One of the “key goals” of the Woke Marxist movement is to “decenter the natural sciences” (e.g., Carey et al. 2016). How on Earth is someone supposed to “decenter” the natural sciences—and from what, and why?
The second of these questions is extremely easy to answer. The natural sciences have to be decentered from credibility and authority. “Other ways of knowing,” especially (Marxist) political activism, have to be brought from margin to center in terms of what is considered credible and authoritative in terms of “scientific” knowledge production—in other words, Marxist scientism has to usurp the authority and credibility of the sciences. Why? Because knowledge is power, obviously. If the mass lines of action in your activist agenda are believed to carry the credibility and authority of science, everyone just has to go along with them. “Believe science,” remember? Did Covid-19 teach us nothing?
A little more specifically, being a “holistic” way of thinking derived from Georg Hegel, that which is at the “center” of a system has power. That which is on the margins has less or none. From the center, the whole and its many particulars can be perceived and influenced; from the margins, none of this is possible. If you want to center marginalized “knowledges,” like scientism, political activism, superstition, or whatever else you find useful to your activist project at any given moment, you have to decenter the legitimate methods of establishing knowledge first and then center alternatives, or “other ways of knowing” and “other knowledges.” That way, they command influence and can shape the ideas, material conditions, cultural conditions, or whatever other aspects of societal and human production for which the activists want to seize the means of production. Simple.
So, fine, what Woke Marxist activists want to accomplish by “decentering science” and why they want to do it is obvious enough. How, though, can they do it? The sciences earned their reputation, and they have a lot of power to prevent this kind of corruption, as the activists themselves have lamented for decades. The answer is through a dialectical inversion.
Here’s how it works in two steps. First, scientific knowledge and “diverse knowledges” from “other ways of knowing” are “sublated” onto “equal” footing through a dialectical reinterpretation of “knowledge.” Once the epistemological superiority of scientific knowledge is thereby obscured, it is relentlessly attacked for all the “harms” it causes and has caused (benefits aren’t useful to denounce, so they’re not mentioned) and all the negative “systems” and “structures” it’s associated with. This process inverts the worth of the different “knowledges” on moral grounds. So, the first step, the dialectical sublation, removes the question of epistemological worth, and the second step, the moral inversion, puts the activism on top.
To understand this little trick, we have to understand the dialectic. In the simplest way of putting it, the dialectic proceeds by a process Marxists have called “sublation,” which translates the peculiar German word aufheben, which means simultaneously to abolish or cancel, to keep or maintain, and to lift up. In short, sublation means understanding how two things that are apparently opposites to one another in some way are really part of some singular whole when understood from a higher level. So, you abolish the particulars, keep the essence, and do it by lifting up your understanding to a higher plane, which is obviously (in their eyes) better.
Here’s a non-controversial example adapted from Hegel himself. If I have a red apple and a yellow apple (or any two apples), they’re obviously different. In that sense, they’re opposed to one another, but we call them both “apples.” That’s a contradiction, dialectical thinking insists, because different things can’t be the same thing, but here we are with two different apples both being apples. If we abolish the particulars of red and yellow but keep the generality of it being the fruit of the species Malus domestica as what confers their essential “appleness,” we can lift up to a higher level of understanding about the particular fruit by seeing them as classified as “apples.” We abolished particulars, kept the essence, and understood it from a higher (in this case, more general) level.
So, what the dialectic does is takes two apparent opposites, sees them from some “higher perspective” whereupon some contradiction reveals itself, and then adopts the higher-perspective view to see the opposites as two aspects of a single phenomenon. (When done responsibly, this process is actually called generalization and isn’t idiotic.) Capitalism and socialism might, for example, both be seen as organizational systems for the modes of production, and thus they’re not opposed to one another but potentially miscible socioeconomic systems that obtain some “better” result than either alone, in this case “sustainable capitalism.” At this point, it’s worth pointing out that the dialectical opposites is called their “synthesis,” and so rather than calling the result “better,” we should call it “synthetic.” It tells us more about how likely it is to work out. Objective and subjective synthesize into “creative.” Being and Nothing synthesize into Becoming. Noble savages and noblemen synthesize into “savages made to live in cities.” Individuals and collective society synthesize into “individuals made to live in society,” i.e., socialists—or so insisted Karl Marx at the bottom of his analysis.
Marxism doesn’t proceed merely through dialectical synthesis, however. It operates through dialectical transformation, which requires an inversion. If you wanted to usurp scientific authority to your crackpot ideology, for example, it wouldn’t be enough to just do what Marx and Hegel did and call your crackpot ideology a “system of science” (System der Wissenschaft, Hegel; Wissenschaftlicher Sozialismus, Marx). No scientist this side of the end of the 19th century is going to fall for that. You have to kill the existing science too. The hard part is that you don’t have the necessary tools to do it on the “master’s” playing field. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” we’ve heard it said (by Audre Lorde).
In order to do a dialectical transformation of a science into another tool in your revolutionary toolkit, you have to kill it first, then gut it, and wear its skin as a suit. That requires you to commit a sciencecide, the murder of a science. That’s done through a process I’m calling dialectical inversion. It’s a two-step: first a dialectical sublation and second a moral inversion that “critiques” the existing science into submission.
The first step in this process—though usually not performed temporally first—is a dialectical sublation of the knowledge generated by the science. Your knowledge is no different than my knowledge. Scientific knowledge and activist gnowledge (gnosis) are still both knowledge, and how dare you exclude mine? Yours is a culturally produced product; mine is a culturally produced product; and no one has the privileged standpoint to say yours is better than mine. They’re just different. They’re two forms of knowing that are apparently opposed unless you understand “knowledge” on a higher level that includes both scientific knowledge and other kinds of knowledges. “Knowledge” has to be construed broadly, and then scientific, activist, indigenous, superstitious, magical, made-up, and downright crazy are all really apparent variations on a single theme. What they have in common is that different people who come from different “traditions” claim to “know” them. They’re all “knowledge.” In some sense, even if they’re not all “science,” they’re all scientia, which just means “knowledge” or “knowing.”
Scientists, as scientists, aren’t apt to fall for this word game, and thus the natural sciences have withstood the dialectical assault for longer than almost any other discipline of thought. People, as people, are, though, and, as it turns out, all the people we consider scientists are people. People like—in fact, need—to be liked, or at least held in esteem, especially to function in institutional settings.
“Critical” thought, as in the Critical Theory driving Critical Marxism, isn’t one-dimensional; it’s two, or so Herbert Marcuse, one of its greatest expositors, explained in One-dimensional Man, one of the most influential works in Leftism in the last hundred years. It doesn’t just understand; it has a moral dimension of understanding too (and a transgressive, artistic one). Refusing to recognize other knowledges and ways of knowing is exclusionary, which is a word that means “chauvinist” and carries all its pejorative stink, on steroids. You’re closed minded. You’re bigoted. You’re sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, capitalist, imperialist, colonialist, fascist, and all the other things you’re desperate not to be considered by friends or foes—or, especially, yourself. Thus, speaking temporally, the relentless accusations of bigotry in or around your science, its conferences, its departments, its organizations, its community, etc., etc., precedes the sublation. Otherwise, it won’t take.
This step is often accomplished through erosion, that is, simply wearing people down with relentless accusations that sometimes work. There’s some intersectional trickery going on here too, though, that works a bit like hiding a bitter pill inside a bit of cheese to get a dog to swallow it. Rather than presenting the activist “knowledges,” like feminist or antiracist “knowledges,” as the alternatives, it’s presented as one of many other forms of “diverse knowledges” (often explicitly invoked in this supremely vague way) that it’s morally pretty crappy to ignore, like indigenous knowledges, which are mostly practically experiential and/or superstitious. “Diverse knowledges” like indigenous knowledges are the bit of cheese the activist is using to get the poisoned pill of Soviet (construed broadly) knowledge on the table. You can’t include one without including them all, and what kind of a Western-centric bigot would add epistemic oppression and violence to indigenous people after all they’ve done with colonialism, imperialism, racism, exploitation, marginalization, and so on. Of course, the activists are using indigeneity as a tool to accomplish their agenda, but they phrase it like they’re helping. They (look like they) care.
