A Marxist Critique of 'Third World

Postmodernism': Part One

- Keith Rosenthal


So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.
--Staniskov Andreski, 1972

True, many workers' strikes do succeed in protecting jobs or pension plans. At the same time, however, they also legitimize and consolidate the policies and orientations creating unemployment or dismantling the welfare state.
--Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash, 1998

Jean-Francois Lyotard, one of the more prominent 'postmodern' intellectuals of our day defines 'postmodern' as "incredulity toward metanarratives." 1 In other words, there is no objective truth that can be mapped out by human rationality in any sort of universal-historical manner. Nietzsche, more generally recognized as the father of postmodernism, denied that there was any reality beneath immediate experience, and he raised the cry: "Down with all hypotheses that have allowed the belief in a true world." 2

Postmodernism as an intellectual trend, developed as a reaction to the Enlightenment-the period in human history roughly corresponding to the advent of modern capitalism, when it became commonly thought that the development of human reason (and the constant increase in humanity's planned control over its surrounding) would lead to the emancipation of humanity from want, inequality, and general subjugation to necessity rather than desire. 3 One of the Enlightenment's main theoreticians was the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who saw the progression of human history as being correlated to the progression of human rationality. Hegel believed that it was only a matter of time before humanity was able to reach equilibrium with itself-that the natural sciences would be applied to social and economic relations, and that human society would reach a 'civilized' state of harmony consummated within the confines of modern democracy.

As humans lifted themselves from the 'dark' state of religious mysticism, they would simultaneously lift themselves from the 'dark' state of peasant life, subjected to famine, disease, and ignorance. Hegel's theory of the dialectic purported that rationality moves forward in the form of a discourse, in which two opposing ideas come into conflict with one another. Whichever idea corresponds the most to human harmony will prevail over the other; this 'enlightment' subsequently produces a new set of counterposed ideas, and so on, until human rationality-shaping human society as it progresses-reaches a zenith of human development: the Absolute Truth.

Now, there are many problems with the Hegelian method of dialectical idealism as such, but the main concern that arose in the minds of those to follow Hegel was the simple empirical reality that the so-called modern democracy, embodied in the bourgeois revolutions that rocked Europe and America in the 17th and 18th centuries, did not bring about the promised human emancipation. In fact, they brought about exploitation, colonialism, and political repression. Three main trends of thought stemmed from the developments in the 'modern' countries. The first, that of the "Right Hegelians", followed Hegel in the belief that the nation-state would eventually work out its troubles, and that objective stability simply needed time to catch up with the events that had recently transpired. 4 The second trend, that of the "Left Hegelians", drew the conclusion that the bourgeois form of economic society was simply not the end of the dialectical process-that the world was being subjected to a one-sided rationalization by the capitalist ruling class, and that another revolution was necessary to release the 'rationality being accumulated' within the burgeoning working class. Karl Marx emerged from this trend, but would take Hegel's idealistic dialectic and make a revision of sorts; Marx applied the dialectical process to the material world.

Rather than the world emanating from the heads of humans, history had an internal material logic defined, simply, by the ways in which humans at any given time reproduced themselves. In other words, human societies evolved due to economic factors-tension between the forces and relations of production. Every advance in human productivity (as humans are constantly seeking to optimize their means of subsistence) opened up the possibilities for a new arrangement in the social order. Thus, revolutions did not occur from the triumph of reason during any given epoch, but rather from the strains imposed by newly emerging economic classes coming into conflict with vestigial relations born of ancient economic conditions.5

The third trend to emerge from the 'modern predicament'-the forerunner of today's postmodernists-was championed by Nietzcshe, and was thoroughly anti-modern. Nietzsche did not identify the problem of modernity as a certain type of rationality, reason in the hands of a specific class, or that modernity hadn't gone far enough, as the Left Hegelians did. For Nietzsche, the imposition of human reason upon the world was itself the problem. 6 In essence, his theory stated that the individual is a historically contingent construct; that human history has been defined by competing human interests in which each human exerted a 'will to power' over the other, and that these interests play out in a heterogeneous world made up of a multiplicity of realities; that the will to power has not led to progress but rather various forms of human domination; and finally, that all human thought is merely a perspective on the world, couched within specific conceptual frameworks, and incapable of uncovering an antecedently existing reality of the world.7 The world, then, becomes an aesthetic collage of disparate and mutually unintelligible cultures; and the desired end would be to create spaces of autonomy in which the various 'social images' could be left free to float through time.

This postmodern ideology (simple anti-modernism, really), which was for a time destroyed with the increasing deprivation of a modern industrial working class, savage colonialism, racial and sexual oppression, and two world wars, has recently found a new lease on life. Repackaged in the terminology of 'radical democracy', 'social majorities', 'pluriversity', and borrowing heavily from contemporary Maoist political thought, postmodern intellectuals have once again gained a place in the academic spotlight. 8 More of a movement of post-1968 demoralization than an actual intellectual breakthrough, some postmodernists are attempting to revitalize this ideology by "de-professionalizing" it and applying it to the grassroots struggles of indigenous people fighting modern-day global capitalism-taking as their main example the resistance of the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico. As the archetypal theory of grassroots postmodernism, I want to draw mainly from the work of Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash, who lay out the ideas quite cogently (or as cogently as one can for a theory that contends mutual incomprehensibility between peoples) in a book they co-authored titled, Grassroots Postmodernism: Remaking the soil of cultures.

I have far too many disagreements with the book to plausibly elaborate upon them all within the scope of this piece, so I will break down my criticism into several main contentions of this specific genre of postmodernity. First, that the main divide in the world is between the "social minorities" (First World peoples) and "social majorities" (Third World, or Two-Thirds World, peoples). Second, that the nation-state as a modern entity is disappearing, and in any event, the best way to deal with state power is to ignore it or attempt to "reform" it. And finally, that it is impossible or undesirable to develop a universal theory mapping human history and society today.

In criticizing the main tenets of grassroots postmodernity, I will be upfront with the reader from the start that I am approaching this endeavor from the framework of a revolutionary socialist and a Marxist. Seeing as how a large aspect of the latest resurgence of postmodern thought followed on the heels of the collapse of the authoritarian Stalinist regimes throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, I hope to show in my criticisms both the distance between classical revolutionary Marxism and the forms of state-capitalist Stalinism which have recently melted away, but also, that the choices confronting so-called Third World peoples today seeking to resist the deleterious effects of global capitalism are not simply between national autonomy or "localized" postmodern cultural spaces in which to retreat in incredulity from the modern world.

"Social Majorities" and "Social Minorities"-Maoism Revisited

As for the specificity of cultural difference, Jameson's [First World-Third World] theoretical conception tends, I believe, in the opposite direction-namely, that of homogenization. Difference between the First World and the Third is absolutized as an Otherness, but the enormous cultural heterogeneity of social formations within the so-called Third World is submerged within a singular identity of 'experience'. 9
--Aijaz Ahmad

It is far too easy to simply characterize complex ideas and phenomenon in terms of A=Good, B=Bad. Especially in a "pluriverse", one would think such dichotomies would be shied away from. But we are made to believe by Esteva and Prakash that the world today is divided into two main camps: white and non-white, industrialized and non-industrialized, modern and pre-/non-/post-modern, the "social minorities" and the "social majorities"; in a word, the First and Third World. 10 In their defense, they do use a sentence of their 223-page book to note the heterogeneity within these global formations, but other than that, the assumption is made that all of the various 'trends' within the two global groups have more in common with each other than with 'trends' between the two groups. On the one hand, this categorization is completely crude and apes the very 'absolute categorization' that it ostensibly seeks to undermine, and on the other hand, I believe that this categorization is simply mistaken and quite disarming as a world outlook for peoples oppressed by global capital.

The first question that must be asked is: who exactly constitutes the social minorities and majorities? We are given a hint: "the 'social minorities' are consuming the natural and cultural spaces of the world's 'social majorities'-with the stated intentions of developing them for 'progress', economic growth and humanization." 11 Do the social minorities then include everyone in the advanced capitalist countries? Do they include the worker at McDonalds making minimum wage? Do they include the majority of Mexicans engaged in wage-labor? How about the hundreds of millions of people scattered throughout the so-called Third World who are engaged in industrial production? How about the 1 million peasants who are estimated to be leaving the countryside for the city per annum in Mexico-are they in transition between "majority" and "minority" status? Do striking Oklahoman teachers, fighting back against state budgets which are being cut to pay for huge corporate tax breaks, have more in common with their fellow, corporate Americans, than with peasants in Mexico fighting back against the theft of their resources by these same corporations? Does an impoverished Indian peasant have more in common with a wealthy Indian landowner, than he or she does with an impoverished transit worker in Germany?

The point that I am trying to make is that the world as we know it is divided into two hostile camps, but they are not demarcated along cultural or national lines. Rather, they are demarcated along class lines-and this process of the 'proletarianization' of the so-called Third World is a phenomenon that is accelerating not decelerating in the modern world:

Employment in manufacturing grew by 65 per cent in Turkey between 1960 and 1982, 179 per cent in Egypt between 1958 and 1981, 623 per cent in Tanzania between 1953 and 1981, 57 per cent in Zimbabwe . . . 1970-80, 212 per cent in Brazil 1970-82, 34 per cent in Peru 1971-1981 and an astonishing 2,500 per cent in South Korea between 1965 and 1982! 12

Esteva and Prakash write, moreover, as if the struggles of workers in America or Europe are completely inconsequential to the struggles of the so-called social majorities. Or worse, that workers in the former countries somehow benefit from the exploitation and degradation of workers and peasants in 'Third World' countries. Currently, there are around one million Mexicans working in maquiladora, 'sweatshop' plants inside the northern border of Mexico. US, European, and Japanese capital gain the skills of Mexican workers at about one tenth the hourly wage that prevails just across the border in the US. 13 It is no small coincidence that simultaneously as workers' standards of living were rising in Western countries during the 1950s and 60s, national liberation struggles were improving the conditions of people in non-Western countries. Inversely, during the past several decades, as low-paying jobs and industry have sprung up all over the so-called Third World, leading to a decline in wages-and an increase in poverty-for half of the world's poorest countries, we have simultaneously seen a decline in the wages and living standards for people in Western countries, as wages are being forced down due to threat of 'job relocation'. 14

Further, it is quite infantile to completely write-off the struggles of workers against global capitalism as, at best, irrelevant. Esteva and Prakash write, "Strikes and struggles like those of the French workers, however, are only brakes designed to slow down the pace of transformation or to reduce the damage of the 'Global Project'. They are not challenging the project itself, or its foundations, but, instead, the way in which it is being implemented or its unequal benefits and impacts." 15 Later, the two neo-postmodernists go on to say that workers' resistance actually buttress the capitalist state by putting demands upon it, thereby strengthening its "centrality" to the lives of workers. 16 As if indigenous peoples demanding "autonomous recognition" from the state does not ask something of it; as if demanding better sanitation, health, education, jobs (as the Zapatistas initially did) from the state could be anything more than brakes on the 'Global Project'; as if carving out "postmodern spaces" while explicitly refusing to do a thing about the real, military, economic, and political power of global capitalism will accomplish anything but complicity to its continuation.

The point is not to disparage the courageous, necessary, and important acts of resistance conducted by indigenous people in response to neoliberalism, but rather to show that any action that hinders the plan and free mobility of global capital is progressive. No struggle, anywhere, begins organically with the plan of overthrowing the system that oppresses it-it begins first by reacting to some sort of local privation, and hopefully, can generalize into a struggle that then grows into an assault on the fundamentals of that which has led to the privation. Esteva and Prakash themselves exultingly cite Foucault's proclamation that people no longer need ideals or models of a design for the whole of society as a precondition for political action.17 But when French workers go on strike without raising as a demand the complete overhaul of capitalism and imperialism-with no compromises!-our postmodern authors write them off for not "challenging the project itself!"

Workers, in fact, are in a particularly unique position in capitalist society. Peasants, or peoples on the outside of the global capitalist system, at most, can impede its encroachment upon their 'spaces', but not fundamentally change or destroy the process of accumulation built into the capitalist mode of production. This can only be done from within. If it were even attempted from without, it would take the form of a minority-led armed uprising, seizing state power-or constructing a new state-with which to rule over the people they would have 'inherited'. Esteva and Prakash are correct to reject such an action, but they fail to see how capitalism can actually be dismantled. They seem to have reserved themselves to the idea that capitalism will always exist within the Western countries-that it somehow 'fits' the psyche of Western peoples-and therefore, the most they can ask is for a world of pluralities in which they are allowed to live peaceably next to global capitalism. The problem is: capitalism is based upon competition between the ruling classes of the various countries of the world, and thus must constantly expand in the search for raw materials and cheaper labor in order to out-compete their competitors, lest they crushed by that competition.

