Workers' Liberty #55


Getting to grips with post-modernism

In the English speaking world post-modernism has become highly influential in the universities, on the left and among a loosely defined "intelligentsia". What is remarkable though are the number of people, regardless of whether they are advocates, opponents or just interested bystanders, who acknowledge that they have little understanding of what post-modernism's essential tenets are or what they mean.

By Tony Brown

While post-modernism has become an increasingly fashionable topic of debate in academic circles it is not confined there. It is commonplace to read in newspapers that a movie, a novel, a building, a dress style, a restaurant or even a menu is post-modern. On campuses it become almost a new orthodoxy, especially in the humanities and social sciences. This in turn feeds back into the media as journalism and cultural studies departments turn out bright young graduates.

But for many students in higher education the simple question is: what is post-modernism? And for most even after making serious attempts to find out, or listening to someone who is trying to explain the basic concepts, they remain confused, mystified, and doubt their own powers of intellectual comprehension. Some become post-modernists but for the rest they must decide for themselves whether the person they asked for an explanation was dim in that they couldn't explain this popular idea; that they are dim because they couldn't understand something that so many others appear to have embraced; or that the concept itself is fashionable but unfathomable, a mish-mash of ideas dressed in radical clothes. I favour the last explanation.

Yet it obviously has appeal for some. It appears to offer an explanation of a fragmented society at the end of the twentieth century even if one of its central ideas is that we cannot make sense of the world. It's worth, therefore, trying to understand what appeal this theory holds, what its core ideas are, where they come from (or to use a favourite post-modern term what is its "genealogy") and why its critics assess it as a politics of despair.

On the surface there is considerable appeal in post-modern claims. In embracing the difference and diversity of modern societies they reject conservative claims for an all-embracing monoculture built upon universal "truths" dictated by western, white, colonisers. They challenge the dominance of masculine power and its representation and expression in the institutions which dominate our lives. They object to the normalising pressures on sexuality and point to the power of language in constructing understandings of the world and relationships.

As Terry Eagleton has pointed out many activists were attracted to the work of Michel Foucault, who drew attention to the social construction of sexuality, who saw power as being dispersed through society, for instance in families and prisons, and insisting on the connection between power and knowledge. Foucault's work seemed to offer a theoretical basis for shifting the focus of radical analysis away from macrostructures such as the economy and the state, and toward daily life, ideology, social relations and culture. Foucault's identification of resistance with the marginalised and suppressed attracted many at a time when radical struggles were being led by groups peripheral to mainstream culture such as disaffected youth, feminists, gays and lesbians and black and indigenous minorities.

It seemed very radical to argue that the views and beliefs of all these "identities" were equally valid and that there is no such thing as "truth". The argument goes that because the perception of reality is mediated by images and constructed by discourse there can only be truth claims. And since there is nothing against which these claims can be measured, they all have the same standing.

But its ideas tap into other prevailing moods. The 1970s began a long, still continuing, period of uncertainty. The end of the long post-war economic boom heralded in a crisis for both the right and left wings of mainstream bourgeois politics. The certainties of the post-war period fell away, a gradual decline in working class living standards began laying the foundation for Thatcher and Reagan, the welfare state began to be dismantled and public services privatised. What had at times been a militant labour movement accommodated to Thatcherism, and in France, Spain, New Zealand and Australia led the way in introducing free market policies. Revulsion at the politics of the be-suited managers of capital and their personal immorality is personified by Clinton, but he is only one among many before him. The rapid collapse of the Stalinist states in Eastern and Central Europe took away the final certainty for many on the left. It is not surprising then that many newcomers to politics are dismissive of those who claim there is still a politics that aspires to be emancipatory for an entire class of people. They are ready to reject such "projects", instead opting for particular campaigns, whether they be anti-racist, environmental or feminist.

What post-modernists have been very successful at doing is claiming that they have revealed new insights, that they have discovered something - for instance that the centralised, male-dominated power of the advanced industrial states oppresses and disregards third world peoples - women and minority groups, that hasn't been theorised before. They have simultaneously achieved, especially within many university faculties, a hegemony that has positioned opponents as somehow defending the status quo.

A real problem is that those who are sceptical of the claims, who question the plausibility of cultural studies, literary theory or modern sociology stay silent for fear of being ridiculed for not understanding the "theory" in the first place. It is a contemporary example of an age-old "fear" of speaking the truth that Hans Christian Anderson captured in the story of the Emperor's Clothes.

