“Strangely enough, for all its notoriety, the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ has few of the characteristics of a unified movement oriented around concrete goals.”
Post-modern leftism has enjoyed waves of popularity and discontent since it was formalized in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in the work of Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and others. Perhaps the first wave of criticism emerged in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in the writings of figures such as Allan Bloom, Camille Paglia (when she could actually avoid ad hominem attacks on Foucault’s sexuality etc) and so on. This attack on leftist post-modernism has since been regarded as part and parcel of the so called “culture wars,” which characterized the Reagan period, a time when conservative thinkers used their political clout to attempt and ameliorate some of the gains made by liberals during the 1960’s and 70’s.
While the antipathy towards post-modernism never entirely disappeared, it was largely superseded in the following two decades by debates about the “end of history,” the role of American power in the world, and the furious anger generated by the September 11th attacks and the subsequent War on Terror. The great ideological conflict was between different visions of what a modern internationalist project should be. Liberals argued for the expansion of human rights to all and often pushed for greater commitments to foreign aid and economic and social rights. Neoliberals also professed adherence to human rights but were keen to restrict them to those necessary to ensure optimal market conditions. And finally, neoconservatives were both more skeptical of an internationally-driven human rights project and far more willing to deploy American and Western power to advance national objectives. The extent to which they did support rights was usually tied to some sense that promoting human rights would ultimately work to the benefit of Western states.
Then with the 2008 financial crisis and the gradual pushback against neoliberalism and internationalism gaining steam, something strange happened. New criticisms of post-modernism emerged. We are currently living in the midst of perhaps the most pronounced pushback against post-modernism since its inception. Figures on the political right, such as Jordan Peterson (whom I have discussed elsewhere), Stephen Hicks, Christina Hoff Sommers and others, have enjoyed skyrocketing popularity for criticizing so called “post-modern neo-Marxism” and its various offshoots. Perhaps unexpectedly, they have been joined by a growing chorus of figures on the far-left, who also regard post-modernism as a dangerous and unwelcome feature of the modern era. This includes critics such as Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Seyla Benhabib. These voices join an older chorus of left wing—mostly Marxist—critics who long damned post-modernism as little more than the so called “cultural logic” of late capitalism. I have already discussed the strengths and weaknesses of their various critiques at some length elsewhere. In this piece, I would like to explore a somewhat different issue. Why is it that new attacks on post-modern leftism emerged in this time period? And is there any common denominator to the various critiques leveled by figures on the left and figures on the right? This can help us develop a better understanding of not just post-modernism and its critics, but the epoch in which we live.
The Intellectual Dark Web
The so-called “Intellectual Dark Web“—as profiled in publications such as The New York Times—consists of a series of writers, scholars, and public figures whose public profiles have risen rapidly in recent years. Some of these figures—notably Sam Harris—were popular beforehand but have enjoyed a second wind to their public careers after earlier movements to which they belonged—for instance the new atheist “heretics” of the mid-2000’s in Harris’ case. Others were largely unknown to the general public but enjoyed flourishing careers in other fields. Jordan Peterson remains a tenured professor at the University of Toronto. Christina Sommers is a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, and Ben Shapiro practiced law with Goodwin Procter before setting up an independent legal consultancy. Finally, others, such as Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin, were moderately successful but relatively unknown entertainers and commentators before the current wave of outrage against post-modern leftism shot them to higher spheres of popularity.
Strangely enough, for all its notoriety, the “Intellectual Dark Web” has few of the characteristics of a unified movement oriented around concrete goals. Some members, such as Jordan Peterson, tend to be more traditionalist and religious in their outlooks. Others, such as Sam Harris, are passionate futurists and have little good to say about traditionalism. Writers such as Ben Shapiro, or commentators like Rogan and Rubin, have endorsed a number of different positions on various issues but have devoted little time to developing and present a coherent framework unifying these stances into a concrete political ideology. While many of the figures in the “Intellectual Dark Web” are nominally associated with certain strands of conservatism—Jordan Peterson supports “ordered liberty,” Somers is a libertarian, Shapiro an anti-Trump Republican—others like Harris are not.
Generally, the only unifying characteristic of the “Intellectual Dark Web” is a critical disposition towards post-modern leftism. Indeed, as mentioned, many of these figures made their name critiquing various alleged issues with the post-modern left: whether this be the excesses of the student activist community, a “PC culture” regarded as increasingly all-pervasive, or attacks on liberal values such as the protection of freedom of speech. These critiques vary in their quality and depth, though, in my mind, even the best are characterized by substantial mistakes and inaccuracies. Most of the aforementioned figures tend to limit themselves to interpreting post-modernism and its various instantiations as a comparatively simple phenomena brought about by the influence of leftist academics and their various proponents. Others, such as Jordan Peterson, do go a bit deeper, as I have explored elsewhere. They tend to understand post-modern leftism as emerging as a reaction to a broader crisis of meaning. This is due to the collapse of traditionalist and religious meta-narratives which, true or not, provided many with a sense of meaning in their lives. As the influence of these traditional and religious meta-narratives falter, many turn to post-modern nihilism as a cynical substitute for genuine commitments which might provide a greater sense of meaning.
The Leftist Critique of Post-Modernism
Seen through a mirror darkly, the leftist critics of post-modernity share many superficial commonalities with the “Intellectual Dark Web.” Figures such as Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou have long been critical of post-modernism for its defeatism, nihilistic lack of political commitments, and inability to develop plausible solutions to the problems of the era. Zizek, especially, has long been a scathing critic of PC culture, even going as far as to associate it with a kind of totalitarian ethos. Other writers, such as the late Mark Fisher, author of the modern classic Capitalist Realism, would certainly share the opinion of Peterson that post-modernity is characterized by a lack of meaning and the growth of cynicism. So far, it would seem they would have little contention with the claims of the “Intellectual Dark Web.”
But the diagnoses provided by these figures tend to be very different from their right-wing counterparts. Zizek, Badiou, and others observe that it is impossible to diagnose the emergence of post-modern “leftism” without accounting for the dynamics of neoliberal capitalist societies. They observe that there is a kernel of truth in the arguments of the “Intellectual Dark Web.” But this is generally overshadowed by their unwillingness to truly look into the deeper roots of the problem. While figures like Peterson or Shapiro are keen to condemn post-modern leftism, they remain unwilling to analyze how institutions and processes they might admire contributed to its emergence. Perhaps the most glaring examples are their unwillingness to engage in a sustained analysis of neoliberal capitalism—or to analyze substantially the fragmenting impact of the digital mediums, which they use to great profit. Both of these are substantial mistakes. For instance, Mark Fisher cannily observes that the insistence of conservative critics that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism undoubtedly played a role in generating a sense of meaninglessness.
Faced with the idea that history was at an end and there were few meaningful—let alone heroic—projects they could engage in, is it any wonder that many cynically turned their back on traditionalist conceptions of responsibility and virtue? Is it any wonder that some might turn to identity politics as the last true political struggle, one for the incorporation of all peoples in the now unassailable neoliberal project? And to the second example, figures like Jean Baudrillard and Zizek have long observed how the Internet and new media play a foundational role in breaking down value systems and generating new forms of alienation and, concurrently, new forms of tribalism and radicalism. As we increasingly live largely symbolic existences on the Internet, withdrawn from the more concrete connections of the past, is it any wonder that radicals on the left might turn to identity as a solidaristic mechanism to provide meaning and a sense of belonging?
The point of these left-wing critiques of post-modernism is that we cannot look at it in isolation—or locate its source in the actions of a few radical academics and activists. Post-modernism is a general social condition, which generates certain kinds of politics and ideologies. Understanding it as such means that the problem is much deeper and more intractable than many in the “Intellectual Dark Web” are willing to acknowledge. It also might mean challenging many of the sacred cows the movement has left standing thus far.
Conclusion: Critiques of Post-modernism in Our Times
Our era is marked by critiques of post-modern leftism because—rightly or wrongly—it has become a convenient label for the sense of meaninglessness and transformation, which characterizes our epoch. Whether this is superficially understood as simply a few campus activists making trouble—or more profoundly analyzed as a complex social condition with dynamic social processes—virtually all the figures analyzed above agree on this point. Where they vary is in the quality and depth of their analysis. The figures in the “Intellectual Dark Web” have largely failed to provide a convincing account of why post-modernism has emerged. Their critiques have operated at largely a surface level. Even where they dig deeper, as is the case with Peterson, they remain unwilling to consider that institutions and processes they admire—such as neoliberal capitalism or new media—might be partially responsible for the emergence of the post-modern epoch.
This brings me to my final and most important point. Post-modernism has long been associated with political leftism, which has led some to conclude there must be a necessary connection between the two. For instance, this is the opinion of Stephen Hicks in his unusual book Explaining Post-Modernism. The connection is, in fact tentative, at best. Some on the political left embraced the social and cultural transformations wrought by post-modernity because they saw it as opening new spaces to challenge dominant identities and hierarchies. The lack of meaning generated by the collapse of traditionalist and religious meta-narratives provided an opportunity to create new spaces for traditionally marginalized groups to participate in politics.
This also accounts for the attraction many on the left felt towards post-modern philosophers such as Foucault or Derrida, who gave philosophical weights to these social and cultural transformations. But there was no reason to conclude from this that post-modernism is inherently leftist. Post-modernism is an epoch in the history of the developed world. Its roots date back far past the 20th century; indeed, it owes much to liberal individualism, scientific nominalism, and other trends whose roots can be traced as far back as the Renaissance. Moreover, as an epoch, it was naïve to assume that we would only ever see the emergence of post-modern leftism and leftist identity politics. As I have observed in earlier articles, with the rise of Donald Trump, Victor Orban, and now Bolsonaro—many of them propelled to power due to anxiety about traditional identities and using the full power of new media to prompt their cause—we have recently witnessed the emergence of post-modern conservatism. Whether this signifies that we have reached the climax of the post-modern epoch is another question I hope to take up later.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf