Emancipatory imperative: a critical theory of social transformation
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date30/08/2023
In this thesis, I argue for the importance of an emancipatory imperative in political theory. While early 20th century critical theory offered promising resources for thinking about the liberation from social and economic unfreedom, particularly through Antonio Gramsci and the first-generation Frankfurt School, late 20th and 21st century political theory frequently forgoes emancipation as a key aim. How can such an emancipatory imperative be developed and defended today? In order to probe this question, I interrogate the foundational idea of critical theory as emancipation and enlightenment. While enlightenment can often serve anti-emancipatory ends, so can outright rejections by retreating into the territory of piecemeal reform or even defending the status quo. I bring together Gramsci and the Frankfurt School with important recent advances in feminist work on political affect and critical work on race and colonialism to recalibrate enlightenment in a critical and emancipatory direction, thus insisting on the need for a commitment to emancipation and enlightenment alike. Through an in-depth critical reading of three wide-ranging influential political theorists – John Rawls, James C. Scott, and Chantal Mouffe – I show how their understandings of enlightenment all contribute to such departures from emancipation. By reconsidering the role of reason and rationalism through the prisms of collectivity, material interest, antagonistic struggle, and affect, I critically recalibrate enlightenment away from its anti-emancipatory and oppressive forms toward an emancipatory enlightenment between hyper-rationalism and anti-rationalism. I then propose a renewed critical emancipation to overcome the problems of political, human, and negative understandings of emancipation. While Rawls is overly committed to an enlightenment understanding of reason and rationalism, Scott is overly critical of these in his anti-rationalism from above. In both cases, this leads the theorist down a path incompatible with emancipation. Mouffe bridges the reason-affect divide and gets closer to the possibility of locating the imperative of critical emancipation, yet by eschewing the importance of material interest vis-à-vis affect she jeopardises the possibility of a transformed world beyond radicalised liberal democracy. By (re)turning to Gramsci’s work on affect and his conception of a secular-political and materialist faith in particular, I develop a vision of an emancipatory imperative better attuned to the politics of affect in a material context. In light of this reconceptualization, I conclude by outlining the role of the critical theorist vis-à-vis emancipatory politics and emancipatory political theory through self-reflexive rearguard legitimation and comradely critique. Such a vision helps develop political theory committed to emancipation today and paves the way for renewed scholarship in the critical theory tradition. I hence add two main contributions to the field: First, I challenge recent attempts to embrace Rawls, Scott, and Mouffe as theorists useful for emancipation through a novel focus particularly on the role of emancipation and enlightenment in their work. Second, I contribute to the contemporary critical theory tradition’s debates on the limits of enlightenment for emancipation, in the process advancing debates on the relationship between theory and practice, and the theorists’ role in relation to these.