Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



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Marxism had to wade through the maze of multifarious socio-political and philosophical obstacles in the last century, particularly after the World War II. Many of such theoretical obfuscation was directly sponsored and nurtured by American multimillionaires. What is ironic is that most of such theories, which raised some short-lived ripples in western universities, soon gathered dust for no takers. The two decades after the World War II were dominated by Talcott Parson’s grand synthesis of Weber, Durkheim, Pareto, Marshall and subsequently Freud. Parson, in collaboration with some other people, developed the theory of structural functionalism to celebrate the virtues of American Society and fight communism. The U.S. Government and academic institutions glorified the anti-Marxist ‘Behavioural Approach’ as an enemy of empiricism and a historical approach, preferring to study the "behavioural world". This "Behavioural Approach" was openly sponsored by various foundations funded by Carnegie, Rockfeller and the Ford foundations. It was followed by "Post-Behaviouralism". The System Theory, studying the so-called open and closed systems, focused on the stability, instability, equilibrium and break-down of a system. This so-called system theory led to structural-functional and input-output analyses. All the efforts were concerned with the individual or with action in small face-to-face groups, less on institutions. Lipset, in 1981, endorsed the development of an apolitical Marxism. Ralf Dahrendorf, basically a follower of Weber, who is projected in the West as a sociologist of the social conflict tradition, declared in 1959 "The equalization of status resulting from social development of the past century has contributed greatly to changing the issues and diminishing the intensity of class conflict."[Ralf Dahrendorf, "Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society", Standford University Press, 1959, pp. 22-23]

But it was only a short-lived phenomenon. The crisis of capitalism, the rising movements of the people and particularly the liberation war in Vietnam in the 1960s and the fast half of 1970s, together with the great Cultural Revolution in China, shattered the foundation of such bourgeois idealist theories. Theories of consensus, equilibrium and celebration of capitalism against Marxism proved to be futile theorisation in cosy academies. Devastating criticism was mounted even in the West and such theoreticians shrank in the face of never ending struggles and the growing crisis of capitalism.

Following World War II, there arose in the United States a host of crude anti-socialist and anti-democratic theories like the Elite Theory, Group Theory, Power Theory, etc. Without any conceptual basis, the Elite Theory preached the idea that in every society a selected few have the right to rule. The Elite Theory reminds us of German Sociologist Pareto’s notion of the circulation of the elites. The Elite Theory emerged as a vociferous critique of socialism and democracy. The Group Theory added that, the elite need consist of social groups engaged in perpetual struggle for power and domination over each other. This theory ultimately and logically leads to a particular concept of the social system and of political behaviour. It echoes behaviouralism to explain how society maintains equilibrium through a mechanism of "balance of the group pressures". What lies behind those two anti-socialist, anti-democratic theories is the notion of POWER as the primary urge. In a similar fashion the Power Theory, having its mooring in the anti-humanist, anti-socialist concept of Nietzche, Treitscke, etc. advocated that politics is the study of who got what amount of power, when and how. All those theories preached that an urge for power and power relations are fundamentals in the study of politics. As the post-modernist Foucault found power and power everywhere, those above theories also preached crudely a form of power-based determinism.

In sociology, against the grand macro level tradition there emerged the micro-level interactionist theories. Charles Horton Cooley of the American tradition of social psychology attempted to show in 1902 that social interaction takes place only within each individual’s mind as he or she imagines other people’s attitudes and possible responses. To him the fact is that language is always a kind of imaginary conversation. In his words " The immediate social reality is the personal ideas …….. society, then, in its immediate aspect, is a relation among personal ideas………….. Society exists in my mind as the contact and reciprocal influence of certain ideas….." embodied in language.[Randall Collins(ed), Four Sociological Traditions, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1994, pp. 285-286] Thus Cooley concluded in an idealist fashion "Social person is primarily a fact in the mind."[Ibid p.288] This micro-interactionist tradition was taken further by George Herbert Mead and his disciples like Herbert Blumer founding the theory of symbolic interactionism. Mead anticipated the present day vocabulary of post-modernists/ post-structuralists when he declared that the self is not one’s physical body, but a complicated set of attitudes derived from both inside and outside. So, what Mead presented was a fluid state of self without any consistent and solid foundation: We are multiple selves as we have multiple social relationships, and on these we build yet another degree of multiplicity through reflexive relationships among our own selves.[Ibid. p.294] Apparently speaking, this multiplicity of selves is not at variance with reality. But what this view leads to, is an over-emphatic edge to utter flexibility of the human mind, with no steady cohesive role for any consistent activity as a conscious worker or a revolutionary dedicated to fight to the finish the hurdles in society.

