This is the second in a series of posts on postmodernism.
Postmodernism arose from the intersection of two trends. One was the onset of hard times economically as the long post-world war 2 boom finally came to an end. Profits were increasingly being made not by expanding production but by sackings, by welfare cuts, by intensifying the work process, and by cannibalising the system itself, running down and/or selling off public infrastructure. In this climate personal life and relationships became harsher.
It came at the end of the social protest era of the late 1960s and early 70s. Rather than boosting those protests, it played a key role in snuffing them out. Unemployment lowered workers’ bargaining power and confidence to act; the union officials were won to the need to defend the “national interest” instead of their members’ living standards. So just as things were getting worse, the vision of something qualitatively better, of revolution or liberation, faded. Horizons narrowed. The new neoliberal world of austerity might be rotten, it might be going nowhere, but it was the world, nothing could exist beyond it.
It was not so rotten for everyone. A new middle class did rather well out of it, including former student activists who moved into well paid jobs. Neoliberalism was empty, visionless; we were plainly steering toward ecological disaster, with no-one at the wheel; “reform” was now double-speak for regression; but for some, the money rolled in. The cynicism of former activists resonated with much wider sections of the new middle class, particularly in the public sector most exposed to cost-cutting and privatisation .
Success in the new middle class, the middle layers within public and corporate bureaucracies meant cultivating and maintaining connections within professional networks and negotiating more complex corporate hierarchies. In this world, personal appeal was increasingly useful as a tool of trade; it had a growing cash value. One of the effects of this was to produce a “narcissistic obsession with the body, both male and female”. Self-cultivation, “forming oneself into a particular kind of person”, became an art form. (Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, pages 162-172; the quotes are from page 169).
Postmodernism was the worldview that emerged from this social layer. The core ideas of this worldview are a point-by-point challenge to the central ideas of Marxism, the great enemy that must be brought down. But in the process it also cut across core elements of any theory of liberation, including that of radical feminism.
Antihumanism and the “death of the subject”
Marxism shares with liberalism a belief in the dignity of the human personality, the sense that there is a universe within every mind, which deserves freedom to flourish. For Marxism, this humanist vision can only be achieved by the collective class struggle and workers’ revolution, but once real communism is attained each personality will have vast potential for further development. Postmodernism denies this.
Like Marxism, it emphasises the role of external social forces in shaping people’s interior lives, but in the case of postmodernism this takes the extreme form of removing the human personality entirely as a point of focus. People are not twisted by an alienated society. There is nothing to be twisted. Working people’s inner lives are not cramped and contorted by class oppression, nor are women’s inner lives cramped by sexual oppression. There is nothing there to be cramped, stunted or distorted.
This denial of personal depth is concurrent with the seemingly contradictory theme of self-cultivation. In reality, self-cultivation is a for the new middle class, depersonalisation is for the swinish multitude.
Humans have no agency
Closely related to this “death of the subject” is people’s lack of agency, lack of capacity to change the world. Liberalism says individuals are active agents who can change their personal situation and sometimes society as a whole. Marxism says working people can change the world when they act together as a class. Postmodernism says people are inert chess pieces moved about by objective forces (language in the case of Derrida, power-knowledge for Foucault) which they can never bring under collective human control.
Surface not depth
The superficiality of people is mirrored in society. While Marxism says the appearance of society conceals the fundamental struggle of workers and capitalists, postmodernism says that society has no hidden depths. Everything exists on the surface.
Postmodernism is idealist in the philosophical sense of asserting the primacy of ideas over the material world. The factory, stock exchange and police truncheon fade from view: power is only about language – “discourse”. Within discourse lurks something that plays the role of God: it shapes what people think and do, but is not, in turn, shaped in any decisive way by human action. Discourse shapes us but we don’t shape it: we are forever imprisoned within it.
Postmodernism says that the world cannot be understood via reason. In fact it can’t really be understood at all, so we can’t change it in any significant way. Ideas are playthings for academic presentations, popular books and dinner party chat. The deliberately confusing language common in academia, that pretends to profound wisdom you are just too stupid to grasp, is celebrated and taken further here.
The old slogan one struggle, one fight – the notion that only in unity do we have the power to overthrow capitalism, is seen by postmodernists like Foucault as a sinister move to “theorise the totality” – to capture and control people’s entire way of thinking for your own gain. By proposing a comprehensive worldview, the postmodernists say, Marxists only reveal their lust for total domination, as evidenced in Stalinist Russia.
The groundwork for transgender ideology
Postmodernism feeds into the most conservative aspects of trans ideology. Women’s cumulative personal experience, that constitutes such an important aspect of their oppression under current society, is dispensed with. The body matters, not the personality. Sexuality is simply about bodies and pleasures. And the body, like the rest of the material world, is what we choose to make it.
The next posts will look at two ideological currents that the postmodernists draw on – the ideas of Nietzsche and the structuralism of the 1960s. For other posts on postmodernism see here.