Education, Philosophy, Top Stories

The Frankfurt School and Postmodern Philosophy

There has been a tremendous pushback in recent years against what are broadly known as “grievance studies”; a loose collection of academic disciplines characterized by their emphasis on oppressive social and political institutions and the marginalized identities they victimize. The philosophical outlook underpinning these disciplines tend to be portrayed in a less ambiguous manner: it is typically described as some combination of Marxist politics with postmodern skepticism, and has been variously termed “cultural Marxism,” postmodern neo-Marxism, the New Left, and so on.

In his book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault, the philosopher Stephen Hicks argues that post-Kantian thinking gradually led to the adoption of ever more skeptical epistemologies. At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals came to align with Marxist and socialist political perspectives. This leads Hicks to the claim that postmodern philosophy is the perpetuation of Marxist politics through other philosophical means. He argues that there is a clear through line where the scientific pretensions of classical Marxism gradually gave way to the irrationalist critiques of the cultural Marxists, and finally converged with the overtly skeptical epistemologies of the postmodernists. Specifically, postmodern skepticism was adopted as a philosophical backdoor to justifying socialism along largely emotive lines. To paraphrase a memorable quote in Hicks’s book, postmodern Leftists came to say feelings were all that mattered and their feelings demanded socialism. Hicks goes on to argue that this epistemological skepticism and cultural Marxist/Socialist politics is the philosophical wellspring of the various identity politics movements ascendant today.

I have already reviewed Hicks’s book elsewhere, and do not intend to repeat my criticisms of his argument here. My point in this brief essay is to highlight the historical and philosophical problems with conflating “cultural Marxist” analyses with postmodern philosophy. While I think that both traditions can be validly criticized on a large number of points—and I have engaged in such criticism myself at some length—so-called cultural Marxism and postmodern philosophy are in fact quite different perspectives. They need to be appreciated as such, and evaluated according to their own philosophical and moral merits and demerits.

The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

The authors who can most justifiably be characterized as “cultural Marxists” belonged to the Institute for Social Research, which later colloquially became known as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. The history of the Frankfurt School begins in 1930, when Max Horkheimer took over and recruited an eclectic array of Marxist inspired scholars into the Institution’s ranks; including luminaries such as Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. These authors were largely inspired by two events. The first was the failure of Marx’s “scientific” prediction that a utopian revolution would emerge in developed Western states to overthrow the exploitative capitalist order. The most spectacular Marxist uprising—the infamous Bolshevik Revolution—began in underdeveloped feudal Russia. And far from a Communist Utopia, the Bolsheviks went on to establish a brutal totalitarian dictatorship.

The second event which inspired the Frankfurt School was the rise of fascism and Nazism in Western liberal democracies; most spectacularly in Germany, the homeland of the major authors. Many members of the Institute, including Adorno and Fromm, came from mixed or openly Jewish backgrounds and were appalled by the Nazis’ racial doctrines. The Institute fled Germany before the Second World War. In 1944, Adorno and Horkheimer published their seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment to try and explain how an enlightened liberal country could give rise to Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. They returned to Germany after the conflict, and swiftly published a number of influential books in critical theory. These included Adorno’s dense work in ontology Negative Dialectics, Erich Fromm’s study of the psychology of totalitarian figures in Escape from Freedom, and Marcuse’s efforts to combine Marxism and psychoanalysis in works such as Eros and Civilization.

The Frankfurt School has often been misrepresented by authors such as Hicks, who argue they promoted abandoning reason in favor of irrationalism. But this is a misunderstanding of the aims of the Frankfurt School. Figures like Jurgen Habermas to this day argue that we need to recover or strengthen reason to fight against the temptations of skepticism and nihilism. The criticisms of the Frankfurt School were directed against what one might call “subjective” or “instrumental” reason. They argued that in modern societies, reason is often understood as a mere means to achieving our subjective ends. We tend to look at the world as a collection of different material objects that we could learn to manipulate and transform in pursuit of our desires. There was nothing wrong with this in and of itself. But the authors of the Frankfurt School were concerned that under the right cultural conditions this instrumental conception of reason would be extended into the human realm. They maintained it was not so great a leap from regarding crude matter as simply a means to our ends and regarding other human beings in the same manner.

They pointed out that the Nazis and other totalitarian figures regarded the mass of humanity as little more than a disposable tool that could be manipulated in the pursuit of state goals. When reason was culturally reduced to little more than an instrument for the achievement of our subjective desires, there were few reasons left to regard other human beings as possessing some intrinsic worth which we must not violate. Like everything else, they were simply objects in the world to be manipulated to ends set by other individuals, or under the right conditions, the state. This is because, when reason is purely instrumental, morality itself became purely a matter of subjective opinion. If reason is just a tool for achieving my ends, it can say nothing about why I should desire maximizing the welfare of all over establishing a totalitarian society. Which moral outlook was superior became simply a matter of preference. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, this instrumental “flattening” of reason was partially responsible for the rise of the death camps; with their hideous establishment of efficient factories for extermination, their gruesome experimentation on living subjects, slave labor to support the war effort, and so on.

None of which implies that the Frankfurt School wanted to abandon reason. Far from it. What they wished for was the adoption of a more holistic and sophisticated form of reason which provided space for the discussion of objective—rather than merely subjective—human mores within rationalized political discourses. Of course, one could rightly object that most of the early members of the Frankfurt School provided little guidance on what such a superior conception of reason would be. They also had little to say about what a political system based on such rationalized political discourses would look like. Later figures such as Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth came to argue that reason must be understood along more inter-subjective lines, and that the consequences of this for politics would be greater democratization and respect for a number of economic and social rights. As an evaluation of this argument would take up too much space, I will set it aside here. Interested readers may wish to peruse an earlier article I wrote for Quillette on the subject.

Postmodern Philosophy and Postmodern Culture

Postmodernism is one of the most debated topics in academic political discourse today. This belies the fact that, far more than even the “cultural Marxism” of the Frankfurt School, postmodernism has many iterations. I will here briefly repeat the distinction I have made elsewhere in distinguishing between postmodern philosophy and postmodern culture. I will then discuss how the former, especially, is philosophically distinct from the “cultural Marxist” positions of the Frankfurt Schoolers.

Postmodern philosophy, as presented in the work of figures like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty is the latest iteration of skepticism to emerge in the Western philosophical tradition. Postmodern philosophers in this vein were in fact largely not influenced by Marx or Marxism. Jacques Derrida was primarily influenced by French structuralist theories of language, German philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, and later religious thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas. He only wrote about Marx late in his academic career, largely to understand the end of the Cold War’s ideological conflict. Foucault identified himself most closely with the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche (and later Immanuel Kant), and even called Marxism a completely outdated “fish out of water” in The Order of Things. Rorty admitted to never even being able to finish Capital. So the claim that the work of postmodern philosophers is a continuation of Marxism by other means is quite strange, both philosophically and politically.

