Pandaemonium

NOT POST-TRUTH AS TOO MANY ‘TRUTHS’

escher-the-encounter

Fake news. Alternative facts. Post-truth politics.

Three issues that dominate much current discussion, all connected to new anxieties about how we can distinguish truth and falsity, and all seemingly linked to the election of Donald Trump as US President. Trump’s election victory was, for many, fuelled by a wave of fake news. His proclivity to lie, for instance about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, has been reframed by his advisor Kellyanne Conway as the acceptance of ‘alternative facts’. And many argue that Trump’s Presidential victory reveals that we live in an age of ‘post-truth politics’ in which, for large sections of the electorate, facts have become irrelevant in the making of political choices.

All three are significant issues. But the ways in which we think about them are often misguided, helping obscure rather than explain the distinctiveness of contemporary politics.

There is, as I argued in an earlier article, nothing new about fake news. From HL Mencken’s invented account of a crucial battle in the Russo-Japanese war, to the publication by Henry Ford of a series of articles about a global Jewish conspiracy based on the forged ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, to the lies about the Hillsborough tragedy, to the stories, published worldwide, about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, lies masquerading as news are as old as news itself. What is new is not fake news, but the purveyors of such news.

In the past, governments, mainstream institutions and newspapers manipulated news and information. Today, anyone with a Facebook account can do so. Instead of the carefully curated fake news of old, there is now an anarchic outflow of lies. Just as elite institutions have lost their grip over the electorate, so their ability to act as gatekeepers to news, defining what is and is not true, has also eroded.

If fake news is not new, neither is the idea of ‘alternative facts’, though its history is much more complex. Donald Trump’s claim that more people attended his inauguration than any previous one was patently false. What was revealing was not just the lie, but also the defence of it. In suggesting that the false claim was an ‘alternative’ truth rooted in ‘alternative’ facts, Kellyanne Conway was drawing on a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals not to lie but to challenge the power of established truths by insisting that what constitute ‘facts’ or ‘knowledge’ is always relative to a particular context or group.

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Philosophers call this claim ‘epistemic relativism’: the belief that the distinction between truth and falsity is rooted not in an objective reality but in differing social conventions, and that there are many radically different, incompatible, yet equally valid ways of knowing the world.

Epistemic relativism has gained academic popularity in recent decades, particularly through postmodernism. Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult concept to define, but at its heart is a hostility to the Enlightenment project of creating a universal outlook from fragmented experiences, of giving coherence to our observations of the social and natural world. Since no human possesses a ‘God’s eye’ view, postmodernists argue, so every human can speak only from within a particular perspective, a perspective informed by specific experience, culture and identity. ‘Truth’ is necessarily local, and specific to particular communities or cultures.

As academic theory, such ideas may seem obscure and abstruse. Nevertheless, the idea of knowledge as relative has gained wider social purchase, from the claim that women have distinct ways of thinking to the embrace of ‘alternative medicine’.

One reason for this has been the willingness of many sections of the left to adopt a relativist perspective. Once, the left embraced the universalist vision of the Enlightenment, a vision that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world, from anti-colonial struggles to the movement for women’s suffrage and the battle for gay rights.

Today, though, radicals are more likely to decry universalism as a ‘Eurocentric’ project. Enlightenment ideas, many argue, grew out of a particular culture and history. They speak to a particular set of needs, desires and dispositions. Peoples outside the West have to develop their own ideas and values from their distinct cultures, traditions and needs; and not just non-Western peoples, but different social groups within Western nations, too, from blacks to women to gays.

The acceptance of such views has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of identity politics in recent years. It has gone hand-in-hand, too, with a more subjective view of the world: the belief that how we perceive the world, or feel about it, is as valid as how it actually is. It has, for instance, become widely accepted that racism can only be defined by the victims of racism. Others insist that the ideas of a rainforest shaman are not fundamentally different from those of a laboratory scientist, because, as the philosopher Sandra Harding puts it, ‘All knowledge systems, including those of modern science, are local ones.’

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There is nothing progressive in the rejection of universalism, or in the embrace of relativism, or in the elevation of the subjective over objective. Each can be useful in specific circumstances, but each is also deeply problematic as the foundation of a worldview. Relativism and identity politics may have, in recent decades, been adopted by sections of the left, but they are fundamentally conservative outlooks. They emerged in the late eighteenth century in the conservative reaction against the Enlightenment, and were central to the worldview of racial thinkers, who insisted that different racial groups had different cognitive abilities and were motivated by different values.

What is new today is that the right – especially the reactionary right – has begun claiming back its own ideas. The ‘decisive question’ for the twenty-first century, insists Alain de Benoist, founder the Nouvelle Droite in France, is whether people will ‘find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world?’ Jean Marie Le Pen, the neo-Nazi founder of the Front National in France appropriated Benoist’s idea, insisting that ‘We not only have the right but the duty to defend our national character as well as the right to difference’. Too many on the left have in recent years been drawn to the idea of the ‘right to difference’ as a progressive value; today they find reactionaries wielding it as an ideological battering ram. The so-called ‘identitarian movement’ – far-right groups openly espousing the politics of identity – now has roots in many European nations, from Austria to France.

Their equivalent on the other side of the Atlantic is the ‘alt-right’ which, in the words of its leading figure Richard Spencer, ‘is all about identity’. Whites, Spencer argues, have distinct cultures, values, beliefs and ways of thinking, which must not be diluted through immigration or mixing. The Trump campaign, according to Spencer, ‘was the first time in my lifetime that an identity politics for white people was on the scene’.

When I suggested earlier that the idea of ‘alternative facts’ draws upon ‘a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals’, I was not suggesting that Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, still less Donald Trump, have been reading up on Foucault or Baudrillard, or that the aim of the postmodern left was, as it is for Conway and Bannon and Trump, to make lies acceptable. It is rather that sections of academia and of the left have in recent decades helped create a culture in which relativised views of facts and knowledge seem untroubling, and hence made it easier for the reactionary right not just to re-appropriate but also to promote reactionary ideas. It is also that, having spent decades promoting relativism and the politics of identity, the left is in no position to challenge the identitarian right.

What of the idea of the ‘post-truth’ age? What is striking about our age, as the historian Daniel T Rogers has suggested, is not that there are no truths, but that it appears saturated with ‘truths’. The trouble is, many of these ‘truths’ have little more meaning than ‘this is what I believe’ or ‘this is what I think should be true’. We seem to be living in an age of myriad truths, each competing with each other, each insisting on its own veracity, the purveyors of each refusing to discuss or even acknowledge any other ‘truths’.

Scientific truths, provisional though scientific knowledge necessarily is, correspond roughly to the world as it is. Political and moral truths are different. These are ways of thinking not just about the world as it is, but also about the world as we wish it to be. Politics relies not just on facts about the world but also upon ideological frameworks through which to interpret facts, frameworks that help define the kind of world we wish to live in. And because these frameworks embody contradictory visions of the world, politics rests also upon a willingness to have a public dialogue and debate, a readiness both to listen to others and to scrutinise our own beliefs, an openness to accommodate others and to change ourselves. It is the erosion of such willingness and readiness and openness that now gives us a sense of living in a ‘post-truth’ age.

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In the past, political frameworks were constructed largely out of the ideological divide between left and right. There were, of course, many variants of both. But what each provided was a different ideological lens through which to look at the world, interpret the same facts differently and come to different conclusions about policy.

Today, those political frameworks have fragmented and are shaped more by identity than by ideology. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world is defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘American’ or ‘black’. And when people talk of ‘liberal’ or conservative’, these are seen as cultural identities as much as they are political viewpoints. Political struggles divide society across ideological lines, but they unite across ethnic or cultural divisions. Struggles rooted in cultural, ethnic or religious identity inevitably fragment. What matters in political struggles is not who you are, but what you believe; the reverse is true in identity struggles.

As a result of such social changes, Rogers observes, ‘The very idea of politics as an act of deliberation, by which people with inevitably different desires and starting positions must work something out, must find their way to a destination that none may have imagined before, is devalued.’ On issues from globalization to global warming, all sides cling to their view as the ‘truth’, refusing to engage with ‘alternate’ views. Truths, as Rogers puts it, simply ‘slide past one another without contact points’. This is not so much a post-truth world as a world of too many disengaged ‘truths’. A world that is simultaneously both too relative and too absolute.

Fake news, alternative facts and a sense of a post-truth world are all symptoms of a deeper malaise, all linked to a more fragmented world in which the fragments are less willing to engage with each other. Until we begin to address the more fundamental problems inherent in the erosion of universalism, in the rise of identity politics, and in the creation of more fragmented societies, any solutions to tackle the symptoms will most likely only make matters worse.

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The images are, from top down, MC Escher’s ‘The Encounter’; René Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’; one of Phil Hopkins’ series on ‘Post truth’; David Diamond’s ‘Fractured Abstraction 1’.

39 comments

  1. Arianne Dorval

    This is a brilliant piece Kenan. Your ideas really need to circulate widely.

    I would like to mention that in France, most people on the left have chosen to hold onto the radicality of the Enlightenment. This is why the French left generally considers institutionalized multiculturalism, and indeed any talk of identity and difference, as fundamentally reactionary. As you pointed out in your article, it is the far-right that uses the language of identity and difference in this country.

    In fact, the critique of “communautarisme” in France comes from the left as much from the right, though for entirely different reasons. The right deploys this critique to exclude those deemed not truly French, defining (overtly or covertly) the identity of the French République along ethnic lines. By contrast, the left believes that the emancipatory power of Enlightenment ideas is universal, and that the République (which should be no more than a set of ideas) should make room for all of humanity, without fetishizing difference and reducing citizens to their “cultural” identity, but rather by producing the conditions for their equality. This attachment to the principles of the Enlightenment (and, consequently, to some version of class politics) explains why post-colonial theory never gained much traction in France beyond a small circle of academics, and why many non-whites here actually demand the right, not to difference, but to in-difference. (Anglophone academics often consider it mysterious that post-colonial theory, which draws significantly on Foucault and other French philosophers, has had so little influence on the French left… But this is because they fail to grasp the fact that Foucault was far from being a radical leftist, that his entire project was to demolish the communist left – which was of course entirely driven by Enlightenment principles – and that he embraced neoliberalism towards the end of his life as it seemed to him more conducive to what he called “anti-normative politics”).

    Of course, those beautiful Republican principles have largely failed to materialize in France; hence the relegation of migrants and their offsprings to the peripheries. I often ask myself what went wrong (beyond the resistance of racist prejudice in the mainstream French population). I know you’ve tried to provide some answers to this conundrum, and many of them are quite convincing. But I would like to make one suggestion. Given that the exclusion of migrant communities can be observed all over Europe, in spite of the very different approaches to integration that have been adopted in different countries, should we not also make sense of this phenomenon by focusing primarily on the economic forces that have similarly reshaped European societies?

    In fact, I cannot help but note that the Western countries that have embraced multiculturalism and fetishized identity are also those where neoliberal policies were implemented most forcefully, where class politics was abandoned, and hence where class inequalities grew most markedly in the last decades. These are also the countries where the backlash against globalization seems the most radical and where white identity politics is making the most unexpected comeback. I am thinking of course of the US and the UK. It seems to me pretty obvious now that the multiculturalist-neoliberal model has contributed to the rise of this neo-fascism (and it seems to me this is a point you’ve been trying to make for a while). And so I cannot help but think that the French were right in rejecting this model, though of course France is itself at risk of being run by the Front National in the next few years…..

    Incidentally, I am not French, but a (formerly pro-multiculturalism) Canadian citizen who has been living in France for close to ten years… so none of what I wrote should be interpreted as misplaced patriotism on my part:-). I am just trying to figure out how we can rebuild a truly egalitarian and internationalist (i.e. universalist) left by reconnecting with the principles of the Enlightenment, at a time when these principles have lost so much of their traction worldwide. And I think that, for the reasons I detailed above, a lot of people in France would be up for this. This is why I always recommend to my friends in France that they read your work, Kenan!

    Arianne

    P.S.: Have you ever considered publishing any of your books or articles in French? I am sure you would have quite a following here… I happen to work as a translator (specialized in the humanities and social sciences), and I would be more than happy to translate your work!:-)
    P.P.S: Have you ever read Aijaz Ahmad’s book “In Theory”? The book is a bit old now, but it is one of the most brilliant critiques of Edward Said I’ve read, and it was written by an unrepentant Indian Marxist. I’ve talked a lot about the French left here, but I do know that some of the strongest critics of post-colonial theory are in fact non-Western Marxists, which certainly belies the notion that the Enlightenment is “white” and post-colonial theory is “black”.

    • Thanks, Arianne, that’s very kind. I actually think poststructuralism/postmodernism has had greater influence on the French left than you suggest (Althuser and the PCF, for instance). I also think that the Enlightenment is often wielded by the French left in a particularist fashion, as a means of denoting the difference of certain groups, particularly Muslims. I have
      written briefly
      about French social policy and suggested that it ends up in much the same place as multiculturalism.

