Thoughts On The Relationship Between Postmodernism And Fascism.

I. By fascism, I mean a political ideology that valorizes the nation-state, conceived as an organic whole, and seriously depreciates or even outright rejects the autonomy and human dignity of the individual; that places highly centralized governmental coercive power in the hands of a single charismatic leader, aka “the strong man”; that glorifies violence against and war with its perceived internal and external enemies; and that promotes a vision of social cohesion that’s essentially regressive and oriented towards an imagined ideal past.

And by postmodernism, I mean the late 20th-century artistic, cultural, and philosophical ideology that explicitly rejects early 20th-century modernism in all its forms; that is philosophically committed to individual and cultural relativism; that is highly skeptical of all universalist and/or essentialist theories in general and of classical metaphysics and Rationalist epistemology more specifically; that promotes an essentially detached, ironic, satirical, and uncommitted way of living; and whose mode of creativity is explicitly derivative and syncretic, by juxtaposing manifestly discordant, ready-made materials drawn from a wide variety of existing sources and traditions, aka bricolage.

Now something that is interesting (although probably not unique) about the present moment is that while there is an explicitly fascistic stratum of the sociopolitical domain—consider the incipient or recently re-emergent Right in the U.S., Brazil, the Philippines, e.g.,—that stratum is relatively limited and is generally at the sociopolitical top of the domain, so in fact it is those with more socioeconomic power who are more explicitly and self-consciously in support of policies and structures that are fascistic.

It is likely that (even if the name fascism were changed to something more socially palatable), many of the people in lower socioeconomic classes currently providing support for fascistic policies would not explicitly support those policies.

So there is a puzzle: How can it be that there is currently such support for policies whose supporters would not explicitly support those policies?

One answer—one that gets at some large swath of an explanation for this phenomenon—is that fascism is being supported indirectly rather than directly by some plurality of the citizens of the countries in which fascism is ascendent or threatens ascendency.

If, however, fascism is being supported indirectly rather than directly, it must be that this indirect support is accomplished via the direct support for policies or adoption of an attitude that is connected, in some way, to fascism.

In this little essay, I will display the connection between postmodernism and fascism, such that an adoption of an attitude of or support for the former gives indirect support for the latter.

II. Paradoxically, the postmodernist and post-structuralist traditions (henceforth: postmodernism, unless otherwise stated), which derived from a Marxist critique of modernism, are not themselves socialist or communist, but are, instead, fascist.

There is a deep, sustaining, and essential attitude of anti-rationalism and pessimism that drives postmodernism—at the center of postmodernism is not a structure of reason and the potential for progress, but, instead, a clenched ideological fist.

One thing that makes this connection between postmodernism and fascism clear is the historical connection between surrealism and postmodernism.

“The Elephant Celebes,” by Max Ernst

Surrealism is essentially fascistic—its entire point is to put, say, an elephant, a Sudanese corn bin, a headless nude woman, and other manifestly discordant materials on an operating table and to force the viewer to deal with that random assembly.

Nothing justifies the juxtaposition, and this itself is the point of that juxtaposition.

An important distinction between relativism and postmodernism is that the former is not nihilistic while the latter is.

Despite the fact that postmodernists have been fond of calling themselves “relativists,” this self-labeling generally seems to result from a misunderstanding of relativism.

In relativism, something is relativized to something else—there are two sets of facts, the relativized facts and the relativizer facts, and the relativized facts are made the way they are and apply to who they do in the way they do because of the relativizer facts.

Thus, a moral relativist, e.g., claims that there are moral facts, it’s simply that these moral facts are relativized to some other set of facts.

A nihilist, on the other hand, denies the existence of facts of some sort.

The moral nihilist, e.g., denies the existence of moral facts.

The postmodernist is not claiming that justification of social action is very complicated in the way the relativist is claiming; it is not that social justification is relativized to some other set of facts—otherwise, the postmodernist would merely be an objectivist about justification (i.e., a person who believes that objective justification exists), albeit the complicated sort of objectivist that the relativist is.

Instead, the postmodernist is claiming that there is no such thing as social justification.

At bottom, at the foundations, the root of social life is irrational.

III. Surrealism is fascistic; dadaism is communistic.

There is an interpretation of dadaism in which it is a form of postmodernism.

This interpretation makes salient two possible forms of postmodernism, one of which largely monopolized the historical space after modernism.

There is a communistic interpretation in which Dadaism is populist art justified by the intrinsic value of  the people.

This interpretation, despite its presence in official Dadaist literature, was actually largely ignored by theorists and some/many Dadaists.

There is a fascistic interpretation in which Dadaism is “populist,” but only in terms of ruling the people by elevating something anyone could do to the level of ruling class—this urinal, let’s call it a fountain and pray to it.

IV. Another thing that makes this connection between postmodernism and fascism clear is that postmodernists generally subscribe—whether knowingly or not—to a “strong man” view of philosophy and theory and interpretation.

The excessive citation of smart academics—Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, etc.—and the working within the traditions of these academics without ever asking the question of are these people correct?—is a paradigm of the strong man view.

It is not reason or correctness or truth or justification that connects our work to the world, but the tradition itself.

But it is also important to recognize that many postmodernists were explicitly rejecting tradition while implicitly creating a new tradition.

Rejecting Kant for Marxist reasons, e.g.—but this is just the establishment of a new tradition unless the Marxist reasons themselves are independently justifiable.

