‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain
I wonder if I can keep this post short and sweet. Only by reminding myself that I’d like to write about his after much more consideration and effort. So can I keep this to a steak in the ground (Here at Troppo we’re always looking for ways to get red meat to the base)?
Be that as it may, critical race theory has been identified — by its opponents — as sitting at the apex of the hornet’s nest (or is that a Gordian knot) of wokeness, though the basic structure of the ideas also applies elsewhere — think radical critiques of gender and colonisation to name just two.
And here’s the thing. I agree with most of the anti-woke agenda in various areas with some passion. But I’m hostile not to the radicalism of the ideas of critical theory. Far from it. They are, for the most part, powerful and very welcome additions to our understanding of the world. But that’s very different to the more ambitious political, social and managerial application of those ideas where my response is often strong objection. I’d say precisely the same about Marxism.
That is, Marxism was an immensely powerful lens on the world, not just on economics, but on the whole structure of ideas around which public and social life is organised. Was it ‘right’. Yes, much of it was deeply insightful, but then it wasn’t the only way you could look at life or the phenomena it foregrounded. Marxism also came with its own stratospheric hubris in which it became the first ‘truly scientific’ study of humanity, rendering all else erroneous and obsolete. Not only that, but it turned out to predict the future as the working out of an iron law. The working class would be progressively immiserised and would then rise up in revolt.
One aspect of its overreach is the way in which Marxists were such passionate advocates and activists for the revolution. If it’s inevitable, why all the fuss? For its adherents, for all its masquerading as objective science, Marxism’s appeal was its inversion of the political ethics of the ruling class. Where revolution is the ultimate disaster for the governing ideology, it becomes the ultimate destiny and the ultimate good for the Marxist.[1. I’m generalising here, about what I’ll recklessly call ‘mainline’ Marxism but if you want to quibble with any of this thus far, please send your complaints together with a full psychological profile of why I’m really motivated by panic or malice to Troppo’s Chief Psychologist, Human Relations, ClubTroppo Collective together with a stamped self-addressed envelope to somewhere else. You will be vaccinated in due course #ItsNotARace.] And the good guys in history and in society as you look around are not those at the top a few of whom get statues erected to them — and torn down a century or so later. Like the New Testament, Marx’s testiment reassured its adherents that the meek would inherit the earth.
With events having proven the prophecies wrong, the idea of nirvana following the revolution begins to look like a skyhook — a fictional ‘get out of jail’ card. As with a magician’s misdirection, while we’re all admiring the depth of the insights into the structure of things, and the working class have become the cool kids, we’re suddenly ushered into another room in which revolution is cool!
Critical race theory — and the Frankfurt School which was in many respects its intellectual vanguard — offers extremely powerful ways to theorise the ways in which power and oppression exist well beyond explicit legal and economic discrimination. Is it right? Yes, in the only way such things matter which is to say what I’ve just said — if offered a much needed lens on social reality of great power and insight which helped us understand how much more would need to be accomplished beyond formal legal equality — or even greater economic security and equality. And of course it’s not the only way to look at any of the things it focuses on.
Moreover, the Frankfurt School was one of the offshoots of Marxism which was focusing on something that was obviously called for. With Marx asserting compellingly that “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” the Frankfurt school amongst others explored some of the contours of this insight. Foucault’s point in this context on “the relationship between power and knowledge, and how the former is used to control and define the latter” is similarly a point of immense and endless importance in our lives.
But here’s the thing. Because some great minds have spun up some great analyses of power, power is still power. If I’m an activist organising demos and I work out that the spray that the police keep spraying on us is pepper spray, it might help me out — but not much. Because not only is it pretty hard to protect yourself against pepper spray and keep demonstrating (it being hard is kind of the point of pepper spray), if I do come up with pepper spray pills which make my fellow activists immune to its effects, the police are the ones with the power — remember! So they may just escalate the violence.
The armoury of weapons from wokestan attempt to bootstrap power for those they regard as powerless. Some of them might be helpful. I’m personally in favour of affirmative action in many contexts and even quotas in some contexts. But they’re a blunt instrument and can generate perverse outcomes.
There’s now a blizzard of other techniques like ‘subconscious bias training’ of various kinds. Such things could be useful if done with genuine insight and humility. But at least from the cases one hears of, no-one could accuse them of being done in that spirit. I’d add here in parentheses that there’s a whole blizzard of wokedom breaking out in bureaucracies in the pubic, private and third sector, like this creepy attempt to purge and decolonialise language at Brandeis Uni. Likewise governments jump into the fray with codes of ethics and cultural this and that. They could help in some ways, they could be harmful in others, but we’re rolling them out without much idea of any of that.
Meanwhile on social media where so much of the action is, woke sensibilities and programs they lend themselves quite obviously to weaponisation. And they take us into an area in which whose side you are on comes to eclipse whether you’re making any sense.
And all this will have been worse than useless if disadvantaged communities’ energies are diverted from ways they can advance their own interests through their own agency. Most of that work will be largely invisible to the dominant class and culture. So it won’t be tweeted and won’t get many ‘influencers’ worked up. But the evidence of communities who are prospering in the multi-cultural societies of the West — of which there are many — suggests that this is where most of the action is regarding how things turn out for their members.