Philosophy
comments 87

The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism

Few things agitate today’s intellectually informed conservatives and classical liberals like postmodern theory and its concretization in identity politics. In an article for the National Review back in 2014, Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institute compared postmodernism to “poison,” and decried falling standards of “truth and falsity.” Jordan Peterson has characterized postmodernism as dangerous, and identity politics as a kind of self-pitying victimization. In my home country of Canada, Rex Murphy of the right leaning National Post has characterized movements oriented around identity politics as “intolerant” and their participants as a “mob.” In Britain, Roger Scruton accused postmodern intellectuals of destroying “high culture” be effacing aesthetic standards. And so the litany goes on. It would be impossible to itemize the details of all these varied criticisms here. Instead, I will summarize them before moving on to the main topic of this essay: the emergence of postmodern conservatism and identity politics.

The locus of many conservative criticisms of postmodernism seems to be twofold. Firstly, conservatives are concerned with the theoretical consequences of postmodern theory. In less sophisticated critiques, conservatives decry postmodernism for undermining belief in traditional epistemological and moral standards. These criticisms are not especially powerful, since they are largely predicated on a nostalgic desire to hold onto those specific standards regardless of their tenability. Indeed, most of them take the form of demanding adherence to tradition for the sake of stability, rather than tradition’s inner truth and value. The most sophisticated critique, offered by—among others—Allan Bloom in his seminal polemic The Closing of the American Mind, is more tenable. Bloom and his disciples are less concerned that postmodern theorists undermine this-or-that theory of truth. After all, Western philosophers and scientists have been engaging in critical activities at least as far back as Socrates. What Bloom was concerned about was that postmodern theorists seemed indifferent to the entire possibility of truth, dismissing it as an outdated and even dangerous idea. For Bloom, this was a travesty because it led to the gradual diminishing of the individual spirit, as each person nihilistically came to take their own private satisfactions and opinions as determinate in all epistemic and moral circumstances. This, he thought, would be disastrous for all involved.

Secondly, conservatives are concerned with what they consider the concrete consequences of adhering to postmodern theory: a belief in identity politics. For these critics, identity politics is the logical consequence of adherence to the aforementioned theoretical positions. Once one takes one’s own private satisfactions and opinions as the locus for all epistemological and moral judgements, it makes one’s identity and its perceived oppressors incredibly significant. Moreover, this focus on identity and oppression leads to the understanding that everything is ultimately about power and who has it. Knowledge, venerable institutions, politics, and the economy are all conceived as forces which systematically oppress and repress the expression of one’s identity. Since this expression is taken as both the source of all legitimate knowledge and value, this is regarded as a very great wrong. The individual’s efforts then become directed against both removing these systems of oppression and placing one’s self, and the group one affiliates with, on top of the power hierarchy. This leads, in turn, to activism which is highly oppressive and totalitarian, since its aim is not the classical liberal goal of convincing others through reason and discourse. Rather it is to replace one powerful group with another.

What Is Postmodernism?

I believe there is something to these criticisms of post-modern discourse, though they are not without their limitations. As Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs recently put it, there has been a notable unwillingness on the part of many conservative and classical liberal thinkers to actually engage with postmodern ideas and identity-politics activists in a significant way. This has led to a considerable amount of intellectual vagueness. For instance, in his recent Twelve Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson accuses Jacques Derrida of committing many of the theoretical and concrete sins highlighted above. However, he does not cite any major work by the French iconoclast. Frankly, it shows, since the version of Derrida he confronts is closer to a caricature than a fleshed out intellectual rival. Then there is the pervasive tendency to characterize postmodern identity activists as “cultural Marxists.” This demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of both Marxism and postmodernism. Generalizing very broadly, the former was highly committed to an almost Messianic theory of truth, had scientific pretensions for historical materialism as a doctrine, and was concerned with truth inhibiting ideology rather than truth effacing ‘power.’ The latter had a complex relationship to truth, rejected historical materialism and indeed scientism (if not science), and was concerned to show that behind power there was only more power.

Generally speaking, leftwing authors who wrote about postmodernism divided into two respective lines of thinking. Some of them were actually quite critical. Firstly, there were largely Marxist and post-Marxist scholars like Frederic Jameson, David Harvey, Jean-François Lyotard, Neil Postman, and Jacques Baudrillard, who understood postmodernism as an epoch in Western history. They claimed that a combination of economic, technological, and social changes had brought about an era in which individuals were increasingly skeptical and uninterested in epistemological and moral ‘grand narratives.’ They saw these as anachronistic features of the past of little concern in consumer culture. To the extent they were concerned with epistemological or moral issues, this concern was largely driven by a desire for self-satisfaction in a market context. Individuals in the postmodern epoch learned about knowledge and morals because this information was a tool necessary to get ahead in a market context. Interestingly enough, these leftists critics of postmodernism share a great deal in common with conservative critics like the aforementioned Allan Bloom and the University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen. These authors also see postmodernism as an epoch, established by social factors, which treated knowledge and morals as little more than a consumerist toolkit.

The second school of thinking in leftwing postmodernism is closer to the caricature lambasted by conservative critics, though even here we must be careful. Authors in this second line of thought were at the very least skeptical about the possibility of establishing firm epistemic and moral frameworks that would allow us uninhibited access to the world. Moreover, they did not consider these epistemic and moral conclusions contingent on epochal social circumstances. They regarded them as philosophical ‘conclusions’ (though of course not truths!) that were paradoxically valid for all time. Moreover, many of them did indeed regard power—whether authorial, institutional, or disciplinary—as responsible for giving strong epistemic and moral truth claims an undeserved validity. Representative authors in this line of thinking include Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour, and America’s own Richard Rorty. Now, it is important to qualify these observations by noting that none of these authors outright rejected the idea of truth wholesale. Each qualified their skepticism by appealing to different principles, whether it be faith on the part of Derrida, or American pragmatism for Richard Rorty. But they did indeed offer important—if ultimately unconvincing—problems for those who have strong beliefs about the truth of knowledge and morals.

Ultimately, I am inclined to sympathize with the former line of authors rather than the latter. This includes intelligent conservative critics of postmodernism such as Patrick Deneen and Bloom. I believe that postmodern positions emerged in our current epoch due to a complex array of social forces. The authors in the second line of leftwing postmodern thinkers drew inspiration from these social forces to formulate interesting, but ultimately flawed philosophies which will not stand the test of time when evaluated from a purely intellectual standpoint. But this is not my major concern here. If postmodern positions emerge as a consequence of social forces, this presents a more general problem for critics of postmodernism. It is not simply the fact that a number of skeptical university professors are professing flawed philosophical positions, and thence inspiring individuals to take radical political positions on identity and power as a consequence. Rather, postmodern positions can emerge in a myriad of places when individuals are affected by the social forces of the epoch in the right way. This is what I believe accounts for the emergence of postmodern conservatism.

The Intellectual Origins of Postmodern Conservatism

The association of conservatism with a strong commitment to epistemic and moral truth, both in general and regarding particular doctrines, is far more contingent and ahistorical than some partisans may expect. In fact, there is a long history in conservative and other rightwing circles of rejecting strong epistemic and moral truths. As highlighted by Leo Strauss in his seminal Natural Right and History, the modern origins of this rightwing rejection of epistemic and moral truths are in the work of Edmund Burke. Burke was staunchly critical of the abstract intellectualism of the French revolutionaries, and their desire to rationalize society. Against abstract and scientific approaches to knowledge and morality, Burke emphasized the need to pay close attention to history, tradition, and the identity of a particular people. As Strauss observed, much of this was sound advice and a dire warning to fundamentalists and fanatics of all stripes. But it also constituted a shift towards regarding knowledge and morality as contingent upon particular circumstances and histories. This tendency to associate revolutionary progressivism with abstract respect for reason continued in the thought of rightwing thinkers like Joseph De Maistre, identified by Isaiah Berlin as the intellectual forefather of fascism. De Maistre argued that the human capacity to reason towards true knowledge and morals was so fundamentally limited it needed to be massively supplemented by faith in traditional authorities and revealed religion. He was a reactionary of the highest pitch, damning the French Revolutionaries for their arrogant conceit of having figured the world out for themselves, and demanding a return to the values of throne and altar.

In the modern era, there have been plenty of conservative thinkers who have also condemned rationalism, upholding the value of tradition and history as a relative source of knowledge and morals. Michael Oakshott’s famed essay “Rationalism in Politics” argued that what defines a conservative is respect for the epistemic and moral authority of tradition over abstract faith in the power of Utilitarian reason. In his debate with H. L. A. Hart, the conservative Lord Devlin justified restrictions on homosexuality by claiming that true morality is a matter of what the “man on the Clapham omnibus” believed. Justice Robert Bork, Reagan’s favored pick for the Supreme Court, wrote in Coercing Virtue that what characterized the leftwing ‘new class’ was its belief in universal values and truths. In contradistinction, conservatives were defined by their veneration of “particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, (and) history…” He condemned this progressive ‘new class’ for attempting to push its pretentious universalistic ideas about knowledge and morals onto traditionally oriented societies which did not want them.

