For Mayor de Blasio, CRT Really is Just a Tool

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City announced the first wide-scale vaccine passport system in the U.S., the so-called “Excelsior Pass.” The few objections from the left to this scheme are not concerned with the inherent impracticality and immorality of regulating personal behavior, but with the disproportionate impact the requirement will have on certain minorities. In the Critical Race Theory framework, that makes it inherently White Supremacist.

A few grifters have come out of the woodwork to call vaccine passports racist, most notably the mayor of Boston. But this time Twitter and the media have generally decided that it isn’t really worth hearing about this time. Apparently, racism is no longer a bigger “public health crisis” than Covid, unlike a year ago when Covid deaths were much higher. The most visible manifestation of these arguments is actually a parody/hoax that circulates under #askmewhy, courtesy of the 4Chan trolls. They are are ridiculous, but at the same time are a pretty convincing facsimile of actual arguments used by BLM and similar groups about other topics.

But the case that vaccine passports are White Supremacist are indisputable if you understand the world through the Critical Theory framework. 39% of black New Yorkers are vaccinated versus 53% of whites, a ratio that is similar to the national average, though each state can differ widely. This difference means that a policy requiring proof of vaccination from everyone is systemically racist. Pointing out that vaccination status is an objective, racially-neutral standard is “the myth of color blindness.”

The parts of critical legal theory and critical race theory that focus on law and policy are founded on the quest to show that seemingly neutral laws and universally beneficial norms are actually systems of racism. Their modus operandi is to find any inequity – any statistical difference between races other than average melanin – and connect it to a law/policy/norm that has a “disproportionate impact.” By dint of having a disproportionate impact, that law/policy/norm is assumed to be rooted in White Supremacy.

For example, if a bar in New York checks everyone’s proof of vaccine along with proof of age at the front door, this would mean fewer Black and Latino patrons would be allowed entry because fewer of them are vaccinated. Requiring proof of vaccination is White Suppremecist because it has a “disproportionate impact” because those allowed entry would include a disproportionate number of Whites and Asians. It’s just like making the bar “whites only,” except somehow, the structures of systemic racism erected to perpetuate White Suppremecy find a way to favor Asians, 82% of whom are vaccinated. 

These are the logical implications of the Critical Race Theory that Democratic politicians found so useful to hit their opponents with back in 2020 to rally their base and scare independents. If it wasn’t obvious six months ago it should be obvious now that the politicians who claimed that requiring ID to vote was racist didn’t really mean it. Some of them are even claiming the bogeyman Fox News made that up out of thin air. If voter ID is “Jim Crow 2.0” then vaccine passports are Jim Crow 3.0.

On average, fewer Blacks choose to get vaccinated than Whites, which is the obvious cause of the discrepancy in the impact of vaccine passports. There’s a cultural difference underlying this difference in choices, and it’s far more tangibly linked to the racism of decades and even centuries past than to modern policies.

The legacy of slavery and discrimination in the 100 years after emancipation has led to the disproportionate prominence of what Thomas Sowell identified as “redneck culture” in Black communities. Southern and transplanted inner-city Blacks inherited culture and language from the Scotch-Irish immigrants who constituted most of the poor Whites they lived alongside in the south. “Black ghetto” culture, according to Sowell, is rooted in the dysfunctional “redneck culture” rather than embedded in the skin. (See Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals for a look at the cultural influences of “redneck culture” and J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, for a look at this culture in modern poor White communities.)

Looking at vaccination numbers, the prevalence of redneck culture is a stronger predictor of vaccination than race. New York Blacks have similar vaccination numbers (39%) to Mississippi Whites (38%) and Mississippi Blacks (39%). Culture, not race or racism, or even government policy, can explain most if not all of the discrepancy in vaccination numbers.

But critical theory adherents like Boston Mayor Kim Janey prefer to attribute all discrepancies to racism. Janey compared vaccine passports to slavery-era freedom papers and birtherism. “There’s a long history in this country of people needing to show their papers,” she said, referring to New York’s policy.

Mayor de Blasio, who just five months ago announced a Racial Justice Commission to dissect New York City’s charter in search of structural and institutional racism, now says Janey and other activists accusing his policies of perpetuating structural racism – policies that very clearly have a disproportionate impact – is “absolutely inappropriate.”

Politicians like de Blasio have scoffed at the Critical Racial Theory activists they “stood alongside” last year, now that those activists might hinder, rather than help, their attempts to exercise control. It turns out that for those who crave power, CRT really is “just a tool.” Not a tool for academic analysis, but a tool to try to “dismantle systems of oppression” that get in the way of politicians’ consolidation of power, like the Senate Fillibuster. But critical theory is a dangerous tool that may even have a mind of its own, as some cynical politicians may find out.

The Authoritarian Moment is an (Incomplete) Complete Formulation of Shapiro’s Thesis on the New Left

There’s a problem with books from radio/podcast hosts: they usually contain nothing that the host hasn’t already talked about a dozen times. If you listen to the respective hosts’ shows a few times a month, there’s nothing to set books like Rush Limbaugh’s See, I Told You So, Glenn Beck’s An Inconvenient Book, or Sean Hannity’s Conservative Victory apart from their daily radio shows except for a new framing device. The talking points remain the same, but at least Beck once had a sense of humor.

Books like this can be useful when they outline a complete version of the author/host’s worldview or their diagnosis of the current situation that we can then critique. Ben Shapiro is cleverer and better educated than any other conservative radio host, so he recognizes this need to write a book that defends a thesis about the social/political world in a complete and concise way.

Naturally, this means that The Authoritarian Moment, Shapiro’s newest book, is formed from a selection of the previous year’s worth of the talking points from his podcast. The fact that there’s nothing new is the natural consequence of talking nonstop for three hours a day. The Authoritarian Moment shapes Shapiro’s ideas into an overall theory that a series of recent trends perpetuated by the new left constitute an authoritarian push to silence dissent. These trends are obvious to anyone who has observed American culture and politics recently: the crackdown on social media, the acquiesce of corporations to woke demands, the bastardization of science, and the takeover of the academy, among others. Shapiro attributes these trends to a few social and psychological factors, like “renormalization,” ultracrepidarianism, the transformation of openly partisan news into partisan news that claims to give the unbiased truth, and the conjunction of the revolutionary instinct with the utopian instinct.

“Trump might have authoritarian tendencies,” writes Shapiro, “but he did not wield authoritarian power.” There’s a problem of definitions in the book that Shapiro seems to be aware of but is not capable of solving. We generally have a understanding of authoritarianism that involves the use of violence, threat of violence, or the use of government power – which is an implicit threat of violence. But the old leftist game is to confuse speech with violence, voluntary acts with fascism, everyday influence with authoritarian power.

If we’re going to create a new meaning of authoritarianism, one that includes non violent, non-state actions, we need to clearly define the new meanings of the term authoritarianism in opposition to each other. What is the difference between authoritarian instincts and authoritarian power? It’s a tricky question, and Shapiro isn’t quite able to give a satisfactory answer. But this matters, because it will take rational arguments within a logically consistent framework gain back ground in the war of ideas.

Shapiro attributes the takeover of certain institutions, like academia, to “renormalization,” a process in which the loudest and most stubborn in an institution are able to shift the status quo by intimidating those who want to take the path of least resistance into going along with their insane new normal. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” as the saying goes.

This might explain why some members of administration cave to the radicals, but is renormalization really adequate to explain the total purge of the universities? How does renormalization work on notoriously intransigent groups like Burkeian conservatives, philosophical Pragmatists, and even classical economists? And why, for the entire twentieth century, were so many intelligent members of the academy intellectually unable to contend with the philosophical equivalent of snake oil-peddling quacks? Shapiro isn’t necessarily wrong here, but he’s trying to use a single theory to explain too much.

The Authoritarian Moment is a good guide/reminder of some of the insanities of the last couple of years, like the cancellations of James Bennett, Gena Carano, Barry Weiss, and the Covington students. Shapiro endeavors to connect these by a common thread. But he avoids going into the weeds to refute some of the core ideas behind this ideology. Critical theory epistemology underlies their “ethical” argument for silencing dissenters while Karl Popper’s idiotic “Paradox of Tolerance” in various forms underlies their practical argument. At some point, conservatives might have to stop talking about how crazy the people who advocate these ideas are and actually refute the core ideas themselves.

Every book like this has some kind of call-to-action in the short last chapter, suggesting how we might fight back against the evil that constitutes 95% of the Book. “They can’t cancel us if we don’t let them” is a good rallying cry, but it brings up a difficult problem. Do we let them cancel neo-Nazis? Would we cancel an anti-Semitic “Black Hebrew Israelite”? Where do we draw the line? Should those who suggest Nazis shouldn’t be canceled be canceled themselves? Should those who suggest that those who suggest that those who suggest that Nazis shouldn’t be canceled shouldn’t be canceled shouldn’t be canceled be canceled?

In his commentary elsewhere about the whimsical mandates of government entities regarding Covid-19 masks and lockdowns, Shapiro often speaks of the need of a “limiting principle.” What is the limiting principle in regards to what speech should get someone canceled? Can we draw the line at advocating violence? If that were the case, we could cancel people for advocating war in the Near East, enforcement of drug or firearms law, or BLM riots. If the standard for cancellation is only societal norms, then anyone with minority views outside the overton window should be canceled. The canceled can only complain that society’s norms have changed while looking in from the outside.

Maybe he’s suggesting that we should cancel no-one, and be tolerant and friendly with those who have evil beliefs. But if that’s what Shapiro is advocating, then he needs to actually say it. If not, what consistent principle protects conservatives but cancels actual real-life white supremacists? It a question that needs to be reckoned with if there is to be a cohesive resistance against the authoritarian left, and Shapiro leaves this important one unanswered.

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Top Image: Children line up in front of a mural in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Thomas Evans

Teachers Unions Object to Teaching Critical Theory, as that Might Require Teaching

Brought to you by the Seriously, Amazingly True Information Reporting Extravaganza

In an unexpected reversal, representatives from ten of the U.S.’s major teachers’ unions reversed their position regarding the teaching of critical theory in public schools.

“We have been informed by the media that critical theory is just an academic framework used by legal scholars to analyze disproportionate impacts in law,” said a spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers. “We cannot imagine placing the burden of explaining to students what those big words mean on our already overworked teachers.”

