IN 1996, when Social Text accepted and published Alan Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” the editors believed they were publishing the work of what we would call today a “woke” physicist and mathematician. With footnotes citing theorists from Derrida to Guattari and Deleuze, Sokal made the hair-raising claim that
deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined . . . Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity.” It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality,” no less than social “reality,” is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.1
In the name of poststructural theory and the radical relativism that masked its liberal pluralism, Sokal’s article denied the very foundations of modern science—that we live in a world governed by the laws of physics, which can be observed and described. Eager to support theory-friendly, anti-Enlightenment writing that allowed for the confusion of relativism with relativity, Social Text editors Stanley Aronowitz, Bruce Robbins, Andrew Ross and the article’s peer reviewers were ready to believe that mathematics and allopathic medicine were just waiting to be disrupted and transgressed by “theory” itself. Sokal’s essay on quantum physics seemed to usher in a new matriarchal multiverse governed by unstable but transgressive subatomic particles, zigzagging through reality, ready to blow our minds and bend our genders and our taste cultures.
After Sokal revealed that his article was a hoax designed to reveal the lack of intellectual and scientific standards of judgment in the top journal of cultural studies, the editors responded with condescension, outrage, and defensiveness. Sokal claimed that theory of the poststructuralist kind was a fraud, not based on academic research or evidence, and dependent on ambitious authors making the right noises about bogus bogeymen like science and objectivity. In turn, the editors of Social Text claimed that when they first received Sokal’s submission, they thought he was a naive science guy who was worthy of encouragement, trying to master theory a bit clumsily and overzealously. After first condescending to him (by allegedly encouraging him), they demonized him when they discovered his article was a hoax. They accused Sokal of unethical behavior and bad faith. The fact was, it was the editors’ mistake to have published the article. Its publication did serious damage to the reputation of the humanities, at least within the academy. Physicists and mathematicians and young scientists working in quantum physics and quantum chemistry still study the Sokal affair. Theorists and humanists tend to try to forget it. In any case, there were no professional consequences for any of the editors of the journal.2 In fact, the reputations of Ross, Aronowitz, and Robbins were burnished in theory circles because they claimed to be fighting the good fight against the reactionary enemies of theory and identity politics. The three editors represented what would become the dominant, PMC-approved identitarian positions in academic circles. It should be noted that the Sokal affair took place during the height of the culture wars in the American academy, and theoretical and cultural studies innovators painted all opponents of their epistemological innovations as reactionaries, trying to hold on to outdated ideas like objectivity and, worse yet, universalism.
The poststructuralist cultural studies theorists despised the oppressive post–World War II liberal consensus as much as the most visionary of neoliberal economists like Alan Greenspan and his overlord, Ayn Rand. That liberal consensus was based on state and corporate support for lifetime employment, labor power, and strong social services and redistributive economic policies. The New Left/cultural studies types hated the liberal consensus as much as the neoliberals. If you do not believe me, do a search for liberal consensus in digitized copies of cultural studies books of the 1990s and you will see it appears only to be dismissed with the patriarchy and heteronormativity and a vaguely Foucauldian idea of “domination.” The economic system and the social safety net built by that much despised consensus were already fragilized in the 1990s by years of corporate depredations. As Elizabeth Warren and Teresa Sullivan showed in their 2001 book The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt, wage compression and the rising cost of living had forced the American middle class to carry debt to maintain standards of living once achieved through wage growth.3 Warren and Sullivan showed that middle-class people were unable to live on their salaries and that they were being exploited by financial instruments like credit cards and second mortgages to supplement stagnant wages. They were not going on vacations by borrowing money—they were paying medical bills, college tuition, and the costs of starting their own small businesses after being laid off or having family members laid off from stable jobs. The trends that Warren and Sullivan identified only intensified after their book was published. Economic growth had left most Americans behind, but real estate values continued to rise, despite stock market volatility in the 1990s and early 2000s. Banks discovered that middle- and working-class mortgage debt was an untapped source of profit for creditors as long as housing prices kept going up. Still suffering from wage compression, Americans used their homes for second mortgages to pay for their exploding cost of living. Banks were so eager to refinance debt and offer barely employed people credit during the early aughts: only the flimsiest forms of documentation were needed for homeowners and home buyers to get big loans. These loans would be at the heart of the subprime mortgage meltdown. People were encouraged to buy expensive new homes or refinance their paid-off homes, borrowing money at low interest rates that would balloon in a few years. The banks packaged these almost fraudulent loans, known as subprime mortgages, into complex instruments that marbled good debt and risky debt into things called collateralized debt obligations.
The house of cards came tumbling down when stressed homeowners began to default on their loans. Bear Stearns, an investment bank overexposed to high-risk debt instruments, ran out of money in March 2008. Lehman Brothers went bankrupt that fall, and the stock market and the housing market crashed one after the other. Wealthy people blamed poor people for trying to cash in on a crazy market—but we know that moral failings or a “culture” of indebtedness was not the real cause of the crash. I heard wealthy Americans in my family complain that the crisis was caused by poor people buying flat-screen televisions. Once again, as they did in the Gilded Age, the wealthy found ways of feeling superior to the poor, but this time in the mode of their more virtuous handling of their wealth. Ordinary Americans, it turned out, were ensnared by a sticky web of corruption, financialization, compressed wages, fear of falling, and lack of regulation. For journalists and financial historians like John Cassidy and Adam Tooze, the crash and the ensuing bailout are directly related to the fall of centrist governments around the world.4
On September 10, 2008, Hank Paulson, George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, went to Congress to urge lawmakers to bail out the collapsing banking sector. In 2009, under the new Obama administration, Timothy Geithner engineered TARP, or the Troubled Asset Relief Program, giving banks $700 million of public money to balance their books. According to Tooze’s analysis, the Federal Reserve transferred an additional $5 trillion to non-American banks to guarantee global financial liquidity. In the meantime, between 2007 and 2016, 7.8 million Americans lost their homes to foreclosure.5 The economic crisis and subsequent bailout exacerbated inequality by every metric and did not lead to significant reform of the financial sector. Bailed-out banks continued to foreclose on the homes of working-class families while refusing to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers. Under an Ivy League–educated African American president, African American family wealth had collapsed. In fact, it is common knowledge that African American and Latino homeowners were hit hardest by the 2008 financial crisis: by 2018, an African American family owned $5.00 in assets for every $100.00 owned by white families.6 Obama’s identity politics did not translate into economic policies that benefited minorities and working-class people.
In the wake of the 2008 crash, and in the midst of Occupy Wall Street–generated protest excitement, John and Barbara Ehrenreich returned to their 1977 critique and declared the “death of a yuppie dream.”7 Their obituary for the yuppie was premature and overly optimistic, but they were writing at a moment when it seemed that the PMC could reinvent itself in solidarity with the working class. The Ehrenreichs, like Christopher Lasch before them, emphasized that the PMC was having difficulty reproducing itself because it had undermined working conditions for all Americans while raising too high the barrier of entry into the credentialed classes. PMC families and their children were reeling from the punishing cost of higher education as well as the narrowing gates of a corrupt meritocracy. In pinning their hopes on the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Ehrenreichs wanted to will the PMC to real political oppositionality.8 It is undeniable that young, downwardly mobile, college-educated “occupiers” attracted national attention when protestors took over Zucotti Park on Wall Street on September 17, 2011. They were evicted two months later, but the movement articulated a durable formula for describing economic inequality: “we are the 99 percent” set up the antagonism between the 1 percent, or richest segment of the population, and the rest of us, even the top 9 percent, or those members of the PMC. A survey done by City University of New York researchers Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce, and Penny Lewis on May 1, 2012, during a massive protest attended by many former occupiers showed that the activists and former occupiers were mostly college-educated, white-collar professionals, majority male, with only 8 percent of occupiers/respondents reporting themselves as blue collar.9 In their analysis of Occupy, Milkman, Luce, and Lewis emphasized the experience of the core activists, their allegiance to the Canadian anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters, and the inspiration they took from the Arab Spring protests.
One occupier quoted by Milkman, Luce, and Lewis said that “OWS [Occupy Wall Street] was a floating signifier that everybody saw different things in.”10 The idea of the floating signifier was one of the most important tenets of poststructuralist theory. It was based on the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure applied by Claude Levi-Strauss to the cultural sphere in general. For Saussure, the linguistic signifier was untethered from any referential determination to objects in the empirical world. Saussure’s structuralist theory of meaning generated by difference rather than intention was highly influential in the fields of anthropology and literary theory. For Saussure, the combination of the signified (referent) and the signifier (the linguistic unit of meaning) together made up the “sign.” Poststructuralism took the principles of linguistics and transferred them to philosophy, culture, and literary texts. Meaning could “float” above the signified world: signifiers became both empty and playful, detached from signifieds or referents. Puns became a form of thinking while “difference” replaced contradiction (in either Hegelian or Marxist terms) as the sinews that held together and determined flexible structures of interpretation.11 In 1994, Alan Sokal tried to puncture the poststructuralist approach to politics and culture by showing that it was foolish to “apply” poststructural ideas to physics and scientific attempts to describe physical reality, but in 2012, students of theory were happily applying the findings of Saussurean linguistics to one of the most significant popular protest movements of the new millennium. Sokal’s project failed to put any of the poststructural nostra to rest, as a generation of theory-trained young people took to the public spaces of New York City to protest a financial system that was in fact very compatible with floating signifiers, radical pluralism, and the untethering of financial values from empirical realities. Signs emptied of meaning gave stock brokers, financial analysts, and occupiers alike a sophisticated way of talking about value, cons, lies, and grifts.
In the same set of interviews, activist Arun Gupta talks about Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s concept of chains of equivalence, where everyone’s grievances could be seen as equal to everyone else’s grievances. Laclau and Mouffe’s tortured theory of populism risked no popular appeal, but it created the illusion of analyzing a “new” form of politics.12 The highly educated members of Occupy fetishized the procedural regulation and management of discussion to reach consensus about all collective decisions. Daily meetings or General Assemblies were managed according to a technique called the progressive stack. Its fanatical commitment to proceduralism an administrative strategy suppressed real discussion of priorities or politics and ended up promoting only the integrity of the progressive stack itself. Protecting the stack became more important than formulating political demands that might have resonated with hundreds of millions of Americans whose lives were being directly destroyed by finance capital. PMC/New Left ideas about mass movements dominated Occupy’s dreams of politics and limited the effectiveness of its activism. Demographically and politically, Occupy was squarely a PMC elite formation: “Changing the Subject” is a fundamentally sympathetic account of Occupy’s politics, but its demographic findings about the movement paint a stark portrait of the typical occupier, who was downwardly mobile, male, young, white, educated at an elite university, and in student loan and credit card debt. The heavy union representation at Occupy reflected the predominance of unionized graduate students.
By 2016, PMC elites became even more worshipful of money and more contemptuous of ordinary people: Hillary Clinton as a successor to Barack Obama was the incarnation of PMC values and the Democratic Party’s power elite. Under Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party would no longer concern itself with working-class interests, the ones her husband had ignored despite his good old boy style: the exercise of power would consist of protecting capitalism while setting up a carefully groomed lineup of diverse, donor-friendly candidates to run for the highest offices in the land. Wall Street and Silicon Valley donors would be appeased. No one to her left dared to challenge her run, except for Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont. Clinton was the PMC elite’s dream candidate, a sign that the class had completely taken over the once unruly Democratic Party that had formerly represented working-class interests. Clinton was an alleged shoo-in, the most qualified presidential candidate ever, a woman who loved Wall Street and the ruling class, a Lean-in pseudo-feminist who wanted to inspire girls to become girl bosses. Clinton’s defeat was not just a blow to centrist rule; it was an angry rejection of the hypocrisy of the PMC tout court. Because of the rise of right-wing populism, political commentators were forced to deal with the election in terms of class formation, which they quickly transformed into geographical and cultural differences that divided America and needed to be understood as such.
From the 1990s, transgressive antiprofessionalism had become the opium of the vanguard corps of PMC elites. Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies: On Line Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right angered these cultural studies transgression worshippers. Like Sokal, Nagle is a proponent of the Old Left, but unlike Sokal, she was not a tenured professor in a STEM field. Nagle has been cancelled by scholars writing the kinds of things that Sokal parodied. Liberal academics could not bear to see their love of subcultural insider knowledge questioned or criticized, especially by an adjunct and junior scholar.13 Since the publication of Nagle’s book, which was critical of her work, Gabriella Coleman, holder of the Wolf Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University, has worked tirelessly to blacklist and deplatform the Irish scholar. Nagle, who worked for years as an adjunct and journalist in the para-academic world, has little institutional power or standing in comparison with Coleman, the prize-winning ethnographer of Anonymous. Nagle suggested that Coleman’s 2014 book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy was one example of the feverish academic embrace of transgression and its antinormie animus. Nagle argues in passing that Coleman lost her distance to her ethnographic subjects of study—Internet provocateurs like /weev/, Andrew Aurenheimer, convicted and sentenced in 2012 of hacking AT&T. Coleman loves transgression, the kind parodied by Sokal, and her book is rife with gushing accounts of her relationships with online microcelebrities.14 Coleman is unfazed by the fact that /weev/ turned out to be an anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi webmaster of the far right website Daily Stormer. In contrast to Coleman, Nagle argued that the Left should be embracing the normative forces of class struggle, not the subcultural transgressions and exploits of people like Aurenheimer. Nagle believes in mass, working-class-based coalitions and movements, not subcultural fetish politics, which she finds undermines the forms of solidarity that are needed for the long struggles of the future. Parody, civil dissent, reasoned debate, contradiction, and polemics are useless, however, against people who see the world as a series of opportunities for transgressing boundaries and celebrating floating signifiers and Deleuzian lines of flight.
In fact, Sokal’s and Nagel’s object of critique—the academic fetish for the transgression of “norms”—has become a “progressive” PMC elite strategy for gaining media attention. With the help of private foundations that are tireless in promoting their antiworker, antiacademic freedom agenda, today’s academic entrepreneurs are using social causes to further their own agendas. Academic research, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is being subtly shaped by the agendas of the ruling class—sometimes directly by mega-wealthy individuals, but also by private foundations endowed by mega-wealthy individuals, and their liberal-minded employees in para-academic positions in the media. It’s not even clear that these professionals and opportunists understand the part they’re playing in undermining academic freedom or professional autonomy.
Take, for example, the role a once obscure private foundation, the Pulitzer Center, played in catapulting the 1619 Project into the center of the national debate about race, slavery, and the teaching and framing of American history. The Pulitzer Center allegedly “raises awareness of underreported global issues through direct support of quality journalism across all media platforms and a unique program of education and public outreach.” The Pulitzer Center’s most prolific donor is Emily Rauh Pulitzer and the Emily Rauh Pulitzer Foundation. Widow of newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer, Rauh Pulitzer is also a major donor to the arts.
In 2019, the Pulitzer Center collaborated with the New York Times Magazine to launch the 1619 Project, directed by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The Project was launched to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved peoples in the American colonies—for its collaborators, the real birthday of the United States of America. Included as part of the New York Times Magazine in August 2019, the 1619 Project caused quite a media sensation: copies of the Sunday Times in which it was included quickly sold out. The Project rewrites the American revolution as a revolt of slaveholders against the British abolitionists and, in its first iteration, argues that the United States of America should be understood as first and foremost a country founded in defense of the institution of slavery. Against the historical evidence that the British monarchy was not taking anti–Atlantic slave trade positions before 1776 and that the colonists themselves were divided on the issue, Hannah-Jones leads a group of writers, scholars, and journalists to dismiss the work of historians of colonial America in order to promote their view of the nation as hopelessly and exceptionally racist.
Just as the editors of Social Text and their colleagues were happy to transgress the norms of the scientific and mathematical communities two decades ago, the 1619 Project rejects the norms of historical research. In the case of the 1619 Project, however, the New York Times is not a small academic journal: the fear of offending the powerful forces, funders and donors who support the Project through private foundations, has cast a pall over the debate around its findings. The authors of the Project reject all criticism of it: they believe that their findings do not depend on the research consensus and archival evidence sorted through by a scholarly community of historians. Using her new clout and massive audience, Nikole Hannah-Jones led the way in dismissing the accepted scholarship that had been done on colonial America as simply the highly biased work of white males. Lifetimes of careful, empirical research were simply no match for massive foundation dollars backed by one of the largest media companies in the world.
It is clear that powerful financial and media interests are behind the promotion of the 1619 Project and its bold attempt to change the way we understand American history and historical research itself. The Project is on top of everything, a bold attempt to eliminate historical materialism from the teaching and writing of American history while destroying the possibility of solidarity in the American working class. Socialist historians on the pages of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS.org) have been some of the Project’s most vocal and astute critics, but their work is not supported or funded by a dense and tangled network of foundations and media elites.15 The Project wants to lay out a subtle but clear lesson for its readers: the impossibility of working-class solidarity. The World Socialist Web Site is also one of the few media outlets to have publicized the fact that under pressure from historians, the New York Times and Hannah-Jones have quietly abandoned their initial claims that 1619 was the “true founding moment” of the United States. Rather than publish a retraction or a correction of their claim, they have quietly softened their thesis on the website of the project by claiming that the Project’s goal is about centering slavery and the contributions of black Americans in relationship to American identity and narrativized nationhood.16 No trace of the earlier hyperbolic claims remains on the 1619 Project website, but researchers at WSWS.org retained a copy of the original site’s thesis about the founding the United States.
Few stop to ask why such powerful and affluent donors and organizations would be so invested in such a historical project—particularly one that elicited such strong counterarguments from widely respected historians. In its focus on race and the singularity of the history of American slavery, the 1619 Project ignores historical and economic conditions that might make slavery comparable to other forms of exploitation—chattel slavery and serfdom being two premodern examples and the wage slavery of industrial capitalism being another. In doing so, it furthers a cherished liberal rallying cry of our time: that interracial solidarity among the working class is simply impossible—better not even to try to establish a universalist critique of capitalism. The leading thinkers of the 1619 Project insist that it is race, not class, that has created the essential social and economic fault line in America. Racism is, they argue, a transhistorical fact written into our national character.
This view fits in nicely with the story of American pluralism promoted by postwar private foundation–sponsored ideology. From a pluralist point of view, African Americans are a distinctive and powerful interest group who, because of their particular history, should advocate for themselves and for reparations for the singular suffering they endured under the particularly brutal institution of American slavery—there’s no need for them to join labor unions with other workers whose experiences can never be a perfect match for their own. Other “groups,” Hispanics, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and so on, can each advocate separately for their special interests. They just need to come up with competing versions of their historical singularity and find powerful donors who will support them in publicizing their cause.
In the early 1970s, just as the policies of deindustrialization and austerity were being perfected as instruments of class warfare in the United States, Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett interviewed the janitor “Ricca Kartides” (a pseudonym) for The Hidden Injuries of Class. The young sociologists discovered that Kartides, who worked as a janitor, felt humiliated every day by his job and its low social status. He was, however, on his salary alone, able to buy his own home so that his children wouldn’t have to live in the building he cleaned. Kartides’s ability to buy a house and support a family on his wages is unimaginable today.17 Today, the average janitor, who makes $24,000 a year, may be ostensibly or formally equal to the average CEO, who makes $14 million a year, but that equality seems like a cruel joke played by capitalism and liberal democracy on the working class.
The radical and material difference in average income between janitor and CEO should be intolerable to everyone who is not a capitalist, but PMC elites have internalized the values of the meritocracy so deeply that they cannot see the radical nature of this difference in incomes as essentially different from all other kinds of difference. As social and economic stratification intensifies across the globe, it spawns a series of political crises and shocks that have shaken centrist governments that have promoted neoliberal, austerity-driven policies for the past fifty years. It is in the face of such a destabilized polity and an ongoing political and economic crisis that a renewed Left must produce political critique and a cultural program informed by the needs of mass politics. If the Left refuses to produce better, more historically grounded accounts of the past, ones that situate contemporary class and cultural conflict in the context of historical struggles for universal principles of equality, dignity, and emancipation, liberals will not do it for us. Liberals have abandoned history, because they have to believe they are superior to elites of the past and the contemporary working class at the same time. Members of the PMC believe themselves to be virtuous vanguardists, floating above historical forms and conditions, transgressing boundaries and inventing new ways of being and seeing. It is hard to argue with them, because they do not accept debate as a meaningful form of the advancement of knowledge. For them, every conflict is moral, not intellectual or political. Sokal failed to stop the proliferation of Americanized ahistorical poststructuralist lines of research in the humanities. Nagel reframed the notion of transgression, but found herself banished from academia. I have no illusions about the power of my critique against the dominant tendencies in academia today, but I will not stop criticizing opportunistic forms of antihistorical, and antimaterialist, antiprofessional work in my profession.