Corrupting left intellectual culture. Essay - Tom Jennings

Tom Jennings’ 1994 essay in Here & Now magazine highlighting the need to modernise radical theory.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on January 21, 2008

Corrupting Left Intellectual Culture by Tom Jennings
1. From diversity...
In the last couple of years Here & Now has steered clear of the grand theoretical schemes which many people use to try and get our heads round the important trends of our times. There are recurrent themes, such as the need, or hope, for radical renewal, reiterating just how far the Old and New Lefts are past their sell-by dates ... plus the insistence that commodity relations and social alienation are furthering their grip. But much less often, now, do articles periodise history according to the Spectacle of the pro-and post-situationists, post-Fordists, or Gus Macdonald's Third Assault (Here & Now, issue 5), for example. Instead, some tentative dalliances with post-modernism and cultural studies have led to more focused analyses of specific social arenas. Sociological and cultural research is mined for subversive potential and insights that overflow respectable academic or critical opinion, and which exceed the desires or intentions of its authors.

By looking at the modes of operation and social implications of professionalism, academicism, managerialism, media, marketing, science and technology expertise, and the contours of current and developing (consumer) cultures - without too narrow an insistence on any of the more familiar leftist jargon - a space may have been opened in which to look again at a broader application of radical theory. Even if this is premature, it could encourage an assessment of what future directions should be taken. Given the conspicuous vacuum of ideas on the rest of the left, there doesn't seem to be much to lose. If all language is, in any case, as riddled with theory as the textual analysts tell us (even, or especially, when posing as or appearing to be common sense, neutral, or simple) then avoiding explicit theorising is merely a trick, a rhetorical device, destined to be unmasked as soon as more general conclusions are sought.

Promiscuous knowledge
A provisional conclusion from Here & Now's attention to the power of middle class discourses is that the major problem with theory revolves around who comes out with it, in what context, along with and linked to what practices, and for what direct and indirect purposes - as much as the content, truth value or inherent significance of the ideas themselves. Given that any kind of rationality which poses as universal attracts a righteous and severe suspicion, how will it be possible to articulate or use theory, without immediately becoming just as irrelevant and discredited as many people now perceive these activities to be? Rather than playing down or apologising for theory, a more honest and appealing strategy may be to stress its tentative nature, intrinsic assumptions, dubious origins, contradictory components and self-reflexive and self-critical operation; and to demonstrate that these are among its most important and useful attributes.

A way out of the impasse of left thinking means first of all relinquishing the grandiose claims of communist and revolutionary theorists (Lyotard 1984), instead trying to concoct unexpected interpretations from the symbolic material of culture and ideas (Featherstone 1991, Gorz 1993, Ross 1989). This means making sense of grass-roots, oppositional political and social currents using theoretical tools that relate to this history in conjunction with our own direct experiences and those of people involved in the same events and processes. But because the legacy of ideas that comes to us is one of outrageous arrogance and almost wilfully blinkered determinism, we plainly need explicit checks and balances on the imperial tendencies of marxist theory. Marxists, after all, even if not academics, are really no more than dissident economists (some are very, very dissident).

But the development and contestation of economic domination has to be one axis of understanding, even if the classical marxist interpretive subordination of all variables to the dynamic of capital in history is refused. The diverse strands of 'libertarian marxism' are crucial here (e.g. Aufheben 1994, Plant 1992, Ross 1991, Witheford 1994). Secondly, the mediation of knowledge specialists (such as the 'new' middle classes) in operating productive, reproductive and regulative spheres of society is also taken as fundamental. Recent sociological work on the fine-grained complexity of economic, social and cultural dimensions of class (such as Bourdieu 1984, 1991; Bourdieu & Eagleton 1992; Eder 1993; Frow 1993; Lee 1993) makes the prospects of grasping this area more realistic.

My third point of departure is an area of theory ('governmentality' - see Gane & Johnson 1993) - which has been largely passed over in English speaking radical currents, and which I use to bring out the partiality and unevenness of discourses which tend to present themselves as true, straightforward, seamless, and/or disinterested. All three perspectives have developed partly in academic research and debate as part of careers and institutional growth. However, for political implications as to what directions are worth following, the products of academic disciplines are in themselves virtually useless, not least by presuming and striving for the eternal centrality and market ascendancy of their own discourses - whereas the inevitability that they will need, at best, to be ignored or transcended would be, to them, unthinkable.

2 .... From diversity, through perversity
Future articles will try to apply a strategic combination of these critical approaches (the history and development of capitalism; class/power structure and process; and governmentality) to a range of recent, emerging or popular theoretical orientations which are found attractive by people on the libertarian left or its potential supporters. These will include: analyses of science and technology, ecology, biology, computers; the social impact of the media and developments in art; critiques of identity politics and cultural difference; and explorations of consumerism, new social movements, and radical democracy and pluralism. The three interpretative methods will be mobilised so as to pervert, energise and limit each other, in addition to the literature and positions being tackled.

