Marx and his ideals. In its simplest form Marx’s view were based on the haves and have not’s. The rich versus the poor. Many theorists felt that crimes are created because of a social conflict amongst people. The question to be asked should be why some actions are considered criminal and some are not. Is it because of the social class standings? The first time critical theory was defined it was done so by Max Horkheimer and he described it as the changing and critiquing of society and how to explain it (Horkheimer 1937). Critical theory has many definitions depending on what the current topic is. It is hard to determine what one specific definition is for this theory. Some have argued that there is no real definition. Others have formed the idea as being an idea that teaches knowledge, taking a stance against modern criminology, critiquing the environment around you.
When one refers to critical theory one is explaining an assorted work of ideals by members of the Frankfurt institute. The original ideal of the Frankfurt school was based from Karl Marx’s aufhebung philosophy. The social classes were what Marx characterized his beliefs in and for the purpose of critical theory they were not going to undo his ideal but to examine them and transform them into a better understanding of the classes and the world. This theory began by putting Marx’s ideas of classes into analysis. There are key concepts that have been derived from Marx and his ideals that form critical theory past to present. Some ideas of Marx’s were capitalism is the cause of delinquency.
Capitalist serve the ruling class. Crime if committed by the elite (bourgeois) is to keep the working class (proletariat) in line. Critical criminology feels that it does have
Critical Theory 2
some common ground with Marxism in that the power players do commit the crime in order to keep the poor or working class in line. Then the powerful use the laws against the poor to keep them down.
In history critical theory has meaning in the social sciences. Critical theory was adapted from western European Marxist school known as the Frankfurt school. In 1923 Felix Weil founded the Frankfurt school. His desire was because he had great passion for the Marxist ideal. Critical theory is one of the longest traditions of Marx. The school was designed to study social change. Some of the people who have been influential over the years in critical theory are; Carl Gruenberg, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas. When the Nazi’s came in to power the institute fled to New York to Columbia University. In 1951 Max Horkheimer went back to Germany and reopened the institute. Horkheimer developed the term critical theory by looking at an approach that combined social science and philosophy. He felt he we would be able to answer questions that could not have been answered before. He wanted to be able to answer the historical questions and be able to give them a time frame, a location and also a look at the economy at that time.
Since the 1970’s Jurgen Habermas has been the best known critical theorist, he has helped with the new ideals in Germany and the United States dealing with society and communication. He felt there are three things that should be looked at to understand critical theories: power, work and interaction. He felt that all three must be done together, to see how society really deals with things as a whole. Without the three ideals working together we will not be able to get a true meaning of how much society has
Critical Theory 3
Critical theory can have a broad or narrow meaning. If used in the broad meaning it can be looked at as other theories as well like: Feminism, Race theory or Post-Colonial criticism. Max Horkheimer felt the only real definition for critical theory was one that meets three critierias. It must be practical, normative or explanatory and all must be occurring at the same time. It must identify the people involved, the issues within society and have clear goals and critics in order to have transformation. (Horkheimer 1993)
In dialectic of enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer changed the approach and went with emphasis on cooperation with the social sciences. They wanted to show that the enlightenment had destructive tendencies. (Horkheimer, A. and T.W. Adorno 1972). During this time the theorists were looking at how to maintain normal concepts while contemplating how to develop the ideas of their practice. With the first generation theorist of the 40’s they were trying to analyze the conditions of democracy and how to account for the historical perspective that goes with society and the changing environment. Horkheimer used a term called “the Jewish question” which were bourgeois limited freedoms put on the illusory form of perfect freedom and autonomy (Horkheimer 1982). He criticized modern legality and philosophy as being detached. He felt the freedoms people have are their own and not of societies. One of the key concepts in the dialectic of enlightenment is based on myth and how they turn into their opposites. They become the people they most despise.
A central theme has been developed in critical theory no matter the subject matter you are looking at. It is the development of an argument between a theoretical and
Critical Theory 4
practical one. Theoretical feels that these critics should develop a definitive theory to these explanations and approaches. When looking to develop the practical meaning of your endeavor you first have to make sure you have the theoretical approach fully developed or you cannot go any further. They must explain to the best of their ability the theory and then explain its consequence and false beliefs to the people about their own practice. This can be called the “kantian” approach which is a case by case basis seeing how the theories go up against the practical ability (Bohman, 1991). The second approach can be called “Hegelian” this is where theorist try to unify social science theories to get a historical perspective of the events (McCarthy in Hoy and McCarthy 1994). This idea does not get rid of the fighting amongst theorists as to what theory is correct. This theory is based on the practical version looking at the present situation. They do not look at the criteria of the theory which is the Kantian approach but more of a fair versus unfair approach. The problem for the practical version is trying to remove the impasse.
The perspective taken by critical theory is one of looking at social relationships. The discussion must be looked at for the fact of how one interprets something and who is doing the interpreting. If you are the interpreter you’re not just observing but reporting on the facts at hand. If you are interpreting you must look at it as if you are answering the questions in first person and third person so that once you can argue your point people will be able to understand your side of the story.
