such as was developed by Maslow, Fromm, and others.20 Foucualt's work, however, is of enormous value in that it shows how normalization processes tend to destroy communicative rationality. Where Habermas does not sufficiently show how norms also function in a process of normalization, Foucault does not see that norms can be used to challenge and delegitimate a social order. The status of norms, in other words, is ambiguous, and neither Habermas nor Foucault adequately brings this out, although each supplies the needed corrective for the other.

Foucault's and Habermas' differing conceptions of the nature of discourse provide important contrasts for their overall political positions. While each theorist understands the centrality of language and discourse in the constitution of social reality and individual identity, as well as the direct connection between power and discourse, they diverge in their conception of the nature of communication. Where Foucault finds language to be the medium of disagreement and conflict, Habermas sees it as a vehicle for agreement and consensus, steered by an innate interest in emancipation. Habermas acknowledges social diversity, but thinks that rational discussion can nevertheless produce consensus about democracy, justice, and basic social goods. Against Habermas, Foucault sees consensus as a normalizing mechanism designed to suppress social plurality. He is in agreement with Lyotard (1984) that the telos of consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games and leads to social conformity.

This critique points to potential problems with the concept of consensus, but it more accurately represents the position of someone like Comte than Habermas. Given his critique of distorted forms of communication, Habermas is hardly unaware of the connection between power and language. Nor does Habermas see the ideal speech situation or the rational society as anything but values to be approached as far as possible. Unlike Foucault, however, Habermas sees the possibility of uncoupling communication from power in order to produce a rational consensus. For Habermas, the point of consensus is not to homogenize different viewpoints around specific ethical or political viewpoints, but to provide the precon ditions for rational discussion and nondebilitating forms of disagreement.21 Where Comte sought to eliminate criticism and dissent in favor of order and conformity, Habermas states that the ideal of consensus "does not exclude conflict, rather it implies those human forms through which one can survive conflicts" (1986:126). Consensus is not a way of denying social complexity, but of coordinating it toward positive ends that are shared. The main thing that plural viewpoints need to agree on is the value of plurality itself, and creating the institutional forms that ensure it. For Habermas, the telos of agreement is only the goal of the specific language game of mutual understanding, and not the aim of all normative discourse.

Thus, Habermas claims that unity and diversity, solidarity and autonomy, rational agreement and dissent, are compatible values. He believes he can retain what is positive in the postmodern emphasis on individuality and difference, while also rectifying its deficit on community and consensus.22 Universal values and intersubjective agreement are necessary for genuine individuality to emerge. The assumption behind Habermas' vision of social unity is that there are identifiable general interests lurking beneath the "impenetrable pluralism of apparently ultimate value orientations" (1975:108), but which are suppressed under conditions of distorted communication. A key function of ideology is to mask particular interests as allegedly general interests, to create false general interests that advance the cause of specific private interests. Through a collective process of reflection and argumentation, social members can uncover this mystification, challenge the legitimacy of power interests, interpret their actual needs and values, and identify authentic general interests that can preserve the validity of different individual aspirations.

In this conception of discourse, the demands for sincerity and truth prevail, along with formal conditions of argumentation that allow one to raise and evaluate different claims. The telos of this process is consensus oriented around the ascertainment of a common interest, an interest to which all can assent, the intersecting point where individual and general interests overlap. No claim is legitimate unless it is advanced under conditions of distortion-free reflection and communication and is universalizable. Following the basic move of moral theorists like Kant and Rawls, Habermas seeks to eliminate personal bias and prejudice from the sphere of morality. An interest is valid only if it is generalizable, and it is generalizable only if it equally advances the interests of all rather than an individual or a minority. This requires bracketing one's own preferences, adopting the perspective of others, and formulating a claim, value, or policy that gives equal weight to all possible viewpoints. But unlike Kant's test of non-contradiction, or Rawls' veil of interests, Habermas does not simply employ a logical device for testing generalizable claims. These claims are determined instead through a collection process of inquiry and are re deemed through "discourse ethics" under conditions of undistorted communication (see Habermas 1990:43-115).23

Not unlike Marx and Foucault, Habermas is well aware of the political implications of theories that lay claim to ideals of objectivity or universality. Marx claims that a core aspect of ideology is that of masking specific interests through general theories, demonstrating how bourgeois conceptions of justice or democracy mystify capitalist hegemony over the working class. Foucault attacks the norms of truth and objectivity and studies the circular relationship between power and knowledge, where power employs knowledge and knowledge is implicated in techniques of domination. He shows how humanism and discourses of truth work to ensnare individuals within normalizing regimes and values presented as universal and eternal. Habermas analyzes the interests and practical orientations informing different theories. His critique of scientism attempts to reveal the technical interest in controlling natural processes that is obscured through the rhetoric of objectivity. But while Foucault abandons the notion of general interests, and Marx redefines it from the false general standpoint of the proletariat, thereby merely resituating its ideological claims, Habermas tries to reconstruct it as the rational outcome of a public discussion process. Habermas claims that bourgeois forms of universalistic consciousness are not merely ideological, but rather are also the result of a collective learning process that can be employed toward progressive ends. Where Foucault equates universals with the logic of necessity, Habermas shows that, in his framework, they have a status of contingency, fallibility, and are context bound.

Habermas' attempt to ferret our forms of distortion, power, and manipulation that preclude autonomous action, authentic interaction, and genuine universality is commendable, but his formulation of this project is problematic. I do not doubt that there are in fact important common interests that all individuals share, such as the need for freedom, a safe community, and a clean natural environment, but it is not clear that the identification of authentic general principles can produce any concrete principles of social organization. It is hard to imagine which political, economic, cultural, and moral arrangements would be satisfactory to all social groups. General values such as freedom generate a welter of conflicting interpretations—such as one finds between Adam Smith, Bakunin, and Marx—with divergent and contradictory practical implications.

This takes us to the heart of the problem: Habermas' underestimation of political and cultural diversity and his overestimation of the efficacy of rationality. Despite his rhetorical acknowledgement of social plurality, Habermas gives too little weight to the incommensureability of different social voices. Even a social sector as small and self-contained as the Left— ranging from black nationalists to lesbian separatists to surrealist-inspired anarchists—has so far been unable to achieve unity on fundamental positions. How can one then expect to reach a general social consensus when the other political voices—including conservative fundamentalists, liberal technocrats, dixie democrats, and so on—are added to the "conversation"? To gauge the magnitude of the problem of building consensus, one need only look at the immense difficulties Gandhi and King faced in trying to build unified, nonviolent resistance to divisive, violent forms of power. Their respective national and racial movements eventually disintegrated into chaos and factionalism, with some elements practicing the very tactics of violence against which Gandhi and King had tried to unite. If the differences among various individuals and social groups run deeper than Habermas grants, then mass-based consensus is difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Moreover, if human beings are motivated more by bias, prejudice, and self-interest than by reason and concern for others, communication would continue to be distorted and consensus thwarted even under adequate —"nondistorted"—institutional conditions. Habermas has uncritically assimilated the Western tendency, from Socrates to Locke to cognitive ethics, that sees the only obstacle to truth and social harmony to be a lack of rationality, believing that truth and reason can resolve all moral conflicts. But if personal and social pathologies run deeper than Socratic dogma allows, emancipatory projects will not only have to foster communicative rationality, an important project indeed, but will also have to address human emotions, desires, fears, and insecurities, and find ways of appealing to subconscious sources of motivation in ways that do not undermine the value of individual autonomy. Unless citizens are somehow already predisposed toward argumentation, truth, and compassion for others communicative action will remain isolated and marginalized. Whatever his qualifications, Habermas' reconstruction of the ideal speech situation is far too idealized a model to comprehend human interaction: it reduces prejudice, bias, and deception to nothing more than accidental, contingent, or derivitive aspects of speech. A more accurate model, such as that developed by Goffman (1959), would address the centrality of dodging, feigning, simulation, theatricality, self-deception, and illusion in our everyday discourse, which, as Habermas acknowledges, all too rarely is sincere or motivated by a search for truth.24 Communication need not imply understanding, just as understanding does not presuppose agreement.

