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Thursday, February 20, 2014


Ever since Karl Marx introduced it in his early essay, "On The Jewish Question," ideological critique has been the rhetorical weapon of choice of the left. Marx himself went on, in his mature writings, to expose the covert interests at the heart of classical economic theory, managing, in Capital, to discover ideological bias even in the mathematics of Smith, Ricardo, Nassau Senior, and their fellow rationalizers of capitalism. When I was young, I was awed by the depth with which left critics could penetrate the surface of social and economic relations to expose the exploitation, inequality, privilege, and self-justification that lay beneath. By comparison, even the most superficially quick-witted and mathematically adept apologists for capitalism were shallow, one dimensional, and utterly lacking in self-awareness.

Now, to my dismay, I find that those with whom I am allied on the left all too often exhibit precisely these defects of intellect, insight, self-understanding, and language.  In high school Biology, we studied the autonomic nervous system by means of a particularly brutal bit of by-play with frogs. It seems that if you stick a sharp pointed object into a frog's eye and grind it around until the frog's brain is utterly destroyed, certain of its reflex responses continue to function. This is called "pithing" a frog. After the frog has been pithed, you can produce a contraction of the frog's leg by dropping a bit of acid on it. The response shows that the contraction of the leg is governed by the autonomic nervous system, centered, as I recall, in the spinal column somewhere, rather than in the brain. When I listen to speakers putatively on the left these days, I sometimes think they have been pithed, and that their speech is actually a function of their autonomic nervous system.

I hope no one will be so foolish as to suppose that these remarks constitute a brief for right-wing discourse. Anyone who listens for even a short while to the mindless repetition of incantations to free markets, democracy, and the dangers of political extremism - by which is meant anything even slightly to the left of Bill Clinton - will know that ideological rationalizations of the established order are alive, well, and awaiting a devastating ideological critique. But that critique cannot possibly be mounted by those who have lost all sensitivity to the ritual and unreflective character of their own discourse.  One of the lessons Marx teaches us in Capital is that when we wish to anatomize some practice or social formation with which we are confronted, it is invaluable to remind ourselves of its history. In an effort to understand, and thereby perhaps to counteract, the triviality and shallowness of so much contemporary left discourse, I shall try in a very few words to recapitulate the sequence of steps by which, like the powerful wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, Marx has been reduced from a world-shattering necromancer to a sideshow conjuror doing cheap dialectical tricks to scare intellectual children.

 The central fact of social life is the appropriation, by a ruling class, of a surplus of goods they have not produced, both for their own enjoyment and in order to reinforce their ability to continue the appropriation. This appropriation takes many institutional forms - kingship, slavery, conquest, taxation, serfdom - but always it is backed by force, and always it consists in the taking by one group of men and women of the food, clothing, shelter, and other goods that the labor of another group of men and women has produced. In a capitalist economy, appropriation takes the specific form of the exploitation of legally free wage labor by capital.  The unequal allocation of the social product is immediately obvious to anyone with eyes to see: some people live in hovels, others in castles, or condominiums. Some people eat rice and beans, others eat meat and fish. Some die unattended of diseases that medicine can cure, others are ushered out of this life as comfortably as armies of doctors and nurses can manage.

Contrary to the mythology of celebratory historiography, those whose labor is being appropriated almost always know perfectly well what is happening to them, even in that most mystified of all social formations, capitalism. But the rationalizations by which rulers justify their appropriations do, nevertheless, play some role in sustaining the structure of inequality. The task of ideological critique is to expose the self-interest that lurks below the surface of those rationalizations, and in that way to cripple the rationalizers. So it is that Marx devoted endless pages to attacks on the major and minor theorists of classical political economy, even though he believed that the assault on the central keep of the capitalist fortress would be led by organized workers, not their allies from the left intelligentsia. In the early part of this century, it was still possible to hope that the working class of the industrialized world would replace capitalist irrationality and injustice with the rationality and justice of socialism, but three world-historical events - the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Great Depression - put paid to that happy optimism. The willingness of the several national components of the international working class to take up arms against one another, the appearance of a pre-capitalist dictatorship masquerading as socialism, and the success of capitalism in surviving the great crash that Marx had predicted, together sank the hopes that had buoyed the early revolutionary movement.

In response to these reverses and disappointments, radical intellectuals elaborated ever more subtle theories of hegemony, ideology, mass communication, and the mysteries of  discourse, all in a desperate attempt to explain why their generous offers of leadership elicited so few followers.  Eventually, the discourse of radicals lost all relation to the material base of social theory, to the fundamental facts of exploitation, appropriation, and inequality, so that we were left with an empty rhetoric of rebellion and revolution into which literary and aesthetic concerns could be poured. In the wonderful phrase of Alexander Pope, referring in the Dunciad to his rivals among the Augustan poets, the discourses of our contemporary radicals have become "shit to airy fineness spun."

With no conception of the material basis of exploitation and inequality, with no way of making that fundamental distinction between appearance and reality on which all true ideological critique rests, the invocation of such phrases as "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia" is little more than a shibboleth, a test of politically correct pronunciation, passage of which admits one to a clique of uncritically one-dimensional flatlanders. The subject of these remarks is power and discourse - not how to control the power of discourse, or undermine the power of discourse, or apologize for the power of discourse, but how to recover the power of radical discourse, to make such discourse once again a weapon in the struggle against inequality and exploitation.

The prerequisite to that recovery, I suggest, is a refusal to invoke the macros of speech without thought. "Racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia" is to the 1990's what "running dogs of imperialism" and "capitalist lackeys" were to the 1930's. Now, there really were, in the 30's, nasty, unprincipled underlings who did the dirty work of the imperial capitalist nations, just as there are today. When first coined, the metaphors "running dogs" and "lackeys" captured rather vividly both the function and the moral degradation of those despicable people [assuming, for the moment, that one accepts the rather unjustifiably negative view of the dog.] But after endless, and eventually mindless, repetition, they lost their capacity to enlighten, and instead became obstacles to thought.

In like manner, racism  is an integral component of American society, sexism is a structural feature of almost all societies, disdain for the poor [which, I assume, is what is 'meant by "classism"] has been endemic among the wealthy and privileged of European and American society for centuries, and homophobia is manifestly a widespread pathology. But "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia," like so many other unreflective utterances of the putatively progressive, is an impediment to thought, not a tool of ideological critique. It is as devoid of critical content as that right-wing oxymoron, "the free market."

Perhaps this is merely the crotchety complaint of a sixty-year old radical who finds that, as usual, the young are listening to a different music and singing a different song. But I am convinced that we have never had a greater need for the destructive unmasking of entrenched and rationalized interests, for ideological critique as Marx first conceived and practiced it. Perhaps the next generation of PC's will come with a resident program that responds to stereotyped, one-dimensional language with the error message, "Warning: words without meaning; please pause and reflect."


Daniel said...

Very well put, professor Wolff.
What you wrote in this post reminded me of current discussions in Sweden (and probably all of Europe)about the phenomenon of populist/xenophobic parties "grabbing" working class votes from the left.

It has been proposed that the focus of the Left on HBGT rights and hard line against any utterance of racism has alienated the working class from such parties.

I can be argued (perhaps unjustly) that the uneducated working class that are homophobic and racist hold these views because of a will to power over someone else. As was famously said by Kris Kristofferson: "Everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on".

In Sweden a pseudo-fascist populist party (Sweden Democrats) are polling about 10% of the vote, most of the votes coming from the countryside filled with working-class, unemployed uneducated men.

There is an emergent discussion in Sweden on how to reach out to this demographic without the Left itself becoming racist, homophobic etc. I'm assuming the same is true for the US (with the poor south voting republican).

I think this is a very important discussion to be had. How can the dichotomy of "worker-capital" or "rich-poor" take the place of the current dichotomies of "white-non-white" and "man-woman".

Turkle said...

Thank you for your provocative essay. Certainly food for thought.

I think that it's not just shibboleths we must be worried about. While reading your essay, I was reminded of Bruno Latour's essay, "Has Critique Run Out of Steam," in which he identifies problems with the structure of critique in general, while trying to pave the way for a newly-invigorated mode of critical thought. I don't know to what degree he succeeded, but it's certainly an interesting attempt.

Finally, for another, bombastic take on the issue, I'll recommend reading this:

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Well said. I'm reminded of the Holy Trinity of social history for the last few decades: "race, class, and gender." All are important analytic categories for understanding historical processes, but all too often they're invoked as a slogan, not as a basis for serious analysis--especially by beginning graduate students. And they can lead to distortions. As an early modern European historian, I have to point out to my students that "class" might be a useful analytic category, but it was most certainly not an actors' category: our subjects lived in a society of orders, not classes. And "race" is also problematic. Of the Trinity, gender is the analytic category whose historiographical reach seems the longest.

That's not to deny that premodern societies didn't have their own forms of differentiation and hierarchy, just that race and class weren't how they did it.

GTChristie said...

I remember four years ago on this blog you made essentially the same complaint, wondering aloud whether both left and right have lost touch with their roots and descended into mere sloganeering rather than informed discourse. I will never be a Marxist, but most of what you say above, I agree with, since much of this complaint of yours is as true on the right as the left (with merely different vocabularies). The US has lost all traces of any intellectual bearings; good or bad or conflicting as any such "bearings" may have been in the past, they are non-existent now.

I think the following article would interest you. It's CUNY professor Corey Robin writing in 2001 about ex-conservatives ("ex-cons"). He is the author of "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin" (2011) ISBN: 978-0199793747

The article:

I think it dovetails with your thinking, though it's not directly explanatory of the situation you describe. You might enjoy it.

GTChristie said...

"... populist/xenophobic parties "grabbing" working class votes from the left."
That's how Hitler came to power. Brrrrrr ....