In the concluding part of his series on ideology, Conter editor David Jamieson explores the impact of postmodernism, radical individualism and Americanisation on today’s mode of leftism.
In the first part of these notes, I explored material changes in intellectual production. I argued that the massive expansion of higher education had combined with the decline of working class self-organised traditions to damage the relationship between left-wing thought and political action. In response, new traditions have replaced the old, and they deserve their own interrogation. After charting their consequences, I will suggest options for revitalising socialist thought in an era dominated by leftist modes of individualism.
Much has been written about how postmodernism, the ascendent mode of thought on campuses in the 1980s and 90s, has impacted the contemporary left and wider society. Yet, for all the bad faith and incredulity of these discussions, the impact of postmodernism is very real. Rather than attempt the notoriously awkward task of fully defining the phenomenon, I will concentrate on those areas with greatest relevance to socialist thought.
Emerging from the defeats suffered by post-1968 leftism, postmodernism filled a vacuum in academic critical theory left by the retreat of Marxism and more radical thought. In that spirit, it advanced a pessimistic view of our ability to understand society as a totality – let alone to drive a project of total social change.
In practice this meant that postmodernism glamorised marginal phenomena, as having a relative independence from wider power dynamics. Identities, experiences and ‘subjectivities’ were viewed as having maximum independence from historical development.
Postmodernism famously involved an aversion to ‘grand narratives’ explaining human social development, and to the political projects based on them. Where Marxism, for example, posited a material development of human productive forces and a concomitant development of classes and class struggle, postmodernism saw this as imposing a dangerous, potentially totalitarian ‘destiny’.
Elements of postmodern ‘discourse’ are now so familiar as to have become cliches. An obsession with ‘marginalisation’; the practice of ‘centring voices’; an insistence that distinctive elements ‘stay in your lane’; moral panics over ‘cultural appropriation’ and so on. Attitudes like these lay behind ambiguous concepts like ‘intersectionality’ which often claim to reconcile class, race, gender, sexuality and age – but which begin from an understanding of them as distinct and ultimately determinate. However, the highly moralised status of these ideas reflects the crossover of an originally European set of theories into the polarised environment of American campuses.
Postmodern discourse coincided with a geographical shift in the production of intellectual life. Radical, post-Enlightenment thought flourished in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That shifted into ‘Western Marxism’ in the second half on the 20th century, and with that came a refocusing away from history, economics and politics onto culture and philosophy. For all the great achievements of that tradition, it began a process where left intellectuals were detached from revolutionary political experience, and increasingly distanced from mass working class organisation.
With the rise of post-modernism, another geographical shift took place, to the ‘Anglosphere’. This is not always fully appreciated, given the European origins of many of prominent postmodern thinkers like Deleuze, Baudrillard and Lyotard. However, just as postmodern ideas reached the point of intellectual saturation on college campuses, the internet era brought an American cultural hegemony even more entrenched than the post-war consumerism of suburbs, family cars, denim jeans, youth culture and popular music.
The left’s current mode of thinking is postmodernism with an overwhelmingly American accent. While drawing on Francophone poststructuralist philosophy, it has been diluted with older US cultural fixations of consumer individualism. America’s trendsetting role in campus fashions mean that European academics and their periphery tend to impose highly specific categories of US capitalist development, such as its racialised mode of production, onto their own historical realities.
The internet-driven impact of US culture has transformed the cultures of the European and wider literary establishments. Perhaps the clearest example has been the ‘public confessional’, the determination to express truths about life under contemporary capitalism by exploring personal experiences, often of a traumatic kind, in public. The massive proliferation of such literature in the past two decades has transformed writing and literary forms (first-person writing has become ubiquitous, crowding-out tenses attempting a ‘universal’ vantage point).
The American-style, titillating, uber-individual confessional forms the conveyer-belt of today’s journalistic and creative writing. The pseudo-political character of much of this activity allowed online magazines to establish mass audiences on the cheap, by encouraging a cult of the public confession to which writers were encouraged to submit without payment. In any other cultural moment this would be seen as doubly exploitative; in today’s, this is sold as liberating.
