“Proponents of identity politics tended to push for these historically marginalized groups, in all their intersectional complexity, to have a greater say in the cultural and political dynamics of the day.”
Throughout my childhood, the end of the Cold War had led many to believe that sincere ideological conflicts were on their way out. The old isms which had rocked the twentieth century, and which I had been taught to regard with skepticism and even dismissal, seemed to many like relics of an earlier time. Nationalism, fanaticism, ethnocentrism, racism and so on, all appeared to be losing force. This was well captured in texts like Francis Fukuyama’s famous The End of History and the Last Man which argued that one way or another, a relatively tolerant form of liberal democracy and globalizing capitalism was likely the way of the future. With the rise and fall of fascism and communism in the last century, history as a conflict between universal ideologies competing for global dominance had reached its apex.
Of course, Fukuyama’s argument was always more cautious than its reputation. As he points out in his brilliant recent book Identity, Fukuyama was always very aware that thymos—roughly translated from Greek as the spirit’s desire for recognition, and for glory relative to others—remained a prominent feature of human psychology. In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama prophetically warned that the desire of those on the political right for greater recognition and struggle may one day lead to the rebirth of history. But for a long time, it seemed like these were idle concerns. Some argued that the 9/11 attacks and the inauguration of the War on Terror indicated the rebirth of history after a momentary lull. But few actually believed that. We generally felt that United States would eventually elect a new President and cease its violent quest for what Michael Ignatieff once called a liberal “empire lite.” It would settle into its role as a relatively benign hegemon using soft power to push for greater internationalization and inclusion. Russia would continue its path to greater democratization and liberalization. China’s economic prosperity and entry into the digital community would lead to the Communist party gradually reforming. India would take its rightful place as a great power and the world’s largest liberal democracy. The European Union would continue to expand, perhaps even including the Ukraine, Turkey, and in our wildest dreams, even Russia. Proponents like Habermas were especially optimistic about the global ramifications of the latter development, hoping that the European project of promoting international law and the softening of borders would serve as a model for other states. And many of us in Canada felt that our country’s open—if often troubled—embrace of multiculturalism and the withering away of nationalist sentiments would prove an inspiration for countries into the twenty-first century.
Looking back, much of this seems remarkably naïve. One of the primary goals of political analysis must become understanding how such a dramatic shift occurred
The Calcification of History and Leftist Identity Politics
The prevalent belief at the time was that history had, in effect, calcified; dynamic changes were going to give way to more technical problems concerned with managing the economy and mitigating the odd crisis. When fissures appeared, they were quickly dismissed as aberrations, states of exception, economic crises which deviated from the normally smooth operation of the neo-liberal economic order, and so on.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the passive acceptance of the Fukuyama thesis can be seen in the reactions of those on the political left. The left, which one would expect would be critical of the developments listed above, very grudgingly came to accept them. As Slavoj Zizek repeatedly observed, we all became unwitting Fukuyamists. The collapse of the communist regimes was the final nail in the coffin for Marxist grand narratives about a utopian post-capitalist and liberal future to come. Most leftists in the developed world tacitly seemed to accept that the liberal-capitalist order was here to stay. Some, like Habermas and other deliberative democrats, accepted this development and sought to soften its impact by offering defenses of a more robustly democratic welfare state. Some Marxists and post-Marxists like David Harvey and Ernesto Laclau looked to more local and experimental movements, such as anarchist communes and the Mexican Zapatista movements in Chiapas, for inspiration on how to potentially enact small scale regional change.
Meanwhile, others turned to various forms of identity politics and affiliated theoretical positions. Many of these leaned heavily on the post-modern theories and philosophies presented by often thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, and others. These identity politics movements and their related philosophies became so affiliated with the left that, by 2010, the two were almost interchangeable in popular discourse. These movements are complex and multi-faceted. But characteristic to all of them was a reluctant acceptance of the liberal-capitalist status quo. While some of the more radical proponents at least presented themselves as opposed to liberal capitalism, their tactics and ambitions were all predicated on contemporary structures remaining more or less intact. The ambitions of the various identity politics movements was not about institutional or structural transformation. Rather their bywords were “inclusion” and “participation”; for ethnic and religious minorities, women, members of the LGBTQ community, the working class, and so on. Proponents of identity politics tended to push for these historically marginalized groups, in all their intersectional complexity, to have a greater say in the cultural and political dynamics of the day.
Oftentimes, this was given both a constructive and a critical dimension. Proponents would put forward constructive proposals on how to better include marginalized groups, while offering criticisms of the pervasive social forces and actors who remained a barrier to full participation and inclusion. In the stereotyped form presented in right wing discourse, this was seen as primarily arguing for greater power at the expense of straight white men who were economically well off. But even if left-wing proponents of identity politics did want to enhance the power of the marginalized at the expense of straight white men, they put forward few attractive arguments on replacing the system that had been built by these figures. The Fukuyamist optimism—or at least resignation—appeared strong.
The Rebirth of History and the Influence of Post-Modern Culture
Each of these positions, from the more standard liberal internationalist visions to left wing identity politics, operated on a fairly constant set of assumptions. The most obvious is that the political culture and technologies of the twenty-first century would operate in more or less the same manner as those of the twentieth. Even when it was accepted that political culture and technologies were shifting in particular respects, there was little sense of the more general and transformative changes that were taking place. In other words, many of us failed to recognize the transformative impact of what Jameson would call “post-modern culture.” We assumed that the politics affiliated with post-modern culture would simply be continuous with modernism. Post-modern politics would be the continuation of modernist politics by digital means. Following Mark Fisher, we are now recognizing that post-modern politics looks quite different than what preceded it.
Nowhere does the difference between post-modern politics and modernist politics appear starker than when we analyze the question of technology and its impact on political culture. Despite the pioneering efforts of thinkers from Heidegger to Ellul, most analysts within post-modern culture still adopt functionalist understanding of technological media. This functionalist understanding framed how technology was interpreted and deployed by individuals at all ends of the technological spectrum. Liberals, neoliberal conservatives, leftists interested in identity politics, and even some traditionalists all jumped at the chance to deploy new technological media to advance their individual political objectives.
What wasn’t recognized is that the aggregated consequence of these efforts could dramatically change political culture as a whole. The problems were diagnosed early on by prophetic voices such as Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Jean Baudrillard. But their insights were largely ignored by the mass of political activists, who hastened onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other new media confident that it would abet a string of future victories. Their efforts gradually established hermetically sealed digital spaces where individuals operated within partisan and sensationalist communication bubbles, where every word and gesture of a perceived opponent was subject to pedantic scrutiny and deconstruction. All the while the politics presented television and radio were becoming increasingly defined by greater and sharper levels of partisanship and signaling, as competition for ratings, attention, and advertisers generated an increasingly shrill political climate which had more in common with a wrestling match than a polis. This would be an environment in which the truthful hyperbole and scandal driven infotainment of someone like Donald Trump, a reality TV star who literally presided over a wrestling match, could thrive.
At the same time, the impact of post-modern culture ran deeper still, impacting our very sense of identity and belonging. The technological and aesthetic influence of post-modern culture has led to a gradual destabilization of identities at both the individual and the group level. As already mentioned, technological mediums gradually enclosed many in every smaller communication bubbles. But it also dialectically fractured identity into countless new mediums, and exposed individuals to an immense volume of new information and an associated range of existential possibilities. Some reacted to this with a disposition akin to what Baudrillard called the “ecstasy” of communication. But for many others, it generated an ever growing sense of anomie. The world became flatter within digital space, but its two dimensions also extended infinitely in all linear directions. Constant exposure to the complexities of the world, often boiled down to their simplest and disembedded form, resulted in growing anxiety about who people were and where the belonged.
Paradoxically, this drove many to adopt an even closer relation to digital spaces, increasingly integrated into their preferred communication bubbles. At the same time, as Jameson pointed out post-modern aesthetics became increasingly defined through its transformation of previously stable identities into ironic and holistic pastiches. This was best demonstrated in the ascendency of a far vaster “culture industry” than ever before, which gradually came to colonize and permeate all areas of social life. The icons and ideology of the post-modern culture industry presented itself as nominally liberal, and even progressive in its apparent presentation of a broader and representative array of social identities in practice contributed to the conditions for the emergence of reactionary politics. It did so unintentionally through its consistent deconstruction and commodification of previously sacred identities and symbols, enacting a process of desacralization which would have awed and terrified Max Weber. Jesus Christ became a cartoon character in South Park fighting alongside Morpheus from the Matrix and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings. American patriotism became filtered through the rhapsodic explosions of the Transformers films. The commodities presented by the post-modern culture industry presented a pastiche of identities and symbols from earlier eras, desacralized and presented with the brightest CGI effects money could buy.
Conclusion: Post-Modern Leftism and Post-Modern Conservatism
These processes played a role in the development an ironic and cynical body politic. People increasingly recognized the tedious reality that if everything is permitted even blasphemy becomes a hollow gesture. One reaction to this on the left was the establishment of the new set of discursive norms surrounding identity; what later became known as PC culture. In many respects, PC culture is not a sign of progress in and of itself. It is what is left after what some call the “thick” expectations of previously conservative societies have collapsed. And indeed, one can see this in the occasionally puritanical language deployed to negotiate the few norms that should continue to exist around restrictions on sexuality, gender difference, and so on. On the right, there was a very different reaction. Traditionalists looked upon these developments with alarm, with the most canny amongst them recognizing that one could not fight against these trends, only appropriate them.
This became exceptionally important when post-modern conservatives came to power, as the performative enactment of traditional symbols, rituals, and identities became a new form of ideological spectacle and entertainment. In its ugliest variants, especially filtered through social media, this took the form of a competitive struggle for attention and sponsors.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.