CRISPR-Babies and the Case for Left Transhumanism

The international bioethics community was taken by storm this November, when Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had brought the first ever CRISPR-edited human embryos to term—twin girls, named Lulu and Nana. At the recent International Human Genome Editing summit in Hong Kong, already embroiled in scandal, He doubled down on his work, and announced a third pregnancy in its early stages.

The heated embroglio kicked up in the dust of the experiment points to a real need to examine existing regulatory frameworks, to see whether they are doing what they ought to do. Moreover, it impinges on us to raise the normative question of what we think it is that they ought to be doing in the first place. Yet, underlying the normative question, there seems to be a deeper seated anxiety or sense of moral revulsion triggered by the creation of the first gene-edited humans, not altogether dissimilar from the sense of uncanniness triggered by artificial intelligence.

It is important to situate both the experiment and this resultant moral queasiness in context; in so doing, we must firmly reject the liberal democratic consensus that what went wrong morally in He’s experiment is reducible to his contravention of the established ethics protocols of globalized biomedicine. Many have commented that existing regulatory frameworks simply failed in this case, while others—including CRISPR founders Feng Zhang and Jennifer Doudna—are calling for a global moratorium on human germline gene-editing. This apparent anxiety, I argue, cannot be accounted for by mere ethical transgressions (although it is important to take these transgressions seriously, as I go on to discuss). Rather, it is over the specter of our transhuman future, which under the horrors of late capitalism can only take the shape of something monstrous.

Transhumanism is a position that advocates the use of our best technologies for the enhancement of human beings. The genetic sciences have been coupled with transhumanist thought nearly since their inception, the term itself having been coined by evolutionary biologist and eugenicist Julian Huxley—brother of Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World (1931), which envisions future society as a totalitarian genetic caste system in which the lower castes are sublimely placated by the drug soma. Such gothic horror points to a real anxiety about the existing social and political contexts into which eugenics is being (re-)introduced, which cannot be divorced from the haunted history of the Holocaust, colonial genocides, forced sterilizations of the mentally ill and racialized minorities, etc. However, writing off gene therapies and gene-based medical biotechnologies would be ill advised, a knee-jerk reaction to the capitalist transhuman monster. Such technologies have made, and will continue to make a huge positive impact in our lives, provided that they are equally accessible, and their use democratically accountable to those that live in the political community (what Aristotle called the bios politikos).

Before moving on, it is important to provide some explanation of the experiment in question. CRISPR/Cas9 is a biotechnological tool that allows researchers to insert synthetic DNA into living organisms by reverse engineering the immune systems of bacteria. He’s objective was to disable a gene called CCR5 in embryo, so that the girls might be born resistant to potential infection by the HIV/AIDS virus. Scientists have pointed out that the actual editing was poorly executed, that little is known about the possible new mutations that may inadvertently result from the deletion of CCR5, and that there were clear problems relating to informed consent with respect to both the girls and their parents. The results of He’s experiment have still not been peer reviewed, and those that have examined his data reportedly found it too sparse to draw any definitive conclusions. Finally, He’s experiment fails to treat a real medical issue, since the girls would have been unlikely to contract HIV using regular IVF techniques (despite the fact that their father is a carrier), and effective drugs to counter the virus are already widely available. All of these are real problems that stronger regulatory frameworks would help to address. Unfortunately, in a booming global biotech sector, where innovation is based on competition, there are perverse incentives for researchers not to share results, especially with the international community.

He has been described as a rising star in the Chinese biotech sector, having secured as much as 41.5 million yuan in government funding for past research. But the twin girls experiment was carried out in secrecy, during an unpaid leave, without the knowledge of He’s institution, the Southern University of Science and Technology. At the same time, He allegedly hired an American PR consultant, Ryan Ferrell, and launched a small publicity campaign on YouTube to explain the rationale behind his work. It seems evident that He was fully aware of the controversial nature of his work, and that he consciously acted so as to create a spectacle magnifying that controversy. The question remains, why would an upstart young researcher, at great risk to himself and his career, deliberately skirt controversy, practically flaunting his transgression of ethical norms?

While the international backlash to He’s experiment has been summarily damning, some scientists have been cautiously optimistic that it may trigger more serious discussions about existing regulatory frameworks around the globe that currently forbid bringing germline edited human embryos to term. Scientists and science advocacy groups in western countries such as the US, the UK and Canada have been lobbying their federal governments in recent years to loosen restrictions on human germline editing, with an increasing consensus in the scientific community that such experiments can safely proceed. Arguments in favour are typically couched in economic terms, appealing to the imperative of remaining competitive in the international marketplace of globalized biocapitalism, and often singling out China as if Shanghai was predestined to become the new New York of twenty-first century reproductive futurism. The biotech sector in China has scored a number of crucial “firsts,” including the first application of CRISPR in monkeys, and in non-viable human embryos.

