Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



Previous Chapter  Contents  Next Chapter


Post-modernism: A Romantic Petty-Bourgeois Exercise Dumping Rationality and Practice

Foucault presents us certain powerful arguments

In Madness and Civilization and Discipline and Punish Foucault furnishes us with fascinating examples that we are living in a disciplinary society. School, college, hospital, army, prison, factories are all modelled on disciplinary society. Man is in chains. And the basis of this chained condition is "power-knowledge". He believed that "Power-knowledge springs from a political awareness of small things for the control and use of men for the purpose of administration" That is, the discourse of power-knowledge dominates over man. As a corollary of this argument Foucault believed that even in the change of any established power the domination can not be eliminated. He believed that any system is an embodiment of domination. He reasoned; "I think another system is to extend our participation in a system." He accepted that against repression there will be resistance and it will be local, sporadic but that much. Foucault also went to the extent of declaring that "Power is never manifested globally but always at local points, as micro power". He came in support of protest movements inside jails. With this notion of disciplinary society Foucault analysed the French Revolution. He accepted that Enlightenment brought some measure of freedom but also burdened man with chains of domination. Through this Revolution peasants were made citizens from serfs and for this they had to pay a heavy price.

About Marxism he said "At the deepest level of western knowledge, Marxism introduced no real discontinuity ........ Marxism had no intention of disturbing and above all, no power to modify even, one jot, since it rested entirely upon it."[Foucault The Order of Things, pp. 260-262] Against the Marxian view of unity, totality and universalism Foucault in his book Archaeology of Knowledge (Introduction) emphasized fragments, discontinuity and rupture. He himself stated that he is far away from Marxism and closer to Niestzsche. Echoing Foucault, Leotard has written "Let us wage war on totality.....Let us activate difference".

First, the concept of power can be analysed from two aspects. It is a fact that knowledge also gives birth to power. Examples are galore to justify it. If it is considered from the other way round one may conceive of a situation minus knowledge. Does it augur well for humankind? Is not knowledge essential? Besides that, when Foucault is vocal with his knowledge-based concept, does it not exert power on the listeners or readers?

Secondly, Foucault’s view on all the systems producing power is not to bring about any fundamental change. Structural functionalists and system analysts in the 1960s made it a point to drive this idea home that all systems are basically for the same function of delivering goods with requisite measures of system maintenance. David Easton in his system theory clearly stressed this point reducing practically all the differences between a capitalist or socialist system to nothingness. If one is to accept Foucault’s view then one cannot see the difference between a feudal or fascist capitalist system and a socialist system. As a corollary to Foucault’s view one cannot expect any or try for any better system without the ruthless exploitation of the feudal lords or capitalists. Foucault and such post-modernists saw the socialist degeneration in the USSR and elsewhere. But while totally rejecting such new advanced systems they have not provided any remedy. In fact many of the Post-modernists like Leotard preferred the capitalist order. If post-modernists/ Post-structuralists are to be accepted then one is to reject the inherent and basic differences between a slave system and the feudal system, and between the capitalist system and the socialist system.

Jurgeon Habermas was the first theoretician who showed the relationship between Post-modernism and neo-conservation and in his Adorno award speech criticised both of them. Habermas was in favour of modernism of the period of Enlightenment; on the contrary Leotard was against enlightenment-based modernism. Habermas identified post-modernism as "Post-modern conservation" and then attacked it. He called Foucault and Derrida ‘Young conservative’. Habermas looked with terror at the situation when the young generation was overwhelmed by unreason, anarchism and frustration. He also called post-modernism anti-modernism.

Marx and Engel’s did not uncritically accept the Enlightenment. It should be remembered that despite great positive aspects of the Enlightenment, at the base of it lay the idealistic assumption that consciousness plays the decisive role in the development of society. It did not impart stress on the decisive role of the economic conditions of development and the objective laws of society. It addressed all classes of society especially those in power, preparing the advent of the capitalist system.

