I like to listen to youtube banter to help “catch” my tendency to get distracted from boredom while doing tedious work. A lot of libertarian-orbit commenters are now coming out hard against “post-modernism”. What they mean, effectively, is what used to be called “SJW”. However, I believe Jordan Peterson – a not so bad guy, but who has major flaws and is overrated – has popularized the use of “post-modernism” as the label for our bogeyman here. Others have taken the chance to reconnect this label to the discussions of the Frankfurt School which were common in the 2008 hey days (remember Glenn Beck?).
Thaddeus Russell, on the other hand, is intent on convincing libertarians that post-modernism is a good thing, and a libertarian thing. I think his voice is probably being drowned out for the moment. I think that this is probably a bad thing, for specific reasons. I don’t know if my understanding of this is sound, but I want to lay it out in defense of Thaddeus Russell.
The issue is that there’s “post-modernism,” and then there’s “neo-marxism”. As far as I can tell, these are distinct ideologies. Post-modernism seems to come out of some French social thinkers in the 60s as they rejected society’s imposition of norms and roles on people because of their identities. This is in a sense a philosophy of anti-collectivism. You are saying that it is improper to attach a label to someone because they are a member of a group (a group they are assigned to against their will, in many cases). In this sense, it is libertarian philosophy. Before presenting the counter-argument, I’ll reference what I think “neo-marxism” is.
Neo-marxism is the “SJW”, “critical social theory” ideology that seems to be the source of frustration lately. It’s called neo-marxism, because it in fact fundamentally differs from Marxism. Let me explain.
Imagine a female tv show host complaining that of the top 100 companies in America, only 4 of them have female CEOs. She might complain that this is an injustice. The neo-marxists would demand equal representation, equal pay, every measure to erase any kind of gender difference or hierarchy or advantage. Consider, however, the following:
The ratio of male top 100 CEOs to female is 100:4. However, the ratio of male top 100 CEOs to American males who are not CEOs at all is 100:149,998,000. Which of these two inequities is more profound?
The Classical Marxist would of course want all men and women of the working class to have solidarity and drop concerns over gender in order to focus attention on the wealthy. They’d lambast this female tv host for totally missing the point. What changed?
The Nazis happened.
Germany – particular from the vantage of West German Jewish Marxist intellectuals – was an epiphany. This was the most industrialized nation of the Continent. This was the most intellectually sophisticated nation of the Continent. Germany should have been ground zero for the communist revolution. But it never happened. Moreover, horror of horrors, the evil Nazis took over (most of us find the Nazis to be bad, but to some their worst crime was preventing communism). How could this happen?
In the intellectuals’ minds, the Nazis’ power base was of course the working class (the National Socialist Workers’ Party). Instead of finding solidarity with all workers internationally, these workers found solidarity even with capitalists and aristocrats on the basis of ethnic identity. See, Marxism said that communist revolution was inevitable – it was supposed to just be automatic. So all Marxists were eventually stuck having to explain why it didn’t happen.
The Frankfurt school – as far as I can tell – concluded that these lines of distinction: race, ethnicity, gender, etc. were far more important than Marx had realized. That exploitation wasn’t just between rich and poor, but along these social identity lines as well. Thus, the Nazis.
Therefore, in order to fix the problem and finally have the Marxist revolution, you need to abolish all lines of social identity from the consciousness of humanity, and then, only then, will the distinction between poor and rich be clear enough for the communist paradise to emerge from revolution.
Ironic – a Rousseauean state of nature where the lack of social distinctions represents a paradise, then man, in his first act of absolute infamy, engages in the original sin of making distinctions: woman, man, black, white, tribe A, tribe B, and thereby creates civilization; but civilization is a corrupt hell for most by this original sin; only by perpetual self-abnegation on the part of the exploiters (white men) can the sin be reversed, and paradise reclaimed – a bunch of Jews creating a secular near Calvinism.
Thus neo-marxism’s goals differ distinctly from classical Marxism. Neo-marxism seeks to destroy all categories, so that the revolution can finally occur.
I find it interesting how closely this vision conforms to the classic abusive brainwashing paradigms present in ancient cults and modern secret intelligence services alike. Your identity – who you are – is the problem, it can’t be trusted, you must utterly self-abnegate. And then who picks up the slack after the individual neuters himself? The state, of course, or at least the neo-marxist intellectual – the priest.
So I suspect that the neo-marxists found post-modernism to be useful. It was a set of good arguments and methodology for deconstructing identity. Their use of post-modernism is perhaps behind its taint in the mind of the modern libertarian. I myself don’t blame post-modernism, but I don’t know if I can adequately defend it in light of its relevance to – at least – the neo-marxist political program.
I have some additional personal perspective to bring clarity to the question. I’m a common sensist. Common sense philosophers reject the theory of ideas. There is no such thing as an apple, no platonic form sitting in some other realm, no special kind of mental unit or discrete, maybe permanent, set of percepts to define it. Rather, an apple is just a category of certain observed differences between things. Classical common sense thinking holds that there must be (I find the question a bit more nuanced) an underlying natural reality. There are real relationships and forces which are not only oftentimes consistent, but which form the basis of our observations. The things we call apples have a real presence out there, and thinking of them as apples is tremendously useful, but there is no central unit or form which defines what “apple” is.
My take on post-modernism is that it is flawed but necessary (from my common sense perspective, that is). I hold that it’s appropriate to presume underlying, consistent patterns in reality that are external to my consciousness. For example, I hold that there are consistent enough mechanical reasons why females – not wanting to sit all day upon zippers and so forth – generally don’t prefer the idea of peeing standing up as much or as consistently as males. And it has nothing to do with gender norms. On the other hand, it’s not completely impossible for any body – male or female – to perhaps accomplish “the necessaries” in new ways. Japan, for instance, has these little hygeinic spray device in their toilets which – trust me – are a revelation and totally outside of American habits.
So as much as it really is quite appropriate to presume differences between males and females, and then translate these into different social outcomes, it’s also quite inappropriate to insist upon the absolute nature of a gender norm. Again, as a common sensist I don’t hold to the existence of ideas. There are no genders! But perhaps biological and social phenomena that give rise to behaviors and thus convenient categories that let us economize in the face of consistent phenomena.
I’m no essentialist, but it seems to me a stretch too far to get rid of all distinctions. Prejudice – as some conservative libertarians sometimes argue – is an economic necessity. Economics proves that humans engage in trade and commerce by means of conceiving of categories which arise from observed patterns, which relate them. And, in economics, there are no “fixed” prices. Labor theory of value, for instance, doesn’t reject the “theory of ideas” as strongly as does the Austrian school.
I think it’s a matter of being careful about our prejudice. Of being conscious of really how limited our prejudice is functionally, and how it’s little more than a highly contingent tool of temporary judgment in the face of limited data. Time, resources, additional data – these all would necessarily work against prejudice. And yet, all of our ideas are most likely nothing more than prejudices.
Thaddeus Russell has taught me some things. A recent podcast of his discussed motherhood with a woman obsessed with her birth bile. It was the first time I wanted to just stop listening. Even though he was there making the point that people don’t want to hear about this, and especially men would rather be indifferent, there I was just exactly feeling that way. I didn’t feel guilty either: disgust is what it is. If a thing isn’t my problem, I don’t have to make it my problem just to be a good person on the issue. But this led to a broader thought that reached its apogee tonight when I saw all the anti-postmodernism youtube offerings available.
“If Thad Russell is right that people need to listen to this pregnancy stuff, in this case, what’s the reason?”
My knowledge of “natural reality” is but the set of prejudices I hold as a consequence of data collected from my experiences. My beliefs are neither right or wrong, but rather reflect what I have experienced. If I will then take the leap, and presume an underlying natural reality informing those prejudices, then I must be forever committed to the idea of collecting more data!
My knowledge – my prejudice – is a fragile thing. It shatters with the lightest wisp of wind. It’s strength and continued existence gains life only in renewal, in light of further experience.
I must know what it is that people who are different than me feel and believe. The very premise that I can conceive of there being a difference at all had to have first depended on this acquisition of conditional knowledge. The perceived difference is the imperative to – though maybe not reconcile – understand the difference and embrace its deeper meaning. There’s also a need to let go of categories once they can no longer apply. This takes courage and wit.
Postmodernism heavily focuses on the social realm. Libertarianism, an individualistic philosophy, conceives of a division of labor, economic relationships, and individual rights. Social interaction within libertarianism is a voluntary prospect which comes after law and basic economic norms (the property right) are established. Thus, postmodernism and libertarianism simply have very different areas of emphasis, and might suffer from taking each others’ focus for granted.
Libertarianism, taking the social realm for granted, would be wise to integrate some postmodernism into its social thinking. If the market really does what libertarians claim, then why do we need to fuss over traditional values and gender pronouns? Maybe all-gendered bathrooms, it turns out, are a fine idea. The point is, the degree to which deconstructionism-run-rampant imposes costs on society is the degree to which the market can measure and adjust to those costs. Maybe we should let the market work, and not try to centrally plan our social values?
Whatever are the “real” phenomena of gender and race, etc., the market will surely reflect these and adjust accordingly.
And, for what its worth, I think most libertarians are pretty solid on this. I think that’s why Thad Russell gives us so much leeway when it comes to accepting our economic paradigm. The market is pretty indifferent to the will of the essentialist and central planner alike.