Saturday, April 12, 2008

how the left became conservative

Frank Furedi:
In the nineteenth century, the project of relativising knowledge was designed to shield tradition against the claims of universalism. Cultural relativism sought to protect religion and traditional morality and values against what was perceived as the threat posed by science, objective truth and universal values. According to opponents of the Enlightenment, different communities had a particular way of making sense of the world, and their values were the product of their own specific circumstances. It was claimed that each of these particular perspectives was of equal validity and provided far more insight into the ways of the world than the so-called abstract universalism of the Enlightenment.

Since the 1960s, cultural relativism has succeeded in becoming a powerful intellectual force. Disenchantment with the Enlightenment tradition has encouraged many thinkers and sections of the public to make sense of their lives through particularistic perspectives. The caricatured version of universalism upheld by the institutions of Western society proved to be no match to the powerful spirit of disenchantment that prevailed in the second half of the twentieth century. One consequence of this process was to put the authority of objective truth on the defensive - and thereby putting to question all truth claims.

Whereas in the past the most systematic critique of universalism was mounted by the right, today, by contrast, the cultural left is its most aggressive opponent. Since the late eighteenth century, concepts such as reason, progress and universalism have generally been associated with the left. But since the 1960s, the New Left has begun a systematic demolition of those values, by questioning the claims of reason, progress and universalism. The new philosophical posture was reflected in the political approach that acclaimed diversity and opposed universalistic values. Unlike the nineteenth-century critics of the Enlightenment, the New Left was not, in its origin, motivated by a conservative impulse to defend tradition. But because Western capitalism presented its values as universal, the New Left unthinkingly became opposed to it. The New Left not only rejected universalism in general, it adopted a particularistic world view linked to the politics of identity. Unconsciously, the New Left reaction to postwar Western capitalism internalised the methods and arguments of the conservative reaction to the Enlightenment.

During the 1960s, the left's love affair with relativism was hesitant and semi-conscious, but by the late 1970s, radical intellectuals and, more often, ex-radicals were speaking the language of Nietzsche. In a process aptly described by Alan Bloom as the 'Nietzscheanisation of the Left', the left, repelled by modernism, took a cultural turn towards particularism, heterogeneity and difference. It is worth recalling that the original methodological orientation towards difference began as the defence of aristocratic and ruling class privilege. Differences in moral and mental capacities were advanced to account for and legitimise the social hierarchy. By the mid-nineteenth century, this perspective attached itself to racial differences and helped to legitimise the notion that there was a global hierarchy of people. The cultural left did not set out, as the Social Darwinist did, to provide intellectual sustenance to racial superiority. But the conservative potential of the particularistic doctrine has crystallised into the cultural left's suspicion of cosmopolitan and global trends. As the rebellion against the rhetoric of universalism turned into a celebration of difference, the process of intellectual de-radicalisation became inescapable. The outcome has been the ascendancy of what is called postmodernism and its systematic repudiation of objective knowledge.
- Where have all the intellectuals gone? (pp. 60-62)
web2.0 extension: My individual rights are important, I will insert my voice into conversations whenever I can - rather than study history or actually understand anything deeper than my immediate knowledge. If anyone asks me to think too hard I will just move onto the next conversation.

I like the way in which Furedi does identify and take a stand for truth and the Enlightenment, that progress can be identified and how he explains that the spoilers baton passed from the Right to the (pseudo) Left and this latest attack on truth is done in the name of the freedom of the individual and the evils of capitalism.


Mark Miller said...

Interesting post. I noticed Furedi's reference to Allan Bloom. As you'll recall I started a conversation on the Squeakland list a while back about a meeting marking the 20th anniversary of the publishing of his book The Closing of the American Mind.

I have not read this book yet, but it's one that's come to mind from time to time.

I was puzzled by what Furedi said here:

As the rebellion against the rhetoric of universalism turned into a celebration of difference, the process of intellectual de-radicalisation became inescapable.

I would say the opposite, that as the rebellion against the rhetoric of universalism intensified the process of intellectual radicalisation became inescapable. Maybe you could elaborate on what he meant here. Maybe he meant it as a characterization, that as it intensified postmodernism became more "mainstream" (ie. more people believed in it and used it) and therefor less radical, less marginalized.

This post brings together a few narratives I've tried to understand into a concise summary. It's interesting how this argument is couched. I did not know this history.

Several years ago I had some conversations with a Canadian socialist. She seemed to like the idea of postmodernism. She commented back then that Europe was moving towards a more postmodern view of the world, and she was disturbed that the U.S. was not moving in that direction. Her position on this was nuanced. She didn't like the absolutist positions the U.S. government took on world events, and its self image, but it seemed to me she was more concerned that the U.S. and Europe were parting ways with each other, that they saw the world completely differently, with no common ground.

Our conversations prompted me to do some research on postmodernism, since I had only heard the term used in relation to aesthetics. I came to learn that there are a few different categories of it. The one I focused in on was what was called "Affirmative Postmodernism", which takes the position that there is no absolute truth, but that it is important to disseminate a particular narrative that promotes "social justice". I read some criticism of it, which makes sense to me, that if there is no absolute truth, then the only truth people will believe is the narrative promoted by the group that has the most power. I think this is a very real concern. I also read some material that creeped me out, saying that postmodernism has been making its way into the academic disciplines of history, science, and medicine, places you'd think would be immune to it.

After this I read a couple of first-hand accounts of people who had attended Ivy League schools in the 1980s, and documented the postmodern attitudes of their professors, and the curriculum. It had a strange effect. They said it was extremely hard to get in to the schools, but once there it was like a cakewalk. Both majored in some liberal arts program, and their experiences matched pretty well with what the Allan Bloom anniversary panel talked about just last year. Both accounts said that getting into those universites was valuable for their career, because of the connections they made. But they said the only thing they learned to do was critique. They were not challenged to think and understand. They only had the experience of "understanding what someone else thinks" after they left college.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

in relation to your puzzlement about what Furedi said:

I think you are equating post modernism with radical whilst Furedi sees it as conservative - and what he calls the universals as radical

ie. what alan kay calls the non universals (eg. the Enlightenment values) Furedi is calling "universals". Alan Kay says "non universals" because anthropological studies shows that some traits are universal amongst all humans whilst others are only developed by societies that develop science, industry etc.

Furedi calls Enlightenment values "universals" because he contrasts them favourably with particularism, ie. the elevation of individual particular experiences as more important than say, abstraction. (page 34, Where have all the intellectual gone? )

I think we are dealing with an interesting contradiction here about fundamental meanings - arising from the analysis that freedom to do whatever you want can end up being quite disempowering

Read the wikipedia account of the Closing of the American Mind . Bloom condemns 60s radicalism and rock music because they draw people away from the western canon. I think that is double edged, there is another side to this. 60s radicalism also drew people into serious political discourse and some took it further (while others didn't). In a similar way the internet is liberating but much of the web2.0 babble is dumbing people down - very often there is no serious attempt to do any analysis. I think this is the way in which modern capitalism operates - the "amusing ourselves to death" analysis of Postman. Everyone has more freedom but are distracted from the real issues. Hence, the important thing is to identify clearly the real issues - the elephants in the room which people ignore.

That is where I see alan kay's non universals as really important - they provide an objective basis from anthropological studies as to what might be really important - as distinct from the sea of post modern relativistic rubbish.

Thanks for making the connection b/w Furedi and your squeakland post via Allan Bloom - I had missed that connection

Mark Miller said...

Hi Bill. No, I understood what Furedi was talking about when he said "universals", that he was not using it in the sense that Kay does. I think you answered my question, saying that postmodernism is a conservative, and therefor non-radical impulse. I would have to conclude though that if postmodernism is becoming "de-radicalized", to use his terminology, then modernism, which was once universally accepted, is becoming "radicalized". In the U.S. I'd say postmodernism is still a radical (non-conservative in Furedi's terms) idea. You wouldn't know it by looking at many schools, but in the wider society postmodernism is not accepted. From what I hear this is not the case in Europe. It's just hard for me to believe--perhaps too scary.

To an American, saying that postmodernism is a conservative trait is baffling. When Americans think of the term "conservative", we think of politics, or of someone who is cautious and reserved.

I think what Furedi points toward deserves further study. The only hint that an American would have of what he's talking about, in terms of the history he describes, is the ID movement, which attempts to support the notions of a supernatural source of our origins, but which is postmodern in the sense of promoting a relativistic argument towards the scientific method. This is the one movement many could point to and see political conservatives engaging in the the behavior Furedi describes. Generally speaking in America, if anyone can even identify it, postmodernism is associated with the New Left, which these days seems preoccupied with questioning everything Western.

"Radical" is seen as something that "rocks the boat", something that is shocking or threatening to the old order.

What Furedi talks about might explain some things about pop culture in America. I've heard the complaint from social commentators for years that the moment someone comes out with something shocking and new, but of a liberal slant, it's almost immediately adopted, and "mainstreamed" by the popular culture to the point that it's not "radical" anymore. It gets to the point that "everybody's doing it" and youth have to go looking for something else to establish their own unique identity with. It's a "continual struggle", they say.

The difference some see is that in the 60s, such moves were seen as radical, because mainstream culture was "conservative" in the sense of carrying on a moral lifestyle or at least putting forward the appearance of one, valuing a stable society, and indeed in some ways the non-universals (in the Kay sense) were valued. Nihilistic things like "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll", "turn on, tune in, and drop out", professors using Marxist methods of deconstruction in the classroom to tear into Western values, literature, and history, were seen as a real rebellion against the dominant culture, and threatening. Such movements ran into cultural and institutional resistance. The difference now is that there is hardly any resistance to these same things. In fact, one radio talk show host here, named Tammy Bruce, I think said it best, "To be a rebel today you have to be a conservative." She means this in the political sense, since liberalism and liberal values are now the expected norm. If you want to be a part of something where you really have to fight for it, go conservative, she says, because then you'll run up against cultural and institutional resistance.

Given what you're talking about here, this cultural and institutional resistance is what Furedi is calling "conservatism". He's using it not in the political sense that we understand here, but as a term for behavior, or state of being. So what I think he's saying is the behavior he sees with the New Left is consistent with trying to preserve its values and institutions--seeing modernism as a threat to it, just as the aristocrats of old behaved this way to preserve the social hierarchy that existed.

What's interesting to me is the Left has shown that relativism can be used to overturn an existing order, not just act as a bulwark against something new.