Liz Truss, the UK government’s Minister for Women and Equalities, made a truly bizarre speech the other day.
It was bizarre for lots of reasons. On the one hand, much of the press — on both the right and the left — have been groaning over her push towards “facts not fashion” in the general debate around equality (which sounds like more than a heavy nod to the unending argument around Black Lives Matter and trans rights to me).
What’s strange, though, is she foregrounded this comment with some hollow affirmations about Britain always being a place where you will have “the opportunity to succeed at whatever you wish to do professionally, that you can be whoever you want to be. Dress however you want to dress. Love whoever you wish to love and achieve your dreams.”
Talk about “facts over fashion” — the Minister for Equalities prefers the oratory stylings of post-Obama platitudes to delivering anything of political (or even just rhetorical) substance…
Before we get into it, I want to emphasise — really emphasise — that this must be the takeaway here. This speech, by and large, is an attack on the perceived postmodern tendencies of contemporary progressive politics — that is, relativism, the politics of appearances and hollow gestures, ideological demands reduced to fashionable trends, etc. — but it makes these points through the very deployment of those tendencies.
It is a paradox, clear as day, but — as we should all know by now — nothing has ever died from its contradictions. To quote Deleuze and Guattari:
The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate.
Contradiction is the reactor core of neoliberalism, giving it the illusion of progress when all we’re really left with are controlled explosions within sense and reason.
We should know this but, as ever — and with a certain degree of irony — it does always bear repeating, much like the system itself.
The main thing to trouble the chattering classes about Truss’s speech was her invocation of Foucault, who she named as being one person particularly responsible for the postmodern mess we’re in, where nothing has any meaning anymore and we’re all very confused about the world. She writes, under the sub-heading “The failed ideas of the Left”:
The ideas that have dominated the equality debate have been long in the making.
As a comprehensive school student in Leeds in the 1980s, I was struck by the lip service that was paid to equality by the City Council while children from disadvantaged backgrounds were let down. While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.
These ideas have their roots in post-modernist philosophy — pioneered by Foucault — that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.
In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view — truth and morality are all relative.
The outrage is understandable. How is anyone supposed to take seriously these hollow appeals to truth when it is categorically false to attribute such bizarre positions to someone like Foucault? He’s a seminal academic — that doesn’t mean he is beyond reproach, but it does mean that you can probably find a few thousand books and articles — and even YouTube videos at this point — explaining what his position is, and how it isn’t that. As far as Truss’s appeals to truth go, this one is pretty easily debunked.
But the point is that it doesn’t matter. Nothing is true; everything is permitted. That is an old adage capable of being put to use by either side. That is the double-edge of postmodernity. Postmodernity as such isn’t simply the elimination of foundational truths; it is capitalism’s tendency to appropriate and lay claim to everything, even its opposition.
What that means, in more practical terms, was best summarised by Amelia Horgan [locked account]. It is not so much that the government’s understanding of Foucault is poor but that its diffuse attack on academia demonstrates the current government’s immersion in a “right-wing … and antisemitic culture wars framing”.
“Facts not fashion” is a remix of Ben Shapiro’s “facts don’t care about your feelings” schtick, for instance, and blithely using broadly leftist thinkers as strawmen for irrelevant arguments is all Jordan Peterson really has left in his arsenal at this point. They are the same tired tactics expressed by the right-wing’s mass media mouthpieces, who are just looking to further fuel the online chaos. That a government official — the Women and Equalities Minister no less — would be echoing these purposefully confused takes is a truly depressing moment for an already very depressing year to end on. (We expect this sort of thing from the Trump administration, but it’s becoming ever clearer that the UK government is hardly any different — it’s just less airbrushed and manicured; the British lie hasn’t quite infiltrated the level of appearances yet.)
However, Amelia makes a further point here that also warrants some emphasis. She quite rightly points out that “I don’t think academics can win … with ‘well actually I think you’ll find Foucault said nothing of the sort’.”
“Academic” is already a by-word for something not of any practical relevance. That isn’t just a dig at academics as such, however; it is a systemic problem within an academia itself — an amorphous institutional assemblage that is all about the apparent production of new knowledge within its own internal market, but which struggles to effectuate change outside its own bounds.
If that’s too subtle, academia is more closely resembling capitalism itself by the day, but that’s of no surprise to anyone working inside of it. The marketisation of academia is well-documented, and that process is not the fault of academics themselves; this is simply how the system is now set up.
