Timothy Burke: Culture, Politics, Academia and Other Shiny Objects

Michael Berube’s most recent essay on academic freedom deserves wide exposure: it would make a good pamphlet to be sent and circulated not just among academics, but between academics and their various publics, including legislatures and pundits.

One part of it that caught my eye in particular was Berube’s observation that the defense of academic freedom should be one part of a wider commitment to procedural liberalism (not “liberalism” in the sense of “those Democrats are liberals”, liberalism in the wider sense that includes most American conservatives save for the religious or cultural right). It caught my eye partially because it reminded me of what frustrates me in some discussions of academic freedom: that more than a few scholars who rise in defense of academic freedom are either agnostic about procedural liberalism in the wider sense or actively antagonistic or dismissive of it.

This is what allows some academics to rise to defend academic freedom from David Horowitz and yet strongly endorse campus speech codes, for example. In other areas of argument, the same duality is what allows critical legal theorists to argue that “law” is largely a mechanism of power, that the claims procedural liberals would make about how law works are not in fact how law works, and yet at the same time, often to invoke legal or procedural standards to defend or protect what they politically value; for anti-foundationalists to suddenly plant their feet on the foundations they otherwise tear down when they find themselves threatened.

My frustration with this pattern, at least what I see as a pattern, conditions my initial approach to an intense discussion produced by a recent posting from Scott Eric Kaufman at The Valve. Kaufman’s entry is a relatively (and to my view, atypically) well-worn attack on symbolic politics on the left, as one respondent puts it, an “ew, hippies” post.

I’ve been accused of making similar comments at times in the past, with some justice, and I’m about to make such comments again. The problem with Kaufman’s entry is that it glosses the intellectual and political history of the New Left, but on the other hand, unpacking that history may actually sharpen the antagonism that his post invokes and that the comments exemplify.

As some of the Valve commenters note, a more nuanced history of the New Left actually recapitulates the division between Kaufman and some of his strongest critics, such as Turbulent Velvet. Kaufman is wrong in many ways to associate the kinds of symbolic politics that he disdains with the Students for a Democratic Society. In many ways, SDS was at least initially the fraction of the New Left that was more distinctly establishment, more oriented towards both procedural liberalism and older lineages of mass-movement radicalism; the SDS of 1962 was eclipsed both by a situationist left whose politics were largely symbolic and representational and by a would-be vanguardist fractional left that made the move into violent confrontations with the state that it took to be anything but symbolic. The “old” New Left was dragged along in the wake of that double move, dropped out of late 1960s political struggle, or made the formal transition into mainstream political and social institutions.

The discussion at the Valve that follows is pretty intense. In some cases, I think it’s simply a case of people talking past one another, or not noticing odd points of congruity. Turbulent Velvet argues that Kaufman is complicit in the kind of patterned media coverage that allows the cameras to show the “five guys dressed as Batman” at a protest of a million people otherwise dressed in suits and ties, that the “ew, hippie” trope is one that authorizes that sort of selectivity. To some extent, stepping outside of the debate for a minute, I’d say more commonsensically that if I was the guy editing the nightly news broadcast, I’d probably show the five Batmen as well: it’s just a better picture. But it is precisely that calculation that is part of the deeper problem: the best situationists understood the representational logic of public culture very well in the late 1960s.

T.V. is right to ask, “Why aren’t the million well-dressed people the main political fact that becomes news?” and maybe right even to say, “You’re legitimizing the fact that it’s not news by stigmatizing the five Batmen”. He’s not asking, “Why are there five Batmen there in the crowd of a million”, because he thinks that’s an irrelevant question. And he’s actually agreeing with Kaufman implicitly by suggesting that it’s the million people who are there to be counted for a statement made within normative politics who matter, not the five who are there to make some very different and anti-normative point.

This is what the situationists challenged from the outset: that the million matter more. They rejected that procedural liberalism is a value system which legitimately constrains and directs our actions rather than a straightjacket which coerces a performance of consent. There is a legitimate antagonism here between procedural liberals and anti-foundational radicals, and I get as wary and tetchy as Kaufman when I hear anyone trying to either argue that no such legitimate antagonism exists, or that I have misperceived the nature of the problem. I’d rather hear, forthrightly, the accusation that I’m siding with the establishment or with conservatives, because that is in many ways accurate, and because that accusation at least begins to chase out into the open some of the real issues, many of which lie within and are defined by the wreck of the history that Kaufman raises from the deep.

Based on that history, people with a commitment to liberalism are perfectly correct to be on guard against both situationist and vanguardist attempts to outflank them to their left. Right both in the sense that each of those responses seeks to substantively void or evacuate the core commitments of liberalism and seeks to somehow shackle liberals to a political strategy not of their own making. Situationism by making procedural responses seem impotent, humorless and complicit; vanguardism by laying its eggs parasitically inside the body of more establishment left or liberal institutions. I’m more concerned by the latter, because there’s a very real history of such political practice on the left in the United States.

On the opposite side, there is equally legitimate historical reason for various radicals to regard liberals as fundamental enemies. I’m always minded of Garry Wills’ brilliant indictment of liberals in Nixon Agonistes, of the clueless, patronizing response that many offered to undeniably substantive radical arguments. Of the disengaged and anti-intellectual disdain of some liberal intellectuals now for postmodernist and poststructuralist critiques, their unwillingness to engage arguments that by the standards of liberalism one is obligated to engage and take seriously. More tangibly, there’s no denying that some mainstream liberals in the 1960s and 1970s were all too willing to report radicals to the state, to participate in political suppression well outside the bounds of the public sphere and civil society–in fact, to violate their own commitments to proceduralism in order to score transient political points or puff up their credentials as anti-communists.

To get past “ew, hippie” (or “communist dupe”) on one hand and “establishment pawn” or “sell-out” on the other does not free us from the antagonism that history (and our present) have in ample measure. Because there is a real, possibly unbridgeable, political struggle involved, one that is made all the more intense by the fact that both groups imagine a common relationship to some unmobilized, relatively silent, general and possibly fictional constituency. Both imagine within the United States that they are speaking for and with some of the same social constellations, and competing for leadership of same. And here both groups are, in some measure, wrong.

It is a caricature to say that liberals want to “move to the center”: that is in some sense more coherent than the actual floundering tactical vision of the political that many liberals have on offer. It is a caricature to say that various flavors of radical, anti-foundationalist, or left consciousness just want to do street theater with puppets or smash windows in Seattle. They don’t even have that clear a collective sense of direction. Clarity for either (or more than either, because I think there are really more than two bodies in this room) really does lead them in completely opposite directions, but clarity for either probably doesn’t lead in any immediate sense to political victory inside or outside the electoral system.

In a way, the aimlessness of contemporary strategy has much to do with the fact that neither constellation of thinkers and activists is willing to face their own inauthenticity to the present moment. The radical constituency conjures visions of conspiracy and mass false consciousness; the procedural liberal putters around peddling his own technocratic excellence and managerial ability and wondering when the decent majority is going to buy some of that product. What neither grasps is that something subtle has changed in the underlying normative architecture of social alliance and social identity in America. We go looking for explanation and settle on cartoonish one-note sociologies: it’s the religious right! it’s the soccer moms! it’s fear of Osama! it’s Karl Rove’s diabolism! it’s Diebold and gerrymandering! it’s culture, stupid! it’s the economy, stupid! and so on. It’s all and none: there may be one geist, but the spirit is a composite, and the sum does not tell you the parts.

There is no single move to make to unlock the future. It doesn’t help to think about everything in a way divorced from any strategic conception of the political, which I think could be said fairly about both procedural liberals and various flavors of radicals and leftists. John Kerry trying to filibuster Samuel Alito isn’t about anything more than building his credentials for another run at the Presidency with people who are going to vote Democratic whether the Democrats nominate Hilary Clinton or Attila the Hun. Don’t bring that shit if you don’t have a hope of winning the game, of blocking the nomination, particularly not if you’re otherwise staking your reputation on the defense of normative institutional ways of doing politics. A filibuster is a rupture in normative deliberation, a power-play.

Don’t play power if you don’t have the tools to play. A protest is the same thing: a million Mormons or a million transvestite Batmen, I don’t care, it doesn’t add up to anything unless that’s a million committed votes that weren’t committed before, or the protest is a tipping point that moves a new constituency into a different political position, or if the protest threatens the continued functioning of something that a persuadable or vulnerable interest doesn’t dare allow to be threatened. If you can get a general strike going, that’s real power. If you can compel a response from the powerful that makes them look worse that the protestors, that’s symbolic power. If you can get people who voted one way last time to vote a different way next time, that’s electoral power. But if your protest breaks the thing you came to save, good luck fixing it. If it ends up accumulating symbolic power for your enemies, good luck getting it back. If it ends up losing more votes than it gains, what was the point?

Don’t play at the politics of symbols unless you know what symbols mean, how they circulate, and about how to transformatively alter their meaning and circulation. Most of the people, many of them radicals, who argue for a symbolic understanding about why people think and act they way they do have painfully empirically and conceptually thin understandings of processes and institutions of cultural production, of the mechanisms of cultural circulation, and of mass audiences and their capacities. Sure, perhaps the media pictures the five Batmen at a protest of a million, but what does that mean? Is that why some unnamed viewing public who is presumed to be potentially sympathetic to the million protesters is instead unmobilized and unmoved? There’s a lot of missing steps in between point A and point Z in that claim. Maybe much of the mass audience is just as smart in some respect as Turbulent Velvet and pay no more attention to the five Batmen than he does. Maybe that’s not why they aren’t pouring into the streets themselves to join the protestors.

In the end, because I’m essentially a classical liberal, possibly even of the more conservative kind in many respects, my view of the road ahead runs through liberalism. I would be the first to say that the cartographers presently trying to lay down that asphault mostly are rolling out circles, at least in the United States. If there’s an argument to be made for liberalism at its deepest and most authentic levels, it is going to have to connect to, and possibly be subsumed within, hybrid compositions of common sense and everyday interpersonal decency in American life. It is not going to find those formations evenly spread through American life, either. Politics is about mobilizing discrete constituencies, and liberals are mostly confined to a kind of urban, technocratic, expert-educated elite in the United States, a confinement that is comprehensive from values to culture to political philosophy.

Radicals of various forms and inclinations have a similar problem: for the most part, they’re located within a kind of lumpenbourgoisie that arises within and around the same social formations that sustain contemporary American liberals.

My personal inclination, much as it appears to be Kaufman’s, is to think that many diverse kinds of radicals are even further from having a clue than mainstream liberals about how to connect their convictions to any kind of political power, whether it’s through mass action or winning elections. Trying to collectively impede business as usual when the people conducting such business can just retreat behind even more protected redoubts (physical and otherwise) usually means you end up hassling people who are not (or were not, until you hassle them) in any sense your opposition; a lot of radical mass action ends up being the left-wing version of bombing the shit out of a bunch of innocent Sunnis in order to kill one terrorist that you suspect of being present. Here, yes, I cry, “Oh, noes! Here come the puppets!” half with a kind of nasty intent to mock, and half with the deliberate desire to make it clear that I’m not to be found in any part of the street theater–both because I judge such action ineffectual and because even were it effectual, symbolic politics of that kind, or even most mass action, centrally attacks my political values, my vestment in liberal institutions and liberal proceduralism. I might forgive that politics the latter if it at least could boast of the former, but even at that, I’d be making the devil’s bargain, in my view retrospectively foolish, that many establishment leftists made during the 1960s.

The core point is that the antagonism here is not superficial. It runs all the way to the foundational bottom. We’re not fighting about whose fault it is that the television cameras zoom in on Batman or on broken windows at Seattle Starbucks: we’re fighting about what politics and society have been, are, and ought to be. If American liberals and leftists have a hard time signing the dotted line on a popular-front agreement, however high the stakes, it may be partly because both sides know that in the history of the 20th Century, such a concord is usually reached with knives held behind the back and fingers crossed, and because both sides genuinely are interested in and potentially identify with social and political constituencies who are not at the table and who will be actively antagonized by the existence of such an alliance.

It’s not about buying respectability with a mythical middle for liberals, or street cred with the Multitude for the radicals, nothing that generic. For me, it’s that I want to communicate seriously with many conservatives (both within the establishment and outside of it) not just because I think that’s the road to political victory but because the seriousness of my values demand that I do so. That’s liberalism, warp and woof!

Indeed, because I think that many conservatives or libertarians are procedural liberals, one and the same thing. The seriousness of my values demand I try the same with radicals, because the critique many of them offer is absolutely substantive; even situationist or symbolic responses are.

The same is true for many radicals, postmodernists, anti-foundationalists, latter-day situationists, you name it: they may have their Others whom they can only oppose, but that’s not the liberal; liberals are just close enough to create an accursed intimacy, a need to furiously ask why the liberal hates the leftist. To accuse the liberal of self-loathing is to suggest that the liberal is really a radical and ask why the liberal keeps committing fratricide. To ask, as Turbulent Velvet asks, why the self-loathing liberal can’t just call down the energy of the men dressed as Batmen and the puppet-carryers, mobilize his own fringes.

In part the reason they can’t is because that is the substantive liberal critique of the procedurally-minded conservatives and libertarians: that they have failed to protect the institutions and practices which are the substance of democratic politics, the essence of contemporary freedom, that they’ve sold out to their own fringe in pursuit of power. The radical asks the liberal, “Why can’t you do the same? Why must you show contempt for all the various constituencies that are deeply alienated from contemporary American life, for all the varieties of political practice?” The liberal’s answer, at least mine, is that I’m trying to make the world safe for carrying puppets to rallies but that “making use of the energy” or the incorporation of various radicalized constituencies is destroying the village that I’m trying to save, just as I think the Republicans have done. I readily agree that’s the key to recent Republican electoral success, that they’ve embraced a political faction that hungers for the demolition of many of the structural underpinnings of liberal democracy, tried to catch that lightning in a bottle. They’ve already burned their enemies that way; I think they’re going to end up burning themselves, too. Cynically, quietly, my answer to the radical is also, “It wouldn’t work anyway”, that whatever it is that the radical yearns for as a praxis in the contemporary crisis isn’t just morally wrong, it’s beside the point, even more ineffectual and self-defeating than weak defenses of business-as-usual.

What this amounts to is this: don’t think I’ve made a mistake when I distance myself from what I perceive to be various forms of radical praxis or argument. Nor do I believe that really the radical is just a liberal who doesn’t know it yet.

I do think that he ought to be. I think the same about the cultural or religious right, that they scarcely dream of what they’re asking for, or the general consequences of what they’re trying to bring about. In neither case is that a claim of false consciousness in the classic sense of the term. It’s more, “I know best”, a preemptive version of “I told you so”, which I readily grant is a response that rarely (never) endears the person offering it to anybody.

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