Left and Right

Telos, Universities, and Class

David Pan
This past weekend in New York City, Telos celebrated its 200th issue with a discussion of its relationship to universities as well as of ideas about the new politics of class. Paul Piccone was sometimes described as the gadfly of the left, and this might also be said about his relationship to the university. On the one hand, Telos has always relied on academics for the bulk of its essays. On the other hand, Telos has also tended to publish material in which the perspective or the topics were not being taken up by universities. This was the case with the initial engagement with continental philosophy and Western Marxism, for which there was little interest in university departments in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A few examples here include translations of essays on universal teleology by Edmund Husserl (Telos 4, Fall 1969), on historical materialism by Herbert Marcuse (Telos 4, Fall 1969), on the responsibility of intellectuals by Georg Lukács (Telos 3, Spring 1969), on the rational kernel in the Hegelian dialectic by Tran Duc Thao (Telos 6, Fall 1970), and on lyric poetry and society by Theodor Adorno (Telos 20, Summer 1974).

Later on, Eastern European dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s found in Telos an outlet for their ideas, and this engagement with perspectives ignored at the university continued in the 1980s with the introduction of work by Carl Schmitt, as well as the turn to religion and to populism in the 1990s. Throughout, Telos has always attempted to present both sides of debates concerning, for instance, the peace movements of the 1980s, U.S. military interventions in the Middle East, Trump-era populism, and the linking of human rights ideals with nation-state sovereignty in the Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. The goal has been to provide a variety of opposing perspectives on key current topics and especially to include important views that were not being represented within a university environment.

Telos has thus always had the tendency to hang out in the dark alleys of academia that have otherwise been shunned. In fact, it might be said that its whole raison d’être has been to bring these areas into the light. To the extent that universities themselves would engage those topics and views, Telos would have succeeded in its project and no longer needed to exist as a journal. But the opposite seems to have transpired. While Telos’s focus on, for instance, the Frankfurt School and Carl Schmitt have in the meantime been taken up in academia more broadly, huge new areas have fallen into the shadows of an increasingly constrained university discourse. All perspectives that align with the U.S. Republican Party seem to have disappeared from the university. Debates on the politics of identity, climate change, pandemic health policy, and class division have all been limited to a narrow set of perspectives and resulting research questions, leaving many of the key questions unexamined. Indeed, a kind of a “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude has proliferated, in which the response to opposing viewpoints has not been to offer arguments refuting them but to disengage by canceling them as outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. In such a context, Telos’s scope has expanded rather than shrunk, and it has become difficult to choose where to engage in the vast occluded space that has been abandoned by university discourse.

The two-day conference was primarily focused on class divisions, and speakers outlined some areas where Telos can productively direct its energies regarding economic policy. The discussions of the new politics of class by Joel Kotkin and Michael Lind led to the idea that future economic policy will need to reject the opposition between welfare state and free markets. On the one hand, markets must be understood as tools for reaching the state’s goals rather than as an alternative to the state. Markets can only function based on parameters established by the state to enable their functioning. On the other hand, the state can no longer try and micromanage economic policy through interventions in markets, as such traditional welfare state programs have had a poor record in their ability to foster human flourishing. Not only have such programs often fallen victim to a logic of unintended consequences, but they have also created a sizable state bureaucracy for managing both means testing and the very specific forms of support that they provide. An alternative to intervening in markets would be to focus on structuring markets in such a way that they tend to promote desired outcomes. Transfer payments could be provided universally without means testing or the even more pernicious racial preferences. Such benefits could also be provided in as fungible a way as possible. Direct cash payments with the elimination of benefits such as food stamps, housing subsidies, and shelters would eliminate bureaucracy, allow recipients to make their own decisions, as well as make it easier for everyone to access such universal benefits. One future Telos project would be to gather ideas for economic policy based on such principles regarding the interaction between state and markets.

Of course, the development of such proposals would be moot if there were no political way to implement them. Consequently, an additional project would be to consider the ways in which both culture and politics stand in the way of such a new form of economic policy. Because the left has focused on traditional welfare state transfers as well as an economic policy that has been held hostage by climate policy, they have been unable to consider how markets can function as tools for reaching social justice goals. On the right, the inability to consider markets as tools to be used with intention rather than as a free space of nature has prevented them from offering alternatives to the expansion of the welfare state for addressing increasing income and wealth disparities. It would be worthwhile to explore the reasons for the current impasse and possible ways to break out of it.

I will leave it to another time to expand on other areas of interest for Telos. For now, I can indicate that upcoming issues will deal with civilizational states and liberal empire, narratives of belonging, and the situation of human rights. It is in any case clear that Telos has plenty to do in its attempt to counter the occlusions of university discourse.

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