The aims of all this are: to draw together radical ideas which in today's fragmented social and political milieus otherwise remain isolated; to develop an approach to the questions of knowledge and leadership, which to me are the most serious problems inherent in radical politics; to build on the experiences of grass roots community and political action of recent decades - to find ways that our ideas and practices can find useful expression together; and to question the position and role of intellectuals and theoretical activity generally, asking how experts can be thoroughly kept in their place in radical politics without sacrificing the tremendous potential of theory in the search for ways to change the world; finally, to try and do this in a way that augments Here & Now's scope and intentions so far.

In reviewing these areas of left intellectual culture for political significance and potential, no pretence of authority is implied, either of perfect understanding or fair interpretation, nor is academic status or institutional interest being defended. And while no-one should trust such claims of humility, neither should ideas in themselves ever be left alone or respected at face value, whether in awe, elitism, cynicism or defeatism.

Desiring domination
An overemphasis on the contours of the development of late capitalism as determinant and causal, can impede appreciation of the ways these variables are produced or co-produced, in a historical matrix which may involve more than one or two basic dimensions. The marxist pre-emptive determination of phenomena has been criticised by many radical theorists, some of whom fully appreciate the achievements of marxism but refuse to treat it religiously. For example, Foucault's studies of power and discourse (eg Foucault 1977 and 1979a) provide a framework in which to understand human history, in which processes of power are not translated or ultimately subsumed into the economy. It then becomes possible, for example, to treat adequately the limits and productivity of biological bodies (without resorting to biologism), and the effectivity of language through real-world historical and material practices (avoiding idealism) - in short, to conceive of the growth of systems of domination and resistance which may corrode or overwhelm the logic of capital (but more typically become intertwined with it). One such system is governmentality (Foucault 1979b).

With roots in Greek democracy, medieval Christian practices and feudal statecraft, governmentality is the basis of modern politics. Its forms of practice entail the knowing, calculating supervision of social and material forces. The State "becomes a particular form that government has taken, and one that does not exhaust the fields of calculations and interventions that constitute it" (Miller & Rose 1993, p77). Policies, strategies of control and spheres of expertise and influence (by diverse authorities: Johnson 1993) create fields of legitimacy and knowledge which require the power of their proponents. This knowledge constitutes the world-views of all those mobilised, as active agents and clients. It crystallises, as discourse, into rules, texts and practices, and precipitates institutional solidity (buildings, resources, 'manpower') whose inertia immediately conditions what is possible next (Latour 1987).

Compelling fantasies
Discourses are far less expensive and problematic for rulers than physical coercion. In addition to generating specific desired effects, they produce knowledges of individuals and groups that conform to their agendas. A discourse persuades through translating one's interests into its own terms (Callon 1986) - and not only persuades, but enlists as a supporter of that discourse (in terms of behaviour, if not 'ideology'). Across the whole social field, the strength of this effect has been termed 'government at a distance' (Callon & Latour 1981). In mapping out regimes of truth (what can be known and said) and acting on people accordingly, the paraphernalia of governmentality has two specific attributes of interest to us. Firstly, it is arbitrary. Random, surprising, marginal, mundane, obscure or technical developments can catapult to the centre of the political stage, as long as the field of expertise in question argues the case effectively that it can solve a transient but pressing political problem. Also, the logic of government means that whatever is to hand has to be adapted to a new task, even if through accident or design this means using bizarre or hopeless tools (the present Tory government springs to mind!). Hence the "unplanned historical convergence of the disciplines of [humanistic] cultivation and the technologies of government" (Hunter 1993, p153); and in the opportunistic marriage of commercial tactics and the ethics of the psychological self (Rose 1989). In both these cases and many others, it is utterly misguided and politically disastrous to perceive an all-knowing, all-powerful State/Capital conspirator.

Secondly the exercise of power must itself produce resistance as an intrinsic part of its operation - if it didn't there would be no social momentum to mobilise. Resistance also is arbitrary, and as likely to manifest itself unprogrammably as in an orderly fashion. So even in these days of the superpower of information, the chaos of the world can potentially work as much against authority as for it. But capitalism also benefits, in its ability to adapt, to maintain its forms amidst wildly fluctuating contents - even if this flexibility is so wasteful of human and material resources.

So, quite apart from its commodification (although that's bad enough), there are other extremely serious and deep-rooted problems with the colonisation of the intimate life-world by the rules and apparatuses of surveillance, calculation and administration. A general conclusion from this might be that the major limitation of most strands of modernised radical theory is that as well as refusing to acknowledge its own multi-faceted class-saturated anchoring (and the highly complex dynamics of class fractions this implies), it also fails to realise its role (or potential role) in the elaboration of governmentality. Furthermore the forcefulness of each of these two factors may derive, in part, from the effects of the other.