Habermas is insufficiently critical of the Enlightenment claim that all value conflicts will disappear once human beings attain a rational standpoint. The compelling challenge to this position, as argued by Machiavelli, Montesquieu, along with various postmodernists, is that the different ends human beings choose are ultimately incompatible, that no single universal standard of action can settle the question of which ends are ultimately superior or best (see Berlin 1982). I do not see that Habermas has successfully refuted this skeptical claim. If the various moral ends of life are ultimately incommensureable and if consensus is difficult to attain through the identification of general interests that translate into actual social policy, then we should be prepared in many instances to accept the more modest endeavor of constructing compromises between different points of view. Habermas acknowledges the need for compromise, but sees it as involving only nongeneralizable interests and acceptable only when there is a balance of power among different parties (1975:111-112).

The postmodern embrace of diversity and nonconformity provides a necessary counter to Habermas' idealization of social existence as a potential unified harmony of rational voices, but it falls into the opposite error of privileging individualism, difference, and antagonism over unity and solidarity.25 It abandons the possibility that at least some conflicts can and should be harmonized through reason. The postmodern position is self-refuting since it implicitly seeks consensus over the value of dissent and plurality. Foucault's politics would seem to imply the possibility and desirability of articulating a general interest (such as defending basic human rights) and reaching a political consensus, but he subverts this notion in theory.

Despite their opposing conceptions of discourse, both Foucault and Habermas reduce a plurality of language games to a basic linguistic essence. As Wittgenstein argued, no universal theory of language can successfully capture the "general and unavoidable" presuppositions of communication on a species-wide level, because these are irreducibly plural in nature. Habermas' theory of universal pragmatics has to be relativized to apply to the language game of rational discourse itself; in this regard it is quite helpful in drawing out the presuppositions of argumentative speech as a particular language game. Rather than valorize unity or difference as a general principle, we should see that the two values are compatible, that they demand one another, and that in different contexts either difference or unity might be desired and privileged (see Best and Kellner 1991).

Postmodern theorists fetishize difference to the point where community and shared needs and interests are impossible to identify and construct. The emergence of new social movements as autonomous interests separate from a generalized working class has been extremely important, but these movements have fragmented into a cacophany of groups and subgroups, all competing for their specific claims to rights and justice. The tyranny of the fragments is as oppressive as the dictatorship of the universal. Just as ethics demands some kind of universal standpoint, social policy requires some notion of general interests.

Unlike both Marx and Habermas, Foucault at no point has a vision of a future community life, of shared goals, interests, and values. The ideal of collective social transformation is abandoned in the postmodern politics of Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, and others. Foucault rejects the idea of common interests and develops a politics based on values of difference, conflict, struggle, and fragmentation. Unlike Habermas, Foucault abandons the attempt to regenerate intersubjective communication and opts instead for the aestheticization of individual modes of being.

While Habermas gives a reductionistic critique of postmodern theory, he rightly points out the regressive political implications of much postmodern theory. Through his early totalizing critique of modernity and Enlightenment rationality, Foucault forfeits a critical appropriation of the progressive achievements of modernity that allow for gains in freedom and individuality. Implicitly, his defense of critical reason requires what Habermas theorizes as a postconventional identity, but he lacks the conceptual means to historically contextualize his notion of modernity. This move follows from a conflation of cultural and social modernization processes. Unable to deepen the progressive content of bourgeois culture, many postmodern theorists can only turn to the counter-Enlightenment, Romanticism, and existentialism to valorize antirational and antimodern principles. Such theorists try to escape domination through valorizing madness, language, desire, the body, or art, and by seeking a hypostatized Other of reason. These moves stifle the rational critique of an unjust social order—precisely when it is most needed—and substitute easily coopted fragmented modes of self-expression for the collective struggles that alone can effect large-scale social transformation and personal freedom. Habermas can accomodate the postmodern appeal for new modes of desire and self-expression through defense of the aesthetic dimension of cultural modernity (1986:59), while avoiding a debilitating aestheticism by connecting this with a communicative rationality that articulates and defends critical norms and promotes an undamaged intersubjective life.

While Foucault and Habermas advance beyond Marx in their understanding of the complexity of power and domination in the capitalist world, they fall behind him in the replacement of a systemic conception of social change with a piecemeal scheme of pragmatic reform that concedes legitimacy to the most irrational and destructive aspects of the capitalist mode of production: its profit imperative, grow-or-die logic, and centralized state apparatus. Foucault rejects radical change as being totalitarian and espouses small-scale transgressions at the individual and microlevels of society. Foucault may rightly be suspicious of large-scale, transformative programs, at least in certain forms, but he also prevents any substantive transformation of the basic dynamics of capitalism. His position is "modest" to the point of debilitating apprehension and paralysis of political vision.

Habermas' project is that of a "radical reformism" which attempts to overcome the dichotomy between reform and revolution. He renounces the ideal of a sudden, convulsive transformation of social life and instead calls for gradual extension of democractic control to the point of qualitative transformation of social life. He promotes democratic changes "even and especially if they have consequences that are incompatible with the mode of production of the established system" (Habermas 1970:48-49). With Marx, Habermas correctly challenges the false opposition between reform and revolution, but he is hesitant and inconsistent in pursuing its consequences. At various places in his writings he sees the incompatibility between capitalism and democracy (e.g., 1973:4), and links problems such as uncontrolled growth to the very logic of capitalism (1975:42). Yet his political stance is at best vague on whether one should strive for a postcapitalist society and how this might be achieved. He condemns the capitalist labor market, but does not specify what to put in its place, also remaining vague as to whether he adheres to socialism or market capitialism (1986:187).26 Nor does Habermas, like Foucault, even contest the rule of the state itself. Marx wanted to smash the bourgeois state, but only to resurrect it in the form of a worker's state without challenging the very logic of centralization. Foucault's attack on hierarchies and "governmentalization" fails to call into question the need for a state. Habermas uncritically adopts the conservative claim that the modern lifeworld is too complex to change its centralized, bureaucratic structure in any profound way and that attempts to do so would be a worse "cure" than the disease itself (1982:23). Habermas too quickly accomodates himself to gigantism, sprawling urbanization, and the status quo in politics and industry.

Habermas replicates the fantasy that all conflicts can be overcome through rational discussion that leaves intact the social institutions and structures that in fact cause irreconcilable differences between different individuals and groups. A key political implication of Habermas' vision of undistorted communication is his undervaluation of the important role of force—which need not entail violence—in bringing nonresponsive parties into a communication process.27 As Heller notes (1982), dominating groups do not listen to reason unless forced to do so. Such force could take the form of a strike, for example, rather than violence, and its goal should be to further a process of argumentation, not to replace it.

The inadequacy of Foucault's postmodern politics and Habermas' post-Marxist politics turns on the absence of a discontinuity model at the political level. Since Marx's political vision involves a dialectic of continuity and discontinuity, a politics of appropriation and transformation, in addition to a contextualist approach that does not seek violence as a necessary tool of revolution, and a democratic conception of the intellectual's role, he does not after all advance the intoxicated, wild-eyed, apocalyptic radicalism that Foucault and Habermas fear. But Marx insists that the progressive achievements of history cannot be salvaged without their reconstruction in a postcapitalist social order that destroys the institutions and values based on anarchic growth, unimpeded accumulation, and rapacious drives for profit. Marx rightly sees that a politics of fulfillment is bankrupt without a politics of transfiguration.

