Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.

We get the term “postmodern,” at least in its current, philosophical sense, from the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” It described the state of our era by building out Lyotard’s observations that society was becoming a “consumer society,” a “media society” and a “postindustrial society,” as postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson points out in his foreword to Lyotard’s book. Lyotard saw these large-scale shifts as game-changers for art, science and the broader question of how we know what we know. This was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that he and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.

.. Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it.
Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality.
.. By the 1980s, conservative scholars like Allan Bloom — author of the influential “The Closing of the American Mind” — challenged postmodern theorists, not necessarily for their diagnosis of the postmodern condition but for accepting that condition as inevitable.
.. Unlike so many of today’s critics, Bloom understood that postmodernism didn’t emerge simply from the pet theories of wayward English professors. Instead, he saw it as a cultural moment brought on by forces greater than the university.
.. Bloom was particularly worried about students — as reflections of society at large — pursuing commercial interests above truth or wisdom. Describing what he saw as the insidious influence of pop music, Bloom lamented “parents’ loss of control over their children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.” He called the rock music industry “perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping create it,” with “all the moral dignity of drug trafficking.”
.. Kimball called “Tenured Radicals,” in his 1990 polemic against the academic left. At the heart of this accusation is the tendency to treat postmodernism as a form of left-wing politics — with its own set of tenets — rather than as a broader cultural moment that left-wing academics diagnosed.
.. it treats Lyotard and his fellows as proponents of a world where objective truth loses all value, rather than analysts who wanted to explain why this had already happened.
.. If you’re going to claim that Trumpism and alt-right relativism are consequences of the academic left’s supposition about what was happening, you must demonstrate a causal link. But commentators looking to trace these roots play so fast and loose with causality that they could easily be called postmodernist themselves.
.. It is certainly correct that today’s populist right employs relativistic arguments: For example, “identity politics” is bad when embraced by people of color, but “identitarianism” — white-nationalist identity politics — is good and necessary for white “survival.” But simply because this happens after postmodernism doesn’t mean it happens because of postmodernism
.. figures such as “intelligent design” theorist Phillip Johnson and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich cite the influence of postmodernist theory on their projects. Yet, as McIntyre acknowledges — and documents extensively in his book — right-wing think tanks and corporate-backed fronts — like tobacco industry “research” — had already established an “alternative facts” program for the right, long before creative misinformation entrepreneurs came around.
.. because reading postmodern theory is so notoriously difficult — partly because of how philosophical jargon gets translated, and partly because so much of the writing is abstruse and occasionally unclarifiable — an undergraduate (as in Cernovich’s case) or a layperson will almost inevitably come away with misreadings.
.. Hannah Arendt’s 1951 “The Origins of Totalitarianism”: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction . . . and the distinction between true and false . . . no longer exist.” 
.. “The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends,” writes Arendt in her 1971 essay “Lying in Politics ,” “have been with us since the beginning of recorded history.”
.. Fredric Jameson’s reflections on conspiracy theory (“the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age”) aren’t what’s convincing people to believe that climate change is a hoax or that the Democratic Party has been running a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza parlor.

.. Likewise, the claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is — as Trump said on national television — a “made-up story,” an “excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election,” is not a postmodernist critique of the evidence the Mueller investigation has gathered. So it’s a massive category error to call Trump’s post-truth politics “postmodernist.” It’s just the say-anything chicanery of the old-fashioned sales pitch.

.. it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes.
Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.

What Are Capitalists Thinking?

If they’re worried about what’s driving the growing appeal of socialism, they need to look in the mirror.

.. You want fewer socialists? Easy. Stop creating them.
.. The conditions under which the czars forced Russians to live gave rise to Bolshevism. The terms imposed at Versailles fueled Hitler’s ascent. The failures of Keynesianism in the 1970s smoothed the path for supply-side economics.
.. the kind of capitalism that has been practiced in this country over the last few decades has made socialism look far more appealing, especially to young people.
.. If you’re 28 like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congressional candidate who describes herself as a democratic socialist, what have you seen during your sentient life?
.. As that happened, you’ve seen the rich get richer, and you’ve perhaps noticed that the government’s main response to this has been to keep cutting their taxes
.. You witnessed the financial meltdown of 2008, caused by big banks betting against themselves. Capitalists might want to consider how all that looked to a young person who came from a working-class family and who probably knows someone who lost a job or even his house, while some of the bankers who helped create the mess walked away with golden parachutes, like that of Countrywide Financial’s Angelo Mozilo, which The Times valued at $88 million.
.. You’ve watched corporations hoard profits, buy back their stock and not reinvest in their workers the way they once did as they move jobs to Central America and Bangladesh. If you read a lot, you know that stock buybacks were permitted under the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 10b-18, which dates to the Reagan era, and that since it’s just an S.E.C. rule, it can be changed without having to pass legislation, but no one in either of the Democratic administrations since then bothered.

.. Back in the days when our economy just grew and grew, we had a government and a capitalist class that invested in our people and their future — in the

  • Interstate highways, the
  • community colleges, the
  • scientific research, the
  • generous federal grants for transportation and regional development.

.. during all this time, socialism didn’t have much appeal. Back in the 1910s and ’20s, during an era of intense labor strife and before the existence of the welfare state, there were a couple of Socialist Party members in the House of Representative

.. But during the “Trente Glorieuses,” to use the French term — the glorious 30 years from 1945 to 1975 when everything largely worked in Western economies — socialism’s appeal in America waned.