Prostitution in politics
Taken together these factors can provide a compelling explanation for the dislocation of political practice (among those purporting to have left political motivations) from those living through the same social upheavals, but who are neither interested in theory for its own sake, nor attracted by the jostling for status among those who are. For many of the latter, badges of ideology are merely vestiges of a subversiveness that long ago collapsed into a scramble for careers, secure identities, patronage, and politically correct or morally tasteful lifestyles. Since these ambitions mainly depend on cornering resources from the local state, welfare or education, it's no wonder that PC was such an easy target (see, for example, Berube 1994). The despicable agendas of the New Right were at least perceived as honest, in their old-fashioned, openly corrupt, way (Thatcher on one side of the coin, Camille Paglia on the other) - compared to the self-deluding self-interest of the middle classes finding its ultimate expression in identity politics.

Corporate mission statements of rights and equality are pretty shabby strategic and theoretical responses to the suffering planned for generations of working class women and black people. Something more meaningful will only come from purposefully perverse and scrupulously class-conscious theory (eg Butler 1990, Marable 1993) that expects and intends to bring into question all levels of vested interests, just as grass-roots political action always must if it's ever to achieve anything.

The challenge for the near future involves much more than the possibility of knowing 'what went wrong' with the left. Younger generations understandably have less patience with the various blindnesses and weaknesses of the radicals of recent decades. They're growing up with a far keener appreciation of the reality of globalisation, and the degradation of all life. What we may write off as apathy and narcissism in others can have more to do with what we deny of ourselves - conveniently projecting it into others. Our input now into all levels of oppositional activism, political involvement and ideas (not just in the areas we're more comfortable and familiar with) may have a significant impact on the patterns of recomposition and mobilisation that become possible. But not if our patter and demeanour only appear to hold the promise of disciplining and regimenting newly active groups who reach out from different cultures and sub-cultures, and from different geographical and discursive locations.

3.... And from perversion, to subversion
At the very least, it can't be left to experts to assess their own bias. Intellect comprises an unconscious amalgam of the echoes of other people's material and ideological clutter, always already incorporated and more or less integrated into what we fancy is our own 'self', self-knowledge or identity. So, knowledge is fundamentally dishonest in appearing to be a property of individuals, because its material effects only ever appear in the coordinated social practices that accompany its use. The least that can be expected by trusting in well-meaning rationality is a network of mutually reinforcing intellectuals, who spiral off into orbit while the 'real' world continues to operate normally. The 'orbit' may be the higher reaches of a bureaucracy or academy, or a central committee or political affinity group (or publishing venture!), or some other formal or informal hierarchy. Business as usual will require the familiar submission to systems and techniques of management and control - exploiting personal, official and/or symbolic power - that make a mockery of the claims to heralding a radical alternative.

Two things at least should be necessary for radical movements to include knowledge specialists and information-based workers without undermining grass roots autonomy and effectiveness. Firstly, those whose expertise is rooted in institutional interests should be firmly and clearly acknowledged as such, and treated with corresponding suspicion. In particular, alliances of those with such partial interests would be extremely negative trends. Diversity within, as well as between, autonomous groups is a measure of progression. Secondly, in parallel networks, layers and groups, unattached or uncommitted intellectuals with no specific institutional investments can represent the transient embodiments of an accumulated history and capacity of knowing and acting, while lacking the institutional backing, professional networks, discursive immersion, charisma or other attributes which would attract power or encourage demagoguery.

The pleasures of theory
In crude terms these two functions (which are, in practice, more complex and fragmentary) do to some extent correspond to conventional political visions of the role of intellectuals. The first is the middle class theorist or expert, whose obvious and specific biographical trajectory, institutional position, and immersion in suspicious practices makes their special knowledge persuasive to some degree, but who is recognised as far too interested for the knowledge or the person to be politically trustworthy. And the second is the much more neglected (in left circles) position of working class intellectual, who almost by definition has moved away from traditional activities without shaking off the roots or the material position. Judged by academic criteria such a person doesn't rate, but politically a capacity to handle and puncture the pretensions of specific intellectuals, while being less likely to be swayed (lacking the corresponding material or symbolic investments) may be an essential safeguard, and a crucial point of passage and interpretation for information and ideas that could otherwise sediment into rigid paths, paving the way for dominance.

The unspoken third category to this schema is, of course, the majority of people who don't feel or think themselves to be personally 'knowing' (who are not as perverted, in this respect, as the intellectuals). The more sophisticated proliferation of points of knowledge and power suggested here can mean that no-one is in a position to so easily form those hidden agendas, or knowledge cartels, that, intentionally or not, restrict potential, and which mirror (basically they constitute) the hierarchies and patterns of domination which the participants assumed they were resisting in the first place. How useful the interpretive framework sketched out here may be depends on its application to specific problems, both at the level of understanding phenomena per se, and as part of the process of political action. But the insistence on a wide dispersal and diversity of knowledges and capacities, where no special interest groups are able to exert a consistent pre-eminence, may promote and exploit the older, informal expressiveness of wisdom, respect, affinity, maturity and mutuality. Along with the subversive potential of spontaneous, unmediated and unthinking passion, these really have no genuine place in the planned social world of government and commodity. Yet they would surely figure strongly in the practices and value systems of a free society.

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Essay published in Here & Now, No. 15, October 1994.
For further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: