Not the Same Difference: How the New Right hijacked an essential postmodern concept

In this post, I discuss how the concept of “difference” is a surprising link between postmodern thought and the New Right.

In New Culture, New Right: Anti-Liberalism in Postmodern Europe, Michael O’Meara (2004) lays out a searing critique of postmodernism in the process of defending the rise of a revolutionary New Right that arrived in the 1960s as a response to the massive cultural upheaval of the Left. The book, which was reprinted in 2013, is an interesting manifesto that demonstrates the concerted and continuing efforts of the European New Right to end the Left’s monopoly of what can be considered “intellectual.” By taking on postmodern thinkers on their own turf, O’Meara elevates the work of GRECE  intellectuals and their response to the uprooting of modernity. GRECE’s founder, Alain de Benoist, and one of its major stars, features prominently in the book as the main architect of the New Right’s popularized message.

The book’s stance on postmodern thought is predictably polemic, if not somewhat confusing. For example, at one point O’Meara, possibly inadvertently, reveals shared intellectual roots between postmodernism and the New Right: he mentions that postmodernists derived their most fundamental insights from Nietzsche and Heidegger (p. 24) and goes on to argue that Grécistes follow these same thinkers on truth and identity issues (p. 25). Furthermore, the book peculiarly invokes a Marxist critique of postmodernism in order to expose its collusion with the logic of the market: “For old-line Marxists, nostalgic in their longing for modernist certainties, this inattention to the totalizing nature of the postmodern condition attests to nothing so much as complicity with the new hegemonic system of global capitalism” (O’Meara, 2004, p. 24).

Of course, it was de Benoist’s fixation on hegemony, specifically cultural hegemony, and his declaration that there should be a “Gramscianism of the right” that guided GRECE’s effort to cleanse itself from obvious fascist elements (dress code, language of violence) and promote illiberalism through an intellectualized, democratic veneer. The New Right’s attack on postmodernism, however, concealed the cunning way in which de Benoist himself used one of the most essential concepts of postmodernity, the concept of difference, and turned it into a camouflaged racist weapon.

The Postmodern “Difference”

On a very basic level, Postmodern theory de-essentialized and decentered the entrenched binaries of modernity (savage-civilized, male-female, rational-emotional) and opened up limitless possibilities for delimiting concepts, such as knowledge and progress. Jean-François Lyotard, who coined the term “postmodern” in The Postmodern Condition (1984 [1979], p. xxv) wrote: “Postmodern knowledge […] refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.” Difference was a central idea for Lyotard who later on wrote Le Differend (1983) where he argued that in light of the loss of modernity’s metanarratives, a differend arises when two parties result in a conflict when they use incommunicable phrases that belong to different language regimens. Both Lyotard’s differend and Derrida’s différance exemplify how difference became the hallmark of postmodernism against the coherence of identify or the rationality of master narratives.

The application of postmodern “difference” in the context of race and multiculturalism debates is where we can locate the most productive debates. In “Racism, ‘Postmodernism’ and Reflexive Multiculturalism”, Ali Rattansi (1999, p. 79) argued that postmodernism is intrinsically suspicious of “doctrines of ‘pure’ origins,” thus, it is the most appropriate in destroying “discourses that invoke notions of historically formed cultural essences.” To put it simply: through the lens of postmodernism, multicultural societies honor and preserve difference and diversity.

The Radical Right Difference

In O’Meara’s critique, this postmodern take on difference is presented as problematic: “A postmodern world of absolute differences is consequently a world in which difference ceases to be significant, as the toleration of multiple tribal codes is generalized into a global principle of arbitrary caprice” (2004, p. 24). O’Meara purposefully misreads the meaning of difference from a postmodern perspective and poses a rather confounding critique.

In reality, however, the New Right not only embraced “difference” but used it as a Trojan Horse to counter allegations of racism. The problem of stigma management for both white supremacists and post-war fascists in Europe was – and still is – a significant challenge. Ultimately, both intellectualization as well as techniques such as reversal—claiming that it is whites who have become “endangered people” in the hands of minorities—were used to legitimize New Right ideology. Tamir Bar-On’s (2007) Where Have All the Fascists Gone? is an excellent analysis of this process, especially Chapter 5 which examines how the “right to difference” became the rallying cry of a mutated New Right racism that moved away from explicit biological arguments to emphasizing the importance of “protecting” cultural differences.

Roger Griffin (2014, p. 51) makes a similar argument and even quotes de Benoist’s contention that journeys around the world produce a joy: “from seeing differentiated ways of living which are still well rooted, in seeing different people living according to their own rhythm, with a different skin color, another culture, another mentality—and that they are proud of their difference. I believe this is the wealth of the world and that egalitarianism is killing it.” The shrewdness of this strategy is that it allows the New Right to flip the narrative by arguing that in order to honor difference and diversity we need to abandon multicultural societies because they lead to catastrophic homogenization and eventual disappearance of all cultures. Although de Benoist attempted to deflect these arguments by responding to Bar-On, there is ample evidence from research on the so-called “new racism” – that invokes the protection of cultural differences – has been a core tactic of the New Right.

The Same Difference?

Whether we call it “new racism,” “cultural racism” or “differentialist racism”, we find a cluster of argumentation strategies that use “difference” to rationalize discrimination. My argument has been that the key in understanding how the New Right successfully mutated biological racism into cultural racism is the concept of difference, a staple of postmodern thought. This problematic legacy of postmodernism has already been noted: In Democracy and Difference: Reflections on the metapolitics of Lyotard and Derrida, Seyla Benhabib (1994) argues that postmodernism’s critique of the homogenizing and essentializing logic of nationalism—because nationalism eradicates difference in favor of a singular national identity—cannot prevent us from using universal ideals (i.e. human rights) to critique both nationalism and racism. As Benhabib (1994, p. 20-21) explained: “Derrida cannot have it both ways: on the one hand he criticizes and condemns nationalism, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and, on the other hand, he undermines the conceptual bases for holding on to those universalistic moral and political principles in the name of which alone such critique can be carried out.”

More importantly, however, these questions have implications for education. Ramon Flecha’s (1999) analysis of what he calls “modern and postmodern racism” (read: biological vs. “differentialist” racism) is compelling in terms of accounting for how the language of “differentialist” racism has infiltrated the educational terrain. He argues that current anti-racist pedagogies are so fixated on the goal of fighting biological racism that they unwittingly employ a form of postmodern racism which simply declares that all cultures are different, none is superior and none should impose their values on the other. This form of excessive relativism is a problem for Flecha because it acts as a wedge for ethnopluralist ideas – i.e. the belief that individual and bordered ethno-cultural regions should be kept separate. Thus, he says, “postmodern thought has provided the intellectual context to [legitimize exclusion], enabling the new racism to shift its focus from overcoming race inequalities to recognizing ethnic and cultural differences” (Flecha, 1999, p. 155). In other words, difference has become the perfect postmodern boomerang and more research needs to be done to understand how we can maintain respect for diversity without obscuring the capacity for solidarity beyond these differences.

Dr Miranda Christou is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor at Sociology of Education at the University of Cyprus. See her profile here.

© Miranda Christou. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).