“But this just shows that Žižek is right in that there is no such thing as seeing the world as it really is. There is always something that mediates perception.”
arlier this month, an article purportedly written by a disillusioned member of the Democratic Socialists of America appeared in Quillette and was then taken down a few hours afterwards. It was written by a self-described non-doctrinaire leftist under the pen name Archie Carter, with the intention of showing that Quillette would jump on the chance of publishing something, written by a leftist, that also supported Quillette’s ideological narrative about the Left. The author spoke about how he did it and his motives for doing so in Vox, Jacobin, and The Daily Beast. The three interviews I just cited already cover how this was possible, so I have no intention of repeating what has been said already. Instead, I want to use this as a stepping stone to discuss what I see as some of the broader issues with this new conservatism that ties into this particular case and what makes all of this worrying. Before continuing, however, I should define a term: what I will call “new conservatism” or “new right” throughout the text is a loose set of communities, public figures, and media outlets that—while not a single coherent entity—do share a few fundamental features. They all share some values with classical conservatives about tradition, for example, but some of their fundamental assumptions and approaches differ substantially. Some are radical and often turn violent, like the alt-right, and others are more serious and nuanced like Quillette itself—or the members of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). This is not meant, in any way, to say that either Quillette or the members of the IDW are part of the alt-right. Their views are certainly not so close to be indistinguishable, but there surely are certain commonalities that have to be considered. More on that later.
The author of the hoax, as he describes in the three interviews cited earlier, took inspiration from the now famous Sokal Hoax. When Alan Sokal published his faux article, his goal was to expose what he saw as the intellectual poverty of some subsets of the humanities academia, driven more by ideology and style than by the rigorous pursuit of knowledge. Ironically, this faction that became his target was none other than the so-called postmodernists that have been so harshly criticized by those ideologically close to Quillette. As I said, however, my point is not to argue that this was caused by ideology, since I think that case has already been sufficiently argued and established. Instead, I want to try to examine this ideology more closely in order to find out what is it about it that made it susceptible to a hoax like this and what other consequences does this have. But before going any further, a brief discussion about ideology is in order.
In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek discusses, among other things, the way in which certain abstractions take on a kind of life of their own beyond a person’s actual abstract thought and become “real” in a way that shapes our interactions in the real world. These abstractions are what he calls sublime objects. They are designated as sublime because they are, in a way, immune to the effects of corruption and wear that physical objects endure with the passage of time. The main example he uses, taken from Marxist theory, is that of money. Money, of course, is a physical thing that can be damaged or destroyed just like any other object. But the physical body of money, says Žižek, is not really important; what matters is the abstract body which is stamped upon it by a government authority and preserved by individuals who, by means of their exchanging commodities for money, act as if this sublime body was wholly real.
Žižek starts his discussion of ideology from the classical Marxist conception of it: a “false consciousness” that prevents people (workers) from seeing things how they really are. This is expressed by the phrase, “they do not know it, but they are doing it” from Marx’s capital. He gives several examples of this referring to concrete examples such as “I know that money is a material object like others, but still…” This “but still” refers to that “sublime” body of money previously described. However, Žižek does not stay with this view exactly as it is in Marx and elaborates on it further. His main point of departure is that, for him, ideology is not a veil that can be removed to show the true nature of things. Instead, ideology is an integral part of reality. What this means is that an ideological individual who throws away their ideology does not actually start to see things how they really are but rather dissolves reality—themselves included. Beings depend on their ideological reality, and the collapse of that reality forces them into a different one. In that sense, we cannot simply start treating money as the everyday physical object that it is without throwing away the whole reality that it supports.
Before moving into how this relates to the issues that I mention at the beginning, however, some clarification is in order. I imagine that this talk of multiple realities which are ideologically determined is bound to make many people uneasy or skeptical. As someone who was formed almost exclusively in the analytic tradition of philosophy, I sympathize with these sentiments, so I want to offer a different way to interpret this that requires less of an epistemological jump. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn introduces the concept of the paradigm, which is in many ways analogous to the notions of ideology and the sublime object that Žižek uses. The paradigm is the set of beliefs and rules under which scientists operate as they try to solve the puzzles of science. But there are certain problems which go beyond the scope of the rules of a given paradigm and question its fundamental assumptions. These kinds of problems are not solved until a new paradigm comes along which can make sense of the observations that questioned the old one. A classic example is the transition from the Tychonian model of the solar system to the Copernican one. Now, it must be said that Kuhn’s own views are not that far off from Žižek’s. In fact, he even maintained that in the shift from one paradigm to another, there was always a certain element of irrationality. The scientific interpretations of data were not only incommensurable with each other from one paradigm to another, but two scientists operating under different paradigms occupy a different reality.
The reason I bring this up is because there are interpretations of the concept of the paradigm which are much more compatible with the idea that we can objectively interpret reality through science, such as that offered by Michael Friedman in The Dynamics of Reason. Friedman takes a Kantian interpretation of this idea and argues that a paradigm is the a priori set of beliefs through which we understand empirical data. That is, we cannot simply take in information from the world; we need a certain set of rules and beliefs independent of experience like the laws of logic—to use a rather simplistic example. The point is that even if one does not want to accept that ideology (or a paradigm) constitutes reality, it still is the case that we cannot have some kind of “unfiltered” view of reality. So, whether we accept the radical Zizekian view that ideology is constitutive of reality—or Friedman’s more moderate view that we still need a paradigm as a set of a priori rules to make sense of observations—the fact remains that a change in our ideological notions will completely change our understanding of the world.
With that out of the way, we can finally return to the new conservative ideology, the Quillette hoax and related issues. If there was a sublime object of classical conservatism, it would probably be the orderly and hierarchical structure of society. Žižek references this tangentially when he discusses Marx’s ideas on how individuals build their identity in relation to others: A king is king because others stand as subjects in relation to him. But subjects, on the contrary, believe they are subjects because there is a man with the abstract property of being a king, so they must therefore be subjects. Most standard conservatives today are, of course, not monarchists. But even if there is no royalty or nobility involved, there is always a hierarchical structure that is worth keeping from the conservative standpoint. This can be the traditional gender roles within the nuclear family or in society as a whole, a certain class structure which provides the best in society to rise to the top, or even humanity in relation to divinity.
The new right certainly agrees that all of these things are valuable, but what makes them different is the paradigm that shapes their worldview, or to use more Zizekian terms, the sublime object of their ideology. That is not to say that the new right does not value these things. Jordan Peterson’s ideal social arrangement probably looks something like the organization that John Rawls calls “natural liberty.” This is a system in which nominal equality of opportunity allows for substantial material inequality to arise. In exchange for this inequality, only those who are most competent at their particular areas of knowledge will rise to the top, which, in turn, is said to bring the greatest social benefit because products and services will be provided by the best people available. Others advocate for a traditional gender hierarchy because only in those roles can each gender properly thrive. While similar things are valued, the key difference is that, for this new right, the reality that is constituted by their ideology is the opposite of that of the old one. Reality is not a nice hierarchical structure that should be preserved but a world of anarchy and chaos in desperate need of being reined in. As it should be fairly obvious, in this new reality it is the Left that has power, and the Right has to go against the prevailing direction of things.
There is a reason there are politics based around gender and skin color but not hair color.
The argument of Archie Carter’s faux article was that he, as a Marxist construction worker, became frustrated with the Democratic Socialists of America because they were much more interested in accommodating what he billed as white middle-class issues, such as gender and racial identity issues, instead what would really matter to the working-class in the United States. And that is the fundamental thing to note here: the Left here is being portrayed here as focused on essentially just the elimination of traditional hierarchies such as gender or race. Now, if the interpretive lens with which one looks at the world is that of chaos and the dissolution of hierarchies, how could this not be true? It is almost true by definition. And what is useful about this broad notion of identities is that there is something for everyone. Agree or disagree with the conclusions and methods of the sectors of the Left that focus more strongly on identity, it should, at least, be acknowledged that the reason that those specific identities are highlighted is that they have historically been at the bottom of one hierarchy or another. There is a reason there are politics based around gender and skin color but not hair color. So, it does not matter if one is a proponent of a society structured around a hierarchy based on gender, race, or just a general vague notion of a traditional order. Anything that denies the reality of such identities is more evidence of the fact that the world has gone mad. But the world in chaos is the starting point. If only everyone could be made aware of this reality, then the case for the value of hierarchies is much easier to make.
