Matt McManus discusses the rise of post-modern conservatism and how – for the American Left in particular – 2020 is a vital year in the battle against it.
In 2016 Donald Trump shocked the world by becoming the first oompa looompa to be elected President of the United States. The liberal commentariat expressed shock and disdain for this paradigm shift, understandably calling out Trump´s long history of making salacious remarks about women, his appeals to xenophobia, and willingness to tear up decades of neoliberal policy making. Yet for all that Trump is still treated as something of an anomaly. At the end of the 20th century figures like Francis Fukuyama insisted we had reached the “end of history.” Adapting the thinking of Hegelians like Alexandre Kojeve, he insisted that with the fall of Soviet communism there was, as Thatcher might put it, no alternative to neoliberal capitalism.
Politics, to the extent it could even be called that, would consist of back and forths on marginal tax rates and cultural wars on the regulation of shrimp flavored chimps. Neoliberalism, and we might add capitalist realism, were here to stay. Even with the Brexit vote, the descent of eastern Europe, Brazil, India and the United States into reactionary furor, and worst of all the ascent of people like Dave Rubin to stardom, it was very difficult to believe things were truly changing. Few could appreciate the kind of resentment which militant nostalgia and a sense of declining authority could generate. Nor the dramatic political shifts this would inspire.
This tendency for populist right parties and politicians to embody capitalist realism while peddling nationalist characteristics could be termed ‘post-modern conservatism’. It is arguably a predictable reaction to the instabilities of neoliberal society and its own post-modern cultural conditions. Neoliberal societies were built on the ideological conceit that deepening inequality and the destabilization of traditional ways of life would be tolerated so long as the global economy continued to deliver the goods. The expectation was that new entrepreneurial subjects could be created who viewed the world through an economistic lens where all values had their price. These subjects would accept precarity and unfairness so long as their personal quality of life continued to improve year after year.
The 2008 financial crisis, the most chaotic period in the global economy since the Great Depression, brought the house of cards tumbling down. It exposed neoliberal subjects to the material conditions of their society; which had been rocked by socio-political, economic, and technological changes. It also deeply contemporary neoliberal capitalism, as a revolutionary mode of production where “all that is solid melts into the air,” had contributed to the transformation of culture. From engendering mass migrations across the globe to upending rural communities through the fluid movement of capital, the world often seemed to be changing in front of our eyes. At the same time, the insistence that life be approached from an entrepreneurial perspective broke down traditional values and communities, in turn troubling the sense of identity which depended on them. To provide one example, relatively conservative people in rural areas found themselves increasingly pressured to move to pluralistic urban spaces defined by a combination of moral tolerance and ruthless competitiveness.
Like all dialectical developments, there was a good side and a downside to these changes. On the one hand it opened new spaces for political agitation on behalf of historically marginalized groups. The colonization of all spheres of life by neoliberal entrepreneurialism helped break down barriers to accepting women as new members of the workplace, upended taboos about the state recognizing marriage contracts between LGBTQ individuals and so on. These were all positive changes. But it also sparked a deep sense of loss in reactionary individuals, who faced a more uncertain world where white male identities increasingly had to compete for opportunities on a comparatively equal playing field. The sense of resentment this generated turned to what Jameson would call a nostalgic desire for a time where these identities remained at the top of the pecking order. The consequence was the rise of post-modern conservatism as a political movement with real teeth.
Post-Modern Conservatism and the Nostalgic Retreat From Complexity
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal
In her fantastic new book In The Ruins of Neoliberalism Wendy Brown describes the appeal of Trump flowing from a resentment of the privileged towards those upending their authority. This of course inverts the old Nietzschian trope about ressentiment as primary a feeling of animosity from the weak directed at the powerful. According to Nietzsche, Christianity embodied the spirit of ressentiment with its insistence that the weak will one day inherit the earth from the strong. Brown points out that the resentment of post-modern conservatives is better understood as the powerful disdaining marginalized peoples for demanding a more equal say in the social polity. The supporters of Trump, Orban, Salvini and so on feel that they had something which was taken away from them through the acts of feminists, immigrants, and the left. Post-modern conservatives despise this development, seeing it as a serious threat to their relatively esteemed status in the hierarchy. They therefore put their faith in a racist, misogynistic President who seems unbound by norms of discourse and is willing to offer a retrenchment of their power against those who demand a fair share. This provides the key to understanding “Make America Great Again”: MAGA isn´t a call for optimism, but a demand for restoration of power and privilege for historically venerated groups whose identity and authority have been undermined by progressive demands. Post-modern conservative leaders appeal to this and promise that if the faithful put their trust in them, they will eliminate the enemies of their supporters and restore them to a place of honor and authority.
Post-modern conservatism, as a product of its culture, is also highly skeptical of rationalistic epistemologies. Like conservative thinkers going back to Burke, de Maistre, and Oakeshott, post-modern conservatives see reason as a potentially destructive force which undermines faith in tradition and so further destabilizes the sources of identity they depend on. This means the deploy strategic skepticism towards any form of rationalistic argument which contradicts their preferences. It also means they are very open to the hyperreal affirmations offered by Trumpist “truthful hyperbole” and any other partisan rhetoric which concretizes their sense of identity. But this skepticism only runs so deep since post-modern conservatives long above all else for a sense of stability in the world, which skepticism inherently undermines. They will therefore quite readily adopt what Oakeshott called a “politics of faith” where necessary to provide stability to their identity and values. This helps explain why figures like Trump and Orban are able to get away with such untruths without his supporters moving away. While some of their savvier supporters may recognize the lies and see them as an inevitable feature of agonistic politics, many post-modern conservatives are more than willing to adjust their conception of truth and values in line with the demands of political authorities. This is perhaps the most significant long-term danger posed by post-modern conservatism, as its impact gradually corrodes supporter’s capacities to make meaningful epistemic judgements. Resentment driven nostalgia becomes a principle political emotion and motivator.
Resentment can be a powerful motivator to abandon truth for nostalgia and identity politics of the worst kind. What progressives need to do to counter it is embrace a politics of optimistic transformation. Resentment flourishes in the climate of unfairness and inequality which so defined the neoliberal epoch; particularly after the Great Recession. An egalitarian project of civic restoration and fairness is the antidote. This is embodied in the Bernie Sanders campaign to make America a democratic socialist country. 2020 is a crucial year in the push against post-modern conservatism, with a major election taking place in the United States and electoral defeats for the BJP in Delhi. It is also a major opportunity for the left to take advantage of the political space opened by the decline of neoliberal hegemony, and put forward a democratic and liberal socialist project. Bernie Sanders represents a genuinely transformative alternative to the conceits of Trumpism through his efforts to sincerely tackle the underlying material inequities of post-modern societies. Most importantly he offers a new conception of American identity which can replace the hierarchical stratification conducive to post-modern conservative resentment. Drawing on a radical tradition with deep roots in the New Deal and the Great Society, Sanders’ efforts could ameliorate the stark inequalities and precarity facing millions of Americans through the provision of universal healthcare and better access to education. Sanders could genuinely make America great, and offer an inspiring success for emancipatory movements across the globe.
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.