Dead Men Left

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

I blame the postmodernists pt. 3

In partial response to some comments offered on pt.2 of what is rapidly turning into an epic series, here are a few thoughts.

There's a necessary distinction to be made between post-structuralist thought, as a system of philosophy, and postmodernism, as something far bigger: a cultural movement, a set of political programmes, a series of very broad claims about society. There's a (often deliberate) vagueness about what "postmodernism" is trying to say, or achieve. To criticise the worst excesses of postmodernist thinking - Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, for example - is not necessarily to also dismiss a good deal of post-structuralist work, like that of Foucault. In practice, it is postmodernism as a generic cloud of attitudes that has had the impact on politics: manifesting itself as the excision of class from radical politics, or at least its redcuction to a category of oppression: sexism, racism, "classism". To lose the organising principle of class was for radicals a grave mistake; at its extreme, it removed the possibility of breaking or merely effectively challenging oppression within society towards its accomodation as a manifestation of "identity".

Of course, the "old left" (even the old "New Left") often was very bad on issues of oppression, and it took the "new social movements" to kick it - and the rest of society - up the arse. But if the support of London gay organisations for striking miners in 1984-85 was a positive example of this process, Bea Campbell's claim that miners' pickets were simply a manifestation of "macho", patriarchical culture was entirely negative. That's not to say that macho elements were not present in the dispute (see Arthur Scargill's demand to "fight like men"); but Campbell's response removes any possibility of challenging them, and separates a struggle for women's liberation from the miner's fight against a deeply reactionary, sexist government. Most glaringly, it glosses over the transformative and active role of women in the strike. Campbell later went on to argue for the "opposition" of men and women in the workplace, demanding an end to collective bargaining procedures that allegedly reinforced patriarchical wage differences.

This is just one example of how badly astray such politics could go. A distant echo of it could be found in the veiled response from New Labour to the recent firefighters' strikes, as Blood and Treasure noted: because firefighters were white, straight men - it was hinted - they must be denied any sympathy. (This is to stereotype firefighters and their union, which has a decent record in combatting racism, sexism and homophobia.) The idea of working-class agency, of working people being actively able to transform the conditions of their existence has been lost entirely, replaced by an appeal to that old embodiment of liberal virtue, the authoritarian state: ban firefighters' strikes, bomb Iraq.