Criticizing Postmodern Conservatism: A Response

Criticizing Postmodern Conservatism: A Response

My books (available here and here) on postmodern conservatism have enjoyed some interest: including, to my surprise, critical interest from conservatives and moderates. The most sustained effort was a recent series of essays by Nate Hochman, Jonathan Church, Declan Leary, Samuel Kronen and Sahil Handa, who presented takes on postmodern conservatism ranging from acceptance to outright rejection. I’m very grateful to these essayists for their feedback. If it is true that your opponents define you more than your friends, then I have been lucky indeed.

In the following article, I will respond to each of these authors in the hopes of fostering more engaged dialogue between thoughtful leftists and conservatives about the fundamental problems of our society and spurring more creative thinking on potential solutions. A dialogue on the Zero Books channel also addresses the issues, more extensively.

Responding to Nate Hochman

Hochman’s essay “After Liberty” is an express callback to Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal critique of modernity After Virtue. In that book, MacIntyre argues that the modern world is radically fallen, since individuals no longer have a profound sense of the ends their lives should be put towards and that the consequence has been a deepening sense of nihilism and atomistic withdrawal. Hochman argues that it is from this that postmodern conservatism arises, as

the logical outcome of an aggrieved moral and philosophical understanding that has become frustrated with its inability to communicate itself in the democratic marketplace of ideas and feels powerless and unqualified to mount a defense against the corrosive threat of these broader developments.

Like MacIntyre, and like Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed, Hochman makes the argument that the liberal emphasis on unbridled liberty is at least partially to blame. This is because excess liberty has resulted in a fractured communal morality. Society now lacks a shared sense of what is virtuous. Hochman also blames the political left, making the strikingly Deneenian argument that progressives paradoxically want to use state power to eliminate the last vestiges of shared moral restrictions on unvirtuous behavior: for instance, by silencing pro-life advocates and demanding Christian acceptance of same-sex marriage. Conservatives have responded by also adopting a “nakedly” Nietzschian approach to politics: shunning virtue and universal truths and accepting that political life is merely about the power to implement one’s subjective group preferences over the whole of society.

There is a great deal to admire in Hochman’s panoramic essay. I largely agree that contemporary politics is characterized by a nakedly Nietzschian power grab by groups devoid of higher moral purpose, and that this has come to characterize much of both the left and the right. I also think there is something to Hochman’s contention that identitarian postmodern conservatism has drawn considerable inspiration from the identity politics of the postmodern left, or, to use David Harvey’s neologism, various iterations of “militant particularism.” As Corey Robin observes in The Reactionary Mind, conservatives have a long history of appropriating the rhetoric and even outlook of progressives in order to combat their adversaries—undermining the master’s house with his own tools. This was given insufficient attention in my books, and Hochman is right to bring it up.

However, I do not think we should place too much explanatory power on the idea that the right is merely parroting the tropes of the left. On the surface, this may well be correct, but it doesn’t explain why the general shift to postmodern identity politics took place. What was its appeal, and why has it come to the fore in our time? We need to look more deeply into how classical liberalism, capitalism and secularism generated the conditions for detached individualism to emerge. In a godless world, where each individual is framed as a consumer, responsible for the private pursuit of her subjective vision of happiness, but under conditions of deepening economic precarity and inequality for millions, should we be surprised that many people have become relativistic nihilists? This runs a lot deeper than the surface politics of left and right. The solution shouldn’t be to abandon liberalism—as many postmodern conservatives want—but to rejuvenate it along more democratic and participatory lines, giving each individual a more immediate say in her community and empowering her to develop her capabilities more thoroughly.

Responding to Declan Leary

Declan Leary’s essay “Conservatism: Pre-modern, Post-Modern, etc” accepts many of the broad contours of my argument, but gives them a radically different normative spin. Leary summarizes my argument in the following way:

a significant current of conservative sentiment has adopted its own brand of identity politics built on perceived bonds of blood, religion, place—R. R. Reno’s “strong gods”—that transcend time, fiercely opposed to any outside threats … this identity politics has replaced a conservatism rooted in rationally discerned truth.

He makes the striking claim that this is “kind of the point.” Leary contends that the rationalist prejudices of the modern world have undermined our shared relations to “soil, sea, machine; persons, pleasures, duties,” which are the best way for human beings to apprehend the truth of the world. He accuses me of having a rationalist bias and of assuming that anyone who doesn’t accept the truth of reason and Enlightenment is simply wrong. Instead, he offers a pastoral account of genuinely reactionary conservatism, centered on land and tradition. Were this world restored, much of the “conservative enmity” would dissolve into a “love of these things,” which have been lost under the corrosive pressures of modern and now postmodern rationalist progress.

