Review of Penelope Deutscher and Cristina Lafont, eds., Critical Theory in Critical Times: Transforming the Global Political and Economic Order

Review of Penelope Deutscher and Cristina Lafont, eds., Critical Theory in Critical Times: Transforming the Global Political and Economic Order (Columbia University Press, 2017), 320 pages, £75.00 hd, £25.00 pb

Reviewed by Jerome Braun

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This book starts on the meaning of rights in law, politics, and ethics, and concludes with a discussion of the need for critical theory to expand beyond discussion of economic exploitation to the kinds of exploitation discussed in what has sometimes been called ‘identity politics’.  Section I is on ‘The Future of Democracy’, Section II is on ‘Human Rights and Democracy’, Section III is on ‘Political Rights in Neoliberal Times’, Section IV is on ‘Criticizing Capitalism’, and Section V is on ‘The End of Progress in Postcolonial Times’.  This book derives from concern for justifying values through proper discourse, rather than dealing with politics as such.   This book clearly takes a humanistic perspective characteristic of present-day critical theory, and though there is much disdain for neoliberal politics and economics it does not attempt to engage the social sciences to any great degree, the chapters by Wendy Brown and Nancy Fraser being partial exceptions.  Nevertheless, this book is a good introduction to what exists in present-day critical theory.


Critical Theory; Human Rights; Karl Marx; Michel Foucault; Neoliberalism


The chapters that are presented here derive from a critical theory conference held at Northwestern University in the U.S. in 2014, and mostly take for granted what exists now, or what can be different, but not how to get from one to the other. Books in the conservative law and economics literature suffer from the opposite defect, providing abstract models of ideal rationality where they often hypothesise that what they describe already exists in reality.  Regarding the elements of democratic politics, (1) setting political agendas, (2) legitimating these agendas by electing political representatives who act on them, and (3) monitoring and evaluating political representatives throughout their terms in office, these elements are not discussed in detail in this book, but that is true of most books that deal with the interconnection of politics, economics, and government in a descriptive manner, what can be called the relation between law and civil society.

The book starts with two sections that deal with ‘rights talk’, that is to say how universal conventions on human rights such as those promulgated by the United Nations, conflict with other claims for rights, such as those claimed by multinational businesses derived from various trade treaties.  The scholars in these two sections all claim that human rights trump the rights of businesses derived from their rights to property, but this derives from proclaimed moral ideals, not from legal analysis as such.  The classic criticism of rights talk is Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (1993).

This book starts on the meaning of rights in law, politics, and ethics, and concludes with a discussion of the need for critical theory to expand beyond discussion of economic exploitation to the kinds of exploitation discussed in what has sometimes been called ‘identity politics’, including those that originate in post-colonial experiences.  Politics reflects a coordination of the various sources of legitimacy in government through the institutionalization of values that arise through the actions of power, both political and economic.  This use of power can pressure both individuals and their political representatives.  Power can act through brute control, through incentives, and through acquiescence to cultural standards that already exist for whatever reason, those that may reflect deeply ingrained moral beliefs or merely the conventional wisdom of the time fostered by the mass media and their elite financial backers.  However rather than dealing in detail with power, these essays are mostly concerned with ‘good reasons’ that can be used in the political debates that result.  Regarding understanding the social bases of power, I recommend Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View (2005), and Dennis H. Wrong, Power: Its Forms, Bases, and Uses (1996).

Regarding such models of ideal rationality involving proper use of language, thus rooted in philosophy and not in politics, and their implications for critical theory, I would say the vestiges of the 18th century Age of Reason survived largely intact in later generations in Britain and France where social theory that would improve the economy and limit the power of political leaders to do harm through an idealized version of the checks and balances of economic and political competition was a common concern, and this is still true today there, more so than among19th century and later German and Russian social theorists that to this day mainly concern themselves with commenting on the dilemmas of social and personal identity.  The scholars in this book thus follow the German tradition of critical theory in bemoaning the limitations of market-based sources of human happiness, partly because of limitations in utilitarian definitions of happiness, which they don’t discuss, and limitations in the ability of political institutions to counteract the advantages that the rich and powerful gain from governing institutions being subordinate to markets, which they do discuss, but I would say not with concrete alternatives.

Section I on ‘The Future of Democracy’ that has one chapter on democracy in the European Union by Jürgen Habermas and Section II on ‘Human Rights and Democracy’ that has chapters on legal utopianism by Seyla Benhabib, sovereignty and the responsibility to protect by Cristina Lafont, and a critical theory of human rights by Rainer Forst all comment on how the ideals of human rights should somehow be enforced by national governments, sometimes through the nudges of transnational institutions such as the European Union which is the theme of Jürgen Habermas’s chapter, and against transnationsal corporations, and against such obvious domestic betrayals of human rights as persecution and even genocide.  In fact this book in general is concerned with the conflict between human rights as a set of norms, and the fact they are not put into practice because of political realities

For example. in Section II Seyla Benhabib believes democracy gives content to the promulgation of human rights, and that is part of the process of producing a moral underpinning to law.  All true,but not specific enough to understand the functioning of politics.  Cristina Lafont believes state sovereignty and human rights should not conflict, and in an ideal world this would be true. Rainer Forst claims that people should be allowed to have non-liberal political values if they choose freely to do so without coercion or delusion, so that their basic dignity is respected.

