Between Europe and the USA: The Rise and Decline of the Journal Telos

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The main ideological line emerging from Telos over the past few years has systematically suggested that the journal's initial European/American symbiosis of critical theory, supported by Western Marxism, has now evolved into a new symbiosis, called "new populism."
Renate Holub

Issue #31, March 1997

While Telos, Quarterly Journal of Critical Thought had all reason to celebrate its 25th birthday a couple of years ago — how many institutionally unbacked journals, after all, manage to regularly reproduce their kind for a quarter century — it had little reason to continue to call its current telos "critical." "Neo-conservative" would be infinitely more to the point. Surely, not all of the editors, when reflecting in the anniversary issue 101 of Fall 1994 on the past, present, and future of their journal-life, concurred that the journal's historical attempt to mediate between European and US critical theory had been successful, or that it had been while the project remained within the contours of new left thought. However, the main ideological line emerging from Telos over the past few years has systematically suggested that the journal's initial European/American symbiosis of critical theory, supported by Western Marxism, has now evolved into a new symbiosis, called "new populism." What it does not systematically argue, but what it systematically does, is denigrate critical thought. While it is not quite clear why a discussion of the theories and concepts associated with "new populism" such as federalism, direct democracy, and conservatism need to lead to an ideological embracement of the political formations of populisms in the United States and in Europe, it is clear that the major editors of Telos have chosen to embrace them. They have thereby abandoned their original emancipatory program. For, all assurances to the contrary, legitimations of Italy's Northern Leagues, or of France's New Right, or of Carl Schmitt's "political theology" for that matter, are rooted not in a critical paradigm, but in a form of neo-conservatism.

I will, in the course of this brief article, define, however minimally, my understanding of "critical" and "neo-conservative." And I will address what I mean by legitimation. Let me simply say here that I see no rhyme or reason why Telos had to uncritically legitimate, rather than critically reflect on, the Italian Leagues, French New Right intellectuals, and German Historical Right intellectuals, such as Carl Schmitt. For no matter how much Telos emphasizes a communality of non-conformist thinking between itself and the conservative formations and intellectuals it legitimates, it cannot escape the ontological foundations, the social concepts, and economic programs of conservative political thought systems. Surely, non-conformism can be an extraordinarily fruitful departure for substantive critical discussions on many issues, such as bureaucracy, centralization, or federalism; of the advantages and disadvantages of parliamentary democracies or direct democracies; and of the many forms of liberalism and populisms. So, while Telos attractively presents the non-conformism of the Italian Leagues, French New Right intellectuals, or of Carl Schmitt, it does not simultaneously present this "non-conformism," or this "independence of thought" in its dependence the economic, philosophical, and ontological grounding of other "isms." Pitting populism and federalism, in the name of non-conformism, against Marxism and liberalism, is simply not sufficient. An extraordinary rigidity of thinking emerges from such exercises that pit concepts against one another, one in which undifferentiated and unqualified nouns meet equally undifferentiated and unqualified nouns on the battlefield of speech. It is, thank Goddess, not my intention to point to the Thomistic roots of such structures of thought.

Obviously, the life cycle of a journal can be traced in more than one way. The hardcore editors of Telos would like to tell the story of a fairly ordinary life, where phase one dialectically transformed itself into phase two and three. From a particular brand of new leftism (Western Marxism cum phenomenology à la italienne), the journal had moved towards a new subjectivity, and from there to a new populism. What unites all three phases from the point of view of political theory is a staunch upholding not of the notion of representational democracy, but of direct democracy. I apologize here for my use of unsubstantiated nouns that are not qualified by explanatory adjectives. Since I am merely reproducing a language I find in the pages of Telos, let me hurry to my point. The fact is that Telos — its rise, that is — is not thinkable without the many complex dynamics that have commanded the new left social movements. The movements of the sixties, their political, social, and cultural practices, as well as the concepts they invented, provided a rich ground from which Telos, as well as other critical journals, emerged. Without the practices and the theories propelled by these new left experiences, there would have been no Telos. For some, the movements, as we knew them in the sixties and early seventies, have disappeared. For others, they have transformed themselves, and are still alive. For others still, they can be resurrected. It is not my purpose here to determine what is living and what is dead with respect to the sixties, since plenty of publications endeavor to do exactly that. What we can say is that the moral content of the sixties, a content which almost an entire generation attempted to systematically conceptualize in terms of emancipation, equal human rights, solidarity, peace, justice, intellectual and artistic self-realizations, the right to control over one's life circumstances, participatory educational and professional structures, etc. — that moral content is not dead but alive. It is alive not because of the sixties, and irrespective of whether one thinks the sixties failed or not. It is alive because that moral content is much older than the sixties, indeed much older than the philosophy that inspired the sixties, older than Marx, that is. Ernst Bloch has called it the principle of hope and traced its history. And so have others when they reconstructed the arduous road to natural rights, or what we call human rights nowadays. Its presence today ensues from the substantive consciousness of a variety of cultural, political, sexual, and social struggles as these are waged in many parts of the world. The left movements as we know them from the sixties might be gone, but the needs and desires for emancipatory projects are not. We might describe them as collective projects for the realization of more Menschenwürde, as Bloch would say, for more people, struggles which aim at increasing not human humiliation but human dignity. Surely, these desires are perhaps not so visible in the mainstream theories in the United States of today, and almost invisible in those produced by the hegemonic intellectuals of the hegemonic countries of Europe, yet in many parts of the world, they exist. And many non-western intellectuals regularly address them, particularly — but not only -women. Telos has abandoned its originary emancipationist agenda, and it needed to abandon it, because it had a hard time seeing what lay beyond the hegemonic regions of Europe. And it is that Europe, hegemonic Europe, which Telos has traditionally related to the United States.

