Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Left, Right and De-centered

Making sense of the world always presents certain dangers. Last night my partner and I discussed various philosophical frameworks that use the word "post" in their primary formulations. Post-modernism, post-materialism, post-liberalism; each carries with it some notion of both a break from what they proceed from, as well as containing the challenge of preventing. or at least eschewing, totalizing views. We are told, on the surface at least, that we must always remain vigilant regarding essentialist statements, and must constantly maintain that anything we can say about the world is contingent, and never to be assumed as taken for granted.

The style of post-modern analysis, of course, extends beyond the jargon of the ivory tower, and allowed for the emerging multiplicities of various minoritarian narratives and subsequent political and social movements. However, the great challenge has been, and remains, how to integrate these positions into a more comprehensive worldview, or system of worldviews that negotiates the position of the minor with the power of the major. The problem is two fold; on the one hand, there is the problem of an infinite regress of contingent propositions, the "nihilistic" tendency that post-meta narrative has oft been accused of. On the other hand, there is the problem of relevance, where by novel formulations of "oppressed" groups remain fully embedded in hegemonic capitalist discourse.

At this point you well may be accusing me of useless jargon, so let me try and put some of this in terms of "real-world" examples (forgive me that this is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis, but a starting point, this is a blog post after all). A simple example of the regress problem can be seen in large scale in the idea of Balkanization. It is not simply the historical and political process of the breakup of the Balkan states, but the notion of fragmentation. Its a question that will undoubtedly emerge (if its not already) in the ongoing breakup of oppressive regimes in the Arab world. Balkanization gained momentum from the notion of discrete groups emerging as communitarian movements arrayed in opposition to "totalizing" constructions (Yugoslavia). Similarly, one can view Iraq, and other Arab nations, as artificial political constructions based on post war geopolitical considerations rather than natural affinity of the various communities contained therein. To paraphrase Dr. Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, there is no Arab state, it simply is not there. What we find instead is a strategy against imposed discourse - the idea of "Iraq" or "Syria" - and instead a sectarian vision with shifting allegiances that more often than not transcend literal national boundaries.

Of course, in the case of the Middle East, the urge to "make sense" imposes a new meta-narrative on the situation. As I have written here and elsewhere before, one can view the emerging situation in the Middle East as the aligning of forces into two major camps: The Saudi-directed Sunni world, and the Iranian-led Shi'a world. This of course, helps us to make sense of the top-down geopolitical machinations of regional competitors, but it fails to account for further fragmented communities. How many countries should there be in the Middle East? Surely the Kurds deserve their own homeland, but what about the Marsh Arabs, or Alawites? Does the hyper-communitarianism of the post-modern age have any rational basis for limitations on self-determination?

The Western Liberal response generally comes down to projecting onto these fragmentations the idea of totalizing liberal systems. In other words, as long as all of these communities have access to the major democratic institutions - electoral, legal, socialistic - then no one should fear for their liberty. However, even we progressive minded liberals often neglect the implicit ideology present in our own nobly regarded institutions. For the liberal West, the problem isn't the totality of the system, its that occasionally it goes bad, and it requires reform. the Occupy Movement surely isn't a monolithic thing, and I know that some within it have spoken about socialism or anarchism as ways forward. However, in its early inceptions, some elements within Occupy resisted the temptation to declare the movement "anti-capitalist," and held to a more modest proposal of reform of the lobbying system, the electoral system and tax law. Thus emerges the question of relevance; the 99% may not be the 99% because of certain practices within an otherwise egalitarian narrative, but precisely because the system requires  that there be a 99%. In this case the movement has simply identified the structural relationship that defines its existence, but it remains embedded in the political economy and logic of late capitalism, and perhaps this is because the temptation to reassert an alternative meta-narrative (Marxism, anarchism) is resisted in favor of respect and tolerance for liberal institutions that simple require some tinkering.

To the right of this, is the totalitarianism of God's kingdom. I believe that we are living in a moment that is defined by the ascendancy of a sort of global conservative ideology that is rising from the ashes of the current (though perhaps not complete) failure of the left to make sense of the world. The vacuum has been filled by the God Men, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. This class of power excels at making sense of the world, and in a time when many feel that the end of the world is easier to achieve than the healing of the world, God Men have a ready audience. It is thus incumbent on the left to not only represent the needs of ever fragmenting communities, but to envision a world in which common values can unite disparate groups without a top-down reductionist narrative that forces affinities, rather than nurtures affinities that already exist.


  1. Maybe if God Women were present this approach to the world would be different. Fantastic post. Very elucidating.

  2. Thought-provoking post. Especially the last paragraph. It seems to me that these post-x frameworks are simply unsatisfying to a lot of people when compared to the security and certainty of totalizing frameworks. And there's the rub: how do these two frameworks even talk to each other? Is that even possible?

    1. Indeed, I think it is a central issue in our contemporary political world, where these two worlds are so far apart. Thanks for the read. BTW, looking forward to your next post!