23 June 2017

The Austrian roots of the regressive left

It’s commonly acknowledged that one of the major hallmarks of the (re)activist postmodern identitarian campus left, or the regressive left, is that it assumes the ‘social construction’ of certain facts – including, but not limited to, the scientific method and biological gender. Many of the opponents of the regressive left, particularly those on the political right, assume that the idea of ‘social constructivism’ comes from Karl Marx via the Frankfurt School (hence the intellectually-lazy snarl of ‘cultural Marxism’).

Unfortunately, the Frankfurt School of critical theory offers itself up as an easy punching bag given the schoolmarmish, sourpuss commentary of people like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer about everything related to the production of culture, or the over-the-top activist pose of Herbert Marcuse (which is often linked to modern campus-activist praxis). And red-baiting is of course an old and venerable sport in American politics – the new Birchers baying after ‘cultural Marxism’ don’t even have to put away their Cold War paranoia! But for all its flaws, the Frankfurt School never actually gave itself up to the insane ‘narrative’ relativism in morals or to the subjectivism in epistemology that have become the hallmarks of the regressive left. Nor was its rationalistic social critique directly responsible for laying the groundwork for ‘social constructivism’. (Heck, these days the foremost representative of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, has become a vocal defender of the Christian religious tradition as a repository of humane civilising habits – can you imagine a campus leftist doing the same?) Of course the hardline Marxists have been far too wedded to dialectical materialism to even consider ‘social constructivism’ as anything but an annoying distraction, spurred by frustrated radicals’ inability to achieve actual revolutionary goals.

The actual roots of social constructivism lie elsewhere, though. But the actual history of the ideas of social constructivism is not a comfortable one for the American political right, though, because several highly-revered intellectual figures of the American political right are much more directly responsible for the rise of subjectivism, relativism and the idea of ‘social construction’ itself.

As with any intellectual genealogy, it’s best to start with the first known instance of an idea. The idea of the ‘social construct’, and with it, the sociological theory of constructivism, first appeared with the libertarian sociologist Peter Berger and his co-author Thomas Luckmann in their book The Social Construction of Reality, which has been a key text in American sociology departments and classrooms since it was first published in 1966. The text’s conceit was to take ‘taken-for-granted realities’ and deconstruct them as projects or fictions sustained by iterated interactions between individuals, but not possessing any reality of their own. Also notable about the text was that it downplayed the role of the scientific method as just one stream of social knowledge among many, and at that one whose source was largely controlled by a small group of privileged experts. (Sound familiar?) The philosophical traditions cited by Berger and Luckmann as intellectual inspirations for The Social Construction of Reality were, in a word, not Marxist. Berger and Luckmann invoked the names of Scheler, Heidegger, Husserl, Weber and Mead – none of whom were Marxist, and two of whom utterly hated Marx (for different reasons). We can see here that the philosophical traditions of American pragmatism and European postmodernism (which at the time of Berger’s and Luckmann’s book was busily reorganising itself into poststructuralism) have left indelible marks on social constructivism. But the biggest direct intellectual influence on The Social Construction of Reality was the thinking of Peter Berger’s doctoral advisor, Alfred Schütz.

Schütz, like Berger himself, was born in Austria. But he was a member of the private seminar, and a very close friend of, a certain Austrian œconomist named Ludwig von Mises. Schütz’s early sociological work was deeply influenced by von Mises’s praxeology, and was largely an attempt to reconcile Weber’s sociology with von Mises’ a priori, subjective and individualistic approach to œconomic theory. The parallels are not exact, of course, but one can easily see how Schütz’s attempt to deconstruct certain data-based approaches to the sociology of œconomics to suit radically anti-evidential Austrian-school assumptions of the way œconomies are supposed to work, works in the same way as regressive-left attempts to deconstruct empirically-based approaches to other fields of knowledge. Indeed, the ties between social constructivism and Austrian praxeology have been made explicit by both historical (including Friedrich Hayek) and modern proponents of Austrian School œconomics. The real problem with the regressive left, with its emphasis on social constructivism and identity, is that in its origins and in its behaviour, it isn’t a ‘left’ at all.

Undoubtedly, modern regressive-left activists and ‘social justice warriors’ would be horribly offended (so much the better!) by my intimation that they are engaging in what is fundamentally a neoliberal capitalist project. But, by claiming both biological and social realities like gender as ‘constructs’ and dissolving them from there into an endless array of mutually-incommensurate consumer ‘identities’, that’s exactly what they’re doing. That’s not only true from the history-of-sociology perspective which traces the concept of the ‘social construct’ back to its partially-Austrian School roots. It’s also from the perspective of practical politics that deconstructing social and empirical realities like gender has the concrete effect of atomising society according to identity, and making genuine dialogue about the common good prohibitively difficult in the process.

If the left is to regain its footing, it needs to take better stock of its own principles. In order to build a broad-based movement on the principles of œconomic fairness and equity, we need to look at facts. We can’t go haring off after these libertarian bread-crumbs in an attempt to sound more-radical-than-thou, on a trail that leads into the intellectual wasteland of moral relativism and epistemic closure.


  1. I don't see how the left will ever again find a footing that isn't firmly rooted in identity politics and class warfare. Any movement that tries to affirm concepts as "social justice" that are at their core antithetical to equal individual rights, doesn't seem to me like they are trying to follow after libertarian concepts. Perhaps the movement is stalled out by specific concepts as individual rights, if the goal is equity and equality of outcome, but that means to me that they aren't yet being fully honest about the consequences of their agenda to individual rights and equality. And more than punching bags, writers like Marcuse offer a lot of advice in regards to accomplishing that kind of equity.

    1. Social anarchism aka Libertarian socialism is the only left that's left.
      The rest is the neoliberal social left and right. Still therr are a few old authoritarian leftists still slowly getting the memo. The word is getting out that to have socialism, the state has to go also.

      The people gotta be free to live And gotta able to live free.

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  3. 1.) That's what the Realist Left is for.

    2.) 'Social justice' is a very malleable concept, but if there is an antinomy between justice and rights, it is the rights discourse which is at fault. The concept of social justice has its roots in mediaeval Europe, and is arguably even older in Byzantine Greece.

    3.) It is precisely the rights discourse which has gone off the rails with the regressive left. They want the 'right' to safe spaces, the 'right' not to be offended, the 'right' to tear down public expressions of a past that is no longer en vogue. Libertarian individualism, of a sort which does not value reciprocality or civic limits, is at the very core of what the regressive campus left is and does.

    4.) Again, shifting the conversation to the Frankfurt School is a colossal waste of time. Marxism, whether of the classical sort or of the Western revisionist sort, simply isn't taught in IR departments, political science departments, œconomics departments or even anthropology departments. If they're mentioned in these sections of academia, it's in a deprecating way that they're out-of-date. I can attest to the first three first-hand, and to the last second-hand.

    My sole exposure to the Frankfurt School was through my baccalaureate in philosophy, and even then it was in the direction of Axel Honneth. That was how I discovered Robert Bellah, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Amitai Etzioni - the entire communitarian tradition which tracks back to Aristotle and the founts of Western learning.

    And no, it's not a tradition which sees individual rights as of paramount importance. It's a tradition which emphasises the order in ordered liberty, and opens that order up to examination. But it's a tradition that's needed if we want to understand the intellectual heritage of much of the Western canon.

    1. 1. facebook.com/groups/Realist.Left

      2. The concept of social justice is older still.

      "כִּ֣י תְכַלֶּ֞ה לַ֠עְשֵׂר אֶת־כָּל־מַעְשַׂ֧ר תְּבוּאָתְךָ֛ בַּשָּׁנָ֥ה הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֖ת שְׁנַ֣ת הַֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֑ר וְנָתַתָּ֣ה לַלֵּוִ֗י לַגֵּר֙ לַיָּת֣וֹם וְלָֽאַלְמָנָ֔ה וְאָכְל֥וּ בִשְׁעָרֶ֖יךָ וְשָׂבֵֽעוּ׃ וְאָמַרְתָּ֡ לִפְנֵי֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ בִּעַ֧רְתִּי הַקֹּ֣דֶשׁ מִן־הַבַּ֗יִת וְגַ֨ם נְתַתִּ֤יו לַלֵּוִי֙ וְלַגֵּר֙ לַיָּת֣וֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָ֔ה כְּכָל־מִצְוָתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּיתָ֑נִי לֹֽא־עָבַ֥רְתִּי מִמִּצְוֺתֶ֖יךָ וְלֹ֥א שָׁכָֽחְתִּי׃

      When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before the LORD your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments." [Deuteronomy 26:12-13]

      4. You're wrong about that. Neomarxism is very much so the accepted and enforced paradigm in liberal arts depts, from Psychology to Sociology, from Pedagogy to Journalism. You're out of touch with what goes on on campuses around the world. The gramscian program has been successfully implemented.

    2. Andre, regarding number four: I can tell you first-hand that it isn't the case in several departments at several large public universities.

      In four-year liberal arts institutions, it's true. I read Das Kapital and the Manifesto as part of my coursework in philosophy. But that was because my major was philosophy, and my specialisation was post-Kantian German idealism (and its derivatives, including existentialism).

      I can tell you that what rules in the psychology department is the American pragmatism of James and Mead. And I can also tell you that what rules in the public administration graduate degree programmes is not Marx either. In all of my classwork at the University of Pittsburgh, Marx was treated as so much old dust. Wallerstein was greeted with well-cultivated sneers. Even the most left-wing professors taught Veblen and Keynes.

      I'm not as out of touch as you might think. My direct experience here is about five years old.