- Colonial Pasts, Decolonial Futures: Allen’s The End of Progress
In her new book, Amy Allen makes a major contribution to the decolonization of Frankfurt School critical theory. Her starting point is to reaffirm what she regards as the distinctive and essential aspect of this theoretical tradition: its commitment to a form of critique that is historically and socially situated, meaning that the norms critical theory affirms are to be derived from and grounded immanently within the social context that is the object of critique. Two primary pitfalls face this approach, which critical theorists attempt to navigate and avoid in a variety of ways. The first is foundationalism, or the idea of deriving freestanding norms that transcend the current social context. The second is relativism, or the idea that there is no way to assess normative claims across divergent societal contexts and forms of life because these claims are irretrievably tied to their contexts, and therefore can only be local, parochial, and conventional. While critical theorists attempt to navigate these ‘twin evils’ in a variety of ways, the problem Allen confronts is that the strategy many use to do so implicates them in imperial forms of power/knowledge.
In Allen’s assessment, one of the primary strategies by which critical theorists have sought to avoid both foundationalism and relativism is by recourse to a developmental story of global historical progress and sociocultural learning. Such a story provides the (now) universal social context required in order for critical theorists to maintain their commitment to immanent critique while still being able to make universal normative claims—claims that also happen to be historically rooted in European, Enlightenment modernity. The problem with this strategy, however, is that it builds directly into these critical theories a primary obstacle to their own decolonization—an imperative, even on critical theory’s own terms, in an era of ongoing colonial and neocolonial power relations. This is because one of the primary tenets of postcolonial and decolonial thought has been to critique and reject stadial, developmentalist metanarratives of historical progress in which societies of the global North-West are construed as more civilized, superior, and/or advanced than the rest of the world. The task Allen sets for herself, then, is to grapple with the ramifications of postcolonial and decolonial critiques of such metanarratives for critical theorists’ attempts to ground their normativity. She puts her thesis in the following way: “critical theory stands in need of decolonization insofar as its strategy for grounding normativity relies on the notion of historical progress; thus, if critical theory is to be decolonized, it will have to find another strategy for grounding normativity and another way of thinking about progress” (36).
After an introductory chapter in which Allen describes the postcolonial/decolonial critique of progress, outlines her main argument, and contrasts it with Thomas McCarthy’s similar (but, in her view, unsuccessful) attempt to grapple with this same challenge from within the Frankfurt School tradition, she devotes one chapter to each of three central figures in this tradition: Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, and Rainer Forst. In these chapters Allen offers a close and careful reading of these thinkers, revealing how each in his own way maintains an imperialistic stance when trying to ground a normativity that navigates between foundationalism and relativism. While the neo-Hegelian approaches of Habermas and Honneth somewhat successfully avoid foundationalism, they fall back upon a story of historical progress and social evolution that, according to Allen, ultimately positions European modernity as developmentally superior to premodern, nonmodern, and other subaltern forms of life, and therefore fails at least one test of decolonization. And while Forst relies less on a metanarrative of historical progress and sociocultural learning, his neo-Kantian approach remains Eurocentric and insufficiently decolonized because it attempts to provide a ‘freestanding’ normative standard, and in doing so lapses into a kind of imperial foundationalism that continues, despite itself, to position the norms embedded in European modernity as more cognitively and morally advanced than other societies or forms of life...