Radical Leftist Politics, What Have You Done for Us Lately?

February 28th, 20111:00 pm @


I. The Demand to Think Seriously

On Sunday, February 13, I received an email to this effect:

I enjoyed reading your recent essay [“In the Land of Bloombergia,” Counterpunch, 9 February 2011] critiquing the critique of your Mayor Bloomberg. I have much the same thoughts when I read a lot of left critiques of our cultural and political elites. It usually doesn’t take creative genius to perceive that these elites are morally and intellectually bankrupt, whereas it would take some real inspiration to propose something original that we all could do about it.

After running through a list of failures from healthcare reform to the War on Terror to the “corporate welfare scheme,” the writer concludes on a Leninist note, asking “what we can DO about such things.”

The final question resonates on two levels. Like most of us, he is exasperated by what little has been done since the end of the Cold War to fundamentally change the world order, and his words, like ours, are laced with a touch of fatalism as if to say that there is not much that can be done. It feels as if the war against capitalism and statism has been lost on both fronts and as if, in our obsessive criticisms of the status quo, we were expressing—interminably, Sisyphusianly—our sense of collective trauma as well as our acute feeling of resentment.

But there is a second way of interpreting his question. On this construal, his utterance is an accusation, in Kantian terms “a tribunal of reason.” Radical leftist politics, he seems to be asking, what have you done for us lately? But in asking that leftist politics say what it has or has not done to improve our political situation, he is demanding that it give an account of itself.

Answering my interlocutor’s reasonable demand is the task that I have set for myself in the following. The reply will be therapeutic but also somewhat disappointing: therapeutic insofar as it should rid us of our fatalism but disappointing inasmuch as it will require us to change our expectations of what public philosophy can actually do.

II. The Leftist Intellectual as Critic

A former slave who appears in a short documentary made by the organization Free the Slaves states, “When people eat chocolate, they’re actually eating flesh.” The eight minute documentary seeks to report on the prevalence of modern slavery. Through expert analysis and first-person testimony, the film details the lives ruined in the developing and developed world. We learn of men who had been enslaved in Indian textile factories and listen to former sex slaves who had been smuggled into the US. This is the tragic story of widespread social injustice, a story with which we are very familiar.

Churchill once wrote that “History is written by the victors,” to which Walter Benjamin would have replied that the task of the critic is to write the history of the oppressed. Since the 1980s, the leftist intellectual has been figured both as a critic of the status quo and as a revisionary historian, a writer of a people’s history from the standpoint of the victim. In this role, what has the leftist critic hoped to achieve? First, to bear witness to the victim’s suffering and to thereby make something unseen publicly visible. Then, to expose oppression by tracing it back to a corporate entity or state agent. Finally, to seek redress by means of protests, boycotts, or, most frequently, the legal apparatus. One thinks of the many cases made for impeaching former President George W. Bush and of calls for bringing him to trial in The Hague.

Toward the enemy, the leftist critic feels self-righteous indignation because he is certain that he is on the side of justice. Toward the victim, he expresses a compassion that flows from witnessing her tragic suffering. Since the end of the Cold War, to be a leftist, then, has meant to be a critic and historian whose mission—be it in one launched from the American university, orchestrated by leftist think tanks, or conducted through investigative journalism—is to tell the story of social injustice which is often a sorry record of human rights violations.

I do not doubt that the leftist critic has been strategically effective; in some cases, she has. Nor do I wish to discount his genuine desire for social transformation; surely, I don’t. Nor, finally, is it my intention to dismiss the courage of journalists willing to risk their lives in order to report on cases of appalling human abuses. My aim, rather, is to examine why this ethos has become the norm and modus operandi of the left, the beginning and end of most conversations, the standpoint adopted without doubt or hesitation. Judging by our losing record in the past 20 years, this form of criticism—identifying the victim in need of protection, calling for exposure and vigilance, and referring to human rights or the Geneva Conventions—seems to be of limited value and may even be a form of ressentiment. And so, it seems to me worth examining whether there is another role that a species of public intellectual, the public philosopher, could play in leftist thinking.

III. Statism: The Leftist Critic’s First Target

First, though, I want to focus on the leftist critic’s main targets. To grasp more fully the position of the leftist critic, I want to explore the dominant conceptualizations of the state in the story of social injustice. I would venture that there are four.

1. The state as organ of violence

In his oft-cited essay “Politics as Vocation,” Max Weber defines the modern state as that entity which has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (italics in original). For anarchists, the legitimacy of the modern state has always been dubious in light of its imperial tendency: its tendency, that is, to impose its will on the people it governs and to wage unjust war as a way of its extending its power over others. The state, accordingly, is nothing but a war machine and politics nothing but war by other means. The social contract does not and cannot exist. Consequently, a collective cannot be truly free until it manages to throw off the shackles of the state (radical anarchism) or until it has temporarily suspended the power of the state (moderate anarchism). Sorel was a radical anarchist while, in our day, Alain Badiou is a moderate one.

2. The state as a vehicle of surveillance

The state claims to be a force of good, yet in truth it is a vehicle of surveillance. Call this conceptualization “paternalism gone mad.” In Britain, journalists, professors, and citizens all worry that the hyper-rational state, under the guise of seeking to protect its citizens from threats posed by criminals and terrorists, is given license to undertake what turns out to be a patently irrational, because paranoid, form of conduct. In the eyes of the state, the notion of a private sphere as a realm where I can think my own thoughts, associate freely with others, and write pointed criticism is reduced to a farce. I am never alone, and my thoughts are never my own. Fear and anxiety are written into the fabric of everyday life.

3. The state as a collaborator with capitalism

Critics of neoliberalism like to turn on its head the neoliberals’ claim that the marketplace should be free from state intervention. The Marxist urban geographer David Harvey has shown that capitalism’s ventures have always gone hand-in-hand with the state’s machinations. It has been held, for instance, that the transformation of Iraq into a representative democracy was a political legerdemain for opening up new markets in the Middle East. In more direct terms, it is often said that no-bid contracts being awarded to the likes of Halliburton and Lockheed Martin is the rule rather than the exception, that monopoly capitalism needed the state’s imprimatur in order to maintain control, that multinational corporations expand their interests by virtue of, and not in spite of, various forms of government collusion, and that the state acts as a guarantor of risky financial investments. If the state is not capitalism’s right-hand man, then it must be capitalism’s left-hand blow job.

4. The state as an embodiment of elitism

During the 1960s, civil rights leaders and New Left political activists charged the state with being a form of elitism, one that enabled the unfair distribution of resources and that maintained a society of immense privilege. Since then, leftist critics have waged war against racism, classicism, and sexism; against homophobia and xenophobia; and against ethnocentrism and absolutism. Meanwhile, they have championed the cause of recognizing minority group identities and cultural affiliations in moral and legal realms. As talk has shied away from policies of redistribution, it has moved closer to those of recognition.

In order to make a set of provocative political points, the leftist critic has thereby drawn on these four conceptualizations, each of which is consistent with the others and all of which go to define a specific anti-statist worldview. However, in a post-Marxist age we know that no political prescriptions follow of necessity from anti-statist premises with the result that the idea of commitment itself has been called into question. Whence a general state of paralysis: the state has no legitimacy, yet it is not on the verge of withering away. While the state exists, we cannot flourish; but the end of the state is a utopian fantasy. What now? Should we make do with things as they are, make strategic compromises, wait “messianically” for direct democracy, or succumb to despair?

IV. Capitalism: The Leftist Critic’s Second Target

Like the state, capitalism has run roughshod over freedom, equality, and fraternity. According to the leftist critic, we are not free in the positive sense because we cannot actualize our capacities for becoming who we are; we are not equals because basic resources are distributed unevenly and because we are alienated from our work and our lives; and we are not members of a human community since we have no idea what it would mean to strive to fulfill the common good.

1. Capitalism as a system of exploitation and alienation

The first charge the left critic makes is that capitalism works by means of systemic exploitation. In order for me (or for me and mine) to win, someone else has to lose. That “someone else” could be living just around the corner or in some far-off corner of the globe. And yet, putting the point this way is already slighting misleading since it seems to imply that we are well-matched competitors squaring off against each other. It would be more accurate to say that capitalism violates the spirit of the humanity formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative: from the very beginning, others are conceived as means I use to pursue my own ends. This form of exploitation shows up in the inability of the other to get what he wants or, more devastatingly, her inability to become the kind of person she would like to be. Why else do human resource departments exist except for institutionalizing exploitation, leftist critics ask.

Alienation gestures toward the institutional side of human life. As Hegel observed, I am alienated from institutional life when I cannot identify with the institutions through which I pass and to which I belong. These social facts can be documented in such locutions as “feeling out of place,” “being unfulfilled,” “not seeing the point,” regarding the company’s mission as “meaningless”—not to mention in the growing awareness that the company one works for may be involved in ethically dubious transactions. Over time, alienation weakens self-willed actions and strengthens conformity and resentment.

2. Capitalism as rapist of nature

The common wisdom is that capitalism is a hedonist only able to sustain himself by plucking all the low-hanging fruit. Capitalism thrives only when it can locate and exploit new markets. Capitalism’s “fuel” is nature, its modus operandi violent appropriation. This is all well and good, ecological critics interject, so long as the earth’s resources are replenishable and another undeveloped world waiting just off-stage. Neither is actually the case. After industrial capitalism turned the world into resource (one of Heidegger’s conceptual points about the shape of modernity), it was only a matter of time before nature couldn’t keep up. This has led to near endless speculation on peak oil, to countless “worst case scenarios” associated with global climate change, and to incessant calls for further research into alternative technologies and clean energy. As Ian McEwan’s latest novel Solar would have it, the problem with lifestyle changes is that they cannot be scaled up. What is more, there are bound to be free riders like China, Brazil, and India. Thus, only a scientific breakthrough can save civilization from ultimate ruin.

There is something spooky about the leftist critic’s view of capitalism. It is that capitalism, like statism, is a nimble, “creatively destructive,” resilient machine that manages to regenerate itself in slightly different forms time and time again. Hence, this criticism is also fraught with paradox. For leftists, it seems necessary and inevitable to give expression to injury despite the fact that action seems quixotic rather than systemic. Once again, we seem stuck with a general state of paralysis. Perhaps, our dominant mode of thinking is partially to blame.

V. Clarification: The First Task of Public Philosophy

So far, I have been trying to grasp our political situation from the vantage point of the leftist critic. In so doing, I have been tracing out two Hegelian lines of thought. Hegel’s master thought is that philosophy only gets underway after we become severed from nature. Our separation from what we had previously taken to be given, evident, and meaningful compels us to think seriously. But what is the aim of thinking? To this question Hegel also came up with a cogent reply: to grasp our time in the medium of the concept. Putting these two thoughts together, we might say that the public philosopher is a lover of political concepts. A feeling of displeasure first calls him to think: he feels that we cannot act and that our political situation is not intelligible. In his initial investigation, he seeks to develop a conceptual framework that can do justice to the character of our time.

The anti-statist, anti-capitalist worldview I sketched above was one such attempt at doing public philosophy. The main criteria for success in thinking about our political situation are comprehensiveness and cohesiveness. Have we managed to make sense of the general shape of leftist thought since the 1980s, and how well do the principal features hang together? Only if a certain conceptual framework has met these two criteria can it hope to provide sufficient explanatory power. In this case, the anti-statist, anti-capitalist worldview tries to explain why we feel compelled, as if by some strange repetition compulsion, to keep telling ourselves the same story of social injustice. Whether this (or any) conceptual framework meets its main objective is determined by its perspicacity—its casting new light on a set of familiar items, its Gestalt-like insight into the shape of our time.

There is another, related task that falls to the lot of the public philosopher: determining whether our current conceptual framework closely tracks socio-political reality. In the case of Egypt, it seems clear that Egyptians, in their struggles against the tyrannical state, are demanding political freedom. Robyn Creswell, in his lucid n+1 article, “On Egypt,” suggests that the cause of Egyptians’ political unrest is an overwhelming sense of social alienation stemming in key part from 1970s statism. “Political freedom” and “social alienation” thus adequately conceptualize the Egyptian case.

Yet the anti-statist, anti-capitalist framework fails to make sense of the present Haitian situation. In his research paper entitled “Human Security After State Collapse: Global Governance in Post-Earthquake Haiti,” my friend Matthew Bolton shows how the Haitian state has reached a crisis of legitimacy, the bureaucratic state giving way to a post-statist mélange of state, non-state, and NGO agents: a situation Mark Duffield has elegantly described as “neo-medieval.” Here, political authority does not rest in the state but in the complex mishmash of fundraising endeavors, privately contracted corporations, a vast network of committees and sub-committees, hashed-out compromises, and backroom deals—all without clear procedures, transparent policies, clearly demarcated forms of redress, central agencies, or strict accountability. “There is,” Bolton states, “no clear hierarchy of command and control that can be traced upwards and pinpoint responsibility in particular offices.” The situation in Haiti seems like a better description of the complex drama unfolding in Afghanistan or Iraq than the anti-statist, anti-capitalist description favored by leftist critics.

It is also worth noting that in some contexts capitalism faces similar organizational collapses and “creatively destructive” self-transformations. As some corporations attempt to slim down by implementing freelancing, outsourcing, and contracting principles, they begin to look and act more like “cluster systems” than like bureaucratized persons with hierarchically arranged, interlocking parts. Of course, we can still point to the exploitation of labor and the ravishing of nature by multinational corporations such as Chiquita, but the act of pointing becomes a considerably more complicated activity when we turn our attention, say, to Times Square advertisements that represent the guild-like labor of photographed, reproduced, retouched, hyperreal models. In these neo-medieval cases, then, statism and capitalism have become moving targets.

To sum up, public philosophy is tasked not just with clarifying the dominant conceptual framework but also with pointing out its conceptual limits. Yet if the anti-statist, anti-capitalist ethos does not work seamlessly within the theater of contemporary politics and if it fails to match an increasingly complex neo-medieval socio-political reality, what then?

VI. Reorientation: The Second Task of Public Philosophy

Most of social life consists of a set of habits and shared understandings, a certain world-conception that coincides with a particular way of being in the world. However, at crucial moments in history, an event or a set of events may lead us to lose our footing. This political vacuum, brought about by anomalies in our conceptual schemas, can be characterized as an “agon of sense-making.”

Why an agon? One of Nietzsche’s great insights was that suffering, be it personal, social, or political, cannot be senseless. Even masochism is preferable to unintelligibility. Suppose our past understandings cannot make sense of the events unfolding before us. Suppose also that there are unactualized conceptions lying in wait or new poetic inventions about to be created. Under these conditions, what ensues will be a conflict of sense-making, a contest of vying factual-normative conceptions all of which attempt to re-describe political reality in their own terms. Of vital importance is the idea that describing reality in such and such a way entails making prescriptions regarding what actions seem warranted or justified here and now. If things are cast in this light, then here are the kinds of things that it makes sense for us to do.

During the 1970s, “neoliberalism” was one conception that made sense of a post-welfare state reality. After September 11, the “war on terror” was not, as some leftists in the US would have it, a contradiction in terms but an effective poetic redescription of socio-political reality, effective inasmuch as it conformed to our heroic past and provided us with a global mission. By my lights, the “war on terror” won out because it managed to reorient us to the world in a way that a muddled leftist legalistic conception did not.

There are two claims that are implicit in my discussion of the reorienting power of public philosophy. There is, first of all, the claim that a certain conception “wins out” only if it can offer a political vision that compellingly fits the new socio-political reality. In this respect, it must be comprehensive, articulating a grand narrative that articulates a collective history, however fictional; cohesive, forming a whole that is beautiful; and relatively elastic, able to withstand a wide array of future events. Second of all, there is the claim that the agon is a contest shot through with contingency. It should be borne in mind that the “war on terror” did not have to be the victor of the post-9/11 agon nor did “the modern state,” after the Treaty of Westphalia, have to be the answer to the question of political legitimacy. Tellingly, the fact that there are no necessary results flowing from the agon suggests that there are openings for social transformation, for political oppression, and for everything in between.

In closing, I want to speculate, briefly and clumsily, about the role that the “common good” might play in the event that climate change finally becomes acute. To overcome our sense of disorientation, we might re-imagine ourselves as rational beings enmeshed in a set of overlapping relationships that radiate outward: partiality for our friends, hospitality toward our neighbors and guests, love for humankind, and, not the least, care for the earth. To act on behalf of the common good would involve instantiating what is good for all in one’s mode of being in the world. One might experience wholeness rather than alienation and meaning in lieu of nihilism. Perhaps.


At the outset, I cautioned that my argument would be therapeutic but also disappointing. The therapeutic value stems from public philosophy’s sense-making force and evaluative power. Public philosophy clarifies our political situation at the same time that it reminds us that our understanding is limited in scope and “practicality.” Yet the disappointment remains: we still want more, and thinking is never enough.

Our sense of disappointment implies that our initial demands were misplaced, albeit legitimate. We need to learn not to expect political philosophy to provide blueprints for concrete political action. Growing up entails saying good-bye to philosopher-kings. And yet, wanting more from ourselves and expecting more from the modern world also means that our longing for social transformation, thankfully, has not gone away. Under the right circumstances, that longing could find political expression and, with some luck on our side, it could become something marvelous.