The important task then is to distinguish between the ephemeral and the substantial, between what is new in the post-modern theory and what are its continuities with earlier ideas. We need to say what are the implications and consequences of these ideas and then to assess their significance.

What is post-modernism ?

In the 1970s and 1980s post-modernism was loosely associated with avant-garde trends in architecture and art, and new technology related-developments in computers and the media. It was launched in 1975 when Charles Jencks coined the term "post-modernism" to describe a trend in architecture. Since then it has spread through the social sciences. The various strands of "post" literatures - in culture, post-modernism; in politics, post-Marxism; in political economy, post-Fordism; in philosophy and linguistics, post-structuralism - emphasise the principles of fragmentation, heterogeneity, and contingency, and are hostile to ideas of "totality", structure, and "grand narratives".

If post-modernism is another theory, a way of interpreting the world, or a "truth claim" what is its "genealogy"? That is, where does it come from, what is its heritage, who are its forebears? And why do Marxists call it ahistorical, and an anti-working class politics?

The language of post-modernism is so impenetrable that it can only be a deliberate, exclusive language game. Post-modern moment, post-modern doubt, over-determined conflict, post-structuralism, binarisms, metanarratives, essentialism, deconstruction, decentredness, totalising imperatives, identity, irreducible materiality, semiotics, dialogism and so on, now make up intellectual exchange despite the fact that very few can give any relatively straightforward explanation of what is meant by these terms. However, the ideas that underpin it are not so new.

Nineteenth century sociologists saw scientific rationality as the triumph over a pre-modern world associated with religion, superstition, tradition and pre-ordained roles. Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Darwin and J. S. Mill among others all believed that scientific analysis could uncover a larger, encompassing story of human development (what post-modernists call "metanarratives"). And all thought they could identify the future direction of social change.

A number of post-modern theorists argue that the aims of the Enlightenment (they mostly use this term instead of capitalism, and as Ellen Wood (1996) succinctly explains it is historically inaccurate) have been abandoned in the 20th century. People no longer believe in the inevitability of progress, the power of science to solve problems, or the possibility of running societies in a rational way, arguing there is a wider variety of beliefs and that most people are unwilling to accept one set of truths in preference to another.

The early 1970s represents the end of the Enlightenment period, the end of modernity. It is a permanent and decisive break with the past. In fields such as the humanities, cultural and media studies, literature, literacy, feminism and education there are those who argue that this time marks the divide between modernity and post-modernity suggesting that the current post-modern era represents an epochal break from the whole preceding history of capitalism.

The structuralists

Post-modernism's immediate intellectual forebears had formed a structuralist movement in France in the 1960s. They became more influential following the French general strike and demonstrations of May 1968, and in reaction against the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. A number of French thinkers headed by Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Claude Levi-Strauss put structuralism on the map. They built on the work of three earlier European writers - Marx, Freud and Ferdinand de Saussure - drawing on their analysis of social structures, psychoanalysis and linguistic analysis respectively.

Of the three it was the Swiss de Saussure's model of linguistic structures which has had the most lasting impact. This model, or "semiology", was a science of signs which, it was claimed, went beneath the surface events of language to investigate a variety of concealed signifying systems, declaring that humans are made by structures beyond their conscious will or individual control. The structuralist claim to uncover these hidden unconscious structures was gradually challenged by a new school of French intellectuals - including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-Francois Lyotard - who have been collectively grouped under the heading of post-structuralism. (See Epstein 1997, pp. 130-144.)

It is not possible here to detail the post-modern claims about the transition from modernity to post-modernity or the features of the new era. Instead I want to highlight some core ideas which make it easier to locate postmodernism in the context of the breakdown of the long economic boom and the struggle by capital to reassert the rate of profit growth and exploitation.

In The Postmodern Condition (1984), Jean-Francois Lyotard argued that post-industrial society and post-modern culture began to develop at the end of the 1950s, although the rate and stage of development varied between countries. He saw these developments as related to technology, science and other social changes, but most importantly to changes in language. His key concept is that of "language games". He saw social life as being organised around these language games, which serve to justify or legitimate people's behaviour in society.

According to Lyotard, "metanarratives" (or overarching theories) of human emancipation, self-fulfilment and social progress have been undermined by post-modern society, resulting in "an incredulity towards metanarratives". He contends that the essence of post-modernism is a scepticism about every possible attempt to make sense of history, instead emphasising fragmentation, flux, instability and questioning the validity of claims to authenticity and truth.

