The Machiavellian Politics of Postmodernism

Machiavelli is often portrayed as the first honest teacher of dishonest politics. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpt from Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition), by Stephen Hicks (Ockham’s Razor, 2013). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Part I: How Postmodernists Use Language as a Weapon

From Chapter 6: Postmodern Strategy

Using contradictory discourses as a political strategy

In postmodern discourse, truth is rejected explicitly and consistency can be a rare phenomenon. Consider the following pairs of claims.

  • On the one hand, all truth is relative; on the other hand, postmodernism tells it like it really is.
  • On the one hand, all cultures are equally deserving of respect; on the other, Western culture is uniquely destructive and bad.
  • Values are subjective—but sexism and racism are really evil.
  • Technology is bad and destructive—and it is unfair that some people have more technology than others.
  • Tolerance is good and dominance is bad—but when postmodernists come to power, political correctness follows.

There is a common pattern here: Subjectivism and relativism in one breath, dogmatic absolutism in the next. Postmodernists are well aware of the contradictions—especially since their opponents relish pointing them out at every opportunity. And of course a postmodernist can respond dismissingly by citing Hegel—“Those are merely Aristotelian logical contradictions”—but it is one thing to say that and quite another to sustain Hegelian contradictions psychologically.

The pattern therefore raises the question of which side of the contradiction is deepest for postmodernism. Is it that postmodernists really are committed to relativism, but occasionally lapse into absolutism? Or are the absolutist commitments deepest and the relativism a rhetorical cover?

Consider three more examples, this time of clashes between postmodernist theory and historical fact.

  • Postmodernists say that the West is deeply racist, but they know very well that the West ended slavery for the first time ever, and that it is only in places where Western ideas have made inroads that racist ideas are on the defensive.
  • They say that the West is deeply sexist, but they know very well that Western women were the first to get the vote, contractual rights, and the opportunities that most women in the world are still without.
  • They say that Western capitalist countries are cruel to their poorer members, subjugating them and getting rich off them, but they know very well that the poor in the West are far richer than the poor anywhere else, both in terms of material assets and the opportunities to improve their condition.

In explaining the contradiction between the relativism and the absolutist politics, there are three possibilities.

  1. The first possibility is that the relativism is primary and the absolutist politics are secondary. Qua philosophers, the postmodernists push relativism, but qua particular individuals they happen to believe a particular version of absolutist politics.
  2. The second possibility is that the absolutist politics are primary, while the relativism is a rhetorical strategy that is used to advance that politics.
  3. The third possibility is that both the relativism and the absolutism coexist in postmodernism, but the contradictions between them simply do not matter psychologically to those who hold them.

The first option can be ruled out as a possibility. Subjectivism and its consequent relativism cannot be primary to postmodernism because of the uniformity of the politics of postmodernism. If subjectivity and relativism were primary, then postmodernists would be adopting political positions across the spectrum, and that simply is not happening. Postmodernism is therefore first a political movement, and a brand of politics that has only lately come to relativism.

Machiavellian postmodernism

So let us try the second option, that postmodernism is first about politics and only secondly about relativistic epistemology. Fredric Jameson’s oft-quoted line—“everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political”[300]—should then be given a strongly Machiavellian twist as a statement of a willingness to use any weapon—rhetorical, epistemological, political—to achieve political ends. Then, strikingly, postmodernism turns out not to be relativistic at all. Relativism becomes part of a rhetorical political strategy, some Machiavellian realpolitik employed to throw the opposition off track.

On this hypothesis, postmodernists need not believe much of what they say. The word games and much of the use of anger and rage that are characteristic of much of their style can be a matter—not of using words to state things that they think are true—but rather of using words as weapons against an enemy that they still hope to destroy.

Here it is useful to recall Derrida: “deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.”[301]

Machiavellian rhetorical discourses

Suppose that you are arguing about politics with a fellow student or professor. You cannot believe it, but you seem to be losing the debate. All of your argumentative gambits are blocked, and you keep getting backed into corners. Feeling trapped, you then find yourself saying, “Well, it’s all just a matter of opinion; it’s merely semantics.”

What is the purpose in this context of appealing to opinion and semantic relativism? The purpose is to get your opponent off your back and to get some breathing space. If your opponent accepts that the debate is a matter of opinion or semantics, then your losing the argument does not matter: nobody is right or wrong. But if your opponent does not accept that everything is a matter of opinion, then his attention is diverted away from the subject matter at hand—namely, politics—and into epistemology. For now he has to show why everything is not merely semantics, and that will take him awhile. Meanwhile, you have successfully diverted him. And if it looks like he is doing a good job on the semantics argument, then you can throw in—“Well, what about perceptual illusions?”

In adopting this rhetorical strategy, do you really have to believe that everything is a matter of opinion or merely semantics? No, you do not. You can believe absolutely that you are right about the politics; and you can know that all you want to do is to use words to get the guy off your back in a way that makes it seem like you have not lost the argument.

