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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Callinicos & Kellner Against the Postmodernists


Douglas Kellner

Douglas Kellner is a strong critic of postmodernism. 

The primary claim is that postmodernists are not really political at all. However, what Kellner really means is that they are no longer Marxists or socialist revolutionaries.

For example, he makes these crude Marxist generalisations about Jean Baudrillard and others:

I am not sure that we have now transcended and left behind modernity, class politics, labour and production, imperialism, fascism and the other phenomena described by classical and neo-Marxism...”

For a start, I doubt very much that any postmodernist has ever “left behind” class (or “class politics”), “labour”, “production”, etc. How on earth could they? Such things obviously exist. (Though this is not quite so clear when it comes to “modernity” and what Kellner takes to be “fascism” and “imperialism”.) What postmodernists have rejected are Marxist theories of class, labour, production and whatnot. Now that is a rejection of Marxism, not a a case of completely leaving behind the things which have been tackled by Marxists and others.

Kellner even extends his rigid Marxist critique to Michel Foucault - whom he sees fit to lump together with Baudrillard and Lyotard - when he says that Foucault “made a serious theoretical mistake in severing [his] work from the Marxian critique of capitalism” (166).

Here again the same error is made. Foucault most certainly did not “sever [his] work” from the “critique of capitalism”. He severed himself from the “Marxian critique of capitalism” - as Kellner, this time, explicitly puts it. And again, Kellner, being a fundamentalist Marxist, will believe that a severing oneself from a/the Marxist critique of capitalism is a severing oneself from the critique of capitalism itself – full stop.

Not only do Marxists like Kellner deem postmodernists to be part of Das System, they also question their status as “radicals”. Kellner says precisely that - if not explicitly - in the following:

Baudrillard is still read and received as a political radical, and those who are becoming increasingly attracted to his thought generally perceive themselves as 'radicals' of some sort.” (162)

Clearly, being a non-Marxist also means being a non-radical to Kellner and other Marxists (hence the scare quotes around “radicals”). And, just like non-Marxist critiques of capitalism are not really critiques of capitalism at all (according to Marxists), so non-Marxist radicals are not really radicals at all. Or as Kellner puts it:

Baudrillard is the latest example of critical criticism which criticises everything, but rarely affirms anything of much danger to the status quo.” (162)

However, there is some truth in what Kellner says above about Baudrillard. He is part of that French philosophical tradition of endless oneupmanship between French philosophers - or generations of philosophers - in which each new philosopher contrives to out-radicalise his predecessor. Or, as Kellner puts it, Baudrillard and others offer us “critical criticism which criticises everything”.

Nonetheless, that's precisely the view many take of many contemporary Marxists or revolutionaries: they criticise everything but offer nothing in its place. In addition, I would argue that Baudrillard can be deemed to be a radical – just not an outright Marxist radical.

I would also say that Marxist ways of thinking, and even specific Marxist theories, still motivated much of his thought. But, of course, being a self-conscious outré radical, he simply had to reject the tried, tested and boring Marxism of his day. After all, both Lyotard and Baudrillard, and many other postmodernists and post-structuralists, once belonged to Marxist groups.

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos (of the Socialist Workers Party's Central Committee) also makes this error when he claims that postmodernists have forgotten about the nature of exploitation. No they haven't! Or at least not all postmodernists have. What they have done, as with the Kellner/Baudrillard case, is forgotten about, or rejected, all the stale and dogmatic Marxist theories about exploitation. That's a completely different thing entirely.

The Marxist logic here is very simply. As with Marx, the Soviet theoreticians, onwards, if you don't offer a Marxist analysis of exploitation, or of “class politics”, labour and production (in Kellner's case), etc., then, effectively, you aren't offering an analysis at all. Such is the arrogance of Marxists. (A Marxist arrogance which has run through the entire history of Marxism.)

Alex Callinicos is actually very specific about the problem with postmodernism.

In order to offer a true or correct analysis of exploitation, for example, the theorist simply must take account of the what Marx called “surplus value”. That is, the postmodernist must take account of how surplus value is creamed off by the capitalist. However, if as a postmodernist (or as anyone else) you don't accept the highly metaphysical theory of surplus value, then your analysis of exploitation, and so much more, will quite simply be false (or “counter-revolutionary”) – by Marxist definition.

And, again, by mindlessly simple Marxist logic, if the theorist or analyst of exploitation - or anything else - is not doing his theorizing through the tight and severely circumscribed lenses of Marxist theory, then, by Marxist definition, he must be a capitalist or, as Jürgen Habermas puts it, a “young conservative”. 

Fredric Jameson went further: he said that the whole of postmodernism simply expressed “the logic of late-capitalism”.

It's clear, then, that Marxists in the 1980s and beyond were as rigid and dogmatic as they had always been. And that rigidity and dogmatism always guaranteed that they would always fail from an intellectual standpoint (though not necessarily politically).

In the end, then, according to rigid and obdurate Marxists like Frederic Jameson, Alex Callinicos, Douglas Kellner and many others, the entirety of postmodernism was/is simply “symptomatic of the capitalist system in a particular phase of its development” (165).

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