Yet, ultimately, neither Marx, Foucault, nor Habermas have an adequate vision for social transformation. Each theorist has a glimpse of a potential future, but it is dim and clouded. Habermas foresees a rational community and a realm of "undisturbed intersubjectivity," Marx projects a democracy of associated producers and individual creativity, and Foucault envisions a non-normalized social order that allows for a full play of differences among individuals. Yet all lack a concrete sense of the kind of philosophical, moral, and institutional changes necessary for building a society that eliminates domination and exploitation.28

This concrete vision of the future requires a utopian sensibility. In the current philosophical climate, of course, the concept of utopia is less than fashionable. On Berlin's understanding (1992), utopian vision has played a crucial role throughout the history of Western thought. Berlin finds, however, that the Western utopian vision—from Plato to More and Bacon to St. Simon and Owen—has been articulated in a highly problematic form, which assumes that a perfect society can be created, that this can be accomplished through rational methods, that there is an invariant human nature, and that all conflicts can be overcome through universal assent to timeless rational laws. "All the Utopias known to us are based on upon the discoverability and harmony of objectively true ends, true for all men, at all times and places" (Berlin 1992:211). Berlin rightly rejects this form of utopian vision as both illusory and dangerous: it projects a false optimism about the possibility for the total eradication of suffering and conflict, it is rooted in the fallacious concepts of a universal human nature and timeless rational laws, and it denies the incommensureability of values, the unresolvable conflicts over different rational conceptions of the good life. Any "utopian" attempt to end suffering and conflict through ultimate solutions and a zealous vision of the human good can only multiply the amount of suffering and conflict it seeks to eradicate.

Hence, for postmodern figures like Foucault and Lyotard, utopian schemes for an orderly and harmonious social world imply a social engineering process that eliminates heterogeneity. But clearly the postmodern critique of utopian vision is not new. Utopian schemes were seriously challenged by pluralist modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Vico, and Herder. Numerous nineteenth-century writers like Tolstoy or Baudelaire, to say nothing of twentieth-century figures like Kafka and Beckett, rejected the vision of an ideal world (Berlin 1992). Marx himself denounced all socialistic utopias that attempted dogmatically to prefigure the future. Habermas acknowledges that a utopian dimension of the concept of communicative rationality lies in his vision of undamaged intersubjectivity, but he limits it to delineating the merely formal conditions of a rational way of life—characterized by phenomena such as a universalistic moral and legal consciousness and a reflective collective identity—and does not extend it to concrete details of possible paradigmatic life forms.29

While dogmatic, universalistic, perfectionistic, and naively rationalistic utopian visions should be rejected, postmodernists wrongly abandon all utopian and radical visions. Given the crisis of historical imagination, utopian visions are indispensible to shattering the pessimistic or complacent sense that the present is the best or last of all possible worlds. More and more, the legitimacy of radical schemes of social change require not simply abstract, rhetorical appeals for a postcapitalist order, but a concrete vision of how things could be different in every facet of social organization, from education and health care to sexual relations and the workplace. On this point, Fourier's utopianism is more liberatory than the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels.30 While the postmodern critique of attempts to dictate universal norms of the "good life" is well founded utopian visions, properly conceived, should stimulate, not stifle, alternative ideals and social settings, and should increase rather than reduce social plurality.

Along this line, Wolin draws a useful distinction between a strong utopianism informed by eschatological yearnings and dogmatic principles and a weak utopianism that merely seeks to change habits of thought and perception (1992:76-77). Bookchin (1986, 1991) advocates something like a weak utopianism since he believes that utopian thought is properly concerned with the necessary preconditions of the future rather than the allegedly sufficient conditions, but he also provides some suggestive visions of a possible "post-scarcity" future. In fact, Bookchin, along with Marcuse (1969), argues that "utopian" vision is a misnomer because positive proposals for the future are based on empirical analysis of real tendencies present in history. Materialist utopian theories try to grasp present potential for human freedom or, in Bloch's terms, the "not yet" embedded in the present. Thus, we can speak, paradoxically, of a "utopian realism."


Every vision of history functions as a specific lens or optic that a theorist employs to iluminate some facet of human reality. Each perspective is both enabling, allowing a strongly focused study, and limiting, preventing con sideration of other perspectives. While a theorist may utilize numerous perspectives on history, most have a privileged perspective. As should be clear by now, Marx, Foucault, and Habermas each make important and distinctive contributions to historical and social theory, but each has their particular blind spots and reductionistic tendencies.31

For Habermas, society reproduces itself along three different axes: labor, language, and power. We can see the work of Marx, Foucault, and Habermas, with their distinctive focuses, as contributing to a general theory of history along these lines. Marx focuses on production, technology, economics, and class as the key causal forces in history, but leaves out detailed analysis of culture, morality, language, communication, and political institutions. Habermas tries to broaden materialism to analyze both technical and practical rationality, both labor and language. He attempts to incorporate themes from the empirical, hermeneutical, and critical sciences. He develops a complex, eclectic framework that synthesizes an astonishing number of research programes, ranging from cognitive psychology to historical materialism to systems theory. This diversity, however, is employed toward an abstract, one-sided analysis of communication. Foucault concentrates on regimes of power/knowledge, microforms of power, and modes of subjectification and self-transformation. Each methodological focus—archaeology, genealogy, and ethics—represents a different perspective adopted when he became aware of limitations in his prior work. Foucault intends these perspectives to be incorporated into a coherent framework that criticizes normalizing power, but the different focuses were never successfully integrated and he largely neglects analysis of the state, the economy, and various cultural (rather than specifically moral or normative) mechanisms of control such as mass media and entertainment.

It is also instructive to compare different theories of the subject. Postmodern theories reject the essentialist view of the subject that is employed by some modern theories, but rejected by Marx and Habermas (although not wholly sucessfully). The continuist narratives of modern theory often depend on a theory of human nature, a conscious subject, or an evolving macrosubject, a unified humanity. In his archaeological works, Foucault defines his task as purging history of all anthropological influences and eliminating the category of the subject. In his early and middle works,

Foucault did not so much "solve" the problem of the subject as dissolve it by merely rejecting it as an active, substantive agency. His structuralist dismissal of the subject reduces it to an empty category and essentializes it as a pure nothingness, a product of discourse and power. Instead of developing an account of ways in which subjects can influence the course of events through knowledge and conscious intervention, Foucault reifies history as a pregiven result that occurs entirely behind the backs of sub jects. Rather than analyzing a dialectic of intended and unintended consequences, Foucault sees no consequences to action at all because there are no agents of action. In his later works he abandons this view to acknowledge agency and the potential for autonomy, and thereby moves closer to the kind of modern (hermeneutic or pragmatic) account of the subject given by Marx and Habermas. But Foucault's later account moves toward the individualist-voluntarist side; at no time does he adequately balance the two perspectives of structure and agency. Ultimately, he never grants the full importance of social relations for subjective freedom, and tends to define individuality and sociality in opposition to one another.

Marx and Habermas, by contrast, give a more satisfactory account of the subject, both descriptively and normatively. Rejecting Foucault's essentialist determinism, each constructs a theory of the historical constitution of the subject within evolving social networks of action and interaction. For Marx and Habermas, the individual has different values, needs, and modes of consciousness in different societies; individuals evolve with the evolution of their social forms. Hence, both see individuation as a process of socialization and differentiation, as the work of history. The rich individual requires rich forms of sociality. Against postmodernists, but in agreement with Hegel, Sartre, Mead, and others, Habermas holds that self-identity is achieved only in and through others.

From this perspective, the postmodern call for a radically free individuality is impossible given its negation of social relations and community. Postmodern theorists tend to see only the coercive aspects of "subjectification" that implode individuals into a normalized mass, and not the emancipatory aspects that differentiate the individual from others and allow for the rich aesthetic-expressive attitude postmodernists celebrate. Postmodern theorists fail to grasp progressive tendencies in history toward greater forms of freedom and individuation. Where Marx and Habermas seek to build on the achievements of bourgeois subjectivity and the whole process of history, Foucault has a nondialectical, discontinuous vision of a new subject "entirely different" than the modern subject, a "total innovation" (Foucault 1991:122). His belated acknowledgement of the positive aspects of modern subjectivity is severed from a theory that connects historical-critical attitudes from an institutional framework and a larger appreciation of the historical development of subjectivity.

Although Marx acknowledges the reality of agency, he does not theorize it. Drawing from Piaget and Kohlberg, Habermas goes much farther than Marx or Foucault in fleshing out the psychological and moral dimensions of individual existence. His develops a detailed and comprehensive theory of the subject in the form of a theory of action. His differentiation among different types of action allows him to incorporate a distinctly Foucauldian perspective on ("strategic") action, while also going beyond the limitations of Foucault's theory, which focuses only on conflict and struggle and denies subjects an active role.

Yet while Habermas' work provides the logical space for Foucault's interpretation of action oriented to power and control, he does not fill it with the empirical detail that characterizes Foucault' s work. Foucault's genealogies, therefore, provide an important contribution to a theory of strategic action and a corrective to Habermas' overly idealized focus on consensus and agreement. Contrariwise, Foucault's genealogical politics assume a theory of communicative action insofar as it requires that actors criticize validity claims and reach intersubjective agreement on the need to resist domination and create new social forms. Needless to say, Foucault does not develop an account of communicative rationality. Rather, as I have argued, he tends to subsume the model of communicative action that is implied in his work to a model of aesthetic-expressive behavior where "politics" involves isolated individuals seeking the goals of creative self-transformation.

But Foucault's genealogical emphasis on the body and Marx's early emphasis on sensuous activity help to overcome Habermas' overly abstract conception of communication and the self. There is little indication in Habermas' works that subjective being and social existence is anything beyond dispassionate logic, argumentation, and rational articulation of goals and values. Even when Habermas acknowledges the importance of art, as in the case of Peter Weiss, it is only for its potentially cognitive value.32 As Agnes Heller observes, "Habermasian man body, no feelings; the 'structure of personality' is identified with cognition, language, and gets the impression that the good life consists solely of rational communication and that needs can be argued for without being felt" (1982:223). While Heller's critique fails to acknowledge how Habermas incorporates sensuous and expressive forms into his conception of rationality and praxis, Habermas' overall account tends toward disembodied abstraction.33

Marx's emphasis on human agents as sensuous beings and Foucault's understanding of the subject as a desiring body help to correct Habermas' limited conception of agency. Foucault introduces the body into social theory through a powerful analysis of the methods of normalization and discipline. He draws the political implications, however vaguely and inadequately, that individuals need to generate new desires and modes of bodily experience in order to attain subjective freedom. Habermas' separation of rationality from desire and the body prevents him from analyzing a crucial form of power that normalizes the body and from grasping the physiological determinants of consciousness. In a regression to a preFreudian theory of consciousness (and Spinoza and Nietzsche before Freud), Habermas assumes that undistorted social communication media guarantee the desire for emancipation and secure the means of accomplishing it. The consequence of Habermas accepting a fuller, less abstract account of subjectivity would be accepting more contingency and heterogeneity into his theory than he allows.

We see that the different theoretical approachs of Marx, Foucault, and Habermas each provide a necessary yet limited perspective on the issue of the subject. Marx shows how subjects develop within processes of social labor; Habermas analyzes the evolution of individual being within the context of communication and the moral regulation of life; and Foucault shows how subject identities emerge through technologies of domination that constrain individual freedom. An adequate social theory requires a multiperspectival approach to agency that has the resources to analyze work, communication, and disciplinary power, while also seeing how subjective existence is historically differentiated and potentially selfconstituting.

While each theory has a metatheoretical critique of totalizing epistemology in addition to a multiperspectival outlook, each succumbs to totalizing positions of one sort or another. Marx fails to differentiate adequately work and interaction, Foucault reduces rationalization and individuation to domination, and Habermas tends to reduce production to communication and communication to rational discourse. The standard view of Marx as the great totalizer and Foucault as the radical pluralist and perspectivist needs serious qualification. Just as Marx provides a complex and differentiated analysis of social change and capitalist society, Foucault has strong totalizing impulses in his archaeological and genealogical analyses of Western society. In general, modern theory is far more complex, differentiating, and critical than postmodern theory allows. Post-modern theorists themselves are totalizing in reducing the diversity of modern positions to a caricatured ideal type that embraces naive realism, teleology, essentialism, and other flawed positions. In fact, the "modern tradition" contains within it pro-, anti-, pre-, and even "post-" modern elements.

As I argue above, postmodern theory also collapses important distinctions among phenomena, such as the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, truth and falsehood, instrumental and critical rationality, and science or philosophy and literature. From a Habermasian point of view, postmodern theory reverts to a "mythical-magical" world-view that levels different domains of reality, the different attitudes toward them, and different validity claims. To advance their critiques of a totalizing rationality, postmodern theorists draw upon the very achievements of modernity that they try to negate, whereby forms of rationality are differentiated. Postmodern critiques operate from a postconventional stage of learning that is the result of a long historical process that they try to erase.

In contrast to Foucault, Habermas is far more sensitive to differences and distinctions. Habermas differentiates between the positive and negative aspects of modernity, among the different spheres of rationality and their distinct validity claims, among different human interests, and so on. Foucault only identifies one mode of rationality, cognitive-instrumental rationality, and reduces other dimensions to this. While Habermas can agree with Foucault and others on the negative consequences of social modernity, he wishes to reclaim the positive consequences of cultural modernity, which consists in "detaching the formal structures of reason from the semantic contents of traditional world interpretations, that is, in letting reason come apart into its different moments" (1982: 251).

In the case of all three theorists, we see that historical vision can inform practice in an emancipatory way by breaking the grip of the present, by developing a countermemory that recalls positive forms of past life and past freedoms, and by projecting the norm of human liberty into an alternative future. In continuity with Voltaire, all three believe that the purpose of history is to impart instructive truths about the world and to educate. But as critical theorists, their work transcends Voltaire in a crucial way. History for them is not a form of entertainment, an idle collection of facts, an abstract scheme of explanation, a mode of understanding past cultures, or even a means of enlightenment per se. Rather, their histories apply knowledge strategically and seek to politicize actors, to stimulate social change, and do so by calling attention to the oppressive effects of systems of power on our lives. For them, we are not unhappy simply because we are ignorant or unenlightened, but because hostile social forces exploit, alienate, and coerce us, blocking our potential for creativity, cooperation, and autonomy.

Marx's anatomy of the capitalist mode of production revealed profit, accumulation, and commodity production as the heart of the system. Marx showed how the inherent dynamics of capitalism has led to the commodification of everything natural, social, and personal in their reduction to mere exchange value. Marx had prescient insight into the commodification of culture and everyday life and the globalization of capitalism, which would transpire fully only in the twentieth century. He struggled to preserve historical knowledge in the face of deepening capitalist fetishization of history and social relationships and the positivist methods seeking universal laws of history. Yet Marx also remained mired in the assumptions of his time and did not adequately break from the economistic and scientistic logic of capitalism. He universalized the primacy of production characteristic only of capitalism throughout history; he falsely reduced multifacted forms of power and struggle to the battle between capitalists and the working class; he was too uncritical of science, technological values, and in strumental rationality; and he failed to appreciate the ability of capitalism to manage its crisis tendencies.

Following the lead of Weber, Adorno and Horkheimer, and Marcuse, Foucault and Habermas begin where Marx left off and create a critical theory in many ways more relevant for our contempory world. They problematize what Marx took to be unproblematic, demonstrating how science, technology, and instrumental rationality have become crucial forces of domination in late modernity. In breaking from economism, without losing sight of the economic, both highlight the expanded role of science, technology, and political administration in the rationalized control of everyday life, Through his genealogies, Foucault analyzes how mechanisms of domination based on discipline and normalization pervade modern society through interlocking matrices of power/knowledge. Habermas' theory of social evolution empasizes the colonization of the lifeworld by detailing how science, technology, economic imperatives, and bureaucratic structures undermine communicative rationality and democracy. Each, therefore, uncovers important dimensions of a coercive regulation of social life that goes far beyond the fetishization of commodities described by Marx. Yet while each uncovers crucial flaws in Enlightement theories, Foucault rejects too much of the Enlightenment and Habermas too little.

Of course the multiperspectival theory I am advocating should not be limited only to the contributions of Marx, Foucault, and Habermas. Nor am I proposing a harmonious "synthesis" of their viewpoints, since there are fundamental points of incompatibility among all three. Foucault's work in particular is a troubling ingredient to add to the pot since he rejects fundamental aspects of radical theory, including the notions of repression, alienation, mystification, emancipation, revolution, as well as the project of normative theory.34 In general, however, I am suggesting that social theory avoid both dogmatic insulation from contemporary theoretical developments (still derided as ephemeral shifts in fashion), as well as appropriating new postmodern theories in a facile manner that assumes the bankruptcy of the modern tradition or is ignorant of a larger historical context where we find fundamental continuities between modern and postmodern theory.


If there is an age that desparately needs the humane aims and the

critical methods of the Enlightenment, it is certainly our age.


At a general level, the differences among Marx, Foucault, and Habermas can be analyzed through the modern/postmodern distinction, where Marx and Habermas are paradigmatic figures of an Enlightenment tradition of thought that Foucault rejects in important ways. Both Foucault and Habermas define their work, in part, as correcting the aspects of Marx's analysis that they find to be analytically reductive and historically obsolete. While Habermas was far more critical of rationality, science, and technology than Marx, he never abandoned the core rationalist and progressivist assumptions of Marx's thought. But it is Habermas' modernist assumptions, however critically reconstructed, that Foucault rejects in order to theorize from a postmodern standpoint. Foucault eventually acknowledged the importance of critical and historical rationality, but renounced the systemic methodology of dialectics and Habermas' appeals to universal values, foundationalism, transcendental structures, and normative epistemology. As we have seen, Foucault eventually embraced some of the modern themes that had informed his work from the start. But he attempted to engage the "critico-historical attitude" of the Enlightenment in a new postmodern context that breaks with humanism and universal values. Since there are substantive premodern, modern, and postmodern elements to his work, it is misleading —and essentializing—to unqualifiably characterize Foucault as a "postmodernist"; rather, it is better to say there are important postmodern characteristics in Foucault's work that are employed toward rethinking key modern and premodern principles and values.

At the most general level, however, the differences separating Marx, Foucault, and Habermas are best characterized according to two major competing tendencies within modern thought: the Hegelian and the Nietzschean visions of history, the former opening the philosophical horizons of modern thought and the latter closing them. Marx and Habermas advance Hegelian visions of history that emphasize historical continuities, progressive tendencies of social development, emerging forms of rationality and subjectivity, the role of the individual within society, freedom as a social construction and relationship, and the reconciliation of conflicts and opposites. Foucault, in contrast, propounds a Nietzschean vision of history as a random succession of modes of violence and power that leaves antagonisms intact (such as between general and private interest), strives to create differences without unity, defines freedom as an individual accomplishment, attacks Enlightenment rationality, and finds no progressive movement in history. With Hegel, against Nietzsche, we must continue to be guided by the vision of reconciliation of objective and subjective worlds, of reason and freedom, of rational laws that promote both community and individual freedom. In its deconstructive impulses, however, the Nietzschean vision helps to detranscendentalize the Hegelian vision of history, to curb its metaphysical proclivities, and to maintain the tension between opposing values.35 Neither Marx nor Habermas in any case accept Hegel's belief that the owl of Minerva flies too late, that philosophy can only interpret the world retrospectively, once events have transpired and it is too late to change them. But the Nietzschean vision is still useful in its focus on the future, on the need for a revaluation of values, and on maintaining an optimistic outlook, a joyful wisdom, that is lacking in postmodern theory except as textual play divorced from life concerns.

In this context I read postmodern theory less as an absolute rupture with modern theory, irreconcilably opposed to it, than as a critical response to the problems with and failures of modern theory that can be appropriated in a positive way. The concept of "postmodern theory" is valid not in the sense of something new and radical that comes after modern theory, since almost all of its key ideas were anticipated or developed already in the counter-Enlightenment, critical quarters of modern theory, and in avant-garde art; it is valid also in the sense of being against modern theory or, more precisely, certain features of modern theory and the Western philosophical tradition. As against the modern, it represents the coalescence of previous skeptical and antirationalist currents of thought in a focused and dramatic way that seems to allow for at least a provisional use of the term "postmodern."

Modern theory challenged the dogmatic and metaphysical basis of premodern worldviews and initiated a rationalizing, secularizing movement in theory. But the modern revolution was incomplete and retained a number of metaphysical beliefs, such as in a teleology of history, natural law or rights, or an unchanging human nature. Some versions of modern theory—those of Weber, Marx, Dewey, and others—challenged foundationalism, ahistoricism, essentialism, and other problems, but did not fully overcome them, as Marx did not overcome scientism or Eurocentrism and Habermas remained mired in teleology and transcendentalism. In large part, the exhuberant optimism, simplifications, and naivete of much modern theory must be understood against the background of stupendous advances in science, rationality, technology, and medicine, in addition to the desire to overcome the hegemony of medieval forms of ignorance, superstition, hierarchy, and religious intolerance. This crucial historical context is ignored in most postmodern critiques of Enlightenment and modern theory. In many ways, the modern rationalist tradition overcompensated for previous deficits in rationality, just as postmodern theorists frequently overcompensate for the problems in modern positions and jettison important theoretical and political advances. In Nietzsche's framework, the nihilism of postmodern theory represents the failure of the highest ideals of humanity as embodied in Enlightenment values. The "recovery of nerve" (Gay 1969) gained by the philosophes against forces of oppression and ignorance led in time to a new failure of nerve registered by postmodernists who evince a renewed sense of human impotence, who display a lack of vision for social change, and who channel their energies into destroying without recreating.