Section III is on ‘Political Rights in Neoliberal Times’, Section IV is on ‘Criticizing Capitalism’, and Section V is on ‘The End of Progress in Postcolonial Times’. Obviously there is a core theme that has great influence in all these sections, the relation between human rights and economic exploitation.  Wendy Brown whose chapter I enjoyed the most in this book writes about the economisation of rights, criticizing all neoliberal approaches to law since neoliberal law disseminates economistic reasoning and values beyond the economy, thus crowding out other values such as social solidarity and concern for others.  She is actually very good at making the distinction between a private marketplace where private benefits are the result of unequal power among competitors, and a political venue where the public good is the direct result often of cooperation and compromise, and even self-sacrifice, not merely head to head competition. She makes clear the lack of the possibility of such working for the common good is the definition of corruption in the public sphere, while neoliberalism defines out of existence the very possibility of  cooperation, as if the results of economic competition is all that there can be.

These same themes are fleshed out in Section IV on ‘Criticizing Capitalism’, particularly by Nancy Fraser who expands the Marxist paradigm by emphasizing the increasing commodification or at least irrelevance of those areas of life that absorb the external costs that result from the functioning of markets, the pressures on social relations, the costs to the environment, and what government does to make up for the harshness of market outcomes.

These same themes are expanded in Section V, ‘The End of Progress in Postcolonial Times’.  There is a sense that history is changing faster than critical theory can keep up with that fills many of the descriptions found in this section as the writers of the first two chapters, Amy Allen on Adorno, Foucault and the end of progress, and Penelope Deutscher on post-Foucault thought, wonder whether the work of Michel Foucault and its underpinnings for ‘identity politics’ have been superseded since he did not anticipate to any great degree the return to economic exploitation with the rise of neoliberalism.  While these two writers, as opposed to those in previous sections in this book, do not much allude to the work of Karl Marx, one wonders whether they have much to offer other than abstract moralism that is not rooted in much more than discourse. Amy Allen’s reference to the work of Theodor Adorno as a supplement to the work of Michel Foucault seems to allude to the importance of class analysis, but not much more than this.  Penelope Deutscher feels there is still something to be learned from Foucault, but she, like Foucault, does not stress economics to any great degree.  The final chapter by Charles Mills on the importance of taking into account the effects of institutionalized racism in any development of critical theory likewise starts a dialogue, but does not give the kinds of facts necessary to complete it.

My above discussion only gives an inkling of the topics discussed in this book, and I encourage readers to explore the richness of topics explored, all relating to the kind of moral idealism that is the hallmark of critical theory, originally derived from the idealism of 19th century German philosophy that preceded it.  The chapters are more rooted in philosophy than in politics, and there is criticism but not debate with neoliberal economics, the chapters by Wendy Brown and Nancy Fraser being partial exceptions, but for those wishing to learn the state of critical theory as it exists now, this is a good source.

Further Reading

Callewaert S (2006) Bourdieu, Critic of Foucault: The case of empirical social science against double-game-philosophy Theory, Culture & Society 23 (6) 73-98.

Davies, W (2017) The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition London: SAGE (Theory, Culture & Society Series).

Flew, T (2016) Foucault, Weber, neoliberalism and the politics of governmentality Theory Culture & Society (April 20, 2016 – Facebook Page).

Glendon, M A (1993) Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. New York: Free Press.

Kellner, D (1993) Critical Theory today: Revisiting the classics Theory, Culture & Society 10 (2):43–60.

Lukes S (2005) Power: A Radical View, 2nd edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Swanson, J ;(2006) Recognition and redistribution: Rethinking culture and the economic Theory, Culture & Society 22 (4): 87-118.

Walby, S (2001) From community to coalition Theory, Culture & Society18 (2-3) 113-135.

Wrong, D H (1996) Power: Its Forms, Bases, and Uses. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction.


Jerome Braun, known for his writing in interdisciplinary social science with some emphasis on culture and personality and democracy from a cross-cultural perspective, was a Research Student in Industrial Relations at the London School of Economics that resulted in his book The Humanized Workplace: A Psychological, Historical, and Practical Perspective (Praeger, 1995).  His ‘What Social Theory Can Learn from Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills’s Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions’ appears in the September, 2015 issue of The American Sociologist  and ‘A Critique of Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason’ appears in the June, 2017 issue of The American Sociologist.  He has been a Visiting Scholar at Loyola University, Chicago, Dept. of Sociology since 2014. His most recent book is Democratic Culture and Moral Character: A Study in Culture and Personality (Springer, 2013).