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The Undiscovered Country

July 24th, 2002 · No Comments

It has long been a catchphrase on “the right”–I will, just for a moment, grudgingly accept that bundling of libertarians and conservatives–that “ideas have consequences.” We are especially attuned to the truth of that phrase because we are so acutely aware that only the failure of classical liberal thinkers to adequately defend the liberal order at the close of the 19th century allowed the grotesqueries of the 20th, in which states taxed, regulated, and even murdered their own citizens on a scale undreamt of by any medieval monarch. So when a nebulous intellectual fashion called “postmodernism” started tearing up the academic world, classical liberals and conservatives, chastened by experience, hurried to attack postmodern philosophy.

We were attacking the wrong target, though, and ill equipped to hit the right one. What few then (and now) realized was that the influence of “postmodernist philosophy” in American college philosophy departments was negligible even at the peak of the fad, and is even more minimal today. “But wait,” you may be thinking, “doesn’t everybody know that academia was, and maybe is, in the thrall of postmodern thought?” Ah, but “academia” is not a monolith. In philosophy departments, at least in the U.S. and Britain, the logically rigorous “analytic school” of philosophy was, and is, ascendant. There, postmodernism was largely ignored. It was in the departments of English, comparative literature, and gender studies (what philosopher Ronald Dworkin called “the unconfident departments of American universities”) that pomo thought really held sway. What a lot of anti-pomos missed is that only a small component of postmodernism is what one might properly call a philosophy. Much of it was aesthetics, sociology, interpretive theory, psychology, and a general attitude and methodology. Some of it, dare I say it, is worth reading.

The literature of the left is, by and large, an undiscovered country for the right. Sure, we’ll find a particularly absurd quotation from one of the bigger maniacs–Derrida, say–to make a point, but we are largely unfamiliar with the seminal works of this century’s left intellectuals. This can and should change: there is no good reason for us to be ignorant of Focault, Deleuze and Guattari, Habermas, Zizek, and all the rest. And we should not simply read to rebut. Rather, we should have the intellectual humility to suppose that when there is a broad academic consensus that a group of thinkers is insightful and significant, even when they have the temerity to hold different political beliefs than we do, there’s a fair chance that there are one or two good ideas buried somewhere in their works.

My embarrassingly cursory inquiries so far indicate that we do, indeed, have plenty to learn. Consider the effect of reading, say, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization in conjunction with Thomas Szsaz’s The Manufacture of Madness or The Myth of Mental Illness. Or read David Brin’s The Transparent Society in light of his idea, borrowed from Bentham, of a Panopticon society. If you’re really feeling brave, try to wade through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri’s Anti-Oedipus or A Thousand Plateaus. If you can stomach their roller-coaster prose and unfortunate habit of making up words without defining them, you’ll find a surprising resonance between their concepts of “abstract machines” and “the body without organs” and the familiar Hayekian concept of spontaneous order.

The thrill of intellectual exploration is all well and good, of course, but believe it or not, there are good pragmatic reasons to be interested in left and pomo thought. The simple truth is that there will probably always be more people interested in history and literature and cultural theory than will get fired up about political philosophy. The real strength of Marxist ideas, and the key to whatever continued vitality they have, is the applicability of analytical tools developed for political purposes to innumerable other fields. Aren’t there ideas central to libertarian thought which have the same potential fecundity? Hayek is a promising source, with his work on spontaneous order, and on the way evolved and unarticulated background rules constitute the mind. There’s also the general Austrian focus on process and entrepreneurship over static equilibria. And isn’t public choice arguably just a more sophisticated (and accurate) recapitulation of Marx’s economic determinism? Could Robert Higgs and Charlotte Twight’s account of ratcheting effects–applied beyond the sphere of the state–serve the role once occupied by dialectical materialism in historical analysis. We might even appropriate the ideas of Baudrillard, who laments the shift from commodities as purely utilitarian to symbolic goods, only replacing his despair with recognition of the value to individuals of markets in meaning.

Scholars like Tyler Cowen, Grant McCracken, and James Twitchell have begun laying the foundations of a libertarian cultural theory, and Chris Sciabarra has shown magnificent disregard for the taboo against deploying the ideas of leftist thinkers in libertarian arguments. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. As Robert Nozick realized, it is not enough for us to show that a free society is just, or efficient. We must make it inspiring as well. We have at hand all the intellectual resources needed to develop a program of cultural analysis which eschews both the bromides of the postmarxists and the curmudgeonly jeremiads of the conservative right. All that remains is to deploy them.

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