There are two ways of justifying the status quo. On one hand, you say how great our society is, apart from a few temporary hiccups and/or malcontents on the margins. Or you can go on about how rotten everything is, adding at once that this rottenness is not caused by class, oppression etc, but is an inevitable part of every society. Georg Lukacs put it this way:
Whereas direct apologetics was at pains to depict capitalism as the best of all orders, as the last, outstanding peak in mankind’s (sic) evolution, indirect apologetics crudely elaborated the bad sides, the atrocities of capitalism, but explained them as attributes not of capitalism but of all human existence and of existence in general. (The Destruction of Reason pages 202-203. Merlin Press 1980)
The first approach flourishes when things are going well for the system, and is the stock-in-trade of mainstream right wing politicians. The second approach gathers strength during times when social and economic problems are pressing, and hard to explain away. Postmodernism is in this latter tradition. Its sneering quality sets politicians’ teeth on edge, but its main social impact has been to engage with people deeply discontented by the current social order, only to pull them toward cynicism and passivity. Postmodernist ideas have had a powerful impact over the neoliberal era, fitting well with a time when people have usually felt powerless to change a hateful world. But it has in turn helped to entrench that era by making it seem unchallengeable.
Today a new era of protest is unfolding, and the central political task is to throw ourselves into support for the new movement rising to its feet against Trump and his ilk. But postmodernism’s legacy of cynicism and passivity is one force holding back the new movement, and needs to be confronted.
This is the first in a series of posts about postmodernism. This post looks briefly at the social conditions from which postmodernism emerged.
The historical background
The postwar boom culminated in the heady years of the late 1960s and early 70s. Sustained economic expansion and high employment had brought confidence in the future; it had also brought more complex jobs that required greater education. This education made the rising generation more aware of social and political evils; they applied concepts of liberty more widely than capitalist ideologists even intended; they were impatient with the economic anxieties of their parents which seemed out of date. Women entered the workforce and learned that they were just as good as men, while the pill gave them greater, if sometimes exaggerated, freedom. Campaigns against racism, the Vietnam War, and conscription, and campaigns to support national liberation struggles, coincided with a period of strong bargaining power for workers. When western governments tried to crush unions through state-wide political attacks, they responded with mass, political strikes that politicised vast numbers of workers, including countless individual women and gays. The Women’s and Gay Liberation movements arose from this background, as activists applied the concept of liberation to challenge their own oppression. A popular slogan was “one struggle, one fight” – against the System, against the Establishment and for Revolution: whatever that word meant exactly, it was attainable. At the same time, carried on these deeper currents, there was cultural change. Phoniness and superficiality were despised. Long hair on men, absurdist humour and irony could all be seen as political challenges to a stiff, straitlaced society.
The cultural relaxation lasted, and women continued to enter the workforce. But in most ways things started going backwards in early 1970s. The campaigns against the Vietnam War and conscription came to an end. The long boom ended in 1974-5: union leaders turned on their memberships, closing down industrial action “in the national interest”. As workers lost confidence bosses pressed their new advantage, making ever more aggressive demands. Rank and file organisation withered as unions became more centralised and bureaucratic. Strike levels collapsed: millions upon millions of working people ceased to experience collective struggle. Protest movements pulled apart; the slogan of unity lost its resonance. The Women’s Liberation Movement became the women’s movement, and fractured. Everywhere the vision of liberation faded: the word was jeered at, kept alive only among tiny groups of dissidents.
The world was plainly getting worse not better, but its evils turned out to be deep seated. Former student activists were comforted by cushy jobs. They applied their absurdist humour to advertising campaigns; they used irony to excuse sexism. Ageing Left activists moved into union bureaucracies, academia, reformist party machines, local councils. They moved to the right, and further right. And for the handful that refused to move right they reserved a particular kind of malice.
Another change was also occurring. As jobs became ever more stressful and insecure for the unskilled, the world of work also changed for managers and professionals – the new middle class, and those who aspired to its ranks. Corporate and bureaucratic hierarchies became more flexible and subtle. Networking flourished. Work still meant giving and taking orders, but there was more scope for discretion about just how much you helped your colleagues and contacts. In this world, personal appeal acquired greater cash value. Personal appeal partly meant charm, guarded exuberance, extroversion that constantly read signals about what was and was not acceptable. It meant persona not personality, surface not depth. But personal appeal also meant the body beautiful, looking young at pretty at all costs. This made life worse for the fat and the old; it introduced new, unfamiliar anxieties for men; for women it massively reinforced traditional stereotypic pressures, alongside the talk of empowerment. The body beautiful trend also normalised Botox, plastic surgery, body modification.
Postmodernism interpreted and, in crucial ways, justified this new world, for many academics, writers, intellectuals who were discontented with neoliberalism yet scorned talk of liberation. It gave this new world a philosophical polish, and thereby reinforced it.
Future posts will address the key ideas of postmodernism; the influence of Nietzsche and the 1960s structuralists; and the writings of two key figures, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.