As many folks continue to conflate Critical Race Theory (CRT) with Critical Theory (CT) proper, though they are quite different, I thought it might be helpful to gather some of my old writing on CT in one place to help distinguish.
Further, there may be some overall added benefit to understanding the “critical” in CRT, at least as it appears broadly in various traditions. As we’ve defined elsewhere, “CRT is, at bottom, the radical civil rights tradition critically transformed to address a post-Civil Rights legal era rooted in the liberal ideology of ‘color-blindness’ and ‘equal treatment,’ which have together preserved and legitimated the continuation of racially subordinated circumstances.” Given that CRT has inherited this “critical” edge from Critical Legal Studies (CLS), and CLS inherited it from Critical Theory proper, it might be helpful to better understand the latter in order to better understand the former, despite the many transformations the Critical has undergone.
The Frankfurt School and the Critical Theory
The Institute for Social Research (ISR), later dubbed the Frankfurt School, was originally formed as a Marxist think tank intended to craft multi-disciplinary revolutionary strategies for the various workers parties. But by the time Max Horkheimer assembled the core group that would become the intellectual heart of the newly coined “Critical Theory,” the ISR had already abandoned many of Karl Marx’s theses. With the rise of Fascism in Germany and the descent of the Bolshevism into bloody totalitarianism, the teleological and eschatological predictions of Marx’s deterministic historical materialism were largely abandoned by Frankfurt scholars. “Late Capitalism” led to the rise of the Right rather than proletarian revolution, and proletarian revolution shortly betrayed its own theory by its enslaving practice. As early IRS philosopher Georg Lukács acknowledged as early as 1923, this would not mean the end of Marx’s critical project:
Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious “orthodox” Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation…. Orthodox Marxism does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the “belief” in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a “sacred” book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. (History and Class Consciousness, “What is Orthodox Marxism?”)
Given these historical circumstances, along with the publication of Marx’s Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts, the Frankfurt School of the late 30s turned the whole of their efforts toward the emancipation of the individual and the elimination of his unnecessary suffering. According to Horkheimer, Critical Theory was to be
…an essential element in the historical effort to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of men. However extensive the interaction between the critical theory and the special sciences whose progress the theory must respect and on which it has for decades exercised a liberating and stimulating influence, the theory never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such. Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery. (“Traditional and Critical Theory,” p. 246)
Further, like Marx’s program, “[t]he aim of [Critical Theory] is not simply to eliminate one or other abuse, for it regards such abuses as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized” (“The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research“); that is, it was to be comprehensive, laying bare the contradictions found in every aspect society—the “ensemble of social relations” (Marx) that together enslave men and women, destroy their individuality, and alienate them from their own personhood.
As Lukács indicated above, this was not seen as an abandonment of the Marxist program, but rather a reapplication—a more invigorated, honest, and historically consistent application—of the inherited Critical Method. CRT scholar and sociologist Patricia Hill Collins further explains this relation between the Critical Theory project and Marxist philosophy, economics, and politics:
Horkheimer … drew upon Marxist social theory to highlight the missing dimensions of traditional social theory. The historical materialism of Marxist social thought emphasized narrative traditions of history and philosophy, traditions that investigated the meaning of social phenomena. Yet because Marxist social thought itself advanced structural explanations of social phenomena, and drew upon the same reasoned evidence of traditional social theory, it could be seen as an alternative science of society rather than as a distinctive philosophical tradition. The Frankfurt school intellectuals neither comprised a Marxist school of thought nor aimed to extend Marxism as a philosophy or politics. Instead, Marxist social theory was a visible and important dimension of continental European philosophy, and they adapted this critical theoretical framework for their own project. (Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, Loc. 1280; emphasis mine)
Below, we will briefly cover several defining themes that both anchor Critical Theory in its dialectical roots, yet also distinguish the Frankfurt School from its traditional Marxian Communist competitors.
Marx’s historical dialectic was thoroughly materialist and scientifically deterministic. Each next epoch in the history of humankind was necessitated by the contradictions that preceded. Teleology was grounded in the nature of the materials of production themselves, which in turn dictated the mode of production, in turn dictating the ensemble of social relations or Superstructure. As Communist theorists sought to realize this, the calculus proved untenable and the means all too ideological; but the ends were only extended—full human emancipation.
Antonio Gramsci introduced the concept of “hegemony” to Western Communists, the idea that social control was not so much maintained through specific policy, nor even economic institutions, but by the very character of the dominant culture. The best way, he theorized, to counter hegemony was through ground level multi-disciplinary social action, rather than top down policy changes. Critical Theorists took up this specific charge, but rejected Marx’s deterministic materialism as well as Hegel’s deterministic idealism. Critical Theorists believed that hegemony—in fact, power itself—is a historical rather than material fact, a fact of man’s own making, which could have been otherwise and can still be changed. The “object” of Critical Theory, according to Horkheimer, is “human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Between Philosophy and Social Science, p. 21, as quoted in SEP). Thus great interest was taken in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Friedrich Schiller’s aesthetic analysis; the human individual internally repressed and socially projected, along with his artistic ability to feel beyond and long toward freedom.
Alienation and Autonomy
Alienation is the chief enemy of both Hegel’s dialectic of the World Spirit seeking to be realized in human history, Marx’s dialectic of man seeking to be materially realized in his ideological history, and Frankfurt’s dialectic of individuals overcoming the misery inducing contradictions of his own constructed social relations. Alienation for Marx was the Capitalist’s separation of the worker from his labor—which labor was understood to be his own material life—and his individual freedom to employ his being and particular attributes toward his own ends. Alienation for Critical Theorists is quite similar, but much more encompassing. Man is alienated from himself through all his social relations as well as his psychic repressions. Given the structure of society, man does not find himself a free autonomous individual, but rather a cog in the machine—a worker, a commodity, a piece in a policy puzzle, an individual who exists only for the totality, wherein he is given value and meaning. Auschwitz was the ultimate symbol of alienation for Frankfurt authors, a crystallized reality wherein each man, woman, and child bore a number, a Star of David, and a hellish existence ending with flames, all supposedly for the better functioning of the totality.
As such, the emancipation sought by Critical Theorists is not emancipation from this or that oppression, but rather the achievement of real autonomy, in the Kantian sense, the ability to make free decisions with one’s own rational ends in mind, rather than decisions extracted by a universe of false conditions imposed by dominant cultural, economic, political, and historically constructed social realities.
Just as alienation is the chief enemy, autonomy the chief goal, so reification is the chief culprit identified by Critical Theory. To “reify,” in this context, means to put the social, economic, artistic, and political relations of individual humans for the individuals themselves. It is the turning of subjects of relations into its objects, and its objects into subjects. Georg Lukács, who popularized the term as a social concept, explained reification as the fruit of Capitalist society’s fetish for commodification. Rather than Capitalism being a product of free subjects forming economic relationships, Capitalism, as per Marx’s Historical Materialism, turns man himself into an economic commodity in the formation of Bourgeois capital. He quotes Marx in his “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”:
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses … It is only a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. (History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”)
Theodore W. Adorno extended the concept a bit further, though working from the same essential paradigm, arguing that the Capitalist society transforms the whole into an “exchange society” wherein the “principle of exchange” governs and mediates all relationships, incorporating every social object including man himself, transforming his subjectivity into objective gears in the engine of economic exchange. All that has “value” in the Capitalist society has, by definition, an exchange rate, is marketable, and is just like any other commodity; this includes individuals. And thus, man, who is properly “subject,” becomes alienated from himself, improperly as “object,” through the assumption of the Commodity Form.
The Commodity Form
Karl Marx wrote of the “fetishism of commodities,” not so much because everyone wanted them, but because Capitalist society tends to define everything in terms of its “equity” or “inequity” on the market of exchange. In such a society, nothing is seen for its individuality or its inherent meaning for the individual, but rather is understood—and therefore used—as an economic good. Frankfurt scholars employed the term “commodity form” with much the same meaning, but with the intention to capture a wider range of commodified objects. For Adorno and Horkheimer in particular, ideas, works of art, religious expressions, and just about anything you can imagine, were subject to commodification by the Culture Industry. What’s more, this “form” itself becomes a metric for legal, political, and social reasoning and the very mis-definition of “equity” in Enlightenment thinking.
