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The Culture War is Not Taking Place: On the technological contingency of Postmodern Conservatism

Postmodern conservatives want power to remain with those who have traditionally enjoyed it so they can roll back perceived social fragmentation and restore the core values of society.

We are now approaching the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cold War and proclamations that the “end of history” was nigh.  Looking back, the triumphalist sentiments of the liberal 1990s seem positively misguided.  Battles about what social values should be accepted, what books should be read on campus, and even the language that can be used in polite society seem to rage onwards as part of the so called “culture wars.”  Indeed, the culture war seems to be reaching a fever pitch across the Western world. In Hungary, Victor Orban is seeking reelection to retrench his anti-refugee “illiberal democracy.”  In the United Kingdom, the debate about Brexit and how best to protect British sovereignty carries on. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party continues to pursue its campaign to re-Christianize the country and purge it of foreign influences.  And of course, in the United States the farcical display of Trumpism continues to play itself out.

It does not mean it is unable to impact the real world.

Obviously these trends are concerning and have a real impact. Our point in this brief article isn’t to dismiss that. Instead, we want to look at the digital roots of the culture war and demonstrate how its most aggressive militants are motivated more by the hyperreal influx of ideological products than by a cool look at reality.  Despite the tremendous lack of evidence that Western civilization is any way under threat, what we term post-modern conservatism has emerged in digital mediums to combat this decline under the auspices of culture war. Post-modern conservatism is characterized by all the hyperbole and disconnect from reality one would expect from a movement that emerged on the internet.  But this does not mean it is unable to impact the real world. One of the concerning features of postmodern conservatism has been its push to transform reality in line with the unreal through by mobilizing traditional identity to attack the specter of the “other.”

The Culture War Isn’t Taking Place: Digital Echo Chambers

The battlefields of the culture war are digital, namely social media feeds, podcast land, and the comment section. The basic vocabulary of the conflict has, in a relatively short time, become concrete–radical left, alt-right, social justice warrior, mainstream or liberal media–such that the use of any of these terms immediately identifies them with a tribe, without the need of any additional context; the rain barrels of left and right catch all.

Yet the culture war is not really taking place; rather, it appears to be taking place precisely because it isn’t. Social media feeds (particularly those of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter) produce polarized antagonism by design. The content that is most likely to be rewarded and thrust into visibility is that which provokes immediate reaction; that is, norm-deviance increases the likelihood of propagation. News consists of the extraordinary, the exceptional, the excessive, and the scandalous–that which is unexpected is that which is most likely to incite a reaction.

Simulation of war.

Norm-deviant communication circuits are produced and enabled by personalized feeds, wherein interacting with some content (by viewing, liking, commenting etc.) is rewarded with more associated content. Over time, reinforcing a user’s personal ranking algorithm causes the genetic drift of the vocabulary, opinions, and associations of one’s nodular tribe, such that their communication becomes increasingly detached from the aggregate status quo, and increasingly antagonistic to nodular tribes with contrary vocabulary, opinions and associations.  These circuits are commonly known as “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers,” which are isolated communication circuits wherein nodes of users’ feeds normalize the extraordinary, exceptional, excessive and scandalous. All that becomes visible is the most deviant and polarizing content: a simulation of war.

The Polarization of Discourse and The Emergence of Post-Modern Conservatism

We should clarify, even as our hyperreal culture war is being waged among the ranking algorithms of social media feeds, it is not the sufficient cause for polarized discourse itself, for as J.S. Mill observed 150 years ago, “in the human mind, one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception.” However, a user can find itself in a hyperreal feedback loop quite easily. If you require convincing, click your way to YouTube in a private browsing window, type in your boogeyman of choice–e.g. alt-right, social justice warrior, or liberal media–and let the autoplay carry you to the battlefields of hyperreal antagonism, where the heroes one’s tribe OWN or DESTORY the other’s. For many, it seems, these exchanges come to represent truly personal and pressing concerns for their culture’s future.

Let the autoplay carry you to the battlefields of hyperreal antagonism.

Given the technological contingency of the situation, we wish to focus on the emergence of what we have termed post-modern conservatism. Fundamentally, this association is one of nostalgia and antagonistic identity politics, and its heroes are prolific social media celebrities who have strategically or unwittingly used the basic operations of feed algorithms to become authorities in the eyes of their followers. Truth and falsity in postmodern conservatism is largely a matter of a tribal vocabulary in opposition to what is usually reduced to “the radical left.”

To illustrate: campus protests demanding safe-spaces are rare, just as white supremacist rallies are rare. Yet when such events are offered up as content to a feed which privileges norm-deviant content, they are virtually guaranteed to be made visible. The occurrences of these events need not be subject to corroboration with the status quo of offline reality, where they are unlikely to occur, because the reality of social media is generated as a closed system of digital information. Relative to “news”, offline reality is drab and predictable. Enabled by the feed, however, the most extreme positions become normalized, supplanting the relative banality of the majority with the figures of “radical postmodern Marxists” or “white nationalist authoritarians.” Although there is no such extremes exist, they are far overrepresented in the rhetoric of their antagonists due to the visibility rewarded by the feed. These trends are exaggerated, and seen as indicatory that the cultural fabric of society is being fundamentally changed. Often this is associated with implicit fears about social fragmentation: the core values of societies are being abandoned as society increasingly liberalizes in line with the progressive doctrines advocated be out of touch “elites” such as intellectuals and through the demands of unnatural minority groups such as members of the LGBTQ community. More insidiously, postmodern conservatives will point to the ever growing number of foreigners, who bring with them alien values and ways of living, as another source of social fragmentation. These exaggerated fears, stoked within hyperreal mediums, are then used to mobilize the ethnic identity of those who hold to “traditional values.”

Postmodern conservatism adopts a homogenizing stance towards society.

Conclusion: Postmodern Conservatism’s Identity Politics

Though it emerged in the echo chambers of the internet, postmodern conservatism has since achieved considerable popular and political success. This is a very worrying trend. Post-modern conservatism is characterized by the hyperbolic and apocalyptic sense that the core values of society are collapsing and social fragmentation deepening. The blame for this is cast on unpopular “elite” groups like intellectual and marginalized communities such as LGBTQ groups and ethnic minorities drawn to developed countries. To fight against them, post-modern conservatism mobilizes the identity of traditionally powerful identities in society, stoking the resentment at being victimized by those who do not hold to their values. Their calls for a retrenchment of tradition are cast along the lines identity, rather than through appeals to truth or objectivity, because identity and its affiliated values cannot be challenged by the traditional means available in “normal” political discourse.  What this mean of course is that that postmodern conservatives have developed their own form of identity politics. But unlike the more pluralistic identity politics often affiliated with left-wing postmodernism, postmodern conservatism adopts a homogenizing stance towards society. Postmodern conservatives want power to remain with those who have traditionally enjoyed it so they can roll back perceived social fragmentation and restore the core values of society.  It is in the interest of all of us to make sure they don’t get it.