Philosophy, Top Stories

Post-Postmodernism on the Left

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.

Deliberative Democrats

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


  1. dirk says

    -Post- on itself is, of course, already characterising something poor and nerveless, a protesting teenager , a rebel without a cause, but what about post-post?? Where are the Giants of once that came with something real?? Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, Freud? Is it possible that it will be some non- Western? I’m just curious!

    • Andrew Smedley says

      To be truly novel and real, it would probably have to originate from a non-authoriarian country, so that pretty much is the west. Although it could be someone exiled from a non-western country kinda Ai Weiwei style. I could imagine maybe someone from India? Lots of people, not too restrictive on thought (I think?),different and old philosophical tradition.

      Things are so different these days that I wonder if we’ll even realise a great idea has been conceived. To illustrate, it could just be some guy writes something from his bedroom in Kuala Lumpur, and the meme just propagates around the world through reddit-like forums, vlogs, comments etc. No one gets credit, no one even notices until they look back 20 years and see the difference in the discourse.

      • dirk says

        That’s how it went with Popper’s idea Andrew, the giant of 20th C. Europe. He just copied the idea of falsification etc. etc. from a German author whom nobody has ever heard of, without any reference, shame on him. And about that authoritarianism as an unlikely condition for great ideas: Jesus’ Mount Sermon was a good example that it is quite possible (and, maybe, even a better one).

  2. prince says

    This article is not at the standards I learned to expect of Quillette.

    After a reasonable opening, the author becomes busy with piling incomprehensible mambo jumbo. Perhaps post-modernist historian and experts could understand what is being said there, but I am afraid that the most of the uninitiated will scratch their head and wonder what is being discussed .

    Perhaps it is not the author’s fault and just the nature of the hostility to reason and non-rationality of post-modernism that is making any reading on post modernism a challenge for rational reason seekers.

    But regardless, I find this a disappointing article as it fail to communicate, and therefor failed to challenge.

    • Matt says

      I apologize if it was unclear, though as you highlighted, it is not easy to boil down these figures into more readily comprehensible language.

      Is there anything I can clarify?

      • prince says

        Thanks for the reply Matt.

        As some other commentators also implied – it is just too dense. Perhaps trying to capture too much and capturing very little as a result.

        I would really appreciate much narrow essay trying to shed light on one of the mainstream post modernist ideology contrasting and comparing it to the classical liberalism (which I do get easily).

        As a classical liberal I was looking forward to try to understand the point of view of the new left coming from the left and not from the IDW thinkers. But I was left completely confused after the reading.

        • Matt says

          Perhaps you’re right. I was trying to summarize a broad swathe of material and found it difficult to do so quickly.

          Here are my 2 sentence summaries.

          Deliberative democrats believe in reason, but think it means different things to different groups of people. A better society is one that promotes more dialogue between these groups, which means we should grant more people a broader package of rights.

          Critics of neoliberalism think the first group are too conformist and want to radically change society. They reject post-modernism as also being too conformist and prone to not criticizing capitalism adequately.

          Radical classicists think we need to go back to the ancient Greeks for a model of what truth and politics will look like.

        • It’s a dense subject by nature, prince. If nothing else, you now get that there are at least 3 alternative approaches to post-modernism. You can either look into any of them for more information, or wait for a follow-up article whose title will now be more relevant to you.

          That’s beneficial, and confusion is not always a bad thing when new ideas are presented. I usually just try to stay with the confusion for a while if I think the subject is worth the time. A week or 2 later, clarity begins. Or the other pieces of the framework soon start falling into place as I read other material, and once they do the larger picture starts to make sense.

          Matt, I think you did a solid job summarizing that broad swathe.

          Given the Left’s long, long history of lies, I am more than casually curious how “Radical Classicist” doesn’t amount to “self-extinguishing leftist.” I suppose they could go play the usual Platonist games about ideal forms, and then inflate their importance beyond empirical reality. But if Agamben is an Aristotelian, he can’t play that way.

          Would be interested to hear more about those guys.

      • John says

        These views are way, way, way too abstract and all equally vacuous. They typify armchair academic thinking from those with too much time and little or no practical experience (i.e., only those who have stayed in the chat bubble their entire paid professional lives would go down these esoteric paths). Most academic ‘alternative’ theories are created as professorial sophistry to achieve tenure and gain status. A handful of functional concepts just get remixed and given new labels. [Been there first hand and seen it across many disciplines; was more than I could stomach.]

        Real political positions (i.e., by those in power or seeking power) are ALL much more concrete and about the next meal, the next month, and the next year. By necessity real politics simplifies abstractions for effective day-to-day strategies. This is where Jordan Peterson comes in — he’s a clinical psychologist who has provided decades of direct guidance to ordinary/simple people on how to live better lives.

        This is also why Jordan Peterson became an instant global celebrity and is mentioned in half the articles on Quillette. Simple. Functional. Survival. Be the best you can be. I take him to be an eclectic and pragmatic centrist (and yes, I grew up around true right wingers). To me, both the left and right are best characterized by reliance on half-true ideologies and dogma. They become non-functional and violent and controlling in congruence with their closed ears and closed minds.

        And bad political ideologies stand in contrast to empty academic sophistry that has been paid for by exploited 19 year old students. In turn, those students of “nothing” will be saddled with huge student loans after choosing disciplines with no employment value.

    • Morgan says

      You aren’t very intelligent.
      There’s nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with being short.
      But you really shouldn’t let your own inability lead you to judge others with the capability to understand basic abstract concepts.

  3. Gary Edwards says

    The anglophone tradition has more to contribute to this recovery than Rawls and Sen. I guess the continental is more the authors bag.

      • I don’t think Gary was using “anglophone tradition” as a synonym for “analytic tradition”, which seems to be devoted to the study of the evolution of abstract political theories.

        I think what is difficult about Peterson for philosophers and political theorists is he really has no use for them. For Peterson, and I assume Gary, tradition is a near synonym for historical experience.

        I also think that Peterson’s first principles derive chiefly from the English Independent brand of democratic-republicanism that emerged in the 1630s, was incubated for about 140 years in New England and found its fullest expression in the US between 1800-1900.

        On the other side of the same coin are the so called classical 18th C. liberals, Whigs in GB and Federalists in the US, who trace their origins to English Presbyterian faction by way of Locke and to some extent Hobbes.

        The difference between the two is fundamental. The democratic-republicans vest sovereignty in the governed acting through their communities and the Presbyterians place sovereignty in the institutions of government guided by the gentlemen of leisure class who, unlike the democratic-republican working class, are accustomed to having their individuality flattered at every turn.

        For democratic-republicans the fundamental unit of society and politics is not the individual but the congregation and the town.

        This line of thought was revived in the mid-20th C. in the UK by Christopher Hill’s English Civil Wars revisionism, particularly his “Puritanism and Revolution,” and in the US by Bernard Bailyn, Pauline Maier and more recently by Gordon Wood.

        The tension between the very whiggish leadership of the American Revolution and the very democratic-republican population at large in 1770-75 was explored by Richard D. Brown in “Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts; The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-74″ (1970). In a nutshell, Samuel Adams addressed the town in the language of Locke and Blackstone and the towns replied in the language of Coke, the Bible and tradition. Chapters 3 and 7 of ‘Revolutionary Politics” get to the nub of it; the gentlemen of trade and professions were looking to control the excesses of working class and the working class were looking to control the excesses of the leisure class.

        • I said analytic because Gary tweeted his comment with it revised as analytic. Also, Rawls is anglophone, so I’m guessing he is not just talking about language used.
          That’s an interesting account of the English developments. I think the continental tradition probably was mixed up in the same sets of ideas – Rousseau’s general will idea is republican as opposed to liberal. The tension involved between these 2 aspects is probably inherent in liberal democracy to some extent.

    • Matt says

      Personally I actually affiliate with the analytical tradition more than the continental one, for the reasons you highlighted. But I thought it was important to discuss this dimension of left wing thought, especially because figures like Badiou and Zizek are-rightly or wrongly-more popular on the left.

      • Matt says

        Also if you are interested in learning more about the analytical tradition in political theory the Rawls/Nozick/Macintrye debate is probably the most central.

  4. When that happens, critics who lambast postmodern neo-Marxism and its activists might seem rather out of touch.

    Maybe, but I was reading Habermas in the Eighties and he’d already been publishing for nearly thirty years. His work largely predates postmodernism and he was a harsh critic of postmodernism long before it peaked so I don’t see how he can be seen as representing a ‘new’ challenge to postmodernism.

    Don’t get me wrong, his critique of postmodernism is largely spot-on, but if he failed to persuade my generation what chance does he have with students who have been immersed in Pomo bullshit since birth?

  5. markbul says

    If you actually want to know just how grotesquely this post tortures the truth to death, please read Roger Scrunton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. It’s a difficult slog in places – because it quotes from and takes seriously, at least to the degree possilbe by the rational mind, Habermas, Zizek, and Badiou. Finding this mischief on Quillette is a profound disappointment. Zizek saw nothing wrong with the murder of millions in Mao’s China – he supported it explicitly in the name of ‘revolution.’

    What the hell happened to Quillette? Claire Lehmann – are you still there? If you’re going to drop totalitarian mass murder supporters on us, please let us know ahead of time. The men cited above can be safely ignored based entirely on their inability to write a proper English sentence – never mind the coddling of the 20th centuries greatest mass murderers. What the fuck?

    • Matt says

      I am not sure where I said I supported any of these figures. But much as Roger Scruton takes them seriously enough to engage with them, it is important to actually look at what these thinkers say and why.

    • ga gamba says

      What the hell happened to Quillette? Claire Lehmann – are you still there?

      I think you’re being unfair. The appeal of this place, to me at least, is that pretty much anything goes. In an Anglosphere of hyper partisan blogs, forums, and magazines, often heavily moderated by both keyword filters and humans, and which give tools to the readership to report comments for one of many fouls, Quillette differs remarkably. For that I’m grateful. For being such a light-touch place I rarely find anyone abusing the freedom granted here.

      Quillette is a platform for free thought. We respect ideas, even dangerous ones. We also believe that free expression and the free exchange of ideas help human societies flourish and progress. Quillette aims to provide a platform for this exchange.

      That’s from the site’s About section; I presume those words were typed by Ms Leymann herself. Mr McManus’s piece certainly complies with this objective.

      Not being an editor here, I don’t know the extent it’s practiced when choosing articles for publication. Would Praising Pol Pot pass? I don’t know. There may indeed be an editorial slant (I don’t recall reading anything of an alt-right perspective, or a Naxalite one either) but the absence of such in and of itself in not proof. It could be that alt-right and Naxalite writers haven’t submitted pieces here.

      • markbul says

        Exactly what do you mean by ‘anything goes.’ I seriously doubt you mean it at all. There is a place for ‘anything goes’ discussion, but this is hardly a forum that claims to be providing it. Tens of millions of people were fed into the meat grinder of ideology during the 20th century, and the supports of those slaughters dominate the liberal arts in universities across the Western world. There’s nothing wrong with discussing such people – they need to be known about by the general public. But to present Stalin’s and Mao’s unrepentant bootlickers as simply influential academics is beyond the pale to me. I hate to go there, but to make the point painfully obvious, a discussion of vegetarianism that gives A. Hilter’s take on the practice – and says nothing else about him – would be perverse. This is perverse.

        • ga gamba says

          Markbul, I understand your objection. “Anything goes” was actually my “pretty much anything goes”, and the “pretty much” may seem like weasel words, but it’s based on my not knowing what’s off limits here. I take this at face value until proved differently: “We respect ideas, even dangerous ones. We also believe that free expression and the free exchange of ideas help human societies flourish and progress.”

          Certainly you find the ideas expressed in McManus’s piece perverse, which I’ll take to include dangerous. If they are perverse but not dangerous, I’m happy to be corrected.

          Because anything goes, you’re allowed to rebut McManus either here in the comments or you may contact Quillette to determine whether it would publish your longer piece. The ethics of capitalism and Christianity are frequently attacked all over the place, so I think a piece examining the ethics of espousing Marxism, cultural Marxism (Frankfurt School), or postmodernism is an interesting endeavour. You could also examine those who have already done so. I’d be interesting to read a Hindu’s, Sikh’s, Buddhist’s, or Jain’s response to any of these. You wouldn’t happen to be a Zoroastrian, would you?

          In defence of McManus, he’s certainly willing to reply to many of the comments here, which is more than most writers do. That’s an admirable quality, one I wish more writers would emulate.

  6. cacambo says

    Thank you for this nuanced take on postmodernism and its discontents. These days “postmodernism” seems to have become an all-purpose bogey man with little relationship to the actual arguments put forth by its actual adherents.

    For those interested, another response to the postmodern condition can be found in metamodernism:

    • These are “motte and bailey” tactics. Here’s a long, but good article describing this phenomenon.

      Video form

      TLDR; It’s a form of bait-and-switch. People like to offer out the most defensible version (the Motte) of whatever they’re arguing (ex. ‘postmodernism just means equality’) when they’re criticized but when not being criticized they expand it (the bailey) to a much broader range of things. When someone tries to disagree, they ‘retreat’ back to the Motte and the cycle repeats.

  7. Left-wing postmodernists *aren’t* proto-Totalitarians waiting for their opportunity to quash all dissent? I’m going to need some citations for that.

    Jordan Peterson doesn’t say that the people are murderous. He says that the *ideology* is murderous, which it is. People don’t have ideologies, ideologies have people.

    • markbul says

      They are exactly the people who WOULD be murderous, if only they had the chance. The Gulag wasn’t run by men taken from lunatic asylums – it was trusty party members who did the job. Never think it can’t happen here.

  8. Constantin Draghici says

    Leaving aside the fact that the writing of these left wing post-modern reformers is at times so dense that it is nearly impossible to comprehend, the fact remains that they did not abandon the basic idea that the individual rights based organization of society centered on the inviolability of property rights must be first and foremost destroyed in order to be replaced by some emergent social organization that will be beautiful, even is somewhat sketchy and vague at the moment.
    The so called ‘critics of neoliberalism” are evidently the most radical group and I fail to see how anyone reading this article will be comforted by the idea that the existence of dissatisfied self-described radicals is symptomatic of healthy internal philosophical debate within the Left.
    The “deliberative democrats” drive their claim of “moderation” on accepting the core idea that once we managed to equalize fundamentally (to the point of eliminating unconscious bias and any kind of group preferences that lead to more or less perceivable differences) – in other words – as soon as we are leveled up for good, it would be desirable to maintain free speech and deliberation as a way to make political decisions. The author fails to note that they do not think conversation is even possible beforehand. Why would a perfectly equalized group continue to manifest a diversity of thought and opinion is a question better left not addressed. Feel better? After all they really believe that talking things out might still be a desirable process once we iron out a few wrinkles. They are the good guys because they are “deliberative” – they believe in deliberation, don’t they?
    The “radical classicists” appear to be another gem of true diversity in post-modern thought. The little thing they are unwilling to concede is the merit of the scientific method as the best method yet devised to test empirically the “truth” of any hypothesis. They find a liberating and legitimizing kinship with pre-scientific concepts of the nature of what “truth” is and how it can be tested. Badiou, a self-described communist, claimed among other things that he learned “mathematics” from Jacques Lacan. If you want to know what that is like, look up the famous “equations” of Lacan and consider whether a mental asylum would not be a more appropriate milieu for all related thinking. In any event, returning to the short description provided by the author, Mr. Badiou has a purely ideological concept of truth: truth is that thing that will lead to a predetermined egalitarian aim during “spectacular events”. The best one can wish for is that we will never get to know the “truth” and that we should not trust those who claim an ability to “discern” it rather than proving it. To his credit the author classifies Badiou among other “radical classicists” which remain a bit unclear as to what the adjective “radical” is supposed to apply to.
    The fact is that there is a fermentation of more or less radicalized political thought in contemporary left-wing theory but it is all centered over either radicalizing the post-modern project – or rejuvenating it in new packaging. I don’t feel at all reassured by it. Merely observing the radicalized totalitarian manifestations of students more or less immersed in this philosophical cauldron is not a “crude argument” in favor of sounding the alarm about these radical theories, as professor Peterson does. It is the scientific approach which measures “truth” by outcome. You can have some patience with an academic lamentation that Marxism was a life-changing progression in political thought, but it is not crude to observe that its implementation whenever and wherever tried was the most productive industrial killing machine in history. So long as the political left does not find the skeleton in that cupboard and unravel the anti-human doctrine embedded in Marxism and all its offshoots, no rational person should find much hope in the intellectual skirmishes among various pedigrees of radicals at the top. I do not think that these currents left-postmodernism behind, as the author argues.
    P.S. I have to mention the originality of supporting the final argument that post-modernism has been effectively abandoned by the colorful idea that on the way to reinvigorating pre-scientific thought, the radical classicists had to first revert to a “reluctant modernism” as a necessary train station on the way back to Greek philosophy. How about another take that proves the exact opposite argument: reluctant modernism was never on their radar and the rediscovery of Greek philosophy is just a ploy in continuing end developing the post-modern assault on reason?

    • Matt says

      I actually agree with your last point. If you’re interested I have some critiques of Badiou online that can be readily googled 🙂 I find his work very much borderline mysticism. But he is popular so I felt compelled to discuss him.

  9. Great article. Interestingly – for IDW types – though originating in a marxist school of philosophy, Habermas ends up with many of the same positions as Steven Pinker. He sees liberty as emerging from rational dialogue, in a liberal democratic culture. He has an intercultural approach rather than multicultural. Rather than relativism, he aspires to a cosmopolitan universalist politics.

    • Habermas ends up with many of the same positions as Steven Pinker.

      I think that’s the influence on both of JL Austin and John Searle.

  10. Bartolo says

    oh god, again this universalist, human rights-monger and mass immigration peddler… does this guy not know that he can publish in Vox, Salon, Huffington Post etc?

    • Matt says

      That seems rather uncharitable, particularly for someone who admires a publication for its commitment to free speech and broad inquiry.

      • Matt says

        Also “human rights monger”?? What are you implying by that.

        • Bartolo says

          Some people actually are critical of the human rights religion. Au-dela des droit de l’homme, by Alain de Benoist, is useful for those who want some perspective to may be come to understand that human rights in their current form are just another intellectual fashion. There is nothing special about them. Regarding free speech, open mindedness and all that: such an ethos is only acceptable if all or at least most sides abide by those principles. The last time I saw a right-wing or classical liberal article in Vox, Huffpost os Salon was… well, never. If the players of one team pass the ball to both their fellow team members AND those of the rival team, whereas the other team only passes the ball to their own members… well, what team would you be betting on? I am also surprised that we still try to uphold those principles pretending the other side cares about fairness or honest discussion (they don’t and openly say so, read Stephen Hicks Explaining Postmodernism, or Bloody Shovel’s essays on Bioleninism). They dox, deplatform, intimidate, criminalize and try to send to jail, ruin and physically attack those who don’t think like them. And we still keep bleating about principles and stuff. It beggars belief. They are out to win, bamn. I am looking forward to MacManus’ articles promoting mass migration. They will come. You just wait. Shifting the ideological line of Quillette to the left, one article at a time. One has to admire their perseverance.

          • Matt McManus says

            That makes little sense. You criticize Salon, Vox, and Huffington Post for not giving a platform to the right wing commentators. Fair enough. But now you’re complaining that I am writing articles from a progressive standpoint on Quilette. It sounds to me like what you want is a safe space.

          • Matt McManus says

            Also it is McManus, not MacManus. My paternal grandfather was Irish, not Scottish.

  11. josh says

    I appreciate the article for trying to educate people about the actual academic side of postmodernism, and its discontents. Realistically, though, the political left isn’t driven by academic theorizing and jargon, any more than Trump voters are driven by a deep appreciation for Jung. “Postmodernism” seems to function on the right the way “patriarchy” does for feminism: a nebulous, often subconscious motivation for the wrongs in the world that persists regardless of what the wrong-doers actually say.

    • Matt says

      I tend to agree. Actually one of the problems I have with critics like Peterson is the tendency to make everything about universities and what is taught at them. It is remarkable how often I hear that students are being raised to become devout post-modern skeptics, when experience tells me it is difficult to get them to read a short newspaper article.

      • I don’t know, Matt, based on my 10+ years in an English department (both as a student and later as an instructor), Peterson’s not too far off the mark with his comments.

        • Matt McManus says

          I think there is indeed a grain of truth in his broader claims. There is a need to push back against post-modern discourse in many academic fields. But many of his specific assertions are factually misleading or simply wrong. Take his claim about post-modern Neo Marxism. This is a very strange reading of post-modernism, given that many of the authors were either critical or outright hostile towards Marx. Or his claim that pushing for more rights and power by appealing to group identity is inherently illiberal. This would surprise the anti-abolitions, suffragettes, civil rights activists, anti-apartheid movements, and so on. So whatever gems of insight he might have on these issues tends to get lost in a rather confusing mashing together of a number of complex intellectual and social phenomena. Marxism comes to equal postmodernism equals advocating for group rights and power. These are extraordinarily strange leaps that more precise scholars and analysts would blush at.

          • Rigelsen says

            “This would surprise anti-abolition[ist]s”. It certainly would. But abolitionists, not so much. All of the movements you outline were not about obtaining special group rights but generalizing existing special rights and thus eliminating their “specialness”. Fundamentally, they were about prioritizing the individual citizen over group affiliation as to whether their rights or privileges would be recognized.

            The fact that you have difficulty understanding this basic point suggests a basic myopia that is hardly flattering.

            And “deliberative democrats”. There is something quaintly irrational about all the self-supposed intellectual traditions you outline, but this one is a severe mess as you describe it. Reason as an instrument of post-equalized inter-group dialogue? If they are going to describe something that is so unlike reason as traditionally understood, why not construct a new word that won’t confuse everyone else into thinking you’re talking about one thing while you talk about another?

            Yet another “motte and bailey” tactic?

  12. V 2.0 says

    It doesn’t really matter though does it? Most people (people with jobs outside academia) are going to start reading this and roll their eyes, then go check out Reddit where Jordan Peterson has quite the following. Nothing demonstrates the desperation and intellectual bankruptcy of the Left as debates of this sort. Can we get rid of the useless Left and go back to worrying about real problems like people not being treated equally by the law or being barred from making a living/moving around freely/feeling the wind in their hair (etc) because of arbitrary genetic details such as skin color of genitalia? Oh wait….that’s a dastardly plot of the Right now…

  13. Sylv says

    The desire to deny unpleasant truths and to avoid following rational inquiries to unpleasant conclusions is universal. In most cases, ascribing a whole school of philosophy to it dignifies it unduly; just because somebody proclaims “the truth is whatever I say it is!” does not mean they are engaging in post-modern philosophy. They might just be engaging in good old fashioned malarkey, which can safely be undertaken even without the benefit of a college degree.

    On the other hand, most Petersonophiles aren’t engaging in any serious refutation of post-modernism, or any other rigorously-defended philosophy, either. They are mostly just expressing annoyance. The internet’s promise of a global many-to-many communication medium has mostly manifested in a ubiquitous tumult of confused people shouting “you suck!” as loud as they can to anyone within earshot. So it’s not too surprising that extreme, continuous annoyance is the order of the day.

    Anyway, thanks for detailing some strands of non-post-modernist thought on the Left, if only to help dispel the currently popular belief that everybody who believes in the minimum wage or in greenhouse gases does so because Foucault told them to.

  14. Matt McManus says

    You are welcome. Thank you for your respectful and thoughtful comments. I largely agree. Dislike post-modernism as much as you want. I am noy especially fond of it. But don’t do so unless you have actually spent some time with the authors and their arguments. Same goes for what I have (somewhat ironically) termed the post-postmodernists.

  15. X. Citoyen says

    On deliberative democracy, the meanings of “free” and “equal” seem like minor problems next to the big question of how “collective deliberation conducted rationally and fairly among free and equal individuals” can solve radical individualism–i.e., a situation where people “think their personal beliefs [are] beyond criticism.” This calls to mind Whitehead’s remark about Russell’s two contradictory political beliefs, namely, that all the world’s problems were caused by people acting irrationally and that all the world’s problems can be solved by people acting rationally.

    Equally puzzling, why does the even distribution of “social and economic power” come before all the rational deliberation? One would think that the redistribution of “social and economic power” might be something we’d all want to deliberate about, don’t you? Even if one supposes that equality is a necessary condition of the great conversation among people who will suffer no criticism, who gets to do the equalizing? It seems to me that all the emphasis on the sunny end-state has glossed over the massive social and political changes required to get there. One wonders what the collective would have left to deliberate about after the total reorganization of society when the organization of society is the only reason for collective deliberation in the first place.

    Anyway, I’m sure I’ve heard this story before. Your post-postmodern deliberative democrats sound like pre-postmodern Marxists with the blood-and-guts class war replaced by the enlightened technocrats of the managerial state. Instead of the fishing and dancing in the Communist Manifesto, we’ll stand around chitchatting will millions of others about whatever’s left to talk about in our enforced freedom and equality. So, no, I don’t see how they’ve moved beyond anything but the old vocabulary. It’s the same old leveler wine in a new bottle.

    Much the same goes for the critique camp. The critics compare a tendentious interpretations of the existing order against and imaginary one. Plato’s city in speech is an abstract model of the best regime, given the facts of human nature. The regime of the critics of neoliberalism are never put into speech at all, and their interpretations aren’t rooted in facts about human nature, but in a mutilated Hegel, all Spirit of self in the other; the real institutions that must exist to effect it–Substance–has disappeared from the story altogether.

    True, I haven’t read much from them in years, and I can’t recall reading any of the “radical classists,” though I assume their “classicism” looks a lot more like Marx than Plato. I read less and less over time because intellectual curiosity is best satisfied elsewhere. They have nothing of any consequence to say to anyone who doesn’t suffer from their carefully cultivated existential troubles.

    None of them are philosophers or political theorists, after all, or even poets or prophets. They’re chiliastic theologians in an ersatz religion created to fill the void left by the old and real ones. They survive only in the academy, which they’ve usurped and converted into a hothouse that provides them a salary and status, and shields them from the real world. I’ve come to believe, in other words, that these forms of post-and post-postmodernism are to lapsed continental Catholic and Jewish intellectuals what the self-help industry is to lapsed middle-class Anglo-American Protestants.

    All the same, thanks for the article.

    • quidnunc says

      From the first chapter of Mark Kingwell’s A Civil Tongue regarding Habermas:

      And yet it is not clear that this sort of talk really is unconstrained, or whether the conditions modeled by the ideal situation are the right ones—that is, the ones that could usefully apply to our problems in practical political debate and the project of social legitimation associated with justice. Objections of a type associated with “postmodern” theories of right indicate that this neo-Kantian fulfillment of the aspirations of modernity may contain within it an instance of structural injustice: not the tyranny of perfectionism we may fear in the conservative vision of a single moral code, but a closing-off of innovation or plurality in a single project of rational legitimation. 20 And though such objections can easily descend into overstatement and hectoring, they nevertheless indicate that disagreement is a practical problem that will not easily be solved by reference to shared rational commitments. The ideality that arises naturally with the neo-Kantian view, an ideality about discursive structure which inherits from Kantian morality a desire to make these procedures of justification applicable to all rational actors, is open to question. Even if we are prepared to grant that rational agents share some common commitments insofar as they are rational, are these the commitments that can be thought effective in guiding our talk to the generation of justified political norms, among other things? It will be my concern to show that such commitments, though in some sense unavoidable in the processes of argumentation, are of themselves a base not stable enough to support even the modus vivendi version of justice I think most feasible given the facts of pluralism. Without the additional impetus provided by political-pragmatic commitments and a more detailed (and therefore less universal) picture of practical judgment—that is, the necessarily not universal commitment of citizens to sharing a single well-ordered society—justice will not issue from the rational commitments isolated in discourse ethics. So this version of the talker is still too Kantian; it cannot succeed in addressing the deep political differences that motivate the legitimation conversation in the first place.

      Kingwell is himself writing in this tradition so, yes they have considered those questions. Whether it’s worth reading depends on what you think political theory contributes to understanding. I think it’s useful to the extent that interests, identity, institutions get bound up with the contents of theory (with a time lag) through the influence of cultural mandarins distilling those ideas into a received view , at that point a distant echo of the nuance in the original discussion.

      • X. Citoyen says

        Kingwell is a name I haven’t heard for a long time, though I can’t say I’m excited to hear it again.

        Anyway, were I to construct a taxonomy of McManus’s academic flora, the family would be our political and social system is irredeemably defective, the genus would be how to get to utopia from here, the species would be deliberative democracy (Habermas), and the variety would be Kingwell. If one belongs to the family and the genus, the species and its varieties become meaningful. Once you accept the premise and the end, in other words, the question becomes the most efficacious means.

        This brings me around to your Kingwell quotation. If someone belonging to the genus had made the criticism I made, he’d be compelled to concede that the deliberative democrats (or Kingwell at least) had recognized and tried to overcome the problem of rational deliberation with the irrational. Not much argument on the recognition of the problem part.

        But I don’t belong to the same family or, come to that, the same order (social and political systems are fungible because human nature is malleable), class (social and political orders are intentionally created systems) or phylum (total understanding of the social and political system is possible). So my remarks weren’t really technical deficiencies I perceived in the species, but the sort of straightforward practical questions that, if one persists in asking, eventually lead one back up the taxonomy to another phylum (our understanding of the whole is always partial and often flawed), and then down again: class (social and political orders evolve and devolve), order (human nature determines political and social possibilities), and, thus, the family: the social and political order we have, whatever its faults, is still better than a wholly imaginary one that requires using force against real human beings to bring about.

        Maybe it can all be boiled down to two (rather mundane) political choices for people who feel the need to act. You can ignore the “system” you have and help those you can. Or you can dedicate yourself to tearing down the system and anyone who defends it in the hope that something better waits on the other side. Being a realist, I acknowledge that people who followed the first path have done bad things out of good intentions–the path doesn’t indemnify the traveler against future culpability. But the revolutionaries have never brought us anything but dead bodies (or stillborn theories). Like the time-traveller in science fiction who goes back to right past wrongs, the revolutionary swears that “This time will be different!” but it never is.

  16. Matt McManus says

    I think much of what you say, excepting comments about the deliberative democrats-who are most emphatically not technocrats- is fair. For the most part my work is in the broadly analytical tradition of Rawls-Parfit-Nozick etc, though I started off by reading continental theorists and still dabble on occasion. Either way I wrote the article mainly to clear up some misconceptions, not to endorse any of these positions. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

  17. Aaron says

    Good article, though not successful in convincing me that there is a meaningful difference between these left wing thinkers on a fundamental level. Despite their disagreements, they all arrive at similar political positions that call for a dehumanizing leveling down of all hierarchies and inequalities. I’m this sense I don’t even consider left wing post modern thought political — they have forgotten the human as the being who in its being is open to Being, that is, open to the forces of a nature beyond human choice, the incalculable, resistant to all techno-Marxist reductions. The post modern has forgotten Being. The post modern leftist says a lot of things about politics but is utterly incapable of political thought — there is no time for me to unpack that statement here but I think it is worth throwing out there regardless.

    • Matt McManus says

      I think that is a broadly fair reading about the latter two categories. Deliberative democrats tend to be quite different in their arguments that hierarchy can be justified, but only in so far as it is conducive to the dialogical rationalization of society. Thanks for the comment 🙂

      • Aaron says

        Any ideology or politics that does not take the inviolability of the individual as its starting and ending point, and that does not admit of a reality not purely constructed by social interaction, has been murderous. For some reason, leftist political thinkers who fancy themselves as post modern always find themselves on the wrong side of these two principles. Peterson has provided his rather compelling view on why this is. You on the other hand don’t even have what could be taken as the slightest awareness of this problem. Why is that?

        • Matt McManus says

          On what basis do you make any of those claims, whether about me or the doctrines you endorse and discredit?

          • Aaron says

            I should not have to remind a scholar such as yourself of the two most obvious examples of regimes (Stalinist and Maoist) who were successful in eradicating anything that resembled an individual with unalienable rights. That my previous post did not bring these atrocities immediately to your consciousness is indicative of the willfull blindness of leftist academics in general to conceal the murderous tendencies of radical leftism.

            I don’t need ‘grounds’ from which to claim that you do not address the question of the moral depravity of leftist post modernism because you explicitly claim to be taking no position on that account in your article.

            So, I’ll ask you again: why do you not address the most important question one must ask when evaluating these ideologies? And if you do not have an answer to this most important question, what gives you the right to criticize someone such as Peterson who is willing to make this judgment?

    • dirk says

      Seek comfort in the old Heidegger Aaron: Man-is-a Being-in- which-Being, precisely-that-Being matters, and more similar stuff.
      Very consoling reading for in a mountain cabin.

      • Aaron says

        I’m always delighted to find a kindred Heidegerian. Although I’m not sure it’s comfort I seek in his thought.

  18. Mark says

    Excellent article. I only learnt of postmodernism a few months ago, and I’ve been going down the rabbit hole. I simply don’t know enough to add to what the other commenters said, but I found the article challenging and interesting.

    • Mark says

      Matt, I just read your “The Argument Against Jordan Peterson” articles in Merion West. Congrats on writing a critique of Peterson that isn’t a blatant hit piece. However, I disagree with a lot of it, but I won’t go into that here.

      I’m curious about Marxism/socialism. The right-wring critique of Marxism is that the lefties always say, “But Marxism wasn’t implemented correctly!”. And then it always ends up in genocide. Every. Time.

      You cited China and the USSR as examples of Marxism/socialism not being implemented correctly. What about modern-day Venezuela? Or Cambodia?

      My understanding is that Venezuela was rich in oil until socialism took hold. I’m unsure about Cambodia.

  19. Matt McManus says

    Hello. That is an excellent question. The short answer actually gets to my own criticism of Marx: I have no idea what “implementing” his ideas correctly would really look like because he rarely discussed that. Marx was a much more interesting critic than a constructive political philosopher. His comments about what communism would look like are scattered, apocryphal, and vague. Generally the outline is this. In a highly developed country at some point the contradictions inherent in capitalist dynamics will reach a breaking point. No longer able to extract more value from labour, and with labour no longer able to afford products, the employment relation will give way. Then a vanguard party representing the proletariat will overthrow the system seizing power. This will be the end of all forms of exploitation and to the ultimate benefit of all. This vanguard party will then dismantle the state and the mechanisms used to exploit others. After is has “withered away” it will be replaced by a more “rational” society where the highly developed means of production (factories, technologies, etc) will be used to provide what everyone needs. Then people will enjoy a great deal of leisure farming in the morning, playing philosopher In the evening and so on.

  20. Matt McManus says

    If that sounds wishy washy and vague that’s because it is. And few of the attempts to elaborate on it have generally deviated from its few specifics.

  21. Matt McManus says

    If you are curious about whether I think there are latent authoritarian tendencies in Marxism my answer would be yes, in some respects and depending on which of Marx’s works you’re talking about. His scattered remarks about a vanguard party are red flags. But as I observed the same could be said about a number of great thinkers-notably Nietzsche-who made a number of authoritarian sounding comments and was later hailed by totalitarian regimes.

    • dirk says

      Matt: what’s wrong with authoritarianism? If you are firmly convinced of your truth and have authoriy, then it’s a logical result.
      Marx saw ordinary peasants and workers as a bag of potatoes, without a form of its own. And that’s how is was, I fear.

  22. californiapete says

    Thank you very much for this, Matt. I found this piece to be extremely helpful. Having experienced debates surrounding postmodernism in grad school during the early 90s, in an academic field (geography) where postmodernism’s critics overwhelmingly came from the hard left, I have been thoroughly disoriented by the present-day right’s portrayal of postmodernism as somehow being quintessentially leftist–a sensation you seem to share in your equally helpful critique of Jordan Peterson over at Merion West.

    I do have one question for you. The way you describe the “deliberative democrats” above, it is unclear to me how they differ from “egalitarian liberals” such as Rawls and Sen. Would you mind briefly explaining how you would make the distinction? And since I currently am reading (and enjoying) Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book on Cosmopolitanism, I also wonder where you would place him in your typology.

    Thanks again for your work and your willingness to thoughtfully engage with voices across our shifting political spectra. I look very forward to reading your future contributions.

  23. Matt McManus says

    Very kind of you. Actually there is a great deal of overlap between the two traditions and some proponents might even identify with both schools. The big difference is most egalitarian liberals are still content with purely representative government aka you vote for your official and he or she goes to speak for you in the legislature etc. Some, like Dworkin, at moments even seem uncomfortable with democratic institutions since they can be inclined to push against the liberal rights of citizens. By contrast deliberative ddemocrats want a return to a more Greek polis ala Athens. The argument is that citizens should be more involved in government and to do so equally the least well off will need more social power. So deliberative democrats tend to want less binding constitutions, more direct democracy, a more robust public sphere for debating the issues of the day etc. They also tend to be less absolutist about rights, seeing them more as procedural safeguards that need to be balanced rather than “trumps” or “natural” entitlements.

  24. Chester Draws says

    Paragraphs people! There are a whole bunch of comments here that are unreadable without clear spacing.

    Also I’m pleased that someone can work out what Zizek is on about. Because he’s incomprehensible to me — and I read academic books on a normal basis.

    • Matt McManus says

      Yes Zizek is a hard slog at times. I actually met the guy at a conference once and he speaks the way he talks. Hegelians are always a bit eccentric.

    • dirk says

      I have some bad news for the readers here on Quillette: forget to be able to understand Zizek and Sloterdijk, because you have a completely different background, not the one of Der Untergang des Abendlandes (pessimist), but the one of an optimist and enlightened anglosaxon of the New World, without much history (though not all of you, of course, because some of you/us are continentals). The Slovenia of Zizek was untill recently part of the Habsburg Empire (but an oppressed province), later part of the Sovjet Empire, and now all of a sudden a European country, logically that you have less confidence in yourself and your culture, try to evade, with humor, and to provoke on your own terms. I was in Ljubljana (once Laibach), and saw there Zizek in every bookstore, they are very proud of this universally wellknown and adored Slovenian ( Melania was not yet known at that time), I also saw everywhere in town statues of famous poets of once, maybe, soon, he will also have his own (but, of course, not just only after his death, I wish him many more years of fruitful philosophying).

  25. Thanks Matt. I return to Quillette because of articles such as this. Challenging and informative.

      • Matt McManus says

        I know. My apoligies. I’m walking and typing so there are no paragraphs and a few typos.

  26. Martti O. Suomivuori says

    We do not need to read Marx to see what Communism looks like. We could read history instead. Same goes for Islam, no need for Islamic scholars to tell us why exactly their religion is associated with terror and violence. To ask a political philosopher about what is wrong with postmodernism, if anything, lands in the same range of questions.
    We see people doing wrong things under its banner.
    Easy as that.
    Attacking speakers, burning and breaking, provoking violence.
    That’s what’s wrong. All the nice words about various -isms, all the name dropping, it is nothing but a smoke screen and a decoy to lead our attention from the real problem: Violence is OK in today’s discours.

  27. Florin says


    I’m sorry – but isnt this mostly nonsense? It’s as if science hasn’t informed the conversation at all.

    Abundant science supports on average male-female differences, yet (some) philosophers argue as if facts are as subject to rationalist interpretation as value judgments about those facts.

    Marx was the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. His thinking can not be isolated from Jewish eschatology – but it always is, because that would mean discussing Jewish eschatology. The failure of readers of Marx (not his real name) to read his prescriptions in the absence of any understanding of his upbringing means they don’t truly understand Marx’s writing.

  28. Matt McManus says

    That’s a rather crude characterization. According to recent estimates 170 million people died as a result of Spanish colonialism betwee the 16th and 17th centuries. The Pope was a major proponent of this. During the same time the 30 Years War called millions. Does this inherently discredit Christianity so vehemently is effaces our need to study it? Locke participated in the slave trade and suggested it was morally permissible to appropriate aboriginal territory. Many millions died as a direct or indirect result such thinking. Does this discredit classical liberalism? Nietzsche was invoked by the Nazis, Hitler even paid a visit to his sister’s house in gratitude. Does this mean Nietzsche and those inspired by him, from Ayn Rand to Foucault, are all proto anti-semites?

    • ga gamba says

      According to recent estimates 170 million people died as a result of Spanish colonialism betwee the 16th and 17th centuries.

      I think you are over-egging this. Not the number, but the reason how these deaths occurred. It’s estimated 90 to 95% of those deaths in the Americas were from disease such as measles, smallpox, bubonic plague, cholera, etc. Even infectious diarrhea is a killer. New World indigenous disease was mostly of the chronic and episodic kind, Old World diseases were largely acute and epidemic. These caused what are called “virgin soil epidemics,” in which all members of a population would be infected nearly simultaneously. Had the Chinese arrived first, which was possible given its maritime tradition until the early Ming Dynasty, the outcome would have been the same. The Javanese were also exceptional sailors who were active in the trades routes between Africa/Middle East and China, so they too had the skills and vessels as well as themselves being the carriers of epidemic disease. It seems inevitable that upon contact with outsiders many would become infected and die, just as many died in Europe from the Antonine and Justinian Plagues and the Black Death.

      I don’t blame the Chinese for the many global pandemics spawned there due to the close habitation of humans, swine, and fowl. The only way to prevent it then was to be in isolation or quarantine, and today only the few stone-age people living on North Sentinel Island are protected from infection by a quarantine imposed by the Indian government.

    • X. Citoyen says

      Marxism as a theory of history and a prediction about the future didn’t kill anyone, unless one believes in something like ideational animism. But his communist followers (Lenin, Mao, et al.) who took it upon themselves to speed up history by killing everyone standing in the way of the future are guilty. This doesn’t prove that communism will never come about (facts and logic prove that), but it does show what must happen to realize it here and now.

      Your response, on the other hand, conflates the actions of the men and institutions with their philosophies. Where in Catholic doctrine does it say thou shalt colonize South America (or anywhere else) and kill all the inhabitants by smallpox and gold lust? Where in Locke’s Second Treatise is the justification of slavery? Nietzsche’s sister isn’t Nietzsche. And what may or may not be true of classical liberals need not be true of classical liberalism as a doctrine.

      By the way, I’m not implicitly endorsing your empirical claims. Your figure of 170 million dead, for example, is about twice as high as the highest figures for the total pre-Columbian population of North and South America combined. The Spanish didn’t act alone in their wars because they were seen (in the case of Cortez, at least) as the lesser evil. Nor were the Spanish all of one mind. The Jesuits were driven from South America for denouncing slavery and protecting the native inhabitants. Such is real history.

      Of course, I’ve already gone too far down the road into a morality fight. Debating who’s more evil than whom is a waste of time—quantifying evil, eviler, and evilest with death counts only makes it worse. Being required to kill one person (whether stated or implied) to create “a better world” disqualifies the most utopian scheme in my book.

  29. Matt McManus says

    Marx wasn’t the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. His father was an Enlightenment era liberal ans lawyer who converted to Protestant christianity to avoid persecution in anti-semetic Prussia. Also when did anyone bring gender into this, either on the thread or in my initial article.

  30. Matt McManus says

    Also the association of his work with Jewish eschatology is now widely discredited as part of a Nazi attempt to affiliate his work more closely with Judaism. The Nazis were prone to doing this. Schmitt did it to Spinoza, Heidegger to Marx and so on. Very few scholars take that claim seriously now, in no small part because there is little textual evidence to support it. Marx’s sole work on Jewish identity is “On the Jewish Question” where he essentially argues that with the arrival of “true” freedom the psychic need for religion-including Judaism-will dissapear.

  31. Trying to better contextualize these categories with additional examples. Would you peg Martha Nussbaum as a deliberative democrat, a radical classicist, or something orthogonal to those buckets?

  32. Arianne Dorval says

    Hi Matt,

    I very much enjoyed your article.You summarized the ideas of these different authors extremely well (and this is no easy feat…).

    I do have a question though. Why did you place Judith Butler and Wendy Brown in the second category? While these two authors are indeed critical of neoliberalism, their approach is so un-Marxist that I do not see how they can be lumped together with Harvey and Zizek (though Zizek is himself rather unorthodox in his Marxism). They criticize neoliberalism from an anti-normative perspective, do they not? And isn’t their privileging of difference over equality central to postmodernism?

    In other words, are you sure that they do not qualify as postmodern?

    Postmodernism is obviously an extremely broad term, but if we agree that one of its central tenets is that the Enlightenment (and hence abstract universalism) must be rejected because it produces margins precisely as it erases difference, then Butler and Wendy strike me as thoroughly postmodern.

    I find your other two categories more convincing. Habermas is clearly indebted to the Enlightenment. As for Badiou, his work is really quite unique… But his desire to reaffirm such categories as Truth (which emerges out of the void…), Universalism, Infinity is clearly opposed to any kind of postmodern thinking…. as is his thorough rejection of identity politics in all its forms (a rejection which, incidentally, is also very “French”).

    One last thing…. Zizek draws enormously on Badiou. Shouldn’t they be placed in the same category?

    Then again, I have been out of university for a while, and my assessment may be completely wrong.

    Butler’s thinking may have evolved since I was last confronted to her awful prose…:-)


  33. Matt McManus says

    I would class her as an egalitarian liberal qua her intellectual partner Sen, though I am open to being persuaded otherwise

  34. Matt McManus says

    Hello Arianne. That is an excellent question. I would suggest there has been a turn in their thinking that took place circa the mid to late 1990s with the publication of The Psychic Life of Power by Butler and Wounded Attachments by Brown. In these works there was a noticeable shift away from post-modern positions towards a more modernist emphasis. I would argue this has deep end to this day, especially in the case of Brown. Of course you could dispute this if you want. As for Zizek, he is certainly very proximate to Badiou in much of his work through the 1990s to the Parallax View. But I would argue that his latest work has demonstrated a more critical stance as Zizek moves more comfortably into a firm Lacanian-Hegelian theoretical framework which is very different from Badiou. Again this is obviously contentious and you can feel free to criticize my position 🙂

  35. NomNom says

    As a laymen not really well versed in these subjects, this article comes across as a bunch of impenetrable jargon. I feel like the author is trying to prove how smart they are, but whatever the point was, it gets lost for someone that doesn’t study these subjects. Maybe I’m just dumb, but this seems like an argument over semantics, similar to what he wrote in his part 2 criticism of Peterson.

  36. Arianne Dorval says

    Hi NomNom,

    Matt engages with the material in a way that may be difficult to comprehend if you are unfamiliar with contemporary philosophy . But I do not think he is think he is trying to prove anything….

    The fact is that even though most people have not read the authors Matt discusses, the knowledge (?) being produced in the academy has a huge (and insidious) impact in the real world.

    And so if we want to escape the collective predicament we’re in, I think it is important to take stock of the ideas being developed in the academy.

    Perhaps what we need now is for Matt to explain some of these concepts?:-)


    • NomNom says

      I wish I had time to do all that, I really do. Unfortunately, with work, the family and kids running around, it’s unlikely. I’ll have to leave this one for the academics to fight over.

  37. Arianne Dorval says

    Hi Matt,

    Thank you for enlightening me. I’ll see if I can get around to reading Butler’s latests books:-)


  38. Matt McManus says

    They’re a slog but I hope you enjoy them. She has become a better writer even if (like me) you don’t agree with a lot of what she says.

  39. Matt McManus says

    Also Nom Nom I would hardly say my article on Peterson was just semantics. You may disagree with my points but they boiled down to the following. 1) He criticizes left wing philosophy and activism without really understanding it. If this is true it’s a pretty serious accusation. And 2) His positive political program is not clearly defined, and to the extent it can be defined seems riddled with inconsistencies. This is also a very big problem. Now you might think I am wrong and I am open to hearing why. But these are hardly just semantic issues.

    • NomNom says

      You might be right. I’m really not well versed enough to judge. To me it just seems like your article was missing the forest for the trees.

      • Matthew McManus says

        Perhaps. Are you concerned that I am missing his broader points about the dangers of these left wing movements by focusing too much on criticizing his specific observations?

        • quidnunc says

          Peterson was uncharitable from the beginning, relying on a point scoring caricature and deserves to be looked down upon for it. On the other hand there is the distinction between what the best form of an argument is and the one that finds its way into public discourse. I was recently re-reading Elizabeth Anderson’s excellent review of Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology and was struck by how many of the bad arguments she debunks (on both sides) are depressingly common on social media and in op-ed pages.

          I do think ideas matter and good ideas can be a moderating force but it’s also important to consider the context of social change missed by Peterson and other defenders of the status quo. People who feel excluded from the system will find arguments that suit their causes and people who benefit will find arguments that resist change. What matters in the long run is legitimate interests being served.

          I was recently revisiting the history of Upper Canada and the path to what was called “responsible government” at the time where British loyalists and conservatives were pitted against reformers like William Lyon Mackenzie who coined the term “The Family Compact” which sounds a lot like complaints today about “the 1%” or expansive use of “white supremacy”. Loyalists were angry enough at Mackenzie to throw his printing press into Lake Ontario and Mackenzie was sufficiently radicalized to be sympathetic to American invasion. Historians tend to make more moderate reformers like the Baldwins the heroes but I wonder if that can be justified in the broader context of the process of social change with the corollary that conservative resistance to change also part of that process which is a lot more messy than Habermas builds into his theory of communicative action.

          • Aaron says

            Whenever someone makes the asinine claim to have ‘debunked’ an argument, I stop reading.

            Arguments are never entirely disproven. You can find evidence to suggest the superiority of another argument, but you still must remain skeptical. Anyone claiming otherwise is being intellectually dishonest.

    • I think part of the reason your arguments seem like semantics is because you are acting like Peterson uses “postmodernist” and “neo-Marxist” as terms of art like a philosopher who is versed in modern political philosophy would use them. It’s rather like if I said that someone is a high-energy person and you criticized me on the grounds that the statement doesn’t mean much using the definition of energy used in physics.

      The Left is a political movement rather than an intellectual movement, but there are common intellectual threads among the more radical members of the Left. Words like postmodernist and neo-Marxist are references to these threads of thought.

      What Peterson is apparently referring to is a collection of views employed by radical Leftists when they engage in political arguments (or, more commonly, moral grandstanding). Going by his comments, this includes things like the view that argument is not a search for truth but a search for power, that whites have no ability to engage with blacks on substantive issues because they don’t understand blackness, that all whites are inherently and irredeemably racist, that guilt, virtue, rights, and debts belong to groups rather than to individuals, that racism is a matter of power rather than a matter of how one views other races, that unwanted speech is violence, that a demand from someone the Left views as underprivileged constitutes an obligation for the privileged, and that any lack of equality is due to bad behavior on the part of those with an advantage.

      If you have a better name for beliefs in this category, I’m curious to know what it is. I can’t think of one.

  40. ga gamba says

    To Mr McManus’s credit he’s done a good job distilling the essence of these philosophers and their associated movements. Thank you. It’s a Herculean task to do so in few words to community of mostly generalists, which is who this site attracts. I reckon it’s even a Sisyphean one. “Oh golly, if I mention this then I have to write three more paragraphs.”

    Reading many of the comments I find enough “Huh?” that I think mentioning the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are good references for those who want to delve deeper yet don’t have the time or inclination to read thousands of pages, many of them dense and turgid. Having an interested layman’s understanding is sufficient for most discussions.

    Enjoy. Or not.

    • Matthew McManus says

      Yes that is generally my observation. My general outlook is one has to decide whether to go for generality and be more accessible of precision and risk obfuscation and over-specialization. I tried to maintain a relative balance by only using specialized terminology when referring to proper nouns aka “Hegelian Dialectics” or “Lacanian psychoanalysis” etc since otherwise I would misrepresent these views. My suggestion to the interested layman would be to check out was these mean and assess whether I’d gotten them right as they see fit.

      Also those are indeed great reference points. I often use the Stanford and Internet Encyclopedia’s as good summaries to refit my understanding and look for good secondary literature on complex topics.

  41. Rick Phillips says

    Thank you Matt for an interesting article and your many interventions in the comments section. I do think I learned something.

    I must admit that the discussion makes my brain hurt a bit. I was schooled in the sciences and economics. I had exposure to many of the “ologies” but clearly not philosophy. I did for a time flirt with Marx’s economic ideas but the trouble was some of his economic writings (eg. Labour Theory of Value) were simply not confirmed by empirical observation. I was indeed influenced by logic and the ideas associated with dialectic and Kuhnian processes. In the sciences theories about how the world works must be testable and supported by empirical evidence properly derived (proper controls for the null hypothesis, statistically valid collection and assessment of data etc.)

    One can theorize ad nauseam so long as propositions are either not testable or not tested. I think if we are going to “talk across the aisle” their is a critical role for empirical assessment of the ideas as these are applied in the “real world”. I understand that some would suggest that the disciplined application of such analysis is simply a tool of the oppressor but I really am not aware of a better approach to determining truth.

  42. Matthew McManus says

    Thank you for your contribution. Personally I am inclined to agree with your assessment, particularly about the need for empirical evidence when making judgements about truth claims. However, I think it is more difficult to do when we are discussing matters of principle where conclusions cannot be made purely by appealing to a given set of facts (aka should we be consequentialists, deontologists, or virtue ethicists. If the former, what type of consequentialist etc).

    Given that, I think the best solution is to approach matters of principle through engaging in a process of what Rawls called reflective equilibreum. We continuously try to make our moral principles more consistent through a process of reasoned deliberation, and then test these ever more consistent principles through applying them to the empirical world to assess their efficacy.

    My point in this article isn’t to argue for any of these positions per se. It is to contribute to this process of reflection by encouraging us to more charitably and accurately evaluate the viewpoints of those who may hold to different principles than we do.

  43. Bill Haywood says

    “contemporary left-wing theory” has “moved beyond postmodernism.” I think this still over estimates pomo. This intellectual trend was always tiny, never moving outside of humanities graduate studies. Most of the activist left never heard of these theorists. I’m talking about people organizing demonstrations, lobbying, phone banking, clashing with fascists — street level activism. Pomo was always bound to the academy. I spent 20 years as a street level activist (roughly 77-97) and never knew of any of this stuff until I went to graduate school. It is comical to hear the left writ large called post modern. Graduate students and academics are not the left, they have no time for meetings.

  44. Tron says

    How does one become a Radical Classicists and not end up advocating for (right- wing) classical aristocracy?

  45. Martti O. Suomivuori says

    There is enough room for all the fine words the philosophers can come up with. That’s not the problem. The mobs who take the law in their own hands in the name of Social Justice or the Holy Caliphate or the Worker’s Paradise, they are the problem.
    Talk all you want but do not give crazy ideas (let alone weapons) to people who cannot control their impulses.

  46. Mazzakim says

    And in the real world off college campuses, at least in the United States, esoteric political philosophy really doesn’t have much practical application. Most people are distributed somewhere around the political center, motivated by whatever set of issues important to them as individuals, which in turn leads to identification as liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. Not especially radical one way or the other, not especially complicated, and not especially motivated. We have a huge mass of inertia and apathy, even in these “polarized” times.

    The perception is something different because we are listening to the people yelling the loudest. Radicals on both sides have disproportionate influence because they vote. Voter turnout is a national travesty, especially when you look below the national level at all the elections on all other levels that consistently have turnouts of 20% or less.

  47. Mazzakim says

    I probably should have included “and all the other political parties,” but in America political power is expressed 99% of the time within the two-party framework.

  48. Matt McManus says

    Indeed Mazzakim. Who knows that the political landscape would look like with a more participatory and representative electoral system and landscape?

    • One would hope there would be more of that currently missing common sense, and that politicians would actually work in a truly bipartisan basis for the common good of all.

  49. doug deeper says

    Matt, thank you for your engagement of so many responders to your article, and there are many!
    My concern with the many thinkers you and others have mentioned who are on the left, whether post-modernist or some variety of Marxists, has to do with the profound advancements in understanding how our brains were designed in the harder sciences: brain sciences, cognitive and behavioral psychology, and especially evolutionary psychology and biology. I am not aware of any of these thinkers taking into account what science has taught us in the last forty years about the brain and behavior, dare I say our human nature.
    Marx’s fundamental assumptions about human nature came from the very primitive writings of the “first anthropologist,” Lewis Henry Morgan in the mid-19th C. The post-modernists seem to assume our brains are blank slates and entirely malleable, or perhaps I know too little of their thinking. But if this is their assumption then I find it hard to take any of their work very seriously. It might apply to some other unknown, non-biological species but it certainly does not apply to Homo Sapiens.
    Please correct me if I am guessing wrongly. Otherwise I will continue to take my counsel on human behavior from Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson. Their thinking seems to based on the current scientific understanding of our brains and our behavior.

    • Matthew McManus says

      This is a very fair question and the answer is complex. It depends on what you mean by “engage.” Habermas is probably the most rigorous theorist who has written on the relationship of scientific developments to his argument. His work will cite authors in linguistics, social scientists, and even geneticists to buttress his claims:

      In the remaining category, Zizek is probably the thinker who most extensively deals in those areas. He will often cite work by scientists in fields as diverse as quantum particle theory and neurology. Whether that is rigorous or not I leave to you…

      • doug deeper says

        Mathew, Thank you for your reply. My question was, are these post-modern and neo-Marxist thinkers “taking into account what science has taught us in the last forty years about the brain and behavior?” (I used the word “engage” when thanking you for engaging with your readers.)
        The sparsity of your reply is indeed my problem with these thinkers. The book by Habermas looks thoughtful and interesting, but it’s topic appears to be quite narrowly focused. He may very well be the most involved in the brain sciences of this group of thinkers.
        While the harder sciences are enjoying and benefiting from interdisciplinary activities, these thinkers seem to feel that they stand outside all of this activity, and can ignore it for their intellectual pursuits. They end up playing mind games by moralizing about fictional entities that they insist are homo sapiens. Thus their work is not only theoretical and abstract, it is nearly irrelevant to human life.
        IMHO, it is also dangerous. By influencing generations of students to assume their disconnected and abstract thinking is applicable to humans, they invite the same kind of arrogance hardened Marxists demonstrate. They believe they can recommend, and some of them believe they can coerce, actual human beings to follow their recommendations or dictates.
        This is precisely the kind of, dare I say ironically, “provincial” thinking that has caused much of the campus to be hostile to open and honest debate.

        • Matt McManus says

          In large part I agree with you actually. There is a concerted shift taking place as more and more major thinkers take the sciences seriously. But it remains relatively low key and underdeveloped. I think part of the blame lies in the unwillingness to many (certainly not all) continentally inspired scholars in the social sciences and humanities to take science seriously, This is less or a problem in analytically oriented departments, but those tend to be less popular. Saying that, part of what inspired me to write this piece is the indifference can be mutual. Many scholars in the sciences simply don’t take continental theory seriously enough to engage with it extensively or charitably. This tends to perpetuate the cycle of dismissal and mutual ignorance.

        • Matt McManus says

          Also please note I am not defending the salience of these approaches relative to scientific inquiry or vice versa. I’m merely commenting on social trends in academia, largely based on anecdote and my own reading of the situation.

  50. What is missing from the author’s statements like this: “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” are the words “by force” after the word “distributed.” The distinction between freedom and slavery is the degree that the state can steal from Peter to pay Paul. To bypass the importance of individual freedom and natural rights to property is fatal flaw of all neo-Marxist dogma, whether under the guise of structuralism, post-modernism, neoliberalism, or any other “ism” which advocates state-sanctioned theft.

    • Matthew McManus says

      Sure but what are “natural rights” and what is their basis? This is part of the problem; very few thinkers outside of religious traditions still invoke “natural rights” because it is metaphysically loaded and specious.

    • There are ways to achieve more equitable distributions of resources within a given society than by force. It is a cheap way out to immediately term such efforts “Marxist.” In my experience, free-market thinkers almost always severely underestimate 1) the role of corruption in the free market, and 2) the interplay with government at all levels– local on up– that goes into much of what is called wealth building in our societies. It is far too simplistic to call it robbing Peter to pay Paul.

      I don’t want to get into the weeds, and I’m going to set aside any discussion of corruption, but to my point 2 all decisions by government at any level are trade-offs and balancing acts. A local developer, for example, receiving a tax abatement and services from a given city to build luxury apartments in that city is receiving a government intervention (in his or her favor) that could very well be interpreted as theft by the low-income citizens if that decision deferred the building of low-income housing or took away services that might otherwise be available to them. Maybe the city puts off road maintenance in their neighborhoods for five years until the luxury apartments are built and generating tax revenue.

      If you want to bring religion into this, the Devil is found in the details.

      • As for corruption, I used to live in South Korea where one of the activities I was involved in was helping people open language academies (hagwons) for children. At one end of my experience was a family that had pooled its money together to buy franchise license and open the school. Every. Step. Of. The. Way. Involved off-book “gifts,” to the contractors, to the inspectors, to the city and national licensing boards, and everyone else who could possibly derail the project. The culture of corruption siphoned off something like 25% in total the money they had available to invest in their school.

        At the other end was the Korean Mafia. It took me a while to realize what was going on (What owner of a kindergarten needs three very large bodyguards?) but what was (and presumably is still) happening was these guys used the language academies (often run by their wives) to launder money.

  51. C Young says

    Surely this can be expressed far more simply.

    There are two ways of making claims about philosophy as it intersects with politics.

    One is the type that features large in this article – political condemnation – a claim that the philosophy has somehow failed in its political or social purpose, for instance that “the Enlightenment project of founding politics on reason had faltered … as the consequence of many complex social conditions”.

    The other type is purely philosophical. Does the philosophy stand up? Does it suffer internal contradictions?

    The problems with postmodern left are then easy to define. It is a sceptical philosophy that claims all constructive philosophies must fail. It substitutes a simple political strategy – free the oppressed.

    But this political strategy also fails because it lacks a constructive philosophy to define ‘oppression’. Without that philosophy, the oppressors are free to use this relativist philosophy. Hence the growth of the relativist right Trump and rightwing identitarians.

    The short version – relativism is always self-nullifying.

  52. David Walsh says

    I found this article falls far short of the standard I have come to expect on this site. I am not a philosopher but didnt expect I had to be to get some value here. Postmodernism is distinguished by its jargon, its unintelligibility yet I find Zizek and Badiou quoted here. This article is excessively jargon-filled, seems to say little and is generally unenlightening.

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