“We will continue to uphold the values of the AFT: that Black Lives Matter, women’s rights are human rights, science is real and racist, no human is illegal except Cubans, love is love, kindness is everything, and semantically overloaded slogans are preferable to rational discussion of complex issues. We will continue to do our best to ensure that all students can chant these values on demand, but our teachers are simply too underpaid to add teaching to this heavy task.”

The U.S. Secretary of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion criticized the move, saying that it was a “privileged attempt by mostly straight, white, cisgendered teachers to preserve the white supremacy inherent in education,” pointing out that “teaching critical theory doesn’t count as teaching because teaching, by definition, asserts the dominance of white colonialist cisheteropatriarchal narratives which critical theory seeks to dismantle.”

The AFT responded that “we remain committed to dismantling whiteness.” They mentioned that they have a legal fund “ready to go” to expedite the removal of any teacher “who tries to indoctrinate students with white supremacist creeds like the skeptical evaluation of historical narratives based on facts.”

A compromise where students would be assigned books – like Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgato or History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault – but teachers would not be expected to teach students to skeptically evaluate them was rejected when someone pointed out that the average high school student in the U.S. reads below a sixth-grade level. Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi has been suggested as a possible alternative.

Top Image: Abandoned school in Pripyat, Ukraine. Photo by Jorge Fernández Salas.

Not S.A.T.I.R.E: Dive into woke critical theory’s intellectually upside-down way of thinking in our newest essay, “Woke and Woker: The Shared Thought Processes of Conspiracy Theory and Critical Theory

Woke and Woker: The Shared Thought Processes of Conspiracy Theory and Critical Theory

Wake up, sheeple!

The least productive hobby I’ve ever had was arguing with Conspiracy Theorists in the YouTube comments – particularly the ones claiming that the Jews run the world and might also be reptoid space aliens. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t making any progress. After all, I could find or come up with what I thought was an extensive, logical, and verifiable response to any of their silly arguments. My responses fell on deaf ears, and as a result I eventually swore off all comment section arguments.

Maybe my writing wasn’t as brilliant as I thought it was at the time, but I had no way of knowing that because they never actually responded to my arguments. Usually they either switched to another similarly silly argument or called me a “shill” for whatever company or organization they said was behind the conspiracy. Sometimes they insisted I was Jewish, even when I told them that I unfortunately did not have that honor.

The common catchphrase among the hard-core Conspiracy Theorists was “wake up, people/sheep/sheeple!” or “open your eyes!” There are invisible structures of power and hierarchy that determine how the world really works, you just have to wake up to see them. That’s why hard-core conspiracy theorists sometimes were called and even called themselves “woke,” before the term became more well-known to refer to the newly ascendant critical theory-based movement of the left. And despite their opposition – a result of their cultural differences – woke critical theory has a lot in common with woke conspiracy theory in their epistemology – how they think about knowledge.

There are many theories, accusations, and suggestions that a conspiracy may exist, but a Conspiracy Theory worldview – which I emphasize with a capital C and capital T to set it apart from an ordinary accusation of a crime that involves multiple conspirators – goes beyond that: it interprets every important event or relevant piece of information as constructed by a system of power under an evil conspiratorial group. Any facts or arguments that contradict their theory are interpreted as disinformation from the conspiracy. The person arguing the conspiracy theory is in league with the evil group, and therefore any evidence against their theory is actually evidence that their theory of power is correct. A conspiracy theory, in this sense, is unfalsifiable circular logic, and therefore disconnected from truth and reality. It can’t be disproven, but there are countless reasons to doubt it.

The loosely connected group of dangerous ideas that are overtaking the culture and institutions of the U.S. and Europe, sometimes referred to collectively as “critical theory,” after a part of its academic origins, operates on the same principle, and its advocates are commonly called the “woke,” because they’re supposedly awake to how the world really works, to the networks of power that dominate the world and brainwash all the people who are asleep into disagreeing with their theories.

“Privilege,” most commonly in the form of “white privilege,” “male privilege,” and “cisheteronormative privilege,” is the most widely recognized manifestation of this “network of power” that controls the world. But the term is not widely understood. It does not necessarily mean that one is blessed with relative financial prosperity or in any other way, which is why a white male hobo is “privileged” over Oprah. “Privilege” according to critical theory is about how one person’s way of thinking is privileged, meaning that it controls how both whites and those who have been brainwashed by white colonialism think. There is a white way of thinking that controls the world like the Illuminati.

If you argue against this, that’s evidence of your privilege, and proof of how far we have yet to go to achieve “epistemic justice.” Arguments against white privilege are proof that the arguer is infected by white privilege, and therefore evidence of the existence and dominance of white privilege. Those who believe this are “woke,” because they’re supposedly awake to how the world really works, to the networks of power that dominate the world and brainwash all the people who are asleep into disagreeing with their theories. Once again, we have unfalsifiable circular logic.

New Yorker cartoon by Ben Schwartz. Critical theory is sometimes opaque even to mainstream liberals who are expected to know the language.

There are many people, possibly a majority of Americans, who casually accept the worldview of either Conspiracy Theory or critical theory but haven’t skeptically investigated that worldview’s core or thought about its radical impacts. Such people genuinely believe that these radical worldviews are simple and common-sense assertions: that we should distrust those in power and that we should treat people kindly.