Three bright cultural stars sparkle in its firmament: Germany, France, and Italy. It should be noted that it is to Telos's credit that it consistently introduced ideas not only from Germany and France, but also from Italy. In this respect it has differed considerably from other intellectual journals, for whom Europe, or continental philosophy, exclusively coincides with Germany and France. While Telos refused to emarginate Italian intellectual products, it was willing to privilege these three intellectual cultures at the expense of most others. Telos did routinely feature articles on other national units: Poland, the USSR, and Central and Eastern Europe here and there, and sometimes on South Africa or Southern Europe as well, there and here. Yet the focus was and is inordinately Eurocentric, a focus which is the trademark of most of those European intellectuals whose ideas were exported to the United States in the journal's pages. Since it is not Eurocentrism by itself that matters but its specific mode of application in a specifically political context — in a context governed by specific power relations — I will not interrupt my narrative here. What needs to be pointed to is that although Telos provided access to different cultural contexts within the European regions, however hegemonic, it indicated an extraordinary inability to approach these contexts from a comparative point of view. Comparative analysis is absent from the pages of Telos, not because it lacked the formal or structural features to do so, but rather because it lacked the conceptual rigor to explore and exploit its enabling structural conditions. Although its editors are quite familiar with Gramsci's work, they somehow overlooked those aspects of his work which were to inspire precisely those critical thinkers in Europe who were able to intellectually and ideologically transcend the borders of fortress Europe. Stuart Hall comes to mind. I am not going to refer to the latter, but let me refer to the former, to Gramsci's ideas. Here I am thinking of the Gramscian concepts of "uneven development" or of the notion of "the translatability of concepts." Ideas, and their names, as well as the practices related to them, including political ideas and practices such as liberalism or democracy, live different lives in different cultures. Their understanding and meaning is marked, surely, by the experts, by what we might call the universal or cosmopolitan or transnational intellectuals. Yet the understanding, usage, meaning, and application of concepts are also marked by what we might call "collective subjectivity," by the phenomenological relations that obtain between the speakers of a concept or a theory and the past and present collective histories within which that concept or theory moves. Experts, however transnationally they understand themselves, are not exempt from the power of such structures.

The historical or temporal dialectic between synchronicity and diachronicity affects most concepts, including political concepts and theories, such as "populism," "federalism," or Carl Schmitt's "political theology". While from a formal point of view such concepts are mostly translatable from one language to another, from a contextual point of view they are often not. Historical contexts, or "collective subjectivities" are not readily universalizable, because they are tied to locations. They demand historical and cultural explanations. This is not a terribly difficult notion to grasp, but many intellectuals refuse to grasp it when they desperately adhere to the autopoesis of the idea. Even in the Middle Ages, when the European intelligentsia tended to exchange their ideas exclusively in a common koine or language, Latin, there was greater attention to detail with respect to the relation between location, meaning, and concept application. For instance, to presume, as many of Telos' contributors have, that there is much communality of meaning in the term "federalism" or "populism" between the United States and Italy is inordinately simplistic. The federalism which the Northern Leagues in Italy embrace is supported politically -by votes, that is — not by economic or social outcasts hostile to a central government, but by family-based small businesses of the economically most prosperous regions of Northern and Northeastern Italy. These social strata hardly embrace populist values. They are for all practical purposes members of the petit bourgeois middle stratas. Hence they seek to distinguish themselves from the "popolo," from the lower ranks, from the Southerners, that is. By the same token, Carl Schmitt's geopolitical theories conceptually cemented the geopolitical goals of Hitler's fascism, and in that sense they are understood by right and left intellectuals alike in Germany, and probably in France as well. It is not a heritage many postwar German intellectuals are comfortable with, a discomfort which is unlikely to disappear for another few decades. That New Right and neo-conservative intellectuals do not feel that distress is certain. Less certain is why Telos felt the need to legitimate them, which brings me to the term "legitimate." When Telos published European neo-conservative thought -which it rhetorically claimed was not conservative or neo-conservative because it did not attempt to "conserve" old ideas, meaning Marxist ideas — new right intellectuals such as Benoit in France or old right intellectuals such as Miglio in Italy over night increased their cultural capital at home. After all, to be published in English, the world's hegemonic language, and on the U.S. American continent is still a matter of enormous prestige for most European intellectuals, all anti-American bickering to the contrary. There is plenty of empirical evidence that the old and new right intellectuals understood it precisely in those terms. That Telos published them was a personal and political coup.

