Bite Size Theory: Rethinking the South African Crisis

“Ironically, attempts to render technical that which is inherently political are feeding into and amplifying the proliferation of populist politics”.

Gill Hart, 2013, Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, Hegemony, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press.

Rancière at criticism

Via Continental Philosophy, here is an audio of Jacques Rancière, talking about the relationship of critical theory and contemorary social movements. It’s only 20 minutes long, but it’s a concise little summary of his position, mainly being rude about what he sees as the sellinof out of the emancipatory promise by current critical theorists, though its unclear sometimes exactly who he has in mind. There is a swipe at the ontological flights of fancy of Sloterdijk, and a slightly more sustained reference to Boltanski and Chiapello’s account of the spirits of capitalism.

His basic argument is that various facets of classical critical theory are now deployed in an inverted way, so that the main objects of criticism in analyses of consumerism or commodity culture are now the subjects of these processes, ordinary people themselves. The main object of critique, Rancière suggests, has become the ignorance and culpability of ordinary people.

This rings true for me, I think it is a feature of a great deal of contemporary theory, forced to find some ‘political’ purchase for its culturalist analyses, to end up focussing on how people have been ‘got at’ in one way or another, and to lament their susceptibility (this is also a feature of many ‘moralised’ fields of social science, on climate change and environmental issues, on behaviour change, on global poverty).

Rancière proposes an alternative, quite old fashioned model of critique, derived from Kant – critique as the reflection on and elaboration of the conditions of possibility of emancipatory action. That’s much the same concept of critique you find in ‘third generation’ big-C, big-T Critical Theorists like Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.

Rancière’s version of this Kantian model of critique is notable of course because of the emphasis he places on the principle of equality of intelligence or competence, specifically of aesthetic judgement. This is the principle contravened by scholastic disdain for ordinary consumer entertainments and commodity cultures.

Rancière’s point against Boltanski and Chiapello seems, however, to replay an older division between a more sociological take on aesthetic discourse, that emphasises aesthetics as a discourse of distinction and differentiation, and a more populist affirmation of the universality of aesthetic competence (in Anglo cultural studies, see Paul Willis or Tony Bennett might stand for different positions on this). Rancière implies that the identification of two styles of critique of capitalism, a social and an aesthetic one, by Boltanski and Chiapello replays a bourgeois disdain for the aesthetic competencies of working people. I’m not sure this is convincing. The sociological analysis of the differentiating deployment of aesthetic values is normally animated by exactly the sort of universalist, egalitarian commitment that Rancière affirms – it’s perhaps less prone to the philosophical presumptions that his egalitarian account of aesthetics reproduces.

Favourite Thinkers II: Pauline Kael

Now that I live in a town almost devoid of bookshops, it’s a big occasion when I get out at the weekend and end up buying a book of any sort. Last week in Stroud, the slightly odd leftie-hippy enclave in the heart of the staunchly Tory Cotswolds, I picked up two second-hand volumes of collected reviews by Pauline Kael, the long-time film critic for The New Yorker from the late 60s through to the early 90s. I haven’t read anything by her since I was a student in the late 80s, in the days when I tended to go to the cinema on average once a day, mainly at 11pm at night. I remember liking her not least because she had a soft-spot for John Hughes-style teen movies, on the grounds that they were the only American films left which centred on questions of class.

I was primed to re-acquaint myself with Kael because earlier this year I read a great little book by Craig Seligman, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, which compares and contrasts the styles of criticism of these two quintessential ‘New York intellectuals’, both very serious writers, both interested in ‘the popular’, but one, Kael, more than the other, managing to avoid the traps of avant-garde disdain for popular taste. Reading the essays in the two volumes I bought in Stroud, Reeling (which covers the early 70s) and When the Lights Go Down, covering the ‘golden age’ of mid and late 70s Hollywood films (although one surprise is just how many films Kael didn’t seem to review, no Chinatown, or plenty of other ‘classics’ of that time, but lots of reviews of late-period John Wayne), is proving a joy, partly because lots of these films are the films I grew up watching on TV, so there is a familiarity to them, but also because reading Kael writing about them contemporaneously, placed in their 1970s milieu of the weekly or monthly review, throws films like Westworld or Taxi Driver or Saturday Night Fever into wholly new perspective, as part of their time, sitting alongside Rooster Cogburn or The Gauntlet, as part of a contested public culture of representations of violence, sexuality, liberation, aspiration, and resentment.

