Use and Abuse of Postmodernism (the Undeclared War; Postmodern Management)
Keating, Craig, Labour/Le Travail
James Laxer, The Undeclared War: Class Conflict in the Age of Cyber Capitalism (Toronto: Viking 1998).
William McDonald Wallace, Postmodern Management: The Emerging Partnership Between Employees and Stockholders (Westport: Quorum Books 1998).
THE NOTORIETY that postmodernism has achieved in recent times derives from two things. On the one hand, its arrival as a mode of analysis, undermining the established certainties and analytical frameworks of many disciplines, has earned it the enmity of scholars occupying positions across the political spectrum. On the other hand, it has now become something of a commonplace, both popularly and within the academy, that we stand at the dawn of a new postmodern era, one in which the social, economic, political, and cultural arrangements of the modern era begun in the Enlightenment and the revolutions of the 18th century are being fundamentally transformed. As with the arrival of postmodernist analysis, the passage to a condition of postmodernity is deplored by many. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the political left today to stand in opposition to both postmodernism and postmodernity.
Indicative of the left's repudiation of postmodernism is James Laxer's The Undeclared War: Class conflict in the Age of Cyber Capitalism. The central aim of this work is the analysis of what Laxer takes to be a new, postmodern "cyber capitalism," where the triumph of the market and market ideology over social democracy is nearly complete and where class conflict has re-emerged as a major fact of contemporary social existence. While this aim dominates, of clearly equal concern to Laxer is the revindication, through its practical application, of an essentially Marxist social theory (which is to say one which takes the analysis of global capitalism and class relations as essential) against a faddish postmodernism whose effect, he argues, is to reinforce the social arrangements of the new capitalism. So while it is the analysis of postmodernity (which is to say contemporary capitalism) that is front and centre here, Laxer is adamant that this can only be achieved by steering clear of postmodernism, a theoretical framework whose advent is coincident with the rise of postmodernity and with which it is, supposedly, inextricably linked.
It is ironic, however, that Laxer should make theory such an important issue here. For it is the absence of firm theoretical foundations that ultimately undermine his social analysis. As we will see, Laxer wants us to believe that capitalism today is different in its essentials from that capitalism which prevailed from 1945 to 1975 or thereabouts and different yet again from that capitalism which prevailed before 1945. Moreover, he wants to have it that class conflict today pits a capitalist class dominated by a group of the fabulously wealthy "super rich" against a new "working class/middle class," which includes everyone from spotty-faced burger-flippers at McDonald's to tenured academics like himself. What is shockingly absent, however, is a defence of the grounds for speaking of a new capitalism and new social classes. While a fairly traditional Marxism informs some early parts of the book, at the end of the day the mere words "class" and "capitalism" are the pitiful remnants of that theory. In its stead, rhetoric and some very un-Marxist and un-theoretical romanticism, nationalism, and xenophobia become the driving forces of Laxer's analysis. As I will show, a more convincing analysis could be had by simply sticking to Marxism, plain and simple. But sticking to Marxism does not mean turning one's back on postmodernism. For I want to suggest that both Marxism and postmodernism can play an effective role in debunking the impoverished central motivating concept of this book, postmodernity, a concept equally central to a contemporary political discourse so disadvantageous to the left.
Laxer's argument is fairly straightforward. It begins with a reassertion of the existence of social class, a proposition which in and of itself, he argues, transgresses against a "formidable taboo" (32) of an American culture which now has influence throughout the West. …