      I greatly admire Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory – it influenced my thinking back in the 90s.

      Thank you for offering to translate my work – I would be delighted, but the real obstancle is getting it published. On that, I have not been too successful.

      • Lapin

        In French “Editions Zones” might publish you, your work is of quality and in-line with their editorial politics (publish thoughtful texts, freely available online but also sold in bookstores).

      • Arianne Dorval

        Dear Kenan,

        I’ve been meaning to reply for a while, but I couldn’t find a moment to do so until now. My apologies.

        If you are interested in having your work published in French, I could speak with a friend in Paris who has contacts in the publishing industry there (I am based in Marseille). He may actually know some people at Editions Zones, the publishing house that was soundly suggested by “Lapin.”

        Also, I happen to work as a translator for a French, non-peer reviewed, online social science journal called “La Vie des Idées” (“Books and Ideas” in English), which publishes articles and book reviews in both French and English. If you think this journal might be a good venue to publish some of your work, please let me know and I will speak with my contact in the editorial committee. Here is a link to their website:

        As regards the French left, I must say I did simplify the picture (I was mainly trying to oppose it to the North American left….which fills me with despair….). There are quite different (and clashing) currents in the French left in fact. And while you are certainly right that many wield the Enlightenment in a particularistic fashion (as a product of the West alone), this is not true of all French leftists. Interestingly, it is well established among the French that secularism was born with the rationalist philosophers of the Muslim word (esp. Averroes), and not every left-wing activist or thinker associates Muslims with obscurantism.

        That said, I always considered Althusser to be a structuralist thinker, though one who opened the way for the development of post-structuralism (that is how he was presented to us when I was a grad student in the US anyway). As far as I know, he did NOT fetishize difference; nor did he mobilize the concepts of “margins,” “culture” or “Otherness.” But he did contribute to erasing the figure of the self-reflexive subject (who could emancipate himself from ideological alienation), which later became a central theme in Foucault’s work. Althusser certainly influenced the PCF, but Foucault did everything he could to counter the influence of the party in France. So I would argue that the PCF was hardly influenced by post-structuralist thought (I guess it all depends on how you define structuralism and post-structuralism). It seems to me that post-structuralist themes were until recently largely confined to the university, and that many activists were reluctant to embrace them (after all, many people here still believe in the class struggle). But there is no doubt that Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate in the coming presidential election, is trying to bring these themes into the mainstream.

        In any case, I will definitely read your piece on how French social policy ends up in the same place as multiculturalism (I haven’t had a chance yet). It sounds fascinating!

        Best,

        Arianne

        P.S.: If you think I can be of any help re: publishing your work in France, you can contact me directly at this address: arianne.dorval@duke.edu

        • Arianne, Many thanks for this, and my apologies for a slow reply – I’ve been very busy on other writing. Yes, I would be interested in publishing in France. I will email you directly. I agree with much of what you say about the French left, particularly about the role of the Althusserian tradition in ‘erasing the figure of the self-reflexive subject’.

      • Arianne Dorval

        Kenan,

        I just read your piece which compares French assimilationist policies to British multicultural ones. It is very good and you are certainly right that the assimilationist left in France has construed Muslims as Other.

        I would simply point out that there is also a part of the Left (mainly activists) that rejects both assimilationism and multiculturalism. For them, the République is an egalitarian project divorced from any notion of identity, whether national or “communautaire” (“culture” is a category they are actually unwilling to consider). And this project is centered on the figure of the abstract** (and hence identity-less) citizen, which means that anyone can or at least should be allowed to participate in it. In its communist variant (which is critical of liberal democracy), it is the universal (and hence also identity-less) working-class that is central to the revolutionary project. In many ways, this was the position of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, who were at once pro-immigration and anti-communautariste–but not assimilationist–and who were color-blind without being racism-blind. These are the sort of people who would find your work most interesting.

        In fact, you will find that French secular Muslims are often the greatest defenders of laïcité understood in this way (thus, according to Franco-Egyptian Samir Amin, eurocentrists are those who construe the Enlightenment as a product of the West alone). What is often forgotten is that the ban on the hijab in public schools and the ban on the burqa in public were supported by a majority of Muslims in France. And many of those who fought for these bans are Algerian leftists and feminists who fled their country in the 1990s because of the spread of Islamism (their children did not live through the civil war, which is why they are more easily seduced by Salafi preaching). I don’t agree with this restrictive approach, but I’ve met dozens of Algerians in Marseille who are far more terrified of Islamists than they are of Manuel Valls (or of Marine Le Pen for that matter). And while many non-Muslims in France support these bans because they construe Islam as a whole to be antithetical to what they view as an *Enlightened* France, the aversion to the burqa cannot be reduced to xenophobia and racism. Many reject what they see as a specific, fascist and rapidly growing ideology (women who wear/wore the burqa in France are indeed Salafis), not Muslims per se (again, this was the position of Charlie Hebdo). I think that to understand the current political landscape in France, one must recall that the majority of French Muslims have roots in Algeria, and that Algeria was one of the first MENA countries to suffer at the hands of Islamists (though of course we should not turn a blind eye to the reality of racism and exclusionary practices or ignore the history of colonialism). It’s fair to say that the French left followed closely what was going on in Algeria in the 1990s.

        That said, you are absolutely right to point out that in practice French politicians have treated Muslims as members of distinct communities, and contradicted Republican principles in doing so. While this approach is explained in part by the fact that assimilationist policies construe Muslims as Other, it also largely results from a combination of clientelism and Islamists claiming to represent the “Muslim” vote of the banlieues. Secular Muslims have repeatedly reproached politicians for doing this.

        And then there is no doubt that the sense of estrangement you describe among French Muslims and poor whites is very strong, and that it is being increasingly expressed in the language of identity. Given the disastrous consequences of this for our common future, I can only hope that more people will read your work!

        BTW, I forgot to include the link to the Books and Ideas journal in my last post. Here it is: http://www.booksandideas.net/

        Arianne

        **There is a great article by the Marxist historian Moishe Postone on antisemitism on the left, in which he observes that one of the key features of fascist thought was the celebration of the concrete in opposition to the *abstract* forces of cosmopolitan capitalism. The Nazis identified the Jews with abstraction, and therefore sought to exterminate them to restore the concreteness of blood and soil. (Postone then goes on to explain that the dialectic between the abstract and the concrete is itself a product of capitalism). In case you haven’t read this article and are interested in reading it, the title is “History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism”. That left-wing identitarians likewise rejected any notion of abstract humanity was always suspicious to me…

        • Arianne, Thanks again. And again, I agree with much of what you say here.I have written quite a lot on Charlie Hebdo, and how that tradition is often misunderstood by the Anglophone left.

