The Dialectic of Control: From the Past to the Future of Critical Social Theory

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:15
Location: Seminar 34 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Craig BROWNE, University of Sydney, Australia
The notion of the dialectic of control has a venerable position in the history of critical theory. Hegel’s formulation of the dialectical conflict of lordship and bondage is often regarded as the major theoretical influence upon Marx’s interpretation of the historical dynamic of class conflict and the distorted social relations of alienation. The dialectic of control illuminated subordinated classes resistance to domination and it disclosed the contradictions inherent in the owners of capital’s dependence on the exploitation of wage-labour. In some respects, the history of critical theory can be understood as an encounter with the vicissitudes of the dialectic of control. The work of the Frankfurt School attempted to elucidate the complications of the dialectic of control attendant upon capitalist rationalisation and how the conflicts intrinsic to capitalism were being rendered latent, especially through the effects of the culture industry and mass consumerism. Nevertheless, the work of the Frankfurt School implied that the dialectic of control could be repressed but that it received indirect expression beyond the paradigm of production. It could be argued that the later turn to intersubjective communication in Critical Theory restored the dialectic of control to a central position. Habermas argued that the grammar of social conflicts had changed in late-capitalist societies, whereas Honneth’s theory of struggles for recognition sought to explain how responses to experiences of injustice precipitated progressive changes. In this paper, I will then, first, suggest that the notion of the dialectic of control is relevant to each of the contrasting paradigms of critical theory: production and communication. Second, that this dialectic’s contemporary expression necessitates a revised conception of social contradictions and alienation. And, third, that explicating dialectics of control enables an effective mediation of theory and practice, particularly because it contributes to a sociologically compelling conception of social freedom.