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The rise and malaise of postmodernism

By Jeremy Smith



After the 1960s

The post-structuralist origins of postmodernism

Romanticism renewed

Marxism and politics

Postmodernism now






Postmodernism as a cultural and ideological mood arose in the wake of the socalled crisis of Marxism announced in the mid1970s. It is itself difficult to define, and activists in the social movements and comrades among the organised socialist left commonly ask "What is it?" and "What are its implications?" It is a spectrum of thought that seems to touch many areas of academic and cultural practice, and yet it is wilfully elusive.1 From one position, the origins of the word "postmodern" can be traced back to Latin American sources in the 1930s.2 But, really, it achieved currency much later. In one respect, it is an attempt to come to terms with widespread social, cultural and economic changes that quickly followed the end of the postwar boom, which most Marxists characterise as the period of late capitalism. In a more ominous way, it is a revival and revision of older philosophical currents that laid out a challenge to the claims by Enlightenment philosophers that humanity was on the path of progress.

For Marxists, the vital concern is with the challenge it issued during the 1980s and 1990s to historical materialism and to the viability of the socialist project. More recently, however, the breathtaking rise of the movements against corporate globalism and the war on Iraq have forced an impasse in postmodernist thinking. Furthermore, the socialist project has reemerged alongside of and within these movements with an alternative vision of a human future that vies with the heirs of postmodernist thinking for the adherence of new activists.

This article traces the manner in which the postmodern mood arose, the common beliefs of postmodernist doctrines and some reasons for their current malaise. It looks also at the legacy of full-blooded postmodernist thinking at the point of its impasse (embodied in a watered-down version in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire). It addresses only the founding post-structuralist writings of postmodernism and their lasting impact and in no way professes to capture the full diversity of perspectives that appear under the heading of "postmodern". For the purposes of the main argument, a clear distinction is made between the former and the latter. Indeed, some Marxists have theorised developments in late capitalism as "postmodernity", while not accepting postmodernist claims about knowledge.3 While there are grounds to disagree with such views, they can be debated productively because they are articulated within the broad framework of historical materialism.4 This article also does not attempt to engage debates over how postmodern strategies can be enacted by progressive workers in different whitecollar professions, for example teaching,5 to expose dominant ideas and support empowering practices for dominated groups. It should be read, more modestly, as a guide for socialist and Marxist activists to the problems of postmodernist philosophy and social theory and the kinds of arguments needed to counteract them in the movements.

After the 1960s

Postmodernism's rise came at the tail end of the 1960s radicalisation, which drew people to Western and orthodox Marxism. The different schools of Western Marxism had been a meeting point of Marxist and non-Marxist philosophy since Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci. Orthodox Marxism variously continued as a living philosophy and politics in the different non-Stalinist traditions, even while it was rendered a stale state religion under Soviet and Chinese Stalinism. Western Marxism and other non-Stalinist and Trotskyist traditions sustained the critical and radical edge of the Enlightenment in opposition to both Stalinism and the bourgeois social sciences, although the traditions of revolutionary Marxism were clearer and more resolute in this opposition. With the decline of the movements of the 1960s in the West, post-structuralism filled an ideological vacuum with its sharp critique of Enlightenment ideas of universal reason and truth. Its influence was evident in general debates on science, knowledge and political commitment. Moreover, it was read and discussed by many of the students of the 1960s generation. Overall, its rise located Marxism further from the centre of the store of human knowledge and coincided with a recession of organised socialist movements in the West.

The leading postmodernists began their philosophical trajectories in the mid1960s. But it is with the retreat from the radicalism of that period and the loss of a sense of collective endeavours that postmodernism developed its identity.6 Postmodernists such as Jean Baudrillard and ex-Trotskyist Jean-Francois Lyotard themselves date the 1960s as the turning point in their thinking. Left radicalism reached a high-water mark in 1968.7 The year featured the mass revolt in France and subsequent strike waves in Mexico City, Berlin, Spain, Tokyo (where there was a large student movement), Uruguay and Belgrade. Czechs and Slovaks rebelled against Stalinism. The Moro government fell in Italy after student strikes. The Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention were a peak point of us radicalism. General strikes broke out in Senegal and Pakistan. The momentum of the radicalisation sustained the worldwide pattern of revolt well into the 1970s. However, after the upsurge, many Western radicals felt disappointed in their hopes for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Divested of their aspiration for revolution, many, in the 1980s and 1990s, entered middle age and the new, consumption-oriented middle class, forming an audience for postmodern cultural politics.8

Developments in France were at the heart of the rise of postmodern philosophy. The defeat of the May-June movement in 1968 was decisive for the French intelligentsia who founded post-structuralism, even though the core ideas of French philosophy provided no real inspiration for the movement's participants.9 The many radicals who took part in this revolutionary opening challenged the institutions of power. Many interpreted the failure to bring about the total transformation that they aspired to as the failure of the organised Marxist movement. Many identified the Stalinist French Communist Party—which during the crisis paraded as the guardian of bourgeois law and order—as the decisive force that demobilised the revolutionary process. Some, such as Luc Ferry and Alain Renault, construed events as a social-democratic modernisation of French society that was set off unwittingly by radical student leaders.10 However, many of the French intelligentsia of the 1968 generation became deeply suspicious of what they saw as common features of Marxism and liberalism: a focus on structures of power, the pursuit of truth and disciplined forms of political organisation. Many others sought a new metaphysics to explain the betrayal of the May movement and its subsequent collapse. This was the beginning of "postmodern times" in the estimation of the new post-structuralists.

The apparent failure of the movements of the 1960s gave way to a postmodern pessimism about mainstream political thought and strategy. The postmodern mood had an economic and political context in three factors that fueled the climate of disenchantment: the end of the postwar industrial boom, the fragmentation of the social sciences and the drift of Western politics to the right. Rates of industrial growth in the West fell after the 1973 oil crisis, bringing the twin nightmares of inflation and unemployment to the world economy. The pattern of steady growth dissipated, and capital found higher returns in speculative activities. Neo-liberalism promoted these developments, and it increasingly became the creed of the bureaucratic cadre of Western states. A new middle class receptive to postmodern thinking coalesced in those segments of Western economies that enjoyed the precarious boom of the 1980s. Multiculturalism and the politics of difference were well suited to the new global mobility of this class.

The end of industrial expansion impacted on the social sciences also. There was already an existing sense of internal crisis in social scientific thought and practice.11 Its functional role of formulating ameliorative reform ended, leaving its advocates and practitioners in a state of uncertainty about their vocation. The terrain of the social sciences looked like a new and radical plurality that had left behind the reformism associated with functionalist social scientific research. Perspectives on theory multiplied as the radicals of the 1960s filled the junior ranks of academia, especially in the us. The "crisis of sociology" affected many disciplines in liberal arts and humanities. There was a steady, although uneven, decline in the prescription and analysis of reforms and a greater concern with cultural questions.

The steady drift of Western governments to the right in the late 1970s also followed the flurry of the 1960s movements. The women's movement and then the antinuclear movement drew large numbers of people into activity. Unions still embodied considerable organised social power and were sporadically militant. Nonetheless, the right-wing resurgence in the uk and the us, personified in the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, exemplified a reactionary mood within the Western ruling classes, which were keen on recuperating the progressive reforms of the postwar period. In addition, Pope John Paul ii reversed the program of liberal reform in the Catholic Church associated with Vatican ii from 1978 onwards. His ideological assault on church supporters of contraception, abortion, the ordination of women and liberation theology helped recapture the hierarchy of Catholicism for conservatives.

The post-structuralist origins of postmodernism

These were the conditions under which postmodernism flourished in academia, the media and cultural industries. I now turn to its philosophical contents by outlining Lyotard's, Michel Foucault's and Jacques Derrida's founding contributions. In sum, they are an expression of disbelief in the humanist claims of the Enlightenment: that objective reality can be known, that there are underlying logics which govern human behaviour and that humans shape society. These humanist claims were critically reformulated within Marxism in the following ways. Objective reality can be disclosed and transformed through systematic analysis and practice. The working class is a collective subject capable of the transformation of capitalism into socialism. Above all, the patterns or logics governing human society revolve around the internal contradictions of the overall social formation and the development of class struggles. The tenets of historical materialism were the principles of a critical reception of eighteenth century philosophy.

On the postmodernists' anti-humanist reckoning, any effort to methodically explain and transform the world invokes a "meta-narrative", or overarching explanation that draws connections between different social, economic, political and historical patterns. In 1984, Lyotard heralded postmodernity's arrival as the rise of "incredulity towards meta-narratives".12 His formative book was a broadside at the belief that objective knowledge can be methodically derived. The specific object of his criticism is Hegelian Marxism (especially Jurgen Habermas' insistence on the unity of knowledge and an emancipatory politics). However, the thrust of The Postmodern Condition is directed more generally at historical materialism. For Lyotard, the human world is either not sufficiently integrated for it to be disclosed, or, if it is, then we are not able to comprehend it in its totality. Either way, our understanding is at best fragmentary. In the prevailing postmodern condition, knowledge, rather than production, dominates the world economy. The scientific paradigms that accompanied the society of industrial capitalism are therefore on the wane. The new postmodern age of information opens up an unfettered interplay of narratives, less dominated by dominant ideas. Natural and social science as a postmodern practice can become "game playing"—that is, an attempt to defy the technological principles of performance set by the system. Game playing is the pursuit of fragments of knowledge and becomes a strategy of "minoritarian" resistance against the mainstream.

In this framework of the free flow of ideas, the rise of the social movements makes sense, because they bring a plurality of different perspectives and go against the grain. In the movements, there is an abundance of expression of difference that is not hampered by radical meta-narratives (which might, in fact, draw together the threads between different forms of oppression). Politics, like knowledge, is reduced to a series of equally valid narratives or "language games". The plausibility of a particular perspective or of a certain course of political action is no longer a matter of critical judgment. The project of an emancipatory politics is renounced as flawed, and its goals should no longer be seriously considered. Marxism, in Lyotard's eyes, is obsolete. More than that, it may even be dangerous, as it shares in the oppressive universalism of the Western tradition and has a track record of authoritarianism. In any case, it was only ever one of many narratives about industrial capitalist society.

Michel Foucault developed a theory of knowledge and power during the same decade.13 In it, there are no underlying logics of human society or "history" as such. The past can not be understood by criteria of truth and falsehood. Instead, truth and falsehood are relative, as every past system of knowledge has defined them differently. Knowledge is therefore not a product of some universal search for an adequate grasp of the objective, but instead should be seen, in at least its modern forms, as an exercise of disciplinary or "pastoral" power. Power is not experienced as oppression or coercion necessarily or indeed primarily. It is the prevailing formation of subjects through practices of knowledge or discourses. This is a formidable salvo fired at Enlightenment thought: Western knowledge is saturated with power and nothing much else. Consequently, instead of developing a politics around the recognition of class or state power, Foucault argues that power is everywhere in the instrumental rationality of modern bureaucratic society. It is everywhere and yet centred nowhere in particular.