Such cognitive dissonance points to a strange paradox in western capitalism. China is held up as an ambiguous symbol, on the one hand representing the fantasy of unparalleled productive power, untrammelled by the progress-stifling strictures of western humanism and regressive state intervention, while on the other hand it is repudiated as an evil communist regime, antithetical to the ideals of justice, freedom and democracy. This official repudiation of the communist evil works wonders for western liberal democracies, which can incorporate the pure capitalist real of hyperexploitation and dehumanization from the Chinese model all the more surreptitiously while officially rejecting it.

Apparently nobody has yet mentioned the obvious fact, the elephant in the room, that the twins Lulu and Nana are girls, in a country with historically high rates of feminine infanticide, due in no small part to the legacy of China’s own notorious eugenic legal experiment in the form of the White Paper Policy. Those who point out that He failed to uphold established ethics norms by first performing tests of the desired mutation on mice or other lab animals make a grave point: the implication is that female gendered babies are nearer to lab mice than human beings. Of course we can never know whether Lulu and Nana would have been brought to term had the fetuses been gendered male. However, read against the broader social and political context, He’s experiment would appear to add to an existing climate of abjection and dehumanization of Chinese girls.

This points towards the real historical situation of capitalist hyperexploitation of women in the global bio-economy, which is in no way restricted to China. James Marion Sims, a nineteenth century physician and American slaveowner known as the “father of modern gynecology,” performed his experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia. The case of Henrietta Lacks and the trade in HeLa cells points to the exploitation of racialized women in cellular genetics. These harrowing chapters, plus the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the first testing of contraceptive pills on women in the former American colony of Puerto Rico, together describe a long colonial, racialized and gendered history of biomedical exploitation in the US. Today in the US, access to reproductive technologies are dogmatically attacked by the religious right, while women’s bodies increasingly become sites of commercialization and exploitation.

These problems cut across the globe. As Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta writes in Bioethical Inquiry, “female students in the US and Spain sell their ova to pay their way through university […] a woman in India decides to rent her womb to pay her invalid husband’s medical bills.” This is not even to speak of the mass industrial labour force of women in poor countries working in consumer electronics factories and call centers in for the global tech and telcom industries, which overlaps with biomedical exploitation in an era when information technology and digital networks increasingly converge with molecular genetics and the human body.

When Marx speaks of the “feminization of production” in Capital, Volume I, his argument is both figurative and literal. Dated gender assumptions aside, Marx’s view was that automation would naturally lead to an increased presence of women and children in the workplace, as the skill of manual labour is displaced from man to machine. This also tends to emasculate the masculine worker, whose only pride is in the value of the products of his labour, thus engendering a double significance to the meaning of feminization. Needless to say, what Marx had in mind was very much the becoming-woman of the factory, and not the becoming-factory of the woman. When I say hyperexploitation, I mean a regime of capitalist exploitation that scrambles bodily boundaries, commodifying the inside, and increasingly equating life itself with abstract labour.

Thus, there is a certain castration anxiety at play in the Marxist theory of automation, which Marx also maps on to the struggle between living and dead labour—in other words, the embodied labour of the worker and abstract labour as embodied by the machinery of production. This anxiety is not altogether dissimilar from that described by Freud in his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny [Das Unheimliche].” In his most paradigmatic case, Freud describes the uncanny as the anxiety one feels when presented with automata, or “living dolls,” which appear to exhibit an intelligence that unsettles our sense of mastery over objective reality. Freud raises the psychoanalytic cure of an eight year old girl, who fails to achieve healthy sublimation by repressing her sense that “her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular way.” Freud’s uncritical adoption of the erotic and gender norms of a late nineteenth century Viennese bourgeoisie would characteristically prevent him from diagnosing the deeply asymmetrical power relations that could have led a young girl to identify more with the hidden life of her dolls than with the social world of the father. Still, the experience of uncanny anxiety in everyday life for Freud points to what he calls a “repetition-compulsion” in the unconscious mind to impose order on the world. Connecting this back to the struggle between living and dead labour, one could argue that the whole Oedipal scene plays out over the unnameable fear of a machine more intelligent than we are, an artificial life more alive than a historical humanity almost completely assimilated to the machinery of capital, an alien force that gobbles up our agency and represents the conquest of death over life: in other words, a monster in every sense of the word.

The technological metaphor carries over profoundly to the context of human gene editing. We are disturbed by the anxiety over “artificial” humans, humans who could easily lord over the genetic proletariat of the future with their superior intelligence and designer physiology: in other words, the Gattaca (1997) scenario. In the existing political and economic milieu, the strong likelihood is that genetic enhancements will only be made available to those of significant means, virtually guaranteeing that abstract capital will be directly fungible as genetic or bio-capital. Meanwhile, the poor will continue leasing their wombs, cashing in on bodily parts or fluids, or selling access to their genomes to bioinformatics firms and private insurers, while the rich slowly evolve into a new species. Over an even lengthier span of time, the poor, too, will become unrecognizable. If the twin girls experiment has taught us anything, it is that abject humanity may be subjected to unforeseeable mutations as a side effect of private profiteering.

In spite of all that has been said, it is important to remain realistic about the dismal state of the capitalist economy, which seems to be teetering on a knife edge over yet another crisis. The gluttonous financial sector remains bloated at the heights of the capitalist economy, while stagflation and a crisis of overproduction have hindered capitalism from creating new markets able to absorb its commodities. In the past, capital has exhibited remarkable ingenuity in the creation of new markets, elevating itself beyond national borders as globalized neoliberal capitalism, and now beyond the borders of human bodies, as global medicalized biocapitalism. However, in spite of the discourse of disruption routinely employed by tech entrepreneurs, capitalism in its present stage is simply unable to stomach any technology that would significantly disrupt the means of production, due to the fragility of global markets. In the case of CRISPR, technological advancement has already been hampered due to lack of profitability compared with a combined strategy of hyperbolic publicity and predatory patenting. The sad irony is that the small (but noisy) transhumanist milieu within Silicon Valley and the wider tech community can only imagine humanity as the bootloader for a techno-capitalist AI singularity, ceding absolute sovereignty to a machine intelligence ruling monarchically over a planet of corporate serfs operating as cogs or bits of information parasitized by its mass distributed cybernetic vampirism. Suffice it to say that the liberal democratic consensus in the field of bioethics has affirmed that the figure of the transhuman can be allowed to emerge if and only if it does not simultaneously explode the global capitalist mode of production.

The liberal democratic consensus touts ‘humanism’ and human rights, but their arguments are easily defeasible. Currently no international body exists that could enforce adequate bioethical protections for the “human being” considered in the universal sense as an abstract rights holder. On the final day of the summit in Hong Kong, scientists released a joint statement with over 100 signatories imploring governments and the United Nations to impose moratoria on human germline experimentation, but no global consensus has been reached, and it is doubtful whether the UN could enforce such restrictions across the board. In the national context, pronouncements of human rights generally operate to the exclusion of those that fall outside of the community of rights holders. The supposed moral sanctity of the liberal democratic subject can be upheld from afar when certain of its indefeasible rights are not protected, such as the right to full prior and informed consent in medical experimentation. But one must not raise how the abstract notion of the human “subject” as a rights holder operates along the lines of a gendered exclusion (in the Chinese context), which moreover itself cuts across a broader dynamic of gendered and racialized exclusions in the economy of global medicalized biocapitalism. There is a pattern of exploitation here only thinly covered up by the ideology of liberalism, pointing to a hypocrisy at the heart of the liberal democratic consensus of the bioethicists.

The human as rights holder can be seen as an extension and secularization of the Christian soul. We need only mention once again the bizarre hypocrisy of the religious right in the US, which assaults reproductive freedoms under the guise of upholding the supposed moral sanctity of the human subject as a Christian soul, while remaining utterly complicit in the systemic dehumanization of real human beings daily through the machinery of global capitalist production. The human as rights holder, like the Christian subject, seems to default to a religious and geographic nationalism. We cannot catalogue the reasons for the slow erosion of the liberal democratic consensus as it affects the field of biotechnological production, except to suggest that one decisive reason may be the failures of global medicalized biocapitalism to reabsorb its excessive re-production of bodies and bodily parts, and to maintain leaps in biotechnological advancement within the acceptable limits of metastable profitability. The only way to positively affirm humanist values in this context is to ensure that there is equal access to gene therapies and other gene-based medical biotechnologies across the board, and to steer the market in reproductive and gene-based biotech away from profitability and towards social need and accountability. This can only be accomplished if we decommodify human bodies and bodily parts, obliterate the capitalist model of global biomedicine, and transition towards a democratic, patient-based model with truly international reach.

In the bioethics context, considerations of the autonomy of the patient and fiduciary obligation of the practitioner are paramount. These should not be brushed aside. In my view, autonomy and fiduciary obligation do not conflict with a broadly pro-experimental transhumanist stance, one that encourages a regulatory apparatus which recognizes that a potential, immortal or abstract self is non-identical with an actual self, meaning a self that is approximately the sum of its social relations (as Marx argues in the sixth of his Theses on Feuerbach). We ought not to let metaphysical fictions impose restrictions on our ability to responsibly experiment with life, including human life. Of paramount importance in, say, bringing gene-edited human embryos to term—in addition to the autonomy and full prior and informed consent of the parent(s)—would be the ability of the gene-edited person to live a satisfying existence, as well as the community’s positive response in integrating said person. The ethical relation travels in two directions, from individual to community and back again. This in fact strengthens and is strengthened by a certain robust core of liberal bioethics, consisting of the principles of autonomy and fiduciary obligation. Moreover, this conception of community naturally includes the international and scientific community, which—as we have seen—appears increasingly to be entering into conflict with both capitalist globalization and the liberal democratic consensus.

But left transhumanism is no bland parochial egalitarianism. Left transhumanism is radically committed to the flourishing of the individual and the community as a whole. The future need not be a monster, and we should not be afraid of affirming the future. The future only appears as a monster because the present is quickly spinning out of control, and the past is a rubble of tragedies. The future seems to want to gobble us up, because the capitalist mode of production reigns in the power of death over life, of the machinery of production over the body of the human person. Life can be affirmed only if this machinery is placed at life’s disposal, as death transforms from decay into generation when it gives form to new life.

Questions of which genetic enhancements we choose to advance, whether to rejoice in sophisticated immunizations and the eradication of heritable chronic conditions like Huntington’s and Tay-Sachs disease, whether to indulge in designer babies, or revel in the post-human aesthetic of transgenic body modifications—such choices are entirely secondary to the question of democratic control over the machinery of (re-)production, as are the questions of accountability in research practice and efficacy of ethical oversight. In my view, bioethics cannot responsibly situate itself outside of this ambit of material feminist and Marxist critique if it wishes to rise above the hypocrisy of the liberal democratic consensus under capitalism.

In affirming the future, in working towards the future by working on ourselves, in unshackling ourselves towards the future, Marx would say, humanity finds its Promethean ambition. My only doubt is whether the concept of the “human” will hold for very long in the context of a political community that is responsible towards life as a whole, having appropriated the living as its machinery and its mode of production.

Visceral Realism: a transcendental aesthetic

“If zero is supposed to signify a hole […] and one is the sign of positivity, digital machines turn these binaries around […] No longer a world of ones and not-ones, or something and nothing, thing and gap, but rather not-holes and holes, not-nothing and nothing, gap and not-gap.”

Sadie Plant, Zeroes and Ones (1997)

“Forms of life and forms of death pass daily through the retina. The constant crash gives life to infrarealist forms: THE EYE OF TRANSITION”

Roberto Bolaño, Infrarealist Manifesto (1976)

End times zero. The end (of) times: autoimmune cellular apoptosis of the last humans at the end of history; ground zero for apocalyptic geo-terror. End times zero: neutralization of all eschatologies and latent messianisms; multiplication of the nothing, the empty set; remains of a non-assimilable difference, supplemental cyberflesh programmatically encoded by eros and thanatos: irreducibly excessive and excremental. Arrival of the posthuman, the inavowable, multiplicity of the future as open and indeterminate, the not-nothing; annihilation of transcendence, expurgation of the sacrificial pound of flesh, human and inhuman viscera yet contesting the grounds of the future like the hauntological borders of burial grounds or archaeological sites eroded by Ozymandian winds in vast empty deserts.

You are lifted from your body as it is pulverized into micro-cosmic clouds of information, digitized and dispersed, your human remains withering away in the empty desert of history, your spirit struggling to hold itself together as you are atomized and uploaded, your experience of consciousness rendered alien, impossible, schizophrenic.

Visceral realism. Simulacrum of a simulacrum: Roberto Bolaño coined the term infrarealism in 1976, drunk on mezcal in Mexico City. In his semi-autobiographical novel, The Savage Detectives (1998), Bolaño elects to use the term visceral realism. “The true imagination is that which destroys, elucidates, injects emerald microbes into other imaginations […] Perception opens by means of an ethic-aesthetic carried to the limit.” Beyond limits: realism of the accursed share, the abject, the pound of flesh, excremental remains (to paraphrase Arthur Kroker) of the symbolic, the cybernetic, the cloud: all that tends towards transcendence, in order to dynamite the future apotheosis of kings-without-organs. Poetry as time war, or “cosmic war,” in the words of Amy Ireland. Or as terrorism of the real against its very cancellation by an inhuman future.

“The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits… pain and pleasure, indivisible.

“Who are you?

Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.

We’ll tear your soul apart.

The Cenobites are a sublime con-figuration of this cosmic horror. They embody a certain interdimensional aesthetic, the (un)holy fetishization of transcendence, the surgical recombination of the body reassembled together with circuits of death and desire. Precisely the violence of forms of life and death flickering before our all too human eyes: violence of the virtual itself.

No longer the pure immanence and immediacy of las infrarrealistas, but the explosive tension of transcendence within immanence, mechanization of the body and intelligence explosion, automation and colonization of the body, onticide of the artistic subject against the precession of simulacra. Visceral realism cannot but recognize this subject to be disembodied, disemboweled; organs-without-bodies in rough burlap sacks, without human remainder. Visceral realism senses the cosmic winds of neutrino clusters and radioactive elements gusting from the future, mutating human genetic codes and melting the flesh from our bones like lightguns from alien civilizations.

“— We dreamed of utopia and woke up screaming.

“The true poet is one who always abandons himself.”

If visceral realism is a transcendental aesthetic—one that situates itself among the excremental remains of a movement towards transcendence—then it is also a research program: one whose consequences remain to be thought, and whose concepts remain to be invented.

In short: visceral realism is a philosophy of the remainder, of remains, of incomplete burials, of forms of life animated by forces of death (and vice versa). If Bolaño was alive today, he could perhaps become a visceral realist—him and Mary Shelley, Rimbaud, Artaud, Hölderlin and Hijikata Tatsumi. But none are alive; all have disintegrated and their memories remain simulacra of simulacra.

How “Postmodern” Became an Anti-Semitic Dogwhistle

Ask someone who works in the theoretical humanities to define postmodernism for you, and “an anti-Semitic dogwhistle” is not likely the answer that you would expect. And yet, this is increasingly the context in which the term is used today.

This is not to imply that those who use the term in conversation or politely inquire about its meaning necessarily harbor hateful intent. A dogwhistle can be either explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious. A dogwhistle is a form of coded political speech, a clandestine communication able to be recognized by a select group for its subliminal content. An individual does not need to be conscious of using a dogwhistle in order for a dogwhistle to be a dogwhistle; because the intent behind the words I speak is never made fully explicit to you, the listener, such terms float relatively freely of intention and causation alike. If a dogwhistle signals to the listener an implicit affirmation or coded command, this can have the effect of completing the causal circuit of communication relatively independent of intentionality. The political signifier often enjoys a life of its own.

And so, the proposition that “postmodern” has become an anti-Semitic dogwhistle minimally implies that the term serves a function in political discourse, relatively independent of our intentions, that is consistent with present and historical forms of oppression and political violence committed against the Jewish people. “Postmodern” has become a dogwhistle in radical right-wing circles, where it is often appended with “cultural Marxist,” “neo-Marxist,” or “globalist.” As has often been the case in history, leftists have not been immune to reproducing this exclusionary discourse. Marxist-Leninists and neo-Trotskyites in their anti-intellectualist polemics decry “academic Marxism” as woefully “postmodern”; that is to say, bourgeois, obscurantist, and irrelevant.

At a certain point, the forced repetition of a term produces the effect of depriving it of meaning. This is a phenomenon known as semantic satiation. In what follows, I argue that it is impossible to understand the term “postmodern,” in the sense given to it by its right-wing and left-wing populist critics sketched above, as anything but a red herring for an ambiguously anti-elitist and anti-intellectual political stance, targeted at universities. I then draw the connection between anti-intellectualism and anti-Semitism, specifically pointing to the 1933-35 purge of Jewish students and professors by the Nazis from German universities, in a policy known as the “cleansing” (Saeuberung). Analysis of the discourse on radical right-wing platforms such as Gab, used by Robert Bowers to spew hatred against Jews in the final moments leading up to his ignominious murder of eleven worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, reveals that this connection is alive and well today. Lastly, I consider what a non-populist alternative to the left-wing critique of the discourse of “postmodernism” might amount to, and how the formulation of such a critique might help us to uproot all forms of exclusionary politics from our movements.

“Postmodern neo-Marxist” became a term of common currency in the anti-intellectualist jeremiads of former University of Toronto professor and high priest of the manosphere, Jordan Peterson. Peterson first gained notoriety in his acrid YouTube denunciations of Canada’s Bill C-16, an amendment that introduced protections for “gender expression or identity” to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code when it was passed in June 2017. Many have pointed out how Peterson simply failed to understand the scope of the Criminal Code and the new provisions—among them, members of the law faculty at the very institution where he formerly taught. Yet Peterson has thus far remained wilfully obtuse in the face of their consultations.

It is not my intention to unpack Peterson’s reactionary attacks on the equal rights of trans and non-gender conforming people here. It is, however, important to situate this controversy at the heart of Jordan Peterson’s ongoing war against the academy, and what he perceives as rampant leftism running riot in the hallways of humanities and social sciences departments. When Jordan Peterson raises the specters of “postmodernism” or “neo-Marxism,” it is not in order to engage in an intellectually honest critique with rival ideologies; it is, rather, to position these terms as empty signifiers or catch-alls meant to ensnare his political enemies in the academy in the web of Jordan Peterson’s conspiratorial fabrications.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with social theory or the history of ideas would be well disposed to respond to Peterson’s critiques as Inigo Montoya does in The Princess Bride—pointing out, with a look of bepuzzlement, that the words “postmodern neo-Marxist” do not seem to mean what he thinks they mean. Peterson presents severely distorted accounts of key purportedly “postmodern” theorists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, incorrectly depicting them as simple relativists, while holding they and their ilk accountable for the spread of “cult-like behaviour” and a petty totalitarianism of “safe spaces.” Here as elsewhere, Peterson fails to engage his targets in a direct and intellectually honest way, basing his critiques on a secondary source (Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks—which has itself been discredited) while nowhere citing Foucault or Derrida directly. In a popular YouTube video, entitled Political Correctness and Postmodernism, Peterson constructs shoddy strawmen of Foucault and Derrida before advancing his own aberrant social Darwinism thinly veiled as an evolutionary psychology heavily influenced by Jung.

What is clear is that Peterson’s concern is not to engage the alleged ideologues of “postmodernism” as such, but rather, to challenge the proliferation of PC-culture and identity politics across university campuses. Doubtless there is plenty to be critical of here. My intention, however, is not to mount such a critique, but to analyze the nuts and bolts of the anti-intellectualist discourse and anti-Semitic dogwhistles that Peterson employs. Peterson’s “postmodern neo-Marxism” is a degenerate form (“degenerate” because it literally signifies nothing) of the “cultural Marxist” conspiracy theories peddled by paleocons in the early days of the culture wars of the late 1990s.

Like Peterson, the paleocons used “cultural Marxism” to attack the academic left, employing neo-McCarthyite “Red Scare” tactics to legitimize their attacks over fears that the spread of political correctness, multiculturalism, and progressive politics would inevitably upturn all that is holy in western capitalist society. Former presidential candidate and paleolibertarian Ron Paul came under fire this July for a racist and anti-Semitic cartoon sent out on his Twitter account, swiftly deleted following the backlash. The cartoon showed a group of men depicting racial and ethnic stereotypes—one Asian with slanted eyes, another Jewish with a hooked nose, a third African with exaggerated lips—beating up Uncle Sam while shouting in unison, “Cultural Marxism!” The habitual intellectual foils of the paleocons were not “postmodernists” like Foucault and Derrida, but rather thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin, associated with the Frankfurt School. Besides their commonly held theoretical assumptions, what these thinkers shared was their status as exiled Jewish intellectuals and political émigrés who fled Germany during the war. (The exception would be Walter Benjamin. Benjamin committed suicide in 1940, after being stopped by police crossing the Franco-Spanish border en route to the United States.)

In the wake of Robert Bowers’ attack on the Squirrel Hill Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Peterson posted a telling Tweet, dated October 29th, in an apparently half-baked moment of self-awareness. “Half-baked” because, in crafting this Tweet, Peterson demonstrates an awareness that at least some of his followers harbor anti-Semitic hatred and/or neo-Nazi ideology, all while he seemingly regards this as simply an unhappy accident. The Tweet reads, “All you using (((three brackets))) online to oh-so-cleverly disguise your pathetically fashionable antisemitism might reflect today on what responsibility you bear for this.” This, plus an earlier Tweet in which Peterson states that Trump Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh should step down if confirmed, have divided Peterson’s base. Where once the Cold War era anti-communist crusader had been an uncontested darling of the Dark Web, today Peterson is being subjected to the same anti-Semitic vitriol that he helped galvanize. One comment on the Tweet quoted above reads, “I guess fame really did get to your head and now you’re one of (((them))).” Another reads, “(((Judas Peterstein))),” with a slew of isomorphic comments substituting Peterson’s real name for the rather dimwitted pun. Regardless of whether Peterson was fully conscious of doing so, his dogwhistle politics and anti-intellectualism have helped stoke anti-Semitic hatred, playing directly into the pockets of right-wing populism, white supremacy and neo-reaction. 

Perhaps we can cut Jordan Peterson some slack (if only for a moment). Anti-Semitism, after all, is as old as the nation-state. The roots of American anti-Semitism lie deeper than any sole individual can claim credit for sowing. We sometimes remember anti-Semitism as if it were particularly endemic to German society in the 1930s and 1940s, immediately recognized from the outside as an unqualified evil which the forces of universal good would be called upon to end. Nothing could be further from historical reality. We can easily find ways in which the United States, Britain and France were equally, if not more anti-Semitic than the Germany of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Many Jewish refugees faced equally insurmountable challenges finding sanctuary as they did fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism in the United States, combined with a general opposition to immigration and the lasting economic effects of the Great Depression, proved a real obstacle to the resettlement of massive numbers of forcibly displaced migrants and refugees during and after the war. The US accepted only a fraction of its quota, compared with the vast majority of the resettlement burden shouldered by neutral European neighbours. The German American Bund—a pro-Nazi organization consisting of some 25,000 members at its height—held massive rallies, dressed in Nazi regalia and parading flags with swastikas around New York City through the late 1930s. The Bund also peddled the conspiracy theory of “Jewish Bolshevism,” which was the “cultural Marxism” or “postmodern neo-Marxism” of its day. As indicated by national public opinion polls conducted between the mid-1930s and late 1940s, over half of the American population saw Jews “as greedy and dishonest,” with as much as 35-40% of the population “prepared to accept an anti-Jewish campaign.” Jews were blamed by right-wing demagogues for causing the Great Depression, with President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” disdainfully referred to as the “Jew Deal.” Henry Ford, a non-interventionist anti-Semite and ousted member of the America First Committee, reportedly believed that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (an anti-Semitic propaganda piece fabricated in Russia in 1903)was a legitimate document, and funded the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies throughout the United States.

American anti-Semitism in the postwar era took on a more decidedly anti-intellectualist and anti-communist tone. The McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunts were also to comprise the first fully coordinated assault on academic freedoms in the United States, through the politicization of left-wing “subversion” in American universities as an anti-American activity. Of the 124 people questioned before McCarthy’s infamous Senate Committee hearings, 79 were Jewish. Though broadly insubstantial in terms of its baseless accusations, McCarthy’s zealous anti-communist windbagging surely made an impressive propaganda display. Some of those questioned were forced to step down from their positions, in spite of the baselessness of the charges brought against them, simply due to the hostility of peers and professional colleagues in the wake of the hearings. Moreover, the spectacle around the hearings and the Red Scare tactics of the American state during the Cold War contributed to an atmosphere of fear in prominent institutions like Harvard, where academics—especially Jewish intellectuals—routinely refrained from speaking out, despairing of possible reprisals. In this respect, Peterson lifts directly from the McCarthyite playbook: the more baseless the accusations, the better; the more spectacular the nonsense, the more effective the discourse.

McCarthy, in turn, appears to have drawn inspiration from the Nazi playbook, following the model of Saeuberung: the racial policy of “cleansing” Jews from prominent positions in society, particularly Jewish students and professors from German universities. The purge of Jews from universities began in earnest between 1933 and 1935, when over 14% of the previous year’s faculty across all German universities (comprising some 1,145 Jewish professors) dismissed or given early retirement. By 1939, the number of dismissals tripled, leaving massive numbers of academic posts to be filled by those faithful to the Nazi party. It was during the leadup to this period that Austrian Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl was forced to give up his rectorate at Freiburg, having been suspended from the university on April 6th, 1933, and further barred from all university activities in the following week. By the end of the month, this prestigious rectorate was held by a former student of Husserl’s, one who signed a declaration and joined the Nazi party in exchange for the position. This young former student was none other than Martin Heidegger. The real irony in this scenario is that, if there is a quintessential “postmodern” philosopher (bracketing for the time being our usage of this term) then Heidegger is that philosopher. However, this would be to take seriously the idea of “postmodernism” as a heterogeneous set of responses to the legacies of Enlightenment and the perceived decline of modernity, rather than as a short circuit in an elaborate right-wing anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic conspiracy.

Alas, populism is a politics of the obtuse, rather than the nuanced. As if by pure force of repetition, the term “postmodern” has ceased to have any stable referent (if indeed it ever did—perhaps the only theorist to have used the term as a positive description in relation to their own philosophical project was one Jean-François Lyotard, who seldom appears in the diatribes of the new wave of populist critics). A quick keyword search for the term “postmodern” on Gab—the wretched hive of neo-fascistic scum and villainy dejected from the Twitterverse and frequented by Robert Bowers in the months leading up to the worst anti-Semitic terrorist attack in American history—yields a staggering number of results, ranging from the incendiary to the unintelligible. Responding to a topic on “Postmodernism Neo-Marxism,” one user posts, “Speak freely about ‘Postmodernism Neo-Marxism’ copy paste Protocols of Learned Elders of Zion.” The remaining comments read as your standard morass of narily qualified hate speech directed mostly at Jews, women, trans people, people of colour, etc. Jordan Peterson’s morose profile adorns the screenshot previews of a number of YouTube videos shared by users on the topic. In the aftermath of the Bowers attack, we would be foolish not to take seriously the connection between anti-Semitic hatred and the anti-intellectualist dogwhistling of the discourse surrounding “postmodernism.”