The Problem of Ideology
Confessional and representational writing and thinking are not sufficient to the methodological needs of radical politics. The idea that direct personal experiences are the essential truths of social phenomena and require only to be reported, recorded and in the modern idiom ‘heard’ or ‘centred’ is derived (in a simplified, uncritical form) from political liberalism. In an era where force, rather than consent, was the proximate problem faced by dissenters, it made perfect sense for the mere circulation of reports and experiences to be viewed as essentially radical. While liberalism as a political culture emerged through the 18th and 19th century, it made perfect sense for its intellectual appeals to come in this format.
Indeed, this approach still can be radical, as the modern persecution of whistle-blowers makes clear. Our society does indeed obscure the social reality of the vast majority. Typical conditions for working class people, for oppressed groups, for the vast majority of the world living outside the metropolitan centres, receive a tiny proportion of media output, cultural and artistic treatment, and political discourse. What’s more, force is still a major source of ruling class power – particularly when it is upset or threatened.
Still, the bigger question that confronts radical politics today is the ‘problem of ideology’ – the profound distance between perception and reality that conditions even the physical sciences, but which is greatly complicated by the processes of class society. It is an interesting characteristic of the new leftism that, in practice, it is far less adept in its appreciation of this most modern of socio-political problems. The greatest insights into the ideology problem emerged in the 19th century, at a time when coercion was generally more prominent in the west, but when sensitive thinkers could already see the growing strength of the emergent capitalist ideology.
The Camera Obscura
Marx, as a student of the Enlightenment, understood the limits of observation. He knew, for example, that a knowledge of the movement of heavenly bodies was obscured because of the position of humans on earth. From our vantage point, the sun moves around the earth. The experience of the sun is thus not the truth of the sun.
This problem is magnified many times by what Marx called the ‘camera obscura’ – the tendency of our appreciation of social processes to be an inversion of their real nature. Just as in early cameras pictures appeared upside down “in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura”, such that wage earners, for example, seem themselves (at least initially) as benefiting from the wage-labour relationship, if only to the extent that it allows them to survive.
All relations of exploitation and oppression require ideological legitimation to survive. They could not last an hour if the concrete form of a social phenomenon and its fundamental essence coincided – just as astronomy would not be necessary if we had a universal vantage point. While this insight is no more obscure than a simple truth, most people who live in our society do not understand it. The reproduction of ruling class ideology is a tremendous process of reification which constructs as ‘real’ a system of abstract, ghostly appearences which mystify social phenomena and are radically de-moored from their fundamental and animating truths. The misunderstandings of the population are an essential basis for the continuation of the social order.
Misunderstandings are a consequence of life in capitalist society. Were members of society not subject to exploitation or oppression, no ideology would be required to sustain the social order.
The conclusion, utterly appalling by the standards of new leftism, is that far from being the key to understanding, direct experience of any phenomena – including the oppressive and traumatic – can actually render the experiencer in a weakened position of interpretation. Since direct experience may narrow the perspective of the observer, effectively decoupling observed effects from their broader social causes and thereby distorting the social totality, you may understand less because you experienced directly.
This idea belonged not only to radical political thinkers, but to a wider body of social thought that emerged (particularly) in central and eastern European milieus in the 19th and 20th centuries. Psychoanalysis and other forms of psychological thought take this insight for granted – that the experience of psychological trauma obscures its very origins. The distance between form and essence is a keystone of philosophy, art, and science at its peak. The loss of this attitude to radical politics is a profound degeneration.
Perhaps the most debilitating impact of modern left intellectual culture, and its surrender to representational, ‘identitarian’ and confessional forms, is its construction of static identity and situational categories that are not subject to the contradictory processes of change.
Radical socialist politics emerged from philosophical traditions which assumed the ‘movement of history’ as a complex, contradictory development subject to phases of rapid and chaotic transformation. These resources – most centrally Hegelian ‘dialectics’ – were inherited from the Enlightenment but nevertheless problematised claims to knowledge, reason, human motivation and much else besides. As the 19th century developed and class tensions became more obvious and pronounced, Marxism developed to incorporate class conflict into these systems of historical philosophy.
Contradiction and change were the common philosophical assumptions of political radicals. Social phenomena, nations, classes and indeed individual people were always ‘becoming’ something, even as they sought to maintain stasis within existing categories. This is an attitude useful to radical political thought and action, not only because it helps to explain how a conservative arrangement can be quickly turned on its head. Most importantly of all for the democratic tradition, it assumes that the people in the lower strata of society, whose compliance and even active support create the stability of unjust conditions today are the very same people who can overturn those conditions tomorrow.
