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Neetu Arnold recently wrote an article about the ways that colleges and universities are preparing for a “post-affirmative action era” by developing “strategies for universities to continue racial discrimination through facially race-neutral approaches in admissions and beyond,” the goal being to “achieve diversity-related goals without triggering legal scrutiny.” This is very important journalistic work.
But I’m not a journalist; I’m an academic philosopher. So I want to tackle a different question: why should we expect colleges and universities to remain committed to identitarian discrimination, of the sort rationalized and implemented nowadays under the aegis of “DEI” (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)? Granting that this is the case, that higher educational institutions are so committed, it is important to understand how they are going about and will go about implementing this commitment. But why is it the case in the first place?
This is a question I can answer, having extensively studied the philosophy and theory underlying the politics driving these policies. There are two reasons, the first philosophical and the second sociological:
- DEI is philosophically and ideologically core to the postmodernist identitarian leftism (PIL) which is hegemonic in academia and increasingly in the culture at large, and which drives government, academic, and corporate affirmative action as well as everything else associated with “wokeism” or “woke leftism.”
- DEI is now a bureaucratic industry, from college campuses to corporate HR departments and from entertainment to government, and bureaucracies naturally grow rather than shrink absent external intervention—especially when the funding is there, and the money has absolutely poured into DEI from all quarters, from billionaires like McKenzie Scott to the Biden administration.
The sociological point is both less interesting and can be made more quickly, so I’ll start with that. According to Forbes, “Business spending on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives has skyrocketed in the last decade. It’s estimated the global market for DEI reached $7.5 billion in 2020 and is expected to double by 2026.” According to a 2021 report, “[o]rganizations across industries are making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a priority—with 79% planning to allocate more budget and resources in 2022.” In 2020, the National Institutes of Health launched a program that will “give 12 institutions a total of $241 million over nine years for diversity-focused faculty hiring,” while National Science Foundation “funding for so-called ‘anti-racist’ themes more than tripled from 2020 to 2021.”
At many colleges and universities, DEI statements are a mandatory part of job applications, and it has become common practice to “adopt explicit diversity ‘advocate’ or ‘champion’ policies” that place “someone on a search committee whose sole job is to highlight DEI priorities.” Not to mention that virtually every higher educational institution now has a DEI office, nor the proliferation of for-profit DEI consultancies. According to one report, “DEI staff listed by universities totaled 4.2 times the number of staff who assist students with disabilities in receiving reasonable accommodations, as required by law,” with the ratio at UNC being “13.3 times as many people devoted to promoting DEI as providing services to people with disabilities,” while at “Georgia Tech, there were 3.2 times as many DEI staff people as history professors.” Similarly, the DEI office at Yale’s School of Medicine has sixteen staff members, making it larger than their History of Medicine and Biomedical Informatics & Data Science departments, while the University of Michigan has 142 DEI employees costing $18 million annually.
Given the money poured and pouring into DEI and the iron law of bureaucratic expansion, it seems safe to say that DEI is here to stay for some time, even if popular sentiment were to turn against it. However, the more fundamental reason we can predict DEI to survive and grow, at least as long as PIL continues to dominate the political left, is philosophical and ideological—for DEI merely formalizes the core idea of PIL.
PIL is the result of both theoretical and empirical developments in the 1980s, especially, though with roots in the post-WWII era (in particular, in the emergence of French postmodernism and German critical theory and their initial reception in Anglophone academia in the 1960s). On the empirical side, there were the various empirical failures of socialism and communism, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, which discredited the political vision of “classical Marxism” in the eyes of many on the left. On the theoretical side, there was the rise of what I have termed “anti-metaphysical” postmodernist philosophy and critical theory.
Postmodernism is “anti-metaphysical” in being anti-essentialist, anti-universalist, and anti-foundationalist. Essentialism is the view that things have fixed essences or sets of essential properties that determine what (kind of thing) they are, in contrast with inessential properties that can change without the thing undergoing a change of kind. Universalism is the view that some theoretical entities have universal validity, or validity across contexts. And foundationalism posits that some truths are basic, such that less basic truths depend on the more basic ones for their validity.
In contrast, postmodernists tend to claim that these phenomena (essences, universal truths, and theoretical foundations) either don’t exist or are contextually relative social constructions. For example, a “cultural relativist” postmodernist would claim that Aristotle’s definition of the human being as essentially rational—a claim about an essence that purports to universal validity and serves as the foundation for further claims, e.g., ones about human virtue—is at most only valid within the context of the Western tradition.
This makes PIL incompatible not just with traditional liberalism, which is full of “metaphysical” claims, but with classical Marxism as well. For classical Marxism is essentialist, universalist, and foundationalist about economics: it posits material economic relations (the “base”) as foundational for all other social phenomena (the “superstructure”), as well as a universal history in which the essential motor of progress is the political-economic struggle between the economic ruling class and the economic working-class or proletariat.