However, this competition is funded by the exploitation of the working class-that class which capitalism spawns everywhere it goes around the world-and which represents so many seeds of demise sown by global capital. There's an old expression: workers with their arms folded have more power than all of the capitalists of the world. Workers are in a unique position to challenge the life of capitalism itself. If workers don't work, profits don't flow, and capital will be unable to expand anywhere in the world. Moreover, if workers come to see that they are the majority, and that they are commonly abused by capital, then there is the potential for workers to seize control of production, and construct a new state on the basis of their common ownership of the means of production.

The final reason why the world cannot be so easily divided between 'social majorities' and 'social minorities' is that it presupposes that there is some inherent cultural difference between peoples of the West and peoples of the non-Western world. In other words, if say, class and economics, universal traits of human societies, are not the main factor defining the world, then you are stuck with a reverse-Othering; you are stuck with the theory that the Western race is simply a pathological race. If capitalism and imperialism developed to such a pre-eminent stage amongst Western peoples in a way that it did not amongst non-Western peoples (the theory goes), it is because Western rationality leads Western people to ontologically be predisposed to competition, violence, greed, and all of the other horrible characteristics associated with advanced capitalism.

Fortunately for Western peoples, the theory that capitalism or class are specifically Western constructs is simply not true. It is true that capitalism developed first in Europe, but this has more to do with the specific mode of feudalism associated with landlordism that one saw in Europe as opposed to the tributary mode of feudalism one saw elsewhere in the world at the time.18 However, classes existed all over the world during the pre-modern era. We saw classes emerge and develop into empires organically out of the tributary-based feudal economies of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, West Africa, and Mexico. 19 In Mexico, indigenous Oaxacans were first "colonized" by the indigenous Aztecs even before the Spanish were around!20 And in many of these ancient, non-Western feudal societies, we saw capitalism emerging in the form of commerce and trade well before interaction with the West.21

I shall return to the significance of this last piece in a forthcoming section, but for now let me conclude with the idea that dividing the world between First and Third World is incredibly inadequate and inaccurate in our world today. Much like was the case with the Maoists who gained popularity in the tumult of the 1960s student radicalizations, a postmodern ideology that ignores the main demarcation of class and economic relations within oppressed and oppressor countries, will not offer a politic of emancipation to the oppressed peoples of the world. It surely will not offer emancipation to workers living amongst the "social minorities"; nor will it offer emancipation, in the end, to peasants and workers living in the countries amongst the "social majorities". Rather than advocate for their independent class interests, workers and poor peasants of the Third World are to uncritically band themselves to the broader "civil society", identifying themselves along cultural lines with wealthier peasants, landowners, students, and small capitalists-people with whom they share little common economic interest. This is not to downplay the importance of national self-determination, but merely to say that being exploited by a Mexican capitalist or landowner rather than an American equivalent, is not liberation.

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Keith Rosenthal is an activist in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at keithmr81@yahoo.com.

1. Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990) p. 3.
2. Ibid, p. 146.
3. Ibid, p. 11.
4. Ibid, p. 64.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid, p. 65.
8. Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash, Grassroots Post-modernism. Remaking the soil of cultures, (London: Zed Books, 1998).
9. Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory (London: Verso Books, 1992) p. 104.
10. Esteva and Prakash, p. 4.
11. Ibid.
12. Against Postmodernism, p. 125
13. Lance Selfa, "Mexico After the Zapatista Uprising", International Socialism Journal 75, July 1997.
14. See United Nations Human Development Report (1997,1999,2000).
15. Esteva and Prakash, p. 9.
16. Ibid, pp. 29-30.
17.Ibid, p. 167.
18. It would not fit the scope of this article to elaborate upon the different forms of feudalism that developed in the world prior to the 16th century, and how they each facilitated or hampered the development of commodity trade and capitalism. For a great analysis of this dynamic see Alex Callinicos, Theories and Narratives, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995) pp. 165-179, section on 'The Rise of the West'.
19. Ibid, p. 175.
20. Esteva and Prakash, p. 111.
21. Theories and Narratives, p. 175.

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