McCarthy, (1991) stated critical theory is based upon the use of the critique as a method of investigation. The main facts of thought are social theory and what it is mirrored to. Is it reflected to art, science, technology, crime, literature, etc. The tools of
Critical Theory 5
the culture. The theory is tries to “promote change by becoming part of the self consciousness of oppressed social groups” (Hoy and McCarthy 1994). The two main beliefs of the critical theories were of opposition and of statues quo. It is opposed to the Marx’s social class but wants to look at and further develop the ideas that were behind it. The role of this theory is to not only rescind the facts but to gain the insight of knowledge based on the objects, ideals and relations that all these items have in common with each other.
As mentioned earlier in this paper Marxism is one of the main forms of critical theory and its basis is that of capitalism and modern achievements. Critical theory has been seeking to understand the modern fate of the current times they are in. They want to diagnosis the meaning behind the discussions amongst classes. When they diagnose Marx ideals they researched the political social class struggle. Times have changed the theories and have began to look at business, economics and the basic why are decisions made. It doesn’t go back the Marx ideal of does politics play an important role in how things are decided. There is an old saying of what comes around goes around. When the theory was first constructed it looked at Marx social classes and how to better the ideal and not have it the so-called haves and have nots.
William Bonger was the first theorist to apply Marxism to crime. He felt capitalism breeds crime. Bonger looked at how social classes worked for and against each other. He looked at how the working class did all the work just to get by, while the rich viewed the working class as persons who served them. But looking at culture and society today, not much has changed. As I sit here and right this paper we are coming up on
Critical Theory 6
another political election. In my time on earth I have not seen the real underdog get into any important office. It is still the powerful and wealthy that rules this country. They say it is a land of freedoms and choice but when push comes to shove big brother (government) still controls all we do and we are told what to do by these political leaders.
So using the critical theory aspect for me in today’s society we would have to look at our government and decided if it is that far off from the Marx perspective or maybe we can have today’s critical theorist look at our society. I feel that we have gotten away from what made our government and society the best in the world. We are too worried about making the rich happy, while the middle class and poor still struggle. Today is there even really a middle class or is it the bourgeois versus the proletariat all over again. To use the struggles in my work place for a moment with the “kids for cash” issues it again was the rich and powerful versus the poor and uneducated. We must ask what we can do to make things change for the better. Is it getting back to our root of what made this country a vibrant stronghold or today where we are so in debt we keep printing money and hiding behind the fact that our economy is pretty much worthless?
The question Horkheimer and Adorno asked was “why humanity, instead of entering into a truly human condition is sinking into a new form of barbarism” (Kellner 1989). Horkheimer and Adorno stated “what men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men. This is the only aim” (Kellner, 1989). For Critical Theorist their biggest issues are the argument over political issues. They very rarely give different solutions to the views of capitalism or democracy. The theory is trying to transform the Marxist perspective. It tries to show the oppression of other
Critical Theory 7
human beings and what can be done to help improve or educate. They are trying to get to the underlying problem and what best fits to help rectify the issues. Some of the main goals of critical theory are to have a diverse education where people can think freely, create social balance amongst classes, to go against facism, forms of discrimination and to show good morals.
One of the weaknesses in critical theory is its claims upon superiority. Critics feels that the critical theorists assume they are better equipped to understand more than most and are better suited for a plan of achievement. They fail to listen to the persons who might have more education or experience in that matter at hand. These theorists are also weakened by the fact they limit themselves by failing to inform on all human actions. The theorists believe that their research is what will guide the date and understanding of this research. Critical criminology has long drawn knowledge and inspiration from social movements (Young 1999). There have been many movements since critical theory has been developed. Some of the more famous ones in our time have been women’s rights, civil rights, and gay & lesbian rights movements. With the movements in society to always be changing these problems have had to be looked at and developed each step of the way. Whether it has been via voting or just plain law, each of these societal movements have had critical theorists juggling to see which way things will work out. John Braithwaite (1998) the alliance between criminology and social movements is central to the progress and pursuit of social justice. We can not just sit back and write fancy critiques about what we can do and what has been done but we must make social change in order to see just how far we have come as a society.
Critical Theory 8
Critical theorists have subjected the ways some people have viewed how things have occurred. Whether it be a key term or a neat commercial, we are all subjected to someone else’s ideas and patterns and are made to believe what the conglomerate wants us to do. Critical theories have defended its own view points since its inceptions and always will defend its own view points. We must always look back to know where we have been going and where we want to go. If we don’t look to where we have been how do we know we (society) have gone anywhere at all. This theory has had its fair share of positives and negatives during its time. They were the first to look at how capitalism has affected the economy and social classes. With its approach of finding social issues and promoting transformation it found itself doing the analysis of seeing how societal changes have occurred and to what point they have effected people and the social environment.
Some questions come to mind when discussing this theory. If Marx is correct can his system survive? Second the theory fails to offer a testable theory and what can it do to solve the crime issues? Are crimes being committed because of the conditions that they must live in because they are less fortunate than others?
Critical Theory 9