In the face of looming environmental catastrophe, we seem unable to resist the temptation to bury our heads in the sand. The feeble results of the Cancún summit last month, in which world leaders yet again kicked the can down the road, were hardly unexpected, but depressing nonetheless. Enormous and powerful interests defend the status quo; equal and opposite political will is required to effect the radical change needed. Climate change deniers have no serious arguments against the overwhelming consensus among climatologists, but all they need to do is to muddy the waters sufficiently to undermine public trust in the science, and thus sap that necessary political will. For any less politicised topic, they would be rightly ignored as cranks and green-inkers. The fact that they are not, and routinely given access to the media in the interests of ‘impartiality’ represents something not only disheartening but deeply unsettling. Clive Hamilton, writing in Overland last year, describes the problem:
While the politicisation of the ABC over the Iraq War, multiculturalism, Aboriginal policy and so on was lamentable, the ABCs’ contribution to the erosion of public confidence in climate science had another dimension, an epistemological one. It reflected a decision to relativise science itself.
Such decisions are dangerously radical. They reflect a disrespect for truth, not in some transcendent or ultimate sense, but the practical, workaday respect we have for reality that prevents us from embracing wishful thinking and fantasy as a guide to action. The direct cause – ‘strong pressure from senior management’, as Hamilton puts it – itself requires explanation in terms of both interests and the intellectual climate. Under what circumstances do we blind ourselves to inconvenient facts of the highest stakes possible: species survival?
As far as interests go, it’s a no-brainer: those of corporations dependent for their profits on the massive rate of carbon emissions continuing without restriction. But we on the Left should not get too comfortable pointing the finger. When we consider the epistemological conditions – the kinds of thoughts we have about knowledge itself, the way we discuss it, and our understanding of the bases on which we acquire and validate it – in which such a move is possible, we cannot entirely absolve ourselves from blame. It may be the Right carrying out the attack, but, as Bruno Latour wrote in 2004, ‘like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognise, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland’. These weapons are ideology critique, anti-fetishism, theories of the social construction of knowledge, discourse analysis. It is only in retrospect, as the American Tea Party act out their miserable parody of protest, that we can see the tragic trajectory of the first iteration by the darkly farcical aspect of the second.
Again, we can attempt to disavow our implication in the slippery slope to relativism by finding easy targets: deconstruction, postmodernism, bourgeois degeneracy. But it was Marx who rehabilitated and legitimised the use of ad hominem arguments in theorising false consciousness, and the critique of bourgeois ideology; Adorno and Gramsci who turned the scorching flame of critique to the cultural sphere. Critical theory has challenged conventional thinking by hollowing out the ground from under it. But it has also eroded the common ground on which we all stand. In a case like ours today, Latour observes:
the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.
Latour is not, of course, suggesting that the big bad world revealed by critical theory is too much for us, or that we should take comfort in the old illusions. He argues that, like generals fighting the last war instead of the one facing them, we have failed to evaluate, strategically, the efficacy and consequences of our modes of operation, our tactics, and our methods. Iconoclasm produces only Pyrrhic victory: ‘the Zeus of Critique rules absolutely, to be sure, but over a desert.’
How have we arrived, then, at this impasse? Peter Sloterdijk, in his book Critique of Cynical Reason, describes the route we have taken. It is almost three centuries since the Enlightenment began its assault on certainties of all kinds – theological, political, social, psychological – but its promise of emancipation has been realised only patchily. In different ways, liberalism, social democracy and communism have all disappointed. The disposition of the modern mind, if it does not retreat into wilful stupidity and reactionary conservatism, tends to melancholy and cynicism. Sloterdijk names this condition ‘enlightened false consciousness’; the name itself implies a certain cynicism in its self-contradiction.
Before the destructive machinations of power and capital, we find ourselves impotent, and compromised by our own complicity in the system. Our days are numbered, and we have lost our faith in medicine. Revolution, the most powerful remedy available, has been known to kill the patient altogether; reform is merely palliative care. It is hard not to feel trapped and helpless. In order to live our lives and feed ourselves we must buy goods whose production is contributing to environmental destruction, pay tax that goes towards buying bombs, and perform some kind of senseless job whose real function – whatever its ostensible one – is to generate surplus value for shareholders we’re never likely even to meet. The capitalo-parliamentary system precludes meaningful political diversity except at the margins, in minor parties with no power, an exercise in tokenism, a sideshow that allows the mainstream to claim that the full spectrum is present while ensuring that the parties representing different aspects of moneyed elite interest continue taking their turns at the levers of power.
So what are we left with? Critique is a way of retreating and retrenching, to maintain a degree of distance both from the world we inhabit and the life we lead. We are, each of us, so compromised by our involvement in a deeply cynical society, that critique becomes more a matter of psychic self-defence than an instrument of political change. One can pick over the old bones of ideology, pull apart this or that piece of discourse, and take a dismal pleasure in our own cleverness and freedom from illusion; but it is an empty cleverness and a bitter freedom without agency.
Practical critique is protest, dissent, resistance. Against injustice, and a trend across the industrialised world to roll back hard-won liberties, to dismantle and marketise public services, resistance is worthwhile and necessary. But it is also reactive, and as such, uninspiring: if people do not rally en masse to the cause of damage limitation, we cannot be entirely surprised. The global financial crisis has shown neoliberalism to be bankrupt morally, intellectually and economically. Yet there was no rush to the Left, just a cynical shrug of the shoulders. ‘Perhaps the most striking feature of the 2008 crisis so far,’ Susan Watkins wrote last year, ‘has been its combination of economic turmoil and political stasis’. This is what Sloterdijk means by ‘enlightened false consciousness’ – we know the system is breaking under its own contradictions, that it is driving us toward destruction, yet we act as if we do not know this, as if we are willing participants in the system: working and shopping, shopping and working. In a state of enlightened false consciousness, we need something other than critique to escape the duality of external bad faith (we live as if we are happy to be mere worker-consumers) and of inner detachment – because critique only deepens the ironic distance between our minds and our lives.
Latour, Bruno 2004, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2, pp. 225–248.
Sloterdijk, Peter 1987, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Watkins, Susan 2010, ‘Shifting Sands’, New Left Review 61, pp. 5–27.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!