My point here is not to accuse any of these authors of holding to specifically postmodern doctrines. Nor do I want to accuse them of being responsible for the emergence of what I call postmodern conservatism. As I mentioned before, I believe postmodernism emerged as a result of social factors particular to our epoch. It was not driven primarily by intellectual shifts; intellectual shifts were driven by post-modern culture. My point is to observe that the association of conservatism with a strong commitment to truth is contingent rather than consistent throughout history. In a highly radicalized and even mutilated form, the ideas developed by these authors provided an intellectual backdrop for explaining why many conservatives increasingly look like their left postmodern ‘adversaries,’ right down to their commitment to identity politics.

Conclusion: The Emergence of Postmodern Conservatism

What fundamentally characterizes postmodern conservatives is locating epistemic and moral authority in a given traditional identity. Postmodern conservatism a highly radicalized iteration of the intellectual movements indicated above, often emerging in periods of economic and social crisis and finding its initial expression in hyper-modern mediums such as the internet. Postmodern conservatives increasingly regard strong truth claims about knowledge and morality with active suspicion and even hostility. This is because they regard the intellectual and cultural ‘elites’ who produce knowledge and popularize moral norms as progressive, abstract, and unlikely to sympathize with their concerns. Rather than attempting to formulate alternative claims about knowledge and morality which might have some epistemic and meta-ethical tenability, postmodern conservatives reject even these standards. Instead, they largely appeal to identity as the locus for epistemic and moral validity. This is, in turn, used to rally political support for a given agenda designed to restore that identity to power.

In this respect postmodern conservatives are not substantially different from their leftwing opponents. Both regard identity as the locus of epistemic and moral validity, and both are preoccupied with achieving power since that is the only major concern. Some postmodern conservatives, notably Dennis Prager, have even gone so far as to declare conservatives as being in the midst of a ‘civil war’ with the Left over which identity is to become hegemonic in their society. The difference between the two is a matter of emphasis. Leftwing postmodern identity politics tends to be concerned with overturning the power of traditionally dominant groups. They direct their barbs against figures like white heterosexual males, who are perceived to be inherently oppressive. By contrast, rightwing postmodern identity politics tends to be concerned with retrenching the power of traditionally dominant identity groups against these same assaults. In its less extreme form, it attacks the aforementioned ‘elites’ who formulate knowledge and values regarded as hostile to traditionally dominant identity groups, dismissing claims of those elites as ‘fake news’ or contrasting their claims with ‘alternative facts.’ More extreme postmodern conservatives regard these elites as allied with immigrants, refugees, a criminal underclass, and other individuals whose existence within the country is thought to pose a danger of social fragmentation and the further breakdown of tradition. This can occasionally lead them to express xenophobic and even racist sentiments in conspiratorial and paranoid terms.

Postmodern conservatives are now the ascendant group. In the last few months, President Donald Trump has attempted to dismantle the truth telling apparatus of government, gutting funding, and eliminating positions for scientists and technocrats who dissent from his views.  The ruling Law and Justice Party of Poland has expressed concern about the “liquidation of the civilization that grew out of Christianity” and called for restrictive measures to prevent further changes. Viktor Orban of Hungary has criticized European elites for inviting immigrants into the country, leading to “changing values.” In each case, these figures and parties challenge strong ideas about truth by appealing to traditionally dominant identities concerned about social changes promoted by elites and intellectuals. This should be deeply concerning to all, and demonstrates how the reach of the postmodern epoch has moved far beyond just influencing a few leftwing radicals on university campuses.

Featured Pic by Gage Skidmore

 

Matt McManus received his L.L.M in International Human Rights Law from the National University of Ireland and his PhD in Socio-Legal Studies from York University. He is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC de Monterrey and is writing his first book “Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law” for the University of Wales Press. He can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca

87 Comments

  1. Truevo says

    “I believe that postmodern positions emerged in our current epoch due to a complex array of social forces.”

    Postmodernism has not emerged today, as the author states, but is part of a long nihilistic philosophical tradition that we can also link back to Ancient Greece with sophists like Protagora or Gorgia. The problem that the author doesn’t understand is that there is really nothing original in postmodernism, because it’s only a modern sophism. In all senses. Pure moral and epistemological relativism, only packaged with empty neologisms and a form of ineffable thought.

    Then, it will also be true that pure and raw postmodernism would theoretically be incompatible with Marxism, which is a narrative of power, but in the oppressed vs. oppressor dialectics Derrida’s postmodernism perfectly matches Marx’s positions, widening the terms: Marx spoke about struggles between social classes, such as aristocracy vs bourgeoisie, bourgeoisie vs. proletariat and so on, postmoderns use more “liquid” terms, such as “oppressed” and “oppressors, but the meaning is the same.

    Honestly, I find Peterson’s criticisms, on the contrary, extremely well formulated; he is also concerned with solving the problem of moral/epistemological relativism, and he finds a solution in a pragmatic way through Jung and Darwinism. Peterson himself said that he can not understand why postmoderns are now “allied” with the descendants of the philosophy of the Frankfurt school, formulating a thought incompatible with the initial basic thoughts and that ultimately led to identity policies, which are nothing more than a further game of power.

    • Charles White says

      Truevo,

      I agree with your observation. One can tell that Peterson has a well formulated and well informed philosophy from his clarity of language. This is probably why his current book is a best seller, the clear articulation.

      I don’t think McManus’s book will do as well.

      • Matthew McManus says

        I’m afraid while he is clear from a colloquial, I am skeptical that his analytical precision is as rigorous as one might think. Statements like “free will must exist” (from Maps of Meaning) are clear, but not especially well argued for. I am open to being proven wrong.

        • Charles White says

          I am not sure about your use of the term ‘clear from a colloquial’. It sounds like a put down of Peterson’s rural origins, which I do not think you meant.

          Rather than getting into an analysis of Peterson’s work, which there are so many of different quality these days, I would suggest you watch Peterson’s 2006 TVO series then forward to his three 2017 series, the better one, in my opinion being the Personality lecture series. I found that informative regarding the maturing of his personal philosophy, which is useful in analyzing the depth of his arguments. The pop culture videos do not provide this insight.

        • Alan Schenk says

          ‘’…but not especially well argued for’’.

          ‘’In each case, these figures and parties challenge strong ideas about truth by appealing to traditionally dominant identities concerned about social changes promoted by elites and intellectuals. This should be deeply concerning to all’’

          One could argue Mr McManus that you haven’t especially well argued that Victor Orban is wrong in saying that immigrants have brought ‘’Changing values’’, or for that matter that Christian society is changing in Europe. Nor have you argued as to why it should be deeply concerning to all. You make this pronouncement as somehow it is a known truth that doesn’t require explanation. I think it does.

          How do such thoughts challenge the truth of the situation? Western Europe is changing due to demographic changes wrought by immigration. I don’t think that is controversial and clearly can be substantiated through various census data. Given this, does it not follow that values are changing as a result or do you think values aren’t changing or are simply adapting with no consequence to immigration?

          London now no longer has a white British majority..is that not a change to the previous homogeneous culture? Does it follow that such a dramatic change can only be for the good? Why do you decry the concern about the breakdown of social cohesion and tradition? Why is a traditionally dominant identity group not allowed to be concerned about such changes to its society and feel that their society is being threatened by new identity groups? Unless you are of the persuasion that immigration can only be a force for good and that traditional homogenous Western societies need to be changed?

    • Matthew McManus says

      I am intrigued to hear more about why you think it emerged in Ancient Greece. I pondered connecting these contemporary trends back the Sophists and Plato’s criticisms, but refrained since it was already a fairly lengthy article covering quite a bit of ground.

      • Truevo says

        Well, I can’t say if it really emerged only in Ancient Greece. Certainly it’s a philosophical tradition expressed also in Greece, with sophists like Protagoras, but maybe nihilistic or relativist thinkers existed even in other previous cultures, of which, however, at least for now, we have no trace.

        The sophists, because of the relativism they embodied, are fully representative of the central core of postmodernism. The sophists in fact conceived “truth” as a form of knowledge always in relation to the subject that produced it and to its relationship with experience. There was no single “truth” for them, because “truth” shattered into a myriad of subjective opinions, which, precisely as relative, ended up being considered equally valid anyway. The best criticism of sophism was the dialectic of Socrates. The sophists believed that the dialectic was essentially an infinite struggle between ideas, a struggle without end and that didn’t lead to any compromise, any truth, because all ideas/opinions were potentially equally valid, you just need to know how to argue and defend these ideas well. On the contrary, for Socrates, from dialectic and dialogue, profound truths can emerge, perhaps even universal truths. Socrates’s talent in debating, and pulling the truth out of everyone’s mouth was extraordinary. Plato’s Dialogues, from this point of view, are exceptional.

        The core of the of sophists’ discourse is essentially identical to postmodernism, although postmodernism must be seen more as a critique of the current categories of knowledge (one above all, the scientific method’s objectivity). Their philosophy, at the end, is the ultimate exaggeration of what Nietzsche expressed when he said: “there are no facts, just interpretations”; postmodernists don’t stop here but continue by stating that there are no privileged interpretations/narratives: if anything, every interpretation tends to privilege someone and oppress someone else.

