In the spring of 1996, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” appeared in the academic journal Social Text. Published by Duke University Press, the journal set for itself the mission of “forging creative connections between critical theory and political practice,” with an emphasis on race, sexuality, and gender studies.
Written by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, the essay contended that quantum gravity and the associated forces of physics are merely social constructs and linguistic phenomena. “Transgressing” appeared in the “Science Wars” issue of Social Text, which featured a compilation of essays by leading postmodern scholars of the day.
Amid the back and forth between scientific “realists” and postmodernists during the 1990s, Social Text’s editor at the time, Andrew Ross, claimed the charges of the realists amounted to conservative reactionism.
The realists took the position that some things are true regardless of how they may be interpreted by an individual, a culture, or a society. Gravity, for example, is “true” regardless of whether one understands or accepts it. The postmodernists, on the other hand, asserted that everything is a social construct, rejected objectivity, the scientific method, and empiricism.
The “Science Wars” issue was supposed to be a hard-hitting salvo aimed at the realists—but Alan Sokal killed it in the crib.
Upon its publication, Sokal revealed that “Transgressing” was a hoax intended to show that left-wing institutions will consume anything and everything with their notions of “the proper leftist thought” and deconstructionist conclusions.
Would a leading academic journal of cultural studies publish an essay “liberally salted with nonsense” if “(a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”? The answer was a resounding yes.
In the piece, Sokal claimed that concepts such as gravity represent “an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being,” insofar that they are based on oppressive “dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook.” He argued that “it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality’ [is] a social and linguistic construct.”
“Transgressing” championed postmodern social sciences as “counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.” Sokal went so far as to declare that “physical ‘reality’ [with reality in the crosshairs of scare quotes] is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” Not merely our theories of physical reality, wrote Sokal, but reality itself.
The Sokal hoax provided the clearest indication that the Left was then, as it is now, not so much concerned with truth as they are with the “long march” through our institutions. That was in 1996.
The Intellectual Roots of Subversion
By 2016, professors identifying as left-wing outnumbered conservatives on average 12-to-1 across American colleges and universities. A study published by Econ Journal surveyed 40 leading universities and found “out of 7,243 professors, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3,623 to 314, or by a ratio of 11 ½ to 1.” In history departments that ratio was revealed to be 33 ½-to-1.
To these more or less ideologically homogeneous institutions, then, we can trace the myriad of cancers plaguing virtually every aspect of our society; which can be called by the general name, “identity politics.”
In “Transgressing,” Sokal made references to “counterhegemonic” narratives. Nonsense to most, but perhaps familiar to those acquainted with the work of early 20th century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Sokal, probably unintentionally, alluded to what Gramsci called “cultural hegemony.”
Hegemony, according to Gramsci, can be defined as the cultural framework and dominant ideology of a society. Gramsci believed, long before Andrew Breitbart, that politics are shaped by culture.
In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci observed that in Western societies “there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The state [in the West] was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks.”
Culture, Gramsci found, forms the ramparts that protect both the ruling class and the dominant ideology. Gramsci’s observations can perhaps be corroborated by another European Marxist, Werner Sombart.
Sombart believed that a socialist revolution never took hold in the United States because of the existence of a powerful and extensive middle class. Not just a literal economic middle class, but the dominant bourgeois ideology espoused by the middle class and internalized by the masses, so forming “an essential part of the American national character.”
Counterhegemonic movements, narratives, and modes, then, are deliberately designed to dislocate and topple existing cultural and social institutions (“fortresses and earthworks”) so a new order can be ushered in.
Gramsci proposed two methods to dislocate and destroy an existing hegemony: war of movement and war of position.
The war of movement employs violent direct-action to achieve an end. The war of position, on the other hand, involves the identification, pursuit, and seizure of “switch-points of social power” by nonviolent and often legitimate means. Colleges and universities, for example, fall into this category.
These “switch-points” are positions that offer the means to shape the norms by which a society lives; by defining one set of activities as “normative,” others as violating cultural norms, thus conferring or denying legitimacy to certain kinds of behavior, language, and thought.
“The press is the most dynamic part of the ideological structure,” wrote Gramsci, “but not the only one” that can preserve, defend, and develop the ideological “front” of the ruling class. “Everything that directly or indirectly influences public opinion”—thus culture—“belongs to it: libraries, school associations and clubs of various kinds, even architecture, the layout of streets and their names” all form the “fortifications and trenches” of the ruling class and its hegemony.
Gramsci believed the war of position—which manifested as the long march through our institutions—was the only way to terminally subvert developed Western societies. Gramsci was mostly correct in his estimation. Though it must be said that violence, such that is characteristic of the war of movement, is increasingly becoming a reality in the United States—typified by “anti-fascist” organizations that are not infrequently composed of students and professors.
