Marxism and Postmodernism
Dana L. Cloud
- Why discussion is important: It seems incredible at present, but postmodern thought, which since the 1960s has emphasized the irrelevance if not impossibility of organized working class struggle against austerity and imperialism, is, for some, still a compelling explanation of social crisis and social movements on the Left. It is, however, a profoundly anti-Marxist one that has disabled and disoriented a layer of potential activists. We must be ready to take this body of thought seriously to make a good case against its idealism, utopianism, and relativism and to make a contrasting case for socialist politics and organization.
- What it is: Marxist literary scholar Terry Eagleton defines postmodernism very succinctly as “the contemporary movement of though which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.” These ideas have held sway across the humanities from sociology, literary studies, communication, anthropology, and so on, beginning in the 1970s. Francois Lyotard wrote that the defining feature of postmodernism is its incredulity toward metanarratives. In other words, postmodernists agree with Marxism about some things—the story of great men and great ideas spreading great civilization all across the globe is oppressive—but so therefore is ANY systematic attempt to explain how society works, to narrate its history in order to discover causes of oppression and exploitation, and to develop systematic plans to overcome them (for example: The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle).
Marxism on this view becomes just another form of domination because it “imposes” a systematic view of the world on the world’s people. The solution, for postmodernism, in the famous words of David Byrne, is to stop making sense. Keep that in mind when I begin to share actual quotations from postmodern scholars with you.
- Where did it come from? Theorists disagree somewhat on when postmodernism began, some saying that it began with the critical impulses of high modernism—abstract art, Brechtian theater, and so on—in which case postmodern simply means following along in the tracks of modernist critique. Marxism has been part of the critical edge of modernism, seeking to use the productive ideals of the Enlightenment—including humanism, rationality, and contradiction—all of which postmodernists loathe—against the system itself. Most of the time, however, postmodernism means “anti-modernism.” Marxist scholar Perry Anderson dates the idealist and culturalist impulse that we now call postmodernism (and he calls “Western Marxism”) to the end of the Second World War and long economic boom in the West that followed. The discovery on the Left of the atrocities of Stalinism, betrayals of the French Communist Party, the rise of a more identity-oriented New Left, plus the confidence of capitalists after the war in the permanence and stability of their system, created a climate for the flourishing of theories breaking entirely with Marxism in theory (giving up materialism) and practice (giving up Leninism). Thus postmodernism’s trajectory matches that of neoliberalism and capitalist triumphalism. The economic crisis of the 1970s gutted the promises of capitalism but ushered in a regime of austerity and privatization. Hence, Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson calls postmodernism the cultural logic of late capitalism.
At this point one might ask whether there is really something called “late” capitalism. I for one wish capitalism were dead or dying (as in, “The late capitalist system, may it rest in peace), but a lot of postmodern theory is based on wrong idea that there has been a significant break in how capitalism has organized itself starting after the Second World War, in which workers cease to be the driving force of the system or of organizing for change. Of course capitalism is a dynamic system, and the way production is organized and distributed around the globe is continually changing. But even in the burgeoning “service sector,” the place where workers have the most power is in the workplace. Manufacturing still produces all of the real goods in the world.
Along with Lyotard, Baudrillard is among the first thinkers who described the postmodern condition. In Simulacra and Simulation and in The Mirror of Production, Baudrillard argues that disrupting the process of making meaning is the path to liberation. It is important on his view to recognize how everything we take for granted as real is, in fact, a simulation with no original that should be continually called into question. To some extent, we would agree, as Walter Benjamin did about the hollowness of capitalist artwork. But for Baudrillard, postmodernity is the era of the hyper-real, meaning that the advertising and culture industries are producing truths and realities at such a pace that access to what really is or what really happened might as well be impossible (is “virtually” impossible 😉 In one of his essays on the first Persian Gulf War, Baudrillard went so far as to argue that the war didn’t actually happen. And in his work Mirror of Production, he argues that Marxism is inadequate because it poses just another simulation; He writes, “Marxism assists the ruse of capital by positing the centrality of labor power; a better way out of alienation is the realization that one need not be the labor power. One can unalienate oneself, as it were.” So he questions the centrality of production to the capitalist system as the site of workers’ power. . Disrupting the processes of signification, breaking down meaning, is where liberation is to be found. Baudrillard’s thought resonates with that of the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, about whom I can say very little. Perhaps others can take his ideas up during the discussion.
- Major thinkers and camps in addition to Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Derrida—the big 5: poststructuralism, micropolitics, postmarxism, autonomism, and queer theory
- a) poststructuralism: One of the most profound influences on critical thought in the last 30 years is the work of Michel Foucault, famous for arguing that power is everywhere, has no center, and is reproduced in discourse rather than in any material reality. Influenced strongly by the structuralist anti-humanism of Althusser and the relativism of Nietzsche, his insights can be very useful in pointing out how many “truths” that we take for granted are constructs—for example the invention of some illnesses by the pharmaceutical industry (erectile dysfunction? stress?)—that end up disciplining us in the name of truth—telling us that men that they should be ready for sex at any time and all of us that the problems of capitalism are in our heads. Foucault calls these truth regimes “biopower” and resistance to them “biopolitics” But for Foucault there is not a set of truths that is not a form of discipline. There is no escape from truth regimes. Hence, Marxist critique that contrasts the ideologies of capitalism with the realities of working class experience would have no purchase with a Foucaultian. Any claim to the truth should be greeted with suspicion as an instance of moral oppression or the will to power.
From a Marxist perspective, this political relativism—the belief (har) that every way of thinking about society is as false or as true as any other—is extremely paralyzing and irresponsible.
Subsequent thinkers scrambled to find some capacity to resist in the tiny cracks of the symbolic world.
- b) Micropolitics of difference: Giles Deleuze with co-author Felix Guattari has put forward the argument that all identity is constructed through difference and that continual disruption of the production of identity is the only way to freedom. In other words, Deleuze prescribes a micropolitics of difference—a resignation to tiny raids on language. Difference is the process of positive and disruptive function “namely that of resisting the privilege attached to forms of unity and totality” (Patton 39).
Deleuze and Guattari have pointed out that their work is not meant as a political program. But their theory is an explicit rejection of a) recognizing the fundamental realities of oppression and interests, b) realizing that women, gays and lesbians, minorities need to organize on the basis of their specific oppression, c) the idea of political intervention of willful political agents to organize collectivities in struggle. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari develop a more political vocabulary about a micropolitics of desire against a regulating social machine; such micropolitics are randomly generated; “lines of flight” and “deterritorialization” are consistently described as modes of thinking outside of the axioms of capitalism.
A Marxist friend of mine recently wondered what we are supposed to do with the idea of deterritorialization and flight for Palestinians or the homeless, as if the very thought of freedom would make it so.
- c) So now I turn to a third major category, that of post-Marxism, whose most prominent theorists are Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. While they reject the micropolitics of Deleuze and the political paralysis of poststructuralism, they truck in the relativism of the postmodern, and their reworking of Marxist ideas stems from a rejection of basic Marxist principles.
In their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe undertake “a critique of what they call “the various discursive surfaces
of classical Marxism” in order to “outline a new politics of the Left based upon the project of a radical democracy.” (3) According to them, Marxist orthodoxy consists of essentializing class relations and making scientific claims about the development of capitalism and the class struggle. (How terrible.) They repudiate what they call “economism.” They argue that “class” is not a real category or relationship but is rather a constructed identity only. With these starting points, they appropriate Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to describe political struggle as the construction of antagonistic forces not necessarily tied to class. Immediately, a problem should be evident–right wing populism is an example of such a construct, but on this analysis, we can’t say that working class organizations—like a union or socialist activist–are better representatives than Michele Bachman–of the interests of ordinary people.
Sharon Smith and Sherry Wolf have written extensively about the end result of this theory, which is a reform-oriented identity politics without reference to working class interests. As Wolf explains, Laclau and Mouffe basically theorize out of existence the human force Marx places at the center of struggles for change—workers.
There is a version of postmodern thought that has its origins in but that has departed wildly from workers’ struggle, that of autonomism.
- d) Autonomism is a set of left-wing political and social movements and theories that first emerged in Italy in the 1960s from workerist (operaismo) communism, which did not believe it was necessary to carry out a revolutionary break with society. Continuous strikes and demonstrations on this view would lead to socialism. The influence of anarchism and the failure of Italian far-left movements in the 1970s produced an extreme version of autonomism popularized by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.
Their book Empire was published in 2000 and immediately became a bestseller, as have its sequels, “Multitude” and “Commonwealth.” In general, the books argue that capitalism has entered a stage that features a new form of globalized sovereignty—Empire, not imperialism. Never mind US adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya: The sovereignty of nation-states is declining in a postmodern global economy. The authority of the state is replaced with the biopolitical production of social life. We cannot resist empire; we should reorganize and redirect it on its own terrain (xv). The U.S. is not the center of Empire: “The primary factors of production and exchange—money, technology, people, and goods—move with increasing ease across national boundaries; hence the nation-state has less and less power to regulate these flows and impose its authority over the economy. The multitude can autonomously construct a counter-Empire, “an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges” (xv). This work is influenced by Deleuze and Foucault.
Multitude is a concept opposed to that of the working class, one that sees that “the essential is the reproduction of life, and this is more important than the traditional production of goods: genetics, images, information technology, education.” instead of an exploitation of actual labor, we have a cognitive capitalism that feeds on what they actually call immaterial production. Thus, Hardt and Negri celebrate a “militant who best expresses the life of the multitude: the agent of biopolitical production and resistance against Empire […]We are thinking of nothing like [a socialist revolutionary] and of no one who acts on the basis of duty and discipline, who pretends his or her actions are deduced from an ideal plan […] Today the militant cannot even pretend to be a representative, even of the fundamental human needs of the exploited. Militants resist imperial command in a creative way. In other words, resistance is linked immediately with a constitutive investment in the biopolitical realm and to the formation of co-operative apparatuses of production and community.[…] In postmodernity we find ourselves posing against the misery of power the joy of being. This is a revolution that no power will control – because biopower and communism, co-operation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist” [xvii].
A number of Left critics have noted the resonance of these views with the revisionism of Kautsky, who put forward the idea of supernationalism. Hardt and Bernstein’s argument for evolutionary socialism in response to allegedly “new” trends in capitalism. Luxemburg’s denunciation of Bernstein applies equally well: It is, in Luxemburg’s words, “reconciliation with the existing social order and the transfer of the hopes of the proletariat to the limbo of ethical simulacra” (1900).
These problems have led Slavoj Zizek, a defender of a version of Marxism, to state, “This is radical theory in the idiom of Monty Python. The painful quandaries of politics are wiped away, and all that remains is feelgood blather dressed up as neo-Marxian analysis.”
What happens when we retheorize social change in this way? First, the status quo appears as adequate or at least inevitable; second, a materialist critical project is sidelined; third, the systematic observation of history, learning its lessons, and planning for the future give way to description and celebration of already-existing resistance without a future. For example, an autonomist assessment of the revolutionary movements across the Middle East and the upsurge of workers’ resistance in Wisconsin would have us accept those uprisings as adequate in themselves, disabling our ability to critique its limits and to argue for moving the struggle forward.
- d) The same is true of the final category of postmodern thought I want to consider very briefly, queer theory as it is represented by Judith Butler. In Gender Trouble and much of her other work, Judith Butler has pioneered the argument that heteronormative and unstable gender and sex categories discipline subjects who are always enacting performances of gender to which there is no outside. Because her theory posits categories of thought about gender as the source of gender discipline, she promotes “the politicization of abjection,” and asserts that the political aspects of abjection (state of impoverishment and exclusion) could assist in “a radical resignification of the symbolic domain, deviating the citational chain toward a more possible future to expand the very meaning of what counts as a valued and valuable body in the world.” She refers to abjection as “an enabling disruption” that could offer “the occasion for a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon in which bodies come to matter at all.”
Butler’s ideas are prominent in struggles for sexual and gender equality. Rather than fight as women, gays, lesbians, etc. for things like marriage rights, we should call the existence of women and rights in the first place and shun marriage as an oppressive idea. This proposition suffers from all of the shortcomings from a Marxist perspective that I have observed about the others: Rather than organizing women, gays, and lesbians for actual reforms like marriage equality that would benefit them, and rather than asking how to actually end abjection beyond the symbolic domain, we are left with a project of “resignification,” which basically means playing with words.
Though different from one another, they share some features in common that are rejections of Marxist principle and practice. All of these theories are idealist, relativist, and utopian in ways that are reminiscent of previous detractors of revolutionary socialism.
In the Preface to The German Ideology, Marx described the idealism of the young Hegelians:
“Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.
“These innocent and childlike fancies are announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness.
“Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.”
[nb Sokal Affair
. If nothing else, postmodernism is the ultimate “revolt against the rule of thoughts,” “announced with solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness.”
Likewise, we might apply Engels’ critique of the Utopian Socialists to the work I am considering here. Engels wrote, “The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain.” Engels concluded that socialism, if it were to be workable, needed to be put on a real basis. What this means is that one cannot conjure up a new society, but rather must work within and against the one that exists in the service of a future socialist society. Today the economic conditions of capitalism are no longer hidden. We know that the wrong of society are products of economic conditions, and these conditions cannot be undone in fantasies, either modern or postmodern.
And let’s be clear about whose utopia postmodernism is. It is the cultural logic of neoliberalism. David Harvey argues that neoliberalism “proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and. . .Deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision have been all too common. . . . Neoliberalism entails “creative destruction, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers . . . but also divisions of labour, solcial relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life and thought, reproductive activities, attachments to the land and habits of the heart.” 2-3
Thus, neoliberalism is a utopian project with political effect of re-establishing capital accumulation and power of economic elites (19). As in the present assault on public workers, planning and control are defined as “an attack on freedom” (37). This stance against state intervention and reform is disabling to the anti-capitalist left. Whereas liberalism depended on integration into existing institutions as a mode of control, neoliberalism flourishes through difference, especially difference expressed in the symbolic domain. Contrary to a project that seeks justice, neoliberalism stands for anarchic freedom of the marketplace.
Thus, postmodernism stands in analogous relationship with neoliberalism in its resignation to the commodification of everything (165) Eagleton thinks that the various antifoundationalisms that have obsessed theory are the products not of radical alternatives but of capitalism itself, which is ‘in love with transgression and
- There are a number of more or less Marxist critics of the postmodern turn, including Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Jurgen Habermas, and Fredric Jameson, who call attention to its anti-materialist, ahistorical, anti-organization, and anti-dialectical character. If there is nothing beyond discourse and no reality in contrast to the chimeras in our heads, all that is left to us is resignation from the struggle.
- The state of the world today demands theory that both describes and explains the current crisis in ways that enable resistance. When a family loses its home to the mortgage bankers, it is not a problem of discourse. We do not celebrate their new deterritorialization. When the history teacher is fired because of state budget cuts, we don’t expect her to be relieved not to have to teach the grand metanarratives of world history. When my partner needs health insurance to manage a chronic illness, we don’t dispute the illness’ reality or tell her that it would be conservative to win the right to marry. When 200,000 people rise up in Wisconsion, or millions rise up in Tahrir Square, we do not ignore the hard work of organized activists in helping to make these uprisings happen. We do not celebrate the spontaneous multitude as the struggle is sold short, when we need forces to carry the struggle forward. When we look around at the obscene looting of the economy by the wealthy, we do not feel joy and love. Our demands are not vague. We are not revolting against the rule of thoughts. We are revolting against a ruling class that realizes its own class interests and is hell bent on crushing the possibility of our organizing in ours. We will not cooperate with that process.
If postmodernism is the cultural logic of neoliberalism, as I have suggested, it may be that the crisis of neoliberalism, which has stripped bare the basic relationship of expropriation that defines the system of capitalism and opened the way for the expression of specifically working class anger, will result in the waning of postmodernism. So far, these ideas still have some hold on the radical imagination of young activists. So we have to be very clear why the socialist alternative makes better sense of the world: because it is in and of the world. Some postmodernists may take inspiration from the seemingly spontaneous struggles of the last spring, but we must develop the conceptual tools and historical lessons to orient ourselves to the necessary battles ahead.