The Canadian Right-wing Academic Argument Against Environmental and Social Justice

A McGill historian of science, looking as much like Foucault as he can, in 2018 published an article, with a fellow conservative holding physical science credentials, in which he makes an argument that epigenetics should not be linked as a rationale to egalitarian policy change.

After a two-paragraph intro to epigenetics, Canadian Foucault-Latour coins three neologisms, three sins, to package his argument for prohibiting a bridge between physical science findings and egalitarian social policy:

1) “Mischaracterization”: This is the (dubious) problem where the Historian of Science doesn’t agree with findings–for example, that epigenetic information can be transmitted intergenerationally, and he selects those particular epigenetic findings to dismiss as inconclusive.

2) “Extrapolation”: This is the problem (for Canadian Foucault-Latour) where scientists bridge the physical and social sciences, particularly including social epidemiologists, to suggest that with the theory-backed, mechanism-identified evidence of correlation and time-order, we can make a scientific claim that the material world and institutionalized social relations impact human health, and thus changing institutions, design, and infrastructure can reduce the socio-material harm.

Canadian postmodernist doesn’t say here how he defines science, but it’s probably commercial laboratory science, per postmodernism’s capitalism-accommodating idealist reduction. Along with positivists, discourse-totalizing postmodernists are a Cartesian Praetorian guarding the sacred boundary between the human, idealist world(s) and the base, material projection.

The article is basic, and extremely light on the empirical evidence. Yet with masculinist aesthetics, it presents errant pedantry as technocratic rigor. The McGill third arm of policing–not particularly well supported– is to attribute to mostly-unidentified other scholars a lack of his own fine appreciation of the connection between genetics and epigenetics. He decides this is the 3) “Exceptionalism” sin. This is raw crank. Even in pop culture accounts of epigenetics, the historical relation between the Human Genome Project and the growth of epigenetics is emphasized. The authors need to spend more time reading other people’s academic work, and less time in the patio party conversations.

It is a very thin article evincing a cursory familiarity with the substantive topic–which is not a survey of epigenetics. It is how epigenetics are being approached by anti-cartesians. Extremely thin on data, the article is only justifiable by an overinvestment in either positivism or in the postmodern, idealist, theoretical reduction of science to the commercial lab. It is a “textbook” recent case in reactionary “critical” idealism. It is the embodiment of the institutionalized Canadian settler-extractivist theoretical approach to reconciling private-property-reifying liberalism with hierarchy-reifying conservatism: effacing the inequality while censoring the inegalitarianism.

The basis for this authority’s institutionalized expertise is that while he was a grad student, he had to work with an indigenous community, as most Canadian social science and humanities academics did by the second decade of the 21st century, and that required him to write an article denouncing the association in medical studies of Canada’s First Nations with health problems due to the colonial relationship. I know this, because that is what I was being commanded to do then. You were told, by indigenous leaders in institutions, that you had to write stories about how there is no problem. Obviously, indigenous people outside of power were not clamoring for academics to amplify this particular voice. It became a theoretical specialty to argue that the material world is radically divorced from, inaccessible, and unknowable to humans–unspeakable.

Then McGill had a short burst in 2012 of trying to set himself up as an authority on how the biome is just imaginary and a bad discourse, because its metaphysics connects the material to the social–social design, institutions, and infrastructure overdetermine human health– and so its justice telos is about reducing social, economic and political inequality. He analyzes surveys, which is what he uses to back up the idealist social science theory.

In idealist thought, human health is not a thing. Health is just a holographic projection of bad Minds. Some physical scientists twiddle around with health because the tyrannical state. In idealist thought, design, institutions, and infrastructure are not recognized to create different kinds of social relations oriented to distinct justice teloi. Their discursive ontology only permits them to recognize difference, and they reject the idea that inequality is a thing, let alone a problem. The only problem, for which idealist humanities and social science academics are the official police, is reduction of difference–for example, state policy changes that reduce social hierarchy. Reducing inequality is the ultimate injustice from the idealist position. They believe the historical-materialist justice telos competes with the idealist justice telos–to proliferate difference, including inequality.

Inegalitarianism is difficult for postmodernists. Like good imperialists, and against all historical and concurrent evidence, they believe we can have moral, tasteful, polite inequality, reconceptualized as playful, fecund difference, without the discursive rudeness of inegalitarianism, which they typically project outward upon Americans, because of the brutish conservative culture of slavery-backed capitalism that feeds the US global imperial role, or another geopolitical Other–Nazis or Russians.

