Prior to the economic crash of 2008, grand political causes and macro-level critical analysis appeared to have been expunged from mainstream political and academic life. The logic of postmodern capitalism had worked its way into every nook and cranny of the academy, compelling many talented academic criminologists to fix upon boundless diversity as the defining characteristic of twenty-first century social experience. As the UK moved through a period of resounding growth in its gross domestic product and the rapid expansion of consumer lifestyles – a period that seemed to confirm the social benefits of neoliberalism’s obsessive concern with economic freedom – it no longer seemed hip to position the economy as the bedrock of everyday life or to engage in a critique of the socially corrosive nature of capitalist markets. The subject’s ability to float free from ‘repressive’ modernist social structures and to make active decisions about its identity and biography seemed to be confirmed by the fluidity and pluralism of the postmodern experience. Postmodernism’s historic attack upon the certainties of the traditional

symbolic order was accompanied by a parallel attempt to vanquish the metanarrative on university campuses across the West. Slowly, gradually, incontrovertibly, a dark cloud of cynicism engulfed the social sciences. For liberal postmodernists, ‘truth’ would always be out of reach; all we could do was creatively deconstruct accounts of it, while committing to an interminable cycle of research grant applications geared towards testing the usefulness of public policy or charting the latest fluctuations in observable empirical reality. During this heady period of rising national wealth and perpetual social flux, a new cultural and intellectual injunction was issued that transformed the nature of social and criminological theory: above all else, the social scientist must avoid the crimes of generalisation and reductionism. These words were hurled at critical theorists with abandon during this

period, and the dominance of this narrative in textbooks continues to structure the intellectual approach adopted by many of those entering the discipline of criminology for the first time. On the surface of things, accusing a theorist of

reductionism seemed to indicate a genuine intellectual engagement and a rational, sceptical and considered response to theories that attempted to generalise meaning. Accusations of this sort contained within them an entirely reasonable call for specificity and a grounded analysis that accounted for a broader range of variables and acknowledged the diversity of social experience and social engagement even in what appeared to be relatively contained sub-sections of society. However, one might be forgiven for thinking that, in some instances at least, this kind of critique functioned as an attempt to cover up an unwillingness to engage in deep thinking about the nature of social reality, replacing it instead with a prefabricated response that appeared to indicate serious intellectual engagement. Many in the social sciences appeared to have reached the conclusion that, in a period of such clear cultural fluidity, nothing could be universalised. In this intellectual context the symbolic life of the subject was unique and

idiosyncratic, and our shared cultural life a mere amalgamation of an apparently infinite assortment of transmutable particularities. Many criminologists took Lyotard’s totemic depiction of postmodernism seriously, but often in an indirect or unconscious manner. In the build up to the current crisis – as capital once again reconfigured itself, transforming labour markets, blithely ignoring the degradation of our natural environment and ushering in a new era of ‘me first’ individualism – we remained resolutely incredulous towards metanarratives. Any attempt to impose a theoretical order upon the messy business of twenty-first century life appeared flawed from the outset, ‘reductionist’, divorced from social reality and ignorant of the magical ability of the postmodern subject to make the active choices that would shape its social being. These metanarratives merely articulated the ideological prejudices of the author, and could not capture ‘reality’ as such. Didn’t those authors who continued to persevere with ‘generalised’ accounts of the economy, culture or subjectivity understand that their work would immediately be considered anachronistic by their peers? Didn’t they grasp the basic fact that the postmodern twenty-first century was ineluctably diverse and scintillating in its complexity and hybridity? Attempts to universalise meaning were merely a hold-over from an earlier and more naive time. And for those on the left, didn’t they understand that ‘the postmodern’ period was also post-ideological? What good did it do to continue onwards with critical accounts of capitalist markets, and in so doing deny the agency of workers and consumers, when capitalist globalisation was revealing itself as the very vehicle that could advance the lifestyles of Western workforces and counter the leaden bureaucracies of traditional nation-states? It is also worth considering the claim that a kind of anti-intellectualism

began to creep into criminology during this period. The broad current of our shared culture was towards the base populism of neoliberalism and away from a high-minded social democratic idealism that involved public education and social understanding. Intellectualism was dismissed from public culture, a process that appeared to be mirrored in the academy with creeping

