Postmodernism has never been as unpopular as it is today, especially on the right of the political spectrum. Often, conservative critics can be heard to blame left-wing ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ for the emergence of a vitriolic identity politics that eschews a commitment to truth, reason, and dialogue. Left-wing postmodernists are seen as undermining truth, reason, and dialogue by criticizing these values as ideological ‘myths’ designed to reinforce white male privilege, Western colonialism, and so on. The specter of left-wing postmodernism is also invoked as one of the forces undermining the confidence of the West, leading us to submit to dangerous and illiberal groups around the globe. Some even go so far as to claim that, in allegedly promoting a fundamentally collectivist philosophy qua the Soviet Union, left-wing postmodernists are proto-Totalitarians waiting for their opportunity to quash all dissent. On this reading, the philosophy which guides the utterances of a transsexual rights activist in the United States and a Maoist revolutionary in China, are one and the same and just as dangerous in principle:
I share the antipathy of many of these critics for certain variants of left-wing postmodern philosophy, though as I outlined in another article, I feel that critics such as Jordan Peterson often present very crude arguments in support of this position. Many of these right-wing criticisms operate at a highly idealized level that takes academic discourse to be the primary culprit in promulgating distrust of truth, reason, and dialogue—however conceived. I think academic discourse is part of a much more complex story about how economic, social, and technological transformations have shaped how individuals interpret, debate, and act in the world. These transformations—both wondrous and insidious—have impacted both academics and partisans at all ends of the political spectrum. This has prompted the rise of postmodern epistemological and meta-ethical positions on the Left, and more recently on the Right.
In a later essay, I hope to discuss these complex trends at more length. In this piece, I instead wish to look at how alternatives have emerged to postmodern discourse, particularly on the Left.
Alternatives to Postmodernism on the Right and Left
On the Right, alternatives to postmodern discourse have taken many forms. For some, like Jordan Peterson, the solution to the vulgarities of postmodernism is a return to classical liberal principles filtered through secularized Judeo-Christian values. This stance has been met with approval by Dave Rubin, Stephen Hicks, and others. It is perhaps the most popular alternative to postmodern discourse pushed by the Right. For others—most notably Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre-Dame—any alternative to postmodernism must be far more radical. Postmodernism, as the latest iteration of the same liberal philosophy venerated by others, is here to stay as long as liberalism is. Thinking about a future beyond postmodernist discourses means thinking back past liberalism itself, towards a more local communitarianism, where sharp ideological divisions between self-interestedness and virtue are untenable:
These right-wing alternatives to postmodernism are often interesting, though many have their problems. But I do not wish to discuss them at length here, since many of them are well known. Instead, I wish to discuss the lesser known—at least in popular political discourse—left-wing alternatives to postmodernism. Contrary to the claims of some, these are actually quite myriad—even standard. While postmodernism remains a popular intellectual ideology on the Left, most of the cutting edge thinkers today have moved beyond it or are damningly critical.
I will argue that there are three major categories of post-postmodern left-wing theories on the continental Left today. I say ‘continental’ since I am purely discussing those strands of left-wing thought that are primarily oriented by continental European philosophy and critical theory. There is no space here to discuss analytically oriented left-wing theories, such as those of the egalitarian liberals, like Rawls or Amartya Sen, or effective altruists such as Derek Parfit or Peter Singer. With that caveat out of the way, the three major categories of post-postmodern left-wing theories are: discursive democrats, Marxist-inspired critics of neoliberalism, and radical classicists. Each of these categories is an ideal type; many thinkers, including all those I will mention, produce work that eschews these tight boundaries. Nonetheless, understanding them can give us a firmer grip on the cutting edge of left-wing theory today.
The Decline of Postmodern Political Theory
To my mind, the high-water mark of academic postmodern theory, at least in its political form, was the 1990s. Many of the pioneers of postmodern theory were at the height of their fame and influence. Jean Baudrillard had made waves with his deliberately polemical argument that “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”—at least in the sense of being a traditional military conflict. Jacques Derrida had just enacted his ethical and political ‘turn’ and for the first time was speaking about the concrete issues of the day, rather than mostly abstract theory about language and the history of philosophy. Richard Rorty was developing a novel fusion of postmodern theory and American pragmatism to argue in favor of a left-wing liberal democracy. Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau had just published their now classic post-structuralist book on radical democracy, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. And everywhere academics were debating what the hell Gayatri Spivak meant when she wrote an incredibly jargon filled article on why no one would let the marginalized, poor, and uneducated ‘subaltern’ speak. Certainly few asked whether or not it was because the subaltern spoke Spivakese.
This was the apex of postmodern theory’s influence on academic political thought. Postmodernism had overthrown the Marxism it so vehemently criticized to become the dominant philosophical outlook of the Left. Already though, it was clear that the wave had peaked and was now cresting. From being radical outliers promoting scandalous new philosophies, the main theorists of postmodernism were now figures of the status quo. In the 1960s and ’70s, young philosophers and thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault had come of age pushing against the then-dominant grand narratives of structuralist semiotics and Marxist ‘sciences’ of history. By the 1990s, they were the established thinkers of the academic Left, and the seeds of an inevitable pushback had already been sown. They would emerge and grow into the different strands of left-wing thought I will categorize below. Most of them would emerge by drawing theoretical resources from the modernist and even classical thinkers the postmodernists criticized so vehemently.
One of the first major left-wing thinkers to fire back against the postmodernist influence was Jurgen Habermas. In works such as The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, he observed that the Enlightenment project of founding politics on reason had faltered on the shores of postmodern skepticism. Habermas regarded this as the consequence of many complex social conditions, wherein reason became increasingly associated with liberal beliefs about the primacy of subjectivity and the pursuit of self-interest. Put simply, for Habermas, postmodernism emerged in no small part as liberals, driven by markets and other social forces, gradually came to extend their beliefs about how each person was responsible for their own happiness into the realm of knowledge. Now, just as each person had their own private beliefs about happiness, each person had their own private truths which no one else could legitimately challenge. Interestingly, this echoes criticisms De Tocqueville made about American liberal democracy in the nineteenth century; particularly its tendency to make every person think their personal beliefs were beyond criticism:
Against this, Habermas argued we need to recover the concept of reason but shift its emphasis from the private individual to the public sphere. He observed that most Enlightenment philosophers regarded reason as the purview of the private individual, whether looking inwards at their own minds in the case of the rationalists, or looking outwards at the world that appeared to their senses in the case of the empiricists. Habermas claimed that we should see reason as emerging from the different ways individuals communicate with one another and try to make sense of the world. What counts as reasonable will be different in unique spheres of knowledge. Scientists dialogue together to develop standards for how to make sense of the empirical world. Artists and cultural commentators set aesthetic standards. In the realm of politics, Habermas argued that a robust social democracy—in which individuals treat one another as equals and enjoy rights to a relative equality of power and influence—is the most rational type of society. In such a society, they can dialogue with one another about which policies to pursue, and join together with other countries to pursue programs of mutual advantage—such as in the European Union.
Habermas was a pioneer thinker in the category of left-wing thought I have labelled ‘deliberative democrats.’ Modern thinkers in this category include Seyla Benhabib, Axel Honneth, Amy Guttmann, and a favorite Professor of mine during my undergraduate days at Carleton, Amy Bartholomew. Deliberative democrats believe, in Benhabib’s words, that “what is considered in the common interest of all results from processes of collective deliberation conducted rationally and fairly among free and equal individuals.” Of course, what constitutes “free” and “equal” individuals, or for that matter “rational deliberation” is a matter of considerable dispute. But the general commitment of deliberative democrats is to a democratic society where social and economic power is more evenly distributed to enable all to participate in discussion-oriented politics as relative equals. Not coincidentally, deliberative democrats have the closest ties to the analytical tradition, especially the egalitarian liberal thinkers.
Critics of Neoliberalism
The next category of post-postmodern left wing thinkers are the critics of neoliberal society. These thinkers most closely resemble the postmodernists of old, but are far less skeptical and grander in their theoretical and political aspirations. They believe that postmodern thinkers were right to move away from the rigid categories of modernist left-wing thinking; with its emphasis on class struggle, Freudian hysteria, and so on. However, these critics also think that the postmodernists were too quick to give up all universal categories and philosophical ambitions. Postmodern skepticism, far from leading to a radical critique of neoliberal society, ultimately led to conformist struggles that more-or-less leave social structures as they are. For many of these critics, this includes the struggles of many identity politics movements. While they approve the local and particular struggles to obtain more power for traditionally marginalized identities, these critics also point out that such “militant particularism” (as put by David Harvey) also leads to the acceptance of status quo of neoliberal capitalism.