  2. jswagner

    Thank you for clearly labeling identity focus and relativism as conservative. I think liberal incarnations of them stem from our common tendency to draw inspiration from conservative excesses, to devolve to such as we get comfortable and entitled, as our liberalism begins to feel well-worn, assumptive. Common pushback from conservatives on liberal relativism refers to liberal moral approaches, and can be a warranted argument/discussion point. But relativism on the part of conservatives has been traditionally about local “truths”, rooted in the strength and weakness of the attitude that “good fences make good neighbors”, aligning with their many exaltations of a libertarian-esque assumed independence (denial of interdependence).

    The aggressive isolation of right-wing news (like the comparatively muted leftist version) is just such a fierce expression that one can make one’s own way in life as a group, including the universe of facts one uses to get there. The increasing attempts by conservatives to foist the phrase “liberal science” on me, for instance. And isolated news entices them because, counter to many leftist impressions, right-wing news is mostly quite factual, and threads through coherently to a story. I’d submit that a challenge of rough equivalency to Roger’s too many asserted “truths” is (still) to rise above our own universe of mostly accurate facts, to consider what elsewhere has to say on a given subject.

  3. Sophists are considered the founding fathers of relativism in the Western World. Elements of relativism emerged among the Sophists in the 5th century BC. Notably, it was Protagoras who coined the phrase, “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.” The thinking of the Sophists is mainly known through their opponents, Plato and Socrates. In a well known paraphrased dialogue with Socrates, Protagoras said: “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.”[32][33][34]

    Conservatism is not inherently relativistic but because of its religious roots is universalistic in that the ‘logos’ is seen as the truth. Hence according to the Catholic Church and to some theologians, relativism, as a denial of absolute truth, leads to moral license and a denial of the possibility of sin and of God. Whether moral or epistemological, relativism constitutes a denial of the capacity of the human mind and reason to arrive at truth. Truth, according to Catholic theologians and philosophers (following Aristotle) consists of adequatio rei et intellectus, the correspondence of the mind and reality. Another way of putting it states that the mind has the same form as reality.

    Mayahana Buddhism similarly concurs that the Sunyata is the absolute truth which is achieved by non-attachment to ideas, thought, feelings, possessions etc. However they also acknowledge relative truth as a result of these attachments.

    However you fail to state any definition of what ‘universalism’ you are referring to. Is it the trinity of Liberalism that forms the basis of Western human rights frameworks. Obviously this not universalism but a relativistic account that seeks to coopt universalism.

    This confusion becomes more apparent with the statement whereby you try to seperate out identity from the ideological in an attempt to de-relativise identity into an universal characteristic such as human.

    “Political struggles divide society across ideological lines, but they unite across ethnic or cultural divisions. Struggles rooted in cultural, ethnic or religious identity inevitably fragment. What matters in political struggles is not who you are, but what you believe; the reverse is true in identity struggles.”

    However political struggles have always interwoven identity with ideological perspectives. So whilst ideological differences do divide and unite, so does identitarian differences. Always has and always will since any perspective that is not aligned with absolute truth is baggaged with attachments.

    Personally I find this scholarly definition of xenophobia closer to the truth in that, according to Andreas Wimmer, xenophobia is “an element of a political struggle about who has the right to be cared for by the state and society: a fight for the collective goods of the modern state”. In other words, xenophobia arises when people feel that their entitlement to benefit from the government is being subverted by other people’s rights.[7]

    This for me is the true nature of the relativistic struggles that we are witnessing and what are currently fragmenting outmr societies.

    The fundamental problem is that life is a zero-sum game and the Laws of Conservation attests to that. Consequently there are moral, ideological and cultural relativistic battles that are all trying to occupy the space of universalism as the truth. Simply put there is just not enough of anything to share equitably and therefore we are all fighting for our fair share and within a more democratic context this results in ideological and identitarian warfare.

    However it is never that clear what policy remedies you are actually trying to promote. I get the impression that you would prefer an internationalist structure that is democratic but its citizens all align with a universalist form of liberalism and in the process try to neuter cultural differences except for ideological positioning.

    However I might be completely wrong!

    • Arianne Dorval

      Steve,

      It seems to me that Kenan construes universalism not as an absolute truth (i.e., as the Christian Logos), but as a historical project to be constructed collectively through critical deliberation among differently positioned subjects. Relativism makes this impossible because it presumes different subjective positions to be incommensurable and even incommunicable.

      I would also counter your claim that identity cannot be separated out from the ideological. That human beings are born into particular cultures is difficult to deny (though, of course, one might want to recall that the concept of “culture” is itself a product of German Romanticism, which stood in opposition to the Enlightenment project… and eventually culminated in the fascist embrace of the “volkgeist”), but they CAN surpass their particular attachments, namely through the use of reason. The point is that reason (“kritik”) makes it possible to construct the universal by enabling us to think beyond our particular interests, attachments and identities (and hence to counter our natural tendency towards xenophobia). The ideological struggles of the twentieth century (and especially communism) aimed to achieve just that.

      We may be born into particular cultures, but through reason we can emancipate ourselves from culture. And through reason we can also emancipate ourselves from any notion of absolute truth, that is, from any notion of God.

      It seems to me that (post-modern) relativist critiques of universalism fail to understand how it was construed by Enlightenment philosophers (hence the confusion we are witnessing on the left today…. ). And in many ways, relativism is far more conducive to absolutism (since particular truths cannot be criticized) than Universalism ever was.

      Arianne

      • Thanks Arianne for your thoughtful reply and better clarifying where Kenan is coming from.

        I certainly like the idea of a universalist project by which reason is the main way to negotiate conflicts and disagreements.

        However I wonder to what extent can reason be applied although it is my preference in terms of creating consensus or consent.

        For example let’s take eu labour flow controls across national borders. On the one hand its seems a reasoned proposition to restrict labour flows in order to protect green infrastructure especially when a nation is dependant on food imports. On the other the territory under question could be expanded to the size of Europe and so it does not matter if labour flows predominantly into a few countries because even though green infrastructure is taken up in these countries to provide housing and jobs, the houses and jobs from the country of origin can be destroyed and turned back into green infrastructure. However it is hardly likely that this will happen so labour flow controls is the best reasoned solution and anything else is not reason.

        Therefore national self-determination regarding labour flow controls is the most reasoned position.

        Correct?

        Steve

      • Sorry just to clarify. When I say housing and jobs should be destroyed, I mean vacated properties and vacated employment spaces would need to be destroyed – otherwise we have either lots of 2nd homes or disused spaces remaining as grey infrastructure.

