Is Postmodernism Inherently Authoritarian?

Is Postmodernism Inherently Authoritarian?

Zane Beal
Zane Beal
12 min read

College campuses are ostensibly venues for free and open discussion. All ideas should be given an open hearing, and be judged according to their individual merits. Are they supported by good evidence? Are they internally consistent? Will they produce desirable outcomes? That, in any case, is the ideal. More and more, it seems, there is breed of campus activist that disagrees with this view. At Berkeley, protesters rioted to shut down a speech by the right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. In Middlebury, they shouted down Charles Murray and later assaulted Professor Alison Stanger, who was hosting the talk. At Evergreen State College, they are championing the dismissal of a biology professor who expressed concern over the discriminatory nature of a campus event. Groups like Antifa (short for anti-fascist) adopt curiously jackbooted and signally authoritarian strategies to enforce their political will. They seem to be fighting fascism with something that looks conspicuously like fascism.

Largely, the most raucous elements of far-left authoritarianism are part of fringe group. However, there is some cause for greater concern. According to a Pew Research poll, 40% of U.S. Millenials think the government ought to have some hand in policing speech offensive to minorities. To a degree, these trends reflect different strains of authoritarian impulse, but they do share a common feature. They all trace their intellectual roots – insofar as they have any – to postmodernism. Which raises the question: Is postmodernism inherently authoritarian?

Postmodernism is a broad school of thought. It has exerted influence throughout the humanities and social sciences, touching on everything from art and literature to history and psychology. At its core, postmodernist thinking can be reduced to the basic claim that all knowledge is socially constructed. There are no universal truths, only context-sensitive narratives, assembled according to variable arrays of cultural, historical, and political forces.

This makes sense in the world of art and literature. After all, who is to say what a piece of creative expression really means? Meaning emerges from the space between creators and consumers. It is therefore impossible for a piece of artwork to have a fixed meaning. In the context of the modern industrialized West, one might argue that Orwell’s 1984 is open to a limited – but still very large – range of plausible interpretations. But imagine a copy washing up on beach, two hundred years from now, where it is picked up by a descendent of a crew of shipwrecked English speakers. They’ve been divorced from the context of the industrialized West for generations. It is highly unlikely they will assign the same meaning to 1984 that anyone living today would. Yet there is no coherent sense in which their interpretation of the text (whatever it winds up being) would be wrong in an objective sense.

In the world of science, the postmodernist position is far less compelling. Superficially, you can see how it might apply. In a trivial sense, scientific theories are context dependent. There are details of history and culture and political economy that a mischievous time traveler could alter and thereby change the entire course of scientific discovery. Without the Protestant Reformation or the advent of the printing press, it is entirely possible that there would have been no Enlightenment and no Scientific Revolution. No Newton or Darwin or Maxwell or Einstein. There is, in the realm of scientific discovery, a clear roll for contingency.

For the postmodernist, this reality undercuts science’s claim on veracity and universalism. Absent the Industrial Revolution and an appropriate blending of representative governance, open markets, and taxation, there would be no Large Hadron Collider. Thus, the Higgs boson is as much a product of capitalist/social-democratic imagination as it is an element of objective reality. This is a rather strange and regressive viewpoint, but if you look really hard, with the proper degree of charity, you can kind of see where the postmodernist is coming from.

The problem here is that the particular details that lead to the discovery of an idea have no bearing on the truth of that idea. Simplified, this is the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification, a useful contrast attributable to the philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach. In science, the former can be – and often is – a messy business. The latter, however, is thoroughly exacting. Ideas are either sufficiently accurate or they aren’t. An apocryphal story has been circulated among psychotropic drug enthusiasts that Francis Crick was tripping on LSD when he gained crucial insights into the structure of DNA. The story is untrue, but within the borders of scientific discovery, that sort of thing is perfectly permissible. The important thing is that an insight, even if gleaned from a pharmacologically induced distortion of reality, later survives the test of observation and experiment. The same is true in the political realm. Open societies and market economies have a clear influence on how easy it is to arrive at certain concepts and how far we can go in testing them, but they don’t have any bearing on whether or not they are true.

Imagine we’re back on the desert island. This time we see a book on classical mechanics, published in the United States in 2017, wash up on the shore, where it is retrieved by one of the descendents of those unfortunately marooned sailors. They may or may not possess the mathematical expertise to decipher the book. This doesn’t impinge on the accuracy of the information contained therein. Newton’s laws and the kinematic equations are still just as true on that island as they were in 2017 USA. For the sake of argument, let’s say that one of the original castaways had a good working knowledge of mathematics – basic arithmetic, algebra etc. – and that this information has been passed down over the years. The people who find that classical mechanics book will be able to learn from it and put that knowledge into practice, building better projectile systems to catch birds and a block and tackle system to move heavy objects. They will be able to study the motions of celestial objects to get a better grasp on their place in the solar system and the progression of seasons. Unlike 1984, classical mechanics contains an extremely circumscribed and entirely universal range of interpretations.

There are, of course, other universal truths about our castaways. They are descendents of people who were shipwrecked – a fact that has to do with the objective nature of dihydrogen monoxide (water) at certain temperatures and the relative buoyancy of certain materials therein. People are sexually reproducing biological organisms, which means the existence of the people who found both 1984 and the classical mechanics textbook is attributable to the details of DNA transcription and chromosome reshuffling and cellular meiosis. Which is to say, they are the product of the same processes that make humans in capitalist 21st century America, that made humans in the complex chiefdoms of Iron Age Europe, that made humans on the Pleistocene savannahs of Africa, and make humans in isolated tribal societies living in tropical New Guinea. The details of biological evolution, sexual reproduction, and developmental biology are not “social constructions”, as pioneers of postmodern thought like Michel Foucault have tended to suggest. They are objective features of the way the world works that science allows us to understand in greater and greater detail, with ever increasing degrees of confidence.

Understandably, one might wonder what this all has to do with any relationship between postmodernism and authoritarianism. It does seem like I’ve wandered rather far afield of the central argument. The last six paragraphs can be reduced to two core points. First, while there are domains in which subjectivity rules, there is also a real world and it is knowable. Second, it is possible to assign varying degrees of confidence to claims about that world.

In the postmodern worldview, only the first point is granted, but in a significantly grander sense. Subjectivity rules in all domains. This pusillanimous surrender to solipsism is at the heart of the postmodern enterprise. In that worldview, all claims are reducible only to privilege and “positionality” or “situatedness”. This is the obscurantist’s way of saying everyone has their own point of view, with the added caveat that everyone’s point of view is unimpeachable. What matters, in the end, is whether or not you have the privilege (money, power, education, etc.) to put any weight behind your subjective experience.

This makes exciting grist for the mills of parasitic academia, where people who it often seems “have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought” (to borrow a phrase from the biologist Peter Medawar) churn out reams of incomprehensible pedantry for the sole instrumental purpose of justifying a salary. This poses a number of interesting questions: if all knowledge is subjective and all claims on truth are equally valid, what exactly, are postmodern academics paid to do? If there is some value in the garbled expression of subjective ideas, why not fill a set proportion of seats in the humanities by lottery, cycling through new people year by year? Or, better still; why not simply redistribute the salary one might pay to postmodern academics to the public at large in exchange for personal essays on how they feel about the world?

At first glance, this might look like a cruel aside. But I’m not opportunistically mocking a ridiculous branch of academia because it makes for easy sport. These questions get to the very heart of the matter. In a field that rejects objectivity, persuasion is dead. The postmodern scholar has no mandate to justify their salary in terms of external reference points like “the common good” or “economic value” or “the expansion of human knowledge”. Postmodernism denies that those reference points are even accessible. Instead, postmodern scholars use privilege to leverage themselves into positions of power where they can use the clout of academic authority to spread whatever narrative they find most accommodating to their tastes. By postmodernism’s own lights, the postmodern scholar’s salary is a token of their capacity to exploit power relationships for personal advantage.

The same reasoning bleeds readily into the political arena. Democratic and republican forms of government depend on a population’s ability to access a universally knowable external reality. This permits not only self-determination but also persuasion. In the absence of objectivity, it is impossible to convince someone that you have a good solution to a potential tragedy of the commons. Or that something like a “tragedy of the commons” even exists. If there is no reality independent of human experience or if that reality is only intelligible in purely subjective terms, democracy – direct or representative – becomes a convenient fiction. The sphere of political action is ineluctably reduced to one of power and coercion. Debates about what problems a given society confronts and the best ways to go about addressing them are reduced to rhetorical masturbation. Persuasion gives way to manipulation and truth becomes a simple matter of who has the tallest platform and the loudest megaphone.

This is a reality we see manifest in the extreme Left’s decision to abandon the principles of free speech and open expression by openly attacking people who hold views they find distasteful. There is no marketplace of ideas in the postmodern ethos, simply a raw and ruthless struggle for the oppressed to turn the tables on their oppressors. In the scheme of history, such a contest is often romanticized as a righteous struggle for liberty and self-determination. But in the postmodern worldview, where all truth claims are ultimately subjective, it is impossible to say who has a legitimate claim on being oppressed. One need only cry victimhood to make said status a reality. While there are certain domains where it would behoove us all to take said claims more seriously, there is a steep risk entailed by a wholesale retreat to absolute subjectivity. In the postmodern scheme of things, authority need not justify itself.

All that matters in a world ruled by personal preference and subjective experience is that those in power have the capacity, either through manipulation or brute force, to maintain their position. Battles between ideas aren’t decided on their merits. They are decided by the slippery cunning or raw power of the people who champion them.

As a purely practical matter, the postmodern apologist might protest that this is already the case anyway. One might talk big about human rights and democracy, but what does that really mean in a world where access to clean drinking water or voting rights is regularly curtailed by imbalances in power and influence?

Well, to begin with, one can only say that imbalances of this kind and their practical consequences are even a problem if one abandons the peculiar solipsism of postmodernism in the first place. To even talk about things like humans – and the individual dignity and basic rights they deserve –  demands that we first accept that human life is inherently valuable, that people are (generally speaking) equally capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, and that the causes of joy and suffering are both objectively knowable and sensitive to human tinkering. Absent this, an argument that justifies trampling an ideological opponent’s access to a platform because they hold ugly views or other people who hold views we find more broadly sympathetic don’t have an equivalent venue is rendered meaningless, save as an expression of puerile despotism. “I want it this way because, you know, feelings.”

In their dismissal of the basic principles of free and open discourse, the regressive Left is doing more than giving voice to postmodern relativism. They are also hewing closely to a Marxist tradition that holds that individual rights are merely an instrument of bourgeois social order. In Inventing Human Rights, historian Lynn Hunt points to the reasons communists have tended to reject rights-based thinking and democratic governance. Failing to articulate or guarantee any inherent or universal rights, political orders based in individual autonomy and human rights instead serve to insulate the individual from the collective and serve to perpetuate an exploitative social order rooted in property rights. Equal human rights, in this view, are a fiction oppressors use to control the oppressed. From this starting point, it is an easy leap to a place where trampling the rights of others is seen as a legitimate means to a higher end – for instance, casting off the shackles of capitalism and patriarchy.

The postmodernist takes this a step further. One’s preference or disdain for a given political order is reducible to pure contingency, foisted on them by circumstance and tuned by the irrational exigencies of emotional preference. In terms of factual credibility, the Marxist belief that class conflict drives history toward communist utopia and the libertarian belief that unregulated markets populated by perfectly rational and naturally selfish agents will build the best possible society are functionally interchangeable. It’s impossible to say anything concrete about the accuracy of the underlying tenets or the desirability of the resulting outcomes. In fact, there’s no room to say anything one way or another about the ill effects or positive attributes of anything. All such commentary is an affair of competing narratives, none of which have any claim on veracity beyond that seized by coercion and brute force.

Of course, in the real world, whether or not everyone actually achieves their full measure of equal rights and human dignity says nothing about whether or not things of that kind are valuable. It says even less about how best to go about achieving them. Human rights are, by definition, aspirational. Putting them into practice involves a balance of open discourse and frigid political pragmatism. Are people able to exert influence over their government? Are they able to speak without threat of punishment or retribution? These are questions that exist beyond the more fundamental question of whether or not those outcomes are desirable. And, critically, they are questions that are open to objective assessment and interpersonal persuasion. Our failure to achieve them is purely mechanistic – we haven’t found the best way to put our loftiest hopes into practice. That doesn’t invalidate them as useful ethical and political guidelines. To think otherwise is to suggest that our failure to achieve utopia invalidates a more rudimentary hope for a better tomorrow.

The realist’s picture of human rights and self-government is dimmer than that typically enshrined in the glistening political rhetoric of civil rights crusaders and presidential campaigns. For the postmodernist, the outlook is considerably bleaker. The ground is always shifting. There’s no room to say that everyone deserves a right to express their opinion, on whatever platform they have available, without fear of reprisal. Instead, there is just an endless struggle between the ideas you like and those you don’t. In this world, victory can’t be brought about by a democratic march down the long and grinding road toward a perpetually evolving and oft receding – but nonetheless laudable – set of goals. Attempts to achieve the best possible world for the most possible people are nonsensical, because there is no way to tell what those things actually are. In the postmodern worldview, politics is, always and inevitably, a matter of who has the most power. In that world, authoritarianism isn’t just one option among many. It’s the only one that works.

On the landscape of pre-Enlightenment Europe, truth was dispensed by revelation and power instilled by divine decree. Those with the authority to say “God wills it!” and the strength to back it up called the tune. A concert of social and technological developments gradually eroded that worldview, paving the way for the advent of individual rights and representative forms of government. It became apparent that the nature of the universe was discoverable. And not just by religious authorities and hereditary elites, but by anyone who took the time to learn the right techniques. The existence of absolute, objective truths – together with the invention of reliable methods of uncovering them – has had the ultimate effect of democratizing knowledge. That, in turn, has had the effect of making democracy possible.

Those who think everything boils down to subjective experience have backed themselves into a dangerous corner. From there, the only way to fashion the world in the mold of their preferences is through manipulation and coercion. Rejecting absolute truth is a mistake in its own right. Certainly such things are difficult to come by, but they do exist. But the larger consequences of embracing the radical solipsism of postmodern philosophy extend beyond the realm of personal confusion. One might amass a fleet of criticisms for postmodern scholars operating outside the bounds of art and literature, ranging from the mundane (their discourse is insufferably pedantic and frequently indecipherable) to the practical (their existence as salaried academics probably represents a small net cost to society). The most damning critique, however, is also the most distressing. If it becomes commonplace to take postmodernism seriously, to the point that subjectivity and power relations are the lifeblood of many people’s worldview, basic principles of open discourse, self-determination, and representative government will be threatened. As always, we should endeavor maintain open minds, but we should also be wary of folks who seek to reduce political discourse to “positionality” and “situatedness”. If they ever gain real power, we will be in a world of trouble.

Art and CultureRegressive Left

Zane Beal

Zane Beal is an anthropologist and writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A political pragmatist, he is generally suspicious of extreme ideological commitments, right or left.