Postmodernism, Value Fragmentation, and the Rise of Identity Politics

By Zoe Zhang (UK)
Published on September 20th, 2020

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him […] Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s famous declaration is often interpreted as a rallying cry to arms: as a militant atheism encapsulated in three pithy words – Gott ist tot. Yet to interpret it as such does a disservice to the philosopher’s canon of work at large. His all-encompassing nihilism found its starkest epistemological expression in his espousal of perspectivism. This was the view that no perspective or interpretation-free objective reality existed, thanks to the validity of all individual paradigms. Gone was the existence of any inviolable Ding an sich in the Kantian sense, and with it any notion of ultimate truth. In this vein Nietzsche’s famous exhortation loses the customary belligerence that is often assigned to it, and instead reveals a deep doubt. The man of the 19th century gazed uncertainly upon a formless future without definition. The Christian God, long the guarantor of the foundational values of Western life - and, indeed, reality itself - was gone, and in His place would stand a dizzying multiplicity of views and judgements, all clamouring for attention, but all ultimately as devoid as each other of any objective validity. The modern world had arguably emerged in the aftermath of the Enlightenment’s radical espousal of reason; but even then God had remained en vogue, so to speak, with the theist’s blind faith and dependence upon revelation merely replaced by the deist’s keen respect for keen systematic inquiry. The post-modern world, however, appeared entirely different. There, neither faith nor reason would reign; naught save for scepticism itself.

How would politics itself survive in such a world? Previous intellectual currents had always fed the development of either pre-existing or entirely new political ideologies. Sometime in the 16th century, Machiavelli’s realism had birthed Realpolitik, and from then on it had not left the Western psyche, appearing centuries later in Bismarck’s deft handling of European affairs. The ever-fruitful Enlightenment had resulted in the emergence of both the liberalism of the American Revolution and the ‘enlightened’ despotism of the trifecta of Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great and Joseph II. These movements had all espoused some form of human telos; that is, the ultimate end of life – be it the continuous accumulation of power, or the liberty and freedom of all sovereign individuals, and thus, despite their various differences, they had managed to provide inspiration for myriad forms of ideal government. Postmodernism, however, was different. Michel Foucault, who many consider to be the ‘father’ of postmodern thought, claimed to have occupied “most of the squares on the political checkerboard”. For him, political ideology was inherently fraudulent. Since no overarching definition of human telos could be objectively real, he could not bring himself to suggest to any one group of individuals that they work together to achieve one specific form of ideal government.

What, then, did the postmodernists seek when it came to politics? They did not, after all, simply disengage. Postmodernism is widely associated with the radical French left of the postwar period. Foucault’s contemporary Jean-François Lyotard supported the replacement of grand metanarratives (such as religion, or indeed political ideologies themselves) with smaller, more personal mini-narratives able to accurately reflect one’s individual perception of reality. This epistemic relativism entailed a radical pluralism that would depict both scientific bodies and liberal ethics as dogmatic and stifling. The former’s strict empirical standards were deemed blind to the essential veracity of the individual’s perception, and the latter’s universalising instincts were perceived to be reflective of an egotistical Western male drive to impose its subjective values upon the rest of humanity. The postmodernists sought to overthrow this outdated world order by striving towards the hegemony of a multiplicity of hitherto marginalised voices; and thus what we have now come to know as identity politics was born.

That is, at the very least, the conventional narrative. Identity politics is seen by many on the left as a force for good, battling bravely against gender, race and sexuality-based oppression. It is, many claim, the brave promotion of the stigmatised: the radical redefinition of that which society has deemed to be defective. Yet, from another angle, identity politics is not the politics of social justice, but rather the politics of social exclusion. It is in no way original, but rather nothing more than the refashioning of the politics of the counter-Enlightenment; namely, the reactionary, ultra-conservative right. ‘There is no such thing as Man,” wrote French reactionary Joseph de Maistre. “I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.” Just like the postmodernists, he rejected all notions of universal human values, and with them the all-important notion of equality before the law. One need only glance towards the modern American political landscape to see identity politics in action across the whole political board. While the right flirts with the notion of sending non-white immigrants back to their purported ‘homelands’, their peers on the left push for ever-increasing affirmative action, a process which more often than not ends up pitting perceived ‘minority’ groups against one another, as seen in the furore over university admissions and the bias towards the admission of African-American students at the expense of their Asian-American peers.

From a liberal perspective, the crimes of identity politics are clear. Identity politics leaves no space for the simple existence of the individual. The very exercise of free will is rejected as all individual political visions are suppressed in favour of the wholesale destruction of that which is supposedly dominant. The postmodernist’s desired hegemony of the marginalised is realised through the silencing of those who are perceived to be ‘oppressors’ on account of the circumstances of their birth as a member of some grouping or other, be that ‘straight, white, and male’ (as per the modern left) or ‘Jewish’ (as per traditional white nationalism). Even within the ranks of the marginalised, however, peace cannot persist, for an ideology that rejects all notion of defined epistemological foundations is naturally unable to prevent the many identities that it attempts to protect from stealing the spotlight from one another on the flimsy grounds of greater importance according to naught but the metric of outrage.

Identity politics is, thanks to its postmodern rejection of universal human telos, essentially naught but an eternal dialectical process. It is not politics, being devoid of any clear vision for humanity at large, and as such even the great enemy of the individualist, Kantian liberal tradition of political thought can agree with its nemesis on this point. Within the Marxist tradition, the gender, ethnicity and sexuality-focused nature of modern left-wing identity politics is perceived as a distraction to the central mission that is lasting economic reform through the seizure of the means of production. Despite their glaring differences vis-a-vis their conceptions of the ideal human society, both are able to expose postmodernism for the intellectual fraud that it is. Even the famously conservative Roger Scruton is in agreement here, writing, “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”

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