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Marxism, Postmodernism, Zizek
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© 2001
PMC 12.2

This essay begins in the midst of the ongoing dilemma posed by late-capitalist society and postmodern culture, namely, whether these remain the ultimate horizon of the contemporary world and whether efforts to resist, oppose, represent critically, or propose alternatives to the "cultural dominant" of postmodernism are merely atavistic. Below, I address some of the challenges to Marxism (as the discourse of the alternative to and the critique of capitalism par excellence) posed by the conditions of what Ernest Mandel has famously named "late capitalism" and by the theoretical discourse of what Dick Hebdige has called "the posts," and make a case for the continued relevance and value of Marxist theory for an ostensibly post-Marxist, would-be post-ideological period. The developments in the theory of ideology advanced in Slavoj Zizek's work, focusing on the role of psychology in the functioning of ideology under conditions of late capitalism, are then taken as valuable criticisms and revisions of the Marxist tradition that open useful avenues for critically understanding American culture and society in recent decades.

Hard Times for Marxism

The zeitgeist is anti-Marxist to the same extent that it is antimodern, exhibiting what Jean-François Lyotard calls in The Postmodern Condition, in what has become one of the great slogan-definitions of postmodernism, an "incredulity toward metanarratives" (xxiv), including especially those inherited from the modern European Enlightenment tradition, such as progress and liberation. Lyotard's argument in brief: totalizing "master narratives" no longer function to legitimate and unify knowledge; the postmodern condition is marked by heterogeneous and radically incommensurable language games; attempts to reconcile language games through the principle of consensus are "terrorist" (63). This argument is typical of postmodern neopragmatist theorizing in that it precludes the kind of large-scale analyses that would allow adequate attempts to elaborate connections between the epistemological-linguistic theory he proposes and the social, economic, and cultural forces to which he only occasionally refers. Obviously, Marxism is directly challenged in Lyotard's analysis since it traditionally promotes both a progressive teleology and an emancipatory politics.

Other specific challenges to particular Marxist concepts and protocols are widespread; for example, its utopianism, a topic much discussed by Fredric Jameson, often comes under fire. As Clint Burnham notes, the contemporary criticisms of utopia take two primary forms: "First, the culture doubts the possibility of some 'better place' than the undoubtedly excellent world of late capitalism," a criticism that he characterizes as "'bad,' or negative, or ideological, or neoconservative"; and second, "that culture characterizes itself as already nonrepresentational by doubting the possibility of representationalism," a claim that he calls the "'good,' or positive, or utopian, or postmodern critique of utopia" (2). In either case, a conception of radical social change toward an imagined (better) future beyond the capitalist horizon is eradicated. Other Marxist categories and concepts -- everything from the labor theory of value to the claims for dialectical materialism as a "science" of inquiry -- have come under attack in various high theoretical arguments. Such writings, combined with the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe, have raised the question for leftist intellectuals at the start of the twenty-first century: why Marxism (still)?

Burnham offers several answers to this question that are worth repeating: first, Marxism has for the past thirty years or so found its "moral legitimacy (for better or for worse)" more in the Western new social movements of "youth, ecology, feminism, antiracism" and the like and in the "Third World (from Che to postcolonialism)" than in Eastern European state socialism; second, Marxism is not a monolithic discourse, and even during the Soviet era its most significant theorists always maintained an "independent and skeptical attitude" rather than a blind allegiance to the Communist party; third, the European revolutions have demonstrated that "the masses can opt to take control of their own destinies," invalidating fascist hopes for efficient control, even if these particular revolts were "as much about consumer goods as... about freedom"; and fourth, Marxist Third World liberation movements and Marxist critical analyses of world political-economic situations remain as relevant as ever in the post-Cold War period (4-5). Regardless of whether we wish to accept Burnham...