The Future Direction of Critical Theory

The current state of democratic society in the postmodern world is that of crisis. Since the Enlightenment, society worked toward incremental perfection, but the “perfect” society has all but lost its meaning in postmodern times. Democratic inhabitants may be finally free to create themselves and their world in the way that they want without meddling authority, but they are powerless to decide just what that ought to look like. Although society has freed its members from the lifestyles prescribed by the political system, scientific reason, and morality, it has been unable to replace their now-vacant niches with anything constructive. The collective “good” of the people has no face and has fallen to the wayside. Democratic society has deteriorated into a consumer society whose aim is nothing more than free, but superficial, self-creation through accumulation of commodities.

For decades, sociology’s critical theory, championed by J├╝rgen Habermas, established as its goal the complete emancipation of humankind, but now that that emancipation from domination has been attained in liberal societies, it does not appear so enticing. Where is the happiness and wisdom that was supposed to accompany individual liberty? Why, despite society’s casting aside of its self-imposed shackles, is life filled with more uncertainty than ever? Perhaps the answer lies in the type of freedom achieved in the postmodern world. Modern society had been so concerned with the negation of the ideology of the state and the new, class-like technocratic consciousness that it failed to realize that it was actually pulling the rug out from under itself. It even went so far as to condemn the very nature of that rug. What the contemporary individual believes to be freedom is actually the lack of ground to stand upon.

The structure of society has transformed in the transition from modernity to postmodernity, and critical theory is left to ponder the difference between the presently accomplished negative freedom and the empowering positive freedom which is true autonomy. Consumer society’s negatively free individuals are as apathetic to the common good as ever, and do not participate in the democratic process of creating a world. Societal emancipation toward a capable and wise positive freedom must occur on a collective level, however, and that requires communal participation in democracy. A forum must be created where collective self-reflection may transpire and generate a self-conscious rationality by which society may be created in a historically-aware manner once again. The future of critical theory, then, must focus mainly on the creation of a civil society instead of the negation of factors that hinder its realization.