Late Modernity and Teleology

Erentsen Erentsenov

“If we’ve learned anything from psychoanalysis is that we humans are very creative in sabotaging our own attempts at happiness… The worst thing is for us to get what we officially desire.”

– Slavoj Zizek, 2019

In terms of the right-left dichotomy, neoliberalism is a right-wing economical system with left-wing social tendencies. Teleology is a purpose, end, and a higher order or a meaning to life, going by the Aristotelian definition. This meaning is assumed to be desirable, if not achievable, or at least worth looking for.

Some are worried about the resurgence of ‘the left’, that it may pose a threat to civilizational order, or bring chaos to our society.

I will try to counter this notion by presenting three points: humanism, capitalism and liberal left movement and its relationship with teleology. This rather informal essay will show that the modern liberal left is a puppet of capital – it lacks its own ideas and coherency. Moreover, this geist stems from utilitarian ethics: materialism and positivism are infantile ideas because the basis for humanism and liberalism is absent. This further shows that the real threat to “freedom” is a hegemony of capital and its tendency towards authority.

Ontological clarification and methodology of identity

With my basic understanding of Deleuze and Hegel I can conclude that modern day capitalism has resulted in deterritorialization and a creation of new meanings. According to Deleuze, the definition of a category is influenced not only by its static meaning, but by movement in and of itself. For example, the role of the church, its tradition, and its symbolism have changed throughout the course of the 20th century, partially due to the movements around said institution: thus, the very definition of the category (in this case, the church) dependent on its motion – basically, “becoming” is an essential part of “being.”

The idea that identity is a stable concept that precedes the existence of the phenomena is a counter to Deleuze’s de-territorialisation. Of course, his own counter, in saying that the identity is originally created through the difference in objects (this difference is the identity), is much cleverer than that. However, the identities change, move and mould themselves depending on geist, historical context, current social conditions, and so on.

Moreover, as a condition or geist changes, the definition of the objects change as well. In the famous Dewey v Lippmann debate, Lippmann stated that the founding fathers assumed the role and expertise of their public in creating an active liberal democracy. However, the expertise of the common man was assumed by the standards of their local community. If they had a competent understanding of their local area, they were considered typical of the common man. Currently, the modern ‘common man’ is required to have a much wider understanding of affairs that extend well beyond the confines of his own nation. The understanding of ‘common man’ has changed, and therefore, the label of “liberal democracy” has changed as well, even if its fundamental characteristics remain. More importantly, Dewey had an idea that a liberal democracy’s reaction to world affairs should be an emotional one, which was the original development of the liberal democratic character. Therefore, a single identity exists in motion, it is inseparable from its motion and history, and more importantly, the condition of the object in context influences its identity.

This classification of identity is important as it reflects on the current nature of global capitalism and its identity and effect on the global cultural sphere. This was how Deleuze originally argued that capitalism took over from the preceding pre-modern western condition, and it de-territorialised meanings of masculinity, power, state, Christianity and many other social systems and customary attitudes in the western world. However, as capitalism became a more global phenomenon, it began re-territorialising these concepts: witness the growing authoritarianism of private companies and the imposition of capitalism on culture as merely two of many features of this growing cultural hegemon. Consider also the imposition of the idea of productivity as an end goal, and the widespread conception that normal human behaviour is behaviour that makes one a suitable employee – i.e. behaviours and attitudes that restrict freedom in favour of capital. This loss of freedom is natural as global capitalism matures and assumes cultural hegemony.

What kind of meaning could neoliberal capitalism create? In terms of teleology of the human life, there is nothing. Capitalism is in itself a materialist category (much the same as Marxism or any other materialist ideology). It rejects things outside of the empirical, the physical. Therefore, the meaning of this materialist category cannot in itself be something “higher than human.” The vain accumulation of resources or increasing material life conditions may suffice to an extent, but it is difficult to argue that this is the ‘meaning of life’, and more importantly, it entails lazy thinking.

To counter my assertion, one might claim that capitalism is only an economic tool, a system of resource allocation. However, the dichotomy of material vs ideal creates and imposes its reality on the mind. Assuming it functions as a Nietzschean ‘master morality’, people lack the agency to withstand and overcome subjective materialist capitalist impositions on culture.

Moreover, the current zeitgeist is purely modern. The most pervasive and apparent ideology of the modern day is capitalism. Specifically neoliberal capitalism. The idea of a good human matches the idea of a good worker.

Furthermore, the ideas of equality and inclusivity are capitalist as well, and neoliberalism is obviously the product of free-trade-capitalist-globalists.

Humanism and Teleology

Taking the works of postmodernists such as Zizek and Dugin into consideration, we can assume that idealism is essential to human existence. One of its manifestations exists through storytelling, framing events for oneself and others, thus creating subjective reality. Subjective reality is much more reliable (an idea stemming from Nietzsche). Therefore, one cannot discard idealism and the power of narrative from the human experience.

