My Book Review of The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today

Daniel Avatar

My review of Remzig Keucheyan’s, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today is up at the Huffington Post. As you can see from my review, I found the book to be a tremendous contribution to the field of left politics and organization and to the academic field of critical theory. Has critical theory begun to shrug off the stereotype that its disconnected from concrete social problems? Has the critical public intellectual begun to make a comeback?

The Resurgence of the Leftist Public Intellectual

The American philosopher Richard Rorty once wrote that academe’s obsession with theory creates a ‘shibboleth’ in the university system, sheltering and confining its debates and polemics from the public sphere. Rorty made this accusation back in the mid-1990’s, right as the movement of ‘theory’ began to make its heyday following the immense influence of French philosophers Derrida and Foucault. The consequence of this shibboleth was that the jargon and the obscurity of theory created a profound disconnect with the working class and non-academics became marginal to revolutionary ideas. Since the decline of the New Left starting in the late 1970’s, leftist and progressive intellectuals have become more and more absorbed into the institution of academe and as a result, the figure of the public critical intellectual, which formerly had a role in major debates from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, lost its cultural hegemony and moral force in the wider culture. The politics of tenure began to outweigh the politics of the larger culture and the public critical intellectual became a dinosaur, something from another time all together.

Concurrent with the decline of the left, the figure of the ‘expert’ public intellectual filled the void and eventually replaced the critical intellectual in terms of prominence and moral authority on issues of the day. Leftist intellectuals used to be so central to intellectual life in America, for example, that even today’s neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, William Cristol and Paul Wolfowitz were all former Trotskyite intellectuals, enamored with leftist polemics and debate. But today, the expert dominates the very meaning and public image of what an intellectual is. The expert provides commentary on social and political policy, which ends up being watered down consultation to elites on matters of governance and crisis management. The expert informs the public about how to improve their lifestyle choices. The stepbrother of the expert intellectual is the TED-talk intellectual who provides what one writer refers to as ‘magical thinking‘ for tech-entrepreneurs and the wealthy elite. Where the policy expert and the TED-talk entrepreneur fail is that they disregard the traditional role that intellectuals played in public life, of serving as agents of resistance to the status quo, often offering systemic and radical critiques of capitalism. Today’s intellectual is rarely allowed to offer critiques that point to solutions requiring structural changes to the status quo of neoliberal life.

Despite the decline of the critical intellectual over the last several decades, the field of academic critical theory has expanded its influence both within academe, (in fields outside of the humanities such as economics and ecology) but more importantly, the critical public intellectual has been influencing social movements beyond the confines of the ivory tower since the 1990’s to the present. As the American Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson argues, the left can only begin to overcome its defeat by providing what he calls a ‘cognitive mapping’ of its key ideas and strategies. Remzig Keucheyan’s, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today is an important contribution to the field of critical theory today as it provides such a cognitive mapping. Not only is the book an excellent introduction to the burgeoning field of critical theory as it surveys the key ideas of master thinkers such as Jacques Rancière, Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben, Gayatri Spivak and Slavoj Žižek, it also sheds light on lesser known thinkers such as Elmar Altavater and Yann Moulier Boutang. Keucheyan situates contemporary critical theory historically and links its resurgence to the resurgence of leftist political movements globally and he goes beyond merely summarizing the salient ideas of key thinkers but effectively highlights the most important debates within critical theory.

The field of critical theory is broken down into two very general categories in the book: critiques of the system of global capitalism such as imperialism, the nation-state, and citizenship are analyzed and secondly, critiques of the subject of emancipation, i.e. how questions of revolutionary agency, equality, freedom, rights and gender are being thought by critical theorists. Today’s critical theorists are most often working with classical Marxist categories such as exploitation, wage labor and accumulation; however, many thinkers have re-formulated these categories and reflect upon problems of ecology, neoliberalism and other contemporary problems of capitalism.

Keucheyan charts the origin of today’s critical theory with the emergence of the global New Left in the late 1950’s to the late 1970’s. In Europe and America, the New Left period witnessed the rise of a centralized base of leftist organizations, from labor unions to socialist parties. What this meant for critical thinking was that the struggle for emancipation from capitalist domination was waged first and foremost from the factory and the agents of this struggle were the worker and the party form. While the New Left did not attain much political power during this time, it did see the rise of the May 68’s global protest movements against capitalism, which had their epicenter in France. Paris served as the center of the world for critical thinkers, whereas today it is the United States and New York City. Major French thinkers such as Sartre, Derrida and Foucault played a seminal role in the intellectual development of today’s critical thinkers, many of whom were students of these thinkers, such as Gayatri Spivak was of Derrida. While fewer critical theorists from the New Left period are still writing and publishing today, the names of Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou are two of the most prominent examples of thinkers from the May 1968 protests that are still engaged in and active with publishing books of political theory and philosophy.

