Here’s an essay I wrote a few weeks back at university. Basically criticising the postmodernists’ reaction to Foucault and how it essentially established a fertile ground for the resurgence of Neoliberalism. It’s a little ranty and some bits aren’t as articulate as I’d like them to be, but it’s my first summative essay on the subject. It got me a first, though, which I was incredibly pleased with. Critical Theory seems to be something I’m slightly falling in love with.
“A state of shock is not just what happens to us when something bad happens. It’s what happens to us when we lose our narrative, when we lose our story.” – Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, the dominant ideology of Capitalism has met its resistance primarily through the socio-economic worldview of Marxism — the working class’s struggle against the oppressive middle class. However, following the rise of Postmodernism, and the resulting rejection of Marxism across most of the world, the people were sent in to a state of shock. Scattered and solitary, their unified struggle was shattered; the decline of a socialist-lite Keynesian post-war economy in Britain gave way to a new strain of Neoliberalism in the nineteen-seventies. This was pioneered by the economist Milton Friedman and political leaders such as Thatcher who propounded the virtues of the Free Market with its emphases on privatisation and unregulated markets. This economic doctrine espoused the virtues of Individualism, which aggrandised the moral worth of the singular person, placing them above the needs of the group. I argue that this Neoliberal rise was caused by the Postmodernist fracturing of society, and the rejection of grand narratives, which held the people together with a sense of unified struggle. I also argue that Postmodernism, where the sub-culture supplanted the whole, provided a fertile ground for the Individualist ideology of the Neoliberal. In the words of philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, the “thought of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, the ultimate philosophers of resistance, of marginal positions crushed by the hegemonic power network, is effectively the ideology of the newly emerging ruling class.” (Zizek). With the working classes and the left overall shocked in to silence by the stripping of their grand narratives, they were left completely vulnerable to the coming ideologies of Neoliberalism and Individualism, unable to articulate a rebuke or alternative narrative.
In Jean-François Lyotard’s essay, Defining the Postmodern, he sees beyond the ostensibly civil ordering of a unified and shared space, within which society sets itself; that “there is no longer a horizon of universalisation, of general emancipation before the eyes of postmodern man” (NATC. 1463). The unifying forces of the struggling Marxist working classes paved way to a culture where the entirety is supplanted by the sub-culture. This shattering of universalisation was in reaction to the work of the post-structuralist Michel Foucault, who established links between the relations of institutions and powers that dominate us. Foucault uses the Panopticon, the “all-seeing”, — a circular prison where one guard in a central tower can see all of the prisoners — as both a critique of the punitive system, as well as an extended metaphor for the dominant ideology’s disciplinary power, exercised through its various institutions: the media, state, school, and so on. Through this perspective, the subject (the individual) is surveyed and knowledge is attained about them through bureaucratic power structures; the gathered information is used to create docility in the subject, due to mechanisms that “exercise a power of normalisation”, leading to the frightfully cold and bureaucratic goal of an “accumulation and useful administration of men”. Foucault writes that once this normalisation has been fully enacted: “if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents”. Through this form of subservience of the subject, the productivity of this non-autonomous being rises whilst apathy towards political practice and disorder increases, and thus the profit of the Capitalist is increased. This connection between knowledge and power prompted a Postmodernist critique against these dominating institutions revealed by Foucault. The Postmodernists’ reaction was then to create disorder in this uniform and singular world by fracturing society in to a plethora of sub-cultures. In this way the normalising effects of the power structures are fought against not on a unified level, where all opposition is crushed by the homogenising power institutions, but through small skirmishes of heterogenous groups and individuals, following in the vein of Lyotard’s “incredulity to metanarratives”. This fragmented fight against homogenising forces uses the scalpel, attempting to inflict a death by a thousand cuts against the dominant ideology rather than the singular hammer-blow of the Marxist.
