Trouble In the Garden: Critical Legal Studies and the Crisis

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By modest reckoning 2012 is the fourth year since the Great Recession began. Over the last four years the victories won by socialist and trade unionist movements over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (universal health care, access to education, pensions and more) have been under constant attack. All as part of a systematic attempt to open up new avenues of accumulation for global capital and to weaken the working class, particularly in the ‘West’. The Occupy Movement, the Indignants and others have mounted stirring, if sporadic, protests in opposition to this rising tide of barbarism, but as of yet the ‘Left’ has not mounted a serious counter offensive. In effect, we are in the midst of an epochal struggle, and so far only one side has come out swinging.

Greece is being bled; Ireland, rarely the most rebellious of nations (in spite of national self image) has been rendered prostrate before the Gods of finance and European integration; throughout the rest of Europe privatisation, austerity and flexibility are being implemented with the net effect of undermining the living conditions and future prospects of the popular classes. In the United States ‘tent cities’ have remerged; and throughout the Global South the paltry advances made in the halcyon days of trickle down globalisation towards the realisation of the tragi-comic Millennium Development Goals have been completely undermined, as hundreds of millions of ‘un-people’ are tossed onto the scrap pile of superfluous humanity. Alongside all of this we see the emergence, or intensification, of new forms of authoritarianism; as police and military powers (the mailed fist that always accompanies the invisible hand of the market) are increased, and democracy and popular sovereignty are disregarded as just so many useless paper shields.

The law, of course, is fundamentally implicated in all of these developments. From national legislation passed to implement retrogressive policies, to increased police powers, judicial decisions informing people that they have all the rights they can possibly hold, but that they are no use now, up to the EU’s new ‘austerity treaty’. Into this maelstrom the foremost forum for critical engagement with the law, the Critical Legal Conference (CLC), has made its latest intervention. In 2012 the unifying theme and focus of the CLC’s annual gathering will be ‘Gardens of Justice’.

At this event radicals of various hues will be invited to explore:

a plurality of justice gardens that function together or that are at times at odds with each other. There are for instance well ordered French gardens, with meticulously trimmed plants and straight angles, but that also plays tricks on your perception. There are English gardens that simultaneously look natural – un-written – and well kept, inviting you to take a slow stroll or perhaps sit down and read a book. There are closed gardens, surrounded by fences, and with limited access for ordinary people. There are gardens organized around ruins, let’s call them Roman gardens, where you can get a sense of the historical past, but without feeling threatened by its strangeness. There are Japanese stone gardens made for meditation rather than movement. There are zoological gardens, where you can study all those animal species that do not have a proper sense of justice, no social contracts, no inequality and social injustice, and no legal systems. There is, indeed, the Jungle, a real or imaginary place outside the Gardens of Law.

This theme, as the organizers note, is quite open ended, and susceptible to numerous and varied interpretations. For example one could reflect on law and justice as ‘a place where symbolic orders and disorders become visible and may be acted out’ or indeed as ‘process and phantasy’, as ‘theatre and/or temple of justice’ or ‘as a therapy session’. Doubtless this broad theme, and the various possible interpretations, can and will give rise to any number of interesting talks, papers and debates.

Here, I want to offer just one interpretation of the call for papers setting out this theme, one which I think tells us something about the current state of critical legal scholarship (and perhaps critical scholarship more generally). Ultimately, the call for papers and theme of the 2012 CLC is an indictment of the critical legal project (movement seems a wholly inappropriate term at present). At a time at which global and national elites are engaged in an unprecedented assault on the living conditions and rights of working people, when democracy, even in its ‘low intensity’ form, is in retreat, the leading lights in critical legal inquiry are retreating into the gardens of their own imagination, and abandoning the less pristine, less genteel footpaths and public squares of politics.

If the ‘critical’ in critical legal means anything, it means connecting the ‘law in the books’ up to the concrete political and social forces that give rise to it; a complete rejection of the reification of ‘black-letterism’, and a focus on the ways in which the empty platitudes and mystifications of the law are complicit in the maintenance of an unjust and inhuman status quo. As Marx, in his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, argued the purpose of critique was to pluck the imaginary flowers from the chains of humanity, not so that the chains should be borne without relief, but that they should be seen for what they were, cast off and the real, living flower plucked. The ‘Gardens of Justice’ call may be an indication that rather than plucking imaginary flowers, the CLC is choking on the weeds of its own intellectual faddism and irrelevance.

At a crucial historic juncture, when the structural barbarism of neoliberal capitalism is being entrenched at the expense of hundreds of millions of people, the CLC has nothing to say. Or rather, its annual conference will be filled with people with a lot of interesting things to say, just none of it of relevance to the real world. The reemergence of tent cities in the United States brings to mind the question posed by Muley, a tenant farmer faced with eviction in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, when he asks: ‘who do we shoot?’ At a time at which the vast majority of the people in the world are being buffeted and tormented by social and economic forces that appear to be beyond their control or comprehension, the role of critical legal inquiry should be to make explicit the concrete causal forces, and to play a role in articulating alternatives. Instead, the CLC has retreated into a self-indulgent and irrelevant engagement with empty metaphors.

At the start of this century Perry Anderson, in a call to arms for the Left, bemoaned what he perceived to be a retreat into ‘standards of writing that would have left Marx or Morris speechless’ occasioned by increased academization on the left. And called for those on the Left to consciously re-connect their work, and the ways in which they communicate it, to the real struggles faced by people. The ‘Gardens of Justice’ call appears to have taken the CLC in a completely different direction. Rather than bringing the white heat of critique to bear on the current global conjuncture, they have sought refuge in the shade of imaginary gardens. In homage to the horticultural theme, the question for all of us going forward is whether we want to seek pleasant repose in pristine, imaginary gardens, or if we want to contribute to plucking the imaginary flowers that Marx worked so hard to uproot in his time. For me the essence of critique is found in the latter, and only blissful and sterile oblivion in the former.

Originally Published on Critical Legal Thinking.