by Daniel Davison-Vecchione
Social theorists are increasingly showing interest in the speculative—in the application of the imagination to the future. This hearkens back to H. G. Wells’ view that “the creation of Utopias—and their exhaustive criticism—is the proper and distinctive method of sociology”. Like Wells, recent sociological thinkers believe that the kind of imagination on display in speculative literature valuably contributes to understanding and thinking critically about society. Ruth Levitas explicitly advocates a utopian approach to sociology: a provisional, reflexive, and dialogic method for exploring alternative possible futures that she terms the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. Similarly, Matt Dawson points to how social theorists like Émile Durkheim have long used the tools of sociology to critique and offer alternative visions of society.
As these examples illustrate, this renewed social-theoretical interest in the speculative tends much more towards utopia than dystopia. Unfortunately, this has meant an almost complete neglect of how dystopia can contribute to understanding and thinking critically about society. This neglect partly stems from how under-theorised dystopia is compared to utopia. Here I make the case for considering dystopia and social theory alongside each other. In short, doing so helps illuminate (i) the kind of theorising about society that dystopian authors implicitly engage in and (ii) the kind of imagination implicitly at work in many classic texts of social theory.
The characteristics and politics of dystopia
A simple, initial definition of a dystopia might be an imaginative portrayal of a (very) bad place, as opposed to a utopia, which is an imaginative portrayal of a (very) good place. In Kingsley Amis’ oft-quoted words, dystopias draw “new maps of hell”. Many leading theorists, including Krishan Kumar and Fredric Jameson, tend to conflate dystopia with anti-utopia. It is true that numerous dystopias, such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), concern the horrifying consequences of attempted utopian schemes. However, not all dystopias are straightforwardly classifiable as anti-utopias. Take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The leaders of the patriarchal, theocratic Republic of Gilead present their regime as a utopia, which one might consider a kind of counter-utopia to what they see as the naïve and materialistic ideals of contemporary America, and at least some of these leaders sincerely believe in the set of values that the regime realises in part. One might therefore conclude that the novel is a warning that utopian thinking inevitably leads to and justifies oppressive practices. However, I would argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is not a critique of utopia as such, but rather of how actors with vested interests frame the actualisation of their ideologies as the attainment of utopia to discourage critical thinking. This reading is supported by how, for many members of Gilead’s ruling elite, the presentation of their society as a utopia is little more than self-serving rhetoric they use to brainwash the women they subjugate. Other dystopian works contain anti-utopian elements but subordinate these to the exploration of other themes. For instance, a subplot of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (2017) concerns a celebrity-turned-dictator’s dream of a technologically “improved” humanity, but resource wars, global warming, and other factors had already made the novel’s setting decidedly dystopian before this utopian scheme arose. Finally, there are major examples of dystopian literature, such as Octavia Butler’s Parable series (1993–1998), that depart from the anti-utopian template altogether.
Tom Moylan has begun to rectify the dystopia/anti-utopia conflation via the concept of the critical dystopia. In his words, critical-dystopian texts “linger in the terrors of the present even as they exemplify what is needed to transform it”. Put simply, critical dystopias are dystopias that retain a utopian impulse. Although this helps us understand many significant dystopian works, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast (1988) and Marge Piercey’s He, She and It (1991), the idea of the critical dystopia runs into its own problems. By labelling as “critical” only those dystopias that retain a utopian impulse, one makes it seem as if dystopia does not help us to understand and evaluate society in its own right—dystopia’s critical import becomes, so to speak, parasitic on utopia.
To illustrate how this sells dystopia short, consider the extrapolative dystopia; that is, the kind of dystopia that identifies a current trend or process in society and then imaginatively extrapolates “to some conceivable, though not inevitable, future state of affairs”. Many of Atwood’s novels fall into this subcategory. In her own words, The Year of the Flood (2009) is “fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact”, and MaddAddam (2013) “does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory”. These texts, which together with Oryx & Crake (2003) form Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, consider possible, wide-reaching changes that are rooted in present-day social and technological developments and raise pressing questions as to environmental degradation, reproduction and fertility, and the boundaries of humanity. Similarly, Butler constructs the dystopian future in her Parable series by extrapolating from familiar tendencies within American society, including racism, neoliberal capitalism, and religious fundamentalism.
My point is not simply that these extrapolative dystopias are cautionary tales. It is that one cannot reduce their critical effect to either the negation or the retention of a utopian impulse. They identify certain empirically observable tendencies that have serious socio-political implications in the present and are liable to worsen over time. As such, they are critiques of present-day social phenomena and (more or less) plausible projections of how a given society might develop. The implicit message is that we can avoid the bad future in question through intervention in the present. This is how dystopia can translate into real-world political action. Taking perhaps the most famous twentieth century dystopia, in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) George Orwell was not simply satirising Stalin’s USSR or Hitler’s Germany. He was also considering the nature and prospects of the worldwide developments he associated with totalitarianism, including centralised but undemocratic economies that establish caste systems, “emotional nihilism”, and a total skepticism towards objective truth “because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuehrer”. In Orwell’s words, “That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible”.
In the last couple of decades, dystopian texts have frequently sought to make similar points about global warming, digital surveillance, and the “new authoritarianisms”. One can certainly argue that taking dystopia too seriously as a means of critically understanding society risks sliding into a catastrophist outlook that emphasises averting worse outcomes rather than producing better ones. However, one should bear in mind that dystopia does not (and should not) aim to provide a comprehensive political program; rather, it provides a speculative frame one can use to consider current developments, thereby yielding intellectual resources for envisaging positive alternatives.
The social theory in dystopia and the dystopia in social theory
This brings us to the more direct affinities between dystopia and social theory. To begin with, protagonists in dystopian texts like Orwell’s Winston Smith, Atwood’s Offred, and Butler’s Lauren Olamina tend to be much more reflective and three-dimensional than their classical utopian counterparts. This is because, unlike the “tourist” style of narration common to utopias, dystopias tend to be narrated from the perspective of an inhabitant of the imagined society; someone whose subjectivity has been shaped by that society’s historical conditions, structural arrangements, and forms of life. As Sean Seeger and I have argued, this makes dystopia a potent exercise in what the American sociologist C. Wright Mills termed “the sociological imagination”; that is, the quality of mind that “enables us to grasp [social] history and [personal] biography and the relations between the two”, thereby allowing us to see the intersection between “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure”.
Since dystopian world-building takes seriously (i) how a future society might historically arise from existing, empirically observable tendencies, (ii) how that society might “hang together” in terms of its political, cultural, and economic arrangements, and (iii) how these historical and structural contexts might shape the inner lives and personal experiences of that society’s inhabitants, one can say that such world-building implicitly engages in social theorising. Conversely, the empirically observable tendencies from which dystopias commonly extrapolate, and the ethical, political, and anthropological-characterological questions dystopias frequently pose, are central to many classic texts of social theory.
For instance, Max Weber saw his intellectual project as a cultural science concerned with “the fate of our times”. He extrapolated from such related macrosocial tendencies as rationalisation and bureaucratisation to envisage modern humanity encased and constituted by a “shell as hard as steel” (“stahlhartes Gehäuse”) and feared that “no summer bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness”. This would already place Weber’s social theory close to dystopia, but the resemblance becomes uncanny when one also considers Weber’s central interest in “the economic and social conditions of existence [Daseinsbendingungen]” that shape “the quality of human beings” and his related emphasis on the need to preserve human excellence and to avoid giving way to mere “satisfaction”. This is a dystopian theme par excellence, as seen from such classics in the genre as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951), which gives additional significance to the famous, Nietzsche-inspired moment at the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905). Here Weber wonders who might “live in that shell in the future”, including the ossified and self-important “last men”; those “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart” who “imagine they have attained a stage of humankind [Menschentum] never before reached”. Like a good extrapolative-dystopian author, Weber provides a conceptually rich account of social phenomena by reflecting on what is currently happening and speculating about its further development and implications. It therefore seems that the dystopian imagination has always been at play within the sociological canon.
While the extent of the overlap between dystopia and social theory is yet to be fully determined, much of this overlap no doubt stems from how central social subjectivity is to both endeavours. It is true that, in their representations of societies, dystopian authors as writers of fiction are not subject to the same demands of accuracy as social theorists. Nevertheless, the critical effect of much dystopian literature relies heavily on empirical connections with the world inhabited by the reader and, conversely, social theory often evaluates by speculating about the possible consequences of current tendencies. As such, one cannot consistently maintain a straightforward separation between the two enterprises. I am therefore confident that this nascent, interdisciplinary area of study will be productive and insightful for both social scientists and scholars of speculative literature.
My thanks to Jade Hinchliffe, Sean Seeger, Sacha Marten, and Richard Elliott for their helpful comments on an early draft of this essay.
 H. G. Wells, “The So-Called Science of Sociology,” Sociological Papers 3 (1907): 357–369, 167.
 Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
 Matt Dawson, Social Theory for Alternative Societies (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).
 Zygmunt Bauman is a partial exception. See Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity, 2000 ), 137; Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 26, 53–64; Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 1–12.
 This essay raises and builds on points Sean Seeger and I have made in our ongoing collaborative research on speculative literature and social theory. See Sean Seeger and Daniel Davison-Vecchione, “Dystopian Literature and the Sociological Imagination,” Thesis Eleven 155, no. 1 (2019): 45-63.
 Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960).
 Krishan Kumar, Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times (London: Blackwell, 1987), viii; Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (London: Verso, 2005), 198.
 Tom Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (New York: Routledge), 198-199.
 Seeger and Davison-Vecchione, “Dystopian Literature and the Sociological Imagination,” 55.
 Quoted in Gregory Claeys, Dystopia: A Natural History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 482.