Consider, by way of a further example, how academia is an “industry” — it feels weird to call it that, but who are we kidding? — that is now predicated on atomising research as a practice and making itself more academic to the detriment of the system’s own influence on the world within which it exists. To fight over the particulars of Foucault’s theory may make many academics feel like they are fighting the good fight, but they are falling for the bait. It is bait used precisely to lure academics into fitting the image the outside world has of them.
The point to be made, surely, is what does this instant say about how discourse functions as a whole, beyond academia’s own purview? The irony, of course, is that it is precisely Foucault who can tell us.
The ironies don’t stop there, however. The ultimate irony of this whole debacle no doubt comes from the government’s own backtracking over Truss’s speech. Quite shockingly, the section on Foucault quoted above, along with various others, has been removed from the government’s own website at the time of writing, replaced with the hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-so-depressingly-ironic redacted placeholder “[political content]” — yes, politicians are now redacting their own politics for being political. [NB: Because of this, the above quote from Truss’s speech was retrieved from the WayBack Machine.]
This slippery slope, where politicians will self-censor their own political embarrassment because it is too “political”, is less a Foucauldian irony than a Deleuzian one. These are the serpentine coils of a control society, infected by its own word virus. (William Burroughs’ discussions around “the word virus” as control system are clearer and more prescient than anything else I’ve read on the topic, and guess what — pronouns are the fucking least of his worries.) It is postmodern politics criticising a strawman of itself. It’s that fucking spaceman meme looking at a spaceman and saying, “wait, it’s all a spaceman?” before another spaceman say “yes, yes it was” and then shoots the first spaceman in the back of the head. It’s postmodern sidewinding at its most obvious but we still don’t know how to attack it.
That’s pretty heavy, man. So, what’s the response?
Well, maybe Paul Mason has the answer…
Before you get your hopes up, he definitely doesn’t… But he did recently tweet the following thread:
1/ Liz Truss speech signals Tories planning a sustained onslaught on anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQ+ … but I’m not going to resist it by defending Foucault. Postmodernism was a dead end for the left, as I said in #ClearBrightFuture…
6/ […] Foucault, funnily enough, did make moral statements, as in the intro to D&G’s Anti-Oedipus… it’s just that they’re (a) inadequate and (b) not grounded in truth claims about reality
7/ Postmodernism was the slave ideology of neoliberalism; a justification for our atomisation; the denial of objectivity and a profound anti-humanism. It led, naturally, to the disaster of critical post-humanism and Neo-vitalism…
9/ So to people leaping to Foucault’s defence… don’t waste your time. He did some interesting lectures at the CDF, fine. There is a humanist Marxism that arms us with a moral defence of class politics and support for the scientific method…
10/ I know that for Gen-X ers this means realising a bunch of stuff you were taught at college is wrong, but that’s not a disaster. For more on the humanist and Aristotelian renewal of Marxism go here… [Plugs his own book]
11/ Final thought for the remaining pomo adherents on the left. This century is gonna be Marx vs Nietzsche: planetary human liberation or climate Nihilism. Leave Nietzsche to the fash: there’s zero value in anti-rationalist nihilism… (as I say, again, in How to Stop Fascism)
Originally tweeted by Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) on December 18, 2020.
Unfortunately for Paul, this is definitely not it. This little rant boils down to “facts not fash” and that is just about as useful a response as “facts not fashion” was in the first place. Whilst I am broadly sympathetic to his striving for truth claims, dismissing “postmodernism” in this manner just makes you look like the Left’s Jordan Peterson.
To be more generous, perhaps he wants to be closer to the Left’s pop Badiou, but striving for truth makes you no less ripe for appropriation by the forces you’re trying to resist. That’s precisely why Foucault — and especially Deleuze — remain of essential use to us. In fact, appeals to truth require far more vigilance than ever before, from the left and the right, precisely because asserting truths in the current climate is like fighting quicksand: the more you struggle, no matter how righteously, the more susceptible you are to sinking further. Whether that’s Mason’s Aristotelian Marxism or Truss’s fight for fairness, it’s all taking place within the same swamp. That swamp is named “postmodernity” and, in the West at least, there is no untainted zone to escape to that is somehow beyond it.
And yet, it is precisely that level of immanence that we should be affirming rather than fighting against. We don’t need to escape postmodernity itself but rather its appropriations that trap us into impotence. To do that, we have to affirm the full range of possibilities available to us through the revaluation of our values.
To many, this might sound like an accelerationist position, and you’d be right, but it is also an ethical position that might inspire us on how to deal with this perpetual agitation when faced with constantly contradictory messages from all sides.
Truss’s allusions to identity politics are a prime example. Governments and the media love to pick on certain examples and portray them as special interest cases. They make them out to be exceptional transgressions, far too risky within the context of their own ideology of gradualist reformism. But challenging the unspoken value-judgements applied to certain identities is precisely the point. Ungrounding certain givens remains a emancipatory gesture. Black Lives Matter, for instance, insists that black life is worth far more than society at large thinks it is. But rather than redress that deflation of vakye, the very name finds itself under attack, abstracted and made into a Proper Noun rather than a statement, precisely because it raises consciousness around our “values”. And “values” is the perfect word for it — our moral and economic interests are woefully intertwined.
The right — and even the government, at this point — is dismissing the chaos of no certain truths that this process of revaluation supposedly instigates, but only within their own cloistered view of the world. This view is easily identified. They all start from the same basic position: “capitalism is truth”, and extrapolate outwards from there. When the likes of Foucault and others challenge that “truth” most fundamentally, ungrounding the world the establishment has built on top of it, of course all they see is chaos in their wake. Their absolutes are shaken, as other possible forms of truth enter the fray. But not all truths are worth as much as each other. The only truths worth their salt are the one that exist beyond that narrow purview of capitalist realism– and that is a lot easier said than done, Paul.
The postmodern twist, undermining Mason’s position, comes from what is a dead-end for him: the realisation that late capitalism itself is dependent on shifting rates of exchange, as Deleuze points out in his “Postscript on the Societies of Control”. Because of this, if we want our political processes of transvaluation to remain pertinent to the futures we desire, we have to do all that we can to keep them outside the pernicious control of capitalism’s open circuits.
That doesn’t mean just appealing to elusive universal truths; there’s every chance you’ll end up a useful idiot like Paul Mason if that is all you do. Instead, we have to appeal to truths and keep an eye on how they are manipulated. If truths are subsumed and made impotent, precisely because of the threat they pose, we have to look for new ones. As Deleuze puts it, when faced with the in-grown logics of a serpentine neoconservatism: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”
I think Ryan Diduck explains this ethical position far better than I could, and so I’d like to end with a quotation from his really marvellous recent book The Limits of Control, which has been living in my head for a few weeks now. Speaking about the coronavirus pandemic, and its exacerbation of both control mechanisms and conspiratorial chaos, he writes:
These crises are premediated through the media control calendar, only appearing random — not because of illiteracy, but because of hyper-literacy, the dromological Semioblitz constantly refreshing, constantly updating, constantly wiping. The simple reason that these things — pandemics, racist violence, terminal unrest — keep happening is because they already happened. (Pre-recorded.) Tonight’s episode is a rerun. Even these déja-vu words dreamt up and performed, activated, made mobile through virus lines.
It is precisely the repetitious purgatory of our being-mediated that demands the transvaluation of values. Liz Truss’s appeals to truth and fairness are hollow precisely because we’ve heard them all before and nothing has changed. Black Lives Matter itself comes up against vile cynicism because it becomes a familiar sentiment as well. It’s all been said and nothing has changed so shut up already, Millwall fans say, but in that instance it is precisely the repetition of the gesture that holds power. The appropriation of repetition from market re-runs keeps the topic front and centre, and whilst attention and patience may wane, like a surreal Andy Kaufman sketch, the power of the repetition comes back around and, in the end, it ends up even more radical than when it started. It is for this reason, Diduck continues:
What Deleuze calls for in his final publication is an army of “possible forms” to transform virtual immanence “into something transcendent.” Sounds vague on the surface of it, but there are many possible forms these “possible forms” could take. Deleuze suggests the “Homo tantum” as a first step…
The “homo tantum”, contra Mason, is a kind of inhumanism, emphasising the incomplete nature of the human as a philosophical or social or political category. It is a formula that folds two points within itself — that our conception of the human is still full of potentials, and that our conception of the human has itself been radically reduced. It is for this reason, Diduck writes, that “the inherent and irrepressible value of a life”, for Deleuze, has to be
divorced from its productive value, the existence of self and other in absence of evaluative criteria, the ultimate dignity of every person. If a few possible forms were dedicated to this project, we’d start to solve some major problems. And if and when there were crises, we’d be far better poised to confront them head-on, together. This is not progressive politics, but what Brian Massumi called a “processual” ethics.” What we value — those goods and services dubbed essential, but also the big table upon which this tournament forever continues — is too valuable to be amassed by 2000+ billionaires, the Technopriests, the biopharma lip-licking lizards, and those who willingly or unwittingly bid on their behalf. A revaluation of value would produce a post-capitalist field in which injustice would no longer be necessary, no longer be of any value to Control.