Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Death Of Postmodernism

International working class solidarity sounds the death knell for PoMo
"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." - Francis Fukuyama (1992) 

“The gendarmes asked me to calm the demonstrators down and ask them to go home. But I told them that we have the right to demonstrate our exasperation. Destitution and poverty are going to starve us. Our families don’t even have anything to eat. How then can we not protest and demonstrate?” - Mahmoud Zegoune, spokesman of the Hassi-Messaoud unemployed workers committee, Algeria (February 2011)

Following the liquidation of the Eastern European 'Communist' regimes and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western elites arrogantly bragged that they had triumphed, and that 'free market' economic systems would now dominate, together with their supposed corollary - liberal democracy. The establishment's new favourite philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, brazenly declared "the end of history". For Fukuyama, the important economic questions were settled, and the only conceivable political progress would be the introduction of elections to states with dictatorships. His remark was the most famous expression of postmodern thought, only rivalled - from a victim's perspective - by Kurt Cobain's "oh well, whatever, nevermind".

Indeed, 'whatever' was perhaps the key word for getting through post-Cold War, postmodern times. At its early 2000s peak, the word became a way of trying to shrug off personal and political disaster. Your girlfriend had dumped you? Whatever, you'd find another one. You'd lost your job? Whatever, you'd find another one. Iraq had been invaded? Well, it was crazy but...whatever, it was the other side of the world. Probably.

A postmodern hairstyle, as shown on a rare subversive comedy of the age
In this credit-fuelled media haze, nothing really seemed to matter any more. Although the ruling class was carrying out brutal assaults on the overwhelming majority of the planet's population, it seemed survivable. So no, there was no need to fight back. And after the 'grunge' and 'alternative' musical movements of the early to mid nineties, there was no need to dissent artistically either. Cultural expression became incredibly reactionary - a backwards morass of neatly packaged, easily consumable dross. It was either the blandness, the 'shock', or the 'randomness'; pay your money, take your choice, and shut the hell up.

In the art scene, the formaldehyde pickled sharks of Damien Hirst and the unmade beds of Tracey Emin were considered cutting edge. And yet they were blunt edges, cutting nothing. In comedy, 'gross-out' humour made a splash, and later on the likes of Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr started poking fun at the dispossessed and disenfranchised. In music, with collective advancement ruled out, the 'gangsta' lifestyle embodied by 50 Cent was celebrated, while emos suffered individualist angst, and Simon Cowell promoted another cover of a boyband. In film, we saw the 'shot-for-shot remake' and 'action films' with no story whatsoever on the one hand, and impenetrable 'indie flicks' like Synecdoche, New York on the other.

Meaning? There was no meaning. There could be no meaning. History was over, and if you weren't happy, you were the problem, not society.

Though there were important differences between ruling class propaganda and the era's cultural reflections, they were both rooted in the prevailing state of society. This had a chloroforming, depressing effect on the general public. Of course, there were always critical voices, and these voices were able to gain a small airing via the mushrooming internet. But the mainstream media continued to promote the postmodern creeds of consumption and emptiness.

However, ideology could be no match for the force of material reality. Following the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the 'credit crunch', the Wall Street Crash of 2008, the recessions, and then the savage government cutbacks, apathy was no longer a defensible strategy. Playing dead could now kill.

Early to mid 2010 saw union bureaucrat-dominated skirmishes in Greece, Portugal, Ireland and elsewhere. But by late 2010, lorry drivers nearly paralysed the French economy, Spanish air traffic controllers were frogmarched to work at gunpoint, and students rioted in London. The start of this year has brought the Arab pro-democracy movement, which has removed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatened those in Libya and many other North African nations. Inspired by this, and facing slashing cuts to their own living standards, workers in Wisconsin, USA - the very belly of the imperialist beast - are rallying to defend their livelihoods.

Though I've mostly been talking in the past tense, the postmodern trends haven't disappeared. But history is being made once more; this time by oppressed working class people. There is the beginning of a sense that 'anything is possible'. This will inevitably deepen, and filter through to philosophy and culture. Postmodernism isn't yet dead, but it has been struck a deathblow, and this is a draft of its obituary.
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