Wednesday, June 22, 2016

How to Turn Left Through Modernism and Postmodernism

For straight lefties the "postmodern turn" is a bit of a puzzler. When you attack "meta-theory" as a form of domination, what is left of the granddaddy of all "meta-theories," Marxism?

That is the problem that David Harvey sets out to solve in The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. And he is a solid Marxist, in the sense that his chapter on "Modernization," meaning the modern industrial market economy, is pure Marxism.

But in the end, he manages to privilege his own meta-theory above all others in a chapter headed "The Crisis of Historical Materialism," i.e., Marxism. And his judgement is: Not to Worry; our faith is good.

After all, he writes, what problem could historical materialism have with a postmodernism
that is anti-authoritarian and iconoclastic, that insists on the authenticity of other voices, that celebrates difference, decentralization, and democratization of taste, as well as the power of imagination over materiality[?]
What indeed? The only problem is that the left is profoundly authoritarian, totalitarian even, and raises the most fantastical icons to the sky, and denies the authenticity of any voices opposed to it, and criminalizes difference, abolishes decentralization, rides over ordinary middle-class taste with an M-1 tank.

But the really helpful thing about the chapter is that Harvey lays out his basic lefty Articles of Faith. For instance, the problem with the New Left of the 1960s was that the "push into cultural politics... set the New Left against traditional working-class attitudes and institutions." It was great that the New Left moved into "race and gender issues, of difference, and of the pronlems of colonized peoples and repressed minorities, of ecological and aesthetic issues". But what about the workers? The "New Left tended to abandon its faith both in the proletariat as an instrument of progressive change and in historical materialism as a mode of analysis." It is a central conceit of the left that its politics supports working classes and their needs rather than, as Samuel Gompers warned, substituting their own agenda and demolishing authentic working-class institutions.

But now, with postmodernism, the left has extended its conceit to imagining that it supports all marginalized people and their "traditional... attitudes and institutions," rather than imposing its own world view everywhere from the movies to marriage by force.

But the "interrogation of 'orthodox' Marxian formulations" was a good thing for Harvey as it forced the orthodox to consider new developments in the economy and state functions and culture. It taught the left the following lessons.
Difference and "otherness" This should not be tacked onto Marxism but be a part of its core.
Images and discourses "Aesthetic and cultural practices matter, and the conditions of their production deserve the closest attention."
Time and space matter Lefties need to take note of the way that modern art jumbles up space and time, and also how global capitalism exploits space, place and time in ways that lefties must challenge.
Marxism must be open-ended The postmodernist attack on "meta-theory" (i.e, the one true theory) should teach lefties to avoid their once-for-all approach to theory. "Meta-theory is not a statement of total truth" but must be a constantly updated battle plan to understand and take the fight to global capitalism.
 You can see what is going on here. Harvey understands that the expansion of victimhood from the working class to all the other marginalized groups of the world is a necessary part of any leftist future. And the control of the culture, what is allowed to be thought and saide, is vital. Lefties need to adapt to the new global, instant, pervasive culture of capitalism so they can compete mano-a-mano with the evil CEOs and fascists. And Marxists can't just keep spouting original Marxian chapter and verse forever (Although Harvey's economics is almost pure 1860 Capital); they need to update their theory as the cunning capitalists find new ways to exploit and to immiserate.

The sad thing about this is that lefty David Harvey is determined to keep the shackles on the economic and political and social phenomenon that has increased human prosperity from $3 per day to $100 per day in 200 years wherever it has been tried. He is like the slaveowner that feels he has to abuse his slaves just to make sure that they never even think about the possibility of rebellion.

In the end, Harvey wants the good old time religion, but informed by the postmodern turn into not just an updated historical materialism but a "historical-geographical materialism."
On that critical basis is becomes possible to launch a counterattack of narrative against the image, of ethics against aesthetics, of a project of Becoming rather than Being, and so search for unity within difference[.]
And thus "promote adherence to a new version of the Enlightenment project."

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