        In this sense, for them, as for the Sophists, dialectics (understood as a struggle between ideas) is inevitable: but the best idea does not win (because there is no something like the best idea), nor the truth overcomes (because truth does not exist), only the idea of the strongest and most powerful people wins. This way of thinking is really similar to the one of the Greek sophists (for them only the most persuasive idea would win, which is a similar concept).

        And here I see, and I’m not the only one, the cognitive dissonances of postmodernists like Derrida who, with his fallogocentric narrative (that describes debate of ideas, dialogue, logos, only as a means of oppression of the strongest on the most weak), ends up falling directly into the Marxian moat. It’s not really him, but his followers, who I believe have combined the thought of the Frankfurt School with the postmodern one creating a philosophical “abortion” that is essentially incoherent: but well, they could answer you, if there is no such thing as truth, why should our ideas be consistent or coherent? If the ideas are all of equal value, or no real value, why should an inconsistent idea be considered of lesser value?

        But the problem remains: if the narratives are all the same, why should they prefer the one of the oppressed? Why should they prefer the Marxian one?

        This is a criticism that, as I said, even Peterson has formulated well, because he, like me, can not understand how the heck it’s possible that the postmoderns have “allied” themselves with the neo-Marxists. It’s something that I do not fully understand, unless I assume that what Derrida and others wanted to do was simply to change Marx’s ideas, demolished by the history and shame of the communist countries, to give them a new skin and make them again digestible by the future levers of young people. But if so, really, in my opinion, they did not succeed at all. At least Marx, with all the enormous mistakes he made (in terms of predictions, unrealizable utopias and so on), had developed a fairly consistent philosophy. Wrong, yes, but consistent.

          • Truevo says

            Thank you all for reading and commenting. It’s nice to have peaceful discussions on hot topics; you can not agree with me, but you have to be ready to talk and debate. This is the richness of the diversity of ideas. And this is the problem of current postmodernism: seeing dialogue and debate as instruments of power and oppression nullifies the possibility of dialogue and invokes the struggle as the only means of eliminating all possible forms of oppression.

        • Derrida did indeed write:

          “Deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, other than as a radicalisation, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism”.

          Beyond this, the notion that postmodernism makes no attempt to deny the concept of truth is put to lie when we read Foucault himself, who famously spells it out thus:

          “It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – reason, truth, or knowledge”

          It really doesn’t get any more clear than that.

  2. Ronald says

    The term “postmodern conservatism” is nonsensical. Rather than using this term, it would be enough to speak about right-wing populism. Many politicians turn to the masses in order to be elected, because that’s how election policy works: do you want to be elected? Well, you address the greatest number of people by telling them what they want to hear, in a way that (we hope) is compatible with your basic “program”. Some people do that in a true populist way, but there is not a great “philosophy” behind them, much more simply it’s a form of political ruthlessness. Some reading of the good Machiavelli could help to understand the merits and defects of a similar political act.

    It’s needless to say that Trump is a conservative postmodern, or a product of postmodern conservatism (it makes me laugh), it’s enough to say that he is, simply, a populist. And populists have existed for a long time.

    • KD says

      I couldn’t agree more with this commentator.

      I’m not going to attack Trump’s intelligence or lack thereof, but I see zero evidence in Trump’s life that he has engaged with Derrida or Foucault or Jameson in any capacity. He is much too practical to waste time with French theories.

      It would be worthwhile to consider the role of the immune system in the body: when foreign materials enter the human body, the body responds by producing anti-bodies to attack the invaders. If we analogize modern Western societies to the bodies, then nativist movements represent cultural anti-bodies. [I don’t mean this in a positive or negative fashion, as there are immunosuppresive disorders as well as autoimmune disorders.] The point is that mass immigration naturally, one would predict necessarily, provokes nativism at some threshold. I won’t go into the reasons for this phenomenon, but so long as open borders is an active policy, increasingly extreme nativism will be a major political force in politics. Further, attempts at political repression will only drive it underground and make it more extreme when the “political dam” breaks–unless Western societies are prepared to resort to Stalinist terrors and concentration camps to deal with “wrongthinkers”.

  3. WWW says

    But… has anyone ever tried to read Derrida’s books? I have. They are incomprehensible. Written precisely for the sake of appearing incomprehensible, so as to appear unassailable. A wise philosopher expresses his positions, at least, in an understandable way so that they are brought into play, so that some other philosopher can challenge him. But Derrida does not do it and indeed he affirms that logos, dialogue and debate (even philosophical) are just a game of power. To me it seems only a nice way to pull back and close in its philosophical ivory tower. I do not dialogue because dialogue oppresses me. It is philosophical trash. Derrida is, seriously, more the caricature of an intellectual rather than a true intellectual. And it is true, it is impossible to consider him a true philosopher, because he is not. Socrates was always looking for dialogue, Derrida was only afraid of it. You can not beat him only because he tells you that a philosophical confrontation is just a means you use to oppress him.

    • Morgan says

      Let me get this straight. You don’t understand Derrida, and yet seem capable of describing his views and character with detail.

      Just because you can’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s “incomprehensible” only that it’s “incomprehensible TO YOU.” Which is very different.There are some who would say science is incomprehensible, but it clearly isn’t. You should take a look at yourself and your own abilities and maybe think about your own limits.

      I have my own criticisms of Derrida, but I would never devolve into ad hominum attacks like you just did, nor would I try to claim that I disagree with someone I find “incomprehensible.”

      • I would have said the exact same, before attempting to read Derrida myself. The rumours are absolutely true, his work is painfully obtuse.

        People who want to communicate something important don’t make every conceivable attempt to obscure their meaning behind a truly arcane lexicon.

        When even the renown linguist Noam Chomsky makes these exact same criticisms, I think we can feel safe that the work isn’t merely beyond our own “limits”, it really is deliberate nonsense.

  4. This is an interesting piece, and reflects admirably on Quillette’s willingness to criticise sympathetic authors, but I think Mr McManus conflates “rationalism” with “truth”. De Maistre certainly believed that truth itself was a dangerous thing but Burke and Oakeshott held more that political abstractions were a bad means of reaching the truth.

    The closing paragraphs condemning politicians are “postmodern conservatives” are confusing. I know there are arguments that, say, Oban is immoral and irrational but what makes his claim that mass immigration changes cultural values hostile to “strong ideas about truth”? What makes it postmodern? If conservatives sometimes use “postmodern” to mean “something I don’t like” this seems to as well.

    • J. C. Davenport says

      bsixsmith, thank you for this comment. The first paragraph especially puts into words the problem I have with this article that I was struggling to articulate.

      • Matt says

        My claim is that, as the product of various social and economic factors independent of direct politics, they have grafually adopted that truth is the product of socially constituted identities and their experiences. This means appealing to the values affiliated with those identities and diavowing the validity of all truth claims that come from alternate epistemic and meta-ethical sources. Trump is a paradigmatic example. Victor Orban is a more complex example, but he has also rhetorically and practically endeavored to quash dissent and dismissed critical arguments as “elitist” pretension and so on. This is justified by arguing that Hungary and it’s people have their own identity and truths which need to be preserved from “invasion.”

        • Matt says

          Also apologies for spelling errors. I am walking and typing. Thank you for your well thought out objections.

    • KD says

      One insight of postmodernism is its focus on particularism, and hiding behind every purported universalism is a particularism.

      Of course, one doesn’t have to be a postmodernist to have this viewpoint, one only has to be a nominalist (Quine addressed some of these issues).

      Frankly, every real conservative, from De Maistre to Burke to Oakeshott was basically a nominalist and a particularist.

      • KD says

        Where postmodernism goes astray is when it transitions from particularism to relativism. But postmodernism isn’t actually relativist, it carries on as if it is the hegemonic and totalizing truth, and its concerns (say about rights of sexual minorities) are clearly not equal to the concerns of its enemies (preserving the traditional family). This is perhaps where postmodernism is the least convincing as a philosophy and most useful as political ideology.

        • KD says

          I think it is fair to say postmodernism is not relativism, it is the politicization of truth. Further, because it is intended to justify ethnic nepotism for the right groups, it necessitates a relativism of standards, as equality of outcomes is incompatible with meritocratic principles.

  5. Emmanuel says

    The problem with postmodern thinkers is not that they have attacked ideas that played an important role in intellectual life. For philosophers and scientists, it has been a normal process for millenia and that is how scientific progress happens. The problem is the way they have attacked “modernist” or “premodernist” idea : most of postmodern literature relies on nothing but unsupported assertion.

    When I read one of those authors (Judith Butler might be the worst, in my opinion), I am always amazed by how empty their books are. No empirical content, or, at best, an anecdotical one. No demonstration, but a lot of assertions that can easily be proven wrong : Judith Butler’s idea that there is no such thing as a wrong identity is a good example of that habit. How much they claim ! How little they prove ! Those people do not have attacked ideas such as Science, Truth, or Reality because they had good arguments to do so but because their own worldview and positions could not stand the test of those ideas.