Yet in his undialectical negation of postmodern theory, Habermas fails to grasp the ways in which postmodern theory itself represents an advance in a cognitive learning process. In this case, the learning involves a realization that core claims of modern philosophy and social theory are philosophically untenable and politically problematic. Postmodern theory is a radicalization of the historicizing, detranscendentalizing impulse of Enlightenment rationality. Postmodern theory represents a critical, antimetaphysical attitude—one that begins within modern theory itself— that seeks a more sophisticated and complex understanding of social and historical reality than that provided by crude modern accounts such as are epitomized by Comte and Spencer. We can therefore read postmodern theory as continuing the revolution modern theory began by criticizing the metaphysical residues in modern theory and by pushing further some of its key critical themes. Postmodern theories are effective for historicizing, localizing, concretizing, and differentiating ahistorical and overly abstract aspects of modern theory, and thus for reconstructing modern theory in more satisfactory form.

Thus, while I see the modern emphases on developmental and progressive tendencies in history, systemic interrelatedness, macroanalysis, and normative criticism on behalf of emancipatory change to be principles worth preserving, I find important value in postmodern critiques. Specifically, there are things to be learned from the postmodern critiques of linear and Eurocentric models of progress and emancipation; the emphasis on the dangers of science, technology, and rationality; the focus on historical difference, heterogeneity, and discontinuity over identity, unity, universality, and linear continuity; the substitution of contingency and indeterminancy for rigid law, determinism, and teleological guarantees; the insistence on the interpretive and constructed nature of historical narratives; the sensitivity toward the relation between power and knowledge and hence the dangers of replicating domination within critical discourses themselves; the emphasis on theory with practical and moral dimensions over esoteric abstractions; and the subsequent rejection of the universal intellectual in favor of the specific intellectual engaged in concrete struggles.

Yet we cannot understand the transition from the modern to the postmodern as itself representing a linear, unambiguous path of progress. For while postmodern theory has often advanced beyond modern theory in its critique of dogmatic assumptions and metaphysical residue clinging to secular theories, it also regresses behind the best aspects of modern the ory by frequently adopting irrationalist, individualist, nondialectical, and cynical positions that militate against appropriating existing possibilities for social change and progress. While postmodern theories effectively deconstruct the contradictions and metaphysical tenets in modern theory, they tend toward an undialectical negation of modern theory and cannot reconstruct the contributions of modern historiography and social theory. On the rare occasions that a postmodernist attempts to develop positive ethical or political positions, he or she does not, and cannot, avoid substantive reference to the concepts and values of the modern tradition.36

Foucault vituperated against the "enlightenment blackmail" that forces one to take a stand either for or against rationality without adopting a critical attitude. We must also acknowledge the postmodern blackmail that tries to force a choice between one extreme position or another, between humanism or structuralism, objectivism or relativism, determinism or indeterminism, linear progress or aleatory movement, universalism or localism, rationalism or irrationalism. In succumbing to the black or white fallacy that denies important options to extreme positions, postmodern theorists reject as metaphysical what can be reconstructed as rational— concepts such as agency, normative foundations, or historical progress.

At the turn of the century, pragmatists like James and Dewey were already engaged in the project of seeking a middle road between allegedly opposing theories such as idealism and empiricism.37 This project needs to be reinvigorated today, especially with regards to the opposition between modern and postmodern theory. To the extent that theory is useful for criticism and practical change, we need new theories that combine aspects of both modern and postmodern theories and that have political relevance for the contemporary era.38 Important linkages and mediations still need to be made between explanation and interpretation, structure and agency, macro- and microanalysis, absolutism and relativism, voluntarism and determinism, universalism and nominalism, community and individuality, global and local politics, capitalism and disciplinary power, class politics and new social movements, naive optimism and cynical pessimism. As we move into the next century, we need general theories that are sensitive to differences, that are aware of the limits of abstraction, and that are grounded in specific empirical analyses, while being critical, hermeneutic, and normative in content and vision.

Rather than seeing Foucault's work, or postmodern theory in general, as a new paradigm of critical theory to be appropriated in a wholesale manner, we should see it as providing important tools for the reconstruction of modern theory. The very nature of any "post-" theoretical discourse militates against a balanced and critical dialogue between older and newer work. Rather than abandoning every fundamental aspect of modern historiography and social theory, as radical postmodernists propose, it is better to salvage and critically reconstruct modern theories in light of valuable postmodern critiques. After Voltaire, after Marx, after Foucault, and after Habermas, the projects of enlightenment and democracy remain incomplete and worth struggling for.


1. This is an argument on behalf of the full normative import of the ideal of truth. It does not imply that isolated individuals could not make true empirical discoveries about the nature of reality, nor that even under distorted conditions of communication, true claims could not made.

2. Since the application of scientific models on history and society constitutes a category mistake, it is not surprising that positivists have failed to identify any invariant laws. There is nothing in historiography equivalent to laws of gravity or conservation. The historical "laws" propounded by positivists either have been so general and vague they become tautological or so qualified and diluted they lose explanatory force (see Leff 1969, Walsh in Gardiner 1959). The contingent, transient, and irreducibly unique character of each historical culture precludes the formation of abstract laws. In Leff's words, "There is no conceiveable principle by which [different histories] can be reduced to a common meaning and procedure, beyond being regarded as the activities of men" (1969:4). Even hard-core positivists like Hempel have been forced to retreat to nonuniversalistic phrasings of historical "laws," seen more like tendencies or dynamics limited to specific eras.

3. Foucault is unapologetic about this approach: "After all, mathematical language since Galileo and Newton has not functioned as an explanation of nature but as a description of its processes. I don't see why non-formalised disciplines such as history should not undertake the primary tasks of description as well" (quoted in O'Farrell 1989:58).

4. For an excellent defense of more complex causal models, see Ricoeur (1984).

5. As I argue in chapter two, however, Foucault does provide some account of the capitalist state and economy.

6. For examples of sympathetic defenses of Foucault against Habermas on this issue, see Connolly (1985), Bernstein (1992), and Dean (1994). For reasons I have already stated, I find these defenses unsuccessful.

7. Yet, the general theoretical concerns of Habermas, if not their obsessive detail, are certainly relevant to such concrete issues. The historians' debates in Germany provide a good example of the need for a theory of truth and objectivity because, otherwise, the revisionists' attempts to deny facts about the Holocaust could not be refuted.

8. Whether these similarities can apply cross-culturally or not is a different and more difficult problem and attempts to make cross-cultural moral judgments risk the danger of ethnocentric arrogance.

9. This suggestive argument is made in detail by Berlin (1992), who claims that Vico and Herder are properly understood as pluralists not relativists because they allow for the possibility of imaginative sympathy between very different cultures through historical investigation. One need only extend this position

to differences within a given society to hold open the possibility that some common ground could be found beneath the welter of conflicting values, that different visions of the good life might find points of overlap like a Venn diagram.

10. For a valuable study of Marx's retrospective method, see Ollman (1993).

11. From the fact that capitalism is the most developed of historical structures, Habermas argues, "one cannot derive a demand that 'the logic of capital' be utilized as the key to the logic of evolution. For the way in which disturbances of the reproduction process appear in capitalist economic systems cannot be generalized and transposed [unqualifiably] to other social systems" (1979: 124). For Habermas, the forces and relations of production scheme only applies to classstructured societies and kinship structures dominate prior to that time. Until the end of the mesolithic period, purposive-rational actions were intimately tied, and subordinated, to the sphere of communicative action. The separation between them occurs with the emergence of class societies and the constitution of technical knowledge deployed independent of premodern mythical and religious worldviews. "'Traditional societies exist as long as the development of subsystems of purposiverational action keep within the limits of the legitimating efficacy of cultural traditions" (Habermas 1970:95).

