Culture had been among other things a way of keeping radical politics warm, a continuation of it by other means. Increasingly, however, it was to become a substitute for it. In some ways, the 1980s were like the 1880s or 1960s without the politics. As leftist political hopes faded, cultural studies came to the fore. Dreams of ambitious social change were denounced as illicit ‘grand narratives’, more likely to lead to totalitarianism than to liberty. From Sydney to San Diego, Capetown to Tromso, everyone was thinking small. Micropolitics broke out on a global scale. A new epic fable of the end of epic fables unfurled across the globe. From one end of a diseased planet to the other, there were calls to abandon planetary thinking. Whatever linked us—whatever was the same—was noxious. Difference was the new catch-cry, in a world increasingly subject to the same indignities of starvation and disease, cloned cities, deadly weapons and CNN television
It was ironic that postmodern thought should make such a fetish of difference, given that its own impulse was to erase the distinctions between image and reality, truth and fiction, history and fable, ethics and aesthetics culture an economics, high and popular art, political left and right. (From After Theory, p. 46.)
The idea that humans can live without grand narratives is silly. We live with them whether or not we are aware of their influence on us. But all grand narratives are not created equal, and they should be examined, deconstructed, and rejected or reformed/adapted as circumstances change. And there is no culture in the history of the world that has been more intent on reforming its master narratives than the societies shaped by Latin Christendom (aka, the West) for the last thousand years. Its impulse to reform was grounded in a sense that it was not measuring up, that it could do better. And so at least since the time of Hildebrand in the 11th century, the West has gone through repeated cycles of laxity and reform that have made the West uniquely what it is right up to its controversies on transgender bathrooms. See Charles Taylor for the details on this.
But by what standard are we to measure the legitimacy of any narrative of reform? That would require a moral standard. But to say that one thing is better than another in a world where everything thing is just stuff we arbitrarily make up, as some postmodern thinking tells us, makes it impossible to say anything that has any real moral legitimacy. It's all aesthetics--my preference for chocolate or yours for vanilla is the same as my choice for socialism or yours for capitalism. Different strokes. If you don't like the mess capitalism has made, don't look. Too bad if your life is being crushed out of you. You should reconsider your aesthetic choices. Cake, anyone?
The postmodern ethos of the intellectual and cultural Left has made it anemic at a time when the world needs a robust counterbalance from the Left. The Left is spending too much time focusing on ideas and concerns that make it impossible for it even begin to resist the enormous force of global capitalism. The Left is going small, while capitalism is going big. The cultural Left at this point has become the reductio ad absurdum of the Enlightenment reform project to liberate us from the norms of premodern customary culture. It aspires to moral seriousness when it has cut out whatever might be the grounds on which to take a morally serious stand. It's self-parody without being in on the joke. It's still too earnest in its concerns to have any sense of humor or perspective about itself.
Is this, as some conservatives insist, a sign of the death of the West? Well, many on the Left would say good riddance to the West. But then to be replaced by what moral vision? The most likely candidate is the amoral vision of global capitalism, the culturally and morally unhinged and indiscriminate destroyer and homogenizer of cultures East and West, North and South. The Left eschews grand narratives while global capitalism continuously manufactures and promotes narratives that support it global ambitions. The Left wants to stay fragmented, and Global Capitalism says, "You do our work for us. You have divided and conquered yourselves without our having to lift a finger. "
So do I think things can change? Yes, but the impetus for it won't come from the Enlightenment Left, i.e., the Left of Rousseau, Voltaire, Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, and Abbie Hoffman. The impetus for real change will come when something emerges that will be grounded the way the Civil Rights movement was grounded in the U.S. or Solidarity was grounded in Eastern Europe. Such a future justice movement is not likely to come from the global north, but rather the global south, which is not so progressed as the North in the loss of its collective mind and its soul.