The primary aim of these authors was to skeptically demonstrate the contingency of language. While positivist theories took language to be a tool used to “picture” the world piece by piece, and structuralists took a more holistic approach saying the meaning of a word was determined by its association with other words, the postmodernists stressed that many of the ways we use words are contingent and ambiguous. According to Derrida, the stability of our interpretation of what a word “means” often depends on ignoring ambiguities and contradictions which might bequeath alternate interpretations. For instance, we often underestimate how much our feelings about death determine our interpretation of the word “life”; when we go to the Doctor to extend our “life expectancy,” this is predicated on an implicit understanding that “death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

By contrast, authors who interpret postmodernism as a cultural development—such as Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, Allan Bloom, and Neil Postman—tend not to be skeptics. In fact, they are often keen to refute what they see as the growing skepticism characteristic of contemporary cultures. Those on the Left, such as Jameson and Harvey, tend to regard this growing skepticism as the result of capitalist dynamics overthrowing older traditions and replacing them with new ones oriented by the subjective preferences of consumer culture. Those on the Right, such as Bloom, tended to blame changes in the literary curriculum and education system for growing skepticism. And figures like Neil Postman and Jean Baudrillard would claim that it was in fact changing communication technologies which were responsible for the emergence of postmodern culture. For instance, the shift from a society which read newspapers and books to one where most people learnt about politics via five minute soundbites and clickbait results in a culture that is paradoxically both more partisan and more skeptical at the same time.

Conclusion

There is considerable overlap between the analyses of the Frankfurt School and authors who regard postmodernism as culture. Both sets of authors believe that modern societies are characterized by a flattening of reason and political discourse. While the root cause is often debated, these authors are largely united in rejecting this as a negative development. They often call for the restoration of an earlier conception of reason—as did Allan Bloom—or they wish to develop new and better conceptions that will avoid the subjectivist pitfalls of instrumental rationality. This is often connected to their support for very concrete political projects; from proposals to revise the education system to calls for a more democratic and egalitarian society. And, most notably, both Frankfurt School authors and those who regard postmodernism as a culture were and are often extremely critical of postmodern skepticism.

By contrast, postmodern philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault are far more skeptical that any viable conception of reason and concrete political projects are intellectually sustainable.  While they were often reticent to simply accept full irrationalism in all its nihilistic connotations, postmodern philosophers were often willing to flirt with deep skepticism and (to my annoyance) even mysticism in the case of Derrida as a default philosophical outlook. This was connected with their political arguments, which were almost always critical and frustratingly ambiguous about specific proposals to reform culture and society. How such a skeptical philosophy could be used to justify the various identity politics movements is a fascinating question, which will hopefully be taken up in the future. But as I hope I have made clear, the answer is far more complex than just drawing a through line from Karl Marx, to the Marxist critique of culture offered by the Frankfurt School, and finally to postmodern skepticism and politics.

 

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf

77 Comments

  1. Mike K. says

    Jews dominated the Institute as they dominated the zold Bolsheviks and dominated the neoconservative movement, which reduces to Israel First chickenhawkism.

    • Barnpot says

      What is the point here? Nothing more than antisemitism I gather. Jews have always led in many fields. A consequence of a good education. You miss the irony in what you say – Bolshevism vs. Neoconservatism — can’t be any more contrasting.

    • SaritaLaCubanita says

      So, Mike K., whatever is distasteful that Christian accidentally happen to be the predominant ones, we should come to the conclusion that Christians are distasteful and need to be watched out for and despised? Because I could easily do that, you know.

      I’ll be grateful to know, Mike K., that you’re not involved as a scientist in any scientific experiments leading to cancer cures and such. Your irrational, illogical assumptions easily would lead you to conclusions which could kill.

  2. ADM64 says

    No one in either the post-modern or Frankfort school embraced capitalism, inalienable individual rights, limited government or any non-socialist political position. They all characterized the concept of a reality existing independent of human thought but knowable through reason as subjective (either explicitly in the case of the post-modern or via the “class consciousness determines truth” views of the Marxist. None were in favor of reason, however much some claimed.

    The author argues the Frankfort school objected to “narrow” reason on the grounds the reason was merely “instrumental.”. Given that Marxists no less than Nazis viewed man as an object to be manipulated (i.e. as an instrument). this is at best a half-hearted criticism. More fundamentally, though, it assumes that this is the correct definition of reason. I’d suggest that it isn’t. Reason is the faculty through which we integrate sensory data in concepts using logic. Man is not infallible or omniscient, so errors can occur. However, the relationship between and independent, perceivable reality and our concepts is central to an actually correct definition of reason.

    • Matt says

      I find your last claim interesting. Can you elaborate?

      • Barnpot says

        Speaking of the linguistic term ‘reason’ without breaking it down to its three constituent components: evidence, logic, and rigour, is like talking about a ‘storm’ without mentioning the wind speed, precipitation, and temperature. It is an incomplete and obfuscating picture, which will just mystify the concept, and cause more problems than it solves. All sides will claim to be ‘reasonable’ – and of course the postmodern side will stick to the semantics and derail the discussion. Never admit something to an enemy that does not fight in good faith.

    • ADM64. Appreciate your concept of reason. As others have asked, it would be good to see you elaborate further. As someone not up on all the specific academic language I’ll keep this really simpleton. Reading through this quickly, I’m sure I’m missing something anyway. However, it appears you might consider (or saying outright) the author’s definition of reason is more a component of how perception can change the outcomes (integrated concepts) reason would otherwise reach?

  3. Mark says

    It’s always difficult for me to take Matt’s work seriously. I’ve criticised his terrible articles on Jordan Peterson in Merion West. As an example, Matt repeatedly labels Peterson as a conservative, despite him being a classical liberal. His other articles cherry pick sentences out of context.

    In short: It’s the usual leftist nonsense against Peterson. And it’s the reason why I don’t take anything Matt writes particularly seriously.

    I’ve read Hicks’ book a few times. In all honestly, I don’t know enough about philosophy to comment on Hicks’ claims, although I have read other criticisms of his book. I decided I’ll do some more reading to make up my own mind.

    • Barnpot says

      Classical liberals and modern day conservatives are pretty much the same – roughly speaking. Today’s conservatives (aka moderates) are culturally quite liberal, and economically very liberal. Don’t confuse them culturally with the “traditional right”.

    • Yes. I find Matt’s work lacks intellectual depth. He is too much concerned to score partisan points to engage a topic seriously and honestly.

      That said, the present issue is an important one. Unfortunately, it is only superficially treated here. Obviously it is not very intelligent to subsume without much explanation postmodern writers such as Foucault and Derrida under the heading “Cultural Marxism”. That said, what we call political correctness is itself a farrago of Foucault, Derrida, classical Marxism, Marxist and Freudian inspired Feminism, post-Marxism (such as Laclau and Mouffe’s work as well as Critical Theory), Gramscianism (which greatly influenced postcolonial theory and critical race theory, for instance), etc. etc. It is a veritable witches’ brew.

      So to Matt’s insistence that we do not conflate postmodernism with cultural Marxism, I would say, give us a break, Matt. You know good and well that the American academy has not kept Foucault and Derrida’s work “distinct” from those working explicitly in the Marxist tradition. (And I notice Matt doesn’t mention Althusser, the so-called Structural Marxist, at all). The ideology we call political correctness, cooked up in the American academy, is itself a hodgepodge of postmodernism and Marxism, quite aside from the question of just how Marxist structuralism and post-structuralism really are. (And I myself would argue a pretty straightforward line of progression can be drawn from Marxism to postmodernisms such as post-structuralism.)

      • Breathnumber

        Well put. What is of primary concern to most of us are the political and cultural implications of what are, it seems to me, the greater historical forces of intellectual and cultural dissolution.

      • Dan Love says

        Breathnumber

        Kudos. I think Matt spent too much time looking at the trees without seeing the forest. Yes, Marxism and postmodernism have differences, but there’s a reason they’re in the same easily categorized soup.

      • Alistair says

        +1 Breathnumber

        Yes, Matt’s distinction between the postmodernists and the cultural Marxists is true and even useful. But he doth protest too much. It is a distinction without much difference.

        In reality there was never much of a dividing line between the two groups. All were on the Left politically. Many figures were overtly in both camps. Today, their work is casually and ubiquitously conflated in the academy and street like bacon and eggs. Politically Correct culture is indeed a “witch’s brew” of both.

        I would add that I find Matt’s claim that Habermas, et al wanted to “strengthen” Reason utterly risible. The opacity and obscurantism of the post-modernists should indicate that shedding light is the last thing these people wanted to do. Their endless Motte-and-Bailey; their refusal to clarify and respond substantively to critics reeks of bad faith.

        Rather than strengthen reason, the small amount of healthy scepticism in post-modernist philosophy was soon overwhelmed by mountains of unverifiable claims and self-contradictory nihilism. Nowhere does Matt explain how the post-modernist claims about the “subjective” nature of reason in contemporary (but strangely not socialist) society is not, in itself, a subject claim. The more honest ones would claim that under the “right” social conditions, reason would be really reason and truth would be really true. But Heidegger got to that idea first and it had little swastikas on it.

        It’s useful to read dissenting pieces like Matt’s; viewpoint diversity is important. But if this is the best that the defenders of Pomo / Cultural Marxism can come up with, then I am more convinced than ever of its failings.

        • Matt says

          Also Alastair, your comment displays why it is very important to track these differences. “Habermas et al”, as I discuss in the hyper-linked article, are very much defenders of a certain conception of reason. They claim to be upholding the Enlightenment, write books critical of all variants of skepticism (plenty exist on the political right) and defend various theories of human rights, internationalism and so on. Now you may disagree with their conception of reason and the political positions they generate from it. But that is a separate issue.

      • Matt says

        How is it me who is concerned to score partisan points when you imply it is largely irrelevant if figures on the political right conflate these two schools of thought, since in your experience figures on the left do so as well? You might argue that another article should be written discussing how-in spite of their ideological and philosophical differences-these two schools of thought are often invoked to justify similar positions. But that is a separate discussion, and not germane to the theoretical analysis engaged in here.

        • No, I didn’t say that “in my experience some figures on the left” conflate postmodernism and Marxism. I said that the entire left-wing theoretical complex in this country – which directly feeds political correctness and identity politics – is based on such a conflation (if that’s even the right word). The sloppy work of a few unsophisticated polemicists on the right is nothing compared to the enormity and influence of the entire theoretical edifice of the American Left. So why go after such puny game?

          Over and beyond that, I think it could be shown that, as I said, a direct line of progression from Marxism to postmodernism exists. (Perhaps through such thinkers as Kojeve, Sartre, Althusser…) Yes, they are not the same – a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the Marxist heyday. But there is a progression – and there are deep-rooted, fundamental, core congruences. That would be my argument. Whereas you seem to want to insist that these are two different schools entirely (do they even exist on the same planet?), and should not be mentioned in the same breath unless to make them more “distinct”, I think it is truer to characterize most postmodern thinkers as post-marxist. In any case, at this point we just flat-out disagree, so there’s little point to continue this exchange.

          • Matt says

            Breathnumber. I have never denied there are links between Marxism and postmodern theorizing. As you brought up, Althusser is probably the most important figure in that regard. My point is that Marxism and postmodernism aren’t reducible to each other. For that matter what is sometimes called Orthodox Marxism, or Marxist economism by opponents, isn’t the same thing as FS critical theory. Now you may argue that these theoretical distinctions are “nothing” in the long run, since it is more important to focus on the general dominance of the “theoretical edifice of the American Left.” Perhaps that is true, perhaps not. But regardless of which is a more important task, these theoretical distinctions do exist. And I would argue that a “deep” analysis must track them, even if the ultimate goal is to demonstrate how they practically amount to the same indistinguishable political attitudes and positions. In either case good talking to you.

    • Ramon says

      He’s a conservative. He has even considered entering politics through the provincial and federal Conservative parties in Canada.

  4. Matt says

    In my articles I said Peterson’s psychological work was often comparable to some of the great literary works of yore. I also lauded his analysis of mythology and ability to give sound individualized advice. So I am hardly clear on where I was unfair to him. Also, for the record, my latest pieces repeatedly characterize Peterson as a “liberal traditionalist” or most recently a proponent of “ordered liberty.” I would suggest you read these pieces more carefully.

      • Matt says

        Well firstly being “right wing” is different than being a conservative. It is broader label encompassing a range of views. Secondly, I did stipulate that my label changed in later articles after a more thorough engagement with his work. Particularly articles he wrote on the philosophy of religion.

        • Amanda Hugginkiss says

          So you’re admitting to have used an inaccurate reactionary label? It is technically correct that right wing and conservative are not interchangeable terms. Conservative is a right wing characteristic.

      • Barnpot says

        ‘Rightwing’ usually means the ‘traditional right’, and also the ‘alt-right’, but can exclude the conservatives. In the same way that ‘leftwing’ may exclude the liberal left. ‘Right wing critic’ can however include the conservatives – i.e. any critic to the right of center.

        • Matt says

          Yes. At the time when I wrote my NP article in April I wasn’t entirely sure where to situate Peterson politically, since his substantive arguments in MM and elsewhere don’t really bear directly on political ideologies per se. My most recent inclination is to regard him as a proponent of what is sometimes called “ordered liberty” ; a position which has deep roots in Canadian civic culture. I understand he self identifies as a classical liberal, but I have seen little in his writing or stated positions to support such a self-interpretation. Classical liberalism is historically a revolutionary and anti-traditionalist position, which seems contrary to Peterson’s orientation.

          • C.Laing says

            Thanks for this clarification. I like listening to Peterson, but his claim to ‘classical liberalism’ (if indeed he did make it) I’ve always found tenuous. I like the notion of ‘ordered liberty’ – more appropriate.

          • MMello says

            Same (as C.Laing) here. And btw, if the worse you said about Peterson is that he is right-wing, I can’t see how even himself would think you were unfair to him.

  5. Sean Leith says

    With Marxism having lead to millions in death, more in poverty, why this ideology is allowed to be practiced in any form in any country. It is more dangerous than the most dangerous virus to human.

  6. Fine tuning the differences between all these strains of philosophy in the last century can get a bit arcane and may miss the forest for the trees. In the last couple of centuries human consciousness has undergone a dramatic shift. We no longer feel or experience ourselves as subject to powers greater than ourselves. The more science, technology and all of our rational bureaucratic systems objectify reality the more we think of reality as a purely subjective phenomenon. Postmodernism, and virtually all of its iterations, it seems to me, is symptomatic of this extreme sense of ourselves as the makers of our own reality.

    No other humans in history ever presumed reality to be determined by human ideas. All other humans felt a need to conform to a reality greater than themselves. So, who are the deluded? We moderns, or everyone else? Does reality have a nature or not? Is there a Logos, a Tao . . ?

    • Matt says

      I actually agree. I would say that what is termed postmodernity is actually the latest development of a far older tendency in Western culture which can be traced back to at least the Renaissance. But that is a different and far broader topic.

      • An excellent description of the many century trajectory of this movement which culminates in what we call postmodernism is Ortega y Gasset’s essay “On Point of View in the Arts”.

    • CA, I often think that if everyone just began by stating clearly their position on the question of the evolution of consciousness there would be much less meaningless discord in the world – not to mention on internet message boards.

      • Breathnumber,
        Unfortunately “consciousness” is a very loaded term these days. I also don’t think most people, even or especially highly educated people, think much about cultural shifts in terms of shifts in consciousness. Wallace Stevens once said that human history could be understood in terms of shifts in “mental states”. This is also addressed in Iain McGilchrist’s excellent book on the brain, The Master and his Emissary.

  7. Jay Baldwin says

    What this analysis lacks is any discussion of the role of the CCCS at Birmingham. That thinking, which is truly cultural marxism, is the link between Frankfort School and postmodernism.

  8. Natalie says

    Re Stephen Hicks – anyone who admires the benighted rantings and the macho “culture” that extends from it is seriously deluded.

    Erich Fromm was one of the most humane social theorists of his time. His slim volume The Art of
    Love was quite rightly a best seller. His book The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness is a superb analysis of the topic.

    Not much love or compassion to be found in Ayn Rand’s “philosophy”. Look up the dictionary definition of compassion.

    • Barnpot says

      So subjective feelings of “love” and “compassion” should reign supreme and usurp and subsume the role of reason and objective rationality? Such ‘feel-good’ arguments are essentially religious in nature. The religion and cult of humanity. (Also clearly a feminine way of thought.)

    • ga gamba says

      If only Ellsworth Toohey and Gail Wynand had treated Howard Roark compassionately!

    • scribblerg says

      I merely note, as I do many places, the glibness with which you, and many women, feel free to slur men without any fear of consequence. Were a man to do the same in many public fora today he can be expect to be hounded out of the joint.

      Female privilege – real privilege – on display for all to see. I’m not surprised given the mad amount of literature showing how female ingroup preference is a nasty sociological feedback loop, so intense it seems to cause a delusional female supremacy to emerge. Makes me understand why successful civilizations suppressed female agency severely…

  9. X. Citoyen says

    Whether a straight line can be drawn from Marx through the Frankfurt school depends on the points chosen. An intellectual historian counts the sameness and difference. Hicks seems to have counted only the sameness—I can’t speak to his book, only his lecture. But you seem to be counting only the differences, and not in an especially careful or useful way.

    Both Horkheimer and Marcuse, for example, rejected the historical inevitability of the communist revolution but not the end itself. They retained Marx’s targets: the free market, representative gov’t and institutions, bourgeois mores, etc., though Marcuse did add Freud to his critique of, well, all of Anglo-American culture, society, and government. Your focus on Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental rationality ignores the fact that it refers to roughly the same thing as capitalism, namely, the reduction of everything to a commodity and its market value.

    With regard to Bloom, he said nothing in Closing of the American Mind about skepticism, but about unreflective relativism and egalitarianism. The first paragraph of Chapter 1 sums it up:

    There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don’t think about. The students’ backgrounds are as various as America can provide. Some are religious, some atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged—a combination of disbelief and indignation: “Are you an absolutist?,” the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as “Are you a monarchist?” or “Do you really believe in witches?” This latter leads into the indignation, for someone who believes in witches might well be a witchhunter or a Salem judge. The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings—is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

    The target is not a general skepticism but a dogmatic relativism.

    • Matt says

      Yes. I agree there is some conflation of his position. In some earlier articles I mentioned finding his distinction between early skepticism-which held that there was truth, but it was difficult to access-and (post) modern skepticism very helpful.

      • The Greek origins of the word “skepticism” simply suggests “observation” and not necessarily doubt. Skepticism becoming synonymous with doubt is a modern phenomenon.

        “Relativism”, “epistimelogical skepticism”, “historicism”, whatever name we give this modern state of mind, reflects a monumental shift in our orientation to the universe.

        In our accidental meaningless universe such expressions are more like articles of faith. An orthodoxy of doubt has replaced an orthodoxy of faith. Skepticism and ideas of relativism are preached today as a kind of knowledge, but, in effect, are merely dogma – articles of doubt displace articles of faith. In a traditional meaningful universe such terms may be blasphemous, today they are displays of virtue. –

        Both the true believer and the orthodoxical skeptic are rendered incapable of observing and confronting the paradoxical and ultimately tragic nature of existience. Both end up being more or less mindless conformists – blind doubt is the inversion of blind faith. Skepticism is the opiate of the educated.

        X. Citoyen – great Bloom selection

        I believe the Allan Bloom passage illustrates the degree to which modern educated human beings have been propagandized and are virtually incapable of thinking. This is precisely Bloom’s “closing of the American mind”. What we see all too often today is “theorizing” not thinking. Theorizing is what happens in the accidental universe – human ideas make reality.

        I also think it is a little misleading to say, as does Prof McManus, that Bloom advocates reading great books as a way toward “a restoration of an earlier conception of reason”. Bloom simply – and he states this quite clearly – believes that the great questions of existience persist and being aware of the ways in which other people confronted these questions is helpful in avoiding idiocy and dependence upon whatever ideas are fashionable at the moment. I think Bloom was fully aware that philosophizing can actually illuminate the limits of reason.

        • X. Citoyen says

          Yes, any talk of different conceptions of reason presupposes historical changes in reason, which historicizes reason. We’re then usually told we can’t go back in time. But even if one accepts the historicity of reason, it doesn’t affect the essential wisdom of going back to the past to understand the whirl of the present.

        • Mr Bernard Hill says

          …the final phrase of your last sentence sums up what for me, is the highly valuable contributions which Matt Mc makes on Quillette and elsewhere.

  10. Matt says

    Also I reject your interpretation of Adorno and Horkeimer’s account of instrumental reason. Even as early as DE thet made it very clear that the problem ran far deeper than just the paradigm of rationality which emerged in modern capitalist societies. Indeed, at times they imply that it was already a latent possibility in the writings of Homer and the pre-Socratics

    • X. Citoyen says

      It’s the same problem—capitalist/bourgeois society—but with a slightly different diagnosis. Instead of an economic-historical analysis like Marx’s, Horkheimer and Adorno blame a mode of thinking predating but exemplified by bourgeois/capitalist society. So I fail to see why calling it “cultural Marxism” is misrepresenting them. Consider this bit from DE:

      Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly masters. Just as it serves all the purposes of the bourgeois economy both in factories and on the battlefield, it is at the disposal of entrepreneurs regardless of their origins. Kings control technology no more directly than do merchants: it is as democratic as the economic system with which it evolved. Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others, capital. The “many things” which, according to Bacon, knowledge still held in store are themselves mere instruments: the radio as a sublimated printing press, the dive bomber as a more effective form of artillery, remote control as a more reliable compass. What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts. Ruthless toward itself, the Enlightenment has eradicated the last remnant of its own self-awareness. (p. 2)

      Or how about this:

      Formal logic was the high school of unification. It offered Enlightenment thinkers a schema for making the world calculable. The mythologizing equation of Forms with numbers in Plato’s last writings expresses the longing of all demythologizing: number became enlightenment’s canon. The same equations govern bourgeois justice and commodity exchange…Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities. (p. 4)

      Or this:

      The blessing that the market does not ask about birth is paid for in the exchange society by the fact that the possibilities conferred by birth are molded to fit the production of goods that can be bought on the market. Each human being has been endowed with a self of his or her own, different from all others, so that it could all the more surely be made the same. But because that self never quite fitted the mold, enlightenment throughout the liberalistic period has always sympathized with social coercion. The unity of the manipulated collective consists in the negation of each individual and in the scorn poured on the type of society which could make people into individuals. The horde, a term which doubtless is to be found in the Hitler Youth organization, is not a relapse into the old barbarism but the triumph of repressive égalité, the degeneration of the equality of rights into the wrong inflicted by equals. (p. 9)

      After the obligatory ad Hitlerium, do I even need to go on?

