Interlude: the academic left, imaginary politics, and the Reagan era

So the story goes that in the two decades before Reagan’s election, the conservative movement spent its time in the electoral wilderness laying the intellectual and institutional groundwork for vengeance—that is, for a resurgent attack on the New Deal. When Reagan came to power, he was able to draw on the conservative movement’s plans and institutions, and he began to turn their ideas into actual policies.

What did the American left do during its equivalent decades in the wilderness? What did it do beginning in the 1980s, as it became increasingly clear that the American public was not on its side?

Rather than preparing the groundwork for a return to power, many of the members of the intellectual left, especially those within academia, viewed “power” itself with hostility and suspicion. Professors and students who possessed the leisure and training to participate in an ideological reformation of the American left did not do so.

Instead, they actively rejected engagement with electoral politics and committed themselves to intellectual projects that eventually came to be grouped under the banner of “theory.” This was not “political theory” as traditionally understood, not a new episode in the conversation stretching from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Rawls and Nozick. Rather, “theory” as practiced by the academic left during the Reagan era largely consisted of a variety of speculative philosophical projects with their roots in the French left’s response to German thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Heidegger. (Much of Derrida’s mid-career work, for example, can be seen as a French leftist synthesis of the linguistic structuralism of Saussure with Heidegger’s idea that human finitude makes meaning possible. Much of Foucault’s work derives from Nietzsche’s concept of “geneology.” And so on. )

The primary focus of the academic left since the 1980s has been relentless, jargon-intensive critique of existing social power relations, such as the relationship between man and woman, straight and gay, white and black, or colonizer and colonized. These critiques have been valuable in reshaping widely held cultural assumptions about marginalized groups. There is no doubt that they played an important role in advancing the goals of the women’s rights and gay rights movements.

For several reasons, however, the critiques made by the academic left during the Reagan era failed to offer an effective challenge to the economic presuppositions of that era, much less to the electoral outcomes that effectively allowed the conservative movement to define American foreign and domestic policies for three decades.

First, as critics on the right accurately noted, the academic left’s critiques dealt primarily with cultural issues (“identity politics”) rather than questions of economic policy. When the academic left turned to economic issues, it usually offered a theoretical critique descended from Marx, often without bothering to become informed about the vast changes in the economy and in economic thought since the mid-nineteenth century. Rather than reading and critiquing contemporary economic thought as Marx had done with Ricardo, for example, the academic left tended to assume the correctness of Marx’s basic critique of “capitalism” and then to change the subject (following Gramsci and others) to the cultural issues that had ostensibly prevented the proletarian revolution from coming to pass.

(More generally, the academic left throughout the Reagan era showed a puzzling credulity toward theories that were originally intended to be “scientific” and to serve as the basis for generating empirical predictions, but that had failed to do so. Long after academic psychologists abandoned Freud’s fanciful interpretations of dreams and his attempts to explain human behavior through the baroque interactions of invisible mechanisms in the psyche, humanities professors continued to draw upon Freud’s writings as though they were a source for timeless truths.)

Second, rather than offering a theory of government that could be conveyed to the American public in comprehensible terms, the academic left took their rhetorical cues from European philosophy in the tradition of Hegel and Heidegger. Anyone lacking the privilege of several years of university and post-graduate education was unlikely to be able to understand the conversation taking place within the academic left, much less engage in it. Indeed, as the academic left increasingly echoed the Byzantine language used by French theorists (such as Derrida, Lacan, and Deleuze, and more recently Badiou and Nancy), it was often unclear whether the participants in the conversation understood one another—or even themselves—at least according to an ordinary use of the term “understand.”

Third, rather than offering concrete proposals for a new mode of governance or new government policies, the academic left largely abjured tangible goals. If they had any concrete political aim in mind, it was usually nebulous and cast off into an indefinite future, with no plausible story about how to get from here to there. It was often vaguely utopian. Perhaps they hoped to see society evolve away from ownership, or away from power relations between employers and employees, or away from consumerist accumulation and toward a “gift” economy. More often, they explicitly rejected the idea of having specific political goals, because to do so would mean becoming a part of some larger problem—the totalitarian technological thinking that led to the disasters of the twentieth century, or the insidious pervasiveness of “biopower,” or the “ontotheology” that had dominated Western thought since the ancient Greeks. From this point of view, critique was a political end in itself—in fact, it was apparently the only legitimate political end.

Fourth, even if a significant portion of the American voting public could have understood the conversations taking place within the academic left, and even if those conversations had implied concrete proposals for what government should do, it is highly unlikely that many Americans would have endorsed the positions giving rise to the proposals. Unlike Milton Friedman’s appeals to “freedom,” the academic left’s arguments were rarely based on appeals to shared American values. Instead, as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty emphasized in Achieving Our Country, the academic left’s arguments were often presented as thoroughgoing critiques of American values. The academic left’s political positions existed for the most part outside the spectrum of electoral politics, at least in the United States. They were off the political map, represented by no candidates, and in fact seeking no political representation. They were imaginary politics.

As a result of factors like those above, the academic left of the postwar generation (and many of their faithful students) offered little meaningful resistance to the rising tide of conservatism through the 1980s and beyond. A lot of the smart, perceptive, politically committed people with the leisure to read political history and political theory—who under different circumstances might have begun developing an alternative to the Reagan era vision of governance—instead got lost in a cul-de-sac of fruitless conceptual speculation. Instead of developing ideas with conceivably practical political consequences—instead of laying the groundwork for some anti-Reagan to draw upon, or producing an anti-Capitalism and Freedom—they offered obscure interventions into little-heard debates over, for example, Jean-Luc Nancy’s critique of the discourse surrounding “the individual.”

Perhaps it was a case of the anxiety of influence: knowing that they could not realistically hope in the United States of the Reagan era to become militant revolutionary intellectuals in the tradition of Lenin, Mao, and Castro, they decided that they would take the higher road and disdain practical politics altogether. The further collapse of Marxist dreams after the fall of the Soviet Union encouraged this detachment. Around 2006, a graduate student in the humanities could be heard pondering, in the depths of the Iraq war and two years before the financial crisis, whether it mattered what “the yokels” thought in America—because, after all, didn’t power just shift back and forth aimlessly between the parties anyway? The same graduate student might define the value of his life’s work in political terms—critiquing existing power structures, and so on.

It was not only that the academic left lacked an anti-Reagan. It was that if an anti-Reagan had presented herself, the academic left would not have known what to say to her or do with her. For example, if Obama at some point on his path to the presidency had decided that he wanted to provide a progressive vision of governance to compete with the dominant vision of the Reagan era, and he had sought out a piece of writing containing such a vision, the academic left would have offered little help.

Of course, progressive policy experts, political scientists, economists, politicians, and journalists were continually producing papers, articles, books, and columns arguing for worthwhile progressive policy initiatives. But attempts at the kind of accessible, high-level synthesis offered by Capitalism and Freedom were rare.

Even as the economic crisis of 2008 opened a window for the displacement of the Reagan era vision of government, nothing came to take its place. The window for progressive change opened and then closed, with relatively little happening in between. In this sense, the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers can be seen as an illustration of the importance of ideas to history. It is true that ideas alone are rarely sufficient to bring about historical change. But when a crisis creates a window for change, the presence or absence of ideas can make all the difference. If a compelling progressive alternative to the ideology of the Reagan era had existed in 2008, political leaders and the public might have seized upon it, rallied around it, and brought it into at least partial being. Because no such alternative existed, no such change was possible. To this day, the ideology of the Reagan era remains in decaying effect, unchallenged by any viable alternative.

All of this is why I ask the question, with an eye toward the next crisis: What would a viable alternative look like? What would the Capitalism and Freedom of a new progressive era say?


5 thoughts on “Interlude: the academic left, imaginary politics, and the Reagan era

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