The Cultural Left and the Limits of Social Hope

by David E. McClean
Presented at the 2001 Annual Conference of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy

There is a lot of philosophical prose on the general subject of social justice. Some of this is quite good, and some of it is quite bad. What distinguishes the good from the bad is not merely the level of erudition. Displays of high erudition are gratuitously reflected in much of the writing by those, for example, still clinging to Marxian ontology and is often just a useful smokescreen which shrouds a near total disconnect from empirical reality. This kind of political writing likes to make a lot of references to other obscure, jargon-laden essays and tedious books written by other true believers - the crowd that takes the fusion of Marxian and Freudian private fantasies seriously. Nor is it the lack of scholarship that makes this prose bad. Much of it is well "supported" by footnotes referencing a lode of other works, some of which are actually quite good. Rather, what makes this prose bad is its utter lack of relevance to extant and critical policy debates, the passage of actual laws, and the amendment of existing regulations that might actually do some good for someone else. The writers of this bad prose are too interested in our arrival at some social place wherein we will finally emerge from our "inauthentic" state into something called "reality." Most of this stuff, of course, comes from those steeped in the Continental tradition (particularly post-Kant). While that tradition has much to offer and has helped shape my own philosophical sensibilities, it is anything but useful when it comes to truly relevant philosophical analysis, and no self-respecting Pragmatist can really take seriously the strong poetry of formations like "authenticity looming on the ever remote horizons of fetishization." What Pragmatists see instead is the hope that we can fix some of the social ills that face us if we treat policy and reform as more important than Spirit and Utopia.

Like light rain released from pretty clouds too high in the atmosphere, the substance of this prose dissipates before it can reach the ground and be a useful component in a discussion of medicare reform or how to better regulate a pharmaceutical industry that bankrupts senior citizens and condemns to death HIV patients unfortunate enough to have been born in Burkina Faso - and a regulatory regime that permits this. It is often too drenched in abstractions and references to a narrow and not so merry band of other intellectuals (Nietzsche, Bataille, Foucault, Lukács, Benjamin) to be of much use to those who are the supposed subject matter of this preternatural social justice literature. Since I have no particular allegiance to these other intellectuals, no particular impulse to carry their water or defend their reputations, I try and forget as much as I can about their writings in order to make space for some new approaches and fresh thinking about that important question that always faces us - "What is to be done?" I am, I think, lucky to have taken this decision before it had become too late.

One might argue with me that these other intellectuals are not looking to be taken seriously in the construction of solutions to specific socio-political problems. They are, after all, philosophers engaged in something called philosophizing. They are, after all, just trying to be good culture critics. Of course, that isn't quite true, for they often write with specific reference to social issues and social justice in mind, even when they are fluttering about in the ether of high theory (Lukács, for example, was a government officer, albeit a minister of culture, which to me says a lot), and social justice is not a Platonic form but parses into the specific quotidian acts of institutions and individuals. Social justice is but the genus heading which may be described better with reference to its species iterations- the various conditions of cruelty and sadism which we wittingly or unwittingly permit. If we wanted to, we could reconcile the grand general theories of these thinkers to specific bureaucracies or social problems and so try to increase their relevance. We could construct an account which acts as a bridge to relevant policy considerations. But such attempts, usually performed in the reams of secondary literature generated by their devotees, usually make things even more bizarre. In any event, I don't think we owe them that amount of effort. After all, if they wanted to be relevant they could have said so by writing in such a way that made it clear that relevance was a high priority. For Marxians in general, everything tends to get reduced to class. For Lukács everything tends to get reduced to "reification." But society and its social ills are far too intricate to gloss in these ways, and the engines that drive competing interests are much more easily explained with reference to animal drives and fears than by Absolute Spirit. That is to say, they are not easily explained at all.

Take Habermas, whose writings are admittedly the most relevant of the group. I cannot find in Habermas's lengthy narratives regarding communicative action, discourse ethics, democracy and ideal speech situations very much more than I have found in the Federalist Papers, or in Paine's Common Sense, or in Emerson's Self Reliance or Circles. I simply don't find the concept of uncoerced and fully informed communication between peers in a democratic polity all that difficult to understand, and I don't much see the need to theorize to death such a simple concept, particularly where the only persons that are apt to take such narratives seriously are already sold, at least in a general sense. Of course, when you are trying to justify yourself in the face of the other members of your chosen club (in Habermas's case, the Frankfurt School) the intricacy of your explication may have less to do with simple concepts than it has to do with parrying for respectability in the eyes of your intellectual brethren. But I don't see why the rest of us need to partake in an insular debate that has little to do with anyone that is not very much interested in the work of early critical theorists such as Horkheimer or Adorno, and who might see their insights as only modestly relevant at best. Not many self-respecting engaged political scientists in this country actually still take these thinkers seriously, if they ever did at all.

Or we might take Foucault who, at best, has provided us with what may reasonably be described as a very long and eccentric footnote to Nietzsche (I have once been accused, by a Foucaltian true believer, of "gelding" Foucault with other similar remarks). Foucault, who has provided the Left of the late 1960s through the present with such notions as "governmentality," "Limit," "archeology," "discourse" "power" and "ethics," creating or redefining their meanings, has made it overabundantly clear that all of our moralities and practices are the successors of previous ones which derive from certain configurations of savoir and connaisance arising from or created by, respectively, the discourses of the various scientific schools. But I have not yet found in anything Foucault wrote or said how such observations may be translated into a political movement or hammered into a political document or theory (let alone public policies) that can be justified or founded on more than an arbitrary aesthetic experimentalism. In fact, Foucault would have shuddered if any one ever did, since he thought that anything as grand as a movement went far beyond what he thought appropriate. This leads me to mildly rehabilitate Habermas, for at least he has been useful in exposing Foucault's shortcomings in this regard, just as he has been useful in exposing the shortcomings of others enamored with the abstractions of various Marxian-Freudian social critiques.

Yet for some reason, at least partially explicated in Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country, a book that I think is long overdue, leftist critics continue to cite and refer to the eccentric and often a priori ruminations of people like those just mentioned, and a litany of others including Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Jameson, and Lacan, who are to me hugely more irrelevant than Habermas in their narrative attempts to suggest policy prescriptions (when they actually do suggest them) aimed at curing the ills of homelessness, poverty, market greed, national belligerence and racism. I would like to suggest that it is time for American social critics who are enamored with this group, those who actually want to be relevant, to recognize that they have a disease, and a disease regarding which I myself must remember to stay faithful to my own twelve step program of recovery. The disease is the need for elaborate theoretical "remedies" wrapped in neological and multi-syllabic jargon. These elaborate theoretical remedies are more "interesting," to be sure, than the pragmatically settled questions about what shape democracy should take in various contexts, or whether private property should be protected by the state, or regarding our basic human nature (described, if not defined (heaven forbid!), in such statements as "We don't like to starve" and "We like to speak our minds without fear of death" and "We like to keep our children safe from poverty"). As Rorty puts it, "When one of today's academic leftists says that some topic has been 'inadequately theorized,' you can be pretty certain that he or she is going to drag in either philosophy of language, or Lacanian psychoanalysis, or some neo-Marxist version of economic determinism. . . . These futile attempts to philosophize one's way into political relevance are a symptom of what happens when a Left retreats from activism and adopts a spectatorial approach to the problems of its country. Disengagement from practice produces theoretical hallucinations"(italics mine).(1) Or as John Dewey put it in his The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy, "I believe that philosophy in America will be lost between chewing a historical cud long since reduced to woody fiber, or an apologetics for lost causes, . . . . or a scholastic, schematic formalism, unless it can somehow bring to consciousness America's own needs and its own implicit principle of successful action."

Those who suffer or have suffered from this disease Rorty refers to as the Cultural Left, which left is juxtaposed to the Political Left that Rorty prefers and prefers for good reason. Another attribute of the Cultural Left is that its members fancy themselves pure culture critics who view the successes of America and the West, rather than some of the barbarous methods for achieving those successes, as mostly evil, and who view anything like national pride as equally evil even when that pride is tempered with the knowledge and admission of the nation's shortcomings. In other words, the Cultural Left, in this country, too often dismiss American society as beyond reform and redemption. And Rorty correctly argues that this is a disastrous conclusion, i.e. disastrous for the Cultural Left. I think it may also be disastrous for our social hopes, as I will explain.

Leftist American culture critics might put their considerable talents to better use if they bury some of their cynicism about America's social and political prospects and help forge public and political possibilities in a spirit of determination to, indeed, achieve our country - the country of Jefferson and King; the country of John Dewey and Malcom X; the country of Franklin Roosevelt and Bayard Rustin, and of the later George Wallace and the later Barry Goldwater. To invoke the words of King, and with reference to the American society, the time is always ripe to seize the opportunity to help create the "beloved community," one woven with the thread of agape into a conceptually single yet diverse tapestry that shoots for nothing less than a true intra-American cosmopolitan ethos, one wherein both same sex unions and faith-based initiatives will be able to be part of the same social reality, one wherein business interests and the university are not seen as belonging to two separate galaxies but as part of the same answer to the threat of social and ethical nihilism. We who fancy ourselves philosophers would do well to create from within ourselves and from within our ranks a new kind of public intellectual who has both a hungry theoretical mind and who is yet capable of seeing the need to move past high theory to other important questions that are less bedazzling and "interesting" but more important to the prospect of our flourishing - questions such as "How is it possible to develop a citizenry that cherishes a certain hexis, one which prizes the character of the Samaritan on the road to Jericho almost more than any other?" or "How can we square the political dogma that undergirds the fantasy of a missile defense system with the need to treat America as but one member in a community of nations under a "law of peoples?"

