Social Justice activist scholarship
The historic failure of the US left
During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, movements of women, workers, and blacks sought to deepen and expand the American promise of democracy that was integral to the foundation of the nation. They sought not only to expand democratic rights to women, racial/ethnic groups, and economic classes that initially had been excluded, but also to deepen the meaning of democracy through the formulation of rights that initially had not been imagined. By 1990, their achievements were evident in all spheres of political, economic, and social life in the United States. That the nation was fundamentally different in 1990 with respect to the rights of women, blacks, and workers from what it was in 1789 is a fundamental truth that no reasonable person can deny.
Nonetheless, there were important dimensions of the agendas of the movements that had not been attained. Especially important was the complete failure of the movements to redirect the imperialist foreign policy of the nation. Anti-imperialist demands had been formulated inconsistently by the movements, but they nonetheless were present. Anti-imperialism was prominent in the Pan-Africanism of the 1920s, and it was a dimension of the student anti-war and black power movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Anti-imperialism is a necessary platform for the movements, because it is morally contradictory and economically impossible to build a just nation on a foundation of deceitful indirect political control and economic superexploitation of the peoples of other lands. The creation of a just nation requires cooperation and solidarity with the nations of the world.
In addition, the movements of the people had deepened the meaning of democracy by formulating the concept that citizens have social and economic rights, such as the rights to health care, education, housing, and nutrition. However, they had advanced very little in the formulation of a concept of the necessary role of the state in the economy with respect to the protection of said rights. Indeed, the movements had suffered a tremendous setback in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan with a platform of minimum state involvement in the economy and in the protection of the socioeconomic rights of the people. Conceptually, the movements had not moved beyond the New Deal approach, which was not sustainable in the long-term, because of its dependency on government borrowing and on unequal exchange with the Third World economies. The movements had not advanced toward the conceptualization of a scientifically informed, long-term, and comprehensive national plan oriented to expanding the productivity of the nation’s economy and providing for the socioeconomic needs of the people, taking into account ecological sustainability.
And the movements had not begun to address the appropriate relation between the big corporations and the economy, or the role of the state with respect to the question. During most of the nineteenth century, the nation had an agricultural economy, and progressive thinkers advocated a wide distribution of land to small farmers, with basic political, civil, and legal rights. Inasmuch as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had been prominent advocates of this progressive concept, most politically active champions of the people were organized as “Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democrats.” However, there was not a clear or unifying idea with respect to what ought to be done about the emergence of concentrated industry in the period following 1865, in the age of the “Robber Barons.” The long-term question of the movements had to be: how can the state control the corporations without suffocating their capacity to contribute to the productivity of the economy? Or conversely, how can the state give the corporations space to promote the economy, yet prevent them from taking over the political process?
In the midst of a continuous public outcry against big industry, a populist movement had emerged in the late nineteenth century. But the proposals were idealist, not based in an understanding of the characteristics of the new economy of concentrated industry. In the election campaign of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson put forth similar practical proposals. Following his election, Wilson was able to enlist the support of the Congress in enacting in 1913 a package of measures that was consistent with his campaign formulations. Looking at that 1913 economic package, it seems to me that it might well have accomplished the task of regulating the corporations in defense of the nation and the people without stifling their contribution to economic productivity, had World War I not intervened.
A delicate, mutually beneficial balance of governmental and corporate power is easily disrupted by war, because war empowers corporations by expanding possibilities for profits, and because war weakens the bargaining position of the state by making it dependent on the corporations to supply its expanding armed forces. Accordingly, Wilson’s legislative package was never implemented. It was cast aside by the war, which began for the United States in an economic sense in 1914. Wilson’s legislative program subsequently was forgotten in the context of the new reality forged by the Great War. During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented a proposal to provide for the needs of the people, without revisiting the question of state regulation of the corporations. Following World War II, there emerged an alliance between corporate power and the state in a militarization of the economy, in the context of a Cold War ideology, effectively nullifying public discussion of a possible socioeconomic development from the perspective of the interests and needs of the people. In reaction to the “stagflation” of the 1970s, the Reagan Administration reduced the limited social programs in place in support of the people, which had been a legacy of FDR’s New Deal and the War on Poverty of the 1960s.
