“Truth is not Truth”
Rudy Guiliani, August 19, 2018
In an earlier article for Areo, I discussed the state of conservatism today, and argued that we are witnessing the emergence of postmodern conservatism in the United States and other countries. That article largely dealt with the state of conservatism today, while briefly touching on aspects of what postmodern conservatism is and why it emerged. This article provides a more thorough discussion of these latter topics, which are crucial to understanding postmodern conservatism. Postmodern conservatism emerged for a variety of interconnected reasons. One of the most important is that neoliberal society and postmodern culture provided exactly the conditions required to prompt the emergence of postmodern conservatism. Neoliberal society and postmodern culture emerged in tandem and enabled the mutation of certain variants of conservatism into their current, repellent form.
What Characterizes Neoliberal Society?
Neoliberal society is characterized by a set of social, economic and technological transformations taking place in developed or rapidly developing nations, which distinguish it from earlier social forms. These in turn abet the emergence of what, following Jameson, I call postmodern culture in developed and rapidly developing neoliberal societies. I will briefly discuss each of these transformations—and their connection to postmodern conservatism—in turn.
In the social sphere, neoliberal societies are characterized by comparatively ambiguous, but nonetheless functional and affective, hierarchies. Following Rawls, I argue that these hierarchies are predicated on and conducive to growing inequality in the distribution of economic goods, social honors and political power. These flow from a distribution of initial advantages and natural talents that is largely arbitrary from a moral point of view. Drawing on Patrick Deneen’s work in Why Liberalism Failed, I argue that apologists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman believed that these hierarchies and their associated inequities would be tolerated by citizens in neoliberal societies, so long as the economy resulted in ever improving quality of life and opportunity for the majority of citizens. This neoliberal promise lost steam as a result of two problems, which abetted the emergence of postmodern conservatism: one empirical, the other ideological. The empirical problem was the 2008 economic crisis, which—more than any other event before—exposed both the stark inequities in neoliberal society and resulted in a declining quality of life, or at least in fewer opportunities for continuous improvement, for many citizens. The ideological problem lay in the neoliberal expectation that stark inequalities in economic goods, social honors and political power would be endlessly tolerated by citizens, so long as the economy continued to prosper. This overestimated the degree to which people exclusively value economic prosperity, while underestimating the desire of many citizens for a more equal and democratic polity. Postmodern conservatives were able to take advantage of these desires by channeling them into a ressentiment-fueled politics aimed at attacking elites and their alleged allies in the media, academic fields and the culture industry. Many of the latter were lumped together under the curious label of cultural Marxism by more extreme postmodern conservatives.
In the economic sphere, neoliberal society was indeed characterized by growing prosperity and improvements in many individuals’ standards of living. It was also characterized by increasing economic, social and political inequalities. Economically, neoliberalism engendered the emergence of postmodern conservatism in several distinct ways. First, through what Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy calls the creative-destruction of values, which picked up steam in neoliberal societies. There was also a geographic and temporal dimension to this movement. Following Harvey, I would argue that neoliberalism is characterized by the “elimination of space through time” as markets seek to ever more efficiently compress the globe, to deliver a cosmopolitan collection of goods and services to consumers in developed and rapidly developing countries. This has had an impact on broader culture, resulting in changing social traditions and the commodification of previously taboo subjects such as sexuality, diversity and so on. Patrick Deneen has also criticized these developments from a socially conservative perspective in many of his essays for First Things. These developments led to a growing sense that traditions and identities long cherished were rapidly transforming, as part of the emergence of what I will call postmodern culture. The anomie prompted by these developments would later be exploited by postmodern conservatives.
Secondly, neoliberal policy makers enacted demographic trade and immigration policies which were amenable to market growth, but which also brought about further and deeper transformations in society. Traditional industries and the jobs affiliated with them were shipped overseas, resulting in declining standards of living and fewer opportunities for many in industrial towns and in the Midwest. Urbanization and movement to the cities resulted in a growing sense that rural and conservative areas were losing cultural and political clout relative to economically driven but socially liberal city dwellers. Immigration policies largely designed to produce a cheap labor force brought about demographic changes in the country, which alienated a domestic population increasingly concerned with racial and cultural transformation—or, as some more extreme postmodern conservatives put it, concern about ethnic replacement or even genocide. This jump-started the anti-immigrant sentiments which have always lurked in the political background of many Western nations: especially in the United Kingdom, the United States and Hungary. All these factors played a role in the emergence of postmodern conservative movements.
Finally, the technological transformations associated with neoliberal society also abetted the emergence of postmodern conservatism. I follow Heidegger, Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard in criticizing the instrumental approach to technological change characteristic of many (but by no means all) liberal and now neoliberal thinkers. For many liberals and neoliberals, technologies are understood instrumentally as mere means to achieve pre-given ends. Better technologies are those which more effectively allow us to pursue our ends. While this is one aspect of technology, there are others which are also important. In neoliberal society, changing technologies brought about new ways for people to assimilate information, communicate and organize politically. This has had several consequences in engendering the emergence of postmodern conservatism. First, as Neil Postman argues in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the advent of conservative radio, television and websites contributed to the emergence of a specifically postmodern variant of conservatism. In a neoliberal context, these new media had to compete with one another for attention and sponsors. This incentivized them to engage in hyper-partisanship and in what Herbert Marcuse would call a flattening of information into infotainment and even conspiracy theorizing, in the case of figures like Dinesh D’Souza, Alex Jones and, especially, purely digital pundits like Lauren Southern and Paul Joseph Watson. Secondly, improved communication technologies enabled these increasingly radicalized postmodern conservatives to insulate themselves in ideological echo chambers. The discourse in these echo chambers was characterized by a growing sense of possessing an identity under attack, and a greater sense of isolation and resentment towards perceived enemies of that identity. This victimized identity and its alleged oppressors were connoted in many different ways, some of which were quite internally contradictory. Briefly, civilization, nationality, ethnicity, religion and race were all emphasized as the locus of a victimized identity, which was being denied its rightful place at the top of various hierarchies. By contrast, political, cultural and economic elites, intellectuals, immigrants and occasionally those who came from a different racial background were all held up as enemies victimizing this identity and making it increasingly different to express allegiance towards it in neoliberal society. Finally, in the 2000s, these radicalized postmodern conservatives found champions in political parties and figures such as UKIP, Viktor Orban and Donald Trump.
These trends in neoliberal society are all conducive to the emergence of what I call, again following Jameson, postmodern culture, which exists in a mutually determinative relationship with trends in neoliberal society. Postmodern culture impacts many individuals and groups within neoliberal societies, including those on the left and right ends of the traditional political spectrum.
Postmodernism as a Culture
Postmodern culture emerges within neoliberal society as mutually determinative with the various social, economic and technological transformations discussed above. In postmodern culture, the various material and ideological means through which we used to understand identity come under increasing pressure from these transformations. Social and economic transformations result in the fragmentation of communities and the dissolution of traditional values through processes of commodification, creative destruction and geographic and demographic change. Technological changes mean we increasingly express our identity in diffracted form, existing in many different mediums at once, within communities in which we rarely or never come into physical contact with other community members. Neoliberal politicians enabling these social, economic and technological transformations push for the adoption of multicultural policies and a toleration of different identities amenable to both liberal values and market imperatives. The resultant art and entertainment produced by the culture industry reflects these transformations and their impacts on our identity, resembling a pastiche of now outdated traditional images and values and embodying what Mark Fisher calls the “slow cancellation of the future” by the past. These forms of art and entertainment, drawing on the past without recreating or criticizing it, reflect our desire to shore up identity again and our anxiety that such a possibility may be lost forever. This is also connected to our political sensibilities, as the values affiliated with traditional identities have also come under strain. This was an important precursor to the emergence of postmodern conservatism.
On the left, the reaction to postmodern culture has been quite varied. For some, notably transhumanists like Donna Haraway, postmodern culture awakens us to new possibilities for creatively transforming human identity and purpose. This brings with it potential risks, but also exciting rewards. For some on the New Left, most notably critics like Gayatri Spivak, postmodernism both problematizes identity and reveals how much we may still need it. For Spivak, we need to “strategically essentialize” identity claims in order to mobilize political attention around marginalized peoples and their concerns. This New Left brand of politics is perhaps the most (in)famous and well known variant of leftism in the world today. It is also the most proximate to what I call postmodern conservatism, as indicated by the criticism leveled by postmodern conservatives against New Left style identity politics on behalf of marginalized groups. Other left wing critics like Slavoj Zizek, David Harvey and Alain Badiou are far more critical of New Left identity politics, and want a return to more authentic or universal categories of political mobilization.
For liberals, the relationship with postmodernism is more ambiguous. Some liberal thinkers like Martha Nussbaum, Ronald Dworkin and Amartya Sen have been highly critical of both postmodern philosophy and postmodern culture. They see its diffraction of identity and growing skepticism about truth as a threat to liberal rationalism. But, for other liberals, most notably Richard Rorty, postmodern culture is to be welcomed. For Rorty, the diffraction of our identity provides an opportunity to move beyond self-centeredness and towards a more solidaristic and humble liberal politics. In such a context, we come to care more about the status of others and about our great grandchildren than about ourselves alone.
The Characteristics of Postmodern Conservatism
Put simply, postmodern conservatism is the type of conservatism that emerges in neoliberal society and postmodern culture. But the reaction has been more politically dramatic than that of the left and the liberal center. Conservatives are especially sensitive to the social fragmentation and increasing uncertainty characteristic of neoliberal society and the related postmodern culture. The reaction of those I call postmodern conservatives has been to look back to a pastiche of identities in the past to attempt to recover a sense of belonging and identity, which seems to be lost in neoliberal social forms and postmodern culture. In Nietzschian terms, this identity also comes with a specific set of values. Often interacting in hyper-real and partisan echo chambers like the internet, postmodern conservatives have also turned to mutated forms of De Maistrean irrationalism to generate their unique epistemic and meta-ethical standpoints on the world. The reaction to the growing uncertainty of postmodern culture has been to irrationally turn to identity as the locus for epistemic and meta-ethical validity. The consequence of this has been a growing distrust of other sources of epistemic and meta-ethical claims, which seem to disrupt the postmodern conservative’s sense of identity and its affiliated values.
The pastiche of identities and values appealed to by postmodern conservatives comes in many different varieties, though they are often culled from past identities and values associated with power, tradition and authority. For many postmodern conservatives in America, the identity affiliated with is the WASP culture of the 1950s and 1980s, embodied in the figures of Eisenhower and Reagan. The values they associate with, and seek to restore, are meritocracy and self-reliance. For postmodern conservatives in the United Kingdom, the identity affiliated with is the Great Britain of the early twentieth century, and the values are sovereignty and national specificity. For postmodern conservatives in Poland, the identity is Catholic nationalism, and the values are traditional norms and national pride. And so on. Sometimes the identities and values appealed to overlap with other identities and values. Postmodern conservatives may also understand themselves as part of a unified and relatively homogenous Western civilization, or as members of the white or Caucasian race. At points, appeals to Christendom as opposed to Islam may be invoked. Invariably the pastiche of identities and values postmodern conservatives appeal to is highly idealized, often inconsistent, and even Dadaistic. But nonetheless these identities are seen as the locus for epistemic and meta-ethical claims, and arguments about how the world is and how it should be ordered are assessed according to what stabilizes this identity and its affiliated values. Indeed, the contradictory quality to these identities and values can also be ideologically useful in enabling postmodern conservatives to shift their self-understanding and values when confronted with facts or arguments which challenge their sense of self. Some postmodern conservatives are more likely to appeal to broader identities than the nation, such as Christendom, the West, or the white race. What unites these various appeals to different identities and values are two features. The first is that the identities and values postmodern conservatives associate with are typically concerned with power, tradition and authority. But this is then given a twist worthy of Nietzschian ressentiment.
Postmodern conservatives see the identity or identities they affiliate with, and the related set of values, as under attack by various social forces. Often they level critiques against the neoliberal society within, blaming the aforementioned social and economic (but rarely the technological) transformations for marginalizing them, and reducing their cultural influence and political power. They also resent the formation of postmodern culture, largely because it is associated almost exclusively with the New Left and its identity politics. They see postmodern culture as generating a New Left that pushes for greater and greater undeserved participation on the part of historically marginalized peoples, at the expense of the identities and values postmodern conservatives affiliate with. Postmodern conservatives blame this culture, as understood through the lens of hyper-partisan politics, for the emergence of this New Left, which is in turn blamed for attacking and undermining the identities with which postmodern conservatives identify. But they are not alone. Since postmodern conservatives regard the New Left—or cultural Marxism, as figures like Ricardo Duchesne would put it—as culturally hegemonic, they also affiliate it with a loose cabal of other social actors. This includes academics, immigrants, sexual deviants, cosmopolitan globalists and so on. Rather like the positive identity or identities they identify with, the opponents of postmodern conservatism are mostly a pastiche of different groups with little in common except that they offend the value system of the postmodern conservative. They are also seen as increasingly dominating society, prompting postmodern conservatives to mobilize politically to crack down on them.
The second—and more insidious—feature of postmodern conservatism is the push for a neo-authoritarian or at least post-truth politics. Post-modern conservatives primarily understand the world in terms of their identity and its values. They also see themselves as under constant threat by the New Left—cultural Marxists—and their allies. This struggle is often connoted in existential terms, or as Dennis Prager put it, in the sense that the United States is moving towards a second Civil War. This motivates postmodern conservatives to seize control of the state and the political agenda, in order to use its still substantial powers to refashion the world in their image and clamp down on threatening groups. It also means that postmodern conservatives regard many sources of epistemic and meta-ethical authority, who challenge their identity and its affiliated values, as enemies to be dismissed or crushed, rather than interlocutors and fellow citizens to dialogue with. In practice, postmodern conservatives also tend to engage in hyper-partisan displays of posturing; politics as a kind of competitive entertainment. This is in keeping with the technological imperatives which were conducive to its emergence in the first place. The theatrical and scandalous aspects of postmodern conservatism testify to its roots in hyper-real and partisan digital media. The result is an ugly and highly polarized political environment characterized by attacks on the media and intellectuals, alongside more substantial crackdowns on immigration and other alien figures.