“Neoliberal economic policies have deepened the anxiety of many rural conservatives, who felt they were gradually being ‘replaced’ or outdated by an economic system which no longer prioritized the resource, industrial, and agricultural sectors.”
“The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche…Yet in the dialectical leap from quantity to quality, the explosion of Culture 17 modern literature into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms has been followed by a linguistic fragmentation of social life itself to the point where the norm itself is eclipsed: reduced to a neutral and reified media speech (far enough from the Utopian aspirations of the inventors of Esperanto or Basic English), which itself then becomes but one more idiolect among many. Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes. And that the stupendous proliferation of social codes today into professional and disciplinary jargons (but also into the badges of affirmation of ethnic, gender, race, religious, and class-factional adhesion) is also a political phenomenon…”
Fredric Jameson, The Postmodern Condition
This article is intended as something of a sequel to my earlier pieces on post-modernism in general. In the first, I discussed the characteristics of post-modern philosophy, particularly as articulated in the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In the second article, I discussed how many authors interpret post-modernism as an epoch or culture in the history of developed and rapidly developing states. In these two pieces, I made it clear that I thought it was more beneficial and interesting to understand post-modernism along the cultural and epochal lines discussed in the second article. But I did not provide an extensive discussion of my own opinions on the topic, largely because I wanted to let the authors speak for themselves to the extent possible.
In this brief article, I will sketch out my own approach to explaining the relationship between neoliberal society and post-modern culture. This will be important for understanding why we have seen a specifically post-modern form of identity politics emerge Neoliberal society and what Fredric Jameson call post-modern culture generate the material and ideological conditions for the emergence of identity politics. For many years we have witnessed the political ramifications of these developments on the left and on the liberal center, the emergence of the so-called New Left of identity politics and its various critics. Now we are witnessing the emergence of a specifically post-modern form of conservatism that is currently ascendant across the globe.
To summarize very briefly, I argue that neoliberal society is characterized by rapid social, economic, and technological transformations. These transformations have had the effect of generating economic prosperity and opportunities mainly for the very well off. Concurrently, the transformations in neoliberal society have eroded traditional values, brought about demographic change, shifted the labor market, and changed the way we transmit, interpret and communicate information concerning socio-political issues. In addition, following Fredric Jameson, I argue that in neoliberal society a specifically post-modern culture emerged. This post-modern culture further undermined traditional values and communal and individual conceptions of identity, leading to a greater determination to restore order to our sense of self and our value system. This leads to the emergence of post-modern politics in neoliberal societies, first on the left, and now, as we are seeing, on the right via the rise of post-modern conservatism.
Neoliberal Society and its Discontents
“Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Most conservatives in the United States have long promoted a combination of traditional morality and support for markets, while ignoring that the latter has a desultory impact on the former. This becomes exceptionally clear within neoliberal society, which embodies the rapid transformation of all “fixed, fast-frozen relations with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions” more than any other society in recent history. In his A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey characterizes neoliberalism as the colonization of different aspects of social life by a market ethos. While this is an excellent and very informative summation, I believe it remains too tied to a specifically Marxist analytic. To understand neoliberalism, I think we need to grasp it along more process-oriented lines. It is the sometimes unintended transformations it brings about, rather than the determinative ethos behind it, that is crucial to understanding neoliberal society. Grasping these unintended transformations are crucial to understanding how neoliberalism brought about a specifically post-modern politics which now works to undermine the neoliberal world order and style of governance. I believe that neoliberalism has wrought an interrelated set of social, economic, and technological transformations. I will discuss each of these in turn.
Firstly, neoliberal society has brought about the formation of a distinct set informal but stringent social hierarchies. These hierarchies are characterized by particular patterns in the allocation of resources, social honors, and political opportunities. Following Rawls, I argue that the allocation of these is often arbitrary from a moral point of view, which can lead to increasing tensions from liberal polities trained to see themselves as members of a meritocratic society where anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough and demonstrate moral character. Many reflective neoliberals were aware that this meritocratic social ideology was a falsehood. But the argument of neoliberal apologists, like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, were that these hierarchies were none the less justifiable and would remain stable so long as a booming economy brought about elevated standards of living and greater opportunities for people. I agree with conservative critic Patrick Deneen on these points. In Why Liberalism Failed Deneen argues that these apologists overestimated the extent to which neoliberal economics could fulfill this promise, while underestimating the extent to which individuals value civic participation and equality.
Secondly, neoliberal societies did indeed economically prosper and brought about higher standards of living, though mainly for the best off in society. Moreover, they often did so at the expense of traditional ways of life, with markets generating a process of “creative destruction” wherein old social values about sexuality, community, and faith were undermined or commodified. Following Harvey in Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, I also argue that this had a temporal and geographic dimension.“Space was eliminated by time,” as globalization deepened its impact, bringing foreign commodities and services into domestic markets with unparalleled rapidity.
Neoliberal economic policies also brought about changing labor patterns and demographic shifts, as many industrial jobs moved to different parts of the globe. All the while, immigrants entered the country to participate in low-income jobs. Simultaneously, urbanizing trends continued, with both natives and immigrants largely moving to cities with populations that were economically neoliberal but socially progressive.
This deepened the anxiety of many rural conservatives, who felt they were gradually being “replaced” or outdated by an economic system which no longer prioritized the resource, industrial, and agricultural sectors. Finally, the inherent instability of the neoliberal economic system was given dramatic expression with the 2008 economic crisis. The contradictions of neoliberal economic policy-particularly its concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, limiting the ability of consumers to buy the products produced by firms (especially in the housing market)—we demonstrated for all to see. This was followed by declining opportunities and standards of living for many, bucking the promises of neoliberal apologists that a rising tide will raise all ships.
Thirdly, technological transformations brought about new communication and media outlets that changed the way we receive, disseminate, and communicate information. Here I mainly follow Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard, and especially Neil Postman of Amusing Ourselves to Death fame. Many political outlets in these new media were forced to compete against a growing swathe of new figures. These technological trends encouraged political outlets to simplify—or to use Marcuse’s terminology “flatten”—information through propagating infotainment at the expense of reflective and deep analysis. Simultaneously they tended to ramp up the partisan rhetoric, gradually marginalizing more moderate actors. Concurrently, these increasingly partisan politicos entered into various echo chambers where they were encouraged to see themselves as belonging to an identity—and holding values, which were under attack by social forces and actors. These technological transformations, more than anything else, contributed to the formation of our increasingly partisan culture.
But neoliberal transformations were not the only significant factor at play here. It is especially important to recognize the influence of post-modern culture. I will discuss this in the next section.
Post-Modern Culture and Politics
“Truth is Not Truth”
Rudy Giuliani, 2018
These developments occurred in tandem with the emergence of what Fredric Jameson calls post-modern culture in neoliberal societies. Post-modern culture is characterized by many features. One of the most prominent is its destabilization of our sense of identity and an affiliated set values. Aesthetic and entertainment industries produced cultural commodities, which emphasized that traditionally stable and hegemonic identities were actually unstable and outdated in the current world. These cultural commodities also became characterized by the presentation and valorization of new and unfamiliar identities and value.
The political results of this were many and varied. One development was the emergence of the New Left, which pushed an identity politics oriented around further undermining the hegemony of traditionally powerful identities through the creation of a more participatory political system. Those on the New Left reacted to the impact of post-modern culture by seeking to transform the social identity of the majority through including voices that had long been denied significant opportunities to transform the broader society and culture. In the liberal center, the reaction to post-modern culture was quite varied. Many progressive liberals such as Will Kymlicka and Richard Rorty reacted to the emergence of post-modern culture by developing ways to mesh identity politics into the fabric of multiculturalist schemes. By contrast, classical liberals tended to be far more critical, emphasizing the need to preserve ideologically liberalism’s emphasis on the rational and universal individual.
Finally, we have recently seen the impact of post-modern culture on the right, with the emergence of post-modern conservatives. Post-modern conservatism is characterized by its own identity politics, emphasizing the need to retrench traditionally powerful identities and their affiliated values at the top of the social and political pecking order. But the identities and values post-modern conservatives appeal to are often rather strange. Following Jameson, I argue that post-modern conservatives often describe the identities and values they identify with in pastiche-like form.
Post-modern conservatism is characterized by emphasizing an identity or set of identities and affiliated values as the locus of meta-ethical and epistemic validity. This also means post-modern conservatives tend to dismiss other sources of validity, such as rationality or empiricism, since these can destabilize the identity and undermine the affiliated values. The identities and values post-modern conservatives affiliate with are varied and often contradictory. But what unites these different groups of post-modern conservatives is their sense that this identity was once rightfully hegemonic and has since been replaced by other, illegitimate identities and values. The point of post-modern conservative politics has been to retrench the authority and hegemony of these identities and their values.
In practice, this means that post-modern conservatives have mobilized identity to push for a retrenchment of tradition and its affiliated moral values, against the demands of both liberals who believe in objective truth and the New Left who desires a more pluralistic society. The irony here is, of course, that postmodern conservatives have developed their own form of identity politics. Postmodern conservatives such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and “illiberal” democrats such as Victor Orban of Hungary, have directed the outrage produced by social fragmentation against vulnerable identities who allegedly don’t belong. Against the power of globalizing capitalist trends, they have demanded a return to a kind of state-oriented corporatism in which national capital is insulated from global competition by putting restrictions on competition, foreign goods, and the “free” movement of labor through immigration.
This, combined with repressive domestic policies clamping down on progressive groups and “alien” identities is meant to abet social fragmentation and help postmodern conservatives feel great again. They also combine this with a rejection of other sources of epistemic and ethical authority, dismissing them as “fake” or actively clamping down on them when they achieve sufficient political authority. The result of all these tendencies has been the emergence of the very ugly and relativistic politics we are only beginning to firmly grasp now.
Matt McManus recently completed his Ph.D. in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.