Metanarratives of Postmodernity

Perhaps my title sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  After all, there aren't supposed to be any metanarratives of postmodernism, at least as it is theorized by its foremost theorist, Jean-François Lyotard - a metanarrative (métarécit) here being understood as a narrative of narratives - that is, an overarching context for history - a story into which all of our smaller stories fit, and which gives them meaning.

So we are told, postmodernism is an era characterized by incredulity towards metanarratives, an era in which no single metanarrative holds sway with absolute singleminded devotion.  Instead, postmodernists claim that postmodern culture is a pastiche of incompatible stories that coexist and recombine in perpetually destabilizing ways - a world of mutually nested, fragmentary and unreliable narratives, comparable to a collage or an experimental novel.  There are no universals, no all-encompassing framework or structure that can accommodate all of the facts and stories that exist on the micro-level.  This is the so-called "postmodern predicament" - a feeling of being unmoored, directionless, without any stable, reliable source of meaning, and lacking a final goal or purpose.

But is that really true?  Have metanarratives gone away?  Fundamentalist Christians still believe in their worldview with an undiminished fervor and dogmatism.  Many of them believe that the world is ending soon, and are thus ensconced in an entire theory of history, often one that is highly detailed and refers to specific events, complete with a teleology oriented toward the future.  Conspiracy theorists are extremely adept at creating Theories of Everything.  Many people, whatever they may believe, are adamant that their enemies, or just anyone who happens to believe something different from them, are literally inspired by demonic powers.  I don't see this trend diminishing.  In fact, it only seems to be intensifying.  

Sure, a postmodernist may respond that skepticism towards metanarratives does not imply the total non-existence of metanarratives.  They may indeed maintain that the coexistence of metanarratives and the skepticism towards them is the entire point.  But is such coexistence really new?  Does it justify naming a new supposed era?  Haven't dogmatism and skepticism coexisted within culture for a long, long time?  A postmodernist could further argue that to have more than one metanarrative is as good as having none at all, since these metanarratives will inevitably contradict each other.  Fair enough, but again, haven't there always been more than one metanarrative?  Protestantism has existed alongside Catholicism, which existed alongside Islam, which existed alongside Buddhism and Confucianism and Taoism and Legalism and so on.

When you read between the lines, it's clear that when postemodernists talk about a decline in the power of historical metanarratives, what they really mean is the collapse of a certain form of Marxism, which they see as analogous to the famous "death of God".  Marxism is "The God that Failed," according to these types, and now we must live "Without Marx or Jesus" as Jean François Revel put it.  At least we can credit Revel with being straightforward in this declaration, unlike most postmodernists who write with serpentine indirection and thus limitless plausible deniability.  (Revel's subtitle, "The New American Revolution has Begun," sounds a bit like a metanarrative to me, by the way - albeit one that didn't come true.)

Even this is questionable, though.  The regime of the U.S.S.R. may have imploded, but China has not, nor has Vietnam or Laos or the communist movement in Kerala in India - and here we speak of billions of people - and there are millions of people all over the world who continue to consider themselves Marxists of one sort or another even if Jean-François Lyotard doesn't like it, or wants to ignore it.

When one thinks about it, it becomes clear that this so-called "postmodern era," guided by no religion or over-arching political ideology with a clear all-encompassing theory of history, far from being a universal state of being for an entire period of world history, only applies to a tiny minority class of mostly privileged academics in nations of the imperial core - and not even all of them.  Even in the United States, there are vast rural regions where most people are deeply religious, and often have fervent political allegiances to boot.  This "postmodern era," unique among all previous periods of history, only applies to you if you choose to belong to it.  And to the extent that it dominates the academic discourse and amounts to some kind of norm, it only does so through excluding other voices.

Rather than an era characterized by the breakdown of metanarratives and an especially pronounced increase in skepticism towards them, couldn't we instead see the so-called postmodern era as the rise of especially strong, even occasionally dogmatic metanarratives?  Let's take a moment to go through a few of them.

The most obvious metanarrative of postmodernity is the story of the spread of democracy.  According to this tale, democracy spread from developed countries like the United States of America, France, and the U.K. to countries throughout the world, eventually including the former U.S.S.R..  There are even multiple versions of this myth, from Samantha Power's "democracy promotion" to Charles Krauthammer's "democratic realism".

Then there's that other metanarrative, "anti-imperialism".  Supposedly, nations all over the Earth became independent from colonial powers over the course of the 20th century.  In some cases, the anti-imperialist metanarrative overlaps with the "spread of democracy."  In other cases, anti-imperialists are opposed to democrats.  In many cases, the interaction between the two has been very complex over the decades, sometimes working in tandem, and at other times with more turbulence.

The Non-Aligned Movement officially emerged in 1961 at the first Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries between the leaders of Yugoslavia (Tito), India (Nehru), Egypt (Nasser), Indonesia (Sukarno), and Ghana (Nkrumah).  This and the following conferences built on the principles of the Afro-Asian Conference, popularly known as the Bandung Conference of 1955, which had the stated aims of opposing neo-colonialism - or as Fidel Castro would put it later in his Havana Declaration of 1979, this movement represented a struggle "against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics."  Though many of these leaders came, in one way or another, from some sort of socialist tradition, they also shared a refusal, at least to some degree, to be dominated by the U.S.S.R. and the Warsaw Pact.  Nehru, for instance, considered himself a socialist, defining socialism as a "scientific approach to social and economic problems" though it's hard to see him as a Marxist in the strict sense (he seems to have had more sympathy with the Fabian socialists, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb).  This movement was essentially one of practice, born of geopolitical necessity, but it gradually developed its own theoretical grounding - Kwame Nkrumah, for instance, became especially important as a theorist of neo-colonialism. 

The Non-Aligned Movement came in at least two, broadly overlapping varieties, one aligned with China and the other not - increasingly so as tensions between the P.R.C. and the U.S.S.R. grew.  But China had been an important factor in the movement from the beginning, or even before the beginning, at the Asian Relations Conferences, beginning in 1947, and the issuance of the Panchscheel, or Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence established between China and India in 1954, those principles being

1) Mutual Respect for Territorial Integrity and Sovereignty,

2) Mutual Non-Aggression,

3) Mutual Non-Interference in Internal Affairs,

4) Equality and Cooperation for Mutual Benefit, and

5) Peaceful Co-existence.

Over the intervening decades, more countries joined the Non-Aligned Movement, many of which had nothing to do with socialism.  Today, the Non-Aligned Movement contains 120 countries - that is, two thirds of the nations within the United Nations.  Again, this has represented not a skepticism, an incredulity, a withering away of a metanarrative, but its rapid growth and empowerment - until it now includes Russia, the very central country in opposition to which which the Non-Aligned Movement originally coalesced.

But we should also discuss the metanarrative to which the Non-Aligned Movement was opposed - namely, that of great power politics.  In a sense, great power politics arose in 1814 with the Treaty of Chaumont.  Alternatively, one might say that great power politics has existed for centuries.  At times, the competing great powers have been France and England.  But for a significant portion of the 20th century, the term "great powers" has unquestionably referred to the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., generally regarded as the "superpowers" of the cold war.  According to the rubric of great power politics, every loss for one power is a gain for the other and vice versa.  (Gradually, China too has come to be regarded as a kind of great power, at least by some, but even now it seems difficult to compare it with the United States, which has 750 military bases in 80 (known) countries.  China cannot boast anything like that.) 

From one side, the Non-Aligned Movement seems to be opposed to the great powers, and indeed this was the stated goal of the Non-Aligned Movement.  But isn't it interesting that these two global forces - great power politics and the Non-Aligned Movement, gradually came to integrate and interlock with each other?  Russia came to be part of the Non-Aligned Movement, China had always been involved in a complex way... and even many in the United States paradoxically see themselves as aligned with it (after all the United Nations meet in New York...).

