21 May 2024

cultural Marxism's obsession with Language – final part

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology, excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.

extracts from my forthcoming book:
Trope 8: Language

One of the curious features which an impartial observer is likely to notice when first encountering cultural Marxism is its obsession with the topic of language. Any Critical Theory text worth its salt is almost certain to expound on this topic. Referencing the enigmas of linguistics in a work of literary criticism, especially if the name ‘Saussure’ is also mentioned, could almost function as the basic criterion of cultural Marxism.
   The purpose of invoking the mysteries of language appears to have more to do with exploiting uncertainty and confusion than with generating any genuine insights.

Promoting the culture-is-social perspective is relatively easy in the case of language. This is presumably one reason why references to the topic are popular with cultural Marxists.
   There are academic subjects which actually study the basic principles of language. The question of how combinations of sounds, or combinations of characters, can stand for (represent, refer to, signify) elements of reality, and the nature of the relationship between the signifier and what is signified, are problems that continue to baffle. This may be partly because those problems are intertwined with the problem of consciousness, which remains as intractable as it did four centuries ago. Our understanding of the fundamentals of language has advanced a little, but not much, during the history of the subject since the nineteenth century.
   Swiss humanities professor Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is often presented as a key figure in this history. However, it is not clear that his contributions in this area actually amount to much. Space is given to Saussure in textbooks on linguistics, but this seems to be primarily because he was the first to analyse language in a way that strongly emphasised its social aspects, and which provided other social theorists with the tools for promoting cultural collectivism. It is difficult to see his theories about the fundamentals of language as constituting genuine advances on which later linguisticians were able to build.
   The following trio of sub-tropes seems to have developed into a kind of mantra within the liberal arts:
• the idea that there is something mysterious, and intrinsically political, about the way language works;
• using terminology to discuss the topic of language in a way that engenders bewilderment rather than genuine comprehension;
• citing Ferdinand de Saussure.

Introductory texts on Critical Theory invariably give prominence to the language issue. The book Introducing Cultural Studies, for example, a sort of Critical Theory for Dummies, brings linguistics in right at the start. This in spite of the fact that, for the average reader, leaping into such abstruse theory at an early stage is surely neither necessary nor helpful.
To understand how cultural studies is done, we need to equip ourselves with a few of its key concepts and principles. A major concept in cultural studies is that of sign. A sign has three basic characteristics ...
   The physical form of the sign is known as the signifier ... what the sign refers to, its mental association, is known as the signified ...
   The theory of signs developed from the work of Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. He argued that language is a cultural phenomenon; and it generates meaning in a special way. Language produces meaning by a system of relationships, by producing a network of similarities and differences.
   Saussure’s followers developed a study of signs – semiotics – to establish the basic features of signs and explain the way they work in social life. [ICS, pp.10-11]
Saussure’s assertions about the social nature of language are used to make analogous sweeping claims about culture, society and politics – though it’s by no means clear that Saussure himself would have approved of this (ab)use of his ideas.
Signs are often organized as codes governed by explicit and implicit rules agreed upon by members of a culture or social group. A system of signs may thus carry encoded meanings and messages that can be read by those who understand the codes. A signifying structure composed of signs and codes is a text that can be read for its signs and encoded meanings.
   When the social and power relationships are examined, the historical forces shaping the text are understood.
   The combination of signs and significations is considered, and the general environment within which the text exists is recognized. [ibid, p.13]
* * * * *

The intellectual movement called ‘linguistic philosophy’, inspired by Cambridge philosophy don Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), was based on the claim that our understanding of reality is highly dependent on language. The extremer versions of this asserted that experience itself is impossible without language. Literature professor Terry Eagleton is clearly a fan of this perspective.
Husserl speaks of a purely private or internal sphere of experience; but such a sphere is in fact a fiction, since all experience involves language and language is ineradicably social. To claim that I am having a wholly private experience is meaningless: I would not be able to have an experience in the first place unless it took place in the terms of some language within which I could identify it ... [Literary Theory, p.52]
Eagleton exploits the fact that we have only limited understanding of how language conveys meaning. He uses our ignorance to make vague assertions which – conveniently – do not contradict any known facts. Such assertions do not have genuine informational content, but instead appear to have a propaganda purpose. The point, apparently, is to convey the sense that culture is primarily social, and not the product of individuals.
Dealing in grand generalities in the absence of facts, Eagleton is able to jump from one vague and unsupported claim (‘we cannot have meanings without language’) to another (an individual’s experience is ‘social to its roots’). Such claims are best seen as serving an emotional purpose rather than actual analysis.
The hallmark of the ‘linguistic revolution’ of the twentieth century, from Saussure and Wittgenstein to contemporary literary theory, is the recognition that meaning is not simply something ‘expressed’ or ‘reflected’ in language: it is actually produced by it.
   It is not as though we have meanings, or experiences, which we then proceed to cloak with words; we can only have the meanings and experiences in the first place because we have a language to have them in.
   What this suggests, moreover, is that our experience as individuals is social to its roots; for there can be no such thing as a private language ... [ibid, pp.52-53]
* * * * *

Attempts to shift emphasis away from individuals and towards a social model of culture may seem relatively easy in the case of language. However, it has also been attempted in relation to specific cultural products, such as novels and paintings. One of the most infamous exemplars of cultural Marxism is Roland Barthes’s idea of the death of the author, according to which a book is not the creation of its author but simply a ‘tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’. The following extract from a Canadian university’s online literature course captures the idea quite well.
A number of arguments militate against a text being written by an intentional individual. The concept of the stable ego has been challenged — it has been suggested that ‘we’ are in fact processes of symbolization. The idea of ‘the individual’ has been seen as an ideological conception, a product of capitalist revolution in the seventeenth century.*
* * * * *

The obsession with language started to become prominent within cultural Marxism in the era of so-called ‘structuralism’ during the 1950s and 60s. The continuing centrality of the name Saussure seems to be partly a residue of that era.
   Here is one book’s take on how structuralism’s theory of language supposedly proves there is no self in the traditional sense, thus undermining the idea of the individual:
The self as a consistent entity enduring over time – an ‘inner essence’ that we always suppose to be there – evaporates into the conditions of language. [Introducing Critical Theory, p.67]
Let us briefly recall the political purpose behind cultural attempts to magic away the individual — whether by subordinating him/her to language, or by means of other intellectual devices. The point is to generate legitimacy for collectivism. Collectivism means: comprehensive rule by political and technocratic elites, supposedly in everyone’s best interests.
   The concept of the individual as an autonomous entity, with innate characteristics that vary from person to person, is an awkward obstacle for collectivism. Any theory which diminishes the significance of the individual is therefore highly attractive to collectivists.

* * * * *

The movement referred to as post-structuralism supposedly involved a rejection of some of the key dogmas of structuralism. On the issue of language, however, its agenda is essentially the same as that of structuralism. Here, for example, is a summary of the notoriously verbose Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralist theory of language:
Derrida argues that the standard conception of meaning in the West depends on an assumption of a ‘metaphysics of presence’, that is, the full meaning of a word is held to be ‘present’ to the speaker, or writer, in their mind, as they use it. He has named this assumption logocentrism  ...
   Such transparent presence of meaning can never be achieved, according to Derrida, because of the action of diffĂ©rance. He made up this word in French to describe the process by which meaning ‘slips’ in the act of transmission. Words always contain within themselves traces of other meanings than their assumed primary one. [ibid, pp.88-89]
The message is: language is very complicated; it doesn’t work the way you think it does; it’s beyond ordinary people to understand its mysteries; only cultural-Marxist experts can make sense of its enigmas.
   This kind of mystification is perfectly suited to blocking critique. ‘Not only are you, as a layman, insufficiently trained to be able to comprehend what is expressed by experts in social theory. You would not in any case be able to express any meaningful criticism of it, since language eludes your grasp. Give up, already!’

It is one of the paradoxes, or perhaps one should say hypocrisies, of cultural Marxism that its apparent preoccupation with understanding language and meaning is paralleled by a presentational style that, with few exceptions, is opaque at best and intentionally obscurantist at worst.
   Obfuscation is achieved via a number of strategies, of which boggling about language is only one. Another strategy involves the continual invention of new terminology, without anything new being said. This is apparently required in order to create the illusion that progress is being made in ‘research’ on social theory.

Applying a sociological perspective to the phenomena we are considering, the purpose of obfuscation, and of blocking potential criticism, can be assumed to be: to protect the academic class’s professional and ideological power.
   Whether the motivation at work is conscious or unconscious must be a matter for speculation. However, at times it is hard to avoid the conclusion that deliberate deception is involved.

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’
part 7: Language

* Brock University online English course notes, quoted in: Fabian Tassano, Mediocracy: Inversions and Deceptions in an Egalitarian Culture, Oxford Forum 2006, p.37.
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (second edition), Blackwell 1996.
Z. Sardar and B. Van Loon, Introducing Cultural Studies, Icon Books 1997.
S. Sim and B. Van Loon, Introducing Critical Theory, Icon Books 2009.

25 April 2024

cultural Marxism's obsession with Language – part 6

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology, excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.

extracts from my forthcoming book:
Trope 7: ‘culture is a social product’

Is culture the product of individuals, or of society? Strictly, the question is meaningless. Much of Western culture was created by individuals working alone, supported by others, but those individuals were influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the society in which they lived. And society is of course made up of individuals; hence one can always say that anything done by individuals is, in effect, done by society. The question is really one of perspective, or emphasis.
   Initially, intellectuals in the West reacted to the extraordinary flowering of culture that took off in the eighteenth century by shifting ideological emphasis in the direction of the individual. Great works of art, literature and science – produced by individual artists and scientists – seemed to demonstrate that individuals had a more significant role than Christian ideology had taught.
   This first reaction is sometimes identified with the movement called Romanticism. It can also be seen in aspects of the intellectual revolution referred to as the Enlightenment. The latter, at least some of the time, stressed the importance of individuals thinking for themselves – rather than simply accepting what was generally believed to be true, or what was held out as ‘truth’ by intellectual authorities.
   However, another aspect of the Enlightenment was a desire to make individuals conform to models of ‘rationality’ that were deemed correct by philosophers and other theorists, and increasingly to limit intellectual authority to those who belonged to socially sanctioned institutions. The models of rationality were arrived at via a process of logic that theorists believed to be analogous to science, and therefore equally reliable, but this was an illusion. Philosophising on paper generates answers that can seem solidly based on logic but which depend on assumptions that are often hidden. Such philosophising can easily be worse than ignorance, if we move from an agnostic attitude to the unjustified belief that we have certain knowledge.
   By the end of the nineteenth century, the reaction against Romanticism, and against Enlightenment individualism, had started to set in. As an Oxford philosophy don wrote in his introduction to the 1901 edition of J.S. Mill’s mid-Victorian book On Liberty, Mill was
advocating the rights of the individual as against Society at the very opening of an era that was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the individual had no absolute rights against Society.*
In contrast with the eighteenth-century view that the individual existed first, and society second, in the late nineteenth century the view began to gain prominence that the individual
has no rights against the social organism. Society can punish him for acts or even opinions which are anti-social in character. His virtue lies in recognising the intimate communion with his fellows. His sphere of activity is bounded by the common interest.*
Fundamental changes in perspective are usually accompanied by new theories which rationalise those changes. In the swing away from individualism, and back towards collectivism (an older model of human society, with a much longer history), the theories of Marx have proved highly instrumental.
   Marx was the most important prophet of cultural collectivism, but not the only one. Among other, lesser prophets can be counted Arts & Crafts pioneer William Morris, for example.
   Marx argued that culture is merely the ‘superstructure’ of a society, built on the foundation of the economic relations within that society. He did not mean that capitalism facilitates culture, by allowing a few creative individuals to live off capital. He meant that human consciousness, and hence the specific content of cultural products, are strongly – but unconsciously – determined by economic conditions.
It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. [Marx, Critique of Political Economy]
Marxists reject individualism. But Western culture can be seen as a product of such individualism, which for many observers counts in its favour. Marxists therefore have an incentive to promote the idea that culture should be seen as a product of society, rather than of individuals. The culture-is-social perspective, transmitted via the cultural Marxism tradition, is now widely distributed within contemporary literary and cultural criticism.
   An example of cultural Marxism in relation to literature is reader-response theory. One of the key contributors to this approach is American professor Stanley Fish. According to the book Introducing Critical Theory, Fish claims it is the reader who actually produces the work of literature.
   Of course, it is not just a single reader who ‘produces’ a novel by, say, Jane Austen. That approach to thinking about literature would be far too individualistic for cultural Marxists.
Fish’s ostensibly more radical approach is tempered by the insistence that the reader is a member of an ‘interpretive community’ whose shared values inform individual readings, as well as providing a criterion for assessing their validity. [Introducing Critical Theory, p.85]
In other words, society decides what the novel really means, not the individual author:
The novel Jane Eyre does not set out to be a discourse on the power of patriarchy, but the ‘madwoman in the attic’ motif starkly reveals it nonetheless. [ibid, p.81]
Invoking the concept of ‘society’ may seem like a form of democratisation. But what ‘society’ really means, in this context, is ‘socially appointed experts’.
   The rhetoric about ‘interpretive community’ is no doubt intended to seduce readers into believing they play as important a role as authors. However, it is not ordinary readers, but humanities professors, who will decide – supposedly on behalf of society as a whole – whether Jane Eyre is primarily about patriarchy, regardless of what author Charlotte BrontĂ« said about the matter.
   Students who openly dispute the professorial viewpoint that a particular novel contains important political messages are likely to find themselves marked down.

* W.L. Courtney, in his Introduction to J.S. Mill, On Liberty, London: Walter Scott, 1901.
S. Sim and B. Van Loon, Introducing Critical Theory, Icon Books, 2009.

next post: ‘Language’, the final instalment in this blog series

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’ (extract from my forthcoming book)
part 7: Language (extract from my forthcoming book)

14 March 2024

intellectuals, priests and power - III

In the previous instalment, I suggested that humanities professors, and other institutionally authorised intellectuals, are subject to a source of bias related to the issue of power. Certain perspectives – and the humanities are all about perspective – are more likely than others to generate ideological and moral power for those who profess expertise in those perspectives.
   Let us consider two examples, one from the US, one from the UK. I could have come up with more extreme illustrations, but the following are reasonably representative of their professions.
   American philosophy professor Michael Sandel gave the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 2009. In a preliminary conversation with Sue Lawley, Professor Sandel revealed that he had considered entering academic economics, but chose philosophy instead.
[Lawley] You were thinking about, as you were becoming an academic, of studying Economics further; and then you decided, you decided it was ‘a spurious science’. [...]

[Sandel] It’s a spurious science in so far as it is used to tell us what we ought to do, because questions of what we ought to do in politics or as a society are unavoidably moral and political. Economists can inform us about possible implications of policy choices, but they can’t tell us [...] what’s right and wrong, what’s just and unjust. So I decided to veer into that line of work [academic philosophy].
The central message of Professor Sandel’s Lectures was that the world needs a politics
oriented less to the pursuit of individual self-interest and more to the pursuit of the common good
though at no point did Sandel define ‘common good’ (good for everybody? good for the majority?), other than to imply that moving towards it would mean curtailing the private economic sphere in various ways.
   As is often the case in the social sciences, a phenomenon can be looked at from two (or more) radically different viewpoints. One possible assessment of the desire to enter academic philosophy, in order to be able to tell people what is ‘right and wrong’, might be as follows:
   This person recognises that some aspects of society are unnecessarily negative, and believes he can help bring about an improvement by influencing people’s thinking.
   From a different perspective, however, one might make the following, more critical assessment:
   This person has a view about how society should be changed, to conform better with what he considers to be the ‘right’ political and moral norms. He has set about acquiring a position of state-endorsed intellectual authority, in order to help bring society into accord with the norms he prefers.
   My second example is Somerville College, Oxford. Their 2023 alumni magazine has as its theme ‘working towards a fairer world’. This is a theme which, the Principal asserts, ‘has been at the heart of Somerville’s purpose since its earliest days’. She gives as current examples:
[...] the potentially life-saving research of Professor Abigail Barton [...] the hard political choices of NATO adviser Charlotte Dixon [...] student Ellie Flyte’s year of advocacy for Young Carers [...] medic Gillian Harvey’s health initiative for Oxfordshire refugees [...] Professor Iris Jolyon’s determination to share the stories of Kenya’s ‘untitled scholars’ [and] the seventy-year quest for recognition of the extraordinary centenarian codebreaker Karen Lindsay seventy years ago.#
She goes on to say:
Social justice and climate justice, meanwhile, intersect powerfully in the advocacy of Marion Nikita. As the OICSD’s [Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development’s] inaugural Rani Lakshmibai Scholar, she is seeking to highlight the intersectional vulnerabilities of India’s historically marginalised communities.#
Again, let us consider two possible perspectives. Perspective 1 says:
   It is good that a prestigious Oxford college is lending its weight to the global battle for fairness, and to the promotion of such things as refugee welfare and ‘climate justice’.
   Perspective 2 says:
   As a prestigious component of the university system, being held out as a source of objective and impartial expertise, it is no business of Somerville College to promote particular political and moral visions. To do so is to abuse its position.
   Somerville College, incidentally, was reported in 2021 as having forced undergraduates to answer a questionnaire purporting to increase their awareness of bias. Students were required to choose the ‘right’ answers. If they failed to do so, they were called in for a chat with the Principal.
   Both Professor Sandel, and the Somerville dons responsible for the alumni magazine, seem to be promoting goals they believe are virtuous and necessary. Both must be aware that their viewpoint is becoming increasingly dominant among university intellectuals, and that any calls to action they make are likely to be echoed by other academics and activists across the globe.

Individuals who want to shift moral norms in a particular direction, and who are able to do so, by acting collectively.
The ability to get what you want seems as good a definition of ‘power’ as any. Whether the shifts in question are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a matter for individual opinion.

The above discussion may give a flavour of how the humanities, and academia generally, are moving emphasis away from analysis and towards assertion of moral values. The move points to the possible transition from the classical liberal model of academia, of promoting free enquiry, towards the religious model, in which the primary aim becomes reinforcement of the dominant ideology rather than unbiased enquiry.
   The religious model of academia may seem to be an *inversion* of how we’re used to thinking about the university system. However, the religious model of academia held sway for many centuries, so a return to it is not as implausible as it may appear.

* * * * *

Somerville College is the alma mater of my colleague Dr Celia Green. The latter has spoken to me at length about her experiences at the college, to which she won the top entrance scholarship. Somerville did nothing to help her enter an academic career at the end of her degree, though she was clearly eminently suited to one. This meant she had to set up her own research organisation, a task that has been one long struggle. In spite of the respect gained from other academic psychologists for her work on lucid dreaming and hallucinatory experiences, Somerville has never tried to aid her efforts, and has never honoured her achievements.
   One of the ironies of the ‘social justice’ movement, which trumpets its supposed caring for the unfairly deprived, is that the caring often seems to be applied in a selective way. In particular, it appears to be preferentially applied to those whose misfortune can be exploited to reinforce the collectivist agenda: ‘this person’s case provides evidence that capitalism/patriarchy/etc. is harmful’.
   If you don’t tick the right boxes, you may find you are of relatively little interest. Being (say) female, or black, will not be sufficient, if you violate other key criteria, e.g. by being too individualistic, or too pro-capitalist.
   This selective approach to ‘caring’ may explain why, in a Britain that is – on the face of it – obsessed with social justice, the injustices of the Post Office scandal* escaped the notice of the ‘compassionate’ intellectual elites for well over a decade. The victims were men and women running, in effect, their own small businesses. Many of them were members of the despised pro-Brexit generation. These characteristics may help to explain why a blind spot developed about the issue.
   It is clearly easier, for some commentators, to equate ‘injustice’ with abstract themes such as ‘capitalism’ or ‘sexism’, or to identify instances of injustice in foreign countries, than to see it in relatively straightforward practical issues on their own doorstep.

* * * * *

There is an argument that, by relentlessly fomenting moral unease with regard to the boilerplate themes of gender/race/class, intellectuals have succeeded in diverting moral sentiment away from areas that don’t fit with collectivist ideology, and thus created moral apathy in relation to those less fashionable areas.
   For Marxists, such diversion of sentiment, from bourgeois to collectivist themes, has always been part of the explicit agenda. One has to wonder whether – at least on an unconscious level – the same has also become true of the majority of non-Marxist intellectuals.

* The scandal has now finally been exposed, more than twenty years after it began, and the 900+ men and women exonerated. Whether Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was right to instigate new legislation specifically to help the victims is another matter. A dramatised version of the story, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, starring Toby Jones as heroic postmaster Alan Bates, is available on ITV Player.
# Names have been changed.

08 March 2024

intellectuals, priests and power - II


The concept of power is one that has not been adequately explored, and is not well understood. A large Marxism-inspired literature making reference to the word ‘power’ has emerged out of the academic humanities during the last forty years. But this has obfuscated rather than clarified the issue.
   ‘Power’ should be taken to include ideological and moral power; in other words, the ability to influence and control thought, speech or morality. This is irrespective of whether such power leads to financial rewards, or involvement in government.*
   The word ‘power’ tends to conjure up images of dictators, billionaires or other powerful individuals. But most high-level power is exercised by groups or coalitions acting cooperatively, rather than by a single person acting unilaterally.
   Ideological power – the type of power exercised, for example, by an organised religion – depends on a class of intellectuals acting in concert. Such concerted action does not necessarily involve explicit cooperation, but can happen tacitly.
   I am using the word ‘intellectuals’ in the broad sense of: individuals whose primary activity is inventing and disseminating ideas. This covers the functionaries of a religious order, authors of non-fiction books, and academics. It also includes the proponents of a political ideology. It does not include those who only teach material that has been produced by others.
   Outside the intellectual sphere, acting in concert tends to require explicit agreement to prevent defection, since such action is initially costly for each individual, and only pays off if no one free-rides. However, academics are generally required to produce material of some kind at a certain rate, regardless; for them to cooperatively align such material so as to privilege certain perspectives may not be particularly costly. Such ‘collusion’ can therefore happen tacitly.

* * * * *

I propose the following:

The bias of humanities professors in favour of collectivism, and in favour of intervention generally, is best understood in terms of a desire for power.

Such desire is not necessarily conscious.

‘Desire for power’ should not be interpreted as automatically suspicious. Ideological power, like all power, can be used for good or bad – though the definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ may vary from person to person. Seeking power should not necessarily be condemned; however, it is still power that is being sought, whatever it is ultimately used for. The desire for power can be expected to bias intellectuals’ choice of perspectives.
   It seems reasonable to assume that ideological power, like any other form of power, is sought partly for its own sake. Such an assumption helps to explain some of the strategies undertaken by humanities professors, when considered as a class. The class’s current tendency to contribute towards the generation of echo chambers, and its lack of wholehearted support for free speech, are examples of behaviour which are easier to understand if we posit that there are power motives at work.
   An individual philosophy or politics don has little ideological power by him- or herself. Such power can only come from a large number of academics acting in concert. There needs to be sufficient consensus present, in order for laymen to accept (e.g.) the authority of sociologists in claiming that capitalism is damaging, or of social psychologists in claiming that benevolent sexism harms women.

* * * * *

In talking about academics’ collective desire for power, we are coming close to the concept of conspiracy, so beloved of some, and so loathed and despised by others. If we understand ‘conspiracy’ to mean ‘a group of people meeting up to plan something they know is dodgy’ then it seems unlikely that academics are engaging in such action on a significant scale.
   Let’s see, however, what happens if we relax the criteria a little. Rather than ‘meeting up to plan something’, consider:
- individually acting on principles that they know are agreed to by many others of their kind, dimly aware that their actions are being echoed by those others, and that they are therefore likely to be acting in concert.
In place of ‘planning something they know is dodgy’, consider:
- trying to bring about something they believe to be virtuous and necessary.
Combining these two criteria, we get a hypothetical type of behaviour that not only isn’t particularly farfetched, but is something to which many academics will eagerly confess.

* * * * *

Next week: the final instalment of this 3-parter.

* Power does not have to involve political control or financial rewards, it can simply mean being able to influence thought or speech. Much of the time the power of intellectuals takes this latter form. Nevertheless, particularly in the case of economists, academics’ power to shape narratives can lead to both political and financial rewards. A good example is the libertarian-paternalism narrative, which allowed some of its proponents to take well-paid government advisory roles.

01 March 2024

intellectuals, priests and power - I

Having been posting about Marxism, and about ideology, I need to say something about the role of intellectuals. After all, we’re not in the position we’re in because Western populations as a whole have been spontaneously drawn to the perspectives of cultural Marxism. We’re here because Marxism, in its various forms, has always been – and continues to be – highly attractive to a significant proportion of intellectuals. Ideology does not operate autonomously in some metaphysical realm. Behind ideology are individuals who develop and sustain it, and who disseminate and defend it.
   In spite of the many failures of Marxist politics, and in spite of its rejection by many of the populations who lived under it, intellectuals have continued to find the Marxist framework appealing, particularly those living in countries that haven’t experienced communism. Economic and political failure has simply meant that attention has switched to the parts of Marxism that are not overtly about politics or economics.
   The draw of Marxism, and collectivism in general, to intellectuals seems undeniable. The phenomenon is broader than Marxism, and precedes it. It can be seen, for example, in Prussian philosophy professors Georg Hegel and Johann Fichte, in the generation before Marx. We can go all the way back to 4th century BC Athens, and observe what is probably the same effect in the totalitarian philosophy of Plato. However, the breadth and complexity of Marxist ideology was unprecedented in intellectual history, and provided a powerful focal point for collectivist preferences during the twentieth century.
   As to the motives for this attraction to collectivism, one is forced to speculate. Research into the question is unlikely ever to yield reliable answers. Much of human motivation is concealed, or unconscious; concealment, and lack of awareness, are probably adaptive, therefore likely to be hardwired. Trying to elicit people’s deep-seated motives, by way of simple enquiry, is therefore likely to be a hit-and-miss process at best, and completely misleading at worst.

* * * * *

There is however one obvious reason why we might expect intellectuals to be biased in favour of collectivism. Collectivism is at the opposite end of the spectrum from laissez-faire. Under collectivism, interactions between individuals are comprehensively regulated by a central entity acting in the name of, and ostensibly on behalf of, the population as a whole. Everything is supposedly run in everyone’s best interests. Deciding what those best interests are, however, is far from straightforward, and it is here that the services of intellectuals are called for. Intellectuals advise not only on how best to achieve what is wanted, but also on what people ought to want. This provides enormous scope for discretion.
   The ability to assert, from a position of authority, the world is not the way you think it is, it’s actually some other way, and only we understand it, and the psychological rewards of believing one is in a position of superior knowledge, are further reasons why complex social theories that imply the need for collective intervention are likely to appeal to intellectuals.
   The status of intellectuals under collectivism in practice, particularly the totalitarian kind, has been mixed – some acquire significant status, while others are marginalised, imprisoned, or live in fear. Nevertheless, we can see how the hope of having more influence can lead to a bias, possibly unconscious, in favour of greater government and other institutional control. This explanation for collectivist bias can also shed light on the intellectual class’s current fetishisation of change, and on why the Marxist term ‘reproduction’ (essentially meaning social stability) has become a fashionable boo-word among humanities professors.
   Intellectuals’ attraction to collectivism/paternalism has been around for a long time, but it was not until the state became involved in the humanities that the phenomenon began to gain traction. By World War 2, the state in most Western nations had started to become intimately involved with the dissemination of psychological and sociological perspectives to undergraduates. The organisation of intellectuals into large collectivities, and their increasing dependence on state finance, seems to have progressively heightened the bias towards collectivism.
   It is in the post-war era that the phenomenon of a state-financed class of intellectuals, with enough numerical muscle to play a significant role in shaping political and moral thinking, has really taken off. The massive expansion since the 1960s of the university sector has generated (a) a large population of intellectuals possessing state-backed authority, and (b) a high proportion of the population who, during their student days, were passive recipients of those intellectuals’ political preferences, usually rationalised as social theory.
   The combination of (a) and (b) generates a vocal and influential segment of the population, highly educated and enthusiastic for intervention, that is beginning to approach the 50 percent level in some cases. The effect can be seen most obviously in America. We get an image of a nation in which half the electorate ‘knows’ how to make things better for the other half, and then gets indignant – to the point of organised protests – when that other half refuses to take its medicine and votes for a non-approved candidate.

* * * * *

Collectivist philosophies such as Marxism also seem to appeal to a significant proportion of those working in the arts. This may be partly because many of them like the idea of their work contributing to human improvement, and because this makes them sympathetic to improvement generally. Yet there is no necessary link between improvement and collectivism. A society organised collectively is not necessarily any more likely to make things better for any given social group than a laissez-faire one – other than perhaps for the organisers.
   Any change achievable via the state can be achieved by civil means, with the advantage that the latter method is far less likely to involve coercion, or human suffering, in the name of improvement.
   It is a reflection of the control which pro-state intellectuals have gained over political narratives that simplistic equations between collectivism and altruism, and between individualism and selfishness, have been successfully sold to audiences.

In the next post I will look at the topic of power.

20 February 2024

cultural Marxism's obsession with Language – part 5

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.


One of the most important strategies for an ideology is to control the meanings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Ideological power is at its most potent when it endows the possessor with the ability to induce feelings of guilt and shame in others; specifically, in those who fail to conform to the ideology, or who dare to question it. We can call this ‘moral power’.
   An even stronger power-enhancer is the ability to induce fear, such as the fear of being ostracised or despised, or the fear of losing your job.
   The word ‘morality’ tends to bring to mind the Christian concept of sin, and so may be thought to be out of date. Former UK prime minister David Cameron once claimed that we live in a ‘de-moralised society’, presumably referring to permissiveness. But morality is not just about labelling some acts as wicked, it is also about defining the meaning of ‘virtuous’. Engendering the belief that disseminators of the ideology are ‘good’, and that their critics are ‘bad’, is as important to ideological dominance as being able to control what is forbidden.
   The ability to demonise critics is a powerful tool in maintaining dominance. The demonising of dissent is achieved, for example, by convincing people that anyone who sounds sceptical of some element of the ideology should be assumed strongly to believe the opposite. A good illustration, in the current era, is the topic of inherited ability. The intellectual elite in the West has succeeded in making it seem reasonable that anyone who challenges the blank-slate doctrine can – and should – be presented in an unflattering light, by implying an association with eugenics and other unsavoury positions.
   By making critique of certain dogmas seem immoral, such critique can be marginalised and ultimately eliminated. The blank-slate doctrine is of course attractive to Marxists and other collectivists. It supports the desire to remake society, and to exercise power in the name of rationality, without the obstacle of having to take account of innate individual differences.

* * * * *

In the modern era, demonstrating that you support such things as anti-sexism and anti-racism – or that you at least pay lip service to those ideals – forms part of the prevailing moral ideology. Such activities demonstrate that you are a ‘good’ person. Failing to do so casts doubt on your virtuousness. Going so far as to express criticism of those ideals points towards you being a ‘bad’ person.
   The requirement to demonstrate opposition to sexism and racism means that definitions of the terms ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ are required, which in turn calls for authorised ideological experts. This provides such experts, or the organisations for which they work, with power. All they need do is to convince people that their definitions of those bad forms of behaviour should be accepted. Holding a position of authority at a state-approved institution is one way of ensuring that people will give weight to your moral theories. Building a consensus for such theories within institutional spaces is another. The latter can be achieved by the simple method of eliminating dissenters from those spaces.
   The massive expansion of the universities over past decades has assisted in this process. Where previously there may have been two or three ‘experts’ on some aspect of morality, now there are ten or twenty, creating a misleading impression of objectivity through sheer weight of numbers.

* * * * *

The ability to shift definitions creates power. Consider, for example, the concept of ‘sexism’. The category of behaviour to be regarded as ‘sexist’ was expanded during the 1990s to include ‘benevolent sexism’ – which, so it is argued, is as bad as the non-benevolent kind. To understand the meaning of ‘benevolent sexism’, and avoid being categorised as un-virtuous, you may need to consult the writings of professors at such institutions as Princeton or UCLA.
   One way to gain spurious weight for moral ideology is to make it seem like science. Marxist theorising has long tried to assume the mantle of scientific investigation. Moral ideology about sexism masquerades as science by having supposed experts on the topic be located within a subject called ‘social psychology’. There may be some notional research involved, based largely on questionnaires (a notoriously unreliable methodology), but the crucial part of the conclusions has nothing to do with data. The conclusions depend on ideological assumptions, such as the increasingly popular dogma that:
to let your behaviour towards another person be influenced by that person’s gender is wrong.
   Academic papers in this area, including in prestigious journals such as Nature, give the impression that the aim is to completely rewrite relations between the sexes.* Such an aim is a perfectly legitimate object for thought or discussion. As to whether complete rewriting is the right thing to do, however, shouldn’t that be a matter for democratic decision-making? Preceded by an extensive period of public debate, in which strenuous efforts are made to include the views of ordinary people, not just those of humanities professors and activists? Instead, there seems to be a programme to introduce radical new social norms and simply have them take on the status of moral absolutes, without any discussion other than between like-minded academics. The new norms are given a superficial appearance of objectivity by coming out of an academic or pseudo-scientific context. It then becomes impossible to argue with them without the risk of being assigned a vague demonising label such as ‘sexist’ – the definition of which is to be decided by academics.

* * * * *

Like anti-sexism, anti-racism has been gradually absorbed into the cultural-Marxist universe, and has taken on many of the same characteristics as traditional Marxism. Complex social and psychological theories are mixed together with a strong dose of moral indignation, to generate an ideology that it’s dangerous to question. The proletariat’s former role, of victims that need to be instructed by intellectuals on how to become emancipated, is now taken by women and ethnic minorities.
   As in the case of sexism, the meaning of ‘racism’ has been massively expanded, beyond the original meaning of ‘belief in the inferiority of ethnic groups other than one’s own’. Racism can now mean, among other things:
- the belief that different national or ethnic groups may exhibit different statistical averages on various psychological measures,
- failing to be sufficiently critical of the traditional culture of your own nation, given that it was developed with the tastes of the majority in mind, and is therefore bound to be at odds with the preferences of minorities.
   Redefining of morally charged words has been achieved by means of a Marxist (or crypto-Marxist) academic literature which, since the 1960s, has been growing into a convoluted theoretical edifice. The edifice is difficult, if not impossible, for critics to challenge without being forced to become familiar with its labyrinthine complexity. Although receiving the imprimatur of being academic, and peer-reviewed, such literature has as much to do with science as astrology or homeopathy. Little wonder that it is mostly concentrated in ‘soft’ subjects where, to succeed, you don’t need to measure your ideas against anything other than the opinions of like-minded colleagues.
   The overall effect is to generate one of the paradoxes of cultural Marxism: to avoid being branded ‘racist’ and regarded as a bad person, you may need to consult, strangely enough, the expertise of professors of Literature, or Cultural Studies.

* * * * *

The key point is not the precise content of the ideology, it’s who controls that content.
   Whenever you observe a moral theory being given an unfamiliar spin, particularly when delivered in an urgent tone that brooks no contradiction, you can be fairly sure you are in the presence of ideology.
   Ideology, once it becomes associated with an authorised class – whether the class consists of priests or intellectuals – provides that class with power.

* See for example a 2023 article in Nature Reviews Psychology, entitled ‘Benevolent and hostile sexism in a shifting global context’ (Volume 2, pp.98-111). I recommend reading this article – critically! – since it represents a good example of the techniques used, in the twenty-first century, to spin ideology into something that has the superficial appearance of sound logic. It also illustrates how cultural-Marxist approaches have been creeping out of the soft subjects into the sciences.

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’ (extract from my forthcoming book)
part 7: Language (extract from my forthcoming book)

08 February 2024

cultural Marxism's obsession with Language – part 4

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.


‘Critical Theory’ is cultural Marxism, and Marxism is an ideology. Hence Critical Theory is also ideology. This becomes obvious enough to anyone starting to wade through Critical Theory’s bewildering complex of concepts, and its ambitious range of assertions about psychology and society – most of them developed by intellectuals from the comfort of their armchairs, with little or no empirical basis.
   Yet Critical Theory claims to investigate and expose ideology, even offering to liberate its audience from ideology – that is to say, from the supposedly ‘dominant’ ideology of Western nations, which it asserts is pro-capitalist.
   If however there are, in fact, two competing major ideologies prevalent in the secular West – (1) pro-capitalist ideology and (2) cultural Marxism (‘Critical Theory’) – the question arises: which of the two should be regarded as dominant? Are cultural Marxists right to claim that it is pro-capitalist ideology that is dominant? Is it not perhaps the case that, at least in the context of campus, and highbrow media, it is cultural Marxism that has become dominant?
   Note that this question cannot simply be answered by pointing to the capitalist aspect of Western economies. Political/economic arrangement does not simplistically equate with ideology. A society’s political arrangements might be in flux due to pressure from the dominant ideology, so that its current state is not representative of what is ideologically dominant. Or there might simply be a permanent disjoint between political and ideological domains, as there was under Christian hegemony. (Marxist analysts may claim that Christianity was no more than the prop for prevailing politics, but an alien visitor to Earth circa 1600AD is more likely to be struck by the paradox of an intellectual/cultural sphere that stresses meekness and humility, side by side with an economic/political sphere in which acquisition and expansion are openly pursued.)
   To assume that Western nations can readily be described as ‘capitalist’ also ignores the fact that the state currently occupies upwards of 40 percent of the socio-economic space in many of those nations.
   How then is one to ascertain ideological dominance? One answer is to look at what people say, rather than at what they do. Take ideology about sex during the period of Christian hegemony. It would probably not be particularly helpful to know to what extent people committed adultery in medieval Europe; it probably happened to a similar degree as at any other period, prior to the development of chemical contraception. Looking at what was said, and written, during this period is likely to be more useful for determining the prevailing ideology. While many people may have committed adultery, few if any publicly expressed permissiveness towards it. Any that did would likely have been penalised in various ways for doing so; for example, by losing their jobs.
   If we apply this method to contemporary society, we are likely to come up with rather different answers from the ones given by cultural Marxists. Take the realm of the universities. If we carried out an exercise to see how many currently active professors have publicly expressed support for capitalism, or hostility to cultural Marxism; versus professors who have expressed hostility to capitalism or support for cultural Marxism, there is little doubt we would find the numbers heavily skewed towards the latter.
   As far as student life and academia is concerned, it seems uncontroversial to suggest that cultural Marxism is ideologically dominant. There is certainly little evidence that pro-capitalist ideology is dominant within that sphere.
   Moving outside the confines of campus, let’s consider the mainstream media. As far as radio, television and movies are concerned, similar arguments apply. One rarely hears support for capitalism via those channels, whereas one is regularly exposed to perspectives that are at least aligned with cultural-Marxist ideology, if not explicit espousals of it.
   Only in the realm of newspapers can there be said to be anything like parity. In the UK, for example, the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Sun are arguably, at present, more in favour of capitalism than of cultural-Marxist ideology; while the opposite seems to be true of the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mirror.

