DEMOCRACY & NATURE: The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY
vol.7, no.1, (March 2001)
Postmodernism continues to be a controversial issue and the contributions published in this issue reflect all the main trends on the matter. Steven Best, who has written widely on the topic and functioned as the editor in charge of this particular issue, has collected an ensemble of significant contributions expressing almost the full range of possible responses to postmodernism. We hope that the dialogue which D&N started on the matter will continue with further contributions in the future.
The opening text by the late Cornelius Castoriadis, unquestionably the most significant theorist of autonomy in the second half of the last century, is an important critique of postmodernism. We, exceptionally, reprint this paper not only as a tribute to the memory of Castoriadis, who functioned for many years as a distinguished member of the Advisory Board of D&N, but also in order to clarify his real views on postmodernism. This is particularly important today when it seems that a trend has been developing among postmodern writers, particularly of the post-Marxist variety, to classify him as a kind of ‘postmodernist’ –a trend which is also reflected in at least one contribution in this issue and was amply manifested in a recent New York conference in which his work was celebrated (and its radical political content effectively ‘neutralised’) by post-Marxists, poststructuralists and the like. In this essay, Castoriadis unambiguously condemns postmodernism as generalised conformism. As he aptly puts it: ‘The value of postmodernism as “theory” is that it mirrors the prevailing trends; its misery is that it simply rationalizes them through a high-brow apologetics of conformity and banality… Postmodernism is the latest case of intellectuals abandoning their critical function and enthusiastically adhering to that which is there just because it is there’.
In my contribution (Takis Fotopoulos) I attempted to show that the claim that the advanced market economies have entered a new era of postmodernity, or even a postmodern turn, is not justified by the changes of the last quarter of a century or so in the economic, political, cultural or scientific and theoretical levels. These changes reflect not a rupture or break with the past but rather an evolution of trends existing in modern society. The thesis I put forward is that advanced market economies have, instead, entered a new form of modernity, following the collapse of liberal modernity in the 19th century and that of statist modernity (in both its versions of social democracy and Soviet statism) in the 20th century. The new form of modernity, which we may call neoliberal modernity, represents a synthesis of the previous forms of modernity and at the same time completes the marketisation process which began with the institutionalisation of the market economy two hundred years ago and has led to the present internationalised market economy and supra-national forms of governance.
Arran Gare’ s perceptive contribution sees postmodernism as the decadence of the social democratic state. His thesis is that the triumph of neoliberalism and the parallel rise of postmodernism not only are non-accidental but in fact postmodernism has assisted the triumph of neo-liberalism. Thus, postmodernism, by undermining the radical version of modernism, has promoted the decadence of social democracy and ‘helped facilitate the triumph of neo-liberalism and the reinvigoration and globalisation of the market economy’. Gare is of course right in pointing out that that the biggest factor leading to this decadence was today’s concentration of power, although he does not take the extra step and examine the relationship between the main political and economic institutions of modernity (representative ‘democracy’ and market economy) and the present concentration of power, which is the inevitable outcome of the dynamics of these institutions. However, to simply blame this decadence for the rise of neoliberalism and postmodernism ignores the structural changes that led to the present neoliberal form of modernity. Furthermore, although one would agree with Gare that post-modern theory has been used as an ‘ideology’ to legitimise neoliberal modernity, it should not be forgotten that postmodernism developed mostly independently of these structural changes, as the result of a combination of parallel developments at the epistemological level (the crisis of ‘objectivism’ and ‘scientism)’, the ideological level (the decline of Marxism that was linked to the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’,) and the ecological level (the vast ecological crisis which cast a serious doubt on the meaning of Progress).
Steven Best and Douglas Kellner in their contribution offer an insightful analysis of the differences between (as well as within) modern and postmodern politics. Adopting a ‘reconstructive’ postmodernism, the authors support the case for a synthesis between modern and postmodern politics, which involves the use of postmodern critiques of essentialism, reductionism, and foundationalism to reconstruct Enlightenment values and socialist politics and to radicalise the theme of participatory democracy. However, the authors adopt also the basic postmodern thesis which rejects any ‘universal’ political project for a systemic change and –inevitably—end up supporting the usual kind of fragmented postmodern politics. The remedy they suggest for this problem is a politics of alliance and solidarity that builds on both modern and postmodern traditions and is based on coalitions and multifront struggle. But, the lack of any common anti-systemic aim, in combination with the composition of such alliances which would unavoidably consist of heterogeneous movements with sometimes conflicting aims, is bound to lead them across the well-trodden path of reformist politics which are hopelessly inadequate to deal with the multidimensional crisis we face in today’s’ internationalised market economy.
Simon Tormey’s paper gives a comprehensive account of the post-Marxist/postmodernist position on democracy and politics . His aim is to attack what he calls 'left radicals' by which he means the orthodox Marxist critics of post-Marxism, ignoring completely, in the process, the alternative left tradition to Marxism, namely the libertarian left, which is also vastly critical of postmodernism —and I would argue in a much more significant way― as it is shown in the works of Castoriadis, Bookchin et al. His contribution however and the clarity with which he puts forward the post-Marxist case offers a perfect ground on which the dialogue on postmodernism can take place.
David Ingram’s paper offers a perceptive discussion of the vexed question of the minority groups’ rights in the postmodern era of identity politics. As this discussion is based on a form of social organisation in which society is separate from polity (representative ‘democracy’) and the economy (market economy) it is of little relevance to the inclusive democracy discourse. Still, this discussion is useful because it highlights, within the context of a comparison of two models of statist democracy (the liberal model of ‘overlapping consensus’ and the Habermasian model of ‘communicative consensus’) the issues involved in securing effective protection of rights without compromising ‘identities’ and ‘differences’ based on gender, race or culture.
Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard, in an excellent analysis of the evolution of Hollywood’s culture, attempt to show the close correspondence between what they call ‘postmodern cinema’ and ‘the post-Fordist, globalized phase of capitalist development which is typified by increasing class polarization, social atomisation, urban chaos and violence, ecological crisis, and mass depoliticization’. Although one may raise serious reservations as to whether Hollywood’s productions today reflect indeed a new kind of cinema representing a break with the past rather than simply an evolution of the old culture, the article offers a very insightful analysis of the detailed characteristics of past and present Hollywood culture, as well as a useful typology of today’s general trends.
Ben Agger makes a very interesting attempt to develop a social theory of the text combining insights from German critical theory and French postmodern theory. His contribution helps to demolish the myth of the writer as a solitary genius and not as “a social actor positioned, by language and society, to write Asocial texts that reproduce the existing social order”. He sees the need for a theory of the text more urgent than ever because, as he rightly points out, ‘what Marxists used to call ideology has not ended with the so-called end of Communism. If anything, ideology is more virulent, more coercive, because it has disappeared from the pages of books proper, such as the Bible or Wealth of Nations, into the quotidian cultural universe, informing television, advertising, newspapers, magazines, school and college textbooks, even academic social science and social theory, which celebrate the present as a plenitude of social being’. He is also right in characterising today’s ideology as largely positivist and this way more dangerous than ever. One would also have to agree with the author that the present commodification and academisation of culture plays a critical role in blocking critical writing. This is particularly so today, when most writing is carried out by academics who, with an eye in promoting their own career, would be too keen to self-censor themselves or simply dismiss as ‘utopian’ any alternative radical ways of thinking . However, one may raise serious reservations in the way the author sees method and science as a new mythology and ideology, not much different from advertising. Although it is true that positive science does play this role in the so-called social ‘sciences’, it would be a sweeping generalisation to extend this characterisation to all kinds of science, if not to reason itself, as most postmodernists do. This could easily lead us again ―particularly today!― to the paths of irrationalism (religious or otherwise) from which some parts of Humanity emerged just a couple of hundreds of years ago.
Finally, Tim Duvall’s review article examines Carl Bogg’s thesis about the end of politics. Although one may have reservations as to the causes of the present decline of the public sphere and in particular as to whether this is just due to the rise of corporate power rather than to the dynamics of the market economy and representative democracy which inevitably led to the present concentration of power, still, one has to agree with Boggs that we have indeed reached the end of politics ‘as we know it’, i.e. what passes for politics today. However, one may argue that the way out of this impasse is surely not the creation of one more parliamentary party within the same institutional framework (something that has been tested in practice with the European Green parties and dismally failed) but the building of a mass political movement that will work as a catalyst for the creation of a new public space and a new kind of politics ‘from below’, which would synthesise the ‘universal’ demand for true democracy with the ‘politics of difference’.
Takis Fotopoulos, Editor