The new public philosopher might seek to understand labor law and military and trade theory and doctrine as much as theories of surplus value; the logic of international markets and trade agreements as much as critiques of commodification, and the politics of complexity as much as the politics of power (all of which can still be done from our arm chairs.) This means going down deep into the guts of our quotidian social institutions, into the grimy pragmatic details where intellectuals are loathe to dwell but where the officers and bureaucrats of those institutions take difficult and often unpleasant, imperfect decisions that affect other peoples' lives, and it means making honest attempts to truly understand how those institutions actually function in the actual world before howling for their overthrow commences. This might help keep us from being slapped down in debates by true policy pros who actually know what they are talking about but who lack awareness of the dogmatic assumptions from which they proceed, and who have not yet found a good reason to listen to jargon-riddled lectures from philosophers and culture critics with their snobish disrespect for the so-called "managerial class."

A young scholar, Mark Van Hollebeke who is presenting his essay at another SAAP session, seems to me to take on Walter Benjamin in a bit of the spirit of the type of new public intellectual I would like to see more of, i.e. one willing to assume the risk of taking on the glaring analytic lacunae and self-indulgence of culture critics rooted in ontologies spun out of thin air but cloaked in enough empiricism to get themselves taken seriously. Van Hollebeke's essay, The Pathologies and Possibilities of Urban Life: Dialectical and Pragmatic Sightseeing in New York City is a critique of Benjamin's Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project) in which Benjamin decries the "wish images" of commodity fetishization and the so-called "phantasmagorical" dream world induced by the false consciousness of modernity. Where Benjamin criticizes wish images (essentially connected with stuff you can buy but which also serves to take your mind off of the ideologies of cultural production which oppress you) planted in the arcade as tools of alienation, Van Hollebeke responds with the Pragmatic voice that rehabilitates and reintroduces the wish image as a necessary component of psychological health and communal life, and which need not and does not always take the harmful form of fetishization and alienation that Benjamin insists it does.

For Van Hollebeke, the city is not merely an arcade, a decadent place of ideologically deceiving images and of blind subservience to producers' machinations; not merely a place devoid of "reality" and "authenticity," but the site where possibilities are created and played out, where new roles may be found or constructed, wherein we see our own futures, at least partly, in the things we desire. While Van Hollebeke does not explicitly say so - though I wish he did - Benjamin (and so perhaps we) is left facing several important, pragmatic questions. Just what is this "reality" to be had by the critique of "wish images" per se? What is the wish imagery that prompts the philosopher to become a philosopher and how different is the product of the academy from other products which are purchased with far fewer dollars? Is Benjamin's own philosophizing all just a noble pursuit, or were his pursuits of academic credentials, often failures due to the obscurity of his writing, not partly the price to be paid for entry into an elite corps in which membership is jealously guarded (as it was certainly guarded among his friends)? What made Benjamin think he was more than the product of cultural production?

The friendly question I would put to Van Hollebeke is why he bothered to take Benjamin seriously to begin with. But Hollebeke is not alone. Stanley Cavell also takes Benjamin seriously, even though he has described the Arcades Project as "a production without a product (a way to think about its claim to philosophy, or rather, to philosophizing)."(2)

Cavell meant this reflection to be taken non-pejoratively because he seems to take Benjamin more seriously as an aesthetician and literary metaphysician (in Rorty-speak, as a "strong poet") than as a serious, social commentator with good ideas. Keeping Benjamin and his cohorts in the box of aesthetics and metaphysics is, I believe, good intellectual policy for social critics seeking to be relevant. They should be cited for seasoning and not for meat.

. . .

