LONG READ: An immanent critique of decolonisation projects

by Sunny Dhillon

The contemporary neoliberal university in the UK is necessarily unable to enact decolonisation. What the university may do, however, is cultivate an intellectual environment ripe to discuss the ongoing pervasiveness of colonialism. In other words, instead of ten point plans or toolkits to award ‘decoloniality’ scores to be highlighted in ‘inclusive’ marketing campaigns to attract historically underrepresented groups, staff and students ought to undertake a relentless critique of the contemporary university apparatus. Such a critique of existing social issues must be immanent, as opposed to transcendent. I argue that an immanent critique can be helpfully guided by the negative dialectics of the late Critical Theorist, Theodor W. Adorno.

The initial section will outline the current state of play in terms of UK universities’ approach to decolonisation, and how this is mired in necessary contradictions and tensions. The second section will introduce Adorno’s negative dialectics as a manner of immanent critique that the discerning theorist/activist may employ in the service of a critical discourse concerning decolonisation. The third and final section will reiterate how a positive dialectic necessarily cannot satisfy a radical project of decolonisation, and that projects that attempt to do so are unwitting ‘moves to innocence’ which actually, contrary to their explicit aims, invariably buttress the status quo.

Business as usual

Critical Race Theory, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, diversity and inclusion, reducing awarding gaps: all have become seemingly interchangeable under the umbrella term ‘decolonisation’. ‘Decolonise’ has become a verb to be added to all manner of business as usual university processes (with an emphasis on business): ‘decolonise the curriculum’, ‘decolonise marking criteria’, ‘decolonise feedback forms’, and so on. Decolonisation has thus become an explicit business aim of the university, to function in a manner of Corporate Social Responsibility. Doing so helps attract a wide pool of applicants (surely the irony isn’t lost on readers that the explicit aim of attracting a diverse body of students, often from former actual colonies, comes straight from the colonialism 101 playbook).

The socio-cultural ‘moment’ that occurred in the summer of 2020 was met with a slew of university meetings and keynotes on the topic of decolonisation. Scholars who had been working in this field for many years (for example Bhambra et al., 2018; Bhopal, 2016 and 2018) shared important home truths with a wide audience; namely, that UK HE is implicated in institutional racism and legacies of colonial thinking. Through op-ed pieces, podcasts, keynotes (WONKHE etc.) and the like, students and staff from ‘BAME’ backgrounds were invited to share their experiences of institutional discrimination, and outline the need for structural reform in staffing policies, student recruitment, retention (‘belonging’ came up, a lot), and accountable strategies for positive change. Overall, however (and notwithstanding laudable, collaborative, critical approaches to decolonisation, e.g. the University of Bristol’s ‘decolonising education’ MOOC), the consensus of what needed to be done was seemingly a – disappointing – utilitarian strategy of quasi-affirmative action: quotas and targets in terms of staff and student bodies; in other words, metrics (the contemporary Tory cabinet is the most diverse in UK history; no more needs to be said on the supposed value of the quota route).

Epistemological boundaries

Achille Mbembe (2019) observes that knowledge (the tried and tested business product of the university) is increasingly designed as a means of value extraction. Just consider, for example, how much kudos and research funding will be garnered by easily measurable and packable ‘decolonisation’ projects! As Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) perceptively articulated in the late 1960s in the USA, the primary interest of a

college-educated class of salaried administrators … is to secure more objects for service, management and control. For this purpose, the middle class needs a permanently expanding, dependent clientele and enough organization power to protect its function and expanding ranks (Carmichael, 1968, p.148).

Colonisation, then, underpins the motivation and logic of ‘decolonising’ ambitions of universities. That’s not to say that individuals motivated to change processes in the service of greater equity and fairness are all cynical value extractors. Rather, I argue that regardless of individual morality, righteousness and rose-tinted views of the supposed enlightening function of UK HE, that the contemporary university machine will reduce critique and praxis to the status of commodity; if research and critique doesn’t produce value (invariably economic surplus) it has no auditable place – REF/TEF/KEF, anyone? The corporate university therefore necessarily cannot enact decolonisation, because it has set epistemological boundaries rooted in colonial practices in advance (Barnett, 2017).

Foluke Adebisi (2020) deems universities and their disciplines ‘ill-equipped to centre unrepresented populations’ by virtue of the fact that said disciplines have been complicit in creating such disparities. My own discipline, Philosophy, for example, is tainted by the whitewashing of knowledge by iconic thinkers such as Kant (covered in-depth via a Critical Race Theory lens by Charles Mills in 1997’s The Racial Contract).  Adebisi (2020) adds that the neoliberal university ‘obscures its own complicity in creating and maintaining its own colonial knowledge hierarchies … Yet the neoliberal university can only survive through the colonial logics of commodification of space, nature, humanity and variably valued labour’. This returns to my gambit: the neoliberal university cannot enact a decolonising agenda. Instead of a crude, cynical target based approach to decolonisation, I argue for the value of a negatively dialectical approach of immanent critique. Whilst modest, it is an intellectually rigorous one that maintains the possibility of the radically other, in the face of instrumental reason guiding narratives surrounding decolonisation in the academy today. An acute thinker (dare I say, the white, male, Western European, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender ‘saviour’) to guide this negative praxis, is Theodor W. Adorno.  (843)

‘Wrong life cannot be lived rightly’

Theodor W. Adorno is, by most accounts, not a fun read; he is, however, a sobering one. I’ve spent the past decade grappling with his ideas (they formed a large part of my PhD thesis), and have, on occasion, subjected students to the relentlessly critical take on the crises of modernity (there went my NSS score) that he and his partner in crime, Max Horkheimer, undertook in the mid-twentieth century.

