Proving the Impossibility of Progress

The worst thing one can say about critical theory is that sometimes it doesn't listen. In that sense Amy Allen is faithful to her chosen tradition

The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory by Amy Allen. Columbia University Press. 304 pages.

WALTER BENJAMIN famously imagined the angel of history, wings spread, propelled backward into the future by an irresistible, all-annihilating wind. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage.” The angel can obviously know nothing of the future, to which his back is turned. All he can know is “the pile of debris before him.” This, Benjamin says, is how we should think of progress.

Within months of composing this scenario, Benjamin was dead, a victim of the Nazis. The manner of his death helped make his beautiful, disillusioned tableau of progress-as-catastrophe one of the best remembered takeaways from the Frankfurt School. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the Frankfurt School was a brilliant group of German-Jewish Marxo-Freudian analysts of culture who (except for Benjamin) escaped the Holocaust and lived long enough to denounce American consumerism, jazz, and the student movement. Their present-day inheritors, collectively known as critical theory, include thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth in Germany and, in the United States, Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, Nancy Fraser, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, and other luminaries. They and what they made of the concept of progress are the subject of Amy Allen’s difficult but rewarding book, The End of Progress. Allen argues that key members of this generation (the Germans, but for some reason not the Americans) have been too uncritical of progress — much more uncritical than Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or, for that matter, Michel Foucault, whom she drags across the Rhine and conscripts as an ally. Allen exposes, hidden below the philosophical work of Habermas, Honneth, and Rainer Forst, a belief in progress that in her view is fatally Eurocentric, hence unworthy of their high emancipatory project.

Beyond making the charge of Eurocentrism, Allen does not really argue the anti-progress case. She doesn't compare childhood mortality statistics or the quality of neighborliness, the situation of women or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now and 100 years ago; the sorts of pros and cons that might come up in a dorm room late at night don’t interest her much. And her indifference to empirical examples is not incidental. The major accusation she levels against the best-known of the critical theorists, Habermas and Honneth, is that although they seem rigorously philosophical, they pay too much attention to facts like these. For Allen’s style of philosophy, any attention is too much attention.

Allen proposes that there are two conceptions of progress. One looks forward; the other, like Benjamin’s angel, looks backward. The forward-looking one is an imperative to act so as to make progress happen. It’s a good thing. The backward-looking one is not. It focuses on (the quotation marks are hers) “the facts.” Where some see facts, Allen sees only self-flattery: that is, historical trajectories that we are pleased to think have “led up to ‘us.’” History is never anything other than self-congratulation. Thus Allen finds it repugnant. The single most interesting argument in the book is that, appearances to the contrary, Habermas and Honneth are closet Hegelians, and this means that they use definition #2 to back up definition #1. Unable to provide any other foundation for their judgments, they fall back on deducing norms from what has been — from history, which is to say (in Allen’s view) from Eurocentric self-flattery. If we want to make progress happen, Allen counters, as she thinks we should, first we have to give up on believing that it has happened. This is how she explains the gnomic sentence by Adorno from which she derives the title phrase “the end of progress”: “Progress occurs where it ends.” The understanding of progress as a fact about history must come to an end in order for progress to begin working properly as an ethical imperative.

There is one chapter of the book that this description does not fit. That chapter calls Rainer Forst a Kantian, meaning that he avoids the (Hegelian) trap of relying on history to supply him with his ethics. Instead, he tries to find a foundation for moral norms in reason itself. Allen seems to like this approach a lot better; if I had to guess, I would say her own allegiances are also more Kantian. (The argument about whether history ought to matter to ethics goes back to Kant and Hegel.) But what she proposes here is that the Kantian move is no less authoritarian and no less dependent on belief in progress. The norms Forst treats as organic to the very practice of rational dialogue, she says, are actually produced by the same inequalities of power that are the underlying truth of progress:

The Kantian notion of practical reason has always been closely bound up with pernicious notions of progress, inasmuch as it has provided the benchmark with respect to which black, female, queer, colonized and subaltern subjects have been judged to be sufficiently civilized, mature, developed, or capable of autonomous self-rule.

This ventriloquizing of the victims of injustice is less plausible than it sounds. Allen does not stop to ask any black, female, queer, or colonized people whether reason might have helped them in their struggle against unreasoning prejudice — whether in their view reason might actually be on their side. The answers might have surprised her.

Allen is clever enough to see that, while piously invoking (but not listening to) all those who have ever been called irrational, she too is being irrational, or at least is contradicting herself. When she says that progress “has provided” a benchmark, she uses the present perfect tense. That is, she too is arguing from what has been, from history. She doesn’t say that this way of thinking inherently has to lead to judgments of inferiority, just that judgments of inferiority are one thing the historical record shows. It does. But the record also shows other, very different things. She does not allow us to see those other things and to judge for ourselves what the record shows. We are not encouraged to inspect the record at all. Allen’s name for what she is doing when she relies on the record is “pessimistic induction.” But where does the pessimism come from? If she is allowed to use history (that is, induction from examples) to establish grounds for pessimism, why shouldn’t the rest of us be allowed to try using history to establish grounds for, say, optimism? In other words, why can’t we argue over progress on the basis of the facts, whatever those facts may happen to be?

Allen maintains that the forward-looking conception of progress has either depended on a backward-looking conception of progress (Habermas and Honneth), or has been just as Eurocentric as if it did (Forst). It’s therefore not surprising to catch her asking, finally, “What, if anything, remains of the idea of progress?” Coming just four pages from the end of the book, this question does not bode well for the concept’s fate, as she imagines it. To be fair, she makes a last-ditch effort to salvage it. But she has not made the salvage easy.

Consider the corner into which she has painted herself. If we are prohibited from thinking about progress historically, then as we move day by day into the future, we must ceaselessly deny that anything we have just done was an accomplishment, that is, an instance of progress. We must deny it even though progress is what we are morally enjoined to bring about. And then, having denied that anything we did can count as progress, we must start all over, trying again to bring about progress even though we know, if we are successful, we will again have to repudiate it as not really progress at all. This may tickle those with a taste for the theater of the absurd, but it doesn’t seem likely to satisfy the “black, female, queer, colonized and subaltern subjects” in whose name the book claims to be arguing, and for whom progress may be a life-or-death question.

How did the book get to this absurdist dead end? It goes astray, first of all, when it treats “black, female, queer, colonized and subaltern subjects” as if they are all the same and as if they are all insisting, over and over, that European rationality is an alien, unwelcome continuation of European imperialism. Allen repeatedly quotes one South Asian historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, as if he were the delegated voice of the Third World. As it happens, there are much worse candidates. But still, this is a bit too large a mandate even for him or indeed for the field of postcolonial studies, which Allen likewise misrepresents. For her, it speaks in a single voice and knows only one command, the anti-European imperative: decolonize!

The worst thing one can say about critical theory is that sometimes it doesn’t listen. In that sense, Allen is faithful to her chosen tradition. If she had listened to other non-European voices, she might have heard, for example, questions about what it might mean to decolonize. Get rid of Foucault and Derrida? Stop paying attention to the adoptive New Yorkers Spivak and Said? She might have heard Aijaz Ahmad’s retort to Said (ask Indian historians, and you will discover that many of them agree with Marx on India). She might have noticed how much Hegel there is in Frantz Fanon and (courtesy of Susan Buck-Morss) how much of the Haitian Revolution there is in Hegel. I recommend that she tune in to Partha Chatterjee’s debate with Vivek Chibber, which has been a YouTube sensation. There are many debates within postcolonial studies over whether such a thing as “western civilization” can be properly blamed for western imperialism. Occidentalism — pretending all westerners think alike, and think in crude stereotypes — is as much a mistake as Orientalism, and people have been saying so for decades. Where has Allen been?

It’s as if what Allen secretly wanted was an Other who, like a tantrum-throwing toddler, would just keep saying “no!” to Europe and everything European. This toddler is a philosophical fiction. It is not a fair-minded representation of the opinions of people in the global South, which are obviously multiple and (perhaps this is not so obvious) almost always more nuanced where so-called “western values” are concerned.

Allen doesn’t feel obliged to listen to non-European voices because all she really wants from them is an excuse to be critical of critical theory. In this book, looking at ourselves from the point of view of the Other, as Allen ends up recommending, doesn’t actually give the so-called Other much of a speaking part. On the contrary: What it boils down to is scrutinizing yourself — living an examined life, engaging in an endless process of self-problematization. This is of course what Europeans were already supposed to do well before it became fashionable to consult the views of non-Europeans. In fact, it is what the West has been congratulating itself on doing for a long time. So Allen does not avoid self-congratulation. This does not make self-scrutiny a bad thing — I myself think it’s a very good thing. But by stopping there, Allen frustrates all of us who were hoping for something more emancipatory, something more progressive.

The moral, for Allen, is to do what you were going to do anyway, but while doing it to be “open, vulnerable, receptive, and, I would also say, modest and humble” — modest and humble toward our own modes of reasoning. Who would disagree with a well-scrubbed piety like this? But it’s not a recipe for progress. On the contrary, it has the ring of a Sabbath service, a ritual meant to be repeated over and over again so as to make you feel better about continuing to do the less-than-ideal things with which you are already obliged to fill your weekdays. If you want to change what you do during the week, you have to look elsewhere. Your highest value can’t be to throw your own values into question. Or if throwing into question is what you want, how about throwing that one into question too?