If the radical right-wing was actually concerned with the spread of “postmodernism,” they wouldn’t have much to do in terms of mounting an effective response. This is firstly because, as I have alluded, “postmodernism” has not ever and does not currently refer to a coherent set of political beliefs or theoretical assumptions, thinkers or ideologies. Better for the reactionary discourse that it does not, since the term can then function as a catch-all that ambiguously targets Jews, non-gender conforming and trans folk, political correctness, identity politics; in sum, all things associated with the “neo-Marxist” contamination allegedly clustered in humanities and social sciences departments. Secondly, they won’t have much to do because these very departments already face an existential threat along economic lines, as the neoliberalization of the modern university has slowly chipped away at disciplines such as history, philosophy, English and gender studies, with the aim of transforming institutions of higher learning into glorified STEM-focused professional colleges that relate to their students as human capital rather than as human beings. Neoliberal policies of austerity have already done more to undercut (and to radicalize) the academic left than the radical right-wing likely could, at least in North America. Still, one gets the impression that the “postmodern neo-Marxist” spook is working insidiously to lay the mystical ground for more violent crackdowns, like those recently carried out by Jair Bolsonaro’s regime in Brazil, where literatures about the history of fascism and anti-fascist propaganda materials were stolen and destroyed. According to Hannah Arendt’s analysis, the rise of fascist politics feeds off of such wildly implausible mystifications as these.

We could extend Arendt’s analysis and speak of the banality of populist critique, evoking her much cited concept of the “banality of evil” (originally coined in reference to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem). Populist critique is banal because it functions by uncritically circulating dogmatic tropes as covert dogwhistles, instead of explicitly articulating the insider/outsider distinctions that it perhaps unwittingly reproduces. Both left-wing and right-wing populist stances could be described as “banal” in this respect. There are those on the left who have attempted to make the connection between “postmodernism” and identity politics a pillar of their analysis of the spread of alien ideas in left-wing movements, especially in universities. Unfortunately, they have fallen for a right-wing canard, an anti-intellectual abstraction that has mutated into an anti-Semitic dogwhistle. The connection between “postmodernism” and identity politics is a non-connection, popularized by petulant ideologues like Jordan Peterson. Allegedly key “postmodern” thinkers like Foucault and Derrida would doubtlessly have decried the identity politics movement, on the basis of their shared anti-essentialism with respect to categories of identity (whereas IDpol typically positions itself as essentialist with respect to these categories). Any critique connecting “postmodernism” with IDpol would thus have to explain how it is that IDpol is supposed to have derived from “postmodernism” in spite of such rather crucial contradictions, which banal critique does not do.

We need to understand that anti-intellectualism is, classically, a class response. It is a response to elitism and the politics of technocratic liberalism or neoliberalism. Anti-intellectualism finds its natural complement in populist movements, but here it is too often channeled in a reactionary direction. Populist movements feed off of the politicization and proliferation of insider/outsider distinctions. Perhaps, in this regard, the rise of right-wing populism in America has been parasitic on a certain degree of already existing anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism, as old as the country’s colonial beginnings. It is impingent on the left to formulate both an incisive (rather than banal) critique of the discourses employed by populist movements, as well as a radical alternative non-populist political program able to steer the working class away from the road of reaction.

In some ways, the right-wing populist fearmongers are right. The existential threat facing humanities and social sciences departments amid the neoliberalization of the modern university has produced the effect of building radical anti-capitalist ferment among individuals in those departments. It would be fair to say that such ferment is spreading faster among professional students, graduates and the permanent academic precariat, rather than the already established and tenured professoriat. This has nothing to do with “postmodern neo-Marxism,” and everything to do with the daily economic realities facing academics in the neoliberal university. Arguing a left-wing anti-intellectual populist tack will do little to win over these people; only a nuanced class analysis will do, coupled with the nuances of cultural criticism turned toward the culture wars as a site of class struggle. It is only by turning towards a critical analysis of the populist discourse in such a way that we are able to see how terms like “postmodernism,” riding on the coattails of a generalized anti-intellectualism, have mutated into anti-Semitic dogwhistles.