This microphysics of power has political implications even though it seems devoid of politics. The pursuit of power through overthrow of the state and establishment of a new state and society is always going to be misguided and a new form of authoritarianism. If power is not the property of one class or group of individuals, but a network enveloping us all, then a revolutionary, or indeed reformist, strategy directed at the "summit" of power is premised on a misunderstanding of power. In this view, there are no key subjects, actors, transformers of society or oppressors. The subject is philosophically eliminated. It is therefore difficult to see Foucault's theory of power as anything but an anti-politics. This is because politics (as he regards it), if it is to be more than mere gestures of defiance, can only be a power strategy with no meaningful ethical or liberatory content: in fact, it can be nothing more than the exercise of a counter-power. A politics of liberation or emancipation is therefore impossible. Instead, the aim should be localised struggles. The social movements, or at least some of them, are the place of those who wish to resist. These are the sites and the only possible spaces in which political action is possible.

Foucault later modified his views, becoming more ambivalent.14 When this was pointed out, he denied that his modifications represented a break from past views and responded to critics by saying that they had misinterpreted his work. In any case, his earlier message had been echoed by others and was taken as the Foucauldian orthodoxy by his followers. His earlier message had already reached a receptive audience.

Jacques Derrida's post-structuralism deals with the knowable in a different way.15 Western thought since the Ancient Greeks has been based on the search for the origins, foundations and principles of things, for truth if you will. Consequently, it has revolved around logic. This search for foundations and certainty has been erroneous, in Derrida's estimation. Knowledge communicated in speech and in writing draws the listener or reader closer to the point of origin, or the point of the truth. Therefore, language is a vital component of the pursuit of the truth. In departure from structuralist linguistics, Derrida regards the text, rather than language per se as the source of meaning. Language itself lacks the system of meaning and is, in fact, quite unstable. On the other hand, the subject cannot have unmediated access to reality either. This latter idea—that the subject can identify an objective reality—is a "metaphysics of presence", which is taken for granted in Western thought.16 The metaphysics of presence casts the subject as a being that can know reality and express it in language. The objective can be grasped, as the truth is almost present and often just below the "surface of appearances" (to borrow Marx's phrase). However, Derrida argues, the subject is deeply embedded in the human condition of prior consciousness (or discourse) that prefigures real objects and the capacity of the subject to signify them with words. An unmediated grasp of reality is therefore impossible, but so is escape from the metaphysics of presence embodied in the textual production of meaning. For Derrida, "There is no outside-text" or anything to reference for acting subjects, which is not to say that there is no objective reality, in his view, but rather that it cannot be known.

By logical extension, there is no individual or collective agency outside of the ensemble of discourses that mould the subject. All that remains to us by way of a political strategy is deconstruction. Such a strategy is also textual and involves ways of reading. Texts invoke an ideological presence, but also contain absences that can be exposed through a deconstructionist interpretation. Deconstruction then is a technique of trying to retrieve "absences" that are ideologically concealed by the act of writing or constructing discourse. In one way, it could be argued that this is consistent with the Marxian spirit of ideology-critique. On this basis, in fact, his creed has been described as an "open Marxism". However, it is more reminiscent of German idealist and romantic philosophy than a systematic ideology-critique that focuses on the central determining patterns of capitalist social forms. There is, however, one important difference that distinguishes it from the German tradition represented by Johann Fichte and Frederich Schelling as postmodernist: the objective world is not disavowed completely, but rather is beyond reach or comprehension. In rejecting the search for origins (or causes), Derrida abandons not only the Enlightenment, but also the foundation for a transformative politics that openly pursues far-reaching solutions. Derrida later called on practitioners of deconstruction to apply their craft in more practical and political ways, perhaps a tacit recognition of the limitations imposed by post-structuralism on activists.

The common contention of the three founding post-structuralists. is that social relations are constructed through the exercise of power, language and discourse. The dialectical relationship of forces and relations of production and the dialectic of class struggle is spurned as a totalising meta-narrative However, this is not immediately recognisable as idealism either. Social relations are not constituted simply through a contest of ideas, the dialectic of world spirit or a clash of civilisations. With postmodernism, there is a shift in the ground of idealism away from a direct philosophy of consciousness. Instead of consciousness determining being, language, text and discourse enclose meaning entirely. The principles of organisation of human relations flow from this enclosure. Moreover, they do so without the subject. In social theory, this is the turn taken by post-Enlightenment thought away from problems of consciousness and being.

So, in this re-theorised conception of being (or in philosophical lingo ontology), what can we know? Rational capacity to methodically disclose and purposively transform aspects of the objective world is rejected. In its place, we can do the following (in short summary):

  • explore the fragments and margins of social relations only;
  • survey "hyper-reality" (in the versions put forward by Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco).17 Hyper-reality refers to the surface manifestations of capitalism as the reality. All distinction between reality and appearance is negated;
  • rule out any prospect of generalised liberation;
  • situate power not in the institutions of state or capitalism, but primarily at the level of relations between groups of people in local settings; and
  • understand that commodities do not emerge from cycles of commodification. They stem from an economy of pure symbols. Where Marx, in the Grundrisse and Capital, theorised money as the abstract symbol of value, for postmodernists, such as Baudrillard and Lyotard, all commodities are symbols and nothing more than abstractions though which people define their identity and relationship to society.

Romanticism renewed

The founding thinkers can justifiably claim some original insights. But it is more telling to scrutinise postmodernism's roots in the Enlightenment's antithesis, Romanticism. Romanticism coalesced in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in reaction to the upheaval of industrialisation in Europe, and it was the converse of the Enlightenment. Literature, art, poetry and theatre were arenas in which romanticist sentiments were expressed. It manifested in the aristocratic reaction to republicanism. The Luddites were romantics of sorts. Early German nationalism drew on romantic images of Germanic identity. Romanticism was a sort of yearning for a "lost" past captured in images of alleged stability and rustic tranquility."Traditional" Europe was lost in the torrent of progress that the philosophes championed. In philosophy and culture, it formed as a countercurrent to the Enlightenment. Frederick Nietzsche is famously remembered as its chief exponent. His influence circulates through postmodernist French thought, often via Martin Heidegger's reformulations.

