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Radical Academics for the Status Quo

Judith Butler donating to Kamala Harris? Martha Nussbaum supporting John Hickenlooper? You can learn as much about a radical academic’s ideas by searching their campaign contributions as by reading their books.

Judith Butler in 2011. Andrew Rusk / Wikimedia.

Money does not theorize, but it certainly has a lot to say. This week, left intellectual Twitter was roiled — that is, some posters were amused, and others outraged — by the news that famed feminist theorist Judith Butler had given money to Kamala Harris’s late presidential campaign. Sure, it’s a bit of silly gossip – who among us is above such catty pleasures? And compared to the campaign contributions of the super-rich, or the fossil fuel industry, what do misguided checks written by Berkeley professors matter? But political contributions are a telling window on the world of ideas itself; intellectuals often theorize a radical game, but when it comes to their politics on material matters of life and death, there may be less than meets the eye.

In the 1990s, Butler was so iconic there was even a fanzine dedicated to her (Judy!). At the time, many Marxist intellectuals distrusted postmodern critical theory as a flight into the purely “cultural” realm, away from the material. Yet others thought — and this columnist agreed — that Butler’s insights on gender as performance had value, and were hardly incompatible with a Marxist or Gramscian analysis. I still think so, and Butler is an admirable defender of academic freedom and of the rights of Palestinians. But the Kamala Harris donation suggests that the grouchy old-school Marxists were probably right all along to note a lack of materialism grounding her politics. Sad!

Donna Haraway, another postmodern feminist theorist — who, like Butler, was best known in the 1990s but still widely read — also made donations to Harris this year. Haraway has written about how cyborgs will bring us closer to a more socialist, genderless, raceless, peaceful world — but since the cyborgs aren’t here yet, apparently a racist, neoliberal carceral feminist regime will do. It’s as if the postmodern academics are determined to prove that the anti-intellectuals and the old-fashioned Marxist dudes are right.

But the postmodernists aren’t the only theoretical insurgents who turn into ordinary liberals once they leave their writing desks. Camille Paglia, a bête noire of feminists in the 1990s, who was once dubbed “one of America’s smartest and most fearless writers” by the Weekly Standard, gave thousands of dollars, not to Make America Great Again in 2016, but to Barack Obama in fall 2008. (Paglia has said she voted for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein in 2016, and in this cycle, had been hoping to vote for Harris. Go figure.)

Some intellectuals’ political contributions are even weirder. Martha Nussbaum is a giant in the field of ethical philosophy who has written that mainstream feminists should think more globally and be more centered on the problems faced by women in poor countries. She’s a liberal who has sometimes been critical of the Marxist tradition.

So, Liz Warren, right? Wrong! Nussbaum has given thousands of dollars to John Hickenlooper — both his gubernatorial races and his brief 2020 primary bid. In the face of such news, so many questions go through one’s mind. The main one is probably, “Who is John Hickenlooper again?” Hickenlooper is the pro-fracking former Governor of Colorado who describes himself as a “fiscal conservative.”

What’s equally striking, however, is that some intellectuals’ political contributions are absolutely consistent with the ideas in their writings. Noam Chomsky has written checks to only a handful of political candidates: Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader, most prominently. Marxist feminist Nancy Fraser has been donating to Bernie. Adolph Reed, Jr. gives so often to Bernie that it’s practically a tithe. Reed has given to other left candidates like Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, progressives like Paul Wellstone, and liberal Democrats like Jan Schakowsky and Alan Grayson, all of which is completely consistent with his lifelong body of writing arguing that the left should support strong social democratic organizing and also work with the Democratic Party when necessary.

It’s vulgar to say this, but it’s may be true that we learn less about the materialist politics of academic writing by reading it — and some of it can be famously obscure; Butler was the winner of a Bad Writing contest in 1998 — than by looking up the author in the Federal Elections Commission records.