Dead Men Left

Friday, September 10, 2004

I blame the postmodernists

I added Jonathan Derbyshire's site to my blogroll the other day for the simple reason that, much as I (pretty significantly) disagree with the man, unlike the tabloid journalist whose blog format he consciously copies, he does at least seem concerned to engage in an honest debate in a reasonably fair-minded fashion. It is, in short, a desire to avoid (as Harry Hutton put it) being a "twerp" by going through life "only talking to people who shared your politics."

Derbyshire recently offered an interesting variant of that old Cold War stalwart, the theory of "totalitarianism", in which left and right end up converging in a grand anti-liberal conspiracy against free markets and Western democracy. Following up a theme he introduced on Kamm's blog, he writes:

One of Cohen's main claims is that the alliance between the revolutionary left, or what remains of it, and political Islamism is unprecedented. I'm not sure that's right. There seems to me to be an essential continuity between the stance adopted towards radical Islam by the intellectual left broadly conceived (and not just the SWP), and certain of the attitudes that characterised the so-called 'New Left' in the 1960s, and which were brilliantly diagnosed by Irving Howe in a wonderful 1965 essay entitled 'New Styles in "Leftism"'...

Howe specified seven "characteristic attitudes" of the then-nascent New Left, at least five of which are prevalent in leftist discourse today. These are:

- 'An extreme, sometimes unwarranted, hostility towards liberalism.'
- 'A vicarious indulgence in violence, often merely theoretic and thereby all the more irresponsible.'
- 'An ... unreflective belief in "the decline of the West".
- 'A crude, unqualified anti-Americanism, drawing from every possible source, even if one contradicts another: the aristocratic bias of Eliot and Ortega, Communist propaganda, the speculations of Tocqueville, the ressentiment of postwar Europe, and so on.'
- 'An increasing identification with that sector of the "third world" in which "radical" nationalism and Communist authoritarianism merge.'

This is, of course, a supreme example of Cold War liberal political theory, as applied to its radical critique; the sort of "liberal" theory, mind you, that manages to give genuine liberals a rather bad name: stressing, instead of human freedom supported by a passive state, the active enforcement of "correct" values by a strong and aggressive state.

Elsewhere, Jeffrey Ketland has suggested that there are precedents for "irrationalism" on the Left:

One can find examples in the postmodernist literature, and the most obvious example is Michel Foucault, once a member of the French communist party and main source of much recent postmodernist and social constructivist philosophy. Foucault visited Iran around the time of the revolution. He enthusiastically described the revolution as a new kind of "political spirituality", and was very impressed with its characteristically anti-Enlightenment aspects.

Some time ago, the German social theorist Jurgen Habermas suggested a typology of reactionary, anti-Enlightenment thinkers, summarised as ("Modernity versus Postmodernity", New German Critique 22, 1981):

1. Old Conservatives, "those who do not allow themselves to be contaminated by cultural modernism. They observe the decline of substantive reason, the differentiation of science, morality and art, the modern world view... with sadness and recommend a whithdrawal to a position anterior to modernity." This is the familiar strain of conservatism that John Major's much-ridiculed appeal to Orwell's England played upon: "...the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist."

2. Neoconservatives, who Habermas defines precisely as accepting the economic advances of capitalism, but who advocate that "politics must be kept as far aloof as possible from the demands of moral-political justification." Thatcher, claiming that "there is no such thing as society" exemplified the attitude.

3. Young Conservatives: the postmodernists. They, as Derbyshire suggested, abandon the universalising and rational elements of the Enlightenment, to preach the virtues of "diversity", or the "polyvocal real" as two influential poststructuralists, Deleuze and Guattari, phrased it. Habermas, in line with the classical Marxist tradition of Georg Luckacs and Vladimir Lenin, insisted that the Enlightenment contains within itself the possibility of its own self-criticism, correction and renewal: that, as he claimed elsewhere, "there is no cure for the wounds of the Enlightenment but the radicalised Enlightenment itself." By abandoning these possibilities to a total critique of the Enlightenment, the postmodernists reverted to a pre-Enlightenment conception of the world, however fashionably phrased.

Ketland and Derbyshire charge the anti-war left with indulging in a faddish celebration of difference so overwhelming as to tear it from its Enlightenment roots, and replant itself in the seed-bed of reaction: it is the latter-day embodiement of Habermas' type (3), aligned with type (2), the neo-realist opposition to the "war on terror", formed upon the debased claims of "sovereignty", and the blunt denials of decrepit tillers of Green and Pleasant lands: type (1).

This is suggestive, but not for the reasons they think. We leave aside the exceptionally cutting criticisms those on the Marxist left have made of postmodernism (Callinicos' Against Postmodernism (Polity: 1989) stands out), and the deliberate disavowal of anti-war opposition founded upon "state sovereignty": I may be wrong, but I doubt if the presumably paradigmatic Socialist Worker has ever opposed war on these lines. The grand mystery here is why those self-defined as "on the left" should support war principally waged at the behest of conservative types (2) and (1): the alliance of avowed Labour Party supporters with fundamentalist Christians and Washington neo-conservatives requires explanation.

That I won't attempt here; but the deliberate disavowal of "class" by the Labour Left in the 1980s for the looser categories of "identity" played a part in establishing the ideological preconditions for this unholy matrimony. This process was well-documented in Andy McSmith's Faces of Labour (Verso: 1997), where he describes it as the rise of concern with "consumption" over "production": the same tendency in the US is devastatingly critiqued in Naomi Klein's No Logo. The narrow focuses of "identity politics" are something that the global justice movement has learned to abandon, and to brilliant effect; Klein's book was a harbinger of the practical critique of identity politics on display in Seattle, November 1999. But a section of the British "left" has remained glued to a rhetoric and political practice assembled in conditions of utter defeat by an aggressively resurgent Conservatism: a quiescent, passive attitude that largely accepts this defeat - the working class is "irrelevant" in what the influential magazine, Marxism Today, labelled "New Times" - and, in so doing, increasingly adopts the attitudes of the victor. After twenty years, the process was complete: "women's liberation" arriving via Daisycutter bomb in Afghanistan; "democracy" at the point of a bayonet in Iraq. Such are the new conservatives: (3) meeting (2) and (1) to cheer on global reaction.