    Another major characteristic of postmodernist literature is its incomprehensible writing style. Take a text by Derrida an try to rewrite it with your own words, while focusing on the author’s arguments to reach a conclusion rather than on the conclusion itself. It is the best way to check if you have understood the meaning of text. Readers can do that with Plato, Descartes or Hegel but nobody can with Derrida and his pals, even when you read them in the original French (it might even be worse). Obscurity and vagueness are deliberately looked after because they make you look smart in front of easy to impress students and they allow you to hide the weakness of your arguments.

    Empiricism and, in a more general way the scientific methodology are some of the greatest achievements of the human mind. Most of postmodernist literature is nothing that a lazy and dishonest attack on those. From an intellectual point of view, the triumph of postmodernist ideas in the academic world is a major catastrophe and getting over it will take a lot of time.

    So, if conservatives start doing the same thing, the West is really in deep…

  6. TWC says

    Why the moniker ‘conservative criticism’? I enjoyed reading this piece…it clarified some tenets of postmodernism, etc…but the critiquing of PM isnt required to be ‘conservative’, any more than critiquing physics is deemed conservative. To me, it just sets up a presupposed framework that PM has some sort of intrinsic value…something to say, in other words. Does it? Yes, its complex, intellectual (?), and deals in theory…but what is the actual, concrete philosoohical value? Thats sorta the point….Foucault knew he was playing a game, as did Lacan, Derrida, et al. Relativism and all its cousins do nothing to further human development, neither personally or in the collective. Its not a conservative position to point this out, unless we are willing to concede that defending PM is liberal (it is not!). Framing the discussion as such seems to be a bit disingenuous, as it ‘poisons the well’ from the get go. Not sure why the author builds this into the piece.

  7. Bartolo says

    “… these figures and parties challenge strong ideas about truth by appealing to traditionally dominant identities concerned about social changes promoted by elites and intellectuals. This should be deeply concerning to all …”

    Why should this be a cause for concern? And for whom?

    I had to double check to make sure this was Quillette, and not Vox, Salon, The Guardian or the Huffington Post. The author speaks philosophically for a while to gain credibility and then delivers the takeaway message: people in some countries oppose replacement migration (the UN´s term, not mine) and the ideas peddled by “intellectuals” like McManus, and we should ALL be *deeply concerned” (sic) about this. All of us? Really? Maybe only people like McManus should worry?

    Also, McManus is concerned about people from the “truth telling apparatus” (he seems to use the term without any irony at all) being removed from some positions and losing funding.

    One must assume that the virtual disappearance of conservatives from Universities and institutional intellectual positions, in the US and elsewhere, is perfectly OK, and is only due to the fact that conservatives belong, I guess, to the “lies telling apparatus”. And so they had to go.

    Quillette´s start was promising. But it seems that, indeed, Cthulhu always swims left. Prediction: a few years from now, Quillette will be defending today´s leftwing points of view, while the left will have moved on to other nonsense.

    • Matthew B says

      Easy on your condemnation of Quillette. Isn’t this the point of the project? To offer differing points of view in an open forum? Just because you disagree with one essay doesn’t throw the rest of the sire into disrepute.

      Homogeneity of thought is the real threat, not this essay.

  8. Bartolo says

    By the way, this gentleman has written a paper named: “Why we shouldn´t exclude migrants on the basis of culture”.

  9. Bill Haywood says

    I am not seeing the connection between postmodernism and identity politics. PoMo sees identity as arbitrary and constructed. The tradition is particularly skeptical of nationalism, a prime example of identity. Someone please explain how this is not a wild conflation of unrelated ideas.

    The author alleges there is an intellectual trend he calls conservative postmodernism, but take the Trump example at the end, which is not shown to be an example of such. Trump’s attack on science and fact is simple lying. Offering alternative facts — green is yellow — is not a claim that color is a social contrivance, it is old fashioned deceit.

    This sentence describing Bloom’s criticism needs justification: “each person nihilistically came to take their own private satisfactions and opinions as determinate in all epistemic and moral circumstances.” I do not see how that is an attack on postmodernism, which is concerned with the social production of truth, not solipsism.

    The description of Bloom is excessively generous. He wrote 40 pages on rock and roll, but only knew the names of three bands, and one of them was the Rolling Stones. Bloom knew nothing about rock, it was just a free-form screed, untethered to data. The present author is too easily impressed.

    • Rick says

      “I am not seeing the connection between postmodernism and identity politics. PoMo sees identity as arbitrary and constructed. The tradition is particularly skeptical of nationalism, a prime example of identity. Someone please explain how this is not a wild conflation of unrelated ideas.”

      Look at Falguni Sheth’s work. It explains it as best a post-modern work can explain anything.

  10. defmn says

    Holy Claptrap, Batman.

    I was at least a third of the way through this before I started to grin so I suppose I should acknowledge the cleverness of the writing. I spent the rest of the time reading this essay trying to decide if the parody was deliberate or delusional.

    In the end I have decided to be offended by this contribution from Mr.McManus.

    First of all I think he does a disservice to Quillette by treating its readership as no more discerning than the average undergraduate by pretending to construct a legitimate argument while really doing little more than citing names of authors likely to be familiar in an attempt to invoke authority.

    The fact that he uses the authority of Strauss is particularly distasteful to me given that his contributions to understanding the intellectual treasures of western civilization should spare him from this sort of frivolous exploitation. But that might just be me.

    And I try to be kind and nice to those who expend the energy required to write on important topics but in the end I find myself unable to ignore the malevolence of the argument that he has presented masquerading under the guise of pedagogy.

    I understand the impulse to engage the author as others have done here in the comments but to me that is a mistake since it implies a degree of legitimacy I see no sign of.

    • Matthew McManus says

      As I highlighted in my contention below, I do not see how that is a misreading of Strauss-who was famously critical of most variants of historicism whatever their political orientation. Moreover, I would point out that latter day Straussians have also made analogous observations to those I observed in my essay. Jaffa, for instance, was highly critical of Robert Bork’s apparent appeal to doxa to justify his legal and political positions, seeing it as consonant with a relativistic and nihilistic standpoint.

  11. Matthew B says

    “This should be deeply concerning to all, and demonstrates how the reach of the postmodern epoch has moved far beyond just influencing a few leftwing radicals on university campuses.”

    While I take the point, that this essay makes well, that the right, as well as the left, are susceptible to the same logical and philosophical pitfalls when it comes to espousing their positions and beliefs; the minimization taking place in this final sentence was just too much for me.

    While I don’t agree with the author, I’m glad I read it.

    • Bartolo says

      I see you point, Matthew B. As a general principle, what you say is right, both morally and from the point of view of truth-seeking. But general principles ought to be applied sensibly, according to time, place and situation.

      If Quillette offers a platform to radical Leftists (which the author is) while Leftists deplatform, censor, demonetize, shadowban and harrass conservative points of view (which his happening on a massive scale, every week and every day and every hour), well… you get to be gentlemanly, but *they* get to win. And they get to win big. The honourable but misguided attitudes of people like you make sure that, as I said, Cthulhu always swims left.

      And yes, Quillette is a fantastic magazine… for the time being. So were National Review and many others. But over time, they all morph into outlets that promote yesterday´s leftist positions…

      I suggest you read Bloody Shovel´s essay on Bioleninism. In fact, all of Bloody Shovel´s.

      • Matthew B says

        You lost me at ‘they get to win’. 1) Win what? 2) You aren’t convincing ‘misguided’ me that behaving in a manner I deplore (censorship of differing opinion) is somehow justifiable given one’s place on an arbitrary and subjective political scale.

        • Matthew McManus says

          I must admit that I am frustrated by commentary that effectively claims I am a “radical leftist” and that giving me a platform is a point towards my side “winning.” That doesn’t strike me as an especially substantive engagement with the content of my essay. Moreover, it ironically conforms to the identitarian epistemic and meta-ethical reasoning I criticized.

  12. Labienus says

    Edmund Burke and Joseph De Maistre were not skeptical of the truth; they were skeptical about using abstract concepts like equality to make governmental policies (like the French Revolutionaries did).

    Burke thought that natural rights existed but that it was impossible to know what they were. Hence, he appealed to experience and pragmatism by identifying history and traditions as the two criteria that should be used to “find” natural rights. For example, Burke thought that the rights enshrined in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights(1689) ought to be respected because they had been acquired through centuries of political experience. He contrasted these gradually acquired rights to the French revolutionaries creating abstract rights out of thin air ought of “rational enquiry” and beheading thousands in the name of those abstract principles.

    I see what the author was trying to do here but this characterization of conservative authors like Burke and De Maistre as laying the groundwork for postmodernism is disingenuous and inaccurate.

    • Matthew McManus says

      As I highlighted below and in the essay, I do not regard them as post-modern authors by any stretch of the imagination. But they planted important seeds that could be radicalized in various different directions. As a meta-ethical and epistemic position, there is nothing inherently political about post-modernism per se, any more than skepticism or sophism were inherently inclined to supporting this or that substantive position.

