Thursday, 1 February 2018

Critical studies and neoliberalism

I love this essay from Joseph Heath, who was stuck reviewing a dozen 'critical studies' books as part of the jury for a book prize.
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.
I suppose those books' authors could have consulted Oliver Hartwich's history of the term.

Back to Heath:
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?)
That has changed a bit recently, with Sam Bowman at the Adam Smith Institute appropriating the term for his set of beliefs.

Do read Heath's whole essay though. It's excellent.

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