There are various factions among this new, mostly online right. Some are much more radical than others, as evidenced, for example, by the recent shootings in New Zealand and the United States, and they often have widely different goals. As such, it would not be fair to lump them all into one monolithic category, and it would be dishonest to blame the actions of, for instance, the shooters, highly motivated by racial issues, on less radical elements focused on different topics. But it must also be acknowledged that there is the shared foundation of this belief in a world in chaos and disarray. And for the same reason, it is not uncommon to see the transfer between communities of certain linguistic elements or symbols. A great example is the idea of the red pill. This concept began as part of the lingo of the so called ‘manosphere’ a group of online communities which comprises smaller subgroups such as Men’s Rights Activists, Men Going Their Own Way, and Incels. The specific details of these communities are not important. What is, is that they all shared the notion of the red pill. Originally it meant coming to the realization that the oppression of women is lie, perpetuated by women (sometimes the media too) to be used to their own advantage over men. One would take the red pill (a reference to the film The Matrix) and finally see this reality. In fact, the now-quarantined Reddit community “The Red Pill” was exclusively dedicated to this male-centric discourse. However, the concept quickly evolved and was adopted by other more explicitly far-right communities such as the alt-right and began also to refer to issues such as race, immigration, culture, even religion, and many other topics, as looking through the occurrences of the term “redpilled” in the Reddit community “The_Donald” will reveal.
The red pill, ironically, shares many similarities with Marx’s traditional conception of ideology. Taking the red pill essentially means throwing away one’s false consciousness and finally seeing the world as it really is. Of course, the meaning of “as it really is” is widely different for Marx and the alt-right. But this just shows that Žižek is right in that there is no such thing as seeing the world as it really is. There is always something that mediates perception. Even the logical empiricists of the early 20th century, probably the staunchest defenders of logic, facts, reason, etc., knew that, as Kant proposed a few centuries earlier, we can never know things in themselves—but only our perception of things, which, in turn, is processed in accordance with our previously acquired concepts. So, the red pill can be nothing more than yet another ideology. In fact, I would argue that the best characterization of the red pill in its more recent acceptation is precisely holding this chaotic conception of the world to be true: men are no longer manly, women are in positions of power, there are five hundred different genders, immigrants from the Third World have overrun The West, and Cultural Marxism has destroyed every vestige of order in the world. If this seems hyperbolic, it is only to get a point across.
What I am, in fact, trying to say is that radicalism aimed particularly at bringing back some real or imagined hierarchical order is bound to be dangerous.
The point of all this is not just to say that what made Quillette fertile ground for a hoax is a set of preconceptions about the world that are shared by other more radical groups of the Right. That is part of it. More important is the sort of latent potential that comes with those preconceptions. One of the main points I made earlier is that this new right shares some values with classical conservatives, but that its starting point is essentially the opposite one: it starts from the assumption of chaos rather than order and seeks to impose those shared values of order rather than defend them. Matt McManus has explored the similarities between figures of this new right and more standard conservatives such as Michael Oakeshott and Edmund Burke but also reactionaries such as Joseph de Maistre. I believe, however, that ultimately, they are closer to the likes of de Maistre, and other reactionaries like Julius Evola and his revolt against the modern world. While the values may be similar to those of mainstream conservatives, it is the starting point that ultimately matters more. The world in chaos comes with a sense of urgency. The problem with urgency is that it makes radicalism all the more attractive.
I do not think radicalism is inherently bad. It all comes down to what exactly is being pursued radically. In fact, it might be required on occasion (something which I might explore further later). I am not trying to say that that radicalism on the Left is good but bad when it happens on the right. The actions of left-wing dictators like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were clearly radical and evidently abhorrent. What I am, in fact, trying to say is that radicalism aimed particularly at bringing back some real or imagined hierarchical order is bound to be dangerous. The New Zealand and El Paso shooters are some of the most extreme examples of this. Their sense of urgency, fueled by perceived mass immigration, radicalized their desire to keep white Europeans at the top of the hierarchy and moved them to commit horrible acts of violence. I said it earlier, but I cannot emphasize it enough: my intention is not to blame Quillette or the IDW for events like this. But I think it should be clear that even the most moderate among these new conservatives have this shared ideological foundation with the more radical ones. If they want to know why many on the Left often lump them with the uglier factions of the far-right, this is it. I do not think they need to abandon their values, but I do think it is important that they revise some of their preconceptions.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @nestor_d