Document Type

Book Review

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In Copyright


Reviewing Wendy Brown & Janet Halley, Left Legalism/Left Critique (2001).

Left legal theory is in crisis. This crisis reflects a broader problem of contemporary U.S. politics: the lack of grand ideas capable of mobilizing meaningful opposition to the triumph of the political right. Right-wing legal theory has contributed to that dramatic political change by promoting ideas questioning the foundations of the twentieth century liberal welfare and regulatory state.

This review essay analyzes a rare recent attempt to revive left legal theory in the face of the right's triumph: the anthology Left Legalism/Left Critique edited by Wendy Brown and Janet Halley (Duke University Press, 2002). In this book, Brown and Halley gather essays that present a yearning for justice that exceeds the imagination of liberal legalism, a critical and self-critical intellectual orientation, and a certain courage to open the door of political and legal thought as if the wolves were not there. The overarching argument of the book is that the left needs to be guided more by critical theory - and less by practical politics, law, and identity.

My essay situates the book in the context of the right's recent success in similarly challenging liberal legalism, albeit from a different ideological direction. I argue that the right's gains provide compelling evidence for this book's main point: impractical, ambitious theory is central to long-term radical political and legal change. But I show how Left Legalism/Left Critique falls short of its goal of providing bold left critique precisely because it follows conventional liberalism in measuring good left theory in opposition to left praxis, left legalism and left identity politics. In contrast, right-wing theory aims to redraw the liberal boundaries between theory and practical politics; between politics and law, and between identity and economic politics. Challenging the book's discussion of topics such as racial justice, disability discrimination, and sexual harassment, I show how resisting, rather than reinforcing, these boundaries is vital to left jurisprudence and politics.

Publication Title

Buffalo Law Review

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