Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Roussea to Foucault by Stephen R. C. Hicks

Hicks, S. R. C. (2010). Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com


Chapter One What Postmodernism Is

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targets: “All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.”[

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of those constructions. Postmodern accounts of human nature are consistently collectivist, holding that individuals’ identities are constructed largely by the social- linguistic groups that they are a part of, those groups varying radically across the dimensions of sex, race, ethnicity, and wealth.

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understanding nature, then that epistemology

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Individualism and science are thus consequences of an epistemology of reason. Both applied systematically have enormous consequences. Individualism applied to politics yields liberal democracy. Liberalism

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While the modern world continues to speak of reason, freedom, and progress, its pathologies tell another story.

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Postmodernism rejects the reason and the individualism that the entire Enlightenment world depends upon. And so it ends up attacking all of the consequences of the Enlightenment philosophy, from capitalism and liberal forms of government to science and technology.

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For the pragmatist version of post- modernism, any abstract and universal theory of the law is to be distrusted.

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Objectivity is a myth; there is no Truth, no Right Way to read nature or a text. All interpretations are equally valid. Values are socially subjective products.

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argument, in- your- face shock tactics, and equally cynical power plays. Disagreements are met— not with argument, the benefit of the doubt, and the expectation that reason can prevail— but with assertion, animosity, and a willingness to resort to force.

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Forming such an ambition and developing the arguments capable of mobilizing a movement to realize that ambition is the work of many individuals over several generations.

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And they are postmodern for a reason. They reason that by articulating an opposite view they might weaken modernity

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And they are postmodern for a reason. They reason that by articulating an opposite view they might weaken modernity

Chapter Two The Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Reason

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The Enlightenment developed those features of the modern world that many now take largely for granted— liberal politics and free markets, scientific progress and technological innovation. All four of those institutions depend upon confidence in the power of reason.

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One gives political power and economic freedom to individuals only to the extent one thinks they are capable of using it wisely. That confidence in individuals is fundamentally a confidence in the power of reason— reason being the means by which individuals can come to know their world, plan their lives, and interact socially the way that reasonable people do— by trade, discussion, and the force of argument.

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Trusting science’s results cognitively is an act of confidence in reason, as is trusting one’s life to its technological products. Institutionalizing confidence in the power of reason is the most outstanding achievement of the Enlightenment.

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The Enlightenment confidence in reason, however, upon which all progress had been based, had always been philosophically incomplete and vulnerable.

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God was no longer a personal, caring creator— he was now the supreme mathematician who had aeons ago designed the universe in terms of the beautiful equations that Johannes Kepler and Newton had discovered. The deists’ God operated according to logic and mathematics— not will and whim. The deists’ God also seemed to have done his work a long time ago, and to have done it well— meaning he was no longer needed on the scene to operate the machinery of the universe.

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the extent that reason is the standard, faith loses, and the theists of the eighteenth century knew that.

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Science’s most successful models then were mechanistic and reductionistic.

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The Enlightenment’s championing of reason and individualism thus confronted the early Counter- Enlightenment thinkers with the specter of a godless, spiritless, passionless, and amoral future.

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Kant was crystal clear about his answer. Reality— real, noumenal reality— is forever closed off to reason, and reason is limited to awareness and understanding of its own subjective products.

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Enlightenment conception of reason— that human reason is a faculty of the individual, that it is competent to know reality objectively, that it is capable of functioning auto- nomously and in accordance with universal principles. Reason so conceived underlay their confidence in science, human dignity, and the perfectibility of human institutions.

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Instead, each sense- perception must be merely a subjective effect, and one’s reason must be aware only of the subjective effect and not the external object.

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The empiricists had drawn from this analysis of sense- perception the conclusion that while we must rely on our sense perceptions, we must always be tentative with regard to our confidence in them. From sense- perception we can draw no certain conclusions.

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we think of concepts as telling us some- thing universal and necessary, then we have to think of them as having nothing to do with the world of sense experience; and if we think of concepts as having something to do with the world of sense experience, then we have to abandon the idea of knowing any real universal and necessary truths.