      • The natural conclusion to this example as an alternative to national self-determination regarding labour flow controls and green infrastructure is to widen the territory to the Earth as a whole and so any movements of people, predominantly to richer countries, leaves behind land that is either already green infrastructure or can be turned into green infrastructure.

        However what if people in a nation wanted adequate green infrastructure close by in order to feel secure regarding food security despite the fact that it can be reasoned that green infrastructure on the other side of the world will provide the necessary food. This is where both equally reasoned arguments become irreconcilable and become a subjective choice between two equally reasoned positions. One being national and the other being global. The first is a reasoned position regarding food security, local biodiversity and access to green infrastructure. The second is a reasoned position regarding freedom of movement. However each of these reasoned positions are irreconcilable.

        Therefore a universalism based on reason is unachievable and hence the enlightenment ideal is unachievable.

        • Arianne Dorval

          Steve,

          I think your example is very good, and indeed the global and the national approach may seem difficult to reconcile in this case. But I do not think one can conclude from it that the enlightenment ideal is unachievable. One would hope that deliberation, in which all can participate equally (because of course there is always a risk that power relations will skew the outcome of such deliberation), will lead to choosing the best approach. And depending on the specifics, either the global or the national approach will be preferable (since the national approach would not necessarily contradict the universal ideal… one could claim that the interests of all humans would be best served by local green development and labour flow restrictions).

          Arianne

        • Thanks again for another thoughtful response Arianne.

          Yes I agree, just because national self-determination may be considered the best reasoned solution to this particular set of problems, this does not disqualify the enlightenment ideal of using reason to reach universal solutions, since in this case, implementating national self-determination to ensure food security through an adequate supply of green infrastructure can be universalised.

          So Im wondering, if labour flow restrictions are necessary to ensure an adequate supply of green infrastructure, what is the (or your) reasoned response in relation to determining who can enter a country and who cannot in order to preserve green infrastructure.

          Thanks
          Steve

      • Marc Charpentier

        Arianne,

        „And through reason we can also emancipate ourselves from any notion of absolute truth, that is, from any notion of God.”

        Just a small question: do you consider your own statement as true?
        Is it absolutely, universally true?

        Marc

        • Arianne Dorval

          Marc,

          Good question. I will try to answer as best I can….

          I do not consider that statement to be absolutely true, because it is historically situated (just as the Enlightenment project was and is historically situated), and because human reason does not produce absolute, eternal knowledge (which is why knowledge is perpetually evolving).

          But I consider this statement to be universal insofar as all human beings can relate to it, regardless of their particular position in the world (historical, geographical, cultural). It is also universal in that all human beings, insofar as they are endowed with reason, have the capacity to critique both established truths and the world as it is given to them.

          I hope my answer was clear enough!

          Arianne

        • Marc Charpentier

          Arianne,

          ‘I hope my answer was clear enough!’
          Yes & no.

          Yes, because I think that I have understood the thrust of your argument (I may delude myself, of course).
          No, because I don’t see how your answer solves the logical problem concealed in your statement about absolute truth: it is self-referential (as is your answer :
          „human reason does not produce absolute, eternal knowledge”).
          If you consider it true, it contradicts itself; if you don’t, well, it becomes somewhat meaningless. The mere fact that everybody can relate to it tells us nothing about its validity or its plausibility.

          As Terry Eagleton has shown in his book „Culture & the Death of God”, it is notoriously difficult to get rid of ‘any notion of’ God (or Truth).

        • Arianne Dorval

          Marc,

          Though I very much enjoy reading Eagleton’s prose, I must say I’ve never read that particular book.

          The statement may be self-referential in that it is historically situated. But does that make it wrong or illogical? Could it be that human beings everywhere can relate to this statement because they are – by nature – endowed with *limited* reason, that is, with the capacity to know and critically engage with the world, but always within certain limits (because they are finite beings)?

          You might argue that any notion of human nature functions like an absolute truth (this is certainly what postmodernists claim). But this truth was first stated at a particular moment in time, such that it can always be superseded (this would make it universal but not eternal). I guess this historicist perspective necessarily comes with a notion of unlimited progress (which postmodernists reject).

          In a slightly different vein, you might want to look into the work of Alain Badiou. He is a former Maoist who has been trying to revive the Platonist notion of truth (against Heidegger and his heirs). But he does so through refusing any notion of transcendence. To him universal truths (i.e., the truths of politics, art, love and science) emerge out of the voids that always threaten to undermine Being, and he locates these voids mathematically via set theory. It’s very interesting stuff (though I am not sure I agree with it)!

          Arianne

        • Interesting Arianne.

          It seems Badiou has reached
          “The last layer of the subtle body is the wisdom body, the Vijnanamaya kosha. Vijnana means “knowledge” as this sheath contains intuition, wisdom and witness consciousness.”
          https://www.yogabasics.com/learn/the-inward-journey-through-the-koshas/
          otherwise known as revelation.

          https://www.yogabasics.com/learn/jnana-yoga-the-yoga-of-wisdom/ is the broader framework.

          Hence truth procedures is the journey of unfoldment towards the absolute truth of Atman and the sutures are attachment to the egos of love, art, politics and science.

          Interesting.
          He has that deep soulful look in his eyes too.

        • Arianne Dorval

          Steve,

          Yes, there is that deep soulful look in Badiou’s eyes!:-):-):-)

          But I suspect it has far more to do with his Maoism than with his adherence to the truth of Vijnanamaya kosha!

          Arianne

        • Arianne

          Not sure how Maoism affects his thinking and his ability to penetrate different layers of his mind since Maoism in any real sense is about being a peasant farmer in a low impact political economic environment.

          Perhaps his perspective comes from observing this way of being for a long time.

          That aside, Im not suggesting he follows yoga :-), but the metaphors and syntax he uses (as well as set theory) are easily transferable to spiritual disciplines having studied and participated in spiritual practices for several decades. His use of void is particularly interesting which is how I associate with his soulful look.

          I cant see how Maoism and the notion of a permanent revolution would create a peaceful and empty mind. Id thought it would create an agitated mind which is a far cry from void nature. But I dont know Maoism that well so you could be right.

          Cheers
          Steve

      • Thanks for clarifying Kenan. I actually don’t disagree that freedom of movement or labour flow controls should be both legitimate democratic choices. However what should be reasoned arguments that include the various impacts including the loss or preservation of green infrastructure, food security or food insecurity, levels of housing provision to maintain stability in people’s disposible incomes, long-term implications of policies that promote migration-led growth, brain-drain and dare I say it but the perceived cultural constitution of a nation should all rightly be included in any reasoned debate.

