The problem with “critical” studies

When I was an undergraduate, I believed that the prevalence of positivism in the social sciences – the idea of studying social phenomena in an “objective” or “value-free” manner – was one of the great evils in the world. Not only was it an illusion, but it was a harmful one, because beneath the guise of objectivity there lay a hidden agenda, namely, an interest in domination. Treating people as objects of study, rather than as subjects, was not politically neutral, because it generated a type of knowledge that just happened to be precisely of the sort that one would need in order to manipulate and control them. “Objective” social science, in other words, was not value-free at all, but rather a tool of oppression.

The alternative to this, warmly recommended at the time, would be a new form of social science, one that was explicitly guided by the “emancipatory” interest of human reason. Rather than striving for an elusive value neutrality, it would instead adopt a commitment to improving the human condition, then make these commitments explicit, as part of the inquiry, so that the entire exercise would be methodologically transparent. This is what we called “critical theory.”

That was then, this is now. What have I learned in the interim? Mainly to be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!

Two years ago I was asked to serve on a jury for a book prize, to select the best work published by a Canadian university press in the social sciences. Shortly thereafter, a big box of books arrived on my doorstep, from a wide range of disciplines. As I began to delve into them, a number of things surprised me.

The most striking thing about the books is that, out of 16 books I received, only four were straightforward instances of what would traditionally be thought of as “social science,” according to the positivist conception. In other words, only four of them had as their primary objective the desire to establish and present to the reader facts about the world. The others, by contrast, had as their primary objective the desire to advance a normative agenda – typically, to combat some form of oppression. That is to say, they were driven by the “emancipatory” interest of human reason.

Most of these could broadly be classified as one or another form of “critical” studies. (In academia, the term “critical” is often introduced into the description of a field, in order to flag this orientation toward normative questions, particularly those involving one or another forms of oppression. Thus we have “critical” legal studies, “critical” race studies, “critical” aboriginal studies, and so on.) Most of these books were also profoundly cringe-inducing. They were, to put it mildly, bad. Forced to read a dozen of them, however, I began to notice certain patterns in the badness.

Earlier on, I said that the ambition for “critical social science” was to have, not just social science guided by normative commitments, but for those normative commitments to be made explicit. The biggest problem with the books I read is that they almost invariably failed on the second half of this. It was obvious that the authors – with the exception of a few law professors – had no idea at all how to make a normative argument. Indeed, they seem incredibly averse even to stating clearly what sort of normative standards they were employing. The result was entire books aimed at bolstering resistance to things like “neoliberalism,” none of which ever stated explicitly what “neoliberalism” is, much less what is wrong with it.

A long time ago, Habermas wrote a critical essay on Foucault, in which he accused him of “cryptonormativism.” The accusation was that, although Foucault’s work was clearly animated by a set of moral concerns, he refused to state clearly what his moral commitments were, and instead just used normatively loaded vocabulary, like “power,” or “regime,” as rhetorical devices, to induce the reader to share his normative assessments, while officially denying that he was doing any such thing. The problem, in other words, is that Foucault was smuggling in his values, while pretending he didn’t have any. A genuinely critical theory, Habermas argued, has no need for this subterfuge, it should introduce its normative principles explicitly, and provide a rational defence of them.

As I was reading through the stack, I couldn’t help but notice that the most reliable indicator that a book is going to be a complete mess, from a normative perspective, is that it contains either discussion or extensive citation of Foucault (and/or Bourdieu). From the perspective of someone in philosophy, where this stuff is dead as disco, it’s amazing to see academics still taking it seriously. In any case, the major thing that they seem to be attracted to, in this ’80s French theory, is the cryptonormativism.

For instance, I had noticed a long time ago that the term “neoliberal” functions as the most important piece of cryptonormative vocabulary in critical studies. For those who don’t know, here’s the basic problem with “neoliberalism.” It’s a made-up thing. It’s just a word that Foucault popularized, to talk about economic ideas that he didn’t really understand. There is no group of people out there who actually describe themselves as a neoliberals. Because of this, there are no constraints on what it can refer to, and there is no one to answer any of the criticisms that are made of it. Compare that to terms like “conservative” or “libertarian.” Because there are real people who call themselves “libertarian,” if you write something that criticizes libertarianism, an actual libertarian might write back and contest what you say. With “neoliberalism,” on the other hand, you can say whatever you want, without any fear that a real-life neoliberal will write back and contest your claims – because there are none. As a result, people who use this term in their writing are basically announcing, up front, that their intended audience is the left-wing academic echo chamber. After all, if they wanted to engage with people outside that chamber, they would have to address one or more of the ideologies that are actually, and self-consciously, held by people outside that chamber. (In this respect, people who criticize neoliberalism are the cowardly lions of academia. If you think you’ve got what it takes, why not go out and find an actual right-winger to argue with?)

The fact that there are no self-identified neoliberals in the world does, however, have one desired consequence. Use of the term limits one’s audience to those who share the underlying normative judgment, allowing academics to feel completely unanimous in their belief that neoliberalism is a bad thing. As a result, no one ever feels obliged to say what is so bad about it. Roughly speaking, neoliberalism is thought to have something to do with market fundamentalism, it began with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and has been sneaking into every nook and cranny of public life since then. Beyond that, it can mean pretty much anything. (Example: is a move toward means-testing in a government social program “neoliberal” or not? Some authors think it is, some think it isn’t. No one ever explains their reasoning. It seems to be determined just by gut response – whether the person sees means-testing as way of denying benefits to some, or as a way of making the program more progressive and thus reducing inequality. In any case, the mere fact that applying for the benefit involves filling out a form is likely to lead the critical studies practitioner to denounce it for being committed to the (re)production of docile bodies, in order to advance the normalizing agenda of the neocolonial state, or something like that.)

The most surprising thing about the books I read is that, of the 10 that used the term “neoliberal” disparagingly, only one offered any sort of an explanation of what the term was supposed to mean (interestingly, that book was the only one written from an explicitly Marxist perspective). Perhaps the most confusing was the one book that used the term “neoconservative” as well – and not in the international relations sense – without defining that either. It was obvious from the discussion that the author also regarded neoconservativism as a terribly bad thing, and in some way different from neoliberalism, but it was absolutely unclear how they were thought to differ.

Reading through these books, I discovered a whole new set of cryptonormative terms that I had perhaps been vaguely aware of, but had not realized how important they were. There is obvious stuff like “neocolonial” and “racializing” (always bad), but there is also the term “stigmatizing.” Stigmatization is, apparently, always bad. Anything that stigmatizes anyone else is bad. In some cases, entire bodies of empirical research, which might introduce a bit of moral complexity to the analysis of a particular situation, were swept aside on the grounds that they are “potentially stigmatizing” to oppressed groups. Thus the potential for “stigmatization” served as all-purpose license to ignore inconvenient facts (an egregious display of normative confusion).

In any case, it seems to me fairly obvious why these books are written in the way they are. The authors feel a passionate moral commitment to the improvement of society – this is what animates their entire project, compels them to write a book – but they have no idea how to defend these commitments intellectually, and they have also read a great deal of once-fashionable theory that is essentially skeptical about the foundations of these moral commitments (i.e. Foucault, Bourdieu). As a result, they are basically moral noncognitivists, and perhaps even skeptics. So they turn to using rhetoric and techniques of social control, such as audience limitation, as a way of securing agreement on their normative agenda.

This is – perhaps needless to say – not how critical theory was supposed to be done.

Let me give a specific example of this. I read with some interest the book “Métis” by Chris Andersen (UBC Press), who is a professor in the Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. The book is focused on answering the question, who is, and who is not, Métis. This might sound like the usual sort of exercise in identity politics, but in this case some serious issues hang in the balance, since Métis groups in Canada have been demanding, and in some cases have been granted, many of the national minority rights traditionally enjoyed by status Indians (e.g. being able to hunt out of season, etc.)

The question of who counts as Métis is, however, a somewhat complicated one. During the early colonization of Canada, there was a period of roughly 200 years in which the only Europeans to enter the territory west of the great lakes were men (voyageurs, fur traders, etc.) Hundreds of them settled throughout the river and lake systems that afforded access to the interior of the continent, married Indian women, and had mixed-race children. This meant that when the British began to colonize the west in earnest, starting in what is now Manitoba, they encountered not only Indian tribes, but also very substantial, settled communities of mixed-race Métis (who resisted colonization in a series of well-known rebellions).

Because of this, however, the term Métis harbors something of an ambiguity. It is often used like the term mulatto, to refer to someone of mixed ancestry (in this case, European and Indian). Yet in the politically (and constitutionally) relevant sense, it refers to a national minority ethnic group – namely, the specific population, located in and around the Red River valley, that was involuntarily incorporated into the Canadian federation. Andersen’s primary goal in the book is to defend the latter, rather restrictive definition of the term Métis. While some will no doubt find this controversial, it important to note that it is a perfectly reasonable position to want to defend.

So how does Andersen go about defending this perfectly reasonable claim? There are some obvious argumentation strategies that he could have employed. For instance, he could have proceeded by reductio, pointing out the absurdity of using the “mixed ancestry” definition for legal or constitutional purposes, since almost the entire French Canadian population (de souche) has mixed ancestry. Or he could have made a straightforward normative argument, starting with Will Kymlicka’s influential analysis of national minority rights, and then shown how only “Red River” Métis qualify as a national group.

Unfortunately, Andersen does not do either of these things. Instead, what he argues is that the “mixed ancestry” definition, by focusing on racial inheritance, is part of the broader “racializing logic of colonialism.” Racialization, he claims, is an insidious ideology (“I position racialization in terms of a colonial ‘habitus’ that, deeply engrained, powerfully shapes our understandings of the social world.”(22).) So people who subscribe to the “mixed ancestry” definition are actually reproducing the “sovereign logics of violence” of colonialism as well as engaging in “settler biopolitics.”

In other words, instead of trying to persuade his opponents through ordinary argumentation, Andersen basically accuses them of committing a thought-crime. They are not merely mistaken about the best interpretation of a term, they are inflicting symbolic violence on the body of the colonized subject. Or to put it in more prosaic terms, they’re a bunch of racists. (And for the Métis, like Maria Campbell, who use the term in the “mixed ancestry” sense, they have been “seduced” by the logic of colonialism. They can be forgiven though, because “the deep relationality of racialized practices in virtually all sectors of Canadian society means that they powerfully shape not only how Indigenous subjectivities are produced but also how we come to know others and ourselves.”(23).)

I assume that most people can see what is wrong with this style of argumentation. Saying “I believe X, and anyone who disagrees with me is a racist” is not exactly an invitation to dialogue. In fact, it’s the perfect way to poison any conversation. What I found striking, however, is how unnecessary it all is in Andersen’s work. After all, the position that he is defending is perfectly reasonable. Would it be so hard just to acknowledge that other, reasonable people, might take a different view, but then argue that, on the balance of considerations, his own view is better?

My suspicion is that the vituperativeness and rhetorical overkill is intended to disguise the fact that Andersen doesn’t really know how to proceed otherwise. Not knowing how to defend a normative claim, he resorts to character assassination and intimidation of those who disagree with him. The main effect, however, is just audience limitation. A lot of people just don’t have time to get into a discussion with someone whose basic argumentation strategy is to accuse everyone who disagrees with him of being racist or brainwashed.

The book also contains a great deal of old-fashioned bafflegab. Consider the following (single!) sentence:

In this socio-historical context, I position courts as a specific, semi-autonomous, and generative form of juridical power: specific, in that the courts currently hold a specific relation of power in Canadian society and, equally importantly, over other institutions within the larger juridical field; semi-autonomous, in that although shaped by various social and cultural factors (racialization, for example), the distinctive dynamics of the courts shape the production of logics not only irreducible to the dynamics of other social fields but potentially resistant to them; and generative, in that the dynamism of court struggles produces a form of “juridical capital” that rather than directly constituting social relations or (re)producing a “grand hegemony,” generates particular depictions and problematizations of social issues and classifications that can potentially shape the parameters within which subsequent political strategies and struggles ensue, but only upon their subsequent successful translation into those fields (63).

Sure buddy, whatever you say… Just one question: can you think of an event that could happen, in the world, that would cause you to lose confidence in this claim?

The irony, of course, is that because its practitioners don’t seem to know how to make normative arguments, “critical” studies winds up being incredibly dogmatic. Students who study this stuff must find it completely bewildering. While they are supposedly being taught to “think critically” about the world, they are most emphatically discouraged from thinking critically about what is being said, in the books that purport to teach them to think critically about the world.

This is — to repeat — not how critical theory is supposed to be done.


The problem with “critical” studies — 43 Comments

  1. Useful post, a much-observed phenomenon, but quick question on method. Do people have to self identify as something for the description of them (or a program or group of policies to which they seem committed) to be a valid one? I wonder. Plenty of seemingly respectable and sober social scientists use the term “neoliberal”, hopefully as you say, well defined, even if the term gets overused and abused. Saw come work by Colin Crouch in that vein and later Wolfgang Streeck that seemed to have pretty stable uses / definitions of it (yes related to market-oriented policy). Although they become buzz words, neoliberal, globalization, financialization, and the ilk seem useful shorthand for some purposes.

  2. I agree with the thrust of this and most of the detail; but unfortunately this

    > there are no self-identified neoliberals in the world

    is now untrue; a small group of people (who might otherwise call themselves ‘bleeding-heart libertarians’) have recently reclaimed the ‘neoliberal’ slur:

    This project of theirs is partly waggish provocation and partly a version of your critique.

  3. “There is no group of people out there who actually describe themselves as a neoliberals. ”

    There’s an extra ‘a’ there. The British think tank Adam Smith Institute calls itself neoliberal: They used to call themselves libertarian though and their agenda is standard libertarian fare.

  4. > ‘The fact that there are no self-identified neoliberals in the world’

    I am in fact a self-identified neoliberal, but I’m not a “Captain Planet”-style villain that you would see described in these books. I’m also a political nobody, so these authors need not worry that I might seek to defend the reputation of neoliberalism.

    For me, neoliberalism takes a few basic premises:

    *) Rights are held by people in their capacity as individuals, not by groups,
    *) Scarce resources are usually best-distributed by a market mechanism, and
    *) Incentives matter

    … and runs with them.

    There’s still plenty of room for regulation in this model, but good regulations are those that prevent or correct market failures, and bad regulations are those that demand a particular (arbitrary) outcome regardless of individuals’ preferences.

    For the example of the means-tested benefit, my answer would be “means testing is probably not neoliberal.” That’s not because the withdrawal of benefits is bad: it’s because often means testing proceeds without any coordination from other tax and benefit programs. Such means-testing can accidentally create small regions of tremendous marginal tax rates, effecting (premise #3) the very problems the program is designed to ameliorate. (I also have very few kind things to say about the design and paperwork burden of provincial welfare systems, for similar reasons.)

    However, my neoliberalism also says little itself about economic equality. It’s simply not a complete political theory that way, but it doesn’t have to be. I personally tend to favour a more even distribution of wealth and income in society, but in so doing I self-describe (only half jokingly) as a “bleeding-heart neoliberal.” This possibility is almost universally overlooked by your critical authors (or by the editorialists at the Guardian), who would seem to imagine me as a wannabe “Scrooge McDuck.”

    Neoliberalism describes the means of policy, not the ends of it, and with this in mind my preferred redistribution policies focus on tax and benefit structures rather than attempting pre-distribution. It’s one case where I can vigorously disagree with social democrat/socialist friends, even if we seek similar overall outcomes.

    • Do you really think (and I ask sincerely) that now we can all say that neoliberals exist in a sort of ideology together? Based on what sources?

      I only know of Scott Summer trying to make it popular, and I’m not sure it matches tumour ideology.

      • I think it depends on how encompassing a ‘neoliberal’ ideology is to be.

        If you want to define something close to universal, then stick narrowly to my bullet points. However, this definition might be too weak to make much political sense. As a notable gap, those bullet points don’t come close to defining how much redistribution we should seek in society, but the size of the welfare state is one of the largest debates in most nations’ politics.

        If you make the belief system more universally applicable, then you’ll necessarily lose would-be adherents.

        However, I think even this broad set of principles is enough to distinguish (many?) self-identified neoliberals from the use of the term as a pejorative.

    • How is that significantly different from “classical liberal?” In your mind? Honest question…

      • In my mind, ‘classical liberal’ is more directly opposed to the idea of redistribution, and it is also more indifferent to correcting market failures.

        This begins edging into ‘libertarian’ territory, but in my perhaps unconventional view of neoliberalism property is -not- a fundamental right. Instead, it is a right that is derived from the state’s provision of rule of law and contract enforcement, so it is reasonable to interfere with property for the common good. That’s still subject to the core points, though, that property interference should be ideally done in a market-oriented way and with a mind to incentives generated by the action.

  5. It strikes me that, at least by your characterization of Andersen’s position, his argument can be read as a sort of reductio.

    Andersen seems to argue that ‘Métis’ should refer narrowly because a broad interpretation of the term leads to morally repugnant conclusions. His argument for this is, as you frame it, that the repugnant interpretation depends on backwards colonial attitudes, which in turn depend on backwards attitudes about race.

    This seems like a fair reductio in ethical discourse: it’s fair to argue that a moral theory is bad because it leads to bad conclusions, or because the moral theory has a faulty premise. For instance, it’s fine to say that someone’s “Utilitarian view is bad because it would tolerate an Omelas-type scenario, and we reject those on principle!”

    The larger issue here is that what makes a fair argument in ethical discourse does not necessarily make for a good argument in sociological or legal discourse. Andersen’s argument likely won’t find much traction with people who aren’t operating at his level of analysis. Sociologists or parliamentarians might just reply, “we’re not making moral theory here — we’re making public policy”.

    So I’m not sure that I disagree with anything substantial in this post besides the characterization of something as alleging a ‘thought-crime’ when it looks to me to be akin to a common sort of moral argument. Perhaps I’m just leery of accusations that someone else is accusing people of thought crimes because they reminds me of Peterson’s absurd critiques of Bill C-16.

    Professor Heath, can you recommend any recent examples of *good* normative sociology? I’ve never heard of it described as a genre, as you’ve done here, and I’m curious to see what it looks like today.

  6. Joseph thanks for this thoughtful & convincing piece!

    One quibble – some people, particularly 80s American journalists, politicians, & policy wonks interested in reforming the Democratic Party did refer to themselves as “neoliberal”. I could swear I remember Michael Kinsley calling himself one back when he co-hosted Crossfire on CNN, but for now this will have to do as evidence:

    Maybe the current somewhat indefinite but pejorative usage is a product of what the great noncognitivist Charles Stevenson called persuasive definition? Except in this case the conceptual content remains approximately the same (a mix of both the broad historical movement of ‘market fundamentalism’ in the 70s & the policies of more ideological centrist Democrats) but the affective baggage has been altered?

  7. I continue to be the regular reader and great fan of this blog. There’s a small point you make here (and that I think you’ve made before), that keeps sounding not quite right to me, though it’s very possible I’m missing something:

    “Here’s the basic problem with ‘neoliberalism.’ It’s a made-up thing… There is no group of people out there who actually describe themselves as a neoliberals. Because of this, there are no constraints on what [neoliberalism] can refer to”

    I’m not sure I see how that follows. I mean there are very few if any people who would describe themselves as racist, yet it would be weird to conclude that racism is a made-up thing, or something you cannot talk about, or oppose, or that the word is meaningliess. I think you could say the same for, say, reductionism, and probably a host of other ideas and attitudes (maybe ones that are tacit attitudes rather than explicit ideologies or positions?)

    I’m not going to claim to be nearly familiar enough with the literature you’re talking about to know if this analogy is relevant here. Just pointing out that to me, the claim “Idea X is not a thing because no one explicitly subscribes to it” doesn’t seem right.

    • Hi Misha, thanks for the comment. You’re right about this obviously — isms can be used descriptively, even when no one self-identifies as such. It’s a bit different though when you’re talking about an ideology, or an intellectual position, or a school of thought. Consider a term like Catholicism — how strange would it be to apply it to people, none of whom self-identify as Catholics? Normally when academics are dividing their opponents up into camps (like in moral philosophy, we’ll distinguish between deontologists, consequentialists, virtue theorists, etc.) it’s clear who belongs in which camp, in part because the people who hold these views also accept the labels. That’s the “school of thought” style of “ism”. A lot of work in critical studies uses the term “neoliberalism” as though it designated a school of thought in this sense, when in fact it doesn’t. In fact it’s more like the term “Papist” than “Catholic,” a term that is only used abusively. This is why a lot of people simply stop reading, or stop taking seriously, books and articles, when they come across the term “neoliberal.”

      Incidentally, the way that the right uses the term “cultural Marxism” exactly parallels the way the academic left uses “neoliberalism.” Almost no one that they apply the “cultural Marxist” label to self-identifies as such — in particular, they don’t see themselves as Marxist.

      • But surely there is some reality to the ideology (or family of ideologies) defending less state intervention, more market, etc. and which has become increasingly dominant among Western democracies, replacing the post-war Keynesian consensus? So how should one call it? Surely the term ‘neoliberal’ is often used in a polemic sense, which makes the term annoying, but what other term should one use?

        Another point, to my opinion, is that neoliberalism often refers not so much to a clearly defined ideology but rather to a political tendency, lead by political actors, not intellectuals or economists, who do not necessarily take much time to give theoretical foundations to their action. A bit like ‘populism’, actually: both describe political movements which are not so easy to define, often used in a pejorative fashion, and people rarely define themselves as populists (though sometimes they do), etc. But clearly ‘populism’ is a reality, albeit a subtle one.

        Finally, to a certain extent, neoliberalism, while initially based on clearly identified ideologies which are not as fuzzy as neoliberalism, caused a significant loss of power for the governments, so that after this short event, one might argue that they were not so much pursuing particularly ideological policies, but they their decisions had to follow forces which were much stronger than they were (globalisation, regained influence of markets), as if an electric dam had been destroyed. In this interpretation, ‘neoliberalism’ doesn’t refer to the ideology, but the more or less forced adhesion to consequences of decisions which were, them, based of an ideology (that of Friedman, Hayek, etc.).

  8. While this is all well and good there is one claim that I must take issue with. Disco quite simply is not dead. It’s making quite the comeback, in fact.

  9. I think all the people “correcting” Heath on the self-identified neoliberals out there are off point.

    Self-identification as “neoliberal” is essentially a trolling technique that’s beginning to metastatize on the Internet into something that represents itself as a real, coherent, and non-redundant ideology. It isn’t. The dweebs over at /r/neoliberal (which is just an offshoot of /r/badeconomics) have created an elaborate and clearly mistaken intellectual genealogy starting with the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 and meandering through various incidental, largely unrelated and quickly-forgotten uses of the term “neoliberal.”

    But Joseph is right. “Neoliberal” was a nonce word with no particular meaning that nobody attached much importance to, until it got taken up as a scare word for “something bad related to Reagan and Thatcher and privatization somehow” by left-wing “critical” academics sometime around the late 80s to early 90s. The people using the term today in a positive sense are maybe doing a “reclaiming” exercise but they’re not literally reclaiming a meaning for “neoliberal” that predates the “critical-theory-inflected buzzword for something I don’t like” one.

  10. Thank you very much, Jospeh, for a much-needed piece, which I’ll by happy to circulate widely. In order to explain why I’m so glad to discover your post, one paragraph of background about my work may be useful.

