How Does One Overturn a Paradigm?

In 2006, Wendy Brown diagnosed an “intellectual hangover” in academia. Scholars, it seemed, had imbibed an outmoded paradigm and it had left them in a fog. The hangover, Brown explained, left thinkers trapped with “an episteme in which power was figured as unified, systematic, and purposeful.”[1] In other words, they put the “state” at the center of their work. In the social and cultural history born out of the 60s and 70s, Brown’s hangover has entailed a search for “freedom” from a kind of all-seeing, all-powerful Sauron. But what if, as Michel Foucault has argued, the state “has no heart”?[2] Or more practically speaking, what if, as David Harvey suggested, this approach “failed to recognize…the inherent tension between the quest for individual freedoms and social justice”? [3]

Almost ten years after Brown’s diagnosis, our focus on the state as a place in which power is created out of thin air, and deployed in ways that are tactical, coherent, and self-aware remains. And so, for example, violence might be carried out in the name of the idea of the nation, the state, and its normative myths and symbols, and thus sanctioned by media, politicians, oligarchs, and citizens, and yet be simply declared “state violence” by libertarians, anarchists, and yes, progressive intellectuals. Battles rage in the public sphere over whether we want big government or small government. But few stop to reframe the debate in ways that speak to broader notions of how society might operate. We might note, for example, that non-state actors exert strong governing forces. One only needs to consider Fox News. Or Oprah. To put it simply: small government does not mean small governance.

(Incidentally, I thought a very cool recent example of non-state governance was the Reply All podcast’s episode on Hasidic Jews.)

There are, of course, ways in which the old paradigm is being punctured, even in the discipline of American history. For example, what Michel Foucault critically termed “state phobia”[4] is absent from Nancy MacLean’s history of postwar movements for civil rights and economic justice, Freedom Is Not Enough. MacLean, in addition to stressing the role of radical and grassroots action in the civil rights movements, cites the importance of “government backing” several times.[5] And Colleen Doody’s Detroit’s Cold War shows the role of non-state actors in the creation of cold war anti-communism, years before the Truman Doctrine, the Korean War and Joseph McCarthy’s rise and fall. And these are just a couple of examples off the top of my head.

To be clear, the paradigm for which I’m arguing is not to deny the role of the state in focusing and exercising power in ways that are most intelligible. Instead it is to argue that a most fruitful course of study with respect to “liberal democracies” will look to the origins of power outside of the bounds that which we have defined as the “state.”

In doing so, this paradigm then necessarily challenges “anti-statism” as a useful discourse and ideology. As I suggested in a previous post, to be anti-statist in the context of Ferguson and Baltimore, for example, is to ignore the violence that state negligence, not state oppression, has done to the American underclass. A critical stance towards anti-statism recognizes that while civil libertarianism may be a means towards reclaiming one’s right against undue process, or one’s right to free speech and assembly, it can also serve as a governing discourse that legitimizes classical liberal attitudes about the self, which is to say that it reifies individualism.

All of this is a long way into introducing my latest humble contribution to the paradigm which I hope might make it mainstream in American history circles. And hey, even if you don’t care about governmentality or the dangers of civil libertarian discourse, my newly published journal article features nonstop 1950s televisual swashbuckling excitement. So check it out.


[1] Wendy Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization,” Political Theory 34 no. 6 (Dec. 2006), 691.

[2] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 77.

[3] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 43.

[4] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 187.

[5] Nancy MacLean, Freedom is  Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), 268,299.