The normative basis of critical theory

What values are the basis of critical theory’s a) negative critique of the (capitalist) status quo and b) whatever else it proposes as the ideal society to be achieved?

My starting points for a discussion of normativity:

1. There is no god so any normative position based on a religion is non-starter, for me at least.

2. The universe has no meaning or purpose other than that constructed by human beings who, through the evolution and development of consciousness is ‘nature becoming conscious of itself’ in the words of Marx.

3. Any normative discourse is a human creation/social construction.

4. There is no transcendental normative position that exists or can be grounded in any supposed pre-human or pre-social nature. Nature is both red in tooth and claw no doubt but it also provides many examples of symbiotic and apparently ‘altruistic’ behaviours. Ecological systems can have aspects construed and socially constructed under either heading. Neither is more real or authentic than the other ofrany possible interpretation and construction in between.

5. Democracy, equality, freedom, justice or any other normative term has no independent ontological reference or grounding.

6. All such terms, to the extent they have the empirical correlates, are partial. All freedom is within constraints. All democracy has asymmetries of power and influence. All equalities are formal and constructed.

7. All normative positions are matters of convention, negotiation, and in some way or another human made, elaborated and implemented.

8. This is an uncomfortable position in the sense that it asserts a radical normative relativism but is is encouraging as it does not hide from confronting the necessity for a political and social process to establish the normative basis of society.

9. Freedom equality and democracy, if agreed upon, are therefore achievable though action.

So critical theory’s normative basis is grounded in a Marxist analysis of capitalism and notions of equality, freedom and democracy. Can critical theory operate on the basis of the Marxist account of capitalism without also taking on its normative basis? Are the two inseparable anyway? Is an objective account of how capitalism works compatible with a variety of different normative bases?

If capitalism is criticised in terms of the distorted democratic systems, and the inequalities and unfreedoms it produces, then presumably the distortions are at least implicitly measured against ideal forms of democracy, equality and freedom. It is these specifications of the ideal that are the normative base. These, it could be argued, are transcendental. But do they have to be? For instance, as Sen points out, we do not need a philosopher’s specification of ideal equality to know that, in some places and at some times, some women are more equal than their mothers and grandmothers, or that the condition of some black Americans are in some important aspects more equal and free than their slave ancestors? Or am I wrong about this? Surely a critical theory can be built on this approach to looking at changes in freedom and equality? But if this is the case, then the normative discourse could be built on other approaches to critical theories not based on Marxism perhaps.

Sen? Norbert Elias? Who else?

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