The Culture Industry
This is another phrase coined by Horkheimer and Adorno. This concept harkens back to Gramsci’s view of hegemony, exercised not so much through specific governmental policy or economic institutions, but through cultural expressions and cultural objects. The image is that of a factory which produces easily consumable, tasty, empty-calorie cultural products which pacify the masses and dull their critical spirit. The mass-production of culture creates a homogenized populace, easily manipulated, and focused on the least important aspects of human existence at the expense of, e.g., freedom and enduring happiness.
Walter Benjamin gives the example of mass reproduction of a beautiful painting—which for Banjamin means one that causes critical reflection, longing for a better world, and, ultimately, social activism. That which originally invoked the critical spirit of its viewer now becomes no more than hotel art and uncontemplated decor. In fact, all art in the Late Capitalist society (especially according to Adorno) is just another trite formulaic Hollywood movie. And this is not just true of art, but of non-fiction, historical treatises, political discourse, religious symbols, etc. Altogether, the Culture Industry perpetuates the Commodity Form, Reifying the individual, alienating him from himself as proper subject, and ultimately propelling him through a history of collective misery, suffering, and social subjugation.
Humanity thus alienated and reified finds itself locked in an “ontology of false conditions” (Adorno); that is, the appearance of freedom in a world of historically packaged objects of choice, the furniture of the “real world,” which are actually individuated forms of a subjugating system of social constructions furthering man’s alienation. “Reason,” as practiced by the individual in the Totally Administered Society, is wholly “instrumental,” just as is man himself. The universe of objects of choice and contemplation available to nominally free men are in fact products of a system defined by Capitalist commoditization, technocratic scientism, and entrenched bureaucracy. Thus, reason itself is not a reach for the good, the true, the beautiful, and the emancipating, but rather is constrained calculus toward socially constructed ends.
In turn, the world of objects, including subjects commodified as objects, become means to ends defined by the dominant culture and attendant bureaucracy. And to be clear, this is not only true of so-called Late Capitalism, but also of both Fascist and Communist totalitarianism—the former supposedly characterized by scientific positivism and the latter by materialist Idealism. Along with slavery and feudalism, each of these systems is merely the historical expression of the dialectic, estranging its human participates from his own aims and internal longings. Even when man sets out to reason toward the good, his reason is unconsciously instrumental and is folded into the technical apparatus of the world of commodities.
The Totally Administered Society
All of what has been described above constitutes the trend toward the Totally Administered Society. Western culture, according to Herbert Marcuse, is rapidly moving toward such a state as the sublimation of human desire finds itself objectified in the political and social world around him, all reinforced by the trappings of the exchange society discussed above. Man becomes “a thing among things” as his home-life, religion, aesthetic expression, and political ideals are integrated into the totality through reification, commodification, and Freudian projection. Such a society intrumentalizes reason, dictates the universe of choices, and produces an existential anxiety of “false needs,” largely packaged and delivered by the Culture Industry. The Totally Administered Society leaves humanity feeling he is on the road of progress, enjoying the fruits of his free labor, and benefiting from the technological achievements of his age; in truth, however, he is the unwitting fuel of the engine of historical unreality which subjugates every man, even those at the top who believe they are the masters of this system.
The Negative Dialectic
Given the entrenched and often invisible forces which shape society and have fostered its misery, suffering, and slavery throughout human history, the role of Critical Theory is to question everything, including individual items and instantiations of this totality. A piece of art, a bit of narrative, a political debate, all carry within themselves a larger narrative of the historical dialectic. Every artifact of civilization, as well as the whole of its systems and ideologies, are to be subjected to the Critical Method of inquiry. Horkheimer said of the project,
Although it itself emerges from the social structure, its purpose is not, either in its conscious intention, or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any element in the structure. On the contrary, it is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order, and refuses to take them as nonscientific presuppositions about which one can do nothing (“Traditional and Critical Theory,” p. 206).
