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Don’t touch me on my Critical Theory: They drew first blood

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

It is rather foolish to dismiss something simply because you don’t understand it, or it does not matter to you. Personal incredulity does not render the beliefs, values, concepts and methods that others prefer as useless.

On one of my social media feeds, I happened upon a brief discussion between the radio host Maajid Nawaz and his guest, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on Leading Britain’s Conversation. I don’t particularly care for Hirsi Ali’s politics, but her horrific experience – exposure to the cruelty of Muslim fundamentalism, from forced marriage, honour killings and child marriage to female genital mutilation – has to be taken seriously. We can have a discussion on the subject at another time. Briefly, on Hirsi Ali. 

She fled the horrors of family life in Somalia (who can blame her), became a politician in Holland, where she caused problems of a different kind (she reportedly lied on official asylum documents), and ultimately went further West, embracing paleo-conservatism, arguably the forerunner of today’s alt-right in the US. She rapidly fell in line with the West’s civilising mission, neo-Orientalism (For a description of Orientalism see here) and global obnoxiousness. She now practises her politics in some of the US’s more conservative institutions, and is considered to be an “expert” on Islam.

Judith Butler summed up the phenomenon that is Hirsi Ali rather well. “It is one matter to suffer violence and quite another to use that fact to ground a framework in which one’s injury authorises limitless aggression against targets that may or may not be related to the sources of one’s own suffering.”

Nevertheless, what struck me in the brief recording of the discussion between Nawaz and Hirsi Ali was the way she echoed, or how similar she sounded to Helen Zille in her criticism of Critical Race Theory, and of other Critical forms of enquiry – as “wokism”. Now, it is generally believed that there is a difference between academic writing and popular writing, but Zille and Hirsi Ali have touched me on my Critical Theory. Or as Rambo would have said, “they drew first blood”.

The social sciences and subjectivity of daily life

Let me go back a few years, and lay my spiel bare. More than 25 years ago, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, Philip Windsor, told me, in an informal setting, that the difference between journalism (which I had just left to complete higher education) was that with journalism “you write for stupid people, in academia you write for intelligent people”. I wanted to throttle him, but he was already rather frail, and three sheets to the wind. As Adam Roberts wrote in Windsor’s obituary in 2000: “At times, he could be surprisingly dismissive of individuals.” 

Anyway, today I make the claim that we can, and ought to use what we have learnt in schools and universities, and further ground the knowledge, so to speak, in the real world. In other words, we cannot assume that academia (the social sciences, in particular) occupy some higher-order that never reaches the life world.

I feel compelled, therefore, to defend the Critical Tradition in the social sciences. I am, of course, unable to write much more than a few hundred words, so I will pick on only two ideas; one aimed at Zille (and the DA in general), and one at the ANC. I may throw in a bit of Critical Realism at the end – if only for a laugh. 

One of the aspects of Critical Theory, which has helped shape most of my work as a columnist over the past three years, is to always attempt to uncover surface forms of equality, especially for the ways they may conceal inequality, injustice, privilege and power. So when the DA may wish to imagine it is a liberal party – and we all, somehow, start from behind something akin to John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance”, in the sense that we all start from the same position in society – it may be accused of concealing, by accident or design, iniquities that lay beneath the surface, or behind the veil, as it were. The DA is, at least, consistent in the sense that it (also) believes “the economy” is, or it ought to be, the final arbiter of human behaviour. In other words, let’s just get on with life, apartheid is over, we have a great Constitution – and nothing or nobody should prevent a black person from owning property in Camps Bay. That is one way in which “we are all equal” conceals structural inequality and injustice.

As for the ANC, also from Critical Theory, I learnt that we have to take responsibility for our actions – even for the unintended consequences. Let me put it in a way they might understand. A man who is drunk as a skunk and gets behind the wheel of his latest “3 Series” has no intention of killing anyone; he just wants to get home. But when he runs over and kills a pedestrian, he will be prosecuted. The intention may have been to go home, but the unintended consequence was the death of a woman who tried to cross the street. 

So, if you’re in government (democratically elected), you deploy party members and other loyalists to key positions (which, in and of itself, may not be bad or unheard of), and any of those party members, or cadres, turn out to be maggots and vermin (I should probably apologise for the ratomorphism, but it kinda works), it is clearly an unintended consequence. For the way that the state has been hollowed out, and the elision of party and state have created a type of democriminal government, the ruling party has to take responsibility for the actions of its deployees. 

It is rather foolish to dismiss something simply because you don’t understand it, or it does not matter to you. Personal incredulity does not render as useless the beliefs, values, concepts and methods that others prefer. The purpose of the Critical tradition is to pursue the truth, to get as close to it as possible, and to protect it. While the woke crowd speak of “intersectionality” the Critical theorists who escaped from Nazi Germany had a clear understanding that we have to look at the complexity of causation – in other words, how bigotry and injustice in one area of society influences and shapes bigotry and injustice in another area. 

The social world is not one-dimensional in the sense that the only reality is that which you can see. I promised to throw in some Critical Realism. In a break with empiricism – that which you can observe with your senses – there are real activities, tendencies and processes that may not be visible, and that significantly influence empirical phenomena. Yes, the Constitution and the democratic order make us all equal, but are we really? This is what the Critical tradition is about. DM

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  • Critical theory, as this reader observes, is about reducing the world to power dynamics while obscuring the will to power of the theorist.

  • Is life really about equality? The human race has been fighting that battle for centuries, and it’s been futile. How about contentment instead? And how about questioning the assumption that financial equality will bring about equal happiness for all? The solution(s) might then be revealed to be something quite different.

  • The concept of equality is a romantic dream. Not even children from the same family are born with equal capabilities. Reducing natural inequality through access to universal high quality education is the key.

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted