The following passage surprised me, not only because it has neoliberals in place of postmodernists, but also because it describes everything I see as a consequence of so-called "Postmodernism" (or whatever name you give it: post-structuralism, deconstructionism, moral relativism...): destruction of meaning, praise of fragmentation, anti-intellectualism...

Neoliberals are part of a long, intellectual, (or anti-intellectual) tradition which seeks to deny the importance of meaning and even destroy its relevance. Why would anyone want to do that? Because, as history shows, destroying meaning is the key to gaining, at least temporarily, power and control, whether it be over other human beings or natural processes in general. For example, in his brilliant book on the history of debt, David Graeber reveals how different forms of slavery succeed by displacing people from their meaning-rich contexts. As well as the application of brute force, people are rendered powerless through being dislocated, fragmented, and thus, disoriented. Those held in slavery have often survived by eventually creating new systems of meaning, often through embracing religion of some form as a way of transcending the power of their oppressors.

What are the relations between Postmodernism and Neoliberalism?

  • may be worth noting that fragmentation is a feature of modern life and literature.
    – user28117
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 6:45
  • too chatty, but have you considered the idea that "post modernist" is what happens to someone when they've been cheated out of something better? Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Good night! * At the end of the last Sex Pistols concert, Winterland Theater, San Francisco, California (14 January 1978)[
    – user28117
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 10:59
  • You posit that in this paragraph "neoliberals" actually means "postmodernists", and then ask why this is so? </snark>
    – mart
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 12:29
  • @user3293056 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_literature#Fragmentation
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:13
  • 1
    Zamora's take on Foucault is the only direct relationship I know of, and it's had a pretty mixed reception.
    – Canyon
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 14:53

4 Answers 4


Maybe I'm the wrong person to answer your question because my gounding in philosophy is not that great, maybe I'm the right one because I likely share some of your political outlook ...

One of the posits of postmodernist thought is, I believe, that nothing has meaning per se, meaning is always assigned, negotiated etc. And so meaning can be destroyed. And this was always so, postmodernists and their forerunners are just the ones pointing this out instead of making up complicated metaphysic systems to safe a concept of meaning.

So neoliberals are just recent thinkers in a long line who tried to restructure society by, among other things, destroying systems of meaning and belonging - or solidarity! - that get in their way. As mentioned in the paragraph, this destruction of meaning was practiced millenia before Nietzsche wrote the first text that inspired Focault that inspired Deleuze or whomever.

One could also point out that certain systems of belonging, e.g. the specific nationalism of the Nazis to take the least controversial example, should be destroyed.

You could also ask what "meaning" in the context given above is supposed to mean (no pun intended), if it's not the meaning we give to things in a given moment, shaped by our experiences and thus pretty malleable.

  • 1
    Nice answer. But since postmodernism tries to destroy every big meaning (e.g. religion, science...), we end up in a dispute between those who have the infrastructure (the powerful) against those who haven't (the people). Guess who will be victorious? That's why destroying Nazis' nationalism don't actually balance things out.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:19
  • 1
    I think "postmodernism tries to destroy every big meaning" is at best inaccurate - what exactly is there to destroy, what does destruction of meaning actually mean? Sorry I can't put it much more clear than this or my lase paragraph!
    – mart
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:27
  • 1
    In a Brazilian Federal University, my teachers were stating that science is "just another metanarrative, just as valid as any other", that is, they ignored completely what is the scientific method and how it works. They accused "modern science" of being "deterministic" when it actually is probabilistic. They said "everything is knowledge", can you believe it? That's what I call "destruction of meaning". The texts were all incredibly poorly written, most of them from the supposed Leftist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, which repeated all the vices attributed to postmodernists. Is this enough?
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:58
  • 2
    ... this walking cliche of a postmodernist you've ahs as a teacher does not bring us closer to what Graeber means with meaning in your quote above. If it can be destroyed, what is it in the first place?
    – mart
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 14:07
  • 1
    I've also tried to answer your other question philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/45429/3391 btw, dunno if helpful.
    – mart
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 14:10

Neoliberalism and Postmodernity are inversely related. Both follow what might be called high Modernism, which constituted a set of postwar institutions, values, and assumptions.