A critical theorist from the (so-called) Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, Adorno was a polymath, whose works employed philosophical, sociological and musicological lenses to interpret society and culture under late capitalism. Adorno combined elements of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (Paul Ricœur’s ‘three masters of suspicion’) to provide a scathing critique of the limits of intellectual responses, based on instrumental reason, to the crises of modernity.

A pithy dictum to summarise Adorno’s determinately negative critical task is ‘Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen’, or, that ‘wrong life cannot be lived rightly’. As Raymond Geuss points out, in Adorno’s sociological analysis, ‘what is at issue here is a structural feature of society, which makes a fully satisfactory life of complete consistency and sincerity impossible’ (Geuss, 2014, p.185). Adorno’s oeuvre is no cheery one. This relentlessly critical outlook is necessarily at odds with positive plans for social change. That said, Adorno’s task is no merely pessimistic one that resigns itself to quietism; quite the contrary. Because of the lack of immediate and obvious value of an Adornian line of critique, it flies in the face of the performance principle culture of the neoliberal university (MacDonald and Young, 2018, p.531). Instead of token gestures, or ‘actionism’ (rote unthinking activism), Adorno’s mode of praxis is a humbling endeavour, with no telos or necessarily cheery outcome to guide it. Rather, negative praxis is fuelled by revealing tensions and contradictions in any given existing state of affairs. Instrumental reason is on trial; critical reason seeks to reveal instrumentality abound.

Instead of offering a checklist of what ought to be done to rectify social ills in the manner of a positivist like August Comte, Adorno, reworks Hegel’s positive dialectic (through Marx’s dialectical materialism) into a determinately negative one. Adorno’s critical task does not seek to realise a moment of positive telos. Instead, Adorno follows the F. H. Bradley line of thought, that ‘where everything is bad, it must be good to know the worst’ (Bradley, 1893, p.3).

Negative dialectics 

Relentless negative critique has the potential to reveal the contradictions inherent in norms, assumptions and positivist, instrumental knowledge production. In doing so, there lies the potential of realising that which is radical. As Jan McArthur helpfully puts it: ‘critique that does not start with the answers to its own problems may hold a better chance of realising useful answers’ (McArthur, 2013, p.144). In terms of ‘useful’ answers in the context of decolonisation, Adorno’s negative dialectics contains potential.

Dialectics is a philosophical approach that deems that ‘nothing can be understood in isolation’ (Adorno, 1993, p.91). As such, dialectics may reveal omissions in any given discourse (Fox and O’Maley, 2018, p.1602). In terms of a decolonisation agenda that is located within the neoliberal university, a negative dialectical approach is essential to a consistent critique that maintains philosophical rigour. Given that ‘actionism’ or performative activism within the university can only take place within pre-established epistemological boundaries (Barnett, 2017), only a negatively dialectical critique can entertain the possibility of a radically different perspective. A common criticism of such an approach driven by relentless negativity of existing injustice is that it lacks a redemptive moment, or a guiding positive telos. Critique is only permitted in many ‘actionist’ circles, be they protest groups outside the university buildings, or decolonisation working groups inside them, provided it is ‘constructive’. If the theorist/activist is unable to outline measurable plans for change, such critique is considered unhelpful. That this is the case is wholly commensurate with a neoliberal university audit culture concerned with the production of measurable value extraction from knowledge (Mbembe, 2019).

Complete disorder

In the spirit of negative dialectics, immanent critique is Adorno’s reworking of a Kantian antinomy to judge socio-cultural material by its own standards and ideals and confront it with its own consequences. As Gillian Rose argues: ‘Marxist sociology is often considered to employ ‘‘transcendent’’ theory, but Adorno seeks to show that materialist and dialectical criticism must be immanent’ (Rose, 1978, p.151). In other words, Adorno’s critical task does not seek to realise a moment of redemptive truth. Adorno argues that ‘it lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope’ (Adorno, 1973, p.406).

Philosophy is therefore not designed for the now necessarily hopeless task of changing society, but rather, to keep critical thinking alive, and to identify, through immanent critique, the contradictions that remain, in order to understand the nature of late capitalism (Adorno, 2003, p.114). In this way, then, an Adornian immanent critique can be applied to a reading of decolonisation from within the neoliberal university. This notion of immanent critique can also be retrospectively attributed to the critical task of the theorist of decolonisation par excellence: Frantz Fanon.