Existentialism emerged as an irrationlistic trend in philosophy particularly in the post-World War II Germany and then in France and other countries. Its origin lies in Husserl’s phenomenology and mystico-religious teachings of Kierkegard. It is an irrational reaction to Enlightenment and German classical philosophy declaring that the essential defect of rational thought lies in that it proceeds from the principle of anti-thesis of the subject and object, i.e. it divided the world into the objective and the subjective. Existentialism preached, a sort of irrational reality. For existentialism the true means of knowledge lies in the penetration of the world of "existence" through existential intuition. Freedom lies in the individual’s choice among many possibilities, and thus choice is divorced from circumstances and objective necessities; making, thereby, freedom an individual’s ethical question, resulting extreme individualism.

The Frankfurt School, which emerged in the 1920s in Germany, has its genesis in anti-Bolshevik radicalism and a revised form of Marxism. It shrinks from treating society as an "object" to be examined, an object with its own "laws of motion". Instead the theoreticians of this school generally insist on resorting to "subjectivity" of human endeavours, the capacity of people to shape their own destiny, and potential for rational and collective regulation of society – although the most pessimistic would argue that capitalism has penetrated the human psyche so deeply as to erode even the potential for an emancipated society.[Michael Buraway and Theda Skocpol, Marxist Inquiries, Studies of labour, Class and States, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 88, Supplement 1982, p. 56] The Frankfurt School rejects the role of the proletariat in history and that of progress as shown by Hegel. However, the Frankfurt theoreticians are reluctant to abandon their roots in Enlightenment — the view of history as one all-embracing process in which a historical subject attains its essence. Inspite of a general faith in the Dialectics of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno did not want to focus the contradiction between productive forces and production relations nor even the conflict between the proletariat and bourgeois. They rather resorted to some elements of post-modernism by declaring that the Enlightenment had changed into Positivism, to serve capital, to become totalitarianism and to culminate in Fascism.[Paul Connerton(ed), Critical Sociology, Penguin Books, 1976, New York, p. 27]

Now, the attack against Marxism has come in the name of Post-modernism. According to Victor E.Taylor post-modernism is a term used to describe a wide spectrum of aesthetic, cultural, historical, literary and philosophical endeavours. In a philosophical context it claims dissociation with logo-centrism and dismantling of universal human reason, that is characteristic of modern philosophy.[Victor E.Taylor, General Commentary, In Victor E.Taylor and Charles E.Winquist(eds), Martin Jay,"Post-Modernism…..", Volume I, Routledge, London and New York, 1998, pp. xii-xiii]

There are basically two kinds of post-modernism/ post-structuralism. The first, in the words of Richard Rorty is ‘textualism’, which is actually an heir to German classical idealism. Whereas the nineteenth century idealism, Rory adds, wanted to substitute one sort of science (philosophy) for another (natural science) as the centre for culture, textualism wants to place literature at the centre, and to treat both science and philosophy as, at best, literary genres. The chief proponents of textualism are Jacques Derrida and his North American followers, particularly the late Paul de Man, notorious after the posthumous unearthing of his earlier pro-Nazi writings. The second form of post-modernism/post-structuralism was pioneered by Michel Foucault through his master category of ‘power-knowledge’. While the former type almost exclusively concentrated on language as premise, Foucault, in his theory of power, moved towards the tentacles of power-everywhere and emphasised the power of knowledge. In both kinds of presentation two words denoting concepts come up frequently: Discourse and narrative. In the words of one front-ranking pioneer of this trend, Leotard, the language for discussion of science or philosophy is ‘discourse’, while the language used for mythical writings, etc. is ‘narrative’. However, he also added that discourse too is basically narrative; meta-narrative or grand-narrative. In any case, all the variants of post-modernism/post-structuralism owe their fatherhood to Nietzche. Derrida has acknowledged the influence of Nietzche in various texts; Faucault even called himself "simply a Nietzchean" before his death.


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