To Connor O’Callaghan. With tremendous gratitude and love.
The emergence of post-modern conservatism, while perhaps surprising to some, is, in fact, the consequence of very tangible and long-term trends across global society. This is because post-modernism is not first and foremost an intellectual movement, though its inner dynamics were first consciously or unconsciously understood and expressed by intellectuals and artists. Post-modernism is a cultural phenomenon wherein formerly objective epistemological, aesthetic and moral standards for making judgments “melt into the air” to use Marx’s famous expression. What replaces these “objective” standards is complex. For proponents of post-modernism, the collapse of these standards opens new horizons for human creativity and the reevaluation of architectonic concepts such as the self, history, and power. I do not deny that such possibilities are indeed latent within the post-modern culture, and many great artists and intellectuals have engaged in just such creative endeavors. However, post-modern culture can also produce less emancipatory effects. With the effacement of previous standards for judgment, many paradoxically turn to subjective identity as a source of stability and normative authority in an increasingly unmoored world.
Post-Modern Culture and Neoliberalism
I believe David Harvey is right to argue that post-modern culture emerges as a result of the economic, technological, and structural transformations brought about by neo-liberalism. Marx observed long ago that under capitalist conditions “all that is solid melts into air.” I argue that in neo-liberal post-modern culture, this has taken place with accelerating speed and reach. Firstly, capitalist transformations have increasingly brought about growing social fragmentation and alienation as the economy becomes ever more globalized, resulting in greater labor mobility, transforming working conditions, and increasing inequality. Secondly, technological advancements have brought about a hyper-real environment where neo-liberal subjects who feel alienated from these economic transformations increasingly inhabit restricted and highly partisan communication bubbles. The result of this is a growing distrust of alternative political viewpoints and the epistemic and moral foundations upon which they rest. This leads to an even greater sense of social fragmentation, amplified by concerns that internal enemies are responsible for the woes of alienated neo-liberal subjects. Finally, there is growing anxiety about the structural inability of the state apparatus to deal with these transformations, which leads to an authoritarian push to seize political power in order to put a halt to them. I will discuss the first two trends in this section, and the final one in the next.
Post-modern culture emerges in a neoliberal context for a variety of reasons. It is distinct from post-modern philosophy-in all its variety and complexity-as constituting a specific ideological approach to claims about knowledge and politics. Neoliberal economic and political policies have oriented society towards specific conceptions of individualism that detached subjects from their ethnic and cultural identities where these were antithetical to the imperatives of global capitalism. Individual neoliberal subjects were constituted to think of themselves primarily as consumers whose primary agency was to make decisions about what commodities to acquire and how to engage in the economy as market actors looking after their self-interest. From the standpoint of neoliberal ideology, this was to be emancipatory as ethnic and cultural barriers to the pursuit of consumption and self-interest were dissolved.
The actual consequence over the long run was to gradually dissolve the shared ethnic and cultural identities which provided individuals with the joint frameworks needed to make comparatively “objective” assessments about knowledge and politics as determined by the hermeneutics of that tradition. This increasingly led individuals to feelings of atomistic detachment from the world, generating the sense of social loneliness and isolation which is often a pre-requisite for the emergence of totalitarianism. This was coupled with the rising inequality and economic instability generated by neo-liberal capitalism, best represented in the Great Recession of 2008 where the rich got richer and the poor were screwed. This generated a large segment of the population that was simultaneously less attached to the ideal of their being and an objective system of knowledge and way of going about politics, increasingly isolated and alone, and willing to blame elite figures for these developments. The consequence of this was that many people became attracted to reactionary politics which emphasized a return to traditional identity and its values, the destruction of the elites responsible for undermining it while retaining the neoliberal skepticism about “objective” truths which were barriers to the pursuit of one’s interest — now interpreted collectively.
Postmodern Culture and Technological Transformations
This brings me to my second point about the impact of technological transformations in a neoliberal context. The early years of the 21st century were marked by an explosion of new digital technologies and media. The projected social impact of these technologies was aligned with neoliberal ideology. New technologies would bring about the dissolution of ethnic and cultural barriers to dialogue, and thus the consumption of commodities from across the globe. This would, in turn, generate more understanding, tolerance as filtered via neoliberal understandings of rights, and freedom for individuals to create new kinds of identity. In some circumstances, this has indeed been the case. New technologies have brought about dialectical transformations in society with both positive and negative characteristics.
We are now witnessing the negative consequence of these transformations. New technologies allowed reactionary and lonely individuals to increasingly coordinate with one another in the hyper-real medium of the internet. 4Chan, Breitbart, the Daily Stormer rose to prominence as communication bubbles where individuals were constantly exposed to narratives about how their given identity was under attack by liberal and multi-cultural elites who used “objectivity” and knowledge to dissolve the values of traditional identities. Constantly exposed to these digitally articulated narratives, and disconnected from the rest of the world by the imperatives of neo-liberal economics and policies, people increasingly adopted what Marcuse characterized as a “one-dimensional” attitude towards the world. Seeking to reclaim space for the ethnic and cultural identities they felt had been lost, they also no longer had the capacity to even recognize the ability of other such identities who also operated in neo-liberal society. Where they did recognize them, it was through the lens of a hermeneutics of suspicion rather than dialogue. This led to growing calls to move out of the digital realm back to the concrete realm of real politics. Reactionaries organized around a given identity and sought to push its understanding of truth and politics against those who argued for a different identity and affiliated values. To do this they needed to seize control of the state apparatus, still the “best” tool available to push back against social transformation and reassert the power of traditional identities and their beliefs.
Conclusion: The Emergence of Post-Modern Conservativism as a Political Movement
Reactionaries operating in post-modern neoliberal cultures and empowered by technology often give their ambitions a mythical dimension; saving Western civilization, preventing “white genocide,” making America “great again” and so on. I believe these mythologized politics are deployed by reactionaries to push back against the postmodern culture of neoliberal “last men” and their elite, multicultural allies who are responsible for the loneliness and meaninglessness of neoliberal society. They wish to mobilize traditional identity as the last refuge against nihilism and meaninglessness. The results of that tendency I associate with post-modern culture: the right-wing authoritarian push to buck the erosion of the nation-state and social fragmentation through advocating a malicious form of mythologized identity politics. This is what I term post-modern conservatism.