A rejoinder to John Lea’s review of Revitalizing Criminological Theory

One of the advantages of the blogosphere is that we all get a chance to respond to our critics. This is not something that Simon Winlow and I normally do because we are always busy with the next publication, so we take criticism on the chin, learn from it and move on. However, this time the review in question demands a response. It wasn’t an unrestrained attack on our book. In fact, apart from hints of sarcasm at the beginning and the end, it was a very polite and professional job, as one would expect from a senior figure such as John Lea. We dish out plenty of sarcasm ourselves, so, as a rule, we never complain about it. However, I’m responding on behalf of both of us because we found the review exasperating rather than harsh. Why? First, because it confirmed a number of the book’s main critical points. Second, because it wasn’t really a book review.

At the beginning Lea told his readers that they will find ultra-realist theory opaque. He didn’t discuss the theory, or say why that might be the case. Oddly, none of the new concepts and philosophical frameworks outlined in the final three chapters – transcendental materialism, speculative realism, pseudo-pacification, reality’s fourth layer, the chosen unconscious, deaptation and so on – were even mentioned. He did mention the new(ish) concept of capitalist realism, but not only was this decontextualized, it’s not one of our own theoretical concepts or one of the main philosophical frameworks we use. The idea belongs to Mark Fisher (see Fisher, 2009). We use it as a building brick for ultra-realist theory because it gives us an insight as to why ultra-realism is necessary. Even though the whole point of the book is to criticize old concepts and frameworks for the specific purpose of introducing new ones, he didn’t discuss the new ones because he thinks readers will find them difficult to understand. Or perhaps Lea found them difficult. Only he knows. However, because Lea could not see the house, he restricted himself to talking about one brick.

By focusing down on capitalist realism and ignoring everything else, Lea was able to claim that we did not identify a historical agent of change. The truth is that we did discuss this but Lea ignored the discussion. Capitalist realism suggests that, at the moment, no such subject exists. That’s the obdurate reality of our current political situation, one of the reasons we chose the term ultra-realism. If Lea had paid any attention at all to the transcendental materialist position and the historical framework of pseudo-pacification, which we took great pains to explain clearly in the book, he would have understood our position on political renewal. For us, the dialectic of history will return only after the collective construction of an efficient and truthful symbolic order (if you’re interested in this see pp. 110-112, it’s really not that difficult or ‘opaque’). Yet Lea also ignored this pivotal new concept of symbolic efficiency, a concept Simon Winlow and I have discussed at length in previous work (Winlow and Hall, 2012; Winlow and Hall, 2013) and explain clearly in the book, which is the way out of capitalist realism’s trap. There’s the (collective) agent of change for you. Not ‘opaque’. All very clear and simple.

Then Lea focused on one of the old criminological frameworks we had criticised. He was obviously in some way moved by our critique of left realism. In fact it’s not unfair to say that Lea seemed to be more interested in defending left realism than discussing our new ideas. He seems to suggest that left realism, along with other ‘progressive scholars’, has already covered everything we talked about, even though, as we have seen, he ignored most of the things we talked about because he thought readers might not understand them. Did left realism acknowledge absorption of the working class into capitalist realism? No. In their early book What is to be done about Law and Order (1984), Lea and Young firmly rejected the idea of deep social transformation by political means, but, ignoring all the work of theorists of consumer culture, moved on to recommend an incremental third-way reformism that was later represented by the dynamic relations in the ‘square of crime’. Left realism’s trip down the road to administrative criminology was set in the early stages of its development. Prominent left realist Roger Matthews (2014) told us that consumer culture was one of the great benefits of modernity, not a principal vehicle for ideology and the distraction of desire from politics. In The Exclusive Society (1999) Jock Young offered a revised and rather half-hearted Mertonian critique of consumer culture, but by this time he was no longer a left realist. Consumer culture, and indeed any of the positions, concepts and frameworks we discussed in the book barely figured in Lea’s own Crime and Modernity(2002). If anyone can find a criminologist from any existing school using anything remotely like capitalist realism or any of the other concepts we introduce – pseudo-pacification, transcendental materialism and so on – over the past thirty years until our introduction of these ideas into the discipline in 2008, please email us because we would be fascinated to find out how they were used. As far as we know none of the ‘progressive scholars’ Lea alluded to (but did not identify, so we’re all guessing) have used any of the new ideas that constitute the basic ultra-realist framework. That’s because they’re new.

Despite the work of all these unidentified ‘progressive scholars’, neoliberalism is stronger than ever, austerity bites, crime has mutated rather than declined (despite the twenty-year celebration of the non-existent ‘crime decline’ by the majority of progressive scholars), and we face the return of the far right as a genuine player in working-class politics. The post-war left has failed. It’s not that we don’t appreciate all the effort intellectuals and activists put into it, but, nevertheless, it failed. That’s the reality. We have discussed this failure in detail elsewhere (Winlow et al., 2015) and there is more to come (Winlow et al., forthcoming). What does this inability to admit failure do? We can see quite clearly that Lea’s defence of his personal legacy, combined with that of others – so many senior figures also defend the other obsolete positions we criticise in the book – prevents the whole discipline from moving on and making a contribution to the intellectual and political renewal we desperately need.

We should all be aware of the failings that bedevil criminology’s older theoretical positions. These failings are laid out clearly in the better undergraduate theory textbooks, but still year after year we reproduce these obsolete positions – symbolic interactionism, humanist Marxism, radical feminism and so on – into the future. This is philosopher Adrian Johnston’s (2008) process of deaptation at work in academia, a process wherein obsolete ways of thinking and acting are reproduced in conditions to which they are no longer relevant. We discussed deaptation in detail in the book, but Lea didn’t bother reading it. It is ‘opaque’, he says, along with all the other new ideas we presented and he ignored. At least he was consistent.

