Islamic fundamentalism and postmodernism are ‘remarkably close in their critique of capitalism, although neither reject capitalism altogether or envisions socialism as a viable alternative. The only difference between them, perhaps, is that postmodernism offers no alternative to capitalism, while the fundamentalists serve up a more primitive capitalism in an Islamic wrap’
In Afghanistan where we have been consigned to the stone age, middle-class students returning from the US/UK universities as Fulbright and Chevening scholars want us to believe that we are living in a post-modern world.
For my studies and work, I have been frequently visiting or staying in Europe and the USA for extended periods for the last ten years. Attacks on welfare system and the burgeoning economic crisis—biggest since 1929’s Great Depression, according to various accounts—are likely to consign Europe and the USA to a pre-modern era too. At least Greece is already knocking on the door of 19th century.
However, postmodernist professors entrenched at metropolitan campuses go on telling their students [including Fulbrighters from periphery] that we are living in a new historical epoch, since the 1970 , marked by cultural changes (‘postmodernism’) and economic transformations (‘late capitalism’).
Asked what are these cultural ‘changes’ and what is really latest about capitalism? one gets no explanation. Only complex descriptions are offered, descriptions loaded with catch phrases like ‘new technologies’, ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies], the Internet, the “information highway”!
Along the course, one also comes across contemptuous disregard for terms like Enlightenment, Marxism, and Imperialism while phrases like identity, local, and global [even glocal] are highly emphasized. But what postmodernity/postmodernism really is? Nobody exactly knows. It remains vague. Even postmodernists don’t exactly know themselves. [Still they are always quick to accuse their rivals of ignorance.] Hence, the definitions offered even by postmodernist prophets like Lyotard and Jencks are mutually conflicting (Callinicos1989:2).
However, to approach postmodernism in a bid to understand it [an impossibility, anyhow], one may approach it via postmodernists. Or one can attempt to disentangle the postmodernist enigma through its left-wing interpreters. I will attempt both ways.
According to Marxist theorists like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey, modernity and postmodernity represent two phases of capitalism. The shift from one to the other has not been a shift from capitalism to some postcapitalist [or ‘postindustrial’] era while the basic logic of capitalist accumulation [exploitation] still applies. But there have nevertheless been drastic changes in the nature of capitalism. For Jameson, postmodernity corresponds to ‘late capitalism’ characterized by ‘informational,’ and ‘consumerist’ phase of capitalism. David Harvey describes it as a transition from Fordism  to flexible accumulation.
Postmodernity then corresponds to a phase of capitalism where mass production of standardized goods, and the forms of labor associated with it, have been replaced by flexibility: new forms of production – ‘lean production’, the ‘team concept’, ‘just-in-time’ production; a ‘flexible’ labor force, mobile capital, and so on, all made possible by new informational technologies (Harvey 1989, Jameson 1991). In other words, knowledge has replaced old-style proletarian labour.
Corresponding to these shifts, according to these theories, there have been major cultural changes. One important way of explaining these changes, notably in Harvey’s account of postmodernity, has to do with a ‘time-space compression’, the acceleration of time and the contraction of space made possible by new technologies, in new forms of telecommunication, in fast new methods of production and marketing, new patterns of consumption, new modes of financial organization. The result has been a new cultural and intellectual configuration summed up in the formula ‘postmodernism’, which is said to have replaced the culture of modernism and the intellectual patterns associated with the ‘project of modernity’ (Wood 1998: 27-29).
The project of modernity, according to these accounts, had its origins in the Enlightenment [which represents rationalism, techno centrism, the standardization of knowledge and production, a belief in linear progress, and in universal, absolute truths]. Post-modernism is supposed to be a reaction to the project of modernity. Postmodernity sees the world as essentially fragmented and indeterminate, rejects any ‘totalizing” discourses, any so-called ‘metanarratives’, comprehensive and universalistic theories about the world and history. It also rejects any universalistic political projects, even universalistic emancipator projects – in other words, projects for a general ‘human emancipation’ rather than very particular struggles against very diverse and particular oppression (Ibid).
If one goes by postmodernist explanations, postmodernity represents a convergence of three cultural trends. These are:
Changes in arts: these changes are marked by in architecture, novel writing, painting etc.
Poststructuralism: that reality has a fragmentary, heterogeneous and plural character and it denies human thought the ability to arrive at any objective account of that reality and the bearer of this thought [the subject i.e. human being] is reduced to an incoherent welter of sub- and transindividual drives and desires .
Cultural activism: Art and philosophy reflect changes in the social world (Callinicos 1989: 2-3).
In other words, postmodernism is bit of everything as long as it remains absurd and serves the status co. It can even incorporate elements of radicalism. Therefore, it was able to attract such a huge following at the metropolitan campuses. As often is the case, metropolitan knowledge is recycled to periphery. Hence, one finds Foucault in fashion even at Kabul’s American University, Delhi’s’ JNU  and Lahore’s LUMS  [I am relying here on some personal experiences]. But what explains the meteoric rise of this mumbo-jumbo intellectual movement?
One explanation is the crisis of the left in the 1980s that coincided with the rise of postmodernism and its cousins like postcolonialism and post-Marxism. Another reason is the postmodernist dictatorship: dissidents are denied jobs at faculties dominated by postmodernists. Even importantly, postmodernism synchronized with the mystification unleashed by globalization. Terry Eagleton, however, thinks, ‘A comprehensive assessment of postmodernism and its impact on culture is
presented. Postmodernism should not be viewed as a reaction to the defeat of Communism–it is a response to the “success” of capitalism’ (Eagleton 1995: 59).
Exemplified by Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text, post-structuralism came into vogue in the wake of 1968 events (Wheen 2004:83). According to Terry Eagleton, ‘Post-structuralism was a product of that blend of euphoria and disillusionment, liberation and dissipation, carnival and catastrophe, which was 1968’. He goes on, ‘Unable to break the structures of state power, post structuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language…Its enemies, as for the later Barthes, became coherent belief systems of any kind…in particular all forms of political theory and organisation which sought to analyse, and act upon, the structures of society as a whole. For it was precisely such politics which seemed to have failed’ (qtd in Wheen 2004:84). It included Marxism too.
Lyotard, in fact, was member of a quasi-Trotskyist Socialisme ou Barbarie group (Callinicos 1989: 3). Other postmodernist French prophets were also enthusiastic about 1968 before embracing post-structuralist consensus that developed in the 1970s.
This post-structuralist/postmodernist analysis had political implications as it rejected the objective of socialist revolution. The abandonment of Marxism by 1968’s disillusioned Parisian children ‘accorded well with the trend of opinion among many left-wing intellectuals in the English-speaking world. Thus the arguments of two leading ‘Post-Marxists’, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that socialists should abandon ‘classism’, the classical Marxist stress upon the class struggle as the driving force of history and of the working class as the agency of socialist change’ (Ibid: 4) became a dominant discourse in the 1980s.
By the end of 1980s, postmodernists and their ‘post-ist’ cousins had established a hegemony at elite US universities. According to Francis Wheen, ‘They dominated the powerful American Modern Language Association, whose conferences were attended by up to 10,000 academic critics. They controlled the recruitment of lecturers in many universities, a power…displayed a few years earlier by the crusty conservatives of Cambridge . This time, however, the victims were those who could not recite from the post-modern shibboleths…The Vatican of this new creed was Yale University, where the three ‘boa-deconstructors’ Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller reigned jointly as pontificating pontiffs, but the papal jurisdiction extended far beyond their own department of comparative literature’ (Wheen 2004: 81).One of the holy missions these pontiffs and their devotees have been engaged in, is their ‘war on truth’ that like ‘war on terror’ has no end.
Postmodernist ‘war on truth’:
‘The truth never dies, but is made to live as a beggar,’ goes the Yiddish proverb. Quoting this Yiddish saying, Sanbonmatsu reminds us that truth has always suffered in this world: ‘But no intellectual movement of recent memory has so beggared the truth as poststructuralism has. With the postmodernist turn in theory, truth became a dirty word’ (Sanbonmatsu 2006:196).
Truth sustained, initially, major post-structuralist blow when Foucault first time boldly put truth in scare quotes in the late 1970s. “Truth”, he declared, ‘is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements…. “Truth” is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produces and sustains it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it’ (Foucault 1980: 133).
According to Sanbonmatsu, “No longer would ‘the true’ be understood, as it had for a millennia, as that which is ‘in accordance with fact or reality’. From now on, for a growing and influential sector of the intelligentsia, the true would be posed as a problem to be solved. The prerogative of truth was thus transformed from a right of the oppressed into an object of study for the technical or academic expert. Only the qualified ‘specific intellectual’ or ‘genealogist’ could speak meaningfully of truth – or rather, could investigate the conditions of the possibility of truth” (Sanbonmatsu 2006:196).
‘Students taking courses in literature, film, “cultural studies”, and even, in some cases, anthropology and political science, were taught that the world is just a socially constructed “text” about which you can say just about anything you want, provided you say it murkily enough,’ says Barbara Ehrenreich, a left-wing American author. ‘One day my own children , whose college education cost about $25,000 a year, reported that in some classes, you could be marked down for using the word “reality” without the quotation marks,’ she laments.
As a media student at the SOAS, London, I was horrified to learn that the ownership and control of media do not matter since audiences are not passive [a theme constantly ramrodded down students throats], the audiences ‘decode’ the message the way they like. An enthusiastic theorist propagating this absurdity is Stuart Hall, once an editor at the New Left Review.
Embracing Islamic fundamentalism:
In their best-selling Empire, American scholar Michael Hard and his Italian counterpart Antonio Negri claim: ‘Contemporary Islamic radicalisms are indeed primarily based on “original thought” and the invention of original values and practices, which perhaps echo those of other periods of revivalism or fundamentalism but are really directed in reaction to the present social order. In both cases, then, the fundamentalists “return to tradition” is really a new invention. The anti-modern thrust that defines fundamentalisms might be better understood, then, not as a premodern but as a postmodern project” (Hard and Negri 2000:148-149). Both these Halfbright Scholars deserve a three-month research scholarship to Taliban Emirate in Exile of Waziristan!
However, Hard and Negri are not that wrong either.
‘Ironically, many arguments used by fundamentalists against the hegemony of the West for pushing forth ‘authentic’, indigenous traditions are shared by the postmodernist perspective,’ Moghissi points out (1999:73). Akbar Ahmed also argues that fundamentalism, like postmodernism, is an attempt to resolve how to live in a world of radical doubt (Ahmed 1992). Hence, both suspect Enlightenment, both favor premodern institutions and practices, both draw strength by playing with [and in the case of fundamentalism, manipulating] language and text (Moghissi 1999:74)
Other similarities between postmodernists and fundamentalists include their rejection of the West, their enthusiastic appreciation of anything non-Western, their localism, their opposition to secularism, and, as Turner argues, their preference for ‘ the authenticity of tradition’ as compared with ‘inherited, imported or alien knowledge’ (Turner 1994:7).
Hence, Moghissi points out, ‘the disenchantment of both positions with modern science and scientific achievements, as pillars of modernity, notwithstanding the willingness to use everything that science and scientific knowledge have to offer’. Similarly, both are ‘remarkably close in their critique of capitalism, although neither reject capitalism altogether or envisions socialism as a viable alternative. The only difference between them, perhaps, is that postmodernism offers no alternative to capitalism, while the fundamentalists serve up a more primitive capitalism in an Islamic wrap as an alternative to the West’s notion of modernity. Fundamentalism and postmodernism also unite in their rejection of the excessive consumerism of the West (Moghissi 1999:75).It is not a coincidence that Michel Foucault was fascinated by the Ayotollahs’ bloody mess in Iran! 
Ahmed, A (1992) Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise. Routledge: London.
Callinicos, A (1989) Against Postmodernism. London: Polity.
Foucault, M (1980) Truth and Power. Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon.
Moghissi, H (1999) Feminism and Islamic Feminism: The Limits of post-modern analysis. Oxford University Press.
Hardt, M and Negri, A (2000) Empire. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Harvey, D (1989) The condition of post-modernity. London: Basil Blackwell.
Jameson, F (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press.
Sanbonmatsu, J (2006) Postmodernism and the corruption of academic intelligentsia. In Panitch, L and Leys, C (eds) Socialist Register. New York: Monthly Review Press
Eagleton, T (1995) Where do postmodernists come from? Monthly Review. 47(3):59-70. July.
Turner, B (1994) Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globism. London: Routledge.
Wheen, F (2004) How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. London: Harper
Wood, E M (1998) Modernity, Postmodernity, or Capitalism?. In McChesney, R, Wood, E M, Foster, J B (eds) Capitalism and the Information Age. New York: Monthly Review Press. pp 27-49
David Harvey has been pretty precise. He says postmodernist era dawned in 1972!
According to Wikipedia: ‘Fordism, named after Henry Ford, is a modern economic and social system based on industrial mass production. The concept is used in various social theories about production and related socio-economic phenomena. It has varying but related meanings in different fields, as well as for Marxist and non-Marxist scholars. In a Fordist system the worker is paid relatively high wages in order to buy in large quantity the products turned out in mass production’.
Sanbonmatsu claims, ’Postmodernism began as a separate – initially aesthetic – current from poststructuralism, but the two did converge: the poststructuralist critique of humanism, subjectivity, and foudationalism became indistinguishable from a general rejection of modernity and modern institutions (hence; post-modernism’ a philosophical outlook) (Sanbonmatsu, J (2006) Postmodernism and the corruption of academic intelligentsia. In Panitch, L and Leys, C (eds) Socialist Register. New York: Monthly Review Press.p221).
Jawarlal Nehru University.
Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Wheen is referring here to the Colin MacCabe Affair, a big academic scandal of the 1980s’ UK. MacCabe, a postmodernist was dismissed from his Cambridge job by the conservative bureaucracy. It provoked a postmodernist outrage.
Foucault also expressed sympathy with extrajudicial and popular forms of justice (summary executions or mob killings by the people in revolutionary context.) See Foucault: ‘On Popular Justice: A Discussion with Maoists’. In Foucault, M (1980) Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon.
Sahar Saba is an Afghan women rights’ activist. For many years, she was spokesperson of Revolutionary Afghan Women Association (RAWA). Also, she has worked with RAWA for many years in refugee camps in Pakistan and in Afghanistan in different capacities. She has traveled to many countries in the past several years to speak on behalf of Afghan women.
She was born in Kabul. Her family migrated to Pakistan where Sahar Saba became active with RAWA. She has a law degree from London University and writes on issues facing Afghan women.