Like T. S. Eliot’s (invoked uncritically by Leary) unwise political flirtations, there are some disturbing connotations to this. The mirror image of uncritical demands for change at any cost is nostalgic reverence for the past. As Ian Shapiro points out, one man’s idealized historical tradition is another woman’s tyrannical ideological hegemony. If we abandon reason in favor of pastoralized affect, as a means of revealing truth, we lose our capacity to distinguish between the former and the latter. Leary gives the example of Russia prior to 1917: where the virtual slavery of serfdom had only been abolished within living memory (in 1861); millions of lives had been thrown away in the imperial rivalries of the First World War; and famine often killed hundreds of thousands. Things were so bad that even an aristocrat turned Christian radical like Leo Tolstoy railed against the Russian system in works like The Kingdom of God Is Within Youwhich led to his eventual excommunication from the Orthodox Church. Things were far from the beautiful harmony suggested by Leary’s description of aristocrats like Nabokov responsibly running their estates for the betterment of all, with charming peasants “plowing the fields” in the background.

This kind of reasoning has a distinctly postmodern dimension. The nostalgic pastiche of the past to which many reactionaries turn, as a consolation against a fallen culture, bears little resemblance to actual life in those periods. It is a politically corrected version—scrubbed clean of the violence and ugliness that led people to reject their traditions and autocracies en masse. This pastoral vision fails to recognize that its imagined, idealized pastiche of traditionalist societies bears little resemblance to historical reality and that these societies broke down not because of some decadent decline, but because tradition and authority failed to provide millions with what they needed to live dignified lives. To establish a better society, we need to take a good hard look at the past, analyzing what worked, what went wrong and how we can do better. Reason is a vital tool in that process, and if it compels us to look twice at idolized traditions then that is for the best.

Responding to Jonathan Church

Jonathan Church argues that my use of the term neoliberalism is too vague and that the word is often used as an empty signifier for whatever inequities leftists like myself dislike. Responding to my critiques of meritocratic arguments, he concedes that contemporary hierarchies are not “perfect,” but argues that they are not arbitrary either. For Church, economics is about “incentives,” not rights and he elaborates a counter history of neoliberalism to the one given in my book.

But the ambiguity Church detects in progressive accounts of neoliberalism isn’t the result of a lack of rigorous takes, but due to the plurality of discussions about it from distinct disciplinary perspectives. One of the reasons why many conservative critics complain that there is no settled account of neoliberalism is the propensity of too much of the right wing media to want to deal with the left, rather than with specific authors and arguments. Wendy Brown is a political theorist, and consequently argues that neoliberalism is best understood as a “governing rationality.” David Harvey is a critical geographer and interprets it as an “ethic” guiding human action across an increasingly interconnected globe. Quinn Slobodian is an economic historian and so sees it as an intellectual movement that emerged to reorient the post-war liberal internationalist order by insulating capital from democratic pressures. My own interpretation is social: neoliberal societies have a “unique form of governance characterized by peculiar transformations” in politics, the social sphere, the economy and technological communication. We all agree with Church, however, in rejecting the stock claim that neoliberals merely intend to shrink the state. As Jessica Whyte observes in The Morals of the Market, many neoliberal intellectuals are quite comfortable with state intervention that advances their agenda. I make the same point in The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism: “the conceit that neoliberals disdained the state in favor of markets remains largely a popular cliché,” and point to examples of neoliberals like Von Mises, who have called for government intervention. The relationship of neoliberalism to postmodern conservatism is that the radical transformations characteristic of such societies generate a strong sense of uncertainty through the dissolution of traditional communities, which leads to a reactionary desire for a return to older lifestyles and values. Church doesn’t engage with my specific arguments on this point.

