Adam Tooze, Radical Keynesianism, and Revolution

keynesWhere exactly between reform and revolution does Adam Tooze fall? A somewhat ridiculous way to pose the question, no doubt, but one that might nag the reader of Crashed. Tooze’s exceptional history of the aftermath of 2008 combines a certain respect for technocratic crisis-management with a withering review of its narrow-minded hubris that, for Europeans especially, has been nothing but a grinding disaster. In a book that is mostly about the great men of the world economy, he makes frequent note of the disastrous social consequences that barely seem to enter into their calculations. Their failure to see the whole picture, to see the inescapably political dimensions of the decisions they want to render as hard economic matters, results in things like the choking misery of American mortgage-holders, Greek pensioners, and twenty-somethings across the globe. I was struck by a recent interview in which Tooze noted that the United States and France had similar, somewhat-better responses to the 2008 financial crisis due to their similar degrees of “elite closure”—that is, elites who come from the same tight circles and share common dogmas. The uneasy—and unanswered—question is, well, is that a good or a bad thing?

The answer suggested in Crashed is “both,” and Tooze takes up the matter more directly in a characteristically stimulating review of Geoff Mann’s new book on Keynes. Mann, according to Tooze, reframes Keynes as a radical reformer, an occasional Bolshevik sympathizer who was nevertheless “steeped in the Burkean critique of the French Revolution, which insisted that, however compelling the case for it, revolution must ultimately lead to disaster.” Keynes’ merit is that, as opposed to “old” liberals, he was a political-economic thinker who makes economic management follow from, rather than drive, political needs:

One way of putting the Keynesian question is how much political intervention in the economy is necessary to build a platform of prosperity stable enough to support democratic politics. The answer lies in what Mann calls ‘Machiavellian’ tactics, in which the boundaries of the political are treated as malleable. The art of modern government does not consist in drawing up everlasting constitutions that permanently demarcate the line between the political and the unpolitical, but in continuously defining and redefining what does and does not need to be governed.

Tooze goes on to elaborate Keynesianism (or Mann’s view of Keynesianism) as a “situational and practical awareness,” a flexible philosophy of recalibration that risks “abandoning oneself to flux without any long-term goal”—as neoliberals claim was the problem with the economic governance of the 1970s. Mann pairs Keynes with Hegel as two thinkers shaped by the rise of capitalism and the trauma of revolution, thinkers whose political thought “is impelled by an apprehension of the deep tensions within modernity, a highly dynamic socio-economic system that perpetually produces poverty and crises that it cannot overcome but which it contains by means of political ordering and reordering.” The result is a kind of permanent impasse, a “radical reformism that refuses the possibility of genuine revolution.” Tooze finds this compelling because recent history has shown that we need technocrats rushing into the breach to solve crises, people who are able to engage in “reasoned arbitration over the proper boundaries of the political” insulated from the “passions of mass democracy.”

But the moment Tooze seems to come out in favor of liberal technocracy, he shifts back to his other foot, on which the very same is responsible for our grim present. Mann and Keynes run into the problem of “the varieties of technocratic reason,” that is to say, the reality that the relationship of Keynesian macroeconomics to democracy was a historic accident. Keynes himself realized that his theory was (in his words) “more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state.” For Tooze, China is world history’s greatest Keynesian experiment, one which rests on a political compromise of “accept and support the regime in exchange for growth and social transformation.” Technocratic Keynesianism is, then, fraught with dangers: it can deliver the kind of blinkered judgment that produced the European sovereign debt crisis, it can be articulated to political authoritarianism, and, perhaps most ominous of all, it rests on an ultimately delusional commitment to perpetual growth which looks more and more certain to be bringing about humanity’s end.

It seems to me that that the radical-Keynesian perspective evades crucial problems of power by putting the people—the supposed subject of democracy—in the clichéd box of “passion” and dangerous insurrection in much the same way the neoliberal technocrats do. While Tooze is perhaps our most brilliant critic of neoliberal technocrats, he doesn’t always highlight the deeper reasons why they get things so wrong. We can blame the economics they’re taught, their insular smugness, their lack of interest in or knowledge of history, their unwillingness to think politically, all of which might be right. But one reason these things might be the case is the effective absence of democracy, the lack of any meaningful form of popular accountability that they enjoy. They are already insulated to engage in “reasoned arbitration over the proper boundaries of the political,” but those boundaries have been drawn so rigidly and in a configuration so opposed to the general well-being precisely because of the accumulated class power of the economic interests to which they are most responsive. As Tooze well recognizes, Keynesian radical-reformism places an arguably irresponsible degree of faith in the technocrats to be far-seeing, benevolent guardians. What about the awful lot of the time when they aren’t?

Though the technocratic perspective takes no particular interest in popular agency, perhaps a charitable reading would be to say that Keynesian managerialism accepts mounting activism or social upheaval as healthy and necessary to achieving a rebalancing at the top, to force the managers to respond. It’s possible that such would bring about a balance of economic management and democratic agency that citizens in Western societies would again find acceptable. But I would suggest that this is—especially in the present moment—unjustifiably optimistic about who the economic managers are and who they really answer to. The fact that during the Keynesian era, they saw fit to require capital’s tolerance of a social-democratic compromise put a democratic sheen on their role of managing the long-term interests of the ruling classes. It was, in the end, a relatively short period in which the popular masses in Europe and the United States found this compromise acceptable before they once again were demanding that their participation be rendered more substantial. Keynesianism was a kindler, gentler Stalinism that had the unfortunate dimension of letting capitalist economic power live to assert itself once again, which it promptly did once popular demands—both political and economic—grew unacceptable. I’m not sure the dark period that followed is one the people will soon forget.

Tooze doesn’t say much about Mann’s vision of what “a radical politics of the environment might involve beyond the Keynesianism of climate-change management, carbon pricing and solar subsidies.” This is perhaps all the more reason that a democratic revolution of some sort is the essential precondition of facing the climate apocalypse. It must be in the United States, which, “declining hegemon” though it is, is the only plausible vehicle in the present geopolitical order for socialism and (then) a radical climate response. The latter simply will not happen without a radical breaking of the power mammoth global economic interests wield over our decisionmaking, a break much easier to envision in states that have undergone a dramatic—if not to say insurrectionary—political transformation. Though Tooze seems to limit his vision of revolution to Bolshevik-style insurrection, he still hints that it may be necessary: “As the world melts before our eyes, what does Keynesian managerialism have to offer our children and grandchildren? Don’t we need a revolution?” All of the options on the table seem to be versions of radical-reformism faced with likely disaster; the devil remains in the details. But one option we can be relatively sure will fail is one that continues to follow the Keynesian habit of sidelining the people.


There is No Life of the Mind Without Life in the World: A Reply to Jon Baskin

In an essay that got quite a lot of praise earlier this week, Jon Baskin attempted an indictment of the world of American left-wing “little magazines,” which he suggested are letting their commitment to ideas be deformed by political engagement.

Baskin recounts his path from an early internship the Center for American Progress, where he learned to craft political battle rhetoric and “win the narrative,” to his later move to New York and fascination with the magazine n+1. He eventually grew somewhat disenchanted with the world of “little magazines” as they supposedly took an activist turn and as he went to grad school and (this is mostly subtext) embraced the detached intellectual elitism so often characteristic of people associated with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. For some time, Baskin has telegraphed his irritation that the American intellectual renaissance is too left-wing and “anti-capitalist”; in this essay, he contests it less on political grounds than on the basis that too much militancy is threatening the quality and complexity of ideas: “The danger is that, in attempting to discipline our desires to our political convictions, we might allow our ideology to overrun our intellect. When everything is political, everything is threatened by the tendency of the political to reduce thinking to positioning.”

