View from
The Left

Writing in the Tradition of Rawls—to Understand Trump

(Jane Reed)

“McManus…is much closer to the analytic tradition represented by authors such as John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum. Yet, his work is much richer thanks to his engagement with Marxist class analysis and post-structuralist philosophy…”

When Matt McManus asked me to review his new book The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism: Neoliberalism, Post-Modern Culture, and Reactionary Politics, I immediately accepted. One of my first thoughts was that I had just saved 800 pesos ($40 U.S.) because I had been looking forward to reading it, long before being asked to review it. The topic of post-modern conservatism is something I’ve been interested in now for several years. This subject caused me to write my first published piece, which was on the rise of right-wing identity politics, for the Mexican magazine Nexos. Now, many thinkers have written aptly about post-modern conservatism for the better part of the last two decades—and written about related phenomena for almost the entire twentieth century. McManus rightfully draws, in part, from their work. What I think is his greatest contribution, however, is his ability to tie insights coming from different disciplines and schools, some of which—at first glance—seem unrelated, into one coherent narrative.

The Rise of Postmodern Conservatism offers an extensive and analytical literature review, which covers a wide array of works, which are not necessarily related—from Mark Fisher’s analysis of culture under neoliberal capitalism in Capitalist Realism to Wendy Brown’s critique of the politics of identity to Nietzsche’s views about meaning to Neil Postman’s analysis of media. The relationship between these factors and the emergence of populist conservatives (and far-right politicians and intellectuals) has been explored before. But McManus identifies the ways in which each of these factors interacted and synergized with one other throughout the twentieth century. In conjunction with certain strands of conservative thought, these conditions eventually gave rise to post-modern conservatism.

McManus’s book is divided into five parts. The first part explores post-modernism in its different acceptations: as a philosophical current—and as a cultural phenomenon. He then explores the interplay between both of these manifestations of post-modernism. As McManus documents, both post-modern philosophy and culture are characterized by skepticism and a type of  ironic distance—that is, an attitude that downplays issues and even disengages the subject from the central tenets of modernity, such as scientific truth and the idea of progress. The aim of the first two chapters of the book, which comprise the first section, is to dispel misconceptions and exaggerated claims about the impact of post-modern philosophy, as well as to introduce the concept of post-modern culture, which will set the stage for the rest of the book. The real impact of post-modernism—and what the relevant acceptation is for the rest of the book—is the latter.

This first section goes into considerable depth in explaining the way in which the technological and social transformations caused by industrial capitalism brought down many traditional social hierarchies. This resulted in the liberation of traditionally oppressed groups, such as sexual, racial, and gender minorities. The full social mechanism is beyond the scope of this review; but broadly, the skeptical attitude towards modernity and the individualistic nature of neoliberal capitalism meant that traditional histories and identities came to be replaced with often incoherent “pastiches.” The targets of this attitudes included grand narratives such as enlightenment, Marxism, or nationalism. This, however, also naturally destabilized many traditional identities, which had provided stability and a sense of purpose to people. Often, this shift affected those at the top of the social ladder, who increasingly saw their historical privileges withering away.

A charitable reader should acknowledge that theorists such as Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Theodor Adorno, identified and criticized many of the same signs of decline that conservatives identify, almost always with more nuance and accuracy.

This first section of McManus’s book is fundamental because it provides the sociocultural context without which the rise of post-modern conservatism cannot be understood. However, this section is also valuable for both supporters and detractors of post-modern conservatism for different reasons. For those on the Right, it should provide a sort of crash course in the leftist theories so often derided by them as responsible for the decline of the West. These theories, which are frequent targets of their criticisms, include the Frankfurt School, Marxism, and post-structuralism. A charitable reader should acknowledge that theorists such as Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Theodor Adorno, identified and criticized many of the same signs of decline that conservatives identify, almost always with more nuance and accuracy. These include so-called “victimization culture” (identified as “wounded attachments” by Wendy Brown), as well as the pervasive reliance on technology critiqued by Adorno, among others. For readers on the Left, it will hopefully highlight the value of engaging with a variety of traditions. McManus, as is clear from his style—and from the authors from whom he draws—is much closer to the analytic tradition represented by authors such as John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum. Yet, his work is much richer thanks to his engagement with Marxist class analysis and post-structuralist philosophy, which, by being less rigid, can often take more creative and interesting positions. This last point is certainly true of this first section, though it is also true of the book in general.

The next section, which contains the three final chapters of the book, properly deals with post-modern conservatism. It begins with an exploration of its intellectual origins in various thinkers from the 18th century onwards. McManus then explains how several key features of this particular brand of conservative thought, coupled with the cultural logic of post-modernity gives rise to the specific kind of politics that the book is centered on. He then analyzes a few real-world cases. In the final chapters, McManus proposes a few broad solutions to address advent rise of this new kind of politics.

This section is fundamental because it traces the aspects of the broader conservative tradition that the post-modern conservatives inherited. Perhaps, however, it is also fundamental because it identifies the aspects of traditional conservatism that they leave out. Several thinkers are discussed in these chapters, but a brief discussion of the two earliest ones should suffice. It could be argued that the whole of the contemporary conservative movement, post-modern or otherwise, can be traced to the thinking of two authors: Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre. McManus discusses both of them in depth in order to identify the elements of their thought that, under the right conditions, can give rise to post-modern conservatism.

From a purely academic point of view, this is crucial, given that appreciating the genealogy of a system of belief such as post-modern conservatism is essential to understanding it. But I believe the more valuable aspect concerns the political. By tracing the components of conservatism that this movement both inherited and discarded, McManus dispels much of the mythos that proponents of post-modern conservatism have created for themselves. Postmodern conservatives often portray themselves as simple truth-tellers, willing to speak uncomfortable facts that others will dare not say. This is, perhaps, best captured by the catchphrase popularized by Ben Shapiro, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” Yet, at the core of post-modern conservatism is Maistre’s deep skepticism of abstract reasoning. After all, it was the rationalistic approach of the philosophes and the revolutionaries, in Maistre’s view, that led to the atrocities that followed the revolution. The philosophes’ reason was skeptical of authority, so Maistre abandons a rational justification for it. He, instead, relied more on emotive rationales. Maistre, who originally was a moderate reformist aristocrat, went in the very opposite direction shortly after the revolution, replacing abstract thinking with faith and reason with sentiment.

It might be tempting to discount the political lessons from this section as nothing more than a case of “hindsight being 20/20.” But that would be mistaken. To this day, even as post-modern conservatism has been at the forefront of political life in the West for nearly a half-decade, the answer from opposition political parties (and from the media) shows a complete lack of understanding of what is happening. One very clear example is the way American news outlets are still bent on trying to fact check President Donald Trump out of office. Now, I am not suggesting that facts should no longer be paid their due attention. But McManus’s analysis of the core components of post-modern conservatism shows why fact checking the President, for example, is bound to have no effect. Post-modern conservatism’s emotive nature, coupled with the general post-modern attitude of skepticism towards metanarratives (and the hostility towards rationality), makes strategies like plain fact checking completely ineffective. If nothing else, this analysis should be a call to recognize the flaws of the current methods of opposition to post-modern conservatives such as President Trump.

The last chapter, I think, is the one most likely to leave some readers dissatisfied. It is intended to give a very broad picture of possible responses to post-modern conservatism. This book, as was mentioned, draws from thinkers such as John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, and Jürgen Habermas, to address justified concerns raised by post-modern conservatives. These include the loss of identity and meaning. But McManus poses possible solutions from a left-wing perspective. Hopefully, also the Left might offer more permanent solutions than those favored by post-modern conservatives. However, the reason I believe this last part is less likely to resonate is not for its brevity but rather for ideological reasons. For conservatives, many of McManus’ proposed solutions—at least in this abridged presentation—will be outright unacceptable. This is perhaps to be expected, but I suspect that many on the Left may also not be entirely convinced. Now, most would agree with McManus’s basic proposals; after all, the core of his idea is a push for greater democratization, including at the level of international and transnational institutions. The issue, I think, is that for many this would be too timid a solution. While greater democratization at the national level could be interpreted, for example, as workplace democracy, which includes ideas like worker management, co-operatives, and so on, I believe this may be too broad a notion to capture the kind of fundamental structural change to the world economic system that becomes ever higher on the Left’s agenda.

Nevertheless, The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, overall, is an essential read for anyone who wishes to understand the political developments of the early twenty-first century, which, in retrospect, is increasingly beginning to look like an inevitable march towards a politics dominated by a populist, identitarian conservatism. McManus provides a superb analysis of both the sociocultural conditions and the intellectual development of this phenomenon. More importantly, the book showcases how the former provided the correct conditions for the latter to lead where it did. While certainly not a work in the Marxist tradition, though perhaps due, in part, to the many Marxists from whom he draws, McManus manages to provide an incredibly rich and well-reasoned example of the way in which Marx’s base and superstructure model operates. That is, the book shows how the material conditions on the ground (such as the declining economic lot of many who favor post-modern conservatism) can shape the direction that the intellectual realm will take. In this case, the result has been rather nefarious, but at the same time, it allows us to see the possibility to change the current course of politics.

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 nestor.kyat@gmail.com or on Twitter @nestor_d

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