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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Joe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Integral Left Critique of "Cultural Marxism"
In short, “cultural marxism” belongs to the lexicon of right-wing propaganda against everything from the left.
“Cultural Marxism” is a phrase often used by the alt-right and people like Jordan Peterson to describe the current manifestation of the left in America, such as BLM and Critical Race Theory. However, on closer examination it is a phrase that emerges from a misunderstanding of the history of the intellectual left in the 20th century, and is misused to describe the left broadly. Worse, it is a catch-phrase used to discredit the left in a single stroke, much as the term “socialism” has been used as an equivalent for authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, pre-emptively dismissing any serious consideration of its meaning and possibilities. In short, “cultural marxism” belongs to the lexicon of right-wing propaganda against everything from the left.
In the early half of the 20th century, Marxists like Lukacs, Gramsci, and the Frankfurt School turned to the question of why the working class didn't rise up against their capitalist oppressors, and in fact often sided with their masters even to the point of supporting oppressive pro-capitalist fascism. The answer was to be found in psychological and cultural factors, and it is a question that is still relevant today. It is known as the cultural turn within the left and Marxism more generally, which seeks to avoid the tendency toward economic reductionism in more traditional left analyses that seemed to assume a close correspondence between class conditions and class consciousness. And in that respect, “cultural marxism” should be praised for opening the Marxist critique of capitalism to a more integral view of reality.
In the later half of the 20th century, people like Habermas, Foucault, and Derrida turned to the question of what other forms of power besides economic and political oppression exist that may not be so obvious and extrinsic, but hidden and intrinsic to the ways we speak and conduct ourselves. They pointed to forms of rationality, discursive-practices, and language as deeper forms of tyranny and sources of oppression that needed liberating if there was going to be any hope for human liberation at the social systems level. This was known as the linguistic turn in the left and Marxism more generally, but it was more explicitly a post-marxist or even anti-marxist turn away from social systems and class analysis toward communications and discursive-behavioral systems analysis. And that is exactly the point, for now this faction of the left was no longer Marxist at all, but had left behind the core category of class as the master-term.
It is from this linguistic-discursive-rationality lineage that we also get the terms post-structuralism, postmodernism, and deconstructionism, but nowhere in academia was there a faction calling itself “cultural marxism”. Some may have adopted the term “neo-Marxism”, but sometimes only in the sense that liberalism was appropriated by neo-liberalism in a perversion of its meaning. These analyses rejected the narrative of economic liberation separate from the deeper and multiple sources of oppression and violence, whereas Marx and the “old school” social systems analysts were still in the modern tradition of looking at the social systemic roots of capitalist oppression such as labor exploitation, consumerism, and media propaganda, hoping for some unifying master-narrative to liberate the masses.
Part of the post-structuralist and postmodern analysis of capitalism saw systemic racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity as central to the operations of capitalist oppression, and these were deeply embedded in language and normative practices. And no doubt these analyses had some validity. The postmodern turn was a good thing because it offered a deeper analysis of the necessary changes (cultural, psychological, linguistic, and behavioral in addition to the standard economic and political changes) that would be needed to go beyond not just capitalism but authoritarian and economic reductionist modernism as well, of which Marxism could be seen as a left incarnation. The problem begins when the cultural changes become prioritized and even fetishized over the economic, which is the core or universal analysis of oppression and exploitation needed for solidarity. This cultural fetishization begins with political agents (academic and otherwise) behind the new left analysis who stand to personally gain in career and social standing by pushing the alt-oppression narrative as far as it will go. In place of systemic policing changes we get policing of politically correct speech. In place of a fair living wage we get corporate multiculturalism. In place of class war, we get race and gender wars (the latter being divisive and therefore unwinnable, whereas the former is centred in solidarity and therefore winnable). The capitalist donor funding of BLM to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars is perfectly understandable.
Tracing the socio-historical rather than merely the intellectual origins of postmodern cultural identity politics (known by the alt-right as “cultural marxism”), it emerged primarily from 1968 onward with the defeat of the left in the political protests around the world against capitalist culture and militarism, but simultaneously the victory of stonewall, feminism, and the environmental movement in the wake of civil rights struggles before them. In the Left they were known as the new social movements. Their rise was seen by some as the necessary "soft" work to lay the groundwork for any future revolution in "hard" political economic matters. At around the same time as these socio-political and cultural developments, in the early 70s there began a shift away from the industrial to the post-industrial, or from the fixed Fordist to the flexible post-Fordist system of capitalist production that would eventually become the new world order of neoliberalism. With the defeat of labor unions in the early 80s all seemed lost, at least for the time being, on the grand unified labor front against capitalism. Cultural struggles were all that remained. Thence entered Bill Clinton and the third way of the Washington consensus. Corporate multiculturalism was all that was left of the “left”.
What we see in the postmodern cultural identity politics of the SJW's is not “cultural marxism”, not only because it lacks any semblance of a marxist analysis or emphasis on working class solidarity, but also because it is fully compatible with the capitalist agenda of full consumer representation of all potential demographics, not by demands for a living wage or a green new deal but by demands for reparations for slavery, removing the glass ceiling and other barriers to full participation in capitalist markets by minorities, including equal representation on the boards of corporations to exploit and oppress the masses of workers. Rather than “cultural marxists” a more appropriate term for these “radicals” would be cultural liberals, liberal elitists, or perhaps gaslighting self-loathers intent on making everyone else feel as guilty and sinful as they do. Which is fine as far as it goes, but then we need to get our terminology straight and stop calling them something they are not. And stop slandering and delegitimizing the radical left more broadly for the neo-tribal interests that these SJW's represent.