A Preview of “What is Post-Modern Conservatism?: Essays on Our Hugely Tremendous Times.”

In 1989, a young scholar named Francis Fukuyama published an essay with the provocative title “The End of History?” in the National Interest. He argued that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, history proper had come to an end. The time of major conflicts between ideologies or civilizations had passed, leaving only a relatively prosperous, often unequal and occasionally dreary collection of neoliberal societies, populated by passionless, Nietzschean “last men.” Less than thirty years later, reality TV star turned American president Donald Trump made a speech in the capital of a former Soviet satellite, declaring:

The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?  Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?  Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?

How we got from the so-called end of history to apocalyptic declarations of the end of western civilization is one of the questions posed in our new collection of essays for Zero Books, “What is Post-Modern Conservatism: Essays on Our Hugely Tremendous Times,” which will be released this fall (you can watch a video outlining some of the major themes here). The book was written by yours truly, with contributions by Dylan De Jong, Erik Tate, Borna Radnik, David Hollands and Conrad Hamilton. The emergence of postmodern conservatism came as a surprise to many of us. We had hoped that the vulgarities and inequalities of neoliberal society and postmodern culture would lead to new forms of progressive politics. The recent rise of social democratic and socialist movements in the US, UK and Spain has renewed our hopes of a progressive pushback of this kind. However, unfortunately, postmodern conservatives like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and Nigel Farage were the first to emerge from the muck of neoliberalism and postmodernism to seize political power. They are now entrenched in many developed countries—and arguably even in Latin America, in the form of Jair Bolsonaro. Understanding how this happened is crucial for progressives today.

Neoliberal Society and Postmodern Culture

Postmodern conservatism came into its own after the 2008 recession, which dramatically exposed the contradictions (analyzed here) and inequalities in neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberal societies had long been characterized by stark social, economic and technological transformations, which made many citizens feel increasingly powerless, despite living in nominally democratic states. Just as importantly, the transformations which rocked neoliberal society radically upended people’s sense of the world, giving rise to a postmodern culture which gave expression to the growing sense that “everything that is solid melts into the air.” As David Harvey points out in The Condition of Post-Modernity, our experience of both space and time shifted. There were sweeping changes in where we lived: the countryside was depopulated, as countless internal and international migrants moved to highly stratified megacities. The time it took to travel or communicate across the world became radically compressed. This brought millions of people together—though it also helped reactionaries band together under the banner of Pepe the Frog. Finally, postmodern culture led many to feel that their sense of identity was becoming increasingly unstable. While older and more closed societies had imposed immense pressures on individuals to perform gendered, heteronormative and classist identities, these societies also provided many with a firm sense of who they were and the kind of community they belonged to. These older societies also benefited many of the individuals who would later become postmodern conservatives, since the identities with which they identified usually enjoyed considerable privileges and powers denied to others (though why white nationalists sided with America’s first orange president remains a mystery).

With the advance of liberal individualism, secularism and the colonization of all spheres of life by neoliberal capitalism, this once stable sense of identity was eroded. While this process of destabilization provided much needed political opportunities for previously marginalized groups, such as women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people, to agitate for important political changes, it still produced a huge amount of anxiety and eventually resentment. Moreover, these movements weren’t able to rectify the worsening inequities in wealth and power generated by neoliberalization.

The changes resulted in deepening resentment among many reactionaries—who had previously enjoyed substantial privileges which they felt the progressive movements were taking away from them—as well as among less privileged citizens, who understandably felt left behind by the economy and betrayed by the leaders who were supposed to represent them. These resentments were fed by hyper-modern conservative media promoting alternative facts. Pundits like Dinesh D’Souza and Steve Bannon laid the blame for these developments at the feet of progressive movements and foreign powers. These resentments generated the antagonistic identity politics we call postmodern conservatism.

The Emergence of Postmodern Conservatism

Postmodern conservatism is first and foremost a form of resentment-driven identity politics. Postmodern conservatives define themselves by assembling a pastiche identity from a hyper-real set of older identities they associate with privileges and powers that have been taken away. This pastiche identity can be assembled from a variety of debased materials, employing what the late Mark Fisher called the museum approach to history and identity characteristic of neoliberal capitalist realism:

The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its “system of equivalence” which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapitala monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.

A postmodern conservative assembles his (and it’s usually a he) pastiche identity through associating with cultural objects and identities presented to him by hyper-real, right-wing media. The materials involved can include masculine and heterosexual stereotypes, national identity, western civilization, religion and ethnic and racial identities. All postmodern conservatives regard their pastiche identity as embattled: attacked on all sides by a variety of enemies, who are responsible for eroding the political and economic power and privilege which are rightfully theirs. Who these mysterious enemies are thought to be can vary, but they typically include some combination of internal, progressive elites, who promote greater pluralism and social change, and external foreigners, who are contaminating and seizing control of a formerly pure society, once dominated by the identities with which the postmodern conservative nostalgically identifies.

Conclusion

In practice, postmodern conservatives are attracted to right-wing populist leaders, from Donald Trump in the US to Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen in Europe. These leaders claim to represent the identity groups with which the postmodern conservative associates, and promise to destroy their enemies. Once in power, these populists cater to their base by using hyper-modern media and partisanship to constantly deepen their resentment and anxiety. This is one of the most dangerous features of postmodern conservatism, but it also illustrates its fundamental “impotent bigness,” as Hannah Arendt might say. As a resentment-driven form of politics, postmodern conservatism is dependent on its enemies to frame its political worldview. If their enemies disappeared, postmodern conservatives would recognize themselves as mere products of the transformations and inequities of neoliberal society, as expressed in postmodern culture. Since they are right-wing reactionaries, this is not what they want. Postmodern conservatism can only generate such policies as penalizing developing states like Mexico for the crime of having migratory poor, or building walls to keep out refugees fleeing regional conflicts. Real change can only be accomplished by more comprehensive political movements committed to substantial changes and willing to confront the dramatic problems of our time.

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15 comments

  1. Dear Matt,

    I and my rapidly growing family would like to move to your house. We are poor and victims of white privilege. Please post your address so we may avail our humble selves of yur caring and we will all fight together the growing wave of racism, hatred and bigotry.

    Best regards,

    yustafa mondwawa

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  2. Raving leftist Matt can’t tell the difference between a BS artist and postmodernism. You’ve argued for nothing other than “people who don’t like identity politics” and “people who’s opinions I don’t like”, as with your last piece of nonsense on Liberalism.

    Matt, your work is a complete joke. I just read your latest drivel piece on Quillette, citing “critical legal theory”. It’s probably your worst article so far, but I expect you may continue to surpass yourself.

    Give it up, mate.

  3. Just use the word HYPER a few times in your article and you are a certified progressive. Even if it doesn’t have a context or meaning.

  4. I don’t think, that there is a such thing as a postmodern conservatism. There is a common sense – I’m not sure that the author of this blog knows what it is. I grew up under the communist dictatorship, I am well acquainted with such kind of people.

    We studied Marxist philosophy at our university, it was mandatory in those times for any university. What was interesting (the real story!), one of our lecturers suddenly disappeared. Later it turned out that he served in a concentration camp during World War II. I remember I said to myself that serving in a concentration camp and then giving lectures on Marxism does not mean a change of professional occupation, this is just a change of employer.

    I’m sorry, Matt, I still think so now.

  5. “conservatism is first and foremost a form of resentment-driven identity politics.”

    Oh, the irony. If only there had not existed grievance studies, which got the identity politics ball rolling, and taught us all that resentment is the prime mover of how you should vote.

    We didn’t count on liberalism trying to destroy our societies and cultures with globalization. That’s what Fukuyama missed. NAFTA was a deliberate attack on our working class and admitting China to the WTO did not even consider their interests. Trump barely stopped TPP in time. Jimmy Dore said it best:

    The Democrats gutted welfare at the same time they exploded the prison population, called black people ‘super predators’, at the same time they did NAFTA. Then they deregulated Wall Street, which crashed the economy within 10 years. That’s what Democrats did. Democrats did things that Ronald Reagan could only dream about, in his wet dreams. George HW Bush couldn’t pass NAFTA. It took Bill Clinton to do it. Bill Clinton gave the cover to the other corporate Democrats to go along with it. That was the beginning of the end for the working class in America.

    Then the Democrats wag their finger at people with no money and no power, for not voting for a corporatist warmonger like Hillary Clinton. Why do you think the people in Michigan wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton? Maybe because she put half of them in fuckin’ prison? Because she passed NAFTA, and Barack Obama was trying to sell TPP at the top of his lungs, at the same time she was trying to get working people to vote for her? They knew what the fuck was going on! That’s why half the country didn’t vote. But you’re going to wag your finger at the people who actually do vote? Who come out and vote their conscience? You know what voting for the lesser of two evils gets you? Donald Trump!