As such, the remedy is negation, not new constructions and system building. Contrary to the determinist dialectical motion of history envisioned by Hegel and Marx, the individual alone can begin to overcome alienation and reification through critical negation of the totally administered society. It rejects the naïve acceptance of philosophical, scientific, or technological descriptions of human reality as well as its proposed systems and solutions. Again, “the critical theory of society…has for its objective men as producers of their own historical way of life in its totality,” rather than the cheap, stultifying, and ultimately enslaving products of the socio-cultural machine (Critical Theory: Selected Essays, p. 244).
Utopia loomed large throughout Frankfurt scholarship, though in differing forms. This is not surprising, given its presence in nearly every historical system. Utopia for Hegel was a market economy of free exchange, coupled with a powerful state bureaucracy embodying the Reason of the World Spirit. Utopia for Marx was a society of free individuals determining their own productive activities, employing their own skills and creativity as proper subjects of social relations, rather than objects. After subjecting not only Capitalist society, but even Hegel and Marx to their critical negation, Critical theorists found the ideal of utopia in much more abstract terms. The most concrete of the bunch, Marcuse looked for a “new sensibility” wherein mankind was free to seek true love, freedom, autonomy, etc., including the realization that economic barriers like scarcity are just socially imposed myths. (In the meantime, Marcuse would settle for the “Great Refusal,” viz., a refusal to sign on to any political party or mass social movement.) Benjamin ultimately saw utopia as the individual enjoyments of self-conscious individual humans; the little things, we might say. Horkheimer saw the “Other,” the negation of all that is here and now, as the ultimate image of utopian contemplation. Adorno seems to have followed Benjamin, seeking happiness in one’s own small world of enjoyments, still possible only by negation.
Nevertheless, all believed that a sense of Utopia existed in the human consciousness, and that every individual, even if he could not articulate it, had the seeds of “something different from this” driving him headlong into his social contradictions. The Critical Theory saw that aesthetic enjoyment, friends and family, critical contemplation—the simple things, if received in light of the negation of its commodity form, could lead men and women to see their historical, emancipating possibilities.
From Enlightenment to Critical Theory to “Critical”
In what is considered Critical Theory’s most seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodore W. Adorno critically interrogate the principles, goals, location, and historical effects of the project of Enlightenment. Consistent with the dialectical approach discussed above, they see within the project both the immanent seeds of current human bondage and suffering, as well as the immanent seeds of emancipation therefrom. For Frankfurt theorists in general, social artifacts and systems are not to be analyzed in terms of a-historical transcendent ideologies; rather, they are to be critiqued as the products of contradictory internal forces which produce both the pathologies experienced by its individual actors, as well as the immanent forces of its own dissolution, both of which reside in the tension of existential experience until transformational crisis ensues.
We can look at Marx’s project as a concrete example. The Enlightenment itself was a mass philosophical movement toward the enthroning of reason as the means of mankind’s emancipation from the dominance of myth, religious authoritarianism, pretenses to authority by kings and nobility, and even suffering and misery itself. Reason was thought capable of laying bare transcendent truths, dismantling commonly held subjugating beliefs, and leading to scientific and technological advancements capable of improving the human condition. This basic (and simplified) idea was put in practice in various forms, as can be seen in the disparate writings of Voltaire, D’Alembert, Montesquieu, Kant, Burke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Mills, etc. Each had an eye toward revolutionary thought and action intended to secure and explicate the rational conditions for lasting liberty, equity, and justice, each accorded natural status and thereby accessible to reason. To be clear, it was not Marx nor Critical Theorists who created or defined the emancipatory goals of the Enlightenment.
Without ignoring or countenancing the vast evils spawned by his revolutionary ideas, the lasting brilliance of Karl Marx resides in his unique approach to the very same concerns and aims of his Enlightenment forebears. But rather than appealing to transcendental truths found in Plato’s Heaven, Marx followed Hegel, looking to immanent historical processes—real human beings in action, their developed institutions, and their material conditions—for both explanations of man’s suffering and social subjugation, and the immanent prospects embedded within that would (for Marx) necessarily lead to their freedom. Rather than looking to this or that social policy, this or that philosophy, or this or that bad actor, Marx argued that it was the entire lifeworld of men, produced by their most basic material conditions, viz., means and modes of production, which entrapped them in a web so systemic and wide, that even their reasoning was constrained and molded by the prevailing social systems produced by Capitalism.
