The Problem with Postmodernism

Postmodernism is often the subject of derision when I hear it mentioned in academic circles. Mainstream social scientists, in my experience, treat it as unreasonable and fanciful. This did not lead me to dismiss it; if anything, this suggested to me that it could hold some value. Unfortunately, compared to Marxist social theory, postmodernism has limited value as an approach to critical analysis. Postmodernist works offer insights critical theorists would do well to consider, but ultimately, the inability of postmodernism to ground its conclusions in reality and its aversion to moral principles robs it of its emancipatory potential.

Derrida-by-Pablo-SeccaFor the postmodernist, “truth” is relative, a product of the power relations of a given moment. What we think we know today will be changed as society evolves. Therefore, it is pointless to take absolute positions on social issues, and a detached approach to social science investigation is impossible. Social analysis can only be done through interpretation and deconstruction, investigating dominant discourse. In his Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida describes logocentrism, in which particular norms and values are privileged over others through the imposition of meaning and the fixing of identities. The postmodernist project thus becomes the dissection of the prevailing discourse, whose interests it serves and how we could be freed from its dogma.

The notion that people should not take assertions for granted has an obvious benefit, and investigating the operation of discourse and language is important (and is basically what my dissertation is). What is problematic, however, is the postmodernist ontology: everything is filtered through language. There is no wider social world, and consequently, no basic human rights or values. Derrida connects Marxism with the establishment of authoritarian governments and abuses of state power, and as such, a furtherance of the dominance he seeks to challenge. He acknowledges the revolutionary mission of Marxism, but at the same time positions himself as anti-Marxist in opposing any attempt to engineer the reordering of society according to Marxist principles.

This flaw of postmodernism is actually what makes it so appealing to critical theorists dissatisfied with Marxism: there is none of the determinism or reductionism of orthodox Marxist critiques. As there is no absolute truth, there is no underlying social conflict necessitating the overthrow of the status quo; there is no class war because that is an ideological construction rather than a definitive fact. If everything is contingent, we should shift our attention to redefining how we perceive gender, the environment, and cultural identity. The hegemonic order we live in is not set by the ruling class or even any central object; it is a “game” open to anyone, and radical changed can be achieved through changes to the dominant discourse. The social world is only discursive; there is no reality other than what has been linguistically constructed.

This is more clearly asserted by Laclau and Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Like Derrida, the fixing of identity is problematic and must be replaced by a shift toward a more pluralist, libertarian society. Politics is entirely contingent, totally divorced from social groupings and the material world. The objection to this is people obviously have material interests that transcend discourse and language, and these material conditions no doubt create parameters on what people can articulate. Any Marxist will concede that the ruling class promotes an ideology that fosters a false consciousness that obscures peoples’ actual interests; this is what is meant by the Marxist superstructure. Yet, there must be an economic base beneath that superstructure, that influences the essence of that ideological articulation. Is it really plausible that the different ideologies throughout history (and the different power relationships associated with them) were contingent arrangements of history, the result of virtually random alignments of wealth, gender and religion? If cultural hegemony exists, it is probably not a design without an architect, an imposing structure without a strong foundation. That postmodernism rejects such a foundation leaves its usefulness as critical theory inert.

That critical scholarship should be more interpretive and concerned with knowledge as a product of the social construction of reality is a good point, but not one whose realization requires the acceptance of all postmodern tenets. In fact, the wishfulness of postmodernism that there are no structural obstacles to progressive change makes it a boon to neoliberalism, as it furthers the illusion that such change can be obtained only through discursive practice. As a result, we see greater instances of online activism, touting the causes of identity politics. While this has been greatly beneficial in creating awareness for feminism and greater rights and recognition of people of color, it has also buttressed the tendency of comfortable middle class liberals to prefer “easy activism” — activism that makes them feel good but does little to initiate the difficult process of breaking out of false consciousness and working toward meaningful, constructive change. Postmodernism does well to highlight the metaphysical aspects of critical theory, but its lack of a basis in material reality renders it too detached from real, historical analysis.

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Is Trump Fascist?

People were branding Trump a fascist long before he proposed banning all Muslims from the United States, but his most blatantly xenophobic idea has certainly increased the popularity of comparing him to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. However, “fascist” is a notoriously overused term, one often divorced from its historical context. While there are some clear parallels between the social and economic conditions that gave rise to fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, Trump does not possess either the same goals or institutional support that characterized early fascist movements.