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Given that the knowing subject has an identity, we must abandon the traditional assumption that the subject conforms to the object. Accordingly, the converse must be true: the object must conform to the subject, and only if we make that assumption— i.e., only if we abandon objectivity for subjectivity— can we can make sense of empirical knowledge.

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Or putting the point in language Kant had learned from Hume, passive experience will never reveal what must be, for such experience “teaches us that a thing is so and so, but not that it cannot be otherwise.”[

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So again we must infer that the converse is true: Necessity and universality must be functions of the knowing subject, not items impressed upon subjects by objects.

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The first payoff is that the phenomenal world of experience now has necessary and universal features built into it, so we get a nice, orderly world for science to explore.

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The first assumption is that the knowing subject’s having an identity is an obstacle to cognition.

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In the arguments based on the relativity and the causality of perception, the identity of our sense organs is taken to be the enemy of awareness of reality.

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On the Kantian model, our minds’ structures are seen not as existing for the purpose of registering or responding to structures that exist in reality, but as existing for the purpose of imposing themselves upon a malleable reality.

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The parallel argument in the case of general and necessary propositions was that there is no way to account for their generality and necessity empirically: Since what is given empirically is particular and contingent, generality and necessity must be subjectively added. Institutionalizing this premise is crucial for postmodernism, since what has been added subjectively can be taken away subjectively. Postmodernists, struck by and favoring contingency and particularity for a host of reasons, accept the Humean/ Kantian premise that neither abstractness nor generality can be derived legitimately from the empirical.

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Contrary to the Enlightenment account of reason, Kant held that the mind is not a response mechanism but a constitutive mechanism.

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And he held that reality conforms to reason, not vice versa.

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We can only say how our minds have structured the subjective reality we perceive.

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Kant went a step further and redefined truth on subjective grounds.

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Truth must be solely an internal relationship of consistency.

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subjective, but also as incompetent, highly contingent, relative, and collective.

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When we look to the roots of Logical Positivism we find cultural Germans such as Wittgenstein and the members of the Vienna Circle.

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One form was Structuralism, of which Ferdinand de Saussure was a prominent exponent, representing the broadly rationalist wing of Kantianism. The other was Phenomenology, of which Edmund Husserl was a prominent representative, representing the broadly empiricist wing of Kantianism.

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fundamentally Counter- Enlightenment attack on reason and individualism. His philosophy is a partially secularized version of traditional Judeo- Christian cosmology.

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Instead, taking a cue from Johann Fichte, Hegel’s strategy was to assert boldly an identity of subject and object, thus closing the gap metaphysically.

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For Hegel, the realist element drops out entirely: the subject generates both content and form.

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Hegel reversed that: the universe as a whole is a subject, and within the subject are objects.

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It does not come to know a pre- existing reality; it brings all of reality into existence.

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Hegel’s strategy was to accept that Judeo- Christian cosmology is rife with contradictions— but to alter reason in order to make it compatible with contradiction.

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That was Kant’s mistake— he was too trapped in the old Aristotelian logic of non- contradiction.

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reason. For all of Hegel’s talk of the ultimate Universal perspective of the Absolute, from any other perspective nothing holds for long: dialectic injects contradiction into reality at any given time as well as across eras. If everything is evolving by the clash of contradictions, then what is metaphysically and epistemologically true in one epoch will be contradicted by what is true in the next, and so on.

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Whatever the variations, the metaphysical themes of clash and conflict, of truth as relative, of reason as limited and constructed, and of collectivism were dominant. For all of their differences with Hegel, postmodernists adopt all four of these theses.

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When one discovers one’s essential nature, the core self- feeling that one is forced to accept is that of absolute dependence.

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passionately, all the while knowing that we are choosing in ignorance. For Kierkegaard, the core lesson from Kant was that one must not try to relate to reality cognitively— what is needed is action, commitment, a leap into that which one cannot know but which one feels is essential to give meaning to one’s life.

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Schopenhauer’s feelings had revealed to him that reality is Will— a deeply irrational and conflictual Will, striving always and blindly toward nothing.[

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Only via our own wills, our passionate feelings— especially those evoked in us by music— can we grasp the essence of reality. But most of us are too cowardly

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This is why we cling to reason so desperately— reason allows us to tidy things up, to make ourselves feel safe and secure, to escape from the swirling horror that, in our honest moments, we sense reality to be.

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Of course, having intuited the cruel horror of the seething flow, Schopenhauer wished for self- annihilation.[ 59] This was the weakness that his disciple, Nietzsche urged us to overcome.

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yea- sayer— the man of the future— will not be tempted to play word- games but will embrace conflict.

Chapter Three The Twentieth-Century Collapse of Reason

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Heidegger agreed with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer that by exploring his feelings— especially his dark and anguished feelings of dread and guilt— he could approach Being.

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Heidegger agreed that when we get to the core of Being we will find conflict and contradiction at the heart of things.

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Phenomenology becomes philosophically important once we accept the Kantian conclusion that we cannot start as realists and scientists do by assuming that we are aware of an external, independent reality that is made up of objects that we are trying to understand.

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Do not think objects, Heidegger counseled, think fields.

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Heidegger explained his choice of “Da- sein” by defining it as follows: “Da- sein means being projected into Nothing.”[

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here Da- sein has a conflict: Logic and reason say that the question is contradictory and so should be set aside, but Da- sein’s feelings urge Da- sein to explore the question in a non- verbal, emotional way. So which does Da- sein choose: contra- diction and feeling— or logic and reason? Fortunately, as we have learned from Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, this contradiction and conflict is yet another sign that logic and reason are impotent.

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Deep feeling about Nothing trumps logic any day.

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For Heidegger, the special effort that is required is emotional, an exploratory letting oneself go into the revelatory emotions of boredom, fear, guilt, and dread.

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In the end, all is nothing and nothing is all. With Heidegger, we reach metaphysical nihilism.

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contemptuous rejection of reason.

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Positivism accepted as firm philosophical principles the Humean dichotomy of facts and values, the Humean and Kantian analytic/ synthetic dichotomy, and as a premise the Kantian conclusion that while seeking metaphysical truths about the universe may be fruitless and meaningless, science could at least make progress with organizing and explaining the flow of phenomena. In the

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The mistake earlier philosophers had made was in thinking that philosophy was about its own unique subject matter.

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Philosophy is not a content discipline but a method discipline. The function of philosophy is analysis, elucidation, clarification.[

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Philosophy is not a subject: its only role is to be an analytical assistant to science.

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Scientists perceive, organize their observations linguistically in concepts and propositions, and then they structure those linguistic units using logic. Philosophy’s job, accordingly, is to figure out what perception, language, and logic are all about.

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Putting their point in Kant’s original language, our perceptual intuitions do not conform to objects but rather our intuition conforms to what our faculty of knowledge supplies from itself. This conclusion about perception is devastating for science: If our percepts are theory- laden, then perception is hardly a neutral and independent check upon our theorizing. If our conceptual structures shape our observations as much as vice versa, then we are stuck inside a subjective system with no direct access to reality.

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That Beverly’s car is white is synthetic—

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This standard Humean/ Kantian dichotomy of analytic and synthetic propositions immediately yields a very problematic implication: Logical and mathematical propositions are dis- connected from experiential reality. Propositions about the world of experience such as Beverly’s car is white are never necessarily true, and propositions of logic and mathematics such as Twice two makes four, being necessarily true, must not be about the world of experience.

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Logic and mathematics, then, are on their way to becoming mere games of symbolic manipulation.[

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Accepting that the propositions of logic and mathematics are not based in experiential reality and so do not tell us anything about that reality leads one to the question of where logic and mathematics come from. If they have no objective source, then their source must be subjective.

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only be reached by a leap of faith. It was the neo- Humean option, therefore, emphasized by pragmatists such as Quine, Nelson Goodman, and Ernest Nagel, that prevailed. On this account, logical and mathematical propositions are merely a function of how we have decided to use words and which combinations of words we have decided to privilege.

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If all concepts are nominal, then one consequence is that there is no basis for a distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions.[

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Logical justification, Rorty wrote of Quine’s doctrine, “is not a matter of a special relation between ideas (or words) and objects, but of conversation, of social practice.”[

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Language and logic were seen as conventional, internal systems— and not as objective, reality- based tools of consciousness.

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There is no Truth; there are only truths, and truths change.[

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illustration.”[ 109] The various analytic schools began with Kant’s conclusion that metaphysical questions were unanswerable, contradictory, or meaningless nonsense to be set aside.

