It’s strange how today’s progressive orthodoxy becomes tomorrow’s outdated fashion. We can see this easily when we look at the past.
Yesterday’s beliefs appear to us as the products of their times and their ideologies. But we find it hard to apply this perspective to our own period’s opinions.
We are too stuck-fast in our interpretations, unable to step outside our limitations to perceive the temporal determinisms affecting our attitudes.
To many, there appears, therefore, to be no Archimedean point at all, beyond the flow, no fixed vantage point, from which to view the maelstrom of shimmering, shifting worldviews.
Everything then appears to be merely personal or social preference, without any absolutes. Such, at least was the philosophy of relativistic postmodernism.
But its consequent emphasis on merely playing with symbols, freely manipulating the signifiers because there was no signified to which they referred, was ultimately unsatisfying.
In our post-9/11, post-war-on-terror, post-recession, post-austerity, condition, which the world has bequeathed to us in this Twenty-first Century, we are also now post-post-modern.
We sense the need to assert some kind of universal values, in order to denounce the injustices of the world. And so, protest movements, on Left and Right, pronounce about their absolute truths.
These may be, on the one hand, the self-evident ideologies of human rights and the politics of identity; or, on the other, the xenophobia and nationalistic rhetoric of the populist demagogues.
But, philosophically, the unchallenged anti-foundationalism of postmodernism means there is no basis for such assertions.
Moreover, in this situation of flux, the significance of ideas changes. What is perceived as progressive in one era may be rejected in the next, by the same coterie of intellectuals.
I recently visited the Isokon Building in London. This is a government-protected heritage site, an early British example of modernism.
Built in 1934, it follows architectural ideas prescribed by Le Corbusier, and Bauhaus principles of design from Germany.
Meant to enshrine socialist ideals, its approach similar to that of the Kibbutz movement in Israel, the building became a magnet for European intellectuals, exiled from Nazi Europe.
But, today, the flats look small and cramped; many simply single-room apartments, what we’d call ‘studio flats’ today.
The lifestyle also expressed unacknowledged bourgeois ideals. The common eatery, and washing facilities, all depended on the provision of servants’ quarters, to enable this ‘socialist’ experiment.
Another example, in the area of sexuality, lies in the New Left’s Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his early writings in favour of child sex.
Building on Freud’s brave observation that children exhibit sexual feelings, some 60s radicals proclaimed that these should be encouraged.
Furthermore, the general permissiveness of the era, also encouraged some adults to engage in sexual acts with children.
In today’s climate of moral outrage, this is clearly prohibited. But in the absence of any agreed transcendental source of ethics, how are we to escape the impasse?
If what appears to be progressive can later be seen as regressive, how are we to navigate the swirling waters of historical revisionism?