Postmodern Politics – Introduction
Richard Rorty gives us a great snapshot of Postmodern politics, “I see the ‘orthodox’ (the people who think that hounding gays out of the military promotes traditional family values) as the same honest, decent, blinkered, disastrous people who voted for Hitler in 1933. I see the ‘progressives’ as defining the only America I care about.”1
As keen observers of the Postmodern condition, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner comment on the current status of Postmodern politics: “As with postmodern theory, there is no one ‘postmodern politics,’ but rather a conflicting set of propositions that emerges from the ambiguities of social change and multiple postmodern theoretical perspectives.”2 Postmodern politics takes a variety of forms. On one end of the spectrum is the “anti-politics” of Baudrillard, a “cynical, despairing rejection of the belief”3 that politics can be used to change society. On the other side of Baudrillard’s negative, nihilistic approach is a more affirmative one, outlined by Foucault, Lyotard, and Rorty, who suggest that the way to “enhance individual freedom” and bring about “progressive change”4 is to concentrate on the local level.
Although there is a lack of consensus surrounding much of Postmodern politics, most agree Postmodernists fall on the left side of the political spectrum. Barbara Epstein, a self-proclaimed “moderate” Postmodernist, writes, “Many people, inside and outside the world of Postmodernism, have come to equate Postmodernism with the left.”5 Stephen R.C. Hicks agrees, writing, “Of the major names in the Postmodernist movement there is not a single figure who is not leftwing in a serious way.”6
Most of the early French Postmodernists emerged from the Marxist tradition—some grew up in families supportive of leftist causes, and others were former Stalinists. Foucault initially joined the Maoist Gauche Proletarienne and the French Communist Party but left once he discovered the Marxist stance toward homosexuality. As time went on, Foucault moved further away from Marxism, particularly the “state-centered focus” of classic Marxism. Foucault would later write, “Marxism exists in nineteenth century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else.”7 Anthony Thomson claims that Postmodernism is generally “fueled by the failure of Marxian-inspired State socialism.”8
However, in spite of his aversion to some aspects of Marxism, Foucault does not abandon Marxist thought altogether. Specifically, Foucault remained under “the profound influence of Marxist analyses of power relations and the role of economic inequality in determining social structures.”9 Mark Lilla notes that Foucault felt he needed something “more radical” than classic Marxism, so he turned to “Nietzsche and Heidegger, but also avant-garde writers and Surrealists whose hostility to bourgeois life took more aesthetic and psychological forms.”10
Postmodern Politics – Leftist Politics
For Postmodernists, politics is not centered around political parties, utopian visions, or an ultimate telos; rather, it is a tool of experimentation that involves a radical critique of the existing systems of power in a society, the identification of oppressed groups, and the remedy for bringing those identified groups out of oppression to achieve a sense of social justice.
Some Postmodernists, including Foucault and Rorty, use terms such as leftism and progressivism to describe their approach to politics. For Foucault, progressive politics outlines the “possibilities for transformation and the play of dependencies between those transformations, whereas other politics rely upon the uniform abstraction of chance or the...presence of genius.”11 This means that “rather than seeing politics as being centered around individual great leaders who have utopian visions of the future...Foucault is more concerned to develop and describe a politics which takes account of the transformative possibilities within the present.”12
Foucault assumes that in the same way there is no ultimate purpose (telos) to life, there is no ultimate purpose for politics or what he refers to as “the themes of meaning, origin...[or] the deep teleology of a primeval destination.”13 Sara Mills writes, “Foucault seems to be trying to establish a basis for productive political activity without necessarily having to agree with a whole range of problematic assumptions about progress and the role of individuals bringing about political change”14
Mills suggests that Foucault “does not seem to have felt it necessary to have a fully worked-out political position, since in some ways it was precisely this sense of having to hold to a party line which he was reacting against.”15 In other words, there is no right way to approach politics since there is no unifying story that is true for life or politics. Lyotard explains, “With the destruction of the grand narratives, there is no longer any unifying identity for the subject or society. Instead, individuals are the sites where ranges of conflicting moral and political codes intersect, and the social bond is fragmented.”16
Foucault expresses his range of political leanings this way: “I think I have in fact, been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal, etc....It’s true, I prefer not to identify myself and that I’m amused by the diversity of the ways I’ve been judged and classified.”17
Foucault claims to have been in “most of the squares on the political checkerboard,” and along with most of Postmodernism’s founders, they played their game on the far left of the political game board! Leftism is therefore an appropriate term to summarize the Postmodern approach to politics.
Postmodern Politics – Identity Politics
Barbara Epstein explains where the early Postmodern movement began: “The constellation of trends that I am calling Postmodernism has its origins in the writings of a group of French intellectuals of the ‘60s, most preeminently Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Those who developed Postmodernism tended to be associated with the radicalism of the ‘60s.”18
The sexual and feminist revolutions that began in the sixties were intent on correcting the wrongs perpetuated by Western culture, especially the “puritanical” United States.19 What was wrong was identified as white, European, male, heterosexual, and Judeo-Christian. Epstein observes that “one reason that Postmodernism has taken hold so widely is that it is much easier to be critical than to present a positive vision.”20 In their desire to tear down socio-political structures that they deemed oppressive, radical, or revolutionary, agitators developed the concept of identity politics to correct the social and political wrongs they deemed Western civilization had perpetuated.
Identity politics seeks to advance the interests of particular groups in society that are perceived as victims of social injustice. The identity of the oppressed group gives rise to a political basis around which they can unite.21 For example, radical feminists identified all women as victims of male oppression. Once they had established their case, whatever was needed to free women from male domination was considered politically correct.
Alan Sokol quotes feminist Kelly Oliver: “[I]n order to be revolutionary, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories—not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories.”22 Since there are no true theories, the revolutionary way is to promote a theory that strategically accomplishes what needs to be accomplished.
For radical feminists, the ultimate goal became women’s equality with men, which means, among other things, total sexual freedom. To bring this about, the strategic theory proclaimed children a burden and marriage a form of slavery, counterproductive to a woman’s self-fulfillment. Abortion was declared a political right and women’s only means for sexual equality with men—since men can engage in sexual intercourse without the consequences of bearing children, women must have the same freedom and political right.
Likewise, homosexuals were viewed as having been oppressed by a heterosexual majority who had forced their puritanical sexual mores onto society. The strategic theory marketed the homosexual lifestyle as normal, moral, healthy through television sit-coms about likeable homosexual characters, gay-themed movies, and public education that introduced very young children to appealing homosexual families.23
Similarly, Postmodernists claim that white Europeans had dominated people of color for hundreds of years. The strategic theory claimed blacks and other minorities suffered an unfair disadvantage in admission to higher education. The concept of affirmative action was developed to guarantee minorities access to higher education, often at the expense of more qualified white applicants. In this way, years of minority subservience to white oppression is remedied and social justice is affirmed.
The strategies of identity politics have succeeded in changing the beliefs of a growing number of people throughout Western society, demonstrating the power of the Postmodern approach for shaping the terms of the debate.
Postmodern Politics – Conclusion
To achieve their vision for the West, Postmodernists must dismantle the present socio-political-economic system, replacing the foundational ideas of individual liberty and the rule of law based on God’s moral order with Postmodern politics -- the concepts of identity politics and social justice.