Postmodernism, Part 19: Basic Economics

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks (with support from Maps of Meaning, by Jordan B. Peterson).

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Right Collectivism

Left Collectivism


Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.

jean-rousseauJean Rousseau

Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy.  Postmodernism’s leftist political philosophy is explained by twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe.  Postmodernists took refuge in an earlier totalitarian collectivist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and gave rise to Napoleon.

Rousseau’s ideas (and Napoleon’s conquests) inspired the German Counter-Enlightenment thinkers (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel).  They gave Rousseau a German twist, including multiculturalism, moral relativism, indoctrinating education, hero worship, state worship, totalitarianism, and dialectical history (with German supremacy and destiny).  This partly explains totalitarian collectivism (and German nationalism).

Left Collectivism is partly rooted in romanticism (inspired by Rousseau).  Romanticism was both an aesthetic and a value system.  It valued unthinking passion, sympathy, virtuous poverty, idyllic nature, danger, violence, and radicalism.  It devalued social consequences and conventional morality.  The romantic Lord Byron had a profound influence.  He was an aristocratic rebel who espoused rebellion, amorality, hero worship, militarism, and revolution.

Left Collectivism was also rooted in the process of industrialization.

Basic Economics

To understand “capitalism”, it’s useful to understand some basic economics.  For our purposes, this includes three concepts: markets, the state, and society (no math or mumbo jumbo).

“Capitalism” (so to speak) is not one monolithic entity.  It has several moving parts (actors that play different roles).  These include market economics (the markets), liberal democracy (the state), and society (individuals, families, and private institutions).  These different actors have related and competing interests, but don’t move in lockstep with each other.

Market economics is a system for allocating scarce resources, based on voluntary exchange and price.  Resources are scarce.  (We can’t turn water into wine.)  The price of wine is a “signal” that incorporates a mind-boggling amount of information (past and present, across the globe).  Nobody knows or can know how to calculate the “correct price” for wine or anything – no genius and no AI.  (The economy is too complex to model, measure, and predict.)  The price mechanism distributes this complex calculation (of mind-boggling information), across the globe, into a single data point – price.  Market economics is the worst system in the world (except for all the rest).

Liberal democracy is the state.  All states feature coercion and sanction.  The state holds a monopoly on coercion (the power to compel involuntary action).  The state uses the power of sanction (its monopoly on violence) to give force to law.  Liberal democracies give individuals some participation in representative government.  They grant some rights (interests that trump other interests), such as speech, association, religion, and property.  They give individuals some access to courts to seek justice. Liberal democracy is the worst system in the world (except for all the rest).

Society is the individual and voluntary associations of individuals.  Society is not the state.  (Society lacks sanction and coercion.)  Society is voluntary.  (There is no opting-out of the state.)  Society includes friends, families, communities, churches, charities, etc.  Society is a source of values (competing values, including competition with state-endorsed values).  Society voluntarily provides education, assistance, training and support.

Industrial Development

This is a modern conception of “capitalism”.  These ideas have evolved over centuries and continue to evolve.  These institutions don’t evolve at the same pace.  Sometimes they (like us) look forwards, sometimes back, sometimes blind, sometimes drunk.  They (like us) have one foot in yesterday and the other in tomorrow.  It’s far from perfect.

The Industrial Revolution was a slow process.  These institutions were moving from agricultural medieval feudalism towards modernity.  The institutions were changing.  The arrangements were changing.  Values were changing.  There was a revolving door of winners and losers.  There were crooks and liars, idealists and charlatans, saints and sinners.  It was (and is) a long and painful process.


“If I have seen further than others,” wrote Isaac Newton, “It is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.  We should be mindful of that perspective.

An idea is hiding there.  Newton’s metaphor stands on an older one, “a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself”.  Each of us is “a dwarf”.  What is the giant?

The giant is a tower of bones.  In the sweeping valley of chaos, lie heaps of debris and ruin.  In its center, is a ghastly mountain of rubble and bones.  Atop that, looms a structure, a tower of bones, lashed together with  sinews of the long forgotten dead.  At its base, the bones are bleached white; at top, fresh with blood.  The tower is ornamented with faded banners, broken relics, and skulls of the once wise and mighty.  The giant tower is our civilization and culture.

“Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand,” writes psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, “The thing we cannot see is culture … The thing we do not understand is the chaos that gave rise to culture.”  Our giant tower of culture was built upon hard lessons by the dead.  We climbed and built this giant, step by painstaking step.  When we fall, we plummet into a merciless abyss.

Marx and Engels stood atop a giant that shuddered violently, as machines roared to life, belching smoke and fire.  These men marveled at this power and thought themselves giants.  They claimed to see to the end of history.  They thought themselves brilliant scientific engineers of human destiny (who could design and build a bridge to paradise).

Their disciples dismantled the scaffolding upon which they stood to raise an altar to their genius.  They raised armies to enslave and slaughter, to build their ghastly bridge to oblivion.  It creaked and groaned, then shattered of its own weight.  Men and debris scattered in the howling winds of chaos, and tumbled to the floor, below.  They lie there still, mute testimony to hubris and folly.


Industrialization helps lead to socialism.  Next: Part 20, Labor Pains