12. For relevant quotes see an untranslated essay by Habermas, in McCarthy (1991).

13. See, for example, Carol Gilligan's critique that Piaget's categories of moral development are male biased (1982).

14. For debates on this topic see Wilson (1970) and Hollis and Lukes (1982).

15. See Marcus and Fischer (1986) and Clifford and Marcus (1986).

16. For a critique of the poststructuralist attack on the concept of totality, see Best (1988).

17. One must certainly add to this the, by human beings, increasing domination of nature, as a motivating force for new social movements.

18. See Habermas (1973:43, 39, 40). Yet Habermas perhaps is not true to his own intention: he imputes an alleged emancipatory interest to all social members and tries to instigate social change on that basis. It seems just as logical to conclude that there is no such interest and that people are better off left completely alone by the critical theorist. Roderick underscores the tension in Habermas' position: "Habermas' 'general and unavoidable' critical standards contain the implicit danger of being imposed upon social actors who do not have the 'competencies' of their leaders. This is a subtle form of the danger faced by all 'scientific' Marxism" (1986:166).

19. For Habermas' extended response to the end of the individual concept, see Legitimation Crisis (1975:117-143).

20. For a good example of an analysis of human needs, see Fromm (1955).

21. In McCarthy's words, "Habermas's discourse theory of validity is not meant to define either truth or moral rightness but to offer an account of what is involved in 'redeeming' or 'justifing' truth and rightness claims" (Hoy and McCarthy 1994:239). Habermas seeks consensus, therefore, only on abstract matters of procedural rationality as outlined in the ideal speech situation.

"The more abstract the agreements become, the more diverse the disagreements with which we can nonviolently live" (Habermas 1992:140).

22. Rajchman (1988) gives a typical misreading of Habermas on this point and is corrected by Wolin (1990). But where Wolin insists that there are no dogmatic elements in Habermas insofar as he does not seek to prescribe the content of agreement, he fails to see what Rajchman identifies as dogmatism on the formal level, where Habermas prejudges correct procedures of rationality and argumentation.

23. Hence, Habermas rejects the argument that social actors as he conceives them are abstract, since they must bring all their concrete being into the discursive situation (1986:255).

24. Michael Ryan uncovers the potentially repressive consequences of the ideal norm of rationally transparent speech: "A speech in which error and misunderstanding, the possibility of nontruth, are purged entirely could function only by establishing absolute univocal meaning for words and by rigorously determining contexts so that a displacement of truthful meaning by a contextual shift would no longer be possible.. The establishing of the conditions necessary for ideal speech (as the ideal goal of the removal of all distortion) requires measures that contradict the emancipatory impulse of Habermas' project" (1982:113).

25. Here it is instructive to compare Rorty (1989) who emphasizes values of solidarity with Foucault's more radical individualism.

26. As a marker of the current decline in radical vision, Habermas states: "I'm rather careful these days about using the expression 'emancipation' beyond the realm of biographical experiences. Rather, concepts like 'reaching understanding' and 'communicative action' have moved to the center of my thinking" (1994: 104).

27. Habermas acknowledges the phenomenon of force as the alternative to the failure of communication action (1982:269), but he does not distinguish between different kinds of force (violent and nonviolent) and he does not see how force may be necessary to achieve communicative action in the first place.

28. Of course, no theorist can have an "adequate" vision of change that provides solutions to all problems and envisages all aspects of a new society, even if this were desirable. To refuse to speculate on the nature of the future is one thing, to lack a theory of how to build alternative values and institutions is another, Some theorists do much better than others at attempting to imagine how to get, in Bookchin's phrase, "from here to there." Bookchin's work provides an admirable example of a concrete and nondogmatic attempt to articulate political strategies and envisage new forms of social life.

29. See Habermas, (1982:228, 262; 1984:174; 1986:146, 171, 210, 213). The wrong place to find utopian elements in Habermas work is in his notion of the ideal speech situation. He has explicitly stated that he upholds this only as a regulating ideal and he rejects the idealist fiction of transparent communication. Moreover, against Marx, he does not believe that it is possible in a postcapitalist order to fully integrate the economic and political subsystems into the lifeworld. Habermas claims instead that modern social orders are too complex to fully avoid partial systems (1986:91).

30. Despite his proscriptions of utopian thinking, Marx nevertheless had at least a general vision of what communist society and its values might be like. A key aspect of his vision of the future projected a society based on creative activity rather than alienated labor, on a shortened work day, and on the well-rounded development of individuals. For details, see Ollman (1979:4898).

31. For further analysis and application of the concept of multiperspectivalism, see Best and Kellner (1991).

32. Yet, as Jay notes (1986), Habermas also realizes the limitations of communicative rationality and sees art as crucial to the human quest for happiness.

33. The narrow and abstract character of Habermas' theory of communication can be illuminated through a comparison with someone like Dewey, who developed a radical historicist position and who understood communication as a multifaceted process involving boldily senses, emotions, and feelings of empathy, and not merely written and spoken symbols (see Antonio and Kellner 1992).

34. Perhaps the best treatment of this issue is Rajchman (1985).

35. For example, the metaphysical tendencies in Marx's "melting vision" of the history (Berman 1982) of social reality is powerful and profound, but it inexplicably solidifies in his vision of a future communist society that has resolved complex social, cultural, psychological, and philosophical differences into a stable society no longer beset by conflict and contradiction. These problems allegedly disappear with the destruction of their material basis. It is with such a position in mind that we can better appreciate Habermas' insistence on "system complexity" or Weber's analysis of the autonomy of social rationalization dynamics. No different from Hegel, Marx brings history to a premature close. Marx has not adequately shed the rationalist faith of the Enlightenment that human differences are ultimately commensurable; he has simply relocated its basis from rational moral principles to rational social institutions. While there should be no doubt that a just and egalitarian social order would eliminate many debilitatiating and unnecessary forms of human conflict, no one social order, however utopian, can satisfy the needs and values of all its citizens or eliminate the stubborn and irreducible heterogeneity of values.

36. For an excellent illustration of this aporia, see McCarthy's analysis (1990) of Derrida's efforts to construct a positive ethics or politics.

37. For a superb analysis of this project and its politics, see Kloppenberg (1986).

38. Fortunately, there are many examples of such an approach and this trend seems to be growing. See Wolin (1992), Bernstein (1992), and Best and Kellner (1991).


History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.


We are still a curse on natural evolution, not its fulfillment.


There is a widespread belief today that Marxism, radical social theory, and the metanarratives of the Enlightenment are in shambles and should be relegated to the storehouse of historical errors and myths. A major aspect of the postmodern outlook is extreme skepticism toward the ideals of revolution, emancipation, freedom, rationality, truth, utopia, normative justification, and progress. Within this climate the ideological heartbeat of Marxism has been flatlined into a stasis that signifies coma or death. Any declaration today that history is tending toward communism, that the growth of the productive forces is bringing liberation, or that the working class is the subject of history is met with justifiable laughter. The specter of communism has been replaced by the specter of fascism, universalized capitalism, social engineering, global warfare, and ecological collapse.

Liberalism too is a moribund ideology. Under the hegemony of conservative ideologies of the last two decades, in which George Bush's sneers turned liberalism into a dirty "L-word" that Michael Dukakis and other spineless democrats could not utter, the classic tradition of Mill and others has mutated into a laissez-faire economics with strong Social Darwinian overtones that defends only the freedom to accumulate wealth. With the boundaries of political discourse pushed so far to the right, liberalism is conflated with socialism and both are rejected as foreign to the values of "mainstream America" (as underscored by Newt Gingrich's smear of Bill Clinton as a "countercultural McGovernite"). One thing the liberal and radical traditions have in common is that their metanarratives have met the same fate: the utopia of an enlightened, rational, free society has be come the dystopia of institutionalized domination. What we witness today is not simply a justifiable skepticism toward modern visions of progress and freedom, but a bitter cynicism that renounces the best aspects of the Enlightenment and legitimates narcissism and quietism. Ours is an age devoid of emancipatory vision.