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The analytic philosophers of the 1950s and 1960s were only able to say that science happened to push their personal value buttons.

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sexuality. Rage, power, guilt, lust, and dread constitute the center of the postmodern emotional universe. Postmodernists split over whether those core feelings are determined biologically or socially, with the social version running as the strong favorite.

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differing groups have no common experiential framework.

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Nasty political correctness as a tactic then makes perfect sense.

Chapter Four The Climate of Collectivism

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Postmodernists are monolithically far Left- wing in their politics. Michel Foucault, Jacques

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A related puzzle is explaining why postmodernists— particularly among those postmodernists most involved with the practical applications of postmodernist ideas or with putting postmodernist ideas into actual practice in their classrooms and in faculty meetings— are the most likely to be hostile to dissent and debate, the most likely to engage in ad hominem argument and name- calling, the most likely to enact “politically correct” authoritarian measures, and the most likely to use anger and rage as argumentative tactics.

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Postmodernism is born of the marriage of Left politics and skeptical epistemology. As socialist political thought

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Un- deniably, those revolutions improved mankind’s material lot— but that improvement has in fact destroyed the species: “it is iron and wheat that have civilized men and ruined the human race.”[

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Thus reason led to the development of all of civilization’s features— agriculture, technology, property, and aesthetics— and these made mankind soft, lazy, and in economic and social conflict with itself.[

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Reason, according to Rousseau, is opposed to compassion: Reason generates civilization, which is the ultimate cause of the sufferings of the victims of inequality, but reason also then creates rationales for ignoring that suffering.

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Unthinking obedience to God and to one’s feudal lord had been ingrained for centuries.

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Accordingly, when the Left ran into its own major disasters as the twentieth century progressed, understanding its fundamental commonality with the collectivist Right helps to explain why in its desperation the Left has often adopted “fascistic” tactics.

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Another force to straighten the warped wood is political. Man is “an animal that, if he lives among other members of his species, has need of a master.” And that is because “his selfish animal propensities induce him to except himself from [moral rules] wherever he can.”

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Here was a great failing of traditional education, for it had relied upon and appealed to the student’s free will.

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Compulsion, not freedom, is best for students:

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Anticipating Marx, Fichte believed that the school should be a microcosm of what the ideal society would be like:

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If the system is successful, its fruit will be as follows: “Its pupil goes forth at the proper time as a fixed and unchangeable machine.”[

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“Under proper guidance,” the student will “find at the end that nothing really exists but life, the spiritual life which lives in thought, and that everything else does not really exist, but only appears to exist.”

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The German is the best that the world has to offer and is the hope for the future progress of mankind. The German “alone, above all other European nations, [has] the capacity of responding to such an education.”[ 201] But as goes Germany, so goes the rest of Europe and, ultimately, all of humankind.

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The consequence of this, morally, is that the individual is of less significance than the state.

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Enlightenment liberals were individualistic, the center of their political and economic gravity tending toward limited governments and free markets.

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“The frightful form of soul- less, purely mechanical capitalism, which attempts to master all activities and stifles every free independent impulse and all individuality” had prevailed, and virtually

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This thought is destined to preserve mankind from a danger which is much greater than that of bureaucrat- ization, and that is the danger of succumbing to mammon- ism, to the profit devil, to material interest mongering.[

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Socialism must be national— it must be rooted in each culture’s distinctive historical context.

Chapter Five The Crisis of Socialism

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The initial hopes of Marxist socialists centered on capitalism’s internal economic contradictions. The contradictions, they thought, would manifest themselves in increasing class conflict.

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more and more people would be forced to sell their labor; and as the supply of those selling their labor increased, the wages they could demand would necessarily decrease.

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Beatrice Webb put it in her memoirs, “we have little faith in the ‘average sensual man’, we do not believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe the remedies.”[ 248] For both the prescribed remedies and the initiation of measures to enact them, strong leadership by an elite was essential.

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Lenin did have an explanation for why the proletariat in the capitalist nations of the West were not revolting under their yoke of oppression and alienation— the Western capitalists had cleverly exported that misery to the poorer, undeveloped nations[

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What socialism needs is leadership, leadership that will diagnose capitalism’s problems clearly, set remedies, and act decisively and ruthlessly to achieve socialism— along the way telling the masses what they need to hear and what to do and when.

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Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, first published in the West in 1973, was the most widely read and condemnatory.

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With great fanfare, then, much of the Left changed its official ethical standard from need to equality.

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the many inequalities across various social dimensions.

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A variation on this strategy was implicit in a new definition of “poverty” that the Left began to offer in the early 1960s: the poverty that capitalism causes is not absolute but relative.

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Feeling excluded and without real opportunities to achieve the good life the rich were enjoying, the proletariat would experience psychological oppression and thus be driven to desperate measures.

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Common to all of these variations was a new emphasis on the principle of equality and a de- emphasis on the principle of need.

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In effect, in changing the ethical standard from need to equality, all of these new varieties of Left- socialism had resolved to quote Marx less and to quote Rousseau more.

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Instead, capitalism had produced great amounts of wealth and— here is the innovation— capitalism had used that wealth to oppress the proletariat.

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The new impetus in environmental thinking, however, brought the Marxist concepts of exploitation and alienation to bear upon environmental issues.

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Consequently, as capitalist society develops, the result of the exploitation is a biological form of alienation: humans alienate themselves from the environment by de- spoiling it and making it unlivable, and non- human species are alienated by being driven to extinction.

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Living simply, avoiding producing or consuming as much as possible, was the new ideal.

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But, egalitarian critics began to argue more forcefully, just as males’ putting their interests highest led them to subjugate women, and just as whites’ putting their interests highest led them to subjugate all other races, humans’ putting their interests highest had led to the subjugation of the other species and the environment as a whole. The proposed solution then was the radical moral equality of all species. We must recognize not only that productivity and wealth are evil, but also that all species from bacteria to wood lice to aardvarks to humans are equal in moral value.

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The merging of these two developments yielded the surging to prominence of non- rational and irrationalist Left socialisms.

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The universality of all human interests is a very sweeping generalization. Both abstraction and generalization require a strong confidence in the power of reason, and by the 1950s that confidence in reason had evaporated.[

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It is hard enough for a trained intellectual to conceive, as classical Marxism requires, of all of humankind as ultimately members of a universal class sharing the same universal interests.

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and religious identities. Both epistemological modesty and effective communication strategy, then, dictated a move from universalism to multiculturalism.[

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Forget internationalism, universalism, and cosmopolitanism; focus on smaller groups formed on the basis of ethnic, racial, or other identities.

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wildness and irrationality. Make the revolution somehow and anyhow! In effect,

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Marcuse and the Frankfurt School: Marx plus Freud, or oppression plus repression

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Frankfurt School suggested that history is as much made by human actors, and especially by how those human actors understand themselves psychologically and their existential situation.

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Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) argued that civilization is an unstable, surface phenomenon based upon the repression of instinctual energies.

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Bio- psycho- logically, human agents are a bundle of aggressive and conflicted instincts, those instincts constantly pressing for immediate satisfaction. Their constant immediate satisfaction, though, would make social living impossible, so the forces of civilization have evolved by incrementally suppressing instincts and forcing their expression into polite, orderly, and rational forms.

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Capitalism, we know from Marx, is definitely based on exploitative competition.

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Those machines and bureaucracies do provide for the average member of the bourgeoisie an artificial world of order, control, and creature comforts— but at a very high cost: capitalism’s people are increasingly distant from nature, decreasingly spontaneous and creative, increasingly unaware that they are being controlled by the machines and the bureaucracies, both physically and psychologically, and increasingly unaware that the apparently comfortable world they live in is a mask for an underlying realm of brutal conflict and competition.[

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Joe Sixpack is a product. He is a constructed part of an oppressive and dysfunctional competitive system— but one that is overlain with the veneer of peace and comfort.[

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the fruits of capitalism that he produces and thinks he enjoys consuming are sapping his vital instincts and making him physically and psychologically inert.

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Capitalism does not merely oppress the masses existentially, it also represses them psychologically.

