Postmodernism isn't to blame for our identity wars

I have been seeing a lot of people lately blaming postmodernism and ‘post-modernists’ for our current malaise with identity politics. But I think this neglects the knowledge base of identity-based ideologies, without which they would fall apart.

These ideas and claims seem to have reached a crescendo with the 'Grievance Studies’ hoax exposing how some identity-focused academic journals are happy to publish weapon-grade nonsense if it aligns to their own political, ideological objectives. (Anyone who is familiar with these ‘disciplines’ and not indoctrinated into them knew that anyway, but big credit to James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian for demonstrating it for the rest of the world in such an entertaining manner)

In this Quillette article, five academics respond to the hoax. One of them, Nathan Cofnas says, “Today, postmodernism isn’t a fashion—it’s our culture. . . It has taken over most of the humanities and some of the social sciences, and is even making inroads in STEM fields. It threatens to melt all of our intellectual traditions into the same oozing mush of political slogans and empty verbiage.”

Neema Parvini adds, “It has been the explicit goal of post-modernity to reject reason and evidence: they want a “new paradigm” of knowledge.”

Quillette has quickly become an invaluable source of alternative, intelligent opinion in the Anglosphere – and has been leading the charge against postmodernism in defence of the Enlightenment, science and objectivity. Following the hoax, its founder Claire Lehmann neatly called in evidence the Dutch professor – and incidentally specialist in ‘extremism and populism’ – Cas Mudde defending the disciplines targeted by hoaxers while also saying, “I deny “objectivity” and argue that the whole idea that science should be “neutral” and “objective” is in itself an ideological position.”

This is a nice dig and demonstrates how postmodernist and similar ideas are certainly used by academics who engage in current leftist identity politics. But this is my point, that they are used. It doesn’t mean they are the source or root cause of identity-based ideologies – which have probably been around in one form or another since man started using words; certainly well before anyone had heard of postmodernism. 

Marxism for example has a large identity-based element about the proletariat and bourgeoisie, but Marx and his historicist theory were both very much in the modernist tradition.

Post-modernist denials of objectivity and knowledge serve as a tool, just like other forms of argument serve as tools: to defend ourselves against opponents by undermining their authority, thereby helping to defend our own authority and power. The purpose is primarily political rather than philosophical. Just because someone uses a theoretical argument in a certain political context, it doesn’t mean their whole political standpoint is consistent with that standpoint nor aligns with the whole standpoint of those who came up with it.

For, far from discarding ideas of objectivity and universal knowledge, the left's current politics of identity are grounded in a specific, universalistic account of knowledge: that its favoured groups are victims of a society dominated by unfavoured groups. This is a simple view of the world that is easy to ‘roll out’ in different circumstances (which is a crucial part of its appeal and power).

As I see it, techniques like deconstruction can be used just as effectively against these ideas and the authority of those who propagate them as by them. Indeed, though I'm not familiar with Derrida's specific version of it, sometimes I think of my own book on identity politics (here reviewed on Quillette) as an exercise in deconstruction, in the sense that I was deconstructing or taking apart an edifice in order to analyse it and hopefully show it for what it is.

There are certainly plenty of problems with postmodernist theory, not least the way it has encouraged people to write incomprehensible nonsense rather than seek to understand and explain what’s going on (which is a pretty big objection to be fair). Also we can see clear evidence of identity activists and ideologues using postmodernist arguments to attack opponents and protect themselves from criticism.

But that doesn’t mean that postmodernism or deconstruction or post-structuralism or whatever is ‘the root cause’ for all our troubles in this area.

Rather, these techniques seem to serve as just more tools in the toolbox: as something available to take out when the need arises; as ways to project power into the world.

If you are looking to attack the theories of identity-based ideologues, I think you are better off starting with their claims to universal knowledge, not their denial of it.

My book 'The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity' is available at a discount via for £12 (RRP £14.95) with free postage to UK addresses. Use coupon TRIBE. It is also available via online retailers. For Amazon reviews, see here.