The destruction brought to Europe by World War I left many people impoverished, disconnecting them from the comforts of bourgeois life. Embittered by this decline in social status, they turned hostile in equal measure to the working class, mobilized by trade unions and communist parties, and to the political Old Guard of aristocrats and bureaucrats. Similarly, the recent financial crisis has shifted numerous Americans out of middle class existences. The fact that a majority of U.S. citizens are irate with “political insiders” and “business as usual” politics is plain to see, but is also apparent that the moribund labor movement is not perceived as a threat. Instead, conservatives are alarmed about “cultural Marxism” rather than an economic sort, and the “agenda” of LBGT activists, illegal immigrants, the “political correctness police,” and so on. From their perspective, the mainstream parties have failed them and, accordingly, many of them have rallied to populist, non-mainstream candidates like Trump, Ben Carson and Tea Party darling Ted Cruz.

This phenomenon is not unique to the United States. In the United Kingdom, the British National Party (BNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have turned animosity toward immigrants and Muslims into major political capital. The National Front (FN) in France, initially leading in recent regional elections, only tasted defeat because left-wing parties encouraged supporters to endorse mainstream conservative candidates. The list goes on. Throughout Western Europe, also hit hard by the Great Recession as well as the subsequent Eurozone crisis, right-wing movements have benefitted from major economic crisis — just as was witnessed in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

The major difference, however, is that Trump (and his European counterparts)  do not want to do away with liberal democracy. Under a Trump administration, there would presumably still be a “free society” — at least as it is now presently defined. Historical fascism had as one of its pillars the establishment of totalitarianism, wherein the individual would be completely subordinate to the state. Moreover, it was supported in this endeavor by the elites of the economic class, who feared the militant working class and growing Soviet influence. Better to have Mussolini and Hitler in control than to lose profits through greater radicalism and resistance from workers. As Trotsky put it: “After fascism is victorious, finance capital directly and immediately gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive administrative, and educational powers of the state.” For all his controversial statements, Trump has not lauded the state as a solution to all U.S. problems — only the imagined “threat” of foreigners.

In that respect, Trump is actually well-within U.S. political tradition. For time out of mind, the U.S. has placed restrictions on immigration out of a paranoia over ethnic diversity — from the Irish “hordes” of early America to the “yellow peril” of Chinese workers to today’s Syrian refugees. That his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country causes outrage and controversy today says more about the evolution of social standards than it does about the bravado of Donald Trump. That most mainstream conservatives have not repudiated Trump because of his views suggests a broad resentment in the U.S. not just to Muslims but to people who generally do not conform to the white male Christian status quo. Rather than direct their ire toward the people responsible for their misfortune, they attack phantoms that have no real bearing on their lives: the terrorist under the bed, the transgender person in the public bathroom, the poor ethnic minority seeking more “entitlements,” and so on.

This suits finance capital just fine. If unions had not been busted and the U.S. labor movement made impotent, there could be a real danger of a politically conscious and galvanized working class to ally with the disenchanted middle class to use democracy to affect radical change. With the attention of the middle class on fictional social and moral decay, however, democracy remains manageable. If they cannot get a “safe” Republican candidate to serve their interests, they will make do with Hillary Clinton — the very embodiment of the Washington careerist, the national manager who prioritizes efficiency over principles. Besides, even in the eventuality that Trump won, which is more likely: him leading a Jeffersonian Revolution that redefines the executive office, or him backing off his more provocative positions for the sake of protecting vested interests? Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama rode popular discontent to massive mandates, along with sweeping promises of reform; in the end, their ability to overturn the Establishment floundered against the power of its entrenchment. Even Hitler and Mussolini, with their violent militias and “defense leagues,” required the assistance of the elite power to undo the democratic experiment and bring about systemic change. For U.S. conservatives today, the question is not so much changing from democracy but solely about preserving a traditional national “character.”

So how is racism and nativism sufficient for the media to brand Trump a totalitarian fascist? It is possible because of a selective amnesia about what is and is not considered acceptable and proper for candidates to suggest. To ban all people generally based on their race, religion or some similar variable strikes most Americans as radical because most Americans choose to forget that institutional racism and jingoism has long defined U.S. government policy at all levels.

This is not to say that Trump’s racism does not make him dangerous and that we should not be concerned by his support in mainstream quarters. The Islamophobia he is promoting, at the very least, normalizes and gives credence to mistrust of Muslims and anti-Muslim violence. Much as how the sensationalist rhetoric around Planned Parenthood selling “baby parts” played a role in the recent attack on one of the organization’s clinics in Colorado Springs, one of the leading Republican candidates urging a blanket ban on Muslim migrants gives sanction to the prejudice that has done such damage to a targeted demographic in recent decades.