        However the tendency on the moderate Left has been to shy away from the particulars of the debate and instead resort to exhortations of xenophobia and racism as an alternative to reasoned debate. This strategy in itself is, I would argue, soft versions of xenophobia and bigotry which are not idealised on the basis of identity but are idealised on the basis of ideology.

        In this respect, I would argue that you make too much of identitarian politics and as a result you obscure the fact that the current fragmentations we are experiencing are on the basis of ideology foremost, but the moderate Left in particular, are themselves using identitarian politics as a substitute for reasoned arguement around ideological issues. Perhaps with the knowledge that they know that reasoned debate will result in freedom of movement being categorically rejected, especially as the only reasoned way to manage freedom of movement effectively, to ensure regions are provided with adequate goods and services to facilitate freedom of movement, is a globalised (or universalised) form of socialism.

        This ideological positioning of global socialism (or universalised freedom of movement in particular) does indeed cut across culture, gender, nation, race or faith since the reasoned solution in order to overcome the political distinctiveness of cultural-ethno positionings is to facilitate the hybridization all cultures, all genders, all nations, all races and all faiths in order to accommodate a peaceful version of freedom of movement. This is in itself an identitarian position which bases itself on hybridizing identities on a global scale to a point that once the different colours, hues and dispositions are mixed and blended enough then we will all come out the same shade.

        Therefore I disagree that ideological positionings can be seperated out from identarian positionings since ideological positioning will invariably create and foster identitarian positionings on a continuum varying from distinct to hybridized, both of which can be framed within relativism or universalism depending on how these policy choices are executed.

        To be framed within universalism, then the choice between distinct and hybridized should also be reasoned within a democratic choice system. It becomes framed within relativism when one or the other is rejected out of hand on the premise that one is as good as the other so there is no need for reasoned democratic choice. This in essence is the basis of current debates regarding identitarian politics, that is, the debates are not reasoned debates at all and hence any sense of a universalism based on reasoned democratic choice is missing. In this regard, your position seems to be similar in that you wish to remove the opportunity for reasoned democratic choice around identitarian issues entirely from the political sphere.

        By identifying a continuum between distinct and hybridized and facilitating reasoned democratic choices on the basis of this continuum, then the debate shifts from being primarily divisive and exclusionary (or relativistic) towards a more inclusive universalistic logic that is based on reasoned democratic choices.

        Therefore I agree, it is predominantly the moderate Left that are using divisive relativistic narratives. Not to promote identitarian politics foremost but to obscure and avoid reasoned debate around the identitarian implications of their ideological politics. By knowing, intuitively, that their ideological position of a borderless culturally hybridized global socialism will be rejected, they instead resort to language-games in order to avoid reasoned democratic debate. The so-called far right are simply articulating a rejection of this democratic deficit.

        In this respect, I welcome a universalised approach towards reasoned democratic choice regarding both ideological and identitarian politics since from my perspective they are both intrinsically intertwined since the policy implications of different ideological positionings will invariably affect the extent to which different cultures are distinct and the extent to which different cultures are hybridized.

        Thanks for the discussion.

  4. Lastly, you are always referring to identitarian politics in terms of your continual references to left and right as if these are factual truths. So its not just the far right or the far left that are advancing divisive fragmentary politics, it is everyone that feels the need to make a prejudiced distinction based on left and right, which includes you.

    • I am not opposed to politics that divide – I observed in this article that ‘Political struggles divide society across ideological lines’. Politics would be meaningless if it did not divide. The point I am making is that such political divisions are different from the kinds of divisions fostered by struggles over identity, whether that identity is defined in terms of culture, gender, nation, race or faith.

      What matters in political struggles is not who you are, but what you believe; the reverse is often true in cultural or ethnic or identity struggles. Political conflicts are often useful because they repose social problems in a way that asks: ‘How can we change society to overcome that problem?’ We might disagree on the answer, but the debate itself is a useful one. Another way of putting this is that political conflicts are the kinds of conflicts necessary for social transformation. But as identity politics has encouraged us to repose political problems as issues of culture or ethnicity or faith, so political conflicts have been transformed into forms that are neither useful nor resolvable. It is that which I oppose.

      • Reasoned based consensus decision making is a form of politics that attempts to be non-divisive. The round table is symbolic of that.
        However this system requires a level of adaptability and non-attachment that is almost spiritual in its practice. See
        https://www.yogabasics.com/learn/the-inward-journey-through-the-koshas/
        https://www.yogabasics.com/learn/jnana-yoga-the-yoga-of-wisdom/

        As a result I think I now understand why you thrive on a politics of division.

        Id argue that this a subjective statement, not an objective one as you imply.
        “What matters in political struggles is not who you are, but what you believe; the reverse is often true in cultural or ethnic or identity struggles.”
        As such this is a relativistic argument.

        As argued in my previous comment, the policy implications of different ideological positions will impact on the cultural constitution of different scales of territory. As such ideological politics and cultural politics are inextricably interwoven as are ecological and economic politics. As such reasoned democratic choices should include the full spectrum of implications not just a partial account that seeks to delimit reasoned democratic expression.

      • Thought this was interesting.

        But here I want to go a bit deeper and ask how political ideologies are forged in the brain.

        Trump is no fascist. He is a champion for the forgotten millions
        John Daniel Davidson
        Read more
        Let’s start with the main act: the human tendency to favour our own kind and fear those who look, act, or speak differently. Psychologists call it social identity theory: we overvalue our own – the in-group – and devalue the other guys – the out-group. Not surprisingly, the brain evolved over aeons of social conflict to entrench these fundamental biases.
        https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/07/trump-liberals-hate-brain-amygdala-neuroscience?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=The+Best+of+CiF+base&utm_term=212211&subid=1637658&CMP=ema_1364

        In a sense then, promoting a politics of division is simply reinforcing division which can either go hard or soft depending on the individual. Thus promoting partisan politics is simply reinforcing division and fragmentation in our societies however that may be expressed whether ideologically, culturally, ecologically or economically.

        That’s why I think it is useful to cultivate detachment as per yogic teachings. It enables a person to get beyond the amygdala and even the prefrontal cortex.