Many of the most famous far leftist thinkers fall into this category of thinking. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Slavoj Žižek, the so called “Elvis of Cultural Theory.” Žižek has consistently argued that identity politics can have a very reactionary bent to it, and has led to totalitarian impulses on the part of many left-wing activists. This stems from the inability of the postmodern theories underpinning it to make adequate sense of identity, politics, and the world. By contrast, he argues we need a return to dialectical thinking qua Marx and Hegel, but in this case filtered through the psychoanalytical theories of the modernist Jacques Lacan. This is also similar to the thinking of other critics of neoliberalism, such as Judith Butler (often mischaracterized as a postmodern thinker), Wendy Brown, David Harvey, and others. Most of these thinkers return to the arguments of the modernists—whether these be Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche—to try and formulate a new approach to politics that doesn’t fall into the limitations of postmodern thinking.
The Radical Classicists
For some left-wing thinkers, even this return to a reluctant modernism isn’t enough. Echoing Patrick Deneen on the Right, they believe that the failure of postmodern thinking is that it is far too proximate to liberalism and very much a product of liberal culture. Many of these thinkers point to Kant’s skepticism about knowing the world “in itself” as the theoretical tipping point for this turn to skepticism and a belief that truth is largely subjective. Against this they want to return to the classical thinkers of Ancient Greece and elsewhere. The Greeks believed that absolute truth could be discerned, even given the limitations of human subjectivity and the limited powers of our mind. For many of their left-wing descendants, Plato’s argument that truth is opposed to opinion is taken as a mantra.
Perhaps the most influential thinker in this category is Alain Badiou. In dense works such as Being and Event and In Praise of Mathematics, Badiou invokes Plato and mathematicians such as Georg Cantor to argue for a militant return to the notion of truth in philosophy. During spectacular events, truth will demonstrate the fundamental incompleteness of all social forms and establish the new and more equal conditions for individuals to commit themselves to a novel kind of society. Other radical classicists include Giorgio Agamben, whose constructive political work is heavily influenced by Aristotle, and Badiou’s own student Quentin Meillasoux, whose seminal After Finitude has been interpreted as opening the doors to a radical critique of liberal and postmodern philosophies.
The radical classicists are perhaps the most esoteric and philosophically ambitious of the post-postmodernists. They are also perhaps the most grandiose. It remains to be seen if their call for a left-wing return to the aspirations of Greek thought will be met with approval or disdain.
The post-postmodernists I have discussed here vary widely in their philosophical and political commitments. I have tried to discuss them in order from the least to the most radical. For the discursive democrats, the idea of reason needs to be recovered through a new emphasis on dialogue. This can be achieved by equalizing power across society through protecting a range of social rights. For the critics of neoliberalism, postmodern skepticism went too far and ultimately became a conformist philosophy. The solution is to return to strains of modernism which offer a new and more ambitious way to approach identity and politics. And for the radical classicists, a new left-wing philosophy means going back past modernism to the grand ambitions of the ancient Greeks and their followers. This is the only way to develop a notion of truth radical enough to push aside the contingency of liberalism and postmodern “democratic materialism” as Badiou mockingly calls it.
My point in this brief essay hasn’t been to endorse any one of these particular perspectives. I think they all have their strengths and weaknesses. It has been to provide a snapshot of contemporary left-wing theory, and demonstrate how it has moved beyond postmodernism as a framework. While many left-wing activists remain mired in postmodernism’s rather tedious worldview, it is unlikely that they will remain so for long as these thinkers become the new touchstones. When that happens, critics who lambast postmodern neo-Marxism and its activists might seem rather out of touch.
Matt McManus received his L.L.M in International Human Rights Law from the National University of Ireland and his PhD in Socio-Legal Studies from York University. He is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC de Monterrey and is writing his first book “Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law” for the University of Wales Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org