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What is a “Post-Modern Conservative”?

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“As Harry Frankfurt of On Bullshit indicated, a liar is someone who still has some tangential sense of what the truth is. They are aware of what is true and choose to dishonestly present the opposite. This is not true of Mr. Trump and his acolytes.”

Over the last several months, my co-authors and I have written extensively on the topic of post-modern conservatism (simultaneously rejecting objective truth while promoting right-leaning attitudes) and its emergence as a populist force with political heft. Many of these pieces either discussed the intellectual origins of post-modern conservatism in the historicism and particularism of thinkers like Joseph de Maistre and Robert Bork, the socio-economic and technological preconditions for its emergence, or the paranoia and irrationality underpinning its worldview. These articles each presented a piece of a more complex puzzle about why post-modern conservatism emerges, what it will do, and its political ambitions and practices.

In this article, I am attempting to respond to some justifiable criticism that many of these pieces are excessively abstract. They operate primarily at a general level, discussing broad topics in intellectual history, social theory, and current events across the globe.

Instead of engaging with such grandiose themes here, I will present a short list of characteristics I feel one can use to identify and categorize post-modern conservatism in its most common manifestations. This may help to concretize the main ideas for those who may be sympathetic to my arguments but are nonetheless unsure of how they can be positively applied to help us better interpret and change the world.

Before I begin, I would like to offer two caveats to this position. Firstly, when characterizing post-modern conservatives, I, by no means, intend to imply that the category applies to all those who identify with conservatism or who hold right-wing views. Conservatism is a complex outlook with a deep history and is neither one thing nor the other. Its post-modern variant is just the latest variation to emerge and is by no means the only one. Indeed, some conservative figures are staunchly opposed to the rise and emergence of post-modern conservatism and have pushed against it with a vengeance. This includes many natural law conservatives, right-wing Roman Catholics, a significant number of neoliberals and so on.

Secondly, the list I am presenting is not exhaustive and does not strictly apply in all circumstances. Some of the features I list may apply more rigidly to certain post-modern conservatives and others not at all. But when taken together, they provide a relatively comprehensive overview that should be helpful when distinguishing post-modern conservatives from others. There are five features I think are characteristic:

  • A dismissal of rational standards for interpreting facts and values
  • Appeal to a traditionally powerful identity as a source for truth and a narrative of victimization and resentment demanding its return to the top of the social hierarchy
  • A contradictory and reactionary political ideology
  • Despite being reactionaries, post-modern conservatives deploy hyper-modern media to promulgate their political ideology
  • Once in power, post-modern conservatives actively crack down on other identity groups. Uniquely, this includes those who hold other epistemic and meta-ethical standards in order to preserve the hollow integrity of the victim narrative and its consequent political ideology. This leads to the perpetuation of the post-modern culture which birthed them in the first place. It is also coupled with calls for the effacement of traditional institutional and ideological barriers to the realization of the post-modern conservative political program.

The claim often made about post-modern conservatives—most noticeably President Trump and his acolytes—is that they are prone to lying. While understandable, I think this misrepresents what is distinct about President Trump’s approach to the truth. As Harry Frankfurt of On Bullshit indicated, a liar is someone who still has some tangential sense of what the truth is. They are aware of what is true and choose to dishonestly present the opposite. This is not true of Mr. Trump and his acolytes.

What characterizes a post-modern conservative is indifference to the whole dualism of truth and falsehood as traditionally understood. Many philosophers and politicians have debated for centuries about what is true and false in the world factually and which are the true values we should uphold in our political systems. Post-modern conservatism implicitly rejects even the possibility that there could be such a thing as factual truth or objective values which can be ascertained by any objective means.

Part of this stems from the association post-modern conservatives make between traditional standards and means of assessing the truth of facts and values and “elite” personalities who they regard as antagonistic to their interests. They reject such standards and seek to put in their place those which are conducive to the traditional identity they affiliate with and the victim narrative that forms the core of the post-modern conservative political ideology. This means that anything that deviates from the values of that identity is dismissed as bias.

Post-modern conservatives typically belong to or affiliate with social identities who have traditionally wielded most of the power in Western societies. There are many variations on this, and often the affiliation of identification is multifaceted. Post-modern conservatives may see themselves predominately as members of a Western Civilization under attack by those who are sapping its “confidence.”

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Often, this is given an agonistic dimension, as these internal enemies are making it more challenging to combat external opponents affiliated with a different civilizational enemy—usually Islam. They may see themselves as belonging to the authentic ethnicity and culture of a given state, which is currently being dismantled through multi-culturalism, social fragmentation, and push for inclusion by untraditional groups such as LGBTQ and Trans individuals. Or, in their most insidious variants, such as the white nationalism of alt-right founder Richard Spencer, they may see themselves as belonging to a race currently under threat of demographic marginalization by minority groups who do not look like them.

“What remains a constant feature for the post-modern conservative is that the identity or identities they associate with are now under attack. The agonistic dimension of identity is a defining feature of the post-modern conservative narrative.”

The identity or identities the post-modern conservative affiliates with is usually one which has traditionally been at the top of its relevant social hierarchy, whether that be the “West” and the rest of the world, individuals who profess adherence to European culture contra others, or white people and the other “races.” This persists in spite of the fact that each of these identities is highly vague and open to contention and change. But what remains a constant feature for the post-modern conservative is that the identity or identities they associate with are now under attack. The agonistic dimension of identity is a defining feature of the post-modern conservative narrative. These traditionally powerful groups are now being upended by enemies who seek to supplant them at the top of the social hierarchy.

Often, these enemies take two forms. The first are internal enemies: leftists, elitists, the media and so on who undermine the “confidence” of those belonging to traditionally powerful identities. The second are external enemies. Usually, these are lumped into even broader categories than the first: Islam, globalists, a Jewish conspiracy, “rootless cosmopolitans,” freeloading allies, and of course, Canada. As I will soon indicate in my fifth point, these enemies are usually subject to rhetoric about a future crackdown which can materialize when post-modern conservatives take power.

Some might argue that this characterization seems all over the place, even vague. But as I will indicate, this vagueness and lack of ideological consistency is a definitive, even strategic, feature of post-modern conservatism.

Political scientists and theorists often consider contradiction to be a fundamental weakness. This is because they are assessing a given ideology and believe that its logical coherence is connected to its concrete plausibility as a doctrine. But this emphasis on coherence misunderstands that contradiction can be an exceptionally powerful feature of a given ideology. The demand for coherence means that a political ideology can be invalidated and even refuted. When that ceases to be a concern, one is effectively enabled to believe whatever one wishes. It is hard to think of a more attractive selling point to individuals who feel their identity is under attack.

The ideology of the post-modern conservative is a mess. As indicated, the post-modern dismissal of traditional standards for interpreting facts and values means that often its spokesmen make specious and untrue claims about facts. But even the narratives underpinning post-modern conservatism are unusual. On the one hand, the traditionally powerful identities with which they affiliate are strong enough to warrant their place on top of the social hierarchy. On the other, their strength is not sufficient to prevent the onslaught of terrifying and omnipresent enemies who are apparently now the “establishment,” or the “ruling class,” from upending them and becoming the dominant group in society.

“Post-modern conservatives claim to hate identity politics and the victimization they associate with it, but continuously demand change by claiming victim status for their aggrieved identity.”

These enemies, both internal and external, are simultaneously regarded as omnipresent and exceptionally strong, while also being weak, effeminate, and “losers.” In the words of Umberto Eco, they are both too strong and too weak. They are the Hollywood starlet and her allies, the Latin American refugees, and children all at once. Post-modern conservatives claim to hate identity politics and the victimization they associate with it, but continuously demand change by claiming victim status for their aggrieved identity.

This ideological inconsistency also applies to the materials used to justify the positions of post-modern conservatism. Sometimes, they appeal to the alleged findings of the natural sciences to justify hierarchy and claim to be simply “rational” about social issues. Sometimes, they make sentimental appeals to tradition and its values. And sometimes, in a twist of Nietzschian irony, post-modern conservative atheists call for the retention of “cultural Christianity”—Christendom without Christ, one might say.

These contradictions explain the extraordinary appeal of post-modern conservatism to its supporters. With demands for coherence out of the way, they can embrace all things and none. They are—at the same time—the strongest people in the world and the victims of a tremendously powerful conspiracy to overthrow them. Their enemies are simultaneously elites who don’t understand the average person and losers and “libtards” who can’t rise to the top of the social hierarchy. They despise post-modernism, but can embrace all the characteristics associated with the culture. It also enables them to be selective about which standards for knowledge and values they will respect one way or another. As I already indicated, the concern is not to move closer to the truth, whatever that is. It is to support the narrative the identity is oriented around. This is vastly enabled by the hyper-real mediums which are the breeding grounds of post-modern conservatism.

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One of the most unusual and unreflective aspects of post-modern conservatism has been its wholehearted embrace of new technological mediums to promulgate its worldview. This seems to have been done under the expectation that mediums are simply tools that convey the same message, regardless of their specific dimensions. But this is highly idealistic. Technological mediums are not simply neutral, especially when it comes to communication. As the prophet of the post-modern epoch, Marshall McLuhan, put it: “The medium is the message.” When we communicate through television, radio, and tweets on the Internet, this fundamentally changes the content we espouse and how it is received.

These transformations were also well noted in Neil Postman’s prophetic work Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argued that with the advent of television, modern people were gradually losing their ability to think through complex information the way they had when inhabiting a highly literate print civilization. This is because new mediums, such as television, were inclined to present complex issues by encapsulating it in a five-minute soundbite. The immense competition for attention and views also meant that the entertainment value of the information had to be upped, increasing the temptation to give it a hyperbolic and partisan spin.

Post-modern conservatism is right at home with such social transformations. This is in spite of the fundamental paradox that employing hyper-modern mediums to defend conservatism will transform society in a way that is incompatible with conservative principles. The attraction is too strong since the agonistic vision of post-modern conservatism fits in nicely on the internet, where nuance is rare, attention short, and the demand for entertainment and spectacle unprecedented.

This inclines even traditional conservative commentators to frame their presentations for a digital audience, giving it a distinctly post-modern twist. Complex matters get boiled down into “Peterson OWNS Feminist” and “Laughing at Stupid Things Liberals Say.” This reinforces a dualistic vision of the world, amplifying partisanship, the sense of victimization, and the lust to vent social aggression to warrant attention and praise. These new mediums also increasingly operate as communication bubbles, enabling like-minded individuals to come together and increasingly isolate themselves from contact with other worldviews. Faced with a constant bombardment of post-modern conservative rhetoric and encouraged by the community, this brings me to my fifth point.

Post-modern conservatism originated in many humble places, though many of its novelties have their origin in hyper-real mediums. However, it has since seized power in countries such as the United States, Hungary, and the United Kingdom via the Brexit movement and has begun instituting an agenda that enables us to assess what its politics will look like in real time.

Post-modern conservatives’ ideology tends to be a mishmash of contradictions, which makes it difficult to predict, but in practice, there tends to be some consistency. Post-modern conservatives reject institutions and norms affiliated with globalization, desire greater state control of the economy, and seek to limit the intrusion of external “enemies” who will threaten the dominant identity they seek to restore to its rightful place. This necessitates cracking down on immigration, especially on groups arbitrarily regarded as deviating from the identities they affiliate.

But post-modern conservatism has a more insidious and novel characteristic as well. This flows from its dissolving the distinction between truth and falsity at an ideological level. In practice, this can mean attacking and undermining the credibility of institutions which could counter the narrative of the administration and the identity politics it advocates. This can mean spreading doubt and engendering irrational skepticism about well verified and substantiated facts and norms. It can mean defunding or marginalizing alternative sources of knowledge which rely on the traditional standards. And in some extreme cases, it can mean outright banning the expression of alternative narratives, as Victor Orban has done. This last possibility is the most worrying, as it would mean post-modern conservatism is firmly linking itself with the right-wing authoritarianism of the past.

Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. He is in the process of formalizing a deal for a second book, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca.

This article is dedicated by the author to the memory of Connor O’Callaghan: “Rest in Peace Connor O’Callaghan. I don’t know what I will do without your insights. Love and friendship always.”