  5. Chrissie Daz

    What seems quite extraordinary about post-modernist thought is the way in which its advocates apply it in one way to their own class and in a completely different way to others. While racial, religious and sexual minorities are encouraged to delineate the particular aspects of their cultures and celebrate these differences, the university educated elite and its middle class hangers on try to project an ideal self image that reflects the diversity of society as a universal melting pot. Theirs is a meritocratic and therefore a deeply anti-democratic ideology. They believe that to feel comfortable about their own positions of power and privilege they must prove that the standards by which they have earned their qualifications do not (or should not) discriminate on any basis other than that of merit. They know that the university and the world of graduate employment does not in fact reflect this ideal – hence their discomfort.
    Issues around minority cultures, racial categories and social class are often addressed around questions of graduate numbers. The much quoted statistics that young black men are more likely to be in prison than at university and that white working class men are the least well represented group in university exposes the fact that this is less to do with the well-being of these groups of people on mass than it is with their fair representation within the meritocratic elite.
    Women and sexual minorities are, if anything, over represented on campus; but rather than celebrate this fact, or calm down about it, the instinct is to protest about how the culture on campus and in post graduate employment is still dominated by male heterosexual (and one may add cis-gendered) norms and is therefore insufficiently sensitive to or welcoming of these newcomers.
    The meritocratic ideals of the managerial elite and the intellectual middle class work to draw attention to unequal representation and unfair treatment in order to bring about some sort of mechanism to address the self image of these groups. There is no drive to end inequality across society as a whole, nor to address inequalities of race or gender in all spheres of life, the only impetus is to draw the colours of a diverse society into the self image of these elite groups.
    That the generation of a colour blind elite self image requires the accentuation of difference is a paradox. Post modernist ideas and multicultural policies are designed not to challenge unfairness but to point up diversity as the first step in re-painting the palace of the chosen few in multicoloured hues. If the effect of this project is to unleash fragmentation and an anti-pc backlash this is not because this is their intention, but it is because its effects upon wider society are not their concern.
    In the past; distinctions between left and right were made around two things – ones attitude to progress and ones allegiance with either labour or capital in the struggle over resources – today the deployment of these labels is limited to how the elite itself and its middle class servants appraise themselves. In this political divide the ‘left’ want recruitment which can be presented as fair and meritocratic (even if they have to cheat to achieve it) while the ‘right’ either prefer to maintain a more dynastic system of preferment or to shrug their shoulders at the accusation that they are not sufficiently diverse.
    It is a discussion that leaves most working people cold, while blinkering it’s participants to the real concerns of the majority. Which is why the Brexit referendum result and the defeat of Hilary Clinton in the US election came as such a shock! It is also why these events have stirred up so many overtly anti-democratic sentiments among the elite and many sections of the middle class!

    • Arianne Dorval

      There is certainly a sense in which identity politics (and postmodernism in general) functions as a bourgeois class politics. This is the point Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed Jr have been making for years in the US. And of course Benn Michaels (who is white) has been accused of being a white supremacist, while Reed Jr. (who is black) has been accused of betraying his race.

      It may be possible to make this argument in Europe, but in the US it is extraordinarily difficult.

  6. Kenan I appreciate much of what you say, (and have circulated your articles in the past), but would like to place some caveats:
    // Since no human possesses a ‘God’s eye’ view, postmodernists argue, so every human can speak only from within a particular perspective, a perspective informed by specific experience, culture and identity//
    This is not a post-modern argument but a long-standing feature of historicism, which goes back at least to Hegel if not earlier. In Marxism, the problem of truth acquired a special problem in the domain of the concept of ideology. Jeffrey Barash puts it nicely in an essay on political mythologies of the 20th century: “Here truth was divested of all possible autonomy: referred to its historical context of development, truth can express no more than the interest of a class and, as such, is reduced to a function of political struggle.” This leads to the ramification that in the domain of action – ie the place where facticity meets normative truth – truth becomes subject to decisionism, the assertion of the Party of the proletariat. The problem with this is that it leads to (or enables) the thinly veiled theological affirmation that the ‘Party is always right’.

    // One reason for this has been the willingness of many sections of the left to adopt a relativist perspective. Once, the left embraced the universalist vision of the Enlightenment, a vision that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world, from anti-colonial struggles to the movement for women’s suffrage and the battle for gay rights. //
    The working-class was the universal class per se for the Left; and yet, relativism made an entry even within the project of workers self-emancipation. It is not surprising that many leftists were attracted to post-modern relativism, because it is in accord with the assertion “all truth is class truth”.

    // There is nothing progressive in the rejection of universalism, or in the embrace of relativism, or in the elevation of the subjective over objective. Each can be useful in specific circumstances, but each is also deeply problematic as the foundation of a worldview…//
    I agree there is nothing progressive in the rejection of universalism, or the elevation of the subjective over objective. But it is misleading to cite utility as a standard of judgement here. Firstly, to use Stanley Rosen’s words, “interpretation, or the transfer of universality from one local representation to another, is the process by which we arrive at an understanding of the universal significance of locality in human life.” The problem lies in the tendency, accentuated in the nihilist climate of the 20th century, to absorb the objective into subjectivity; to reduce theory to interpretation. What we have is the abolition of the very idea of objective truth, and the nihilist atmosphere of marxism-leninism contributed to this no less than that of post Great War Germany. Again, it is not surprising that many leftists were attracted to Carl Schmitt’s decisionism. You say relativism and identity politics are fundamentally conservative. We need to distinguish one from the other (anti-colonial struggles were about identity too) and engage with the relativism of the historicist approach to knowledge.

    One of the biggest problems has been the separation of reason from the Good; and the supercession of the sovereignty of reason by that of the will and imagination. It is only when we confront the deeper philosophical malaise that we can even begin to understand what has gone wrong. We have lived in a propagandist era for many decades now, we abolished objectivity in the name of class, and now another gang of chiliasts are doing so in the name of the repressed Nation. It’s a slowly moving spiral – the eternal return.

    There are many other issues that need debate, but it is good that you have placed them on the table.

    • Dilip, in response to some of your points,

      // Since no human possesses a ‘God’s eye’ view, postmodernists argue, so every human can speak only from within a particular perspective, a perspective informed by specific experience, culture and identity//
      This is not a post-modern argument but a long-standing feature of historicism, which goes back at least to Hegel if not earlier.

      The phrase was (as far as I know) first used in the nineteenth century, but the concept (and critique) is historically much older. I did not claim that the ideas of postmodernism were necessarily new (epistemic relativism is a very old idea going back in Western traditions at least to the Greek Sophists and, in other traditions, earlier than that). All I suggested was that ‘Epistemic relativism has gained academic popularity in recent decades, particularly through postmodernism’.

      The working-class was the universal class per se for the Left; and yet, relativism made an entry even within the project of workers self-emancipation. It is not surprising that many leftists were attracted to post-modern relativism, because it is in accord with the assertion “all truth is class truth”.

