The Ghost of “Postmodernism” and Future Social Change
‘Postmodernism’ is a concept that has now been around in current social and political discourse for nearly five decades. As we continue to hurtle into the 21st century with a geopolitical and international economic situation which is barely under control, an examination of ‘postmodernism’s’ impact on current thinking would seem to be in order. Some key questions are: What is post-modernism an expression of? Is postmodernism, in a very sophisticated and complex way, the ideological expression of neo-liberalism? With the drive to, and accomplishment of, global capitalism, do we have a concurrent movement which dissolves meaning, objectivity and understanding into an individualized subjectivity, reifying personal perspective in a way that destroys the ability for a general social critique of the current reality? Does postmodernism continue to function to create an undermining the validity of broad-based counter systemic movements against hegemony, political and economic, such that effective activity toward social change is undermined? I think so.
It has often been stated that we have been living in a new period of history, a ‘postmodern’ era with a corresponding set of cultural, moral, aesthetic, political and social aspects, lumped under the name ‘postmodernism.’ Several writers have marked this era of postmodernism as having begun in the aftermath of the social upheavals and student rebellions of 1968 (Wallerstein, Arrighi, Hopkins, Lemert, et al). From what can be gleaned, there is no one definition or agreed upon conception, but the term is not new, as it was apparently used as early as the 1870’s in relation to moving beyond French Impressionism as a style of art[i], and subsequently in various other cultural contexts. The use of the term in recent intellectual discourse seems to stem from Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 book The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge, wherein he stated,
In contemporary society and culture – postindustrial, postmodern culture – the question of the legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms. The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.[ii]
Thus in one book (maybe in a few sentences), the entirety of the modern world and its culture is negated by the emergence of postmodernism and the corresponding “collapse of the grand narrative of the Enlightenment. . . that modernity was, after all, more a narrative than the Truth; once revealed as such, modernity loses its power.”[iii]
Lyotard’s elaboration of the state of postmodernism is characterized as the collapse of the validity of scientific and philosophical knowledge to “an internal erosion of the legitimacy principle of knowledge . . . The classical dividing lines between the various fields of science are thus called into question – disciplines disappear, overlapping occurs at the borders between sciences, and from these new territories are born.” While it is true that science and philosophy were indeed facing the crisis as outlined by Lyotard (and many others; Derrida, Foucault, et al, and from other vantage points, also), what is clear is that the deconstructionists offered little or no substantive alternative to this situation. What we are left with is
what appears to be the most startling fact about postmodernism: its total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity and the chaotic . . . But postmodernism responds to the fact of that in a very particular way. It does not try to transcend it, counteract it, or even to define the ‘eternal and immutable’ elements that might lie within it. Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is.[iv]
Indeed, in other words, postmodernism is an idealist anti-theory, that offers no alternative to the status quo, no basis, other than a weak pessimism. “Condemning meta-narratives (broad interpretative schemas like those deployed by Marx or Freud) as ‘totalizing,’ they insist upon the plurality of ‘power-discourse formations’ (Foucault), or of ‘language games’ (Lyotard).”[v]
Does this mean that “postmodernism” has had no positive influence or aspects? No, because in so far as it has engendered and made legitimate the discursive projects of alternate world views, for example, feminist, black, indigenous, queer, women of color, and so on, theories it has worked as a grounding to push forward and break down barriers to these areas of inquiry and social activism. At the same time, it has not offered a revolutionary and transformative master discourse capable of challenging the status quo. There are certainly multiple sources of oppression, and corresponding forces of resistance to these oppressions, and the search for a way to unite these forces in order to create a new reality is always imperative. Postmodernism, however, does not offer this up.
The point is to judge whether postmodernist theory contributes any fresh insights. I consider postmodernism and intellectual non-starter, in the sense that beyond its hype it offers no conceptual instruments capable of transcending the capitalist framework; neither does it demonstrate any capacity to inspire an innovative design for social change. In short, the postmodernist critique is less radical than the critique whose seminal ideas were put forward in Marx’s work. . .. Postmodernist thinkers, as we know, rediscovered that the Enlightenment did not liberate humanity. From the standpoint of the precise strain of Marxist thinking that I share, that is merely axiomatic.[vi]
As a quick, though important aside, there is a need here to clarify that Marxism in the twentieth and twenty-first century has taken many forms and has fallen into reification of features and aspects that have little to do with the position of Marx, in any of his writings. Idealist and academic versions that have “cleansed” Marxism of any class position or revolutionary content is one form. The empiricist and economist prejudices in the old Soviet Union, along with many other factors, led to the restoration of capitalism inside its borders, albeit a state form run by an elite status group, which thus “ended up advocating, in the name of socialism, a utopian system of rationalized management based on a knowledge of (deterministic) ‘laws’ and in that process thrashed the dialectic of human freedom.” This restoration then engendered a “Soviet ideology, which I have long considered closer to bourgeois thought than to Marxist thinking.” The neoliberal policies instituted by Deng Xiaoping in China in the 1970’s and 80’s likewise created the restoration of capitalism in the People’s Republic of China, under the illusion of “capitalism without capitalists.” This ‘real ideological triumph’ with, obviously, no basis in fact, is another historical outcome of the distortion of Marx’s views.
Even so, postmodernism is recognized as a movement in the humanities – art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and so on – and has influenced science, both natural/physical sciences and the social sciences. Challenges to orthodoxy in epistemological and methodological areas over the last fifty years have opened a discourse on the nature of knowledge, inquiry, and purpose in all spheres of the search for meaning and understanding. This effort has, in the main, served a progressive purpose in so far as it has broken down and overturned the rigid positivistic hold on the “correct and only” way to approach scientific (and other forms) inquiry in all fields. At the same time, it is not clear that the impact is as far reaching and thorough as it is reported to be. As science, in most spheres, has become an integral part of the means of production in present day monopoly-finance capitalism, the resistance to these challenges has remained consistent, and in some cases has even hardened. Rules and guidelines concerning research, especially the funding of research, appear to have moved to a return (in so far as they ever left) a validation of only positivistic, quantified inquiry based on methods of “standard science.” This holds true in psychology as well as human science endeavors into social problems, education, systems and organization analysis, and so on. Do we need to say “STEM” anyone?
So, what is postmodernism, and what or whom does it serve? If it is not cohesive theory, or has no corpus worthy of the name “theory,” is it an ideology? Ideas, especially if they become ideologies, don’t just fall from the sky. As Marx once observed, “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production”(The civil war in France). This is an involved political analysis to complete, especially to the point of some legitimacy, but that being said, here in a lengthy quote is one view, that of the social philosopher and economist David Harvey:
I also conclude that there is much more continuity than difference between the broad history of modernism and the movement called postmodernism. It seems more sensible to me to see the latter as a particular kind of crisis within the former, one that emphasizes the fragmentary, the ephemeral, and the chaotic . . . while expressing a deep scepticism as to any particular prescriptions as to how the eternal and immutable should be conceived of, represented, or expressed . . . its penchant for deconstruction bordering on nihilism, its preference for aesthetics over ethics, takes matters too far. It takes them beyond the point where any coherent politics are left.
Worst of all, while it opens up a radical prospect by acknowledging the authenticity of other voices, postmodernist thinking immediately shuts off those other voices from access to more universal sources of power by ghettoizing them within an opaque otherness, the specificity of this or that language game. It thereby disempowers those voices (of women, ethnic and racial minorities, colonized peoples, the unemployed, youth, and so on,) in a world of lop-sided power relations. . . The rhetoric of postmodernism is dangerous for it avoids confronting the realities of political economy and the circumstances of global power.
We need to keep ourselves cognizant that we are dealing with global capitalism and that, if you look at the history of the past 125 years, Foucault was right when he said “one has to invert Clausewitz’s formula so as to arrive at the idea that politics is the continuation of war by other means.” Changing the existing socio-economic reality, changes that “will free society from capitalist alienation and its tragic consequences”[vii] will not happen in a peaceful transition. Overthrowing the current global situation, in so many interconnected ways, is imperative as the situation has been dire for several decades. “As far as the overwhelming majority of humanity – the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America – are concerned, this need is vital, since they experience actually existing capitalism as nothing short of savagery.”[viii] Unless the criticism of postmodernism is linked to revolutionary change in the relations and structures of society (which on one level it implicitly denies) it remains in the service of the status quo. As such we have not moved beyond Marx’s main “Theses on Feuerbach”: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
Postcolonialism: Theory or Reality?
Postcolonial theory (as an expression of postmodernism) is a part and parcel of this “complete calling in question,” and serves to re-evaluate past inquiry and establish a new basis of inquiry for all who have been subjected to being determined to be the “other” – women, indigenous people, people of color, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender, disabled, homeless, and so on – and to give them a voice in the world. In this way it has the project of becoming a valid and positive social and intellectual force.
But even as we attempt to incorporate the term “postcolonial” into our understanding of . . . theory, we are reminded of the limits of such terminology to fully explain conditions of hierarchy, hegemony, racism, sexism, and unequal power relations. As McClintock (1994) asserts, “’post-colonialism’ (like postmodernism) is unevenly developed globally . . . Can most of the world’s countries be said, in any meaningful or rigorous sense, to share a single ‘common past,’ or single common ‘condition,’ called ‘the post-colonial condition’ or “post-coloniality.’”? Indeed, McClintock reminds us that “the term ‘post-colonialism’ is, in many cases, prematurely celebratory.[ix]
Indeed, while “old style” colonialism is pretty much gone (we still have Puerto Rico, Haiti, and so on, in the U.S. sphere; all the former Soviet countries now under the thumb of Putin and the Russian oligarchy; Palestinians and Palestine; and other similar situations in other parts of the world), can we really speak or act as if the international inequalities and exploitation of smaller nation-states, and the people who live in them, by larger ones has really ceased?
The recent collapse of the world economy, from 2009 to 2012, that we are just beginning to struggle out of, is a crisis which has revealed insights into the contradictions of capital in its fully globalized phase. Previously the analysis of late twentieth-century crisis was based on a view of “monopoly capital,” as elaborated by Sweezy, Baran, and Magdoff. Recent writings point to “the transformation of the stage of monopoly capital into the new phase of monopoly-finance capital. Characteristic of this phase of accumulation is the stagnation-financialization trap, whereby financial expansion has become the main “fix” for the system yet is incapable of overcoming the underlying structural weaknesses of the economy.”[x] The driving ideology behind the current version of globalized monopoly-finance capital is neoliberalism, which is “aimed at promoting more extreme forms of exploitation . . . Far from being a restoration of traditional economic liberalism, neoliberalism is thus a product of big capital, big government, and big finance on an increasing global scale” (ibid.). Increased international exploitation, is based on the real contradictions of globalized monopoly-finance capital and is instituted by the policies justified by neoliberalist ideology in not only former colonies, but even the weaker economies and nation-states with the European Union and emerging economies of the Western Hemisphere, Southeast Asia and Africa and the Middle East. As such
imperialist divisions are becoming, in many ways, more severe, exacerbating inequalities within countries, as well as sharpening the contradictions between the richest and poorest regions/countries. . .. More and more, the financialization of accumulation in the center of the system, backed by neoliberal policy, has generated a global regime of “shock therapy.” Rather than Keynes’s “euthanasia of the rentier,” we are seeing the threatened euthanasia of almost everything else in society and nature . . . (leading to) a set of consequences that can be described as “disaster capitalism.”[xi]
The phenomenon of “superexplotation” of members of the working class in various countries, especially those who work in factories supplying products that are essentially monopoly commodities, has grown over the last three decades. “Superexploitation” defined is essentially paying workers less than the historically determined value of labor power, i.e. the cost of their reproduction (what it takes to “produce” and supply a new worker as the “old” one wears out). Let me clarify this further. Today we have the exploitation of an international working class, working in countries all over the world for global mega-corporations. Superexploitation exists “because the value of labor power is determined globally, while actual wages are determined nationally, and are hierarchically ordered due to imperialism. In the global South therefore, workers normally receive wages that are less than the value of labor power. This is the basis of imperialist rent.”[xii]
One last exploration, relevant to a discussion of “postcolonialism,” about the way in which the world is different today is to see that the globalization of capital under the political hegemony of neoliberalism has undermined individual nation-states ability to respond to this situation, due to their weaknesses and the way in which international monopoly-finance capital has invalidated any political response. The governments of countries throughout the world, from former colonies to even European nations (Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Ukraine, and so on,) have such devastated economies and/or are so burdened by sovereign debt that they are unable to resist politically. The global financial institutions have imposed policies of austerity, the collapse of any social safety net system, and onerous debt repayment, leaving the citizenry of these countries to try to make it on their own. Hence the rolling political and social crisis seen throughout these smaller European nations. Countries in Asia, Africa and South America are even more peripheral to the main flow of capital accumulation and are in even more dire straits. In short hand, the ‘Rest’ did not follow the West to industrial growth and development, but in fact “Now, it seems, that it is the West following the Rest when it comes to the growing insecurity of work conditions.”[xiii] Due to this political impotency, movements of social resistance take on new and unique forms.
With the collapse of a valid progressive left-wing response, the resistance comes in other movements; Islamic fundamentalism, nationalist sectarianism, terrorist political and para-military organizations, the Arab Spring, pro-Russian movements in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Chechnyan Liberation movements, civil war in Syria, the ongoing sublimated civil war in Lebanon and Gaza, the co-optation of the democratic forces in Egypt (first by the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequently by the military junta to re-instate Mubarak without Mubarak), ethnic and religious conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, and so on,, and so on,. Unable to link up across international borders to resist global capitalism in a united form of resistance, the lid is barely kept on the boiling cauldron of social and economic crisis and disarray. And the very real oppression and misery of the populations in these areas goes on unabated, despite the best efforts of NGO’s and other efforts to alleviate these conditions.
So, can we speak of a “postmodern and postcolonial” world? Yes, and no. Yes, as a theoretical opening to explore the rejection of “otherness” and the establishment of voices of the “subaltern” to elaborate new and revolutionary perspectives of the liminal realities of the exploited and oppressed. No, in so far as these positions remain inside of bourgeois thought and institutions and are not linked to a movement to radically transform the present global situation. This is the deeper meaning of Audre Lorde’s famous dictum, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” At the end of the day, capital is the engine driving our global economy, no matter what form or stage it is in. And capital is not a thing, it is an overpowering hegemonic social relation, dominating all forms of human interaction, purpose and being. An alternate basis of social relations must be visualized, developed and instituted, that completely overthrows capital. There is no accommodation to capital that renders its power as ineffective and not in control. It’s just not the nature of the beast. Past attempts have not overthrown this core aspect, and thus, ultimately succumbed to reforms and manifestations which were still trapped inside of bourgeois ideological constructs and expectations (in plain words, the capitalist system).
However, this is too complex to fully elaborate in the scope of this article. The important beginning is to be aware that capitalism did not always exist, that there were other economic formations with a different social basis than commodity production and the exploitation of labor, and that it does not have to exist in the future. There can be an alternative. Following Amin, we can call these past economic formations ‘tributary societies,’ with “their stress on metaphysical aspects of reality . . . From this novel point of view, the difference between the metaphysical worldview of tributary societies and the thinking of a more advanced society due to evolve after resolving the economistic biases and contradictions of the bourgeois system, need not be so sharply oppositional. We might call such an advanced society socialist.”[xiv] We can overrule the ghosts of the past and set about creating a new reality. Building a mass international socialist movement with this goal in mind is the task that faces progressive forces that want to see a more just and equitable world, incorporating, as it must, all the voices of those (including other species) who cannot go on for much longer in the direction the world is heading. After this happens, we will be postmodern and postcolonial.
[i] Hassan, I. (1987). The postmodern turn; Essays in postmodern theory and culture. Athens. Ohio University Press
[ii] Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1979). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge
[iii] Lemert, C. (2010). Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings. Boulder. Westview.
[iv] Harvey, D. (1990). The condition of postmodernity. Cambridge. Blackwell.
[vi] Amin, S. (2014). Capitalism in the age of globalization: The management of contemporary society. New York. Zed Books.
[ix] Billings & Donnor in Denzin, N. K., Lincoln, Y.S., & Smith, L. T. (2008). Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies. Thousand Oaks. Sage
[x] Foster, J.B & McChesney, R.B. (2012). The endless crisis. New York. Monthly Review Press.
[xiii] Breman, J. (2013). A bogus concept. New Left Review, 84, p. 130-138.
[xiv] Amin, S. (2014).
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