Most of us were utterly unprepared for those astonishing events of 2016: Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Why didn’t we see them coming? Perhaps we of a liberal-left bent were too wrapped up in our apparent victory, made complacent by consensus, to see the appeal of such quaint notions as nationalism.
I exaggerate a little: of course, many on the left were concerned by the economic inequalities and democratic deficits around the world. Some saw that there would be a reckoning. And some leftists were and are opposed to the EU, which they see as a neoliberal institution. There are nuances and complexities here, but, nevertheless, 2016 was shocking for many, myself included.
There have been many attempts to explain 2016, but we still seem hopelessly confused by Brexit and Trump (the left’s response to these events has been as stupid as it was predictable). Luckily Professor Matthew McManus, academic and Areo regular, has written a book to explain the peculiar phenomenon that is postmodern conservatism. His excellent analysis makes sense of our bewildering times—though I have a few quibbles with it.
Overview: What Is Postmodern Conservatism?
My first impulse upon embarking on this book was one of curiosity. I was familiar with conservative relativism and irrationalism, but postmodern conservatism? How interesting! I’ll never tire of pointing out the idiocies of postmodern philosophy and the postmodern/intersectional/woke left, but sometimes such fights take away energy from properly analysing and engaging with the traditional enemy.
So, what is postmodern conservatism? McManus starts by zooming out and analysing neoliberal society and postmodern culture. Neoliberalism, argues McManus, has profoundly transformed the world over the past few decades. Social, technological and economic changes have uprooted traditional ways of life and feelings of identity, on a vast scale and with astonishing speed. Even normal capitalism, revolutionary though it was, could be fairly stable. Its neoliberal mutation, however, has exacerbated and deepened capitalism’s transformative nature.
Postmodern philosophy, whose votaries included Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, was marked by its “unique form of epistemic scepticism,” but the influence of the philosophers themselves was limited: instead, postmodern culture is the natural outcome of neoliberal society. And postmodern culture, formed in the rapid, transformative and bewildering neoliberal world, has many features: the commodification of different spheres of life, the desacralisation of previously sacred symbols, a dislocated sense of time (the end of history in 1989, McManus says, produced ennui and boredom—man was comfortable, but was stuck in a world incapable of historical change), rapidly shifting physical spaces both urban and rural and a loss of old trappings of identity.
McManus identifies three main sources of identity fragmentation: secularisation, liberalism and the effects of markets. The decline of religion, the individualistic ethos of liberalism and the reduction of man to a cog in a machine under late capitalism all strip the old, deep sources of identity away, leaving people with only pastiche identities, hyperreal and aesthetic, often sardonic and cynical, but ultimately hollow and meaningless, rooted in nothing real. Thus, identity politics flourishes—with the end of history and the seemingly insurmountable dominance of liberal capitalism, the only politics left is based on ensuring that minorities are included within the system.
While such inclusion—the growth of gay rights, for example—is undoubtedly a good thing, leftist identity politics is futile, for it seeks no structural change and requires a constant state of victimhood to remain relevant. Perhaps most worryingly, its emphasis on identity and the relativism that entails opens the door to a reactionary, right-wing identitarianism, far more aggressive and threatening than its leftist counterpart.
McManus guides the reader through a potted history of conservative thought, from Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre to Michael Oakeshott and the jurist Robert Bork, showing the ways in which aspects of conservative thinking lend themselves to its postmodern incarnation. Despite the insistence of the likes of Ben Shapiro that conservatives are the guardians of common sense and facts (which don’t care about your feelings), much conservative thought has argued the exact opposite: that abstract reasoning is to be distrusted, and that tradition, feeling and emotion are the best guides to what is right. Oakeshott, indeed, was pretty much an open relativist, arguing for the validity of diverse epistemic and ethical premises—whatever works best for you.
McManus emphasises that many conservative strands do not lend themselves to a relativist or postmodern form, but those that do have long existed in conservative thought and, McManus believes, given the right conditions, a full-blown postmodern mutation is not only possible, but has occurred. Although McManus is not a conservative, he gives a reasonable and fair account of conservative thought.
Postmodern conservatism, then, is identitarian, based on feelings, not facts, a product of the identity crisis caused by neoliberalism, which essentially says that the west is us rather than the west is best, as Dylan De Jong neatly puts it in his foreword. Old identities have come under threat, and postmodern conservatism is an attempt to restore to the top of the hierarchy those most threatened by the changes wrought by postmodernity, especially straight, white males. Postmodern conservatism sees politics as a competition, a power struggle, rather than an arena of debate, argumentation or policy-making.
And it also requires enemies, constantly, because changes to the old ways are the result of bad guys like feminists, cosmopolitan elites and immigrants (often in league with each other). This means that it is unable to deal with the deep inequalities wrought by neoliberalism, which are structural in nature. The need for new enemies all the time means it can never actually do much about neoliberalism because its very existence and popularity is predicated on looking in the wrong direction.
Postmodern conservatism is the product of neoliberal society and postmodern culture, and thus doomed to an inability to overcome them. Through its use of postmodern tropes, it reinscribes postmodern culture. With its complete lack of analytical power, it has no hope of creating structural change. And the identities at stake for postmodern conservatives are pastiches, husks built out of a nostalgic and decontextualized vision of history, which emphasises white heroes like Charles Martel. Salman Rushdie’s 1998 essay on the commodification of Gandhi is an astute analysis of the ahistorical, unanchored view of the past that is now, sadly, all too common:
Gandhi today is up for grabs. He has become abstract, ahistorical, postmodern, no longer a man in and of his time but a freeloading concept, a part of the available stock of cultural symbols, an image that can be borrowed, used, distorted, reinvented to fit many different purposes, and to the devil with historicity or truth.
This, I think, is a neat encapsulation of McManus’s postmodern culture.
New forms of media have changed the discourse, meaning that insular communities are exposed only to their own views and can be radicalised and manipulated in equal measure; the public square, composed of long-form debate in books and articles, has given way to the never-ending news cycle, imagistic views of current events and cheap anger.
McManus analyses postmodern conservatism as it has arisen in the US, Britain, Poland, Hungary and Italy, which show regional variety, but have much in common: the need for enemies, the nostalgic bastardization of history, appeals to feelings and emotions, showbiz politics and politics as power struggle and spectacle. McManus finishes off with some suggestions for progressives who want to fight back, which I will discuss in detail later. Before that, I have some minor disagreements to register.
Quibbles: Islamophobia, Postmodernism, Jargon and Empiricism
McManus uses the word Islamophobia (thankfully only once) which is often used to shut down any debate on Islam and implies that ideas deserve rights and respect. The term anti-Muslim bigotry is to be preferred, as I have elsewhere argued.
I must also register my disapproval of McManus’s grouping of Jacques Derrida (with Gayatri Spivak and Michel Foucault) under the heading of “brilliant thinkers.” Postmodernists—and Derrida and Foucault especially—are to the intellect what acid is to the skin.
McManus uses the example of mental illness and how it has been construed in different power discourses to explain Foucaultian philosophy:
From being perceived as prophets and seers, the mad eventually came to be seen as undesirable aberrations from the norm of a mentally healthy subject. The discourse and affiliated values surrounding mental illness had shifted, and, as Foucault observes, may very well shift again. This is true despite the pretentious desire to achieve scientific certainty in the study of the mad.
I am not sure if McManus means to endorse this Foucaultian view, or merely to give an example of it, but not everything is about power and discourse. It is empirically demonstrable that the explanation for mental illness is that it is an illness, treatable through psychological and pharmacological means, and that there were never any such things as prophets and seers; that was only a delusion conjured up to explain strangeness before the advent of modern science, at a time when society often used and abused the ill. The story of mental illness is one of delusion, cruelty and opportunism followed by empirical progress (flawed and imperfect though it has been), not one of shifting power discourses.
McManus also says that postmodern culture is more important than philosophy for understanding our current predicament. While I broadly agree, on the left theory has also been very influential. I recommend Helen Pluckrose on this, and also Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, in which he traces the influence of academic nonsense on leftist thought, which he summarises by quoting John Maynard Keynes:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
I recommend Cohen’s book for a complementary, if very different, analysis of the peculiar phenomena of theory and jargon on the left.
Relativism and absolutism are too often handmaidens of each other. I am much more in line with Daniel Dennett’s views on post-modern philosophy, which deserves a much more scathing critique than McManus allows:
Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”
I also object to McManus’s copious use of theoretical jargon in one specific section of the book: chapter three, on postmodern culture in neoliberal society. Here’s an example:
Another criticism might be that my approach inserts a form of dualism into an otherwise materialist analysis. But that is also not my intention. Indeed, my interpretation of culture is as an intersubjective social production materialised through art, communications technologies, the media, and the development and performance of various kinds of subjectivities. I am largely sceptical of attempts to assimilate interpretations of culture into a materialist framework. This does not mean that I am ontologically committed to materialism the whole way down. But for the purposes of this book, my approach is strictly neutral on questions about the ontological status of questionable entities; for instance, cognitive states, physical or natural laws, fundamental forces, imagined entities, and so on.
This sort of language is opaque, nebulous and utterly unnecessary, and undermines the argument while tiring out the reader. It is good to put one’s argument in a scholarly context, of course, but not like this! Try as I might, I could not explain that paragraph to you: either it is jargon-laden meaninglessness, or it means something, but is put in such a way as to render that meaning invisible. Not everyone can be a great writer like Salman Rushdie of course, but his jargon-free analysis of postmodern culture, cited above, shows that concise and cogent explanations of these phenomena are possible to write.
My most serious quibble is methodological. McManus mentions Steven Pinker a couple of times, only to dismiss his optimism; this is unwise, for Pinker’s Enlightenment Now contains a great deal of empirical analysis of many of the points McManus brings up regarding the state of the world as it is now, including assessments of happiness and inequality. Though McManus does use empirical data to back up his claims, much of his critique of postmodernity and neoliberalism is theoretical in nature. I think he is still broadly right, but I recommend Pinker for balance, for he provides a broader, more rigorously empirical analysis, one that belies the Panglossian caricature his enemies paint of him, for it is sophisticated and alert to the world’s problems and the injustices and dangers of anti-Enlightenment thought (and shows that secularisation and other modern bogeymen are really actually quite good developments).
One final negative: McManus’ book is prohibitively expensive, but that is an issue with all academic books.
Despite these minor quibbles, the work is excellent, mostly accessibly written, and deeply engaging.
Postmodern Conservatism and How to Fight it
In the closing sections of the book, McManus discusses the rise of postmodern conservatism across the world and suggests some ways in which progressives can return volley. His analysis of political events in the US, UK, Poland, Hungary and Italy is fascinating and insightful and illuminates the developments in these places. It is here that McManus’s writing really shines. Of Donald Trump, for example, he writes:
Having inherited hundreds of millions of dollars, and having eked out a narrow electoral win against the wishes of the population even after being abetted by gerrymandering and voter suppression, he has relatively few accomplishments which are singularly his own.
And of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage:
This more romantic strain of British conservatism was on full display during the Brexit vote, embodied in the buffoonish figure of eternal Eton boy Boris Johnson and the harlequinesque pastiche of Englishness that is Nigel Farage.
Humour and understated flair in the service of good analysis: this is excellent. In every chapter aside from Chapter Three, McManus engages the reader. He is lucid and his analyses interesting and profound.
At the book’s end, McManus suggests that progressives meet the challenges of neoliberalism and combat the postmodern right by coming up with and arguing for new ways to involve people in the democratic process, linking individuals into a political community where they feel their voices can be heard and have an effect, fighting lobbyists and special interest groups in order to stop corruption, and fighting for measures that allow more participation by individuals at all levels of government and administration, from the local to the international.
On the economic front, McManus says that progressives must argue for international cooperation to tackle climate change and tax evasion, and redistribute money thus raised in both traditional and innovative social-democratic ways, which moderate rightists may be amenable to. We must reach out to those inclined, through anxiety or desperation, to support postmodern conservatives. And we must come up with new ideas about identity to counter the postmodern conservatives’ (as well as the woke left’s) narrow vision. McManus suggests that greater participation in a democratic culture would help with this.
He also admits that all these tasks will be incredibly difficult. But the book ends with an optimistic vision of a Rawlsian utopia that “would be far more attractive to many people than the vulgarities offered by postmodern conservatism.”
On ideas for the future, I recommend Gordon Brown’s books My Scotland, Our Britain and My Life, Our Times, in which he engages with questions of identity, economic inequality and internationalism in very interesting ways (not all of which I agree with). He talks of Adam Smith’s concept of expanding circles of sympathy, different levels of identity from the local to the international, how to tackle tax evasion, and how to build international structures to rein in neoliberal excesses, among many other things.
I also recommend looking into Scottish history for an interesting case study of identity. Since the Union with England of 1707, Scots have built up intersecting layers of identity within Britain and Europe. The work of the great historian T. M. Devine on this is excellent (see his The Scottish Nation: A Modern History and Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present). Of course, Scottish nationalism (a different beast in many ways from postmodern conservative nationalism) may well end Scottish identification with a multinational state, but the history of Scottish engagement with complex and shifting identities may contain clues as to how to shape new identities in a globalised world. And great writers like Salman Rushdie have explored with insight and intelligence the nature of identity and rootlessness in a globalised and cosmopolitan world.
Perhaps McManus’s argument for a more democratic, participatory politics in all its variants can take some lessons from eighteenth-century ideas of republican virtue, wherein citizens have rights and duties as part of a broad body politic. Could we extend this to advocate a global, republican, civic virtue?
McManus mentions that postmodern culture and neoliberal society have transformed education: instead of a broad, liberal, civic education, we are given specialist training, and this further undermines our sense of identity. Perhaps this is an area in which progressives can fight for change. A resurrection of the old public sphere is in order, and the new platform Letter may well be its precursor. In addition, perhaps progressives can fight for a new liberal civic education, to give young people the chance to engage in a shared democratic culture, while pursuing the arts and sciences freely.
What would a modern liberal civic education look like? That great universal, science, could be taught poetically, per Richard Dawkins, while literature and art could be taught canonically, but not conservatively: national canons can be a shared resource and a levelling force, especially if supplemented by education in a western, or Asian, or world canon, which would expand students’ circles of sympathy as well as their minds, and provide shared roots for distant peoples. International institutions should be involved in this, and exchanges between countries should be more common. A universal liberal humanist education for the world—now, there’s a project! And moderate conservatives may come on board since we need not abandon local identities while creating our new ones—and a focus on literary canons and liberal traditions will perhaps appeal to Straussians. Enlightenment civic humanism could be the future!
In the end, that future is unknown. Presently, the right is resurgent and postmodern conservatives are in power in many places. But we need not despair. As McManus has said in a podcast interview, all this instability means that we are living in a period in which a diverse array of political options are back on the table—people want change, and this means that a new set of progressives can fight for a more just world.
So, there is hope. In North Africa, the Middle East and Hong Kong, men and women are on the streets, uniting despite class and confessional differences, in favour of liberalism, secularism and women’s and human rights. Rojava, a bastion of radicalism, democracy and feminism in a region wracked by tyranny, may be under attack by Turkey, but its very existence is cause for hope.
These developments are a vindication of Christopher Hitchens’ words about the 2011 Arab Spring:
Tides will ebb, waves will recede, the landscape will turn brown and dusty again, but nothing can expel from the Arab mind the example and esprit of Tahrir. Once again it is demonstrated that people do not love their chains or their jailers, and that the aspiration for a civilised life—that “universal eligibility to be noble,” as Saul Bellow’s Augie March so imperishably phrases it—is proper and common to all.
The enemies of freedom will never die, but nor will the spirit of liberty and dialectic, so let us keep fighting. As Tennyson writes: “Tho’ much is taken, much abides.” Much has been achieved, but there is yet much to do.