View from
The Left

On Winners, Losers, and Tribalism

(Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“This means conservatives are actually quite willing to engage in radical social change, but only if they feel that it is necessary to counter efforts by the Left to destroy these hierarchies.”

Introduction: A History of Losers

Over the past two centuries we have come to witness the sociolinguistic transformations of the word “winner”  and its less-favored antonym, “loser.” In the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe and America found that power and profits were increasingly dependent not simply on the production of goods but also on the constant regeneration of consumer desires. To sustain its survival, this new economic order required the development of a new socio-cultural formation, which championed the cause of commodity consumption. As a result, people were judged by their capacity for consumption, their standard of living, and their lifestyle as much as by their capacity for production. Subsequently, the rise of more positive social responses to young people in the early 1960’s was derived from a further extension of the market economy in American cultural life. The “winner” image, mapped out as the ethos of hedonistic materialism along with a “Playboy” attitude, was then marketed as a quintessential drive for this social transformation.

The counterculture movement in 1960-70’s America, however, saw a huge surge of protest from historically marginalized groups, openly questioning the archetypes of success that were being propagated in the service of boosting national confidence and morale. This “winner” image was criticized heavily by prominent figures of the time, from Malcolm X to the Beatles to Che Guevara, who highlighted the vast number of “losers” being created in order for this ideologically conservative, heteronormative, white-male image to be a “winner.” Subsequently, the term “loser” began to change its social currency. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Kurt Cobain image of disenfranchised anger, Beck’s “Loser,” and Outkast’s colorful embrace of all things different reflected the social landscape of what was considered acceptable or worthy of praise. The outcast or “loser” became as appealing as it was rebellious.

In the past couple of years, however, the rhetoric of “winning” has made a stark re-emergence. Donald Trump’s assertion that America is “going to win so much you may even get tired of winning” or Richard Spencer’s glee at “so much winning” after the election reflect an interesting juxtaposition of how these individuals self-identify. Namely, that they are the ones who are now marginal, or outsiders, who have been silenced for a very long time—and are now on their way to making a comeback. The framework and style of communication portrayed by postmodern conservatives—namely that of competition—rests upon this very idea: a need to “win” again by preserving tradition and values in the face of sinister, omnipresent liberal adversity.

The Authoritarian Impulse and Postmodern Conservative Rhetoric

The competitive style of communication requires individuals to compete on thoughts and ideas. The intention, then, is solely to win or succeed: gaining a means of displaying authority or power over a given topic to an audience (be it virtual or in real-time). Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality highlights how the ego ideal of such characters is imbedded within the context of a specific need: to succeed in the struggle of competition against a competitor. Consequently, communication (from Latin communicare, meaning “to share”) of information becomes disconnected from the concept of an exchange and is geared, instead, toward securing a personal victory.

The nostalgia associated with a resurrection of a past, and finally winning, comes at the price of the “other” losing. By treating the “other”—be that feminist, homosexual, trans-person, migrant, or non-white individual—as an inferior and pernicious being, there is an affirmation of belonging to an elite.

The impetus to succeed in communication, for postmodern conservatives, is indicative of a more subtle layer of subtext: a genuine belief that Western civilization, its traditions, and its values are under attack by an “other”—and that the marginalized voices of the 60’s and 70’s have gone too far and are now attacking a way of life.” The paradox, of course, is that this backlash against societal rationalization of tradition, values, and emotions as motivators for behavior in society is inseparably linked to neoliberalism’s thirst for novelty. It is a marriage of an ideological framework that enforces meaning with that which coldly deracinates it.

The nostalgia associated with a resurrection of a past, and finally winning, comes at the price of the “other” losing. By treating the “other”—be that feminist, homosexual, trans-person, migrant, or non-white individual—as an inferior and pernicious being, there is an affirmation of belonging to an elite. This “belonging” requires no force of will. There is nothing the individual has to do to merit their superiority, nor can they lose it while being passively entertained while their in-group “wins” or “destroys” in an argument. This type of Freudian projection occurs when we attribute an element of our personality, which is imbedded within our own unconscious, to another person or group.

Projection is theorized to be a defense mechanism used to avoid the anxiety that is provoked when one is forced to face one’s faults, weaknesses, and destructive tendencies. Hypothetically, if all adversaries of the postmodern conservatives were no longer present, these individuals would find themselves in a situation where the quality of “being on the winning team” would be at an all-time low because everyone would possess it. There would be nothing left to project unto, and “the real” would force its way into the perceptual landscape. This projection towards the “other,” therefore, when observed, is a vital clue for research into the anxieties that provoke such groups and why they feel this intrinsic need to be on the winning team.

As Corey Robin argues in his now-infamous book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, the binary and adversarial reasoning described above is particularly consonant with the conservative vision of the world. On the surface this might appear strange, given that many conservatives describe themselves as being firm proponents of order, and such adversarial politics seem inherently destabilizing. But this is where Robin’s innovative reading comes in. Robin challenges the standard vision of conservatism as a political outlook primarily concerned with maintaining tradition, order, and stability. He claims that while many conservative figures have presented these as their primary goals, a closer look at the history of conservatism suggests otherwise. Conservatives, from Edmund Burke down to Donald Trump, have largely tied themselves to traditionalism as a means of retaining a specific set of social hierarchies which are described as being under threat.  

In the name of preserving them, conservatives will be quite willing to engage in civil wars, wage counter-revolutions, destabilize society through agitation and reactionary mobilization, and (as we have seen most recently in Tucker Carlson’s monologue) even flirt with abandoning capitalism itself. If these radical measures are necessary to preserve the cherished social hierarchies, then so be it.