Church rejects my contention, developed from John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, that contemporary inequality results from moral arbitrariness. Church insists that hierarchies are not “perfectly arbitrary” and that economics is about incentives, not rights. But Rawls was aware that many economists of his time flouted talk about rights and morality when discussing the economy, stressing that they were merely engaged in a rationalistic task of explaining how economic incentives generate wealth and make societies and individuals better off. Rawls argues that this is a bad way to look at things, since it ignores the moral questions about what a just distribution of resources would look like. He contends that no rational actor in a position of impartiality would choose a largely laissez faire—let alone a neoliberal—system, since that would permit too much unfairness in society. This is related to Rawls’ critique of moral arbitrariness. It is not about rejecting institutional hierarchies, as Church seems to suggest. Rawls was well aware that institutional hierarchies may serve a purpose in rewarding competence and incentivizing labour. His contention is that succeeding or failing in even a well-designed hierarchy is largely the result of morally arbitrary factors for which individuals can claim no credit—either they were born with natural talents or defects, were situated in beneficial or detrimental social circumstances, and so on. We have compelling moral reasons to accept the existence of incentive structures only so long as they work to the benefit of the least well off, since they wind up at the bottom through no fault of their own. Church needs a more thorough argument for why a laissez faire system isn’t just economically efficient, but moral.

Responding to Samuel Kronen

Kronen is “thoroughly persuaded” that postmodern conservatism is a real thing and characterizes my analysis as “accurate” and “useful in clarifying certain political dynamics.” But he takes issue with the “prescriptive implication(s)” of my work. Kronen seems more sympathetic than I am to some of the reactions against the profound transformations that have characterized neoliberal societies with postmodern cultures. This has been, to some extent, the expected outcome of a time of “unprecedented ethnocultural changes, which have been coupled with the expansion of moral stigmas around issues of race and gender activated by mainstream progressivism.” The butt of his argument is that progressives bear at least some of the blame for the reactionary politics that has emerged because they have put too much pressure on conservatives to embrace a new multicultural, inclusive dynamic, while also relentlessly blaming majority groups for the sins of their fathers. Rather than vilifying conservatives, Kronen encourages a more understanding approach.

I agree that the left needs to do far more to engage with those who disagree with us: a sentiment I share with Contrapoints, Michael Brooks, Ben Burgis and others. The seminal work on this subject remains Mark Fisher’s essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” which castigates left wing Twitter for having a “priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” This is a serious problem. We progressives win ourselves few friends by behaving like puritans, rather than trying to convince others.  But, like Kronen, I think such excesses cannot excuse the xenophobia, obfuscation of truth and agonistic politics of confrontation that characterize much of postmodern conservatism.

Responding to Sahil Handa

Sahil Handa’s essay is the most esoteric of the bunch. Handa’s main point is that postmodern conservatism is a more dynamic and interesting movement than I give it credit for. He points to Nassim Taleb and Peter Thiel as exemplars. Both are eccentric figures, who readily embrace elements of modernity—particularly the technological empowerment it brings—while rejecting others. Taleb wants a return to more localized forms of democracy, like those of Switzerland or the classical Greek states, because such democracies are more flexible, creative and “resistant to external shocks” than contemporary bureaucratic liberal democracies. Peter Thiel similarly wants a rejection of liberal subjectivism in favour of a return to the world of “external action” and thinks nationalist conservatism can provide a framework for rejuvenation. The point Handa takes away from these figures it that it is inevitable that any ideology skeptical of large-scale responses to the world’s problems is “bound to look to the past for a way out.” This is because the past offers numerous smaller stories about how human beings generated creative solutions to their problems—stories that have been lost amid the hyperreal bigness of postmodernity. Consequently, Handa argues that “nostalgia is a useful political strategy,” though vigorous postmodern conservatism has to gradually wean itself off the agonistic politics of the culture war, and present a more visionary account of the future.

Handa’s intriguing argument suggests a Promethean quality to postmodern conservatism. However, the historical consciousness of Taleb and Thiel is neither uncritical or even really nostalgic. It embraces features of the modern world while looking to the past for inspiration to fix the problems of modernity. By contrast, postmodern conservative nostalgia is reactionary: it rejects the present but is unable to define itself without it. This explains why postmodern conservative politics assumes the kind of agonistic stance it does. The endless outrage over the culture war, the constant complaints about PC culture and so on are not bugs, but defining characteristics, since postmodern conservatives primarily understand politics in terms of what they oppose. Their nostalgia is not an appreciation for real history, but a longing for an idealized vision of history, free of the animosities and decay they detect all around them, which were brought about largely by their enemies. Whether it can evolve into the more creative outlooks of Taleb and Thiel, or Peter Lawler, is an open question. Given the rage and self-pity that have characterized many of Trump’s recent actions, I’m not optimistic.

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