I shall be the first to admit that I have had a rather terrible vice in my past. Namely, to indulge in the study of critical theory. The problem with such a study is that it is quite vague. Critical theory is about understanding structures of power, and challenging such structures.
I am immediately taken back to Michel Foucault's writings on crime and punishment as I think of this mode of analysis.
And it makes me question precisely a few things regarding not only this framework, but also its purpose, goal and notable achievements. Because the question I’ve never seen critical theory answer, which to me feels like a good starting point, is why bother? Why do we need to challenge power?
I don’t think power is a problem, nor do I think it needs challenging, nor do I think we are capable of challenging power any more than we have been sufficient at winning a war on terror.
I think critical theory is rather quite apologetic to authority in how it reduces such an authority into a mythical struggle between power and powerlessness.
For one thing, such a struggle would be hopeless, the powerless would always lose, they are definitionally powerless. It is as if to say that there is some kind of noteworthy or meaningful conflict between two enemies, one which is living, and one which is dead.
So for starters I would dispel the idea that there are structures of power to begin with. They only exist in our imagination. The underclass is many things. Disorganised? Sure. Traumatised? Absolutely. But powerless? Not even a little bit.
Many people in the underclass do not know how to meaningfully contest their position in life, but to say they are without power is to ignore why police, auxiliary military, social workers and car alarms exist in the first place.
You do not oppress those who are powerless, rather, you oppress those who are not.
If you wish to see real helplessness, then do not waste your time with the downtrodden, look at the academics and the liberal moderates who will, with some sanctimony, invent theories such as critical theory to put the downtrodden under a microscope.
Those people have been taught helplessness. In the face of oppression, they are rendered helpless. They have no intuition towards rebellion. This is because they are walled in by their own contradiction, which in many ways intersects itself through the Lacanian dichotomy: They are both perverted, and hysterical. They are at a crisis of agency, they lack recourse, in this sense they are hysterical.
But at the same time, they know perversion too, through their status as educated people. They see themselves as educated, as progressive, as radical and as liberatory agents, but they also suffer under the crisis of how, in spite of this status given to them by society, they have no agency nor recourse.
They are educated, and yet, they are ignorant. They are liberatory, and yet, they are helpless. They are progressive, and yet… they are petit-bourgeoisie. The most reactionary of classes.
And in many ways, critical theory is the coping mechanisms by which they exist, because by seeing the world through power structures and social constructs, then you have stripped society of all its humanity. Suddenly you are living in a world in which politics are as elementary as the sea or the mountains. A world which redeems the petit-bourgeoisie of their role in life.
This is what permits them to solve the contradiction at hand here. If one were to listen to the Marxists, those mass-murderers and anti-intellectuals who, in the scope of academia, are only permitted to exist in their most Francophile and castrated iteration, then one were to be given a more radical notion.
Because Marxism is made by these poor and these oppressed, these subjects under the microscope. Marxism finds its great authors in third world countries, among the peasants, the guerillas, the revolutionaries and the abolitionists. Marxism is built in every corner of the world. It is one of the first forces which truly managed to unite the European working class with those working class people of the colonies who, for centuries prior, had been kept separated through doctrines of colonialism and racism.
Marx can only be understood through Fanon, Freire and Cleaver. Through the many voices that were able to resonate with Marx, and to contribute to Marx. Marxism is an analytical framework through which one may understand the world. Only by introducing such a framework to the world may one make sense of it.
And when you look at the Marxists from the contributions made by this end of things, by this spectrum of the supposedly powerless, then we see something else. We see how the Marxists were not mass-murderers nor anti-intellectuals, in fact, they often fought very brutal and very valiant wars against such enemies. Rather, we see how they quickly render the critical theorists redundant.
Because it turns out that the poor and the oppressed are not fools, nor are they powerless, nor do they need to be put under a microscope. What critical theory so fundamentally lacks in its analysis is egalitarianism. It regards the subjects of power as helpless penned in beasts, who look upon the abattoir with cluelessness.
Critical theorists will often tout Freire’s works as excellent, how the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a new and radical way to see the world. But where is the evidence of this?
Never do I see critical theory that purports such radical content. Never do I see critical theory that looks upon Cuba, or Burkina Faso, or Venezuela as a success story. More often than not, they once again gain resolve in their magical thinking of power, as the narratives of these revolutions become one that laments the nature of noble savages.
Critical theory frames the Cubans as victims of machismo who, in their troubled state as illiterate and third world people, are simply too ignorant and too far gone to understand what they are doing. They become framed as homophobes and misogynists for views that, to the rest of the world, would’ve been regarded as contemporary in the 1960s.
In fact even today we see them beat this dead horse, in spite of how Cuba has had a thriving LGBT community for decades. In spite of how women’s rights are abundant and even greater than they are in the first world.
Apparently in the scope of critical theory, the Cuban people are simply too weak willed to manage power. These people who have lived through the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, fascism and the US embargo, they just don’t quite get it in the same was as Deleuze would.
But if they bothered to actually listen to the message of Freire’s pedagogy then they’d know the entire radical content of such a work is to give the Cubans some credit. To give the third world some credit. To examine their intellectuals, their books, their history and their struggle from the perspective of those who partook in such a struggle.
If they bothered to stand a little bit close to Fanon’s texts when he was criticising Mannoni for doing the exact same thing, then they’d realise that there is no abstract struggle against power, but a struggle against very real and very tangible realities.
Fanon did not fight power, he fought men. He fought the Nazis at the western front, and the colonial government of Martinique and Algeria.
And I think that’s what makes critical theorists a little bit uncomfortable. Because if you’re a French middle class intellectual, going to a French university, then how do you support African rebels who are killing French soldiers? You’ll lose your job if you do that, or get expelled, or even arrested.
But at the same time, so what? It’s nothing compared to what people in the third world suffers when they speak the same truth.
And so we see how these convenient and defanged allegories become so popular among academia. Where instead of taking a clear stance against what is unjust, like for instance Parenti or Finkelstein, both of whom suffered great retaliation as they lost their livelihoods and got censored, you instead make these vague lamentations about the human condition, wherein every side is corrupt, all power is seen pessimistically, and where you make any radical statement with a disarming preface, saying things like “Yes, of course the Africans are terrorists, BUT…”
And that’s exactly how you can become a celebrity dissident. How you can make lots of money and have a high profile career like Chomsky or Foucault. Because you know how to remove the radical content of your analysis.
But in the end I say this, the best radical authors of the US are not to be found at MIT, nor are they to be found among critical theorists. The institute that has had the most prestigious of radical authors in the US has always been Soledad prison. From George Jackson to Eldridge Cleaver, and in some spiritual sense, Ed Meade.
If you want to understand the realities of class struggle, don’t waste your time with the academics, they’re clueless, look at what books that come out of prisons. Whether it is Bobby Sands, Vladimir Lenin or Huey Newton. These people speak with far more clarity and with far more intelligence than anyone who would resort to the euphemisms of power structures.