What George Lukacs called "Romantic anti-capitalism" has now come up in the garb of post-modernism/post-structuralism in the challenge against entire Enlightenment. But what transpires as the main difficulties common to all the philosophers of this trend (Deleuze, Derrida, Foucant, et al) is their dangerous denial of any objectivity to discourse, their inability to base their resistance to power which they claim to articulate, their rejection of any coherence and also actual initiative to be assigned to the human subject. It is notable that on many an occasion those philosophers of the new trend are using tools of modernism while rejecting it. In his critique of the Enlightenment and the rising capitalist system Marx of course examined bourgeois society, not as the actualization of reason, but as the latest version of the exploitation and imperialist expansion, distinguished chiefly by its technological dynamism and nurturing of the proletariat – the class capable of abolishing the exploitative society. While Marx and Engel’s, working in the second half of the 19th century, used scientific reason against the bourgeoisie to decode the law of motion of capitalism in order to destroy it, Nietzche, the philosopher father of Fascism and also present-day post-modernism/post-structuralism, a contemporary of those enemies of capitalism, preached the will to power as intrinsic to life itself and rejected non-exploitative society. This new idealism bears two prominent qualities, viz. puzzling and confusing the readers and lulling them in the deep tunnel with no escape route. This trend poses to be doing battles against holism, logocentric tradition, Enlightenment reason and univocality but what finally emerges, to follow Habermas, "is that it merely inverts consciousness – philosophy by denying the subject, and thus ironically, is as holistic as the logocentric traditions it opposes….."[Quoted in Martin Jay, Habermas and Post-modernism In Victor E. Taylor and Charles E.Winquist, … ….., Volume II, Routledge, London and New Yourk, 1998, pp. 241-242] This new trend is actually conservative with radical pronouncements. It can be equated with some striking features of the advanced capitalist societies which are both libertarian and authoritarian, hedonistic and repressive, multiple and monolithic. "The logic of the market place is one of pleasure and plurality, of the ephemeral and discontinuous of some great decentred network of desire of which individuals seem the mere fleeting effects…. The political ambivalences of post-modernism match this contradiction exactly … a lot of post modernism is politically oppositional but economically complicit…." [Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Post modernism, Blackwell Publishiers, UK 1997, p.132]

Post-modernists/Post-structuralists declare war on Enlightenment and Reason as they built up the base of modernism, which later showed signs of degeneration. The question is how can one reject post-feudal developments? Instead of rejecting all the development in the fields of technology, science and such other fields a judicious, sober and rational view could have helped make a proper review of the developments related to the benefits of man and society and to decide on how to put a stop to the potentials of danger and degeneration. Take for example, the question of deforestation. Necessary deforestation in pockets could be balanced with systematic afforestation programmes in a planned economy (as was done in the communes in Mao’s China) — but it is the capitalist’s greed for profits that ravages the ecology. Some post-modernists are vocal supporters of environmental preservation. It is a right stand against reckless destruction of nature. Modernism overlooked environment, its flora and fauna. Man-nature relation was trampled by aggressive modernism based on capitalism.

It should be kept in mind words, like grassroots, grass level, etc. were given priority by Mao. Post-modernists with their overwhelming priority on fragments, opposition to the concept of whole, etc. pose their views as a paradigmatic shift. Way back it was Marx who declared in 1844 "The universality of man manifests itself in practice in that universality which makes the whole of nature as his inorganic body, (1) as a means of life and (2) as a matter, the object and the tool of his activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and metal life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."[Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, In Marx, Early Writing, Vintage, New York, 1974, p.328] Thus Marx, in his much discussed question of alienation, brought forth the problem of estrangement of humanity from its own labouring activity along with from its active role in transforming nature, making man’s estrangement from his own body from his spiritual, human essence. It is also an estrangement of man from himself and nature.

It is in order to state that Post-modernist are not the pioneers in raising the question of ecological consciousness. Marx was not basically an environmentalist. Whenever he invoked Prometheus he did it mainly to project him as a symbol of revolution not as a symbol of technology. He was not a crude worshipper of ‘Prometheanism’ or in other words a worshipper of the machine. Against mechanistic domination Marx did not share the views of the Romantics. He favoured rational development of science and technology for the all-round development of human creative potentials for the achievement of a realm of freedom maintaining ties with nature. It was Marx who could anticipate the destructive effects of machinery and large-scale industry. In his own words,

"All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original source of all wealth – the soil and the worker."[Marx, Capital, Vol. I. pp. 637-38, quoted in John Bellamy Foster, Marx And The Environment, Monthly Review, July-August 1995, p. 109]

Marx’s materialism is obviously not the ‘Baconian’ domination of nature and economic development. It contained the assertion of ecological values, the assertion for balance man-nature relations. It is opposed to a spiritualistic, vitalistic view of the natural world tending to be the worshipper of nature. Marx’s approach to environment was not spiritualistic naturalism or natural theology. Some Marxists also became staunch protagonists of unbridled development of productive forces without taking into account its fall-out on the man-nature relationship and the negative and destructive potentials associated with the monstrous growth of technology and science and also certain ideological and cultural decay. Mao opposed the theory of productive forces emphasizing politics in command in the context of his fight against the capitalist roaders. In India too the CPI and the CPI(M) on different occasions voiced in favour of pure industrialisation citing the examples of the first world countries. It is in order to state that among the poets of the Romantic Age in England Wordsworth and some others gave a call to go back to Nature against the rapid progress of industrialisation. This love of Nature was also the result of bitter feelings emanating from the all-out attack against the feudal order during the French Revolution. The poetic fancy can permit a flight to the bosom of Nature disregarding down-to-earth reality but the irresistible power of the Industrial Revolution proceeded as a natural development opening up a new age tearing apart the past socio-economic relations. Some post-modernists echo the romanticists but one should take into account the present stage of industrialisation with potentials of devastation. The motive for super-profit, destruction of nature and production of lethal weapons etc. have been closely associated with the present moribund capitalist system and the extent to which those dangerous features have reached any conscious Marxist or even a democrat must think twice before extending support to any industrialisation or scientific experiments. We differ with post-modernists like Norman O Brown who announced in the late 60s: "Release all the chains of desire, instinct, discipline and the limits of all restraint. Be naked, strip yourself and go back to the habits of savage humans."[Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, London: Sphere Books 1970] Daniel Bell called this attitude of Norman O. Brown "the Post-modern mood", Brown is also against Reason and he believed that all knowledge is acquired through our sensory organs.

Even Freud, the leading figure of Psychology and a non-Marxist, studied instinct and placed his theory of the subconscious at a plane between the conscious and the unconscious. Freud in his unearthing of the subconscious, mainly tried to develop a bridge between art and neurosis, a sort of compromise between instinct and reality. In his discourse on civilization and its insatiety, Freud clearly stated that man always swings between the demand of instinct and the restriction of society. With the progress of civilization individuality becomes reduced, and that civilization puts man on certain fetters. Then Freud found some compatibility between the development of civilization and progress based on libido. He believed that at a certain stage a baby gets detached from the mother, which is necessary for the well being of the baby. In Freud’s opinion the real problem did not lie in the imposition of restrictions on inspirations. Not only that he had also to ultimately state critically that his psychoanalysis has confused many people. He was poignant to add that psychoanalysis was not any advocacy of unbridled instincts, rather its aim was to sound a warning to mend the deviations of the people in their lives.

The post-modernist mentors like Brown are for lifting all instinctive desires. While Freud, commonly known as the father of psychoanalysis emphasizing instinctive factors, was for a restriction, the post-modernists prefer destruction of all restrictions on sex or instinctive acts.

Marx described his position in a unity of naturalism and humanism. Naturalism is that man is a part of nature, not created by some transcendental spiritual agency. But humanism is the view related to the fact that by a creative way of acting, in other words praxis, man both changes nature and creates himself. He assertively stated that "If one wants to judge all human acts, movements, relations, etc. in accordance with the principle of utility one must first deal with human nature in general and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch." [Capital, Vol.1 ch.22] Marx gave new life to Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality. And what is more is that Marx specified the conditions under which human potentiality is crippled and wasted: the division of labour, private property, capital, state oppression and false ideological consciousness. Their abolition, what Freud never conceived of, is a necessary condition of universal emancipation.

The post-modern Brown was attracted to Russeau’s famous saying: man was born free and everywhere he is now in chains. With this Brown found that Freud is the measuring stick of our unsacred madness and Nietzsche is the symbol of sacred madness and mad truth. Whereas Marx worked on a broader plane, Post-modernists like Brown instead of visualising a new order based on equality and higher order of culture advocated anarchy and slavery to instinctive needs. Erich Fromm in his book The crisis of Psycho analysis, Essays on Freud, Marx and Social Psychology had this to say: ".......... Marx’s petit-bourgeois interpreters interpreted his theory as an economistic psychology. In reality, historical materialism is far from being a psychological theory; its psychological presupposition are few and may be briefly listed: men make their own history; needs motivate men’s actions and feelings (hunger and love); these needs increase in the course of historical development, thereby spurring increased economic activity, .......... Marx and Engels certainly stressed that the drive towards self-preservation took priority over all other needs, but they did not go into details about the quality of various drives and needs. However, they never maintained that the ‘acquisitive drive, the passion for acquisition as an aim in itself, was the only or essential need. To proclaim it a universal human drive would be naively to absolutise a psychic trait that has taken on uncommon force in capitalist society." [pp.167-168] In the same way if instinctive drive is given precedence over all economic and cultural activities of the people, as some post-modernists preach, man is posited as a slave to instincts!

To come once again to Foucault’s view on power, the world has come across two powerful trends like anarchism and syndicalism in the past. Those Post-modernists reject the principle of political authority as well. Anarchism also rejected it and imagined a society without authority. It’s central negative thrust is directed against the core elements that make up the modern state, particularly its coercive machinery. The positive thrust of anarchism is directed towards the vindication of ‘natural society’, i.e. a self-regulated society of individuals and freely-formed groups. Marx and Engels saw it as a petty bourgeois phenomenon. The attack was not against the actual state but an abstract state that nowhere exists. Moreover anarchism denied what was essential in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class: political action by an independent working-class party leading to conquest, not the immediate destruction of political power. For Engels "abolition of the state makes sense only as the necessary result of the abolition of classes, with whose disappearance the need for organised power of one class for the purpose of holding down the other class will automatically disappear."[Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndication, Progress Publication, Moscow, 1972, p. 27]

What Foucault meant by all-pervading power is an indisputable fact. But the abstract theory voicing against power is in reality a sort of valued criticism of powers without furnishing any remedial measures. Marxism rightly differentiates between the central and all-powerful power of the state and other centres of power. If Foucault’s view that whoever occupies the state must wield power, is accepted to the letter then no effort should be made to destroy the existing power of the exploiting classes occupying the state. This virtually leaves the exploiting classes to retain the principal power centre. However, we, the Marxists have to find ways and means to check the communist party-led state turning into a bureaucratic power-wielding centre. On this score we still have to do a lot on the ideological and political front, particularly in post-revolutionary societies. Besides that, the peripheral multi-faceted sources of power should also be taken into account. But what Foucault presented as all-pervading power without any proper theorisation on tackling them is in reality the presentation of a fearsome picture of a monster with countless tentacles keeping uninterrupted surveillance on all of us who are reduced to helplessness in perpetuity. Foucault, however, was in favour of small-scale protests but those are not supposed to culminate into a revolutionary struggle under a disciplined and well-ordered party.

To come to refute the view of Foucault on discontinuity, rupture, fragment in the historical process, Marxian dialectic examines the world in constant movement, change and development. The study of the general picture of the world’s development is an important task of materialist dialectics. This movement proceeds not along a closed circuit, but along a spiral, each spire being deeper, richer and more diverse than the preceding one. Foucault did not find continuity but only ruptures and discontinuity. What Marxists stress is that the material world is not only a developing, but also a connected integral whole. All its objects and phenomena develop not in themselves, not in isolation, but in inseparable connection or unity with other objects, etc. are some of the important examples of this inter-connection and unity with nature. In history, the general trend in the world is to move from a primitive socio-economic system and relations to machine-based higher stage of economic and social system. There may be short-lived ruptures in this process. Marx cited the example of the attacks of barbarian tribes to overrun the Roman Empire bringing about a sort of break in the then advanced socio-economic structure (Grundrisse). Marxian dialectics also stresses the spiral in process of history, obviously not a pure straight line. In Foucault ruptures or discontinuity gets precedence over the general historical trend of progress. In practice such theory is dangerous, since it reduces the historical process to only uncertain discontinuity. History, like so many things, is then like accidental events with no progress and the makers of history, in this Post-modern view, must not have to work out any programme, must not have to have any theory and goal. Thus we are led to a world full of uncertainty, with no future of an advanced civilization. When such a theory is blended with the notion of never-possible-change in the power structure spread from top to bottom we are thrust into a world of frustration and futility. Foucault thus ends his ostensible tirade against the systemic power and oppression by projecting a state of permanent human bondage.

It is an irony of history that while the anarchists like Bakunin, Cropotkin et al advocated some adventurous actions against the oppressive regimes, our present day post-modernists/post-structuralists in general are too timid for any effective action against US imperialism and its international role of exploitation and barbarous attacks on all opponents of its interests.