      I would argue, on the contrary, that one of the threads in the emergence postmodern forms of thought was disenchantment with notions of the working class as the ‘universal class’. It is part of the critique of ‘grand narratives’.

      You say relativism and identity politics are fundamentally conservative. We need to distinguish one from the other (anti-colonial struggles were about identity too) and engage with the relativism of the historicist approach to knowledge.

      First, there is a distinction between identity and identity politics. We all have identities. But there is a difference between arguing that ‘my values help define who I am and hence are part of my identity’ and arguing that ‘values arise out of a given set of identities that I possess’. My critique of identity politics is a critique of the adoption of the second argument. In that sense, eighteenth and nineteenth century anti-colonial movements were different from contemporary notions of ‘decolonization’. I deal with some of the issues, and reasons for the shift in the twentieth century, in this article on CLR James and Frantz Fanon.

  7. Kenan, this is a fantastic and fascinating article. I wondered if you knew this passage, first published 13 years ago, which anticipates a lot of what you and some others are saying about the outcome of post-truth, post-reason, and their substitution by the politics of identity?

    ‘During the 1980s and 1990s the academic left attempted to replace the discourse of democratic legitimacy with the avowedly anti-universalistic concept of “identity politics.” But this approach was fraught with contradictions and difficulties. Identity politics—the anti-politics of cultural self-affirmation—seemed plausible and attractive among polities where basic constitutional and legal guarantees remained firmly in place. Such provisions secured a political space—a “magic wall” of governmental noninterference, so to speak—in which the parameters of cultural identity could be safely explored in ways that stopped short of riding roughshod over competing identity claims. Yet where such assurances were lacking—the cases of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Algeria immediately leap to mind— identity politics engendered unspeakable tragedy. These experiences affirm one of the central precepts of political modernity: the formal guarantees of procedural democracy remain an indispensable prerequisite for the values of toleration and mutual recognition to flourish. Or, to express this insight in the idiom of contemporary political theory, such experiences confirm the priority of the “right” over the “good.”

    In retrospect, postmodernism’s contention, most pointedly expressed in Michel Foucault’s work, that the institutionalization of “reason” and “progress” leads to enhanced domination rather than emancipation seems overtly cynical and empirically untenable. The “Third Wave” of democratization that swept across eastern Europe, South America, and (more tentatively) Asia during the 1980s and 1990s has demonstrated that the legacy of democratic humanism harbors considerable staying power. Conversely, as the cases I have examined from the 1930s show, principled enmity toward democratic values can easily lead to disastrous political outcomes.’

    Richard Wollin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. xii-iii.

    The last sentences now look more than a little over-optimistic, but I find the rest quite prescient. Tony Judt also had some interesting thoughts on identity politics informing the most belligerent forms of Israeli politics and support thereof.

    • Lots of interesting comments including yours.
      However I’ve always interpreted Michel Foucault’s work, and in particular the idea that the institutionalization of “reason” and “progress” leads to enhanced domination rather than emancipation signifies the encroachment of a technocratic state as opposed to a ‘reasoned’ democratic state.
      And so I think Foucault was pre-empting the bureacratisation of liberal moral and cultural values as has been progressively deployed by the New Left since the 1960s until their demise in the 2010s.

      I agree about the confusion between particularism and universalism. A universalism that seeks to transcend particularism just become another form of particularism disguised as universalism. I.e the subjective co-opts the objective.
      Rutherford makes the same confusion in this excellent piece although he does not extrapolilate this theoretical confusion into practice thankfully.
      http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2017/02/goodbye-liberal-era
      And instead makes the universalist appeal for national sovereignty and national self-determination.

      Postmodernists for all their ideological clumsiness were in many ways following a spiritual path of detachment hence deconstructionism and the like – which I personally found very enlightening – but it was done with the underlying goal to create the conditions for global socialism especially in terms of dislocating and decontextualising place-based and work-based political identities which I think is something that Kenan is prone to do albeit not as dramatically as hard-core postmodern relativists.

      Im not sure if they realised at the time of the inherent paradoxes of their project in that seeking to completely relativise the known social world was particularist in itself although in many ways their perceived goal was to universalize global socialism (hence the moniker cultural marxists). However late stage postmodernists began to realise the dangers of grand narratives and from then on the whole project went into self-absorbed disarray.

      Within a wider historical context, post modernists were the avant garde of the New Left which sought to bring about a permanent revolution with a type of politics that empowers the individual (the personal is political) in the face of a European Modernity that they perceived as being essentially conservative in its cultural outlook and hence perceived political power to be bound up in traditional (sacrosanct) institutions – hence postmodernists and post-modernism. The ensuing self-absorbed disarray has now manifested itself as radicalized identarian politics which essentially pits against one another, in the words of Rutherford, “nationalism and cosmopolitanism, national sovereignty and global governance, and particularism and universalism”. But since these internationalist/globalist ‘liberal’ tendencies are cojoined with the hybridization of identities and neoliberalism, these ‘liberal’ tendencies are themselves seen as particularist in their outcomes rather than being universalistic hence the conservative backlash. So I agree time is a spiral.

      What we are left with now it seems is a post-liberal juncture in which ‘reasoned’ democratic choice within the scope of national sovereignty is becoming the accepted version of universalism as opposed to internationalist liberalism which is variously seen as a win for rightwing national conservatism. I personally don’t see this as an inevitable conclusion in the political longterm but it will require the Left to accept democratic national self-determination as the new universalism. Hence Kenan’s pro-Brexit stance with an emphasis on using a universalist logic to promote freedom of movement or in other words a democratically chosen version of global socialism. However whilst he fails to use reason to explore the full implications of global socialism and in particular how global socialism will be manifested as environmental, political and economic policy, his arguments are mainly of a polemic partisan nature which only leaves him open to a wide set of presumptions regarding the distribution of green infrastructure, global governance vis a vis regional governance, whether communities can self-identify or not and how goods and services will be distributed to facilitate freedom of movement. I certainly share his and others concerns about ‘the Edge people’ as resource limits and environmental crisis starts to bite, but the reality of the life/death relationship of life is never an easy natural dynamic to navigate since any proposed solution will always invariably lead to some suffering.

      Note ..
      Why political cultural theory and radical sociology doesnt make explicit the prevailing politics at the time god only knows. It certainly would have made my life much easier when studying all this stuff at university level.

  8. jake stone

    Excellent and thoughtful piece. I would add a mediating factor here. The right did not appropriate relativism and identity from the left. The left handed it to them on a golden platter. The left insisted that whites identify as white and characterized key featurees of white culture as offensive and oppressive.

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