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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 19, May 11, 2024

Review of ‘The Right Wing Mirror of Critical Theory by Larry Alan Busk | Matt McManus

Saturday 11 May 2024



The Right Wing Mirror of Critical Theory:

Studies of Schmitt, Oakeshott, Strauss and Rand

by Larry Alan Busk
Rowman and Littlefield
2023. 276 pp.
hb ISBN 9781666929638

Reviewed by Matt McManus

For many decades now, anti-foundationalism has been a very popular position on the academic left. Influenced by an array of post-structuralist and post-modern thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida and Gayatri Spivak, many have argued that ideas of justice, reason and universalism were conceptually flawed at best and dangerous at worst. These thinkers all stressed how bellicosely universalistic conceptions of reason and morality served as the ideological basis of Western and Soviet imperialism, the emergence of the disciplinary carceral state and neoconservative military interventionism. Rather than run the risk of repeating these errors, the left needed to adopt a position of depthless skepticism towards any system that sought to instantiate itself through power. To the extent we put forward a constructive political programme, it would need to be focused on a micropolitics that gradually enacted big change through small and very particular forms of activism.

In his new book The Right Wing Mirror of Critical Theory, Marxist theorist Larry Alan Busk asks us to question this intellectual transition and to stop ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’. While acknowledging the dangers of appealing to Enlightenment ideals of progress, reason and ‘intelligent design’, Busk claims that ‘if our ambition is to create a world in which everyone has enough to eat, in which no one is victimized for arbitrary reason, in which structural conditions do no keep most in a state of poverty and a select few in preposterous opulence, and in which we can look forward to a habitable climate future and an ecologically sustainable level of material comfort, then appeals to the figures of progress are inevitable’ (25). His main argument for this is that, curiously, the repudiation of ‘figures of progress’ so emblematic of much critical theory, brought it squarely and comfortably into line with the main thrust of reactionary philosophy.

The Enlightenment was a moment of triumph for many of the progressive and revolutionary forces which had been developing for many generations. Radicals like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft attacked the ancien regimes as contrary to ‘common sense’ and basic reason, stressing the transparently ideological character of mythological justifications for aristocratic inequality. In Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, political theorist Don Herzog stressed how conservatives were shocked that ancient conceptions of the great hierarchical ‘Chain of Being’, which held that God and nature intended everyone to have their place, not only failed to resonate by provoked mockery from Enlightenment radicals. Edmnund Burke sneered that the philosophes wanted to strip away ‘all the pleasing illusions’ that elevated a man or a woman into a king or queen and made subordination easy, and recommended we infuse ‘sublime principles’ onto those who’d been erected above others. In response, Mary Wollstonecraft accused him of having a ‘moral antipathy to reason’ who’d excuse injustice on the perplexing basis that the injustice had gone on for a such a long time that we ought to excuse and even revere it.

Busk stresses how this deep wariness of Enlightenment’s ambition to remake the world permanently stamped the reactionary tradition, down through its greatest twentieth century thinkers à la Schmitt, Oakeshott, Hayek, Strauss and Ayn Rand.

Busk points out how Schmitt was deeply skeptical of both the liberal and Marxist belief in reason, holding instead that our basic moral beliefs were ‘secularized theological concepts’ organized into myths. On that basis Schmitt felt that the fascist myth propagated by Mussolini and later Hitler had an

advantage over socialist myths because the ‘former is more effective: more emotionally resonant, more “irrationally” powerful, and above all, more historically successful. This is, in fact, the most consistent criticism of Marxist politics that Schmitt undertakes-he does not criticize it for being false or immoral, only for lacking the imaginative power capable of unifying and mobilizing the masses, at least relative to the affective charms of nationalism (63).

Michael Oakeshott was similarly critical of ‘rationalism’ in politics, arguing that it is an illusion that there are ‘correct’ answers to practical questions that can be settled by an appeal to either facts, norms or history. Over and against those, like the British utilitarian socialists, who proposed to reinvent society to promote the human good, Oakeshott endorsed a conservatism wherein we ‘enjoy what is present and available regardless of its ability to satisfy any want.’ While superficially benign, Busk stresses how in concrete terms Oakeshott’s anti-rational conservatism led him to express deep reservations about women’s suffrage till near the end, and then only endorsing it because near the end of his long life Oakeshott acknowledged women’s voting was an established part of the British ‘tradition’ – it had nothing to do with ideals of ‘rights’ or ‘justice’.

