The left that gave up criticism

Image: Paulinho Fluxuz


The overvaluation of the raw experience of social agents, an expression of the dominant anti-intellectualism, inhibits critical engagement

This text is born in reaction to two controversies that have arisen on the left in recent weeks – or, rather, that resurfaced, as they are cyclic. One is about the so-called “place of speech”. The other is about how to characterize the behavior of people who actively support leaders and policies that, in practice, condemn them to death; in particular, the veto of the noun “dumbness”, so shocking. Although they were separate debates, I bring them together here because I think they refer to a common denominator: the overvaluation of the raw experience of social agents, an expression of the dominant anti-intellectualism today, and the consequent inhibition of any critical engagement with the self-expression of the agents themselves. .

Each time it reappears, the debate appears to remain exactly where it was before. This absence of accumulation in the discussion, so exasperating, is a characteristic of social media, which predominantly reward laceration that, to be lacrador, has to remain insensitive to the nuances of reality. It is also a consequence of the anti-intellectualism that labels as “academic”, therefore irrelevant, any contribution that goes beyond immediate experience. And finally, it mirrors the paradox that anyone who criticizes, relativizes or complexifies the notion of place of speech does not, by definition, have a place of speech to touch on the subject, and therefore must be ignored.

It is necessary, in the first place, to emphasize the importance that the notion of place of speech and similar ones had and still have in combating a certain rationalist idealism, which dreams of a stripped Reason that interprets the world by remaining outside it. All speech is socially situated and this is relevant to understanding its meaning. The recognition that different speakers will see the world from different social positions, however, points to the need to pluralize the debate, not to alternate silencing or construction of ghettos.

This is because the place of speech does not imply any epistemic privilege (that is, the idea that the dominated, just by being dominated, already understands domination better than anyone else). The expression of the dominated is important because it translates – in part and with noise, like any expression – their experience, but it should be remembered that this experience is also shaped by domination. The raw experience, therefore, has to be resignified through processes that, for lack of a better word, can be called “awareness”. It was the role of women's groups in the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s that were crucial for the dissemination of this discussion – spaces that allowed women to build an understanding of their own lives against the grain of the patriarchal representations that structure them.

If such spaces are necessary, they in no way lead to the imposition of vetoes on participation in public debate. Rather, they lead to the demand for expanding the plurality of perspectives that take place in them.

Just as speaking place X does not give its occupant an epistemic privilege, occupying non-X place does not, just because of that, make speech irrelevant or harmful. It is an external place and will continue to be so, no matter how empathetic it is – and being aware of that externality is important for understanding it. But you can contribute. Or not. Only by letting it manifest itself in the debate can this be appraised. Remembering, too, that the non-sharing of personal characteristics, life experiences, even beliefs and values, in short, everything that indicates the exteriority in relation to a certain social position, not necessarily implies prejudice. The automatic equivalence between exteriority and prejudice, which is implicit in some manifestations (and even explicit in others), is an abusive simplification that only serves the purpose of silencing the debate.

I spoke above about perspectives. In fact, instead of “place of speech”, I prefer to operate with the category “social perspectives”. Although I myself have been critical of some of its uses1, it has the advantage of marking from the beginning the character social of elocution positions and, therefore, the character socially produced of different experiences, without appealing to essentializing or mystical notions, such as “ancestry”, which have become so current in some discourses.

The limiting use of the “place of speech” is linked to the degradation of the emancipatory claims of subaltern groups (turned against social patterns of domination and violence) into identity claims. Identity ceases to be an instrument for building a collective political subject and appears as an end in itself.

In fact, there is no political struggle that is not, to some extent, identity. I do not wish to return to the somewhat mechanical distinction between class itself e class for you, which Marx himself does in The Misery of Philosophy and in other writings, but the fact is that the constitution of the working class as a political subject depends on the construction of a common political identity. If this step is indispensable for the political action of any group, it is even more so for the dominated, whose experiences are devalued and who objectively find, in the social structure, stimuli for identification with the dominators.

But there are at least two differences, both with enormous consequences, between the identity of the working class and that of other dominated groups. First, the working class is defined by a common attribute of humanity, work, that is, the ability to transform the material world. The other dominated groups have the demand to be included on an equal footing in common humanity, but they do not have as an attribute peculiar that which, as an attribute Clinic, defines humanity as such.

Secondly, the project of the working class, at least in Marx's view, is the extinction of its own peculiarity, with the emergence of a classless society. This is also beyond the reach of other subaltern groups. There was an ambition to erase the social relevance of identity in feminism, which anticipated a society gender-free or in anti-racism aimed at a society color blind. But it was always about overcoming the hierarchical valuation of difference, not difference in itself. Today, the turn towards a politics of difference, in which difference is valued in itself, makes this distinction even more striking.

With that, access to an alternative view is lost, which reads identities also as prisons to be overcome, and the utopia of a post-identity society, in which biological characteristics, such as sex or skin color, will be completely irrelevant to determine behaviors or positions, and social attributes, such as gender or race, will even cease to exist, dissolving into the unclassifiable diversity of a free humanity. It is possible to argue how much this reading is desirable or feasible, but it is difficult to deny that it is, at least, worthy of discussion.

The two differences indicate that the working class has an open door to the connection with universality that other emancipatory movements lack. A situation that is aggravated by the increasingly particularist claim, present in current understandings, in political disputes, of privileged and even monopolistic “places of speech”.

The discussion is complex and has multiple facets, but it is difficult to refuse at least one conclusion: the pluralization of the emancipatory agendas of the left is rich and necessary, but the identity drift, allied to the lacrating use of a reductionist notion of place of speech, works as a a Trojan horse. It inhibits the construction of a common project for society, even occasional alliances, and redirects a good part of the political energies towards easy battles against those who, making mistakes or not, want to be on its side – those who, as well remembered by Wilson Gomes, are the only ones vulnerable to this strategy.

The discussion about clarifying Bolsonaro supporters took different forms, but had in common the idea that someone who does not participate in a given reality should be prevented from expressing any appreciation about it. At times it slipped into the romantic exaltation of "the people" as the repository of all qualities; more frequently, for the denunciation of the “academics” who, ignorant of the real world and as always arrogant, demanded a clairvoyance that was unattainable for the poorest. There was often a confusion between the need to entender the choices made, a real and even urgent need, and the obligation to accept them as enlightened or reasonable.

Understand the production of such uninformed and cognitively deficient readings of reality, which lead to objectively disastrous political choices, is important precisely because they are not a natural condition, nor even the automatic result of a given situation. We live in a moment in which the ideological work of the right takes on special characteristics, with a concentrated effort to spread ignorance, to deny the possibility of learning and, also, to reinforce the most selfish and petty values.

It is prejudiced, however, to judge that people in a situation of deprivation are passive material to be molded by this offensive – not least because many of them show resilience. The question that arises is to know why so many on the left were so negligent, for so long, in the essential task of promoting political education – which, it should be remembered, is not “indoctrination”. It is to undo the work of ideology and help the dispossessed to construct themselves as people capable of autonomous thinking.

In her memoir, speaking of her Interwar Bronx neighbors, Vivian Gornick writes: “People who worked as firefighters, bakers, or sewing machine operators had perceived themselves as thinkers, poets, and scholars by virtue of being members of the Communist Party”2. I think it's better to think that this is a possibility to be built than to remain in the easy refuge of condescension, which judges that "there is no way" to be different and, therefore, absolves beforehand to everything and everyone.

If it is to understand how this refusal is constructed, which denies the cognitive weakness of such objectively unsatisfactory understandings of reality, it is possible to see it starting from two alternative views. One is adherence to the liberal-utilitarian creed that "each man is the best judge of his own interests." It forbids any scrutiny of other people's discourses, denies validity to the question of the social formation of preferences and annuls the existence of all ideological mechanisms. The left approached this position based on the – necessary – criticism of the authoritarian subtext often present in the use of the notion of “false consciousness”, which introduces the idea that there would be a “true” consciousness, accessible to the intellectual or the party leader, owners of instruments to assess the degree of correctness of the consciousness of the “masses” and disregard the understanding that they themselves produce from their experiences.

But if it is not possible to state that there is a predetermined true conscience, that the “real interests” of individuals and groups are defined in advance, without going through the agents, it is not possible to just accept the conscience that emerges from the experience in the social world. This means abandoning the understanding that the ideas of the dominant classes have a greater capacity to be universalized and the criticism of the patterns of manipulation to which we are subjected. Our task – a thorny one, I admit – is, as Žižek wrote, to remain in an “impossible position”, which recognizes that there is “no clear demarcation line separating ideology and reality”, but which nevertheless sustains the tension between ideological and real “which keeps the critique of ideology alive”3.

The other alternative is an arrogant condescension, disguised as good manners, which believes that, prisoners of their own conditions, those people are condemned to adopt certain behaviors. It is a superficial, hazy empathy, tinged with prejudice. The way forward is philanthropy or paternalism. For someone who believes that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves”, this is not an acceptable position. Revolutionary empathy with the underprivileged does not romanticize their consciences, does not give up criticism and, much less, does not abdicate the work of providing tools for them to overcome their limits.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. Author, among other books, of D.omination and resistance: challenges for an emancipatory policy (Boitempo).

Originally published on Boitempo's blog


1 See the chapter “Social Perspectives and Symbolic Domination” in my book Democracy and representation. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2014.

2 Vivian Gornick, fierce affections. Trans. by Heloisa Jahn. São Paulo: However, 2019, p. 69.

3 Slavoj Žižek, “The Specter of Ideology,” in Slavoj Žižek (ed.), A map of ideology. Trans. Vera Ribeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1996, p. 22.



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