Is our argument really ‘opaque’, or does its potential to supersede older modes of thought threaten the personal legacies of those who came up with them? Is this simply a problem of over-investment in various ways of thinking about the world? For instance, how would someone who has spent three years doing a PhD based on the work of Foucault – or, worse than that, a whole career promoting the Foucauldian (anti-)narrative – respond to the recent exposure of Foucault as a neoliberal stooge (Zamora and Behrent, 2016)? Is this not how bad ideas and frameworks become institutionalised – the system solicits emotional investment from its workers, an intellectualized form of what Arlie Hochschild (1983) called ‘emotional labour’? Institutionalization is bolstered by the demand of prominent social scientists such as Bryan Turner – in his case advocating on social media the uninterrupted continuity of Weber’s liberal system of thought into the future – that intellectual frameworks should be continuous and cumulative rather than punctuated by periods of rejection and renewal. Foucault seemed to be in favour of such periodic transformation, but, by replacing ‘truth’ with the notion of ‘truth claims’, he was just as effective as the continuity advocates in permanently stalling it.

Those who continue to subscribe to theoretical frameworks that in times past were able to strut their radical credentials simply cannot accept that they are now part of the mainstream and thus the target of legitimate criticism. To accept that they were plain wrong about a lot of fundamental claims would be personally painful, like suffering the death of an old friend. But to refuse is to be marooned in a condition of denial, thus sentencing oneself to permanent melancholy. To accept the death, mourn the dead and focus on the living is the healthier option, for both the self and the discipline as a whole. With the proliferation of frameworks in a pluralistic social science establishment, genuinely moving on would entail an awful lot of critique, an awful lot of revealed wrongness to be put right and an awful lot of pain, mourning and bruised egos in the acts of doing so. But this does not alter the reality which demands that it needs to be done.

It would be extremely difficult to abandon the whole post-war intellectual constellation. The confusing proliferation of positions and the resulting pluralistic metanoia we see before us now is an object lesson in how liberal pluralism serves conservatism by giving the impression of progressive change when nothing substantial is really changing. So many practical reasons also contribute to criminology’s moribund theory. Today’s harassed academics – box-pressed into administrative empirical research, heavy teaching loads, populist pressure from league tables and the injunction to constantly seek grant funding – can rarely find the time for the sort of deep reflection that can renew theory. Life is difficult enough without the likes of Lea – who hails from a privileged era when academics had more time to sit and think – ordering us all to continue the part of the tradition he favours. He is simply telling us to get back into line and respect the canon in which he played a part, which is exactly what Lea and his radical contemporaries did not do in the 1970s. We suggest that younger academics do what he did then and not what he says now – in that way Lea can continue to be an inspiration.

A moratorium on the reproduction of obsolete theoretical frameworks would be effective, but of course those with various political and personal agendas would never agree to it. Ultra-realism is an injunction to get back to today’s reality and build criminological theory anew with the help of some of the brilliant empirical work conducted by today’s young criminological researchers and a few innovative ideas currently floating around the intellectual ether. Although we understand the difficulties we all face in the discipline as it stands today, we obviously hope that ultra-realism will catch on, but we will state quite clearly now that we also hope that someday it will be superseded by something better, as long as that ‘something’ is not a position from the past in new clothes.

If we want it to catch on, how well did we explain our theoretical position in chapters five, six and seven, the ones Lea didn’t discuss, or perhaps didn’t even read? As we have seen, he told readers that the ideas were ‘opaque’, possibly deterring some from reading the book. However, established academics who have written about our work in the past seem to have little trouble in understanding and talking about these new ideas (see for example Wilson and Rahman, 2015; Miles, 2016). The UG students, PG students and PhD researchers of ours who are using these new concepts and frameworks in their essays, dissertations and theses with great skill and enthusiasm might also disagree. So might the excellent young academics who are now beginning to adopt these new ideas and frameworks in their cutting-edge publications (see for example Moxon, 2011; Buccellato and Reid, 2014; Raymen, 2015; Raymen and Smith, 2015; Horsley, 2015; Wakeman, 2015; Ellis, 2016). These are early days, but we’re quite happy with the situation so far. These people are the future, and established academics such as Wilson and Miles are doing a wonderful job by generously encouraging them to explore new intellectual territory.

What Lea did in this ‘review’ was very simple – he made an excuse to ignore all the new theory in the new theory book by hinting that nobody would understand it, which of course suggests that Lea might not have understood it, or, worse, did not attempt to understand it. He then told us what he found personally offensive, told us what in his opinion we should have talked about more, and finally told us that unnamed progressive scholars are already doing research driven by the ‘opaque’ theory that he assumes they won’t be able to understand. Of course, not only does this patronise and underestimate his fellow-scholars, it doesn’t make any sense at all. However, it was done with just enough professional panache that it might seem convincing to anyone who decides to give it a skip-read. We hope that you will choose to read our book instead. It really isn’t ‘opaque’.

Schopenhauer once told us how over-invested established academics protect their precious intellectual assets against the threat of new ideas – first they ignore them, then they mock them, then they attack them, but when all that inevitably fails they tell everyone they have always known about them. In defence of a failing post-war intellectual culture, Lea has joined the dancefloor to perform a perfect but abbreviated Schopenhauerean Shuffle. He missed out the initial stages of ignoring, mocking and attacking – had he done a bit of mocking and attacking it would have been more to our liking because at least he would have been compelled to read the book all the way through – and jumped straight to the final stage where the defenders of the faith say they have known about all the new ideas all along. The conservative scholars in Schopenhauer’s era would have been proud of him.

Steve Hall was Professor of Criminology and co-founder of the Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology


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