Once, postmodernism and its protagonists identified themselves as freedom fighters – and probably still do. Their argument goes like this: The universalism of modernity and the logic of the general in industrialized societies, as the German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz calls it, would have led to normalization, standardization, and leveling. So, the Other would not just get excluded and oppressed in general, but individually this logic of the general and its pressure for normalization would have brought the oppression of many people too – of homosexuals, for instance. You would just not be allowed to be yourself. You would just not be free. But freedom would mean being allowed to do what you want.
This is how postmodernists pleaded and fought for an “anything goes”. They deconstructed and disassembled the great narratives of society; then they congratulated themselves for destroying the wasteland of the oppressing generality of modernity. Finally, that is their claim, real living could begin. Now would be the time to enjoy it. Finally, you would not need to stand in line and shout “yes, Sir”, or to adjust yourself to others any more.
But otherness should not just be acknowledged in order to maximize freedom for many people – such as homosexuals. Soon, more and more people demanded individualization and self-realization. Nobody should stand in line any more. Be yourself! Be happy! That is how our culture became more and more colourful, and how the rainbow became the symbol of the achievements of this long fight for freedom.
Indeed, it is a great accomplishment, that, after such a long time, homosexuals are finally allowed to marry in many Western countries. Sure, this marriage ban was a discriminatory tradition. Hardly anyone on the Left would query this. Of course, it was right to abolish such a discrimination. This emancipation was right and an important step.
But this fight for freedom was fought under a false premise. Postmodernists deny the tasks of finding the truth and the general. So, nowadays we have one frontline of the new Right and Left postmodernists, and both fight against universalism. This causes big collateral damage. One of those damages is the presidency of Donald Trump. Indeed, I think Trump was rendered possible because of postmodern relativism and, indeed, it also meant he could become the first postmodern president. But why and how? Let us begin with Trump´s tweet from 3 January 2018. In this he announced an award for the most corrupt and dishonest media. And in the end, he really did what he had announced.
For sure, Trump was thinking about the media, which would spread fake news, at least in his eyes: CNN and the New York Times. Let us hold on for a moment to understand what had happened. The president of the United States – this country run by manifest destiny and a global sense of mission, with the MO of being a moral leader – believes that many of the things CNN and the New York Times are telling us are lies. In the pre-postmodern age, no president would have criticized the media and the logic of the general in such a fundamental way. But nowadays anything goes. So, the search for truth is abolished. Since a happy thought of diversity and an anything goes was preached, such things are possible. And this is why we have to take a look at the New York Times, again.
Probably the New York Times is one of the best newspapers in the world. But for a long time, it was the organ of the postmodern Left that tried to spread the sociological repertoire those people got from Ivy League universities. It was in the 1990s that the postmodern phase of journalism started in the USA, especially because of the New York Times. In Europe it started in the 2000s.
The message was: The End of History, as Francis Fukuyama claimed, has arrived. The only thing left to resolve is this: Who am I? People got very engaged with self-realization. This is how the politics of Left became identity politics, which is not really political in the end, because often it is not much more than the wish to express oneself. But identity politics is a form of narcissism. It would be expressive, as its famous critic Mark Lilla said in an interview with the weekly German newspaper Zeit. So, in the age of postmodern identity politics, does anyone really wonder why the biggest narcissist of all, Trump, is residing in the White House?
But you don’t need to wonder. Trump is the logical consequence in the postmodern era of narcissism and anything goes. In the end, politics was only a cozy way of managing the status quo and talking about worldviews. The liberal elite had made themselves comfortable.
Clinton and the common people
Trump disturbs this comfort zone with his own (right-sided) identity politics, and with his successful propaganda about his approach: politics for the “common people”. Some of his target groups, besides evangelicals, were men and women living in the Middle West and in the rust belt who were afraid of the possibility of social decline – or had already witnessed the social decline of friends and neighbors. On the other hand, his opponent Hillary Clinton degraded herself when she described some of those “common people” “basket of deplorables”; and, in the same period, the former First Lady, Michelle Obama, propagated a hyper-moral of the progressive and post-materialistic elite with her statement: “When they go low, we go high”. Clinton failed against the socio-economic language and agenda of her intra-party opponent Bernie Sanders. Actually, she just did identity politics, by building a bizarre coalition of Antifa, Wall Street, homosexuals, women, environment movements and African American movements, and last but not least the leaders of Silicon Valley.