  1. I agree with you that identity politics carries a claim to a universally true concept of the oppression of favoured victim groups. Rather than undermining the claim that postmodernism underlies identity politics I think this rather exposes the contradiction at the heart of postmodernism. To assert that there is no canonical or authoritative interpretation is in itself such an interpretation. Postmodernists (or those under its influence) are quite happy to argue that language, epistemology and structures are no more than means of maintaining oppression and have no objectivity or universal validity, and at the same time assume the universality and objective truth of their own view.

    Below I quote from Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds & Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left pp.236-238. I recommend the whole book as one of the most intelligent analyses of this genre of thinking. Where I very much agree with you is that there is a lot of muddled and lazy referencing of postmodernism (and so called cultural Marxism) amongst those that oppose political correctness.

    "Thus, almost all those who espouse the relativistic 'methods' introduced into the humanities by Foucault, Derrida and Rorty are vehement adherents to a code of political correctness that condemns deviation in absolute and intransigent terms. The relativistic theory exists in order to support an absolutist doctrine. We should not be surprised therefore at the extreme disarray that entered the camp of deconstruction, when it was discovered that one of the leading ecclesiastics, Paul de Man, once had Nazi sympathies. It is manifestly absurd to suggest that a similar disarray would have attended the discovery that Paul de Man had once been a communist - even if he had taken part in some of the great communist crimes. In such a case he would have enjoyed the same compassionate endorsement as was afforded to Lukacs, Merleau-Ponty and Satre. The assault on meaning undertaken by the deconstructionists is not an assault on 'our' meanings, which remain exactly what they always were: radical, egalitarian and transgressive. It is an assault on 'their' meanings - the meanings sequestered in a tradition of artistic thinking, and passed on from generation to generation by the old forms of scholarship.

    The relativistic beliefs exist because they sustain a community - the new *ummah* of the rootless. Hence in Rorty and Said we find a shared duplicity of purpose: on the one hand to undermine all claims to absolute truth, and on the other hand to uphold the orthodoxies upon which their congregation depends. The very reasoning that sets out to destroy the ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes political correctness absolutely binding, and cultural relativism as objectively true."

  2. I love that: "the new ummah of the rootless"

  3. This is a really good article and a very important contribution to the ongoing argument.

    However, being extremely cynical and having done some of my own research into many of the actors and organisations within the system of diversity, I would suggest that they (or many of them at least) already know that much of what they claim is nonsense and that they don't care: politics is about power and ideas are ultimately just tokens in this competition for dominance.

    I mean, does anyone seriously think Diane Abbott would close the border if it could be conclusively proved that large scale immigration lowers wages and increases rents and house prices? The welfare of working class people is a secondary concern to her desire to stick it to the white man - and that should be obvious from the numerous anti-white comments that she has made in her life.

    Since it is well known that a) diversity lowers social trust, erodes democracy and reduces willingness to pool resources, you'd think groups like the Runnymede Trust would also want to halt mass immigration - but they don't, the reason being what they want is as much demographic change as possible. Its director Omar Khan has written that Newham is his ideal since the white British population is only 17% there.

    His personal reasons for desiring this are unknown (though again, one could hazard a few guesses as to what motivates him). The really interesting thing is the agenda of those very wealthy people and organisations who fund these bodies.

    I would argue that the banks and hedge funds who bankroll the system of diversity know full well that maximum diversity makes resistance to their economic power almost impossible.

    Perhaps in 20 years' time we will discover who was behind the transgenda agenda (especially with regard to its promotion in schools) and what their aims were: hastening white demographic decline; giving people something to argue over; imposing further authoritarianism; or creating even more deracinated human beings?

    So yes, while it is useful to have Ben's intellectual rebuttal of the system's ideas for debate with its adherents, I would warrant that following the money might be the best tactic for defeating its organising patrons.

    May I then suggest that Mr Cobley try to map the system of diversity and trace its links to big money and organisations like the Trilateral Commission? Or even the intelligence services?

    I mean how else does someone like Peter Tatchell end up lecturing at Sandhurst? And how does he fund his life of unpaid 'human rights' work?

  4. Apologies, I'd forgotten that I had already posted the Tatchell link on the previous article.


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