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Left Conservatism: A Conference Report

Who invented this strange and wondrous new term, 'Left Conservatism'? And why have they done so?
Matt Wray

Issue #37, March 1998

Left Conservatism: A Workshop
Saturday, January 31, 1998
Panelists: Jonathan Arac, Paul Bové, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Joseph Buttigieg.
Moderator & Convenor: Chris Connery

Stepping into the Ring

"'Left Conservatism' or Left Factionalism? Who invented this strange and wondrous new term, 'Left Conservatism'? And why have they done so?" So the flyer began. Black ink on glowing neon red paper, it had been thrust into my path by a bespectacled graduate student just as I crossed into the lecture hall where the Left Conservatism conference was getting underway. "Counterprogram?" he offered, although his hushed voice carried none of the usual rising intonations which signal a question--it was more of a flat statement of fact, a noncommittal if slightly conspiratorial declaration. (Suddenly, I felt like I was being offered drugs by some suspicious looking dude in the park. I hesitated, but only for a split second. This shit looked too good to pass up!)

Despite the bloody hue of the paper and the shrill tenor of alarm carried by its headline, the flyer began innocently and calmly enough. I was happy to see the questions stated plainly and pointedly, for they seemed to cut directly to the issues at hand. The "counterprogram," the two-page, single-spaced document I now held in my hand, was written, produced and signed by sixteen graduate students drawn from UC Santa Cruz's (UCSC) History of Consciousness, Sociology and Anthropology departments. It seemed well thought out, if somewhat hastily written. But it did ask the important questions: Where had this term come from and why was it circulating now? In large part, these were the very questions which impelled me to make the short drive from San Francisco down to UCSC that morning. The email and snail mail flyers which had advertised the conference had also been, it seemed to me, somewhat alarmist and openly aggressive:

"A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life: the specter of Left Conservatism. Within academia and without, in events such as the Sokal affair, in the anti-theory polemics in The Nation and the Socialist Review, in work by authors such as Katha Pollit, Alan Sokal, and Barbara Ehrenreich, there is evidence of a phenomenon that might properly be labeled Left Conservativism: that is, an attack by "real" leftists on those portrayed as theory-mongering, hyper-professional, obscurantist pseudo-leftists. Left Conservatism's hostility to the anti-foundationalist theoretical work of the 1980s and 1990s shares features with left opposition to the radical anti-rationalist politics of the 1960s. The current polemics bring to the fore long unresolved questions about how the left conceives the nature and stakes of critical work, over the past fifty years and into the future."

This really did seem a bit over the top--hyperbolic to the point of parody. But maybe it was just good advertising copy, designed to spark interest in the event. Maybe Chris Connery, the moderator and convenor who, through his tenure as director of the Center for Cultural Studies at UCSC (arguably the most internationally famous and widely known and respected center for Cultural Studies in the US) had invited the panelists, wrote the flyer that way because he wanted to fill the hall. Maybe he felt he needed to provoke his readers a bit, since most of us are by now are quite bored with the tedious aftermath of the Science Wars, the Sokal affair, and the evolutionary biology vs. cultural studies debacle. How else to breath life into a tired, jejune and sterile debate, except by raising the specter of "haunting specters"?

But of course the point of the conference and of both the program and the counterprogram was that the debate was far from tired and worn out--it has, it seems, only just begun. Or better, it has just rekindled itself. It is impossible to say definitively when this latest battle began--does it date back to the raging debates of British Marxist historiographers of the old New Left, when, in the pages of The History Workshop Journal, historian E.P. Thompson slammed the new cultural theorists for "overtheoreticism?" Or did Alan Sokal fire the first shot? Or was it the Critics of Science and Empiricism like Donna Haraway and some of the editors of Social Text? Regardless, there seems to be agreement on both sides that this is turning out to be another episode in the periodic internecine war that the Left has always had with itself.

So where exactly did this latest specter of 'Left Conservatism' come from? In his opening remarks, Chris Connery credited Paul Bové with inventing the term a few years ago. Bové, a professor of English from University of Pittsburgh, had apparently dropped the phrase in reference to liberal philosopher Richard Rorty, cultural studies assassin Alan Sokal, and the poetry editor of The Nation. Connery, overhearing the remark, went on to use the phrase and expand and extend the reference to include other writers at The Nation, including left feminist critics Katha Pollit and Barbara Ehrenreich (a usage of the term both Butler and Wendy Brown took exception to in their remarks) and even to Michael Moore. Left Conservatism, in Connery's formulation, is supposedly marked by a belief (always unspoken) in unmediated access to reality (empiricism); a pragmatic belief in the transparency of language, and a desire for some kind of foundational truth(s) upon which to build political identities, broad-based social movements, and to reinvigorate public, democratic discourse. Opposed to Left Conservatism, Connery argues, is the anti-foundationalism of poststructuralist intellectuals, who, like Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher, reject all claims to philosophical essences and who are primarily concerned to interrogate the linguistic and epistemological preconditions under which certain political ideas and political identities come to be regarded as "true," "necessary, " or even as "useful."

In some ways, this seems like a fair characterization of the debate, since it is equally unfair to both sides. The Left Conservatist types are not as anti-theoretical as Connery would have us believe, nor are the forces of poststructuralism unconcerned or ignorant of immediate political contexts and issues.

In what follows I want to offer a brief summary of the remarks offered by each of the panelists (excepting for the moment the brief but interesting remarks of Joseph Buttigieg, a Gramsci scholar who seemed oddly out of place and out of step with the rest of the panelists). It is tempting to try to imagine how to incorporate all their remarks into a larger, more coherent anti-Left Conservatist position, but that would, I suppose, be a somewhat too obvious foundationalist move, so I won't make it! Rather than attempt any grand synthesis of their thoughts, I want to move on to a discussion of what wasn't discussed at the conference and what might have been, and why I think that the real casualties of this particular battle in the academic Left will be the younger generation of scholar/activists (myself included) who will be left to reconstruct a notion of Left politics long after the warriors of poststructuralism and Left Conservatism retire to their respective Valhallas of tenured deadwood.

Paul Bové -- Enter the conversation or change the subject?

Bové's talk focused on North American philosophers Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor. Both present interesting case studies for the present debate because they are known to be both anti-foundationalist and prominent figures on the liberal Left. And both at times have criticized poststructuralists for their obscure theories and difficult if not impenetrable prose. That is, both Rorty and Taylor would seem to be simultaneously poststructuralist and Left Conservatist.

Bové tackles Rorty and Taylor by arguing that they are not as thoroughly anti-foundationalist as they claim to be. Embedded in their philosophical pragmatism is a narrative of movement towards the types of philosophical language which can create and sustain communities of scientific knowers. This movement, Bové argues, can only really be understood as a kind of evolutionary development of language, as a kind of progress towards a state where secular knowledges freely compete for truth status in the arena of rationality. Of course, this notion of progress is, in Bové's eyes, a foundationalist myth, a modernist metanarrative that we have believed for far too long. And it undercuts Rorty and Taylor's claims to be anti-foundationalist--their foundation is tied to the disciplinary concerns of an Anglophone philosophical tradition, one which Foucault was implicitly and, at times, explicitly critical of. In Bové's punning phrase, Foucault was interested not so much in entering that particular philosophical conversation--instead, he wanted to change the subject (both the subject of the conversation and the notion of subjectivity).

With his talk, Bové tried to open up the fight on the philosophical front, dragging Rorty and Taylor into the ring and subjecting their texts to poststructuralist rigor in the same fashion that they have subjected Foucault to their rigorous analytic pragmatism. Their claims to anti-foundationalism are found wanting and this, Bové states, undercuts their arguments against poststructuralist theory. Of course, one could argue that Bové's fantasy of a text purged of all foundationalisms is as unattainable as the pragmatist's dream of a philosophical statement purified of all non-analytical categories. Where does this leave us?

Judith Butler -- Remarx on Engels and Sex

Judith Butler, who is a professor of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley and is perhaps best known for her book, Gender Trouble, began her comments by pointing out that anti-foundationalism can neither secure nor destroy politics (or any given political position). This is, in fact, precisely the point of anti-foundationalist critique, that nothing, including anti-foundationalism, can serve as a firm and stable foundation for building politics or political identity. She went on to say that the point of deconstruction (one of the main methodologies of anti-foundationalists) is not to eliminate categories of thought or being, but to interrogate them. When we do so, she argued, paraphrasing from Spivak, we are inquiring about categories we absolutely cannot do without, since the very language of our inquiry depends upon the categories we are attempting to interrogate.