In this way, fascism presents itself as a creative form of conservatism.

Imagined communities appeal to a tradition that never existed.  

This Marxist critique of modernism saw within the structure and goals of modernism something essentially and constitutively bourgeois.

But we don’t need to throw the reason-baby out with the bourgeois-bathwater.

If we do this, we are left with no universal structure within which to unite the people.

V. Both fascism and communism are post-capitalist, in some way, but the former is regressive while the latter is progressive.

It is a contingent fact of history that crises in capitalism have generally, and in the long-run have always, resulted in fascism rather than communism.

But the need for fascism is the need for communism: Capitalism is failing and something must be done—that is the need, and that need can be answered either with fascism or communism; it just so happens that it has (nearly) always been answered with fascism.

The critique of modernism is analogous to the crisis of capitalism: Something is not working within the system and so we must do something to fix whatever is going wrong. Fascism retains the hierarchy but does away with the pretense of freedom.

Communism destroys the hierarchy in order to expand the freedom to more than a pretense.  

Both fascism and communism are universalist in that both attempt to appeal to something universal.

The fascist: emotion and power; the communist: reason and dignity.

VI. A question: If the goal of postmodernism is to unite the people around emotion and power, then what is the point of fragmentation, infinite interpretability, infinite iterability?

A gesture at an answer: To stretch Habermas some, to say that the domain of X is fragmented such that there is no universal fact that unites X is a performative contradiction—the claim of fragmentation is that universal fact.

And this, perhaps, is the point of fragmentation, infinite interpretability, infinite iterability: they unite while pretending to not unite.

Lyotard’s incredulity toward metanarratives is an incredulity toward all legitimating structures.

Why is X legitimate? Because of Y.

Postmodernism is the incredulity toward any Y.

And the incredulity is not a rational skepticism—it is not an attack on Y from some further position, Z, since then Z would be a metanarrative.

Incredulity is simply that: A refusal to have doxastic confidence in anything.

But since we need to do things, we will need to justify what we are doing not by referencing any justified beliefs, but by referencing the things done.

This is a form of “Might Makes Right” that bypasses moral facts and simply says that what is done is what is done—and that is fascism.

VII. There is a dual-interpretation of Heidegger that goes a ways toward explaining the misunderstanding of (committed by) the postmodernist fascists: Heidegger can be read either as claiming that justification is ultimately nonconceptual and internal to states of skilled coping or as claiming that states of skilled coping are foundational but non-justificational, and so whatever is done is done and different things are just different things.

There’s also a dual-interpretation of Nietzsche that presages this dual-interpretation of Heidegger.

If Nietzsche is viewed as an Aristotelian, then power is a normatively good thing analogous to justificational non-conceptual states in Heidegger.

If Nietzsche is viewed as a Newtonian, then power is just an expression of action, and is fascistic.

VIII. It is an interesting historical, sociological, and psychological question whether the Liberal (not Leftist, but, instead, socially conscious capitalist) insistence from the ‘70s through the ‘00s on tolerance to the point of incoherence, rather than respect for the sake of the dignity of all human persons, played a role in the re-emergence of postmodern nihilism.

It is beyond the scope of the current essay to speculate on this connection; but the rhetoric of those on the new Right certainly seems to be, in many ways, a response to the apparent misunderstanding of untethered tolerance by those in the socially conscious Center.

IX. Eschewing all standards of correct action as a response to authoritarianism will do nothing other than reassert authoritarianism, but now at the level of the irrational.

A response to authoritarianism that claims that the problem with authoritarianism is not the authoritarianism itself, but, instead, the claimed existence of social, political, and moral facts, throws out all standards that would make it possible to fight authoritarianism.

X. A fascinating—enraging, at times—and perhaps inconsistent figure in the area of overlap between postmodernism on the one hand, and the social and political on the other, is Richard Rorty.

Rorty considered himself both a postmodernist (he called himself a relativist at times, but that self-categorization seems to rely on the same misunderstanding of relativism as was outlined above) and a Leftist.

How it is possible to justify Leftism if postmodernism is true, however, is entirely unclear.

And Leftism is not, as Rorty sometimes seemed to hint, the sort of mere attitude that can be adopted and advocated for without some universal and objective moral justification.

It is enough, here, to point out that it is entirely unclear how Rorty could claim to be both a postmodernist and a Leftist.

From his writings, it seems clear that Rorty is not really a postmodernist—he is skeptical of tradition in the same way Nietzsche is skeptical of tradition, but anti-conservatism does not a postmodernist make.

XI. Applying this postmodernism and its related fascistic impulses to the current social and political moment is easy enough: The meme-ification, playfulness for its own sake, refusal to engage in debate, excessive displays of strength, etc., that is especially evident in online culture, but that is also present in, e.g., the speeches of Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, their official deputies, and their ilk, shows the two sides of social life: postmodern nihilism on the one side, fascism on the other.

This issue requires further study and further theory.

But this essay can be taken as an opening shot in a renewed war on both postmodernism and fascism.

The correct response to both, in my view, is to show the existence of at least some universal and objective standards of justification, rationality, morality.

From that standpoint, both postmodernism and fascism have already lost the day—the work at that point is merely the drawing-out of the implications of and conclusions from those standards.

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

Please consider becoming a patron!