Now, PILs “deconstruct” both traditional liberalism and classical Marxism through postmodernist philosophy and theory—such as Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power, French poststructuralism, and German critical theory—which dominates Anglophone academic humanities and social sciences. From the liberal tradition PILs strategically retain a commitment to “democracy,” only reinterpreted as “radical democracy” rather than “liberal democracy,” and from classical Marxism they retain the basic philosophy of history, only divested of its economism.
The result is a subversive reinterpretation of the meaning of democracy predicated on a generalization of the Marxist philosophy of history. No longer is the motor of history taken to be the political-economic struggle between the oppressive economic “ruling class” and the oppressed economic “proletariat” in particular; rather, history is the story of political struggle between those with “oppressor” identities and those with “oppressed” identities in general—whether these identities be grounded in race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or something else. The goal of PIL’s political struggles on behalf of all such historically “oppressed” identities is then to “expand the democratic revolution in new directions” to include recognition of maximally many “Others” heretofore excluded from recognition as political actors and rights-bearers. Note that PILs take this “maximally” seriously, as exemplified by so-called “critical posthumanists,” who insist that this expansion of political recognition and inclusion extends not only to nonhuman animals, but even to inanimate matter.
Combatting this illiberal, divisive, and damaging development of Western postmodernity will require liberals and conservatives to come together in opposition to their common enemy.
The formulation “expanding the democratic revolution” is due to the “post-Marxist” theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who set forth the program for a PIL politics as well as its underlying theory in an influential 1985 book titled Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Three features of their treatment are particularly worth mentioning in this context: (1) the only grounds for leftist unity are contingently pragmatic/strategic, (2) identitarian pan-politicization as the core imperative of PIL, and (3) a discourse-theoretical understanding of politics.
First, because PIL is anti-metaphysical, the only possible basis for the political unity of the leftist identitarian coalition is contingent and pragmatic: strategic alliance in opposition to a common enemy. This is why “intersectionality” has become so prominent in PIL discourse. The idea is that all oppressions are connected, so that one cannot fight, say, climate change, without also addressing racism, sexism, etc. Since there are no metaphysical or deep ideological reasons for political unity, and since the various coalitional constituencies inevitably have diverging interests, keeping the coalition together requires the dogmatic adoption of a “new ‘common sense,’” as Laclau and Mouffe put it. In other words, PILs can’t rationally justify why the pursuit of racial justice must also address the politics of sex and gender, but the coalition threatens to pull apart if its members don’t believe this, so it simply must be believed, as a matter of “common sense.”
Second, the core practical imperative of PIL is that of identitarian pan-politicization—i.e., the politicization of all possible social identities and relations, including the proliferation of new identities for the purpose of political activation. In other words, all identities must be understood as either “oppressor” or “oppressed,” and all social differences among identities must be interpreted as resulting from identitarian political oppression. Are there more white or Asian doctors than black ones? Must be due to racism. Are there more men working in construction than women? Must be due to sexism. And so on.
Finally, PILs are social constructionists who view all meanings as outcomes of discursive political struggle and hence privilege the discursive as a means of social and political change, in contrast to classical Marxism, which relegated discourse and culture to the social “superstructure.” The claim that “politics is downstream of culture” is typically attributed to the American conservative Andrew Breitbart, but PILs appropriate the same idea from earlier sources on the left, like the socialist Rudi Dutschke (“long march through the institutions”) and the neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci (“cultural hegemony”). The idea is to achieve popular cultural hegemony for the leftist “new ‘common sense’”—through the colonization of education, entertainment, etc.—such that the desired political changes will follow automatically in a democratic state. That’s why so much of PIL politics today plays out in the arena of the “purely performative,” e.g., discursive virtue-signaling such as listing “preferred pronouns” or making “land acknowledgements.” There’s a lot to say about this, but one point is that the “real battles”—e.g., for legal reform and civil rights—have been won for many of the identities constitutive of the leftist coalition, so that discursive performance is all that really remains.
Virtually all of PIL academic and popular discourse is intelligible in this light. “Representation,” from Hollywood casting to corporate hiring, means nothing other than PIL DEI—i.e., diversifying something (film crews, corporate boards, etc.), via the inclusion of “Others” alleged to have been historically excluded from it, for the sake of “equity” or “social justice.” That’s why the “LGBT” acronym is ever expanding, with “LGBTQIA2S+” being the current standard. Even the infamous “drag queen story hour” is intelligible in this light: as an attempt to diversify our relevant traditional understandings and frameworks (e.g., norms for what an educator is or should be, for what children should be exposed to in public, for what role models children should have) by including heretofore excluded persons/identities/groups for the sake of equity or social justice.
In conclusion, we can expect DEI to disappear only when PIL does, or at least not until the latter becomes a “fringe” ideology. It is encouraging to see efforts by conservative activists and states to rein in or even abolish DEI bureaucracies at public universities, as with the recent Texas legislation or the University of Missouri’s pledge to drop diversity statements from its faculty hiring process, but the problem is so much bigger. Hence, combatting this illiberal, divisive, and damaging development of Western postmodernity will require liberals and conservatives to come together in opposition to their common enemy, and this opposition can only be effective if both the underlying theory of PIL DEI and its practical implementations are adequately grasped.
This article was published by Law & Liberty and is reproduced with permission.