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Fr. 413

October 13, 2013

What comes after liberalism? Or, perhaps more appropriately, what becomes of liberalism in the postmodern era? For Jameson, in the conclusion of “Late Marxism”, the answer provides little in the way of comfort.

Indeed, it is necessary to stress the link, on Jameson’s view, between the completion of positivism and the advent of postmodernism, on one hand, and the end of liberalism, on the other. Positivism, or that dominating trend in the intellectual sphere of the 19th and 20th centuries, calls for the abolition of the subjective or interior, as that which “takes the form of thoughts, interpretations and opinions” (p. 248) and, perhaps by extension, that of the corresponding modes of language and speech. For this reason, such positivism might also be termed nominalism (in the sense that only particular objects exist and their abstract, subjective or interior properties are merely features of the way of considering the things that exist). Consequently, this nominalism carries with it as its principal goal the desire to “reduce us to the empirical present” and that “as the sole pattern for imagining other situation and other temporal moments” (pp. 248-249). Accordingly, there is nought but the here and now, that which is; there can be no thought of that which was, that which is to be, which are held to the same status as that which never was or that of nothingness. In short, there can be no outside or alternative to that present in which we find ourselves.

The transition from positivism to postmodernism and, hence, the former’s completion are secured by the latter’s tendency to abolish the notion of value and ends, particularly as this emerges, for Jameson, in various critiques of instrumental reason, dialectic, and all that which might be thought to promise an end, visionary or otherwise, other than that of the current, empirical situation. Yet Jameson pursues this linking or transition one step further in maintaining that, not only does postmodernism represent the accomplishment of positivism, it is also in an important sense the “fulfillment and abolition of liberalism” (p. 249). What precisely does Jameson assert in maintaining the latter?

It seems likely that Jameson’s assertion is twofold and thus comprises two distinct claims about the relation between positivism, postmodernism and liberalism. First, like Jameson, various critics of liberalism have accused it of being no more than a self-propagating system with an eye to maintaining an unending present of its own rule by excluding alternatives as so many instances of untenable transcendence in an immanent framework or as radical approaches destined to undermine the peaceful coexistence of pluralist society secured by liberalism alone. In short, liberalism would constitute an empirical present of its own from which the individual might never escape.

Secondly, and as an extension of the first consideration, liberalism itself tends to do away with talk of values and ends. Why should the individual in liberalism be saddled with other beliefs when the liberal system is thought to fill any needs that might arise? To put a polemic, Rawlsian spin on the issue, these are so many comprehensive doctrines that the individual might better be rid of, at least in certain domains, were she just to adopt the relevant perspectives of public reason and the limited constitutional perspective. The general disappearing of value- and ends-talk is another phenomenon, common in the liberal sphere, that Jameson might link to certain postmodern disciplines and practices.

The end result of the threefold linking and identifying of positivism, postmodernism and liberalism is the rise of a no-nonsense market faith. As Jameson puts it:

“The postmodern is in that sense the fulfillment and abolition of liberalism as well, which, no longer tenable as an ideology and a value any more than traditional conservatism, can function more effectively after its own death as an ideology, realizing itself in its most traditional form as a commitment to the market system that has become sheer common sense and no longer a political program. All the critiques of such positivism are true and useless at the same time, because they can mobilize only antiquated representations and dated ideologies.” (249)

Like the empirical present of positivism and the value-less situation of the postmodern, the market system is, in Jameson’s eyes, a situation that not only does not brook discussion of alternatives but provides a horizon in which the formulation of any alternative is simply not an option. It is precisely for this reason that market faith no longer has need of a particular political program, for its case has been made (in some sense) to such an extent that there is no felt need to justify or campaign for the market system. It is simply that which is.

Although Jameson’s critique starts out from an entirely different place than that of liberalism’s fiercest critics, it is remarkable that their positions can be seen to dovetail to such an extent on the question of the end of ends and the unending present of liberal society and the market.

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