Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

A Critique of “Critique”: What Is Still Wrong with the Academic Left

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There is a recurring form of argument on the academic Left that I believe deserves more critical scrutiny. I will call the form of argument “critique,” although I obviously mean something more specific than the ordinary meaning of the term. The peculiar structure of this “critique” is arguably a defining feature of the contemporary academic Left, yet it is rarely acknowledged as a specific gesture — as something that the academic Left characteristically does, and is virtually alone in doing.

When I say “critique,” what I have in mind is the following simple structure of argument, which can be, and has been, executed with countless variations:

  • Step One: Begin by identifying something — especially a powerful institution or idea — that the mainstream liberal political culture assumes to be largely a good thing, such as human rights, the language of rights in general, the rule of law, foreign aid, peacekeeping, or free speech.
  • Step Two: Identify something — especially some pathology involving inequalities of power — that the mainstream liberal political culture views as a bad thing, such as global poverty, war, sex trafficking, or gender discrimination. Often, from the perspective of the mainstream liberal political culture, the problem here will be endemic, and susceptible to no easy solution, although the mainstream liberal political culture views itself as committed to finding better solutions.
  • Step Three — and here is the conjuring trick, where the leftist scholar really has a chance to display intellectual virtuosity: Reveal that the institution or idea from Step One is in fact responsible for the perpetuation of the evil in Step Two. What the liberal thinker assumed to be a good thing — is in fact complicit in what he agrees is a bad thing! For example, it is revealed that the liberal “rule of law” is only a smokescreen for the imposition of exploitative neoliberal economic policies on less powerful countries and communities. Or one discovers that liberal “human rights law,” far from opposing cruelty and promoting the equality of all people, perpetuates racist, colonial-imperialist, extractive-capitalist, patriarchal, and ableist assumptions and power-structures — and moreover, through its emphasis on rational autonomy, attempts to deprive the cognitively impaired of human dignity!

There is no Step Four. The academic Left is defiantly unconcerned with proposing less-worse alternatives to the status quo. Rather, the aim is critique, and critique alone.

This is, in other words, a profoundly unpragmatic mode of argument — as the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty recognized already in his late-1990s criticisms of the spectatorial academic Left. It does not live in a world of better and worse practical alternatives. It is not interested in what reforms might be possible, or how to get from where we are to some better state of affairs. It denounces the status quo in the righteously indignant tone of someone who knows of a better alternative and is outraged that this alternative continues not to be realized — but without specifying what that alternative might be, or indeed showing any interest in the question of alternatives.

Even from a pragmatic, non-radical-leftist perspective, of course, this kind of “critique” could still serve a valuable function by drawing attention to neglected problems with the status quo, persistent injustices to which the mainstream political culture might grow insensitive through habituation. It could serve as a spur to more pragmatic thinkers to consider practical reforms, and how they might be practically achieved.

But I have a growing sense that all too often, radical Left “critique” is unable to serve even this theoretically useful role — usually because of problems in the reasoning of Step Three. It is very easy, as a rhetorical exercise, to draw conspiratorial lines between institutions of power and injustices in the world. One gestures toward some powerful institution or idea — and then one gestures toward an injustice that continues to exist in the general domain with which the institution or idea is concerned. With a little hand-waving, the former can easily seem complicit in the latter, even responsible for its continuation in some vague way.

But are the two in fact causally connected?

Plausible empirical arguments for causality are few and far between in the literature of the academic Left, which is, after all, largely concentrated in the humanities and the non-quantitative, non-model-focused (that is, largely anecdotal) social sciences. Scholars in the humanities, in particular, often have little expertise or interest in the kind of empirical research that might result in a causal claim that could be defended against skeptical objections — rather than being uncritically endorsed by ideological allies because it sounds good and identifies the right friends and enemies. Scholars on the academic Left also tend to have little to no practical experience in the kinds of institutions of power they seek to critique — such as, for example, government, business, or military bureaucracies. (More on the disengagement of the academic Left from institutions of political power below.)

Instead, one often finds in Step Three of the academic leftist’s critique a creative close-reading of one or another text: a human rights treaty or declaration, a speech by a politician or general, an act of legislation, an announcement or advertisement by a corporation. The creative close-reading of texts is, after all, something that humanities scholars are trained to do.