I don’t really disagree with Baskin’s belief in ideas for their own sake. The problem is that he has used his narrow and ahistorical conception of intellectual life—and the “left intellectual”—to misrepresent the actually-existing American public sphere and its participants. His clearest targets are n+1 and Jacobin, though he implicitly includes the entire world of left-wing “little magazines” (Dissent, The Baffler, etc.) He casually associates these with the propaganda tactics of the Center for American Progress and the humor podcast Chapo Trap House, quoting selectively across this range of mediums as if they employed the same types of people, engaged the same types of audiences, and operated in the same rhetorical register. “Just as for my colleagues at the Center for American Progress, for Jacobin’s contributors there are questions of strategy, but not of substance: writing just is a form of messaging,” Baskin writes. He takes offense at both Will Menaker’s famous “bend the knee” monologue and the “zero-sum logic” of a secondhand comment reported by an n+1 writer, which leads into his defense of such endangered concepts as “arguing with people who disagree with you” and “having your ideas tested” (my paraphrases). And then, of course, there’s the requisite disquisition on Plato and the notion of a place of “isolation and radical self-questioning” that is somehow beyond history.

This potpourri of references conflates several distinct sociological spheres and content mediums in a way that needs to be untangled. First of all, there is the world of the mainstream political media, where there is a war going on. The United States is a crumbling plutocracy with a post-literate cretin in the White House, a country with an economic elite that is militantly hostile to every intellectual value that I imagine Baskin and I both hold dear. It has an all but post-literate—certainly post-intellectual—political and pundit class that, far more than intellectuals of any political bent, has done its best to reduce democratic life to consulting and branding, slogans and “narratives.” We are in a moment of crisis, a turning point if there ever was one, a time to draw lines and name names. There are some hopeful signs that things could turn out for the better: the 2016 campaign produced two major insurgencies to challenge the undead political options on offer; since the election, political mobilization is at historic levels and even the labor movement is stirring to life. People are ready for something different, but the old order is not going anywhere without a fight. We’ve seen their game over and over, and we know it is mostly indistinguishable from unconditional surrender. The world of political media is the where the worst pathologies of American liberalism are disseminated and celebrated; it was in the context of a long-running critique of this order’s feckless representatives that Menaker made his “bend the knee” comment. He was speaking of a concrete battle between political factions in the world of political media, a world that is—and should be—a field of battle where “positioning” and aiming for ideological dominance are the point. This world has nothing directly to do with little magazines or the intellectual left.

Nothing directly, but plenty indirectly, and that indirectness needs to be kept in view. It’s true that the little magazine renaissance—and the legacy magazine renaissance, for that matter—is populated by left academic types, many of whom are probably more radical than they were a decade ago, and a small minority of whom have also become political activists of various sorts. There are many reasons for their increased prominence in the conversation, including the precarity of academic employment and the desire to reinvigorate a moribund political-intellectual discourse. But here, Baskin’s portrait of “martial” thinking and ideas calcifying into positioning bears almost no relationship to reality. Even if the general political stakes are heightened, most of what is published in these magazines is academics writing on politically-adjacent subjects in generally searching, open-ended ways. In personal conversations with a significant number of people who write for the publications Baskin mentions, there is little sense that anyone has the answers, but rather that all most of us can do is pose questions of ourselves and whatever we happen to research, and think in public in ways we hope will be beneficial to others. Baskin is annoyed that people are talking about concepts that do nothing but “advertise their moral righteousness,” like neoliberalism. To interpret the claim that writing about neoliberalism is virtue-signaling as anything other than willed obtuseness doesn’t put it in a much better light: it suggests that only disreputable, non-intellectual motives could lead one to care about a system of thought that has shaped every dimension of the world we live in and happens to be a vibrant (and conflictual) field of study across the humanities and social sciences.

It is true that a minority of left intellectuals have been involved in political and labor activism, and occasionally write about those subjects in n+1, Dissent, The Nation, etc. from the perspective of political militants. Even here, there is no particular evidence that political engagement deforms these writers’ work as intellectuals and academics, that it makes their publications more generally dogmatic, or that liberal and even conservative views are crowded from the conversation on the far left. Even Jacobin, whose project Baskin misunderstands as a general intellectual one rather than one of intellectuals thinking on particular topics as activists, militants, and theorists already committed to a particular political movement, has far more vigorous political debate than any liberal periodical published in the United States. Its project is explicitly socialist and an explicit challenge to liberalism, giving it the militant edge Baskin decries. But this hardly means that it is more about “positioning” than “substance.” Substantive issues that are controversial within the far left are debated there almost constantly, as evidenced by the constant waves of Twitter hatred from this or that left faction.

Baskin offers us a helping of pseudo-profundities on the eternal contradictions of the left intellectual that suggest he has little familiarity with left intellectual practice outside of the few magazines he has read as an adult and—maybe—the Partisan Review. What he calls the “old” and “probably unsolvable” problem is that left intellectuals have elite educations and tastes that make their audiences small and obscure despite their stated anti-elitist aims. But the way Baskin sets this up reveals, beyond a lack of historical specificity, a lack of curiosity about what left intellectuals actually do in the present. The “problem” is only “unsolvable” in the sense that history itself is “unsolvable”—in the sense that it keeps throwing us new situations to which we must adapt. If new situations have often required re-interrogation of the role of intellectuals to political movements and to the people who make them up, the majority of left movements in history have assumed that such relationships are necessary and possible. Anyone familiar with left or even general-interest publishing beyond the last 15 years in American history would see that there have been many ways to address the problems of different mediums, audiences, and registers. Parties, movements, and independent left intellectuals published purely theoretical-philosophical journals that had only loose relationships to politics, political journals and newspapers that dealt with more conjunctural analysis, and party and militant journals that discussed strategies and organizing plans. It’s not uncommon in my own research to find figures who simultaneously did first-rate, all-but-non-ideological academic work, wrote literary fiction, published multiple left journals aimed at audiences of different levels. They did so without any particular sign of dogmatism or corruption of their intellectual curiosity.

Baskin’s belief in the universal alienation of intellectuals from the masses is clearly shaped by his own class biases. This passage is particularly revealing: “They claim to speak for the underclasses, and yet they give voice to hardly anyone who has not emancipated themselves culturally from these classes in their pages.” It supposes, mistakenly, that every highly educated person of working-class origin has suppressed their own background and personal ties, that their family and friends are not aware of and even educated by their writing. It implies that even in the age of the internet, a significant number of people who are still not “emancipated” from plebeian ideas do not encounter, learn from, and even have their thinking transformed by so-called “elite” writing, as indeed the historically marginal always have. It’s even an insult to those who, despite their lifelong privilege, build cross-class ties in their organizing and activism, and use those relationships as opportunities to share their ideas with those who have less access to education and written argument.

It doesn’t seem, then, that the phenomenon Baskin tries to diagnose even exists, or that it is a problem of it does. The real problem is the constrained, unimaginative, and ultimately pessimistic nature of Baskin’s view of intellectual life. It mirrors the Mark Lilla project in putting intellectual life in a Platonic space outside of history where it can only be truly pursued apart from the complications of the world, which always threaten its purity and complexity. Ideas themselves are powerless to transform people’s thinking and transform their lives for the better; action can only be the perversion of ideas rather than their product and achievement. But this notion can only be maintained from a rarified philosophical distance that is long on stylized preconceptions of history and short on the sort of empirical texture that would reveal that in historical reality, problems get solved and unusual things fit together. People both entertain complex, open-ended, irresolvable intellectual projects and make practical commitments to participate in changing their material circumstances. In the real world, there is no requirement that these projects line up perfectly or any iron law dictating that the latter will corrupt the former.

