Critical Theory Doesn’t Provide a Good Model for Change
The case for sticking with liberal ideals and principles
Ever since I started this series Liberalism vs Critical Theory, some people have accused me of being influenced by ‘right wing propaganda’, in the way I look at the issue of critical race theory (CRT) and what I call the ‘Theory Left’ (i.e. the critical theory driven part of the post-1960s Western New Left) more generally. They also accuse me of defending the status quo, and turning a blind eye to social ills like racism and inequality (obviously without reading my other work). I believe there’s a big misunderstanding here.
Make no mistake. I have absolutely no interest in defending the status quo. I certainly think the negativity towards the status quo from the Left (as well as some parts of the center and the Right) is very justified. By recognizing how bad our status quo really is, we at least have hope of changing it. The problem is that, critical theory ends up having pro-status quo effects more often than not. What some people who have read my work don’t seem to understand is that, my criticism is not only directed at the Theory Left. It is directed at the whole status quo, of which the Theory Left, rooted in a certain brand of elite intellectualism, is undeniably a part of. In other words, critical theory is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
I guess, the most important question we need to ask right now is, what kind of change do we want. And I believe that critical theory provides the wrong model of change. For example, I have said a lot about how critical theory harms the social fabric, and this is surely not the kind of change we need. Another important shortcoming of critical theory is that it is simply an impotent model of change, if we want fundamental change and not just a culture war. From what I see, identity-based critical theory movements lead to division, fracturing and bitterness. And this is ultimately self defeating, if what we want is a fundamental change to the way our society works, because united we stand, and divided we fall. Everyone has to be in the same boat to make it work. Critical theory might sound cool on the surface, but it doesn’t lead to productive change in the real world.
Besides, critical theory movements generally don’t represent the real wishes of the disadvantaged groups they claim to help. Instead, what is represented are the ideas of a small minority of elite intellectuals, whose thinking is ultimately rooted in the theory of academic philosophers like Marcuse, Foucault, Derrida, and so on. In most cases, this theory isn’t even well understood, let alone accepted in any way, by the people they claim to represent! This is essentially elitist, top-down driven change, which has strong parallels with what used to be called ‘Blanquism’ on the Left a century ago. Thus, I think it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the contemporary Theory Left is essentially practicing a form of neo-Blanquism. And this is a really problematic model of change that ultimately never works in practice!
An important area where I believe I differ from critical theory activists is that I still have a lot of hope in humanity itself. My negativity towards the status quo is matched by my positivity towards my fellow human beings, and I believe that maintaining a positive faith in humanity is essential for finding a path forward. This is what I mean when I say ‘stay positive’. I believe that humanity fundamentally has a good heart, and it’s not all about struggles of power and privilege. Those with an agenda might confuse some of us sometimes, but ultimately justice prevails. (A good example of this was the 2003 Iraq War. Back when I was in college public opinion was truly divided, but nowadays, it is difficult to find somebody who still thinks it was a good idea.)
When you remain positive about humanity, it makes sense to stand up for fundamental liberal ideals like free speech, freedom of conscience and individual dignity (as opposed to seeing people as part of some oppressor or oppressed group). If you believe that humanity still fundamentally has a good heart, you would be able to see how these values enable us to correct social wrongs, think about better ways to live, and ultimately improve our collective level of morality over time (which is what the Moral Libertarian ideal is ultimately about). This, I believe, is the very definition of social progress. Hence, for humanity optimists like myself, liberal values are worth defending, because they represent the best path we have for social progress.
One thing I find myself explaining over and over again is that, when I say that I am a liberal, it doesn’t actually mean that I support the so-called ‘liberal’ establishment. For example, some people on the Left think that the endless war agenda is liberalism’s fault because they see ‘liberals’ in the establishment being on board with it. My view is that these so-called ‘liberals’ are no different from the ‘liberal’ pseudo-democracy apologists of the 19th century who justified withholding the vote from working class people using a selective reading of John Locke. The truth is, there is nothing ‘liberal’ about anything that has its roots in the Cold War agenda and its extensions like the ‘War or Terror’, an agenda which I believe fundamentally corrupted our understanding of liberalism. (Hint: there is a reason why America’s founding fathers had a very different foreign policy.) The problem is, many people don’t even understand what liberalism is truly about anymore. These days, everyone from campus activists on the Left to Patrick Deneen on the Right mistakenly think they have nailed what’s wrong with liberalism, when they are actually attacking a straw man.
To truly realize the ideals of liberalism would require a radical departure from where we are at right now. This is especially true, after so many decades of corruption of liberal terminology and values by those with an agenda, including corporate interests, wealthy donors, the military industrial complex, and anti-liberal philosophical revolutionaries alike. This is why I welcome all ideas that could contribute to us being able to take this radical break from the past. This is why I even said that certain nuanced, academic forms of critical theory might in fact be useful, when taken in moderation. Think of it as a mirror, holding our liberalism up to scrutiny, to examine if we are indeed staying true to our values, and making progress towards our goals. However, what I insist on is that liberal goals and liberal values are not subverted and supplanted by what some are calling a ‘successor ideology’, where people are pitted against each other as oppressors and opppressed groups, and where fundamental Enlightenment values like free speech are severely compromised.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for Western democracies in the 21st century.