  13. asdf says

    I don’t follow Trump and what he says too closely. However, occasionally you hear of the latest outrage and it always seems to be something Trump said that is actually true, but the truth is offensive.

    Trump call some third world shitholes…shitholes. That’s not a lie.

    Trump said Latin America isn’t sending its best…that’s true, Latino accomplishment in the USA is miserable on net.

    It’s kind of like how Michael Brown became “Hands up, don’t shoot!” even though he robbed a store, assaulted its owner, went after a cop, and then properly got shot for doing so.

    Every time I hear about fake news…its actually fake news.

    Every time I hear about alternative facts…those facts are true.

    Again, I don’t follow Trump day to day or tweet to tweet. But on the stuff that usually matters to me isn’t he basically just saying things that are factually true but are now considered “hate speech”.

  14. Jason Cooper says

    The oft repeated error, one that I wish Peterson would clarify to end the misunderstanding, is that his analysis of Derrida and his adjunct Postmodern thinkers, is not a content analysis, but it is a psychological diagnostic based on their product. What he offers is the equivalent of a ‘profile’ similar to one used in investigating the Uni-bomber based solely on his manifesto. Considering Petersons field of expertise, I would think it obvious. Thank you.

    • Matthew McManus says

      I appreciate that. While I think he may be on to something there, I hardly see it as a knock down blow against post-modernism. Psychologically diagnosing your ideological opponents in order to criticize or dismiss the substance of what they say isn’t especially rigorous. Every philosopher is motivated by some psychological disposition; as Plato and Aristotle well knew. While of interest, what is truly important are their substantive claims.

      What Peterson does isn’t all that different from left wing criticisms of conservative thinking where opponents are dismissed for their class or social bias. While at times that may be true, it is a slippery and evasive way of criticizing someone.

      • Truevo says

        To me Peterson’s critique of the cognitive dissonance that currently binds the postmodernists with the neo-Marxists seems essentially true: what do they do? They say there are no privileged narratives than others and then they reconstruct exactly, but in a more nuanced way, the narrative of Marx… what? Well, he is a clinical psychologist, and obviously he asks himself: what’s behind that?

        P.S.
        However I would not put Peterson among the conservatives, in many ways he is not. He is a free thinker. He recognizes the inevitability of social inequalities, of hierarchies, but does not justify this in its entirety. On the contrary, very often we see him in pointing out the tremendous negative effects that inequalities may have.

        In any case it’s clear that the current extreme left is permeated by ideology. They don’t accept criticism, and paint their adversaries as alt-right. This creates only polarization, and that’s not a positive thing.

        Peterson is also doing them a favor because he tells them a very rational point: reducing social injustice is not wrong, for various reasons, but the way they do it and the ideological theory behind that is wrong, utopian, unrealistic. He’s telling them that they have to start being a little more realistic and pessimistic if they really want to do something, so they really have to “clean up their room” (meaning they have to reevaluate and change their “philosophical room”) if they really want to do something good. Unfortunately they don’t want to listen. And that’s bad, because the left can really be smart, if it’s ready to listen.

  15. Matthew McManus says

    I appreciate the many thoughtful comments and criticisms directed here, but feel it is necessary to clarify a few points where people did not read what I said carefully.

    1) I never implied that Burke or De Maistre did not believe in truth, or indeed that any of the figures mentioned in that section were post-modern authors. As I highlighted “My point here is not to accuse any of these authors of holding to specifically postmodern doctrines. Nor do I want to accuse them of being responsible for the emergence of what I call postmodern conservatism.” The section was intended to demonstrate that the idea that post-modern philosophical positions, as I described them here, are consonant only with the Left, is wrong. Indeed, my invocation of Strauss’s commentary on Burke was to demonstrate that some great conservative thinkers already anticipated and discussed this trend. If one wants a good (relatively) contemporary encapsulation of the debate between these more context sensitive and more reason oriented branches of conservatism, I would look to the debate between Jaffa and Bork.

    2) Secondly, I did not try to imply that “rationalism” was analogous to the truth. My point was that the authors in that section juxtaposed themselves against rationalist theories of truth by appealing to context, and in the case of De Maistre, to faith. This is a significant intellectual shift.

    3) There are some people here who seem deeply unhappy that anyone with left of center views might comment on this website. Moreover, some seem to think I myself hold to post-modern positions. To the first, that is rather dispiriting since one of the virtues of Quilette is its promotion of “dangerous ideas” from all sides of the spectrum. To the second, I am not a post-modernist. As you can see from my other articles, I am something of a critical Rawlsian concerned with amplifying human dignity. But I have studied post-modernism and have some respect for their doctrines even where I disagree. But I dislike its social manifestations on left and right and am determined to preclude their further advancement in society.

    • Labienus says

      “My point is to observe that the association of conservatism with a strong commitment to truth is contingent rather than consistent throughout history.”

      But I don’t see how the names you mentioned (Burke, Oakeshott) were reflective of that trend.

      Traditional conservative tend to believe in universal truths. However, the main difference between them and the neoconservatives is that the latter believe that you can export concepts like democracy everywhere while the former believe that the conditions necessary for our representative democracies to work (the rule of law, separation of powers, separation of church and state, free speech) were products of historical processes in our part of the world.

      The lesson here is that because other societies like those of the Muslim world do not have this long held tradition, it will be very difficult and dangerous to impose democracy on them.

      Conservatives believing that representative democracy is the best system of government does not mean that other societies are currently compatible with it.

      Fundamentally this debate between the particular and the universal in conservative circles that you have alluded to is not about truth, but mostly about cultural and political developments. I see what you were trying to do here (grounding you concept of the postmodern conservative in intellectual history), but I don’t see how the examples you provide were particularly relevant here.

      • Matthew McManus says

        Indeed, I could have been clearer on that point. Unfortunately limitations of time and space prevented me from presenting a fully comprehensive account.

        My point isn’t to criticize the often sensible conservative positions you discussed. Burke did tend to believe in “truth” for example, but was canny enough to recognize it had different concrete articulations across the world. One of the reasons he tended (at times) to oppose British Imperialism is he was concerned that many practices that fulfilled analogous and useful functions to the social practices of the UK would be effaced by arrogant colonialists. Much the same is true of Oakshott etc.

        My point, qua Strauss, is that the context sensitivity and historicism they defended could be radicalized and made consonant with post-modern doctrines under the right social circumstances. If you think about it, it is a nuanced but not massive leap from “trust the good sense of the common man to look after his community’s interests over the abstract intellectualism of the schoolmen” to “liberal elites on university campuses are out of touch with real people and use fake news to try and undermine what we’re doing.” The two statements are not the same, but under the right conditions the good sense of the former can be mutated into the dogmatism of the latter.

        • Labienus says

          I see. Thanks for the clarification and for the exchange!

          • Matthew McManus says

            Any time. Thank you for reading what I said carefully and criticizing it sharply.

  16. This comes across as just standard lefty polemics, dressed up a little for a conservative audience. The title and theme alone involve a common trick of debate in which you accuse your opponent of the vice you know he opposes — it’s hardly more sophisticated than the school-yard “You’re another!” taunt. Thus, he takes any questioning of a totalizing rationality as equivalent to post modernist rejection of truth, any opposition to left-wing identity politics as equivalent to a racist, sexist identity politics of its own, etc. This is so plainly false that you wonder why he thought he would fool anyone. More likely he’s just fooling himself.

  17. Matthew McManus says

    I do not know where I highlighted anything remotely akin to some of what you are talking about, especially given I tend to be critical of people on the left who adopt similar meta-ethical and epistemic positions theoretically, and especially in concrete practice.

    If you wish a more representative account of my reasoning, you are welcome to look at my earlier work on Rawls and Nozick/Hayek, who tend to be members of the tradition I engage in.

  18. I don’t have time to go into accounts of your reasoning, especially given this sample of it. You use, for example, very broad categories (e.g., “context sensitivity and historicism”) to provide the basis for a contention that post modernism underlies certain strands of contemporary conservatism. But that kind of reasoning, if it made sense, could be used to link conservatism to fascism, Marxism, or any other polemical bogeyman — and of course it has been, but only by hacks. The point is simply that post modernism as such has little or nothing to do with contemporary conservatism or its precursors, and since it looks like you know enough to know that, I conclude that this piece is more likely a disingenuous attempt at provoking a reaction than a real critique.

    • Matt says

      I would say that this isn’t an especially robust rebuttal given you simply assert post-modernism has “little or nothing” to do with conservatism. My point was never that all conservatives adopt post modern positions, or indeed that even most of them do. It is that a growing number have taken that stance, or an analagous one, and this isn’t without intellectual precedent.

      • augustine says

        I don’t think this was made explicit in the essay:

        “My point was never that all conservatives adopt post modern positions, or indeed that even most of them do. It is that a growing number have taken that stance, or an analagous one, and this isn’t without intellectual precedent.”

        These words still leave one to wonder what is the political or cultural significance of postmodern conservatism then.

        You seem to be saying that far right or far left identity politics growing apace is a bad thing, and that postmodernism allows for or prompts a core relativism that supports the ideology of either side. You cite some politicians as examples of this development, leaders who are the focal point of much of the most angry leftist rhetoric these days. So just how representative of the current state of conservatism is postmodern conservatism? A mere “growing number” seems like an understatement where the trend is, as you say, “deeply concerning”.

