Thursday, 29 June 2017

Neoreaction: Right Wing Postmodernism Pt 1

This is not an Article on Postmodernism
The alt-right crops up frequently in social media.  When Hillary Clinton cast the alt-right as a boogeyman in contrast to her own 2016 election campaign, this was its appropriately ironic break into the political mainstream.  I say appropriately ironic because the true nature of the alt-right has been obscured by much of the media attention that's been paid to it.

The alt-right is not chiefly about white nationalism.  White nationalism is about white nationalism.  Not all WNs are alt-right, and more traditional, orthodox neo-nazis tend not to like the alt-right.   While there is plenty of racism on the alt-right, that's not its defining characteristic.  In this two part series, I attempt to explain what I think postmodernism is and the effects it has on society, and then assert that what really defines the alt-right is that it represents the right wing's embrace of postmodernism.

Postmodernism is a slippery concept to pin down.  In spite of this, it comes in for a lot of criticism and is often scapegoated for western civilization's going in the wrong direction.  Wikipedia describes postmodernism as follows:
"While encompassing a broad range of ideas, postmodernism is typically defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies and various tenets of universalism, including objective notions of reason, human nature, social progress, moral universalism, absolute truth, and objective reality. Instead, it asserts to varying degrees that claims to knowledge and truth are products of social, historical or political discourses or interpretations, and are therefore contextual or socially constructed. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, irreverence and self-referentiality."
This page offers some additional insights:
Postmodernism is "post" because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody - a characteristic of the so-called "modern" mind. 
A common denominator in many descriptions of postmodernism is a loss of faith in the project of the enlightenment and a propensity towards radical forms of cultural relativism.  Other features commonly associated with postmodernism include:
  • A number of French philosophers, including Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, among others.  
  • Rejection of metanarratives, which are seen as all encompassing truths universally applicable to the whole of the human race. 
  • Poststructuralism, a rejection of a model of understanding human culture by way of its relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure. 
  • Deconstruction, a means of studying literature that "that questions all traditional assumptions about the ability of language to represent reality and emphasizes that a text has no stable reference or identification because words essentially only refer to other words and therefore a reader must approach a text by eliminating any metaphysical or ethnocentric assumptions through an active role of defining meaning, sometimes by a reliance on new word construction, etymology, puns, and other word play."
  • Postmodernism became increasingly prominent in academia after the Second World War, alongside the somewhat related concept of critical theory, associated with the Frankfurt School.  Postmodernism's skepticism towards enlightenment ideas dovetailed with critical theory's mounting assertions that the Marxist critique of capitalism was merely the tip of the iceberg, and atrocities ranging from colonialism to the world wars and the holocaust suggested that there was something inherently wicked about western civilization itself.  
  • Concepts such as cultural hegemony, and mixtures of Freudian concepts with critiques of political economy to describe methods by which marginalized and oppressed peoples internalize their oppression.
  • Orthodox Marxism, and especially Marxist-Leninism, was seen as more part of the problem than part of the solution, as the revelations of atrocities inside the USSR came out.  Furthermore, the working classes in the capitalist world had no real interest in overthrowing capitalism, as Marx suggested they should have.  Rather, their aims were simply to have sufficient income and leisure with which to enjoy the products and services provided under capitalism.  Worse still, capitalism was proving superior to Soviet socialism in terms of actually delivering the goods and providing a material standard of living. For most people in the 1st world, leastwise.
  • Given the working class's acceptance of capitalism based on rising living standards, critiques of capitalism emerged that tended to more strongly emphasize social alienation and commodity fetishism, and a resulting anti-consumerist disposition.  Related to this were abstract, appropriationist and expressionist forms of art, and irony laden popular culture that positioned itself as a kind of protest against consumerism and commodification.
  • If the working class was not willing to play the revolutionary role that Marxism cast for them, other constituencies of people would have to be found whose experiences of alienation under not just capitalism, but western civilization as a whole made them better suited for revolutionary struggle: the 3rd world, racial minorities and people of color, women, LGBT people, Muslims and so on.  And so identity politics were cast into the mix.
  • Bodies of critical theory rooted in identity politics: critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory and so on likewise used postmodern methods to convey their messages and deconstruct the classical canon of "dead white males."  These bodies of theory became increasingly influential in academia and beyond.
  • Implicit in the blend of postmodernism, critical theory and identity politics is a rejection of any separation of scholarship and activism, or for that matter of livelihood and activism or of personal lifestyle choice and activism.  The concepts of liberal impartiality and private/public distinction were called into question as just more western liberal privileging of, well, privilege. 
  • As such, the "social justice warriors" so called have no qualms about the use, or one could say abuse, of institutional power against their political opponents, or of anyone deemed privileged, for they maintain that the broader society in which everyone operates consists of little more than a network of oppressive social systems designed to further uphold privilege and exclude the marginalized.
The above concepts gestated in academia over a span of decades, and made themselves felt in academia and elsewhere in the form of what was called political correctness.  It was the emergence of the internet and social media, however, that gave what had until then had been a largely avant-garde movement exponentially greater reach with which to reach into a mainstream popular culture that was largely defenseless against the deconstructive techniques of postmodern critical theory.  

The largely rationalist and modernist libertarian individualists who dominated internet culture were as helpless before the postmodern SJW onslaught as the religious traditionalists had so recently been before those same rationalists.  The sharpest skeptics on the internet cast their facts, figures and logic in vain against an onslaught of identitarian ideologues for whom the very terms of rational debate were dismissed as mere devices of and rationalizations for hegemonic white male privilege.  

What was worse, the institutions of knowledge and culture, staffed and managed as they were by graduates from colleges where the varied forms of critical theory were taught, tended to take the side of the social justice warriors.  To legions of social media moderators and blogs covering a whole gamut of subjects, liberal claims to a universal notion of equal treatment rang hollow.  There was no such thing as racism or sexism against the "privileged" and some of these people had no qualms about getting personal or even attacking the families or livelihoods of anyone who dared disagree.  There were no bad methods, only bad people, after all.

But at the heart of postmodernism's strength was also one central weakness: what exempts it from its own critiques and techniques of deconstruction?  If all "truths" are relative social constructs that are more accurate reflections of the fault lines of power in a given context, does this statement also apply to an academic and popular culture that's become infused with the postmodern forms of left-leaning critical theory?
"The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philosopher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism "cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself."
The cultural luminaries in academia and mainstream media were not expecting the answer they were to get.

Read Neoreaction: Right Wing Postmodernism Pt 2 here.

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