The decline of the New Left is a story of betrayal and resilience. This period of decline occurs from 1977 to 1993, with the rise of the alter-globalization movements. On the side of betrayal, what occurred during this period is that many formerly committed critical intellectuals abandoned their fidelity to radical ideas and chose to become integrated into various movements of liberal thought such as the French New Philosophers movement. In France, former Maoist intellectuals such as Andre Glucksman and the Italian Marxist Lucio Colletti began to adopt neoliberal ideals. Similarly, in China, many critical intellectuals abandoned Marxist ideas as Deng Xiaoping ushered in neoliberal reforms in the 1980’s. In Argentina, critical intellectuals veered away from the radical Marxist tradition and modified their thought to adapt to changing dynamics in their country. While not an outright betrayal to radical left ideas, some critical intellectuals, most notably in Argentina, (where the passive revolution known as Peronism occurred) argued that a new theory of seizing power must be created because the proletariat had lost its organization. This modified theory of leftist revolutionary moved away from the more classical Leninist notions and many critical thinkers have similarly expanded their range of references and tactics for thinking revolution in an age when the left has all but lost its party and worker base of power. This innovation of leftist theory and strategy is evident in the thought of the late critical theorist Ernesto Lacalu. For Laclau, the thought of Gramsci, particularly the concept of hegemony, presented a radically new way to think of the different ways that identity groups such as labor unions, minorities and others contest for attaining the status of ‘the people’ and how seizing power at the level of civil society might occur, instead of seizing power at the state level (242).

The early 1990’s witnessed a rise in critical theory from its slumber as many critical thinkers gained a foothold as commentators and analysts of various social movements, most notably the alter-globalization protests, the anti-war movement and more recently with Occupy and a number of indigenous anti-capitalist movements. While Kuecheyan does not provide an exhaustive genealogy of the relation between critical thought and social movements and today’s leftist militancy, it is clear that a dialectical relation exists between critical theory and a centralized strengthened leftist base. More research into this dialectical relation would make for a fascinating continuation of this study.

Thinking a New Subject of Emancipation:

A preoccupation with the theme of the subject in critical theory is central to the work of many thinkers, from Alain Badiou’s theory of the militant subject, to Giorgio Agamben’s idea of homo saccer. This preoccupation with the subject can be traced to historical and theoretical forces. For starters, the left no longer has a privileged subject of revolution, as the figure of the worker and of the working class has disappeared as a unit of empirical reality and thus they no longer contain the same potency of agency and hence they are no longer viable subjects for producing social change (169). What destroyed the working class as the agent of emancipation was the overwhelming success of neoliberal ideology and the fragmentation of the industrial working class (169).

With the evaporation of the figure of the worker as the subject of emancipation and the shift away from the factory as the site of contestation, critical thinkers have expanded their range of references to historical figures of emancipation. Although overwhelmingly atheist, critical thinkers have invoked religious figures such as St. Paul, Thomas Müntzer, Gandhi and they include references to the Book of Job, the Old Testament and even the American founding fathers. Religion is invoked in order to think through different problems that the ‘end of ideology’ presents to our world today. One of the premises of this return to thinking a more emancipatory form of religious thought is that such a thinking might prove a tonic to the fundamentalist turn that has affected Christianity and Islam over the last several decades, providing it with a set of alternative narratives, histories and figures of radicalism. Invoking religious thought also enables thinkers to probe the more complex nature of belief and ideology, in an age of capitalism that lacks compelling alternative ideologies to global capitalism.

The theme of identity and ways of thinking outside of and beyond the limitations that identity politics presents is another important topic addressed by critical theorists such as Habermas, Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, and Jacques Rancière. Interestingly, Kuecheyan notes how the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, who questioned different regimes of normality and subjects outside of the norm, such as subjects classified with mental illness, prisoners, etc. is what in part led to a larger fascination with an expansive category of identity. More generally, critical theorists that examine the question of identity are concerned with different ways it is ontologically possible through an encounter with others or through a procedure of recognition to arrive at different states of emancipation from psychical servitude.

On the topic of feminist theory in today’s critical theory, Keucheyan highlights the work of Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler and Donna Harraway and characterizes their thought as “post-feminist” in that they break with the mold of feminism. For Harraway, the very category of ‘women’ does not exist. In a different but related way, there is no representational politics that does not create exclusion for Judith Butler. Both of these positions are tied up in a larger critique of gender norms (199). In terms of the field of postcolonial studies, which has transformed greatly in recent years, Kuecheyan highlights the important concept of ‘strategic essentialism,’ developed by a branch of postcolonial studies called subaltern studies. It argues that essentialism is still deployed despite its waning effect in reality. One of the most often deployed critiques in critical theory therefore various critiques of essentialism and universalism, both of which haunt Eurocentric discourses and systems of thought, from metaphysics to ethics. Strategic essentialism maintains that identities do not refer to anything substantive and essentialism still operates on all subjects and they aren’t able escape it. The ubiquity of essentialism is often useful for political action, however in the realm of critical theory one of the things critiques of essentialism has led to is the idea that the category of class is itself that which underlies all forms of domination, and thus it is not one social antagonism on par with another form of oppression. This is a matter of debate amongst critical thinkers where thinkers such as Žižek argue that class antagonism is a priori the site of social antagonism, whereas Ernesto Lacalu argues that social antagonisms should be understood along a more nuanced spectrum of struggles.

Critiques of the System of Global Capitalism:

In the ‘system’ chapter of the book, Kuecheyan examines debates about the status of capitalism and offers insight into schools of thought such as cognitive capitalism, historical materialism, and radical ecological thought. Cognitive capitalism owes much of its thinking to the long tradition of Italian operaismo, or autonomism, which posits that knowledge becomes a central domain for production with the innovations in capitalism following the 1970’s. With the ascendancy of knowledge value, the worker ceases to be the central figure in the process of production. For Negri, a central proponent of autonomism, the workers movements won against capitalism in the 60’s and 70’s and a new version of capitalism was created. The implication is that class struggle extends to all of society, and power functions in a dualistic manner. There is power over (potere) something and power to (potenza). It is this latter power to, where Negri identifies what he calls the multitude, and the former mode of power over is what he calls empire, or the large system of global capitalism. In his famous text, Empire, co-written with Michael Hardt, Negri argues that imperialism is over and power is now exerted across all territories.

David Harvey, the well-known Marxist geographer, makes a similar point when he argues that capitalism produces a “space-time compression” that annihilates public space and the commons. Unlike Hardt and Negri, Harvey submits that imperialism is still operative in today’s global capitalism, even though the nation-state form is in decline. Harvey argues that imperialism is triggered when under-consumption is created as a result of the exploitation of workers in the countries at the center of the world economy. Under-consumption creates insufficient demand and then forces the exploiting countries to shift overseas, thus imperialism shifts grounds from the nation-state to the private market taking the hegemonic role (105 – 106).

Perhaps the most developed theory of cognitive capitalism is found in the work of Yann Moulier Boutang who argues that contemporary capitalism has transitioned to a third age of capitalism following mercantislism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and industrial capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This new era is one of cognitive capitalism, and the ‘cognitariat’ are the new proletarian subjects who are exploited by their brain and their labor is reduced to immaterial labor (92 – 93). Critics of cognitive capitalism insist that the opposition between capital and labor remains formative and they argue that there is no transition from labor value to knowledge value (140). Michel Husson, for example, argues that the dislocation of the Fordist wage relation has resulted in what he calls ‘pure capitalism’ and the appropriate measure must be the abolition of the wage earning class and a reduction in working hours (142).

Other critics of cognitive capitalism are thinkers such as Elmar Altvater who wrote the important ecological Marxist essay, “Is there an ecological Marxism?” Altvater also developed the idea of “fossil capitalism” and points out that the source of energy supply is the sin qua non of capitalist production and accumulation. The conclusion to be drawn from this theory is that investment in the green economy is doomed from the outset because it does not provide an adequate level of investment for profit making, which means that neoliberalism is unable to adequately sustain the expansion of a green economy. Altavater also developed the idea of the Entropy Law that looks at how energy depletion is tied to economic processes, shattering the assumption that growth is infinitely possible. For Altvater, the law of value makes labor value the main surplus value there is. Altvater claims that only major state-based investments in a solar economy and a solar revolution can alter the Entropy Law.

Since its birth, capitalism has gone through four stages or cycles of accumulation and each stage has a material and a financial stage. As a result of the inevitable fall of profit rates, capital enters a financial stage to continue to reap profits. The United States is currently at the center of today’s global financial capitalism. World-systems theorists develop this theory of financial capital, most notably Giovanni Arrighi, who argues that American imperialism has reached an ossified state where it exerts domination but it no longer has economic hegemony, rather only military hegemony. What signaled the decline of the U.S. as a global hegemon was its imperial blunders in Vietnam and later in the Iraq war. Structurally, the problem is that financialization does not fix the problem of the rate of profit and a cycle of crisis and major social unrest unfurl during a period of financialization (154).

What will follow the U.S. empire? Many argue that China is emerging as the next economic hegemon, and one hypothesis is that the coming decades will unleash a period of intense chaos until a new mode of capital accumulation will be developed. The consequences of this shift will be multiple, but it will entail the destruction of decayed cities and neighborhoods in its wake, such as what is occurring in Detroit today and it will lead to an increase in riots and protests. The theme of accumulation is addressed by a number of critical theorists and one of the main ideas of accumulation is that capitalism always needs an exterior to overcome its crises of over-accumulation, thus accumulation entails the usurpation of former communal areas, and lays the slate clean for accumulation through war (107). War takes over existing sites of production and refurbishes them, a concept that draws on Marx’s notion of original accumulation – always following capital like its shadow.


What does critical theory tell us about the future of social struggles? Keucheyan is wise to point to the central role that ecology and the ever-growing ecological crisis will play as a site of social antagonism and political conflict. He identifies the ecological movement as a ‘worksite’ of future engagement. In a fascinating point towards the end of the text, he argues that the ecological movement is waiting for its very own Marx to provide a mature theoretical account of the social relations that underpin today’s ecological crisis and the oppression that it wreaks. Following the development of the theory of today’s material conditions, a set of organizing principles connected to that thought would have to then follow. The other worksite he identifies is the party form of politics, which is beginning to make a comeback with the rise of Syriza in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain, two far left parties vying for political power.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: