Dead Men Left

Sunday, September 12, 2004

I blame the postmodernists pt.2

Mark at Charlotte Street picks up on Nick Cohen in the Observer, noting that whilst Cohen berates those who remove critical questions of economic justice from the "political debate", his cack-handed and parochial attempt to announce the "death of the Left" suffered from a similar flaw. Nowhere in his premature threnody does Cohen attempt to deal with class: no mention of the battering even the British working class has received over the last thirty years, just Cohen's usual whinge about the awfulness of opposing imperialism.

That other Observer habitue, David Aaronovitch, Oliver Hardy to Cohen's Stan Laurel, is wont to harp on the same theme, though with more swaggering bluster and notably less finesse. Again, class, as a serious category of analysis, has all but disappeared; Lenin (he of the Tomb) briskly dissects Aaronovitch's sophistical attack on former Living Marxism stalwart, Frank Furedi. Whilst Aaronovitch engages in a spot of "dialectical foreplay", luring his readers on with a contradiction strip-tease, Lenin rightly highlights Furedi's fleeting encounter with telling social criticism:

Furedi is right about postmodernism... The abandonment of universalism, the levelling of all theories into so many narratives of equal validity has had a pernicious impact on intellectual culture. Not to bore anyone with Marxist argot, but this has a specific class dimension (that dirty 'c' word), or so it seems to me... It is simply that the reduction of class to just one more aspect of the multiculturalist mantra (race, class, sexuality, gender, ethnicity) and then, perhaps, its ultimate exclusion leaves us with a set of concerns that are wholly compatible with those of the upper-middle class yuppie who wishes to affirm his liberal (even anti-capitalist) credentials...

The point about class qua universalism is that it structures the whole way in which racism, womens' oppression etc. works. For instance, why should it be that 70% of the 1.2 billion people living on less than a dollar a day happen to be women?


What is fake about postmodernism is precisely what is wrong with liberal universalism, the universalism of global capitalism. Insofar as it maintains that everyone has the right to their specific cultural enjoyment, their religious rituals, their shopping experience, their dumbed-down books and television, it misses the underlying class dimension of such questions.

Lenin goes on to note the way the Right (from Blunkett to the BNP) have assidiuously adopted the language of "multiculturalism" to promote profoundly reactionary politics: at its very crudest, Nick Griffin, BNP Fuehrer, claims to enjoy curries; more sophisitcated fascist propaganda relies on the denunciation of Islam as "un-Western", or opposed to "our" values. Those tightly bound to the language and politics of acceptable liberal discourse, expecting their fascists to arrive - if not red in tooth and claw - at least shaven-headed and bovver-booted are entirely thrown by this new tack. (Anyone who was unfortunate enough to see supposedly tough interviewer Jeremy Paxman's floundering before Griffin's "multicultural" rhetoric will have seen just how inadequate the left-liberal language of identity can be before incipent threats of this sort.)

I would add to Lenin's notes the indication that the twin principals of "tolerance" and "identity", around which left-liberal politics are supposedly conducted, have provided the high road to the most intolerant of politics. Communtarianism, perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to fix left-liberal political practice ideologically, has mutated with remarkable speed into a simple conservatism. By renouncing class, the floating categories of "tolerance" and "identity" can become moored to an overtly conservative project, even if couched in fine phrases; whereas the most elementary understanding of economic class - even on the level of "it's all about oil" - would have prevented small sections of the British "Left" cheerleading the invasion of Iraq, these conservatives in fancy dress have simply to indicate their desire to extend the liberal order internationally to justify their pro-war stance. (Such a manoeuvre has been couched as "cosmopolitan" thought. I dealt, briefly, with one of its theorists, Mary Kaldor, some time ago.) The slide is, as Habermas suggested, built upon the instability and in-built conservatism of postmodern thought: once explicit uiversality is abandoned, as in either grand liberal claims or Marxist analysis, it asserts its necessity in emerging by stealth in a reactionary guise: the demands of irrationalism, or of simple power-play become the structuring principle. There is a mute acceptance of existing social structures, and the failure to advance any criticism beyond that allowed by those structures.

So what should a radical Left do instead? I would suggest that Respect, through its evolving political practice, is moving in the right direction: our watchword is not "tolerance" but "self-determination" (check the founding declaration on sexual choices, for example); at every step, a systematic - if sometimes crude - attempt has been made to interrogate social problems in Britain through class, and to create solutions phrased in those terms. The need is to stress both autonomy - of individuals, groups, whole social categories - and to provide the universalising means to bring about that autonomy. It is not a smooth or easy process, but it mirrors precisely that taking place within the anti-capitalist movement. This tension is one factor that has provided that movement with its immense dynamism: some of that will be on display at the European Social Forum; Respect has reproduced that dynamism, and it is one of the reasons for being hopeful for its future.