Butler went on to identify what she feels are the two complaints most often leveled against postmodernism:

1. Marxism has been reduced to cultural politics. This is, in a nutshell, the "Cultural Studies sucks" argument. In this line of complaint, culture has replaced economics (understood here as the struggle over resources and the processes of production) and politics (understood here as the struggle over the control of State power) as the proper realm of struggle. This has led, the plaintiffs say, to excesses of discourse analysis which completely miss the material.
2. New social movements have been too concerned with the cultural domain. This has resulted in increased factionalism, seen chiefly in the rise of identity politics and identitarian movements and in the gradual disappearance of the common goals, ideals, and language which once gave (some) unity to the Left. This complaint is usually accompanied by a call to return to a mode of economic and materialist analysis, or as Butler dismissively termed it, "an anachronistic materialism as the basis for a reinvigorated Left orthodoxy."

Butler takes up these complaints as they appear in the work of feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser, (who, Butler was at pains to say, is not a Left Conservatist!). While Fraser has written that identity politics and political correctness are little more than derogatory slurs for feminism, anti-racism and anti-heterosexism, she has also located the struggle of gays and lesbians strictly in the realm of a struggle over cultural recognition. That is, Fraser identities gay and lesbian politics not as a struggle for material equality, but as a struggle for full inclusion in a pluralist, democracy.

Butler countered Fraser by citing Engels' classic text on the origins of the Family, the State and Private Property, a nineteenth century text which places the heterosexual family at the heart of the system which reproduces (both in the biological and social senses of the word) capitalist labor and capitalist property rights. Butler claims that, contrary to Fraser, Engel's insight places the politics of sexuality directly at the heart of any Left agenda for social change and social and material equity.

Butler has managed to take on the "anachronistic materialism" of Fraser et al. But despite the brilliance of her prose and her talent for terse, ironic epigrams ("the critique of cultural iconicity is the means by which cultural iconicity is achieved"), Butler's talk left one wondering how one might test her hypothesis. Will changing family structures really affect the sorts of social change that we on the left would like to see? The work of anthropologist Judith Stacey (see her book, Brave New Worlds) is perhaps an example of a recent effort to place these ideas to the test, but Butler seems reluctant to leave the realm of the purely discursive, to abandon the close textual reading for a moment of participant observation. Does merely citing the authority of Engel's lay the question to rest?

Wendy Brown -- Conservative Desires

Wendy Brown, professor of Women's Studies at UCSC, offered what was perhaps the most conciliatory approach to addressing the poststructuralist/Left Conservatist split. She positioned herself as someone who was deeply ambivalent about the terms of the debate and as someone who understood not only the intellectual stakes involved, but also the affective and libidinal (i.e. the emotional) stakes as well. She spoke of her own conservatism, explaining that her pedagogy had been described more than once as conservative and traditional. She also spoke of her belief in politics as a semi-autonomous realm, one which cannot simply be reduced to the personal--a belief which has apparently garnered her the label of conservative in some circles. In these meandering opening remarks, Brown almost seemed to be saying "Don't take offense at being called a conservative--all of us on the Left have our conservative impulses. At least have the intellectual honesty to admit these moments when you are confronted with them."

Brown then went on to offer a definition of Left Conservatism as essentially a reaction to and a refusal of theory. The theoretical insights of poststructuralists include, among others: the decentering of capitalism (or any single force as determinant of social life); the Foucauldian notion of power as everywhere, rather than the old formula of Who? Whom? (i.e., who wields it, whom does it effect?); the abandonment of revolutionary politics; and the emphasis on language--its priority over deeds, words, or social forces.

shiny happy people Left Conservatist rhetoric tends to portray poststructuralist rhetoric as "too hard, too dense, and thus insufficiently political." These complaints, Brown remarked, often take the form of nostalgic desire for something imagined to be lost: for a unified social movement instead of the fractious nature of identity politics and new social movements; for historical materialism instead of discourse analysis; for a clearer account of accountability and human agency instead of the complexities and indecipherabilities of the postmodern subject; and a desire to have real working class heroes instead of the deeply ambiguous and flawed heroes we have now.

Brown ended her talk by insisting that it is a mistake to conflate academic and political work. What we do in the academy, she claims, is think. To constrain thought to what has immediate political application, is to constrain our imaginations.