Clearly, neoliberalism as a whole has not even made an attempt to create any kind of meaning. By its own definition it can’t – it lacks any notion of idealism, of the notion that telling stories has any benefit.

Some thinkers say that modernity is an ateleological condition, where people’s only purpose is to destroy any higher purpose. But this notion of ateleology needs further examination. Modernism’s humanist ideas and reaches (literature, scientific advancement) are examples of the human-oriented end-goal of understanding being and stoking individualism.

One may counter that secular democracy in itself creates meaning in achieving a state of perfect secular democracy. One can also propose that meaning and teleology for humans is synonymous with progress. However, a real progressive idea only exists when coherently explained. The most coherent and furthest-reaching ideas of progress were conceptualised in the modernist era which tackled teleology (and materialism as its compass) with cold-blooded rationality, rejecting it and embracing the excellence of humanity instead (classical liberalism of Locke and Marxism).

The whole idea of a secular democracy is that people have the capacity to develop their own values, and they are encouraged to search for personal meaning.

However, techno-capital is infringing on this notion by creating and encouraging authoritative practices and by assuming hegemony over social discourse. Techno-capital is a force that stops de-territorialising identities and starts to create its own, and the resulting authority and hegemony are a part of that process (from schizophrenia back to authority). But moreover, Marcuse has shown that modernity always possessed authoritarian characteristics, and not only was the population during the height of the movement unable to create their own personal values, but it summarily asserted dominance and propagated its values in people’s minds. Late modernity is eating its own tail and it is openly aggressive towards the perceived freedoms of the west.

I find it very easy to disprove the humanist’s idea of a human being. At modernism’s birth, it retained the idea of a “human” from the pre-existing humanist tradition. The human is an ever-developing, rational being, constantly striving to find the truth, and the height of creation.

In a period where psychoanalysis and psychology were undeveloped, this conception of humanity may have sounded reasonable. But even then, this assertion was a positivist one. The underlying assumption was that this is what a ‘human’ should and can be, if possible. And this ideal ‘human’ should be liberated from the shackles of material hardship.

However, psychologists then discovered the myriad of ways we lack self-control, and Zizek and Deleuze found that humans are complicated and intricate machines of desire, and that we require mythology and storytelling to function.  Levi-Strauss believed that we could only assess things through binary oppositions, and Roland Barthes posited that mythology in media and everyday life were more prevalent in the 20th century than they had ever been before. It is also important to remember Kierkegaard’s assessment of media as a new church – occupying the same mythological spot in a person’s mind. To summarise, postmodern assessments of human nature under our current circumstances concluded largely that we are still the same mystical, tribal, mythically-inspired, irrational, imperfect, and very interesting species. Brushing all this aside to label humans as generally rational, even if we are rid of material hardship, is an incorrect assessment of human nature.

Therefore, the idea of the human posited by humanism and liberalism does not really exist. This breaks the fundaments of humanism and liberalism. More importantly, it leaves the liberalism’s ideas as forever positivist, forever aspirational. This is not a terrible thing – most idealist concepts are unreachable or at least not fully materialistic. Active faith is involved in fleshing out concepts such as ‘being’, love, freedom, etc. However, the fundament on which these concepts are built should be coherent and correct and that is where modernism lost its ideological basis.

There are many ways in which this fundamental ideological core affects our cultural life. For example, the idea of equality in the modernist era also assumed that the discourse between two rational people would be able to seize the truth. However, under the postmodern condition, one has to spend a lot more time studying and engaging with the object to achieve expertise in any given field. This shows that the most effective empirical or ‘better-assessed’ truth is only accessible to a qualified subject. There is no longer a level field that could unify us, no basis of equal human universality looking for a rational truth through discourse. This is a clear example of how the fundamental misunderstanding of a human condition is affecting the cultural field: miscommunication is a fundamental feature of human experience.

To summarize, the humanist and liberal’s idea of the human does not exist, liberal democracies of the present day lack an overriding coherent meaning despite the fact that people function through stories and myth and an explanation of the world on a subjective level. On the objective level the narrative fails because the ideal human in humanist tradition doesn’t exist. More importantly, this absence of higher meaning (or teleology) is most prominent in late stage capitalism.

Capitalism and its lack of teleology

The destruction of old hierarchical structures in cultural life created a window of freedom in western civilization. However, as capitalism gained more power in the world, it created its own hierarchical structures and began influencing cultural life. I will take the notion that global capitalism became stronger throughout the 20th and 21st centuries as a given: it has won.

Moreover, global capital’s hegemony squeezes and assumes authority over the spheres of cultural life in which it wants to assert itself. The most obvious examples show the ease with which traditionalism is sidelined by capitalism: Gillette ads, Starbucks support for LGBTQI, and a number of other global companies’ incorporation of socially leftist movements. The workers and consumers’ lives and their social opinions are of little importance to these companies – as long as they are consumers of their product and hardworking employees, people’s personal lives have no influence on the company. ‘If there are more consumers and workers to participate in capital accumulation, then why should society be organised along traditional family lines (father works, mother homesteads, children are educated), when one could have two members of the home actively participating in the economy?’

Consider also fourth wave feminism, with its ideas of responsibility and independence, which greatly resemble the positive attributes of masculinity. These ideas perfectly fit the idea of a good employee and are widely accepted and promoted by private institutions.

Another hot topic of the day is free speech – private institutions are asserting speech restrictions on their employees. Ironic that the value that was brought through modernity is now being shut down by another modernist creation. The existence of these contradictions is not terrible in itself, but when human nature is taken into account, these contradictions are becoming unavoidable and inevitable.

These examples are not new – they have existed since Bernays’ time, as shown in Century of Self by Adam Curtis.

Capitalism is becoming naturally and visibly more authoritative, to the point where it now restricts freedom of expression. The workplace is an authoritative environment where you are told what to do, what to wear, how to act to be successful, how to engage with your emotions, how to present yourself, etc.

The natural extension of capital’s control to everyday life will result in further losses of freedom of expression. According to Deleuze, capitalism has created the window of schizophrenia by dismantling old structures. But it will also create its own new hierarchical structures.

“The Liberal Left”

The postmodern condition births hedonist drones because we are supposed to find a fulfilling life and create meaning ourselves, and this is a difficult thing to do. Modernism, and its child capitalism, lack inherent meaning, leaving us to fill in the gap ourselves. Rather, the meaning that was created by modernist societies is one that we are unhappy with because it is unfit for our condition.

The overriding ethical system of the modern day is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism and materialism in the postmodern condition have created the ‘left’ that seeks material fulfillment. It is best exercised in capitalism, the system best at creating material goods. We should examine the ‘left’ as a generalised populace in 21st century: it has definitely been more socially accepting than most movements before its time, but that is because of its historical condition, in which ethical values such as pleasure and happiness are embraced.

Combine vulgar utilitarianism with the left’s infantility (its natural strive for change) and with positivism, and the result is the average modern leftist’s movement. These people are trying to defend an idea of humanity that does not exist while simultaneously exercising utilitarian ethics stemming from capitalism. The left continues to push for material improvement to see their idea of a human, which does not exist, flourish.

The main thrust of the left is the spread of social liberalism, headed by somewhat vague ideas about universal equality and diversity. It asks for the representation of quotas, as capital owners and in the workplace itself. Therefore, it is comfortable with capitalism.

The modern day left movement is the last gasp of a dying animal. They’re a leashed dog – all bark, no bite. Their moralising is hollow. 

This condition is widely recognized by most of their intellectuals: they lack a coherent left-wing theory describing and providing a framework for the modern condition and lack a prescriptive methodology, which is especially apparent when they are compared to their 19th century counterparts.

Their hollow reaction to the modern condition, and subsequent moralising is made manifest through hysteria: that’s why the neoliberal leftist supporters are often incoherent. Take as the Ur-example the political engagements of students on American college campuses, and as further example the reaction of Hollywood stars to the global affairs.

Conclusion

Late modernity has assumed an unprecedented level of control over social life through re-territorialisation, which has manifested itself through capitalism, the most prominent social hegemon. Private institutions, under the current system, will continue asserting inclusivity, equality and diversity in our cultural sphere.

But the nature of this leftist movement is false and incoherent, based on disproven ideas of what it means to be a human being. And the modern leftist movement lacks substance and is subverted by private institutions.

Is it the chicken or the egg that comes first – there a genuine desire for change in the left wing which has been exploited by the authoritative practices of capitalism, or is the current state of affairs the result of the left’s impressive control over capitalism?

People worried about the left bringing ‘chaos’ and a threat to civilisation ought to examine the ideas of the left a little more closely. I hope I have made it clear that the left lacks the coherency to drive large-scale movements, and is currently just subject to the power of capital.

Limitations

The methodology and causation in this essay imply that there is a movement and dismantling of pre-modernist categories that modernism destroyed. But as late modernity creeps in, it establishes its own authority and hierarchy.

This is also a normativist essay, there are no reaches and value judgements: I am not saying what is right, I am simply describing the changes in western culture. Moreover, I used a very assertive tone, as it is a very raw representation of my current thoughts.

This analysis is based on half-baked ontology, and there is no examination of aesthetics and their changes. Moreover, most of this is just my limited interpretation of Zizek, Dugin, Deleuze, Nietzsche and Hegel. There are many assumptions such as the hegemony of capitalism, liberalism’s Kantian ethics losing to capitalist utilitarianism, and there is no examination of personnel in the control of capital. Moreover, this work assumed that capital and government are much the same. My main assumption is that teleology is real and important and that the idealism suffices in targeting it.

Moreover, there few examples – both because this is an expression of subjective truth, and more obviously because this point has been made throughout postmodern philosophy before.

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