Japhy Barrera writes on the history of postmodernism whilst critiquing its developments over the past decades
Postmodernism has become an enigma; many recognize the term yet few know what it means. This is not one’s own fault, but rather that of those who choose to distort the discourse around the subject. Jordan Peterson, professional psychologist and pseudo-intellectual, has become infamous for such distortions. Often in his lectures or debates, Peterson can be heard rambling about the “postmodern neo-Marxists” seeking to ruin his beloved western civilisation. These sort of phrases are meaningless yet have been purposed for Peterson and alike to catagorise anyone who disagrees with them. The throwing around of these terms to describe anybody deviating from reactionary values is false and must be clarified.
According to Encylopedia Britannica, postmodernism is “characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” This definition is often summarised in one brief phrase: incredulity toward meta-narratives.
Meta-narratives are “an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provide a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences (Oxford).” Postmodernism’s rejection of metanarratives is simultaneously a rejection of objective truth. Today, this line of thought serves nothing but to undermine campaigns for a better world.
In many ways, Donald Trump’s presidency and the subsequent cultural shift in the United States epitomises postmodernism. Trump did not reckon with opposing facts using his own, but rather simply rejected that the opposition’s fact was a fact at all. “Wrong!” the declaration most associated with Trump’s term, perfectly embodies this phenomenon.
This rhetorical strategy, although widely discredited and dissented, rejuvenated the right-wing in the United States. It did so by covering over the most predominant blind spot in the conservative line of reasoning: a credible arsenal of factual information. No longer did the Republican Party or its base have to equip themselves with already existing truths, but far more conveniently, they could make up their own. This postmodernist strategy expands beyond just a tactic utilised circumstantially, it now encompasses the vast majority of western mainstream political discourse and society at large.
Postmodernist thought did not originate with these nefarious intentions, however. Postmodernism arose in the 20th century out of the age of modernity (which loosely began in the 17th century). Contrary to its subsequent counterpart, modernity saw a discovery and embrace of metanarratives. For the first time in human history, concepts of reason, logic, science, medicine, technology, and progress stormed the mainstream. This period, ranging hundreds of years, saw humanity advance in an unprecedented fashion, largely setting the foundations of the world we live in today. Like every historical period, however, modernity came to an end. The exact date of this ending point is not completely agreed upon, but the most striking of which is certainly the end of World War II. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in the August of 1945 via nuclear bombs shook the social bedrock of humanity.
The attacks on Japan, since proven to be completely unnecessary, were a turning point for progress. Leading up to the wars, technological, social, and political advancements had been overwhelmingly positive. Although far from perfect, modernity and that which came with it brought longer and better lives, fueled by newfound purpose. The world wars, which killed approximately 100 million people combined, including hundreds of thousands within moments from the atomic bombs, was the first global realisation that progress could and did go wrong. The metanarrative of ‘scientific advancement for humanity’s development’ that had hitherto brought modern medicine and the industrial revolution had brought destruction instead.
After the wars, the postmodern movement posed questions surrounding authority and truth. Concepts that were once taken for granted like religion, patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity, many of which were used to justify imperialist, fascist, and monarchical rule, were vigorously challenged.
However, postmodernism no longer stands for the defiance to opportunistic figures, organisations, and systems like it once did. What was once a philosophical movement, postmodernism has now pervaded into the fabric of our society, rather leaving us in a predicament of postmodernity. Humanity in the 21st century finds itself in a stagnant state, not pushed forward by ideals of progress and improvement, but rather by vapid profit and greed with capitalism at its core.
Peterson and similar right-wing ideologues portray the west as a fortress of ‘proper civilisation’ under attack by those advocating for progressive change; this worldview was the foundation of Trump’s populist rhetoric and presidency as a whole. The truth is that this understanding of the United States and western civilisation in general, is severely misled. Mild social democrats and liberals advocating for bare necessities like free healthcare and affordable housing are now decried as radicals seeking to tear down an exemplary society; political discourse has never been so muddled and confused.
The ‘modernity’ that contemporary right-wing ideology seeks to defend is falsified around concepts of Christianity, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, white nationalism, and most predominantly: capitalism. These ideas are fuelling the political ascendency of reactionary ideologies across the U.S. and Europe. What has resulted is civilisations of despair and poverty, with politicians utilising populism only for their own bourgeois agendas.
This postmodern condition that has now engulfed western society must be central to any Marxist campaign for progress. The socialist program must come with promises for an escape from the cesspool of falsehoods and right-wing identity politics that are stagnating and regressing humanity. It must be concentrated on the improvement of people’s material wellbeing and standard of life, based on a political platform of social ownership. Through this movement, a new sense of purpose will proliferate through what are the most hopeless and nihilistic generations in recent history.
This concept of transcending postmodernity has been pondered sparsely, yet profoundly in socialist circles and otherwise. Architect and author Tom Turner described such a development in his own field. He criticised the postmodern movement in architecture, stating that the ‘anything goes’ attitude was doing away with timeless and practical urban planning that had continuously progressed the art. Although movements and eras of modernism, postmodernism, and alike have varying meanings depending on the context (being art, architecture, philosophy, politics, etc.), the idea Turner gets at is very much relevant to Marxists. Although we must learn from postmodernism and not return to the many faults of the modern age, bringing back the core principles of tangible and sincere progress based on reality is the only solid foundation for revolutionary politics. “Embrace post-postmodernism,” Turner pleads, “and pray for a better name.” Regardless of labels, this transcendent phase will come with socialism. Widespread understanding of capitalism, the systemic rot that comes with it, and its inevitable replacement, will lead to the demise of postmodernity.
It is therefore a most revolutionary duty to carve out this understanding and lay it plain for all to see. This task has already been taken up by those who are campaigning on pressing issues. We have seen over just the past couple of years with the climate crisis, ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and ‘Kill the Bill’ protests, many have begun to unveil the truth underlying private ownership. The postmodernist explanation for the police killing of George Floyd, for example, may try to paint a picture of individuals unbound by their social class or racial background ending in an unfortunate yet accidental tragedy. The Marxist response is far less abstract; it would point out the systemic and historical nature of white police killings of black people as well as further propose solutions to change it. To escape the abyss of hopeless, directionless uncertainty that has permeated, there must be a return of common understanding surrounding the structures that produce the issues we face. Socialism is the movement striving for this return.