To be clear, it is not so much Marx’s materialist critique of Capitalism, his theory of value, his identification of bourgeoisie vs. proletariat as the incarnation of the alienating functions of the “ensemble of social relations,” nor his communist eschatology that have grounded the lasting value of his critique. No, it was the very idea that subjugation was contained in, and reinforced by, the very system of social relations within which man sought to reason toward solutions. The central legacy of Marx is, first, that man, seeking to be free, operates within his own created “superstructure,” inexorably produced by the dialectic of his own historical circumstances; second, operating within the resulting web of meanings, values, and historical artifacts, man’s reasoning itself is instrumentalized by social forces peculiar to his historical situation, and therefore only furthers the dialectic tension, producing the coming crisis.
What’s “Critical” About Critical Theories?
It is this way of thinking, ultimately, which makes a theory properly “critical,” whether it be the traditional Critical Theory of Frankfurt or modern critical social and legal theories like Critical Pedagogy, Critical Feminism, Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical Social Justice, etc. In his introductory text, educator and social theorist Bradley Levinson asks,
So what do these theoretical traditions have in common, and what enables us to be audacious enough to call them all “critical,” when their influences and assumptions may otherwise be so varied?
He answers with a short list of “defining characteristics”:
Critical social theory is driven by
- “value-rationality” rather than instrumental rationality. In other words, it is not neutral in reference to values and has a definite (though not teleological) conception of “progress” and the social good, often a utopian vision or concept of “liberation.”
- the assumed need to dismantle and critique taken-for-granted ideologies, to challenge the “false consciousness” (Lukács) or “misrecognition” (Bourdieu) that enables social domination.
- an understanding of domination as structural yet dialectically connected to agency in people’s “everyday lives.” (Beyond Critique, p. 11)
Working from this brief summary, the Frankfurt tradition described above, as well as modern works by Critical Theorists proper (see, e.g., Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, Agnes Heller, Ben Agger, Donald Comstock, and Stephon Bronner), I believe we can locate four central features of what is meant by “critical” in these traditions.
But before we do, it is of great importance to note that there are, of course, harder and softer versions of each of these claims which nevertheless qualify as critical. I would venture to say, for example, that very few modern critical theorists would hold to the “Anti-Essentialism” thesis as it is stated below, as did Horkheimer at one time, though all countenance that much of our social reality is socially constructed. In other words, none of these should be taken as absolutes, but as paradigms, each defining a spectrum or an ideological trajectory shared to varying degrees by critical theorists.
1. Social Pathology
Critical Theory treats the social ills that confront ordinary men and women as pathological, rather than easily individuated and conceptually isolatable sets of bad actions, ideas, practices, policies, or stereotypes. Rather, just as a pathological liar lies habitually and without even taking note of it, or just as a disease can infect a whole body with looming death yet appear perfectly healthy, so economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and the like can be embedded within whole social systems, producing symptoms that may even seem quite normal, natural, and ineradicable, though we feel the existential burdens of their bitter fruit.
Further, this pathology affects reason itself, through instrumentalization and socially constructed systems of false conditions (see above). Individuals know there is something wrong, but their historical location, with its “ensemble of social relations” and socially constructed set of meanings and values, leaves them often unable (or unwilling) to articulate and contemplate its immanent historical roots.
2. Historical Immanence
Though rarely couched within the language of “dialectics” in modern Critical studies, the underlying idea that the roots of pathology, as well as the means for its cure, reside in the everyday facts of life and are discoverable in its seemingly mundane artifacts, yet remains. For example, just as Marx argued that the central cause of infant mortality was not to be located in lack of money or poor hospitals, but rather in the current historical system of production that relegates individuals to mere objects of the social calculus of capital formation.
Or, to take a more current example, Critical Theorists do not look at the murder of Treyvon Martin as a mere neighborhood scuffle in the street between a “trespasser” and a man concerned for his safety, but rather see it as an event which manifests local (and society-wide) racial assumptions, fear of the other, white flight, prejudicial public school policies, and a legal system designed to benefit the enfranchised. The “event” was just the immanent artifact of the social system that produced it. We could, of course, even go further and ground this instantiated complex social event in the United States’ own history of production and the intentional racial marginalization it both relied upon and produced.