Even the most materialist and anti-elitist of leftists should be champions of the inherent value of the open-ended life of the mind. But Baskin’s Platonic intellectualism, in practice, is about a kind of self-satisfaction that keeps ideas at a distance from the world when they are most needed, that clings to its illusions of transcendence even as flesh-and-blood enemies arrive at the gate.

Marcuse vs. Mid-Century Sociology: Two Approaches to “Industrial Society”

Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964) was one of the books I almost randomly brought with me to Paris, where I’m researching my dissertation on social theory and “industrial society” in mid-century Europe and America. Marcuse’s book—“an essay on the ideology of advanced industrial society”—makes for fascinating methodological comparison with the general sense one gets looking at, say, the programs of the World Congress of Sociology across the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I’ve theorized that all scholars in every discipline during this period are directly or indirectly grappling with the epistemological challenges of something like “industrial society,” and Marcuse is one of those doing so more explicitly, if in a very different mode from the “industrial sociologists” and sociologues du travail (France) who were his contemporaries. Reading these side by side is an interesting way of posing one of the questions that continues to fascinate me: what are we to make of “critical theorists” like Marcuse, who combined some amount of empirical data with a philosophical frame of analysis, at a time when both philosophy and sociology (globally speaking, if such a thing is possible) were rejecting this kind of synthetic thinking?

First, a bit more about sociology. Postwar sociology in the U.S. was deeply marked by the Cold War and by economists articulating models of historical development that contrasted with Soviet Marxism (for example, Colin Clark, W.W. Rostow, etc). “Industrial society” was in some sense a euphemism for “capitalism,” even though many postwar social thinkers legitimately believed Western societies had entered some kind of “post-capitalist” era, and that the era of Keynesianism, coupled with the industrial zealotry of the Soviet Union, was leading to “convergence” between the capitalist and communist models. Industrial sociology, in particular, was preoccupied with the impact of phenomena—predicted to increase and dramatically transform society—of “organization” in firms and states, and in “automation” and “cybernation”—in other words, bringing political-economic structures into a tightly integrated whole that shook up traditional understandings of work, politics, society, etc. The overwhelming emphasis was on empirically tracking these changes and (especially) workers’ attitudes toward them, thus attempting to understand how managerial practices and technology were changing the shape of jobs, what kind of problems this potentially caused, and how to address them.

The impression one gets from the archives of this period—certainly a selective impression—is that “social theory” in this period, particularly in the English-speaking world and its imitators, was a junior partner of economics, consumed with economic statistics and minute empirical accounting of social behavior, particularly in the factory and at work. There were certainly proper “theorists,” like Talcott Parsons, but these appear to be rare compared with the arcane discussions of rational social action that did their best to mimic the mathematical forms of economics. The distinction between academic sociology and administrative or managerial research is almost nonexistent; material from the industrial section of the World Congress of Sociology often could have been produced by a ministry of labor or a management consulting firm (a bit anachronistic, but that’s exactly what it’s like). It is one of the tasks of my dissertation to assess the historical significance of this sort of research, but my initial hunch is that it is of no relevance to contemporary sociologists, and is only of historical interest if one can extract something from the combination of naïve positivism with an incredibly narrow theoretical range.

One of the things industrial sociology’s data-gathering did demonstrate was that the “automation” panic of the late 1950s was mostly hype, and that theories of work degradation (which would come roaring into vogue in the neo-Marxism of the 1970s with books like Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital) were empirically unsupportable. Automation happened slowly, unevenly, and for largely non-technical reasons; it tended to make work easier, rather than harder; on the whole it had little impact on the skill level of workers, in that it neither dumbed down their tasks nor produced more “intellectual” jobs. Workers had mixed feelings about it, feelings which mostly had to do with the way classifications and hierarchies were reorganized, but nothing that confirmed a great desolation at the hands of the industrial machine. The real questions remained, as they had always been, about systemic issues of organization and income distribution—questions about the aims of society, the nature of its institutions, etc.

Many sociologists seemed to believe that their data would eventually build up to the point that they could theorize at this level, but they often abandoned the project even without acknowledging their move into “speculative” theory. (Here I refer more specifically to French figures, who operated in a heavily philosophical academic culture, were descended from a theoretical sociological tradition, and were steeped in debates about Marxism—thus, to speak in crudely cultural terms, they were more likely than Anglophone sociologists to be unsatisfied with inconclusive empiricism.) The data gathered by sociological methods was too partial and too rapidly became obsolete to ever sustain a truly empirical account of a political-economic system as a whole. We might hypothesize that rebellion against this sterile intellectual environment had something to do with the re-politicization or re-Marxification of sociology in the 1970s (here speaking of the Anglophone world, where as in France it was simply transformations within Marxism and marxisant social theory.)

This brings me to One-Dimensional Man, which by contrast with mid-century industrial sociology seems almost quaintly uninterested in empirical data. Marcuse makes selective use of empirical material, including papers on automation and technology, the AFL-CIO’s position on technological change, RAND strategy papers, etc. But the book is most notable for his fusion of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology as an analytical frame with which to speculatively draw out the way that “advanced industrial societies”—meaning both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.—re-appropriate the “negative” forces within their development which might have previously developed into revolutionary dissent. Marcuse attempts a mind-bogglingly ambitious—and surely most readers would agree, not entirely successful—project of showing how radical empiricism in philosophy is a form of the “technical rationality” that conditions industrial society and helps it infect everything with a logic of the status quo. One Dimension Man is, enfin, a theory of the ideological functioning of society that moves speculatively across numerous domains, attempting to bring philosophical logics to bear on a sampling of empirical data (that one is led to believe includes the German-born Marcuse in the United States “looking at television or listening to AM radio for one consecutive hour for a couple of days, not shutting off the commercials, and now and then changing the station,” p. xlix)

I feel relatively comfortable saying that some of the claims in One-Dimensional Man are some combination of unintelligible, histrionic, and lacking empirical support that was probably available even at the time. It is often approached with derision—along with the whole “critical theory” genre—by historians talking about how it’s one-sidedly negative and deterministic, overly critical of genuinely-held American ideals, or “empirically wrong.” But as with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, this misses the point that despite all the caveats above, something about it continues to ring true. Even as a non-expert in the trendy subject of automation, Marcuse avoided the silliest claims about it and based his claim that industrial society is totalitarian slavery on his understanding of society as an ideological whole, a conception that allowed him to speculatively incorporate trends in work, mass media, and geopolitics. Western workers are not “enslaved” to machines, but rather to a system that views them as “objects of total administration,” and does so such a rational way that no one can see the underlying irrationality of the whole. In other words, no one notices that the wealthiest, most militarily advanced society on earth bases its entire self-justification on a weaker “Enemy” (the U.S.S.R.), and this becomes the background that makes the narrowest kind of intellectual and cultural technicism and pointless productivism seem like a rational and even “free” society, never mind the fact that it is official policy to have citizens be manipulated to buy things they don’t need and sedated by gadgets and entertainment, and to sustain a policy of racial apartheid. Even many left-liberal social reformer types believed this was the incarnation of free, democratic society, though they may have criticized one of its dimensions or another. Marcuse advances a vision in which freedom requires real agency and the possibility of making substantive choices—the exact thing that American “industrial society,” in other ways than Soviet communism, goes out of its way to prevent.

