How Are Philosophers Remembered in the Age of Meltdowns and Pile-Ons?

When Jason Stanley, an endowed chair of philosophy at Yale University, became the center of a twitter “pile on” after confessing proudly that he writes so that his thinking will be read in 200 years, this made me think about how philosophers are remembered in posterity. In fact, Stanley not only said this for himself, he gave the impression that any philosopher should follow this mandate and write in such a way. Aside from the blatant normalization of a certain excessive narcissism that this sentiment brings about, I think the first thing to recognize is that no philosopher working today really knows who will be remembered in 200 year’s time, and they especially do not know if they will be remembered. This fact alone is a good argument for simply putting your head down, sticking to your principles, and getting to work. There is no real use in choreographing your own fame and notoriety into your work even though in the modern period Nietzsche sought to do this very thing. Nietzsche said that he wrote for future social and political contexts, specifically, he said only “after great socialistic wars occur” will my philosophy find wide appeal. And in a way Nietzsche’s wager was correct. He was seldom read in his time and his thought became iconic and thus untimely only after the two World Wars.

But Stanley, from what I can tell, seems to write for the existing liberal establishment. An outspoken supporter of Elizabeth Warren during the 2019 – 2020 primaries, he appears on MSNBC and passionately defends the latest waves of the Culture Wars, carefully siding with the general line of the DNC and the nonprofit and academic trends. Stanley’s work on fascism has fed into liberal perceptions of Trumpism as a fascist movement, a position which has only resulted in an intensification of the Culture War discourse and an effort to reinforce liberal progressive orthodoxies. Stanley’s conception of how fascism works is problematic but I do not intend to critique it in full here. Although there are very useful critiques here and here.

The question I want to ask is this: will the seemingly parochial ideologies that make up today’s liberal establishment still be intact in 200 year’s time? Are they even defensible today? There is very little untimeliness in Stanley’s thought as far as I can see. But liberalism, despite its crisis of legitimacy as evidenced in the Stanley debacle and meltdown, does not necessarily face a crisis in the discourse more generally, and I think this immunizing tendency of liberalism to remain the ideological air that we breathe is something that should give socialists quite a lot of cause for reflection. It is this immunizing tendency of the liberal political discourse that concerns me as a socialist.

Let’s keep in mind that the catalyst of the Stanley meltdown was Wesley Yang, a best-selling author of the The Souls of Yellow Folk who, following Donald Trump’s presidency in 2016 onward, had a complete shift in his politics. Yang has a popular Substack where he analyzes what he calls “successor ideology” and he has refined an approach that is seemingly neutral ideologically. His Substack is largely meant to research and discover how we got to this point. But unlike the self-avowed Marxists and socialists of the “post-left”, Yang’s anti-woke position casts a far wider net because he does not necessarily place the major ideological blame for wokeness on liberalism as an ideology. And nor does Yang profess Marxist or socialist commitments as the most important tonic to overcome or transform woke ideology. In many ways, Yang seems to be interested in how anti-wokeism became anti-liberal, a presupposition which invites his readers to discover a better form of liberalism in which to overcome woke ideology. This wide-tent approach to a critique of wokeism as a particular deformative tendency in American liberalism results in the sense that Yang’s critique is more far-reaching than the post-left and hence his take-down of Stanley was more far-reaching – uniting a quiet chorus of liberal academics who could not say anything and a much wider set of people generally exhausted with the fact that woke ideology has not achieved anything materially for the most vulnerable in our society, especially since Biden came to power.

At this point, the Warren wing of the prestige liberal elites that are well-placed in America’s institutions of higher learning seem to have proven that their ideological project has simply not resulted in a serious material change in the post-Trump period. This is the core symptom of the Stanley meltdown and how it should be read. He is a core member of this wing of the professional elite whether he disavows that association or not. The Biden administration relied heavily on this class, at least rhetorically, and the Stanley meltdown was an indication of how disintegrated this class formation has become. We should recognize that even though this element of the prestige elite liberal progressive wing has lost legitimacy, Yang’s brand of anti-woke writing and presence online is also problematic. Yang casts a wide net because he maintains a vague implicit support for liberalism, or the possibility of restoring a more rational liberalism. But this wide tent approach also risks becoming politically incoherent as it finds no problem in naturally allying with elements of the libertarian right who find a catharsis in the chance to also dunk on the libs. This was evidenced by the surprising number of pro-Trump twitter profiles that joined the shameful pile on against Stanley. Whatever views you hold of Stanley’s politics, it’s better to attack the substance of his ideas and most importantly the class position he is situated in defending, not to radically demean him as a person with unfair ad hominens. This sort of pile on activity on twitter does not make anyone feel satisfied and it tends to maintain resentment, it does not seriously transform the conversation. The pile on is an exercise in a repetition of humiliation and shame. It signals a politics of impotence.

To return to the question of how a philosopher is remembered, much is bound up with how they weather the polemics of their time, i.e., notoriety is a result of how a philosopher positions themselves relative to ideological struggle. One thing that is unique and different in our time compared to previous eras is that philosophers tend to not develop followings such that their thought becomes seized by the masses. There are no “Stanleyites” today and very few academic philosophers in fact have followers who specifically aim to further their concepts or ideas. If anything, philosophers today generally link their thought with preexisting ideological constellations and aim to gain some notoriety within that sub-ideological community.

I gained this impression when recently I participated in a panel on family abolition. Let me say that I really enjoyed being part of the event and it is a goal of my book to spark a dialogue with the family abolitionists on today’s left. One of the debates that emerged in this panel, a point that I specifically raised, is around co-optation of the abolitionist demand. My view is that liberal ideology, what some call a process of “ultra liberalism” tends to completely devour libidinal radicalism implicit in demands such as “abolish the family” or “abolish the police” and perform a sort of neutralizing of this very impulse. I was surprised to hear that my co-panelists did not find the problem as concerning as I do. In my book on the family, I relate the experience of Gilles Deleuze himself in the early 1990s who had a total political realization that his libertine project of anti-Oedipal politics he had developed over the last 20 years had largely been co-opted by liberal political sensibilities. This resulted in a sapping of the radicalism of the project and a sense in which the project missed the mark, it accelerated certain contradictions in capitalism that were not adequately overcome. A different theory of negation is in order, and I try to show how Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Control Societies” actually envisions a completely different way of conceiving of power than the Anti-Oedipus series.

It is worth considering how Marx and Engels approached polemics against philosophers. They tended to attack the followers of a thinker more than the thinker as such. In fact, one of the consistent points that Marx and Engels had in their correspondence with the socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, a central figure on the German socialist left, whose thought was at the center of the Critique of the Gotha Program. In a perhaps surprising way, Lassalle maintained that he himself was committed to the principles of the Communist Manifesto and that he was a disciple of Marx. But Marx attacked not Lassalle directly; he rather attacked “Lassalleism” for falling sway to a set of theoretical ideas that were more reflective of some general class trends of reformism within the bourgeoisie. This is a subtle distinction that is worth retaining today: it is the class character of a thinkers followers, the way their ideas are taken up and furthered by class interests that signals an important danger.

A similar de-coupling from the thinker with his/her followers is made in Engels’s later writing on Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy where he revisits Feuerbach from the time of Marx and Engels’s early Theses on Feuerbach. Here, Feuerbach is treated with a degree of respect for his contributions to materialist philosophy; it is rather the circle of Feuerbachians that formed around him that worried Engels. Perhaps the one major exception to this distinction Marx and Engels carefully made was when Engels decided to write  Anti-Dühring and take on the comprehensive and idiosyncratic philosophy of Eugen Dühring that even more than Lassalleism, had enveloped the socialist movement at the time of the reformist Gotha program. Dühring’s thought and his following both spelled a major disaster for the socialist movement that had to be addressed and Engels’s work provides a full-court analysis of the vulgar worldview approach that Dühring brought to his conception of socialism. But the fact that Feuerbach, Lassalle, and Dühring were darlings of the socialist movement and commanded a great deal of respect within the wider institutional community at the time, was not any indication that their thought would necessarily be read in 200 years. As we know, if anything, to the extent their thought is still read today, it is owed to the polemics Marx and Engels waged against them.

Our discourse is ultra-ideological today but in a way that is different than when Marx and Engels were alive. Today, it is important to differentiate yourself ideologically based on vague in-group demarcations within a broader ideological camp. We often fail to see that these demarcations are done within a political spectrum whose common liberal coin is the main currency of social and political debate. What this indicates to me is the importance of developing distinct socialist ideological struggle in such a way that avoids liberalist capture and libidinal seizure of socialist demands, but does so in a way that does not end up vying for a better liberalism to replace hegemonic woke liberalism.

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