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The Age of Anxiety and the Rise of the “Postmodern Conservative”

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“While we should note the absurdity of simultaneously blaming global elites and destitute refugees for the collapse of tradition and order, we also recognize that this confluence is the transference of a real but unsignified fear.”

For many conservatives, postmodernism remains a boogeyman beyond all others. Very few conservatives have commented on the irony that many on the right support a President whose administration coined the phrase “alternative facts,” has displayed a marked enthusiasm for lying, and has consistently attacked government agencies, social institutions, and critics concerned with knowledge production. Over continents, right-wing populists quote from a similar script, adding volume to a swelling tide which motivated Oxford Dictionaries to christen “post-truth” the word of the year in 2016 and an independent panel of German linguists to dub “alternative Fakten” Germany’s “un-word” of 2017.

More fantastically still, many conservatives seem unperturbed that in their spirited defense against the alleged evils of identity politics and cultural relativism, many on the right in the United States and abroad—from Marine Le-Pen’s National Front to Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary to the surge of the anti-muslim/immigrant Lega Nord in Italy’s 2018 election—have embraced an exclusionary identity politics, whose primary concern is the restoration of their in-group’s privilege.

In place of an appeal to common values, compromise for public welfare, and rational civil discourse, we find nationalist xenophobia, conspiracy peddling, and reactionary invective against any who criticize these zero-sum attitudes. With this uncompromising appeal to narrative over argument and to group identity, we are witness to the emergence of a postmodern conservatism.

The emergence of postmodern conservatism is an impetuous response to tangible, long-term, global trends. These offer some explanation as to its common swell, which spans from Eastern Europe to the United States. This is because postmodernism is not first and foremost an intellectual movement, though its inner dynamics were first consciously or unconsciously understood and expressed by intellectuals and artists. Postmodernism is a historically situated hermeneutic perspective which maintains that objective or universalist considerations, particularly meta-ethical standards for making moral judgments, are not all they are cracked up to be, and thus should be cracked up or at least subject to critique.

What replaces these “objective” standards is nuanced and localized. For proponents of postmodernism, the collapse of epistemic, aesthetic, and moral standards opens new horizons for human creativity and the reevaluation of architectonic concepts such as the self, history, and power; where universal knowledge and prescriptive judgment held sway, there has been a turn to more individuated and localized narratives.

Novel possibilities are indeed latent within postmodern culture, and many artists and intellectuals have been party to creative endeavors which inevitably involve some active deconstruction. However, postmodern culture can also produce authoritarian effects. With the effacement of those standards that Nietzsche called the “tables of values,” many turn to subjective identity as a source of stability and normative authority in what feels like an increasingly unmoored reality.

The growing cultural emphasis on identity may appear to contrast the expectations of many postmodern theorists, who sought first and foremost to problematize the very idea of identity itself. But identity, like the nation-state in relation to globalization, has proven rather more intractable than many anticipated. Anxiety is a byproduct of social and economic mobility, as the dissolution of established strictures makes one responsible for their destiny.

The first great philosopher of postmodernism, Friedrich Nietzsche, called for the individual, creative reevaluation of all values, and he was aware of the responsibility this would entail. In response, those too weak to shoulder the burden would succumb to a form of nihilism, rather than realize its emancipatory possibilities. These individuals would become vapid and passive “last men,” content to idly pass time by consuming, rather than creating. These individuals would be largely indifferent to the world, isolated, concerned with “health” and their private satisfaction. They would will no great projects and exist as willing nihilists passively absorbing entertainment and spectacle and contentedly belonging to groups without risk.

Today, we are witness to the reaction against a culture of “last men” by post-modern conservatives. The notion of identity is being rejuvenated by postmodernists on the right and left who see it as a political category by which they can stave off the nihilism of neoliberal culture. As we shall argue, reactionary authoritarianism aims to halt the erosion of the nation-state by advocating an exclusionary form of identity politics. Postmodern conservatives embody this impetuousness, regarding neo-liberal society as decadent and wracked with interests inimical to their own.

“Postmodern conservatives appeal to traditional narratives of identity and values as a rallying point for resistance against those who threaten the interests of their tribe.”

