While post-modern conservatism is not doomed to failure due to some immanent dialectical process, it is utterly unable to rectify the social and political problems of the day.
In my last piece, I discussed how the late 1980’s and early 1980’s were characterized by a pronounced sense of optimism. Few people heeded Francis Fukuyama’s warning in the conclusion to The End of History; that many of us will long for history and the possibility of thymos-recognition by others for our being and its accomplishments. All of us were enraptured by the sunnier dimensions of the thesis and its seemingly optimistic claim that the great struggles of the past had been overcome. In the first piece, I discussed how post-modern culture contributed to the destabilization of this optimistic outlook, though few of us recognized it.
In this piece, I will go on to analyze the instabilities characteristic of the neoliberal form of governance, which was dominant through much of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I will conclude by analyzing the rebirth of history with the rise of post-modern conservatism in countries across the globe. Post-modern conservatism emerged as a reaction to the trends discussed in both of these pieces. Unfortunately, I do not believe its resentment fueled identity politics is sufficient to over the problems that contributed to its rise. Indeed, in many respects it can only exacerbate them.
The Instabilities of Neoliberal Society
These technological and cultural developments might have remained relatively inert as a matter of politics. Certainly by themselves they would be of interest primarily to cultural theorists and media critics. But post-modern culture emerged as part of a dynamic and mutually determinative process in tandem with neoliberal society. And neoliberal society, which only a decade before had seemed the invincible end state of history itself, was in serious trouble by the mid-2000s. The War on Terror was exceptionally expensive and damaging, and eroded the fragile liberal faith that a new era of peaceful internationalization and tolerance was replacing one of violence and conflict. In addition to the material costs to many Western states, it caused a tremendous amount of moral damage to the conceit that the United States and its allies were invariably on the just side of history. This was exacerbated as we witnessed the first signs that xenophobia and nationalist paranoia were not just relics of a bygone era, but very much alive and waiting for the right cultural conditions in which to flourish.
Then there was the 2008 financial crisis, which was a tipping point for many of the political actors involved. On the left, Occupy Wall Street and other movements directed against the so called 1 per cent emerged, marched, and fizzled out very quickly. But on the right, many new populist movements, including some of those discussed above, realized that their time had come. In the United States, the Tea Party emerged, with its strange combination of beliefs in limited government involvement in the economy, occasional flirtations with racism and xenophobia, nationalism, and so on. This often inconsistent pastiche of value systems was well reflected in its spokesmen, including Donald Trump and his “birtherism,” who often embodied brazen contradictions both within their person and their principles.
While the left wing reactions to the economic crisis faded into history, the Tea Party gradually went through several metamorphoses before emerging as the Make America Great Again Movement. In the United Kingdom there was a similar reaction. Initial anger and discontent at the global recession, and the feeling that elites got rich at the expense of the now unemployed working classes, evolved in several different ways. At points it expressed itself as bursts of anger towards both the capitalist system and both the Labour and Conservative governments who were seen as being its puppets.
This coincided with growing popular support for third parties, including the Liberal Democrats, but also both the United Kingdom Independence Party and the British National Party. This support would grow by the time of the 2015 election, where Nigel Farage and UKIP saw their share of the popular vote grow to 12.6 per cent of the total, up from 3.1 per cent in 2010. In Poland, the story seemed superficially rosier on the surface. Since the fall of Communism, Poland had often been considered a model of liberalization and democratization. The country’s economy was doing well, and it joined the European Union and other affiliated states. What was never acknowledged was that beneath this optimistic picture, tensions were brewing. Economic benefits were very unevenly distributed, with many in the country’s west becoming far wealthier than those in the east. This coincided with changing cultural values, as primarily urban poles in the western parts of the country became increasingly secular, internationalist, and liberal. This worried those in the conservative east of the country, who felt a greater affinity with Russia, and were generally poorer, more nationalistic, more religious, and resentful of the unequal distribution of economic goods to the developed west. In Hungary, more than any of the other countries, one saw many of these tensions exhibited most starkly and with the broadest popular support. The Hungarian Socialist party was seen as badly mismanaging the economic crisis, as well as being corrupt and intensely tied to foreign interests. The broader left fragmented and fizzled out, providing an ample opportunity to Fidesz and leader Viktor Orban to ride to power in the European elections of 2009 and the Hungarian elections of 2010. They campaigned on an aggressive nationalist platform, promising to rid the country of foreign interests and seize back sovereignty.
In each of these countries, one sees how the destabilization and inequalities provoked by neoliberal economic and social policies helped generate tremendous resentment and anger which gradually mutated and grew stronger over time. While the political left never managed to channel the energies unleashed into any substantial programs, the right took ample advantage of them. Here it is important to be careful. Many may be tempted to simply cast blame for the decline of the neoliberal order of global governance at the feet of the 2008 crisis. This is too simple an explanation. On the one hand, the instabilities and inequalities produce by neoliberal governance were also going to generate tensions at the material level. But more importantly, neoliberal apologists never recognized two important and interrelated dynamics of the system they supported.
Firstly, and most importantly, neoliberal apologists failed to recognize that neoliberalism is inherently a revolutionary form of governance. It transforms human societies and profoundly, uprooting cultural norms and traditional geographical spaces in its quests for markets and the creative-destructive process of creating new values and affiliated commodities. Neoliberals, long allied with various types of conservativism, never recognized how tenuous this alliance actually was at the level of ideology. The transformative consequences of neoliberal governance- whether demographic through supporting the free movement of labour, spatial and economic through engendering greater capital mobility, or cultural through the continuous development of new values and affiliated commodities-would inevitably inspire forms of reactionary pushback. And secondly, more insightful neoliberal apologists such as F.A Hayek always assumed that these transformations, and it is important to stress, inequalities in power and wealth, would be indefinitely tolerated by democratic polities so long as everyone’s absolute standard of living continued to improve.
To invoke Fukuyama, there was an almost total indifference to existential problems of identity and related problems of dignity in favour of crudely material concerns about welfare. These problems were highlighted by egalitarian liberals, who consistently observed that the unfairness generated but such rampant inequalities in wealth and power would ultimately serve to destabilize otherwise prosperous societies. These concerns were often swept away by appealing to extreme comparators and hyperbolic instances of those cheating the system; from pointing out that poor Hispanics and blacks living in ghettoized communities still enjoyed a quality of life higher than that of most sub-Saharan Africans, to the Reaganite invocation of welfare queens with their fancy cars and idle lifestyles.
The situation might have carried on indefinitely if neoliberal governance was genuinely able to deliver on its promise to raise all ships by continuously improving quality of life. The 2008 crisis put this optimism to an extreme test. It also demonstrated the extent to which corporations, governments and the affiliated cosmopolitan elites, seemed little concerned with the actual conditions of many working class people. They had taken on the appearance of a managerial class more concerned with overall economic performance than the fact that countless jobs were increasingly being lost with the exportation of many heavy industries to the developing world.
These problems became exacerbated as the consequences moved ever closer to home through the free movement of labour and support for generous immigration policies. This led to the understandable exodus of millions to developed countries where they could at least aspire to a better quality of life for themselves, or at least their children, while establishing a vast pool of readily available labour. This benefited the socially liberal but fiscally conservative urbanites, who were largely uninvolved in the industries appropriated by migrants or by the exportation of heavy industries. They could present themselves as progressive and multicultural, all while benefitting from cheaper labour and products than could be achieved by simply relying on the domestic labour force. They also were unaware of the transformative impact on many rural areas, which were increasingly depopulated and pushed to the political margin by the processes of neoliberal governance.
Post-Modern Conservatism and the Rebirth of History
Under better circumstances, these circumstances summarized here might have led to greater efforts on the part of sincere conservatives to shift the dialogue. Figures like Patrick Deneen, John Paul II, George Grant, and Leo Strauss paid substantial attention to these issues and often offered compelling solutions (albeit not ones I would endorse). But instead, the reaction was to become the mirror image of their liberal and left-wing counterparts, except gutting even the remaining critical impetus that persisted. In the course, many conservatives firmly becoming the apex subjects of the post-modern culture they claimed to despise and the neoliberal capitalist society they resented by were unwilling to abandon. They became post-modern conservatives.
Post-modern conservatism emerged as a reaction to the dynamics of post-modern culture and neo-liberal society. It vulgarized earlier conservative appeals to traditional social identity by affiliating with group identities and values they felt are being disrupted by a vague host of personalized antagonists. The identities the post-modern conservative appeals to are varied. This appeal to identity also inherently includes the nostalgic quality which is highly characteristic of post-modern culture. Invoking Jameson, one can also observe how this nostalgia for a time and identity past is inherently an incomplete and decontextualized reconstruction, thereby ensuring that the identities post-modern conservatives affiliate with assumes a pastiche like quality.
Indeed, many of the affiliated identities overlap or contradict when examined at the level of ideological and historical consistency. It can include a national identity as an authentic Pole or American, a religious identity such as being a member of Christian society, or a civilizational identity, such as being a part of the Western as opposed to the Islamic world.
