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Cultural Studies & the “Cold War” on the Left

Michael Bérubé’s The Left at War makes an eloquent and powerful case for a reinvigorated democratic left.  With rich and detailed descriptions of political and cultural debates over several decades, he explores left intellectuals’ responses to a wide range of challenges but especially 9/11 and, in its wake, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His core thesis is that much left discourse in the US has been dominated by a dogmatic rhetoric and mode of analysis characterized by reductionism, economism and conspiracy thinking. With its contempt for the institutions and values of liberal democracy, it has cultivated a purism that condemns it to a political marginality, and then it makes a virtue out of this counter-cultural ineffectiveness. It has been opposed—but from Bérubé’s point of view, apparently too weakly—by a democratic left that values liberal institutions and, in the name of human rights, would want to see them spread around the world. Nothing less than a “cold war within the Left” has been taking place.[1] As a result of this division, a conservative ascendancy in US politics since the Reagan administration remained largely unchallenged, at least until the 2008 election. Bérubé hopes that a democratic left, one reflecting productively on the legacy of Stuart Hall’s cultural studies, would be able to pursue a hegemony that could challenge conservatism; to do so however will require a showdown with what Bérubé labels the “Manichean left.”

This is a remarkable book. Bérubé has the rare ability to think cultural-theoretical discussions in relation to political developments, just as he can trace resonances across the political spectrum: how ideas move from right to left and back to right, as well as how the left has responded to conceptual shifts on the right. He reconstructs intricate debates in admirable detail. The narrative includes a big swath of the academic intellectual history of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, from the Gulf War through 9/11 to subsequent events: the introduction opens with reference to the Obama election. How have the two sides of the left responded in this period, and how have their debates pervaded cultural theory? Bérubé offers an elaborate accounting, but he offers more as well, since the book involves another binary—it is not only about the “cold war” within the US left; it is also about a trans-Atlantic dialectic, contrasting the American left’s response to conservative hegemony with Stuart Hall’s analyses of Thatcherism, out of which “cultural studies” developed. For Bérubé, the insufficiencies of the US left—the prominence of its mechanical, Manichean wing—stand in direct relation to an inadequate internalization of the lessons of “cultural studies” and Hall’s anti-dogmatic political analyses. Hall figures as the left intellectual willing to break with Communist orthodoxy, to loosen the grip of economistic determinism, and to articulate a post-Gramscian account of politics as hegemony supple enough to appeal to multiple cohorts within society—and potentially to achieve majority support. In Bérubé’s argument, Hall’s antipode is Noam Chomsky, emblematic of the narrow-mindedness of American left discourse. Where Hall laid the foundation for the British left to overcome the Thatcher-Major era, paving the way for New Labor and the Blair government, Chomsky stands for the virtuous marginality of the left that cherishes its outsider status as a badge of honor, therefore guaranteeing conservative domination of the political field.

The Left at War links a political project (the left, broadly defined) to an academic project (cultural studies). Bérubé might not accept that distinction—is there intellectual work outside of the political? I would think so, but others might disagree—but here the issue has another dimension. The distance between the academic and the political is part of the problem in a very specific historical sense, as Bérubé notes in one of his many important insights: “The truly appalling thing about the 1980s and 1990s, from the perspective of American liberal intellectuals, was that the rise of an academic left seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the Reagan-Bush ascendancy; gradually, over two decades, left perspectives became common (and sometimes de rigeur) in much of the humanities and social sciences, and yet New Right conservatism still remained hegemonic in the culture at large” (213). From this trenchant observation, Bérubé goes off in another direction, recording how some liberals subsequently blamed academic theory for this failure to exercise political influence, an important story, to be sure. Yet something else is at stake as well: a longer term divide between much of the academy and political power—what seemed close in the Kennedy administration rapidly fell apart under Johnson amidst the Vietnam turmoil and that wound has never really healed. The academy, especially in the humanities, has been at odds with political power, certainly resistant to any sense of national identification, and generally intellectually dismissive of the political leadership. The more scholars denounce politicians as unintellectual, the more we scholars in fact—via a kind of cultural Freudian slip—announce our own exclusion from political power. Obama’s election seemed to change this for a year or two, as he was recognized as an academic, but within two years, the divide between Washington and the universities has reopened. However, that development postdates Bérubé’s book. What is pertinent is that his claim that the Manichean left cultivates its own counter-cultural distance from institutional power and public recognition is probably cut from the same cloth as much of university culture: we scholars see ourselves as better than the politicians—not only smarter but also morally superior. This sense of superiority is the form that the alienation of scholarship from power has assumed.

This alienation is nowhere clearer than in the rhetoric of Chomsky’s political writings. While Bérubé accomplishes much in this book, nothing is more powerful, nothing is of greater significance than his exposé of Chomsky’s rhetoric, where the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the Manichean left—the academic Manichean left—become most apparent. He shows Chomsky’s “leftism of style” (84), making maximalist claims about the destructiveness of American policy by way of citations—and when confronted with their erroneousness, retreating to the assertion that he was merely reporting. Bérubé does a brilliant job in following through on a close reading of Chomsky’s irresponsibility after 9/11, the untenability and extremism of his statements. Yet the point is not simply to catch Chomsky in gotcha moments but to recognize the implications of his style altogether: a hectoring harangue, posing as “the lone truth-telling intellectual in a crowd of casual mass murderers” (76), and a deep-seated contempt for the listener—since public opinion, in Chomsky’s view, is never a matter of sincerely debated positions or genuine values but only and always a result of “manufacturing” to manipulate the witless public. It is hardly a surprise then that he is most popular in circles that similarly define themselves in opposition to the mainstream: “not only among radical leftists but among young anarchists and post-punks, for the logic at work here is very much the logic of the alternative music scene: Chomsky’s value is partly a function of his marginality to mainstream political commentary” (85). Outside the mainstream to be sure: but Chomsky is, for Bérubé, the emblematic figure of the Manichean left, which remains the defining left in the United States, and his self-marginalizing rhetoric is the source of the marginality of the left. Bérubé works on the basis of the assumption that a left could speak differently and could present alternative narratives to the public in an effort to achieve what the Manichean left systematically avoids: political success. To find that alternative strategy, Bérubé’s answer is: learning from Hall.

Bérubé provides textured description of debates on the left and within the academy, with multiple voices and competing positions. Yet in the end, he seems to come up with a melancholy retrospective view, i.e., that it has been the Manichean left that has dominated, and its mechanical epistemology combined with an unsuccessful rhetoric have contributed to the ineffectiveness of the left in the US. It has resulted in the conservative ascendancy. The underlying question becomes “why American left intellectuals remain so addicted to ‘false consciousness’ theories of political behavior” (209)—by which he means the intellectuals’ assumption that the masses are simply wrong, due to manipulation, in contrast to the intellectuals themselves, who confidently declare themselves the holders of the one and only truth. The answers are complex and pass through debates over subversive reception claims (as an alternative to manipulation theory) as well as some of the repressive consequences of post-structuralist theory, but in the end, the book’s main point is that it was the failure of the US academy to achieve a successful reception of Hall’s cultural studies that has condemned it to Chomskian dogmatism: “[…] an inattention to—or ignorance of—the work of British cultural studies on the complexity of hegemony and the contradictions of capitalism leads the American (and British) left into manifestly inadequate and incoherent readings of the relation of culture to politics” (245).

Bérubé’s goal of defining an agenda for a non-dogmatic left is certainly welcome, and drawing attention to Hall is definitely reasonable. Still, I think one can put some larger frameworks around this, with regard to two different matters:  how do we understand the genealogy of the Manichean left (for it is surely not just a matter of Chomsky’s rhetorical ticks)? And why did cultural studies fail to catch hold in America in the way that Bérubé seems to wish?

There’s an interesting passage late in the book that tells us a lot about the genealogy question: “[…] in response to the right’s hegemonic project, the Manichean left set about reinventing the same old triangular wheel that didn’t work the first eighty times it hit the road: dismissing ‘freedom’ as a bourgeois mystification, aligning it with free-market neoliberalism, and chortling over its invocation by hypocritical and opportunistic conservatives” (252). So I take the “eighty times” to mean eighty years, which points back to the era of the Bolshevik Revolution: in other words, what Bérubé designates as the Manichean left is the heir to the analytics, rhetoric and moral poverty of historical Communism. Bérubé’s critical position therefore inherits the mantle of the anti-Bolshevik left, the critics of orthodox Marxism, the advocates of democracy, or even of radical democracy, against the various repressive forms that emerged on the left. Hall, one could argue, is a relatively late member of that lineage that included the Lukacs of History and Class Consciousness, Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, the Praxis Group, and more. The right question to ask, perhaps, is why the most repressive forms of the left legacy retain an appeal—despite their lack of political effectiveness. It is true that even on the left today one would rarely find outspoken defenders of Stalin, but the words and deeds of the Manichean left show that the habitus of Stalinism remains alive.

Why the appeal of this crude economism and instrumentalist thinking? It is a pseudo-rationality (pseudo because impervious to doubt and falsifiability) that typically steers toward conspiracy thinking. The logic of the Manichean left can grow uncannily reminiscent of the obsessions of the Kennedy assassination buffs, the anxieties about Free Masons and other murky cabals (hence the antisemitism that Bérubé points out), or—the formal similarity is pretty close—alien abductions. The Manichean left’s susceptibility to strange thoughts is undeniable: think of Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns.” The issue then ceases to be a matter of the political judgments (since as such they are patently wrong) but of delusional thinking and how it is incubated in the double confinement of the academic left—confined within the academy and confined within a self-marginalizing political extreme.

