A Matter Of Terminology? The Distinction Between ‘Modern’ And ‘Postmodern’ Political Thought And How It Matters For Our Age. Barry Gilheany

Barry Gilheany explores some of the differences between modernist and postmodernist thought. 

In this article, I engage with the debate between modern and postmodern political theory in order to flesh out the terms of progressive political discourse for our times> At its very essence, the debate centres on the rejection of grand narratives which postmodern thinkers propound. Among these metanarratives are those of the Enlightenment which are associated with modernist thinkers; the belief in the onward march of human progress and in the soundness of rationality and pursuit of objective knowledge. Postmodernists with their beliefs in cultural relativism contest such linear accounts of history given by political thinkers such as Marx, Hegel and, latterly, Francis Fukuyama and seek to deconstruct them with the use of language and sophisticated word games. Contemporary defenders of the Enlightenment project such as Jürgen Habermas use some postmodern insights to develop an updated version of modernist political thought. Before going into greater depth on the distinction between modern and postmodern political thought, it is necessary to make brief reference to the movements which have spawned both.

Postmodernism emerged in the 20th century out of arenas such as avant-garde cultural movements, the humanities departments of certain US universities and the French linguistic movement known as post-structuralism. Postmodernists have a distinct way of seeing the world. They employ a set of philosophic ideas that analyse a ‘late capitalist’ cultural condition of ‘postmodernity’. This condition supposedly affects all of humanity through what Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s termed the ‘electronic village’, the exponential growth in electronic and digital communication. However, in this ‘information society’, most information is to be distrusted, as it contributes more to the manipulative image-making of power elites than to the advancement of knowledge (Butler, 2002).

Postmodernist theory relies greatly on the maintenance of a sceptical attitude. In this vein the writings of Jean-Francois Lyotard are essential. He argued in his La condition postmoderne (published in French in 1979, in English in 1984) that we live in the era of the decline of legitimising ‘master narratives’. These narratives are embodied by major philosophies such as Kantianism, Hegelianism and Marxism, which argue that history is progressive, that knowledge is emancipatory and that all knowledge has a secret unity. Lyotard attacks two main narratives: the triumph of science and the progressive freeing of humanity – from Christian redemption to Marxist Utopia) - and argues that since the Second World War such doctrines have ‘lost their credibility’ (Butler: p.13).

An essential tool in the taking apart of grand narratives is that of ‘deconstruction’ developed by another French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The central argument for deconstruction depends on relativism, the view that truth itself is always relative to the differing standpoints and a priori intellectual frameworks of the judging subject. Deconstruction denies that ultimate definitions are possible, because the relationship of language to reality is not given, or even reliable, since all language systems are inherently unreliable cultural constructs (Butler: pp.16-17).

Another linguistic tool in the armoury of postmodernists is discourse and its relationship to power. A ‘discourse’ here means a historically evolved set of relational statements which are used to define and describe a subject matter. The most influential analysis of this relationship between discourse and power is Michel Foucault’s studies of the history of practices in law, criminology and medicine. He describes how such powerful discourses are designed to exclude and control people, such as those diagnosed as criminally insane or ill. Medically trained ‘reasonable’ people define themselves against the ‘unreasonable’ and proceed to incarcerate them in asylums. Similarly, sexists, racists and imperialists all make their ‘normalising’ discourse prevail and, in the process, create the deviant or the other (Butler: pp.44-46).

Through their semiotics, postmodernists show the ways in which discourses of power are used in all societies to marginalise subordinate groups (Butler: p.56). They conceive of a self very different from the self at the centre of liberal, humanist and modern thought, which is taken to be capable of autonomy and rationality and free of particularisms such as gender and ethnicity. The postmodern self is constituted by linguistic systems which although they impact most severely on the female, non-white and colonized have practically everyone in their grip. Postmodernism’s suggestion of irreconcilable differences between individuals has, in the opinion of some, promoted a culture of victimhood among many (Butler: p.59).

Modernity is often defined in terms of the 18th century Enlightenment. This included a belief in the power of reason to solve problems, the importance of empirical methods, the secularization of knowledge and society and a faith in progress. In the eyes of many Enlightenment philosophes, it was the triumphant success of the natural sciences which provided the rationale for these interconnected features of that era. Standing squarely in this tradition in our era is Francis Fukuyama whose exposition of the role of science as one of the main engines of human progress is a central theme of his The End of History and the Last Man published in 1992 (Williams et al, 1997).

Writing in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama proclaimed that liberal democracy may constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and thus the “end of history” (Fukuyama, 1992) Recalling the assertion of Alexandre Kojeve, Hegel’s interpreter, that history had ended because the “universal and homogenous state” had “definitely solved the question of recognition by replacing the relationship of lordship and bondage with universal and equal relationship”, Fukuyama identifies liberal democracy as this state (Fukuyama: p.xxi). Resting on its twin principles of liberty and equality, he asserts that “’liberal democracy remains the only coherent aspiration spanning different regions and cultures across the world.’ Furthermore, ‘liberal principles in economics – the “free market – had spread’ and had ‘succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity’ in both the developed and developing worlds’ (Fukuyama: p.xiii).

As alluded to above, Fukuyama positions himself in the Kantian-Hegelian tradition and so can be seen to have given a new lease of life to the previously neglected philosophy of history (Williams et al: p.160). Not only is his argument universalist in the sense of arguing that there is one universally true set of moral and political principles, he also argues that there is one universally true form of rationality which underpins these principles, namely, the natural sciences (Williams et al: p.166). For the ‘success of modern natural science .. allowed Francis Bacon to assert the superiority of modernity to antiquity on the basis of inventions like the compass, printing press and gunpowder. ‘This concept of progress’ Fukuyama goes on, as ‘the cumulative and endless acquisition of knowledge was articulated most definitively by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in 1688: “A good cultivated mind … is but a single identical mind which has been developing and improving itself all the time” (Fukuyama: p.57).

Of course, post-modernists reject a Fukuyama type narrative on the basis that there is no privileged position in time and space from which to view and argument or a way of life (Williams et al: p.166). And it is not unreasonable to claim that Fukuyama’s status as a US citizen and State Department official and the less that beneficial effects of free market ideology on many parts of the Third World marks him down as coming from a culturally specific position. Also, the emergence of populist, ethno-nationalist and Islamist movements post 9/11 and the 2008 crash has made the world a less propitious environment for liberal democratic and free market universalisms.

We have seen that the central themes of post-modern political theory are the end of macropolitics, opposition grand narratives and the acceptance of the plurality of cultures and discourses. As a consequence, postmodern politics are the politics of single-issue movements, single issue actions and that of cultural identity which reject any notion of “redemptive politics” (Bertens: 1995). They appear to stand in polar opposite to modernist politics. But are the differences between modernist and postmodernist conceptions of the political that fundamental?

One attempt to patch a progressive, emancipatory political programme out of postmodernist theory is the classic text by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democracy of 1985. In seeking to reformulate a socialist project that avoids the pitfalls of Marxist socialism and social democracy, it rejects the abstract Enlightenment universalism of an undifferentiated human nature and emphasise discourse and multiple, pluralist struggles. Radical democracy privileges difference. However, in trying to undo the binary opposition between objectivism and relativism, Laclau and Mouffe optimistically state that one can distinguish between the just and the unjust only from within a given tradition. This begs the question of what the “given tradition” is in relation to issues like abortion and euthanasia (Bertens: pp.189-92).

Jürgen Habermas defends the episteme of the Enlightenment project by pointing out that part of it was the separating out the three main domains of human thinking – science, morality and art- which had previously been banded together as an entire dominant religious world-view. Experts in each sphere came to dominate access to it and in this sense Habermas does not dispute the assertions by post-modernists like Lyotard that knowledge has become fragmented and commodified. While Habermas admits that the Enlightenment was only ever an ideal and that the brutal history of the 20th century has largely nullified any optimism for its future prospects, he asks us to recall the backwardness of the pre-modern era and accuses the ‘radical critique of reason’ of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Through developing a theory of communicative action, Habermas shows that his defence of the Enlightenment project does not solely rely on the flaws in post-modernist arguments (McLennan, 1992).

In conclusion, it is important to appreciate the main fault lines between modern and postmodern political thought namely the latter’s rejection of grand narratives and relativism and the former’s defence of the Enlightenment project of the pursuit of reason, intellectual enquiry and universal emancipation. Postmodernist concerns help us to understand fragmentation and the renewed salience of identity politics in the world. However, I believe it is still essential for progressive political theory to promote the model of the autonomous, self-actualising self with the capacity for reason and a rights bearer based on a universal humanity and on possession of property in one’s person. Such an account of liberation roots the self in whatever social class, religious-cultural community and particular constitutional tradition (as in Northern Ireland) they were born into but does not require that they be defined by these contexts.

Postmodernism has much to teach us about how particular discursive formations can construct the subject but has arguably been guilty of facilitating a descent into the soup of moral relativism whereby authoritarian modes of governance in, for example, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region and China are excused that they are appropriate to those regions (“Asian values”) Postmodernism’s promotion of the validity of identity politics has, I would argue, created the conditions for corrosive arguments around what I call “linguistic correctness (rather than political correctness which to me personally is about courtesy and good manners) and pointless arguments over peripheral aspect of cultural identity ( The Twitter spat between the UK’s Shadow spokesperson Dawn Butler and the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver over the latter’s “jerk rice” recipes is a case in point) Rather more perniciously, a postmodern reading of modern global politics has led to the grotesque scenarios of some on the “Anti-War” left promoting Islamism as a revolutionary agency of change post 9/11 and of supposedly progressive thinkers like Judith Butler setting up Hamas and Hezbollah as revolutionary, antiimperialist social movements worthy of support by the Left despite their regressive clericalism.t Ultimately only updated modernist theory for the 21st century can enable an effective political praxis for our age. The dark clouds of nationalist populism in Europe and the emergence of authoritarian, antiliberal democracies across the world in response to the grand narratives of globalisation make this more of a necessity than ever.


Bertens, H. (1995) The Idea of the Postmodern, A History London: Routledge

Butler, C. (2002) Postmodernism. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and The Last Man London: Penguin

McLennan, G. The Enlightenment Project Revisited in Hall, S., Held, D. and McGrew, T. (1999) Modernity and its Futures pp.327-78 Cambridge: Polity Press

Williams, H., Sullivan, D. and Matthews, G. (1997) Francis Fukuyama and the End of History Political Philosophy Now Cardiff: University of Wales Press

➽ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.

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