The hardcore activists of each group tend to retreat to one of these moderate positions when someone fights back against core premise of their radical worldview. Hardcore Conspiracy Theorists conflate something perfectly obvious: that bad people sometimes work together, with their theory as a whole: that some evil group rules the world and controls everything. Hardcore critical theorists conflate something perfectly obvious: we should oppose racism and treat everyone with kindness, with their theory as a whole: that all our identities and knowledge are a function of our position relative to oppressive power structures.

Important debates often are derailed in the arguing against terminology phase before they can ever make any progress toward the truth. Sometimes, that’s by design. Some conspiracy theorists will insist “it’s not conspiracy theory, it’s a conspiracy fact,” and claim that the term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the FBI or CIA to discredit those who had learned “the truth.”

There are lots of different names for critical theory/”wokeism,” all of which are “problematic” for some reason or another. It’s not critical race theory, that’s an “academic analytical tool.” It’s not Cultural Marxism because apparently that’s just an “anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.” What makes it an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory? The anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists sometimes use the phrase, therefore, it doesn’t exist. (For more about the context in which Cultural Marxism naturally exists, see my essay “Autonomy, Power, and the Possible: A Brief Intellectual History“). “Identity politics” is a useful term, but it can refer to political demagoguery on the basis on any identity, while only certain identities are allowed to be elevated in critical theory. The critical theory woke have sometimes been self-identified as Social Justice Warriors or SJW’s, though now it is apparently “unpersoning” to call them that.

I also would prefer eliminating use of the word “theory” in “conspiracy theory,” and in “critical theory,” as the word implies more intellectual rigor in these subjects than actually exists. If it were up to me, we’d call them “conspiracy guessing” and “critical racism.” But if we are ever to discuss a topic, we have to use words as commonly understood and endeavor to clarify when they are potentially ambiguous, and not change the words of meanings to sabotage the possibility of good-faith discussion.

The woke of both sides are adopting an age old understanding of rhetoric that is sometimes held up as a principle of the critical theory approach to knowledge – that terminology can bypass logic, manipulating ethos and pathos. Antifa can’t be fascist, is has anti-fascist right in the name!

Since the days of the ancient Greek Sophists and probably long before, humans have known the importance of controlling the terminology in controlling an argument. For those thinkers who believed there is an underlying reality that humans can access, or that there are universal laws of math and logic, arguments had to be classified in order to separate logic from the other stuff, Aristotle therefore distinguished between the three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is an appeal to the authority of the arguer and their sources, pathos is an appeal to the emotions of the listener, and logos is the appeal to logic and empirical data – or an attempt to fabricate or confuse it.

The most skilled rhetoricians have always known that ethos and pathos are the most effective ways to influence people, and are maximally effective when disguised as logos.

Ethos works in two ways, we can claim that something is good because Reverend King said it, or we can claim that something must be wrong because Hitler supported it – like neoclassical architecture, vegetarianism, Wagnerian Opera, or motherhood. Some of the most common arguments we encounter on an everyday basis are in the form of a negative ethos, the thought process that says cultural Marxism doesn’t exist because the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists say it does. Some of the “logical fallacies” you may remember if you’ve taken a writing class are ways to categorize illogical uses of ethos: appeal to authority, poisoning the well, genetic fallacy, ad hominem, etc.

The use of ethos has changed as our perception of what constitutes authority has been subverted by the common contemporary mindset. Among conspiracy theorists the sources we would traditionally regard as authorities – scientists, seasoned professionals, articulate thinkers – are regarded as less than worthless. Expertise is a marker of involvement in the conspiracy, and logical, well-reasoned, and evidence-based arguments are sometimes rejected by conspiracy theorists on the basis of the arguer’s expertise. As one flat-Earther told me, “It says the same thing on NASA’s website, so I know it’s fake.”

To reject all arguments from ethos in favor of investigating all claims logically/empirically is the ideal, though it is difficult to actually practice. Conspiracy theorists are notoriously uncritical about their sources (for about a dozen concentrated examples, see my essay “Fact or Famine”) if they come from someone who they already agree with.

Woke critical theory gives an academic gloss to that same age-old mental bias that underlies ethos. Expertise is similarly rejected because of its “problematic history” of “epistemic violence” against marginalized voices. The enlightenment call to go “back to the sources” for evidence is replaced with the call to “elevate colonized/disabled/noncisconforming/fat/etc voices.”

Like conspiracy theorists, they judge arguments not on their merits, but on the hidden agenda the arguer is assumed to be perpetuating. As Alison Bailey, Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Illinois State says, “critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities.” This is called “Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback,” and people of any race are guilty of it if they disagree with critical theory.
(Alison Bailey, “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes,” Hypatica 32, no. 4 (2007), 882.)

Within the critical theory epistemological framework, assertions are no longer about facts or reasoning, they’re about identity. The most important phrase in postmodern rhetoric is “as a.” “As a person of color, as a parent of a disabled person, as a member of the LQBTQIADF community, I am uniquely and exclusively entitled to a point of view on this subject.”

Your identity, of course, gives you your own perspective, but not necessarily your own truth and certainly not your own facts. Even if it were the case that one’s perspective gave them their own truth, it would not follow that their truth is the truth for everyone else, and those outside their perspective but somehow inside their truth can only listen. In critical theory, perspective is a function of narrative, and perspective is the foundation of identity. Because each person’s identity is produced by their perspective, disagreeing – or even failing to actively agree – with their perspective is “denying their personhood.”

These conceptual similarities among the woke explain certain practical similarities that you may have observed in either critical theory or conspiracy theory. For example, when the woke do use evidence, anecdotes are always better than data. Even though black or African Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by someone who shares their skin color than by a white person, activists tell us that they should fear for their lives because of the few videos in which a black suspect is killed by a white cop. Even though repeated epidemiologic studies have not found any association between the MMR vaccination and autism, we’ve all heard that someone we know has a cousin whose kid was diagnosed with autism after receiving a vaccine.

The woke assert a claim to secret knowledge, to have taken the metaphorical “red pill” and to see the invisible power structures of the world and who really controls. It’s like having a claim to magic powers. Yet they often treat those who disagree with them not as merely uninitiated, but as agents of evil. The mainstream cultural power belongs to the critical theory faction, and they are constantly asserting that power against those who somehow commit a thoughtcrime against their worldview. Though Conspiracy Theorists don’t have the same cultural power, they do have a certain influence on those who have them in their audience. Writing this, I know I’ve probably already made a lot of Conspiracy Theorists very angry, and I’m risking accusations of being an agent of Illuminati disinformation. But I hope those who have stuck with me will appreciate my candor in talking about the issue directly rather than patronizingly playing along with ideas I disagree with just to avoid offending a potential audience.

The psychology of hard-core conspiracy theorists is complicated and the psychology of the hard-core critical theory woke is mostly unexplored. Exploring the psychology of the arguer, of course, doesn’t discredit their arguments, but it can be useful in understanding their worldview. Woke theories on both sides allow those who believe them to blame their problems or the complicated issues they see in the world on evil forces like cisheteronormativity, the patriarchy, the Rothschilds, Whiteness, the Illuminati, systemic racism, or the Jews.

Wokeism can act both as a quirk of individual psychology and within a larger community. Communities like this thrive on groupthink and mob psychology, to their adherents constantly fired up. Detecting systemic racism in unlikely spots is a badge of honor for critical theory adherents, just as detecting a conspiracy in ordinary events establishes credibility among conspiracy theorists.

The woke critical theorists also share a feature with conspiracy theorists in that they can seem harmless and goofy most of the time, but have the potential to be dangerous when given power. Power is always dangerous, but responsible people may be humbled by the complexity of the world and difficulty of their job and might exercise some restraint. The woke, however, think that they know how the world works and who they need to destroy to reach utopia. This mentality drove both Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot, as they strove to “free their people” from the people their theories deemed to be oppressors.

Poster from the 1941 “Anti-Masonic” Exhibition in German-occupied Serbia. Approximately 11,000 of the 12,500 Jews in Serbia were murdered during the occupation.

There are, of course, prominent differences between Conspiracy Theory and critical theory. For example, because it developed in plain sight on the internet rather than tucked away in the academy, Conspiracy Theory is spoken about in mostly plain English. This makes it easier to try to talk about, while the strange and nebulous language of critical theory makes it very difficult to identify their circular logic.

If you try to argue logically or with data against the woke, they will typically tell you to “educate yourself” by watching really long conspiracy video or reading a dozen articles on Slate or Salon. The difference is we rarely see celebrities issue groveling apologies to Conspiracy Theorists and assurances that now they have “educated” themselves to the harm their words have done. In terms of culture and popular acceptance in different groups, Conspiracy Theory and critical theory are far away.

So can you be awake without being woke? You can distrust or oppose the government without believing every accusation levied against them just as you can oppose racism without believing every accusation of racism. But that means taking upon yourself the task of skeptically evaluating evidence for yourself. If that sounds exhausting, it is.

In a classical Persian poem, an unjust king asks a holy man, “what worship is greater than prayer?” The holy man says, “for you to remain asleep till the midday, that for this one interval you may not afflict mankind.” (Gulistan, Tale XII). If “wokeness” is to afflict mankind, then it might be better to go back to sleep.

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Autonomy, Power, and the Possible: A Brief Intellectual History

Preface: This essay was written for BYU’s History of Ideas course (HIST 312) in April of 2021. The recent attempts of the certain parts of the intellectual left to pretend that cultural Marxism doesn’t exist has made it suddenly relevant, as it’s necessary to place the stages of modern and postmodern Marxism in their context within the narrative of freedom and power. I’ve made some minor changes to this essay to highlight that. Book references are included in parenthesis rather than as end notes to make them simple to identify.

Is human autonomy possible?

If so, to what degree? And how do we recognize autonomy when we have gained it?

The starting point for such a question depends on what autonomy is. We have different words for it: freedom, liberty, self-determination, liberation. All of these words seem to be getting at a concept that humans understand and have a natural inclination to pursue, and yet we disagree on what it is. This appears to be more than just an argument over definitions, as it has been an issue since before the days of Socrates and has been argued in every language common to western philosophical writing.

Isaiah Berlin makes a well-known set of distinctions that is useful for classifying the two main threads of thought into which the “over two hundred senses” of liberty could be separated (Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 1). Liberty in the “liberal” sense, in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the writers of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist Papers, is what Berlin calls “negative liberty.” Autonomy in this sense is the freedom from violence and violent threats against an individual’s “life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, § 6). The second set of thought systems concerning autonomy is “positive liberty,” which takes many forms and includes the systems of Aristotle, Rousseau, Hegel, and of Marx and his followers. It is generally more nebulous and difficult to define and recognize than negative liberty but can be generally characterized as looking for freedom from influence. This could be the influence of our baser instincts that distract us from the pursuit of collective civic virtue in the understanding of Aristotle or Rousseau, or it could be the influence of economic or other external forms of power in Marxist, post-Marxist, Neo-Marxist doctrine.