Indeed, if we look at this from another angle, far from these two metanarratives being mutually incompatible, we might see great power politics as stimulating, energizing, supporting, maintaining, and necessitating the Non-Aligned Movement - and perhaps, to a certain degree, vice versa.  This is so for many reasons - because the great powers were an enemy to rally against, because the great powers required buffer states to protect themselves from each other, because encroachments by one of the great powers would throw nations that desired to maintain their sovereignty into the arms of the other great power, because the great powers engaged in covert and sometimes overt intelligence campaigns to spread negative propaganda about their rival throughout non-aligned nations, and so on.  The dynamic tension between the great powers often served to maintain the status quo.  Thus for the most part a geopolitical stalemate was reached, only occasionally punctuated by proxy wars and other "hot" conflicts.  I would say that this impasse continued until the demise of the U.S.S.R., though in many ways it continues even after the end of the U.S.S.R., to this very day.  The Sino-Soviet split undoubtedly served the interests of the western powers, and in a way so did the Non-Aligned Movement, in as much as it has always been the strategy of imperialism to divide and conquer.  I actually would go further than this and say that the U.S.S.R. was, from the very beginning, created by western imperialism and served to prevent the advance of the global proletarian movement, but that is a topic for another time.

In many ways, the story of postmodernism is the story of this stalemate, or impasse, among great powers, and the evolution of a modus operandi of "peaceful coexistence" both at the scale of the relations of non-aligned nations and among the great powers themselves.  Thus, as I have indicated before, postmodernism is the cultural logic of detente.

It should come as less of a shock that great power politics and the Non-Aligned Movement coexist and even strengthen and entrench each other when we reflect that they both have the same source.  For both the Non-Aligned Movement and (the current version of) great power politics derive the foundations of their ideological formation from the principle of national self-determination, which developed during the period of the Second International and was ultimately articulated twice - first by Lenin, and then by Woodrow Wilson.  In a sense, when a leader like Tito or Nkrumah was insisting on asserting on their own country's right to determine their own course independent of the dictates of the Kremlin, they were merely staying loyal to the very doctrine that Lenin himself had first laid out.  National self-determination is an innovation of Second International thinkers like the so-called "Austro-Marxists," and then of Lenin and Stalin, adopted and co-opted by westerners like Wilson.  

There are therefore, so to speak, two flavors of national self-determination: the Leninist version, which is necessarily predicated on an Lenin's theory of imperialism, and the Wilsonian version, which is not.  But it's striking how these two mirror each other and the differences tend to fall by the wayside.  For all practical purposes, the tangible effect of both ideological formations has largely been a stabilization and entrenchment of the status quo power relations and their boundaries.

At the same time that great power politics and the Non-Aligned Movement gripped the world at the direct political level, a new ideological framework arose in which to understand the geo-political relations between them, namely the school of foreign policy which has become known as "Realism."  I have already written about so-called "Realism" and my total rejection of its idealist principles.  Suffice it to say, for now, that a steady stream of this kind of analysis has flowed from its origins in writers like Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan up to the present with people like Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer.  Realism is a set of a priori principles imposed on the world, without concern for empirical verification - an almost metaphysical calculus of nationalism and nations.  What is important about this for the present argument is that this amounted to new metanarrative at a fairly profound level.  Rather than thinking of the Cold War as the struggle between economic systems (capitalism vs. communism) or between political ideologies or structures of government (democracy vs. totalitarianism), it became possible - and even somewhat convincing - to understand geopolitics in a quasi-value-neutral way, merely as a struggle between two core hegemons competing over shifting alliances of client states in proxy conflicts.

If the ideology known as "Realism" is, as I say, almost metaphysical, then there is, parallel to this, the development of a philosophy that extended this logic fully into the metaphysical realm - namely, "Pragmatism."  This American-born philosophical trend, pioneered by great thinkers such as Charles Sander Pierce and William James, carried on by John Dewey and Jane Addams, and later (debatably) W.V.O. Quine, is probably now most identified with its great revivalist and transformer, Richard Rorty.  The essential doctrine of Pragmatism, as Rorty developed it, is that the very concept of "truth" is an unnecessary hypothesis which can be tossed aside; all that matters is "whatever works" - whatever beliefs are effective for achieving a desired result.  This is a philosophy fit for spies and secret agents, attempting to manipulate nations by adapting to their culture and gently, subtly reorienting them.  Is it anything more than a coincidence that Rorty's father was a member of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a notorious CIA front, and that Rorty wrote an essay defending the C.C.F. in which he admitted to partying with CIA agents?

Having discarded the supposedly outmoded notion of truth, we made room for multiculturalism and cultural relativism, which could almost be seen as the pop culture version of the ideology of Pragmatism (although they are actually importantly different).  According to this pop-culture version of Pragmatism, or rather pseudo-Pragmatism, the beliefs of all cultural systems are equally true - or equally false - or, forget "true" and "false," they are simply equal.  And in so far as this is a moral doctrine, it is an a priori deontological doctrine, rather than one that can be derived from any empirical fact.  Western cold war agents used this as a powerful tool in their arsenal against Marxism: Marxist doctrine cannot claim any special or unique monopoly on the truth.  Nothing can.  Of course, there was "blowback" to this operation, when their own tool was used against them.  We now know that Russian agents are using social media to overwhelm western media with so many viewpoints that no one knows what is true about anything.

But everything I have mentioned thus far pales in importance compared with the dominant metanarrative of postmodernity, and that is neoliberalism.  Although one can see the antecedents to neoliberalism in the marginalist economic theories of people like Alfred Marshall, William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger and Leon Walras in the late 19th century, "neoliberalism" was officially born (and given that name) at the Colloque Walter Lippman in 1938, led by people like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Raymond Aron, and continued in the 40s and after, led by the Montpelerin Society, including Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Karl Popper.  By the 1970s, it had established itself as the dominant economic theory in academia, among corporate-funded think tanks, and in international organizations such as the Trilateral Commission, and then it fully came to power in the 80s under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as well as others throughout the world.  But these administrations were often frustrated by uncooperative legislatures, and their policies only became fully implemented by people like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.  In the meantime, neoliberal economists from the University of Chicago (Milton Friedman was among them, as well as Arnold Harberger) had trained Chilean economists nicknamed "The Chicago Boys" who in turn used Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to implement their plan of economic austerity - the notorious "shock doctrine," which was then used by many regimes around the globe.

Postmodernism rose with the rise of neoliberalism, and falls with the fall of neoliberalism.  For most intents and purposes, they are the same.  But if we examine things more closely, in practice, the ideological constellation that held sway in much of the world for many of the last several decades has always been a compromise between pure, abstract neoliberal doctrine and the mundane, everyday reality of statist, bureaucratic, nationalist self-determination and great power politics.  Sometimes the balance shifted from one side to the other, but one might say that this balance was always: just enough neoliberal ideological doctrine to justify bureaucratic nationalist control, and just enough bureaucratic nationalist control to implement neoliberal doctrine.  Nowadays the balance seems to be shifting - somewhat, slightly - away from pure neoliberal ideology and towards bureaucratic nationalism.  But whether this really spells the end of neoliberalism or merely another phase of neoliberalism as it grows and adapts to shifting global realities remains to be seen.

There's another metanarrative of postmodernity to consider: the peace movement.  It's more than just a "co-exist" bumper sticker.  It's interesting to note that Marx and Engels, writing about the Crimean War in the 1850s, decried their opponents as "peacemongers."  (They also had other opponents: Mikhail Bakunin's "League of Peace and Freedom.")  But after their deaths, the Second International, supposedly modeled on their principles, itself became deeply involved in an international peace movement.  This became especially true in the run-up to World War I.  In 1912, they put out the Basel Manifesto, entitled "To Prevent War," and pledged internationalism.  Some even attempted desperate last minute diplomatic efforts to prevent the war.  Jean Jaurès could be considered representative of the pacifist and antimilitarist tendency in the Second International, until his assassination in 1914 by a bellicose French nationalist.  Others, such as Gustave Hervé, called for a general strike in case of war.  In any case this anti-war immediately collapsed as the war broke out, as the leaders of the major factions within the socialist movement contradicted their own statements in the Basel Manifesto and joined the war effort - the French section on the French side, the German section on the German side, and so on.  A minority of socialists considered this a total betrayal of everything the International had stood for and it quickly and quietly collapsed.  One of these was what was to become Lenin's movement, the Zimmerwald left, soon to become the communist Third International.  The Russian Revolution really began as a series of anti-war protests - the February Revolution in particular began as an anti-war demonstration as part of International Women's Day.  The Bolsheviks came to power famously promising "Peace, Land, and Bread."  But Lenin's position was not really pacifism.  He promoted his theory of "revolutionary defeatism" - he was against the imperialist war, but for a domestic class war.  Even so, there were other groups that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Second International that were pacifist in a more thoroughgoing way.  Some of them admired Tolstoy and his famous work, "The Kingdom of God is Within You."   In America, the perpetual socialist presidential candidate and co-founder of the I.W.W. (Wobblies), Eugene Debs, went to jail for promoting resistance to the draft.  In England, philosophers like Bertrand Russell inveighed against World War I.  And as the war dragged on, and the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas became more well known, the anti-war movement grew.

Some may not see the international peace movement as a clear metanarrative in the same manner that Marxism is, but the truth is that pacifism has a venerable pedigree of theory even older than Marxism, with contributions from some of the most esteemed philosophers, such as Kant's "Perpetual Peace," or William James's "The Moral Equivalent of War".  Even Hegel might be considered, in his own quirky way, a theorist of peace.  (Not to mention all of the religious thinkers, of nearly every religion, which would be far too many to enumerate.)  David Dow Lodge founded the New York Peace Society in 1815, before Marx was born, and the American Peace Society was begun by William Ladd in 1828, when Marx was only 10 years old.  Quickly many other pacifist organizations grew all over the world, and they always enjoyed both greater popular support and the ear of people in power far more than Marxism ever did.  By 1899, the first Hague Convention, followed by the second Hague Convention in 1909, attempted to establish international law for the first time and prevent a major war.  Of course, as in the socialist attempts at internationalism, this quickly collapsed with the outbreak of World War I and almost immediately several countries violated the agreements they had come to at these conventions.  From our perspective in the 21st century, the legacy of these conventions is ambiguous: on the one hand, they seem like laughable failures, but on the other, they seem like early articulations of an ideology that would become dominant in the second half of the 20th century as the United States became the global imperialist hegemon.

We've already discussed Nehru.  It's time to talk about his predecessor, Mohandas Gandhi.  As the leader of a successful, non-violent, anti-imperialist revolution (and/or the the establisher of a new neo-colonial system), Gandhi became an inspiration to movements around the world.  One of them, of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s portion of the civil rights movement.  Of course, the peace movement reached its global apogee during the protests against the Vietnam War in the United States and France, and similar and related struggles throughout the world.  During the late 60s and the early 70s, the peace movement developed not only its own peculiar analysis of geopolitics, but a kind of theory with epistemological, ontological, and metaphysical dimensions, as millions sought "inner peace" in various ways.  The collapse of the U.S.S.R. was a surprisingly peaceful transition, and there was some hope that the Arab Spring might be another such transition, though these hopes seem to have been largely misplaced.

Of course, all of this is part of the story of the triumph of liberalism and capitalism.  According to its boosters, it was once claimed that liberal democracies never go to war with each other: this is the famous "democratic peace" thesis, which had its forerunners in thinkers like Thomas Paine and Alexis de Tocqueville, but which was elaborated in the 20th century by Dean Babst and then worked out by Melvin Small and J. David Singer and popularized by Michael Doyle and Rudolph Rummel.  Again and again this promise has been made: World War I was supposedly "the war to end all wars," because in its wake, some theorists hoped, the kind of authoritarian aggressive empires and secret alliances would be replaced by national self-determination, liberal democracies, and transparent organizations of cooperation and international law.  In the late 20th century, the "democratic peace" thesis reached its zenith in the writings of the neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Larry Kaplan.  A popular book came out around this time - "Never At War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another" by Spencer Weart, which received positive reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere.  But just as this thesis was becoming the international consensus, it was immediately disproven, in the series of complex wars between the states of the quickly dissolving Yugoslavia: Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, all of which were multi-party democracies.  As it turned out, the "democratic peace" thesis had never been true, as historians would quickly point out.  Besides some obvious examples like the War of 1812, one could look throughout ancient world history, and see, for instance, the many wars between Athens and its neighbors.  (For those who are curious, wikipedia has an extensive list of wars between democracies.)  (In fact, Plato had the very opposite observation: he thought that there are reasons that democracy will make a republic even more war-like.  But I digress.)  In any case, even though the facts undercut a major justification for imperialistic "democracy promotion," this did not stop the United States and its allies from attempting to impose regimes that reflected its own values around the world.  At the climax of this global progression, Francis Fukuyama put a bow on it by declaring "The End of History."

There's one more metanarrative of postmodernity to consider - that of perennialism.  Perennialism, though it may constitute only a tiny subculture, has steadily grown in size and influence during the so-called postmodern era - and this should come as no surprise, since perennialism and postmodernism are ideologies that fit each other perfectly, hand in glove.  What is perennialism?  In a nutshell, it is the doctrine that all the world religions share a common core of universal metaphysical truths.  Perhaps this investigation into philosophia perennis has a better chance of forming an absolute metanarrative, broad and deep enough to avail a space necessary for all of the individual micronarratives to fit into it comfortably.  Perennialists usually see themselves as distinct from postmodernism and even the very opposite of postmodernism, when in truth theirs is the most postmodern ideology of all.  (And this irony is, itself, postmodern.)  No matter how widely held it may be, what is important for the present argument is that perennialism puts paid to the notion that ours in an era devoid of the possibility of overarching narratives, and indeed is capable of being a far more totalizing metanarrative than Hegelianism ever even aspired to be.  Hegel was a mere prologue to the new postmodern universalism.  Likewise, "Nothing is true; everything is permitted" was just a moment in the development of postmodernity's central idea, which is revealed in its fruition as the ultimate form of postmodernism, which is appearing on college campuses around the world: "Everything is true; nothing is permitted."  "Nothing is true; everything is permitted" was still committed to some form of capacity for critical thought, or what Hegel called the "negative," which has now become utterly obliterated.

One might object that perennialism is not new.  True.  But the same could be said for all of the metanarratives of postmodernity.  For that matter the same holds true for all the metanarratives of modernity and premodernity, as well.  Nothing is new under the sun.  What is salient about the particular stage of history under examination is that all of these ideologies - first and foremost, economic neoliberalism, but also national self-determination, great power politics, the Non-Aligned Movement, Realism, Pragmatism, multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and perennialism, being shaped, influenced, encouraged, and grown by underlying economic conditions, material forces, and relations of production, all came together, interlocked, reinforced each other, and became entrenched until together they formed a seemingly invincibly powerful ideological metanarrative.

And even if we put all religion, politics, and economics aside, there remain powerful metanarratives about where contemporary human society came from, what shaped it, and where it is going.  For instance, we could speak of the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, the formation of the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, the evolution of fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally hominins.  Darwinian natural selection makes for a fairly powerful metanarrative, with surprisingly extensive explanatory power.  Even broader than that is the Second Law of thermodynamics - particularly in its current form, bolstered and systematized by information theory - which not only has shaped the history of the universe thus far, but which discloses to us where the universe is headed with a rather ominous certainty: entropy.

For that matter, we might talk about postmodernism itself, at least as Lyotard conceives it, as an era of history characterized by supposed incredulity.  Doesn't this schema, which posits a before and after of modernism, itself constitute a kind of metanarrative?


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