But from a skeptical — critical? — perspective, these exercises in the hermeneutics of suspicion often fall apart. They do not in fact demonstrate the relevant connections between the ostensibly good thing in Step One and the admittedly evil thing in Step Two, as would be required for Step Three to achieve its desired revelatory effect, its sudden stripping of the veil of ideology. Just because a passage in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, can be construed as insufficiently attentive to postcoloniality or poverty does not support the conclusion that actual international human rights institutions, in practice, are insufficiently attentive to postcoloniality or poverty. The latter may, in fact, be the case, but you cannot prove it by performing interpretive gymnastics on the UDHR. At minimum, you would need to look beyond the text to see how it is used, or not used, in the practices of actual human rights institutions — the practices that actually make a difference, or not, in people’s lives.

The interpretations of the rights provisions in the U.S. Constitution over the last century should easily establish, if anyone doubted it, that in a political setting, texts are largely what we (politically) make of them. What could be more naive than simply assuming that a text must have a determinative meaning that constrains actors in a meaningful, transparently predictable way? Yet the growing use of legal texts in the humanities often takes place in “critique”-style arguments that effectively rest on this assumption. The critique assumes that one or another piece of uninclusive or otherwise problematic language in a legal or other non-literary text is evidence that the institutions and practices in which the text plays a role reflect — indeed, perpetuate — the lack of inclusiveness found in the language.

One can see how the academic Left in the humanities might have wandered into these problematic methods. For years, scholars in literature departments have been close-reading works of literature through a magnifying glass of ideological suspicion, uncovering with a Javert-like intensity hitherto unrecognized ideological biases. It might be argued that this was an unusual project to place at the center of academic literary study. Shouldn’t professors of literature aim to cultivate a love of literature in their students, rather than presenting literature as primarily a raw material for training in ideological attack? But the project makes more sense if the language around us, including in the books we read, has a powerful and determinative effect on how we think and act. By drawing students’ attention to the submerged biases in canonical literary works, the radical leftist professor of literature could believe he or she was preventing those biases from being perpetuated, and thus believe that she or he was advancing the cause of social justice.

From the already questionable assumption that potential exposure to often very subtle, even largely hidden, ideological biases in literature results in the reproduction of these biases unless the biases are relentlessly exposed and condemned, it is a short step to the even more questionable idea that hidden biases in the legal and other texts associated with institutions of power must likewise determine how those institutions behave — and the arguments that naturally follow from this, such as the bizarre claim that the use of market metaphors in Citizens United reveals something about the destruction of the possibility of politics in the era of neoliberalism.

If Citizens United had used different metaphors, would that actually have made any difference? Does it matter that Robert Putnam spoke of “social capital,” rather than using some other turn of phrase? Is meaningful political critique really as easy as taking a close look at a long poem, or does it require a deeper engagement with social scientists and others who have done the hard, often unglamorous work of empirical research? Or does knowledge of the world of facts, models, and practice simply not matter to the kind of project in which the academic Left is currently engaged?


When I say that “critique” is arguably the defining argumentative gesture of “the academic Left,” to whom am I referring?

In closing, let me try to offer a little terminological clarification that will probably be unnecessary for anyone who has recently spent time in a humanities department of an American university. By the academic Left, I don’t simply mean scholars that political scientists or ordinary Americans would identify as being “progressive,” “liberal,” or “on the Left.” I don’t mean any scholar who opposes bigotry or cruelty against subordinated identity groups, who is involved in activism against the current threats to our democracy, who is fond of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, or who supports progressive economic policies — including even dramatic changes such as a universal basic income. Many scholars fitting these descriptions do not belong to what I am calling “the academic Left.”

When I say the academic Left, I mean scholars on the radical Left who distinguish their politics from “liberalism,” in the sense of the tradition of political thought stretching from Mills to Berlin to Rawls, and encompassing the practical electoral politics of Western democracies during the Cold War and after — whether Democratic or Republican, Conservative or Labour. The academic Left rejects liberalism whether it leans to the right or left. It rejects the liberal international human rights regime, to echo the example above, as a tool of Western imperialism, and expresses serious doubts about the liberal language of “rights” in general. It finds its intellectual roots instead in the tradition of what it calls “critical theory,” meaning especially the early Frankfurt School with its inheritances from Marx and Freud.

One of the easiest ways to identify the contemporary academic Left is by the frequency of its (always pejorative) invocations of “neoliberalism,” a loosely defined constellation of ideas and practices that it identifies as ultimately responsible for most of what is horrible in the world today. An indication of the gulf between the academic Left and the landscape of actual politics in the United States can be seen in, for example, Jonathan Chait’s apparent unfamiliarity with the pervasiveness of the contemporary academic-leftist use of “neoliberalism” — despite Chait being a well-informed, professional observer of American electoral politics and policy.

The academic Left’s rejection of liberalism is so thoroughgoing that it often ends up finding, to its own surprise, that the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt’s denunciations of liberalism are oddly compelling. In fact, Schmitt frequently engages in “critique” in the academic Left’s sense, as when he suggests that liberal internationalism, while presenting itself as a vehicle for promoting peace and stability, in fact paves the way for wars that will be even more destructive than the wars of the past because they will be driven by universal moral principles, turning any opponent into an enemy of humanity who must be annihilated. (Radical leftists, in my experience, continue to find this argument persuasive, despite the puzzling disparity between the relatively greater destructiveness of, say, World War II — driven by Schmitt’s own fascist religion of war — and the relatively lesser destructiveness of liberal-internationalist humanitarian interventions such as the Gulf War, Kosovo, or Libya.)

But the easiest way to locate the academic Left’s anti-liberalism may simply be to see it as the latest chapter in the radical emancipatory-utopian tradition that in an earlier time might have embraced Communism. Today, it finds itself unable to embrace Communism, with some holdouts. But it continues to speak, in many ways, as one would speak if one were in possession of the kind of all-encompassing answer that Communism promised to provide. As already suggested, this is one of the peculiarities of the typical register of academic Left critique: it is delivered with the outrage and righteousness that one would feel if there were a known solution to an extremely grave and urgent problem, and only the intervention of powerful forces of injustice (capitalism! imperialism! neoliberalism!) prevented the realization of the solution — while at the same time, it casually disowns any responsibility for suggesting such a solution, and even seems to have no interest in whether such a solution exists — because, after all, it is engaged in “critique,” not policy-making. The practically available alternatives are, in any case, probably hopeless, and the differences between them presumably make no real difference. Instead of getting our hands dirty with power, we should plant the seeds of future liberation through “radical democracy” in our neighborhoods, or at least in our coop, surrounded by our like-minded friends…

In light of all of the above, it is probably not surprising that the academic Left, as opposed to the progressive Left, has little to no voice in electoral or even mass-organizational politics in the United States today — that is, in what most Americans think of when they think of “politics.” For this reason, I’ve previously referred to the academic Left’s project as “imaginary politics.” In terms of Weber’s distinction, it is a politics of pure conviction, utterly uninterested in the ethic of responsibility that often takes the righteous fun out of actual politics and renders its participants compromised, defeated, and impure.


[Update 5/7/2018: It occurs to me that the structure of “critique” described above (another example of a topoi or argument-bite?) might be seen as an instance of what the intellectual historian Albert O. Hirschman called “The Rhetoric of Reaction.”

Hirschman identified three recurring rhetorical moves used by reactionary conservatives against progressive reforms: the argument that the reform would perverse, that it would be futile, or that it would place other, more valuable goals in jeopardy. The contemporary radical Left’s habitual use of the rhetoric of “critique” seems to rely above all on perversity arguments, but also to some extent on jeopardy arguments. (“The liberal reformers thought they were alleviating poverty, but in fact they were entrenching it!” Or: “The human rights campaigners tried to address extreme poverty, but in fact they distracted attention from the struggle for economic equality! With the result that they contributed to a political backlash that now threatens to undo even their modest achievements!”)

It is worth pausing to consider how it came to be that the radical Left adopted rhetorical moves that were traditionally associated with reactionary conservatives.]



4 thoughts on “A Critique of “Critique”: What Is Still Wrong with the Academic Left

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