27 August 2013

Mandarins, Marxists and their discontents

'Universities, Law, Jurisprudence, and Sociology: A History', a paper presented to the American Sociological Association this month by Eric Royal Lybeck, comments that
Recently scholars promoting a ‘new sociology of ideas’ (NSI) have drawn our attention to the local practices of academics to explain the outcome of ideas. Though, in theory, NSI accepts the inclusion of micro-, meso-, and macro-sociological factors, and rejects the distinction between internal and external causes of the development of ideas, inpractice, NSI is narrowly focused on the local interactions of academics within the context of the modern university. NSI therefore neglects the external influences on the context itself. This paper takes a much broader view of the academic context during the period in which early sociology was established as a discipline, and traces a number of concurrent developments in politics, law, and academia, including the institutionalization of the university and the emergence of the legal sciences in early nineteenth century Germany, the elite political culture of New England ‘mugwumps,’ which inspired the institutionalization of the university and social sciences in America, while at the same time prefiguring developments in the legal sciences and legal profession similar to those of Germany. The paper concludes by recommending the ‘old sociology of knowledge,’ particularly that of Max Weber and Alvin Gouldner, in order to better understand such processes and academic practices.
On a more emo note 'Marxism and "Subaltern Studies"' by Adaner Usmani frets that
Several years ago in a seminar on social theory packed with left-wing graduate students from around NYU, I had the misfortune of being assigned Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe. The book, which impugns not only Marxism’s incorrigible European-ness, but also the very possibility of making arguments that traverse the East-West divide, struck me immediately as antithetical to the ‘universalizing’ project that is radical social science. 
Yet, to my horror, it hit a chord with much of my cohort. One friend, who was later very active in Occupy NYU, met my criticisms of the argument by asking, in all seriousness, whether I could name even one thing that people across borders had in common. That they have to eat, I had answered. 
As an undergraduate, Marxism won my mind because it had given clarity to exactly this intuition: that societies everywhere were rent by class divisions, that these schisms structured the production and appropriation of the social product, that they bred similar antagonisms and patterns of struggle, and that this shared architecture was the basis for a common politics — for me, the analytical accompaniment to the moral universalism that animates any radical. 
Today, societies everywhere exhibit similarly revolting forms of dominance and exploitation; our task, it seemed obvious, is to make sure that tomorrow they all look different, for the same reasons. But we Marxist few in that classroom had been incapable of convincing the majority who had found Chakrabarty’s arguments compelling. 
It is only in light of that challenge that the significance of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital can be understood. Ours is a time of welcome political ferment, but among radicals Marxism is far from being considered commonsense. Surely one of our important tasks, today, is to clear away the detritus that years of academic exile have heaped on the flag of radicalism, and to win today’s activists back to our camp. Here Chibber comes to the rescue — and I don’t mean this hyperbolically. In my several years of reading Marx and Marxists, I cannot think of a book that is as clear in its explication of the analytical foundations of our project. 
The stakes are not academic. A movement staffed by people who think that different cultures construct human beings of irreconcilably different constitutions, that power resides in what you and I say just as much as it resides in the State and in Capital, that class is just one of several ways in which society can be sliced, that “rights” and “interests” are swear words and the Enlightenment one long war crime, will be a movement incapable of mounting even the slightest challenge to today’s ruling-classes. After all, even if Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach indicted academics for having only “interpreted the world,” it doesn’t enjoin those of us committed “to change it” to stop understanding it, first.
Chibber sniffs that -
What you could have had once Marxism declined was just liberalism and conservatism, a return to those two doctrines. Why do you get something like postcolonial theory? I think you get it for two reasons. One is the aging lefties from the 1960s, who gave up being anticapitalist, still saw themselves as radicals. And still do. Starting from the late 1980s and early 1990s, they’re radicals, but they don’t want to talk about capitalism. So they turn towards other issues. They’re antiracist, antisexist. They turn to what’s called oppression studies.
Secondly, universities have changed a lot. They’re a lot more heterogeneous, a lot more diverse than they used to be. Students coming into those universities are very keen on having the same chances as students who are more privileged. A lot of the students in these universities face difficulties because of the sexism and racism they encounter. So there’s a supply factor pushing towards oppression studies, but without any attention to capitalism. And there’s a demand factor, from these students who want to understand why they don’t fit in as well with the other kids and why they don’t have the same chances.
What’s left out of this whole equation is the issue of capitalism, precisely because in universities you have people who are either themselves upwardly mobile and comfortable like professors or who aspire to be upwardly mobile, like most of the students. What you get, therefore, is a setting in which you’re going to have people interested in being critical of the dominant order but without being anticapitalist. And that’s what postcolonial theory gives you.
[postcolonial theorists] have kept alive the idea that colonialism was highly destructive and generated a baleful ideology. But when we turn to the culture of the Left, I think postcolonial theory has been very debilitating.
What is the mission of any radical intellectual? By “intellectual” I don’t mean someone who works in a university and has a pointy head. An intellectual is just someone who helps articulate ideas. Professors sometimes do that. They usually don’t. But organizers always do. Without fail. If you can’t do that you’re not an organizer.
