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Emperors Without Clothes:
Contemporary Fashions in Social Theory

The repression of Marxism has seen a corresponding revival of alternative traditions ranging from neo-liberal rationalism (Rawls, Habermas, Elster), functional pluralism (Annales , Geertz, Turner), and voluntarist irrationalism (Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard).[5] Divergent as these tendencies appear at first sight, they share a large common ground. All of them reject economic determination and class struggle as explanatory principles, of course, and all share a hostility to Marxism that is more or less fundamental to their traditions and whose significance can hardly be understated. Moreover, each of these movements subscribes, in varying degrees and sometimes with sharply divergent emphasis, to methodological principles of pluralism, relativism, and individualism—a formidable post-Marxist, postmodern triumvirate whose vulgarization in recent years has occluded the very possibility of explaining why things happen in history.

Pluralism, relativism, and individualism work together and reinforce


each other, but for heuristic purposes we may treat them separately. Pluralism signifies causal indeterminacy—an emphasis on the simultaneity of diverse social phenomena as well as their interrelationship and interaction without, however, any regard for their relative efficacy or causal significance. Ultimately such indeterminacy degenerates into vulgar pluralism: everything, somehow, causes everything else and yet no single thing has any determinative power at all. The process of everything causing everything else produces, willy-nilly, something called "culture" and, over time, a cultural condition called "modernity" (and now postmodernity). Relativism embraces a historicist-hermeneutic view of knowledge whereby what we know is relative to our own culture and what we know of history is doubly constrained by a communication gap between cultures. Ultimately this view degenerates into vulgar relativism, a collective solipsism that reduces history to a literary genre or an exercise in translation: knowledge of history exists, if at all, only in fragments and impressions (or agglomerations of the same) whose validity, uncertain in any case, declines precipitously with any attempt to move beyond the struggle for communication to statements of fact aspiring to the status of scientific explanation. Individualism is anthropocentric; it places an autonomous human being at the center of historical explanation and conceptualizes history from the perspective of the consciousness and practice of individuals. Ultimately such "humanism" degenerates into vulgar individualism: history as a struggle of "people," undifferentiated in their uniqueness, struggling for fundamental yet amorphous "freedoms" against an oppressive but confoundedly hydra-headed "power."

Although it is no refutation of these principles to point out their historical association with inegalitarian and anti-socialist intellectual movements, their revival, phoenix-like, from the ashes of Hegelian Marxism and the New Left is surely not without significance. Both neo-liberal rationalism and postmodern irrationalism are firmly rooted in distinct traditions of bourgeois meritocracy—economic individualism and romantic individuality respectively. The genealogies of these traditions—on the one hand the "democratic" subordination of political equality to economic inequality in Bentham and J. S. Mill, and on the other the "humanist" subordination of mass mediocrity to an aristocracy of spirit in Goethe and Nietzsche—are sufficient testimony to their profoundly elitist animus. The elitism of functional pluralist tendencies is only slightly more sophisticated. From Saint-Simon and Comte through Durkheim and Parsons, this technocratic tradition has ac-


cepted elitism simply by denying its existence, masking domination and exploitation with euphemistic assertions of the cooperative nature of the social division of labor, the organic interdependence of social structures, and the autonomy of culture in relation to political and economic structures. That tacit acceptance of elitism and the ubiquitous evasion of exploitation reveal an underlying complicity beneath the superficial opposition of Left and Right in contemporary social theory—and the real source of its dramatic and general decline in recent years.

Postmodernism has played a particularly prominent role in the decline of social theory.[6] Postmodern social theory combines a populist aesthetics (based on the autonomy of culture, the abolition of distinctions between art and mass culture, and a presumed affinity between the discontents of a bohemian avant-garde and those of mass consumers serviced by the culture industry) with a neo-anarchist political philosophy (premised on the vitalist "will to power" of Nietzsche and the ontological mysticism of Heideggerian phenomenology). Postmodernism oscillates between two polar extremes, cynical accommodation and libertarian dissidence. The former tendency, perhaps best expressed in the work of Jean Baudrillard, denies the possibility of objective knowledge of social formations and their history not simply by asserting the principle of epistemological relativism but even more radically by moving beyond epistemological relativism to ontological relativism. Baudrillard's "hyperreality" of self-generating signs detached from any real signified (and from the exigencies of the capitalist mode of production as well) abolishes meaningful differences between ideas and objects and dissolves the very distinction between critique and affirmation. Such radicalism in philosophy can produce only passivity in politics. While Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality may have a certain descriptive value, it offers no explanation of contemporary culture. Indeed, Baudrillard's conceptual framework preempts the possibility of such an explanation, and it is difficult to resist the suspicion that this is precisely the source of his appeal. Sooner or later, explicitly or implicitly, by design or default, postmodern cynics conclude that in society, as in theory, anything goes.

In contrast to its fraternal twin, dissident postmodernism revels in the obstreperous rhetoric of political rebellion. Revealing and resisting the spontaneous generation and diffusion of "power" throughout society, dissident postmodernists, such as Michel Foucault, claim to have discovered the only form of radicalism appropriate for defending "freedom" in "post-industrial" society. However, postmodern dissidence


purchases its radical credentials at a high cost. By abandoning allegedly "totalitarian" global analysis for fragmentary "genealogies" of particular social phenomena, postmodern rebels end up hypostatizing both the "power" they resist and the "freedom" they defend. Even less willing to admit the economic taproot of power and domination than were their forerunners in the New Left, dissident postmodernists attempt to resist power on an ad hoc basis—everywhere, in all forms, and all at once. Ultimately such resistance collapses under the magnitude of its task and the futility of its method. At the point of exhaustion, postmodern dissidents capitulate to the greater wisdom of their cynical and accommodating counterparts. In the end, "resist everything" is merely the flip side of "anything goes." If everything is bad, it is not long before bad begins to look, if not exactly good, at least irresistible.

