Whereas for Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, the autonomous subject was the central presumption of civil society, contemporary thinkers have in various ways disparaged or disputed the concept of the sovereign individual. Heartfield begins by surveying the evolution of the French deconstructionist school, from its early structuralist origins to its apotheosis in post-modernism.
While concentrating on Althusser and Foucault, he also discusses the feminist and post-colonialist writers who emerged from this tradition (notably Kristeva, Pateman and Said). He also assesses 'attempts to rescue the subject' by Rorty, Rawls, Castoriadis and Taylor, though he judges these to be of a limited and defensive character.
Heartfield's use of Engels' polemic against Duhring's 'force theory of history' to attack Foucault's notion of all-pervasive relations of power helps to expose this deeply pessimistic (and highly influential) thesis.
He also shows how Habermas' attempt to displace subjectivity with the ideal of 'inter-subjectivity' amounts to placing a premium on the constraint of subjectivity and prepares the way for communitarian and 'third way' theorists such as Beck and Giddens. As he puts it, their concept of risk is little more than a '... morbid version of Habermas' intersubjectivity'.
In a section entitled 'The common ruin of the contending classes', the author traces the origin of the theoretical deconstruction of the subject in the exhaustion of politics through the latter decades of the twentieth century.
Whereas other radical critics have one-sidedly located the roots of degraded subjectivity in the demise of the left, Heartfield points also to the collapse of the right in the 1990s as crucial to the emergence of both the post-modernist mindset and 'third way' politics.
Though there have been many accounts of the failures of the French left, over Algeria, in May 1968 and after, and of the relationships among the intellectuals, the Communist Party and the labour movement, the brief survey included here is by far the best I have read. Heartfield shows how the left's inability to confront a French colonialism which sought to justify itself in terms of the universalist principles of the French revolution marked the beginning of the involution of the humanist tradition itself.
In turn, the Communist Party's failure of nerve in May 1968 reflected a wider intellectual retreat from subjectivity. The shameful personal history of Louis Althusser symbolises the treachery of French Stalinism. He betrayed his own wife twice: first, when she was (wrongly) accused of wartime collaboration, and second, when in 1980 he strangled her. As Heartfield indicates, Althusser's subsequent plea of insanity was the ultimate evasion of responsibility: '... the evacuation of subjective agency from his life could not be more complete.'
In its disillusionment with the working class as an agency of social change, the left turned to what became known as 'new social movements'. This began with the radical infatuation with third world national liberation movements, spread to students, black power groups, women's liberation, and ultimately extended to '... the boundless etcetera of difference'.
As Heartfield demonstrates, the real meaning of the 'new social movements' was '... a move away from the idea of an agent of social transformation altogether' and a '... break with the idea of collective agency'. The evolution of these movements into vehicles of a conservative middle-class outlook in the 1990s - notably in relation to international issues - accelerated the disintegration of the left.
In his analysis of the 1980s, the decade of Thatcher and Reagan and of the slogan 'there is no alternative' (to the market), Heartfield exposes the contradictions of popular capitalism. The defeat of an already moribund left proved much easier than rolling back state support for a stagnant capitalist system deprived of its old enemies at home and abroad and obliged to discover new sources of legitimacy. The result was '... a solipsistic individuation of society', as people retreated from public life and social engagement, rather than the self-assertive individualism promised by Hayek and Popper.
The ultimate beneficiary of this process - one in which it had no direct part - was New Labour. As Heartfield indicates, the New Labour leadership emerged as a result of the demise of working class subjectivity, or more specifically, of the defeat of the labour movement. In this sense, the third way can be characterised as '... a process without a subject'. Third way politics claims to transcend left and right, but it also transcends the activist formation of political will: '... the realm of subjectivity that is politics is shrunken and diminished.'