This is an expansive, ambitious and stimulating mapping of critical theories. It functions well both as an introduction for new readers and as a challenge to those already familiar with the writers and ideas.
Razmig Keucheyan explains that critical theories do several things. Not only do they describe the world we inhabit but they also aim to challenge existing political and social arrangements. They seek a better world by criticising and questioning at a wider level, rather than merely focusing on isolated aspects of policy or localised details.
The book is divided into two main parts: ‘Contexts’ and ‘Theories’. Addressing defeat is deemed essential by the author. ‘Contexts’ chronicles the ‘defeat of critical thinking’, gives a brief history of the new left and offers a typology of contemporary critical thinkers: converts, pessimists, resisters, innovators, leaders and experts. While these categories arguably oversimplify – even with the caveat that ‘any intellectual may be found straddling several of them’ – they make for interesting reading and helpfully offer a route into a landscape of ideas that might otherwise be overwhelming.
The ‘Theories’ section is a page‑turner, with fascinating evaluations of the works of many writers, such as David Harvey, Jacques Rancière and Nancy Fraser. It explores areas such as Marxism and imperialism, the nation-state, ‘capitalisms old and new’ and operaismo (workerism). It also looks at who might enact social transformation. The conclusion discusses the prospects for socialism and radical ecology. It also comments interestingly on the ‘globalisation’ and ‘Americanisation’ of critical thinking.
Keucheyan believes most critical thinkers are now detached ‘from political, industrial or community organisations’. Hopefully this book can inspire the building of important links. It could also help activists broaden their horizons and prompt consideration of potential pitfalls.
As long as we remain critical readers – ready to question these groupings and Keucheyan’s assertions about the timing, significance and nature of defeat – this book contributes to our understanding of the world we live in today.