It can be seen, therefore, that in 1990 the question of the role of the state in the direction of the economy and in regulating the corporations was not attended, reflecting the historic incapacity of the left to address the question with conceptual clarity or political intelligence. At the same time, structures of popular participation were extremely limited. Only workers even tried to implement a concept of the organization of all, and the rate of union membership was low. Among women, blacks, and neighborhoods, rates of participation and membership in organizations was not highly developed. In a parallel form and reinforcing the low political participation of the people, the political process of representative democracy was ruled by money, such that the careers of politicians were bankrolled by the wealthy, enabling corporations and private foundations to establish the terms of public debate and to control the decision-making process.
In addition, there were unresolved issues of importance to particular communities. Of the highest moral priority were the numerous unimplemented treaties that the U.S. government had signed with the indigenous nations, attention to which was called by the American Indian Movement in the early 1970s. These treaties ought to have been renegotiated in accordance with new conditions, using the “reservations” as a territorial base, and developing long term projects dedicated to the socioeconomic development and political autonomy of the remnant indigenous nations.
And there has been little attention since 1980 to the call in the period of 1966 to 1972 for black community control, especially involving control of economic, political, and educational institutions, prophetically announced by Malcolm X in 1964. To the contrary, the tendency of the black middle class since 1965 to migrate out of the historic black neighborhoods has been an important factor in promoting the social and economic deterioration of traditional black urban neighborhoods in the cities of the nation.
In the context of the unfinished agenda of the left, Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988 tried to stimulate a renewal, and at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, meeting daily with his delegates, Jackson called for the development of the Rainbow Coalition as a nationwide mass organization. I personally was among Jackson’s delegates at the Convention, and I was in full agreement with the proposal. I considered that the formation of an alliance of workers, small businesspersons, professionals, blacks, women, gays, indigenous nations, and ecologists in a new political structure with organizational presence among the people, and charged with the responsibility of formulating a practical political program to benefit the nation and the people; to be a project with much potential, and the necessary road for the left at that historic moment.
In the period 1988-1990, working with other Jackson delegates on the proposal, I arrived to the unhappy conclusion that the Rainbow Coalition did not have the resources to develop into a mass organization. I talked with Rev. Jackson about this during one of his visits to South Carolina, and my sense was that he really did not know how to put the idea into practice. Perhaps he was trapped by the norms that reward yet restrict celebrities.
Subsequently, in the period 1990 to 2010, there emerged in specific academic fields what Pluckrose and Lindsay call “applied postmodernism,” which would culminate in “Social Justice activist scholarship” following 2010. This evolving phenomenon, ostensibly of the left, would address none of the issuers of the unfinished agenda of the left. In fact, it would undermine any possibility for taking the movements of the people to a more advanced stage, in accordance with their unfinished agendas.
The application of postmodernism in scholarship and activism
The story is told by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in their 2020 book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody. Social justice activist scholarship has roots in postmodernism, which entered U.S. elite universities in the period 1965 to 1990, through academic works based in the writings of the French postmodernists Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard.
As described by Plukrose and Lindsay, postmodernism sees scientific knowledge as a particular form of knowledge that utilizes linguistic discourse to describe reality in accordance with the interests of the powerful, yet presents itself as universal. Language thus is an instrument for the dissemination of a particular view of the world as seen by the powerful, which becomes pervasive in the society. Language, therefore, imposes the knowledge that reflects the interests of the powerful. In this way, we learn that the white race is superior, that women are inferior to men, that heterosexuality is normal, and that the human species is by nature binary. There are, therefore, hierarchical systems that are imposed through language, imposed by all and not primarily by racist and sexist actors. The hierarchical systems are largely invisible, because they are imposed through everyday language.
Postmodern scholarship seeks to empower liberation from invisible hierarchical structures through textual analysis that exposes the racist, sexist, and heteronormative bias of the discourse. Scholars and activists with experience and training in the critical textual analysis of written and spoken words supposedly are able to see the invisible hierarchical structures. These postmodern scholars and activists see themselves as having an ethical imperative to deconstruct and resist all ways of thinking and speaking that support oppressive structures of power.
Postmodern scholarship rejects claims to objective truth, in the realms of both fact and value. It sees all morality and all truths as socially constructed. It doubts that any human truth can be an objective representation of reality. It sees reality not as already-out-there but as created by language. Postmodernism views all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, as reflecting the social position and lived experiences of the knower. It sees objective truth claims as fantasies of the naïve, or as deliberately cynical claims by the bigoted. It sees all morality as socially constructed.
Accordingly, postmodernism rejects the liberal view that objective reality could be known through more or less reliable methods. Post-modernism sees multiple, equally valid knowledges and truths, each constructed by groups with shared markers of identity related to their positions in society, such as women, blacks, gays, lesbians, transgender persons, or any such combination.
Rather than seeking an empirically based objective truth, postmodern scholarship favors narratives and storytelling, which are viewed as authentic, if based in lived experiences. Social Justice scholarship advocates for “other ways of knowing” that are “theoretical interpretations of deeply felt lived experience,” in the words of Plukrose and Lindsay. Postmodernists view this as correcting the systemic favoring of evidence-based knowledge over tradition, folklore, interpretation, and emotion. Postmodern scholarship implicitly, and sometime explicitly, sees reason and evidence as the cultural property of white Western men.
Postmodern scholarship views the oppressed as better positioned to understand oppression. In its view, members of oppressed groups understand both the dominant perspective as well as the perspective of those who are oppressed.
Postmodernism rejects metanarratives. It rejected the metanarratives of both Christianity and Marxism. And it rejects the metanarrative of modern science, according to which humanity is progressing on the basis of advancing scientific and technological knowledge.
Pluckrose and Lindsay maintain that since 2010, postmodern principles and ideas have taken concrete form in Social Justice scholarship and activism. In their view, postmodern principles have become reified in the academy, such that they are treated as fundamental truths in scholarship. It is taken as given that society is structured of specific but invisible identity-based systems of power and privilege that construct knowledge through ways of talking about things. Knowledge is constructed in the service of power, and this reality can be made visible through close reading of texts. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity are structuring society, and they are infecting everything. This is a cultural reality, enforced through everyday language, and no one can escape its pervasive force. Therefore, all white people are racist; and all men are sexist. Racism, sexism, and heteronormality is systemic, independent of the particular attitudes and statements of individuals, and this systemic reality has to be constantly identified, condemned, and dismantled. In this postmodern epistemological discourse, Pluckrose and Lindsay maintain, economic class in barely mentioned.
Pluckrose and Lindsay maintain that, in spite of postmodernism’s rejection of metanarratives, Social Justice scholarship itself has formulated a metanarrative. Plukrose and Lindsay express the metanarrative in capital letters, as The Truth According to Social Justice, to emphasize its reification of postmodern principles since 2010, reflecting its self-confidence in its underlying assumptions, and its intolerance for those who disagree. They maintain that Social Justice Theorists have created a new religion that is hostile to reason, empirical verification of truth claims, and disagreement.
The limitations of postmodern scholarship can be seen with respect to the variant of applied postmodernism known as postcolonial studies. Pluckrose and Lindsay note that postcolonial studies theory does not investigate the material reality affecting countries and peoples that were previously under colonial rule; rather, it analyzes attitudes, beliefs, speech, and mindset, which are problematized. I would add that these formerly colonized peoples have been engaged in struggle against neocolonialism, attempting to construct a postcolonial world order. They have been seeking a comprehensive decolonization of politics, economies, and cultures, forging this struggle in theory and practice. To them, postcolonial studies have been irrelevant. As Pluckrose and Lindsay observe, the work of postcolonial scholars “is of very little practical relevance to the people living in previously colonized countries, who are trying to deal with the political and economic aftermath,” and I would add, the peoples are dealing with the political and economic aftermath of colonialism by forging anti-imperialist movements, which are allied in a quest for a more just and sustainable world order.
Reflections on lived experiences relative to the issues at hand
Inasmuch postmodernism values interpretations of lived experience, I would like to focus on three lived experiences of mine that are relevant to the issues raised by postmodern scholarship.
(1) I have intimately observed and participated in the significant transformation of racial customs and attitudes in white society from 1965 to 1990. I was born in 1946, the grandson of Irish and Italian immigrants to the United States. I grew up in a white middle class neighborhood in suburban Philadelphia. I was a witness to the multiple manifestations of racism prior to the Civil Rights reforms of 1964 and 1965, from which I myself was partially immunized, due to the influence of my Italian-American mother, who considered such behavior as lacking in decency and dignity. And I was a witness to the fundamental differences in words, attitudes, and accepted customs among whites with respect to race following the reforms of the 1960s, which were clearly evident with respect to the shared use of public accommodations. I relocated to South Carolina in 1984, and I did not discern significant differences between the North and the South in this regard at that time.
From 1978 to 2010, I taught the sociology of race and ethnic relations, and I was oriented to identifying subtle expressions of racism, which I endeavored to explain to my students, the great majority of whom were white middle class. Such expressions of racism were indirect, largely unintended, and subtle, occurring in the context of a fundamental change in race-related speech and conduct among whites. I suggested to my students that they educate themselves with respect to the African-American movement and the national liberation movements of the Third World, in order to develop their understanding of the nation and the world. In fact, I used the race relations course to provide a succinct history of the African-American movement, stretching the expectations for sociology of race relations courses at that time. In addition, I developed a unique course on the political-economy of the world-system, which provided a structure for teaching with respect to the Third World movements for national and social liberation. Moreover, I developed experiential courses in Honduras and Cuba, which combined travel experiences with intellectual work, seeking to stimulate an awakening. My students in no sense were expected to confess complicity in structures of language and worldview that were formulated before they were born. I did not condemn them for their ignorance, inasmuch as in their ignorance, they themselves were victims of processes much greater than all of us.
I retired from college teaching in 2011. I had played a leading role in a small group of teachers and administrators that was seeking to develop the social and racial consciousness of our students. However, I doubt if I would have been able to comply with the expectations of woke administrators who appeared on the scene in the decade following my retirement.
(2) In the early 1970s, I discovered firsthand the relation of truth to social position. I was in a master’s degree program in which all my teachers were African-American or African, and nearly all the students were black. We were taught colonial analysis, which viewed European colonial domination as fundamental to the making of the modern world. We were taught that the independence of the African nations did not make possible true sovereignty; rather, it meant merely transition to neocolonialism. And we were presented with a broad analogy between African nations and the African-American community.
I could not fail to see that the standpoint of these black scholars was fundamentally different from that of my undergraduate professors, the great majority of whom were white men. The experience cast doubt on the possibility of the attainment of objective knowledge. I became interested in investigating further this “problem of objectivity.”
Like postmodernists, I saw the connection between knowledge and power. But I interpreted the problem differently. As I saw it, if knowledge is inescapably tied to social position, then all knowledge claims, insofar as they are tied to organized collectivities, are equally valid. In such an epistemological situation, in any nation in which conflicting claims were put forth, it would be the understanding of the powerful that would prevail, overruling other truth claims, independent of the amount of empirical evidence or moral correctness that alternative paradigms could put forth in their defense. The powerful could use its control of the media of communication and the educational system to hammer home its truth. Therefore, truth would be what those in power say it is.
The only way that one or more sectors of the people could prevail in an epistemological war with the powerful would be for the people to have the weapon of a credible claim to objective truth, in spite of the evident fact that understanding is rooted in social position. I considered that the formulation of such a credible claim would constitute the solution to the problem of objectivity, a solution that would be beneficial for the people, not for the powerful.
I wrote a paper with my initial reflections on the problem of objectivity, and I sent it along my materials for application for the sociology doctoral program at Fordham University. I received a telephone call from Father Joseph Fitzpatrick, sociology professor at Fordham, then approaching retirement. He suggested the possibility that I could earn a Ph.D. in sociology in an individualized program that included study of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan in Fordham’s philosophy department, where Father Gerald McCool was a Lonergan specialist. Father Fitz told me that Lonergan had formulated a cognitional theory that addressed the questions that I was raising. I had not heard of Lonergan, but the proposal appeared consistent with my desire to investigate the problem of objectivity and to seek an understanding of a solution.
Father Fitz was right. Lonergan had resolved the problem of objectivity to my satisfaction. The Canadian Jesuit maintained that the subject (the persons seeking understanding), if driven by the desire to know as the highest desire, can arrive to an understanding that transcends the subject’s social position through personal encounter with persons of other horizons, taking seriously their understandings, seeking to understand their insights, and appropriating those insights for a reformulation of the subject’s understanding with respect to the issue at hand. This can occur because, in listening to the other, the subject discovers relevant questions that previously were beyond his or her horizon. In essence, if you want to understand, you should follow a method of cross-horizon encounter, seeking to understand the insights of persons of other horizons, resulting in a reformulation of your own understanding.
Lonergan’s cognitional theory retrospectively explained what I had experienced. I had personally encountered black intellectuals whose own understanding was based on collective efforts of the African-American community for self-consciousness in world-historical context. I took seriously their understanding, appropriating their insights for my own understanding. In the process, my own understanding was radically transformed. It was not that I now understood the experience of being colonized. Rather, I had arrived to understand the collective understanding of the colonized, which was rooted in the lived experience of the colonized. As a result of radical intellectual transformation (which Lonergan called intellectual conversion), I was no longer thinking like a normal white person or white intellectual.