* * * * *

The thesis espoused by cultural Marxists, that dissemination of their perspectives will lead to liberation from the dominant ideology, is clearly flawed. If any ideology is currently unequivocally dominant in the West, it is unlikely to be a pro-capitalist one. We may indeed be moving towards a possible outcome in which the overall dominant ideology is cultural Marxism, or at least some watered-down version of it. Regardless of whether this is so, it seems obvious that ‘Critical Theory’ (cultural Marxism) becoming a kind of default methodology – as many humanities professors seem to think it should – cannot lead to liberation from ideology, given that Critical Theory is itself highly ideological.

* * * * *

What is cultural-Marxist ideology? Briefly, it is the flip side of political collectivism. Collectivism involves the individual’s surrender of autonomy and sovereignty to agents of the state or other authorised collectives. Cultural Marxism therefore consists of psychological and social theories that support moves towards a greater level of collectivism.
   Cultural-Marxist ideology incorporates the following positions, among others:
• Individuals are unimportant; what matters is social groups and classes.
• Culture is a ‘social product’.
• Individuals are essentially identical, any significant differences being due to cultural or other environmental factors.
• Individual decision-making is flawed, and needs to be increasingly surrendered in favour of expert opinion.
• Inequality is invariably unjust and oppressive – except for power inequalities between agents of the state and everyone else, but this caveat is usually left unstated.
• ‘Truth’ is no more than social consensus; therefore individuals should defer to the opinions of authorised collectives.
• Social change in directions approved by cultural Marxists must be assumed to be good; opposition to such change should be interpreted as malevolent.
• If you disagree with what cultural Marxism tells you, it’s because you have unconscious ideological biases.
   The last of these is best interpreted as a strategy, used to deflect criticism.
   There are other theoretical approaches in cultural Marxism which should probably be regarded as strategies, where the point seems not to be to convey any specific position but simply to mess with people’s heads – presumably as a way of encouraging them to surrender thinking critically for themselves, in favour of accepting Marxist ideology. The most notable of these is the cultural-Marxist approach to language, a topic we will look at in the final instalment of this series of posts.

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’ (extract from my forthcoming book)
part 7: Language (extract from my forthcoming book)

01 February 2024

cultural Marxism's obsession with Language – part 3

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.


Marxism is an ideology. That is to say, it is:
(a) a system of ideas which provides putative answers to important questions, and
(b) a set of values telling people how they should assign positive and negative evaluations.
   To give some examples, Marxism (a) offers explanations for why class structure exists, and theories about how we should expect history to unfold; and (b) tells its followers they should view capitalism as negative, and the abolition of religions (other than Marxism) as positive.
   In claiming to provide answers and values, an ideology seeks to acquire power over people’s hearts and minds.

* * * * *

Marxism is a highly developed ideology, meaning it contains numerous elaborate ideas and theories about a range of topics. In this, it is comparable to other major ideologies such as Christianity and Islam.
   It is safe to assume that all ideologies, at least on some level, seek to become culturally dominant. Ideologies purport to offer ‘truth’, but truth is generally considered to be single-valued; that is to say, it is assumed there can be only one truth. The rewards of being the dominant arbiter of ‘truth’ can be extremely high; the competition to arrive at this position of arbiter can therefore be correspondingly ruthless. Looking at efforts to suppress rival ideologies in the histories of Christianity or Islam can give one an idea of how dirty such a war can get.
   Some ideologies, e.g. scientology, may seem to have little chance of ever becoming hegemonic within any society, and may seem to be contenting themselves with a position of limited influence. Yet it could be argued that, given the opportunity, and under the right conditions, a fringe ideology could always become a dominant ideology.
   Once within sight of dominance, an ideology is likely to seek increasing control over people’s thinking, and to be looking to get into a position that will ally it with the powers of the state.
   To achieve hegemony (ideological dominance) is no easy feat. And it has become a more challenging task in the scientific age – though not by any means impossible.

* * * * *

Christian ideology was developed in the context of an intellectual environment very different from that of the modern era. The bulk of Christian ideology was hammered out during the 4th to 5th centuries AD, a relative low point for the West, intellectually speaking. By contrast, when Karl Marx published Das Kapital in 1867, the flowering of modern science and philosophy had in some respects already reached its peak. What worked in 500AD would not do in the late nineteenth and twentieth century.
   Christian ideology was subtle and sophisticated in its own way. It adapted to the intellectual changes of the Renaissance, and even to a good part of the subsequent scientific age. Marxist ideology, however, is a great deal more subtle and sophisticated. It is designed to be difficult to criticise. It appears to fit with established rules of intellectual discourse, but at many points subverts them for its own purposes.

* * * * *

Suppression of dissent, and suppression of potential dissenters, are key planks in the process of acquiring and maintaining hegemony.
   To achieve dominance, an ideology must not only appeal to its audience in terms of the plausibility of the answers it offers. It must employ strategies, that is to say: intellectual devices, the primary purpose of which is not audience appeal but deflection of criticism and suppression of rivals.
   Many of the strategies employed by Marxism are sufficiently clever to have confounded the majority of its critics over many decades. There are traps, pretences, smoke screens, and a proliferation of ill-defined terms.
   One of the strategies employed by Marxism is to make pre-emptive strikes, in order to forestall criticism. For example, since it could be accused of being ideological, Marxism makes strenuous efforts to identify ideology in the statements of its opponents. This particular strategy has been so successful that, in some quarters, the term ‘ideology’ has come to mean simply: any way of thinking that is at odds with Marxism.
   One strategy of cultural Marxism has been to rebrand itself as ‘Critical Theory’ – a simple enough move, yet apparently successful at deceiving people into thinking they are dealing with objective analysis rather than ideological doctrine.

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’ (extract from my forthcoming book)
part 7: Language (extract from my forthcoming book)