Postmodernism: Socialism's Dying Gasp?

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The Colorado Freedom

Socialism's Dying Gasp?

Philosopher Stephen Hicks Defends Modernism

by Ari Armstrong, March 2, 2000

Professor Stephen Hicks of Rockford College believes the rise of postmodernist philosophy was a response to the political crisis of socialism in the mid-1900s. He discussed his challenging thesis February 26 and 28 in Boulder, first with a local group of Objectivist enthusiasts and later at a meeting sponsored by the philosophy department of the University of Colorado.

What is postmodernism? Hicks described it as a "package" of beliefs in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics held by a loosely associated group of writers such as Michel Foucault, Stanley Fish, and Jacques Derrida, which opposes modernist or enlightenment ideals of realism, reason, individualism, and free markets.

Postmodernism is deep skepticism couched in themes of class struggle. And the epistemological beliefs are tied intimately with the ethical and political beliefs, Hicks notes. If, as Foucault has said, "It is meaningless to speak in the name of -- or against -- Reason, Truth, or Knowledge," then obviously philosophy isn't very useful in those endeavors. What, then, is the actual purpose of philosophy and the sciences? It is to command power. Political science has been used to rationalize the exploitation of the masses by the capitalists, and Western thought the exploitation of women by men and of racial minorities by the white majority. Postmodernists see themselves as using academia to shift power to the previously exploited, away from the modern exploiters.

Deconstruction is the postmodernist literary technique of examining classical works in terms of sexual or economic exploitation. For instance, Bacon's quest to use nature for human well-being is seen as a form of rape. Fictional works are not viewed in terms of their explicit moral or political significance, but rather in terms of alleged subconscious forms of exploitation propagated by the books' authors. Instead of being interpreted as a story of excessive personal revenge, Moby Dick is seen as a parable of imperialist capitalism. The theory of the speed of light is indicative of the hierarchical social class struggle. Of course, there is no standard of right and wrong, so deconstruction itself aims at political ends rather than at any legitimate history. As Derrida put it, "[D]econstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism."

The story Hicks tells begins with Immanuel Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason. Some see Kant as the end of the Enlightenment, but Hicks (and Objectivist scholars generally) sees Kant as the beginning of the counter-enlightenment, even though he retains many enlightenment themes. Kant rejected objectivity; that is, he saw the mind as imposing structure on reality rather than perceiving reality as it is.

From this seed germinated the philosophies of Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Hegel took the metaphysical view that reality is itself contradictory and that it evolves according to a transcendental dialectic. Marx put a materialistic spin on Hegel, postulating that human society advances in stages according to its inherent logic. From the Marxist tradition comes the notion that economic science -- and science generally -- merely supports the interests of the ruling classes, rather than conveying any universal truth. Kierkegaard is famous for his notion of the "leap of faith," which is necessary given the insufficiency of reason. And Nietzsche proposed that the "will to power" trumps the pursuit of truth.

These themes were synthesized by Heidegger and adopted into the Existentialist movement in Europe by such writers as Jean Paul Sartre. But, wonders Hicks, why did these European themes become popular in the American academy in the 1950s up to the present, when they had been virtually ignored in the early 1900s?

Hicks gives two reasons. First, logical positivism, dominant in America early in the century, reached a dead end. This tradition held that philosophy is impotent to deal with broad epistemological and metaphysical questions, but that it can assist the practical sciences by exploring the legitimate meanings of terms. But this led to the view that concepts do not refer to reality but are instead an internally consistent framework which is socially constructed. By 1962, when Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, science was seen not as the pursuit of truth, but rather as a socially-driven process of paradigm shifts. So American philosophers reached many of the same skeptical conclusions as their Continental counterparts, leaving something of a vacuum in America.

Something else happened in the 1950s: the Soviet "experiment" in socialism was exposed as a disaster. Stalin was toppled from his mythical status of benevolent dictator after evidence emerged showing he had murdered millions of his own people. When civil unrest arose in Hungary, and the Soviets sent in the tanks to suppress it, the regime was exposed as cruel and flawed, a far cry from the humanitarian utopian ideal American socialists had made it out to be in the early 1900s. As Hicks put it, the socialist states turned out worse even than what socialists had predicted for capitalism.

At the same time, capitalistic societies in the West had become productive, the middle-class had grown rather than eroded as predicted, and technology had continued to flourish and improve human life. In short, Marx was wrong. So, even though Marx had championed reason, technology, and science, Marxists in the middle of the century were faced with strong evidence indicating that those values were supportive of and supported by capitalism. How did they react?

They said that reason is dubious and that technology is bad, anyway. Whereas Marxism had been largely a monolithic ideology prior to the 1950s, it shattered into competing visions and strategies after that. Today, the eco-socialists try to make the case that capitalism leads inevitably to environmental destruction, much as capitalism was said to lead to economic destruction by previous socialists. Other traditionalists hold out hope that, someday, the workers of the world will still unite and nationalize industry. Still other so-called "progressives" grant the core debate, that capitalism has won, but argue that capitalism must be softened or constrained by focused socialistic programs.

And then there are the postmoderns, who claim that we can't know reality anyway, and that socialism may be accepted on intuition rather than reason.

What evidence does Hicks gather in support of his claim that postmodernism is a response to the crisis of socialism? First, he notes, the core postmodern thinkers developed their ideas in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet crisis. Second, and more significantly, all the postmodernists are socialists. That's strange, since postmodernism holds that one's political beliefs are social constructs or personal intuitions. If that's the case, one would expect a wide distribution of postmodern political beliefs. But there aren't any postmodern religious conservatives, or postmodern libertarians, only postmodern socialists. That lends strong support to Hicks' contention that postmodernists were socialists first, and only then did they adopt the framework of postmodernism as a political strategy. (Of course, the fact that some postmodernists explicitly say that intellectual endeavors are merely covers for power-politics helps Hicks' case.)

Hicks likens postmodern politics to a debate in a bar. If two people are going at it verbally, and it becomes clear that one person is winning the argument on logic and evidence, a common strategy of the loser is to raise skeptical barriers, such as, "Well, it's just semantics," or , "We can't really know what's true, anyway." That strategy serves to buy time and put the other party on the defensive. After all, it's very difficult to have to defend objectivity, reason, and knowledge from the ground up, especially given the dominance of skeptical trends in both American and Continental philosophy. The constituent pieces of postmodernism were already strewn about the intellectual landscape, making the task of forging a cohesive postmodernist "package" a doable project.

Hicks also used the analogy of Christians who advocate "equal time" for creationism in the schools. Do they really just want equal time? Of course not; they believe evolution is false and if they had their way they would impose the teaching of creationism only. But, being on the losing end of the argument, the "equal time" strategy allows them to remain on the scene. By denouncing the validity of reason, postmodernists are trying to make room for an intuitive expression of socialism.

* * *

Professor Hicks is currently working on a book about postmodernism. This year he is on sabbatical, working at the Objectivist Center in New York while he completes the work. I asked him if he minded me doing an article which explained parts of his thesis; he said that was ok. I would encourage all interested readers to look for his book, which should be completed within several months and published next year. Obviously, the present article is a simplified version of what Hicks presented, which is in turn a highly abbreviated treatment of the subject of the book. Any errors present in this article are totally my fault, not Hicks'.

* * *

Hicks' central thesis is eminently plausible, and no one who attended the CU lecture attempted to dispute it. However, it does raise some interesting issues.

As one woman working in the history of philosophy exclaimed, "You're essentially deconstructing Kant!" As Hicks explained, he's arguing that the anti-objectivist strain in Kant led to the eventual formation of a generally anti-enlightenment framework. So he wasn't deconstructing Kant. But he is deconstructing the postmodernists, if we take that term to suggest the interpretation of texts as a political power struggle.

And that central paradox might be enough to give some a jolt of Existential anxiety.

But Hicks' thesis in intellectual history differs significantly from postmodernist revisionism in at least a couple ways. First, Hicks actually has evidentiary support for his claims, whereas much postmodern deconstruction consists of random associations and flagrant propaganda. Second, Hicks was quick to add that postmodern claims must be evaluated in terms of their truth value independently, and not just in terms of their political use.