As to the Post-modernist concepts of the infinite (unlimited), totality, truth, etc. a few words may be added here. Marxism considers that the direct perception of things is the initial phase towards knowledge. Lenin defined sensation as a subjective image of the objective world. Idealist agnostics claim that the world consists of certain combinations of sensations of the subject, that there are as many worlds as there are people. This is false. In reality our sense organs do not deceive us. In Mao’s view sensory or perceptual knowledge takes a dialectical leap in the brains to reach the level of conceptual knowledge. Logical cognition or the conceptual knowledge is a higher state of knowledge resulting from generalised activities of man’s reason, the painstaking process of a vast mass of data furnished by sensory knowledge. Concepts also reflect the changing world, the constantly developing practice, and hence they themselves must be flexible and mobile. Other forms of thought-judgement and conclusions are formed on the basis of concepts. It is in order to mention it that while the supporters of empiricism underestimate the role of abstract thought or knowledge, accepting only sense-impressions, the supporters of rationalism do not believe in the sense-organs and consider reason or abstract thought the sole source of true knowledge. Marxism places three interconnected basis of knowledge — sensory, human practice in constituting social life and concept.

Dialectical materialism understands truth as that knowledge of an object, which correctly reflects that object, i.e., corresponds to it. With this dialectical materialism solves another important problem of knowledge, i.e. how man cognizes objective truth - at once completely, unconditionally, absolutely or only approximately, relatively. Absolute truth is objective truth in its entirety, an absolutely exact reflection of reality. In principle Marxism holds that nothing is unknowable but simultaneously it accepts it that there are limitations to the cognitive abilities of man’s reason. His knowledge is limited by the corresponding historical conditions, the level of development of production, science and experimental techniques. In this sense his knowledge is limited. Relative truth is the incomplete correspondence of knowledge to reality. And thus it is closer to the cognition of absolute truth, to knowing its new elements, links and sides. Relative truth is, in a sense, containing grains of absolute truth. Man’s knowledge is relative and also absolute; relative because it is not exhaustive and can be endlessly developed and deepened, revealing new sides of reality; absolute, because it contains elements of eternal, absolutely exact knowledge. In addition to it Marxism holds that truth is always concrete, not abstract. Even for one and the same process truth cannot be eternal or fixed once and for all. This process itself develops, the conditions in which it takes place change and naturally the truth reflecting it also undergoes change. What is true in a certain condition may be untrue in a changed condition.

Thus Marxism is just the reverse of the view of Nictschez and other post-modern theoreticians who reject objective truth or any hope of progress. Human civilization itself negates such desperately pessimist views while conceding the fact of temporary retardation, retreat, crisis and all the stumbling blocks in history. Marxists reject the absolutising notion of the post-modernists/post-structuralists that truth is constituted by language or that truth is always formed by power.

Related to the question of knowledge the Marxian concept of totality stands radically against the post-modernist view of fragments as enunciated by Foucault. Marxism stressed dynamic totality. It is the concrete unity of interacting contradictions. The systemic relativity of all totality both upwards and downwards, i.e. all totality is made up of totalities subordinated to it and vice versa Secondly, all totality is changing in the concrete historical period. Marx took the concept of totality as a dialectical method from Hegel. In Lenin’s words "The totality of all sides of the phenomenon, of reality and their (reciprocal) relations - that is what truth is composed ........"[Lenin, Conspectus of Hegel’s science of logic, progress Publishers, 1961, p.196] Thus social totality in Marxist theory is a structured and historically determined complex. It exists in and through those manifold meditations and transitions through which its specific parts of complexes — i.e., the partial totalities — are linked to each other in a dynamic world. The fragmented approach of the Post-modernists cannot provide us with concrete knowledge. It cannot give a many-sided view of totality basing on categories and practice. Such rejection of totality by post-modernists/post-structuralists with total negation of theory and the concept of truth can only furnish a partial view. Jean Paul Sartre criticised the concept of totality as something problematic. However his concern was "totalisation" not ‘totality’ as such. Sartre found totalisation, i.e. a multiplicity which totalizes itself to totalise the practical field from a certain perspective, and its common action, through each organic praxis, is revealed to every common individual as a developing objectification.[Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, London, New Left, p.492.1960] In such a view the whole, as a developing totalisation, exists in everyone in the form of a unity of the "interiorised multiplicity and nowhere else".

