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Review: Matt McManus’ “The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism”

(MARCO BERTORELLO)

“McManus draws a historical trajectory that sees conservatives responding to the challenges of socialism, communism, and fascism by hardening Burke’s pragmatic project into an ideology: what we now call neoliberalism.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of the political tris Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Italy’s Matteo Salvini is the myopia with which they govern, leading all three to practically hamstring themselves while in office. Whether through the breaches of national security and protocol that virtually beg impeachment for President Trump—or an almost comic ceding of their own power (as Salvini collapsed his own government and Johnson sacked 21 of his colleagues)—the right-wing imperative to rule for the national good finds itself barely able to rule at all. Such tragicomedy serves to support the main thesis of Matt McManus’s The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, a philosophical study of the rise of right-wing populism conducted in real time. His narrative centers on the failure of the populist right to provide a meaningful substitute for neoliberalism, particularly in age where the Internet has brought forward so much democratizing power. Meanwhile, unfair practices of the neoliberal era, including a jettisoning of welfarism and the corporatization of adult education, are maintained and even exacerbated. 

McManus himself is a rare figure, being closely linked with a number of self-declared socialists and communists who make up the online left—yet demonstrating an unwavering patience for more moderate factions on the Left. Make no mistake that in our extreme times such a project stands out. The rightward trend in our discourse today, partly promoted by Internet activity and stoked by figures such former presidential adviser Steve Bannon and writer and psychologist Jordan Peterson, has prompted a solidly left backlash on social media, YouTube, and online message boards. As such, The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism’s concluding calls for globally coordinated developmental funds and localized wealth taxes (backed up by increased global democratic participation) are refreshing in their far reaching sobriety. Implementation of these policies depends surely on functioning pluralistic democracies achieving consensus among various factions, representing more a case of encouraged altruism than wealth seizure. Of course, one suspects that even these relatively centrist policies would cause alarm for certain sectors of the right-leaning media. Although an emphasis on political procedure and redistribution by consensus appears far more practicable than the well-intentioned red flag waving, hammer and sickle wearing utterances of the far left online. 

McManus arrives at his sketched plan for a counter to populist right governance in the study’s concluding section via an earlier consideration of postmodern conservatism’s genealogy and its political rise. First, McManus is clear to note that while the post-truthism of postmodern conservatism may seem to be wholesale co-opted from the postmodern left (such as Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault), it does have precedents in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. Burke was skeptical about the existence of an objective truth that could ground common morality, arguing for a clearly defined legal and political code. Influenced by the terror unleashed in France in the revolutionary years, he argued for a basic set of rules for engagement, so as to mitigate against freedom tipping over into tyranny. 

What this ideologyembodied in Thatcherite and Reaganite individualismdid was stave off moral conservatism from economic pragmatism, resulting in a highly fluid economic system, with safeguards in place to assure only the freedom of the market and the increased profitability for the wealthy.

McManus draws a historical trajectory that sees conservatives responding to the challenges of socialism, communism, and fascism by hardening Burke’s pragmatic project into an ideology: what we now call neoliberalism. What this ideologyembodied in Thatcherite and Reaganite individualismdid was stave off moral conservatism from economic pragmatism, resulting in a highly fluid economic system, with safeguards in place to assure only the freedom of the market and the increased profitability for the wealthy. By the 1990’s, such economic freedom necessitated a hitherto unseen cosmopolitanism that gave neoliberalism a veneer of permissiveness, allowing it to permeate the center-left in the form of Blair and Clinton’s “Third Way.” In reality though, capitalism had discovered that it need only discriminate along the lines of a person’s usefulness for profit-making. 

And herein lies the rub, what masqueraded as an “End to History” (embodied by an ostensible end to ideology coupled with an openness to all creeds, colors, and sexual identities), has left many people behind. It is here that McManus sees postmodern conservatism rising up. In short, the openness of the market to all things, coupled with the postmodern Left’s famed “incredulity towards metanarratives” created a sense of insecurity within the white working majority in Western nations. For the Left, the tragedy of our times is the way in which the Right stepped up to fill that void. As McManus argues, vis-à-vis the failure of the political center to respond to the increasing alienation of the white working mass:   

“Progressives did win some ground in putting inequality back on the political map, and various Occupy Movements gained considerable traction. But it was the political right that began to drift away from neoliberalism and towards new kinds of nationalism, identity politics, and denunciations of internationalism and globalization.”

This, coupled with the boredom engendered in powerful and ambitious men by the supposed “End of History” had led to a new Right, known to play as loose with the notion of hard truths as both the neoliberals and left-wing postmodernists:   

“Fukuyama observed that if history restarted, it would likely be due to conservative figures dissatisfied with the affectless consumer culture of ‘last men’ they had long fought for. This was because without the kind of apocalyptic and historically significant conflicts which defined their ancestors, these conservative figures would feel they lacked a sense of thymotic recognition.”

All but the most hardened Trump, Salvini, Orbán, or Brexit supporter can see today with horror how such a scenario might unfold negatively so as to create some kind of parody of 1930’s-style nationalism. This would be all the more concerning given that 21st century technology would now be at a despot’s disposal. Given this risk, one can see why the hard left has recently become so entrenched online. There is panic in the air, as there fully ought to beyet panic provides for disastrous solutions, as history, including the French Revolution, attests. Somehow setting the panic aside, McManus identifies four problem areas for postmodern conservatism. These range from the difficulty in solving voter grievances within a nationalistic framework, given the global nature of trade, to the decline in the very populations (religious, family oriented, indigenous Westerners) that postmodern conservatism tends to appeal to.

Chief among these points is the reliance of the Right on scapegoats and hate figures. How long can this be sustained before the public tires and realizes that there are systemic failures responsible for poverty that will not be alleviated by imposing hard borders? While raising this point, McManus is very aware that we must pay heed to the fragile identities of marginalized groups (even whites); suggesting solutions to problems of identity and economic equality may reside in greater democracy on a global level. The bumbling vulgarity of postmodern conservatism’s strong men looks increasingly unlikely to enfranchise voters eager to enjoy the freedoms that the Internet has surely whetted their appetite for. McManus’s The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism astutely concludes that it is on these grounds that the Left needs to fight back if it is to realize its wider ambitions of economic redistribution. Some on the Left will find this unconvincing, arguing that culture runs downstream from economics, necessitating a seizure of the means of production as an essential first move. Yet with the odds so stacked against the emergence of a genuinely incendiary revolutionary movement, McManus deftly sets out the appeal of a progressive approach. Perhaps all is not lost.

Mike Watson is a theorist and critic, who is principally focused on the relationship among culture, new media and politics. He has written for Art Review, Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic and Radical Philosophy. In 2019 he will publish his second book for ZerO Books, Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming and Stranger Things. He holds a PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London. 

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