    I’m a professor of economics (University of Geneva, Switzerland), whose research has increasingly been focusing on off-the-beaten-track, and, I daresay, critical applications of economic theory to various social, cultural and political issues (I could comment on “neoliberal”, but that’s not my point here). In recent years, most of my work has been in the fields of multilingualism and language policy. This line of work is deeply interdisciplinary, which is, to me, what makes it particularly exciting. In the course of my career, therefore, I’ve had to venture frequently and far away from my disciplinary port of call (economics) and to collaborate, in successive jobs or projects, with colleagues from different disciplines, in particular sociolinguistics, the education sciences, political theory, law, translation studies, and psychology (and to publish in their journals, too). All this by way of background info.

    Now, the evolution of the interaction with some colleagues from the language disciplines has been particularly interesting. A couple of decades ago, this cooperation, though not always easy, was always stimulating, and remained essentially unproblematic. Many, probably most sociolinguists back then applied principles and approaches that fit into what you describe in your piece as “what would traditionally be thought of as “social science,” according to the positivist conception”.

    Since the mid-2000s, however, this interaction has often turned out to be difficult, sometimes bordering on the impossible, and many of the problems originate in the spread, in some quarters of applied linguistics, of a heavily judgmental perspective anchored in “critical sociolinguistics”. Your piece excellently pinpoints many of the features of the process that results in an entire strand of research locking itself up in self-referential discourse, where validity seems to depend relatively little on scientific analyis or on the painstaking work of identifying and measuring actual social, political, economic or cultural processes. Typically, little or no effort is made, in this literature, to check whether the interpretations it proposes have general validity (or under what conditions they could). Instead, what we often get is self-righteous prose were liturgy and the use of clichéd, undefined terms (such as those that you appropriately list in your piece) replace (or even displace) reasoning. This is not to say, obviously, that being critical is bad, quite the opposite; however, ANY scholar worth his/her salt IS by definition critical if s/he’s doing his/her work properly, and takes account of the possible presence of patterns of inequality and injustice in the processes that s/he investigates. But this necessary attention shouldn’t replace or displace all the rest, or lead to a dismissal of proper scientific work (which many critical approaches do, as you point out).

    I could rattle off a series of examples drawn, among others, from some interdisciplinary projects that I’ve been involved in, or from my occasional duties as a member of expert groups where we’re asked to advise academic institutions on the development of their research strategy on multilingualism and related matters. What concerns me is that in the research landscape at large, proponents of critical approaches (sometimes ensconced in the specialty known as “critical discourse theory”) often practice (probably because of the deep intellectual insecurity that seems to accompany the self-righteousness) a very aggressive form of gate-keeping in journals and funding agencies, and are stampeding entire cohorts of graduate students towards, at best, very, very moderately relevant research. Fortunately, many colleagues in the language disciplines tell me that they don’t take the work emanating from “critical sociolinguistics” seriously, but perhaps they ought to say so more forcefully and vocally. Good sociolinguistics needs to reclaim centre stage, and a piece like yours is particularly useful for that purpose.

    I sometimes serve as an advisor on language policy questions for national or regional authorities, and I observe that actual policy-makers confronted with real-world problems, as well as concerned citizens who wish to get involved in those language policy debates, have no time to waste with hollow, sanctimonious buzzwords. A crisp analysis of the phenomenon at hand, as proposed in your post, is particularly helpful for separating the grain from the chaff. Thank you.

  11. On the neoliberalism point, Chris MacDonald sent me a link to a good paper a while back (by Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse, gated):

    From the abstract: “Based on a content analysis of 148 journal articles published from 1990 to 2004, we document three potentially problematic aspects of neoliberalism’s use: the term is often undefined; it is employed unevenly across ideological divides; and it is used to characterize an excessively broad variety of phenomena.”

  12. > Chris MacDonald sent me a link to a good paper a while back (by Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse, gated)

    That article shows as open access for me.

  13. Neoliberalism is a thing. It’s expressed in the phrase Kennedy popularized: “the rising tide lifts all boats.” Well, it’s hard to find a liberal or a conservative that doesn’t believe that economic picture. The only thing that lifts small boats is the redistribution of wealth. More importantly, there is no moral justification for ownership but you won’t hear that from neoliberals. The primary target of the word though is liberals who believe in ownership of the means of production. This includes self-ownership and cooperatives although these are clearly better options than others. So economic liberalization is just a symptom which is why nearly every politician and news source in America is neoliberal and the same holds for Canada. No one thinks they are neoliberal because nearly everyone is.

  14. Great article as usual, Professor Heath.

    The underlying issue that some writers can come across as saying that anyone who disagrees with them is a racist is something that’s made me reluctant to post some of my own reflections and questions on everything from the positive aspects of John A. Macdonald’s legacy as prime minister to the question of where we’ll get funding for various social supports and programs if we stop oil and gas production (while nobody on the left ever seems to have a problem with places like Venezuela doing it). More broadly, it leads to the backlash you see against social justice activists, especially on university campuses, where it seems almost like even questioning them is itself oppressive and bigoted.

    Not everyone does this, of course-and in more conducive forums than Twitter, people can often give very thoughtful responses to questions about what they’re saying and writing-but it does lead to larger and disturbing implications, such as whether we are apparently allowed to feel any sort of pride or identification with everything from various historical figures to media franchises.

    And, to play devil’s advocate, when various people are still targeted for everything from their race to their social background to their sexuality, it’s easier to see just why things have changed in the way Professor Heath is describing, particularly when the writers he cites may reasonably feel that the traditional system is rigged against them.

    • “[…] where we’ll get funding for various social supports and programs if we stop oil and gas production”

      From the other 95% of our GDP + new/growth industries, I suspect. Oil and gas is big in Canada, but curtailing production (especially gradually and via market mechanisms) would not destroy us.

      I know that wasn’t your main point, but couldn’t help jumping in!

  15. I enjoyed this piece.

    At least outside of academia it seems to me that ‘neoliberal’ is just replacement term for ‘neoconservative’ that allows those further to the left to paint centrist positions with the same brush as conservative ones. Whenever I see someone speak or write about the ills of neoliberalism the specific things criticized are usually things I would recognize as neoconservative positions.

    Similarly, ‘globalism’ seems to be the preferred term for what was once almost always called ‘globalization’ and the only difference I can see is criticism of ‘globalism’ tends to imply some sort of conspiracy theory (and often it’s an anti-semetic conspiracy theory).

  16. Other posters have raised similar issues, but it seems like Neoliberalism is a pretty clearly defined set of principle. Once such is available on the very not Neo-Marxist, Investopedia: This article similarly indicates that the word was not invented by Foucault.

    Here’s another very clear definition on Encyclopaedia Britannica:

    Without delving into too many other issues with this article, it’s also kind of a straw man to suggest that people who use the term “Neoliberal” aren’t going out and arguing with “real right-wingers,” since clearly some of them are.

  17. How about:

    “In this socio-historical context, I position courts as a specific, semi-autonomous, and generative form of juridical power: specific, in that the courts currently hold a specific relation of power in Canadian society and, equally importantly, over other institutions within the larger juridical field; semi-autonomous, in that although shaped by various social and cultural factors (racialization, for example),”

    [Courts can issue orders that can be enforced by the power of the state.]

    “the distinctive dynamics of the courts shape the production of logics not only irreducible to the dynamics of other social fields but potentially resistant to them;”

    [A court may find in your favour and give you an order, even if some people disagree with you.]

    “and generative, in that the dynamism of court struggles produces a form of “juridical capital” that rather than directly constituting social relations or (re)producing a “grand hegemony,” generates particular depictions and problematizations of social issues and classifications that can potentially shape the parameters within which subsequent political strategies and struggles ensue, but only upon their subsequent successful translation into those fields (63).”

    [Getting a court order in a civil dispute can be useful, but only if steps are taken to enforce the order.]

  18. > Unfortunately, Andersen does not do either of these things. Instead, what he argues is that the “mixed ancestry” definition, by focusing on racial inheritance, is part of the broader “racializing logic of colonialism.” Racialization, he claims, is an insidious ideology (“I position racialization in terms of a colonial ‘habitus’ that, deeply engrained, powerfully shapes our understandings of the social world.”(22).) So people who subscribe to the “mixed ancestry” definition are actually reproducing the “sovereign logics of violence” of colonialism as well as engaging in “settler biopolitics.”

    This sounds like a bad way of arguing against the definition; however, it seems like it might potentially serve as an explanation as to why the definition became widespread in the first place.

  19. Isn’t it hypocritical to complain about the vituperative poisoning of conversation while at the same time suggesting that someone is unable to defend a normative claim, doesn’t know how to proceed otherwise, and is still into theories that are as dead as disco? Or to put it in more prosaic terms, they’re stupid?

    I guess not, since you’re understandably not interested in conversing with stupid people. But what if they’re not stupid? What if you and Habermas just don’t get why Foucault, say, is unwilling “to persuade his opponents through ordinary argumentation,” namely, because he believes that there’s something inherently wrong with it? That would be ironic, eh?

    • He never called anyone stupid. He was sharply critical, but never attributed the perceived argumentative weaknesses to intelligence, as far as I could tell. I agree that the substantial arguments were mixed in with what sounded like mocking accusations; observing that Foucault isn’t currently widely read among philosophers isn’t itself a strong refutation.

      But what of the charge of using normatively loaded vocabulary? Regarding the quote about Foucault’s unwillingness to persuade through ordinary argumentation—do you take issue with Habermas’ charge of cryptonormativism, or accept it, as the quote seems to imply?

      Do you take issue with the specific claims, that neoliberalism is defined poorly and used ambiguously?

  20. Gary Becker seemed pretty satisfied with what he read of Foucault’s understanding of neoliberalism. And though Becker says he prefers the term ‘classical liberalism’ he does not seem to treat ‘neoliberalism’ as a cryptonormative epithet.

    Additionally there are books and studies by scholars such as David Harvey and a collection of papers edited by Philip Mirkowski that clarify the meaning of neoliberalism as an intellectual and policy movement. Undoubtedly the term is thrown around lazily by persons who aren’t into developing normative arguments or careful analyses, but there are plenty of terms that suffer such treatment as well.

  21. Critical studies (and the rest of the radical postmodern stuff, whatever the label) is just old wine in new wine skins. It used to be called ‘sophistry’ by the Ancient Greeks. Both rely on appeal to emotion, the use of emotional ‘trigger’ words (like ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘neocolonial’), ad hominem attacks (addressing motives rather than arguments), false equivalence, obfuscation, and exaggeration. Radical postmodernists argue that ‘rationality’ and ‘objectivity’ are just constructed narratives that serve the interests of ‘the oppressors’. This claim relies on the sophistical strategies I just described. It takes a kernel of truth, that appeals to ‘rationality’ and ‘objectivity’ can sometimes be made strategically to rationalize oppression, and blows it up into the unwarranted claim that all appeals to rationality or objectivity are merely such a move.

    Of course, this is an absurd claim. If my dentist has diagnosed me with a cavity, she is appealing to reason and objectivity, but she’s not doing it to merely bolster the dominance of an elite (even if science happens to have that effect). Yet the radical postmodernists would argue that our preference for ‘Western’ scientific rationality over say, witch-doctory, is ultimately an arbitrary choice that reflects the interest of a dominant elite in bolstering and perpetuating its dominance. The radical po-mos conveniently ignore the fact that appeals to rationality and objectivity are often used to fight injustice and oppression too. If the radical po-mos prefer witch doctors, why don’t they consult them next time they have a toothache?

  22. This is a brilliant article. I agree with most of this completely. Most of today’s poststructuralist/identity politics scholars are smuggling in strong normative claims they can’t defend. They’re convinced that any rational/empirical defence of their claims is horribly violent. And yet, they use these overtly “silencing”, almost totalitarian strategies instead (e.g. anyone who disagrees with me is a racist). It’s infuriating, and almost impossible to dialogue with or argue against on its own terms. And there’s a layer of academics/students who are being taught that this is perfectly intellectually respectable and indeed, better than any of the traditional kinds of scholarship. They aren’t learning to construct arguments or to handle evidence. They’re never learning the basics of academic writing. Instead they’re producing material which is a strange hybrid of Derridean borderline absurdism, political polemic, and autobiography. And they’re defending it by limiting their audience, or using snarl-words against critics (a lot of them actually believe that all “reason” or reasoning is “western reason” which is inherently “oppressive”). And the density of boo/hurrah-words or snarl/purr words becomes extremely high, often to the exclusion of everything else. I’ve had friends get into this stuff and they become impossible to argue with, very difficult to dialogue or to work with, they cannot define their basic terms when challenged, they cannot offer any persuasive argument when presented with a dissenting position. Instead they throw around labels and then refuse to talk at all. They make blatantly self-contradictory or factually inaccurate claims, and do the very things their theory prohibits, and if someone questions it they go into attack mode. And it’s tied-in with a style of politics which works similarly. Though, I’ve also had problems with analytical normative theorists who refuse to accept that there might be anything normatively problematic about capitalism or about everyday “common sense”, or that systems-level or discourse-level theorising is ever normatively important.

    So while I loved this article, I’d query it on a few points. Firstly: a lot of concepts have blurred boundaries (e.g. we know Lassie is a dog, but we might be divided whether Cerberus is a dog). Is there really a substantial difference between these, and something like “neoliberalism”?

    Secondly: a lot of everyday concepts also carry implied cryptonormative assumptions (calling someone a “thief” contains an implied value-judgement). Are these also suspect?

    Thirdly: the style of ethical theorising based on systemic features (rather than Kantian abstract judgements and analytical philosophy) also has a respectable philosophical vintage. The position is basically: people should act in such a way as to bring about generally desirable (non-oppressive, progressive…) social relations and situations (except it would be formulated in a way which is perspectivist and assumes emotivism and standpoint-relativity, i.e. it’s more like Greek philosophy in a way, less “people should do X because of an abstract duty” and more “people acting consistently in line with their nature as humans/their membership of a particular group will do X”, except they also wouldn’t say “nature” or “essence” but something like “Levinasian responsibility to the Other”). There’s more to this than just snarling, although it seems to manifest very often as just snarling. So for example, the argument that a building contractor shouldn’t build railways in Nazi-occupied Poland because it contributes to an entire system which causes a Holocaust is perfectly defensible whether deontologically or consequentially. Even an argument that building companies in general should refuse contracts to build railways for governments with a track record of militarism might be defended on the same grounds. A lot of the identity-politics arguments are basically like this, but with an extended scope of what the “system” in question is taken to include (example: film-makers should not make war movies because this contributes to “toxic masculinity” which contributes to domestic violence, rape, and so on). Are you trying to rule this out on principle, or just rule out the forms where the derivation (e.g. the claim that a particular gesture is part of/sustains an objectionable system) is asserted/unclear?

    In terms of “neoliberalism” as straw-man or empty category. Opponents are trying to name something which has been rendered invisible (in particular: the difference between the current composition of capitalism and the 1950s-70s composition). But a lot of people take the present composition for granted, and its advocates tend to naturalise it and not admit they are taking a definite, contentious position. The problem is that neoliberals don’t call themselves neoliberals. They either call themselves nothing at all (they’re just neutral economists) or they call themselves names which differentiate them from one another and group them with other people who aren’t neoliberals (for example: conservative, liberal, libertarian, social-democrat). People like Thatcher, Reagan and their followers, the IMF, World Bank and WTO (since about 1980), neoclassical economists who follow rational-choice perspectives, and groups like the Adam Smith Institute are neoliberal. Paul Collier, or Anne-Marie Slaughter or Ikenberry are neoliberals. Governments following structural adjustment policies are neoliberal (or are implementing neoliberal policies imposed on them). Roughly, neoliberal means Washington Consensus (the set of economic policies imposed by IFI’s since the 1980s, and their social correlates). However, most theorists also see neoliberalism as a system (which is standard Marxist, not just poststructuralist thinking) and therefore, policies supporting or assuming this agenda also become “neoliberal”. Since the 1990s we’ve been dealing mainly with post-Washington Consensus and Third Way, even in the IFIs. This keeps all the core 80s policies but supplements then with a series of other conditionalities and policy goals – and this is why the concept often gets blurry.

