The Relationship Between Postmodernism and Global Capitalism: Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives

On the one hand, the term postmodern has become a fashionable cliche. On the other hand, thinkers such as the French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard and the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas employ the term postmodern as a serious analytical way to make sense of the contemporary social world, in other words, the modern world of global capitalism. The issue of the postmodern obviously raises the question of what is meant by modernity or modernization and this question is itself difficult to answer as well. What I am interested in doing in this article is to present a number of contemporary philosophers who shed light on these topics from a variety of critical perspectives. The critical perspectives investigated hopefully provide valuable insights and suggestions for engaging issues such as political subjectivity, community, law and morality, and the problems of violence and evil. Each of the thinkers considered is concerned with understanding the development and logic of capital, technology, culture and politics. Furthermore, there is a shared concern about critical resistance and the idea of justice.


The contemporary thinkers discussed here are divided into three sections. The first section focuses on the problem of capitalism, postmodernity, and globalization. I will examine this from three contemporary theoretical perspectives. My concern here is to bring to the forefront a number of issues and to provide a context in which to address them. Section Two next turns to the critical theories of Walter Benjamin and Jurgen Habermas. The juxtaposition of Benjamin and Habermas is intended to highlight the dimensions of language, law, and the problem of justice. In the third section I want to examine three critical perspectives; Enrique Dussel, Slavoj Zizek, and Jean Francois Lyotard. Dussel and Zizek are two contemporary voices that have much to offer to the current political discourse. Lyotard helped to popularize the term postmodern in The Postmodern Condition.

Capitalism, Postmodernity, and Globalization

The historical and cultural shift named “postmodernism” and “globlalization” has been the subject of numerous debates and discussions. Three of most interesting perspectives are those of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his colleague the French psychoanalyst Felix Guatarri, the American literary critic Frederic Jameson, and the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Negre and the American philosopher Michael Hardt. Each of these critical perspectives are different but interrelated at the same time. They can be summarized as a critique of the hegemony of capital and the relation to subjectivity and politics (Deleuze and Guatarri); postmodernism as a stage in the development of capitalism that is still approachable from a Marxist standpoint (Jameson); an attempt to move beyond the postmodern critique by exploring the global dimensions of “empire” (Negri and Hardt). Despite the differences between these three theoretical approaches, they share in common a concern to come to an understanding of the contemporary political and political landscape. In Jameson’s view, the postmodern should be though of “spatially.” It is comprised of a multinational and de-centered communication network that makes it difficult for individual subjects to find a place of orientation. Critical theory’s response takes the form of a “mapping” of this new social space the goal of which is to search for local forms of cultural resistance and political intervention. Hardt and Negri’s thesis in Empire synthesizes a number of conceptual elements in order to provide a description of the contemporary political climate. Their analysis borrows from Deleuze and Guatarri as well as Jameson. In a spirit of faithful to Jameson’s idea of cultural logic, Hardt and Negri seek to reveal a “new logic” and a “new structure of rule.” The thesis is that Empire us a new political subject that has transcended the concept of the nation state. Each of the above perspectives may be regarded as an effort to develop a critical resistance to the hegemony of capitalism.

Justice and Law: Benjamin and Habermas

Jurgen Habermas and Walter Benjamin come from the German tradition of critical theory. Benjamin was a freelance literary critic who died during in 1940. However, he has been very influential on contemporary postmodern theory. Benjamin’s initial critique of “bourgeois idealism” is an epistemological one. He argued for the need for a theory of non violent contemplation (gewaltlose Betrachtung) that does not participate in the logic of domination. The critique of bourgeois idealism was motivated by Benjamin’s desire to recover the lost totality of experience that is implied, for Benjamin, both an alternative sense of subjectivity and community. Benjamin argues that the legal realm is intrinsically violent and unjust. Justice, in Benjamin’s view, cannot be expressed in the legal categories of law. All violence is either “lawmaking” or “law-preserving.” He offers an alternative theory of justice rooted in a mixture of Jewish theology and profane revolution. Finally, the main concentration of Benjamin’s theoretical effort in the last fifteen years of his life was devoted to the Arcades Project. Ostensibly this work was the study of 19th century bourgeois European life and the emergence of industrial capitalism. However, the significance of the work, in Benjamin’s view, resided in the effort to develop and alternative sense of history. Bourgeois idealism – which Marxism never could really escape – speaks only in universal terms. It forms a “final court of appeal” that in Benjamin’s view, is unable to redeem past suffering and injustice. Benjamin’s sense of history is rooted in the “act of remembrance” that acknowledges our obligation and responsibility to the past.

Jurgen Habermas is a contemporary German critical theorists. He is a critic of postmodernism and has referred to his project an a effort to reconstruct modernity. He rejects both the diagnoses of Adorno and the early Frankfurt School as well as the postmodern discourse of post-structuralist thought. His theory of communicative action seeks to reconstruct the universalist claims of reason by turning to the pragmatic dimensions of language. More recently he has developed a discourse ethics and a discourse theory of law based on the foundation of his theory of communicative action. Habermas wants to reconstruct the normative understanding of law and demonstrate the internal relationship between law, the constitutional state, and democracy. Habermas’s method is to rework the Kantian notion of legitimacy. Kant appeals to a universal principle of law (Rechtsprinzip). However, Kant’s account of legitimacy is questionable to Habermas for two reason; first, it subordinates law to morality and, secondly, it depends upon a questionable metaphysics. Following Max Weber, Habermas argues that the growth of the empirical sciences and “the pluralization of worldviews” rendered metaphysical philosophical systems implausible. Habermas proposes a discourse theory of law as a solution to the tension between philosophical theories of justice and empirical social theories of law. This involves a reconsideration of law, the relationship between rights and public/private autonomy. The democratic procedure for the production of law, in Habermas’s view, provides us with a postmetaphysical source of legitimacy. Consequently, a discourse of deliberative model replaces the social contract. The legal community constitutes itself by means of a “discursively achieved agreement.”

Re-Writing Modernity: Zizek, Dussel and Lyotard

Slavoj Zizek is critical of the postmodern political universe offered as well as the discourse universe argued for by Habermas. Furthermore, he thinks that global capitial and the liberal-democratic vision of politics dominate the current political spectrum. He is concerned with the problem of “political intervention.” In Zizek’s view, the current order is one dominated by “global capitalism” and its ideological supplement, “liberal-democratic multiculturalism.” Given this scenario, Zizek asks how do we formulate “a leftist and anti-capitalist project.” Zizek’s methodology rests on three points of departure, Hegelian dialectics; Lacanian psychoanalysis; and a contemporary critique of ideology. Jacques Lacan provides Zizek with his most important conceptual tools. He emphasizes the Lacanian theory of enjoyment and argues that Lacan supplements Kant’s three critiques with a “critique of desire.” Unpacking the critique of ideology through retrieval of the Lacanian subject allows him to examine the “reality emerging now in Eastern Europe.” He develops this point further in a reading of Lacan in terms of German Idealism. More recently, Zizek has returned to a historical reconstruction of the Cartesian cogito. He critiques the contemporary political and philosophical discourse that takes its point of departure from the critique of the Cartesian cogito. He presents an alternative reading of the cogito as well as Kant and Hegel’s view of the subject. This results in an alternative ontology of the subject and intersubjectivity.

Like Zizek, Enrique Dussel presents another critical voice. Dussel is a Latin American philosopher who view modernity a Eurocentric interpretation of history and exploitation. Dussel’s original point of departure – rooted in the experience of Latin America – took form as a philosophy of liberation. Dussel’s philosophy has always been motivated as a critique of capitalism in the name of justice. The vantage point of critique is the peripheral capitalism. That is to say, from the standpoint of the oppressed. Dussel’s original point of depature combined a number of elements; Heidegger, Levinas, Marx, and Catholic theology. He is concerned with the history of the Americas and the idea of particularity. Dussel’s more recent work has adopted a more global view. Dussel develops an ethical hermeneutics that seeks to interpret reality from the standpoint of the other. Dussel describes himself as a “transmodern” as a way of distinguishing himself from the discourse of postmodernity as well as from the affirmative projects that seek to reconstruct modernity. Dussel’s recent work has focused on the problem of globalization. The critique of global capitalism and the need to move from a universal perspective to a more particular one are two of the primary themes. At the same time, he offers a “counter-course to modernity.” Modernity begins not with Descartes but with the conquest of Latin America and the expansion of Capital. Dussel wants to expose the Eurocentric nature of modernity and modern philosophy by engaging in a detailed critique of the history of Latin American.

Jean Francois Lyotard is best known as the author of The Postmodern Condition and the theory of “grand narratives” that he expounds in that book. However, Lyotard eventually became disenchanted with the “cliché” of the postmodern. A more suitable term, in Lyotard’s view, is to think of the postmodern as a “re-writing” of modernity. Whereas Jameson emphasizes spatiality, Lyotard’s emphasis, similar to Benjamin, is on temporality. It is in the sense of a “working through” (the Freudian Durcharbeitung ). The effort is not to regain a lost origin but to focus on that which is constitutively hidden from us both in terms of the past as well as the future. The working idea involves adopting a different temporality in the sense of “remembrance,” uncovering the forgotten, revealing the crimes and sins of the past. It is in this regard that we should understand the political and ethical strategy in Lyotard. The second sense of Lyotard that I consider concerns his idea of reflective judgment and the donation of the “object.” In a spirit faithful to Benjamin and Adorno, Lyotard is seeking an epistemological attitude that thinks from the standpoint of particularity. This in fact, becomes the primary metaphor for reconstructing the idea of justice in Lyotard. Kant’s Critique of Judgment is the model on which Lyotard builds this theory. Kant’s notion of aesthetic presentation emphasizes the receptivity of the subject to that which is given. The idea of reflective judgment places the burden on the philosopher to think without the security of a systematic framework. Lyotard developed the ethical and political dimension of his work in and around the concept of the differend. A differend occurs when heterogeneous discourses are reduced to a common denominator, a common language, or a set of concepts. Lyotard’s differend is framed in legal language. The idea of the differend signals a situation in which wrong is suffered and the victim is deprived of the legal means of addressing it. The larger point is that Lyotard’s suspicion that justice cannot be handled in universal terms.

A Partial Reading List

Walter Benjamin:
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections
Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings

Enrique Dussel
Philosophy of Liberation
Beyond Philosophy: Ethics, History, Marxism and Liberation Philosophy

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
Jurgen Habermas
The Theory of Communicative Action, volumes 1&2
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Frederic Jameson
Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
Jean Francois Lyotard
The Lyotard Reader
The Postmodern Condition

Slavoj Zizek
The Sublime Object of Ideology: The Essential Zizek

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