Post What?

By Henwood, Doug | Monthly Review, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Post What?


Henwood, Doug, Monthly Review


I'm certainly not the first to point out that postmodernism is an ideology that depends crucially on the denial of history; indeed, this was a theme of Monthly Review's special issue last summer on the topic. Sometimes this is explicitly theorized - an embrace of discontinuity, a celebration of the fragmentation of time, space, and historical experience that liberates us from the dead hand of master narratives. This view seems badly infected by the French taste for fashion, in which new truths are announced with the turn of the season, rendering wrong everything you thought you ever knew. In its vulgar version, the street postmodernism of newspapers and slick magazines, it's more a matter of simple forgetfulness - journalists rarely know or remember anything that happened the week before last, let alone in the 1970s. Perversely, this forgetfulness may actually provide an opening@ as a friend of mine once put it, in a jaded society with no historical memory, maybe the only way to shock people with something apparently new is by reviving something really old - she was specifically talking about Marxism.

So much for cultural fashion. I'd like to contest the claims of the postmodernists that we live in a world so new, so without precedent, that everything we used to know or thought we knew is wrong. Since I'm an economic journalist, I'd like to focus specifically on the worlds of consumption and production. No doubt one could do the same with the world of culture, but that's a project for another day. Some of what follows is in the spirit of the famous definition of the journalist's duty, attributed to former Economist editor Geoffrey Crowther: "simplify and exaggerate."

In a previous life, when I used to study literature, I learned at a piggishly union-busting university in Connecticut, that the periodizations I'd absorbed in high school were wrong, and that there was actually a tremendous continuity in the canonical literature, particularly poetry, written in English between the late 18th century and mid-20th. That continuity might be expressed, though I didn't learn it in exactly this language, as the evolution of the bourgeois individual, from the tentative individual of late classicism, through the heroic individual of High Romanticism, through the troubled individual of Victorianism, through the highly aestheticized individual, withdrawn into himself (and it was usually a him) in the first half of this century. Had I stuck with the pursuit, no doubt I could have fit the postmodern individual-as-fragment, the atom of a whole that never was, into the scheme as well.

One of the great advantages of a high bourgeois education like that I got at Yale is that you can then turn your lessons back on your social betters in the interests of undermining their rule. So translating my literary lesson about continuity within change into political economy yields a very similar picture: for all the tales of rupture, there remains a remarkable continuity within the history of capitalism over the last 200 years. Though of course there are many differences, in many ways, today's capitalism resembles that of the late 19th century more than it does that of the 1950s and 1960s. That Golden Age, which once looked like a norm from which the recent past was an aberration, seems now like the real oddity - a time of reasonable stability, rapidly rising incomes not only in the First but also much of Third World. For a moment or two it even looked like socialism was the wave of the future. Joan Robinson wasn't the only one to claim that that broad and rapid rise in real incomes proved Marx wrong. Now that real wages have been falling for over 20 years in the United States, in most of the Third World for the last 15, and with downward mobility spreading to Australia, Canada, and even parts of Europe, it seems that maybe Marx was right after all. It's ironic that at the very momen this intellectual and political reputation is in the basement, the world is behaving in its most "Marxian" fashion since 1914. …

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