For Baudrillard (1983) society has moved away from being based on production and shaped by the economic forces involved in exchanging goods. The central importance of buying and selling material goods has been replaced by buying and selling signs and images, which have little, if any, relationship to material reality. Modern society is based on the production and exchange of words and images (free-floating signifiers) which have no connection with the things that the words and images refer to (the signified).

While post-modernism rejected aspects of structuralism it retained the focus on language, the view that language provides the categories that shape the self and society. According to this view all reality is shaped by language; suggesting that language is real, everything else constructed or derived from it. Seemingly modern management theory has picked up on this idea. Renaming a garbage collector a sanitary engineer or an accounts clerk a project manager might be intended to lift that individual's self esteem or prestige, but at the end of the day they are both still arm deep in muck of one sort or another.

The post-structuralists

Jacques Derrida renounced the search for the structuralists' underlying meanings and the binary oppositions of surface and depth, inner and outer, conscious and unconscious and instead celebrated the excesses of language as a multiple play of meaning. His deconstructive strategy, in brief, is that prior systems have been constructed on the basis of conceptual oppositions - external/internal; good/evil; universal/particular. One of the terms in each set is "privileged", the other suppressed or excluded, for instance capitalist/worker.

Yet despite its rejection of binaries, post-structuralism itself rests on a new set of binary oppositions - modernity/post-modernity being the classic example - and at the same time establishes new metanarratives, for instance globalisation and the market, to replace those it rejects, such as that of class. That this reliance on language as the key shaping influence on individuals and society is not so new, and is indeed closely connected to earlier idealist philosophy: one need only refer to European debates taking place more than a century ago. Marx and Engels in their criticism of German idealist philosophy wrote in The German Ideology that:

"One of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life."
Marx & Engels 1976 pp. 472-473

Post-modern Marxists

The conjuncture of the 1968 revolts in Paris and Prague, the reaction against the Soviet Union, and the beginning of the end of the boom combined for a number on the left in a retreat from the class analysis which had been the hallmark of Marx's method. The move away from this method was laid by intellectuals who had been members of Marxist political parties. Althusser and Baudrillard had both been members of the French Communist Party while Lyotard had been a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

Althusser was a leading figure in the French Communist Party and a prominent philosophy lecturer at the Sorbonne. The revelations of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which Kruschev made his famous secret speech denouncing Stalin, had set a number of European Marxists to question their own understanding of and involvement in Marxist politics. Althusser's major work, For Marx (1969), entailed a re-reading of Marx in which he developed a critique of what he considered to be Marx's base/superstructure argument. In this work he argued that Marxist understanding of the relationship between economics and "ideology" (or the state, laws, culture, propaganda, etc.) was too deterministic, that is, it was too simplistic in that economics supposedly determined the infrastructure of society - hence the characterisation of the debate as being a "base/superstructure" debate. Althusser's conclusion that ideology was separate or "relatively autonomous" was vigorously debated by writers such as EP Thompson (1978) and Ernest Mandel (1978) and later by Wood (1986 and 1995), but also stimulated entire fields of "ideology" study in cultural and media studies, philosophy, language and literacy.

If economists and politicians found the end of the long boom disorientating then the same struggle to come to grips with the causes and consequences of the changes in the 1970s can also be seen on the left. A number of new strands opened up with some going further away from Marxism into ideology critique, others seeking to synthesise post-modern concerns with Marxism and still others reassessing and revitalising the Marxist method freed of the shackles of the "actually existing socialism" of Eastern Europe.

David Harvey (1990), along with Frederic Jameson (1991), attempted to synthesise a post-modern approach with a Marxist analysis of economic and cultural change. Harvey argued that the economic system remains at the heart of contemporary societies. Capitalism, he claims, is based on economic growth, worker exploitation is constantly restructuring and periods of crisis are unavoidable. For Harvey the economic crisis of the early 1970s had important consequences for society and culture, and led to a different regime of accumulation which produced a new mode of social and political regulation. The shift from modernism to post-modernism, which, by the way, he dates as occurring between 1968 and 1972, was characterised by a change to "flexible accumulation". For Harvey post-modernism "signals nothing more than a logical extension of the power of the market over a whole range of cultural production" (pp. 147, 38, 298 ).