A common rule of thumb for this distinction is that negative liberty is “freedom from,” while positive liberty is “freedom to.” But the rhetorical thrust in the systems of Marx and his various followers is also on “freedom from.” Not freedom from acts of violent aggression – attacks on “life, liberty, and property” as Locke and his followers might define it – but freedom from influence, or “power.” Freedom of speech can be conceived as freedom to speak, as though it were a positive right, but is typically legally understood as a freedom from deprivation of life, liberty, or property in retaliation for one’s speech. A better version of the rule of thumb, therefore could be that negative liberty is freedom from aggression, whereas positive liberty is freedom from influence. 

Thinkers in the tradition of positive liberty before Marx focused on the influence of man’s base, selfish instincts, while Marx focused on the influence of economic power. Later neo-Marxists and post-Marxists identified and criticized many other forms of power, which they then related to the economic order in various ways to remain in the Marxist tradition. This dominant contemporary conception of influence and power was formalized in the work of the mid-Twentieth Century French critic Michel Foucault, who said that the modern struggle for autonomy “is a question of orienting ourselves to a conception of power which replaces… the privilege of sovereignty with the analysis of a multiple and mobile field of force relations” (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 102). This conception of power “is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (Sexuality, 93).

Given these two radically different understandings of human autonomy, the degree to which autonomy is possible and the approach to achieve or to get closer to it depends on each individual thinker’s conception of the forces that oppose autonomy. Among the theorists of negative liberty, autonomy is possible insofar as it is possible to curtail violence against life, liberty, and property while limiting the extent to which the state threatens them, usually by placing the individual and the state within a social contract. Among the theorists of positive liberty, autonomy requires the elimination of all power. To some of these thinkers, power is an inevitable part of human life which we can fight against in a “perpetual revolution” but never eliminate, while to others, power can eventually be eliminated as when we reach the “absolute,” that end point of the Hegelian/Marxist dialectical process that represents utopia, the end of history, and perfect autonomy.

The concept of negative liberty certainly wasn’t created in the modern period, but the emergence of the individual as a focus of thought during the enlightenment allowed for the refinement of negative liberty into its modern form. In the modern period negative liberty is primarily associated with British and American thinkers and with the empiricist and pragmatist epistemological traditions. There are multiple epistemological and metaphysical outlooks that can lead to a conclusion of negative liberty, and the only metaphysical stance necessary for a theory of negative liberty is some conception as the individual as subject.

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, while both British Empiricists, differ fundamentally on their understanding of human nature and on their ultimate conclusions regarding government. But they both agree on the basic question of what freedom is. Hobbes accepts the notion of autonomy as “the absence of external impediments,” though he believes that without a state, a Leviathan to limit freedom, people would live in a constant state of war, their freedom paradoxically leading to mass deprivations of freedom by others (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 13). Without surrendering freedom to the absolute power of the Leviathan via the social contract, freedom is even more radically limited. As Hobbes infamously says, in this state life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, Ch. 13). Only limited human autonomy is then possible, according to Hobbes, as it is compromised by constant war in the state of nature or must be given up to the ruler as a part of the social contract.

Locke’s definition of autonomy may not be accepted as a universal within intellectual circles, but it is the premise beneath many political traditions to come after him. He agrees with the principle behind negative freedom, though he tries to expand the definition in a way that further excludes the possibility of being interpreted as positive freedom, saying that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Human Understanding, § 6). Locke makes clear that liberty is the right not to be subjected to aggression or threats of aggression, but it does not include the “license” to subject another to aggression or threats of aggression. Locke’s conception of liberty is useful because its particularly simple to identify when someone is free by whether they are being subjected to attack or threat of attack (except as retaliation or the possibility of retaliation for their own acts of aggression). This is the liberty referenced in the Declaration of Independence and by the anti-slavery abolition movements.

Locke differs from Hobbes in his understanding of human nature. He believes that the state of nature is one of autonomy already, though there exists the risk of attack against that autonomy. But it is not one of constant war, as Hobbes believes. Locke says that in the state of nature, each individual is tasked with the preservation of liberty by exercising their “right to punish the offender and be executioner of the law of nature” (Human Understanding, § 7). This right is part of their autonomy, and it is a right they give up to the state upon entering a social contract. When one is a member of a social contract which they have consented to, they even then are arguably perfectly autonomous in Locke’s understanding.

Later thinkers in the tradition of Locke have focused on discovering how liberty might be preserved while sacrificing a minimum of one’s own autonomy to the state or even rejecting the social contract as non-consensual and therefore incompatible with autonomy. After the rise of Marxist thought, thinkers working in the paradigm of negative liberty ranging from John Stuart Mill or Lysander Spooner in the nineteenth century and up to Robert Nozick or Murray Rothbard in the late twentieth century were relegated to the fringes outside the mainstream of Western academic philosophy.

