How Postmodernism Undermines the Left and Facilitates Fascism

by Benjamin Studebaker

Lately when I’ve discussed the implications of political violence with some people on the left, they’ve responded by appealing to postmodernism. These people undoubtedly have good intentions, but I fear many of them are not recognizing the corrosive  and counterproductive effects that postmodernism has on politics.

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To talk about postmodernism effectively, we have to have a shared understanding of what it entails. Most left wing people believe that there are systems of oppression in the world that cause unjust harm to people. This is because they affirm what I call the “core left wing premise” which states:

People’s actions are shaped by conditions.

Many people take actions which exploit, discriminate, abuse, or otherwise mistreat other people. But these actions are not produced in a vacuum–for the left, they are the outputs of systems. Materialist leftists tend to view these systems as grounded in hard facts about the distribution of economic and political power. For instance, materialists might argue that the capitalist system produces capital accumulation and rising inequality, which results in excess wealth and power for the holders of capital (the bourgeoisie) at the expense of everyone else, who must sell labor for wages (the proletariat). People in the bourgeoisie have strong material incentives to engage in exploitation of the proletariat that are provided by the nature of the capitalist system, and they tend to generate a superstructure of ideas and beliefs which legitimate this exploitation. For materialists, unless the underlying distribution of wealth and power is directly challenged, it is difficult if not impossible to make meaningful strides against oppression. Because ideas are produced by conditions for materialists, we cannot simply change our beliefs and thereby overcome conditions. Conditions must change and develop over time, and as they change they will generate new ideas which reflect and legitimate that change.

Idealist leftists flip this relationship around. For idealists, it is our ideas and beliefs which generate material conditions rather than the reverse. For instance, idealists might argue that it is because we believe in capitalism that people think and act as capitalists, as members of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Instead of focusing on conditions, idealists are focused primarily on ideology–the process by which people form the beliefs which facilitate and perpetuate systems of oppression. But ideology plays a role in both materialism and idealism. The difference is that for idealists ideology does the work of creating conditions itself, whereas for materialists ideology is secondary to conditions.

Some people stray outside of left wing frameworks by insisting that we can overcome capitalism, racism, sexism, and others forms of oppression by demanding that individuals not affirm these ideologies. But this is not idealism because it does not recognize these ideologies as systems of belief–instead, it blames and targets individuals for having these beliefs. This doesn’t treat these individuals as part of ideological systems–instead it treats them as if they were independent of these systems. That would deny the core left wing premise. Blaming individuals who participate in systems of oppression for the oppressive ideologies they’ve acquired is no different from blaming the victims of oppression for the oppressive conditions to which they are subject–it treats individuals as if they were outside social systems when no one can be outside the social system.

For the purposes of this post, I take postmodernists to affirm what I’ll call “the core postmodern premise”, which states:

Reason itself is a construct which serves the interest of powerful and dominant social groups.

This goes much further than older left wing accounts. Where traditional leftists might affirm that say, racism is best understood as a systemically reproduced oppressive ideology, postmodernism would affirm that reason itself is a form of oppressive ideology. For postmodernists the rules for what counts as knowledge or what counts as valid argument are themselves social constructs which further entrench oppression.

Both materialists and idealists recognize issues with ideology–ideas and systems of ideas which legitimate and perpetuate systems of domination. But while it’s often useful to think about whether our substantive ideas contain deceptive biases in them–to ask “Cui bono?”, to investigate who benefits from our ideas, policies, and institutions as Lenin once did–turning that skepticism onto reason itself has a variety of unintended side effects.

For one, it eliminates reason as an arbiter of disputes, forcing us to solve political conflicts through violence. If you are a postmodernist and someone challenges your moral and political beliefs, you can dismiss their critique on the grounds that reason itself is constructed by systems of power in a manner which marginalizes your view. What’s more, if you can’t show how this is the case through argument it poses you no problem–you can simply claim that the fact that you can’t show how you are marginalized through argument just underlines your claim that the rules of argument necessarily marginalize you. This means that once you have acquired postmodernism, whatever other political beliefs you may have become impossible to challenge through argument. So what else is there to do but to try to destroy one’s opponents by force?

No one who is a committed postmodernist can read this blog post and find it convincing, because my arguments are constructed through reason and on their view reason is intrinsically biased against them. These people are lost to us–we cannot argue with them, we cannot give them any reasons that they believe they must even consider, much less accept. And what’s more, these postmodernists cannot effectively persuade other people to embrace the left, because they don’t articulate any robust set of left wing values or principles and even when they do they cannot defend their positions persuasively when criticized. This makes the left look infantile, unreasonable, hysterical, and incapable of constructive engagement. It slowly erodes the left’s ability to think and reason in a sophisticated way.

But it’s not just left wing people who accept postmodernism. You can be a right wing postmodernist–indeed, it’s quite fashionable nowadays. Like some on the left, many on the right believe that the academy, the media, and all the various forms of political and social scientific expertise are biased against them and their views. Fascists in particular accept two core premises which most experts and reasonable people reject:

  1. The Anti-Diversity Premise–the increase in the share of people in Europe and North America who are immigrants or from minority ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds is believed to be bad for white Europeans and Americans because it threatens their economic and physical welfare and security.
  2. The Core Fascist Premise–peoples are always entitled to redefine themselves to exclude groups which they feel are a threat to them or their way of life, and to expel or destroy those out-groups.

If you couple these two premises with the postmodern premise, you have created an indestructible fascist Godzilla with a license to kill. Those who believe that Donald Trump is exceptionally dangerous because he is “post-truth” are effectively saying that Trump is a problem because he is trying to develop a robust form of right nationalist postmodernism, in which there is no agreed upon language of reason in which to arbitrate disputes about descriptive and normative truth. Equipped with postmodernism, Trump has no reason to listen to anyone–for him, the language of arbitration used by his critics is intrinsically biased against him and can therefore be rejected outright.

If we fight right wing postmodernism with left wing postmodernism, the only possible result is a politics that is increasingly reducible to might makes right, and the right will win that fight. We need to articulate and stand up for a robust set of objective left wing principles and values, which all people have reasons to accept. Of course we should continue to debate and interrogate those principles and values, asking ourselves who really benefits from them. But we cannot indulge in the broad, deep, unearned skepticism of postmodernism, which cannibalizes all principles and all values, including our own, leaving nothing in its wake but blood and carnage.