Cultural Turns and Dead Ends in the Academy
Writing the last post on Adorno and Horkheimer got me thinking about a post I read recently on The Disorder of Things by Nick Srnicek which argued that the left had neglected engagement with economic questions because of the focus on cultural and ideational issues in recent decades. This has rendered the left unable to offer alternative ideas to the solutions offered by its inegalitarian opponents. In this claim, X was surely right.
Now it’s certainly not true that no-one on the left has been engaging with economic questions, far from it. But there has been a massive and largely deleterious shift in the focus of enquiry to cultural and ideational questions. Unlike Nick Srnicek, I don’t agree that much of what was produced as a result is valuable, as a great deal of what is written under this idiom is either a distraction from or actively pernicious to egalitarian concerns. The ‘cultural turn’ in academic has resulted in a great tidal wave of contributions to debate which are unclarifiably unclear, founded on tendentious assumptions, and almost self-consciously solipsistic. This isn’t to say that no thinkers writing on cultural or ideological issues made important breakthroughs, I’ve already declared my affinity with Frankfurt School critical theory, and Edward Said is indispensible for thinking about the representational and discursive dimensions of inequality. But the overwhelming focus on ideational and discursive formations within academia has brought with it a whole set of dogmas which severely limit what gets discussed within an academic setting (‘x is a social construct’ is at this point nothing more than a shibboleth). With the budding of the sub-discipline International Political Economy, a concern with material and economic questions has all but been jettisoned from non-orthodox debate in International Relations.
If academia is a kind of laboratory in which ideas and arguments can be tested and developed before entering into the public sphere, then this surely has a bearing on wider democratic attempts to challenge the economic status-quo. As Payne writes in his The Global Politics of Unequal Development (2005), there is a real hunger for ideas amongst those concerned with global egalitarianism and justice, but as yet there is nothing capable of engaging in ‘real ideological combat’ with neo-liberalism. Currently the Occupy protesters are doing well by making a clear populist claim that chimes with the experiences of the majority of people in the wealthy world. But long term, the left needs a substantive alternative programme – the Tobin tax isn’t a bad start. Unfortunately many thinkers seem to see shifts in the values and belief systems as key to achieving egalitarian goals. But the ‘politics of unequal development’ is still with us, and those with egalitarian commitments need to provide incisive critique of present economic realities and practical solutions to the failings of neo-liberal capitalism.