Richard Hartland in his book Superstructuralism marks a distinction between structuralism and superstructuralism (in other words post-structuralist, post-modernism). Hartland states that the former in general, is concerned to know the (human) world - to uncover it through detailed observational analysis and to map it out under extended explicatory grids. "Their stance is still the traditional scientific stance of objectivity, their goal the traditional scientific goal of Truth."[Richard Hartland, Superstructuralism, Methuen, London, 1987 p.2] About the later i.e. Superstructuralism Hardand writes that "...... These groups are fractious in the extreme, and make the most of their differences. Nonetheless, they do share a characteristic new philosophical position — and this characteristic new philosophical position is not only incompatible with the concept of structure but also quite radically anti-scientific. In effect, the Post-Structuralists bend the philosophical implications of the Superstructuralists way of thinking about superstructures back round against the traditional stance of Objectivity and the traditional goal of truth. And, with the destruction of objectivity and Truth, scientific knowledge becomes less valuable than literary and political activity; and detailed observational analysis and extended explicatory grids are discarded in favour of instaneous lighting-flashes of paradoxical illumination." [Ibid.p.3]

Let us consider the critique of Marxism by the front ranking post-modernist Baudrillard. As for natural labour power, he considers work no more important than non-functional play and ritual in the primitive conditions. He contradicted Marx’s view on alienation. In Marxian sense it is an action through which (or a state in which) a person, a group, an institution, or a society becomes (or remains) alien (1) to the results or products of its own activity (and to the activity itself), and/or (2) to the nature in which it lives, and/or (3) to other human beings, and — in addition and through any or all of (1) to (3) — also (4) to itself (to its own historically created human possibilities). Boudlliard thinks that a man is alienated when he starts to see himself in terms of labour-power in the first place. He criticises Marx for placing the needs against the interest of capital, as being under the spell of the capitalist consumption ethic. So Boudlliard does not consider the Marxian view as a radical one. Secondly, he contradicted Marx’s concept on use-value and exchange-value. Marx’s view was that exchange-value ought to correspond with use-value. Boudlliard stated that exchange-value is autonomous. In the Marxist conception, the apparent fairness and balance in exchange relations between man and man no longer corresponds to a real fairness and balance on the level of use-value; the system of equivalences on the level of exchange value merely obscures and excuses the real exploitation of one class by another. But Marx still thinks that exchange-value ought to correspond to use-value, rejecting the autonomy of exchange value. Baudlliard not only accepts autonomy of exchange-value, what he objects is exchange value per se exchange value as it operates in the capitalist economics, exchange value as a system of equivalences. With this view Boudlliard moves further and poses things in his post-structuralist way. He sees the capitalist tyranny as not mere accumulation of material benefits by one class at the expense of another, he posits the tyranny at the proper functioning of social exchange. And then referring everything to natural needs, natural labour-power and natural use-value Baudlliard thinks, the tyranny manages to make itself seem natural. He thus inverts the notion that exchange-value, obscures and excuses a real exploitation on the level of use-value, and claims that, on the contrary, use-value serves as "a referential rationale (raison) a concept, an alibi" for a real tyranny on the level of exchange-value. In a post-modernists/post-structuralists fashion Baudlliard virtually obscures the basis of capitalist exploitation at the socio-economic level based on ownership of means of production conditioning the extraction of labour power of the class forced to sell labour power. Instead of this relationship, Baudlliard places the whole mechanism of exploitation, which, he asserts, is to be found in "a new revolution that has occurred in the capitalist world ........." And this is the measuring, coding, regulating system, which applies to every aspect of human exchange-relation. The whole operationalization of all exchanges lies under the law of the code. Thus he wants to have us believe that what Marx never contemplated and Marxists fail to comprehend is that the present day capitalist exploitation is to be found not in basically and fundamentally the production relation but in "a structure of control and of power much more stable and more totalitarian than that of exploitation". He assertively states that we are now faced with "the symbolic destruction of all social relations not so much by the ownership of the means of production but by the control of the code" [V. Jean Baudlliard, The Mirror of Production, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975, p.122.]

Thus, like other Post-modernists Baudlliard, basing himself on semiotics, finds alternative to the present capitalist system not in some pre-signifying "nature" but in a further intensification of signifying itself. In Hartland’s explanation if we can no longer simply recover a state of social flow and giving as in symbolic exchange of the tribes, then we must take the deliberately perverse route of intensifying our present day of anti-social inertia and passive receptivity. And since consumerism is the very essence of our anti-social inertia and passive receptivity, we must become more purely consumers than before. For Boudlliard "the masses", as created by modern mass-society, are truly like a physical dead weight, absorbing everything and responding to nothing. By taking the signs, bombarded by mass-media, literally, as nothing more than signs, "the masses", according to Baudillard, are driving the regime of "the sign" towards its own logical self-destruction.