Nietzsche treats the ideas of the Enlightenment with extreme suspicion. Postmodernism has adapted three core Nietzschean ideas:

1. There is no truth. This belief is captured in his aphorism, "Against positivism which halts at phenomena—`there are only facts'—I would say: No, facts are precisely what there are not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact `in itself': perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing".18 It is impossible for the objective to be adequately grasped in concepts. Here there is an undeniable affinity with later postmodernist views that politics, science and economics are mainly terrains of competing perspectives that cannot be validated, except perhaps by reference to their own internal coherence.

2. Science and politics are forms of power and little more. Nietzsche postulates a "will to power" that, together with a "will to truth", permeates most human acts.19 Any claim to knowledge and reason involves the exercise of power and an act of domination, whether it is intended as such or not. To put this another way, all knowledge is ideological and steeped in the ruse of rationality and the exertion of power associated with it. The first such act was the will to conquer nature enunciated in ancient Greek civilisation. History since has been composed of an uninterrupted struggle for domination, to which end all efforts are directed, even though history itself is in denial of this. Stemming from this, politics (which must, after all, be a form of knowledge) is Machiavellian and conspiratorial and can be nothing else. It too is bankrupted by its own claims to truth. All that is left that can be autonomous is in the realm of art and aesthetics. Only there, when there is no declaration of certainty and only ambivalence, is life itself expressed.

3. There is no subject. We are instead monadic creatures that act according to instinctual drives, not the least of which is the will to power. Language gives voice to basic human experiences and orders those experiences for the purposes of survival. But it cannot reflect reality in any way and must necessarily falsify it: "We have no categories at all that permit us to distinguish a `world in itself' from a `world of appearance'. All our categories of reason are of sensual origin: derived from the empirical world."20 Language can only reflect itself and, for Nietzsche, is inescapable. We must express ourselves through language, and all we can express is a language-mediated unique perception. Self-reference is therefore possible, although only through language, but an active, purposeful, transforming subjectivity is not. Humans are trapped in language, and this shuts out agency, as there can then be no external reality to refer to, much less change. If language can only articulate immediate experience, then we can only have competing perspectives on the world and no form of authentication of claims to true statements, or indeed no form of persuasion. It became possible to conclude, as postmodernist French philosophers have, that in absence of acting subjects, the text prevails. Aside from the epistemological implications, the consequences for politics are clear. There can be no viable and enduring politics of solidarity. Above all, socialism should be seen as a narrative only.

Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard—the post-Marxist Gilles Deleuze can be added—trace their lineage back to Nietzsche. If postmodernism can profess some coherence, it is in the reenactment of Nietzsche's views. The connection is not entirely direct, however. Martin Heidegger's theory of being mediates the relationship between German Romanticism and the contemporary post-structuralist left. Where Nietzsche placed truth beyond philosophical contemplation, Heidegger placed being beyond logical thought. Again, it is immediate, sensual experience and its environs that is the object of study. Truth, if it can be uncovered ("disclosed") at all, can be found only in what is directly present—a proposition adopted later by Derrida. The correspondence or adequacy of concept and objects is not the first basis of truth for Heidegger. He thought that consciousness cast in a relationship to the external world, calling on it to generate objective data, is an absurdity. Moreover, in the alienating mass society of 1930s Germany in which he wrote, it seemed obscene. The point for him is not to verify aspects of reality, but to live through them. Poetry, and not science, is a more suitable mode of knowing. By limiting the range of human experience to everyday life, Heidegger highlighted the power of presence and immediacy. However, there is a difference between Nietzsche and Heidegger. The former stresses the Western tradition's obsession with truth (and this is his value for French post-structuralism); the latter stresses philosophy's forgetfulness of being. And, indeed, this is not the great value of Heidegger for postmodernism, so much as the destabilisation of Western philosophy itself that this idea instigated. From here, the founders of postmodernism could offer a theory of being and consciousness without obligation to seek any correspondence between them or adequacy.

Marxism and politics

What does the postmodernist style of philosophy offer emancipatory or liberationist politics? The consequences are disarming. Before turning to them, however, I want to make some points about the relationship of historical materialism to Western philosophy. Certainly, Marxism represents a radicalisation of the Enlightenment. But Marx himself also had a complicated relationship to Romanticism that is sometimes not fully appreciated. He could not halt at naive endorsement of the optimistic vision of the eighteenth century philosophes. Truth, reason and progress were problematic after all. As Marx demonstrated in the Communist Manifesto, they could be put to monstrous uses just as well as they could be mobilised in the service of revolutionary capitalist expansion. This suggests a two-sided relationship to modern philosophy, or a two-sided theory of modernity. Marx's own relationship to the prevailing creed of progress that the Enlightenment radiated was not straightforward. He spanned Romanticism and the Enlightenment in his critique of modernity, weaving together appreciation of capitalism's progressive role with abhorrence at some of its results.