 Quoted in Kumar, Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times, 292-93.
 This is complicated by the “critical utopias” that arose in the 1960s and 70s, which emphasise subjects and political agency much more than their classical antecedents.
 Seeger and Davison-Vecchione, “Dystopian Literature and the Sociological Imagination,” 50; C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 ), 6, 8.
 See, e.g., Lawrence A. Scaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture, Politics, and Modernity in the Thought of Max Weber (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1991); Wilhelm Hennis, Max Weber’s Central Question (Newbury: Threshold Press, 2000).
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trs. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 121; Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005) 77-128, 128. “Iron cage” is Talcott Parsons’ mistranslation of “stahlhartes Gehäuse”.
 Max Weber, “The National State and Economic Policy” (1895), quoted in Scaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage, 30.
 Weber, Protestant Ethic, 121.
by Iain MacKenzie
Twenty years ago, the lines of debate between different versions of critically-oriented social and political theory were a tangled mess of misunderstandings and obfuscations. The critics of historicist metanarratives were often merged under the banner of postmodernism, grouped together in (sometimes surprising) couplings—postmodernism and poststructuralism, poststructuralism and post-Marxism, deconstruction and postmodernism—or strung together in a lazy list of these terms (and others) that usually ended with the customary ‘etc.’. Although this was partly the result of ‘posties’ still figuring out the detail of their respective challenges to and positions within modern critical thought, it was also a way of finding shelter together in a not altogether welcoming intellectual environment.
This is because it was not only the proponents of various post-isms who were unsure of what they were defending, it was also that the critics of these post-isms were indiscriminately attacking all the post-isms as one. They would cast their critical responses far and wide seeking to catch all in the nets of performative contradiction, cryptonormativism and quietism. ‘Unravelling the knots’ proposed one way of clarifying one post-ism—poststructuralism—as a small step toward inviting other posties to clarify their own position and critics to take care to avoid bycatch as they trawled the political seas. That was twenty years ago: has anything changed?
In many respects, yes; but not always for the better. Within the academy, taking course and module content as a rough indicator, poststructuralism has become domesticated. Once a wild and unruly animal within the house of ideas, it is now a rascally but beloved pet that we all know how to handle. In political studies, this domestication has come in two ways. First, it has become customary to acknowledge one’s embeddedness within regimes of power/knowledge, such that almost everyone of a critical orientation is (apparently) a Foucauldian now. Second, it has become commonplace to study discourses and how they shape identities, adding this to the methodological repertoire of political science. These two simple gestures often merit the titular rubric ‘A Poststructuralist Approach’ and yet they often remain undertheorised in the manner discussed in the original article. Often, there is neither a fully-fledged account of the emergence of structures nor an account of how meaning is constituted through the relations of difference that define linguistic and other structures.
Without such in-depth accounts, we are left with empirically rich but ultimately descriptive accounts of how social forces impinge on meaning, which can have its place, or the treatment of language as a data source to be mined in search of attractive word clouds (or equivalents), which can also have its place. Whatever these claims and methods produce, however, it is not helpful to call them ‘poststructuralist’. There is still a need for the exclusive but non-deadening definition of this term, so that it is not confused with the tame house pet with which it is associated today. Part of the problem is that the discussion of how structures of meaning emerge and how they function through processes of differentiation before any dynamics of identification requires, let’s say in a Foucauldian tone, the hard work of genealogy: the patient, gray and meticulous work of the archivist combined with the lively critical work of the engaged activist. But, these days, who has the patience, and the energy, for genealogy?
And, in many respects, the difficulties associated with constructing intricate ‘histories of the present’ have led to a tendency to short-circuit the genealogical process (and other poststructuralist methods) under the name of ‘social constructivism’. It is a shorthand, however, that has generated new entanglements, new knots, that have come to define what those of us with a long enough memory can only regret are now frequently labelled the culture wars. On one side, there are the alleged heirs of the posties, awake to the constructed nature of everything and the subtleties of all forms of oppression. On the other side, there are the new defenders of Enlightenment maturity striving to protect science from constructivism and to guard free-speech from the ‘cultural Marxists’.
This epithet, of course, is the surest sign that we are in a phoney war—albeit one with real casualties—as it mimics the trawling habits of previous critics but industrialises them on a massive scale. Claims about the deleterious effects of ‘cultural Marxists’ and their social constructivist premisses simply scrape the seabed and leave it barren. But much like the debate twenty years ago, those seeking to defend ‘social constructivism’ cannot swim out of the way unless they specify that this, and other phrases like it, should never be used to end an argument. There is no use in proclaiming a social constructivism if, after all, the social itself is constructed. Shorthand is always helpful but only if we know that it is exactly that and that it will always need careful exposition and explication when critics raise the call.
Moreover, what is often forgotten, in the heat of battle, is that the task is not simply to clarify one’s own claims in response to critics but to reflect upon the nature of critical exchange itself. One side of the culture wars take lively spirited debate as the signal of a flourishing marketplace of ideas. Those on the side of social construction appear to agree, simply wanting it to be a regulated marketplace of ideas. What poststructuralism brings to market is succour for neither side. Forms of critical engagement bereft of analyses of the current structures of socially mediated critical practice will always fall short of the poststructuralist project and typically dissolve into the impoverished forms of communicative exchange that never rise above the to-and-fro of opinion. It is incumbent, therefore, on poststructuralists to have a view on the nature of public interaction through social media and how these interlock with different forms of algorithmic governmentality. In this way, the social constructivist shorthand can be given real critical purchase by delving deeply into the nature of public discourse and the technological forms that sustain it, particularly because these make state intervention in the name of ‘the public’ increasingly difficult (even though they can also be used, to a certain extent, for statist purposes).
That said, the culture wars obfuscate a deeper misunderstanding about poststructuralism. To grasp this, however, it is important to be reminded of the overarching project of poststructuralism: it is a project aimed at completing the structuralist critique of humanism. It is important to specify this a little further. Humanism can be understood as the project of bringing meaning ‘down to earth’ so that it is in human rather than divine hands. Given this, we can articulate structuralism in a particular way: it was a series of responses to the ways in which humanism tended to treat the human being as a surreptitiously God-like entity and source of all meaning. Structuralism was the project aimed at completing the founding gesture of humanism. Poststructuralism simply recognises that there are tendencies within structuralism that similarly treat structures as analogous to God-like entities that serve as the basis of all meaning.
In this respect, poststructuralism is the attempt to complete the project of structuralism, which was itself aimed at completing the project of humanism. When we understand poststructuralism in this manner it is an approach to thinking (and doing) that seeks to remove the last vestiges of enchanted, supernatural, forces, entities and explanations from all theoretical and practical activity, including science but also philosophy and the arts (broadly understood). Given this, there is no room for a pseudo-divine notion of the social that often haunts ‘social constructivism’. Indeed, given this articulation of its project, poststructuralism is hardly anti-science (as some in the culture wars might claim); rather, it is a project of understanding meaning in every respect without reinstating a source of meaning that stands ‘outside’ or ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ the world that we inhabit. In fact, poststructuralists (though not all posties) are rather fond of science and they certainly do not want to undermine the natural sciences in the name of lazy ‘social constructivism’. It is, in fact, a way of seeking better science with help of philosophy, and a way of seeking better philosophy with the help of science (and for the full sense of what’s at stake, this gesture should be triangulated through inclusion of the arts).
But how can there be a ‘better’ if the posties, including the poststructuralists, are sceptical of metanarratives? This question brings us to one of the more fruitful aspects that has changed in the last twenty years. The most interesting challenge faced by poststructuralists in recent times has come from the emergence of forms of neo-rationalism looking to reinvigorate critical philosophy through pragmatically oriented forms of Kantianism and non-totalising forms of Hegelianism. From the neo-rationalist perspective, poststructuralism has failed in its attempts to naturalise meaning, to take it away from explanations that rely upon supernatural forces, to the extent that it is reliant upon a transcendent notion of Life that treats the priority of becoming over being as given. This immanent critique of poststructuralism cuts much closer to the bone than the Critical Theory inspired fishing which cast their nets wide but always from the harbour of their own shores.
At the heart of this dispute is whether or not what we know about the world and how we know what we know about the world can be articulated within a single theoretical framework. For the neo-rationalist, it is (in principle, at least) possible to work on the assumption that there is an underlying unity between ontology and epistemology founded upon a specific conception of reason-giving. For poststructuralists, exploration of the conditions of experience suggests a dynamic distance between the what and the how, such that the task is to secure the claims of philosophy, art and science as equal routes into our understanding of both. While this reconstitutes a certain return to the pre-critical debates between rationalists and empiricists, it is equally indebted to the critical turn with respect to the shared task of legitimating knowledge claims, but with a pragmatic or practical twist. Both the neo-rationalists and the poststructuralists pragmatically assess the worth of the knowledge produced by virtue of the challenges they proffer to arguments that rely upon a transcendent God-like entity and the dominant form of this today; namely, the sense of self-identity that underpins capitalist endeavours to maximise profit.
This critical perspective, perhaps surprisingly, was seeded within the fertile soil of American pragmatism. For the pragmatists—and we might think especially of Pierce, Sellars, and Dewey—it is the practical application of philosophy that engenders standards of truth, rightness and value. Admittedly, in the hands of its founding fathers, this practical application was often guided by the idea of maintaining the status quo. But that is not essential. Neo-rationalists and poststructuralists have found a shared concern with the idea that philosophical practice should be guided by the critique of capitalist forms of thought and life. As such, they share a common ground upon which meaningful discussion can be forged, aside from the culture wars (which are simply a reflex of capitalist identitarian thinking). While deep-seated divisions remain—does the knowledge generated by social practices of reason giving trump the experience of creative learning or are they on the same cognitive footing?—the shared sense of seeking a critical but non-final standard for what counts as better (better than the identity-oriented thinking sustaining capitalism) is driving much of the most productive debate and discussion at the present time. Work of this kind reminds us that poststructuralism is still a wild animal rather than a domesticated house pet, that it is a critical project but also one that has political intent.
