The left, we might think, has had a bad time of it intellectually over the last 15 years: socialism has collapsed, Marxism has little or no credibility and supposedly left of centre governments across the world have accepted privatisation and the private sector.
But in the academy things are very different. It is very rare indeed to come across a classical liberal or a conservative in a university humanities or social science department (I have to look in a mirror to see one in my public policy department). However, it is also rare these days to come across the old fashioned unreconstructed Marxist who openly argues for class struggle and solidarity (having said that, trips to Cuba, with a stop-off in Venezuela, are still popular).
Left wing ideologies have moved on and the really sophisticated no longer look to Althusser or even Marx but will quote contemporary theorists like Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek. These new thinkers have excised a lot of traditional Marxist ideas from their thought to the extent that they will now refer to themselves as post-Marxists. The major difference in their thinking is a rejection of structural determinism, the idea that there are necessary social relations which cause class conflict and, wait for it, revolution. Thinkers like Laclau and Zizek claim to be anti-essentialist. In other words, they are relativists who argue for contingency instead of determinism, and suggest that there are no necessary truths, only power relations. “Truth” is a fiction created by the powerful to further their own interests.
There are two main sources for post-Marxist thought. The first is the idea of hegemony, developed by Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony is defined as the common sense view of the world that is imposed on a society by the dominant interest. In essence this is a rather more developed form of Marx’s false consciousness. Second, they look to post-structuralist thinkers, like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who argue that social relations are determined by discourse and language. Putting these two ideas together post-Marxists tend to look at the ways in which discourse is used to manipulate social relations and to mask dominant interests.
Post-Marxists have little to contribute to economics, preferring sociology, cultural studies, literature and political science. This is perhaps a legacy of the collapse of traditional Marxism, but it has seriously hampered their ability to contribute to recent debates on the financial crisis. Indeed a common criticism of them is their apparent inability to engage in everyday political and economic debates.
But the idea of discourse is a very slippery one, in that it is virtually impossible to gainsay, because the discourse theorist will merely accuse you of representing the dominant discourse. However, the main weakness of this position is that it is based on nothing but language itself. It is therefore susceptible to its own arguments: a relativist cannot suggest that their argument is true and remain a relativist. As Roger Scruton has said, they are asking you not to believe them, so don’t.