Our new president, possessing no towering intellect, talks of a people who share a continent, but are not a nation. He is right, of course. We are only beginning to learn to put tribal loyalties aside and to let ourselves take seriously other more salutary possibilities, though we delude ourselves into believing that we have made great progress. Perhaps so-called "compassionate conservatism," though a gimmick to win a political contest, will bear a small harvest of unintended and positive consequences, although I remain dubious about this if the task of thinking through what it might actually mean remains the chore of George W. Bush. But if the not-too-Neanderthal-Right is finally willing to meet the not-too-wacky-Left at a place of dialogue somewhere in the "middle," then that is good news, provided the Left does not miss the opportunity to rendevous. Yet, there is a problem here. Both the Cultural Left and the Cultural Right tend to be self-righteous purists. The best chance, then, is for the emergence of Rorty's new Political Left, in conjunction with a new Political Right. The new Political Left would be in the better position of the two to frame the discourse since it probably has the better intellectual hardware (it tends to be more open-minded and less dogmatic) to make a true dialogue work. They, unlike their Cultural Left peers, might find it more useful to be a little less inimical and a little more sympathetic to what the other side might, in good faith, believe is at stake. They might leave behind some of the baggage of the Cultural Left's endless ruminations (Dewey's philosophical cud chewing) about commodity fetishization, or whether the Subject has really died, or where crack babies fit into neo-capitalist hegemonies, and join the political fray by parsing and exposing the more basic idiotic claims and dogmas of witless politicians and dangerous ideologues, while at the same time finding common ground, a larger "We" perspective that includes Ronald Reagan and Angela Davis under the same tent rather than as inhabitants of separate worlds. The operative spirit should be that of fraternal disagreement, rather than self-righteous cold shoulders.

Yet I am not at all convinced that anything I have described is about to happen, though this essay is written to help force the issue, if only a little bit. I am convinced that the modern Cultural Left is far from ready to actually run the risks that come with being taken seriously and held accountable for actual policy-relevant prescriptions. Why should it? It is a hell of a lot more fun and a lot more safe pondering the intricacies of high theory, patching together the world a priori (which means without any real consideration of those officers and bureaucrats I mentioned who are actually on the front lines of policy formation and regulation). However the risk in this apriorism is that both the conclusions and the criticisms will miss the mark, regardless of how great the minds that are engaged. Intellectual rigor and complexity do not make silly ideas politically salient, or less pernicious, to paraphrase Rorty. This is not to say that air-headed jingoism and conservative rants about republican virtue aren't equally silly and pernicious. But it seems to me that the new public philosopher of the Political Left will want to pick better yardsticks with which to measure herself.

Is it really possible to philosophize by holding Foucault in one hand and the Code of Federal Regulation or the Congressional Record in the other? Given that whatever it has meant to be a philosopher has been under siege at various levels, I see no reason why referring to the way things are actually done in the actual world (I mean really done, not done as we might imagine) as we think through issues of public morality and social issues of justice shouldn't be considered a viable alternative to the way philosophy has proceeded in the past. Instead of replacing epistemology with hermeneutics or God knows what else as the foundation of philosophical practice, we should move social philosophers in the direction of becoming more like social and cultural auditors rather than further in the direction of mere culture critics. We might be able to recast philosophers who take-up questions of social justice in a serious way as the ones in society able to traverse not only disciplines but the distances between the towers of the academy and the bastions of bureaucracies seeking to honestly and sometimes dishonestly assess both their failings and achievements. This we can do with a special advantage over economists, social scientists and policy specialists who are apt to take the narrow view of most issues. We do have examples of such persons. John Dewey and Karl Popper come to mind as but two examples, but in neither case was there enough grasp of the actual workings of social institutions that I believe will be called for in order to properly minister to a nation in need of helpful philosophical insights in policy formation. Or it may just be that the real work will be performed by philosophically grounded and socially engaged practitioners rather than academics. People like George Soros come to mind here.

But there are few people like George Soros around, and I think that the improbability of philosophers emerging as a special class of social auditor also marks the limits of social hope, inasmuch as philosophers are the class most likely to see the places at which bridges of true understanding can be built not only between an inimical Right and Left, but between public policy and the deep and relevant reflections upon our humanity in which philosophers routinely engage. If philosophers seek to remain what the public thinks we are anyway, a class of persons of whom it can be said, as Orwell put it,

One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool, then I do not know from what other class of persons to turn to navigate the complicated intellectual and emotional obstacles that prevent us from the achievement of our country. For I do not see how policy wonks, political hacks, politicians, religious ideologues and special interests will do the work that needs to be done to achieve the kind of civic consensus envisioned in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Without a courageous new breed of public intellectual, one that is able to help articulate new visions for community and social well being without fear of reaching out to others that may not share the narrow views of the Cultural Left and Cultural Right, I do not see how America moves beyond a mere land of toleration and oligarchy.


Copyright © 2001 by David E. McClean. All Rights Reserved.

1. Achieving Our Country - Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, 93 and 94.

2. Remains to Be Seen - Stanley Cavell on the Arcades Project in ArtForum magazine, April 2000. <<>> (as of 2/27/01).