      • I think the great irony of the Frankfurt School and all their power fixated offspring is that they confuse skepticism with knowledge. Skepticism, the ablility to take something apart, is, as, Nietzsche himself said, “one more piece of ignorance”. No one actually lives by skepticism – to follow its logic to its end is to live in chaos.or some egalitarian totalitarian fantasy.

      • Matt says

        As I mentioned in the article you can readily call the FS cultural Marxists. They have the strongest claim to fame to the label. What I reject is also applying it to figures in the PM tradition without hesitation or care.

  11. Fickle Pickle says

    A long paragraph describing the situation caused by the collective “anatomy of human destructiveness”. The situation described is not in any sense caused by Marxists but definitely is the outcome of the power-and-control “logic” of postmodernism late capitalism.

    In the present-day, the culture and politics of illusion controls the world. The underlying idea that personal and collective self-fulfillment is what life is supposed to be about is the root-source of the current global crisis. As a result, there are now more that seven billion human individuals (and, otherwise, large numbers of competitive and mutually dissociative groups, cultures, traditions, races, religions, corporations, and nation-states) that are characteristically (and even strategically), out of touch with each other – like dust, and bombs, and petty traffic, all blowing in the wind. That wind steadily blows all prior forms of workable traditional culture into the bits and particles of human chaos.

    The entire planet is now one vast sacrifice zone brought about by the almost unstoppable power-and-control “logic” (momentum) of postmodern late capitalism.

    • Fickle Pickle

      Are you familiar with Roberto Calasso’s ideas on sacrifice? Our atomized world, according to Calasso, reverts, whether we acknowledge it or not, to being a great “sacrificial workshop”. This is indicative of the unity of reality which we insist upon denying or of which we, in our fragmented state, cannot see.

  12. Farris says

    “The primary aim of these authors was to skeptically demonstrate the contingency of language.”

    Without agreement on the meaning of words and phrases, there can be no defense of property rights. What does ownership or chattel mean? Contracts require a meeting of the minds. Undermining private property rights is an essential goal of Marxism.

    “They pointed out that the Nazis and other totalitarian figures regarded the mass of humanity as little more than a disposable tool that could be manipulated in the pursuit of state goals.”

    The above characterization also applies to Marxism. Communism is also an incarnation that results in deadly totalitarianism. The Fascists believe in all for the State whereas Marxist believe in all for the work. Both eschew respect for individual rights which begets totalitarianism. The Frankfurt School attempts to distinguish Nazism from Marxism is an exercise in irrationalism. Walter Duranty would have been at home in the Frankfurt School.

    • Fickle Pickle says

      Language is of course very useful in conducting our practical affairs but most of what we do is prior to or outside of the realm of language.
      The limits of language is inherent. More often than not language is used as a form of control, to eliminate the paradoxical nature of reality.
      Virtually everything that is of real importance to human beings lies beyond the limits of language and the apparent objective state of affairs.- everything that is in the subjective domain of our existence-being.
      Beauty, happiness, consciousness, or being itself – these words certainly refer to reality, but to a reality that is inherently unknowable in rational terms..
      No matter how rational and seemingly logical language may sound, it is ultimately a form of poetry, and must be treated as such. Philosophy is a confusing disguise of an essentially poetic gesture.

      Which is perhaps why Plato was scornful of the intrinsically subversive nature of the poets.

      • Defenstrator says

        What piffle. Yes language is control. It imposes order on the chaotic world. In doing so it creates an objective common reference which is a powerful tool of communication and allows the understanding of complex ideas. Please stop pretending your mystical assertions have substance, while the practical constructive use of language is a limitation.

  13. Kung Lao says

    How do these two schools of thought advance reason?

    My impression is that they add nothing and sometimes even discourage from its use. Just two examples: Foucault states in “The Order of Things” that there is a subconscious structure, the episteme, that determines for whole societies what can count as knowledge. He compares 18th and 19th century economy, biology and linguistics and points out fascinating methodological similarities. But are they really the result of a subconscious sorting mechanism? When you take a look at scientists´ correspondence at that time you will find a lot of letters explicitly encouraging colleagues to adopt promising methods. The structural uniformity is easily explainable as the result of conscious individual choice. How does postulating a societal subconscious help us understand the formation of sciences?
    To read what scientists where thinking, when they decided to agree on a canon of methods, is sufficient to see how reason is advanced. Everything else is just distraction.

    The second example: In the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” Horkheimer and Adorno call science a tool of the powerful to reproduce the status quo. It alienates us from our true self.

    I have obviously cherrypicked absurdities. But what are the useful ideas I have missed?

    • Brent Swenson says

      You have perfectly described my distaste for philosophy as a discipline. What begins as an epistemological exercise immediately, and inevitably, degenerates into a flurry of undefined labels and interpretations of those labels, supported by our own perceptions and interpretations of individual philosophers or, worse, schools of philosophy, that themselves interpret their perceptions and rationalizations of those perceptions.

      Why is it so difficult to confine ourselves to particular issues and to define our terms, as Voltaire required, when discussing them? What hubris gives us the idea that we can definitively categorize and offer provenance for “knowledge” per se? Or that such an ability would even matter?

  14. Nearly Normal Frederick says

    But what has that got to do with life in the globalized world of the 21st century in which everyone is instantaneously interconnected.
    And the fact that we now live in a 24/7 surveillance state in which almost everything that we do is now monitored by some “private” or government agency.
    Every email, phone call, website visit, credit card transaction. Cities are saturated with surveillance cameras
    Did the Marxists bring this about?
    Re the insidious almost totalitarian nature of the four most successful modern companies check out this reference: http://www.thefourbook.com

  15. ga gamba says

    Back in Mya I posted a reply to Dr McManus’s article The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism.

    The first five paragraphs below are an excerpt of my comment.

    I find “cultural Marxism” to be a catch-all, and like all catch-alls it’s imprecise. Just as some today claim capitalist Sweden is “socialist”, which is a dilution of socialism’s meaning to expand it [to include the welfare state] in the desperate attempt to find a success story, cultural Marxism’s definition has expanded over time.

    At its earliest form (it was coined in 1973 by sociology professor Trent Schroyer; postmodernist Lyotard coined postmoderism in 1979) it described the effort of the Frankfurt School (FS) to use critical theory to subvert the institutions of the West, i.e. the culture. Critical theory studies the ways in which knowledge is socially conditioned and recognises the power structures inherent in that conditioning. The FS understood the proletarian revolution failed because the workers, who according to Marxist logic should have risen up against their masters in WWI, were still dominated by the rulers’ understandings. Over their lifetimes these understandings were impressed on the workers by national traditions and rituals, in church, at school, by newspapers and magazines, in the novels they read, in the nursery rhymes and fairy tales they heard as children, in the songs they sang, in the popular culture of the day, etc. Even one’s family and peers took part in buttressing the rulers’ understandings.

    This was the overarching superstructure and it needed to be corroded – critical theory would be the rust to do so. Further, capitalism had proved adaptive and resilient, for example it was flexible enough to accommodate workers’ demands for better wages and conditions, and over time the quality of workers’ lives improved. The FS observed contemporary social conditions that Marx himself had never seen or had not devoted much effort to analysing. I think their genius was to use the emerging field of psychology. Why do those who would benefit most from a revolution of socio-economic change seem to resist it? Psychology would be useful to figure that out. Over time the FS learnt of Stalin’s abuses, and they offered criticism of this too.

    The FS is considered neo-Marxist (a.k.a. New Left), which means it de-emphasised economics and amplified sociology, psychology, and philosophy. It didn’t abandon or refute Marx, rather it sought to find what Marx had missed that caused the revolution to never come to be (in the industrialised West). View this interview with Herbert Marcuse for more, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vm3euZS5nLo . Whereas Marx saw the revolution coming from the proletariate exclusively (radical subjectivity), the FS saw it coming from anywhere. I think “cultural Marxist” is a valid term to describe this group, but “cultural neo-Marxist” would be more accurate to signify that it differs from Marx.

    McManus writes that the postmodernists are anti metanarrative (grand narrative) such as Marxism, and this is true (if such a thing exists), but it also ignores the postmodernists themselves were propagators of a grand narrative, that of power.

    I think if there was one sentence that best sums up the postmodernists, it would be Nietzsche’s question: “Who is speaking?” It’s their inquiry, often using FS tools such as critical theory, on how to answer that question is what forms postmodernism.

    The question is more than who is speaker Bob or speaker Carol, it’s about the power of each own’s position in space and time – gained by the power of the situations they were born, their educations, their money, their networks, etc. It also includes the power of the words and the culture. “Who is speaking?” asks who is being designated and who designates? The postmodernists even look closely at the meaning of the spatial arrangement, such as at a courtroom. What does the arrangement of the people who are part of or before a court say? Why does the judge sit elevated above all? The judge and the prosecutors, both employees of the state, sit apart to demonstrate their separation of their roles, and that of the judge as a “third party,” but are they really separate? Is the judge genuinely a third party? We can observe and attach significance to other aspects. For example, what do the clothes they are wearing communicate? Why are judges in robes… and even wigs? Postmodernists will assert every aspect of the space and those in it implies an ideology. But the subjects lack the knowledge of what makes them know the way they do. It’s by looking at the past, performing an inquiry to identity the precursors, that we can come to grips with the forces that shaped us then, shape us know, and shape us in the future. And even then we may miss a lot. One wonders how much self reflection is done by some of these thinkers to examine what shapes them.

    The postmodernist answer to “Who is speaking?” is language (and symbols) itself, which is more than the lexicon and syntax. It’s the forces that created and shaped those. Moreover, there is no divinity or truth in the words of language. Yet, and this is where I differ with the pomos, life itself has the structure of the laws of nature and the universe (the laws of perspective, gravity, motion, etc.) and within these we operate an iterated function system – much like Sierpinski’s triangle. Over thousands of years these have formed for us what is viable and we communicate this using words shaped by this experience.

    When reading the postmodernists I’m reminded of the boss who says, “I didn’t hire you to tell me I have problems. I know I have those. I didn’t hire you simply to tell me the cause either, though that’s a first step. I have hired you identify both and to find me viable solutions.” Postmodernists tend not to offer solutions, and those that do often just merely want to flip the structure to shift power from one to another by virtue of some immutable quality. More often than not the solution falls back to something cooked up by the Marxists. But it’ll be done better. Working within the laws of gravity we create aeroplanes and rockets, but we haven’t reversed and certainly haven’t toppled the laws of gravity.

    Dr McManus, if you haven’t read Mads Peter Karlsen’s and Kaspar Villadsen’s “Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy: The Influence of Political Militancy in Michel Foucault’s Thought,” published in New Political Science: A Journal of Politics and Culture, you may find it interesting. They explore Foucault’s activities with the leftists in Tunisia and later in post ’68 France with the French Maoists.

    • Barnpot says

      Well said. The author carries a forked tongue – comes through as a reasonable centrist here – while in his own echo-chamber of Mya he comes through as a Marxist ideologue in his postmodern critique of capitalism. And the irony is that he denies Marxism as a foundation to postmodernism.

    • Good observations. Postmodernism is a vulgarization of Nietzsche – someone is always speaking and that person is always operating on all kinds of presumptions of reality with all kinds of political implications. This is why the new metanarrative is: There Will be No More Metanarratives (in other words, keep your mouth shut lest your ideas offend someone).

      It’s not a coincidence that this kind of thinking fuels Progressive Global Capitalism which is, in case anybody hasn’t noticed, the greatest imperial force the world has ever seen.

    • scribblerg says

      Great essay and comments, there is a lot of insight here.

      I’d like to offer what hits me like a kick in the ‘nads reading this. Both ideologies claim to have some universal truth and model of the world that seems quite insufficient to me, and end up offering both explanations and proscriptions which are wrong and deliver madness in the actual occurring reality in which we live.

      Hayek’s “fatal conceit” always spoke to me when reading either Marxists or Postmodern types, or even Rawlsian social justice rubric. The conceit is claiming to see a pattern where there isn’t one. Also, I’d love to hear a falsifiable hypothesis from either group – ooops…The conceit of the sociologist is the designer/planner’s mindset that speaks constantly in abstract ideas and unreality, versus plain truth and clarity. I have to confess that when I read Marx, at a certain point I wondered if it was mere obscurantism? I think I read 7 of his works and I can tell you, they are universally uninteresting if one is empirical and well grounded in the classics. He seems trite and fantastic all at once. It comes off as terribly self-conscious and grandiloquent and pretentious. I didn’t see revelations, I saw tedious sermonizing hiding behind a pseudo-science. Imagine my horror at learning Marx – a creep and pretty awful man in his actual life – is considered one of the 3 “grandfathers” of sociology. Is it no wonder that field has driven itself into a ditch.

      I concede none of the intellectual ground both ideologies claim with respect to revealing new or meaningful truths. Marxism has been debunked. Remember, it was offered as “scientific socialism”, and at least Marx had the guts to advance an actual falsifiable hypotheses (rare thing from these supposed seers). But he was proved wrong, why doesn’t this seem to matter? I mean it – he was wrong, dialectical materialism is BS. Why doesn’t this mean the entire enterprise gets thrown in the dustbin? When it comes to Postmodernism, how does its endless regress of subjectivity not render it meaningless? It can’t simultaneously point to a greater truth while also claiming truth doesn’t matter and be rationally or morally consistent. It’s mere nihilism packaged up as intellectuality. Put it this way, I’ve never been inspired by Postmodern or Neo-Marxists writing in the way that say Lucretius On the Nature of Things moved me. Or even reading say Ecclesiastes in the bible (and I’m an agnostic).

      In the end the entire enterprise is gibberish, and nothing more than mental a parlor game. Classical liberalism makes no claims to a greater truth than Natural Law, but one does not even require it to adhere to even it. The institutional setup strives to limit the accretion of collective power and to protect and enshrine the idea of individual sovereignty. It posits that the natural world is what we should bend our minds to, that we see are to see order and can divine it and understand it. This essence of reason, well, to me it seems lost without something to ground it.

      I guess I also feel like the enlightenment thinkers were more humble. They recognized the fallen nature of man and the temptation to power, and sought to restrain those impulses most.

      Simplest critique I’ve ever heard of the left? The Left wants to base the world on man’s best impulses while classical liberalism is set up to protect me from man’s worst impulses. I see nothing in the chaos and delusions emanating from leftists of any stripe that impresses me, Postmodern or Marxist, cultural, Neo or otherwise…

  16. John G Lammi says

    ” To paraphrase a memorable quote in Hicks’s book,…” I do not think that there was a “quote” in Hicks’ book that is being paraphrased. I suspect the article’s author is paraphrasing Hicks’ own words. This confusion leads me to wonder about the rigor of the article’s thinking

  17. Simon Newman says

    My cultural Marxist academic colleagues regard Habermas as something of a heretic, as much a Liberal as a true Frankfurt School Marxist.

    Likewise Rorty is surely not a typical representative of Derrida postmodernism.

  18. One of Derrida’s observations about the Western tradition was its prevalent use of dualist constructions, the quick and the dead, heaven and hell, the damned and the saved. His critique was that most of these dichotomies were arbitrary, or even internally inconsistent. For example, heaven was a place devoid of evil, but Christianity stated that evil arises because humans have free will. Therefore, following Christian logic, heaven must be an absolute dictatorship, a hellish place where free will is completely eradicated.

    The irony is that, of course, the political allies of the postmoderns have gone about constructing dualisms which are just as internally inconsistent, such as that between whites and people of colour, or the division of cis and trans people. In the latter instance, having once said that gender was performative and socially imposed, they are now saying that it is immutable and insoluble. “One is not born a woman, one becomes one”, but now it seems as though one is born with a fully formed female identity. Also, the notion that it is possible to have a male mind in a female body, or vice versa. if nothing else, this reconstructs the mind/body dualism that so enraged Nietzsche. Physiologically, does this mean that the body can be female but at the boundary between brain and blood, somewhere between the dura and the cerebrospinal fluid, the gender somehow flips and becomes male?

    If gender is physiological, if there is a switch somewhere in the brain that depending on its being flicked one way or the other determines whether you are male or female, can it be switched the other way through some kind of medical intervention? I suspect that trans activists would say not, and that their inner being is unchangeably male or female, or otherwise. This raises the question of whether they are arguing for the existence of an immaterial soul, an essence that is male or female but which exists separately from the genetic and physical realm.

    So it is a very selective scepticism. Whiteness studies, for example, states that white identity is an artifice or carefully constructed fraud. Which it may well be, but if that is true, then equally black identity is fraudulent, because you can’t have one without the other. The postmoderns tacitly admit this but say that they are not concerned with logical consistency, but instead with power relationships, they like to think that they are on the side of the angels. But as the OP says, they have no real agenda of their own to substitute for what they are deconstructing, they are simply taking a punt that whatever replaces it will be better. If you burn the forest, you do so in the full knowledge that something else, perhaps better or perhaps worse, will grow to take its place. You’d think that this would make people at least feel responsible, but it is very difficult to make these people take responsibility for anything. I think only genuine hardship (when it comes) will make them change their tune.

    • Lucid and clear, Bab. Thank you.

      There seems to be a theme in the swirls of argument above: apply the arguments of both the FS and the PMs to themselves, reflexively.

      Many inconsistencies and self-contradictions that way become visible, like that of gender as essence/accident/construct/performance as you point out.

      • Neville,

        I would agree. One scarcely noted hypocrisy regarding the PM academicians is that when they order a sandwich at a restaurant or drop off their German sedan for its regular servicing, they expect the proles to do what they are told and give plain language its unambiguous meaning. They expect their sandwich made exact to their specifications and their car to be detailed precisely in accordance with their instructions, subjectivity be damned. Perhaps a modern-day Saturnalia is in order, where for three days each year service workers get to carry on just like PM professors do.

  19. codadmin says

    The postmodernists were racist. They hated the West because they hated Westerners.

    Deconstructing the deconstructionists is easy. The trick is to use their methods against them.

  20. Barnpot says

    It seems the author speaks with a forked tongue. If you read his other articles in other leftwing publications, he comes out not so much as a centrist (as seen in this article) but as a progressive defender of reactionary postmodernism. His claim to fame is to defame conservatism (and capitalism) is being “post-modern” and responsible for the fragmentation of society. This is a long shot attempt by the author and comes through as a play on words and typical linguistic gymnastics, which postmoderns are so famous for. His criticism of capitalism in the progressive journal (cited in this or another of his articles) is hilarious. It is a copy past of Marx from Das Capital – which makes little economic and practical sense, and clearly exposes his weakness in understanding capitalism and by extension liberal democracy. Just a regurgitation of empty leftwing ideological rhetoric and rationalizations.

    I would think Quileltte wold have better sense not to just invite any postmodern to defend postmodernism and criticize capitalism — that Quillette would show more class by inviting less of an ideologue and more of a sensible critic that does not parrot long debunked Marxist rubbish on the sociology of capitalism and inane concepts lie “surplus value”.

    And the irony of it all – the postmodern author who goes about lambasting Peterson and Hicks for claiming Marxism as a bedrock for postmodernism — then goes about attacking “postmodern conservatism” (whatever that may be) and capitalism by quoting debunked Das Capital and Marx. The case of the apologist denying ideology by the use of ideology.

    • Matt says

      I’ve defended postmodern authors, and my account of postmodern conservatism, on multiple occasions in this publication. I’ve also been highly critical of the former; in fact stating on numerous occasions that what I call post-modern philosophy is wrong. I’m also not a Marxist. As I’ve stated on numerous occasions, my position is broadly consonant with the egalitarian liberal tradition or Rawls, Sen, etc.

  21. scribblerg says

    I left this as a reply above, and didn’t mean to. I don’t know if reposting it as its own comment is bad form but I was hoping to get some response as I wonder if perhaps I’m just dense or something…

    Great essay and comments, there is a lot of insight here.

    I’d like to offer what hits me like a kick in the ‘nads reading this. Both ideologies claim to have some universal truth and model of the world that seems quite insufficient to me, and end up offering both explanations and proscriptions which are wrong and deliver madness in the actual occurring reality in which we live.

    Hayek’s “fatal conceit” always spoke to me when reading either Marxists or Postmodern types, or even Rawlsian social justice rubric. The conceit is claiming to see a pattern where there isn’t one. Also, I’d love to hear a falsifiable hypothesis from either group – ooops…The conceit of the sociologist is the designer/planner’s mindset that speaks constantly in abstract ideas and unreality, versus plain truth and clarity. I have to confess that when I read Marx, at a certain point I wondered if it was mere obscurantism? I think I read 7 of his works and I can tell you, they are universally uninteresting if one is empirical and well grounded in the classics. He seems trite and fantastic all at once. It comes off as terribly self-conscious and grandiloquent and pretentious. I didn’t see revelations, I saw tedious sermonizing hiding behind a pseudo-science. Imagine my horror at learning Marx – a creep and pretty awful man in his actual life – is considered one of the 3 “grandfathers” of sociology. Is it no wonder that field has driven itself into a ditch.

    I concede none of the intellectual ground both ideologies claim with respect to revealing new or meaningful truths. Marxism has been debunked. Remember, it was offered as “scientific socialism”, and at least Marx had the guts to advance an actual falsifiable hypotheses (rare thing from these supposed seers). But he was proved wrong, why doesn’t this seem to matter? I mean it – he was wrong, dialectical materialism is BS. Why doesn’t this mean the entire enterprise gets thrown in the dustbin? When it comes to Postmodernism, how does its endless regress of subjectivity not render it meaningless? It can’t simultaneously point to a greater truth while also claiming truth doesn’t matter and be rationally or morally consistent. It’s mere nihilism packaged up as intellectuality. Put it this way, I’ve never been inspired by Postmodern or Neo-Marxists writing in the way that say Lucretius On the Nature of Things moved me. Or even reading say Ecclesiastes in the bible (and I’m an agnostic).

    In the end the entire enterprise is gibberish, and nothing more than mental a parlor game. Classical liberalism makes no claims to a greater truth than Natural Law, but one does not even require it to adhere to even it. The institutional setup strives to limit the accretion of collective power and to protect and enshrine the idea of individual sovereignty. It posits that the natural world is what we should bend our minds to, that we see are to see order and can divine it and understand it. This essence of reason, well, to me it seems lost without something to ground it.

    I guess I also feel like the enlightenment thinkers were more humble. They recognized the fallen nature of man and the temptation to power, and sought to restrain those impulses most.

    Simplest critique I’ve ever heard of the left? The Left wants to base the world on man’s best impulses while classical liberalism is set up to protect me from man’s worst impulses. I see nothing in the chaos and delusions emanating from leftists of any stripe that impresses me, Postmodern or Marxist, cultural, Neo or otherwise…

  22. Matt says

    I think your commentary is more honest than a lot that I’ve read, since you are quite candid about the basis of your distaste for these authors. I think your critique of the “patterned” nature of these positions is sound in some respect; particularly when directed against Marx. He certainly thought the political-economic world could be understood in quite general terms, and has been rightly criticized since then. I would say that most postmodern authors-in either of the categories I mention-wouldn’t claim to understand the world in terms of such generalizing patterns; at least not one such pattern. Rawls is a different case entirely, since his is a patterned theory of justice, not an account of the world as it is. He is very aware that the “natural” and “political” worlds of today don’t mesh with justice as fairness. But Rawls argues they clearly should, which means we have certain duties to bring the world more into line with the pattern his theory of justice implies. You might criticize this along simmilar lines, as Nozick did. But it is a different kind of criticism.

    • Matt, Scribbleberg

      I disagree that Rawls is “not an account of the world as it is”. Rawls’ “original position” which seems to be the ground to all of his arguments is a presumption that reality has no nature. All of Rawls’s logic regarding a just society flow from this presumption, that is to say, from this account of the world as it is..

      The original position is in direct contrast to the “state of nature” teachings which ground earlier philosophers like Hobbes, Rousseau etc – political arrangements must begin with an acknowledgement that there is such a thing as nature. Rawls’ presumption is grounded in nothing – nature has no nature. This nothingness is virtually the definition of nihilism.

      This metaphysical distinction between reality having a nature or not is, it seems to me, a very elemental question. We see its ramifications everywhere, e.g. reflected in the differences between classical liberals and progressives.

  23. scribblerg

    I can attempt a reply. The Marxists advocated dialectical materialism as a rebuttal to mainstream Hegelian dialectic which sort of imagines history as a pendulum of thesis and antithesis, or two steps forward, one step backwards I suppose. This is the sort of history we learn at school, where time periods are divided up into the dark ages, medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, ie, a model of historical progress and development of ideas by the great minds of the time, which progressively led to the development of the modern bureaucratic state. The Marxists stated contrariwise that history was the story of class struggle and exploitation, and the gradual expansion and consolidation of the power of the ruling class. The emergence from slavery wasnt a sign of moral progress, but instead of the relative inefficiency and inflexibility of slavery when compared with wage labour. After all, its much less labourious to simply pay someone to turn up on Monday at the end of the day.

    The postmoderns came along and said that there is no dialectic, there is no grand sweep or arc of history, no grand narratives, its all bullshit. Instead they made the obvious point that history is dictated mainly by random happenstance. For example, the United States came close to nuking North Carolina in 1961, when only a single low-volt electrical switch prevented the detonation of a device with 250 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. That would have been an event of macrohistorical importance, and quite possibly it may have meant the end of the world as we know it. And this was all because of a $1.99 switch that someone probably bought from a hardware store, and which might have easily been switched on or shorted out by the impact.

    There is much in the postmodern critique that is legitimate. As Nietzsche said, if you want the unvarnished truth, simply walk up to the edge of the abyss, stare into it for as long as you like, and reflect on the fact that there is no teleological purpose to life whatsoever. The problem is that we’ve done that for a while, we’re quite bored by it and not a little depressed. What are we supposed to do now?

  24. MMello says

    Am I missing something, or the answer to the link between marxism and postmodern philosophy is already embedded in the text?

    If we accept that the “flattening of reason” is a real modern phenomenon – specially if we observe that the instrumentalization of rational discourse has been a staple of authoritarian regimes, either fascists or marxists, much more than in liberal ‘western’ societies – it is all too natural that the contemporary flavor of proponents of authoritarian state intervention in society will do the same. And what is more useful than a ‘rational’ discourse that argues that no rational discourse is to be trusted? Specially if you are now defending propositions that empirically have proven disastrous, it is expected that you will have to fight a barrage of empiricist rational arguments. How better to disqualify these arguments than disqualifying – logically and morally – ALL rational argumentation?

    This is precisely ‘flattening of reason’ in action. What was the author expecting? That the phenomenon disappeared after 1945, or 1989? It is alive and kicking our liberal societies, once again, from within. And the French postmodernists are being of great use because, like the military technology, intellectual arsenal also evolves. And has to be counteracted.

  25. Dan Love says

    —- To Matt McManus —-

    I’d like to thank you for your contributions here. Authors rarely engage with commenters as much as you have, and I recognize the immense courage and patience it takes to do so with so many commenters repulsed by both postmodernism and any form of Marxism.

    I still think both postmodernism and cultural Marxism are two poop-noodles floating around in the same anti-rational, anti-intellectual, clandestinely hyper-emotional ass soup consumed by students that are so fringe-freak leftist that if Marx himself heard the things they say within a week he would be preaching lines from Leviticus in a Baptist church – and I’m not even on the right.

    But thank you. You seem genuinely curious and willing to engage, which, at the end of the day, is the important thing to me.

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