In numerous quarters of modern and postmodern theory we have heard siren songs of the end of history. Claims of the end of history are as old as the apocalyptic consciousness itself. As J.D.Bury notes, "at all times men have found a difficulty in picturing how the world could march onward ages and ages after their own extinction. And this difficulty has prejudiced their views" (1973:218). In our current environmental crisis, however, such a difficulty seems justified for the first time. The only potentially valid meaning the end of history has today is the end of homo historicus, the literal ending of human life, if not through nuclear annihilation, then through the collapse of the earth as an inhabitable ecosystem. If the end of history is near, it is the result of the triumph of history, the Pyrrhic victory of human control over nature. The "humanization of nature" celebrated by Marx has developed to the inconceivable point that human beings have begun to destroy the protective shield of ozone and have thereby started a disastrous process of global warming that is only one facet of systemic environmental degradation.

The dual sources of our current crisis lie in the modern scientific worldview, which has deep roots in the logocentric tradition of Western thought beginning with Plato and Aristotle, and in the capitalist economic system with its inexorable growth imperative. Together, the conceptual objectification of nature as a machine and the practical exploitation of nature as a resource for private profit have overdetermined the possibility of ecological collapse. The modern ideal of progress has taken a bad beating in this century of global wars, concentration camps, genocide, ecological catastrophes, and nuclear annihilation, but it is this ideal itself that has informed the manifold catastrophes of modern life. As developed by its main architects—Descartes, Bacon, Smith, Locke, and others— progress has been defined principally in terms of untrammeled industrial growth, unlimited economic expansion, and uncompromising technical control over "dumb nature."

If the forms of life inhabiting this planet and the earth's natural "resources" are to be sustained beyond the next few decades, this concept of progress, the worldview to which it belongs, and the economic and political systems it informs, will have to be dismantled. Perversely, we have in effect defined progress as the alienation of humans from nature, the dependency of culture on ever greater quantities of resources and energy, the creation of massive bureaucratic structures that rule over individuals, the increase in hitherto unknown diseases such as cancer and heart disease, the production of increasingly lethal technologies of war and destruction, the advance of ideological control over the human mind, and the ruination of the environment.

Yet, rather than renounce the notion of progress as intrinsically pernicious, we should reconstruct it in a rational and sane form that can guide our vision of a better world. The concept of progress can legitimately involve growth in instrumental knowledge and technical reason, but it can no longer abstract such advances from the evolution of moral-practical reason. The social and ecological crisis in global capitalism today can be traced to the fact that there has been immense progress in the technical realm without parallel achievements in communicative competence, moral consciousness, and democracy. Such "progress," as Martin Luther King observed, has created a state where misguided men control guided missles.

Social theory has to begin examining the relationship between the domination of human beings and nature. As Murray Bookchin has argued for decades, the hierarchical relationships within the human realm and the human endeavor to dominate nature are interconnected. Marx's work is profoundly ambiguous with respect to ecology. There is a productivist ethos that seeks the mastery of nature, but there is also a critique of the destruction of nature through capitalist industry and a philosophical naturalism that sees human beings as natural beings while seeking to overcome the contradiction between humanity and nature. This is a Hegelian move that can be interpreted as reintegrating human beings into nature in a harmonious, nonantagonistic, differentiated way.1 If ecological vision is dim in Marx, it is blind in postmodern theory. Postmodern theories see human beings as embedded in systems of semiotics, technology, and social power, but not in the natural world; they lack a philosophical anthropology and an ecological ethics, to the point that there is almost no reference to ecology in any of the major postmodern thinkers.2 Foucault's notion of power, for example, is applied only to interhuman relationships. The focus on the domination of nature inherent in Western rationality that characterizes Adorno and Horkheimer's The Dialectic of Enlightenment, a text that has helped to generate a postmodern mood, has not been pursued by postmodern thinkers.

A key virtue of Habermas' work is that it emphasizes the gains in moral-practical learning processes as indispensible preconditions for historical progress, and thereby overcomes the reified technocratic outlook of modernity. But Habermas himself does not sufficiently call into question the very idea of "cognitive-instrumental mastery [my emphasis] of natural processes" to which he makes such easy reference. Despite the lead of earlier Frankfurt School theorists and his own critique of a domineering egological reason, Habermas too fails to take an ecological turn. Advances in moral-practical learning must include not only gains in communica tive rationality, but also an ecological sensibility that overturns the dualism of culture and nature. On Habermas' account, advances in moral-practical reasoning involve the gradual separation of the ego from its natural and social environment in order to develop a postconventional, critical attitude.

Yet this process of differentiation and separation has developed to the point that the ego is totally divorced and alienated from other species and the natural conditions of life.

Habermas' claim that the postconventional stage of ego development is the last stage in moral development legitimates the domineering sensibility of Descartes and Bacon as the summit of human consciousness. The next logical stage in moral development that Habermas bypasses in his cognitive psychology must involve the overcoming of anthropocentrism, speciesism, and the dualism of culture/nature. As Bookchin warns us, however (1991), the dialectical unity of humanity and nature must be a mediated unity, eschewing the reversion to a reductionistic worldview that collapses important differences between human beings and other forms of life. It must be premised on developing a new ecological vision where human beings learn to see themselves as members of a vast biotic community and assume responsibility for maintaining nature and its diverse life-forms. But Habermas can only imagine the unity of internal and external nature as a regression to enchanted, animistic thinking, rather than as a differentiated unity where human beings interact harmoniously with their natural environment.

In order for this shift to occur, the modern worldview based on values of control, domination, cold "objectivity" centralization, competition, and separation must give way to a new worldview informed by alternative values of yielding, empathy, decentralization, cooperation, unity, and balance. Such a paradigm shift would truly merit the designation of a postmodern worldview or a genuine "age of Enlightenment." Resources for this shift can be found not only in the cultural traditions of the East, where some ecologists locate them (see Devall and Sessions 1985), but also in the dialectical traditions of the West (see Bookchin 1995).

Far from living in a lost or frozen moment, stranded at the end of history, we now stand at a crucial historical crossroad where what we do, or fail to do, will decide the fate of all future life on this planet. Our futures lie open before us, but neither conservativism, liberalism, nor Marxism, can guide us out of the current impasse. Neither classical forms of modern social theory nor postmodern social theories have generated the paradigms needed for developing a radically different alternative to the mechanistic and anthropocentric modern worldview that deeply informs even "radical" theories. Recent theories of postmodern science have made progress in this area, but they have failed to develop the critical social theory necessary for ecological visions to have practical relevance or political import (see Best 1991b).

Social change today demands a radical ecological vision and a politics that seeks the regeneration of nature through the reconstruction of society along ecological lines. An uncompromising ecological politics challenges the fundamental logic of the global system based on profit, growth, accumulation, and the manipulation of needs. With Marx, we must continue to envision the end of one kind of history—organized around hierarchy, exploitation, and alienation—and the beginning of another, based on equality, freedom, democracy, and individuality. But the new vision requires not only that we be citizens within a reinvigorated polis, but also responsible participants within the ecosphere. Human history can only advance through a new relationship to the natural world from which it originated.


1. For arguments that Marx's vision of history is fundamentally antiecological, see Balbus (1982) and Clark (1989).

2. To my knowledge, the only "postmodern" text that deals with ecological issues, and only perfunctorily at that, is Guattari and Negri (1990).


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