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Where Did Post-Modernism Come From?

In this short essay, I will argue that there were three factors, which contributed to the emergence of post-modern culture.”


Post-modernism is one of the most hotly debated issues among the reading public today, provoking reactions ranging from fierce denunciation to enthusiastic embrace. I have spent some time discussing what post-modernism is, along with describing its consequences for contemporary politics. Most notably, an earlier monograph and a forthcoming collection entitled What is Post-Modern Conservatism: Essays on Our Hugely Tremendous Times for Zero Books discuss the influence of culture in framing reactionary politics. But comparatively little attention is paid in these works to why post-modernism emerged. In this short essay, I will argue that there were three factors, which contributed to the emergence of post-modern culture. The first was liberalism, which established an individualistic politics separated from meaning-giving traditions. The second was capitalism, which generated a commodified lifeworld oriented by self-interest rather than commitment to transcendent values. And the last, which has been paid too little attention by many progressive commentators such as myself, was secularism. The declining belief in God (or at least traditional religious commitments) established a culture increasingly unmoored in the universe that had to find new sources of meaning. I will discuss each of these in turn, while signposting where they overlap.

Post-Modernity and Liberalism

It is very difficult to appreciate the dramatic shifts in how human beings have understood themselves and the world around them. This is as true in the liberal era as any other, and a failure to appreciate the past and how liberalism makes for a dramatic break with history contributes to a misunderstanding of its influence on post-modern culture. Ancient theorists such as Aristotle in the West and Lao-Tze in China implied that human beings existed as a part of nature; they stressed the need to look past the illusions of crude desire and recognize our integration into the cosmic order. While their interpretation of our role in this cosmic order and its characteristics differed widely, this was fundamentally a holistic vision where every human being had a defined purpose applied to him. Christianity maintained many of these positions but also postulated a more ontologically split reality, where the ensouled individual existed in a temporal world which was a reflection of the more real eternal world. Christianity also characterized human beings as possessing divine qualities, which distinguished them from the other entities in existence. 

This thinking was radicalized with the advent of proto-liberalism from the 16th to 17th centuries. When reading Machiavelli, Bacon, or Hobbes, we see people beginning to regard nature—and even other individuals—as existing to service collective human needs. At the same time, God began to play a less central role in determining the individual’s actions. These positions were further accentuated with the thinking of Locke and later Kant, who were perhaps the most significant thinkers to argue that the human mind only had access to phenomenal ideas rather than things in themselves. The world was, thus, to be apprehended nominalistically. Consequently, Locke and Kant also developed moral and political theories stressing the banality of naturalistic arguments for authority. Instead, they emphasized the importance of the individual will in establishing social arrangements—for instance, through contractualism. 

Once liberalism became ascendant in the 19th century, these ideas became ever more ubiquitous, while also taking on many different forms. Expressive individualists like Mill argued that the individual’s self realization was of central political importance, while stricter Utilitarians such as Sidgwick and Hart argued it was some form of calculable happiness. What was common to many of these forms of liberalism was a rejection of traditionalist authority, which came to be associated with restraints on the individual will, or capacity for self-expression, or the rationalization of society according to principles of utility. In the 20th century, this resulted in a push for greater pluralism and moral toleration. This didn’t necessarily result in the state shrinking—or its power decreasing, as some truly wanted. But it did result in clear efforts to demarcate the role of the state from moral evaluations. This culminated with the emergence of what is sometimes called “political liberalism,” which entailed a support for an allegedly morally-neutral state that would not arbitrate on questions of the good life. This kind of politics mapped onto the epistemic and normative skepticism characteristic of post-modern culture. Moreover, liberalism also corroded many of the “sources of the self” individuals relied upon to frame their identity; most of these were, of course, associated with tradition and traditional authorities. This contributed to the culture of uncertainty we now associate with postmodernity.

Post-Modernity and Capitalism 

Capitalism emerged in the late Middle Ages, but it only began to gain real traction in the 17th and 18th centuries, spurred on by imperialism and technological developments. At the same time, the material changes prompted serious cultural transformations, especially at the level of morality.  These were well captured by Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, both of which break sharply with traditional Christian moralism and argue that the self-interested pursuit of gain will be to the benefit of all. The result of this reorientation was profound. On the one hand, it granted the individual’s greater freedom to pursue the material determinants of success and the good life, as they understood it. On the other hand, it dissolved the injunction to live a good life consistent with communal religious values. This was reflected politically as the market and economic activities became increasingly insulated from moral and political pressures, while, at the same time, coming to direct state agendas towards imperialism and colonialism. This further disrupted communities and their traditions across the globe. The effects were profound enough that by the middle of the 19th century, Marx and Engel’s prophetically described capitalism as desacralizing the world and so upending tradition that “everything that is solid” appeared to melt into the air. This generated many of the social preconditions for post-modernity, as capitalist subjects had to adapt to a world in which their ways of life would be continuously transformed by changing material conditions and relations. 

As capitalism spread across the globe in the following centuries, its transformations brought a great deal of material affluence, while also generating growing inequality and even destitution in many areas. It was also profoundly disruptive and, at its worst, even unstable. These instabilities, particularly those associated with the Second World War, led to a brief effort to counter its radically transformative and disruptive propensities in the middle of the 20th century. This was not just a moral imperative; at the time, capitalism had to respond to the competition posed by the far-right and the far-left. Following Edmund Fawcett’s analysis in Liberalism: The Life of An Idea, we can say that part of the appeal of these radical and often totalitarian doctrines lay, in part, in their promise to stymie the transformations rocking capitalist societies and provide stability in the form of either a classless society of economic affluence on the part of the Soviets—or a purified nationalist fraternity in the case of Fascism and Nazism. To counter this appeal, capitalism responded with grand welfarist projects predicated on Keynesian (and later Gallbraithian) economics. These moderated the impacts of capitalist transformations. 

In addition to deepening the project of insulating the market from political (especially democratic) pressures, neoliberals sought to create new subjects who interpreted the world in economistic terms.

But starting with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the neoliberal era initiated a wave of even more startling transformations. In addition to deepening the project of insulating the market from political (especially democratic) pressures, neoliberals sought to create new subjects who interpreted the world in economistic terms. This resulted in the commodification of most remaining spheres of life, completing the desacralization of the world and generating a post-modern society where absolute value became oxymoronic. When everything is regarded in economic terms, then nothing has absolute value because nothing can be sacred; everything can be bought and sold for the right price. Moreover, neoliberal reforms also brought with them deep changes—from opening the doors to higher levels of immigration, to increasing job precarity under the auspices of encouraging “flexibility,” and driving the migration from the countryside to the city. These reshaped the society we lived in and created a world where people were increasingly free to ignore previously sacred values when pursuing their private interests. This could even include experimenting with lifestyles and identities which had previously been taboo. While highly liberating, neoliberalism also had a dark side in how it insisted that there could be no political efforts to change things. Personal freedom was to be permitted so long as it worked for the market. But political and civic freedom were to be withdrawn, which led to the increasing influence of money in politics, the decline of civil society groups with political power, and even a push against democracy itself by some of the more radical libertarians. The result was what Mark Fisher called post-modern “capitalist realism,” where people felt powerless to change their society, even as they were constantly encouraged to transform themselves into better and more competitive versions of who they were. 

Post-Modernity and Secularism

Many conservative critics disdain the deepening secularization and unbelief that characterizes modern society. Very few accept that this potential may have been latent within many of the monotheistic faiths to begin with. To give just one example, the insistence on spiritual inwardness one sees in many iterations of monotheism helped generate a kind of subjectivity, which was dissociated from the material world. People were encouraged to look at themselves as single individuals whose primary responsibility was to care for their inner soul and its purity. While this certainly had a moral dimension, it also led to a split between the ensouled individual and the world around him or her, which could occasionally seem sinful and even radically fallen. This, in turn, encouraged a deeper turn inwards, which had the potential to be highly destabilizing. Nevertheless, through the medieval period, this potentially destabilizing tendency was compensated for by a theological worldview that situated human beings in a “great chain of being,” which was given ultimate meaning by a transcendent but external God. For a while, this limited the corrosive potential of monotheistic inwardness.  

However, the drive towards inwardness became powerful enough that is launched the reformation and centuries of religious conflict in Europe. This, in turn, led to the first major political step on the road to secularism: the treaty of Westphalia in 1648—and the insistence that state politics would now be oriented by interests, rather than religious values. This was given theoretical expression over the next century and a half as the scientific revolutions and philosophy of the Enlightenment accepted Christian individuality but embraced an even more nominalistic approach to nature. This ultimately contributed to revolutionary agitation against religious figures, who attempted to naturalize various forms of authority antithetical to the liberal spirit of the age. 

I think a fair bit of this Nietzschean warning has come true, particularly when one looks at the cynicism and skepticism which pervades post-modern society.

Nevertheless, few of the major Enlightenment figures were willing firmly to abandon God. Many held to some form of deism, which relegated God to a helpful role in human life. By the 19th century, the superficiality of this account relative to the religious fervor of earlier ages was becoming apparent. Critics like Kierkegaard scathingly wrote of a Christendom where everyone mouthed the pieties of religious faith, but none truly believed. More important still were the criticisms of Nietzsche, who wrote profoundly about the social impact of secularism and nihilism on modern societies. In particular, he discussed how a society of “last men” would be defined by a sickness of the will: not truly believing in anything and unwilling to act in an honorable manner. They would be nihilists but effectively boring. Rather than recognizing that living beyond good and evil meant the right and capacity to will great things, they would settle for an easy cynicism—or fall into the superficial group identities offered by democracy, nationalism, and so on. 

I think a fair bit of this Nietzschean warning has come true, particularly when one looks at the cynicism and skepticism that pervades post-modern society. But I think Nietzsche underestimated how even religion would be recalibrated into one of the superficial group identities by which nihilists would define themselves. People would come to not necessarily treat religion as being about a belief in God or some transcendent source of value. Instead, we increasingly see religious beliefs which are now highly expressivist and individuated; each person takes responsibility for his or her own spiritual outlook and links it to various forms of self-fulfillment and creation. This is consonant with the commodification of the lifeworld wrought by neoliberal capitalism and post-modern culture, as religion becomes a kind of lifestyle choice orientated to the benefit of human subjects rather than towards the transcendent divine.

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 or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

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