The result is not a "reconciliation" of Romanticism and the Enlightenment or a happy medium struck between the two poles.21 Instead, each is surpassed by a philosophy that reflects on dynamics that seem simultaneously progressive and retrograde. This is a complex dialectic—despite postmodernist claims to the contrary—that stresses the contradictory development of modern capitalist societies. It explains the relationship of material and social conditions and culture in terms of the internal contradictions of the social formation. The rise of Enlightenment thought, Romanticism and indeed Marxism itself is systematically explained, by situating the development of each in the context of the expansion of capitalist social relations. This is implicit in Marx's philosophical insight into modern knowledge. He was able to see that historical materialism, along with the philosophical currents that had informed its formation, was embedded in the social relations that it was trying simultaneously to explain and overcome. To be successful, Marxism could not stand "outside history" as science alone, nor could it remain solely at the level of existing working-class consciousness as a historically bound ideology. It therefore had both to understand itself and to constitute itself as a practical philosophy of change. Historical materialism, in Marx's eyes, was therefore a special kind of theory: a theory of history, of revolution and of proletarian praxis all at once. Thus, Marx could not settle for a Romantic critique of capitalist advancement, nor could he act as benign witness to capitalism's expansion. The philosophy and politics that he inaugurated sought a path beyond both.

Marxism's relationship to the Enlightenment is therefore not as simple as it seems. Its approach is anchored in a dialectical stress on the conflict of opposites. This of course incorporates the opposites that are internal to modern philosophical reflection itself. Reason and nature, object and subject, identity and nonidentity, unity and difference can be understood as dialectically interrelated and not just the formal "binary opposites" that postmodernists disavow. Underpinning this is a Marxian dialectic of Enlightenment values and Romantic critique, as argued above.

There is a depth here of which postmodernism is incapable. French post-structuralism rejected one side of modern philosophy when it spurned the critical disposition of the Enlightenment as the tyranny of the Western tradition. In rejecting this, it ruled out a dialectical engagement with the problems posed by social theory. Its framework is not given to considering both sides of any contradiction, as opposites are always seen as detached and not interrelated in contradiction. Consequently, analyses of the complexity of late capitalism that draw on postmodernist assumptions risk oversimplification and one-sidedness.

What kind of politics can this philosophical framework generate for its adherents? The withdrawal of its major proponents from political commitment is well known, but this in itself is hardly a cutting criticism. Many postmodernists bid for the mantle of radical politics on the grounds that all universalist ideologies that have emerged from Europe are inescapably bound up in the dominant discourses of capitalism and imperialism. This includes Marxism, social democracy, many forms of feminism and even antiracisms. Instead, political action must mean resistance. Resistance is most effective at the margins, whether through the use of irony or deconstruction in art, literature, film or media or in localised struggles of some social movements that confront marginalisation. Terry Eagleton characterises this as "cultural politics" in which culture is reduced to politics. In turn, he calls for a politics of culture.22 While this is a forceful argument, it is also the case that politics, as it is recast in cultural politics, also falls prey to reductionism. The post-structuralist focus on culture reduces politics to aesthetics and presumes that this is the major battleground. The fully fledged version of this argument is Baudrillard's, which aestheticises a social world in which meaning is simulated so often that reality is no longer relevant. In this vision of culture, any capacity for more generalised critique is annulled, and the obvious conclusion must be that critique and praxis are futile. If there is any power in this prescription at all, then the very least that can be said in response is that this unacceptably narrows the range of critical politics.

Identity politics flows logically from this broader censure of universalism. It is derived from the postmodern condition of fragmentation and decentring, according to postmodernists. At the level of description, this basic argument does have some force. Capitalism drives towards totalisation (as some postmodernists might put it) in its pursuit of unlimited capital growth, markets and resources. It unifies different societies and spheres of human endeavour by subsuming them under capital's rule. Yet, it is quite clear that the major fluctuations of late capitalism—unemployment, the roller-coaster ride of global markets—are experienced by their victims as fragmenting and decentring. The destabilising effects of capitalism result from its central contradictions, and yet these contradictions impact on everyday lives in ways that seem incoherent. This appearance is most visible in the OECD countries where, not by coincidence, postmodernism has flourished. It is in the most developed zones of world capitalism that the penetration of all spheres of human life by capitalist social relations is at its greatest. However, fragmentation is not due to the dominance of the text, discourse or the Hyper-reality of postmodern life. There are other causes. While there is some validity in the description of contemporary life as seemingly volatile and disconnected, this condition should not be taken for granted. The underlying and complex reasons for it, and not just its surface effects, must be pursued.

However, identity politics is much more than just the experience of late capitalism's instability. It is also a personal assertion of identity based on a condition of marginality. The assertion of identity is no longer part of political activity; it can constitute the entire arena of activity. Politics becomes a matter of "style" and a contest of competing and proliferating identities. This risks political impotence, if the sole emphasis is on difference at the expense of any principle of equality. Under those circumstances, identity politics becomes hostile to any idea of a universal basis for social justice and a revolutionary transformation of society. But not all identities are treated equally. The more traditional identity of class is disavowed. It has always been interpreted as a foundation for solidarity, rather than fragmentation. The "new" identities have emerged in such a way that they displace this traditional category, according to the postmodernists.23

The Marxist notion of class rests ultimately on a theory of exploitation that assumes that the social formation has an underlying logic or coherence. In contrast, identity politics assumes multiple bases of power that generate multiple forms of oppression. These are seen as the sites in which power is contested, but rarely in forms of alliance or with reference to a broader political vision. As the category of class is discarded, so also are forms of political organisation and the connections between struggles that it implies. Indeed, even many of the grassroots campaigns of social movements that combated marginality in the 1970s and 1980s become suspect for the broad fronts that they entered.

The institutional basis of marginalisation (racism, sexism, heterosexism) is neglected in this style of politics. Postmodern concerns with body, identity and difference displace the focus of theory, analysis and action from the institutional sites of power, such as the family, the state, work and school. All that remains, as a political orientation, is the mobilisation of identity in an ironic stance towards the institutions of power. The use of irony and a certain attitude to life is pitched as a gesture in itself towards power, one that avoids forming a counter-power. If this view has any value at all, some political judgment as to why one ironic posture is more potent or effective than any other would have to be exercised. But, it is not clear how postmodernists might do this, when the possible foundations of judgment debated by philosophers are themselves held in contempt.