“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Of the Social Contract, Bk. 1, Ch. 1). Rousseau’s assertion begins the modern understanding of positive liberty, and thinkers and academics from him to Foucault three hundred years later have dedicated their careers to the analysis of the forms these chains take. Rousseau thinks of liberty in an Aristotelian sense, focusing on what he calls “civil liberty” or “moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself” (Social Contract, Bk. 1, Ch. 8). He acknowledges the existence of negative liberty as a “natural independence” but believes that civil liberty is the ultimate form of human autonomy which is can only be gained in entering a social contract (Social Contract, Bk. 2, Ch. 4).

Rousseau’s civil liberty is the liberty of a citizen. “Individual self-interest may speak to him quite differently from how the common interest does,” so that where they conflict, “each individual will be forced to be free” (Social Contract, Bk. 1, Ch. 7). The common interest, or “general will,” represents man’s true interest, and to comply with and support that general will is to be free from those chains. The obvious political problems that come from discovering the general will and forcing compliance with it mean that human autonomy waxes and wanes with the life cycle of each government. “The body politic, like the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction” (Social Contract, Bk. 3, Ch. 11).

Hegel represents a turning point in thought, not merely because of his influence on Marx, but also due to the implications of his dialectical method. In Hegel’s dialectical conception of society, the particular and the universal are essential members of a relationship that makes them complete, or “absolute.” This is the dialectical approach that Hegel applies to every basic relationship in metaphysics. This approach allows for both negative and positive liberty, as the liberty of both the individual (the particular) and society (the universal) are necessary for absolute liberty.

“All the qualities of Spirit exist only through Freedom; that all are but means for attaining Freedom” (Hegel, Philosophy of History, 77). This conception differs from that of Rousseau, as both freedom of the individual and of society are necessary for absolute freedom, and therefore forcing someone to be free would not be compatible with absolute freedom. Hegel believes that all history is a process of realizing and refining autonomy, and that the disagreement between Locke and Rousseau on the meaning of freedom will be reconciled in the ultimate realization of autonomy.

The Hegelian approach to the history of ideas means that ultimate, absolute autonomy is possible when society reaches the “absolute.” This is the state in which the spirit, meaning both the spirit of the individual and the spirit of society, exists “in and for itself.” Hegel believes that all aspects of society follow this approach of dialectic progression, that science, philosophy, art, law, politics, and any other matters of contention are constantly being refined and will eventually reach an end state, the final “synthesis” or “absolute.” True and complete autonomy is only possible in this final state of synthesis, as freedom is an “indefinite, and incalculable ambiguous term” that can only be understood within the absolute (Philosophy of History, 79).

Marx inherits Hegel’s belief that history is undergoing a process to achieve a final state of synthesis, though he “turns Hegel on his head” by focusing on the economic processes he believes determine changes in political and intellectual life. His process is the beginning of a unique trend in that he focuses on the ultimate causes of the forces which exercise influence on people against their autonomy. He believes that workers in the capitalist system are slaves due to both the influence the employer has by offering them wages to influence them to give up the fruits of their labor as well as the influence the capitalist system as a whole as on “consciousness.” There is no state of nature or social contract in Marxist thought, because humans are fundamentally economic creatures whose behavior has always been influenced by economic demands, even when they were just the economic demands of the household.

A truly autonomous person, says Marx, is not influenced by the lure of wages or the economic needs of society. An autonomous person can “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic” (Karl Marx, “The German Ideology” in Marx-Engels Reader, 160). As long as there are economic factors that influence his work, he is not truly autonomous. But Marx believes that after the overthrow of capitalism, in the Communist society that constitutes the “absolute” theorized by Hegel’s approach, there will be no economic factors influencing people’s behavior, and they will therefore be completely free.  

Autonomy is not just a possibility for Marx, it is an inevitability, though it can only exist in that “absolute” state after the workers inevitably overthrow capitalism and establish a state without property. Marx believes that in this state there will be no economic influences, and therefore no other kind of influences, acting on anyone, as politics, law, and culture are downstream of and dependent on economics.

Marx’s understanding of autonomy as the absence of power or influence was tremendously influential in academia, though the historical events of the first half of the twentieth century would cause a crisis for the concept of Hegelian/Marxist progression. The Hegelian belief that society was progressing toward a stable end state of absolute justice was seriously threatened when the Second World War showed that the First World War was not the “war to end all wars,” but the beginning of a period of over 200 million excess deaths in less than thirty years, setting up not a stable peace but another potential showdown between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in its immediate aftermath. In Bolshevik Russia and Maoist China, it appeared that communism was obviously not a final stage of economic progression, but a political movement. The Marxist thinkers in the post-war period also had to explain why communist nations appeared to have oppression without economic oppression, which shouldn’t be possible in the Marxist framework. Put simply, the first problem is whether positive freedom, the absence of all power/influence, was still to be considered inevitable or even possible, and the second is whether economic power is the fundamental form of power/influence.

Antonio Gramsci was confronted directly by these problems as a prisoner of the regime of Mussolini, who had once a been member of the National Directorate of the Italian Socialist Party and yet had created a regime that was clearly not the absolute state Marx predicts and had even greater oppressions than ever before. Gramsci, a Marxist, believes the missing explanatory factors in Marxist thought are culture and the intellectual class responsible for it. Cultural influence is still downstream from economic influence, according to Gramsci, but the bourgeoisie, through their control over culture, have the ability to delay or redirect the natural reaction to their economic oppression by indoctrinating the proletariat with their bourgeois morality. “The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government” (Antonio Gramsci, “The Intellectuals” in Selections from Prison Notebooks, 145).