Among these were the concepts of the unity of the sciences, technological progress, abstraction in art, the Bretton Woods Accord and the United Nations, mass infrastructure, functionalist architecture, the welfare state, and a globalist outlook. At the same time, however, this unitary view was starkly divided by the the existence of conflicting economic systems in the so-called communist and capitalist realms. Not monotheism, but manicheanism.

In the developed Western nations, the situation produced the "managerial state" stabilizing welfare, Keynesian policies, large-scale public corporations, and broad labor union agreements--all meant to ameliorate the excesses and periodic collapses of capitalism. The Neoliberal revolution grew out of a reaction to inflation, along with a self-conscious conservative-capitalist "revolt." With the decline of state communism, the Neoliberal orthodoxy spread through global deregulation, debt financing, shareholder value, and a positivist, pseudoscientific view of "market pricing" as the sole calculus of value.

While this Thatcher-Reagan-Friedman dogma might claim to be type of social pluralism arising through deregulation and market "freedom," it was in fact a highly idealistic, financially centralized, globally aggressive hegemony imposed upon the world often through violent means. The author you quote seems to be making the point that such "postmodern" economics destroys local values, traditions, cultures, etc. through global finance and rampant commodification.

In a kind of dialectic inversion, this market utopianism gave rise to the various cultural trends loosely called Postmodernism, first in architecture. These are characterized by a skeptical pluralism and critique of the "grand narratives" or "gods-eye-view" of Modernism. The unity of the sciences, for example, could not be naively sustained amid increasing scientific specialization and more attention to the history and actual working methods of scientists. A certain relativism, for better or worse, becomes inevitable with the sheer accumulation of information.

The "inverse relation" I refer to is really the continuing dynamic of capitalism, which at one level unifies mass markets and concentrates wealth, while at another level accelerates the diversification of commodities and the "division of labor," including such cultural labors as science and art. This is undoubtedly an impetus to the various Postmodern trends. The mass-market destruction of local cultures, traditions, architectures, languages, species, and so forth likewise lends urgency to a pluralistic and preservationist reaction.

If you are interested, the geographer David Harvey has written a number of influential critiques of both Neoliberalism and Postmodernism from a Marxist perspective. While Neoliberalism is an active and well-defined ideological program, Postmodernism is more of a set of trends and critiques marked by its skepticism towards such one-size-fits-all programs.

  • Yes, it makes sense. On the other hand, when Postmodernism fragments sense (by attacking every "grand narrative"), it is in fact scattering and weakening the Left, giving power to the already powerful capitalist Right. So I don't see them as "inversely related" in practice, though they may be so in discourse.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 22:15
  • Yes, I would agree that the left has been weakened by the "liberal" turn away from labor economics to culture and identity politics. Postmodernism provides cover for many rightwing impulses, though I tend to see it as more descriptive than prescriptive. But there is no doubt that both Putin and Trump are the crude practitioners of a postmodernist and post-truth politics. Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 23:15
  • Indeed. I see them using a technique that could be described as descriptive/prescriptive: mix two meanings of the verb to be (in Portuguese: ser/estar), i.e. somethings that are "constant" they describe as "transitory" and vice-versa. Sometimes they describe something and it isn't clear if they're denouncing or proposing. They're dishonest in many different ways.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 1:41

To the degree it proceeds along the same trajectory at all, Neoliberalism here is a step far before Postmodernism. It is the embodiment of Enlightenment thinking in a wish to make more and more dependent upon less and less so that we are all 'free' from one another and from the harsher demands of our reality. It is primarily an economic theory that reduces everything to market forces and freedom. In that, it has a lot more to do with Existentialism than Postmodernism.

As 'The Genealogy of Morals' or Marxism points out, this war of the powerful constantly undermining the previous means of being powerful has been going on forever. And it is wholly unrelated to the ultimate loss of the modernist dream to its own logic.

Neoliberalism is totally consonant with late modernism -- taking science and individuality as the center of the universe and rendering it cold, sterile, independent and unattached to any deeper meaning. This attempt to make the universe rational and efficient is the ascending direction of the 'modernism' that Postmodernism questions. It is part of what Postmodernism actually resists, by emphasizing context and admitting the relevance of the aspects of reality that we cannot know.

