A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it. Over there, on the ground, it is nothing; it is stupid; it has no meaning, no function, and no value. Ball isn’t played alone. Those who do, those who hog the ball, are bad players and are soon excluded from the game. They are said to be selfish. The collective game doesn’t need persons, people out for themselves. Let us consider the one who holds it. If he makes it move around him, he is awkward, a bad player. The ball isn’t there fore the body; the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun. Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it. It is the subject of the body, subject of bodies, and like a subject of subjects. Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance. The laws are written for it, defined relative to it, and we bend to these laws. Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves.
- Michel Serres
For advocates of social justice the problem of postmodernity is generally seen in terms of political impotence, specifically a subjective, individual impotence. The conditions of postmodernity are allegedly such that the pre-emptive co-option of social action into the reproduction of capital is assured. Capital, despite creating first and foremost its own gravediggers, has somehow 1. achieved hegemonic dominance, 2. circumvented the creation of alternative productive modes, and 3. completely subjugated the site of resistance, the working class, into its reproductive program.
1. is undoubtedly true, as I will demonstrate. Capitalism is, of course, dependent on humanity's productive power for its reproduction. The reproduction of capital requires not simply labor power but real, living labor which it translates into abstract labor, exchangeable on the commodity market. Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe explains the significance of this point:
Marx’s critique of capital begins at the same point where capital begins its own life process: the abstraction of labor. Yet this labor, although abstract, is always living labor to begin with. The “living” quality of the labor ensures that the capitalist has not bought a fixed quantum of labor but rather a variable “capacity for labor,” and being “living” is what makes this labor a source of resistance to capitalist abstraction. The tendency on the part of capital would therefore be to replace, as much as possible, living labor with objectified, dead labor. Capital is thus faced with its own contradiction: it needs abstract but living labor as the starting point in its cycle of self-reproduction, but it also wants to reduce to a minimum the quantum of living labor it needs. Capital will therefore tend to develop technology in order to reduce this need to a minimum. This is exactly what will create the conditions necessary for the emancipation of labor and for the eventual abolition of the category “labor” altogether. But that would also be the condition for the dissolution of capital: “[C]apital . . . —quite unintentionally—reduces human labour, expenditure of energy, to a minimum. This will redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation."
This living labor, by definition resistant to capitalist exploitation in its livingness, is a required input to reproduce capital. In other words, without living labor inputs, capitalism has nothing to abstract and therefore nothing to exchange on the market, and thereby no way to reproduce itself. The social categories "capital" and "labor" which constitute capitalism cease to exist.
Postmodernity remains fertile soil for social revolution by virtue of its capitalist productive mode. It can not be both capitalist and have resolved the need or capacity of social revolution: social revolution is intrinsic to capitalist relations. In re-asserting the site of social revolution within capitalism itself, the problem of anti-capitalist impotence under postmodernity is rearticulated as an ideological concern, not a "real" one. The problem is not located, as the apocalyptics argue, in some innovation of the social relations that rendered social revolution obsolete or negated the capitalist contradiction, or in some theoretical tangle that played out in the 20th Century Communist projects that refutes the theory of capitalist contradiction. The dominant contemporary social relations remain capitalist: social production and precapitalist productive modes are co-opted for reproduction of capital, and the contradiction of capital has yet to resolve. We are therefore firmly within a capitalist hegemony, and the project of social revolution remains a political priority.
The problem of political impotence then must be located in ideology, since it is clearly not a question of the productive mode's potential for revolution. This is not simply to say that the Left is lacking self confidence in the face of the collapse of progressive alternatives to capitalism, or that we require a new, better theory, that Marxist theory is outdated, etc. Capitalism produces ideology in its own image, and under scrutiny, just as the examining the material relations reveals the material contradictions that make the potential and need for social revolution real, examination of the ideological relations will reveal the ideological contradiction, and dispel the political impotence that masks the potential for social revolution inherent in postmodernity.
What is ideology, in Marxian terms? Ideology is embedded in the social relations, and as "real" as any other product of social production. Ideology is not a matter of will or free intellect, but of social organization. Ideology necessarily represents the social relations that produce it, just as the social classes do. That there are conflicting and contradictory positions within postmodern ideology does not reflect that one position is true to the exclusion of the other, but that the capitalist contradiction at the productive center of the contemporary social mode is indeed at work. That reactionaries and revolutionaries ideologically coexist is not indicative of theoretical error: they are siblings of a kind, sharing the same maternal origin in the productive mode, but they are not twins. The contradiction of capitalism gives the productive mode its revolutionary dynamic, which produces not only the agents of revolution, but the agents of reaction: to have one without the other is nonsensical, for the revolution must revolt against something. Capitalism produces the bourgeoisie and its gravediggers, and just the same it produces their ideological analogue in political reaction and its executioners.
Let's then examine subjectivity as it was viewed by Marx in this light. Dipesh Chakrabarty in his earlier work Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal, 1890-1940 can once again help us here:
Marx places the question of subjectivity right at the heart of his category “capital” when he posits the conflict between “real labour” and “abstract labour” as one of its central contradictions. “Real labour” refers to the labor power of the actual individual, labor power “as it exists in the personality of the labourer”—that is, as it exists in the “immediate exclusive individuality” of the individual. Just as personalities differ, similarly the labor power of one individual is different from that of another. “Real labour” refers to the essential heterogeneity of individual capacities. “Abstract” or general labor, on the other hand, refers to the idea of uniform, homogeneous labor that capitalism imposes on this heterogeneity, the notion of a general labor that underlies “exchange value.” It is what makes labor measurable and makes possible the generalized exchange of commodities. It expresses itself . . . in capitalist discipline, which has the sole objective of making every individual’s concrete labor—by nature heterogeneous—“uniform and homogeneous” through supervision and technology employed in the labor process. . . . Politically, . . . the concept of “abstract labour” is an extension of the bourgeois notion of the “equal rights” of “abstract individuals,” whose political life is reflected in the ideals and practice of “citizenship.” The politics of “equal rights” is thus precisely the “politics” one can read into the category “capital.”
Chakrabarty identifies modernity (and the modern "economic" mode of capitalism) as a program of abstracting from real life universals which permit translation and exchangeability, and problematizes the legitimacy of these universals in Provincializing Europe. The managerial-parasitical status of modernity over premodernity parallels the functions of capital: in encountering precapitalist production, capital translates that real, living labor into universally exchangeable abstract labor in order to reproduce itself. In the same way that capitalism contains a self-obviating contradiction at the site of translation from real labor to abstract labor, modernity contains an analogous contradiction in the translation of the premodern singular into the modern universal. Modernity seeks to minimize as much as possible the premodern through the process of abstraction, but simultaneously requires the premodern in order to sustain itself. Without the premodern, modernity would would resolve itself.
A note on the term "precapitalist": "precapitalism" does not mean prior to capitalism in some stage-developmental, teleological sense. The relationship between modern and premodern, capitalist and precapitalist, civilized and uncivilized are always co-contemporary. One exists in relation to the other, and because of the other, and is dependent on the other for its reproduction. The advent of modernity and capitalism produced alongside the category of civilization and its universal political projects (democracy, secularism, etc.) the category of the uncivilized, a condition attributed to real social life as it exists prior to translation and reconstitution according to modern categories. In essence, premodernity is attributed to those social modes that lack reference to the universal exchangeable categories posited by modernity.
In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour grapples with this question of modernity and premodernity. He articulates modernity as something distinguished primarily by its "purification" of two categories it posts: Nature and Culture. Nature is that which is historically contingent, that which is prior to human civilization (geography, for example). Culture is the social product of humanity, and is reconfigurable. He describes the modern constitution by a set of affirmations it makes:
1) "even though we construct Nature, Nature is as if we did not construct it"
2) "even though we do not construct Society, Society is as if we did construct it"
3) "Nature and Society must remain absolutely distinct: the work of purification must remain absolutely distinct from the work of mediation"
4) God does not intervene in Nature or Society, but is nevertheless there, personal, and useful
Modernity thus exists as a form of critique, and institutionalized politically this critique becomes a managerial function, re-ordering and re-valuing social relations according it its constitution. In the premodern world, societies ordered singularly within themselves and in plurality with others. Modernity revolutionizes this order with a claim to universality, i.e. a program of translation and exchange through certain social categories.
Modernity itself earns its managerial status because it becomes invincible to any critique by assigning the critique to the category of the premodern. Modernity views premodern life's Nature and Culture to be mixed or confused, however that distinction between the contingent and the constructed (Nature and Culture) that is so significant to modernity as a program of managerial critique becomes void in the organization of real social life into abstract universal categories. For example, while elements of traditional Islamic life can be critiqued by modernity in this way, judging some elements of the "religion" and "culture" (two universal categories produced by modernity) to be contingent and others socially constructed, once translated the distinctions are lost: once Islam is a "religion" and Persian a "culture" or "race", their elements sifted for what is contingent to a particular historical circumstance and what is socially constructed and therefore substitutable, tradable, they become politically exchangeable with other "religions" and "cultures". At this point the "religion" or "culture" is no longer a source of Nature-Culture, but a category in itself. "Islam" as "religion" allows "Islamic dress" because that which is Nature and that which is Culture has been identified. The singularity of the social is disrupted, and the egalitarian plurality of premodern histories is unified into a single history glued together by the categories of modernity.
Whatever they do, Westerners bring history along with them in the hulls of their caravels and their gunboats, in the cylinders of their telescopes and the pistons of their immunizing syringes… In Westerner’s eyes the West, and the West alone, is not a culture, not merely a culture.
- Bruno Latour
However, modernity is not obedient to its own constitution. In positing itself as a universal program, modernity defies its own disciplining of the categories of Nature and Culture. Until postmodernity, modernity itself occupied that invisible space outside of Nature-Culture. As Latour notes above, modernity violates its own laws, in that by positing universals it is violating the segregation of Nature and Culture. That which is universal is both Culture-socially constructed in its specificity (e.g. democracy, citizenship, labor) and Nature-historically contingent in its universal character (human rights). Modernity obscures its historical origins by leapfrogging self-critique in order to establish universal categories. Though modernity has its own history, and has its own Nature-Culture dynamic to be mined, it does not do this as a rule in order to maintain managerial status.
The resolution to this is to identify modernity as a European "premodernity", i.e. to historicize modernity, and I believe that this has probably already been accomplished within postmodern ideological hegemony, dislodging modernity from its managerial post. In doing so, this both sanctifies the modernist project of universalization (in using its own categories and parameters of universalization) but also confronts its contradiction. If the modern categories themselves are historicized, then their status as universals can be upheld in plurality, singularity and in universality. If the translation of the premodern annihilates their singular (which is to say their internal) and plural (which is to say their external) relations to other premodern histories, the subjection of modernity to its own critical program projects the universal back into the singular and the plural.
This provides us with a possible explanation of the subjective impotence felt under postmodernity: it is the impotence of the critical program resolved, a modernity that has become self-aware of itself as a "premodern" condition and the completion of its historical mission -- now a postmodernity. However, postmodernity is then not a condition of political impotence, but a necessary condition for social revolution in that it is the completion of modernist universalization at the ideological level, and a stage for the critical program of modernity has to be pushed further. To go back to Chakrabarty on Marx (Provincializing Europe) once again:
[Marx] uses the vision of the abstract human embedded in the capitalist practice of “abstract labor” to generate a radical critique of capital itself. He recognizes that bourgeois societies in which the idea of “human equality” had acquired the “fixity of popular prejudice” allowed him to use the same idea to critique them.
A social revolution within postmodernity must then mobilize an analogous program that the social revolutions of modernity achieved. Previous revolutions accomplished the political implementation of modernist universality in confrontation with premodernity's singularity and plurality. A postmodern social revolution must achieve a combined political singularity, plurality and universality by projecting back these universalized modern histories into their singular and plural mode. What this means in practice is that rather than abolishing that which appears to the modern eye to be premodern, a postmodern social revolution will recover from the modern what is premodern -- premodern in the sense of real social life, constitutively resistant to abstraction. The impotence that arises from a view that sees in postmodernity a wasteland of modernity populated by premodernities sees precisely the exciting potential of social revolution inherent within it, if only mobilized properly towards that revolution.