That said, it is not always easy to convey the political dimension of poststructuralism, especially given the vexed question of its relationship to ideology. As discussed in the original article, part of the initial excitement about poststructuralism was that its major figures distanced themselves from the idea of ideology critique. However, this was only ever the beginning of a complex story about the relationship of poststructuralism to ideology and never the end. While Marxist notions of ideology were critiqued for the ways in which they incorporated notions of the transcendental subject, naïve versions of what counts as real and over-inflated notions of truth, poststructuralists have always endorsed the power of individual subjects to express complex notions of reality and historically sensitive and effective notions of truth, and to do so against dominant social and political formations. These formations are often given unusual names—dispositif, assemblages, discourses, and such like—but the aim of unsettling and ultimately unseating the dogmatic images and frozen practices of social and political life is not too distant from that animating Marxism. Of course, as Deleuze and Guattari expressed it, any revised Marxism needs to be informed by significant doses of Nietzscheanism and Freudianism (just as these need large doses of Marxism if they are to avoid becoming critically quietest and practically relevant for the critique of capitalism).
What results, though, is an immanent version of ideology critique rather than a rejection of it tout court: there are many assemblages/ideologies that dominate our thoughts, feelings and behaviour and it is possible to learn how they operate by making a difference to how they function and reproduce themselves. In searching for the natural bases of meaningful worlds it is no surprise that poststructuralists have become adept at diagnoses of how natural processes can lead to systems of meaning that import supernatural fetishes into our everyday lives, and how these are sustained in ways even beyond merely serving the interests of the economically powerful. There appear to be an endless number of these knots that need untying. If we want to untie at least some of them, then unravelling the knots that currently have poststructuralism tangled up in a phoney culture war is another small step on the road to bringing a meaningful life fully down to earth.
 I.MacKenzie, ‘Unravelling the knots: post-structuralism and other “post-isms”’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 6 (3), 2001, pp. 331–45.
 I. MacKenzie and R. Porter, ‘Drama out of a crisis? Poststructuralism and the Politics of Everyday Life’, Political Studies Review, 15 (4), 2017, pp. 528–38.
 One of the interesting features of the recent history of poststructuralism is that it is not the same across disciplines. Of course, this need for disciplinary specificity with respect to how knowledge is disrupted, new forms of knowledge established and then domesticated is part of what poststructuralism offers. That said, much of what follows can be read across various disciplines in the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences to the extent that the legacies of humanism and historicism traverse these disciplines.
 M. Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in D. Bouchard (ed.) Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault (New York: Cornell University Press, 1992 ), pp. 139–64.
 B. Dillet, I. MacKenzie and R. Porter (eds) The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
 A. Rouvroy, ‘The End(s) of Critique: data-behaviourism vs due-process’ in M. Hildebrandt and E. De Vries (eds), Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn. Philosophers of Law Meet Philosophers of Technology (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 143–68.
 See R. Brassier’s engagment with the work of Wilfrid Sellars, for example: 'Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars' Critical Ontology' in B. Bashour and H. Muller (eds) Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications (Routledge: London, 2013).
 R. Porter, Ideology: Contemporary Social, Political and Cultural Theory (Cardiff: Wales University Press, 2006) and S. Malešević and I. MacKenzie (eds), Ideology After Poststructuralism (Oxford: Pluto Press, 2002).
 G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking Press, 1977). This triangulation of the philosophers of suspicion, with a view to completing the Kantian project of critique, is one especially insightful way of reading this provocative text: see E. Holland, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2002).
by Glyn Daly
What can porn shoots tell us about the functioning of ideology? This can be approached through a critique of externalism. In externalist thinking there is always the image of a full presence, something substantial to which all distortion can be referred. In modern discourse, this is ultimately the position occupied by the (mythic) phallus: an autonomous self-sustaining One that stands apart and effectively overdetermines all relations of distortion: desire, narcissism, envy, and so on as so many orientations toward it. Put in other terms, it reflects Jacques Derrida’s critical charge of phallogocentrism—where the symbolic order tends always to centre on notions of (masculinised) presence and identity—that he levels against psychoanalysis. But what this misses is the way in which the privileging of the phallus in psychoanalysis is simultaneously a non-privileging. What the phallus names in psychoanalysis is essentially movement and/or treachery: gaining an erection when one least wants it and losing it when it is most required. Far from any autonomy or positivity of presence, the phallus reflects an autonomy of negativity. In other words, the phallus is “privileged” only insofar as it signifies lack as such. This is why Jacques Lacan repeatedly refers to the phallus as a “wanderer” and as “elsewhere”: that which denotes a permanent alibi at the very heart of the symbolic order. Indeed the whole of psychoanalysis can be seen as predicated on the basic absence not only of phallic consistency (a phallogo-decentrism in this sense) but also all externality.
It is this lack of externality that is reflected in porn shoots where, in order to get in “the zone”, male pornstars themselves typically have to resort to watching porn. Far from being a site of authentic sexual production, the porn shoot reflects a kind of game of mirrors, or metonymy of distortions, without any externality. The phallus in its “naked” form (as full presence) does not exist as such; it only ex-sists in its relation to an elsewhere, in referral to an Other site of imaginary existence (a fantasy scenario) where it finds its authentication. Nobody really has It (the phallus) and consequently there are no figures of ultimate phallic enjoyment blocking our access to full (and impossible) presence and identity. The problem of ideology, on the other hand, can be characterised in terms of a certain “phallic” anxiety. That is to say, ideology always retains some idea of an external figure who is somehow in possession of It and is thereby responsible for all the distortions (unemployment, crime, lack of resources, global viruses, and so on). In every instance there exists a projection of an image of a unitary identity (“the Jew”, “the Muslim”, “the Mexican”…) that is held to be responsible. It is here that we should locate today’s fashionable idea of “red pilling”—a reference to The Matrix where, in a metaphorical sense, one takes a red pill in order to perceive the truth behind all the surface distortions and deceptions. This is also what lies at the root of all those groups from QAnon and the “deep state” believers to the antivaxxers and even those who recently stormed the Capitol. In each case the same basic mythology is reflected: that behind the scenes there is an “intelligent design”, a Lacanian subject-supposed-to-know. This mythology is perfectly embodied in the current “Plandemic” conspiracy theory—i.e., the view that coronavirus and the vaccines have been designed for the purpose of enslaving humanity—which by definition implies the existence of a planning entity behind the global pandemic: an entity that must be exposed. Again we have the same motif of a unified Other at work: that the systemic beast (in all its abstraction, algorithmisation of power, and so on) is secretly ruled by a sovereign, a beastly sovereign perhaps. Across the spectrum of the various dark elite perspectives—Illuminati, shape-shifting reptilians, Fourth Reich, etc.—there exists a basic fantasmatic attempt to resurrect (res-erect?) the phallus: the sense of a full presence behind all the distortion, a prime mover that would explain the nature and functioning of the system.
Nor is this mythology restricted to extreme right-wing conspiracy theory. Chomsky, for example, is famously dismissive of the idea of “speaking truth to power” affirming instead that “power knows the truth already, and is busy concealing it”. In other words, there exists a power cabal (a master entity) that is operating at a point beyond distortion where truth is fully transparent and is consciously manipulated/distorted by that cabal in order to secure its underlying interests. Yet what Chomsky misses is the way in which power is itself subject to the same kind of illusions of transparency, rationality, holism, and so on. If we take Brexit, for example, it is not simply that power (however defined) has engaged in mass deception in order to secure its “objective economic interests”—the purely economic arguments for and against Brexit were essentially undecidable. The point is rather to see how, mediated through ideology, the pro-Brexit interests were themselves constituted in such a way as to be perceived as fully in accord with serving and advancing the “national interest”. There was/is nothing inauthentic about the idea that the UK will be better off once it is free from the shackles of the “Brussels’ dictatorship”. On the contrary, the authenticity of the pro-Brexit mobilisation derived from the sincerely held belief that Britain will be able to secure its integrity, reassert itself globally, and restore its national greatness (etc.).
Consequently we should not seek to identify an ultimate, or positivistic, source of capitalist manipulation/distortion. There is no Capitalism (with a capital “c”) in this sense. Capitalism only functions historically in its “impure” forms: liberal, authoritarian, fascist, democratic, religious, secular, communist, and so on. In other words, there exist only distorted (fantasmatic) versions of capitalism, all of which rely on the same kind of fiction of an antagonism-free (neutral) capitalism that is best for “the people”. Marx already knew this, arguing that (along with the proletariat) the bourgeoisie are also subject to an entire mode of production in which they internalise, and are simultaneously motivated by, the dimensions of not only enrichment and narcissism, but also the greater good, work ethic, social opportunity, sacrifice, and so on. This is also how we should read Marx’s assertion that capital is essentially a social power: i.e., a way of reproducing the very sense of “the social” without any pre-given content or orientation. In Althusserian language, capital is a system in distortion that seeks to naturalise its basic principles through all of its adjectival (impure) forms. Capitalists, no less than porn actors, are equally inscribed into an economy of distortions that both enables and directs their very sense of agency.
Far from the traditionalist view of straightforward deception and mystification, ideology functions rather as a certain kind of revelatory discourse of disclosure and unmasking—precisely as a way of protecting a substantialist notion of reality. Against the Deleuzian insight that that the mask does not hide anything except other masks, the ideological mission is always one of unmasking, of establishing a positive account. And it is in this context that Laclau’s view of ideology as the illusory concealment of basic lack needs to be supplemented. The ideological mechanism effectively consists of a double distortion. On the one hand, there is the distortive illusion of a social fullness (Laclau) but on the other there exists a simultaneous reciprocal distortive illusion of an external obstacle to that fullness (deep state, dark elites, threatening-yet-inferior groups, and so on). The illusion of social rapprochement can only be sustained via its opposite: the identification of social blockage. In a Hegelian twist, the ideological illusion of an antagonism-free world is generated through antagonism itself. Far from blocking me from the full constitution of my identity, the presence of an enemy is the very condition for supporting an image of full identity. In the words of Blofeld in Spectre, the positive function of (ideologised) antagonism is to provide an “author of all your pain”, a determinant figure to which we can seek redress for pure antagonism (i.e., antagonism that resides at the very heart of all identity). This is why Lacan refers to the subject as constitutively split (the S-barred or $): the subject is divided in terms of a pure/inherent antagonism between its historical symbolic content and its transhistorical void, the persistence of radical negativity that thwarts all symbolic constitution. Mediated through ideology, antagonism thus becomes a way of protecting us from the traumatic knowledge that there is no author of our pain/blockage. Through the externalisation of antagonism (the construction of the Other-as-blockage) we avoid the unbearable inherency of pure antagonism as such.
It is against this background that the radicality of Lacan’s critique of castrative anxiety can be discerned. In Freud, anxiety arises through an affect of generalised loss premised on castration: the sense of privation. Lacan, however, completely turns this around and affirms that what the subject fears is not the loss as such but rather the loss of the loss: that is, the loss of an externalised figure that is projected as the embodiment of loss, negativity, and/or the impossibility of Society. Without such a figure, the subject is faced with the radical anxiety of freedom: the anxiety that arises from the knowledge that we are not constrained by an exterior obstacle or big Other. This is also how we should approach Ernst Hoffmann’s story of the eponymous and uncanny “Sandman” who haunts and torments the tragic character of Nathaniel throughout his short life. For Freud, the Sandman embodies the archetypal castrating father—reflected in his unfathomable desire/demand “Eyes out, eyes out!” for an obscure alchemical ritual. Yet what ultimately destroys Nathaniel is not so much the Sandman (a projected image of blockage) but his own inability to act or come to terms with the intricacies and pressures of forging meaningful relationships with “flawed” human beings—it is precisely when the way is open to a romantic union with Clara that Nathaniel’s madness/anxiety descends and he shrinks back from the act, fatally hurling himself from the market gallery. In this respect, the Sandman functions rather as a figure that regulates a critical distance with the anxiety of freedom. So when Slavoj Žižek affirms in his classical formulation that the “function of ideology is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel”, the only (Hegelian) point to add here is that the ideological escape from the Real is supplied through the Real itself: that is, through a certain simulation of the Real, giving it a semblance—the various “Sandmen” of today’s interlopers, malefactors, enemies of the people, and so on—rendering it manageable in some way.
How do we get out of this predicament? Here perhaps Joseph Stalin provides some inadvertent help. Towards the end of his life, Stalin confided to Lavrentiy Beria (the head of the secret police during Stalin's leadership) "I'm so paranoid that I worry that I am plotting against myself". Since Freud, psychoanalysis has long been aware of how paranoia functions as a desperate attempt to overcome the feeling of inexistence: the subject constructs enemies as a way of (over-) confirming their identity and thus avoiding what Stephen Grosz calls the “catastrophe of indifference”, the sense of drifting away into the void. Those suffering from paranoia are in fact passionately attached to their antagonistic constructs—as Lacan puts it, paranoiacs “love their delusions as they love themselves”. The paranoiac invents a world in which they can continue to have and eat their cake. In paranoia, the subject strives to keep both the possibility of a resolution (full presence) and the obstacle(s) to it—the obstacle serves as support to the (illusory) resolution. So the problem with the paranoiac is that, in a way, they are not paranoid enough. That is to say, they still cling to the idea of some kind of resolution (however remote or abstract). The way to confront paranoia is not by addressing the validity of specific claims but virtually the opposite: to radicalise paranoia in the affirmation of a paranoia without enemies or resolution. So Stalin was right in a certain sense: the negation is precisely an inherent one, a reflection of an inward contradiction between the idea of oneself and its attendant void. At the same time, what Stalin was unable to do was to realise the emancipatory potential of accepting the traumatic truth of this fundamental contradiction—and in this regard he remained fully within the terms of ideology. In Hegel, an emancipatory path is only opened once we abandon the continuous attempts to overcome contradiction (auto-negativity) and instead inscribe this contradiction as the very “foundation” of existence. This is why for Hegel there can be no resolution, only reconciliation.
 This traditional notion of the One functions in idealised terms: something external and indivisible, comprising a positive ground for substance in general
 Phallogocentrism is a neologism (combining both phallocentrism and logocentrism) deployed by Derrida to designate a double privileging: the privileging of logos (a positive view of the symbolic order in which meaning appears as both immediate and directly communicable) within Western metaphysics, and within logos the privileging of the phallus (i.e. a dominant paradigm of universalised masculine presence, authority and priorities).
 Chomsky cited in T. Eagleton (2016), ‘The Truth Speakers’, New Statesman (3 April 2016)
 G. Daly (2021), ‘Obstacles and Distortions: A Speculative Approach to Ideology’, Journal of Political Ideologies (forthcoming).
 S. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 45.
 S. Grosz, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013).
 J. Lacan, The Psychoses (New York: Norton, 1993), 215.
by Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger
Few words still offer a more tantalising, but also frustratingly vague, indication of our contemporary era than “populism”. The statistics speak for themselves: from 1970 to 2010, the number of Anglophone publications containing the term rose from 300 to more than 800, creeping over a thousand in the 2010s. The semantic inflation was not only the result of a growing and emboldened nationalist radical right, however. Instead, the 2010s also saw a specifically left-wing variant of populism gain foothold on European shores. This new group of political contenders took, tacitly or explicitly, their inspiration from previous experiences in the South American continent, of which left populism had long been cast as an exclusive specimen. Where did this sudden upsurge come from?
In addition to cataclysmic crisis management, without doubt the most important thinker in this transfer was the Argentinian philosopher, Ernesto Laclau—light tower to left populists like Podemos, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and even Syriza. Before he went properly political, Laclau was already a mainstay of academic debates in the 1990s and 2000s. Laclau’s theory of populism—formulated from 1977 to 2012, spanning books such as Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977) to On Populist Reason (2005)—has fascinated a whole generation of scholars dissatisfied by either positivist or mainstream Marxist approaches. To them, Laclau provided a full theory of populism that stands out by its conceptual strength, internal coherence, and direct political appeal. Contrary to many other approaches, there also was intense two-way traffic between his populism theory and its activist uptake by movements, from Latin America (Chavism, Kirchnerism, etc.) to the more recent political experiments in the post-2008 Europe (Podemos, Syriza, La France insoumise, etc.). In the 2010s, this two-way traffic took off in Europe.
Laclau’s vision of populism is as short as it is appealing. In his view, ‘populism’ is not an ideology, strategy, or designated worldview. Rather, ‘populism’ is an ever-present ‘political logic’, which tends to unify unfulfilled demands based on shared opposition to a common enemy—elites, castes, classes, parasitical outsiders. Populists condense the space of the social by reducing all oppositions to an antagonistic relation between ‘the people’ and a power bloc, the latter consisting of a politically, economically, and culturally dominant group held responsible for frustrating the demands of the former. To Laclau, the unity of this ‘people’ is always constructed and a given. This construction is both discursive and negative: because there is no pre-given to the ‘people’, cohesion is necessarily achieved through condensation in the figure of a leader—one of the most controversial aspects of Laclau’s theory. Populism, in this perspective, is also bereft of any intrinsic programmatic content. Instead, it only refers to the formal way in which political demands are articulated: those demands, in turn, can be of any type, and can be voiced by extremely disparate groups. For Laclau populism can thus take many forms, ranging from the most progressive to the most reactionary one—both Hitler and Marx have their ‘populist’ moments.
Like any grand theory, however, Laclau’s theory has also become subject to two symmetric processes: either dogmatic mutation or automatic rejection. These mirror the treatment of left populism in the public sphere in general. Academics either uncritically endorse these movements as democratically redemptive, or unfairly blame them for jeopardising democratic norms. Increasingly, disciples of the Laclauian approach themselves have express their dissatisfactions vis-à-vis Laclau’s theory and the current state of the field. Save a few exceptions calling for an earnest assessment of its balance sheet, however, these critiques—both theoretical and practical—are made from perspectives external to the Laclauian theory (mainly liberalism and Marxism). From the liberal perspective, Laclau’s theory is criticised for its alleged illiberal and authoritarian/plebiscitarian political consequences. Marxists, on the other hand, tend to resist the ‘retreat from class’ that his theory implies.
Contrary to these criticisms, we propose an internal assessment. To paraphrase Chantal Mouffe’s famous quip about Carl Schmitt, we can reflect upon left populist theory both ‘with’ and ‘against’ Laclau, submitting his theory to closer scrutiny while sticking to most of its basic assumptions. Four aspects of Laclau’s theory are granted particular scrutiny: the articulation of ‘horizontality’ and ‘verticality’, a deficit of historicity, an excessive formalism and a lack of reflexivity.
The first point moves from the abstract to the concrete. For Laclau, any populist ‘people’ needs to be constructed and moulded, something that will have to be done through a central agency—here taken up by the figure of the leader. In the view of ‘horizontal’ theorists, Laclau’s theory of populism supresses the natural spontaneity of groups, disregards their organisational capacity, and always runs the risk of sliding into an autocratic path. On the descriptive side, the central role of the leader encounters many counterexamples across historical and contemporary populist experiences, from the American People’s Party, the farmers’ alliance that shook up US politics at the end of the nineteenth century, to the contemporary Yellow Vests, the recent social upsurge against Emmanuel Macron’s politics in France. On the normative side, left populism does indeed live in the perpetual shadow of a Caesarist derailing—as recently shown in the extremely autocratic management of Podemos and la France insoumise by Pablo Iglesias and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, respectively. Yet, in a context where European parties are losing members and politics is becoming more liquid and impermanent, the importance of leaders to organisations seems to be an obstacle to patient organisation-building and mass mobilisation. In this sense, they tend to encourage rather than decelerate the anti-democratic trends they purport to critique.
A second problem in Laclau’s oeuvre is its treatment of historicity. Although Laclau makes recurrent references to historical episodes, his work as a whole consistently suffers from a chronic incapacity to relate his findings to a coherent theory of historical change. The poststructuralist language he takes on leads to a relative randomisation of history, placing him at pains to explain large-scale historical changes. Without falling back on a teleological and deterministic conception of history, it is necessary to pay greater attention to the structural transformations of global capitalism and parliamentary democracy to understand our current ‘populist moment’. The history of the 2010s as the European populist decade can not be understood only through the triptych dislocation-contingency-politicisation but must be replaced within a much broader context: the declining structures of political representation across Western democracies, whose roots, in turn, must be found in the changing political economy of late capitalism.
Finally, we claim that Laclau and his disciples lack a properly performative theory of populism. Recent research carried out by Essex School scholars (the current started by Laclau) have compensated for this problem, focusing on the intellectual history of populism as a signifier, and showing the performative effects its use by scholars and politicians can have. These show anti-populist researchers and political actors tend to consolidate the coming of a populist/anti-populist cleavage as a central axis of conflict by endorsing a specific reading of contemporary politics and setting out a terrain of battle that superimposes itself on older ones, such as the left-right distinction. However, Essex School theorists remain surprisingly silent on the thin frontier between description and prescription from a Laclauian perspective, and thus on their own inevitable role in creating the reality they purport to merely describe.
Finally, Laclau’s extremely formal definition of populism can easily turn into hypergeneralism. His endorsement of a strictly formal conception of populism creates an inability to account both for the similarities and differences between the left- and right populisms. It then becomes dangerously easy to overstretch the concept ad absurdum and even to depict contemporary anti-populism—such as Macron’s—as a form of populism, simply because of the latter’s antagonistic character towards established political parties, even though this antagonism is rooted in a liberal-technocratic conception of politics. As appealing as this overstretch might look—it rightly grasps that Macron and Mélenchon, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, for instance, have ‘something’ in common—it adds to the confusion around ‘populism’ rather than providing a satisfying answer to it. It also distracts the attention from what really unites these political actors: the fact that their emergence in the French party system represents a moment of political disruption (not necessarily populist) made possible by the decline of traditional, organised party politics.
To end on a hopeful note, we propose a renewed approach to populism that builds on Laclau’s strengths while re-embedding them in a more robust analytic framework. Such a reassessment could lead to a more careful balance between a general theory of populism (based on, but not reducible to, Laclau’s political ontology) and the concrete appraisal of its empirical manifestations. We can here deploys the metaphor of an ‘ecosystem’: populism is simply one political species (amongst many) particularly adept at adapting itself to the new environmental setting of our increasingly disorganised democracy. In scientific jargon, Laclau’s ‘populism’ is a bio-indicator: a species which can reveal the quality and nature of the environment, while also depending on it. Only when we take this step back, we claim, can we see the silhouette of populism against the wider democratic canvas.
 The most prolific schools of thought, besides the Laclauian perspective (C. Mouffe, For a Left Populism, London: Verso, 2018; G. Katsambekis & A. Kioupkiolis (eds.), The Populist Radical Left in Europe, Oxon & New York: Routledge, 2019) have undoubtedly been the approaches to populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ (C. Mudde and C. Rovira Kaltwasser (Eds.), Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012; J-W. Müller, What is Populism?, London: Penguin Books, 2016) and as a ‘political style’ (B. Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism : Performance, Political Style and Representation, Standford : Standford University Press, 2016).
 For an early criticism of this sort, see B. Arditi, ‘Review essay: populism is hegemony is politics? On Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason’, Constellations, 17(3) (2010), 488–497 and Y. Stavrakakis, ‘Antinomies of formalism: Laclau’s theory of populism and the lessons from religious populism in Greece’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 9(3) (2004), 253–267. Recent initiatives to go beyond theoretical immobilism within the Essex school can be found, for instance, in the special issue of the Journal of Language and Politics edited by Benjamin De Cleen and al. (« Discourse Theory : Ways forward for theory development and research practice », January 2021), as well as in a 15th year anniversary symposium for On Populist Reason, edited by Lasse Thomassen, Theory & Event, vol. 23 (July 2020).
 Good examples of liberal and marxist critiques of Laclau’s theory can be found respectively in P. Rosanvallon, Le siècle du populisme. Histoire, théorie, critique, Paris : Seuil, 2020 and S. Žižek, « Against the Populist Temptation », Critical Inquiry, 32(3), Spring 2006, 551-574.
 See for instance: A. Jäger, ‘The Myth of “Populism”’, Jacobin, January 3 2018, available at https://www. jacobinmag.com/2018/01/populism-douglas-hofstadter-donald-trump-democracy; B. De Cleen, J. Glynos and A. Mondon, ‘Critical research on populism: Nine rules of engagement’, Organization, 25(5) (2018), 651; Y. Stavrakakis et al., ‘Populism, anti-populism and crisis’, Contemporary Political Theory, 17(1) (2018), 4–27; B. Moffitt, ‘The Populism/Anti-Populism Divide in Western Europe’, Democratic Theory, 5(2) (2018), 1–16; A. Mondon and J. Glynos, ‘The political logic of populist hype: The case of right-wing populism’s “meteoric rise” and its relation to the status quo’, Populismus Working Papers 4 (2016), 1–20.
by David Benbow
The concept of ideology seems to have been supplanted in contemporary critical theory by the concept of discourse. Postmodernist scholars, such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, have criticised the concept of ideology. Nonetheless, the two concepts are potentially compatible. I believe that the concept of ideology is superior to the concept of discourse because, as David Hawkes noted, it mediates between the ideal and the material. The work of the Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, and his conceptualisations of ideology, are particularly useful in examining the relationship between the ideal and the material in modern neoliberal societies. The contemporary relevance of Adorno’s work is evident in the burgeoning literature concerning the philosopher—see, for example, Blackwell’s A Companion to Adorno, published in 2020, which contains the largest collection of essays by Adorno scholars in a single volume. I have utilised Adorno’s conceptualisations of ideology, within my own work, to examine different aspects of the law relating to health and healthcare.
Adorno’s distinction between liberal ideology and positivist ideology, and his conceptualisations of reification, informed my analysis of reforms which have marketised and privatised the English National Health Service (NHS). I also made use of Adorno’s method of ideology critique to demonstrate how many public statements regarding the high-profile Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans cases (which involved disputes between parents and clinicians regarding the treatment of young infants), for example by United States (US) politicians (such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz), were unjustifiably critical of socialised medicine. The cases led to renewed proposals for the best interests test, which is currently determinative in such cases, to be replaced with a significant harm test. I employed Adorno’s notion of the dialectic of enlightenment (the idea that reason can engender unreason) to undermine the argument that parents would make better decisions in these types of cases. I contended that the clinicians in such cases reflexively acknowledged the limits of medicine, in contrast to the parents, who appear to have suffered from false hope. Adorno’s ideas are also informing my current research projects on vaccine confidence (and the influence of anti-vaccination ideology) and the potential of human rights to address health injustices in states within the Global South. In respect of the former, I have employed the psycho-social dialectic methodology that Adorno developed in his research into anti-Semitism to identify the objective social factors which have influenced the increase in vaccine hesitancy. In respect of the latter, Adorno noted that rights may be tacitly critical of existing conditions and thus I am developing a paper regarding how they may be used to articulate present injustices within the Global South (and elsewhere) with a view to their remedy.
In the chapter on the topic of the concept of ideology, published as part of the Frankfurt School’s book Aspects of Sociology, Adorno distinguished between liberal ideology and positivist ideology. In Adorno’s view, positivist ideology, which he thought was becoming more prominent in modern societies, hardly says more than ‘things are the way they are’. By contrast, the emphatic concepts of liberal ideology, such as freedom, equality and rights, are often used, within discourse, to justify certain states of affairs (or changes to them). Such emphatic concepts can also be used to critique existing conditions. There are different modalities of the related concept of reification in Adorno’s work. One modality of reification in Adorno’s work is philosophical reification, which refers to phenomena being treated as fixed. An example of philosophical reification is the exchange principle, which treats unlike things alike. Another modality of reification in Adorno’s work is social reification, which refers to means becoming ends in themselves. Both of these modes are evident in consumerism. Reification may lead to estrangement, whereby people become strangers or enemies to one another. Estrangement is the opposite of solidarity, which Rahel Jaeggi defines as ‘standing up for each other because one recognises one’s own fate in the fate of the other’. Reification may undermine the solidarity which has been pivotal in the creation and continuation of the NHS.
I have analysed the emphatic concepts of freedom and equality and how they have been used within the discourse of successive governments regarding the English NHS. I have also considered the potential reifying effects of the market reforms that successive governments have implemented within the English NHS. When the NHS was established, in 1948, it was to be publicly answerable via ministerial accountability to Parliament. However, this was deemed to be a constitutional fiction. Since the 1970s, there have been efforts to enhance patient and public involvement within the NHS via two types of mechanisms, identified by Albert Hirschman: voice and choice. In the neoliberal era, the preference has been for choice mechanisms (although attenuated voice mechanisms have persisted). This preference is evident in the use of indicators and market mechanisms to facilitate competition among NHS providers. The internal market introduced by the Conservatives, in the 1990s, was justified on the basis of enhancing patient choice, although evidence indicates that it reduced the choices available to patients. The mimic-market established in the English NHS by the New Labour governments, in the 2000s, afforded private healthcare companies increasing opportunities to deliver NHS services and gradually extended patient choice to any willing provider. New Labour sought to naturalise the relationship between patients and the NHS as a consumerist one. However, studies indicate that many patients were recalcitrant in this regard and often did not utilise the opportunity to exercise choice when it was available to them.
The latest English NHS market was introduced by the Health and Social Care (HSC) Act 2012. This statute places duties on commissioners to act with a view to enabling patients to make choices. Such commissioners are also required to comply with regulations passed pursuant to S.75 of the statute, and, prior to Brexit, with European Union (EU) public procurement law, in tendering services. Such laws have coaxed many commissioners into tendering services in circumstances where they did not think that it was best for patients,  which is symptomatic of social reification, as the market has become an end in itself. New methods for enabling patients to compare providers, such as friend and family test (FFT) scores, have also been introduced. These are symptomatic of philosophical reification, as the process of reducing quality (patient experiences) into quantity (a number) is one of abstraction, which is unlikely to capture the complexity of patient experiences. In any event, patient choice, which was used to justify the coalition’s reforms, has taken a backseat, and the market created by the HSC Act 2012 has primarily involved providers competing for tenders. The intention of many of the policymakers who designed the market reforms to the English NHS thus seems to have been to get private providers into the NHS, rather than to extend patient choice. I contend that voice mechanisms are a preferable method of empowering patients by allowing them to convey the complexity of their experiences and to influence clinical practices.
Adorno was critical of the concept of equality, on the basis that it could obscure important differences. Nonetheless, equality of access to the NHS (based on need) and the reduction of health inequalities are principles which, I contend, are compatible with an Adornian perspective. The Welsh Marxist theorist, Raymond Williams, helpfully distinguished between dominant, residual, and emergent norms within his work.  I have conceptualised neoliberal norms (such as competition and choice) as dominant norms, the founding principles of the NHS (such as equality of access, comprehensiveness, and universality) as residual norms (as they are remnants from the era of the social democratic consensus, which preceded the neoliberal era) and the reduction of health inequalities as an emergent norm. In the neoliberal era, different UK governments have all articulated their support for the residual norm of equality of access. However, this has been undermined, for example, by the ability of foundation trusts to earn 49% of their income from private patients. The other residual norms, such as comprehensiveness, have also been undermined by successive governments, within the neoliberal era, thereby extending the exchange principle (as patients are now required to pay for some health services). The issue of health inequalities was not a priority of the Conservative governments between 1979 and 1997, which sought to bury the Black Report and which rebranded such inequalities, in a positivistic manner, as health variations. In contrast, both the New Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 and the Conservative-led governments since 2010 have adopted the goal of reducing health inequalities. The HSC Act 2012 created statutory duties for different actors to have regard to the need to reduce such inequalities. However, the impact of the main economic policy (austerity) pursued by governments since 2010, has increased such inequalities. Austerity negatively affected NHS capacity and resources, as well as population health, rendering the NHS less resilient to the current Covid-19 pandemic. The reduction of health inequalities requires alternative economic policies to austerity.
Ultimately, I have identified both liberal and positivistic elements in the discourse of successive governments, in the neoliberal era, in relation to the English NHS. Consequently, government discourse pertaining to the English NHS has not become completely positivistic. Rather, there are liberal elements which provide members of the public and scholars with a basis for critique. The statements of successive governments that they were desirous of empowering patients, respecting the NHS’ founding principles and reducing health inequalities can be used to critique their policies (which have not empowered patients, have undermined the NHS’ founding principles and are likely to exacerbate health inequalities) and to conceive alternative policies. The development of sustainability and transformation plans (STPs), integrated care systems (ICSs) and integrated care providers (ICPs), and the increased emphasis on integration in the discourse of the government and NHS England (a non-departmental body which oversees the day-to-day operation of the NHS in England and commissions primary care and specialist services) has been interpreted by many as a move away from the competition that has dominated the English NHS in the neoliberal era. A recent Kings Fund report found that there has been a move away from procurement to collaboration within the English NHS (with the former being used as a method of last resort). However, some fear that the new structures being established within the English NHS may undermine its founding principles and afford new opportunities for private companies.
I have argued elsewhere that the policies of successive governments pertaining to the English NHS were indicative of market fetishism. The recent award of many contracts to private companies under special powers that circumvent normal tendering rules, during the Covid-19 pandemic, suggests a fetishism for private companies and not necessarily with competitive processes. I have identified the corporate influence on the reforms to the English NHS of successive governments. Such corporate influence has ostensibly also affected the current government’s response to the pandemic. Although I have identified several potential reifying effects of government reforms to the NHS, which could undermine the solidarity which led to its creation and continuation, the adherence of the public to unprecedented rules, such as national lockdowns, during the Covid-19 pandemic, to ‘Protect the NHS’ (as government slogans state), is a palpable contemporary manifestation of such solidarity. The pandemic has also exposed the impact of persistent health inequalities. If efforts to undermine the founding principles of the NHS continue, the slogan ‘Protect the NHS’ will persist as a powerful means of providing an immanent critique of government policies. Additionally, growing awareness of health inequalities may lead to increased clamour for more action than government promises and statutory duties.
 Rahel Jaeggi, ‘Rethinking Ideology’, in Boudewijn de Bruin and Christopher F. Zurn (eds.), New Waves in Political Philosophy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 63.
 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), 118.
 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Continuum, 1987), 76.
 Trevor Purvis and Alan Hunt, ‘Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology...’, The British Journal of Sociology, 44(3) (1993), 498.
 David Hawkes, Ideology: 2nd Edition (London: Routledge, 2003), 156.
 See, for example, Charles A. Prusik, Adorno and Neoliberalism: The Critique of Exchange Society (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020); Deborah Cook, Adorno, Foucault and the Critique of the West (London: Verso, 2018).
 Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky (eds.), A Companion to Adorno (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2020).
 See Theodor Adorno, ‘Ideology’, in Frankfurt Institute of Social Research (ed.), Aspects of Sociology, (London: Heinemann, 1973), 202.
 David Benbow, ‘An Adornian Ideology Critique of Neo-liberal Reforms to the English NHS’, Journal of Political Ideologies 26(1) (2021), 59–80.
 Great Ormond Street Hospital v Constance Yates, Chris Gard and Charles Gard (A Child by his Guardian Ad Litem)  EWHC 972 (Fam) .
 Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust v Mr Thomas Evans, Ms Kate James, Alfie Evans (A Child by his Guardian CAFCASS Legal)  EWHC 308 (Fam) .
 David Benbow, ‘An Analysis of Charlie’s Law and Alfie’s Law’, Medical Law Review 28(2) (2020), 227.
 Children Act 1989, S.1(1).
 See Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), xvi.
 Benbow, ‘An Analysis’, 237–8.
 Theodor Adorno, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas' Radio Addresses (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).
 The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared this to be a global health threat in 2019. See WHO, ‘Ten threats to global health in 2019’, available at https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/ten-threats-to-global-health-in-2019 (accessed 29 October 2020).
 Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 141.
 Adorno, ‘Ideology’, 202.
 Deborah Cook, ‘Adorno, Ideology and Ideology Critique’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 27(1) (2001), 10.
 Anita Chari, A Political Economy of the Senses: Neoliberalism, Reification, Critique (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2015), 144.
 David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), 220.
 Chari, Political Economy of the Senses, 144.
 John Torrance, Estrangement, Alienation and Exploitation: A Sociological Approach to Historical Materialism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1977), 315.
 Rahel Jaeggi, ‘Solidarity and Indifference’, in Ruud ter Meulen et al (eds.), Solidarity and Health Care in Europe (London: Kluwer, 2001), 291.
 Alec Merrison, Report of the Royal Commission on the National Health Service, Cmnd 7615. (London: HMSO, 1979), 298.
 Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organisations and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).
 Via the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990.
 Department of Health, Working for Patients (London: Stationery Office, 1989), 3–6.
 Marianna Fotaki, ‘The Impact of Market-Oriented Reforms on Choice and Information: A Case Study of Cataract Surgery in Outer London and Stockholm’, Social Science & Medicine 48(100 (1999), 1430.
 Department of Health (DOH), Principles and Rules for Co-operation and Competition (London: DOH, 2007), 10.
 For example, the word consumer appeared more in Labour’s health policy documents than in its policy documents for other policy areas. See Catherine Needham, The Reform of Public Services under New Labour: Narratives of Consumerism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), 115.
 John Clarke, Janet Newman, and Louise Westmarland, ‘Creating Citizen-Consumers? Public Service Reform and (Un)willing Selves’ in Sabine Maasen and Barbara Sutter (eds.), On Willing Selves: Neoliberal Politics vis-à-vis the Neuroscientific Challenge (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), 136.
 Anna Dixon, Patient Choice: How Patient’s Choose and How Providers Respond (London: Kings Fund, 2010), 20.
 NHS Act (2006), S.13I and S.14V as amended by HSC Act (2012), S.23 and S.25.
 National Health Service (Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition) Regulations (No.2) (S.75 Regulations), SI 2013/500.
 Directive 2014(24) EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 February 2014 on Public Procurement and repealing directive 2004/18/EC, OJ L. 94, 28 March 2014. This was implemented in the UK via the Public Contracts Regulations, SI 2015/102. Such regulations are still in force.
 D. West, ‘CCGs open services to competition out of fear of rules’, Health Services Journal, 4 April 2014.
 Theodor Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965–1966 (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 127.
 Chris Ham et al., The NHS under the Coalition government part one: NHS Reform (London: Kings Fund, 2015), 18.
 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1973), 309.
 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 122.
 David Benbow, ‘The sociology of health and the NHS’, The Sociological Review 65(2) (2017), 416.
 NHS Act (2006), S.43(2A) as amended by Health and Social Care (HSC) Act (2012), S.164(1).
 Department of Health and Social Service (DHSS), Inequalities in Health: Report of a Research Working Group (London: DHSS, 1980).
 Clare Bambra, Health Divides (Bristol: Policy Press, 2016), 185.
 For example, the Secretary of State for Health is required to have regard to the need to reduce health inequalities in exercising their functions (NHS Act (2006), S.1C as amended by the HSC Act (2012), S.4.) and NHS England and CCGs are required to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities in respect of access (NHS Act (2006), S.13G(A) and S.14T(A) as amended by HSC Act (2012), S.23 and S.25) and outcomes (NHS Act (2006), S.13G(B) and S.14T(B) as amended by HSC Act (2012), S.23 and S.25).
 Clare Bambra, ‘Conclusion: Health in Hard Times’ in Clare Bambra (ed.), Health in Hard Times: Austerity and Health Inequalities (Bristol: Policy Press, 2019), 244.
 Chris Thomas, Resilient Health and Care: Learning the Lessons of Covid-19 in the English NHS (London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2020), 3.
 Hugh Alderwick et al., Sustainability and Transformation Plans in the NHS: How are they being developed in practice? (London: Kings Fund, 2016), 7.
 Ruth Robertson and Leo Ewbank, Thinking Differently about Commissioning (London: Kings Fund, 2020).
 Allyson M. Pollock and Peter Roderick, ‘Why we should be concerned about Accountable Care Organisations in England’s NHS’. British Medical Journal 360 (2018).
 Benbow, ‘The sociology of health and the NHS’, 420.
 British Medical Association (BMA), The role of private outsourcing in the Covid-19 response (London: BMA, 2020), 4.
 Benbow, ‘An Adornian Ideology Critique’, 66, 68.
 Peter Geoghegan, ‘Cronyism and Clientelism’, London Review of Books 42 (2020).
 Abi Rimmer, ‘Covid-19: Tackling health inequalities is more urgent than ever, says new alliance’. British Medical Journal 371 (2020).
by Benedict Coleridge
In the course of a 2018 interview undertaken with Jürgen Habermas by the Spanish newspaper El País, the visiting journalists noted that Habermas’ residence, decorated with modern art, presented ‘a juxtaposition of Bauhaus modernism and Bavaria’s staunch conservatism’. While the shelves were lined with the German Romantics, the walls were adorned with icons of European aesthetic modernism, fitting the style of the house itself. In an autobiographical preface to his essays on Naturalism and Religion, Habermas gives an account of the confluence of his decorative and intellectual tastes, highlighting the distinctive experiences and hopes to which they testify. He writes of the post-war revelations that disclosed a civilisational rupture after 1945, along with the sense of cultural release brought about by the doors being opened ‘to Expressionist art, to Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse, to world literature written in English, to the contemporary philosophy of Sartre and the French left-wing Catholics, to Freud and Marx, as well as to the pragmatism of John Dewey’. He goes on to suggest that ‘contemporary cinema also conveyed exciting messages. The liberating, revolutionary spirit of Modernism found compelling visual expression in Mondrian’s constructivism, in the cool geometric lines of Bauhaus architecture, and in uncompromising industrial design.’ Together, these aesthetic movements espoused what Virginia Rembert calls a determination to develop an artistic practice that conveyed a ‘new world image’. And according to Habermas, the ‘cultural opening’ instigated by these aesthetic pursuits ‘went hand in hand with a political opening’, which primarily took the form of ‘the political constructions of social contract theory … combined with the pioneering spirit and the emancipatory promise of Modernism’.
In the imaginative resources it marshals, and in its fixation with conceptual transposability, formality, and procedural neutrality, contemporary political liberalism of the Habermasian variety interacts with modernist visions of social transformation and stabilisation, even while it refuses an account of historical change spurred on by abrupt or destructive rupture. And if political and social theory leans frequently upon structuring metaphors, then it’s worth wondering whether a picture, or in this case an aesthetic, holds the Frankfurt School captive rather more literally than Wittgenstein’s phrase intends: a ‘picture’ that insists upon a conceptual and practical association between modernity, emancipation and abstraction.
On the one hand, modernism seems an unlikely inspiration for a movement concerned to integrate a textured and historically alert account of social life into its theory of normativity. As William Rehg and James Bohman point out, the reformulation of Frankfurt School critical theory undertaken by Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, while more heavily indebted to Kant than to Marx, also sought to be ‘increasingly attuned to the challenges of social complexity and cultural pluralism’. That’s an attunement prompted by the pragmatist commitment to deriving moral norms from social experience rather than transcendental ideals, partly out of an aversion to the imperial chauvinisms unleashed by strong universalist accounts of truth, rationality, or progress.
On the other hand, however, the turn to experience is made in an effort to re-found a critical normativity beyond the impasse of the Linguistic Turn, so prising open the horizon of modernity and sustaining the kind of ‘emancipatory promise’ at which post-modernists direct suspicion. And while, unlike the Bauhaus and its drive towards an aesthetically and politically cleansed future, Habermas and his intellectual heirs refuse Walter Gropius’ mantra of “starting from zero”, modernism’s ‘cool geometry’ remains in view as an intellectual ideal and structuring metaphor. Its emancipatory promise rests primarily upon a claim, made on behalf of abstract formalism, to culture-transcending ethical neutrality—that is, the notion that we can develop normatively resonant aesthetic forms that do not suffer from the perspectival limitation that the articulation of experience generally bears with it.
To pursue the neo-Kantian ‘project of modernity’ in political theory is to search for a culturally neutral vantage-point from which to establish a universal rule morality capable of conditioning diverse ethical personalities. Of course, the powerful ideological dimension to this project is its self-construal as an essentially moral rather than a political enterprise drawing from pre-political, rational, insights. And if secular reason has been dethroned, or at least seriously challenged, by post-colonial critiques of hegemonic rationalism, then the search is on for a more diminutive, yet nevertheless critically powerful, foundation for Kantian normative universality.
In this spirit, contemporary Frankfurt school theorists of the Habermasian variety seek to sustain the ‘new world image’ of Kantian universalism without resorting to ethically parochial or rampantly metaphysical idealisations. To do so they require a kind of normativity that’s substantively ‘empty’ and open to transposition across different political and cultural sites, even while ensuring the possibility of moral imperatives in the style of basic norms, rights, and deliberative procedural commitments. For Habermas this, famously, means the rational presuppositions of communicative action, while for fourth-generation Frankfurt School theorists such as Rainer Forst and Alessandro Ferrara it entails a basic right to justification and a shared mode of aesthetic judgment respectively. By construing normativity as a matter of ‘higher level internalism’ free from dependence upon particular ethical languages (Forst), or as a matter of discerning ethical-aesthetic forms like ‘exemplary self-congruence’ in ethical traditions (Ferrara), contemporary Frankfurt School theorists, for all their internal differences, lean upon the ideal of generalisable normative forms unimpaired by narrative content, ethical convention, or cultural substance. In so doing, they recognisably accord with mid-century modernist attempts at signifying experience through an idealised aesthetic formalism that eschews cultural ‘likeness’, hoping to elude ideological parochialism via the surreal, the impressionistic, and the abstract.
But for what kind of modernity might the cool geometry and abstraction of Western modernism supply allegorical inspiration? And how might aesthetic modernism mould the relation envisaged by Frankfurt School theorists between an emancipatory spirit and a perplexingly multivalent social world? Contemporaneous with Habermas’ own career, the prominent American art critic Clement Greenberg elucidated and developed the aesthetic instincts to which Habermas has evidently gravitated, his views about artistic modernism (including Mondrian) offering some possible insights into Habermas’ own inclinations. Consider, for example, Greenberg’s influential, and controversial, articulation of the raison d’être of the avant-garde in twentieth-century art, by which painters such as Mondrian and Kandinsky produced work the excitement of which lay ‘in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colours, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors’. What marks aesthetic modernism, writes Greenberg, is a turn away from the ‘the subject matter of common experience’ towards the ‘medium’ of one’s own craft, meaning that the ‘nonrepresentational or “abstract”’ must ‘stem from obedience to some worthy constraint or original’. This ‘constraint’, which might once have been located in ‘the world of common, extroverted experience’, has collapsed and can now ‘only be found in the everyday processes or disciplines by which art and literature have already imitated the former’.
Note here the manner in which Greenberg associates modernism with a fixation upon the power of the medium to generate its own principles of rational construction; hence, the artist may produce and deploy colour or form in a manner that isolates them from antecedent aesthetic traditions and the cultural narratives towards which they gesture. One may thereby mobilise colour in a manner that makes the colour itself the subject of the work, rather than an element involved in the culturally defined ‘subject matter of common experience’ from which modernism, on Greenberg’s reading, turns. The implication here is that such an act of ‘pure’ aesthetic formalism is, firstly, possible and, secondly, emancipatory in its liberation of the elements that together constitute the work of art so as to establish their aesthetic relevance upon medium-specific principles—that is, as elements autochthonous to the work itself rather than bearers of cultural sediment.
The emancipatory power of the ‘spirit of modernism’—at least in the Western forms that appear on Habermas’ wall—rests upon its refusal of co-dependence between aesthetic form and cultural substance or, in relation to the social process of normative ideation, the manner in which ‘precepts and narratives operate together to ground meaning’. To flesh out this refusal in more concrete terms let’s briefly attend to one of Greenberg’s critics (and Habermas’ contemporary), Rosalind Krauss, who presents an analysis of ‘the grid’ as ‘a structure that has remained emblematic of the modernist ambition within the visual arts.’ For Krauss the grid, employed and developed by Mondrian, in whom Habermas takes express interest, ‘announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.’ If we follow Krauss’ argument, the will to silence performed by abstract forms amounts to a rejection of antecedence and postcedence, as well as any relationship of dependence upon ethically- or socially-embedded forms and traditions, thereby enacting the ‘emancipatory promise of Modernism’ to which Habermas’ project cleaves.
In so doing, an abstraction such as the grid performs a function that is ultimately non-discursive, working visually to declare its autonomy from the social or natural worlds from which aesthetic creativity might conventionally draw form. It does so, argues Krauss, by enacting a regularising and levelling function upon the artwork, ‘crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.’ By means of its organised regularity the grid enacts an ‘aesthetic decree’, rather than an entry into discourse that evokes objects external to the artwork in its technical dimension.
The key point here, relevant to an assessment of aesthetic modernism’s relation to contemporary iterations of Frankfurt School social and political theory, is the notion that form, disassociated from the ‘dimensions of the real’ or from ‘the world of common experience’, possesses an internal logic that validates its own enterprise. The grid operates independently of any specific content or traceable lineage, working to order the artwork by marginalising the hinterland of cultural discourse that gives it its political and social intelligibility. Of course, intelligibility still relies upon an audience with some understanding of what is being enacted through the refusal of narrative and the rejection of precedent, but the claim that is made by the abstract self-reliance of the grid is nevertheless one of control and self-authorisation. In its avoidance of any mimetic relation to the natural or social worlds the grid sets out to establish itself as the product of ‘pure relationship’, so ‘abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to them’. And, as the scholar of African and African diaspora art history, Salah Hassan, reminds us, this has a powerful political dimension. Twentieth-century Western modernism’s emphasis on the experimental and alienated avant-gardes worked to exclude ‘realist and narrative modes’, including those produced outside of the Euro-Atlantic metropolitan art world; the narrative dissonance of the experimental performed the essential ‘purifying’ and emancipatory functions.
None of this is to say that all modernist departures from aesthetic realism or naturalism amount to a fixation upon ‘pure’ formalism at the expense of culturally-configured restatements of identity. Just as modernity remains a polysemic phenomenon, modernism as an account of the relationship between past and present takes different forms, shaped by distinct political projects and social resources. And, of course, post-war artistic modernism was as pluralistic and varied as the novel intellectual resources being generated at that moment in post-colonial constitutional and political thought. Kobena Mercer points for example to the ‘modernist strategies of formal experimentation’ present in mid-century ‘Afro-Modernism’, which destabilised an established image of ‘Africa’ available in Western societies and ‘opened a space for new understandings of black cultural influences as a core feature of global modernity.’
Afro-Modernism, suggests Mercer, was capable of establishing ‘multi-perspectival viewpoints’ by integrating the miniature and the monumental, thereby asserting their mutual dependence and the potential for non-dichotomous interaction. Jacob Lawrence’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, produced between 1986 and 1997, for example, is composed out of 15 prints developed from 41 tempera paintings, conveying episodically the dramas of the Haitian Revolution in tandem with stylistic hints at Soviet monumentalism (perhaps reflective of Lawrence’s interest in Soviet silent cinema). Afro-Modernists such as Lawrence developed formal innovations so as to produce a ‘pictorial narrative’ that ‘addressed the past genealogically’ so as to discern its political relevance. Intimate narrative scenes were made central to discerning the direction of modern emancipatory efforts. Differently, the Cuban sculptor Agustín Cárdenas, who joined the surrealist movement in Paris in the 1950s, reconciled more formal considerations in sculpture with references to totemic symbolism drawn from the Dogon ethnicity of present-day Mali. And artists like Ibrahim El-Salahi of the Khartoum School of African modernist painters have drawn upon obviously paideiac calligraphic practices derived from Qur’anic transcription, even while working under the eaves of the ideologically powerful avant-garde encountered in the former imperial metropole, London.
The ‘spirit of modernism’, therefore, doesn’t necessarily entail a disjuncture between cultural particularity and critical power of the kind pursued visually by some Western modernists and philosophically by neo-Kantians. Rather, when experimenting with form in open contact with genealogy, history, and experiential specificity, it enables the emergence of new claims to recognition through the re-conceptualisation of modernity as ambiguous, locally-determined, and hermeneutically challenging. This form of modernism moves within the contingent parameters of a particular or localised identity, making its emancipatory effort one of hermeneutical ‘amalgamation’, rather than displacement. In this sense, it arguably refuses the more canonically Western modernist program that, in Greenberg’s terms, ‘rejects the subject matter of common experience’ to pursue aesthetic and social transformation through the development of autonomous form and abstract solidarity.
Whereas, according to Kant’s definition in the Groundwork, ‘practical principles are formal if they abstract from all subjective ends’, Afro-modernism held subjective—which is to say, locally, customarily, formed—ends and their cultural signifiers to be the material from which to compose a pluralised modernity, so challenging the presuppositions of the Western art schools. This isn’t to say that, in the conventional role allotted to the non-Western post-colonial world, Afro-modernism supplied some kind of folkloric antidote to the rationalism of Weberian modernity. Rather, Afro-Modernism, amongst other post-colonial artistic movements, prised open discursive opportunities for transculturation, which made ‘modernism’ into something that conveyed multifarious cultural symbols and aesthetic ideals. Resourced by experiences and political hopes for transformation from beyond the former metropole, it began to visualise the ‘spirit’ of the avant-garde not as the displacement of customary practices but in terms of their entry, re-fashioned, into the dialogue of social and political modernity, with its novel experiences of the state, mass society, and post-coloniality.
Given the intellectual and aesthetic movement from which they stem, the visions of Bauhaus modernism and constructivism that adorn Habermas’ walls presumably convey notions of unity, abstraction, anti-historicism, and world-creation, all of which are recognisable features of his moral and political project—a project that responds to the barbarities of World War Two with the re-assertion of progressive social order based normatively upon an inter-subjective continuation of Kantianism. There are, of course, ideological connections between this interest in abstraction and the kind of modernity to which Habermas’ project strives—connections that belie the claim to normative system unburdened by cultural or ideological particularism. Indeed, without a testing stretch of the imagination a definitively modernist form such as the aforementioned grid might be construed as an aesthetic paradigm that corresponds with the broader high-modernist ambition for a rationally-designed social order, with its inevitably fraught relation to the “non-rational” and non-secular.
James Scott’s well known exploration of high modernism and state planning alerts us to the optical dimension involved in establishing a ‘rationally’ ordered relation between the social and natural worlds and over social life through the centrally enacted visions involved in urban-planning and design. But perhaps the more important point to make here is that there are imaginative alternatives that continue to move in an experimentally avant-garde direction. Instead of developing the ideological claim to authoritative cultural neutrality via formal abstraction, non-European movements like Afro-modernism and the Khartoum School actively inserted particular, historically over-shadowed identities into the modernist frame, so making the ‘new world image’ of modernity more multiform than Habermas’ domestic collection might suggest. Thought-provokingly for the political theorist, they signify that particular, local experiences, crafts, and customs may themselves propel critical social and intellectual re-arrangement and, with it, the struggle for a shared modern horizon.
 Borja Hermoso, ‘Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas: “For God’s Sake, Spare Us Governing Philosophers!”’, El País Semanal (25 May 2018),
 Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, Ciaran Cronin (tr.) (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 19.
 Virginia Rembert, Piet Mondrian (New York, NY: Parkstone Press, 2015), 40.
 Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, 19.
 William Rehg and James Bohman, “Introduction,” in Pluralism and the Pragmatic Turn (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 1.
 Steffen de Rudder, ‘The Bauhaus and the City as a White Spot: How Gropius Lost His Reputation on the Streets of New York’, in Laura Colini and Frank Eckardt (eds.), Bauhaus and the City: A Contested Heritage for a Challenging Future (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2011), 82.; Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (London: Abacus, 1986), 14.
 Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1965), 7.
 Ibid., 6.
 Robert Cover, ‘Nomos and Narrative’, in Martha Minnow, Michael Ryan and Austin Sarat (eds.), Narrative, Violence and the Law (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press), 139.
 Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘The Grid, the True Cross, the Abstract Structure’, Studies in the History of Art 48(1) (1995), 50.
 Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, 19.
 Krauss, #The Grid, The True Cross, The Abstract Structure’, 50.
 See Salah M. Hassan, ‘African Modernism: Beyond Alternative Modernities Discourse’, South Atlantic Quarterly 109(3) (2010).
 For example, see Frederick Cooper on constitutional rearrangements of post-war French West Africa. Frederick Cooper, Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa 1945-1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); and see Adom Getachew on postwar anticolonial ‘worldmaking’ in Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).
 Kobena Mercer, ‘Cosmopolitan Contact Zones’, in Tanya Barson and Peter Görschluter (eds.) Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic (exh. cat., Tate Liverpool, 2010), 43.
 Ibid., 42.
 James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).