Bérubé criticizes the Manichean left’s response to 9/11 astutely: by treating al-Qaeda as the voice of the oppressed striking back at the evil American empire, it was bound to alienate the American public. Bérubé’s Hall-inspired alternative would have involved developing a discourse of attacking “patriarchal theocrats” (199), a formula that would have allowed a left to denounce al-Qaeda as well as the left’s own opponents on the religious right (Bérubé hastens to underscore no assertion of moral equivalency). Such an alternative rhetoric could have generated a left-liberal front against repression, at home and abroad. Yet this is not what happened, since there was no room for that agenda in the playbook of the left extreme. Can the deficiency of the really-existing, aka Manichean, left be attributed to vestigial Communist anti-imperialist rhetoric? That connection is certain, but I believe that the extent to which the far left in Europe has formed emphatic alliances with Islamist groupings indicates that something more is going on. How do we explain such left groupings choosing solidarity with political and cultural tendencies replete with the most reactionary gender politics and advocating the primacy of religion (hardly a hard left desideratum)? It is not the hard left’s affinity for what it perceives to be the anti-imperialism of jihadism that allows it to enter into such alliances, out of opportunism, so to speak; rather, the cultural repression in and around Islamist politics—the male bonding, the programmatic patriarchy, the honor killings, the murderous homophobia—all of this has deep and indigenous roots on the extreme left. The Manichean left was constitutively incapable of mounting Bérubé’s secularist response—a critique of “patriarchal theocrats.” On the contrary, it has embraced those theocrats, not despite their patriarchy and homophobia but precisely because of them. There’s a long history of repressive virtue on the left, and if it’s repression that the left wants, it’s repression that al-Qaeda can provide.

So the genealogy of the Manichean left is a long one, if not particularly venerable. Conspiracy thinking and repression are hardly foreign to the left tradition. But what of Bérubé’s other agenda, returning to Hall. We need to ask why cultural studies did not succeed in the way Bérubé seems to wish.

This is a complicated story, but one which needs to be pursued. If Hall’s cultural studies was so auspicious in the United Kingdom, why did it lose its potential in the course of its reception in the US? Bérubé touches on parts of this process, but I think we are still waiting for a full accounting. In a sense it is a question about the quality and processes of American intellectual life, and it is akin to parallel queries: what happened to the Frankfurt School in the US academy? How did American scholarship transform post-structuralism? And so forth. As far as cultural studies goes, I would want to mark three points and reserve them for a full discussion elsewhere:

First, Cultural Studies underwent a slide into popular culture studies. Of course, Hall’s Cultural Studies did open up the possibility for serious attention to popular culture. Yet that turn was, from Bérubé’s point of view, embedded in a political project in pursuit of hegemony. In other words, popular culture became important as a step in a political process, not as an end in itself. A tentative hypothesis regarding the reception process in the US would be that the authorization of a turn to popular culture yielded a different result, a focus on particular objects of popular and consumer culture, treated increasingly as aesthetic objects (rather than as political fields). One might speak of an “aestheticization” of cultural studies within the American academy, and this particular turn toward the aesthetic resulted de facto in a depoliticization, which in turn might have weakened cultural studies as a political counterweight to the Manichean left.

Second, while the cultural turn can provide important insight into some political matters, it probably—this is a debatable claim—privileges domestic politics over foreign policy. It is not that a cultural inquiry into foreign policy (not the use of “cultural policy” in foreign affairs, but the culture of foreign policy itself) is impossible, but it is a less likely topic, and cultural analyses may treat local issues, identity politics or even the “domestic sphere” preferentially. If this is true—or even if there is just a contingent bias against foreign policy in cultural analyses—then the result would be for cultural studies to spend less time on international politics which, in turn, would effectively cede the ground to the standard post-Leninist, anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Manichean left.

Finally, a further complicating consequence of the cultural turn involves the problem of cultural relativism. Bérubé touches on it briefly in his introduction (2-3), but then it largely drops out of sight—he has other concerns. Yet to understand the insufficient political impact of cultural studies in the US (his main concern) we have to look at how the cultural turn quickly generated a cultural relativism that makes the internationalist human rights concerns, which are central to Bérubé’s agenda, increasingly elusive. Of course this is an old story, the resistance that an anthropological relativism has expressed vis-à-vis human rights, and parsing it would go far beyond the scope of these comments. Suffice it to say that understanding the vicissitudes of cultural studies in the US would require observing how Hall’s concept of culture was simultaneously shifted in otherwise mutually exclusive directions: toward aesthetics and toward anthropology. Neither of those transitions necessarily implied depoliticization, but in the end, the space in which a robust interaction between culture and politics could take place grew increasingly narrow. And without that cultural-political dimension, the field of left politics was largely ceded to the anti-cultural proponents of economism, purism and conspiracy theories. The urgent question that Bérubé poses to the American left is whether it can step out of that dogmatism.  Anyone concerned about the vitality of civic culture in the US will appreciate this book.


[1]Berube, Michael. The Left At War. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 2. Subsequent references to this edition appear cited in the text.

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