  6. Will there be no mention of how many of these so-called postmodern conservative leaders forward things that are entirely in line with liberal philosophy and therefore might attract any liberal who sees progressives abandoning liberalism? That seems almost too simple, doesn’t it? It just *has* to be about identities. To be fair, there are people like Paul Melonas right here in this comment section, so clearly there’s *something* like what the author describes afoot. That he’s openly progressive (and clearly not a liberal) and emphasizes inequities as what would inevitably be the alternative perspective to having their resented enemy (as if we had much reason to think that this is more significant than perceived fairness when we in fact have reasons to think the opposite is the case) shows a clear marxist (though intersectional) bent to his perspective. He’s undoubtedly an ideologue, hard at work trying to explain complex phenomena with a simple narrative of resentment-driven identity politics (which I’m not saying doesn’t have something to it, just that it’s far from capturing the whole of the situation) – ironically, precisely the thing liberals criticize intersectional feminists (who are postmodern neomarxists – every detail of that phrase should be dealt with before dismissal, including neo-) – that is, the educated progressives (this because if they’re not intersectional feminists they’re apparently not progressive) – for enabling and encouraging. When caught criticizing progressives in this way or another, liberals are derided as conservative, regardless of whether they have a point or not. I would absolutely recommend looking *carefully* at anything that might resemble a point before dismissing someone for being conservative or in any way possible to call reactionary (a phrase that I’ve understood is being used to associate any protest with violent responses to previous civil-rights issues to inflate the negative affect of a person/position; a clever but dishonest trick). If there’s a point there, you’ll want to pick it up.

    Some general advice for the author: Define your terms (I’m hoping I won’t need to define postmodern neomarxist here as it takes a while and it doesn’t fit the flow of the text). What do you mean by identity politics? Is it all politics (I’ve heard this from a lot of progressives) or is it a subset of all politics (and therefore worthy of adding the word ‘identity’) characterized by something specific? If the latter, characterized by what? I know what I think: Characterized by a tendency to use someone’s identity to determine if they’re right or wrong instead of their arguments. However, I seriously doubt that this is what you mean, seeing as you’re clearly a progressive. Additionally, your use of the term seems to me to indicate that you mean that “postmodern conservatism” is a resentment driven “form” of identity politics, because(?) it picks up old identities associated with power (which is to say, associated with the oppressor-class to any postmodern neomarxist) and uses them as rallying flags (incidentally, this use of identity is why so many progressives say that all of politics is identity politics) to forward change that run counter to the ideals of progressives (identity?)
    Beyond identity politics, I can only guess at what is meant by hyper-modern media (let alone the populists “using it”). Is it in a style à la modernity (and what would that mean)? Is it high-tech, competently edited media? Is it decentralized media disseminated through the internet? Then there is “hyper-real”… Do you mean salient? If so, why don’t you just say so?

    Finally, a point about the identites the populists appeal to. Take Trump. I have never heard him say anything that I would describe as even remotely white-supremacist. I have seen him consistenly appeal to two specifiers. Americans, and workers. Presumably it would be people who resonate with these identity-markers who find him the most appealing (I’ve also noticed him emphasizing fairness a lot – the moral foundation that seems to be the most shared by left and right according to Jonathan Haidt, and saying that he thinks young men have it rough these days). As president of America, I don’t think it’s easy to defend the position that he shouldn’t be appealing to the interests of Americans. He was selling himself to them, after all, so not trying to do what they want – which includes border protection – over people who didn’t have a say in it would be betraying their votes. As the left has gotten more intersectional, workers and their issues have gotten ever less space there. Like it or not, the left wing handed him that card, and he has recognized it and is taking advantage. I’ve also understood that his brazen behavior has a special appeal to people who want to say what they think (something we should all want them to do about major issues) but who are afraid of facing a backlash for it (whether or not it’s a reasonable expectation is irrelevant). He is NOT appealing to peoples skin color or similar illiberal things. He is appealing to national pride, which is not the same as imperial ambition (though it might be a precondition for it) and is not antithetical to liberalism. He might be the least conventionally conservative of the people you mentioned (though i must wonder if “postmodern conservative” might be better understood if replaced by “liberal conservative”). As a Norwegian, Trump is the one I’ve heard the most about. However, there is nothing illiberal about most of the things I hear from him. For instance, the quote you start your article with is perfectly reasonable. He isn’t apocalyptically declaring the end of western civilization, but saying (and surprisingly eloquently given typical portrayals from media punditry) that the question of our time is if western nations believe in their values to the point of standing for them – if western values (never mind what they are exactly; it’s a matter of family resemblance, as is everything people like to deconstruct) have succumbed to postmodern skepticism. There are dangers – always. Communists, who aim for change in line with their ideals (and who like to call themselves progressives and are frequently intersectional feminists), are very fond of subversive tactics, as are everyone who seeks to combat something greater than themselves (this leaves room for radical muslims, anarchists, nazis and more). However, such subversion *would* destroy something, and it *might* be something people value, including the people who are doing the subverting. They might indeed be fooling themselves, in which case they’re not the enemy, but worthy of pity; to be prevented from screwing everyone else over while screwing themselves over, and maybe helped to cease on their path of ruin if possible. On this point the quote is open-ended. The main point of emphasizing how Trump appeals to workers is, of course, that they are the oppressed category of traditional marxism, but in intersectional feminism there are too many oppressors among them (yes, this is a simplification) – men, mostly, but also straight and cis people, and in America? White (for now, anyway – for that *one* axis of oppression to be a priority, even in your (the author’s) analysis.

    1. Let me just add in Post Scriptum that the narrative about lost privileges is seriously exaggerated and a major mistake that is all too common in progressive thought. Objection to advocates of “equality” offering special privileges that no one else is getting (not even the supposedly privileged) to marginal groups in society is a very different beast, and this is far more common. For people who remember Jordan Peterson’s conversation with Kathy Newman, she seriously suggested that people have a right not to be offended – presumably one of the supposed privileges of the majorities (“white privilege” springs to mind, but it is otherwise known as luck in an unfair universe) under most circumstances (they can absolutely still be offended, and it’s always the tyranny of the minority *within* a majority anyways). People really think things like these, in spite of such “rights” being completely unworkable in any practical setting (and falling squarely in the camp of positive rights – that is, privileges). People who can sanction you for offending them are people with power – social or otherwise. Since offense is always taken, not given (this is basic semantic theory), allowing them the privilege of not being offended is in effect allowing them to get away with anything. If these privileged groups are possible to opt into (note that I’m not suggesting that *anyone* should have such privileges), you’re inviting the scum of the earth to opt in and take advantage, creating a totalitarian system in the process (as any objection will offend such people, and offense is sanctioned). No one has the right to not be offended. It can’t be given to everyone because that includes the scum of the earth, and so no advocate of “equality” can forward it without revealing that something more basic is going on. It could be maternal instincts, a desire to help people who are struggling (a very human thing), or something worse (tyrannical inclinations…) but one thing is for certain: It is unhinged, common and worthy of objection, and not the same as resentment over lost privileges that one never had in the first place.

      A reminder: I’m trying to show the significant complexity that the author’s narrative glosses over. I’m not saying that what he’s describing doesn’t exist.

      1. Narrative of lost privilege is exaggerated or even unreal or imaginary. When oppressed class ask for its rights oppressers think their own privileges are being taken away and opressed are asking for privileges.

  7. “If their enemies disappeared, postmodern conservatives would recognize themselves as mere products of the transformations and inequities of neoliberal society, as expressed in postmodern culture.”

    Thing is, so called “postmodern conservatives” are living, breathing people, who recognize themselves as fairly valuable products of heterosexual congress who hope to leave a posterity of living, breathing people to pass the gift of life on into the future. As such, contemplating what passes for liberal aspiration causes them deep and abiding anxiety for their lives, liberties, prosperity and posterity in the days and years to come should liberal aspirations be realized. No-where in this apprehension is it a fear for the loss of the much envied “privileges” currently obsessing the postmodern liberal that motivates their movement into so called “populist” alliances.

  8. I’m just an everyman offering an everyman’s opinion and I crack up laughing at the unabashed pomposity and unapologetic mercenary book sales pitches that are always attached to the rantings of windbags like this author. What has happened to America isn’t postmodern this or that, the problem in America is too many men have abdicated their manhood and leadership position opting to instead become effeminate soy boys who are oh so worried about offending anyone while at the same time having a hair trigger reflex to suddenly fall on their knees screaming NOOOOOO at the thought that 1/2 of American men still have balls just like our President.

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