deprofessionalisation and the transformation of the new professoriate from confirmed intellectuals, able to talk intelligently on a broad range of topics, to technical specialists, unwilling to comment on anything that lay outside their narrow academic area of expertise. In criminology, high theory, abstract theory, theory that did not deal directly with an expansive data set, was increasingly positioned as pompous and elitist. For many of the new breed of postmodern empirical criminologists, they didn’t need Marx, Hegel, Freud, Adorno, Lacan or Bourdieu to tell them which way the wind was blowing – theory was viewed as pointless pirouetting in front of one’s peers, mere self-aggrandisement that did not illuminate our understanding of the causes of crime one iota. Slowly but surely our theoretical ambitions were stifled and our discipline drifted perilously close to the jagged rocks of ‘abstract empiricism’ (Mills 2000). There could be no ‘truth’, in the abstract philosophical sense. All we could do was gather evidence from the ‘real world’. Let the ideologues of the old left talk themselves into abstraction while the worldly empiricists of the new order set about the difficult and important task of appraising new innovations in crime control. At the risk of annoying criminology’s liberal empiricists, it is perhaps worth

considering the suggestion that the development of this marked distrust of theoretical critique and the rush to declare all meta-theory ‘deterministic’, suggested a collective form of fetishistic disavowal (Žižek 2002; Winlow and Hall 2012a; Hall et al. 2008). This involves the attempt to choose to forget, or to refuse to countenance what the subject knows to be true. Of course, in the dismissal of ‘ideological’ criminological theorisation, or theories that were themselves built upon an already-in-place commitment to a truth project, the critic was refusing to acknowledge their own latent ideological affiliations. The common suggestion that the world is infinitely diverse and that social experience and social reality cannot be truly captured and used in the creation of macro-level theory is in itself thoroughly ideological. The ‘essentialism, determinism, reductionism’ trifecta inevitably took the appearance of a universal injunction. A new mainstream criminology, with its incredulity to metanarratives, imposed its own metanarrative that demanded adherence: the world is infinitely complex; any account of ‘truth’ is corrupted by ideology; the route forwards must involve a focus on objective empirical ‘reality’. One can see how and why this liberal-relativist discourse gathered pace in

criminology from the 1990s onwards. It is certainly true that Western societies were becoming increasingly diverse. At least on the surface of things. In many ways, this apparent diversity and change masked the continuation and reinforcement of the basic foundations of our economic life. A cultural world in which fashions and new cultural identities appeared to emerge magically on a daily basis, and in which we were increasingly surrounded by different religions, ethnicities, languages and accents, appeared to suggest a new era of advanced pluralism and progressive multicultural change. The old political certainties were now extinguished and democratic governments could be taken to task for their failure to satisfy the will of the people at election time. A new century of

expansive freedoms seemed to beckon. My first claim is that much of this change existed so that nothing had to change (see Žižek 2002). What appeared to be the constant expansion of permissions and entitlements largely failed to translate into our experience of everyday social reality. Rather than feeling free, we increasingly appeared to experience our lives in relation to a palpable lack of freedom, a process that seems to suggest that, at some stage in our recent past, these ‘freedoms’ had flipped inwards and backwards, and that something vital for progressive social renewal was now inaccessible, or was being actively removed from our civic, political and subjective life. The appearance of change covered up our inability to truly change our world in the grand historic sense – what was freedom if not the freedom to vote, to shop, to choose one’s own God, to pursue one’s individual economic interests or to dedicate one’s life to the accumulation of hedonistic experiences? If we connect the postmodern denial of universality to transformations

