Theory and the Left

In my introduction to The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay , I concluded with this: “I am reading this book because I firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice.” After several days a commenter questioned my certainty. I think his comments raise important points about my long-term project, and so rather than continue the conversation on an old post, I am hoisting the comments so far into this post, edited for punctuation, spelling and readability. Also, I shortened mine. My thanks to Hubert Horan for raising this issue.

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Hubert Horan says:
June 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm
Why do you firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice? You and other individuals might personally benefit from deeper analysis of theory and history, but I see no reason to belief that much broader groups (especially groups as broad as “the left”) could ever establish coherent theories that would make their politics stronger and more effective.

1950s conservatives felt hopelessly outnumbered by the “liberal” consensus of the day, and put in massive effort to create an “intellectual”/theoretical grounding for the movement. (Nash’s history of the conservative intellectual movement is a good starting point but there are many others) All of the various efforts were logically incoherent, as the effort to produce some kind of pure theory were always polluted by emotional/tribal biases (upper class elitism, love of hierarchy and status, poorly disguised racism, misogyny, etc).

Where in history has there ever been “rigorous intellectual political theory” that didn’t end up as an attempt to build a quasi-religious utopian ideological faith? Remember the huge role of ex-Leninists/Trotskyites or devout Catholics and Evangelicals in the development of movement conservatism. The real challenge they faced (as leftists do now) is purely political, which by definition means combining the interests of a lot of groups whose worldviews could never be coherently reconciled. With the conservatives–in the 50s as well as today–this meant putting libertarians, hard social conservatives, laissez-faire capitalists, uncompromising militarists (anti-communists then, anti-Muslim today) and a few other groups under the same tent.

Conservatism grew when people with political skill and charisma (Buckley, Reagan) were able to finesse the differences between groups, and the increasing potential for political power got people to forget about theory and principles and focus on gaining more power. Despite all the effort and pretense, none of the successes of movement conservatism have anything to do with the theories put forth in past decades.

20th Century “liberalism” (from progressives through New Deal/New Frontier through 60s civil rights/antiwar through the collapse in the 70s) was never driven by widely known intellectual “theories” –it was always politically focused. Minor groups like 1930s communists excepted, it was never utopian or quasi-religious and battles were over political turf and tactics, not over ideological purity. There was plenty of searching for ideas about how to solve key problems or reach broader audiences, but very few wasted time searching for the One Great Unifying theory that the masses would line up to support. As with the conservatives, emotional biases (elitism, virtue signaling, desire to protect narrow economic interest, etc) caused lots of problems, but this wasn’t going to be solved with more rigorous theory development.

I find some of these theoretical/historical issues fascinating, and best of luck with your research. I could imagine it might help establish a small faction within “the left” but I can’t see how it could have a powerful impact on “the left” as a whole.

Ed Walker says:
June 12, 2017 at 7:36 pm

This is a great comment. I generally agree with your history, but not necessarily with your view of theory. You neglect the role of neoliberal theory in the rise of conservatism. I’ve gone over a lot of this in other posts, many of which are centered on Foucault and Mirowski, here and earlier at the late lamented FireDogLake. There is a nice history in David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.
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Again, your comment is an important reminder that theory is not decisive. And believe me, I have not the slightest hope that what I write has a chance of effecting change by itself. Ideas, unlike wealth, do trickle out into the world, though, and therein lies my hope.

Hubert Horan says:
June 12, 2017 at 10:12 pm

No disagreement with any of your points about neoliberalism. The next historian of postwar conservatism after Nash I would have mentioned would have been Mirowski.

The difference, perhaps semantic, is that I don’t think anything supporting modern neoliberalism rises to the stature of “theory.” My guess is that the major conservative theorists of the 50s and 60s (Burnham, Kirk, Chambers, Rusher, Meyer, et. al) would have recognized modern neoliberal advocacy for what it is–faux-analysis to feed the propaganda needs of wealthy plutocrats. They certainly would have recognized that it was not “conservative” or theoretically rigorous.

Yes, there was a transitional period where some legitimate intellectuals (Friedman, Hayek) laid important groundwork for what later mutated into neoliberalism. Little of Friedman’s serious academic analysis served the neoliberal agenda, but most of his popular tracks did. Conservative “theorizing” had major impacts only after they abandoned the model of independent academic analysis for a propaganda model serving the political objectives of their paymasters.