This rhetorical strategy also works at the level of intellectual movements. Foucault has identified the strategy explicitly and clearly: “Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy.”[302]

Deconstruction as an educational strategy

Here is an example. Kate Ellis is a radical gender feminist. Ellis, as she writes in Socialist Review, believes that sexism is evil, that affirmative action is good, that capitalism and sexism go hand in hand, and that achieving equality between the sexes requires an overthrow of existing society. But she finds that she has a problem when she tries to teach these themes to her students. She finds that they think like liberal capitalists—they think in terms of equality of opportunity, in terms of simply removing artificial barriers and judging everyone by the same standards, and they think that by personal effort and ambition they can overcome most obstacles and achieve success in life.[303] But this means that her students have bought into the whole liberal capitalist framework that Ellis thinks is dead wrong. So, Ellis writes, she will enlist deconstruction as a weapon against those old-fashioned Enlightenment beliefs.[304]

If she can first undermine her students’ belief in the superiority of capitalist values and of the idea that people make or break themselves, then their core values will be de-stabilized.[305] Pushing relativism, she finds, helps achieve this. And once their Enlightenment beliefs are hollowed out by relativistic arguments, she can fill the void with the correct Left political principles.[306]

A familiar analogy may help here. On this hypothesis, postmodernists are no more relativistic than creationists are in their battles against evolutionary theory. Postmodernists, wearing their multiculturalist garb and saying that all cultures are equal, are like those creationists who say that all they want is equal time for evolutionism and creationism. Creationists will sometimes argue that creationism and evolutionism are equally scientific, or equally religious, and that they should therefore be treated equally and given equal time. Do creationists really believe that? Is equal time all that they want? Of course not. Creationists are fundamentally opposed to evolution—they are convinced that it is wrong and evil, and if they were in power they would suppress it. However, as a short-term tactic, as long as they are on the losing side of the intellectual debate, they will push intellectual egalitarianism and argue that nobody really knows the absolute truth. The same strategy holds for the Machiavellian postmodernists—they say they want equal respect for all cultures, but what they really want in the long run is to suppress the liberal capitalist one.

The Machiavellian interpretation also explains the use that postmodernists sometimes make of science. Einstein’s Relativity Theory, quantum mechanics, chaos mathematics, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem will all be cited regularly as proving that everything is relative, that nothing can be known, that everything is chaos. At best, in postmodernist writings, one will read dubious interpretations of the data, but more commonly the person involved does not have a clear idea of what the theorem in question is or how it is proved.

This is especially clear in the infamous case of physicist Alan Sokal and the far-Left journal Social Text. Sokal published an article in Social Text in which he argued that science had discredited the Enlightenment view of an objective, knowable reality, and that the latest results from quantum physics supported far Left politics.[307]

Sokal announced simultaneously in Lingua Franca that the article was a parody of postmodern criticism of science. The shocked reaction of the editors and defenders of Social Text was not to argue that they thought the physics presented in the article is true or even a legitimate interpretation. Instead the editors were deeply embarrassed and at the same time suggested piously that it was Sokal who had violated the sacred bonds of academic honesty and integrity. It was clear, however, that the editors did not know much about the physics and that the article had been published because of the political mileage they could get out of it.[308]

The Machiavellian interpretation also explains why relativistic arguments are arrayed only against the Western great books canon. If one’s deepest goals are political, one always has a major obstacle to deal with—the powerful books written by brilliant minds on the other side of the debate. In literature, there is a huge body of novels, plays, epic poems, and not much of it supports socialism. Much of it presents compelling analyses of the human condition from opposed perspectives. In American law, there is the Constitution and the whole body of common law precedent, and very little of that supports socialism. Consequently, if you are a Left-wing graduate student or professor in literature or law and you are confronted with the Western legal or literary canon, you have two choices. You can take on the opposing traditions, have your students read the great books and the great decisions, and argue with them in your classes. That is very hard work and also very risky—your students might come to agree with the wrong side. Or you can find a way to dismiss the whole tradition, so that you can teach only books that fit your politics. If you are looking for shortcuts, or if you have a sneaking suspicion that the right side might not fare well in the debate, then deconstruction is seductive. Deconstruction allows you to dismiss whole literary and legal traditions as built upon sexist or racist or otherwise exploitative assumptions. It provides a justification for setting them aside.

However, in order to use this strategy, do you really have to believe that Shakespeare was a misogynist, that Hawthorne was a secret Puritan, or that Melville was a technological imperialist? No. Deconstruction can simply be employed as a rhetorical method for ridding oneself of an obstacle.

On this Machiavellian hypothesis, then, postmodernism is not a leap of faith for the academic Left, but instead a clear-eyed political strategy that uses relativism but does not believe it.[309]

Excerpted from Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks. Copyright © Stephen Hicks, 2004, 2011, 2014. All rights reserved.


[300] Jameson 1981, 20.

[301] Derrida 1995; Lilla, 1998, 40. This interpretation fits also with Mark Lilla’s assessment of the relationship between politics and philosophy among the post-World War II generation of French intellectuals: “The history of French philosophy in the three decades following the Second World War can be summed up in a phrase: politics dictated and philosophy wrote” (Lilla 2001, 161).

[302] Foucault 1978, 101-102.

[303] Ellis 1989, 39.

[304] Ellis 1989, 40, 42.

[305] Ellis 1989, 42.

[306] Ellis is thus a disciple of both John Dewey and Herbert Marcuse: education is a Deweyan process of “social reconstruction,” but a reconstruction that requires first a Marcusean deconstruction. Dewey: “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction” (Dewey 1897, 16). Marcuse: “Reason [in the Hegelian sense] signifies the ‘absolute annihilation’ of the common-sense world. For, as we have already said, the struggle against common sense is the beginning of speculative thinking, and the loss of everyday security is the origin of philosophy” (Marcuse 1954, 48).

[307] Sokal 1996.

[308] In Koertge 1998, Sokal discusses reactions to the Social Text hoax. Also included in that volume are many useful studies of postmodernists’ misuse of science and the history of science. See also Gross and Levitt 1997.

[309] This Machiavellian interpretation of deconstructionist strategy complements Marcuse’s advocacy of a double-standard in applying toleration: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left” (1969, 109).

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at StephenHicks.org, and on Twitter.

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