Displacing someone from their cultural embedding as a strategy for power, by controverting their religion with science and displacing their cultural institutions with your own, or with your own rational constructions, does not assume a respectful and constructive relativism. It assumes that relativism is wrong and that dedication to institutions that are not entirely modern and rational is primitive and wasteful. It seeks to leverage that 'waste' for 'good', without realizing that 'good' is selfishly defined and is itself something wasteful of what is embodied in traditions themselves over time.

  • You're ignoring that real dialogue is able to settle controversies, as long as neither side is fundamentalist. But since monotheism is essentially fundamentalist, it makes most Westerners believe that "real dialogue" is utterly impossible, like posited by postmodern religion.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 5:48
  • This says nothing about the power of 'real dialog' one way or the other. So you are putting words in my mouth. I am sick of this. I do not find that what you consider dialog takes place in good faith, and I am uninterested in continuing to accept your polemic.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 19:33

Old question, but that's ok...

First, let's be clear: postmodernism (as such) does not exist, except in certain branches of aesthetics (fine art, architecture, perhaps literature...). The term 'postmodern' (when used by people talking about social theory or political philosophy) is something between a straw-man and a bogieman: it takes a wide variety of acute and painful social critiques and lumps them under a disparaging term where they can be blown off as occult reasoning. Anyone who uses the term 'postmodernist' in his way treats it as synonymous with pretentious, overblown, and sloppy thinking. And while there are clearly pretentious, overblown, and sloppy thinkers out there in the world — I've read a few myself — every craft has its share of poor craftsmen. We don't judge fine art by the holdings of MOBA, and we don't judge modern philosophy by the work of those who habitually trip over their own egos.

That said, neoliberalism is anti-philosophical and anti-intellectual, but that doesn't imply that they are trying to 'destroy meaning'. Neoliberals actually do the opposite: they try to construct and maintain a carefully husbanded worldview, so that people will return to the understandings of the world which allowed neoliberals to become powerful and wealthy. That isn't quite as crass as it sounds; I suspect most neoliberals honestly believe that worldview to be righteous and good. But the fact is that they are trying to construct a set of meanings which ipso facto implies the effort to destroy other worldviews and meaning-sets.

The kinds of things that get lumped derisively under the term 'postmodernism' are explicitly intellectual and philosophical. They are all, in their distinct ways, part of the protracted effort to uproot and dispose of the fancies and fabrications found in neoliberalism and other status quo ideologies. If neoliberalism tries to build a great dam that constrains and holds meaning within a circumscribed, defined comfort zone, these philosophical movements try to tear pieces of that dam down: to free up meaning, as it were. Neither project is explicitly nihilistic.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jul 21, 2021 at 7:28
  • @PhilipKlöcking You moved all the comments, not just the ones that composed a conversation between two people. Some comments pointed out genuine problems with this answer that would improve it. These, by policy, should be allowed. Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 0:27
  • @PhilipKlöcking: you should probably return the first three comments, and leave the discussion between me and gonzo over in chat (or delete it entirely; the whole thing seems to be predicated on bad feelings towards me personally). Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 0:38
  • I have no Bad feelings against you personally, Ted. I know only the answers you have posted and the manner in which you respond to comments such as @Just Some Old Man,'s that "This answer greatly disregards the explicit and proud facetiousness postmodernists not just defended, but flaunted. It’s not straw-manning when postmodernists themselves agree with the criticism, such as being radical, overblown, absurd, irreverent, antirational, and even occult. They viewed these things as features. This answer borders on [and here he deploys euphemism] revisionism."
    – gonzo
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 19:43
  • Your response to @Just Some Old Man was "I think you're conflating all this with DaDa. Regardless, it would be useful to know what specifically you're referring to, if only to separate it from serious philosophical efforts." Yet are clearly aware of and have likely perused Francois Lyotard's The PostModern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, and Michel Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge. These books, as you well know, were not concerned with aesthetics. They were focused on knowledge, and truth. And they had a PROFOUND effect upon the type of "meaning" which is the subject of this query.
    – gonzo
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 19:59

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