Left Out or Left Over?

I've offered these synopses from my (admittedly sketchy) notes in order to convey some of the tone and rhetorical strategies of the papers. Given more space and time, I would have liked to comment on the many important and insightful remarks which were made by audience members in response to the panelists. The exchanges were numerous and heated and any attempt on my part to capture them faithfully would fall far short.

In my judgment, what was not said at the conference is far more telling than what was. There was no real concern expressed for the effects this may be having on the younger generation of Left intellectuals and academics. Many of us were there at the conference, many of us have been following these debates with interest and with a strong sense of investment in the future of the debates. The "Counterprogram" was an expression of concern and maybe even something like a cry for help. Many of us in the younger generation have enormous respect for the intellectual and political work of combatants on both sides of the current debate. Perhaps as a child of divorce, I personalize this debate too much and project too much of my own complexes on this, but really, how is this situation any different from the child who wants the parents to stop fighting and to take some responsibility for parenting--for raising up the next generation, sharing intellectual skills and political organizing tactics in a spirit of love and affection? (Don't tell me it's different because we're all adults, because it's clear that some of the adults are acting like children). There is a pedagogical and political responsibility here to not only pass on the wisdom and learning of the elders, but to help create the kind of community where that wisdom and learning can take root and flourish.

In my view, what is needed if this debate is to move forward is the following:

1. Crash courses in the intellectual and political history of the Left that has preceded this moment of struggle within the Left and an analysis of the discourses which make up those traditions. What was distressing about the conference was that for all the poststructuralist talk about self-reflexivity, the participants did little by way of contextualizing their own intellectual claims or positioning themselves in relation to specific intellectual traditions. Bové came closest to making a contribution in this area when he said, in closing, that "post-structuralism is a technical term" that has a complex intellectual history deriving from the philosophy of Husserl and other Continental philosophers. While Bové is surely right to insist on this, it seemed that few in the audience, including myself, and even fewer in Left circles at large, really have a clue about what this intellectual history is, how it has changed over the past three decades, and how it relates to and shapes the contemporary debates about politics, identity, and culture. (Come to think of it, I'm not sure how many of my professors and graduate student colleagues are equipped with enough training and pedagogy in philosophy to help themselves or others grasp the philosophical nature of the debate). Interesting starting points for this process might be reviewing the events of May 1968, or the 1970s debates of the British New Left over Althusser and structural Marxism, or the more recent debates over Deconstruction within the North American Left in the late 1970s and 80s.
2. A fuller analysis of the ways these intellectual fault lines within the Left are contributing to the ascendancy of the Right and the continued rise of market forces in university life. David Noble's recent article in The Monthly Review on the commodification of education in the university is a perfect example of the kind of analysis that was largely missing from the conference (To be fair, both Chris Connery and Paul Bové touched briefly on this issue in their remarks). There is a missing institutional context here which is, in large part, going to determine the outcome of these debates over the next decade and into the next millennium. While some of this analysis has been carried out in the "Science Wars" issues of Social Text, it has generally not been centered enough in the debates, which have all too often been personalized and gossipy. Don't these debates enable the Right to succeed in further marketizing and privatizing education, while the Left sidelines itself with more factionalism?

I offer these two focus points for further conversation because I believe they offer opportunities for both sides to contribute to the training and development of a new generation of interdisciplinary activist/scholars on the Left. We need intellectual history and conjunctural analysis, not personal vendettas. We're all tired of the "Jerry Springer meets MLA" atmosphere that these acrimonious debates have created. Poststructuralists like Bové, Butler, and Brown, are well positioned to help us understand the intellectual and political history we need to know in order to make sense of the present moment. And so-called "Left Conservatives," a great majority of whom are social scientists, are well suited to engage in the kind of empirically-minded research that we need to make sense of the current workings of capital and capitalist interests in the new educational marketplace. I'm talking about a division of labor which has as its goal the production of a new form of interdisciplinary knowledge, one which is neither rigorously poststructuralist, nor structuralist, neither modern nor postmodern, but simply oppositional. That is, by the way, what we here at Bad Subjects try to do. We often fail, but at least we can still talk to one another.

Matt Wray is a graduate student in Comparative Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. He is co-editor of The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, forthcoming from Duke University Press in 1999. Reach him at