Many thanks to LN for translating this essay by Karl-Olov Arnstberg from the Swedish blog Invandring och mörkläggning:
Sunday Chronicle: Postmodernism and truth
September 4, 2022
Of the classic questions of philosophy is how we are able to know anything about existence and being (ontology).
Does reason provide an objective view of the world? In Plato’s cave analogy, a group of people sit chained in a cave, their faces turned towards the cave’s interior. Behind them is a wall, and behind the wall burns a fire. Between the wall and the fire walk people, holding up objects above the wall. The fire casts shadows on the cave walls, and these shadows are all the prisoners in the cave can see, and they spend their time trying to make sense of this blurred reflection of existence. Many people are also familiar with the French philosopher René Descartes’ short sentence Cogito ergo sum, which means “I think, therefore I exist”. Everything can be doubted, but not that one thinks. At least that we can know that we exist.
A century on, the Enlightenment’s answer to the question of what we can know about reality is to put our faith in reason. Our senses are what tell us about reality. Those usually placed in the display window are Voltaire, Diderot and the encyclopaedists of France, but I would rather highlight three English geniuses, because it is England that will be the cradle of industrialism and therefore of our modern age. The three names are Francis Bacon as an empiricist and scientist, Isaac Newton as a physicist and mathematician, and John Locke with his writings on empiricism, reason and liberal politics.
Soon there was a counter-movement that argued that reason was not at all sufficient to understand existence and the world. Reason does not provide answers to existential questions. What about belief in God, in traditional values such as duty, sacrifice and solidarity? Moreover, reason is irreducibly subjective. People are not at all in agreement about what their minds tell them about the world. Take the Indian sutra that has spread around the world as the Buddha’s parable.
A king has brought an elephant to his palace and asks the city’s blind men to examine it. As the men feel each part of the elephant, the king asks them, one by one, to describe what an elephant is. One man has felt the elephant’s head and describes it as a pot, another has felt its ear and describes it as a basket or a sieve. One has felt the tusks and describes a coulter, and another has felt the legs and talks about tree trunks. They have all experienced the elephant in different ways and cannot agree.
I will not stray further into the catacombs of pre-modern philosophy, but what I want to say is that the truth about our existence is and remains an unsolved problem. As John Ajvide Lindqvist writes in his new novel Reality: there is no way to prove that the world was not created five seconds ago and that everything we think we remember is a fabrication put into our heads by an alien entity. There is no way to know.
The 20th century is the century of reason, and the advances are amazing; liberal politics, democracy, free markets, scientific progress and technological innovation. But industrialism also builds a class society. It gets its counter-movement in the form of communism, which believed that the contradictions of capitalism would lead to revolution. Eventually, the exploited workers would have had enough. As we all know, that was not the case. In the First World War, the proletarians chose not Marx, Lenin and socialism but nationalism. The lesson for the communists was that revolution would not come by itself. The proletariat needed the support and guidance of an intellectual elite. Such an elite was built above all by the Frankfurt School.
The First World War also led to a different and revanchist movement. Today we see communism and national socialism as two extremes — one on the left, the other on the right. Moreover, we classify Marxism as sophisticated and intellectual, while Nazism is the ideology of the rabble-rousers. However, it wasn’t really that simple in 1930s Germany. The Nazis also had an elite and a respectable academic tradition with philosophers like Schopenhauer, Herder and Nietzsche. Marx, in a corner, was also involved.
The two ideologies were siblings. For example, both Goebbels and Mussolini were socialists in their political thinking. In The Road to Serfdom (English first edition 1944), the Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek writes that when students, after studying on the Continent, returned to England, they were unsure whether they wanted to be Communists or Nazis. On the other hand, they were quite clear that they hated capitalism. The big difference was that National Socialism put the nation and the people first, while Communism focused on the class and the proletariat. Neither ideology had anything whatsoever in common with democracy. The Communists were committed to the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Nazis to the Aryan race, i.e. the dictatorship of the German people.
Since Germany was the great loser of the Second World War, Nazism perished as an ideology. The second sibling, as we know, survived — even though its days were numbered. The first attack came in 1956 when the Hungarian uprising was crushed, the second in 1968 with the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Soviet power exposed the totalitarian core of communism, in all its horror. Then, when East Germany collapsed in 1989 and the Soviet Union a few years later, the saga of communism should have been over. It should be as ideologically dead as Nazism.
Not least because the much-hated capitalism is showing itself at its best. Science becomes its most important tool, with its affirmation of reason and truth, a necessary condition for the advanced technological development that leads to a better society. It was not only the rich who became so much richer, but capitalism is the foundation of prosperity. The poor also became richer. Moreover, capitalism turns out to be perfectly compatible with democracy and civil liberties. This is in contrast to all the socialist experiments that have ended in totalitarianism and economic failure, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, North Korea, Ethiopia and Mozambique.
The question is how the West’s intellectual elite, the one that leans heavily to the left, should behave. Will it roll over on its back and admit it was wrong? In his book The Explanation of Postmodernism (Timbro2014), Stephen R.C. Hicks writes:
Imagine yourself as an intelligent and initiated socialist confronted with such facts. How would you react? You have strong ties to socialism: you feel that socialism is true; you want it to be true; all your dreams of a peaceful and prosperous future you have pinned on socialism, even the hope of curing all present social ills. This would be a moment of truth for anyone who has been forced to watch their cherished hypothesis run aground on the rocky slopes of reality. So what do you do? Do you abandon your theory in favor of hard facts, or do you try to find a way to maintain faith in your theory?
The answer Hicks himself gives is that socialists find another epistemological path, postmodernism. Rather than abandon their ideology, they remake it. All the big names of postmodernism, without exception, are politically far to the left. Their starting point will be that the 20th century is the century which, with its icy reason and ideals of truth, caused the greatest suffering to humanity. Modernism, capitalism and science are a sibling group that has led humanity into disaster. That is why man must find a different approach to reality, the problematic reality whose true nature we do not know.
The great shift is that postmodernism asserts that the essence of human existence is not truth but power. The truth so cherished by science is really just a form of power. Power exercises its oppression and all the oppressed of the earth must now be helped by intellectuals in the struggle against power. Postmodernism becomes an activist strategy against the oppression of reason and capitalism. If humanity is to achieve this new utopia, the goal is not classlessness but equality and justice. So it is the same old enemy, capitalism, but it is no longer the workers who are to be liberated but the oppressed.
The starting point of postmodernism is that we humans are not on earth to think, but to feel, to live. Capitalism creates one-dimensional citizens, trapped in the world of materialism and rationalism. In universities, therefore, professors should not guide their students in the search for truth, but they should guide them in tearing off all the disguises of power. All claims to objectivity and rationality conceal an oppressive political agenda. Language is not the tool of truth, but of power. In postmodern discourse, truth is explicitly dismissed, and consistency is not important. The previously quoted Stephen Hicks writes:
Postmodernists argue that the West is deeply racist, even though they are well aware that the West was the first in world history to abolish slavery and that racism is on the decline only in those areas where Western ideas have taken hold.
Post-modernists argue that the West is deeply sexist despite being well aware that women in the West were the first to gain the right to vote and to sign contracts, as well as many other opportunities that most of the world’s women are still without.
Postmodernists argue that Western capitalist countries are cruel to and subjugate their poorer citizens and get rich at their expense, even though they are well aware that poor people in the West are far richer than poor people anywhere else in the world, both in terms of material wealth and the ability to improve their own situation.
There is also another paradox. By tradition, intellectual socialists see themselves as defenders of tolerance, decency and fair play. In the era of modernity, socialists were also advocates of evidence, reason, logic and tolerance. This changes when they become postmodernists. Their argumentation becomes more implacable. They stigmatize and smear their political opponents. They generalise and hit below the belt. Activist feminists see all men as rapists, and maintain that the core commonality of Western society, namely the heterosexual patriarchal family, should be consigned to history. The Pride movement liberates all the sexually oppressed, and anti-racism attacks the fundamentally morally corrupt racist society. Nazism is brought to life; it is needed as the epitome of ultimate evil. For example, the author Jonas Gardell writes this about the Sweden Democrats in Expressen on August 31, 2022:
SD is really all the most disgusting, petty and lowest gathered in one party. It has been said that they have been normalised, that they have adapted, that they have softened the sharp edges. Hell. They are the same as they have always been. Hate’s own party, rooted in Bevara Sverige Svenskt [Keep Sweden Swedish] and Nazism. Still in Bevara Sverige Svenskt and Nazism. So we can give up on SD. They will never be anything but hate.
We are a pretty large group of dissidents who have been called Nazis without ever coming close to affirming that ideology.
I think the aggressive activism stems from the fact that the new socialist doctrine doesn’t have its feet on the ground, either. Above all, the followers have to convince themselves, and then they need a strong enemy to hate. However, and this is so important that I put it in bold: they know they are wrong.
Nietzsche is one of the thinkers the postmodernists have embraced, which is a bit odd because so did the Nazis. In Morgenröthe he writes:
When some fail in their endeavor, they angrily exclaim that the whole world may well perish /…/ since I cannot have anything, no one in the whole world shall have anything! The world shall be nothing!” (After Hicks).
Nietzsche says this is a nihilistic approach. Yes, but you could also call it immature and childish. I have the image of a five-year-old before my eyes, a furious five-year-old stamping his foot and screaming that he no longer wants his toys. Everything will be destroyed! That image could also apply to the postmodernists. They know they are wrong, and that is why they are so angry. Socialism is the loser of history, and it didn’t help much that they reshaped themselves into postmodernists. They know and they hate what they know. They hate the winners because they won and they hate themselves because they chose the losing side. The one who hates, destroys.
— Karl-Olov Arnstberg