“Post-modernism” is not something I’ve previously really engaged with as a concept or got to grips with what it means, other than in a superficial way. Which is why I was interested to read the refreshingly simple description of “modernity” presented by Goran Therborn in his book “From Marxism to Post-Marxism?” against which to assess “post-modernism”:
“Modernity is a culture claiming to be modern, in the sense of turning it’s back on the past… and looking into the future as a reachable, novel horizon”
(Therborn 2018, p.121)
He then goes on to give a little more context to this basic statement:
“Rather than trivialising the concept of modernity by attempting to translate it into a set of concrete institutions , whether of capitalism of politics, or into a particular conception of rationality or agency so that it can more easily be philosophically targeted, it is more useful to deploy it solely as a temporal signifier, in order to allow it to retain its analytical edge.”
(Therborn 2018, p.121)
“Modernity” is therefore a world view focused on progress, one in which things are getting better, which looks to the future and is actively seeking ways of moving towards it. In a brief segment at the end of her book “The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View” Ellen Meiksins Wood characterises this as developing from the Enlightenment based on increasing “rationalisation”.
“rationalisation of the state in bureaucratic organisation, the rationalisation of the economy in industrial capitalism, the rationalisation of culture in the spread of education, the decline of superstition, and the progress of science and technology.”
(Meiksins Wood 2017, p. 182)
Modernism therefore implies belief in an overarching view of the world that defines how progress happens and the mechanisms that drive change. Throughout much of the twentieth century at least two world views were available that might be thought of as upholding this view of progress, including both Soviet Communism and post war liberal democracy.
With this in mind, Postmodernism can then be defined in opposition to ‘modernity’ as:
“a questioning of, or loss of belief in, the future narratives of the modern.”
“Insofar as ‘forward’ and ‘backward’, progressive and reactionary, have lost all meaning, we have entered a post-modern world.”
(Therborn 2018, p.122)
Boltanski and Chiapello in their book “The New Spirit of Capitalism” similarly describe a postmodernist approach as viewing the state of the world as “chaos unamenable to any general interpretation”. (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p. 345).
This loss of belief in “the future” means the loss of a set of criteria against which to judge things. The old analyses are no longer valid, and therefore no longer provide a guide for future actions. Politically this shift was one of the factors underpinning the move of left wing parties from socialism to a “third way“. If capitalism is not progressing towards it’s eventual supercession then the best that can be hoped for is to reach an accommodation with it. With collapse of Soviet communism and the perceived irrelevance of Marxism, the left lacked any overarching analysis of the shape of the world, and therefore any view of what it was ‘for’. The only rational choice left to progressives in a post-modern world is working out how to make capitalism a bit nicer.
The end result has been a consensus of support across the political spectrum for a neo-liberal economics that has delivered a world which is increasingly unequal, polarised between asset holders and non-asset holders. There is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction, particularly among the young who have been disproportionately impacted by the implementation of nearly unopposed capitalism.
But without a strongly organised left articulating an alternative view of what is possible, that dissatisfaction has nowhere progressive to go. That doesn’t mean it disappears. Rather it migrates to political movements which are prepared to critique the current state of affairs and offer an explanation, even if it is not a rational one. In recent years this has meant Trump and Brexit.
In other words, the progressive left needs to recover its belief in the modern and find the overarching analysis of the world to underpin a call to action, and which can then be used to create a coherent manifesto for practical policies for change. I think there are some signs of this analysis developing but there’s still a long way to go.
Therborn, Goran From Marxism to Post-Marxism? (Verso, London, 2018)
Meiksins Wood, Ellen The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)
Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)