By the standards of new ways of thinking, common to the left after post-modernism, ‘horizontalism’, the latter-day US liberalism and so on, this is a deeply authoritarian schema. It threatens to posit absolute truths exterior to experiential knowledge. It implies comprehensible, measurable movement in history. It undermines a common assumption in the new thought that directly observeds snapshot of reality represent the truth, or simply ‘a truth’, which is insurmountable.
New leftism reduces the radical, dynamic agency of the working class to a lifeless two-dimensional caricature – a passive, received identity which is destroyed by its removal from the broader animating context of class conflict. The experiences of the ‘worker’ are authentic on the basis of identified cultural trappings of marginalisation, while their political ideas are likely considered to be profound in direct proportion to their degree of disorganisation. Vanquished from this conception is the understanding of working class agency as forged in the clarifying flames of class struggle and identity as the product of organised, self-conscious activity.
On the basis of such a method, the postmodern leftist may develop a suspicion of or active hostility to the very idea of political organisation and of subjective development. Organisation apppears as an alien ‘hijacking’ of authentic political expression and ideas (lest one speak of ideology) as a distorting mediation of the essential truth of direct experience. For the new leftist, the black militant, the feminist, the worker, is never ‘becoming’ anything. They cannot be, for to accept that the subject themselves may be changing – may be developing, elevating and integrating in their own subjectivity – is necessarily to imply that their direct and immediate experience is limited in validity. How can the worker become the ‘conscious worker’ without invalidating their own previously held viewpoints, attitudes, and understandings – and indeed the ideas of other workers? And further, if the ‘conscious worker’ is always ‘becoming’, who is to say that they in turn aren’t limited at each stage in their development?
The postmodern intellectual (and in turn their new leftist epigones) has much to fear from the militant, who may be seen to have developed dangerous intellectual tendencies: theory, ‘grand-narratives’, general political and moral claims about the whole of society and not just themselves. Worst of all, working class corporate power, in the pursuit of effective political action tackling conditions of oppression and exploitation, has brought with it heightened conflict which has intruded upon the sanctity of individual choices and lives. There is a reason that some Marxists (including some of dubious value) but not Lenin are widely studied in the academy. It’s one thing to engage in ‘critical theory’, quite another to invite action from the ignorant, dangerous mass.
The reconciliation of theory and practice
Having investigated the problems of the new division of mental labour, the decline of working-class independence and the intellectual culture these structural changes have fostered, I can now suggest in outline a socialist response. This will necessarily be terse. I don’t claim to have answers to these enormous forces of history. But we can identify a useful initial approach.
The essential intellectual problem is the decline of the totality. From an assumption that society cannot be understood as a total organism, only further defeat and pessimism is possible. Without identifying the central drives and dynamics of the system, its contradictions and vulnerabilities cannot be understood and no challenge is possible.
The first question we must ask ourselves is, from what social location can the totality be best accessed? It cannot be the location of the academy – valuable though some insights from the academy may be. Even though postmodernism has waned in campuses in recent years, it has done this only after much of its work of confusion and deracination has been achieved. Campus cultures are likewise heavily Americanised and often detached from national context. Compartmentalisation is a natural by-product of is social and economic functions.
It cannot be the location of the corporate media. It exists to reproduce the ideological force of various elements of the capitalist class. As outlined above and in the previous article, the involvement of left-wing thinkers, from public intellectuals to unpaid public confessors, has largely seen new left’s ideas and culture captured for commercial activity or elite intellectual reproduction (culture wars, the burgeoning industry of opinion, ‘takes’ and so on).
It cannot be the location of parliamentary politics, which is a deeply alienated form of political expression, blending democratic representation with governance, social control and regulation in the interests of capital.
The location from which the totality can be accessed must be political action, based upon the centres of mass popular activity as they appear, and particularly those organised and driven from the working class. This is the only location from which the central dynamics of the system can be ascertained, just as it is the only position from which practice and thought can inform one another.
This repositioning will involve intellectual boldness on the left. Many intellectual traditions which have developed on the left in recent years will have to be overcome. A counter-intuitive instinct will be necessary, and it is natural that activists will be drawn time and again to simple, moral, humble attitudes about political priorities. We should insist upon an obsession with the central antagonisms of society over the marginal ones, with the totality of social relations over discrete elements, and with platforms of political and social change regardless of sectional interest.