How has postcolonial studies affected the culture of intellectual work in the way I’ve just defined it? It’s been pretty negative. Postcolonial studies has imbibed some of the worst aspects of academic culture, because it’s a product of the academy. It is not a product of movements. They say they are a product of movements and are linked up to them, but that is not true. Postcolonial studies comes right out of the academy. What it has internalized and spread across the left is a culture in which valuing a simple and direct and clear presentation of ideas has simply been pushed off the table.
In academia , a simple and clear presentation of ideas oftentimes is the best way to get yourself booted out. It’s easier to criticize you when you’re clear, and concise, and you present your views in a way that makes them amenable to criticism.
Academics oftentimes couch their ideas in impenetrable prose, indecipherable jargon, at a level of complexity that is so dense nobody can penetrate it. This often is a substitute for complexity of thought. What you get with postcolonial studies is complexity of expression substituting for complexity of thought. ....
You could forgive all of its sins, all of its intellectual mistakes. You could forgive all of its grandstanding and its ignorance about what radical theory does. But what you cannot forgive is importing into the culture of the Left the pretentious, empty verbosity that you find in the seminar room. And it’s really in the last twenty years that you’ve seen activist meetings turning into graduate student seminars. I think it’s pretty destructive.
[What is the outcome when activist meetings turn into graduate seminars?] 
It takes confidence away from activists. It allows a few people to dominate meetings. Typically its people who don’t fully understand what they’ve said, but who really enjoy dominating meetings. And of course it drives sensible people out of activism. The people who are left are people who either don’t mind this speaking in tongues or people who care so little about understanding the world they don’t care about what the discourse is that’s being presented to them. Imagine what this does to the culture of the Left.
In his Jacobin interview Chibber comments that -
The lasting contribution of postcolonial theory — what it will be known for, in my view, if it is remembered fifty years from now — will be its revival of cultural essentialism and its acting as an endorsement of orientalism, rather than being an antidote to it. 
JB: All of this begs the question: why has postcolonial theory gained such prominence in the past few decades? Indeed, why has it been able to supersede the sorts of ideas you’re defending in your book? Clearly, postcolonial theory has come to fill a space once occupied by various forms of Marxist and Marxist-influenced thought, and has especially influenced large swathes of the Anglophone intellectual left. 
VC: In my view, the prominence is strictly for social and historical reasons; it doesn’t express the value or worth of the theory, and that’s why I decided to write the book. I think postcolonial theory rose to prominence for a couple of reasons. One is that after the decline of the labor movement and the crushing of the Left in the 1970s, there wasn’t going to be any kind of prominent theory in academia that focused on capitalism, the working class, or class struggle. Many people have pointed this out: in university settings, it’s just unrealistic to imagine that any critique of capitalism from a class perspective is going to have much currency except in periods when there’s massive social turmoil and social upheaval. 
So the interesting question is why there’s any kind of theory calling itself radical at all, since it’s not a classical anticapitalist theory. I think this has to do with two things: first, with changes in universities over the last thirty years or so, in which they’re no longer ivory towers like they used to be. They’re mass institutions, and these institutions have been opened up to groups that, historically, were kept outside: racial minorities, women, immigrants from developing countries. These are all people who experience various kinds of oppression, but not necessarily class exploitation. So there is, as it were, a mass base for what we might call oppression studies, which is a kind of radicalism — and it’s important, and it’s real. However, it’s not a base that’s very interested in questions of class struggle or class formation, the kinds of things that Marxists used to talk about. 
Complementing this has been the trajectory of the intelligentsia. The generation of ’68 didn’t become mainstream as it aged. Some wanted to keep its moral and ethical commitments to radicalism. But like everyone else, it too steered away from class-oriented radicalism. So you had a movement from the bottom, which was a kind of demand for theories focusing on oppression, and a movement on top, which was among professors offering to supply theories focusing on oppression. What made them converge wasn’t just a focus on oppression, but the excision of class oppression and class exploitation from the story. And postcolonial theory, because of its own excision of capitalism and class — because it downplays the dynamics of exploitation — is a very healthy fit. 
JB: What do you think about the prospects for postcolonial theory? Do you expect that it will be eclipsed within the academy and within the Left anytime soon? 
VC: No, I don’t. I don’t think postcolonial theory is in any danger of being displaced, at least not anytime soon. Academic trends come and go, not based on the validity of their claims or the value of their propositions, but because of their relation to the broader social and political environment. The general disorganization of labor and the Left, which created the conditions for postcolonial theory to flourish, is still very much in place. Plus, postcolonial theory now has at least two generations of academics who have staked their entire careers on it; they have half a dozen journals dedicated to it; there’s an army of graduate students pursuing research agendas that come out of it. Their material interests are tied up directly with the theory’s success. 
You can criticize it all you want, but until we get the kind of movements that buoyed Marxism in the early years after World War I, or in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you won’t see a change. In fact, what you’ll see is a pretty swift and vicious response to whatever criticisms might emerge. My sad, but — I think — realistic prognosis is that it’s going to be around for quite a while.