The fact that Hicks claims postmodernism was used as a cover for political power struggles, though, suggests that perhaps the deconstructionists have something, after all. Isn't it true that Darwin's scientific research was employed by some to rationalize racism? As Austrian and Public Choice economists argue, anti-trust laws use the veneer of capitalist theory to cover power-politics of destroying one's competitors by government force.

When people want to do something bad or something that serves their perceived self-interest at the cost of others, they typically turn to some broad intellectual theory to justify or rationalize their behavior. Political leaders since the beginnings of human civilization have used religious dogma to buttress their power. When the Spaniards murdered Native Americans, it was in the "name of God." When today's politicians burn dozens of men, women, and children in a religious center or tax at rates approaching 50%, it's done "for the children," rather than to increase their own personal power.

Of course, that does not imply, as postmodernists suggest, that the primary drive of theory is social power. Rather, those who seek increased social power turn to theories at hand. But to serve as a support for unjust power, a theory must either be fundamentally flawed or marred by an untrue addition. For instance, Darwin's theory doesn't inherently support racism, but when merged with incorrect ideas it can serve that purpose. The theory coming out of Hegelian thought that knowledge is socially derived led to the view that one's culture is of primary moral significance, a theory Hitler found convenient in advancing his national socialism. Market libertarians will argue that the social theory of knowledge is fundamentally flawed, making it prone to political abuse.

Ultimately, social power in the civilized world finds its support in philosophy. As Hicks will readily grant, then, the fundamental issue is whether specific theories are true or false. True theories will tend to support legitimate social empowerment, while false theories will tend to give rise to totalitarianism and mass-murder.

* * *

These days, many see philosophy as distant to real-world concerns, as intellectual masturbation at best. Obviously, Hicks' ideas challenge this presumption. In her essay, "Philosophy: Who Needs It," Ayn Rand argues that everyone does, whether or not they explicitly acknowledge it. I thought it might be interesting to glance at a cultural manifestation of the socialist ideas Hicks is talking about.

Hicks sees Marxists as evolving various strategies to deal with the intellectual problems of their system. One such problem was Marx' prediction that the workers under capitalism would become discontented under the system of exploitation and revolt. Of course, that never happened; the masses have been more content under capitalism than ever before in the history of humanity. So Marx' prediction was wrong.

As Hick explained, the Frankfurt School came up with a response to this problem by claiming capitalism managed to fool people into thinking they are happy, when in reality they're not. As a caricature, workers toil all day, then go home and drink beer and watch television, thus repressing their humanity with narcotics. In Hicks' words, this strategy explains capitalism "in terms of Freudian repression and Existentialist false consciousness." This set of ideas served as a precursor to postmodernism, but of course contemporary socialists frequently draw upon a variety of traditions.

The Frankfurt School is alive and well in American culture. One popular rock song asks, "How long will the workers keep building them new ones? As long as their soda-cans are red, white, and blue." In other words, people buy into a false patriotic ideal and thus forget about the (alleged) inhumanity of their lives.

The self-consciously Marxist rock band, Rage Against the Machine, merges the Frankfurt notions of repression with postmodern multiculturalism:

The present curriculums
I put my fist in 'em
Eurocentric every last one of 'em
See right through the red, white and blue disguise
With lecture, I puncture the structure of lies
Installed in our minds and attempting
To hold us back (Self-titled album, Take the Power Back)

The fact that the theory of multiculturalism came straight from the heart of Europe seems not deter postmodern socialists from using the theory to denounce "Eurocentrism." Hicks notes the additional irony that, according to multiculturalism, all cultural values are accepted as equal, except that Western values are seen as uniquely bad.

However, while market libertarians utterly reject multiculturalist social analysis, they are sympathetic to concerns that parallel those of the Frankfurt School. Both in Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the vast majority of society is seen as slaves of popular moralistic power-mongers. Only the protagonists and a few of their friends are truly "alive," in tune with themselves and with their humanity.

Every fringe group needs some theory by which to explain the stubbornness of the masses to adopt a better life. For socialists, the masses are kept doped up on television, drugs, toys, and other products of capitalist society. Libertarians don't see these problems as deep-rooted or even existent in many cases. They do see, however, a deep-rooted myth of State and a powerful government propaganda machine. Of course, the fact that different groups adopt different views of alienation doesn't imply that any particular such theory is either true or false.