In practice, “diverse knowledges” have to be “included,” and once they are, people will find out really quickly that they overwhelmingly mean activism. You might protest that they’re lying, but of course they are. They’re Communists.
Once you allow the sublation, you’ll be compelled to see all these different types of “diverse knowledges” as particulars of a similar phenomenon, “knowing.” You might not see them as equal yet (you bigot), but, don’t worry, for all their bluster, the activists don’t either. Their goal isn’t the equality they wear like a cloak but Gnostic supremacy, and the relentless association of your science with the abuses of systemic power structures has just begun.
The way the inversion is actually done, once the dialectical sublation has been achieved, is slightly more subtle than the blunt instrument of just calling a science racist, sexist, and transphobic all the time, though that never really stops being insisted. It’s a matter of consciousness. The activists, as Gnostics, position themselves as more aware than you. You aren’t even aware of all the ways your science is complicit in systemic harms. They are. You don’t even know your science proceeds on tons of implicit political assumptions, including about the definition of knowledge. They do.
The manipulation that achieves the sleight of hand isn’t really the relentless moral bullying, though that makes it possible. It’s the claim to consciousness. The case is made that every “knowledge system” proceeds from a concept of the world and man. They realize this, but you don’t. It’s always happening, but only they are aware of it. Yours causes all these harms. It’s complicit in all these evils. They point it out relentlessly. Theirs is, thanks to the sublation, epistemologically roughly the same, but it distinguishes itself by being conscious of all the harms yours causes and evils yours is complicit in, which, in being conscious of those, it denounces. Theirs is actually better than yours. Your science is evil, and so the dialectical inversion progresses. Your science, in the end, has to be handed over to more and more of their control until it’s not your science at all anymore. It’s a Lysenkoist zombie of your science; it’s a Sovietized counterfeit. (At this point, they can, and might, drop the pretense to caring about indigenous stuff, depending on how hegemonic their grip on the science has become.)
You might have noticed they didn’t have to make a positive case for their approach here, which they couldn’t do anyway (their way cannot work, so it doesn’t work). It’s not their obligation to offer a positive case for their approach. They have used a dialectical sublation of “knowing” to render any epistemological differences irrelevant at best or chauvanistic on your part at worst and demonstrated your approach is morally deficient in a way they abhor, thus inverting the relative validity of the two approaches. They don’t have to tell you why theirs is good; they only have to say why it’s better than yours, which provides nothing particularly unique and is framed out as all kinds of bad.
You might think this is a con, and that’s because it is. Scientists and government and university bureaucrats all over the world are tripping all over themselves to fall for it over and over again, though, almost like a contest to see who can signal their virtue loudest by falling for it hardest, fastest, and the most times in any given fiscal year. You might think you couldn’t possibly fall for it or that your science couldn’t possibly succumb to it because it has its methods, but that’s exactly why you will and so will it. All it takes is the right incident—and may George Floyd rest in power for-ever—and in your desperation not to be a Very Bad Person, if you’re like most people, or like your boss probably is, or like his boss (who is eventually a politician who lives and dies by public relations) probably is, you’ll “diversify” and wind up losing.
It’s not impossible to stop a dialectical inversion. It’s not even all that hard, honestly. You’ll get run through a public relations storm from hell, though, because we’ve already let this thing get way too far out of hand already. (Years ago, I was warning people that this would only get harder to stand up to later, not easier; welcome to later.) What you have to do is stand up for your science’s epistemological superiority, which it really does have, and thus prevent the sublation of “knowledges.” You have to reject their appeals to consciousness as crankery and crackpottery and then flip it over on them, pointing out the myriad harms and outright catstrophes that reliably follow from either their specific activist program or every historical attempt to intentionally subvert science to ideology. They’re not conscious; they’re crackpots. They don’t know something others don’t; they assert it. Not all sets of underlying assumptions are equal, and those seeking social transformation are always both unscientific and unmitigated disasters.
Don’t let it in. You know how it works now. Learn to spot it. Expose it for what it is when it happens, show your colleagues, and kick it out with extreme prejudice. Don’t be afraid.