The antagonists of the post-modern conservative are similarly connoted in a pastiche like way. They can include liberal and left-wing elites, globalists, urbanities,” “cultural Marxists” and so on, and affiliated but less powerful groups such as immigrants, minorities, vulnerable populations, and so on. These antagonists are seen as disrupting a naturalized social hierarchy where the identity and values the post-modern conservative affiliates with were once dominant. The characteristic feature of post-modern conservative politicians, from Donald Trump to Viktor Orban, is to play on these dialectically fungible but ideologically pregnant identities in order to stoke the resentment of the broader populations and seize power. To achieve this, post-modern conservative politicians will often aggressively deploy many of the same technologies and techniques that brought about the ennui of post-modern culture and neo-liberal society in the first place. They will also consistently refrain from analyzing or attacking the inegalitarian features of neoliberal society and capitalism.
Instead, they will insist that the goals of competitive neoliberal society and capitalist theory will be better achieved by playing down the individualistic methodology characteristic to micro-economic analysis (even in all of its abstractions) in favor of one which makes group identities-such as the nation, or the civilization-a more fundamental unit of economic analysis. Resultantly, post-modern conservatives will dismiss arguments for open-borders and the free movement of labor. They will instead promote a competitive economic outlook where individual nation-states are supposed to look after themselves, but where the economic firms and individuals within the nation-state should subordinate their immediate interests to this broader goal. Economics, in other words, should service politics.
The same is true in the post-modern conservative international outlook. It seeks a return of sorts to the classical Westphalian system that was (very) briefly challenged by the possibility of a new international legal order. But this post-modern Westphalianism is interpreted through the lens of identity and a sense of resentment. Like all desires for a return, what post-modern conservatives want is invariably colored by all the developments since the emergence of the international order. As such, it looks rather different than classical Westphalianism, and quite a bit uglier. Westphalianism, down through the Enlightenment, did indeed emphasize sovereignty as a key characteristic. But the emphasis on sovereignty came about to support the end of religious intolerance, and as time went on was given an Enlightenment twist. As formalized by thinkers like Hobbes, the state was to be a vehicle of power politics to advance the concrete interests of individual citizens.
Of course in practice, things were never so rosy. Many states preached liberal Westphalianism on some days, while practicing empire building and xenophobia on others. Post-modern conservatism strips Westphalianism of its liberalism, keeps the emphasis on sovereignty, while incorporating the ethnocentrism characteristic of its actual dynamics but antithetical to its ideological intentions. Post-modern Westphalianism is different in its dialectical tensions with other identities, who are seen as threatening the stability of the post-modern conservative’s own identity. This can include cosmopolitan internationalists at the higher echelons of power and influence, and immigrants and refugees at lower levels. As always, these groups are connoted in a vague manner, sometimes deliberately. But they are always presented as in dialectical opposition to the identity of the post-modern conservative; both an antagonist to be thwarted, and a necessary barrier through which to define one’s own sense of self. Without these antagonists, there would be nothing to post-modern Westphalianism.
Post-modern conservatives are remaking the world order in their image. From the United States to Poland, Hungary to Brazil, their rise and emergence signify the end of the Fukuyamist complacency we were long beholden to. Unfortunately, post-modern conservatism is subject to many inherent limitations and contradictions. This includes the limitations inherent to all politics predicated on resentiment; especially the obvious one that the post-modern conservative’s triumph is inherently self-defeating. In the absence of their projected antagonists, the stability of the post-modern conservative identity as a victimized group evaporates along with the justification for its particular form of politics. This will necessitate that there shall always be new antagonists generated, along with an associated set of anxieties and paranoia.
Moreover, post-modern conservatism in wracked by even more serious tensions. The most obvious include its use of hyper-real media and technologies to enact a return to an earlier time period. Here, the post-modern conservative repeats the mistake of many liberal theorists in approaching technology from a purely instrumental perspective. The post-modern conservative cannot see that their very use of these technologies to further a reactionary political agenda helps to deepen more profound transformations than even the most ardent liberal could desire. Finally, post-modern conservatism has shown itself utterly unwilling to address the inequalities and instabilities generated by neoliberal capitalist policies. As mentioned, it has simply transformed the relationship between markets and state by inverting the normative prioritization of the former over the latter characteristic of neoliberal philosophy and governance. It, therefore, is unable to actually rectify the social instabilities generated by inequality; it can only ameliorate them with yet another inverted promise-that the state can successfully negotiate more successful economic terms for itself and its people. Even if that were true, as David Harvey would observe, this can only export economic problems elsewhere across the globe. And so long as markets operate, the instabilities they provoke in one end of the globe will ultimately ripple across.
None of this is to suggest that post-modern conservatism is doomed to failure due to some immanent dialectical process. But it does suggest that it is utterly unable to rectify the social and political problems of the day.