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 Kapital, a 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.
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.