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he hears his world described in terms of “freedom,” “democracy,” “progress”— words that have only a faint glimmer of meaning to him, and that have been crafted and fed to him by capitalism’s apologists to keep him from thinking too deeply about his real existence. Joe is a “one- dimensional man” trapped in a “totalitarian universe of technological rationality,”[ 276] oblivious to the second and real dimension of human existence wherein true freedom, democracy, and progress lie.[

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Capitalist tolerance, then, is not real tolerance: it is “Repressive Tolerance.”[

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But by encouraging those irrationalisms the new revolutionaries can destroy the system. So

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overthrow the authority of the bourgeois class, the humiliated population has reason to institute a brief period of terror and to assault bodily a handful of contemptible, hateful individuals. It is difficult to attack the authority of a class without a few heads belonging to members of this class being paraded on the end of a stake.[

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And if one’s epistemology tells one that words are not about truth or reality or in any way cognitive, then in the battle against capitalism words can be only a rhetorical weapon.

Chapter Six Postmodern Strategy

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For the modern realists, consciousness is both cognitive and functional, and those two traits are integrated. The primary purpose of consciousness is to be aware of reality. The complementary purpose of consciousness is to use its awareness of reality as a guide to acting in that reality. For the postmodern

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There is no non- linguistic standard to which to relate language, so there can be no standard by which to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical, the true and the false.

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Unmasking does not even terminate in “subjective” beliefs and interests, for “subjective” contrasts to “objective,” and that too is a distinction that postmodernism denies.

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An individual observes reality perceptually, forms conceptual beliefs about reality on the basis of those perceptions, and then acts in reality on the basis of those perceptual and conceptual cognitive states.

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For the postmodernist, language cannot be cognitive because it does not connect to reality, whether to an external nature or an underlying self.

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This explains the harsh nature of much postmodern rhetoric. The regular deployments of ad hominem, the setting up of straw men, and the regular attempts to silence opposing voices are all logical consequences of the postmodern epistemology of language.

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going with their feelings. On this hypothesis, then, postmodernism is a symptom of the far Left’s crisis of faith.

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Postmodernism is a result of using skeptical epistemology to justify the personal leap of faith necessary to continue believing in socialism.

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Therefore, it is a combination of the two factors— widespread skepticism about reason and socialism’s being in crisis— that is necessary to give rise to postmodernism.

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One could, after doing some philosophy, come to be a true believer in subjectivism and relativism.

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that justice is the interest of the stronger. The postmodernists— coming after two millennia of Christianity and two centuries of socialist theory— simply reverse that claim: Subjectivism and relativism are true, except that the postmodernists are on the side of the weaker and historically- oppressed groups. Justice, contrary to Thrasymachus, is the interest of the weaker.[ 298] The connection to the Sophists moves postmodern strategy away from religious faith and toward realpolitik.

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The same strategy holds for the Machiavellian postmodernists— they say they want equal respect for all cultures, but what they really want in the long run is to suppress the liberal capitalist one.

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Deconstruction allows you to dismiss whole literary and legal traditions as built upon sexist or racist or otherwise exploitative assumptions.

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On this Machiavellian hypothesis, then, postmodernism is not a leap of faith for the academic Left, but instead a clear- eyed political strategy that uses relativism but does not believe

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Slave morality is the morality of the weak, the humble, those who feel victimized and afraid to venture forth into the big bad world.

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They become envious of the strong, and they also secretly start to hate themselves for being so cowardly and weak.

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And so the weak invent a rationalization— a rationalization that tells them they are the good and the moral because they are weak, humble, and passive.

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And the confidence in the power of reason that underlies it all has, from the postmodernists’ perspective, been revealed to be a fraud. The thought of nuclear weapons in the clutches of an irrational, grasping animal is frightening.

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The failure of Left politics to achieve that vision was merely the last straw. To the postmodern mind, the cruel lessons of the modern world are that reality is inaccessible, that nothing can be known, that human potential is nothing, and that ethical and political ideals have come to nothing.

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Rauschenberg. Deconstruction theory says that no work has meaning. Any apparent meaning can be transformed into its opposite, into nothing, or revealed to be a mask for something distasteful.

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If a text can mean any- thing, then it means nothing more than anything else— no texts are then great.

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psyche. You know that those accusations and rumors will cause tremors, even if they come to nothing.