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That’s the discussion so far. The point about whether neoliberalism is a theory requires a response. Philip Mirowski might agree to some extent with Horan’s point. But I don’t. I think neoliberals accept at least the following ideas as foundational to their project.

1. Freedom means economic freedom.
2. Private property must be protected at the expense of every other interest.
3. The only valid way to allocate resources is through markets.
4. There are absolute truths. The first three points are examples of absolute truths.

Each of these four is subject to being interpreted in two ways, one way for the funders and one way for the rubes. Neoliberals tout economic freedom in health insurance, arguing that people should be allowed to buy insurance against specific diseases, or not, or specific limits on coverage or not. What that means is that poor people can buy whatever they can afford, whether or not it has value. In general, you are free to buy whatever you can afford, and that’s their definition of freedom. Meanwhile rich people can buy full protection from the costs of health care, because that’s freedom.

We see this form of argument all the time. Here’s Megan McArdle explaining why not installing sprinklers in public high-rise buildings is a plausible money-saving idea, and argues that markets should make safety decisions. Here’s Matt Yglesias explaining why Bangladesh might not even bother with building safety. In both cases, the only issue of interest is economic freedom.

On the idea of absolute truth, at one level, this sounds like an endorsement of fundamentalist Christianity. At another, we need to know who decides what that absolute truth is. The rich might let fundamentalist preachers decree dogma, because ti doesn’t bother them or their kids and it sedates people. But when it comes to economic matters, including much foreign policy, we can be sure they ignore all that Christian stuff about the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the Loaves and the Fishes, and all that redistribution stuff.

Modern philosophy raises serious problems with the idea of absolute truth, valid for all times and in all places. Critical Theory also rejects the idea of absolute truth, and with it the idea that social problems can be solved permanently. We’ll see how that works out as we go forward in this book.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: The Proletariat

“A great truth wants to be criticized, not idolized”. Friedrich Nietzsche

Max Horkheimer, a scholar of the Frankfurt School, agreed with this statement, according to Martin Jay, author of The Dialectical Imagination. It sums up an important aspect of Critical Theory: it says that when we are faced with some absolute statement about the nature of anything, we need to question it, to examine it, and to test its continued truth in our time and place. Everything is to be questioned.

In Chapter 2, one of the issues that Jay takes up is the role of the proletariat in bringing about social change. Marx argued that the proletariat would lead the revolution against capitalism and bring about common ownership of the means of production. Here’s Wikipedia, with brief descriptions of important terms:

According to Marxist perspective, class conflict within capitalism arises due to intensifying contradictions between the highly productive mechanized and socialized production performed by the proletariat, and the private ownership and appropriation of the surplus product (profit) by a small minority of the population who are private owners called the bourgeoisie. As the contradiction becomes apparent to the proletariat through the alienation of labor, social unrest between the two antagonistic classes will intensify, until it culminates in social revolution. The eventual long-term outcome of this revolution would be the establishment of socialism – a socioeconomic system based on social ownership of the means of production, distribution based on one’s contribution, and production organized directly for use. As the productive forces and technology continued to advance, Marx hypothesized that socialism would eventually give way to a communist stage of social development, which would be a classless, stateless, humane society erected on common ownership and the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

The proletariat is the group of workers who own no property and only live by selling their labor; for more see this Wikipedia entry.

It became obvious quickly that the proletariat wasn’t going to lead the way. May writes:

In fact, Horkheimer argued, Nietzsche had been perceptive in refusing to romanticize the working classes, who were even in his time beginning to be diverted from their revolutionary role by the developing mass culture. P. 50.

May says that by the 1930s they saw signs that the proletariat was becoming integrated into society, especially in the US, which they saw first hand after emigrating. P. 41.

As it became obvious that the proletariat was not going to lead the revolution, the Frankfurt School turned to a study of the two elements they thought were responsible for this unexpected outcome: mass culture and the structure and growth of authority, the fields where their work is still viable. Their focus in those studies was to search for the means to bring about social change.

In retrospect, it’s true the working class was brought into mainstream society, as part of a true middle class through home ownership and pensions, and many gained entry to the upper middle class through greatly expanded admission to higher education. That continued for several decades.

If the proletariat was largely integrated into society, it is being reconstituted now. After the Great Crash, 9.3 million people lost their main source of wealth, their homes, in large part because the Obama Administration and the Congress helped the rich, not the victims of fraud. This study by the CBO, based on the Fed’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, gives the gory details. The losses among the young, those just starting out in work, are awful, and most likely will never be recouped. A big part of that problem is the massive debt that generally funds higher education for those not born into the upper middle class.

These economic changes are producing political backlash. Somehow, the elites have persuaded most people that they were not responsible: that this was not a problem with the system, but with the individual failings of the vast number of losers who deserved to lose. Widespread acceptance of that lie is indeed a testament to the power of culture and authority in this country and around the capitalist world. Critical Theory is a tool for responding to that lie.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay

I am reading The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 by Martin Jay (1970). It’s my introduction to the intellectual history of Critical Theory, which might provide a tool for understanding our society. I am encouraged in this view by one of the books on Amazon’s list of suggestions for people who examined Jay’s book. a book by by Michael Walsh. The description of Walsh’s book includes this:

In The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Michael Walsh describes how Critical Theory released a horde of demons into the American psyche. When everything could be questioned, nothing could be real, and the muscular, confident empiricism that had just won the war gave way, in less than a generation, to a central-European nihilism celebrated on college campuses across the United States.

How could I resist Jay’s book with a recommendation like that?

The Frankfurt School is the name given a group of scholars who worked at The Institute For Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung). The Institute was formed in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 with a grant from a German industrialist, Hermann Weil, and his son Felix Weil. Many of the scholars were assimilated Jews, and as the Nazis began to emerge as a serious threat, the members made arrangements to leave. Within a month after Hitler took power, they were all gone, most to Columbia University and the New School where they remained until the Institute reopened in Frankfurt in 1951.

As a group, the scholars of the Frankfurt School were dissatisfied with the explanations offered by the theories of the day to explain the explosive rise of capitalism, and the instability and other problems it created. They rejected to strict versions of Marxism. They were opposed to the fascists, the forms of socialism imposed in Soviet Russia, and to the forms of capitalism of their day. The did like the general approach of the dialectic, which stems from Hegel and on through Marx. They added a new tool, psychoanalysis, on the grounds that Marx and other theorists gave insufficient attention to the role of the individual in the processes of creation of society. Their field of research was primarily sociology and philosophy. They applied those ideas to a close study of the actual forms of society, including work lives, and cultural lives. Jay suggests that their goal was to find conditions that would lead a society to “rational institutions” and to find ways to bring about those conditions. The theory they developed came to be known as Critical Theory.

The name Critical Theory might suggest that the substance of the work of the Frankfurt School was a theory of society. It’s not. It’s a way of examining a society, or sme specific part of a society, trying to understand it in context, and trying to understand it not just in terms of a fixed formal theory, but as the interplay of the various forces active in the society. Critical Theory is a tool, not an answer. Even so, the scholars of the Frankfurt School produced important contributions to our understanding of the forces at work in our lives. A notable example is the work of Adorno on authoritarianism. A clear explanation of a problem often suggests solutions.

The best-known scholars at the outset were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. Much of the later work was led by Jurgen Habermas. All of the scholars were steeped in the traditions of German intellectualism; they studied Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche among others. Much of their earliest work was devoted to analyzing these earlier works and the problems they saw in light of the then current circumstances.

This book is an intellectual history of Critical Theory. The first chapter is devoted to the history of the Institute, brief biographies, including some of the early writings, of the leading scholars, and their flight from Germany. The author had access to a great deal of material, and was able to interview most of the surviving members in the late 1960s. The second chapter begins the intellectual history proper. It describes the fundamental early ideas of Critical Theory. I’m rereading that chapter now, but I want to start writing about the ideas I have already encountered.

A note on form. I intend to be quite careful in identifying the source of the materials as I write posts. Some of what seems important is Martin Jay’s take on the ideas of the scholars, some will be quotes from those scholars, and some will be my effort to work out what I read and how it applies to our times. I note that the quotes from the scholars of the Institute are selected by Jay, and I do not have the original texts to provide context. That is a potential source of misunderstanding on my part, and should be kept in mind.

A note on my background in this area. I have only the barest understanding of Marxism, and know nothing about current Marxian writers. I have some familiarity with the philosophical terms I encounter, like phenomenology, epistemology, ontology and many more. I’ll try to focus on the ideas about society, social change, and the role of theory in political practice, and stay away from hardcore philosophy.

I am reading this book because I firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice. The left clearly has a preferred group of policies and specific ideas about preferred forms of society. Theory organizes our thinking so that we can have confidence that our preferred policies are part of a coherent view of what society can and should be, and gives us a framework for explaining our views. That seems more important than ever now, when the party in power and its adherents are utterly incoherent.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.