    Neoliberalism is a concept describing a system. It roughly means, “part of the socioeconomic structure created in America and Britain in the 1980s (and not part of “Fordism”, or the structure which operated from 1945-80)”. Originally, it’s a Marxist concept. There’s a group of policies or power-structures (austerity, welfare cuts, low wages, high unemployment, widespread precarious work, global production chains, authoritarian populism, the media as central to political power…) which are uncontested as part of the concept. It has a blurry periphery because it’s unclear which policies/structures do or don’t reinforce and reproduce the core ones. Privatising things is neoliberal. Running public services on a market basis, or by market analogy, or contracting them out to private companies is neoliberal. Cutting public services, or rearranging them so they encourage work in a “flexible” economy (and not e.g. to meet social needs independently of work, to build up national strength, or to create a stable workforce for permanent industries) is neoliberal. So, it’s fairly clear that work requirements for benefits are an austerity measure which reduces the “social wage” (i.e. wealth transfers to the worse-off) and is an attempt to force people either to work, or to feel awful about not working. It’s therefore neoliberal. But what about a “Third Way” policy such as a government providing free childcare because “research shows” this will increase employability later? This is more contestable. Unfortunately a lot of “scholars *do* just use it as a boo-word and have a very vague sense (if any) of what they mean by it. It’s inconsistent for a poststructuralist who rejects Marxist economic analysis to use the term “neoliberal” at all, unless they give it an idiosyncratic definition. But this goes on a lot, and the excuse, I think, is Derridean (they’re subverting language by playing with it, using it non-literally, etc). I find this as infuriating as you do, but please don’t confuse the root concepts with their misuse.

    And of course, if you’re using system-level ethics, doing/supporting something which contributes to neoliberalism is ceteris paribus “problematic”/wrong. So, in the same way that building railways which might lead to Auschwitz is wrong even though building railways isn’t wrong (and might even be a good thing ceteris paribus), a critic of neoliberalism is implying that (say) job training schemes for youths in the Niger Delta are wrong, not because there’s anything wrong as such about job training schemes, but because the purpose and/or structural function of the schemes is to reinforce the power of oil companies and increase commodification, and hence, undermine resistance to commodification and increase the power of “neoliberalism”. This long claim would be summarised in a short polemical phrase like “this job scheme is neoliberal”.

    Some of the other stuff is doing similar work, and can be similarly reconstructed (and of course, a good scholar would have done this work to begin with, and not left it to readers to guess/deduce what they meant). The goobledegook passage, I think means something like: courts have relative autonomy from wider forms of social power; they are affected by other forms of social power and not fully autonomous (e.g. if society is racist, courts are likely to be racist) but they also use their own forms of reasoning which are distinct from wider social power. People can gain status and power specifically within the legal field. This doesn’t necessarily mean they also have power in politics, culture, or everyday life. (For example, the Brown v Board of Education ruling might not mean education is actually equal, not only because it needs to be enforced, but also because social prejudices might remain the same). So the author is justifying the fact that he’s talking about courts as “racialised” (as parts of some kind of system-level racial hierarchy in the wider society) but also as having their own peculiar forms of reasoning or practice.

    Similarly with the Metis thing. Unpack the bullshit and the claim becomes something like: defining mixed-origin people as indigenous is colonial, whereas defining only Red River Metis as indigenous is not. The empirical base is something like: the extent to which each claim is part of a construction of identities which is structurally part of colonialism as a system (of course, they’re going to need to specify what said system is). Pare the claim back in this way, and we’re back again with a system-level argument: people should support the narrow claim and oppose the broad claim because the narrow claim reinforces a system which people should be trying not to reinforce. It’s not a non-falsifiable claim, but it’s so high-level as to be hard to test. Of course, we’re also going to come up against the fundamental problem that *all* the definitions of indigenous, non-indigenous, mixed, etc., are effects of historical colonialism. An advocate of the broad position would no doubt accuse this author of being racist and colonial because a strict enforcement of intergroup boundaries is itself part of the colonial logic, and not a spontaneous part of indigenous culture. But in my view they’re making tenable claims, they’re just failing to support the arguments they make for these claims.

    • See what you just did there, in paragraph 7, that’s how you defend a normative claim. Watch and learn kids, watch and learn…

      Obviously if they made their claims explicit, the way you just explicitated them, I wouldn’t have such a problem.

      On the other hand, following this logic, many critical studies practitioners also get into a problem that I refer to, in honor of this great article as the “everything is problematic” fallacy. They wind up with a critical stance in which everything is bad, and they have no criteria for ranking relative badness. The result does not exactly deserve to be called critical theory, because it’s just a universal condemnation of the human condition.

      • I agree, a lot of the identity/poststructuralist writers end up with “everything is problematic”. It actually has a theoretical expression in Derrida’s “force of law”: A) all words are constructed differentially (Saussurean premise), B) all appearances of natural/obvious terms which do not depend on an “other” for their constitution require reducing the status of the other term they’re defined against (because of A), but C) all language necessarily involves using terms which seem to refer to objects, and D) people have a pre-subjective existential responsibility to respond to the call of the Other (this is basically an axiom of faith for Derrida), so (because of B, C, D) all language is “violent” (“problematic”) but we’re still responsible to try not to be “violent” in our use of language (which as it stands violates “ought implies can”, but the assumption seems to be that trying not to be violent while recognising that one is still being violent leads to less-bad violence). The Derridean conclusion to this is more existential than normative: we’re meant to feel endlessly “responsible” to “do justice” to an “other” which we can never actually do justice to, because any attempt to do justice falls foul of the fact that all language is violent. So, it assumes we should be cautious and feel bad about all the things we do, and doesn’t imply anything very defensible about *what* we should do. Derrida also seems to think that “deconstructing” (making ambiguous, showing differential constitution of, undermining appearance of self-presence of…) particular categories is progressive because of this, and also that speeding up the slippage of signifiers and abandoning decisive truth-claims and clear categories and statements is “less violent” and thus preferable. Hence the preferred style of poststructuralists. A lot of the ones who are also into idpol seem to think they are either reforming, or mounting a revolutionary challenge to the dominant social order at a root level by doing this – which involves an empirical, social-scientific claim/assumption – actual instances of social oppression and violence (such as slavery, colonialism, genocide, or rape) in fact result ultimately from the violence of language and the reduction of status of a subordinate linguistic term so as to increase the status/apparent obviousness/self-presence of a dominant term. Of course all their premises are contentious, and so is the social-scientific hypothesis, and the style and claims they adopt as a result of their conclusions make it almost impossible for them to defend their premises.

        The article you’re linking seems to want to refuse systems-level thinking and concepts like “capitalism” along with the group divisions. “Common sense”, analytical philosophy, and naïve empiricism tend to refuse systems-level thinking because it refers to objects of a kind which is not directly present to experience (and also because dominant ideological systems discourage systems-level thinking). But, there’s nothing un-empirical or non-falsifiable about systems-level thinking. Scientists and analytical philosophers also use systems-level thinking, including nominalising systems and forces which can’t be directly observed (ecosystems, solar systems, etc). The world generally seems less bleak if you believe wishful thinking and just world fallacies: if you believe (for example) that climate change isn’t happening, that police only kill people in self-defence, that people in jail are bad people and not just poor or troubled, and so on, across hundreds of empirical questions on which radical and mainstream positions diverge. Unfortunately, empirical evidence considered with full logical rigour most often supports the bleak conclusions – and quite a lot of them, across quite a wide range of issues.

        Capitalism vs socialism and statism vs anarchy are examples of systems-level thinking. If they have referential content (and it’s true that some people just use them as buzzwords), they refer to big general ways of doing things which shape a lot of different fields of social life. And the fact that these two ways of life are possible, at least to some degree, is also empirically observable. For instance, we can observe empirically that some societies have states and some (e.g. hunter-gatherers) do not. We can observe that everyday relations in different times and places have more or less state-like features to them – for example, that people in certain times and places resolve their disputes without using the police or the courts. We can observe empirically that some societies do not have banks or stock exchanges, that labour is not always sold as a commodity, that people have sometimes been able to get an income without working, that fewer spheres of life were run through markets or by structures analogous to markets in 1970 or 1910 than are today. We can also empirically observe, for example, that the present organisation of society is destroying the basis for life on earth, because of climate change. It’s hard to do cross-cultural and especially historical studies of subjective happiness, but we can empirically observe that a lot of people today are depressed, anxious, addicted, traumatised, and so on. We can observe that working conditions in today’s outsourced factories are worse than those in Fordist-era factories, and worse than those on small peasant farms. We can observe that there aren’t enough jobs for everyone and that mechanisation, computers and robots are likely to mean there’s even fewer jobs in the future. This is all rather bleak, but it’s nothing more than observed empirical facts and logical deductions from observed empirical facts.

        Of course, we can also debate whether the observed facts add up into systems in the way, and indeed, which of them are empirical facts to begin with. There’s loads of local conflicts across the social sciences about these kinds of issues – whether states originally arose from conquest or cooperation, whether existing “socialisms” provide a higher or lower standard of living than existing “capitalisms”, whether women are better-off or worse-off under neoliberalism, whether anxiety is increasing or is just more visible today… One very interesting one is about whether neoliberalism – particularly, the replacement of state provision and highly regulated markets with largely deregulated markets – has made people better-off in poor countries. The quantitative evidence says yes it has, the qualitative evidence says no it hasn’t. But there’s enough empirical evidence that radical positions are at least defensible (even though academic gatekeeping often keeps them out).

        This article is accurately describing how today’s identity-politics-inflected activism tends to look. And the wrong turn, in my view, was when systems-level thinking about capitalism and suchlike was replaced by struggles for validation around anti-oppression buzzwords and “whose speech is centred”, i.e. when the things you’re criticising in the initial article found their way into activism (which was in the mid-2000s – around the same time, as another commentator pointed out above, that they gained their current form in universities, and also around the time the anti-capitalist movement fizzled out and social media took off). It would be possible to find people who were like that in the 90s and before, the most cult-like of the Leninist sects, a handful of the most radical feminists, a few of the strictest vegans. But it wasn’t endemic to the culture of activism the way it is today. The climate I remember is that it was tolerant, DIY, diversity was encouraged, fun was encouraged. People were trying to build another world in their own lives, as well as through social action. The actions provided the big inspiring moments of intense experience which bound the movement together. Probably the author of the linked article would still object to the bleakness of the critique and the “crusader mentality”, but I think these can be unpacked from the etiquette-policing and ideological rigidity which have appeared today (I can provide empirical sources if needed). Theoretically, it’s basically the difference between fused groups and pledged groups which Sartre talked about way back in the 60s.

        This article actually displays a weird kind of superiority which is typical of centrist discourse today, and which I remember before from the Third Way (Blair etc) as well as the mantras of CBT and the coercive thought-policing of counter-extremism: “your problems are all due to your faulty mindset and bad choices; if only you’d decide to think differently, all the problems go away” (accompanied by a framing that “we”, the moderates, are healthy and rational whereas “they”, the radicals, are emotional, prone to groupthink, etc). This critique makes perfect sense if 1) there is no external reality and everything is a product of perceptions or 2) the basic reality is, empirically, not all that bleak. But those are problematic premises. I’m unsure about the ontological status of “reality”, but it’s observable that people’s experiences don’t always accord with their expectations, so 1) must be false as formulated. And 2) might well be false given the stuff outlined above. It’s possible to get out of this by wishful thinking, but it’s not a scientific, logical, analytical response. There’s also empirical counterpoints, for example if you look at Elizabeth Wood’s work on El Salvador, and research on European autonomous movements, which suggest that revolutionary subjectivities are more “open” and empowered than conformist, submissive subjectivities.

        And in practice, I’ve had similar gatekeeping problems with analytical philosophers that I’ve had with identity politicians and critical theorists. I’ve had perfectly well-argued papers refused over and over, either because they reject common sense, or because they use premises (grounded in social-scientific evidence) which contradict widespread beliefs. For example, I tried to publish three different articles and a book manuscript on Rawls about a decade ago. They all involved anti-capitalist discourse-analytical critique, which suggested that Rawls was embedding contentious, sociologically questionable assumptions which led to conclusions which are more authoritarian and conservative than he intends. For example, he assumes as axioms that people “are” free, equal, reasonable, rational (in a capitalist sense) when it might well be true that they are not, and treating people as something they are not is counter-empirical and has oppressive effects. He privileges an abstract noumenal self over people’s actual desires and motivations, and this has the effect of subordinating people in practice. And the outcomes of certain of these choices would be “intolerable” to some people in actuality – which means that the parties in the original position could not (by Rawls’s rules) agree to the choices. All of these works were aggressively refused numerous times, often with borderline abusive comments from reviewers and editors. There’s very little difference between the response I get from Rawlsians and the response I get from critical theorists. And historically, in the 70s and the 80s, people managed to publish critiques similar in orientation to those I was writing. There’s a general denkverbot on radical thinking in a lot of mainstream scholarship today, and it’s arguably pushing dissidents towards the poststructuralist/identity echo chambers. If you have reached beliefs which are radically different from those of the mainstream, and the mainstream refuses to admit these beliefs even as alternatives to be rebutted, you’re pretty much stuck with a an us/them or good/evil struggle no matter how much you want to avoid it.

        I find analytical ethical theory (as currently practiced) dubious for the following reasons. Firstly, the emotivist view of moral reasoning seems to me to be empirically true. Most people do not actually reach their moral/ethical judgements through rational deduction. Secondly, the interpersonal and intersocial variance of moral judgements, and their dependence on socially-constructed cultural assumptions, is empirically true, as shown by a huge ethnographic record. Thirdly, analytical ethics assumes that there is some level of commonality in which people share an ethical frame and can reason on the same terms (typically the nation-state – and that’s dubious on a whole load of other levels, from the historical origins of these states to the emergence of global production chains). But this is assuming what needs to be shown. In reality, this assumption is usually false, and this means that analytical philosophers will fail to find defensible views on the appropriate scale (as in fact they have so far). Fourth, analytical ethics generally assumes that it is possible to treat common sense (“our considered convictions” in Rawls-speak) as the root of ethics, while also remaining consistent with the findings of science and while also providing a theory which is logically consistent. This is impossible. Common sense itself, even in a single person’s head, is hopelessly confused and contradictory – and this is empirically demonstrable (example: arbitrary divergence in empirically tested responses to trolley problems). There are also indefinitely many cases where common sense beliefs are falsified by, yet apparently immune to, science and social science (e.g. continuing faith that “deterrence” works; climate change denial; persisting beliefs that observably socially-caused gender differences are natural). In my view, critical theory is all about opposing and overcoming common sense, particularly when it is rationally or scientifically indefensible. It is about building another conception of the world – as Gramsci puts it – and building a world in line with this conception.

        I believe emotivism and perspectivism are basically true. Moral claims are claims about subjective emotional states, but they are also posited as social claims about what others *should* believe and feel. In practice, they arise from particular perspectives and points of view (at an individual, not group, level – I’m closer to Nietzsche and Stirner than to identity politics). *But* emotional reactions are themselves empirically observable and can be discussed in terms of processes which *are* amenable to rational persuasion, argument, and dialogue. Emotional reactions (I hypothesise, following several critical theorists such as Lacan, Reich, and Deleuze/Guattari) are effects of particular “fantasy-frames”, or groupings of emotionally charged images/beliefs. These beliefs are unconscious (and not always visible or malleable through CBT-like techniques), but their existence can be empirically demonstrated through qualitative study. It is then possible to have conversations about whether the fantasy-frames are internally coherent and/or contradicted by facts about the world. So for example, if you’re arguing with a hard-core racist, and you tell them identity-politics-style that they’re racist and this is unacceptable, this will get you nowhere. If you point out facts that contradict their beliefs – say, that black people are no less intelligent than white people or are no more crime-prone once poverty is controlled for as a factor – you might get a bit further. But 99% of the time you’ll fail, because you’re talking to the surface beliefs and not the fantasy-frame. If you can show them that their racist beliefs are ways of channelling experiences and emotions which are products of their social conditions – but that these emotions are not in fact *caused* (but only triggered) by black people – and *at this point* introduce the falsity of the basic beliefs and provide an alternative, more valid account for the emotions, then there’s possibility for persuasion. But if you try to have rational discussions without engaging the fantasy-frame, you’ll basically be throwing facts at emotions and it won’t work.

  23. This post is odd and surprising in so many ways, even though I’m generally in agreement with its primary target: the poor methodology, style, and rigor of a narrow category of work often called critical studies (not equivalent to the much, much broader and methodologically diverse category of “Continental”).

    First puzzle: the claim that Foucault is passé in philosophy, particularly coming from someone interested in Habermas. On one hand, those who take a narrow analytic view would treat both Foucault and Habermas as dead to discoish degrees, with an equally dim view of both qua philosophy. On the other hand, that group has shrunk dramatically in the last two decades, so that a substantial percent of analytically trained philosophers have accepted a substantial number of Continental figures into the canon, with justified reservations about the secondary literature and a demand for greater rigor in the scholarly treatment of those figures.

    So, for example, we find often analytically trained people doing respected work on Hegel, Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger, and Adorno. And we’re seeing some openness toward the more controversial end, with some even making a case for people like Derrida or Deleuze. It’s worth noting that a well known, influential figure in the field of analytically minded Continental philosophy, known in the field generally for his department ranking report, Brian Leiter, who has a reputation of vocally decrying those he thinks are “charlatans,” usually of the Continental variety, has often spoken sympathetically of Foucault.

    If, on the contrary, there are many admirers of Habermas outside of the narrow field of critical theory (and most critical theory people I’ve met think he’s as dead as disco compared to his more relevant predecessors like Adorno) then I’ve yet to read or met one. In any case either they’re both dead disco or neither are. The proof is the very raising of the dusty old dispute between Habermas and Foucault. Literally no one cares anymore.

    Which reminds me of puzzle 2: another dispute no one cares about anymore is the debate between Foucault and Chomsky. But it raises a question: Chomsky is a serious, methodologically rigorous philosopher who takes the concept of neoliberalism very seriously. Does Heath wish to include Chomsky in his disparagement of those who use it? Or shouldn’t that be a reason to wonder if he’s mistaken about the term?

    Puzzle 3: where on earth did Heath get the idea that Foucault coined “neoliberalism”? I’ve never heard such a thing, and it’s so laughable it gives the game away. Anyone who believes this simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I have no doubt he is well informed in his narrow and dying sub-field, but it’s rather embarrassing, given the political nature of that field, that he would make such an error. It would, in a way, be delightful if true. What irony, since recently Foucault critics have, not without reason, charged him with, yes, neoliberalism.

    The word neoliberalism used by Milton Friedman and Walter Lippmann, from whom Foucault took it. A brief overview of the history can be found here:

    Whatever else his faults (and I agree he is a bad normative philosopher), Foucault clearly has more rigor as an historian than Heath does.

    As for whether anyone used it as self-description, see this 1982 Washington Post article:

    “NEO-LIBERALISM is a terrible name for an interesting, if embryonic, movement. As the sole culprit at the christening, I hereby attest to the innocence of the rest of the faithful. They deserve something better, because they are a remarkable group of people. The best known are three promising senators: Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Gary Hart of Colorado and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. ”

    Of course “neoliberalism” is an abused, misused, and carelessly used word, but to dismiss it as meaningless or trivial is a serious mistake. At this historical moment, it would be an even greater mistake than dismissing another word abused and misused even more than neoliberalism: “fascism.”

    On the bright side, most young people working in political thinking and journalism today know what’s what—while people like Heath and, from a somewhat different philosophical and political tradition, Robert Paul Wolff, who should be leading them, have gone into reactionary mode, and are inadvertently obstructing a very radical and deep progressive shift in the political attitudes of the last generation.

    As Kafka said, there’s hope, just not for us.

  24. It seems Joseph Heath prefers to reduce human issues debate to a dimension of «neutral logic» arguments.

    As a professor of Logic taught me many years ago, «neutral logic» is almost perfect to treat fictional objects as those brought by Mathematics, but quite insufficient to deal with real human issues.

  25. I am coming late to this very interesting discussion, but not too late I hope. I would really like to see the question of Foucault and his influence on critical studies explored in more detail by Prof. Heath in a future blog, or in these comments. The point is not that Prof. Heath seems to be dissing a writer that I like! I think this question is key to understanding just how and where exactly critical studies goes off the rails. I am not sure that the problem lies with Foucault himself.

    I have only a limited acquaintance with Foucault, or philosophy more generally. Over the years, I have read “The Order of Things”and “Discipline and Punish,” and work here and there by Richard Rorty, Ian Hacking, Charles Taylor and Gary Gutting. I enjoyed both of Foucault’s books, and I don’t recognize him in the jargon-laden discourse cited here. Further, thinkers like Rorty, Taylor and Hacking strike me as anything but obscurantists peddling fuzzy arguments, yet they have all expressed admiration for Foucault’s work, even while critiquing it in various ways. Indeed Hacking credits Foucault with laying out the methodological foundations for the respected work that he has done on the history of probability.

    At the same time, Foucault always seems to be Exhibit A for what has so clearly gone wrong with the various branches of critical studies discussed here. Prof. Heath, can you explain the disconnect? Is one clue perhaps related to one of your points: that the theories and thinkers, like Foucault, that the critical studies people build on are “essentially skeptical about the foundations of…moral commitments”? Is the problem for the critical studies folks then that they retain an un-examined, and un-warranted, belief in the unassailable truth of their moral commitments, for which, perhaps unbeknownst to them, the founding texts of their discipline offer no support?

    As Rorty has pointed out, if we abandon the idea that there is a God, “truth of Man” or other metaphysical yardstick by which to evaluate normative commitments, then we must replace truth with persuasion in adjudicating moral and normative propositions. But if the critical studies people still believe in the absolute truth of their commitments, then they will not be very good persuaders. They will get miffed and upset when people disagree with them–they won’t believe that persuasion is necessary. And this would account for Prof.Heath’s observation that they end up seeking out, and speaking to, smaller, more congenial audiences that share their commitments.

    I am interested in your thoughts on this Prof. Heath. It would be very interesting to keep this line of discussion going.

    • This piece started out great but went steadily down-hill from the moment I read the phrase “dead as Disco” (Heath seriously needs to go out more, I’m happy to at that Disco is alive and well among 18-35 crowd).

      When someone starts talking climate-change denial, I always say to them: “don’t explain the weather to me. Explain to me why 96% of climate scientists are wrong and you are right.” Similarly, I’m really interested to know why Habermas, Rorty, Putnam, Taylor, Hacking (not to mention historians like Roy Porter) find Foucault relevant, and why Heath thinks they’re so wrong.

      As for Neo-liberalism, Heath’s refutation of the term is as embarrassing as it is smug (Hell, even Dani Rodrick uses the term now). The fact that few people call themselves neo-liberal is irrelevant -n nobody in a 1950s Sicilian village would subscribe to the ideology of “amoral famililism” but Banfield was not wrong to use it in his classic study, “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society”.