Thus the role of ‘masses’ is entirely negative. "Unlike Marxist proletariat, Baulliard’s masses carry no seed from which a more positive state of society might spring, after the self-destruction of our present state ........" observes Richard Hartland.

For some structuralists to post-structuralists/post-modernists the real problem is that a most all-pervading role of ideology, sign and such super structural elements which they give are given a permanently privileged position over the socio-economic base of a society. Althuser, the structuralist Marxist, also echoed that in the present stage of capitalism it is bourgeois ideological influence which is making overt repression unnecessary as was seen during Marx’s time with the obvious presence of a repressive apparatus of the police, army, prisons, courts, etc.[Louis Althuser, Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971, pp 180-181]

Foucault over stresses the less visible network of coercion and instead of the legal instruments he basically points to the all-pervading power without specific centre(s). Boudlliard too takes us to the immense power of signs. In all such instances while the function of multifaceted aspects of signs controlling and benumbing and also mesmerising the common people are poignantly unfolded, the fundamental question of all direct exploitation, oppression and control through the economic basis remaining as the principal source along with all the visible apparatus of repression and control is theoretically pushed to the level of unimportance or virtually of least importance. There is no programme for the post-modernists/post-structuralists to do battle against the base for an alternative system, nor do they stand as the real enemy of modern capitalism. With the flashes of puzzling arguments lacking in the spirit of a rebel in a real life situation Post-modernism/post-structuralism will remain in history as half-hearted protesters with profound intellect sans the cutting teeth. They concentrate on cutting off the branches of a tree, and it is undoubtedly necessary, but the root is left unattacked.

In his whole thesis on power, Foucault sees state repression but never tries to single it out as the principal target. Rather he is projecting a vast net-work like a will-o-wisp, which wields power but it is never possible to hit it or we can never be free from it. In this intellectual exercise while subtle sources of power, particularly of the present capitalist system, is perfectly presented, Foucault fights shy of the fundamental generators of power or power centres like the state.

However, one does not disagree when Foucault attacks the view that power exclusively springs from economic factors. The vitally important questions like gender, race, caste, etc. require to be studied considering other non-economic factors as well. It is a fact that some Marxists in India and other countries had and still have a perpetual penchant for reducing all those problems to solely economic problems. It is vulgar Marxism. The power of Marxism lies in the fact that it contains a corrective mechanism to check wrong tendencies. It might be in order to once again refer to Engel’s letter to C. Schmidst on 27 October 1980 combating a reductionist interpretation of the base-superstucture image by emphasising the ‘ultimate supremacy’ of, or ‘determination in the last instance’ by the economy which ‘nevertheless operates within the terms laid down by the particular sphere itself’. He thus moves away from the idea of a causality whereby one level, the economy, is supposed to be the cause and the other levels, the superstructure its effects. Thus the ultimate determining factor does not exclude determination by the superstructures, which, as secondary causes, can produce effects and ‘react’ upon the base.

This has been stated above to make it clear that Marxism does not exclude the important role of the factors other than economic in certain circumstances and conditions. And here it should be added that neither Foucault nor Derrida could totally reject Marxism. Foucault had this to comment in an interview entitled ‘Prison Talk’: "It is impossible at the present time to write history without using a whole range of concepts directly or indirectly linked to Marx’s thought and situating oneself within a horizon of thought which has been defined and described by Marx. One might even wonder what differences there could ultimately be between being a historian and being a Marxist."

Even while rejecting certain fundamentals Derrida assertively stated in his book Specters of Marx that "........ Now, if there is a spirit of Marxism which I will never be ready to renounce, it is not only the critical idea or the questing stance (a consistent deconstruction must insist on them even as it also learns that this is not the last or first world). It is even more a certain emancipatory and messianic affirmation, a certain experience of the promise that one can try to liberate from any dogmatics and even from any metaphysico-religious determination, from any messianism. Now, this gesture of fidelity to a certain spirit of Marxism is a responsibility, once again, would here be that of an heir. Whether they wish it or know it or not, all men and women, all over the earth, are today to a certain extent heirs of Marx and Marxism..............". [Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, Routledge, New York and London, 1994]

Thus said two stalwarts of post-modernists/post-structuralists with all the reservations on certain fundamental questions of Marxism. However, Marxism does not require accolades from intellectuals indulging in some sort of benumbing exercise, which cannot augur well for the people mired in poverty and exploitation or the people facing imperialist onslaughts.

Then what is the programme of post-modernists? Foucault in his general outline of the "methodological course" to study power had made it clear that "we must escape from the limited field of juridical sovereignty and state institutions, and instead base our analysis of power on the study of the technique and tactics of domination." And again that "It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time."[Power/Knowledge, ibid p.133]

Foucault’s programme is limited to only partial or local resistance to power. His evasive attitude towards the vast power of the modern state reduces his scheme to some form of liberatarianism without the cutting edge of the revolutionary spirit with a clear aim and objective.

Coming once again to the philosophical question of reason and knowledge, it is necessary to assert that Marxism is a superior philosophical system and it critically drew heavily on the rational outlook of the Enlightenment period. Post-modernism attacks at the root of science and reason. They altogether reject the Kantian concept of reason and knowledge. For Marx, Engels and Lenin, Kant’s theory of knowledge was defective on three courts. First, it was held to be ahistorical in its account of the apriori contribution made by the mind in the constitution of knowledge. Secondly, whereas Kantianism locates the a priori conditions of objective knowledge in faculties of the mind, Marxism characteristically locates them in indispensable human social practices, which have bodily and mental aspects. Finally, Engels and Lenin argued that the boundary between the world of knowable ‘phenomena’ and the unknowable ‘things-in "themselves" was not, as Kantianism required, fixed and absolute but historically positive. The potential knowability of the world, independent of and prior to the human subject, was seen as essential to the materialist world-view of Marxism. Derridean Deconstruction moves towards endless substitution of presence but presence can never be reached. His difference ultimately involves the metaphysics of presence. Thus Derrida sets difference in the place unknowable. A return to Kantian "things-in-themselves"!

When post-modern/post-structural concepts are employed in affirmative action or norms they yield an attitude of skepticism and nihilism within which every kind of coherent and meaningful enquiry becomes suspect. While reading a text, post-modernism/post-structuralism first postulates ambiguity, incoherence and not-determination as the attributes of texts, and then actively pursues the ideal of ambiguity, in coherence and analysis. Such fondness for a play of words leads to a sort of jugglery through the "denial of the metaphysics of presence and foundationalism of every kind." With their dismissal of totality they celebrate difference and heterogeneity. Though the Foucaultian concept of the inseparabletic between power and knowledge or Derridean ultimately difference is no less a concept of totality. They also reject progress and emancipation in history. The fragmentation of the social world is, within this perspective, compounded by the post-modern/post-structural denial of coherence in life and social structure precluding the possibility of offering explanations. With their notion of ‘dislocations’ structural regularities and identities are issues that remain unexamined. Similarly, the narrative of dislocations remains an enigma. They even rule out the possibility of explanations, however incomplete, partial or limited they might be. With their rejection of cause and effect they exclude any predictability in any field. While the critics of historical determinism accepted at least the possibility of post-hoc explanations. As for example, we can retrospectively explain why a bullet launched at a particular point landed where it did. This means we can explain the trajectory by methodologically (and temporarily) closing off what in reality is an "open" system, undetermined and subject to the play of multiples variables. Post-modernists contradict both pre and post-hoc explanations, in the existence of a coherent structure and the supposed attempt by the analyst "to introduce closure". Some critiques find gross weakness in over-emphasising open-endedness in their writings. It is argued that human intentions may not always be realized and other individuals may read the situation differently: but individual actions can be conceived and executed only by giving a determinate meaning to a situation. The critiques justifiably argue that a certain degree of closure is integral to our being and social life; it is neither a myth nor a limiting aspiration. The notion of multivocity or multiple voices has two correlatives: difference and non-determination. What is actually found is that many post-modernists/post-structuralists translate non-determination to suggest the incoherent and ambiguous nature of the text. In their view social structure like history or life are unstable, incoherent and ambiguous. Such nihilist conception of the text fragment the actual social world and reduce it to a myth. Epistemologically speaking, the destructive denial of univocity at any moment including the claim that the words or utterances can have a univocal meaning in a giving context opens the floodgates of relativism. This in reality even abandons partial explanation of social phenomena. If such view is accepted, pessimism will rule supreme. No social revolutionary, no scientist, no revolutionary party, no theory and no practice can take off since at the very beginning the supposed notion of incoherence and faulty basis shall doom the whole endeavour.


Previous Chapter  Contents  Next Chapter





Home  |  Current Issue Archives  |  Revolutionary Publications  |  Links  |  Subscription