“Veterans of the entertainment industry like Steve Bannon and the reality television star Donald Trump instinctively understood how to cater to the resentment of those who felt left behind by neoliberalism but were unwilling or unaware of left-wing alternatives.”
came of age right at the end of the Bush administration’s seemingly endless tenure. September 11th and the subsequent War on Terror were the first events that drew me to politics, and I did what I could to oppose the Iraq war and my own Canadian government’s culpability in altering the rule of law to allow for the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects. There was, then, a feeling that all of this was somehow a shift from the path laid out by Francis Fukuyama. Many were still optimistic that Fukuyama “end of history” had arrived—and that neoliberal capitalism was to be the only game in town. Neoconservatives such as President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and—once upon a time—Ambassador John Bolton believed that outliers needed to be forcibly integrated into the system. The terrorist attacks of September 11th provided the perfect excuse to seek to export American-style neoliberal capitalism around the globe, where it was still resisted under the auspices of building an “empire lite” of client democracies. Third way politicians in the vein of President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Canada’s own Jean Chrétien were less overtly ambitious but still often toed the party line when needed. But it quickly became clear that—despite the stubborn insistence of the Americans and their geopolitical allies—exporting neoliberalism through military force was not only a near-impossible task; it seriously undermined the moral and soft-power clout enjoyed by the Anglo-European states in the aftermath of the Cold War.
Then, the Great Recession began in 2008, and the major cracks in the Fukuyamist line became even clearer. Not only did the capitalist economy crash and burn but the immense inequalities in wealth and socio-political power (which had been growing since the advent of neoliberal governance in the late 1970’s) were exposed in their most naked form. Millions suffered while governments imposed crippling austerity measures, withdrawing the liberal democratic state from those to whom it was nominally beholden. Meanwhile, the financial sector largely responsible for the crisis received welfare to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars—much of it spent on bonuses for the billionaire class. Years later, we are still operating in the shadow of the worst economic crisis to hit and destabilize capitalism since the Great Depression.
It was in this context that what I call post-modern conservatism emerged. My co-authored book on the subject, What is Post-Modern Conservatism: Essays On Our Hugely Tremendous Times unpacks all of this in some detail. It examines how a dangerous form of reactionary politics emerged in the 2010’s as a response to the crises of neoliberal governance and deeper trends within post/modern culture. It also argues that the way for leftists to respond to the rise of the Right is through calling for greater democratization—and the redistribution of wealth. In the rest of this essay, I will discuss all these themes at some length. I will conclude by sketching out my own solutions to the problems of post-modernity, while talking also about Senator Bernie Sanders and the possibilities of concrete politics in our times.
What Causes Post-Modern Conservatism?
Neoliberal societies were underpinned by what scholars like David Harvey and Fredric Jameson would call “post-modern” cultures or conditions. How this is understood varies depending on the thinker. However, my book largely draws on the interpretation given by Jameson in his seminal 1991 book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. In it, Jameson argues that the cultural dynamics of late capitalism have been framed by the dissolution of all traditional ways of forming our sense of meaning and identity. We have lost the capacity to experience history in an active way, given the cultural pressures generated by neoliberal society. As Jameson puts it:
“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.”
What Max Weber would call the world of traditional authority (defined by a strong sense of whom one was in relation to the local community and religious groups) has given way under a capitalist dynamic where “all that is solid melts into the air,” in Marx’s memorable expression. This has resulted in the destabilization of shared identities, from the national to the religious, which has, in turn, created tremendous space to agitate for the emancipation of groups who have long been marginalized by hegemonic traditions. But it has also created a great deal of anxiety as conservative individuals struggled to make sense of a world that rapidly seemed to be leaving them and their way of life in the dust.
While this free movement of labor had the positive effect of encouraging greater respect for pluralism on the part of political elites (who swiftly embraced liberal multi-cultural theories as a normative justification for the developments), little effort was taken to compensate for the economic anxieties which drove many to scapegoat migration as the source of all their woes.
Many of these were tied to material changes in neoliberal society. Capital upended traditional rural life, driving individuals into large urban spaces characterized by high degrees of inequality and stratification. This system has also developed new technologies and media, which transform the way we communicate and interact with one another. In some respects, these have helped bring the world together, but they have also established what Baudrillard would call the “rule of signs”: a world where commercials and digital images increasingly assume greater determinative power than actual material forces. This is the world of social capital, Instagram, and the “like” button. As a result, our sense of esteem and self-worth becomes ever more embedded in the one dimensionality of new media. Finally, capital has changed the demographics and work dynamics of countless individuals in neoliberal societies. It has created ever more labor precarity through automation, while encouraging the “free” movement of cheap and easily exploited labor into Western countries. While this free movement of labor had the positive effect of encouraging greater respect for pluralism on the part of political elites (who swiftly embraced liberal multi-cultural theories as a normative justification for the developments), little effort was taken to compensate for the economic anxieties which drove many to scapegoat migration as the source of all their woes.
Coupled with the implementation of austerity measures, these developments generated a great deal of resentment on the part of domestic populations. This helped to fuel a surge in reactionary politics, which is what I call “post-modern conservatism.”
Post-Modern Conservative Politics
With the Great Recession, many of the tensions papered over within neoliberal society came to the fore. Post-modern culture had been characterized by what Mark Fisher would call a kind of “capitalist realism”: simply put the belief that the current order was both inevitable and unchangeable. This was tied to a general sense of democratic quietism, crisply described in Wendy Brown’s great book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. But with the inequities of neoliberalism exposed—and growing discontent about the dissolution of traditional identities and value systems bubbling up—a new kind of post-modern conservative politics emerged. It was defined by appealing to a “pastiche”-like identity constructed out of tropes and sources traditionally associated with power and authority in Western societies. Post-modern conservatives came to define themselves as nationalists, as defenders of male rights, as white identitarians, Westerners, Christians—sometimes, all at the same time. The inner contradictions between these various post-modern sources of identity were largely ignored in favor of mobilizing them to agitate for a reactionary political agenda.
Paradoxically, post-modern conservatism often matured in hyper-modern media governed by the rule of signs. Veterans of the entertainment industry like Steve Bannon and the reality television star Donald Trump instinctively understood how to cater to the resentment of those who felt left behind by neoliberalism but were unwilling or unaware of left-wing alternatives. In a very Schmittian manner, they directed the reactionary anger of post-modern conservatives towards an ambiguous but overwhelming set of political enemies who were allegedly responsible for all their problems. This included internal enemies and external enemies. The former were never well-defined (perhaps deliberately) but often included a cabal of feminists, internationalists, academics, journalists, those in the entertainment media, and so on, who were often blandly conflated under ambiguous neologisms like the “establishment.” The external enemies of post-modern conservatives were somewhat better defined but still fluctuated a great deal depending on the circumstances. Migrants, Islam, the Chinese, refugees have all served as external enemies at one point or another.
Once they are in power, post-modern conservative politicians often try to claim they are governing in the name of the “people.” These populist invocations belie the fact that, as Jan-Werner Mueller pointed out in his book What is Populism?, quite often these post-modern conservatives do not even take power with the support of a majority of the people. Most Americans did not vote for President Trump; a majority of Hungarians cast a ballot against Viktor Orbán (and Fidesz) in the 2014 election, and Matteo Salvini’s North Star party failed to crack 20 percent of the votes. Despite this, post-modern conservative populists try to frame the population in such a way that all those who do not support them—even if they are citizens—are, in some ambiguous sense, inauthentic members of the polity. The most dramatic recent example of this is President Donald Trumps’s effort to claim several Democratic congresswomen, all citizens and all but one born in the United States, as not really Americans by demanding that they, “Go back.” One of the greatest dangers with post-modern conservatism is that the longer it is in power, the more manically it will undertake these efforts to reframe and reconstruct the population in the nostalgic reactionary image. But because they are themselves the product of this culture, their nostalgia-driven efforts can never succeed. Like the titular king in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, they are part of the problem they misunderstand and hope to fix.
How Can the Left Respond to Post-Modern Conservatism?
“In a world of democracies, in a world where the great projects that have set humanity on fire are the projects of the emancipation of individuals from entrenched social division and hierarchy; in such a world individuals must never be puppets or prisoners of the societies or cultures into which they have been born.” – Roberto Unger, The Left Alternative
To respond to the agitation of post-modern conservatives, critical scholars and the Left should take two steps. My book concludes with a brief outline on how to establish a radicalized social democracy, which can ameliorate the tensions found in post-modern culture while moving past the vulgar inequities of neoliberal societies.
The first step is to encourage greater democratization of the polity and the workplace. Many of the anxieties driving individuals to embrace post-modern conservatism stem from a lack of control of the circumstances and laws which govern them. These are justifiable concerns given how neoliberalism has seriously constrained democracy in many countries, climaxing with the implementation of wildly unpopular bailouts for the wealthy and austerity for everyone else. Leftists might be somewhat skeptical of the value of more democracy, given the outcomes of some recent elections and the Brexit Referendum in 2018. But the only way to counter this drift rightward it to reclaim the democratic impetus from post-modern conservatives and call for greater civic participation. One big step would be to encourage greater democratization of the workplace, which has been on the decline for many decades since the push back against unionization during the Thatcher-Reagan era. Another—equally important—will be to rejuvenate support for internationalism through processes of bottom up legitimation. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas is often disdained by harder edged radicals, who regard his account of deliberative democracy as insufficiently transformative. But in works such as The Divided West, he points out that projects such as the European Union were largely driven by elites who were openly skeptical of (or even disdainful towards) mass involvement. There was a crude materialist assumption that merely delivering the goods in terms of wealth and economic opportunities would be enough to gradually generate mass support for integration. Habermas points out the frequently underestimated extent to which individuals value non-economic goods as sources of their self-identity. This is not to suggest there is anything “natural” about the concept of national identity. It is very much a contingent idea, largely developed in Europe through the 18th and 19th centuries, which does not have to play a substantial role in framing our identity. But for now it does, and Habermas was wise to point out that democratic participation is one of the few ways to gradually wean communities off national particularism—and towards a more global outlook.
The second step would be to call for greater redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom. A major advantage enjoyed by post-modern conservatives has been their ability to frame politics through an antagonistic us/them binary where alleged “elites” are trampling over the interests of ordinary people. To recover the initiative, leftists can turn the tables by pointing out that the millionaires and billionaires invoking this rhetoric are doing little to actually benefit the people they profess to admire so deeply. Calling for substantial efforts to redistribute wealth and power back to the economically marginalized is a way of both advancing a progressive agenda while seizing the impetus from post-modern conservatives. It is also important to link the redistribution of wealth from narratives about inequality to those about fairness and opportunity. Bernie Sanders is an exemplar here. Inequality is important in and of itself, particularly in a liberal society committed to the principle that, “all men are created equal.” The moral impetus of liberalism should be towards rectifying arbitrary inequities and establishing a more just society that does not discriminate against the many for the misfortune of being born into marginalized groups. But Sanders also humanizes the impact of inequality by pointing out the negative consequences it has for millions of people. When you face a choice between working a second job to pay prohibitive healthcare bills and spending time with your family, many of us will lean towards the former. The consequence is that people do not lead flourishing lives of dignity where they can live up to their potential. In countries as wealthy as the United States, this is not some naturalized consequence of the rain falling on the just and the unjust alike. It is a collective choice made to ignore suffering when there are plentiful resources to ameliorate it. Sanders’ agitation for a more humane society could do a lot to counter this development.
If both these steps were taken, the Left would have a good chance of turning the tide against the rise of post-modern conservative sentiments that have been sweeping the globe over the past decade. It is important to recognize that reactionary movements like post-modern conservatism are just that: reactions. They lack sufficient reflection and energy to genuinely confront the conditions which they despise, and yet they are still responsible for their identity and outlook. An ambitious progressive movement guided by optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect would be authentically transformative—and would help bring about a new state of affairs that builds upon (but transcends) the limitations of the old. A society where everyone has enough to lead a good life and participates in their own governance more directly would push against much of the alienation and despair now felt.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof