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Critical Theory and the Critique of Capitalism


Rochelle DuFord, Ph.D. (University of Hartford);
Chris O’Kane, Ph.D. (The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley);

In its initial inception in interwar Germany, critical theory was designed to construct social theories of life under capitalism by critiquing its social basis. Over time, the critique of capitalism slowly became a  background consideration for critical theory, as theorists focused far more on concerns related to the development of theories of legitimation and recognition and that largely lacked a concrete focus on the role of capitalism in generating our social, political, and economic conditions. After the 2008 financial crisis and the 2016 US presidential election, a resurgence of popular and scholarly interest has developed in both critical theory and the critique of capitalism.

While the tradition of critical theory has always involved a close relationship to Marxist thought, this was mostly a background current during the height of discourse ethics’ popularity. Still, one cannot understand the history of critical theory without sustained consideration of it as a critique of capitalism. Contemporarily, both Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi are at the forefront of returning to critical theory’s roots as a way of understanding, as Jaeggi puts it, “what (if anything) is wrong with capitalism?” This return has generated a resurgence of interest in the critique of capitalism and texts concerning arguments in favor of the welfare state, anti-work politics, emancipatory movements, and critical theoretical interpretations of formerly overlooked figures such as Karl Polanyi.

This workshop is intended to focus on this resurgence of interest in both critical theory and the critique of capitalism, with particular attention to be paid to the intersection of the two. It is aimed at understanding what is wrong with capitalism, and what, if any, alternatives are available, from the perspective of critical theory. Any work that falls under this basis is welcome, though we are particularly interested in critiques of capitalism in the tradition of the Frankfurt School, including scholarly work on Lukács, Grossman, Benjamin, Pollock, Neumann, Fromm, Adorno, Horkheimer, Schmidt, Negt & Kluge, Offe, Habermas, Postone, Fraser, Jaeggi or their associates and later interpreters.

Topics that papers may address include:

  • The politics of critical theory
  • Alienation and/or exploitation
  • Domination and freedom
  • Capitalism and suffering
  • Capitalism and the domination of nature
  • Capitalism and crisis
  • Periodization, critical theory, and the critique of capitalism
  • State capitalism and the welfare state
  • Neoliberalism and the welfare state
  • Political association and organizations under late capitalism
  • Political association and organizations under neoliberalism
  • Interpretations of Marx in critical theory
  • Interpretations of Polanyi in critical theory
  • Interpretations of capitalism in critical theory
  • Political economy in Frankfurt School thought
  • Emancipation