We're All Postmodern Neo-Marxists Now
Some Thoughts on the Critical Race Theory controversy
As some of you might be aware there is an ongoing controversy—better to say hysteria—over something called “Critical Race Theory.” Certain charlatans on the Right are making CRT out to be a bogey that explains everything that has gone wrong in America; a kind of Marxist trojan horse corrupting the minds of America’s youth with ideas like “systemic racism” and “white privilege.” Some of them have even produced a “cheat sheet” that explains what words supposedly derived from CRT and related “social justice” vocabularies actually entail, like this:
What’s funny to about this is how much it’s pretty much identical to the thought-process that attributed to political correctness or “wokeness”: there are sort certain words or practices which imply entire histories of domination and have near-totalitarian intent behind and the only thing you need to do to be aware and conscious—“woke”—is to have a handy guide to these concepts and you can avoid the snares of evil ideology. For example, this “cheat sheet” to the kind of the corporate “anti-racism” trainings of Tema Okun and Robin DiAngelo.
James Lindsay, one of the principal anti-CRT charlatans, is now doing a kind of political correctness in reverse: he’s claiming now that the use of the word “Folk” or “folks” as in W.E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk, or even in colloquial uses of the term suggests the German word “Volk” and therefore the works of Johann Gottfried Herder, whom he takes to be the inventor of romantic nationalism and thereby, we’re given to understand, Nazism. In a recent interview with Marc Lamont Hill, he did a similar move with the word “structure” when Hill used it, saying that it implied the presence in the discussion of the entire edifice of French structuralism and post-structuralism. This is of course idiocy and just charlatanism in the classic sense of the term—he’s quack peddling bogus cures and remedies—which is perhaps why he’s so insistent on being called “Doctor.” It would be pretty funny if these sorts weren’t actually influencing policy.
All these charlatans share absurdly abstract and pseudo-genealogical approaches to that are about labeling and boxing and thereby foreclose any dialectical or critical approach to what’s going on. They are selling what Saul Bellow called “the 5 cent synthesis,” the bargain-rate distillation of social ills. These people are also all of roughly the same intellectual class: a sort of managerial or policy consultant that’s very invested in pushing simplified, commoditized “guides” to certain complicated issues. Their goal is "training" as opposed to teaching: they want to inculcate a reflexive response to certain words and phenomena. So if you hear the word “white privilege,” you will hopefully go “alert, alert, CRT, error, error.” Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute basically says as much: “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”
The Red and the Black
Despite the essentially fraudulent nature of these efforts, they are parasitic upon actual conflicts and tensions in society. I happen to think racism and white supremacy remain real social problems even if stupid anti-racism trainings might butcher and oversimplify the issues. Critical Race Theory is also real thing: it’s a movement among legal scholars that arose out of the failures of conventional civil rights approaches to affect the change in society it promised.
It does in fact call upon Marxist scholars and the European tradition of critical theory, and liberals and leftists do not do themselves any favors by trying to deny this. This is just old fashioned red-baiting. The correct response to that is, “So what? What’s wrong with Marxism?” The name “Marx” is of course supposed to conjure up Stalin and the gulag, but the same people who love to make this move would cry foul when people say that the names “Washington,” “Jefferson,” and “Madison” necessarily imply the plantation. In fact, just frankly discussing the role of slavery in American history might risk running afoul of the incipient ideological fiat against “CRT.”
Moreover, Right-wingers love to use the names of fancy-sounding Marxist or “post-structuralist” theorists when it makes them look smart or serious. One of the primary self-declared opponents of CRT, Christopher Rufo, uses Gramsci’s idea of hegemony in his article and (incorrectly) uses Herbert Marcuse’s idea of repressive tolerance in another, Bannon liked to call himself a Leninist, and there are a bunch of thinkers now on the Right that are engaging with critical theory and Foucault in opposition to liberalism. Michael Lind once charged that former Trotskyites had taken over the federal government, but he talks about “Class War” and pushes a variant of the class analysis created by James Burnham, himself a former Trotskyist. I guess there really is no escaping the red menace! This all makes the hue and cry about CRT’s occasional invocation of the Marxist or Continental tradition pretty hypocritical and bogus. But the real problem for the Right with Critical Race Theory is not so much the “Critical Theory” part as the “Race” part.
A Not-So-Critical Theory
I recently read a collection of essays by the big Critical Race Theorists. I found they are really not that radical. In more than one essay the authors actually defended the liberal order of rights and a kind of constitutional patriotism against the more traditionally Marxian Critical Legal Theorist movement, because of the success minorities in gaining recognition and power through the liberal discourses of rights and democracy. Here is an excerpt of an essay in that volume by Mari Matsuda:
From behind the barbed wire in America’s concentration camps, many young nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) volunteered to fight in World War II. They spilled their blood on the beaches of Italy and in the forests of France because of their faith in American constitutionalism and their demand for recognition as citizens. It is important to understand how claims to equality, procedural fairness, and political participation prove so compelling that human beings are willing to die for them.
Not exactly any subversive anti-Americanism going on there. One essay I read, by Derrick Bell, one of the principal figures of the movement, had a more downbeat assessment at the end of the Reagan and Bush years: equality was not really possible, racism was more-or-less permanent, blacks would always have a subordinate role in the United States, and the issue was to just use the law as far as possible in such a way as to protect “make life bearable”:
I would not endorse this view, but it is explicitly not “utopian,” as CRT critics charge the discourse with being: it is a position of resignation or even despair, and a kind of bleak “realism” that is understandable if you actually look at black history in the United States.
Contemporary right-wing discourse, in its both religious and populist forms, goes much further than Critical Race Theory does in its critique of liberalism. But we’re also regularly asked by those on the Right and Center to respect and appreciate these illiberal points of view as interesting contributions to the discourse.
Creating An Ideological Quilting Point
But what’s at stake in the CRT “debate” is not what the “real” Critical Race Theorists actually say, and trying to point out text-by-text the actual content is besides the point. Again liberals and leftists should not fall into the trap of trying to empirically prove that they do not know what they are talking about. What right-wingers are actually trying to do is find a Master-Signifier that fixes meanings and synthesizes an ideological conflict. Here is Rufo in the New Yorker:
As Rufo eventually came to see it, conservatives engaged in the culture war had been fighting against the same progressive racial ideology since late in the Obama years, without ever being able to describe it effectively. “We’ve needed new language for these issues,” Rufo told me, when I first wrote to him, late in May. “ ‘Political correctness’ is a dated term and, more importantly, doesn’t apply anymore. It’s not that elites are enforcing a set of manners and cultural limits, they’re seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race, It’s much more invasive than mere ‘correctness,’ which is a mechanism of social control, but not the heart of what’s happening. The other frames are wrong, too: ‘cancel culture’ is a vacuous term and doesn’t translate into a political program; ‘woke’ is a good epithet, but it’s too broad, too terminal, too easily brushed aside. ‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain,” Rufo wrote.
He thought that the phrase was a better description of what conservatives were opposing, but it also seemed like a promising political weapon. “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’ Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.” Most perfect of all, Rufo continued, critical race theory is not “an externally applied pejorative.” Instead, “it’s the label the critical race theorists chose themselves.”'
In this Rufo, is following very closely the ideas of neo-Marxists like Slavoj Zizek, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe. Let’s look at the account of ideological “quilting point” using a master-signifier in Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology:
Ideological space is made of non-bound, non-tied elements, 'floating signifiers', whose very identity is 'open', overdetermined by their articulation in a chain with other elements - that is, their 'literal' signification depends on their metaphorical surplus-signification. Ecologism, for example: its connection with other ideological elements is not determined in advance; one can be a state-orientated ecologist (if one believes that only the intervention of a strong state can save us from catastrophe), a socialist ecologist (if one locates the source of merciless exploitation of nature in the capitalist system), a conservative ecologist (if one preaches that man must again become deeply rooted in his native soil), and so on feminism can be socialist, apolitical; even racism could be elitist or populist . . . The 'quilting' performs the totalization by means of which this free floating of ideological elements is halted, fixed - that is to say, by means of which they become parts of the structured network of meaning.
Let’s recall Rufo’s statement from above—“We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” Rufo and his cohort are in the process of creating an ideological space where the signifier “anti-racism” will necessarily imply bloody Marxism, the gulag, the end of American democracy, the seizure of private property etc., but mentions of “racism” will also imply Critical Race Theory, which in their formulation creates the “real racism” through even talking about race. “White privilege,” rather than referring to some actual phenomenon or topic that can rationally or empirically discussed, will also refer back to this network of meaning that leads to the gulag.
Rufo is explicitly attempting to craft an ideology, that is to say the explicit articulation of what Marx would call “the form of social consciousness,” the unarticulated beliefs and values of what Rufo labels the middle-class. (Look, look, he’s doing a class-consciousness! Marxism alert! Marxism alert!) The point of all this is to deal with actual tensions and conflicts of society on the level of ideology: so instead of racism, there is “racism” the problem created by evil CRT practitioners, instead of actual inequality and class-struggle, there are just the divisive ideas of evil Marxists. And more to the point: The George Floyd uprising, rather than being a genuine outpouring of popular outrage over a racist murder, is now just the product of agitation of these wicked agents spreading their poison. There’s an easy answer to every problem: “It’s those goddamn CRTs again.”
Everybody’s Doing It
For the past several years, Conservative efforts to find or create such a master-signifier have been frustrated, as Oliver Traldi complains in a recent piece:
But “critical race theory” is not the first name people like Rufo and Lindsay have used for the sort of thing they are talking about. Some have labeled the general phenomenon “wokeness.” That term has come under fire for being an appropriation of black slang. Before that, some called it “cultural Marxism.” That term was attacked for apparently anti-Semitic overtones. Jordan Peterson called it “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which was mocked for being an apparent contradiction in terms (I don’t myself think it’s an oxymoron). The term “postmodernism” is attacked for being unclear. When one simply calls it “social justice,” one hears the response that social justice is good by definition. And so on. You get the idea. There’s a concept or issue needing a name, but in the case of this one particular concept or issue, no name will do. We just need to discuss the problem of its name first, forever.
Traldi, sounding very much like a critical theorist applying the hermeneutics against devious liberals and leftists who deny that “woke” or “critical race theory” or whatever are appropriate labels:
The cynical reading is that your interlocutor is just trying to keep you from using a word that’s conceptually and rhetorically effective. The goal is to prevent the language that can clearly pick out what you’re talking about from entering the discourse in the first place. On that cynical reading, these arguments are hardly arguments at all, but power moves of sorts: they’re about controlling which sorts of distinctions can be introduced into the common vocabulary. The demand for definitions serves as a question-deferring strategy, ensuring we never get at intelligible concepts because we’re stuck looking for precise language. Your interlocutor is at particular pains to remove any distinction which separates something they like from what’s normal, and which carries a negative connotation (for the thing that they like).
Ironically, he ends up endorsing something very close to the “postmodern neo-Marxist worldview:” labels and concepts are the stakes of an ideological conflict that ultimately involves power, a concept he later says in the same piece is meaningless:
One of the most commonly-cited pseudo-distinctions in contemporary political arguments is “power.” This thing is awful, the worst thing in the world, when done by a person or group with power, but it’s harmless, or even good, when done by a person or group without power. It’s never explained just how it is that power affects a moral situation or even what power ultimately is.
Okay, then. But Traldi might be less mystified if he took a less political, suspicious reading and took the arguments of his opponents more at face value:
If you’re like me, you at one point criticized something you called “identity politics,” and you were told, “All politics is identity politics.” Or maybe you criticized a piece of history, calling it “revisionist,” and you were told, “All history is revisionist history.” Or maybe you didn’t think somebody should have lost their job for something they tweeted, so you criticized “cancel culture,” and you were told, “All culture is cancel culture.” And of course there is the king of all such moves: you at one point criticized something for being politicized, and you were told, “All X’s are political.”
Those are just examples from my own life. But what about the general mode of argument?
In effect, Traldi is complaining about being “gaslit,”—he even refers to his own “lived experience”! But more seriously, he might try to consider his interlocutor has an honest point: universalizing those labels is often meant to reveal that certain are actually widespread, and are even implied in the way social and political question are always dealt with. As labels they are just ideological or rhetorical attacks, attempts to make certain things look “political” and “ideological,” while other things can remain “objective” and “true.” The really strange thing to me is that Traldi mocks the idea that “All X’s are political” and then immediately goes into a long disquisition on the fundamentally underhanded rhetorical “power moves” of his ideological opponents. Not everything is political but these types of discussions, by his own admission, certainly are. Once again, “post-modern neo-Marxism” must truly be the hegemonic ideology if people are now doing it without realizing it.
The “strategy” of resistance to labeling that Traldi decries is the realization that what is at stake is an ideological conflict, a struggle over the power to define the issues. Liberals and leftists feel they have genuine, concrete commitments to racial and social justice and don’t want every single public mention of those issues to be “quilted” through an ideological system of meanings created by their opponents. Their fear, a justified one because it is the nearly openly-stated plan of Rufo et al., is that such labels will make even very modest calls for public decency, respect, the most basic democratic norms, the honest teaching of American history etc. all become associated with a kind of “evil,” alien force that threatens the integrity of America itself. Why would anybody accept a pejorative framing of their beliefs?
The Black Scare
American leftists and liberals have an actual historical experience of this, which is McCarthyism. Indeed, Rufo’s tactics are openly political and McCarthyite:
He mentioned two objectives, the first of which was “to politicize the bureaucracy.” Rufo said that the bureaucracy had been dominated by liberals, and he thought that the debates over critical race theory offered a way for conservatives to “take some of these essentially corrupted state agencies and then contest them, and then create rival power centers within them.” I thought of the bills that Rufo had helped draft, which restricted how social-studies teachers could describe current events to millions of public-school children, and the open letter a Kansas Republican legislator had sent to the leaders of public universities in the state, demanding to know which faculty members were teaching critical race theory. Mission accomplished.
As Landon Storrs describes in her terrific book The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left, the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism were largely about purging people with progressive views on race and gender from the federal bureaucracy. Part of the way this worked was through what one defense attorney in a loyalty hearing called “the tyranny of labels,” the effort to paint every New Deal progressive as a secret Red. Storrs writes:
The preoccupation with political labels seems unproductive because people’s ideas evolve with world events and their own life experiences, because people’s ideas do not always add up to a coherent ideology, and because in the Depression decade the political spectrum was especially fluid.
Of course, the preoccupation with labels was actually very productive: it allowed the wholesale purgation of anybody who had expressed interest at any time in socialism, Marxism, or anti-capitalism. Likewise, you can easily imagine anyone whose teaching intersects at all with the black radical tradition or with actual Critical Race Theory being subjected to the same treatment now.
The Correct Response
I think basically the proper left-wing response is to just basically say a lot of Critical Race Theory is good and correct about a lot. And so is a lot of Marxism. And so is the American ideal of democracy for that matter. The fact of the matter is that society is divided by race, gender, and class in a lot of complicated ways and it requires concerted thought and effort to untangle them. Racism wasn’t invented by Critical Race Theorists any more than the problems of capitalist society were invented by Marxists. From what I’ve read so far, I happen to prefer the Mari Matsuda or Kimberlé Crenshaw variation of CRT, with its endorsement of formal equality and liberal democracy, much more than the apparent pessimism of the Derrick Bell variation. But the point is this is actually a body of ideas worth reading, thinking, and arguing about. It deserves better than to be the fodder for “trainings” or “cheat sheets.” I will say that the way CRT has been popularized has not done its practitioners any favors: for instance, the fall-off in intellectual level between the collection of primary source essays I read and the Introduction to Critical Race Theory text I also read, which was evidently targeted to undergrads, was severe. That being said, probably no efforts at intellectual rigor would have rescued CRT from bad faith attacks.
Both traditions—Marxism and Critical Race Theory—have interesting things to tell us. It’s also possible to critique both bodies of thought constructively without subscribing to the idea that they are the root of all evil. Above all we should not have to pretend charlatans are real intellectuals or that ideological propaganda reflects real thought. I’m just not going to participate in the ideological fiction that everything was hunky-dory until “those people” came along and ruined everything with their evil thoughts.
Here's a take: both democratic socialism and blood and soil racial fascism are way more popular in 2021 than they were in 2016 and neoliberal chamber of commerce "centrism" is way less popular than it was in 2016. The chattering class of conservatives, especially the donor classes, are neoliberals. Rather than accepting that this half of decade of reality exists, Rufo and Lindsay and Sullivan have an alternate version: people at big companies and public employees were subjected to diversity and equity initiatives over the last half decade that inculcated them with CRT. As someone who's been to diversity and equity trainings for over a decade as a public school teacher, I find the idea that they changed the minds of any of my racist/sexist/classist colleagues hilarious and sad. I find the idea that a fascist presidency and a pandemic reoriented American politics plausible.
After my first read I thought you misconstrued Traldi's angle, conflating him with Rufo et al, but I think you may have a point John. Traldi reads the woke side's language games as meta-arguments without substance. But maybe they are (at least for good faith actors) a genuine commitment to a belief they have not fully conceptualized. In the French revolution, republicans zealously defended liberty and equality while tolerating slavery. That may be hypocritical, but I don't discount their good faith.
However, I do think the Marxist approach is necessary, not because it stands opposed to the critical theory/woke stuff, but because it ensures the ability to criticize and fix any mistakes as institutionalization threatens to take that away.