I think it’s fair to say that Helen Pluckrose is no fan of Post-modernism – either as a school of thought in our universities or as an intellectual influence on the identity politics of the woke Left.
In fact, she was one of the perpetrators of an audacious hoax in which seven papers full of deliberate post-modern gobbledegook were submitted to ‘respected’ academic journals and accepted for publication. If her purpose was to prove that Post-modernists take complete rubbish seriously, she succeeded.
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However, she does not go along with everything that her intellectual opponents are acccused of. In particular, she objects when Right-wingers describe Post-modern Lefties as being “Cultural Marxists”.
In an essay for Areo, Pluckrose explains what the critics of Cultural Marxism claim it to be, i.e. “a straightforward transference of Marxist ideas of an oppressed and oppressor economic class to identity categories like race, gender and sexuality”.
But, she goes on to argue, the term is describing something that doesn’t really exist. Though identity politics is certainly linked to Post-modernism, Post-modernism is distinct from Marxism:
“Postmodernism and particularly identity studies are much younger than Marxism and so densely theoretical that they are difficult to relate current problems to. Marxism, on the other hand, has easily graspable tenets and an authoritarian and bloody history to point to and frighten people with.”
Technically, this is correct. You can be a post-modernist without being a Marxist and vice versa. Whether or not post-modern ideas would have emerged if Marxism had never existed is an interesting question, but quite clearly post-modernism, even in its politicised Leftist form, is not a variety of Marxism.
However, I’d argue that the parallels between the two schools of thought – Marxism and post-modernism – are so striking that the use of “Cultural Marxism” as a convenient label is not only excusable but useful.
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What one might call ‘Classical Marxism’ is primarily concerned with economics. Post-modernism is primarily concerned with culture. The former contests control over the means of production (i.e. industry, agriculture, etc) in order to overturn perceived hierarchies of class; the latter contests control over the means of social construction in order to overturn perceived hierarchies of privilege.
What is ‘social construction’? Well, to the extent that post-modern concepts can be pinned down, a social construct is the meaning and value placed upon something not by objective truth but by the subjective judgements of a society. The primary means of social construction is language, the use of which is skewed by the unequal distribution of power – with supposed ‘truths’ defined in the interests of the powerful (indeed, control of language is power).
Just as Marxists believe that workers should control the means of production (so that it is used to produce the goods and services that meet the needs of the people), Post-modernists believe that oppressed people should control the means of social construction so that they can manufacture the ‘realities’ that suit them best – not so much “to each according to his need”, but “to me according to my truth”.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, post-modernists are so keen to establish a parallel with Marxism that they’ve invented a cultural equivalent to economic concept of scarcity. Just about every form of economics, whether socialist, capitalist or otherwise, starts with the idea that resources are scarce and that human societies therefore need a way of allocating them to the best possible effect. And it’s true – thus far in our history, most material resources are limited and exhaustible.
The same is not generally true of cultural resources. In a free society, there are few limits on the words we can utter, the opinions we can hold, the arguments we can enter into. In the absence of totalitarian controls, language is inexhaustible. Furthermore, thanks to technology, once scarce resources, such as information, news, art and entertainment are becoming ever more affordable if not completely free. This doesn’t suit the quasi-Marxist worldview of the post-modernists at all, which is why they set such store by concepts like ‘voice’, ‘mansplaining’, and ‘cultural appropriation’ – all of which suggest that the cultural goods are in short supply and unfairly allocated at a time when that’s never been less true.
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Of course, not everything in the cultural sphere is super-abundant. While publishing one’s views in the digital age has never been easier or cheaper, that doesn’t guarantee you an audience. And, by definition, there can only be a limited number of dominant narratives in the world. So are the dominant narratives of the 21st century as oppressive as the post-modernists would have us believe? Obviously not, says Pluckrose:
“The dominant cultural narrative of UK society is not that men are superior to women, white people superior to black, Asian and minority ethnic people, or heterosexuals superior to homosexuals. We see this in the widespread support for gender equality, racial equality and issues like same sex marriage.”
How can we live in an “imperialist, heterocentrist, white supremacist patriarchy” if mainstream culture explicitly and repeatedly repudiates these things? Furthermore, why are most people hostile to woke ideology – including majorities of groups that are its ostensible beneficiaries?
The woke Left’s answer is that the supremacism of privileged groups in society is covert and that non-privileged groups are ‘internalising’ their oppression – hence concepts like ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘internalised misogyny’. Plenty of Marxist parallels there – from the the paranoia over concealed class enemies to the patronising diagnosis of ‘false consciousness’ as a malady of the working class.
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The parallels go on and on (as parallels tend to do), but I’ll conclude with this one: in taking control of the means of production/social construction, Marxist and Post-modern intellectuals both understand that ‘the people’ needn’t trouble themselves to do so directly, but can instead rely on a bureaucracy to act on their behalf – a bureaucracy to be staffed by the intellectuals, of course. In other words, the aim is to replace one privileged hierarchy with another.
In biology, there’s a phenomenon called convergent evolution in which species, though distantly-related and geographically-separated, adapt to similar ecological niches. In doing so they come to resemble one another in form and habit. The resemblance may be so close that the name of one species is often applied to its imitators. Examples include the mole and the marsupial mole; the flying squirrel and the squirrel glider; the anteater, the scaly anteater (a.k.a. the pangolin) and spiny anteater (a.k.a. the echidna).
We should think of Marxists and Cultural Marxists in the same way.