In this open letter posted on our partner platform, Letter, Matt McManus first outlines the central thesis of his recent book, The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism: Neoliberalism, Post-Modern Culture and Reactionary Politics and then reproduces a selection of responses. If you haven’t yet read the letter, I’d encourage you to do so before continuing.
McManus’ central idea is that right-wing populist leaders like Donald Trump, Victor Orbán and Jair Bolsonaro—and, I would add, Narendra Modi—reject the rationalist, liberal tradition. They portray themselves, instead, as the champions of “an ambiguous ‘people’ or ‘nation’ whose traditions and values had been corroded by progressive elites and other unwanted groups.” Trump’s “alternative facts” and dismissal of mainstream media as “fake news” indicate his postmodern sensibilities, as do the allusions of postmodern conservatives to conspiracy theories involving (variously) Jews, Pakistanis, Muslim third columnists, the Chinese or out-of-touch intellectuals. Such conservatism is also postmodern in its flagrant disregard for science, especially climate science, and its desire to control the narrative in a world of competing stories, in which reality is less important than posturing and spin.
McManus presents critiques of his work ranging from the enthusiastic to the sceptical, in order to “foster deeper and better” cross-aisle discussion, since conservatives and liberals “live in this world together and must find a way to share it.”
Nate Hochman, “After Liberty”
Nate Hochman argues that the postmodern right is a product of the loss of a “shared framework for understanding the nature of truth, virtue, morality.” He blames this largely on the intolerance of a culturally hegemonic left that regards conservative views not as a valid expression of values, but as “indisputably wrong, unreasonable and immoral.” The thought leaders of our media and educational institutions, according to Hochman, instead of searching for truth simply champion their tribe, provoking an equally tribalist response from the right. As a result, contemporary politics is “a nakedly self-serving affair,” a nihilistic battle between competing identity groups, rather than a search for justice.
Declan Leary, “Conservatism: Pre-modern, Post-modern, etc.”
Leary argues that McManus “conflates truth with rationalism.” Matt, Leary tells us, is myopically focused on politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro and neglects to examine the enduring appeal of conservatism to many ordinary people. We can’t understand this worldview, Leary suggests, by analysing philosophical arguments. Fundamentally, conservatism is about the defence of things that are under threat—homes, livelihoods, cultures, values—and these are, crucially, intricately connected with people’s sense of identity. Far from being caught up in a maelstrom of narrative and spin, ordinary conservatives want to defend the concrete things that give their lives meaning and connect them to their forebears: “a piece of ground, a creed, a job, a house—all of which are at risk of loss in the postmodern world.”
Jonathan Church, “Neoliberalism” Is a Dubious Scapegoat for Postmodern Conservatism
Church traces the historical origins of the term neoliberalism, to try to clarify what he regards as a nebulous concept, used as a scapegoat for “whatever its critics do not like about the society in which we live.” His critique focuses on McManus’ idea that our world has been set up to protect markets, at the expense of fairness towards individuals. Church defends both hierarchical workplace structures and wealth inheritance on the grounds that “economics is about incentives, not ‘rights,’” and we must therefore ask, “How do we design incentives to make society work better?” (Start a conversation with Jonathan Church here.)
Samuel Kronen, “Postmodern Conservatism: Pathology or Reaction?”
Kronen finds McManus’ description of postmodern conservatism astute and accurate, but he questions the reasons McManus gives for the rise of this phenomenon and his suggestions as to how to combat it. For Kronen, right-wing populism and support for Donald Trump are at least partly the result of the double standards of progressives, who celebrate minority identities, but demonise members of majorities who wish to express pride in their cultural heritage. Being the target of this opprobrium, in an atmosphere of increasing diversity and pluralism, makes members of majority groups feel threatened. The answer, for Kronen, is for our cultural thought leaders—especially the media and large corporations—to support universalism consistently. This will encourage all groups to work together towards cultural and political reform.
Sahil Handa, “Thiel and Taleb: Spot the Postmodern Conservative”
Sahil critiques McManus’ primary focus on postmodernism conservatism as a “resentment-driven identity politics,” preoccupied with defending its battlefront in the culture wars. Instead, he compares two sceptics of “naïve rationalism,” who focus on personal, individual identities over grand narratives and feel nostalgia for a time before ‘virtual reality replaced reality and human identity blended with algorithms’: Nassim Taleb and Peter Thiel. An examination of these two very different figures strengthens his conclusion that, “any ideology which is skeptical of a singular response to the world’s problems … is bound to look to the past.”
Note from Matt McManus
They say you should choose your enemies carefully, since they will define you more than your friends. If that is the case, my work on postmodern conservatism is fortunate to have warranted interesting and provocative criticism from a variety of intelligent conservatives and liberals. One of the features that most stands out is the diversity of views expressed in these essays. Declan Leary has prepared a witty but profound criticism, arguing that there is an implicit rationalist bias in my work, which undervalues the extent to which modern sources of meaning and identity are under threat. Samuel Kronen largely agrees with my criticisms of the political right, but suggests I take a harder look at my own ideological comrades to see where they’ve led people astray. Nate Hochman argues that the tribalism we are now seeing from the right is as much a response to the tribalism of the left as anything independent. Jonathan Church repeats his critique of an earlier Quillette article that my work offers much of value, but is singularly unfair to and insufficiently clear about neoliberalism as a catalyst of postmodern culture. Finally, Sahil Handa argues that a closer look at some indicative intellectual trends shows why looking to the past has greater appeal than I give it credit for.
These critiques range from the surprisingly enthusiastic to the sceptical. I am preparing a more extensive response that will address each of these contentions in turn.
In the meantime, however, I would like to highlight something that warranted little attention when my works were written: the fall of postmodern conservatism. Many intelligent commentators have observed that we are living at a time of realignment. The most ambitious even claim that the old categories of left and right are obsolete and now belong—along with alchemy and feudalism—in the ash heap of history. While I think that may be jumping the gun a bit, reading these responses to my work, it seems clear that we have reached a consensus that the status quo is beset by serious, nihilistic tensions. Anyone who thought that the dramatic upsets we are seeing at the moment could have been avoided now looks naïve in retrospect: there is too much wrong with the world. Big changes are needed—and hopefully dialogues like this one will provide some guidance on the route to take.
Responding to These Letters
Letter is a public forum for high quality, one-on-one correspondence on topics of public interest. You can subscribe or respond to any part of this Open Letters by following the prompts on site. If you’d like to read or participate in more discussions of this kind, join McManus’ Critical Theory community on Letter. Alternatively, you can write directly to Matt.