What I have most enjoyed about reading Kael again is the principled populism of her criticism, expressed most clearly I think in the sense that the object of her criticism is not ‘Film’ so much as ‘the movies’, ‘movies’, or a ‘movie’. This is the privileged term of her writing, and I think it captures something quite distinctive and valuable that offsets her writing from more solidly ‘academic’ styles of film analysis. ‘Movies’ indicates an appreciation of the unavoidably populist dimension of this form of, well, popular culture – Kael’s negative judgements are always shaped by a sense of disappointment that a particular movie fails to be as good a version of the kind of movie it claims to be (in one of these pieces, she describes the latest release by a reknowned French director as probably ‘a perfect film’ but for her an ‘entirely forgettable movie’). This attitude is summed up in a great definition she gives at the start of Reeling, of the ‘maze of borderlines’ in which criticism operates: “criticism is a balancing act, trying to suggest perspectives on the emotions viewers feel, trying to increase their enjoyment of movies without insulting their susceptibilities to simple, crude pop”. This is wonderful statement of Kael’s appreciation of the visceral, sensual qualities of ‘movies’ – that they can leave us ‘reeling’ – but also of her self-understanding of her own relationship to viewers/readers. This definition of criticism strikes me now, on reading it for first time some three and a half decades after Kael penned it, as standing in very stark contrast to a style of cultural theory in which discovering the emotional or ‘affective’ dynamics of enjoyment involved in unashamedly ‘mass’ forms like the movies is still, astonishingly, presented as a politically charged act of revelation and de-mystification. Reading Kael again has reminded me of the rarity of finding academic writing about popular culture that doesn’t fall into the trap of condescending towards popular taste, and of how much of the writing and thinking about ‘culture’ I have learnt most from has not been written by academics at all, but by ‘critics’ who actually like  the cultural forms, if not every example, about which they write.

Does size matter? Beyond ‘neoliberalism’

I attended a day-long seminar this week honouring the work of my colleague at the OU, Janet Newman. One theme of the day was how to understand the new political context in the UK, one of impending public expenditure cuts, lots of talk of ‘The Big Society’, and the coalition stoking ‘blame the poor’ rhetoric to justify fundamental restructuring of welfare regimes. What struck me over the course of the day was how the task of grasping this new political ‘conjuncture’ remains horribly constrained by the inherited academic conceptualisation of ‘neoliberalism’ that has held such sway over the last decade amongst critically-inclined, lefty social scientists [and critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization are very much a product of the 2000s, something which itself seems worth reflecting on – as simple descriptive term, ‘neoliberalism’ has been around a long time, and we all know what it means – but the formalization of grand explanatory theories around this name seems a much more recent phenomenon].

Amongst those who pioneered the development of theories of ‘hegemonic neoliberalism’, the new situation post-2008 has already been dubbed ‘postneoliberalism’. This is hilarious in its own way, but it is in line with a longer tradition in this neo-Gramscian strand of thought of always ensuring that any awkward real-world facts are rapidly taken to confirm the basic understanding of neoliberalization as involving a straightforward shift from ‘state’ to ‘market’. My favourite example of this theoretical sleight of hand is the conceptual distinction between roll-back and roll-out neoliberalism, as a way of suggesting that even when states were being expanded into new areas and government expenditure was growing, this was all still an expression of logics to reduce the state and expand markets – I have discussed the ways in which strand of theory retreats from serious social theory in an essay on publics and markets published earlier this year. Postneoliberalism as a term seems to acknowledge that something might have changed in modes of economic governance over the last couple of years, but that ‘post’ ensures that the basic understanding of neoliberalization in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s remain intact. Perhaps we should just describe what we are about to experience in the UK as ‘roll-back-again neoliberalism’.

One notable thing about these Marxist accounts of neoliberalization is the way in which they hold to the same zero-sum understanding of the relationship between markets and states that one can find in classic right-wing, conservative and monetarist thinking. Aditya Chakrabortty noticed in The Guardian this week how George Osborne’s account of the deficit crisis revolves around the rhetoric of public sector borrowing ‘crowding out‘ private sector activity, in a direct echo of high monetarist theories of the 1970s and 1980s. But what is noticeable about debates which revolve around the size of the state, shrinking public spending, or the Big-ness or not of Society is precisely how they all revolve around the idea that it is the size of the state relative to markets and ‘civil society’ that most matters. But as Raymond Plant observes in his new book on The Neo-liberal State (Oxford University Press, 2010),  if it makes sense to talk of a neo-liberal political philosophy then not only should this be seen as first and foremost a theory of the state [one which privileges a particular account of the rule of law], not a theory of markets as preferable to the state, but in this strand of thought [in which Oakeshott is as important as Hayek, and Friedmann hardly figures], it is not the size of the state that really matters. It is the character of the state, specifically with regard to the attitude to pursuing putative common goals, that matters most.

