The Universal and the Particular: Chomsky, Foucault, and Post-New Left Political Discourse

Derek Ide I Social Movement Studies I Theory I December 20th, 2014

Postmodern theory was a relatively recent intellectual phenomenon in 1971 when Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault sat down to discuss a wide range of topics, including the nature of justice, power, and intellectual inquiry. At one point Chomsky, who Peter Novick suggests as an example of left-wing empiricism in post-war academia, engages the concrete issue of social activism and invokes the notion of "justice," to which Foucault asks poignantly: "When, in the United States, you commit an illegal act, do you justify it in terms of justice or of a superior legality, or do you justify it by the necessity of the class struggle, which is at the present time essential for the proletariat in their struggle against the ruling class?" After a brief period he quickly reiterates the question again: "Are you committing this act in virtue of an ideal justice, or because the class struggle makes it useful and necessary?" Chomsky attempts to situate a notion of justice within international law, to which Foucault replies: "I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this… the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power… And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice." In other words, for Foucault justice is only intelligible within a relative framework of class antagonisms. Meanings of justice may differ, but they are only understandable vis-à-vis certain class positions. Chomsky responds: "Well, here I really disagree. I think there is some sort of an absolute basis--if you press me too hard I'll be in trouble, because I can't sketch it out-ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a 'real' notion of justice is grounded."[1]

Foucault's position appears correct, at least on the surface, because it is deeply rooted in the recognition of class-based power, hegemony, and contestation. Chomsky, on the other hand, has trouble sketching out any "pure form" or "absolute basis" of justice. Instead, it appears to be an abstraction to which he has some, perhaps understandably, visceral attachment. Yet, Foucault's position seems at odds with the stance that Patricia O'Brien attributes to him when she explains that, for Foucault, "culture is studied through technologies of power-not class, not progress, not the indomitability of the human spirit. Power cannot be apprehended through the study of conflict, struggle, and resistance… Power is not characteristic of a class (the bourgeoisie) or a ruling elite, nor is it attributable to one… Power does not originate in either the economy or politics, and it is not grounded there."[2] Instead, it is an "infinitely complex network of 'micro-powers,' of power relations that permeate every aspect of social life."[3]

In one way, the adoption by "critical" leftists (the proliferation of critical race theory, whiteness studies, etc. may be a reflection of this) of this notion that power is an "infinitely complex network of micro-powers" may help to explain the rise of the post-New Left vocabulary and the political orientation of those who engage in privilege discourse. Thus, institutional "oppression" as a "pattern of persistent and systematic disadvantage imposed on large groups of people" becomes sublimated by "privilege," where the criticism is centered on "set of unearned benefits that some individuals enjoy (and others are denied) in their everyday lives." Likewise, "liberation," referring to ultimate victory against systems of exploitation and oppression, is abandoned in favor of fighting for "safe spaces," where "the attempt to create occasions or locations wherein the adverse effects of privilege on marginalized people are minimized in everyday interpersonal interactions."[4] Thus, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob characterize postmodernists as "deeply disillusioned intellectuals who denounce en masse Marxism and liberal humanism, communism and capitalism, and all expectations of liberation."[5] The persistence of postmodernist intellectual parameters on the post-New Left political discourse could not be clearer.

What O'Brien says is "most challenging of all is the realization that power creates truth and hence its own legitimation," [6] a position which seemingly aligns with Foucault's comment to Chomsky that justice is an "invented idea...put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power." The notion that "power is not characteristic of a class" or that it "does not originate in either the economy or politics" seems far from the position Foucault takes when discussing the issue of justice and class power with Chomsky. Thus, at best one finds a level of disconnect between Foucault's position a la O'Brien and the position he seemed to be articulating vis-à-vis Chomsky. At times it seems that Foucault is even at odds with himself. Contradictions aside, others such as Daniel Zamora have posited that the very questions Foucault asks are incorrect, and have "disoriented the left." The problem for Zamora is "not that [Foucault] seeks to 'move beyond' the welfare state, but that he actively contributed to its destruction, and that he did so in a way that was entirely in step with the neoliberal critiques of the moment."[7]

Despite such contradiction and critique, one of the most recognizable transitions in history that occurred with the advent of postmodernism was the so-called "linguistic turn." Thus, as O'Brien explains, "one of Foucault's recognized contributions, which a wide variety of the new cultural historians embrace, lie in the importance he attributed to language/discourse as a means of apprehending change."[8] Clifford Geertz, albeit in a very different way, also posited the importance of linguistic and textual interpretation. For Geertz, "materialism of any kind" was "an implicit target."[9] Conversely, action is text and "the real is as imagined as the imaginary."[10] Thus, "man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he has himself spun." [11] In many ways, language and discourse came to dominate and displace discussions of power and oppression for postmodernists. This "interpretative turn," as Aletta Biersack refers to it, is a sort of hyper-hermeneutics, where etymology in essence becomes epistemology.

This linguistic turn may also have some relevance to the post-New Left discourse as well. As the radical left retreated into academia, and in the absence of social movements in the first world on a large scale, power become viewed as an infinitely complex web of micro-powers which permeate everyday life. Likewise, the political-linguistic discourse reflected a by now largely alienated intellectual leftist community. Thus, for critical postmodern left-wing academics language and every-day, small scale interactions sublimate material reality and large-scale, institutional structures.

This has been explored in detail by Steve D'Arcy's "The Rise of Post New-Left Political Discourse," which asks the poignant question of whether activists from the New Left era would even find the discourse of today's left intelligible. Juxtaposing words like "oppression" vs. "privilege," "exploitation" vs. "classism," "alliances" vs. "being an ally" (a fundamental distinction!), and "consciousness-raising" vs. "calling out," D'Arcy explicates upon the seismic shift that has gripped leftist discourse.[12] Strategic alliances between oppressed groups or blocs are replaced with hyper-individualized conceptions of being an ally, economic and structural analyses associated with words like exploitation are replaced with "classism," suggesting personal prejudice against members of certain economic backgrounds, etc. This "post-New Left" lexicon is fundamentally different than the language utilized by groups and organizations spanning the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, or even the old left of the 1930s and before. It is also a language keenly peculiar to the first world, and in particular North America and a few European states. The implications of this shift are contentious, but however one views the linguistic transition it is clear that both the political goals and results have been restructured with its advent.

More generally, poststructuralists have put forward a "theoretical critique of the assumptions of modernity found in philosophy, art, and criticism since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."[13] They "argue against the possibility of any certain knowledge… [and] question the superiority of the present and the usefulness of general worldviews, whether Christian, Marxist, or liberal… there is no truth outside ideology."[14] For them "no reality can possibly transcend the discourse in which it is expressed" and while scientists or empiricists may think certain practices "bring them closer to reality… they are simply privileging the language that they speak, the technologies of their own self-fashioning."[15] Thus, historical truth, objectivity, and the narrative form of history have all been targets of the postmodernist critique. Jacques Derrida, for instance, advocated deconstruction "to show how all texts repressed as much as they expressed in order to maintain the fundamental Western conceit of 'logocentrism,' the (erroneous) idea that words expressed truth in reality."[16] Since "texts could be interested in multiple, if not infinite, ways because signifiers had no essential connection to what they were signified."[17] In this way, language was a barrier to truth and precluded human capacity to know truth.

The effect this has had on history is complex. For instance, "the history of what postmodernists called 'subaltern' groups-workers, immigrants, women, slaves, and gays-in fact proved difficult to integrate into the story of one American nation."[18] Partha Chatterjee, for instance, is one of the intellectual founders and banner holders for postcolonial and subaltern studies. Chatterjee, in his study of the "nationalist imagination" in Asia and Africa, The Nation and Its Fragments, cites Foucault as helping him recognize how "power is meant not to prohibit but to facilitate, to produce."[19] For Chatterjee, colonial rule created "a social order that bore striking resemblance to its own caricature of 'traditional India': late colonial society was 'nearer to the ideal-type of Asiatic Despotism than anything South Asia had seen before.'"[20]Specifically referring to search for pre-European capitalism in India, Chatterjee asserts that the "development of industrial capital in… Western Europe or North America, was the result of a very specific history. It is the perversity of Eurocentric historical theories that has led to the search for similar developments everywhere else in the world." [21] Thus, for postcolonial scholars, and implicit in the subset of subaltern studies, totalizing and universal theories are an intellectual and historical impossibility.

This has not permeated all of academia, however. There has been a spirited defense of the radical Enlightenment tradition, especially from the left, as the heated exchanges between Vivek Chibber and Partha Chatterjee have shown. Chibber, in his magnum opus Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, demonstrates the intellectual inconsistences and failures of subaltern studies and offers a comprehensive critique of postcolonial theory. His argument is that it is possible, indeed necessary, to posit a totalizing, universal theory without succumbing to Eurocentrism or reductionism (economic or otherwise). In his work he takes to task Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee, three scholars who he considers emblematic of postcolonial theory. Thus, the battle was pitched between Chatterjee, who rejects universal discourses, and Chibber, who asserts a nuanced and sophisticated Marxist analysis. Chatterjee laid out the battlefield in his response, suggesting that Chibber implores a "plea for continued faith in the universal values of European Enlightenment." He acknowledges that "the debate between universalism and its critics continues and will not be resolved in a hurry. The choice between the two sides at this time is indeed political." Indeed, while he claims the "greatest strength of the universalist position is the assurance it provides of predictability and control over uncertain outcomes," he argues that the critics of universalism, a category he places himself in, "argue that the outcomes are unknown, indeterminate, and hence unpredictable. They accept the challenge of risky political choices, based on provisional, contingent and corrigible historical knowledge." His main contention, then, is that "the working classes of Europe and North America and their ideologues can no longer act as the designated avant-garde in the struggles of subaltern classes in other parts of the world… Historians of Subaltern Studies have only attempted to interpret a small part of these struggles. And changing the world, needless to say, is a job that cannot be entrusted to historians."[22]

In response, Chibber argues in favor of universalizing categories when applicable, suggesting that the "motivation for my intervention was to examine a common charge that postcolonial theory levels at the Enlightenment tradition, that its universalizing categories obliterate all historical difference. They do so, we are told, because they homogenize the diversity of social experience by subsuming it under highly abstract, one-dimensional categories." Here he cites the example of Marx's concept of abstract labor, which he argues postcolonial theories have simply misunderstood. Therefore, "while it is certainly true that some universalizing categories might be problematic, it is sheer folly to insist that this is a necessary flaw in all such categories. Postcolonial theory's broadside against Enlightenment universalisms is vastly overdrawn." Instead, he argues postcolonial and subaltern studies have been an immense failure both intellectually, in understanding the actual conditions of their subjects, and politically, not only by failing to facilitate radical change in any direction but by actually constraining and enervating radical analysis and transformation of society.

Indeed, Chibber proclaims that "Chatterjee's essay [against Chibber's book] is designed to allay any anxieties that his followers might have about the foundations of their project... It is a palliative, a balm, to soothe their nerves." Not only was this meant to boost morale in the wake of political failure, however, it was also meant to be an attack on the radical Enlightenment tradition, particularly Marxism: "Subaltern Studies was not just supposed to offer a rival framework for interpreting colonial modernity; it was also supposed to have internalized whatever was worth retaining from the Marxian tradition, thereby inheriting the mantle of radical critique. For years, the Subalternists have focused just about everything they have written on the irredeemable flaws of Marxism and the Enlightenment -- how they are implicated in imperialism, their reductionism, essentialism, etc." [23] Thus, the battle between postmodernism, of which postcolonial theory and subaltern studies are intellectual legacies, and modernity are not over. This is particularly true in the realm of history, where the debate between Chatterjee and Chibber is only the most recent manifestation.

For leftists, this battle is of immense importance. The words we utilize, the discourse we construct, and the movements which both manifest from and shape our language are at stake. The political implications of these choices are dire, especially at a time when the forces of reaction are winning everywhere across the world. Yet, there are perhaps few places on Earth where the left is weaker than the first world. This is particularly true where post-modern discourse and post-new left political vocabulary has emerged victorious. Without ignoring the insights of the particular, and without exaggerating the past victories and potential of the universal, it would appear that post-new left political discourse has left our side stranded. It has failed to facilitate growth and shown itself incapable of capturing the masses, all the while forcing us to feed upon ourselves, augmenting isolation and alienation from each other. Perhaps the time for a renegotiation of this development is in order; perhaps the left requires a discourse rooted more in the universal and less in the particular.


[1] "Human Nature: Justice versus Power, Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault" (1971), accessed March 15, 2014.

[2] Patricia O'Brien, "Michel Foucault's History of Culture," The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt (Berkeley: Univerisity of California Press, 1989), 34.

[3] O'Brien, "Michel Foucault's History of Culture," 35.

[4] Stephen D'Arcy, The Public Autonomy Project, "The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary." Last modified January 27, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2014.

[5] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 206.

[6] O'Brien, "Michel Foucault's History of Culture," 35.

[7] Daniel Zamora, "Foucault's Responsibility,"

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Aletta Biersack, "Local Knowledge, Local History: Geertz and Beyond," The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt (Berkeley: Univerisity of California Press, 1989), 75.

[10] Biersack, "Local Knowledge, Local History," 78.

[11] Ibid., 80.

[12] Steve D'Arcy, "The Rise of Post-New Left Political Discourse."

[13] Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, 201.

[14] Ibid., 202-3.

[15] Ibid., 204.

[16] Ibid., 215.

[17] Ibid., 215.

[18] Ibid., 217.

[19] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 15.

[20] Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments, 32.

[21] Ibid., 30.

[22] Chatterjee Partha, "Subaltern Studies and Capital," Economic and Political Review Weekly, XLVIII, no. 37 (2013), (accessed March 15, 2014).

[23] Vivek Chibber, Verso Books, "Subaltern Studies Revisited: Vivek Chibber's Response to Partha Chatterjee." Last modified February 25, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2014.