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).