Fanon describes decolonisation as nothing short of a seismic shift in the entirety of the lebenswelt. Decolonisation, for Fanon, cannot be understood as anything but a ‘program of complete disorder’, which necessarily cannot be realised as a teleological result of ‘magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding’ (Fanon, 1963, p.63). Furthermore, decolonisation in Fanon’s reading ‘cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself [and, the next bit is crucial] except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content’ (Fanon, 1963, p.36). In other (Adornian) words, Fanon renders the potentiality of a discourse concerning decolonisation through a historical, dialectical-materialist reading of existing conditions. Crucially, however, in rendering decolonisation as ‘complete disorder’, Fanon’s reading is commensurate with Adorno’s negative dialectics; there is no positive (well-ordered) telos to be reached through working groups for positive change. Instead, what decolonisation entails is relentless immanent critique to reveal antinomies in existing, and necessarily colonial, discourse. (1039)

Put away the umbrella

To reiterate, a positive dialectic towards a telos in terms of decolonisation cannot satisfy radical criteria. In contemporary discussions in the neoliberal university, decolonisation as a verb, metaphor, or general catch-all umbrella term to cover anything socially progressive is problematic. Such a reductive reading nullifies the radicalness of the discourse, and instead, renders it as business as usual. That is, ‘decolonisation’ becomes just another attractive PR tagline/buzzword to help recruit, retain and include as wide a pool of applicants from across the globe (ideally from abroad to bring in those inflated international fees) as possible. Rendering decolonisation as merely socially progressive in a liberal guise, after a manner of Fanon’s ‘friendly understanding’ in the service of supposed mutual benefit and measurable value added, problematically serves to extend innocence to those enmeshed within, and who have privileged from, colonialism. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) acutely observe:

Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks … When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym (p.3).

Tuck and Yang discuss decolonisation in a manner after Adorno’s negative critique; by way of what it is not. If an instructive adjective can be ascribed to decolonisation, the above demonstrates that the only appropriate term is Fanon’s ‘complete disorder’. For it is the business as usual order that decolonisation is opposed to, from within the corporate university, via immanent critique. Any serious discourse surrounding decolonisation must necessarily commence with recognition of complicity. Any subsequent critique must therefore be guided by relentless criticality through a negative dialectic. The theorist and activist, then, cannot claim a transcendental Archimedean standpoint.

Moves to innocence

Immanent critique seeks to reveal inherent contradictions in discourse. Furthermore, such critique involves the theorist and activist recognising their complicity in situations they desire to change. ‘Moves to innocence’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012) abound in the university, with often white liberal staff and students who desire to be on the ‘right’ side of history, who use inclusive and ‘woke’ vernacular, and, crucially, employ strategies and undertake ostensibly decolonising work in attempts to assuage feelings of guilt or responsibility, without giving up land, power or privilege. What Tuck and Yang refer to such scholars as those who invariably ‘gain professional kudos or a boost in their reputations for being so sensitive or self-aware’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012, p.10). Ultimately, however, such moves to innocence serve the status quo, just in a more palatable guise.

The neoliberal university, instead of its purported claims of supporting decolonisation, rather seeks to permit more underrepresented groups to become pretenders to colonised seats: more BAME, different genders, nationalities etc. ‘Progress’, for Adorno (and Fanon), doesn’t equate to integrating a more visually diverse cohort into the corporate university apparatus (McArthur, 2013, p.136). The supposed progressive visuals of having a more diverse student and staff body stems from a colonised ontology; that is, markers of identity (ethnicity, gender and so on) are commodified and used to serve measurable agendas that merely serve to buttress the status quo: ‘freedom to choose an ideology, which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p.135).


Decolonisation is ‘complete disorder’ of the existing, colonial discourse. It can be best realised through immanent critique of this discourse by employing a negatively dialectical approach to concepts. As Adebisi (2020) argues, a scholar concerned with decolonisation may cultivate the potentiality for decolonial thought within the university apparatus, but this potential cannot be deemed decolonisation itself (to do so is invariably colonisation of the very concept!).

The theorist and activist entangled in the neoliberal university must resist piecemeal approach to a neatly packable, commodified rendering of supposed decolonial practice. They must, instead, expend their energies on a relentless immanent critique of the discourses surrounding decolonisation. Amidst the Ivory Tower, eschewing a transcendental Archimedean standpoint in favour of immanent critique in the dirt of the discourse, the negative dialectician may render apparent the inherent contradictions of the neoliberal university that demands measurable knowledge, pre-ordained by existing colonial epistemological boundaries. (705)


Thank you to Steve Rooney at the University of Leicester for recommending me Jan McArthur’s acute 2013 text: Rethinking knowledge within higher education: Adorno and social justice.

Sunny Dhillon is a Learning Advisor at the University of Leeds Library. His research interests include Critical Theory, Utopian Studies, Nietzsche and J. Krishnamurti. He blogs at https://dsdhillon.medium.com/


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