“This does seem to be occurring in the academy, as the contemporary academic stars of critical theory such as Alain Badious and Slavoj Žižek tend to be hostile to the extreme skepticism of post-modern theory.”
recent piece criticizing the notion that we live in a “post-truth” era. Andrade acknowledges that I “have a point” in my contentions about post-modern conservatismhere is much to appreciate in Gabriel Andrade’s . However, Andrade contends that my position is somewhat overstated—in that things are generally getting better rather than worse. Here he invokes Steven Pinker’s well-known defense of progress in Enlightenment Now. Andrade goes on to say that if there is a cultural tendency to embrace “post-truth,” it is more prevalent on the political left than on the political right. He invokes a number of well-known radical left theorists, who embraced skeptical positions to back up this case. Here, I will quote Andrade at some length:
“Richard Rorty, Paul Feyerabend, Jacques Derrida, and many, many more held similar views. The Left—not the Right—loves these thinkers. A bow-tied young Republican is highly unlikely to quote Derrida; it is, in reality, the dreadlocks-wearing activist, who is far more likely to bid farewell to truth.
These aforementioned intellectual figures have had a more unnoticed (yet, at the same time) more profound influence on the disregard for truth in our times. They are the professors who keep telling us that objectivity does not exist because claims about the world are always mediated by power. They are the ones who advise students not to refute a particular claim but, rather, to say that because the person who makes that claim has a particular identity, then that claim cannot be taken seriously.
With such disregard for truth, we must come to admit that fake reports on Breitbart are actually the chickens coming home to roost. The fake news of right-wing media may be the leaves, but the intellectual Left is the trunk and the roots of that monstrous tree.”
This objection is well-put and does follow organically from my linking of post-modernism to contemporary conservatism ala Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and such. In the remainder of this piece, I will discuss my justification for this position in more detail. I have decided to invert Andrade’s ordering by discussing the point about left-wing theory and truth before moving on to arguing for the prevalence of a post-truth society. This is because I think that much turns on the need to distinguish between post-modern skeptical theory (and its undoubted impact) and the more general cultural condition of post-modernity diagnosed by a number of commentators.
The Skepticism of Post-Modern Theory
One key distinction we need to make is between post-modernism as a theory and post-modernism as a cultural condition. Post-modern theory is—put very crudely—a distinctive form of epistemic skepticism, which emerged in the 1960’s in the works of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and so on. Generalizing broadly, post-modern thinkers were skeptical of “meta-narratives,” which suggested reality and morality could be explained within a single theoretical framework. Instead, they stressed the pluralism of ways of apprehending and knowing the world, often critiquing efforts to assimilate or discredit forms of knowledge that contradicted the logic of standard meta-narratives such as Enlightenment progressivism, Marxism, or Christianity. By contrast, interpreting post-modernism as a culture entails very different commitments. Figures like David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, and Wendy Brown agree that neoliberal post-modernity is characterized by the breakdown of standard accounts of truth. Indeed, they go further than the post-modern theorists by insisting that this is not just a philosophical point; everyday people are beginning to adopt skeptical attitudes towards the validity of tradition, faith, and uncritical scientific rationalism. But the analysts of post-modern culture insist that this is not something to celebrate uncritically. Indeed, many of them saw post-modern culture as a kind of apathetic resignation to the inequities of the present.
This distinction clarifies an objection to Andrade’s argument. I firmly agree with him that many post-modern theorists promoted various forms of skepticism that we should reject. In the long run, this is ultimately true for progressives, who must put forward constructive arguments to be convincing. Post-modern theory—like all forms of skepticism back to Socrates—was of tremendous value in loosening calcified certainties that warranted deeper interrogation. It also helped to create political space for the inclusion of groups who were marginalized by dominant meta-narratives—the moral panic surrounding homosexuality based on a conservative reading of the Bible being a prominent example. However, ultimately, I do share Andrade’s distaste for any theoretical position that does not sincerely put forward general principles for dispute, continuously evading the burden of moral judgement. Ultimately, progressives would be better served by taking what is best in post-modern theory and moving on. This does seem to be occurring in the academy, as the contemporary academic stars of critical theory such as Alain Badious and Slavoj Žižek tend to be hostile to the extreme skepticism of post-modern theory.
However, this does not mean we do not reside within a post-modern culture that is generally becoming more skeptical towards meta-narratives. The reasons for this are complex but relate back to the profound socio-economic, political, and technological transformations of neoliberal society—themselves a continuance of the declining faith in truth Nietzsche diagnosed as far back as the 19th century. To give just one example-elaborated on in my piece “The Rise of the Right Wing Outrage Machine,” the shift towards consuming information via digital media had serious negative consequences. On the one hand, people were able to access more information than ever before. On the other, much of this information was presented in a streamlined and flat manner, distilling complex subjects in to five-minute soundbites often delivered with one sided intention. The point, as Neil Postman observed in his prophetic work Amusing Ourselves to Death, was for information to be entertaining and easy to digest, rather than challenging and provocative. When an entire society begins to consume information in this manner, the consequences are easy to predict.
What I call post-modern conservatism arose in this environment, in part, through being fed a steady diet of one-dimensional, hyper-partisan material—presented by the right-wing media. Pundits encouraged listeners and readers to adopt a skeptical attitude towards rationalistic sources of epistemic authority associated with liberalism and progressivism—since these appeared to undermine faith in traditional values and authority. This was an easy sell because—as the history of conservative critiques of reason from de Maistre through Oakeshott and Robert Bork shows—conservatism can readily turn hostile towards rationalism under the proper conditions. When politicians like Trump castigate over-educated elites for promoting fake news (or Viktor Orbán forces out the Central European University), they appeal to the skepticism of post-modern conservatives eager to dismiss facts and arguments, which undermine they convictions. Trump himself is an eminently post-modern figure, purveying not so much untruth or dishonesty as what philosopher Harry Frankfurt would call bulls—. What distinguishes bulls— from untruth is a liar is aware he is telling falsehoods; in some sense, the liar knows and respects the truth by consciously obscuring it. By contrast, a bulls—er perceives reality as largely subject to their whims and says whatever is necessary to get what he wants. The bulls—er has no interest in facts or truth, seeing them as irrelevant to the pursuit of power and influence. As Karl Rove said, when criticizing the “reality based community,” a bulls—er believes that he can, “create our own reality.” Unfortunately, reality is a pretty real thing and has a way of kicking back at those who so disrespect it.
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