Last, this immanence eschews transcendence. Though it often relies on transcendental arguments—“y is a necessary precondition for the existence of x, x exists, therefore y exists”—it does not rely on transcendental explanations nor transcendental prescriptions. Human experience exists in human history; this history contains both the problems and the solutions and they mean very little when abstracted from it.
As we quoted from Max Horkheimer above, “the critical theory of society…has for its objective men as producers of their own historical way of life in its totality”; that is, men and women are not subject to Marx’s natural deterministic teleology, nor Hegel’s previous version built around Spirit. Man himself creates and recreates his environment, social systems, symbols, ways of thinking, collective meanings, and the institutions, policies, and actions they produce. The furniture of social reality is socially constructed, not fixed, natural, or deterministic.
Though alienation and reification have objectified individuals, concretizing them into the collection of their social relations, men and women are, in reality, the true subjects and artificers of human history.
4. Social Change as Rational Participation
Last, though solutions to the pathologies indicated above diverge massively among Critical Theorists, there is a common core. First, if we assume that social ills are pathological, history and explanation are immanent, and the furniture of social reality is socially constructed, then critiquing society definitionally requires engagement in shaping it, and vise versa.
Since all knowledge is rooted in social practices and social practices are ordered, in part, by social science explanations, theory and action are inseparable and all facts and theories are warranted as valid from a particular framework of social practices. The only legitimate activity of a critical social scientist is to engage in the collective enterprise of progressive enlightenment…. (Donald Comstock, “A Method for Critical Research,” p. 630)
Second, a major assumption throughout is that reconstruction of social reality can cure the pathology, bringing about emancipation. This was true of Marx’s expectation of the proletarian revolution, true of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critical negation, true of Herbert Marcuse’s belief that the elimination of the “myth” of scarcity would cure mankind’s psychological propensity to barbarism, true of Honneth’s belief that dismantling the exchange society will overcome the “social suffering caused by deficient rationality” (“A Social Pathology of Reason,” p.338), and true in many ways of those who currently believe that massive education projects will rid Americans of their Colonial trappings through conscientizacao.
Though the internal life of man was built into the Critical equation, via Freud in particular, theorists continue to argue that the pathology of interior life is asymmetrically coordinated with structural social externalities. As Axel Honneth argues, “[f]rom the fact that a deficit in social rationality leads to symptoms of a social pathology, one first infers that subjects suffer from the state of society” (p. 353). The solution is to “reactivate” human rationality through social transformation. Critical Theory thus still retains its task of critiquing all that is, unmasking its historically immanent preconditions, exposing its contradictions, and effecting the social change necessary to liberate the individual’s reason from that which distorts it.
Not surprisingly, these four distinguishing characteristics were captured long ago by Max Horkheimer in his seminal essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” wherein we are first introduced to the phrase “critical theory” itself:
[T]here is a human activity which has society itself for its object. The aim of this activity is not simply to eliminate one or other abuse, for it regards such abuses as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized. Although it itself emerges from the social structure, its purpose is not, either in its conscious intention or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any element in the structure. On the contrary, it is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order, and refuses to take them as nonscientific presuppositions about which one can do nothing. … [T]he critical attitude of which we are speaking is wholly distrustful of the rules of conduct with which society as presently constituted provides each of its members. The separation between individual and society in virtue of which the individual accepts as natural the limits prescribed for his activity is relativized in critical theory. The latter considers the overall framework which is conditioned by the blind interaction of individual activities (that is, the existent division of labor and the class distinctions) to be a function which originates in human action and therefore is a possible object of planful decision and rational determination of goals. (pp. 206-207)
Or, more simply, in the words of CRT scholar Angela Harris—and back to where we began:
CRT inherits from CLS a commitment to being “critical,” which in this sense means also to be “radical”—to locate problems not at the surface of doctrine but in the deep structure of American law and culture. (“The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction,” p.743)
[For a full discussion of CRT, please see “What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading).”]