“Neoliberal society and post-modern culture emerged together on the promise that they could provide greater economic prosperity and opportunities for self-development than any other social form.”
“The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.”—Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism.
This year is quite special for me. In addition to getting married, it should mark the publication of my first three books (fingers crossed). The first, Making Human Dignity Central to International Law will be published with the University of Wales Press in October of 2019. The third is a monograph entitled The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, which is intended for release at the end of this year to coincide with the beginning of the 2020 American election. In this short piece, I wanted to preview the second book, which I am releasing in conjunction with my co-authors David Hollands, Dylan De Jong, Erik Tate, Conrad Hamilton, and Borna Radnik. It is entitled What is Post-Modern Conservatism: Essays on Our Hugely Tremendous Times and will be released through Zero Books. Our essays in the book draw from different theoretical positions and standpoints, and I, by no means, intend to speak for us all. My intention here is to provide a short overview of post-modern conservatism as I understand it, complementing similar efforts in other media. I will also conclude with a few arguments about potential political solutions to post-modern conservatism, which draw on the moral argument made in my book on human dignity and international law.
Why Did Post-Modern Conservatism Emerge?
My theoretical position is that the reaction to neoliberalism—what I call post-modern conservatism—emerged for a variety of interconnected reasons. First, I argue that different strains of conservative thought, particularly Burkean historicism and the de Maistrean irrationalism were ripe for mutation into post-modern variants. While these strains of conservatism were not themselves post-modern, they relied on arguments and principles which could evolve into post-modern variants under the right social and cultural conditions. This point is more academic and has been elaborated upon here.
Second, I argue that neoliberal society and post-modern culture were just the right conditions required to prompt the emergence of post-modern conservatism. I maintain that neoliberal society and post-modern culture emerged in a mutually determinative fashion in the late 20th century within developed and rapidly developing nations. Neoliberal society is characterized by rapid socio-political, economic, and technological transformations. These transformations have had the effect of providing for greater economic prosperity for many individuals. But they have also eroded traditional values, brought about demographic change, shifted the labour market, and changed the way we transmit, interpret and communicate information concerning socio-political issues. Concurrently, 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.
The impact of these developments has been varied. Our essays discuss how there have been a variety of left-wing and liberal reactions to developments in neoliberal society and post-modern culture. Some of these have been positive, and some have been negative. On the conservative end, a large number of individuals became increasingly concerned about the impact of neoliberal society and post-modern culture on the traditional identities they affiliated with and their related set of values. These individuals were mobilized by political outlets emerging from new media. These outlets were incentivized to promote partisanship and often cast the political quest to retain traditional identities and values in terms of an existential struggle. Gradually, the individuals exposed to these developments evolved into what I call post-modern conservatives. Interacting in what Jean Baudrillard might call hyper-real mediums like television and the Internet, they came to locate the source of epistemic and meta-ethical validity in attachment to a given identity or set of identities and affiliated values. These identities and values were the screen through which truth claims about the world and normativity were assessed.
There are three features about this focus on identity and values that need to be stressed to understand post-modern conservatism. Firstly is that, qua Fredric Jameson, the identities and values post-modern conservatives attached themselves to often have a pastiche-like quality. Under the conditions of post-modern culture, these conservatives look to the past and tradition to try and rejuvenate identities and values they feel are being dissolved by various socio-political forces and actors. This follows the line argued for in Jameson’s book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, where he talks about the ways in which new media allow us to develop a stereotyped vision of the past, which enables the establishment of a present identity lacking real substance:
“This approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage. Yet this mesmerizing new aesthetic mode itself emerged as an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way. It cannot therefore be said to produce this strange occulation of the present by its own formal power, but rather merely to demonstrate, though these inner contradictions, the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.”
But there is rarely any attempt to give these identities and affiliated values any ontological or normative consistency. Post-modern conservatives will often affiliate with a variety of identities and values, some of which are almost mutually contradictory. They can include national identity, ethnic identity, religion, and race, or some combination thereof. Secondly, what unites these various post-modern conservatives is that the identity and values they affiliate with are invariably seen as being under attack by distinct groupings of socio-political actors. These socio-political actors are seen as undermining the rightful political and cultural hegemony of the identity and values the post-modern conservative affiliates with. They also raise truth claims that destabilize these identities and challenge their affiliated values. Rather than undermining their world view, this often deepens the post-modern conservative’s attachment to a meta-ethics and epistemology focused on truth claims which express loyalty to the identity and values. This leads post-modern conservatives to mistrust other sources of ethical and epistemological validity, most notably the media.
Finally, once they are sufficiently mobilized, post-modern conservatives attempt to seize control of the state in order to enact a policy agenda designed to re-entrench hegemony of the identity and values they affiliate with. However, once in power the paranoia and hyper-real origins of post-modern conservatism continue to impact their style of governing. Alternative sources of ethical and epistemic validity are discredited, opponents are treated as objects of partisan vitriol rather than interlocutors, and individuals regarded as aliens who disrupt social homogeneity and destabilize traditional values are subject to discrimination. This last development has attracted a tremendous amount of attention. This is particularly true of the post-modern conservative attach on immigrants and minorities. However, academic resources on the topic are just beginning to emerge. Even those works which try to provide a deeper descriptive analysis rarely provide a robust theoretical framework for explaining the rise of post-modern conservatism. Many of these works tend to be empirical and historical, indicating the need for a theoretically informed framework to discuss the emergence of right wing populism and the alt right. Our critical analysis of “post-modern conservatism” is designed to fill this gap.
Conclusion: An Internationalist Response to Post-Modern Conservatism
In some earlier essays for Merion West entitled “The Case for Humanity,” I sketched out an argument for how to renew internationalism and a left-liberal project committed to realizing the human rights and dignity of all. In this piece I am going to be more precise and argue that a response to post-modern conservatism must take the form of respecting and deepening our commitment to two abstract rights. The argument here is intended to help renew faith in a left-liberal or democratic project; albeit, it is adapted to fit the post-modern culture I argue we inhabit. Drawing upon the theoretical analysis presented in my first book on internationalism, I argue that truly honoring a commitment to human dignity would entail states and international institutions seeking to respect two “twinned” rights.
The first is a right of all individuals to participate in the democratic authorship of the laws which govern them. This right has been sorely undervalued in neoliberal polities, which increasingly concentrated power in the hands of elite groups and corporate interests while limiting the capacity of citizens to meaningfully participate in processes of governance. This was not an incidental feature of neoliberal governance, since as Quinn Slobodian observes in his book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, a tepid relationship to democracy was characteristic of the movement from the beginning. The gambit of Hayek and others, that limited participation and economic inequality would be tolerated by polities in exchange for a higher quality of life, has been falsified by recent experience. This demonstrates the need to rejuvenate the democratic ethos of liberalism by committing to the realization of the first right.
The second right is for all individuals to enjoy an equality of expressive capabilities except where inequities from their morally significant choices. Drawing on the work of Rawls and Sen, I argue that inequalities which flow from morally arbitrary circumstances should not be tolerated in liberal polities. Instead, we should seek to equalize what I call the expressive capabilities of all individuals where possible, except where inequities can be justified by appeal to non-arbitrary choices. Expressive capabilities are an index of powers individuals possess which liberate them from various forms of economic and social necessity, enabling them to live the kinds of life they wish. My argument is that one of the reasons post-modern conservatism has emerged is because too many individuals increasingly regard inequality as being at the root of their incapacity to live meaningful lives as they wish. This is especially true given the precarity produced by neoliberal economic policies.
Taken together, respecting these twinned rights would enable us to generate renewed support for a broadly liberal and democratic project of respecting human dignity in a consistent manner. Neoliberal society and post-modern culture emerged together on the promise that they could provide greater economic prosperity and opportunities for self-development than any other social form. The gambit of figures like F.A Hayek and Milton Friedman was that the precarity and inequality produced by neoliberal governance, not to mention declining opportunities for meaningful political participation, would be tolerated so long as it delivered these goods. Whatever the successes of neoliberalism in some spheres (who could deny it has delivered many wondrous accomplishments?), it failed in these crucial respects.
As Mark Fisher and Jameson opined, the post-modern culture of neoliberal society often resembles nothing so much as a museum where we draw inspiration to develop stereotyped pastiches in place of real identities. The way to forward is to enable individuals greater opportunities to participate in generating the laws which govern them, and to rectify the immense and growing inequalities in power and capacity which define so much of our social relations. To invoke Roberto Unger, we may live in strange times, but the Thatcherite claims that there are no alternatives have proven a false necessity. Alternatives are emerging daily, and our choice is between the vulgarities and false solutions of post-modern conservatism or a genuine renewal of the self and greater equality.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf