The ghost of liberal criticism

[This post is embarrassingly sketchy and so I reserve the right to retract anything I’ve said stupidly or otherwise in haste later.]

The essence of criticism—and, consequently, the site of its most common abuse—is the refusal of the given. Previously I have accused the right of succumbing to two simultaneous yet contradictory tendencies: either the attempt to deny the future by returning to the past (generally in the form of a nostalgia for a past that has never really existed—e.g., to the intentions and designs of the Founders—or for motives about which we should be extremely suspicious) or simply the indeterminate negation or destruction of the present (and since nature abhors a vacuum, this position often reduces to the first). These fail the task of criticism since, in both case, the given is never genuinely refused but simply reaffirmed (this is simply the definition of conservatism).

In this respect, the left—and here I always mean the North American left—has never understood how difficult its task is (and why there is no genuine oppositional politics in the US). Since the New Left,* liberals have foundered in their attempt to articulate a viable critical vocabulary in mainstream political discourse (if we are to believe the caricatures from the right, the only serious candidate here is academic postmodernism).

*This is, incidentally, one of only two points about Rand was correct: in her attacks on the New Left she accused the left of intellectual bankruptcy. One finds it hard to protest.

What should be even more astonishing given the present and unmistakable failures of the right’s ideology is the left’s inability to mobilize effective modes of critique against those failures such that they appear to all not as failures of principle but merely of practice. In this regard, I have previously argued that the left’s insistence on ironic criticism is worse than ineffective but actively detrimental to the capacity for critical resistance to real injustice. The other popular mode of leftist criticism for which we must find a better alternative—which we see exemplified, for example, in the left’s current analysis of libertarianism under Paul—is brute consequentialism that, at best, runs dangerously close to reducing to the problem of indeterminate negation adduced earlier or, at worst, indicates a lack of courage either to articulate or simply to have political principles.**

**I leave aside naïve relativism in all its forms from vulgar postmodernism to a debased form of “liberal toleration” as beneath the dignity of criticism.

In this sense, the left’s fear of fascism—i.e., the suspicion that the implementation of a political program must be inherently utopian—has deprived it of the resources to combat the actual fascism of its opponents. An actual democratic politics is not a competition between rival political programs or interests: it is the construction of the idea of the state itself (as I have argued elsewhere, the state is less an institution or a structure than the continuous process of structuration). In a way, such a notion of democracy deconstructs the lexicon of politics (left/right, etc) available to us. To use these familiar terms, however, if the tendency of the right is either to abolish the task of criticism or otherwise to render it superfluous, the foremost task of the left is to do what it has spent the last sixty years avoiding: to refuse to play by the rules.


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