To return to my initial question: what do we do with texts like this? Relics of past moments that inspired movements but have a decidedly dated feel, that seem to have tried to assimilate everything without quite succeeding in any particular theoretical genre? The first thing to notice, in comparison, is the fact that Marcuse was able to broach—albeit quite speculatively—subjects that had no place in industrial sociology. The best sociology could do was to analyze technical and occupational change, and to report that X and Y are happening; the focus on work or travail, despite its Marxist ring, does not really offer a way to get at the social and economic system in which work takes place, certainly not a critical one. Marcuse’s eccentric approach, on the other hand, was able to simultaneously put into question the narrow theoretical range of Anglophone philosophy, the corporate-controlled manipulation and co-optation of the individual through media technology, and the irrational destruction and waste that were byproducts of a productivist superpower flailing around the planet as if it was in mortal danger. And this was before climate change, Facebook, or Donald Trump were even imagined.

The point I think I’ve drawn from this is that there is perhaps a tendency to denigrate, in our own dumbed-down, overspecialized times, past texts that combined approaches in idiosyncratic ways, or tried to approach the analysis of contemporary society through philosophy. Especially those that have the air of “the sixties,” of the somewhat juvenile radical left, of topics like anti-consumerism that we associate with things like Situationism or Adbusters. Marcuse made these elements of a broader analysis of society: can we say we live in a free society when citizens are reduced to manipulated “consumers” is a core, constitutive feature of the political-economic system? To wit, how could the richest, most powerful society in history be so dumb and insane? It may be completely understandable, and in the end no great loss, if One-Dimensional Man is not widely read in the 2020s. But it seems that what this kind of theory has going for it is that it has the possibility of transcending a moment that in most ways completely determined it, of revealing something about its moment that may become even more obvious in our own. However perplexing such texts may be to the contemporary reader, who has different training and disciplinary expectations, they still offer up nuggets of insight, and propose ways of thinking with and against. As opposed to mid-century industrial sociology, which now may be of nothing more than historical interest.

History, Philosophy, and Morals in ‘Kill All Normies’

Angela Nagle has been a frequent presence in the “new old left” for the last year so—her essays in Jacobin and the Baffler, as well as her many podcast appearances, have been bright spots in the dark year of deciphering the 2016 presidential campaign and the 2017 presidential debacle. Nagle has become perhaps the best-known cartographer of the “alt-right,” the archipelago of online reactionary movements that received unprecedented media attention for their (largely rhetorical) connections with the Trump campaign.

Her long-awaited book, Kill All Normies, outlines the online culture wars of the past few years: the consolidation of diverse far-right tendencies around opposition to “political correctness,” the division between the ethno-nationalist “alt-right” (Richard Spencer) and its opportunistic fellow travelers of the “alt-light” (Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes). She covers, as well, the relationship of mutual hostility between online reaction and what she calls “Tumblr liberalism”—the alt-right’s left “mirror image.”

The core of Kill All Normies is a polemic against “transgressivism”—a counter-cultural style that prioritizes rejection of the mainstream, tends toward “anti-moralism” and “nihilism,” and can ultimately be a tool of any politics. Nagle is particularly critical of scholars and commentators who, imbibing what she takes to be an ambient cultural orthodoxy, naively assume that transgressivism is inherently progressive. But as the general public is increasingly aware, the lawless, transgressive, liberating space of the internet has reinvigorated American white supremacy and given rise to vile new racist and misogynist groups who are increasingly taking their ideas into the real world. “When we’ve reached a point where the idea of being edgy/transgressive/countercultural can place fascists in a position of superiority to regular people,” Nagle writes,“we may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn cultural ideas” (p. 107).

The emphasis on transgressivism seems to have emerged for Nagle from her engagement with scholars like Gabriella Coleman, who talk about subcultures being “counter-hegemonic spaces,” and write glowingly—and credulously—about forms of social organization emerging from online hacker culture. Nagle emphasizes another scholar’s argument that the likes of Coleman have “been insufficiently critical of subcultural ideologies [like those of 4chan]…because their biases have tended to agree with the anti-mass society discourses of the youth cultures they study” (p. 106). Nagle sees residual counterculturalism-by-default as a strategic problem for the left in the present, as it faces down a right-wing neo-Nazism rapidly appropriating the youth appeal of transgressivism for a hideous reactionary agenda, and a liberal mainstream that has learned to weaponize the argot of Tumblr activism as a weapon against critics of the neoliberal consensus.

As an analysis of the contemporary conjuncture, Nagle seems absolutely correct. She doesn’t say much about how counterculturalism became the cultural orthodoxy we probably all agree it is. But she seems right that transgressivism as a political style has little to offer the demands of the present, which increasingly look like the old-fashioned, laborious, and decidedly unsexy work of convincing a lot of non-ideological “normies” to join our side. She also seems right that the dogmatism and allergy to debate in parts of the contemporary left—particularly in the cross-pollination of Tumblr liberalism and campus activism—is in part the pathological result of long decades of marginality and irrelevance, and is locked into dialectical tit-for-tat with the alt-right. Nagle, like myself, is skeptical that the culture of fantasy, victimization, cult of fragility and illness, vicious boundary-policing, and general unreality that have come to predominate in online “left” culture are anything but a hindrance to the job that currently stands before us.

When Nagle tries to situate “transgressivism” in a longer historical and philosophical arc, though, I think she relies heavily on received stereotypes of twentieth-century ideas and politics, and pushes the story into stale and unpersuasive binaries. Kill All Normies repeatedly but vaguely implies that the “transgressivism” that defines the alt-right is an appropriation of the spirit of the 1960s. But Nagle’s only specific definitions of what it means to be countercultural are drawn not from any empirical engagement with what happened in the 1960s, but from a cherry-picked array of thinkers and movements like “romanticism,” Sade, Nietzsche, the Surrealists, the Situationists, etc. This spirit is described as “anti-moral” and “nihilistic,” valorizing the “throwing off the id,” the “liberation of the individual and the id,” “taboo-breaking.” While it is certainly the case that these elements were part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, it is revealing that Nagle has little to say about the politics of the 60s generation, as if the counterculture was simply about narcissistic individual expression and libertinism.

It is even more revealing that the view of the 1960s in Kill All Normies is presented almost exclusively through the words of neo-conservative critics of it like Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Lionel Trilling. In some passages, one can quite clearly observe the move of simultaneously presenting criticism of the 1960s as conservative ideology and as it if has a certain obvious truth:

“The recent rise of the online right is evidence of the triumph of the identity politics of the right and of the co-opting (but nevertheless the triumph) of 60s left styles of transgression and counterculture. The libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony, and ultimately the nihilism that the left was once accused of by the right actually characterized the movement to which Milo belonged.” (p. 59)

The upshot of this, for Nagle, is that what seemed progressive at the time and emerged as “culturally triumphant,” actually “coexisted quite comfortably with the scorched-earth free-market economics of the right—a fusion that reached its fullest expression in the Blair/Clinton era.” While this point is indisputable, it need not rely on the reductive, revisionist account of the 1960s that conservatives began advancing immediately and that some leftists themselves later embraced. Andrew Hartman, whose book Nagle draws on heavily, showed that the neoconservatives did not merely hate that the 1960s counterculture was “adversarial,” but they were threatened by its political critique of American imperialism, racial and gender hierarchies, and an illusory cultural consensus built on consumerist pacification; in short, the neocons wanted to preserve a romanticized notion of America as having uniquely solved the problems of modern society.

Nagle seems oddly indifferent to the 1960s critique of consumer society that has recently been appropriated by the alt-right, who have given it a masculinist twist through the celebration of films like Fight Club. But 1960s rejection of the conformism of mass society was much more likely to be driven by a marxisant critique of the commodification of life in common and the placation of the working classes in meaningless work and consumption. As Kristin Ross has argued, May 1968 (in France, but also elsewhere) was a revolutionary anti-capitalist movement, deeply rooted in class analysis and labor consciousness, and was only in retrospect revised into a narcissistic generational rebellion and “transgression for transgression’s sake.” Similarly, as others such as Julian Bourg have shown, the spirit of cultural non-conformity and taboo-breaking were not mindless hedonism, but a rejection of conservative morality in favor of a different kind of morality—one that successfully effected the deep cultural transformations that everyone from moderate liberals to Marxists now embrace as basic features of an emancipated society.