  19. Dan Aldridge says

    Some above are questioning Mr. McManus’ central premise – that there really is such a thing as Postmodern conservatism. These readers should read the following transcript (or for more entertainment, watch the video):

    https://www.mediamatters.org/video/2016/07/25/john-oliver-theme-republican-convention-was-emphasizing-feelings-over-facts/211865

    Oliver gives beautiful examples from the 2016 Republican convention of what can *only* be described as postmodern conservatism. Note in particular this exchange:

    // GINGRICH: The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are.

    CAMEROTA: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.

    GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

    CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

    GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians. //

    Please, oh you skeptics of Postmodern conservatism, explain to me how you would differentiate this from what at least might be your most hated caricature of Postmodernism!

    Another example that comes to mind is basically any debate one tries to have with a “skeptic” of climate change (which virtually every conservative is). Such debates invariably demonstrate PoMo at its worst: every rhetorical trick is employed – but most importantly for this discussion, the “skeptic” will make arguments resonate of Paul Feyerabend, of the fallibility of science as a whole, pointing out that “the consensus has been wrong before”, in fact trying to cast doubt on the whole notion of scientific consensus and claiming that the existence of uncertainty basically means no conclusions whatsoever can be drawn. If this isn’t Judith Butler-level Sophism, I can’t imagine what would be.

    • Matt says

      Indeed that is an ideal example of appealing to identity as the source of epistemic and meta-ethical validity while dismissing other, more valid, sources of judgement for political reasons.

      • Really? This is the kind of example you’re relying on? Any time someone says in a casual conversation that they’re going with their gut it means they’re channelling the likes of Derrida? Anyone who uses “rhetorical tricks” is under the influence of the likes of Lyotard? THAT’s the kind of thing you think of as “appealing to identity as the source of epistemic and meta-ethical validity”!?

        Okay, I get it — this is a joke, right?

  20. Matt says

    I am surprised by the insistence of some here that conservatism and postmodernism simply cannot be aligned. This strikes me more as an ideological conceit than the product of serious consideration. As I highlighted post-modern philosophies largely emerged due to very particular social circumstances which impact the whole of society. Is is therefore not surprising that the rhetoric and epistemic/meta-ethical positions would eventually work their way into right wing discourse. This isn’t to imply that all or even most conservatives adhere to the positions I related to post-modern conservatism. But a large number do.

    • Bill Haywood says

      That is a compelling way to put it, of course pomo is filtering into conservatism, just like everything else. But is this a real trend, or recasting ancient methods of deceit in current terms?

      I can make segregation a pomo project: It justified itself with an elaborate, fake narrative about black savagery. This sort of thing has always been done, and the examples you give of Trump’s assault on truth is easily placed in that tradition. Same with the delicious Gingrich quotes, which illustrate politicians’ instinct for getting over as well as the postmodern moment.

      After a reread, I can see there is more to what you wrote than I first thought; I’m used to expecting so much dumb from this forum. So does the difference between today, and the traditional politicians’ instinct, boil down to the following: conservatives have always spun tales, but today a few are self-aware of doing so and can put it in contemporary terms?

      I mean, of course conservative narratives have always been contingent; what’s postmodern about them now? The subject’s historical awareness of narrative? Does that actually change the stories they peddle?

  21. Dan Aldridge says

    @Metamorph it is wasn’t in casual conversation – it was news interview – and the GOP convention was rife with the same kind of reasoning. Conservatism is rife with it. Check The Federalist and similar sources for their views on fact-checking sites like Fact-check.org and Politifact. You’ll find a lot of cherry-picking filled attacks and claims verging on the conspiratorial – what you won’t find is any support for the notion of fact-checking at all. It’s as if the two sides have their own “facts” which are based on their feelings and there is nothing but opinion that decides whose “facts” are the right ones. Ask modern conservatives for their opinions on climate change, gay conservation therapy, abstinence-only birth control or intelligent design: what you’ll get is not reasoned argument but Sophism – aka radical skepticism, aka Post Modernism.

    • Dan — look up “post-modernism”. It’s not just another word for bad reasoning. That Matt appears to agree with your examples is an embarrassment. As are your examples of conservative thought.

      • Matt says

        I don’t think he (or I) were claiming it is just bad reasoning. Newt effectively displays the characteristics I described in this exchange. 1) He locates meta ethical and epistemic authority in the values and related suppositions affiliated with a given identity. 2) He dismisses alternate meta ethical and epistemic standards as the products of bias promulgated by “liberals” and “theoreticians.” 3) He concludes by affirming loyalty to the values presupposed as valid by those in the group identity he affiliates with. This isn’t just poor reasoning, or even lying. It’s a denial that there are standards to assess truth claims beyond what “human beings” (Newt’s odd label for the everyday person) believe.

        • Matt says

          And before you suggest that this is just an anecdote 1) As I stressed throughout this exchange and in the essay, it is by now means representative of all conservative thinking past or present and 2) it is representative of how some conservatives now “reason” or at least justify their posititions. That is my point.

          • Then your point applies, or can be applied, to anyone or everyone. 1) Everyone “locates meta ethical and epistemic authority in the values and related suppositions affiliated with a given identity”, provided only that the given identity be defined broadly enough — as, in this case, “human beings”. 2) Everyone, at one time or another, “dismisses alternate meta ethical and epistemic standards as the products of bias promulgated by [their political opposition]”. And 3) everyone, at such times, “concludes by affirming loyalty to the values presupposed as valid by those in the group identity he affiliates with”. I.e., these are a banal truisms valid for all conservatives, as well as all liberals, all progressives, all academics, and all “everyday” people — if everyone’s a post-modernist, no one is. But since clearly some are, I think you’ve demonstrated that you’re not really talking about actual post-modernism, but just using it as a red flag you think might spook or provoke conservatives.

            Fwiw, I don’t consider myself a conservative, and I don’t doubt there are valid critiques one can make about conservatives in general or any particular flavor of such. This just isn’t one of them.

          • Matthew McManus says

            @Metamorf;

            1) Sure they do, but that is not what Gingritch and those like them are doing. I doubt that Newt is a closet Kantian saying that “the transcendental processes of cognition common to all who share the identity human mean…” What he is saying in this case, quite obviously, are “normal” human beings-the everyday person some conservatives like to appeal to.

            2) Yes they do. But my point is that this propensity is systematic for these people. With between their dismissal of alternative propositions and facts as fake news, their appeal to facts, their constant use of what Harry Frankfurt tastefully calls “bullshit” rather the just lying, attempts to dismantle institutions oriented around the production of scientific https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/05/21/trump-vs-the-deep-state knowledge, attempts to limit access to education, and so on we are seeing something different. This is a sustained attempt not just to manufacture falsehood, but to attempt to elide the very concept of truth.

            3) Again it is not just the appeals, but the qualitative and quantitative degrees to which loyalty to an affiliated set of values associated with a given identity is demanded. Historically political figures at least made passing efforts at presenting themselves as bipartisan figures. What is occurring now with the caricature of all ideologically competing claims as fake, alternative, and so on is an attempt to myopically appeal ever more narrowly to a given subset.

            Finally, as I highlighted in the essay, these are hardly just problems for conservatives. As Quilette has observed consistently, the left is also prone to these kinds of positions and tactics. But they are no longer alone, and when you think about it, that isn’t really surprising. The social factors which produced post-modernism effect everyone regardless of their initial political ideology.

          • Matt says

            I should also observe that your methodological individualism winds you in a bad place here. You object to my characterizing the President of the United States, Newt Gingritch, and their followers as embodying a group characterized by post modern practices. You prefer to suggest these are just individual abberations that aren’t respresentative. But by that logic, campus activists are also just individual aberations and can’t tell us much about the “Lefty” discourses you decry.

          • I’ve made no suggestions about “individual aberrations that aren’t representative”, and bringing up a red-herring like “methodological individualism” is an indication you’re fighting phantoms. Which, of course, is what the whole post-modern conservatism theme amounts to. And in your point 2 below you let any pretence of objectivity drop and make it clear that you’re really just another partisan anti-Trumper, one of a myriad identical types in your own particular tribe of academia — yours wouldn’t be the first critique of a political enemy that is really just a projection of one’s own faults, though I’d call it post-modernist only ironically. Finally, I’d just point out that implying common social factors must generate the same political/cultural ideology is an obvious fallacy.

            But things have gotten pretty repetitive, so I’ll let it go at that — it’s your essay and you deserve the last word in any case.

          • Matthew McManus says

            1) I don’t think I’ve made pretense that I am opposed to Trump or the positions he takes. Indeed, the picture and the last paragraph make that fairly obvious. However, there are a variety of reasons why I hold to this position. Many of them have to do with the impact he is having on epistemic and moral culture. When I put on my international law hat his appointment of John Bolton etc inspires me to reflect on a different set of reasons.