In the Conclusion, Allen suddenly proposes that maybe after all her own concept of normativity “makes possible backward-looking claims about progress as well.” This takes back pretty much everything for which she has argued in the course of the book. It’s a gutsy example of self-problematizing in action, though I’m not sure it persuades me that openness and humility are the ultimate virtues.

The only presumed example of real-world change in the right direction — that is, progress — with which Allen deals at any length is same-sex marriage. Her argument against thinking of same-sex marriage as progress comes in two variants. Nationally, she says, same-sex marriage encourages conventional moral norms which some members of the LGBTQ community will find oppressive. And internationally, it allows the First World to claim moral superiority over the Third World. Neither proposition seems very conclusive. Even if you agree with her about same-sex marriage encouraging conventional norms, that doesn’t mean there has been no progress — that the concept of progress cannot possibly be relevant in any way to what has happened to the LGBTQ community, or what the LGBTQ community has accomplished, since Stonewall and the HIV/AIDS crisis. And if inroads against homophobia, however belated and inadequate, are also real, then we have an answer to variant #2: the fact that the United States brags to the world about its putatively more civilized treatment of its LGBTQ population does not mean that it does not in fact treat its LGBTQ population better than many other places in the world. Self-congratulation may be less attractive than humility, but humility is no guarantee of truth, just as arrogance and complacency are no guarantees of falsehood.

If I had to guess as to why Allen thinks the contrary, I would say it’s because she cannot imagine progress that’s not an expression of power. For her, all you have to know is who has power and who doesn’t. Power explains everything without itself being open to explanation. It is her god-term. To her, it feels right to insist that the problem with reason is not X or Y, as once thought, but rather reason’s entanglement in power and domination. This also means that if you find yourself disempowered, like the disadvantaged non-Europeans referred to above, you get an epistemological free pass: everything you say about the world is presumed to be true and authoritative. Until, that is, you do something to acquire some power, like an Evo Morales or an Alexis Tsipras or the winners in the same-sex marriage fight. As soon as someone wields power to make something good happen, she or he will automatically flip-flop into the bad guy. Power is not, according to Foucault, so to speak “bad” — a lesson that Allen, who swears by Foucault, has not yet learned. To her moralizing eye, power means impurity. Like dirt, it is something that should not be there but is and is thus perpetually having to be washed away. Spic-and-span moral purity looks better to her than raising the minimum wage or regulating the banks.

Allen denies the charge that anti-progress thinkers like Foucault and Adorno are succumbing to nostalgia, pushing “a romantic story of decline and fall.” Their critique of progress is not in the service of a decline narrative, she says, “but rather in service of a critical problematization of the present.” This “but rather” sounds weirdly arbitrary and unconvincing. Aren’t most decline-and-fall stories offered as an implicit critique of the present? The desire to be critical of the present doesn’t justify getting either the past or the present wrong. Benjamin, who was tempted by nostalgia when he considered art in the age of its mechanical reproducibility, was strong enough to fight off the temptation.

Opinions on this will differ, but in my view Allen gets both present and past wrong when she asserts that colonialism was “decisive” in the creation of Western civilization or Western rationality. Colonialism was certainly happening, and for those on its receiving end it was pretty awful. But a lot of other things happened at the same time, some of them awful and some of them susceptible of being described as genuinely civilized. The fact that European history is entangled with non-European histories doesn’t prove, as Allen thinks it does, that imperialism is not just a truth of European civilization, but the truth. Our educated common sense compels us to be suspicious of the idea that anything can be properly considered “the” truth of a given civilization. This is the kind of loose accusation that angry Westerners are forever making about violence and Islam. The accusation is no more valid when it’s turned around and aimed at Europe. Like Islam, Christianity has a lot of conquests to answer for. But to say that the Crusades represent the eternal essence of Europe is not an improvement on saying, with the Orientalists, that Islam must always mean the threat of jihad. This is what they call Occidentalism.

When Allen says a thinker is being Eurocentric, what she really means is that the thought claims to be universally valid. We all know the kind of thinking she means. But critiques of universality are just as European, aren’t they? In any case, haven’t non-European cultures also assumed their judgments were universally valid? Who hasn’t? It’s a bit provincial, therefore, to pretend that in this respect Europe was unique. If claims to universality, like military conquests, are pretty evenly distributed in space and time, the cosmopolitan thing to do would be to conclude that every step away from both counts as progress, no matter who takes it.


Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012), Upward Mobility and the Common Good (2007), Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), and The Servant's Hand: English Fiction from Below (1986). His essays have appeared in n+1, The Nation, Public Books, and the London Review of Books. He is also the director of a documentary, Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, available at


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