To generalize, any time one person believes a set of ideas that another believes to be false, the second person is inclined to propose a theory about why the first person is misguided. That doesn't mean a psychological theory is required, however. Objectivist theory (at least in the David Kelley line) adopts both psychological and evidentiary theories of disagreement. That is, some people err primarily for psychological reasons, like intellectual laziness or the inclination to conform blindly, but others are mistaken merely because they're looking at a different set of evidence or have made some honest error in logic.

At any rate, here again we find certain parallels, as well as obvious differences, between the theories of socialists and those of market libertarians.

* * *

After Hicks' formal presentation, the group broke for wine, cheese, and further discussion. The talk rapidly turned away from postmodernism to general libertarian theory. Hicks laid out the standard Objectivist theory of negative political rights. David Kelley and Will Thomas of the Objectivist Center have both expressed the theory similarly. I believe those arguments can be improved, however.

Hicks' main opponent in the debate advocated a mixed economy and a significant redistribution of wealth. He said the market-libertarian conception of negative political rights is false, that people in fact have positive rights, such as a right to bare subsistence.

This person made a fairly good argument for positive rights. He raised the hypothetical case in which one would have to kill a single individual in order to save the lives of hundreds. For instance, suppose one could fire an explosive at one part of a mountain, killing one innocent person, and thus divert an avalanche to save an entire town. The fact that most would indeed kill an innocent person in order to save hundreds suggests that people have positive rights, not only negative ones. It's only a short step to the claim that people have a right to basic food supplies.

Hicks countered that such scenarios are extremely unlikely, and that when doing moral theory we have to start with "normal" situations. The problem with this response is that it doesn't get at the heart of the claim that positive rights should be recognized.

A more effective response is to forego the positive/negative distinction of rights completely. As can be extrapolated from the writings of Warren Samuels in Critical Review (Vol. 7, No. 4 and Vol. 9, No. 3), all rights can be conceived either positively or negatively, depending largely on perspective. Thus, instead of simply defining "rights" along libertarian lines in an a priori fashion, it's more fruitful to just explain the reasons for the rights libertarians advocate. Those rights recognize the pre-existing property rights order, but then require new property be recognized for the first-in-time creator, and that all subsequent transactions be conducted absent the initiation of physical force. There are certain exceptions, such as when emergencies trump "normal" rights.

Libertarians can simply admit that "rights" are legal constraints affecting whatever set of behaviors are most compatible with human well-being. Thus, the libertarian system of "normal" property rights must be defended on consequentialist grounds, as must be any exception to this "normal" system. On the other hand, if market-socialists wish to argue that people ought normally have rights to basic food supplies, it's up to them to argue that will achieve the desired results. Libertarians can ably counter that a system which recognizes rights to food supplies harms individual producers, skews incentives, reduces over-all productivity, and opens the door to political corruption. They can add that voluntary charity has worked well in the past and provides the greatest promise for alleviating poverty in the future.

Objectivism is self-consciously consequentialist in its ethics and politics, starting with a foundation of benevolent egoism. It can naturally avoid the sort of semantic disputes in which Hicks found himself. Going back to the debate following Hicks' lecture, I think a more fruitful reply would have avoided the urge to define rights first and gone straight to the discussion of which behaviors are more beneficial to human beings. Something like,

"Of course in rare emergencies normal rights can be suspended. But that in no way implies that people should have a right to basic subsistence. To the extent that such rights are granted, economic incentives are distorted and productivity on the whole is reduced. In addition, coercive welfare pushes out voluntary charity, which historically has met with much greater success. Libertarianism recognizes the rights of individuals to the fruits of their labor and trusts individuals to voluntarily help those in legitimate need."

This would have avoided the semantic debate while turning the discussion to evidentiary considerations, which by Objectivists' own admission are the root of political theory.

Hicks was still fairly effective at presenting a market libertarian view of rights. The formal presentation of postmodernism lasted for about two hours, and the discussion of rights went on for at least an hour more (at which time I had to leave). All the participants of the discussion were polite (though sometimes forceful) and there seemed to be a basic respect for the rules of rational debate. And that, after all, is Hicks' primary concern.

The Colorado Freedom