According to Robin, this demonstrates a paradoxical dimension to the conservative outlook. Conservatives cannot truly present themselves as defenders of stability and tradition, because the actual political world as it exists in the present remains marked by instability and change. Much of this is brought about through agitation by the political left, who seek to undermine the social hierarchies that conservatives cherish. This means conservatives are actually quite willing to engage in radical social change, but only if they feel that it is necessary to counter efforts by the Left to destroy these hierarchies. In the name of preserving them, conservatives will be quite willing to engage in civil wars, wage counter-revolutions, destabilize society through agitation and reactionary mobilization, and (as we have seen most recently in Tucker Carlson’s monologue) even flirt with abandoning capitalism itself. If these radical measures are necessary to preserve the cherished social hierarchies, then so be it.

This also explains how the recent tendency of conservatives to frame the left as the “other” has deep roots in political history.  The “other” is invariably framed in starkly binary terms that can distract from complex and dialectical relationship many conservatives have had with their opponents. The melancholy outlook of much conservative thinking that treasured social hierarchies are always under threat and must be preserved—even by radical means—requires antagonistic forces that are sufficiently powerful and threatening to demand mobilization. Again, this explains the odd tendency of conservatives to simultaneously claim that all they want to do is preserve things as they are, while still claiming that the world is falling apart due to the efforts of omnipresent opponents who are simultaneously alien from society while making up a growing part of it.

This occasionally apocalyptic worldview can be traced back to the godfather of postmodern conservatism—Joseph de Maistre, who argued forcefully against the insidious forces of reason and liberal inquiry. He suggested that they led to the revolutionary impulse to destroy society. He detested his Jacobin opponents for their logocentrism and called for counter-revolutionary violence to overawe his opponents. But within the dark waters of de Maistre’s irrationalism lies a strange respect, even awe, of his progressive opponents. He described them as possessing almost satanic grandeur, capable of destroying all that was good and stabilizing in the world under the auspices of compassion and reason. His fantastic vision of his opponents is matched only by his disdain for conservatives who simply want to retain society as it is without engaging in the violence and antagonism necessary to truly counter the revolutionary impulse. Underpinning these sentiments is a competitive drive to not be the loser in history, as many progressive teleologies seem to imply.

The Postmodern Condition and Postmodern Conservatism

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Now, we are not saying that all conservatives are prone to such reasoning—here, we think figures like Robin go too far in trying to conflate all forms of conservatism into one consistent outlook—but he does demonstrate how aspects of conservative reasoning were open to mutation into postmodern forms under the right social and cultural conditions. What has been called the postmodern condition or culture by critics like Harvey and Jameson provided these conditions. With the emergence of the New Left in the 1970’s and 80’s, we saw political focus gradually shift from the class and economic issues of the Cold War to cultural conflicts around identity and political participation by marginalized groups.

These trends were driven, in part, by social, economic, and technological transformations in neoliberal societies at the so called “end of history.” These seemed to foreclose the possibility of fundamentally changing what Orthodox Marxists once called the economic “structure” of society, leading many on the Left to turn to struggles for greater political participation and reform by intersectional subjects of oppression. In the context of the U.K., this intense neoliberal pressure on research agendas and public messages has been ongoing for the past 40 years. Academia’s specialist sociopolitical disciplines of social sciences and humanities have been driven along this path. While conforming to external and internal pressures, they have replaced the impetus for innovative political alternatives with social administrative matters. These “identity politics” movements are often associated with postmodernism, though frequently not in an especially rigorous way. We accept this association insofar as it relates back to the condition or culture of postmodernity.

In turn, these leftist movements have now been met by postmodern conservatives who are concerned to preserve their cherished hierarchies against the other—feminists, trans-people, migrants, non whites, etc.who seek to destroy them. To do so, they assemble what Jameson might call a pastiche-like identity associated with these hierarchies—the national subject, the Christian subject, the white subject, etc.—which is presented as the antagonist to left-wing identity politics. As Robin points out, these post-modern conservatives then engage in radical politics to try and counter the efforts of their perceived opponents, often transforming society and deepening the very social tendencies they claim to despise. This is an acceptable consequence of defeating the “other” of the left and its nefarious efforts.  

Conclusion: The Reactionary Implosion

As feelings of atomization and alienation become more and more commonplace, facing the “the real” of the human condition becomes less and less avoidable. Communication, therefore, becomes an increasingly pertinent method in connection, preventing the construction of more tribal walls, including physical ones envisioned by some current political leaders. Competition and an obsession with “winning” or “owning,” conversely, indicate a form of agitated insecurity; it is an attempt to guard oneself against these precarious times while projecting, as in de Maistre, upon a “satan.” In this way, we obtain a caricature image of Zizek’s story of James Angleton, who headed the counterintelligence section of the CIA and investigated undercover Soviet agents.

The premise of his work was that a large-scale deception coordinated by a secret KGB operative was aiming to penetrate and totally dominate the Western intellectual services. Therefore, any KGB defector who was willing to share vital information for the exchange of U.S. citizenship was swiftly sent back to the Soviet Union (and then, naturally, put on trial and executed). The ultimate outcome was a total paralysis in the CIA, where not a single mole was uncovered. The twist was, of course, that Angleton himself was the undercover agent. The truth of the paranoid stance: it is in itself the destructive plot against which it is fighting. The same is true of postmodern conservatives, who seek to undermine a condition or culture they claim to despise by deploying its tools—and railing against a Left that concretizes and defines their political outlook.  This is a contradictory logic which cannot be sustained, but they may well do a great deal of damage before all is said and done.

Amir Massoumian is a PhD Student in Anthropology and Sociology at the SOAS University of London.

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 garion9@yorku.ca or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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