In keeping with the characteristics of postmodernism, they are indifferent to “objective” epistemic or meta-ethical standards for assessing behavior and instead revert to reactionary narratives railing against corrupt elites and ill-intentioned immigrants who, together, are conspiring to take over the world that once belonged to us. Thus, according to this narrative, liberal elites promulgate rather than develop a novel table of values, which includes epistemic, aesthetic, and meta-ethical standards, to supplant that of the “liberal elite” (which include professional politicians, the academic class, and the press) and buttress their “alternative facts.” Postmodern conservatives appeal to traditional narratives of identity and values as a rallying point for resistance against those who threaten the interests of their tribe.

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The classical conservative Edmund Burke identified, “a most absurd and audacious method of reasoning avowed by some bigots and enthusiasts [who]… argue against a fair discussion of popular prejudices, because, say they, though they would be found without any reasonable support, yet the discovery might be productive of the most dangerous consequences. Absurd and blasphemous notion!” Meanwhile, the Trump-era conservative media intentionally seeks to “overwhelm your critical sensibilities. It’s to make you doubt the existence of a knowable truth. The conservative media is a giant fog machine designed to confuse and disorient people,” according to conservative political commentator Charlie Sykes. The postmodern conservative narrative does not seek to differentiate fact from fiction; rather, it distinguishes us from them.

This narrative differentiation of in-group from out-group generates patterns of behavior and communication signals, such that one’s fellow ideologues can be immediately recognized. Tribal signaling predates even tribes, and figures of every political stripe adopt them. Some are explicit, like the salute, the armband, the baseball cap, and some less so, like the accent, the name-drop, the euphemism. Now, of course, the signaling itself is nothing new; however, there is one novel technology that has transformed this practice, one for which postmodern conservatives have developed an undeniable proclivity: social media.

Social media, in most every structural sense, appears to be like the realization of a cyberpunk’s Utopia: free communication available indiscriminately across class, national, and now even linguistic boundaries. In 1996, John Perry Barlow declared that, “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” But now, social media has very much enabled the hyper-polarization of politics, lack of critical engagement, and the emergence of nigh-impenetrable echo chambers. Within these communication circuits, postmodern conservatism has found a safe space for its narrative.

Norm-deviant communication circuits emerge from and are enabled by the feeds of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Interacting with some content by viewing, liking, and commenting is rewarded with associated content. Over time, this reinforces a user’s preferences in the form of a personalized ranking algorithm causes the congealment of a tribe’s signaling vocabulary.

Postmodern conservative signals are strangely consistent even across continents. Their terms include: liberals, borders and immigrants, the liberal agenda, the fake or mainstream media, globalists, patriots, elites, the deep state, feminism, and an obsession with “opposing” politicians and celebrities and their nefarious activities (proven, unproven, fabricated—it makes no difference). George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and EU leaders are particularly vilified from Hungary to the United States.

Refreshing the feed carries us deep into the battlefields of hyperreal antagonism, where the heroes of one’s tribe “own” or “destroy” those of the others’. For many, these exchanges come to represent an existential defense of their culture’s future, and nationalist undertones are always present. In a narrative that can only be described as paranoid, postmodern conservatives exploit a haunting anxiety of invasion or domination. They name and signify enemies, projecting and attaching that anxiety over an absent or ambiguous otherness onto coherent groups—the elite caste, the mainstream media, radicals, and, perhaps most, unfortunately, immigrants, all of which form a unified conspiracy to liquidate “us.”

One’s allegiance to the tribe is further determined by a function to present in all feed-based social media: the like button. As contributes to the ranking of content, user decisions must be binary (social media within which a user may react positively or not at all) or ternary (social media within which a user may react positively, negatively, or not at all). There is, therefore, a very simple script if one is to be a good tribe member: like/favorite/upvote what the tribe favors, dislike/downvote/ignore what the tribe does not favor, and you can only act as you will regarding issues where the tribe has no stance. A metric of veracity or truth never enters the process. All that is required is to respond to tribal signaling in accordance with the tribe’s table of values.

This tribalism peaks with the postmodern conservative rallying cry about the need to defend Western civilization itself. This is exemplified in a speech by Donald Trump—the postmodern conservative in chief—given in Warsaw in July 2017. Trump warned of the myriad internal dangers facing “Western Civilization” including those who “sap its confidence” and called for a return to “culture, faith, and tradition.”

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For others, the identity appealed to corresponds to race and ethnicity, and the need to establish racial ethno-states for protection against the corruption of the other. During the Charlottesville protests, for example, hundreds of white nationalists railed against the Jews, Muslims, and blacks who sought to “replace” them. A similar logic underpins Viktor Orban’s January 2018 comments about Muslim “invaders” who seek to create “parallel societies” alongside the traditionally dominant in-group, arguing that they cannot co-exist.

Zero-sum, exclusionary rhetoric persists despite the complete lack of evidence that Western Civilization, still dominant across the globe, faces any threat; yet the resonance with this simplistic us-versus-them narrative exceeds any desire for empirical veracity, for the authoritarian may simply dismiss appeals to standards which do not serve the localized narrative they deploy.

With the repetition of tribal signals, a rhetorically constructed enemy emerges: a bizarre out-group alliance of refugees, the global elite, opposing political parties and cosmopolitan celebrities, the purpose of which is to infiltrate, steal from, disenfranchise, or terrorize the in-group.

The coherence of the postmodern conservative worldview depends on the continued threat of invasion from within and domination from without. With the repetition of tribal signals, a rhetorically constructed enemy emerges: a bizarre out-group alliance of refugees, the global elite, opposing political parties and cosmopolitan celebrities, the purpose of which is to infiltrate, steal from, disenfranchise, or terrorize the in-group.

While we should note the absurdity of simultaneously blaming global elites and destitute refugees for the collapse of tradition and order, we also recognize that this confluence is the transference of a real but unsignified fear. As strange as it may seem, the narrative of our common past in peril remains stable if Syrian families are the tools by which powerful cabal plans to undermine our society. Our narrative remains stable if Mexican immigrants are a means for the Democratic Party to take and seize power permanently, while the importance of the conservative, European men who founded our countries is diminished. Postmodern conservatives project the cracks of their worldview’s internal conflict—the identity-forming beliefs that are proving to be inconsistent with the real world—onto an outward conflict. In this externalized conflict, postmodern conservatives are heroically fighting a war on all fronts.

Postmodern conservatives are enjoying an effective surge across the globe. With the simple promise to defending the status quo which benefits a dominant in-group that has gained political power at the expense of marginalized peoples and movements and to continue attempts to seize state power across North America and Europe. The desire for state power among postmodern conservatives is derived from two aims. Firstly, despite its erosion under the pressures of globalization, the state and its institutional apparatus remains the most readily available tool for a given localized identity to manifest its power and reestablish its domestic sovereignty. Giorgio Agamben noted this in his seminal work on the state of exception, and the means by which sovereignty is determined by the capacity to exclude individuals.

Secondly, controlling the state apparatuses has an ideological significance because its boundaries are often regarded as co-extensive with the legitimate geographic entitlements of the identities postmodern conservatives deem to be under threat. Once they seize control, postmodern conservatives deepen the effects of postmodern culture and efface any epistemic, aesthetic, and meta-ethical standards by which their opponents could resist—in particular, by discrediting the press.

As postmodern conservatives throw their lot in with state-centered politics as a position from which to re-entrench traditionally dominant identity groups, they also deepen the influence of postmodernism on what Marxist theorist Louis Althusser calls the State Apparatus, which spreads and maintains hegemonic ideology and power from above. In other words, postmodern conservatism is threatening to institutionalize and systematize exactly what they perceive to be the rotten fruits of postmodern thought.

Nevertheless, postmodern conservatives have come to rely on state power as a buttress against both the immigrant threat from without, and the neoliberal enemy growing from within, but in doing so they ironically extend the same neoliberal postmodernism they are ostensibly combatting. By electing President Trump, conservatism marches postmodernism in through the back door.

Dylan DeJong and Erik Tate are both graduate students at York University.