Nagle wants to use the fact that 60s counterculturalism proved compatible with Reaganomics and, later, the alt-right, as a way to discredit all transgressivism as inherently “anti-moral” and thus inherently “nihilistic,” unable to advance a political vision that requires moral judgments. On the contrary, I think we need less categorical denunciation and more historical explanation of how, under the specific conditions of, say, 1968-2017, the countercultural style was diluted into barely-political symbolism and fully appropriated by the ideological mechanisms of capitalist society. The alternative is that we end up holding onto binaries between sober, socially conservative, “normie” working-class people, and sexually liberated, libertine, college-educated “bourgeois bohemians,” or between the austere, rigidly organized left politics of the 1930s and the youthful enthusiasm of the 1960s. (Nagle explicitly encourages this kind of thinking, noting that during the Great Depression, “ideas of transgression and cultural radicalism were largely irrelevant to this working-class left,” p. 61).

Such notions are myopically stuck in the present: Not only have the lowest rungs of society been the most enthusiastic participants in the radically transgressive festival atmosphere of the revolutions in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, but the revolt against “cultural” hierarchies were part of both. The Bolsheviks of the 1920s did not give women the vote and legalize abortion and homosexuality far in advance of any Western society because “bourgeois bohemians” demanded it, but rather because these things had long been perpetually-thwarted dimensions of the radical left vision of an egalitarian society. The French Popular Front of the 1930s simultaneously brought a socialist government to power and inspired a mass outpouring of popular enthusiasm for changing the codes of everyday life, reversing hierarchies and transgressing the usual bounds of society.

There is a further way in which Nagle’s prosecutorial tendencies lead to an excessively Manichean view of the recent past. I’ve already mentioned how she defines the spirit of the 60s more by juxtaposing them with older “transgressive” thinkers than by discussing the ideas the political actors really held and what actions they took. This method (or non-method) produces further ambiguity in her account of the theoretical ideas behind late twentieth-century politics; she moves back and forth between theories and empirical history without really attempting the (admittedly very difficult) explanation of how those two things really act upon each other. The result, unfortunately, is highly informal and occasionally even extravagant claims, such as that the proliferation of gender identities on Tumblr was “the subcultural digital fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas” (p. 70).

In general, Nagle’s approach to theory redeploys the shopworn clichés of previous Marxists who blamed postmodernism for the intellectual failures of the post-1960s left. These clichés focused on postmodernism’s embrace of the symbolic, its evacuation of the “real” world of the economy and politics, and its (often greatly exaggerated and misunderstood) epistemological skepticism. There are fair critiques to be made of the many vapid applications of “postmodernism,” and certainly about their contemporary relevance or meaning outside the academy. But Marxisant critiques of postmodernism were only rarely made by people who knew of what they spoke, and Nagle too seems to think she has to criticize “academic relativism” (p. 83) to undermine the worst excesses of identity politics. Scattered reference to “reason” and “universalism”—words that have quite different theoretical/philosophical and political/strategic meanings—suggest that Nagle sees a kind of eighteenth-century materialism as a prerequisite for getting the left back on track to winning the masses. Recovering that, in Kill All Normies, means enlisting an array of veteran left-wingers like Todd Gitlin and Barbara Ehrenreich who have heroic legacies as activists and writers, but have no business weighing in on academic philosophy. She also approvingly sprinkles in quotes from neoconservatives like Allan Bloom and Camille Paglia, and indulges in yet another recapitulation of the Sokal hoax, strengthening the impression that her entire analysis of the 1960s is broadly in sync with its reactionary critics.

Simply put, I think this is dangerous territory for writers and thinkers who are not going to put in the work to understand what they are criticizing. It is at best intellectually dull, at worst strategically damaging. The arguments are tiresome, insular, and for the most part irrelevant to the challenges of building a successful, left-wing mass movement. But the reasons Nagle and others seem to think they are essential are even more troubling: they hold onto to the belief that there are genetic links between ideas and consequences, that a political worldview can only be legitimate if it is absolutely true, epistemologically unassailable.

Not only is such thinking a displacement of the theological desire for absolute grounds, but it has been a true stumbling block for Marxism in the twentieth-century. When the philosophical richness of the materialist and Marxist traditions is reduced to a schematic ideology and orthodoxy, it loses its intellectual vitality and its attraction for people drawn to philosophical problems that are relevant to all aspects of living on the left. And worse, these schematic notions of philosophy that appear in the polemics of the present—whether “the” Enlightenment, or “historical materialism”—do not imply any real engagement with ideas, but are mere partis pris hopelessly overdetermined by the politics of the recent past. The goal should not be to blame “relativism” for inherently producing “nihilistic” politics—a fundamentally ahistorical and idealist enterprise that overlooks the emergence and effects of ideas in specific historical conditions. Relativism and transgressivism, like universalism and nationalism, have emerged repeatedly, in radically different times and places, with radically different political valences. The attempt to pin them to specific politics and outcomes, whether left or right, will always lead to reduction and naiveté.

As the neo-Marxist left works to make a permanent mark on American politics, there will no doubt be an overwhelming urge to re-narrate the twentieth century, to discover causes and assign blame for the left’s failures. That is a worthwhile exercise, and I think Nagle and I are both part of a broad consensus that the embrace of marginality as a political style has had its day, and that the task ahead is the building of a genuine mass movement. This will require universalist explanations of what brings different kinds of people in an atomized society together, and a conscious rejection of in-group boundary-policing and purity tests toward the goal of convincing a whole lot of “normies” that socialism has a program that will make their lives better. Nagle is right that such a project sits oddly with any kind of anti-moralism, or moralism reduced to impenetrable subcultural codes. The critique of capitalism was rooted in moral exhortation from the beginning, and moralism remains one of our most powerful tools.

Yet, articulating new visions, and mediating the inevitable conflicts between them, will take us into the realms of theoretical ideas of what we understand human beings and society to be, and how politics and economics work. There is no such thing as praxis without theory, whether it is made explicit or not. That suggests a greater case for openness to the past rather than judgment of it, a rejection of the assumption that we know the answers right away. History is full of surprises.

Considerations on ‘Considerations on Western Marxism’

considerationsAs has no doubt been said many times before, Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism (Verso, 1976) is the perfect resource for a bird’s-eye view of the whole European Marxist tradition, useful both for the newcomer and anyone needing to reassemble the a holistic perspective, perhaps after studying one or more of these figures in detail. Anderson is famous for his wide range, synoptic abilities, and crystalline style; this book embodies those virtues perhaps all the more because he is dealing with (as he notes) some of the most difficult entries in the European philosophical canon, very nearly without reduction. He frames that in a crisp narrative that covers – after an impressive chapter on the debates within classical Marxism from Marx to Lenin – Lukács, Gramsci, Adorno, Benjamin, Lefebvre, Marcuse, Della Volpe, Sartre, Althusser, and more.

The basic argument is that the shift from classical to “Western” Marxism represented a shift from analysis of economics and politics, formed in close connection with the political action of the revolutionary proletariat, to an academic philosophical enterprise that tried successively to cross-breed Marxism with nearly every system in the Western philosophical canon. (Anderson, with a hint of condescension, frequently refers to these as “idealist” and “bourgeois” philosophies.) This was the result of changes in historical conditions: the end of any immediate prospect of revolution in Europe, the decimation of the revolutionary left under fascism, and the stranglehold of the Stalinist U.S.S.R. on the possibility of theoretical originality within the global communist movement. Anderson argues that this pushed theoretical Marxism away from contact with the proletariat and put it in the hands of bourgeois academics sheltered within the university, thinkers figures who were overwhelmingly philosophers and overwhelmingly interested in epistemology and aesthetics. Western Marxism, from 1920 to 1970, lived a period in which the seat of Marxism shifted from Russia and Germany to France and Italy, philosophers fought over the legacy of Hegel, and the likes of Rousseau, Spinoza, and Machiavelli were proposed as precursors or supplements to the Marxist canon. They also saw the capitalist state rebuilt and stabilized, and the working class “integrated” into capitalist society as they had not been in the revolutionary 1910s, 20s, and 30s. As a result of this appearance of a depoliticized proletariat and an impregnable liberal-democratic state, Western Marxism was marked by a pronounced pessimism.

Anderson has a few implicit and explicit takeaways from his survey. He clearly admires Gramsci as one of the few Western Marxists to have maintained a connection between theory and praxis, and for his innovative analysis of capitalist social institutions as mediators of ideology and social change. He recognizes the limits of the objective conditions for theory during the middle of the twentieth century, and is generous to Western Marxism for having enriched the tradition’s concepts and enlarged its intellectual purview. But he views with dismay the long retreat from empirical economic and political “materialist” analysis and the near-total takeover of Marxism by philosophers (at the expense of historians, economists, and political theorists). Toward the end of the book, he turns to Trotsky and his followers as an alternative tradition, one he views as marginal and persecuted, but which maintained both a commitment to historical analysis (in the histories of Trotsky and Isaac Deutscher) and to anti-bureaucratic (anti-Stalinist) political strategy. While far too historically sophisticated to claim that a mere return to “scientific” fundamentals would reinvigorate Marxism, Anderson did seem to hope in the 1970s that the signs of working-class militancy and the renaissance of Marxian economics would once again converge in an economic-political science informed by a revolutionary mass movement.

One of the things I found initially jarring in this book is how early Anderson dates the exit of economic and political analysis from European Marxism, namely around 1920. For those entering academia in the last decade, it is easy to see the “culturalism” (for lack of a better word) of left theory as the result of the “turns” scattered across the period between the 1980s and the early 2000s, rather than a defining feature of Marxist thought in Europe for the greater part of the last century. Indeed, it is frequently narrated that way by the most prominent chroniclers of the historical discipline. According to Anderson in the 1970s, the capitalist economy in the most important part of the twentieth century still lay mostly un-theorized, particularly the nature of the postwar state and its runaway success at anesthetizing the working class. He writes:

For after the prolonged, winding detour of Western Marxism, the questions left unanswered by Lenin’s generation, and made impossible to answer by the rupture of theory and practice in Stalin’s epoch, continue to await replies. They do not lie within the jurisdiction of philosophy. They concern the central economic and political realities that have dominated world history in the last fifty years.

Needless to say, despite Anderson’s rising optimism then, those were not to be answered soon after that statement, as the compromise between socialism and the capitalist state was brutally undone and left theory abandoned Marxism (and in some cases politics in any meaningful sense) altogether. But fifty years later, things have definitely changed: History is back with a vengeance, and not always at the expense of philosophy. Economics has always been philosophical, and the twentieth century economy, with its wars and states, welfare programs and oligarchies, technological networks and security systems—in short, its ideological state apparatusesoffers countless links between the theoreticism of philosophically-trained intellectual historians and nerve centers of capitalist power in the twentieth century.

It’s perhaps curious that Anderson kept a scientistic distance from philosophy that was clearly, all along, grappling with the epistemological and political import of science, that engine of 20th-century capitalism. It turns out that the body of concepts in the Western Marxist tradition are exceptional resources dealing with the empirical material of the 20th century that most needs understanding from a Marxist perspective, virtually all of which is scientific or theoretical in some way. If you can make it through Althusser, you can probably make it through cybernetics and you can definitely handle neoliberal economists. Beyond their ability to sharpen theoretical weapons, exposure to the social theories of Western Marxism—perhaps precisely due to their increasing distance from fashion—may not lead us to theoretical conversion, but neither is it the worst antidote to the ideological technicism that often passes for contemporary social science.

The Facebook Ideology: A Hypothetical Genealogy of the New Right Populism

Wilders-Le PenJacobin’s preview of today’s elections in the Netherlands recounts an increasingly familiar story, one of social-democratic parties drifting to the right, joining the neoliberal consensus, and thus leaving large swaths of voters unrepresented. The author, Alex de Jong, notes that the rising Dutch right began as a combination of austerity and Islamophobia, but gradually shifted toward a defense of the increasingly gutted Dutch welfare state, at least for “real” Dutch citizens.

The trajectory of Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom (PVV) and its position in the Dutch ideological spectrum closely parallels Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, as well as—in campaign rhetoric, if not in reality—Donald Trump’s revolt against the GOP. In each European case (leaving Trump aside for convenience), a far-right party has made itself the champion of the welfare state that has been abandoned by its more natural defenders, the social-democratic left. In all cases the emerging far-right campaign has gained significant ground among former left-wing voters; in all cases, the defense of the welfare state is coupled with nationalism and xenophobia—calls to limit the welfare state to its “deserving” European participants.

The left typically understands the rising populist right as successively performing an ideological misdirection: taking some basic correct claims about the anti-democratic nature of the EU or the structure of Washington and lack of any representation of working-class interests in halls of European and American power, and explaining them with scapegoats such as immigrants and Muslims. But I’m not sure we have a convincing explanation of why the scapegoating has resonated as much as it has. Obviously there are deep reservoirs of racism in both Europe and the U.S., but anti-immigrant sentiment did not drive political disaffection at other periods when immigration was high (such as the postwar period in Germany and France). The scapegoating is so gross and naked that one wonders how so many, especially left-wing voters, are electing to blame innocent victims for phenomena that have such obvious sources and villains in the Brussels-Washington technocracy.

I want to propose a series of hypotheses, based more on hunch than data, toward the conclusion that the new right populism is the consummate ideology of the social media era. I call it the “Facebook Ideology” because Facebook serves as a convenient symbol both of the broader social conditions (depoliticization and displacement of social bonds onto the digital) and the specific technological means (a platform for disseminating sensational, exaggerated or false information that consumes political oxygen and consolidates fear) that come together to combine a “socialist” defense of the welfare state with a paranoid and racist fear of outsiders. Thus, the far-right has succeeded in offering a solution to the broad-based dissent from the neoliberal consensus by wedding economic resistance to its traditional bread and butter (obsession with identity, partially dédiabolisé and updated for the social media era).

Postwar depoliticization. The postwar “Keynesian consensus” had the primary goal of institutionalizing compromise between large blocs of political power, of structuring the state around ideological moderation. As intended, high wages, consumption and leisure did the work of depoliticization; political ideology and activism began to seem less important, and the differences between governing coalitions less distinct. Though 1945-75 is often remembered as a “golden age” of the welfare state and worker unionization, it was a deliberate compromise in order to buy social peace, one that had real long-term effects on the population’s political consciousness.

Neoliberalism. The end of this consensus brought the phenomena that are now at the center of political debate: de-industrialization, outsourcing, wage stagnation, tighter economic internationalization, and unprecedented financialization of the world economy. In Europe and the U.S., this was marked the beginning of the collapse of a left identity and left politics. The key lessons for voters over the next three decades were that a) left governments are no different than right ones, thus reinforcing depoliticization, abstention, and political disillusionment; b) that resources were scarce. Decades of austerity politics, of reduced expectations, and of stagnation convinced voters all over the political spectrum, including on the left, that “there is no alternative,” that belt-tightening and managed decline would be a permanent condition.