I argue, however, that the dominant powers and institutions of society subverted the Postmodernists’ resistance by using the very same weapons of resistance that were used against them: fragmentation and diversity. The heterogeneous sub-cultures are digested by Capital and commodified in to one homogenised mass under the banner of Capitalism. Resistance by the sub-culture is futile: it is easier to placate and subdue a crowd of ten than a crowd of ten thousand. As pre-postmodern critics Horkheimer and Adorno portentously argue, “projects designed to perpetuate the individual as a supposedly independent unit…make him all the more subservient to his adversary — the absolute power of capitalism.” (Adorno 1111). “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical.” The sub-cultures that foster the independently minded artist “are confined to the apocryphal field of the ‘amateur’ (Adorno 1112), and trivialised or subsumed in to capital as a whole. An example of this can be seen with the keffiyeh, a scarf headdress typically worn by middle eastern men. This scarf is also a national symbol of the Palestinians, and by extension has connotations with the Palestinian’s fight for emancipation from Israel. This scarf has now been taken by the capitalist and sterilised of its original revolutionary signification. These scarfs are seen ubiquitously around high street shops in the West, usually around the privileged necks of the white middle class male. Any sub-culture that deviates from the dominant hegemony experiences this further fragmentation, being defined as “The Other” who “is a scandal which threatens his [the capitalist’s] existence” (Barthes, 141), who is then either reduced to a parody of itself by being outcasted from society, or assimilated into Capital as a commodity. Marx defined the alienation of the working class from his or her fellow human as the ‘Entfremdung’ (estrangement)’: the social stratification of the classes. Now, however, we see the evolution of this entfremdung as alienation transcends class boundaries and moves to the very depths of the human mind, stripping us not just of our shared class struggle, but of our shared humanity. Capital’s disintegration of us down to the individual (the subject) leads us to coalesce as faceless consumers and producers beneath it: “Trade brings differences together and the more the merrier!” (Hardt 2631). In Hardt and Negri’s work, Empire, they compound this argument, that the dominating powers are using the Postmodernist tools of subversion for themselves: “This new enemy not only is resistant to the old weapons but actually thrives on them, and thus joins its would-be antagonists in applying them to fullest.” (Hardt 2632). With this culture of ostensible difference but inherent homogeneity, society began to focus on the singular, not the plural. The individual began to dominate the zeitgeist of a growingly Postmodern West, leading to an increasingly solipsistic self, alienated from the unified mass struggles of the past. The rich individual who either gained their wealth from nepotism or, especially, by being the ‘entrepreneur’ (profiting off the exploitation of many workers) were praised and revered. It is within this climate in the seventies that the spectre of Neoliberalism began to rear its grotesque head, pioneered by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon. They espoused the views of the Free Market, emphasising the importance of the self over society. Ken Loach saw the seventies as a time where “culture reflects politics.” “It was the era of ‘loads of money’, it was the era of ‘look after number one’, the City Boys with their red braces — it was worship of capital.” (Jones 137). With political discourse on the Marxist left split more than ever, as various sub-struggles took precedent over the grand narratives —The People’s Front of Judea seems to come to mind —; with individuals seeking their own personal gains over the health of society, the Neoliberals crushed any resistance both on the ideological playing field, but ale on the field of physical conflict, such as the coup of Chilé’s Allende’s socialist government by Neoliberal-backed Augusto Pinochet. ”Postmodernism disarmed the left with respect to Neoliberalism. Both ideologies helped to focus people on themselves (or sub-culture) rather than the public good.” (Zon 4). The very fracturing of society that Foucault and his contemporaries used as a means to create disorder was now being used as a tool by the right to conquer and impose their ideology. With a left in discord, impotent to react; with an atomised society, left vulnerable to the politics of the “striving” individual, the Neoliberal ideology cast its shadow over the West, enforcing harsh austerity on the poor and funnelling wealth to the rich.
And so, with the annihilation of the group, and the confinement of the human in to perpetual isolation by both the Neoliberal state and the media — a media which makes it vital “not to leave the customer alone, not for a moment to allow him any suspicion that resistance is possible” (Dialectics of Enlightenment) — the mendacious ‘freedom of choice for the consumer’, “the charm of novelty”, is hammered into the individual’s psyche through the institutional disseminators of the ruling ideology, such as media conglomerates owned by capitalists such as Rupert Murdoch. Conceiving of society as a whole, rather than one of individual strife is made all the more difficult. The lattice that had held the working classes together had now been heated to its extremes by Postmodernism, worked and re-worked by the Neoliberal, hammered by the blunt forces of the state and sliced into ribbons by the media until atomised beyond recognition. The working classes were in a state of shock — a shock that has stripped them of their narrative. Donne wrote that “No man is an island, / Entire of itself, / Every man is a piece of the continent, / A part of the main.”, but with the “horizontal universalities” that once tied us together relinquished by the Postmodernist, and leapt upon by the Neoliberal, are we doomed to be solitary castaways, distracted by the tactics of the dominant ideology as the ‘invisible hand’ of the Free Market claws at our throats? If Foucault’s thesis on power is true, but the Postmodernist retaliation to these power institutions further cements the dominant ideology of the capitalist class, how are we to retaliate and defeat this foe? How do we un-shock the somnolescent subject? As Gramsci states, a successful hegemony disseminates itself within the culture, traditional and individual practices of society. This is evidently the case within our culture of the Individual; within the naturalised ‘traditions’ of the Neoliberal Free Market and concepts of competition — a poison that flows through the veins of our collective consciousness. We see this deleterious rhetoric to this day. The London mayor, Boris Johnson, voted in to office by a majority consensus of the population of London, in The Guardian Newspaper on 27th November 2013, is said to have made “remarks during a speech in honour of Margaret Thatcher, declaring that inequality was essential to foster ‘the spirit of envy’ and hailing greed as a ‘valuable spur to economic activity’.” It is this culture of the Individual that is our battleground. Owen Jones argues “Only an organised movement of working people can challenge the economic madness that threatens the future of large swathes of humanity” (Chavs xxix). A united movement of the working class is desirable to supplant the dominant ideology; however, I feel this workers’ movement requires greater nuance. The Postmodernist celebration of difference that has cemented the Capitalist’s (and Neoliberal’s) position as the dominant ideology can still be used as a means of subversion for the oppressed. However it is not a subversion by the sub-culture or individual, but by a unifying grand narrative of the multitude, to borrow the terminology of Hardt and Negri; a subsumption of the various sub-cultures of struggle in to one potent force, where both the one and the many are in concord with one another, under a revised definition of The Proletariat. This could be fought both on a unified level, but also on a more nuanced platform, too: a battleground of magnitudes. The Individual needs to recuperate from the shock of Postmodernism and the deleterious culture of the Individual, and strip themselves of the ideology that has isolated them. The key goal for an organised refutation of the dominant ideology is for people to reestablish their shared bonds and stories — for people to reestablish their solidarity with their fellow working man and woman in the multitudinous fields of struggle against powers that would seek to oppress them.
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