Thursday, February 21, 2008

Postmodernism and the Next Failure of Socialism

Socialism, and more broadly collectivism, as Ayn Rand pointed out, died as a moral ideal in 1945. As a practical ideal, socialism died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet socialism and the principle that government might is required to make right is still with us. How can that be?

Answer: epistemological errors of Enlightenment thinkers, specifically their failure to identify the true nature of consciousness and thereby describe reason’s method of knowing reality, allowed irrationalism and collectivism to take root and grow into today’s spectacle of a virulently absolutist and nihilistic postmodernism.

Stephen Hicks’ 2004 book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault chronicles this process with brilliant simplicity. Beginning with an overview of the contrast between modernism and postmodernism, that is, the Enlightenment’s pro-reason, pro-individualist, pro-capitalist philosophies and the postmodernists’ rejection of those views, Hicks essentializes the ideas of the major players in this evolution.

Cashing in on the errors of the Enlightenment, Kant and Hegel were among the first (Rousseau preceded them in opposing fundamental Enlightenment values) to narrow the effectiveness of reason—in order to make room for faith and religion—and to devalue the autonomy of the individual. As the nineteenth century progressed, subsequent philosophers, including Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, declared reality a subjective, contradictory creation known only through feeling or instinct and the individual’s identity a function of group membership. Contempt for reason was their conclusion. Heidegger in the twentieth century elevated morbid, anxious feelings to the role of guides to knowledge and declared war against the entire Western tradition based on the law of non-contradiction. When logical positivism and linguistic analysis failed to correct the Enlightenment’s errors, the path was cleared for the postmodernists—among them Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, and Rorty—to take over.

When reason and reality are gone and feelings, especially those of anxiety, dread, and alienation, guide action, and when the group defines the individual, “group balkanization,” as Hicks observes, “and conflict must necessarily result.” A “nasty political correctness”—arising ironically in an age of relativism—became the tactic for accomplishing political goals (p. 82). And those goals are all of a socialist hue. The problem for the postmodernists, though, is that socialism has suffered a number of setbacks. The proletariat has not rebelled spontaneously, nor has capitalism collapsed. Indeed, Hicks cites six dramatic failures of socialism that have led to various reincarnations. The postmodern variety resulted most particularly from Khrushchev’s revelations of 1956. The postmodernists moved socialism away from its traditional emphasis on need, wealth, and science and technology to the form we see today: egalitarianism, the notion that wealth is bad and environmentalism good (that is, the shift from “red” to “green”), and from universalism to multiculturalism.

Epistemological trends of the past 200 years, plus the failures of socialism, have culminated in the virulent absolutism of political correctness. Socialists have always advocated the coercion of government might to achieve their goals, but the postmodernists today are academics who realize that past revolutions have failed and capitalism has not collapsed. As a result, they are left with the only weapons they know how to use, namely words. Thus, they use words—not facts or overt force—as their means of swaying others and the words express hostility at Enlightenment values and despair about the present and future.

Cynical and envy-ridden, as Hicks points out in his grippingly eloquent conclusion, the postmodernists are the Iagos to the Enlightenment’s Othellos. The postmodernists’ goal is no longer revolution; their goal, like Iago’s, is to inject doubt into modernity’s values and “let that doubt work like a slow poison” (p. 200).

I must emphasize that this brief post cannot do justice to the clarity and persuasive power with which Hicks’ 200-page book exposes the insidious deviousness of postmodernism. Some reviewers have said the book is scary, but I find it inspiring and encouraging, if for no other reason than the fact that Hicks makes the reader want to go out on a limb to predict the next failure of socialism. The more significant reason for being encouraged is the negativity of postmodernism; negative programs never last.

But allow me to make that prediction. Ayn Rand said that collectivism had to fail precisely at its height because its claims to intellectuality and idealism were both frauds. I think the same point must eventually be applied to the environmental movement—those “reds” who have become “greens”—especially the global warming crowd. And it seems like everyone is going green today. However, when a Harvard psychologist writing in the New York Times Magazine acknowledges that the numbers about curbing carbon emissions “don’t add up” and science staffer John Tierney on the same newspaper makes fun of the exaggerated predictions routinely made today in the name of environmental “science,” establishment media would seem to be moving in the direction of more openness to facts and less blind acceptance of the red/green litany.

The antidote to postmodernism is better ideas and those ideas are making their way through our culture. Will I see postmodernism overthrown in my lifetime? Perhaps not, but my daughter might.


Nick said...

General Motors Vice Chairman Robert Lutz calls global warming a crock. This guy deserves a medal. I don't remember the last time a businessman stood against the tide on a volitile political issue. Perhaps this will open the floodgates.

Anonymous said...

Very nice piece that you have written. In the end the reason that socialism fails is that it assumes that human nature can be altered, most importantly that incentive plays no role in why we do what we do and that humans will willingly work for the good of the group. In a nut shell they can and do, but not through coercion or force. Incentive re:productivity can't be controlled by the elites who know what is best for all of us, only we mere proletariat masses can do that through a free market of choices as to what is best for us individually. We are headed for a new bout of socialism in the U.S. I wish us all good fortune. P.S. Lutz actually said when asked about global warming that he thought it was "A total crock of shit". I don't know if he is correct or not. Thank You, Larsky