Telos has declined not only because it publishes the neo-conservative ideas of European new right intellectuals, but also because it is too dependent on hegemonic European intellectual thought. It is well-known that large parts of the intelligentsia — and probably more men than women — in the hegemonic European regions have become increasingly politically indifferent since the late seventies, apparently tired and worn out from the monotony perhaps of the comforts with which their privileged welfare states provide them. They are tired from -and not of — their most regular trips to their country homes, from their obligatory yearly multi-month vacations in Tahiti, Kenya, or Hong Kong, from the many art shows and exhibitions they travel to see, from the culture they weekly consume. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is from the midst of their still highly stable social environments — pension plans, job security, early retirement plans, national health insurance, paid vacations, free university education, inexpensive public transportation, and affordable cultural life — that mainstream hegemonic European intellectuals began to have a hard time distinguishing between what is left and what is right. As fortress Europe begins to lose some of its economic and social clout, new right intellectuals, by exploiting the melancholy-trenched political indifference of its hegemonic intellectuals, have provided political concepts for legitimating the conservation of privileges and rights not for all but for a few. In this sense Benoit and Miglio are conservatives and neo-conservative. They stand in the tradition of conservative thought according to which not all people can or should have access to the same kinds of rights. Only some classes or groups are to be given certain social and economic privileges and rights, or, as is the case argued by Italy's Northern League intellectuals, only some regions should have access to economic and hence social privileges, such as Italy's North and not Italy's South. What the Northern League is politically legitimating is a process which some leading economists see developing worldwide. In the coming economic battle between Europe, Japan, and the United States, to refer to Lester Thurow's recent work, each of these economic centers will be interested in surrounding itself by peripheries which will share in the wealth of these centers the closer they are situated to the center itself. In this scenario, the European South will work for lower wages than the European center, and North Africa for lower wages than the European South. Since this division, what I would like to call a non-democratic North-South division, has already been in effect in many other ways all over the globe — if not in that particular form — the essence of critical thinking has for many generations been to focus on the social and cultural effects of economic inequities. In other words, critical thinking has refused to legitimate the non-democratic nature and effects of such divisions. Telos has given up on this project and has thus abandoned critical theory.

Similar to many European hegemonic intellectuals who because of their silence legitimate neo-conservative tendencies, Telos has been unable to develop alliances with democratic energies involved in emancipatory struggles. It should be said to its credit that the journal's somewhat solitary march within the United States of the eighties and nineties afforded some advantages. For one, it managed or decided to stay out of much of the philosophical nonsense underpinning the academic culture wars, a philosophical nonsense which tended to successfully cover up not only the widespread inability of many of its warriors to deal with the most basic empirical social facts and concepts, but also, and more disturbingly, the increasing willingness of many of its promoters to think and act — in order to increase their privileges at the expense of others — along neo-conservative, elitist lines. Unfortunately, it is not by refusing to march with neo-conservative academic spirits that Telos avoided participation in the proliferation of intellectual neo-conservatisms. It is by marching to the tune of hegemonic intellectual Europe that it was not able to do otherwise. It missed a golden opportunity to link up with dynamic theoretical forces as they existed and exist in the United States today, among whom I count the feminist standpoint theorists of the seventies. Sandra Harding and Nancy Hartsock come to mind. Their outstanding conceptual work, which shares some of the phenomenological background, as it turns out, of the type of critical theory Telos attempted to construct in the seventies, has been further developed by Patricia Collins in her Black Feminist Thought. All pressures towards academic and non-academic rhetorical conformism notwithstanding, critical theory continues to evolve not on the pages of Telos, but in the context of struggles against experiences of humiliation, injustice, and inequality, and in the context of struggles for experiencing life with more dignity rather than less. Since it is rarely thinking that energizes critical thinking but experiences of the struggles for greater and not fewer equities, the most important impetus for critical thinking and theory will continue to come from groups who are involved in emancipatory struggles. I know, for some this might be hard to believe, but such groups do in fact still exist.

Renate Holub teaches Critical Social Theory and Comparative European Feminism at the University of California at Berkeley. She can be reached by e-mail:

Copyright © 1997 by Renate Holub. All rights reserved.

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