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So, her political campaign amounted to little more than a discussion about world views. That is why some Sanders supporters stayed away from the polls or voted for Trump. Trump did not win because of his own personality primarily. Trump won because Clinton was unable to see the signs of a new age. Trump was different; and by being different he destroyed Clinton´s coalition with his own right-sided identity politics – in the end it was a kind of postmodern identity politics too.
But in the meanwhile, during his presidency, Trump did not just go on with his right-sided identity politics. Here is the sad thing: After some considerable time, Trump became the first president who actually shaped a big policy. His tax reform was policy on a grand scale going way beyond simple governance. Indeed, the tax reform is an expression of the attempt of some plutocratic elites to transform the USA into a new feudal state. This reform was a perverse form of neoliberalism par excellence. But it was politics. Politics and policy mean doing something – like passing a bill.
And that is the point why the Left has to recognize where the postmodern anything goes led. The consequence was that a new postmodern cultural Left linked up to neoliberalism, because both focus on the individual. By doing so, more and more the classical economical Left was forced into the defensive position of being an outsider, because their idea was not the freedom of the individual but an empire of freedom, as Karl Marx called it. Even for the old Leftists who did not have a Marxist approach, this universal goal of “real freedom for the many and not just for the few” was the common driving force of the left movement. This historico-philosophical drive for the “promised land” was the Left’s motivation. The old left direction was: Let us move forward to a better world. And solidarity was the key term for this direction.
But after 1990 their drive was talked to death. Then pragmatism and post-ideology became en vogue. Ever after, hardly anyone has asked the basic question whether our social and political system has problems. The question “Is this the right way?” usually produced the answer “yes”, and this answer came from both left and right. To improve governance, that was the new goal. Nothing more. So, a liberal and postmodern identity politics became the modus vivendi of left policy.
The German magazine “Spiegel” recently reported that Steve Bannon, ex-political advisor to Trump, told an interviewer: “As long as the Democrats are talking about identity politics, I will have them under control.” Unfortunately, it is correct that under these conditions the Right has the liberal Left under its control. As long as Leftists stay in love with identity politics, the Trumpians of all countries will celebrate. I do not want to discredit identity politics, as long as it means to work against racism and prejudices, and as long as it expresses the will to make people enlightened citizens who treat each other respectfully as equals, and who treat others as humans of equal value with equal rights.
All about inclusion
But that is not at all what identity politics is about. It focuses on one´s own identity or the one of a group. A survey taken among American students serves to illustrate my point. Recently, the daily German newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” reported:
According to a new survey of the Gallup Institute and the Knight Foundation for 53 per cent of the American students diversity and inclusion are more important than freedom of speech.” And the journalist adds: “Instead of fair argumentations, now it is about group associations and a better morality”.
This form of identity politics undermines the ideals of enlightenment, and produces a divided society, because society breaks down into small groups and segments that mistrust each other, and do not want to talk with each other but talk about each other. That is how you lose a debate because arguments are no longer interesting. Almost anyone just wants to be left alone or wants to be in the right with his or her own point of view. Or someone wants both: not to hear the arguments of the others, but still wanting the others to think as he or she does. The forceless force of the better argument – as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas once called this enlightened approach towards coming to a common truth by argument and rational conviction – this approach gets destroyed by postmodern identity politics.
Furthermore, in this modus of identity politics it is hard to talk about how to answer reality, because people are unable to find a common understanding of this reality. In the age of postmodernism anyone can make claims about reality in whatever way he or she wants. Anything goes. Trump is the best example.
This trend is a huge mistake. And that is why the Leftists´ focus on this postmodern identity politics was a mistake, too. So, as Mark Lilla does, we should just appeal to the Left: Get real! Now!
Nils Heisterhagen is a political adviser to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) group in the state parliament of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany. Previously he was a political consultant and speechwriter for the chair of the German trade union IG Metall.