Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

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

Free Photo: Pulling an Airship From a Hangar

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.

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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.

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