The financial crisis. The 2008 crisis shattered the myths that governing elites were at least competent and public-spirited, even if they were always giving you bad news. The disastrous, sociopathic response of European institutions bankrupted the E.U.’s political legitimacy, virtually guaranteeing the emergence of the popular revolt that had been foretold for decades yet had thus far failed to materialize. As Perry Anderson argues, the right has a clearer answer to this problem than a left that still clings to the ideal of internationalism, and has unsurprisingly been more convincing in the face of the seemingly invincibility of European institutions to left-wing revolts that stop short of exiting the union.

2008 only accelerated what had already been developing in Europe: ambient feelings of despair and powerlessness toward E.U. stranglehold and the social wreckage it delivered at home. This took place in a context of a gradual decline of politicization: union and membership, and participation fell while rural depopulation accelerated and social atomization intensified. Nearly all of these were related to global economic shifts. Voters, particularly those born in the prosperous 1950s or after, probably on the whole grew up with a less intense political socialization than earlier generations (notwithstanding a class of 68ers, a small minority of whom preserved their radicalism over time).

So 2008 guaranteed a revolt, but what would it be? Europeans had long ceased to be well-formed in left politics, few have religious communities or other associations in which to socialize and build broader solidarity. Much of the energy of the left, especially in major parties, had relegated work and material interests to the side of a program increasingly defined by vague humanitarian inclusion. E.U. politics and the details of world financial governance are utterly impenetrable to the average citizen.

Terrorism. At the same time as Europe experienced growing disconnect from politics and society at large, and above all ambient despair over the constraints of the E.U., it was shattered by a series of terror attacks that followed in the wake of September 11 and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Spain in 2004, London in 2005. Throw in the Danish cartoon crisis in 2005-2006, and the Norway attack in 2011, and you have the beginnings of a game-changing story.

The Islamofascism narrative provides a simple explanation for the malaise many Europeans felt: the safety net and the socialization it underwrote have disappeared, making life increasingly anxious, atomized, and miserable. While it’s unsurprising that politicians of the real racist right, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, would see an opening for a revival of their program. But it’s an explanation that also suits much less ideological voters, who perhaps recall the “golden years” of the welfare state, high employment, rapidly increasing standards of living, and an imagined social homogeneity. The “invasion” of immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, can be stretched to explain every sense of dislocation and loss: job losses, tightening budgets and degraded social services, eroded social consensus, terrorist violence. But it’s obviously a stretch, riddled with paranoid delusions and requiring sustained ideological conditioning. How did it happen?

Social media. What if social media was the primary way that this explanation came to make sense? All over the Western world, embodied social bonds have been replaced with digital ones, going fairly high up the age scale (all the way to whose who are quite elderly). Social media consumes an enormous amount of the average person’s daily mental space, and calls and visits are increasingly replaced by texts and Facebook posts. As was clear even before the “fake news” panic, social media—Facebook in particular—flattens distinctions between sources and styles of writing. Even accurate information lacks context, while rumor, exaggeration, and fabrication obtain the appearance of authority.

In such a situation, terrorism accomplishes two things: it cuts through the noise, immediately renders all other political matters unimportant, and deepens the fear and paranoia that are a natural byproduct of social isolation. News about terrorism and crime are far more viscerally comprehensible than the latest E.U. trade deal or diktat from the troika. Each drip adds to the fear and confirms the narrative—all the easier believe in an ungrounded, depoliticized social existence—that Muslims are at war with European civilization, including its welfare state and its tolerance. Major attacks, such as the attacks in France in 2015 and 2016, radicalize and intensify a narrative fueled by skewed and false information, all amplified by the highly-developed digital channels of the new far-right. It’s not for nothing that the new right excels at social media, from the Front National’s innovative mobilization of the fachosphère to Donald Trump’s infamous but tactically brilliant Twitter account.

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To recap: it’s clear that some of those attracted to the rising far-right have always been on the right; a good example is the Front National’s original pied-noir base, formed during the Algeria experience in hatred of Muslims. Europeans remain far more deeply racist and hostile to foreigners than Americans. But my guess is not that Europe’s older strains of right-wing thought have “returned,” even if these new movements draw on older tropes and dog whistle to pockets of those old constituencies.

Rather, a new sort of right has been created by conditions that obtained in the second half of the twentieth century, overall not a period when the older far right had significant strength. Some of the conditions are long-term trends beginning in the depoliticization and affluence that came with the postwar economic boom; others are the direct consequence of the left’s abandonment of its core commitments and its failure to identify, earlier on, the villains behind the things that have degraded life for Europeans far more than immigration or Islam ever have. The new right is the right of post-industrial doom, of plutocratic government, of social isolation and drift from recognizable ideological forms; it is a right that stands a real chance of permanently co-opting core constituencies the left abandoned. It is the right that has benefited from the replacement of thick social bonds with thin digital ones. A right that has married a left defense of the welfare state to the neoliberal logic of austerity and exclusion that political elites have hammered home for the last several decades.

The good news is that the new far-right may be more of a concoction of recent trends than it is a deeply historical and ideological movement; it relies heavily on disaffected left voters who could potentially be won back with bold programs from the left. The bad news is that the left has abandoned these voters for long enough that there may be permanent ideological damage to their worldview, and is still barely on its feet in terms of offering a response. Overcoming a half-century of economic reality and ideological compromise is a daunting task. Be that as it may, bold and uncompromising programs that rival the narrative of the right are the only chance of stopping an ugly right-wing realignment. 

Intellectual History and the Postcritical Turn

9780226294032The “postcritical” is having a minor moment. The Chronicle Review just published a profile of Rita Felski, its leading advocate in literary studies (whose book on the “limits of critique” has been widely and positively reviewed); at the JHI blog, Daniel London has raised the question of what the postcritical has to offer to intellectual historians. To put it very briefly, Felski’s argument is that literature has been overtaken by a “hermeneutics of suspicion”—a “paranoid” conviction that the meaning of texts is hidden behind its explicit meanings—that has calcified into a pseudo-radical orthodoxy and precludes all other, “positive” approaches to literature.

The easiest and perhaps least useful thing one could do is to point out how familiar this line of argument is, how often variants of it have been voiced by disciplinary and political conservatives over the past three or four decades. But I want to propose an alternative interpretation of what is happening with the postcritical. This interpretation does not presume to expose what is “really” happening behind the explicit arguments of its proponents; it attempts simply to draw parallels between the announcement of the postcritical and other recent scholarly “turns.”

My interpretation is as follows: the postcritical is the latest instance of a scholarly phenomenon in which expansive constellations of philosophical ideas and methodological approaches are reduced and consolidated into a single object for the purposes of establishing a supersession narrative. An example of this is the history discipline’s consolidation of the “linguistic turn” as a discrete moment that has been surpassed, an operation Judith Surkis brilliantly narrated in the American Historical Review. It involves the creation of an object that did not exist previously—“critique,” the “linguistic turn”—by assigning an essential set of characteristics to ideas that were previously seen as heterogeneous. Reduced, consolidated, and homogenized, the new object is then easier to overcome, to set in a narrative of methodological supersession. The “turn” operation may be initiated for all sorts of reasons: diminishing returns of an overused set of techniques (which often implies their dilution and domestication), a perceived need to “rebrand” the humanities, or a desire to shift a field in a direction some of its participants find more congenial.

What is ‘Critique,’ Exactly?

The central contention of the postcritical discourse is a dominant orthodoxy called “Critique.” A back-of-the-napkin genealogy of this notion might point to Bruno Latour’s influential 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” What is most remarkable about this essay is the way that Latour proceeds without a definition, allowing the term “critique” to attach to an enormous variety of intellectual programs, from Kant to Pierre Bourdieu to Jean Baudrillard. Critique is then pathologized as a kind of individual scholarly performance that encompasses all efforts to look beneath the most obvious and intended meanings of texts, of ideology, of arguments, etc. “Critique” equals weapons of paranoid deconstruction aimed at what humanities scholars like and kept carefully away from their own sacred cows. “Antifetishists debunk objects they don’t believe in by showing the productive and projective forces of people; then, without ever making the connection, they use objects they do believe in to resort to the causalist or mechanist explanation and debunk conscious capacities of people whose behavior they don’t approve of” (p. 241).

Felski continues the consolidation move in this 2012 essay, where she outlines the “five characteristics of critique.” Once again, the definition of critique is exceptionally vague and all-encompassing:

An unusually powerful, flexible and charismatic idea, it has rendered itself ubiquitous and indispensable in literary and cultural studies. Critique is widely seen as synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo. Drawing a sense of intellectual weightiness from its connections to the canonical tradition of Kant and Marx, it has managed, nonetheless, to retain a cutting-edge sensibility, retooling itself to fit the needs of new fields ranging from postcolonial theory to disability studies. Critique is contagious and charismatic, drawing everything around it into its field of force, marking the boundaries of what counts as serious thought.

The five characteristics of critique, Felski continues, are negativity (“characterized by its ‘againstness’”); secondaryness (“does its thinking by responding to the thinking of others”); intellectualism (“interested in big pictures, cultural frameworks, underlying schema,” vs. everyday practices and common sense); marginality (“it rails against authority”); and intolerance (“it insists that those who do not embrace its tenets must be denying or disavowing them”).

Given my relative unfamiliarity with literary studies, it is, of course, possible that an ethos of paranoid negativity and highly politicized readings dominate English and terrorize those who want to focus on enjoyment and other subjective experiences of reading. But Felski appears to be describing the personality of the occasional paranoid, sociopathic scholar rather than the modalities of critical reading. First, it is a gross and misleading simplification to claim, as Latour and Felski do, that critical or suspicious are unaware of the possibility of critical tools being applied to their own commitments. Second, historical studies, whether in literature or history, are by definition interested in “big pictures” and “cultural frameworks.” Third, critical reading is less about positioning oneself “against” than about opening up, illuminating both the intended meaning and its ability to animate surrounding texts and contexts. Fourth, in my experience, this is often—perhaps usually—done with good deal of sympathy for the authors and texts in question. What exactly, then, is Felski referring to when she speaks of critical austerity, banishing any hint of the human and the positive? Does “critique” in this sense really exist?

Some English scholars in the Chronicle have similar doubts:

Felski also makes critique seem more dominant than it is, says another skeptic, Lee Konstantinou, an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. “It might be that I just went to graduate school at a different time”—Konstantinou earned his Ph.D. in 2009, while Felski got hers in 1987—“but I was not told that the only valuable thing that I could be doing as a literary critic would be to debunk or expose the disavowed meanings hidden within literary texts,” he says. As a doctoral student at Stanford, he learned to think of himself as a scholar engaged in literary and cultural history — a practice that, while it did involve critiquing, also put a premium on visiting archives and documenting the past. “The picture of criticism that these post-critics create seems a little bit reductive,” he says, adding, “Literary critics are not handcuffed to the project of critique.”

Perhaps a shift toward the history discipline can illustrate the roots of my skepticism. History was more successfully resistant to the imported philosophical ideas associated with the American humanities between 1970 and 2000, and thus had even less of an excuse to complain about a dominance of “theory” (the previously consolidated object that has now been re-named “critique.”) Nevertheless, complaints about theory abounded, and the effort to keep the car firmly on the road of straightforward empiricism and “telling the truth about history” were always strong.

Despite the efforts of European intellectual historians and some superficial appropriations of “theory” in cultural history, historians remained largely philosophically illiterate. And yet, despite the real marginality and dilution of philosophical ideas in history, they could still be constructed into a powerful methodological villain that was eviscerating the “real” business of history, i.e., discovering empirical facts about the past. This narrative succeeded by mobilizing narratives of “theory” as nihilistic, destructive, and negative, the opposite of history’s more positive, constructive role. It was also performed by consolidating a range of diverse, incompatible approaches into a single object—in history, a “linguistic turn”—that further methodological “turns” could then simply consign to the past as if by a natural movement. As Surkis argues, this operation “forecloses these critical possibilities rather than creating new horizons” and “implicitly consigns still-vibrant analytic resources to a periodized posterity and politically compromised epistemology.”

“Postcriticism” seems like exactly this sort of consolidation, consignation, and foreclosure. The positive side of its efforts may be entirely admirable—a desire to explore the subjective experience of reading, of identity-formation through literature, etc. Felski and others are not wrong to argue that these endeavors are perfectly compatible with progressive scholarship and pedagogy, and that particular theoretical enterprises should not be sacralized as “good” politics. The members of the Frankfurt School, the poststructuralists, and almost all other European thinkers would agree that recognizing some books as more important than others is a necessity of intellectual culture and scholarship. But I suspect the other approaches Felski champions have always been a part of literary scholarship and pedagogy; if they need re-iteration, it should be on their own terms, rather than against an imaginary object—“critique”—that codes a diverse range of analytical techniques as negative, paranoid, destructive, and passé. It is an unnecessary foreclosure that has the ring of cheaply-acquired hype common to declarations of methodological “turns.”

Intellectual History and the Interrogation of “Turns”

What, then, should the stance of intellectual history be toward the postcritical? I agree with Daniel London that intellectual historians have not engaged in sort of “critique” Felski describes, partly because I doubt that it is a real phenomenon. Critical reading is a core practice of intellectual history, where it functions—like I imagine it does elsewhere—mostly the way it should: as essential to understanding both the author’s intent and as part of historical explanation more broadly. A few outliers aside, intellectual history as it currently stands remains fairly allergic to prosecutorial or paranoid reading, having carefully earned its ability to handle explosive and politically-compromised texts with rigor and responsibility.

One of the most common jobs of intellectual historians is excavating, de-sedimenting, and untangling the de facto narratives—along with the hagiographic and the paranoid narratives—of the intellectual past. Over the past several decades, this task has often spilled over into “history of the present,” with intellectual historians serving as “methodological consultants”—some would say “gadflies”—for a historical profession that insistently neglects the philosophical education of its members. As methodological consultants familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of what bubbles up into methodological debates, intellectual historians can indicate the presence of poorly-posed questions, false problems, and uncomprehending repetitions. This task strikes me as increasingly important in an era when the pace of scholarship and the demands of corporate higher education are driving an even more rapid succession of methodological turns and claims to novelty.

Intellectual historians should of course read the work of literary scholars like Sedgwick and Felski—not to mention someone as broadly influential as Latour—for the insights and intellectual discovery that they may offer. But they should also refuse to participate in any scholar’s self-serving claims of novelty and intellectual revolution, and should insist that such scholars win their credibility by argument rather than by savvy branding and large grants. I take Bruno Latour, for example, as a serious philosophical interlocutor, but my training as an intellectual historian leaves me unmoved by his often grandiose claims to have overturned Kantian philosophy and rendered most social theory obsolete. In interacting with postcritical discourse, intellectual historians should be open to genuine insight and skeptical of hazy interpretive moves that would render large swaths of the philosophical canon superseded and inoperable. And while we should resist facile links between methodologies and politics, we should not shy from interrogating methodological novelty in relation to the broader intellectual situation, and doing our best not to gravitate toward approaches that mirror and tacitly ratify cultural ideologies that should be subjected to criticism.

Update: This post by Scott Selisker on Felski’s book, which one would need to consider to do full justice to her argument, is worth reading as a companion to my less-informed account. I also enjoyed this one by Lee Konstantinou.