A Review of: The Resources of Critique by Alex Callinicos. Links: Imagining Other Index Page
Note: this review was submitted to the journal: Democratization, May 2006, and should appear in the next issue. This version has had minor amendments since being submitted, and will be amended and extended if possible in future.
The aim of
this book is to “explore the philosophical presuppositions of social critique”
in a time that has seen the “revival of resistance to global capitalism” (e.g.
To my mind, the real question is precisely “the extent to which…” our action and imagination is confined. Callinicos, as a Marxist, starts from the assumption that materiality burdens us to such an extent that it is difficult to explain how we can think beyond existing reality. Thus he is anxious to confront contemporary writers whose work, he believes, does not give due weight to the constraints of the material world. Non-Marxists may therefore have difficulty with the whole premise of this book.
Nevertheless, the summaries and commentaries on these writers are remarkably clear, especially given the abstruse language they often express themselves in! His accounts, as far as I can tell, are mainly fair, but there is always the suspicion that some of the views are presented through the prism of Callinicos’s own ideology.
For example, Callinicos argues that neither neo-liberalism nor postmodernism have taken into account the limitations set by socio-economic structures, and that this is a question of ontology. However, he also rejects the widespread strategy adopted by more recent French thinkers, of (as he puts it) “negating Being”, in order to demonstrate that we can “transcend” the constraints of material reality. In the Introduction, Callinicos traces this idea back to Sartre and brusquely dismisses Sartre’s pessimism. He adds that Castoriadis, in a similar fashion to Sartre, implies that the real (for Sartre the “practico-inert” for Castoriadis “instituted reality”) will continually negate any attempts at autonomy. Whilst this criticism may hold for Sartre, who started from a position of “disgust” at material reality, and therefore never developed an optimistic outlook in regard to social change, it is not appropriate in regards to Castoriadis, for whom the instituted world (not the physical world) is our own creation – and alienation is simply the false belief that we cannot control our own creation. In fact Castoriadis had an ontology that is not far from the critical realism that Callinicos espouses later in the book. It is perhaps inevitable that Callinicos, unwilling to drop the materialism of Marxism, plays down any emphasis on human creativity, e.g. in Sartre (no discussion of “becoming”) or Castoriadis (silence on “meaning” and especially the open-ended meaning of symbols).
However, the first part of the book comprises four chapters which examine, and sometimes bring together, writers such as Habermas and Bidet, Bourdieu, Badiou and Zizek, Negri. There are “material limits” to this review that prevent my commenting on all these chapters! Nor would readers of Democratization probably be very much interested in the more obscure corners of contemporary French philosophy (e.g Badiou’s neologisms “esplace” = both “space” and “place” and “horlieue” = both “outside” and “a place”!).
However, it is worth commenting on a number of themes discussed, which may be relevant to democracy, to illustrate the nature of the discussion. For example, in Chapter 1, on Habermas and Bidet, Callinicos touches on the theory of modernism, examines the gap between the explanatory and the normative in social theories, and looks at Habermas’s theory of deliberative democracy. He criticises Habermas’s theory of communicative action as too “procedural”, and doubts whether the theory can legitimately provide the basis for “self-determination, self-realisation and autonomy”. He also discusses Habermas’s notion of civil society, arguing that Habermas’s description confuses what we might wish to be happening with what really is. Against Habermas’s claim to have brought together the liberal and republican traditions, Callinicos argues that Habermas gives too much weight to the liberal (“pro-market”) view of democracy, and not enough to the republican side.
Negri’s concept “pouvoir consituant” is mentioned favourably at first, in contrast to Habermas. However, later (Chapter 4), it is criticized as inadequately theorised. Negri is said to be “anti-realist”, “subjectivist” and even “vitalist” in his (and Hardt’s) writings. Callinicos thus evidently does not take to expressions such as “In man it is life itself that liberates itself, that opposes itself to all that limits and imprisons it” (quoted on p 141). It is tempting to suggest that Negri’s formulation not only explains his appeal to radicals today, but explains their rejection of Marxism! Timothy Rainer’s article on Negri in Radical Philosophy No. 131 examines Negri’s account of “absolute democracy” in a much more subtle and sympathetic way.
In Part II, Callinicos deals with three theoretical approaches that he believes are useful in providing social critique with: an ontology; a recognition of the real world; and a normative basis.
He finds the ontology of critical realism, as originally propounded by Bhaskar, most useful - not surprising, given its avowed Marxist origins. Critical realism argues that there is a real world, which is “stratified” and which exists “independently of the mental”. The social world is then autonomous (i.e. not reducible to the more basic levels of reality). This enables us to “investigate the manner in which mechanisms at a more basic level may impose constraints on the operation of those at the ‘higher’ levels” - i.e. the “real world” - and what follows from this, for Callinicos, is a defence of the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall” (TRPF). All this philosophy to bring us back to that old chestnut!
Finally, in chapter 7, the book takes a very surprising turn: not only does Callinicos say (despite having argued for the central role in Marxism of an economic “law”), that classical Marxism has been wrong in its hostility to “universal moral principles”, but he says that what is needed is to take these from egalitarian liberalism. There follows a discussion of equality, liberty and well-being, comparing the treatment of these ideas in Dworkin, Rawls and others. His concluding attempt to reconcile Rawls’s theory of social justice with Marxism is highly problematic: Callinicos claims, quoting Waldron, that Rawls bases his theory on “the common human capacity to grasp and respond to the moral law”. However, for others, the problem with Rawls is that his theory (the social contract drawn up in a hypothetical “original condition” under a “veil of ignorance”) is based on a model of the self-interested individual (choosing the social scenario that would do him/her least harm). If this is correct, then the “principle” of distributing inequalities in such a way as to benefit those worst off is just an abstract and ungrounded ideal: in a hypothetical situation, (the “original situation”), people might say they agree to such redistribution – but in the real world?