By Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker and Michael J. Thompson
Indeed, the disintegration of the great radical movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – from the labor movement to the Civil Rights movement – has detached philosophical thinking from the mechanisms of power and political reality more broadly. The result has been – despite the ironic new turn toward “anti-philosophy” – the conquest of politics by poorly constructed philosophy. Abstraction has been the result, as well as a panoply of shibboleths that have only served to sever “radical” thought from its relevance to contemporary politics and society. It seems to us that the survival of the tradition of rational, radical political and social criticism pivots on a confrontation with these new academic trends and fads.
The rise of this new radicalism is largely due to the success of liberalism on the one hand and the collapse of Marxism on the other. Liberalism has been highly successful at incorporating many of the social movements that have emerged throughout the twentieth century: the rights of women and minorities, a basic social security and welfare state scheme for the poor, and the recognition of different sexual identities and preferences – all have found their place to some degree within the modern liberal state. As a result, these movements which, in their earlier, more radical phase of development, saw their struggles in connection with the struggles of working class interests, were cleaved off and given pieces of the political pie. This resulted, as Theodore Lowi has argued, in a conservatism of these interest groups as they protect their constituent interests. But it also detached these different struggles from the central struggle over social and economic power, the control of work, consumption, time and space, by the owners of capital.
The collapse of Marxism not only weakened labor movement radicalism, it caused a more general intellectual breakdown on the left. With its emphasis on science and knowledge of objective social processes, Marxism’s disintegration left a theoretical vacuum that was now to be filled by the very cultural concerns produced by capitalist economic life itself. The post-Fordist, flexible accumulation of late capitalism, its emphasis on ephemeral fashion, personalized technology, and mass consumption, has led to an anomic self-absorption where objective political concerns have become abstract. As consumerism and mass culture continues to weaken class consciousness the social order becomes increasingly legitimized forcing radical politics into the domain of the mind and the realm of spectacle. The political now morphs into the personal, and class has dropped out as a category of power-analysis and as an organizing variable of society. Theory now follows the superstructural stream of consciousness and politics becomes, for the new radical mandarins, a sphere of self-promotional platitudes. What is left over from these two intellectual-political shifts is the context within which the new radicalism begins.