The point of all this is to suggest that in large part, the politics of deficit reduction, public sector austerity, and welfore reform under politically conservative regimes, now as in the 1980s, in so far as it does indeed revolve around understandings of the optimal size of the state, is probably not best seen as a simple projection of a single coherent ‘neo-liberal’ programme of the sort imagined by Marxist theorists. Of course those same theorists would acknowledge all this under the sign of ‘contradiction’, but this is really just a cover for the intellectual blinkers which enable any and all counter-evidence to be subsumed into a morally coherent but empirically immunized narrative of neoliberal ‘hegemony’.

One cost of the hegemony of these theories of neoliberal hegemony amongst leftist academics is an inability to think seriously about what markets might be good for, two decades after the flourishing of debates about ‘market socialism’. Of course, there is plenty of interesting work, mainly from economic sociologists, which provides much more pluralist accounts of the intellectual agendas often subsumed beneath the term neoliberalism – Marion Fourcade‘s work on professional economics, for example; or Viviana Zelizer’s challenge to the anti-market moralism of Polanyi, which is so important to critical theories of neoliberalism (see Phillipe Steiner in Theory and Society, (2009) Volume 38, Number 1, pp, 97-110). But this work does not, of itself, challenge the chilling effect that Marxist accounts of neoliberalism have, certainly in the academic fields I have been circulating in over the last decade, which continue to press any and all signs of pluralism and multiplicity into a singular narrative of complicity or selling-out.

What is most surprising about the continuing credulity extended to these critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization is these approaches actually display such a limited view of ‘politics’. Of course, these theories stake their primary claim on understanding neoliberalism as a political process, and also on uncovering this fact as itself a political gesture in itself. But this really just means that for these theories, ‘the state’  acts directly to secure the interests of Capital – either through policy and governance initiatives, in neo-Gramscian versions, or as purveyor of ‘ideology’ in David Harvey’s version. These theories of neoliberalism, which as I say flourished in the 2000s, are pale echoes of the analysis of ‘Thatcherism’ developed by Stuart Hall amidst debates of the 1980s – this account was just one part of an extended attempt to grasp political change as embedded in broader socio-cultural as well as economic transformations. It was Michael Foot who once argued that the real author of the ‘neoliberal’ transformations wrought on  the British economy and British society in the 1980s was not Thatcher, Hayek, or Friedman, but Enoch Powell (Foot’s good friend), principled defender of sound money and fiscal prudence as well as populist race-baiter. Powell hardly features in the narratives of neoliberalization developed by Marxist and Foucauldian theorists, and not the least reason for this is that these approaches have little feel for the contingencies of political process: they either present policy-centric visions of the unfolding of neoliberal logics, or stress the contingent outcomes of technological devices and assemblages. Neither has any feel for the broad sense of social change one finds, for example, in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, or Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out. These aren’t ‘theory’ books of course, but in reconstructing the turbulent crossings of conservative, radical, individualistic, anti-authoritarian cultural politics in the 1970s, they succeed in unsettling critical narratives of neoliberalization. At the very least, they suggest the need to think more seriously about the possibility of popular neoliberalism, with all the unsettling implications this notion has.

Theories of neoliberalism have, indeed, had a chilling effect on critical social theory over the last decade, ensuring that attempts to acknowledge the determinate effects of other processes in shaping political outcomes and possibilities is always swamped within a discourse of complicity and hegemony. Notions of ‘postneoliberalism’ are just the latest efforts to maintain this grip by seeming to acknowledge change while putting beyond criticism previous formulations of neoliberalism and neoliberalization. Perhaps it’s time to recognise that one reason it is so difficult to think about the politics of the current conjuncture is precisely because this style of thinking, which continues to serve as the horizon for these efforts, has never been able to think seriously about politics in anything other than highly scholastic terms: as an effect of policy, an expression of intellectual programmes, or as a process of ideology.