When Father Fitz sent me on my way, he suggested that I study Marx, which I did, including all the published manuscripts (including those published after his death) written by Marx or by Marx and Engels. This study allowed me to give Lonergan’s cognitional theory a Marxist tweak, based on the fact that Marx’s own intellectual conversion of 1843-1844 was based on a personal encounter with the emerging proletarian movement formed by workers, artisans, and assorted intellectuals, combined with an intensive study of British political economy. I had arrived to the understanding that an objective understanding of historical dynamics and contemporary reality can be attained through personal encounter with the social movements of the oppressed, taking seriously the insight of their leaders.
I wrote my understanding in a book published by Greenwood Press, Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reformulation of Marx’s Concept of Science, which included a chapter devoted entirely to Lonergan. The book was endorsed by Immanuel Wallerstein, who apparently wrote the endorsement as a favor to Greenwood Press. The creator of world-systems analysis wrote me a brief note saying that “we should pay more attention to epistemological issues, as you do.” But alas, hardly anyone read the book.
Who was going to pay attention to the book, written by an academic who had never even visited an elite university? Not academics taking the post-modern turn. Not intellectuals and activists influenced by classical Marxist formulations. Not activists with an implicit disdain for academic work. Not the mainstream academic world, according to which I was in violation of epistemological rules with respect to objectivity and disciplinary boundaries. I used to say to my colleagues at my (non-elite) college: “I have solved the problem of objectivity, but I can’t convince anybody of it.”
(3) But no matter. I applied the method of cross-horizon encounter in my own search for truth, and here we arrive to my third lived experience. Retrospectively I could see that cross-horizon encounter had been my methodology, without naming it as such, in my quest for understanding in the African-American community. I was engaging in personal encounter with African-American scholars, who themselves were seeking to understand U.S. race relations from the vantage point of the colonized. I continued with this quest, first in Honduras and then Cuba, in a sustained process of encounter that has consumed me during the last thirty years. The quest has been guided by a search for understanding, in the first place, the structures and dynamics of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism; and in the second place, the universal struggle of the colonized to transform political-economic-cultural structures and to construct a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system. In this process, I have been aided by Cuban academics and journalists, whose own perspective is global and historical.
On the basis of this lived experience, I am a personal witness to a fundamental truth, namely, that postmodernism’s skeptical and cynical epistemology has nothing in common with the common-sense epistemology forged by the social movements of the oppressed of the Third World, who have been struggling to transform the political and economic conditions of their colonial situation. They do not view themselves as expressing from the standpoint of their lived experience as neocolonized. Certainly, they appreciate that their understanding is rooted in their neocolonial situation. But they see themselves as seeking to describe the objective reality of neocolonialism, and as having the obligation to support all claims of truth with empirical evidence.
Moreover, there can be no doubt that the colonized and neocolonized of the world believe in universal moral truths. They have been actively engaged in formulating them: all nations have the right to sovereignty; no nation should interfere in the internal affairs of other nations; all peoples have the right to economic development, which is the most fundamental of all human rights; all persons have the rights to health care, education, housing, and nutrition. And so on. It goes on and on, and it has persistently since the 1960s.
This one is my favorite: “The General Assembly of the People of Cuba proclaim before America the right of intellectuals, artists, and scientists to struggle, with their works, for a better world” (September 2, 1960). A promise forged in hope, and delivered in institutionalized practice, from that day to this.
Social justice activist scholarship is disconnected from the historic struggles of the peoples’ movements in the United States; it makes no effort to take up their unfinished agendas, concerning which it has little consciousness. At the same time, it is disconnected from the real struggles for social justice of the peoples of the world today. It knows little of their concepts, strategies, and hopes; and it formulates an epistemology that is alien to the epistemological assumptions of the peoples of the world in struggle. Accordingly, this scholarship does not fulfill the necessary task today of scholarship tied to social justice, which is the promotion of greater understanding of structures of domination and struggles for liberation, rooted in the insights of the historic leaders of the peoples’ movements of the United States and the leaders of the ongoing revolutions and movements of the peoples of the world.
Today’s social justice activist scholarship promotes profound division, inasmuch as it puts forth claims rooted in the lived experiences of some that are inconsistent with the lived experiences of others, claims that often are inconsistent with empirically based analyses. And it stokes division in a historic moment shaped by the decadence of the United States and the neocolonial world-system, a situation that calls for the united action of the people based on a shared understanding of the structures of domination and of the real possibilities for the emancipation of the peoples of the world.
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