Canadian Foucault-Latour also sprinkled an article in his CV about how “contagion” is really financial crisis; wholly within discourse, that was a less-reactionary effort.

When critical idealists can keep within texts, they do not necessarily support capitalist and capitalist-state efforts to repress egalitarian, developmentalist design, institutions, infrastructure, and relationships. A postmodernist, like this McGill Man or Latour, may instrumentally play with a conservative, positivist physical scientist–they share the inclination to denounce inequality recognition and egalitarian redistribution; they both bury metaphysics; and they are both keen to reduce science to the commercial lab.

Yet the alliance between postmodernists and positivist commercial scientists of course contains an inner crack. Postmodernists as idealists are distinct from physical scientists in that they abject recognition that the world we live in transcends the textual. The Postmodernists reject an ontology material and historical and social. There are only words, which is the hermetically-sealed flat universe of the social, and when the textual ontology is imported into the social sciences, the lacunae–through which, in proper discursive philosophy, the historical-material world enters–is papered over. Thus postmodernists reject expanded, scientific methodologies, rather than just authoritarian bluster (“Meritcratic” decisionism, eg genealogy, and associated speculative idealism). When they use their idealist hermeneutics against the Earthly and human material world, it is all reactionary conservatism and it has been for a long time.

McGill ref: Huang, JY & NB King. 2018. “Epigenetics changes nothing.” Public Health Ethics 11  (1): 69-81.

Note that the Swedish Universities by contrast are immersed in studies linking epigenetic difference and health effects. Canadian idealism v. Scandinavian historical-materialism. University of Washington has an anti-cartesian epigenetics lab.


Benner: Actually-existing Nationalisms

In her chapter “Explaining Nationalism” (Really Existing Nationalisms, 2018, Verso), Erica Benner conveys Marx’s assessment of the British ruling class M.O.:

“In Marx’s view…a (British) statesman of the bourgeoisie (succeeded) precisely in his ability to avoid British engagement in European conflicts (over monarchy v. democracy) while preserving Britain’s international image as the level-headed guardian of constitutional principles…”

Marx: “‘If he betrayed foreign peoples for fear of encouraging revolution,’ the British ‘did it with great politeness.’ ‘If the oppressors were always sure of (British) active support, the oppressed never wanted a great ostentation of (British) rhetorical generosity.’….(The British) ‘knows how to conciliate a democratic phraseology with oligarchic views…'”

My point: Why aren’t we all as politically-“discerning” as the British ruling class, if in a different direction? Is capital (wealth) required to maintain a political compass within a collective action coalition while that coalition ideologically and materially divides and conquers competitors, rivals, colonies, and enemies? Political compass, backed by shitloads of capital, permit ruling classes so many more strategic degrees of freedom than their would-be challengers have.


“The bourgeoisie’s interests in Britain, as in France and Germany, were thus advanced through the highly-selective application of principles that were supposed to underpin the legitimacy of its representatives. By suggesting that class interests explained why and when those principles were or were not applied, Marx challenged two more conventional ways of explaining foreign policy choices: those based on the idea that statesmen are motivated by free-floating principles or ideals, and power-political accounts which postulated a class-neutral ‘national interest’ as the basic guide to policy-making. Marx’s observations suggest a general, cross-national hypothesis: that the bourgeoisie’s commitment to the political doctrines which express their substantial interests is weakened, not reinforced, in proportion to the clarity of those interests and the confidence that they can be secured” (Benner 2018: 121).

We can reasonably suggest that a Marxist would revise the premise that liberal or constitutional political doctrines distinctly express the capitalist class’ substantial interests. That premise reflects the regional, historical view from unconsolidated 19th c. Germany, or, again, it reduces the British premier-capitalists’ venerable, instrumentalist, flexible and strong divide-and-conquer strategic tradition to one of its tactical components–  marketing co-optative, abstract liberal principles. Marx elsewhere (Capital V 1, Part VIII, Chapter 26; Rheinische Zeitung and New York Tribune reporting and analysis) recognized that slavery, colonialism, genocide, and extractivism also express substantial capitalist interests quite at odds with a constitutionalist posture.