When the excluded call out a movement, we are often told to put aside our differences: it’s only common sense that to accomplish anything, we need unity. But the only unity we have, the only equality we share, is the thinnest commonality – the democracy of consumers.
Already, in conversations with supposed comrades, our critiques have been met with concern that the “mainstream” won’t get it, that the precious, delicate momentum will be stopped. Interventions to a white-washed and patriarchal agenda (which is any agenda that denies the differential impact of capital on people of colour and women) are always received as interruptions. At best, they are conceded to with invitations, with “outreach”, and with promises to be more inclusive.
We say: inclusivity without an adequate analysis is just unstated exclusivity. This is not identity politics: this is the anti-identity politics. For it is capitalism that pushes us to rank facets of our identities; to select one group as the vanguard and press marginalized identities to choose which aspect of their oppression to make a priority.
We refuse this choice: we know that our difference is produced and reproduced by capital and therefore cannot be erased within it, that these differences are real (the most real) and thus should drive our analyses and our actions, and that no unity can be claimed until every social relationship is no longer defined by capital, but by us.
The next, from an eloquent graduate student, is harder to deflect. You advocate moderation, says the questioner, fierce but polite, when what is called for is extremism! The professor parries this more formidable intervention with a subtler evasion—the patronising embrace: That is a very interesting point …
It is a ritualistic business, this questioning. Everyone, despite what are often good intentions, tends to play along. Hands are obediently raised. An underlying deference emerges in the failure to move from the skeptical question (perhaps with the permissible disgruntled follow-up) to some act of outright denunciation or disruption.
What makes it worse is that the famous professor—the kind of famous professor who earns $150,000 per year and often charges $1000 to deliver a lecture—has been speaking of … the future of the Left.
Todd Gitlin once said of the Left’s gains from the “culture wars” that, “We lost—we squandered the politics—but won the textbooks.” Really? That “we” enacts a complacently rueful mythology. It is the kind of statement that allows academics to believe that they, principled people and teachers, are separate from the ruthless and philistine world outside; that they preserve decency and equality in the institutions which they administer (classroom and library, examination and peer review, conference and journal).
It is folly. Leaving aside the notion that the Right won the textbooks too by leaving the professorial “Left” to write them, can the assertion that academic institutions are emancipatory be sustained for more than the second or two it takes the well-practiced famous professor to decide whether to insult or to deviously embrace a thoughtful question?
Is it necessary to go into anthropological detail about all the patronage and bullying, venality and plagiarism, envy and insecurity, empire-building and gossip, sycophancy and lechery, conflicts of interest and all the innumerable other careerist perfidies that contaminate the profession? Perhaps it is time for someone to nail theses about widespread corrupt practices to the door of the university!
It should happen, but until it does there remains at least the everyday problem of the purportedly radical lecture and its question time.
Should it not be axiomatic that if the social form of intellectual work is a ritualized obedience that dissipates any truly antagonistic encounter, it will always be inadequate to the task of radical thinking, which must oppose, defy, repudiate?
Conversely: if we believe that radical thought canbe emancipatory, is it not a matter of political urgency to introduce dissent and confrontation insistently into the docile lecture theatre because to do so begins to create—for a moment, for longer—a space of contestation, of occupation, in which the tediously common professorial strategies for stultification can be defeated?
And then there would be room for something better, something to do with cooperation and liberation.