Theodor Adorno, a German neo-Marxist of the “Frankfurt School” working out of the University of Columbia during and after WWII, follows and expands on Gramsci’s insight regarding culture in the capitalist world. He is aggressively critical of negative freedom, saying that “freedom to choose an ideology, which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same” (Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, 135). Culture, for Adorno, is also a means of influence which threatens human autonomy.

The project of both Adorno and Gramsci is to identify culture as a causal factor in the progress of history. As Marx believes that capitalism is an economic race to the bottom, in which things get progressively worse for the proletariat until the proletariat inevitably retaliates, leading to the final synthesis, Adorno believes that there is a similar race to the bottom in culture. “Today, works of art, suitably packaged like political slogans, are pressed on a reluctant public at reduced prices by the culture industry” (“Culture Industry,” 133). If we understand the process of cultural decline for the proletariat Adorno believes is linked with capitalism as the same process of economic decline for the proletariat Marx believes is linked with capitalism, then we can predict what must happen in culture if it follows the Marxist pattern in economics. Eventually, the proletariat must rise up against the culture industry, which, according to Adorno, “they recognize as false” (“Culture Industry,” 136). The inevitability of a final absolute state, in which all power/influence against autonomy is overthrown, is thereby resurrected in Adorno’s system, because the true revolution will be against the capitalist “culture industry.” This is why Adorno and the Frankfurt school can be referred to as the “neo-Marxists” or “cultural Marxists.”

In traditional Marxism, the economy is the structure on which everything else in society – culture, science, philosophy, religion, etc. ­– is built. Economics is the structure, everything else is the “superstructure.” Changes to the structure precede changes to the superstructure, but changes to the superstructure cannot change the base structure itself. Cultural Marxism is simply any strain of Marxism that considers culture to be part of the base structure rather than the superstructure. It asserts that the overthrow of capitalist culture is part of the overthrow of the capitalist economy, not an after effect of that overthrow. This intellectual framework is what makes Adorno a “cultural Marxist” rather than just a “Marxist cultural critic.”

The cultural Marxist framework might provide an answer to the first of Marxism’s two Twentieth-Century problems, that positive freedom as the absence of all power/influence can still be considered the final synthesis at the end of history, but Michel Foucault argued that there are still forms of oppression or influence that are not fully accounted for by economics and culture. Foucault believes that “it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together,” and he commonly uses the term “power-knowledge” to show that they are fundamentally connected (Sexuality, 100).

In his History of Sexuality, Foucault claims that these discourses shape human identity using the example of homosexuality. He points out that the category of “homosexual” was developed as part of Victorian morality, and saying that “The machinery of power that focused on this whole alien strain did not aim to suppress it, but rather to give it an analytical, visible, and permanent reality: it was implanted in bodies, slipped in beneath modes of conduct, made into a principle of classification and intelligibility, established as a raison d’etre and a natural order of disorder… The strategy behind this dissemination was to strew reality with them and incorporate them into the individual” (Sexuality, 44). Foucault believes that the identity of homosexuality, like all other identities, is created by discourse as an exercise of power.

Everything is systemic for Foucault, and the individual is just a node in the system, a construct of language and discourse. These power-relations are not simply an act of oppression of one person or group against another person or group as they are in the Marxist tradition or even in the tradition of negative freedom. Even though “power relations… are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice of decision of an individual subject” (Sexuality, 95).

Foucault’s analysis of power describes the means by which we might resist or overthrow and transform it, but we ultimately cannot eliminate power, because power is knowledge. Power-knowledge certainly isn’t caught in a race to the bottom that will lead to the inevitable destruction of all power-knowledge as capitalism and the cultural industry are claimed to be in Marxism and neo-Marxism. Human autonomy is not inevitable in Foucault’s system, which is why he can be categorized as a post-Marxist. So to what degree is autonomy even possible in this now widespread Foucauldian worldview? Our freedom is limited by the range of options made possible within the context of the various discourses or power relations we exist at the nexus at. The Foucauldian system leaves us without even a criterion by which we can tell whether or not we are autonomous, as any knowledge of one’s autonomy is power-knowledge, and therefore subject to the influences of outside discourse.

Autonomy in the sense of negative freedom is easy to identify, if not always politically possible to achieve. Autonomy in sense of positive freedom before Hegel and Marx, as used by Rousseau and other earlier thinkers, is similarly identifiable and achievable, though difficult. In the systems of dialectical progression of history, Hegelianism, Marxism, and neo-Marxism, autonomy is not only achievable but inevitable. But in the post-Marxist sense, in which all sources of power and influence must be overthrown as forces against positive liberty, autonomy is ultimately not possible, though it remains something we must strive for anyway. This last understanding of autonomy is more radically different from the others than Locke’s negative liberty is different from Rousseau’s positive liberty, as it calls for a state of “perpetual revolution” as Mao put it. It calls for nothing less than the imperative to constantly redefine autonomy and then overthrow that new definition as another iteration of power-knowledge.

Top Image: “The Triumph of the Guillotine in Hell” by Nicolas Antoine Taunay, 1795