Revolution and Revolutionaries in Victory
But to be clear, I do not claim that every Leftist has read Gramsci. Instead, I submit that Gramsci identified and articulated general principles that constitute viable modes of social change, and thus revolution. These manifest in the community activist, in the postmodern literary critic, in the violent black bloc—all of which instinctively follow patterns of behavior that confirm Gramsci’s assertions. And who can say that the Left has not been devastatingly effective, or behaved in just the way Gramsci said they should?
But the success of the Left has placed it in the precarious position of acting as a “conservative” force, insofar that it now struggles to conserve and consolidate its hegemony for which liberalism and its useful idiots provide a nice window dressing. “What conservatives are conserving,” according to David Frum, “is a liberal order.”
Effective Thinking for the Counterrevolution
Knowing Gramsci helps us to know the Left, true, but simply knowing is not enough now that we are the “dissident or marginalized communities.” Before the Right can execute its own cultural anabasis, it needs to formulate a new theoretical or ideological front. That is, it must conceive of its own identity politics if it is to conquer the future.
A predictable response might be that we should not resemble the problem that we are attempting to solve, and to even consider such a prescription un-American. We can turn to James Madison for rebuttal.
For the problem of faction that is inherent in democracy, Madison proposed a republic so extensive that the sheer number of factions would ensure that no one faction could dominate the rest. For the problem of oligarchy that often begins in democracy as demagoguery, Madison proposed rule by an elected few, or representative government. Madison’s genius was to formulate solutions that essentially were vaccines—they contained an agent that resembles the disease in order to stimulate antibody production.
For the problem of a fundamentally divisive identity politics, then, I propose a pro-American strain; one that is everything the existing hegemony is not. Therefore it would be explicitly Christian to start. If America has a legacy of religious toleration, it is precisely because that tolerance is the product of Christian ethics.
It must as well be grounded firmly in the tradition of Western civilization; the cultural and social institutions cultivated by America’s European settlers, into which non-European people have assimilated and thrived. It must emphasize the centrality of family, church, and nation.
So far as the Left abides by a universalist cosmopolitan ethic, ours must be particular. As Wayne Isaac has said: “Invading foreign countries to defend other people’s rights leads only to disaster.” The same is true for inviting masses of foreigners with no intention of becoming American in this sense.
It must not, moreover, be ideologically capitalist and certainly not socialist, but economically nationalist. America is not an “economy with a country,” but a country with an economy.
There are more, but these are just a few ingredients to begin. Many Americans have an affinity for these things already. They are deeply skeptical of a system that enables a transnational elite for whom national sovereignty, borders, and constitutions are but quaint obstacles to their designs. Americans watch in horror as Christianity is simultaneously attacked from without and subverted from within; just as the family and the nation are.
Once a theoretical basis for a pro-American identity politics has been developed, what follows next Gramsci called a “counter-hegemonic force,” such that is independent to the dominant social and cultural institutions. This parallel force would challenge not only the existing cultural hegemony, but the ruling class; i.e., the exponents of hegemonic values and norms, while constructing its own authority in accordance with a pro-American ideology.
But what does all of that mean, or even look like in practice? Consider Ohio.
“The Heart of It All” is taking concrete steps to strip Planned Parenthood of state funding, thus issuing a blow against one of the most powerful ideological fixtures of the Left: abortion. Ohio is also pushing to enact “constitutional carry” and to enforce a crackdown on sanctuary cities and school districts. If successful, this will be nothing less than a full rejection of the anti-Second Amendment, pro-illegal immigration, diversity narratives of the Left.
Elsewhere, bold steps have been taken to create new institutions of learning, while the Center for American Greatness and The Charlemagne Institute represent genuinely independent intellectual forces—all of which are laying the groundwork for a cultural awakening.
A pro-American strain of identity politics already exists. It is made up of these “little platoons” all over the country fighting their own battles. What’s missing is the infrastructure to connect and arrange these parts of a dissident movement into a coherent phalanx capable of pressing on and crushing the Left. Organizations like Turning Point USA may come to mind here. TPUSA, however, is essentially Reagan boomerism shoved into a Millennial body, therefore ineffective and even counterproductive.
But with President Trump in the White House, there has never been a better time than now to find or make a new way.
If we are to execute our own march through the institutions of power, the first thing we must understand is that all politics are identity politics—be it cultural, political, territorial, religious, social, economic, or ascriptive. Yet this need not be divisive. As Edmund Burke put it, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections. The love of the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.” The second, that, like Gramsci, we are primarily fighting to overthrow, not conserve the “old order.” We would do well to learn from those who conquered the past, if we are to salvage something of the future.