The domestication of dissident postmodernism in the eighties (the shift of Lyotard and Foucault from gauchisme to "Americanism" are only more serious examples of a general phenomenon parodied by the career of Baudrillard) substantiates Fredric Jameson's contention that postmodernism reflects, rather than critiques, "the cultural logic" of multinational capitalism. The short-lived predominance of postmodern dissidence during the seventies deserves further study. I suggest, provisionally, that dissident postmodernism has functioned as the loyal opposition during the birth pangs of multinational capitalism and in this respect has been simply the ideological obverse of the New Right. The anti-Marxist or post-Marxist rhetoric of postmodernism is obviously crucial in this regard. The more blatant the effects of economic determination and class struggle became during the seventies and eighties, the more stubbornly they were denied by postmodern theorists. Indeed, a large part of what is left of the New Left has rationalized its crushing defeat by blaming it on traces of Marxism still at work within the radical movement and its social theory.

As resistance became pointless, postmodernism turned exclusively to its central preoccupation with aestheticizing rather than explaining reality. Assimilation and adaptation have thus become the final legacy of postmodern social theory. This outcome is not really surprising because the bohemian individuality endemic to postmodernism is at bottom a variant of the functional pluralist assertion of the autonomy of culture. The elective affinity between postmodernism and functional pluralism is manifested in the appropriation of cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Mary Douglas by postmodernists. While I do not deny the value of certain insights of these anthropolo-


gists, I take exception to the reification of culture on which their work is based. Such reification, it seems to me, preempts causal explanation of cultural phenomena and rests content with superficial, albeit clever, descriptions and interpretations of symbolic structures and practices. It is one of the arguments of this book that starting from the "autonomy" of culture or the "freedom" of individuals begs central questions that any respectable social science must confront: namely, why given cultures and given individuals act in the ways that they do. However suggestively, postmodern cultural anthropologists have for the most part simply reproduced and even compounded the deficiencies of their Durkheimian and Weberian predecessors.

But it is not the postmodernists alone who have contributed to the decline of social theory during the last two decades. Competing vigorously for an expanded share of the lucrative post-Marxist market, neo-liberal rationalist problematics (pragmatism, social contracts, decision theory, etc.) have experienced a great resurgence as well. Members of the neo-liberal Left such as Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, and Jon Elster claim to provide a sober, no-nonsense alternative to the rhetorical posturing and flamboyant nihilism of postmodernism—without, however, threatening sacred post-Marxist premises of pluralism, relativism, and individualism or violating taboos on the principles of economic determination and class struggle. Whether they define "rationality" as a transcendental structure of human communication, as a socially useful fiction of political consensus, or simply as an old-fashioned rational-choice theory, the neo-liberals are every bit as uninterested in explaining why things happen—in this case the relation between the "rationality" of a culture, its mode of production, and the hegemony of its ruling class—as are their postmodern colleagues.

There is something eerie about contemporary discussions of rationality, rights, and justice. Such discussions—organized around notions of free and equal individuals possessing a commonly held rationality uncontaminated by class power and engaged in distortion-free communication and decision making—blithely ignore the elementary fact that such conditions do not and cannot obtain in capitalist societies. Surely, one would think, the sheer irrelevance of such discussion to the global economic Gleichschaltung of the eighties (and the ideological and political restructuring following in its wake) would preclude their proliferation. If not irrelevance, then surely the transparent ideological bias of their assumptions would undermine their credibility. Surely a generation of philosophers who had cut their teeth on Lukács and the


Frankfurt School would immediately recognize the "individual" as posited by the new utilitarians to be a self-serving stereotype of the professional middle class. Surely they would recognize in the new rationalism an eclectic hodgepodge of ahistorical, class-blind atavisms haphazardly culled from neoclassical economic theory, behaviorist psychology, and analytical philosophy. Surely they would see in new theoretical models of "communicative rationality," "distributive justice," and "game theory" Panglossian caricatures of frankly apologetic and openly elitist concepts of Cold War political science such as "equilibrium democracy" and "political pluralism."

Obviously this has not been the case. Purveyors of visions of democratic angels dancing on the head of capitalist pins may be justly accused of peddling wish fulfillment to the middle classes, but this is precisely the source of their strength. Taking rights seriously is an alternative to taking equality seriously. Talking about distortion-free communication and distributive justice is a way of not talking about ideological hegemony and economic exploitation. Decision theory and methodological individualism are ways of evading the facts of class power and the absence of personal autonomy. Collectively, the various neo-liberal rationalisms divert the attention of social theory from the way things really are and why in order to speculate upon how things that can never be might actually be if only they could be.

Academic portfolios that temper elitism with reason and morality provide ideological values that apparently more than offset their theoretical liabilities in the minds of cautious liberal investors. Alternatively, postmodernism provides a bolder entrepreneurial alternative for intellectual raiders seeking quick academic returns through swashbuckling radicalism unencumbered by intellectual responsibility. Such is the depressing reality of what Althusser, almost alone, dares to call the class struggle in theory. Having abandoned economic determination and class struggle as explanatory principles, contemporary social theory has cheerfully abdicated its obligation to explain why things happen. During an age of (uneven) prosperity and global Cold War such behavior was at least comprehensible; in a period of global austerity and untrammelled capitalist restructuring it is simply reprehensible. In the wake of the collapse of capitalism with a human face and the bankruptcy of all the theoretical enterprises whose revenues depended on it, perhaps we may begin to see a devaluation of junk bond concepts whose ideological yields are unsecured by explanatory value.


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