Once upon a time, there was an alliance between liberal intellectuals and workers. It was an important part of the political structure that led to the New Deal. A generation of intellectuals were strongly influenced by Marxist analysis of capitalism, and were motivated by the damage inflicted on the working class through horrifying labor conditions, speculation in farm commodities, and repeated financial crises. They played an important role in pushing Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enact strong laws and strong regulatory structures for the financial sector and for businesses in other sectors. After WWII, left intellectuals lost interest in capitalism as an object of academic study, and worse, promulgated theories that led to our current deadlock.
I started college in 1964. Notre Dame was a ferment of theological and philosophical activity driven by Vatican II and the Good Pope John XXIII. I met a theology requirement in a class on Christian Existentialism. I learned that we can never know the whole truth but we have to act and take responsibility for our actions. It is a philosophy that has served me well. But existentialism couldn’t hold up under the onslaught of the modernist theories of poststructuralism and deconstructionism. These academic theories helped us to understand the how racism, sexism, patriarchy, authoritarian governments and colonialism control our understanding of what is possible in our society. But they brought costs. One cost is the loss of interest in class and economic issues. Another is that these ideas dismiss the notion of personal responsibility for social structures.
Sophia McClennen in her book Colbert’s America, talks about these academic interests. She describes poststructuralism as a theory that “…examines the production of meaning and especially of truths.” In particular, words that identify people and events are frequently loaded with implicit meanings that are repressive, silently discouraging people from living as fully as they can.
For instance, words like woman are understood to contrast the word man thereby setting up an opposition that has tremendous material and ideological consequences. But on closer examination, it becomes clear that these words can easily be destabilized, since most qualities attributed to these words are socially constructed rather than innate.
We see this when blockheads like Larry Summers say that women aren’t as good at math as men. That is nonsense, but many people believe it, and that keeps some women out of the sciences. Many of the words in our daily life are in fact charged with socially constructed meanings, and recognizing this is an important way towards personal and social growth.
Deconstruction is another theory about truth and meaning. McClennen says
It argues that the apparent stable meaning of words is actually based on contradictions and oppositions that feign stability as a way to impose meaning on the world. The goal of deconstruction is to reveal that these foundations are irreducibly multifaceted, unstable, and/or impossible, thereby deferring meaning as an endless process.
The huge problem is that Republican operatives like Frank Luntz make great use of these ideas to destroy the possibility of ordered thinking. McClennen quotes George Bush, talking about the Geneva Conventions:
It’s very vague. What does that mean, “outrages upon human dignity”? That’s a statement that is wide open to interpretation.
With amoral cowards like John Yoo in charge, the word “waterboarding” was deconstructed and shown not to be an outrage upon human dignity. Words have no meaning, and neither do laws or treaties or regulations. That is the license handed to these intellectually dishonest liars and frauds by classrooms full of supposedly liberal academic intellectuals. These theories undermine the premises of public discourse. They say that there is no way to talk to each other reasonably unless we share completely the implicit meanings of words and accept the same set of facts.
I have my set of words and you have yours. When we mean the same things, we can reason together to a conclusion. But suppose there are other people with other meanings for those words. They talk to each other and reach a different outcome. How can the two groups work together? They do not share a common language, and each distrusts the meanings assigned to the words of the other. Worse yet, the deconstruction crowd raises issues about the stability of words used to describe facts, so that even facts are subject to debate.
That’s how I feel when I talk to conservatives: we have no common meanings or even facts. It isn’t just that most Republicans (and a significant minority of Democrats} believe in demonic possession. Republicans believe that Nate Silver is a liar because his mathematical equations contradict their gut reactions to political polling.
Now suppose a group like Occupy wants to make decisions in this theoretical environment. If they fall prey to the academic process of the deconstructionist-poststructuralists, discussing every word, trying to strip out the repressive meanings, and searching for ways to examine every fact, nothing will happen but process. There is no way to make a decision. Even if they start with a good deal of agreement, the process is unwieldy and irritating. And when they get done, how can they use that result to impact the decisions of others? Do they have to repeat the process of masticating every word 50 times every time they add a new person, or attempt to persuade some random person? Thank the heavens they don’t. Confronted with a disaster, they act, as in Red Hook, New York, and Rockaway.
Deconstruction and poststructuralism have proved to be a disaster for participatory democracy. They are a disaster for the public sphere. This is the outcome of the life’s work of academic “liberals” trying to solve the problem of the hegemony of words.
Meanwhile the real hegemony, the hegemony of capitalists and oligarchs, dominates the world, wrecks the global economy, crushes the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and tramples democracy into the ground. Academic liberals wring their hands, but they have nothing to contribute to understanding or a method for change.
We have been poorly served by the academic left.