taking place in the economic realm, we can also see that this push to historicise and contextualise everything, to demand that all unique local and cultural specificities are identified and accounted for, also contains an element of falsehood that reflects the ‘real abstraction’ (Marx 1970; Žižek 2009a; see also Virno 2007; Toscano 2008) of today’s capital: capitalism can no longer be considered ‘Eurocentric’, or rooted in any particular social experience. Postmodern capitalism, as it approaches the limits of the growth upon which it depends, is now thoroughly ‘deterritorialised’ and can adapt to, or make itself anew in, any cultural or geographic setting (Žižek 2008). It simply continues onwards, blindly following its own self-interest, without any consideration of the human or ecological costs of its activities. In this way, our immediate subjective experience is not in itself separate or abstracted from the logic of capital, as capital is itself the very substance of that abstraction. The ‘postmodern’ world may encourage us to experience contemporary social reality as a fundamentally unknowable and constantly-in-motion diversity, but we are also encouraged to pay scant attention to the postmodern world’s disinclination to return to history. In the years before the crash, capitalism had become so ubiquitous, so

unchallengeable, that we ceased any attempt to imagine a world beyond it. Even now, as we witness the market economy’s orgy of abstract, speculative investment unravel on our news broadcasts, we appear incapable of articulating a genuinely alternative economic, political and governmental system. Our rootedness in a historical era defined by liberal capitalism and its preferred system of governance means that what we experience as constant change and diversity reflects our historic inability to actually enact the change that might completely transform the contours of our world. My second claim is that theoretical examination and re-examination of

diversity and pluralism before the crash reflects the total dominance of liberal ideology, both in politics and in the academy (Žižek 2008). The logic of neoliberalism is built upon the dissolution of publics and the adoption of the crude ontological frameworks of classical and neoclassical economics. The

liberal fear of all forms of collectivism, especially working-class collectivism, is the hidden ideological supplement of much affirmative postmodernism. After all, doesn’t all collectivism lead to totalitarianism and therefore the Killing Fields and the Gulag (see Žižek 2001)? Wouldn’t a genuine ‘working class’ political intervention necessarily threaten existing ethnic or cultural particularities? Because of the fundamental threat collectivist politics poses, shouldn’t we oppose – by fair means or foul – all theoretical or political accounts of universality, and in so doing ensure that we remain frozen at the end of history, in an era defined by ‘parliamentary capitalism’ (Badiou 2009)? The true ethical substance of leftist critique these days lies in the search for

a new dialectic of universality, a universality that is not, as many sociologists maintain, simply a dull, monotonous homogeneity, but derives from a universal singularity: something that is reflective of a contemporary social reality as it is experienced but also something that opens up the space for a truly progressive politics that might return us to history. In the current conjuncture universality is the substance of progressive politics. It is only when we renounce postmodernism’s possessive individualism that true progressive politics can really begin. In order for there to be progressive historic motion we need to be able to see and appreciate those things that bind us together, those issues that affect not simply the subject, but the subject and its community. If the left continues to believe in an egalitarian future it must popularise an account of the objective causes of those individual frustrations and dissatisfactions that are effects of contemporary capitalist realism. This account must encourage the subject to see its interests advanced in line with the interests of others: our shared fate on this planet, our collective experience of the harms of global capitalism, our collective dissatisfaction with the polity, our growing recognition that things cannot go on as they are, and our demand to create a fairer, sustainable and more just world. All of these things begin with renouncing solipsism and individualism and identifying the shared interests of the multitude. What is problematic for the discipline of criminology is that this intellectual

acceptance of boundless pluralism appears to have lost its obvious ideological character and has become, to all intents and purposes, ‘naturalised’, invisible, common sense; a rational and empirically provable assessment of the liberalised, Westernised, diversified and multicultural world in which we live. We have, for the most part, failed to think critically about pluralism, about where it comes from and what it means, and of course about alternative assessments that might be made about the reality of our social, cultural and political life. Are we to believe that our rather desperate scramble to differentiate ourselves from our peers is entirely ‘natural’, and has no relation to the dominant ideology? Doesn’t our subjective desire to ‘be different’ immediately suggest a structuring universality? Are we to focus solely on religious, ethnic, cultural and sexual diversity and ignore our universal experiences as worker-consumers? Doesn’t the fact that postmodernism compels us to understand collective identities as restrictive, to mock our own history, to treat our subjective background as something to escape from on a mythical journey of self-creation, tell us

something about contemporary ideology and our current historical inertia, trapped as we are within this deadening period of capitalist realism (Fisher 2009)? Who might fear the return of universality, and why?