.. So, back now to our 28-year-old. She was born in 1990. She will probably remember, in the late ’90s, her parents feeling pretty good about things — median household income did go up under Bill Clinton more than they had under any president in a long time, even more than under Ronald Reagan. But ever since, the median income picture has been much spottier, hardly increasing at all in inflation-adjusted dollars over 18 long years. And those incomes at the top have shot to the heavens.

.. if you were a person of modest or even middle-class means, how would you feel about capitalism? The kind of capitalism this country has been practicing for all these years has failed most people.

.. Yes, it’s given us lots of shiny objects to gush about. A smartphone that can display slow-motion video is a wonder. But an affordable college education, though perhaps not a wonder, is a necessity for a well-ordered society.

.. And if you’re a capitalist, you’d better try to understand it, too — and do something to address the very legitimate grievances that propelled it.

 

A Family in History

“My grandfather was the biggest Communist in America,” he said, “and I became the biggest capitalist in Russia.”

.. Bill Browder created his hedge fund, Hermitage, in 1996. The Kremlin turned on him hard in 2005, declaring him persona non grata. He had been a thorn in the side of Putin’s oligarchs.

In 2008, the authorities arrested Browder’s fearless and whistleblowing lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky — and tortured him to death.

.. I read an obituary of Felix Browder, Bill’s father. I then realized why Bill had asked me to be more specific when I asked, “Any relation?” Felix Browder was one of the greatest mathematicians in the world. (I don’t know from mathematicians.) He was, for example, chairman of the math department at Chicago.

Earl Browder had two more children, two more sons: Andrew and William. The former became the

  • chairman of the math department at Brown; the latter became
  • chairman of the department at Princeton. And there’s more Browder talent where that came from.

.. He was named after Shakespeare, having been born on the 400th anniversary of the writer’s birth (April 23, 1964).

.. Andrew’s daughter Laura, a professor at the University of Richmond, discovered something in the KGB archives: The dear nanny had been a spy, charged with keeping tabs on Earl. Of course.

.. Earl coined the famous (or infamous) slogan “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.” He ran for president in 1936, getting some 80,000 votes.

.. Communists in America were in particularly bad odor. In early ’41, the U.S. government sent Browder to prison on technicalities: passport fraud. But that summer, Hitler double-crossed Stalin, and the United States would soon be allies with Uncle Joe.

.. FDR commuted Browder’s sentence as a goodwill gesture.

.. After the war, Browder got on the wrong side of Moscow and was expelled from the American party. He died in 1973, having spent his last years with his son Bill in Princeton

.. Raisa, a Russian mother, and a mother of three sons. A Russian-Jewish mother at that

.. Felix entered MIT at 16. He had his bachelor’s degree in two years. By 20, he had his Ph.D. from Princeton.

.. One of his undergraduate professors testified that Felix was not a party member — and, moreover, that Felix had been the best math student in the history of MIT

.. Bill Browder affirms that his father was not a Communist. Rather, he was “a hard-core leftist professor,” like all the others. “I never met one who wasn’t,” says Bill.

.. Felix was indeed drafted into the Army. Not trusted with sensitive work, he spent two years pumping gas at Fort Bragg.

.. Felix worked on his math and, for the first and only time in his life, was around regular folks.

.. Felix and his wife Eva had another child besides Bill: their son Tom. He entered the University of Chicago at 15. Today, he is a leading particle physicist, dividing his time between Hawaii and Japan, searching for the origin of the universe.
.. Bill was a rebellious kid, and he figured out how to rebel against a family of leftists: become a capitalist. He majored in economics at Chicago, whose department was a den of free-marketeers.

.. In an act of shocking gall, the Russian state is investigating Browder for the murder of Magnitsky — and three other men. Thus do the murderers finger the champion of the murdered. Putin’s predecessors in the KGB would grin in admiration.

.. He could have walked away, tending his millions, but instead he has put himself in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful and ruthless governments on earth.

The Handmaids of Capitalism

American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.

.. They were divided over pornography, often bitterly — but over time the sex-positive side increasingly won out over the Andrea Dworkinish dissenters, even as the online realm was overrun with images and videos that more than justified her arguments. They were, and are, divided over prostitution, but it’s pretty clear that the version of feminism that supports the rights of sex workers to sell their bodies in the marketplace has the intellectual momentum.

.. the most culturally important strands of American feminism have been the ones devoted to making women’s lives safe for market capitalism rather than the other way around — with “lean in” and egg freezing for Silicon Valley elites and the temporary sterilization of I.U.D.s and LARCs for the working class, both together encouraging the idea that professional goals are the heart of personal fulfillment

.. The rather important female reality of motherhood, a Guardian essayist noted recently, “comes up in less than 3 percent of papers, journal articles or textbooks on modern gender theory.

.. At best, Christians may hope to build a counterculture, but in the wider landscape our ability to shape trends or resist them is at a historical low ebb.

.. it is a grave mistake for feminists to assume that because the moralism of the past was often patriarchal and sexist, they must always choose “consenting adults” individualism over a more holistic morality, a presumption for choice over a defense of human dignity, the logic of the market over more communitarian alternatives, a consumerist interchangeability of the sexes over a social architecture that respects their differences.