Undoubtedly, the heart of the book is Busk’s deep chapter on Hayek, which constitutes one of the richest attempts to answer the Austrian economist from a Marxist perspective. Busk points out how Hayek argued that we need to see society as evolving through a process of ‘natural selection’ rather than the result of conscious, rational design. Hayek was famously critical of both Nazism and the communist command economies for attempting to ‘plan’ entire societies, failing to recognize how the complexity required to understand society enough to organize planning far outstripped anything of which human mind was capable. Busk points out that there is nonetheless a deep ‘logical hole in Hayek’s argument’ (116). That is, for Hayek,

societies evolve through a process of natural selection, and inhibitions in old arrangement provoke new ones to emerge and develop. Socialism, however, is not treated as a natural outgrowth of other social forms – it is only an aberration of the intellect. He establishes justification-by-existence, but the project of intelligent design remains unjustified in spite of its existence. Likewise, this positivistic criterion, which legitimates a political system insofar as it is established, not insofar as we can imagine it, does not prevent him from imagining a liberal utopia. He declares at once that the human ship is guided by winds that we cannot control and that we should self-consciously try to change course (116).

This is indeed a serious problem in Hayek’s position which even other libertarians have acknowledged. While he endorsed an evolutionary rather than planning oriented approach to society, Hayek unfailingly insisted that there must be a major role for the state to play in establishing the conditions for market society, ‘designed’ new kinds of constitutional orders that would put constraints on democratic will, and even called for the introduction of markets in states which had previously been non-capitalist. Whatever else one thinks, this blurs the boundaries between evolution and planning which Hayek elsewhere makes central to the argument against socialism. For all that, Busk could have spent more time dealing with the more nuanced dimensions of Hayek’s thinking. While Busk acknowledges that ‘Hayek and company advanced a perfectly coherent (which is not to say compelling) critique of socialist planning’, he doesn’t address many of the specific epistemic underpinnings of Hayek’s position (115). This is more important than may seem because, as some of the more sophisticated commentaries have pointed out, there is an undeniable sense in which Hayek follows Marx in being an heir to the German critical tradition, a tradition which, following Kant and Hegel, has been uniform in stressing the limitations of utopian rationalism. A deep dive into this problem is a necessary one for socialists seeking to answer Hayek comprehensively. As is a response to his own acknowledgement that a certain kind of welfarism was compatible with capitalism, particularly once one abandoned the meritocratic mythologies characteristic of earlier liberalism.

Busk’s analysis of right-wing thought is always illuminating and fresh, and is a welcome contribution to the growing array of sophisticated left-wing interpretations of the right. What’s sure to be more controversial is his spicy claim that contemporary left theory is a ‘mirror’ to its right-wing counterpart, internalizing many of the same arguments about needing to be skeptical of reason, not hope for too much and focus on militant particularism over structural transformation. The consequences are dire. For Busk, it means that ‘the Right has no real opposition, but only a reflection. If our opponent has already anticipated all of our moves, at a certain point we are no longer playing against this opponent-we are merely pushing the pieces around in a performative display, going through the motions of a process whose outcome, defeat, is determined in advance’ (50). Grim stuff.

This argument is being made more and more forcefully in a number of different quarters. Some are even more explicit than Busk. In his excellent The Seduction of Unreason, philosopher Richard Wolin sardonically points out how generations of critical theorists abandoned Marx and socialism in the mid-century and rushed to embrace figures associated with the German ‘Conservative Revolution’ à la Nietzsche, Schmitt and Heidegger. The result was a left that turned on the very Enlightenment heritage it had once advanced. In a very different register, historian Samuel Moyn’s latest book Liberalism Against Itself argues that twentieth-century liberals, shocked by the Holocaust and Soviet atrocities, also chose to abandon the more ambitiously egalitarian goals of their doctrine. Ironically this took place amongst liberal intellectuals at the very moment when liberal politicians, often inspired by democratic forms of socialism, were constructing the welfare states that brought the ideal of a free and equal society closer to realization than any other. Internalizing arguments about the limitations of reason and human nature long propagated by conservatives, Moyn argues Cold War liberals came to agree with Hayek that the best which could be hoped for was a neoliberal society with a very minimal floor of economic redistribution. The hopes of a liberal socialist like Mill or Irving Howe gave way to the pessimism and ultimately cynicism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

It is undeniably possible to push it too far. Anyone who has spent any time with the ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ or ‘race realist’ crowd knows that the potential of Enlightenment rhetoric to validate reactionary politics is alive and well. We cannot throw out the insights and caution of critics like Adorno, Foucault or Spivak through an uncritical return to faith in a left-Enlightenment. But Busk is absolutely right that such a return is needed, and needed now. For too many decades the intellectual left has retreated into ‘trashing’ and criticizing in lieu of offering an inspiring alternative to the status quo. There will always be a place for this critical disposition, but it must once more be complemented by an optimism of the will and an ambition of the intellect. During what he entitled the ‘Age of Reason’, Thomas Paine declared the intelligent men and women had it in their power to rationally make the world anew. That power is still the left’s if we want to grasp it.

7 May 2024

(Review author: Matt McManus is a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Michigan and the author of The Political Right and Equality amongst other books.)

[Reproduced from Marx & Philosophy Review of Books under a Creative Commons License]

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