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Interview: Merion West Contributor Matt McManus on “Postmodern Conservatism”

“So, I finished my Ph.D. in 2017, and, at the time, Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. Like a lot of people, I was a bit perplexed and disturbed by what happened.”

Matt McManus is a professor of politics and international relations at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico and holds a Ph.D from York University. In addition to being a frequent Merion West contributor, McManus writes at a number of magazines and is the author of the books Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. In this interview, he joins Merion West and Allen Zheng to discuss his recently published essay collection What is Post-Modern Conservatism, which was assembled in collaboration with a few fellow authors. Zheng and McManus discuss the origin of the essay collection, as well as McManus’ general thoughts on how best to conduct political discourse, and his upcoming co-authored book on Jordan Peterson.

Can you talk a little bit about the process you took to write this book?

So, I finished my Ph.D. in 2017, and, at the time, Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. Like a lot of people, I was a bit perplexed and disturbed by what happened. Full disclosure: I thought that Hilary Clinton was going to win—not that I was very enthusiastic about that. This really persuaded me to go back and take another serious look at the history of conservative thought, which I hadn’t done for a few years and try to get a better understanding of what had happened. So I went back and started reading some of the classic text: people like Joseph de Maistre, as well as taking a second or third look at Roger Scruton. What I realized was that there was a lot of overlap between the arguments and positions that I was seeing articulated by those figures and the arguments and positions I associate with modern leftists philosophers.

Once that occurred, it was kind of a spark that lit a fuse beneath me, and I started taking the project more seriously. I also discovered the work of Peter Lawler, who coined the term “postmodern conservatism.” He worked for National Review and was a conservative. After a couple of years, my book (The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism: Neoliberalism, Post-Modern Culture, and Reactionary Politics) came together, and I’m also releasing a collection of essays called What is Post-Modern Conservatism?: Essays on Our Hugely Tremendous Times, which includes pieces by a few other authors, including myself.

For those who are not familiar with the term “postmodern conservatism,” can you explain the origin of term?

The term certainly wasn’t invented by me and was associated with figures such as Robert Bork in the early 1990’s. The academic that really pushed the term into the spotlight was Peter Lawler, who was a professor of political thought in the state of Georgia. He was a self-identified postmodern conservative, though he meant the term in a different sense than I did. His use of the term referred to a conservative who is no longer attached to the political, cultural, and spiritual ethos of modernism, which is thought of as being about self-expression, self-development, and satisfaction of individual desires. When Lawler was talking about postmodern conservatism, he really meant postmodernism, as in after the modern era.

What is the difference between the way Lawler defines postmodern conservatism and how you use the term?

The way that I use the term is a bit different from Lawler. Usually, when scholars talk about postmodernism, there are two different senses in which the term is deployed. One is as a theory usually associated with French philosophers, which is very skeptical that there’s any kind of unified way that we can use to understand the world. Jean-François Lyotard referred to this as “metanarratives.” It has its virtues and defects—much like every other philosophical, skeptical theory. The other way that people interpret postmodernism is as a cultural condition. This is the kind of position taken by people like Peter Lawler and other left-wing critics like David Harvey and Mark Fisher. That’s the way I tend to use the term: as a cultural condition we are living through in the late 20th and 21st centuries. When I talk about postmodern conservatism, I’m talking about the kind of conservative politics that emerges in that postmodern cultural environment.

I notice that you have used postmodern conservatism to explain current situations in many different countries, including, as you said, the election of President Trump, as well as events such as the election of Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom and the political success of Matteo Salvini in Italy. However, the situations in each of these countries are unique. For example, the American economy is very different and more balanced than the Italian economy. Would you say that using postmodern conservatism to explain all of these current situations is an oversimplification of the issue?

That certainly is a risk that you run whenever you develop a new political category and try to apply it very generally. That’s actually one of the reasons in the book that I’m trying to distinguish what I believe is genuine postmodern conservatism from other right-wing populist movements: for instance, Prime Minister Modi in India and President Bolsonaro in Brazil. They share a lot in common with Trump—but not with the paradigm I am talking about. What I think unifies people like Matteo Salvini, Donald Trump, and Boris Johnson—and why they are all postmodern conservatives despite the fact that they all live in very different countries and approach the world in significantly different ways—is the fact that they all share a unifying outlook. They believe that the locus of normal truth is in collective identity: particularly national, ethnic, and religious identity. For them, this is under threat by liberal and left-wing sources that are trying to erode the sources of identity that we rely upon to know who we are and what we should be committed to.

These leftists do this in many different ways: by undermining the self-confidence of Western civilizations and nations, by propagating permissive philosophies that say you should be able to do whatever you want regardless of the culture you were brought up in, and through foreigners or the constant concern and alertness of “the other,” particularly “the other” of Islam. If you look at the different policies, there’s a reason that these people tend to talk about one another and express aberration about one another. I think it’s because they share a unified outlook. That’s, in part, because they are all products of the same postmodern culture I was talking about earlier.

At Merion West, I saw that Samuel Kronen wrote an open letter critiquing your conception of the modern left and your work in this area. What would you say is the most powerful argument against your assessment of postmodern conservatism, and how would you respond to it?

I have seen a number of criticisms of my work that have come forward. For instance, Jonathan Church has a review of my book that’s coming out where he says I put too much emphasis on neoliberalism—or, at least, that I misinterpret neoliberalism and the role that it has played in generating the conditions for postmodern conservatism. In the book, I talk a lot about how economic equality, job precarity, and how all these factors led to these feelings of resentment that were necessary for identity and reactionary-identity to move to the forefront of politics. Jonathan disagrees. He says that if you look at neoliberalism, the economy generally prospers, people tend to get wealthier in absolute terms, even if there is more inequality in relative terms. So Church argues that you can’t really put so much weight on this as an explanatory condition for what you’re talking about.

The way that I push back against this is by saying there’s this neoliberal assumption that still operates in his analysis which is that the only thing people care about when it comes to economic well-being is how well they’re doing, personally. People don’t make interpersonal comparisons, Church suggests. I would argue that they actually do, and there’s a lot of good literature to foster that. When people look at the fact that they are doing better in terms of overall welfare than they were five or six years ago, that comes at a price: There are other people who are doing far better. This stokes a lot of the resentment that I’m talking about. You feel that some people are doing better, and that that’s unfair. This can lead to the kind of reactionary radical politics that we’re seeing right now.

In many of your recent articles, you have been critical of Jordan Peterson’s views and his critiques of the Left, specifically the academic left. You mention that Peterson lacks some substance in his critiques of Marxism and the postmodern left. Why do you think that Peterson is still so successful, and what audience do you think he’s reaching?

First off, I would like to say that I do think Jordan Peterson is a smart guy. I co-authored a book coming out soon that is a leftist critique onf Jordan Peterson, which I am very excited about. Some of the authors I wrote it with disagree with me, but I think there’s something about what he is saying that is resonant with people. I think what most resonates with people is that he is not afraid of addressing big picture issues that people are enduring today: “Who are you?”, “What should you commit yourself to?”, “What does it all mean?” I think someone who is willing to ask those questions and try to provide sincere answers is going to attract an audience because a lot of people are hungry to look into those issues and try to find answers to them. It certainly doesn’t hurt when you’re somebody like Peterson, who is intelligent, articulate, and has a lot of professional accreditations to back up what he said with a little bit of academic and intellectual force. He is also quite charismatic in some ways. When you see him speak, he never delivers dry, sermonizing lectures, even when he was in academia. He speaks with a degree of authority and certainty that can be quite powerful.

Where I think he goes wrong is two-fold. One is, as you mentioned, I don’t think he actually understands what the Left is really going for—either the postmodern left or the Marxist left. There are a lot of intellectual errors in his interpretation of what leftist agitation is about. I also don’t agree with the political solutions he is offering, which are sort of to double down on competence hierarchies and postmodern capitalist societies. I think these are bad solutions. What we should be looking for are more radical, egalitarian alternatives, if we are going to ever deal with any problems of meaning that are so prevalent in our culture right now.

When reading your work, one thing that stands out is how gracious you are to the people who criticize you and really pick apart your work and what you’re saying. Why do you do this?

I have always believed that you should try and model the behavior that you would like to see in others. I think that is a basic principle of civility. I also think that it’s a basic principle of morality. You can go back to something like the Golden Rule that says “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” I think these are very serious issues. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and if there are other people out there that offer things I can learn from, then I certainly invite them to present me their arguments.

Why do you think this graciousness is so important today?

What I don’t necessarily like today is the rush to align yourself with an ideological viewpoint and hold that as the only possible viewpoint, while also criticizing any others who offer you a serious argument that challenges your worldview. So rather than deal with them, you just dismiss them by any means necessary. I do try to be patient and model my behavior to be different than those people, but, honestly, as you might have noticed, there are vicious people who comment on my work in patronizing and insulting ways. I find it difficult to find graciousness when dealing with those people, largely because I don’t think they have bothered to take what I have said seriously. So it doesn’t necessarily encourage me to take their criticisms all that seriously.

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Chris Jones
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Chris Jones

The British and French fought in WWII, where they were fighting against Fascist Italy. Therefore, I call the British & French military the Allied Fascist Italians. You see, those military forces emerged in that war environment.