The political corollary of postulating all identities as unstable and fragmented is dissipation of opposition to capitalism as a whole:

In a fragmented world composed of "decentred subjects", where totalizing knowledges are impossible and undesirable …[w]hat better escape, in theory, from a confrontation with capitalism, the most totalizing system the world has ever known, than a rejection of totalizing knowledge? What greater obstacle, in practice, to anything more than the most local and particularistic resistances to the global, totalizing power of capitalism than the decentred and fragmented subject? What better excuse for submitting to the force majeure of capitalism than the conviction that its power, while pervasive, has no systemic origin, no unified logic, no identifiable social roots?24

In this passage, Ellen Meiksins-Wood draws attention to the political implications of postmodernism. If her description of postmodernism holds, then it is possible to go one step further: postmodernism can be characterised as an anti-politics. It is not anti-politics because it does not offer strategy, for it does after a fashion. It is antipolitical because it does not tell us much about what to confront capitalism with. What social, ethical and economic substance can we adopt to develop a vision of another possible world? Is such a vision possible without a basis for universalism? The most forceful versions of postmodernism can only shrug their collective shoulders ironically, so to speak, when confronted with these questions. We can't really even know the system, much less try to critically articulate credible alternatives to it. To try to change it involves an orientation to state power, and that is fraught with danger. For this reason, the intractable versions of postmodernism avoid politics and offer only an anti-politics dressed up as a localist strategy and not a revolutionary orientation at all. How postmodernists have, in hindsight, treated the movements of 1968 and the possibility of revolution can itself be seen as a test of this anti-politics:

What the ideologues supply after the fact is a legitimation of the limits (of the ultimate limitations; in the last analysis of the historic weaknesses) of the May movement: you did not try to seize power and you were right, you did not even try to establish a counter-power. and you were once again right, because to say counter-power. is to say power and so on. At the same time, what the ideologues furnish us with is a retrospective legitimation of withdrawal, renunciation, non-commitment or of a punctilious and measured commitment: in any case, we are told that history, the subject, autonomy are only western myths.25

A "politics" of identity without substance and with strategy that addresses only the local and particular corresponds with this withdrawal after 1968.

Postmodernism now

The attraction reached a peak with collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumphal proclamations of right-wing ideologues. The "end of history" was celebrated by neo-liberals; it was also a good time for postmodernism. If history is over and there is no more ideological struggle, we are left with liberal capitalism as the ultimate form of human society. Ideas can circulate freely as commodities. There is nothing more at stake than the interplay of perspectives.

In this context, it was odd, though significant, that Jacques Derrida revised his political views in 1993.26 In an attack on Francis Fukuyama's proclamation of the end of history, Derrida "deconstructed" the new mood as "manic triumphalism". Instead, he said that this was the darkest of times. Global capitalism has created more misery than ever. What is needed is a return to the "Marxian spirit of opposition" in the name of a promised justice and democracy (as opposed to their actually existing forms). On the face of it, this represented a new engagement with Marxism and even a call for practical political involvement. Indeed, this is a sort of turn to politics. However, the Marxian spirit that Derrida is trying to revive is a "ghostly" or spectral one. Realist approaches to knowledge abandoned by postmodernists, and which are vital to socialist politics, are still unwanted. He remains true to his stance on the metaphysics of presence. However, this intervention marks postmodernist doubt about its own role in debates about culture and politics. It anticipated developments at the turn of the millennium that have rendered postmodernist analysis and identity politics less relevant. The revolt against corporate capitalism that spread through the rich world after the 1999 Seattle protests created a climate in which earlier postmodernist ideas were not going to appeal. The climate became even less favourable as the momentum against Bush's war mobilised tens of millions around the war in a new global opposition to imperialism.

Anti-corporate and antiwar movements are drawing the links and bringing into focus the institutional order of modern imperialism. Their "rhetoric" variously stresses equality, human rights, peace and social justice—values that echo the critical traditions derived from the Enlightenment. Postmodernist relativism can offer little guidance to the way the activists in these movements understand the world and try to act in it. In fact, nothing could be further removed from postmodernism than the widespread Anti-corporate and antiwar sentiment that has emerged.

The shared positions of Anti-corporate movements show this in a stark manner. They include debt cancellation, opposition to privatisation, solidarity in the face of the large agribusinesses' grab for control of agriculture via the introduction of genetically modified organisms and a unified moral repugnance at the gross inequalities of the world. Far from being merely an "anti-globalisation" movement, as it is often simplistically characterised, these movements exhibit an extraordinary global consciousness. Their opposition is often directed at the totalising logic of the neo-liberal institutions: the IMF, WTO, World Economic Forum and the World Bank. Even the debates over whether these institutions can be fixed at all (or simply "nixed") or whether "fair trade" is achievable suggest a widespread recognition of the global weight of the international financial institutions of capital. This is, in turn, accompanied by recognition by many that social change needs to be more far-reaching and go beyond mere tinkering at the edges of capitalism. Anti-corporate campaigning has a wider orientation to the totality of capitalism, and this orientation informs the debates amongst progressively minded people. Postmodernism does little to assist this, and indeed socialist views hold greater appeal in this new environment than they did in the early 1990s.

The mistrust of the governments of the rich world deepened with the so-called war on terror that drew the us and its allies into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mobilisations against war added to the anti-imperialist outlook developed in the movements against corporate power, rather than detracting from it. A salient lesson of this upsurge in antiwar activity lies in one of the main debates played out in the Western media: did Bush and company lie about weapons of mass destruction? The evidence that they did is overwhelming and irrefutable. What is interesting is that truth and falsehood are squarely on the agenda of public consciousness. It seems to all observers that they have been the main concern of ordinary discussion during and after the war. The antiwar movements based their opposition to the war on anti-imperialist sentiment to a fair degree, but there can be little doubt that a great number of people were mobilised simply by the blatant deceit of Blair, Bush and Howard. In 2003, the leaders' declaration that they held the documented truth about WMDs was widely contested, and opinion polls variously indicate that they were contested successfully. In these circumstances, it's a bit hard to see why Foucault's thoughts on truth and power are a better read than Pilger or Chomsky on the duplicity of governments.

Fully fledged versions of postmodernism have waned in the new political environment. Yet, the influence of Foucault, Nietzsche and others is still evident in current debates. The authority of Hardt and Negri's Empire in the autonomist left and the Anti-corporate movement is testament to that.27 Although Hardt and Negri reject the relativist epistemologies of postmodernism that would leave us disposed to seek only a fragmented comprehension of the world, they count Nietzsche, Baudrillard and the post-Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari among their influences. Empire has two propositions that are relevant to the argument here.

First of all, in a phrase reminiscent of Foucault, they proclaim that "power … is everywhere and nowhere".28 The Empire that they postulate and discuss is losing its recognised centres or peripheries. There are no more imperial capitals that exert control. The transformation of capitalism in the last half-century has produced an even world system based mainly on the flow of information. It is governed primarily by multilateral, international institutions, and not the older form of colonial and national states. Sovereignty continues, although it is no longer embodied in national or imperial states. In this sense, Empire does not simply ape the claims of globalisation theory. They do make some of the same mistakes, however. Above all, they contend that power has no particular location in the new globalised figuration and is embedded in network relations.

There are several points on this first issue. The decline of the nation-state assumed by globalists and neo-liberals is taken for granted by Hardt and Negri, without any distinction being made between different types of state or between the states of the rich and poor worlds. Furthermore, the concentrated power of the triad of leading capitalist states is not discussed with any depth and cannot be, as the rivalry of the core states is assumed to be at an end. But sovereign centres of power do remain in the world, and sovereignty continues to inhere principally in the states of the West.29 Moreover, the economic, political and cultural rivalries between them are glaringly obvious in the wake of the second Gulf War and are revealed in ways that they could not be during the Cold War. Arguably, the states of the major capitalist countries are garnering more power in a number of spheres, rather than releasing or losing it. But then, if power is thought to be ubiquitous, the commanding heights of state rule can be overlooked and these developments ignored.

Above all, the striking feature of the contemporary world is the great unevenness in the socioeconomic distribution of wealth and resources. There is ample empirical evidence that establishes that global capitalism is not "even" in any meaningful sense. This does not hold Hardt and Negri back from claiming that the Empire "is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its expanding frontiers".30 Contemporary capitalism does have a driving impulse of internal expansion, and the international bodies of capital advance it. However, its gross inequalities also work against that internal impulse, inasmuch as most of the world's population remain territorially rooted to their locale and unable to connect to the supra-territorial flows of informational capitalism. In this sense, there is a palpable unevenness in the post-Cold War world. Moreover, empirically speaking, capital on a world scale is mostly invested and headquartered in the principal capitalist countries and consequently does sustain a territorial orientation. A glaring outcome of the changes in global capitalism is the growing marginalisation or complete absence of large geographical spaces and territories from the major flows of trade and investment. Most of the "less developed countries" are left out in so many ways. Whole regions of Africa, the extremes of Russia and some Central Asian republics and devastated Afghanistan come to mind as stark examples. In this regard, territory matters. At best, Hardt and Negri's analysis of the network figuration might apply to relations between the wealthiest states of the triad, but it is difficult to see what value it has in comprehending the inequality and unevenness of world capitalism.

The second matter is that class is abandoned for the vague notion of the "multitudes". Class is believed to be an unfocused concept and the manifest power of the working class declining. Instead the multitude is "the real productive force of the social world".31 But Hardt and Negri do not spell out what the multitude consists of, what tensions and divisions might exist in this amorphous mass and why they have the capacity for resistance ("acts of refusal"). At different points, they designate "the poor" as the multitude, but this just confounds the issue further, and we are left with no clearer idea of who the subject of change might be. They brim with enthusiasm in their revolutionary assertions and claim that the multitude will desire liberation when they perceive the deterritorialisation of the system. In the meantime, they state that the multitude might be constituted as a political subject by a minority of militants. This is all too easily interpreted as a pretext for militant autonomists to stand in for a relatively acquiescent working class or mass. Above all, there is no firm argument as to why the idea of the multitude has greater explanatory or theoretical force. This is, at the same time, a rejection of identity politics and the localism of postmodernist philosophy.32 Hardt and Negri see the counterposition of local and global as mistaken and irrelevant and able to play into the hands of Empire. The movement of resistance directs its energy against "a specific regime of global relations that we call Empire".33 Nonetheless, in the absence of a discerning analysis of social forces and political subjectivity, this criticism of identity politics is only partial.


In many respects, unqualified postmodernist social theory is at a standstill. The worldwide context of ongoing war on terrorism—a war on the states of the south—and the credibility gap afflicting Neo-liberalism have marginalised postmodernist social theory. The Western academy is still the main seat of philosophy and theory and also the chief incubator of postmodernism. But, today, the problem that confronts academic postmodernism is that it is now the canon, the orthodoxy, the paradigm to be subverted. It doesn't generate the excitement in universities it used to. The spate of anthologies of older postmodernist writings that are prescribed readers for courses in cultural theory suggest that there is not much that is new to say, even though there are plenty still studying it.