Common to another strand of post-modern writing is the sense of the end or death of an era - and perhaps ironically a sense of loss. To add to Barthes' "death of the author", Derrida's "death of the subject" and Baudrillard's "death of the social", there is Lyotard's "end of all metanarratives" (Kumar 1997, p. 102), repackaging in philosophical language what Daniel Bell and Andre Gorz were writing some years earlier. Here the similarity to Fukuyama stands out and post-modernity itself becomes another version of the "end of history".


Other former Marxists, such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe further developed Althusser's and Poulantzas' earlier questioning of class as the fundamental starting point for political and social analysis, elaborating a new post-Marxism. In their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy Laclau and Mouffe (1985 pp 82-85) argued that all political identities or perspectives are constructed, that there is no particular relation between class position, for instance, and political stance. That is, identities, relations, political positions are constructed entirely through interpretation, that there is no identifiable social reality against which interpretations can be judged, no ground in material or social reality that places any constraints on the formation of identities or perspectives. The link with postmodern theory is apparent.

Laclau (1987) believed that the contemporary crisis of the left had arisen because the basis for all the perspectives of socialism throughout the twentieth century had been eroded to the point where it was hard to believe in any of them any more. This had led to an acute malaise and lack of direction. The essential step in renewing socialist politics according to Laclau was to abandon the centrality of the working class because the numerical decline and economic fragmentation of the working class made the term less acceptable as a sociological description. Secondly, as a political notion the growing importance of other types of struggle which were not primarily working class struggles made its central position "far from evident". This meant that the working class was "a social agent limited in its objectives and possibilities and not the universal class of the Marxist tradition, the necessary agent of global emancipation" (1987, p30).

If the working class is limited as an historical agent for achieving socialism, how then is this limitation to be overcome? Laclau favoured an approach that emphasised the need to link the various struggles he saw as important - such as the anti-racist, feminist, and green movements. The means for doing this was a political movement that could transcend the particular struggles of different groups by making its supreme objective the struggle for a radical democracy. But this is an argument entirely within the confines of an outmoded phase of liberalism. But as the strike movement in South Korea or in France in 1995 demonstrate, the fundamental class struggles retain all their capacity to shake the social order and to pose alternatives.

The logical conclusion of these two strands of thought - post-modernism with its acceptance of the separation of ideology and economy; and post-Marxism with its abandonment of the working class as the principal agent of socialist change - leads to an acceptance of, or detente with, the existing social order. Together they suggest that the political, economic and social changes since the early 1970s have re-invigorated capitalism, combining post-Fordism, post-industrialism and post-modernism. Rather than challenging the status quo or the inequalities of power or wealth, they celebrate the opportunities of the "social market" which supposedly recognises and values the difference and diversity of consumers. They do not challenge capitalism's fundamental exploitative social relations and are essentially pessimistic about both the possibility and desirability of socialist change.

A politics of despair

The renewed interest in Marxism of the sixties and seventies influenced and shaped the political campaigns and social movements on the streets and in the universities. The mass campaigns waged against the Vietnam War, second wave feminism, anti-colonial and anti-racist movements were largely shaped by the organised left. Yet little more than 20 years later this "retreat of the intellectuals" seems a rout. Amidst the dominance of post-structuralism, post-moderrnism, post-feminism, vulgar anti-Marxism is commonplace. And connections to social movements, let alone anything so materially crass as class, are little mentioned. What happened?

Terry Eagleton argues that left intellectuals in the US adopted post-modernism out of a sense of having been badly defeated, a belief that the left as a political tendency has little future. It is a deep pessimism which says its not worth analysing social systems because they can't be changed anyway. Ellen Wood directs attention to, among other factors, the "sociology of the academy" which becomes the institutional context of these theoretical developments. She argues that to understand the rise of post-modernism as a theoretical framework one needs to understand the collective biography of a generation of western left academics. Their rise in the 60s from student radicals to their tenured positions as senior staff in the academy in the 1980s runs parallel with the failure of their political expectations. Where they once saw political liberation being delivered by third world guerilla movements or the political leaders in Beijing, Havanna or Belgrade, they gradually realised that they were mistaken. They equated these formations with Marxism and concluded that Marxism had no future. Embittered by their youthful expectations being shown to be hollow they have become "world weary pessimists" accepting the existing social relations and with a hostility towards those who would seek to end those relations.

But there is a discernible shift towards a more critical assessment of post-modern writing. Its exclusivist and pretentious language, its despair at a time of escalating inequality, its Euro-centredness and many of its political commentaries are increasingly under attack.

The most celebrated of these was that of Alan Sokal's parody of post-modernist studies of natural science published in Social Text as a serious contribution in its "Science Wars" issue in the Spring of 1996. Sokal, a physicist at New York University then revealed the hoax, provoking a debate on the politics of post-modernism and the nature of truth, reason and objectivity. (His subsequent book Impostures Intellectuelles, co-written with Jean Bricmont - which is a blistering denunciation of writers such as semiotician Julia Kristeva, philosopher Regis Debray, and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan - was recently reviewed in Workers' Liberty.)

Sokal explained in an article written in the American journal New Politics (Winter 1997, pp 126-129) that the nature of truth, reason and objectivity are crucial to the future of left politics. The main threat to science he argued are "budget-cutting politicians and corporate executives", not a handful of post-modernist academics, but contends that a scientific worldview is important to defend against "wishful thinking, superstition and demagoguery" and that the reason for defending these "old fashioned ideas" are basically political.

His concern is that post-modernism diverts attention from formulating a progressive social critique of actually existing society by leading people into "trendy but ultimately empty intellectual fashions. These fashions can, in fact, undermine the prospects for such a critique, by promoting subjectivist and relativist philosophies... inconsistent with producing a realistic analysis of societyÉ"

Assessing its relevance

The real question to ask is how grounded are these ideas? Do they help us understand the world we live in and does it offer a means of transforming it? Do they reflect the reality of work and production in either the advanced or the third world?

In some instances the claims are so fantastic that they are laughable. Two examples illustrate this. Baudrillard writes that there is no difference between the American Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan because they were all puppets (of what one might ask if there is no power?) without any genuine chance of changing America or any other part of the world. Yet, as Harvey points out, Reagan had a very real impact on people's lives. Between 1979 and 1986 the number of poor families with children increased by 35%. Despite rising unemployment the percentage of unemployed receiving any federal benefits fell to the lowest level in the history of social insurance.

Then, in the lead up to the Gulf War in 1991, Baudrillard predicted in a French magazine that there would be no war. Subsequent events you might say proved him wrong. But Baudrillard would have none of that. Some time later when the magazine went back to ask him about his prediction he said he was right; there had been no war, it was all images and virtual reality.

What are the political consequences of these positions given the vast gaps in wealth within and between countries? It is not hard to answer the question of whether they contest or accommodate to capitalism and power?

It is not just a different way of analysing the world, it is a rejection of collectively organising to change the world. Rather than developing a new philosophical method it reworks old ones. In the tradition of liberalism it emphasises the individual. Two British educators argue that we each assume "an identity through identification with a narrative", while individual "identity becomes a constantly changing reflexive project, constructed and manifested through images, consumption choices and lifestyles." In other words we are identified by stories or linguistics or signs, and consuming those images and lifestyles (culture and aesthetic) allows us to express our desires. We are liberated through consumption. (Edwards and Usher 1996, p234, 233)

Inevitably this has led to new ways of relating to, rather than contesting, capitalism, and relating has led to accommodation, both at the political and intellectual level. As Eagleton concludes one reason that post-modernism has taken hold so widely is because it is easier to be critical than to present a positive vision. Being on the left means having a conception of the future and the confidence that there is a connection between the present and the future, that collective action can lead to a better society.

What is needed is the development and articulation of alternatives to capitalism, liberalism and the discredited versions of twentieth century "socialism". Re-imagining alternatives is a vital task in inspiring young people that socialism is something altogether different to that personified by either Gorbachev, Mao, Kinnock, Blair, Hawke or Mitterand.


One of the vogue ideas of post-modernism is that images capture the illusory nature of existence. As Bill Clinton struggles to maintain his grip on office the film Wag the Dog is called upon to demonstrate how nowadays life reflects art. Wag the Dog at one level is a disturbingly amusing film. But it also draws on Baudrillard's view of the Gulf War. Here the viewer is asked to contemplate the possibility that the unseen American powerbrokers can so manipulate public awareness that they conjure up a war that doesn't exist and people will believe it is real. A virtual war and, according to the postmodernists, a narrative for these "new times".

At the same time Disney films draws on an older "narrative" in its A Bug's Life. Here the hero is Flick the Ant. Flick summons up the courage to speak up against Hopper, leader of the marauding grasshoppers. Flick suggests to the worker ants another way of organising the colony, he exhorts them to realise that they are many and the grasshoppers are few, and that together they could rid themselves of their predators who appropriate their labour. It is an old story.

Both stories draw on a philosophical heritage (indeed a metanarrative). I know which film (narrative) lifted my spirits.


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