Postmodernism's decline is in full view. We should not be surprised. From Nietzsche's denunciation of nineteenth century philosophy, to Foucault's conflation of knowledge and power, to Hardt and Negri's belief that rebellions are possible anywhere and everywhere in the system, there is little in the lineage of postmodernism for a political vision of emancipation that is so sorely needed today. Socialists today face the task of defending and advancing a socialist universalism in theory and practice.

[Jeremy Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in the Australian Socialist Alliance and a lecturer in social sciences at the University of Ballarat.]


1. T. Doherty, "Postmodernism: An Introduction", in T. Doherty (ed.) Postmodernism: A Reader, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 1.

2. P. Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, London, Verso 1998.

3. D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, London, Basil Blackwell, 1989, and "Class Relations, Social Justice and the Politics of Difference", in J. Squires (ed.) Principles Positions: Postmodernism and the Rediscovery of Value, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1993, and F. Jameson, Postmodernism or the Logic of Late Capitalism, London, Verso, 1991.

4. Ellen Meiksins-Wood argues that Jameson and Harvey can be treated quite separately from the main body of postmodernist philosophy. See "What is the `Postmodern Agenda'?", In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1997. For a short but highly readable critique of the argument that this epoch is one of postmodernity and post-industrialism, see R. Watts, "Postmodernism and its Discontents", Arena, August-September 1993, pp. 39-43.

5. For a trenchant Marxist critique of postmodernism that deals soberly with the progressive strategies of postmodern pedagogy, see D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole and G. Rikowski (eds.), Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Oxford, Lexington Books, 2002. See also H.A. Giroux, Theory and Resistance in Education: Towards a Pedagogy for the Opposition, London, Bergin and Garvey, 2001.

6. J.C. Alexander, "Modern, Anti, Post, Neo", New Left Review, 210, March/April 1995, pp. 80-84.

7. G. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968, Boston, MA, South End Press, 1987.

8. A. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique, London, Polity Press, 1989, pp. 162-8 and J. Petras, "Notes toward an understanding of revolutionary politics today", Links, 19, 2001, pp. 5-34, particularly pp. 6-12. In contrast, Julie Stephens argues that postmodernism's origins lie in the forms of cultural or anti-disciplinary protest that emerged in the 1960s, rather than via political judgments made well after its radicalism had receded (the so called "death of the 1960s" narrative). See Anti-Disciplinary Protest: 1960s Radicalism and Postmodernism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

9. On the impassive role of Foucault and Lacan and the insignificance of their ideas in the May-June revolt, see C. Castoriadis, "The Movements of the 1960s", Thesis Eleven, 18/19, 1987.

10. In "The Movements" Castoriadis rails against the interpretation of May-June events by Ferry and Renaut in French Philosophy of the 1960s: An Essay on Antihumanism, Mary H.S. Cattani (trans.) Arnhest, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985. See also the introduction to P. Starr, Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May '68, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995.

11. G. Therborn, Science, Class and Society: On the Formation of Sociology and Historical Materialism, London, Verso, 1980; A. Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, London, Heineman, 1971.

12. J.F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. xxiii-iv. The original text appeared in French in 1979.

13. M. Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Colin Gordan (editor and translator), New York, Pantheon Books, 1980.

14. M. Foucault, "The Subject and Power", in H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983, and "What is Enlightenment?" in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, New York, Pantheon Books, 1984. See also P. Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory, London, Verso, 1987, chapters 5 and 6.

15. Dews, Logics of Disintegration, op. cit., Introduction and Chapter 1, and Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, op. cit., pp. 73-80.

16. J. Derrida, Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (tans.), Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1978.

17. J. Baudrillard, Simulations, New York, Semiotext(e), 1983, and U. Eco, Travels in Hyper-reality: Essays, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

18. F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (trans.), New York, Vintage Books, 1968, p. 267.

19. F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973. See also p. 280 of The Will to Power: "`Truth' is the will to be master over the multiplicity of sensations: —to classify phenomena into definite categories. In this we start from a belief in the `in itself' of things (we take phenomena as real)."

20. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, op. cit., p. 270.

21. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, op. cit., pp. 37-8.

22. T. Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Oxford, Blackwell, 1999. See also A. Milner, "Left Out? Marxism, the New Left and Cultural Studies", Arena, 19, 2002.

23. A. Callinicos, Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History, London, Polity Press, 1995, pp. 180-2.

24. E. Meiksins-Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 2.

25. Castoriadis, "The Movements", op. cit., pp. 25-6.

26. J. Derrida, Specters of Marx: the State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, New York, Routledge, 1994.

27. M. Hardt and A. Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2000. For critiques, see G. Balakrishnan, Debating Empire, London, Verso, 2003, and J. Petras, "Empire without imperialists?", Links 20, 2002.

28. Hardt and Negri, Empire, op. cit., p. 182.

29. E. Meiksins-Wood, Empire of Capital, London, Verso, 2003.

30. Hardt and Negri, Empire, op. cit., p. xii.

31. Hardt and Negri, Empire, op. cit., p. 62.

32. In contrast, Manuel Castells in his well-known trilogy on network globalisation, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, argues that the global and the local are systemically disconnected. Consequently, subjectivity—better called identity here—no longer emerges from civil society or from class position, but from continuing "communal resistance" to the disempowering flows of the global network. Most identities are generated from this process and are therefore defensive, rather than based on a project, such as socialism. In the late 1990s, Castells believed that these were incapable of a broader program of social change. See volume two of M. Castells, The Power of Identity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1997.

33. Hardt and Negri, Empire, op. cit., pp. 45-6.

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