            2) With regard to my faults: Pointing out that someone’s stated principles and actions occasionally are consonant with those they claim to hate is only a bad thing if it isn’t true. In this case it is, I argue, quite the case. To your second observation, I am not a post-modernist or a supporter of their doctrines. I respect some post-modern thinkers while believing they are wrong. So there is no sense in which I’m projecting my faults onto someone else.

            3) I didn’t say they must generate a shared ideology, which would be rash and foolish. I said that in this case they had, which is very different. Indeed, that much like social factors produced post-modern leftists that share a common ideology, so too have social factors produced post-modern conservatives who share a common ideology.

          • Matthew McManus says

            @Metamorf Thank you at least for a spirited discussion. It was helpful in clarifying my own position.

  22. ga gamba says

    OK, a lot to digest.

    I’ll limit my comment to “cultural Marxism”.

    Marx is a tricky character because he embraced many aspects of the Enlightenment, such as the linearly progressive view of history, and also he embraced aspects of Romanticism such as the alienation of man, the role of the philosopher to change society, and we can’t ignore the German Idealism of his Hegelian roots – he relied on the Romantic critique of Enlightenment epistemology. Because Marx was promiscuous (in thought) we have to appreciate the challenges and recognise how Marx is used to defend or attack an argument today. For example, you can find classical Marxists today attacking postmodernism using Marx’s (post)Enlightenment ideas. Marxists reject the postmodernist view that science is merely a social construct, simply one point of view among many, lacking any special objective validity.

    Mr McManus writes:
    This [cultural Marxism] demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of both Marxism and postmodernism. Generalizing very broadly, the former was highly committed to an almost Messianic theory of truth, had scientific pretensions for historical materialism as a doctrine, and was concerned with truth inhibiting ideology rather than truth effacing ‘power.’ The latter had a complex relationship to truth, rejected historical materialism and indeed scientism (if not science), and was concerned to show that behind power there was only more power.

    This is a good summation, though Derrida’s deconstructionism sought to neutralise power whereas Foucault was the there-is-only-more-power guy. Certainly the postmodernists differed with each other in some key areas. McManus failed to bring highlight the Frankfurt School (FS) into his essay, and I think this is a significant omission. It serves as the transition between Marxism and postmodernism, or at least what most think of as postmodernism presently. (When thinking about Marxism, FS, and postmoderism it’s more useful to envision a Venn diagram that depicts how things overlap rather than to see them at containerised, distinct, and standing alone.)

    I find “cultural Marxism” to be a catch-all, and like all catch-alls it’s imprecise. Just as some today claim capitalist Sweden is “socialist”, which is a dilution of socialism’s meaning to expand it in the desperate attempt to find a success story, cultural Marxism’s definition has expanded over time.

    At its earliest form (it was coined in 1973 by sociology professor Trent Schroyer; postmodernist Lyotard coined postmoderism in 1979) it described the effort of the FS to use critical theory to subvert the institutions of the West, i.e. the culture. Critical theory studies the ways in which knowledge is socially conditioned and recognises the power structures inherent in that conditioning. The FS understood the proletarian revolution failed because the workers, who according to Marxist logic should have risen up against their masters in WWI, were still dominated by the rulers’ understandings. Over their lifetimes these understandings were impressed on the workers by national traditions and rituals, in church, at school, by newspapers and magazines, in the novels they read, in the nursery rhymes and fairy tales they heard as children, in the songs they sang, in the popular culture of the day, etc. Even one’s family and peers took part in buttressing the rulers’ understandings. This was the overarching superstructure and it needed to be corroded – critical theory would be the rust to do so. Further, capitalism had proved adaptive and resilient, for example it was flexible enough to accommodate workers’ demands for better wages and conditions, and over time the quality of workers’ lives improved. The FS observed contemporary social conditions that Marx himself had never seen or had not devoted much effort to analysing. I think their genius was to use the emerging field of psychology. Why do those who would benefit most from a revolution of socio-economic change seem to resist it? Psychology would be useful to figure that out. Over time the FS learnt of Stalin’s abuses, and they offered criticism of this too.

    The FS is considered neo-Marxist (a.k.a. New Left), which means it de-emphasised economics and amplified sociology, psychology, and philosophy. It didn’t abandon or refute Marx, rather it sought to find what Marx had missed that caused the revolution to never come to be (in the industrialised West). View this interview with Herbert Marcuse for more, www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=vm3euZS5nLo . Whereas Marx saw the revolution coming from the proletariate exclusively (radical subjectivity), the FS saw it coming from anywhere. I think “cultural Marxist” is a valid term to describe this group, but “cultural neo-Marxist” would be more accurate to signify that it differs from Marx.

    There is some debate whether the FS is postmodernist, or at least are they the same as what emerged from France in the ’60s and ’70s? Whether they are or not, indisputably the FS greatly influenced the postmodernists. I reckon one of the clearest lines of demarkation between the classical Marxists and the postmodernists is on truth, yet for group so convinced that there is no truth, it strikes me that this is their truth. Truly there is no truth. Ain’t that the truth.

    McManus writes that the postmodernists are anti metanarrative (grand narrative) such as Marxism, and this is true (if such a thing exists), but it also ignores the postmodernists themselves were propagators of a grand narrative, that of power. He criticises people such as Peterson for being imprecise, or even incorrect when calling them cultural Marxists, yet the pomos are kind of shifty and slippery characters who themselves have trouble creating precise and unbiased sets of meanings. In some way it seems to me the pomos constructed the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” philosophy. Postmodernism is rather fluid where meaning is prone to shifts and redefinitions over space and time to include a person’s position in that space and time. This allows them a lot of wiggle room to avoid being pinned down.

    • Matthew B says

      This was great – much clearer than McManus’ exposition.

      Your final paragraph really hit home as I thought it poor logic on McManus’ part to say Peterson ‘don’t know pomo’, only to turn around and use the term ‘conservative postmodernism’ to describe those on the Right exhibiting the same poor behaviour as those Peterson criticizes on the Left.

      I was left wondering if these tactics and ways of thinking are postmodern or not, but you’ve answered that quite well. If one of your fundamental tenants is that there is no truth and everything is relative, then definitions and the ability to define anything go out the window too.

    • Morgan says

      So instead of describing them as you did, you support Peterson describing them with angry diatribes as “neo marxists” AND post-modernists, despite the fact that post-modernists have various opinions and are “slippery” with their opinions? And you approve of his equating of marxism and stalinism and maoism in one breath? You seem to be trying to make his argument for him. You seem to be assuming his argument is clearer and better than it is as a means to defend your ideological father-figure.

      Peterson is making simplistic arguments because he wants people to hate, mindlessly and thoughtlessly, anyone who espouses any opinions to the left of the center.

      • Matthew B says

        Morgan – you criticize for a misrepresentation of facts (honestly the point of your first paragraph is not clear at all) to defend Peterson only to turn around and ridiculously misrepresent Peterson.

        This sorta blows all the credibility for whatever point it is you’re trying to make.

  23. Matt says

    You are right that not discussing the Frankfurt School was a significant omission in this essay. Unfortunately limitations of space required that largely because I dont’t agree the the FS had a significant impact on post-modwrn theory even if there were overlapping concerning with the first set of authors I highlighted-those who consider post-modernism and epoch. The reason I disagree is that the Frankfurt school’s philosophical approach (a negative dialectics drawing on Freud and Marx) was largely antithetical to the various approaches used by post-modern authors. Moreover the Frankfurt School largely does not fit the cliches discussed by some conservative critics. They were hardly interested in tearing down all of Western culture. Adorno was a snob who concerned that capitalist consumer culture was destroying aesthetic culture. Habermas is an internationalist and social democrat who writes nice things about the EU. So I tend to be skeptical of attempts to associate the FS with postmodernism since little, to my mind, unites them, beyond a concern with culture and (two very different) critiques of the Enlightenment.

  24. Matt says

    Also as I highlighted in the essay-I thought quite clearly- I view post-modern positions as the product of a given culture. Unfortunately there was no space to discuss this at length but I tend to agree with the Baudrillard-Postman-Deneen line that a combination of transformations in the economy, information disseminating technologies, entertainment, and the emergence of neoliberalism contributed to the rise of post-modern culture. The individuals in this culture tend to adopt an epistemic and meta-ethical stance thatvis skeptical of knowledge not derived from the values affiliated with a group identity.

  25. doug deeper says

    “By contrast, rightwing postmodern identity politics tends to be concerned with retrenching the power of traditionally dominant identity groups against these same assaults.” I would like to see the author back this up. I am very familiar with Victor Davis Hansen, Jordan Peterson and Dennis Prager, all of whom the author referred to. I have never heard or read anything from the three that has anything to do with “retrenching the power of traditionally dominant identity groups.”

    While the article is loaded with the entrails of intellectual babble, I do not believe he even comprehends the values of these three men.
    As a non-academic I can only see the results of Marxist, post modern, identity politics on the campuses across the country. And the results are horrifying. Talk about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic…

    My recommendation to the author: before taking on the world, clean up your room.

    • Matt says

      I do not believe you read my article very carefully. I never claimed Peterson or Hansen were postmodern conservatives. I highlighted them as right wing critics of post-modernism to frame my initial argument. As for Dennis Prager, I would label him one since his is prone to saying that the values of traditional identities (especially right wing religious identities) is under attack, appeals to this identitarian logic in his claims that the US is in the midst of a Second Civil War (as appears in the link), against another set of identities he associates with the Left, and finally he tends to be dismissive of other epistemic and meta-ethical positions on truth and doesn’t really care to defend his own beyond appealing to their efficacy for a given identity. If you want a good example of the latter point read his work on religious dictums or watch his video ojbthe death penalty.

      • doug deeper says

        Excuse me if I missed the distinction b/t Peterson, VDH, and Prager. You call the first two “right wing critics of post-modernism.” Peterson IMHO, is clearly a classical liberal, and I believe VDH is also.

        Neither has beliefs “predicated on a nostalgic desire to hold onto those specific standards regardless of their tenability.” Nor do they “take the form of demanding adherence to tradition for the sake of stability, rather than tradition’s inner truth and value.” Neither Peterson nor VDH, both of whom I have had the pleasure of speaking with, have any such “primitive conservative” beliefs. I see both as progressive within the framework of classical liberalism.

        Prager does adhere to the more traditional Judo-Christian values as he expresses in his “Death Penalty” video. However, to say he is “against another set of identities he associates with the Left” is a distortion. Prager and many others see themselves in a war of ideas and values that have nothing to do with “identities.” None of the three to my knowledge has ever evidenced an iota of prejudice against the victim identity groups as defined capriciously from day to day by the largely Marxist or nihilist, identity politics, post modernist groups (as they are pragmatically defined) on campuses throughout the country. What they object to is the rejection of classical liberal values by anyone, regardless of how ID politics defines that person. Certainly Peterson and VDH adhere to a “tradition’s inner truth and value” and not the tradition for its own sake. But like many, they respect the centuries if not hundreds of thousands of years of human development and evolution that brought so many of these values and traditions into existence. If one accepts that our brains were designed by natural selection to survive just as our bodies were, then one is careful to not be careless in shedding many traditions. However, they are absolutely still subject to shedding by classical liberals.

        Prager may be a a somewhat different case because he is a serious practicing Jew, altho not orthodox in any manner as I understand. I believe his Prager U videos are finally bringing largely classical liberal viewpoints to the public and this is a wonderful thing as these views have been de-platformed out of the university by the yada yada yada post modernists.

        I believe you are suggesting that anyone who very seriously opposes these PMs is a rightwing, white supremacist identitist (even when they are African-American, Hispanic, female and LGBTQ). This is a tragic dilution of the crimes of these PMs who have ruined the campus and are now depreciating the culture at large. No, conservatives and classical liberals have played no role in this tragedy.

        • Matt says

          When did I ever claim that critics of post-modernism are inherently racist, sexist, etc? If anything I tend to be critical of post-modernism, as indicated throughout the piece. I also share concerns about its cultural impact, feeling it has moved beyond just the left and its defenders.

          • doug deeper says

            “As for Dennis Prager, I would label him one (post-modern conservative) since his is prone to saying that the values of traditional identities (especially right wing religious identities) is under attack, appeals to this identitarian logic in his claims that the US is in the midst of a Second Civil War (as appears in the link), against another set of identities he associates with the Left, …”

            And then wouldn’t those identities Prager is at war with be the usual oppressed groups defined by the left, racial minorities, women and LBGTQ? This certainly suggests (my word) that you are claiming Prager is a rightwing (your word), white supremacist, identitist (my words).

            And this sounds like you are claiming that Prager is racist and sexist. And it seems to me you are claiming nearly any strong, anti-PM, conservative, practicing Jew would then be racist and sexist. Please tell me I am wrong.

            This is precisely what those of us who are very anti-PM hear all the time, that we are racist and sexist. I am a non-practicing Jew, classical liberal, and I have to be very careful when speaking my mind on my view of PM on nearly any campus. I am neither racist or sexist, but I know how I would be slandered by the campus PMs, and if I were able to draw large crowds, violence might occur as happens to Peterson, Heather MacDonald, and so many more.

            Perhaps you can see what it is like on campus when in the shoes of someone who is really willing to fight the Marxist, anarchist, ID politics, PM crowd, and all the nice academics that have allowed it to de-platform anyone who seriously confronts it.

  26. Next week will see the one-year anniversary of the untimely death of Peter Augustine Lawler, a major thinker in political theory, the author of Postmodernism Rightly Understood (1999), and the leader of (cough) Postmodern Conservative, a group blog centered upon his writings that ran from around 2010 to 2016, first on First Things, and then on National Review Online. I was one of the co-contributors, and the link included will take you to my music-focused work. Prior to the group blog, James Poulos had a blog of his own called Postmodern Conservative, and he remained in dialogue with the group blog. Others who wrote for the blog include Ralph Hancock, an important political theorist, Pete Spiliakos, and Titus Techera. There are handful of others who delivered a few posts. Paul Seaton, a translator and scholar of contemporary French political theorists like Pierre Manent, Chantal Delsol, and Remi Brague, was associated with the pomocon tag, and popped up in the blog’s comments from time to time. James Ceaser, a major thinker on American politics, contributed a number of posts, although it would be problematic to label him a pomocon. The label in general has its plusses and minuses. But the idea behind it was extensively theorized by Lawler.

    As you can imagine, we who contributed are not happy to see an article like this without a single mention of our work, and most especially of Lawler’s.

    Your oversight is an understandable one, but simply Googling the phrase “postmodern conservative” gets you into awareness of our existence in the first five or so links. You could make amends by producing an article that pays tribute to Lawler’s work, and compares and contrasts his highly-developed conception of a positive postmodern conservatism, with your identity-politics-linked one that you sketch here. That would be a bit of work, I know, and it would muddy the waters of the main point you wish to make. But I think it is fair request to make to you, and if you shrink from the task, to Quillette.

    • Matt says

      I am familiar with Lawler’s work, and actually bring it up whenever someone claims there is no one who expressly identitifies with the label in order to discredit the overall approach. However I have yet to read the book you mentioned and did not want to comment in the absence of a fair and rigorous appraisal. Qua your suggestion I will order the book and read it shortly. Thank you for your suggestion.

      • Carl Eric Scott says

        A gracious reply, and I look forward to your appraisal. However, I have merited skepticism about how familiar you are with Lawler’s thought. The most useful immediate comparison would be to Oakeshott, who you present as a postmodern conservative: Lawler never saw him as a sympatico thinker, and he was significantly more grounded in both religion and a theory of natural right. For example, he never produced anything like Oakeshott’s wild dismissal of the America’s Declaration and its natural rights tradition. Rather, Lawler deepened John Courtney Murray’s “building better than they knew” account of the American Founding. It’s very hard to explain in a comment, but the book where Lawler’s approach is most vivid is in his Modern and American Dignity.

        But I think it’s very problematic to lump Trump, Orban, your (suspect) account of Prager’s “identity politics,” the (less the fully trustworthy) accounts we read in English of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Oakeshott, and then the likes of Lawler and Poulos also, into some camp of postmodern conservatism. In fact, I worry that it could become something of a smear. Mere common awareness of the fact that folks like Rorty or Derrida made some good points, plus political conservatism, does not necessarily a common camp make. If you want to argue that such a broad tendency that you call postmodern conservatism does exist, well, fine, good luck, but I think you should alert future readers to the fact that there was and is this little school of thought, shaped by some fairly specific teachings of a genuinely great thinker, Lawler, that laid claim to the name before you began using it in your way. His use of the name does not vindicate your overall theory, at least not in the main.

  27. Matt says

    Yes I am certainly not using it in a manner consonant with Lawyer’s but am adapting the label for my own purposes. Just a quick comment; I did not suggest Oakshott was a post-modern thinker per se. Rather that he laid some of the intellectual seeds that could later he radicalized and twisted that way.

  28. Teodor F. says

    Author seems to be a postmodernist himself, after the Foucaultist fashion since he seems to utterly ignore that both the pragmatic truth and the empirical one are strongly in favor of the side he deems as “conservative post-modernists”. After all, we did build our highly desirable nations in absence of massive 3rd world migration, and when 3rd world peoples start to take prominence in a geographical area, such as the case of Chicago and Detroit this tends to go down the drain by any measurable factor. Furthermore, there’s the mountain of scientific evidence supporting the race-realist position in the Alt-right, if not other tenants central to the movement.

    There is indeed something of a post-modern tint to some of today’s conservatives, clearly visible in Richard Spencer’s discourse on being self-conscious of your non-elected identity (“I should love my white race because I am white and this is who I am”), and ever more salient in some of the technics employed by the Alt-right to spread their message (hijacking inherently meaningless symbols in order to artificially increase their presence in the public space, see Pepe the Frog).

    The author fails to address any of that which makes his essay little more than forced horseshoe theory weaksauce with a lot of word dressing.

    >immigrants, refugees, a criminal underclass, and other individuals whose existence within the country is thought to pose a danger of social fragmentation

    Yeah, that just stuck in my craw enough to warrant special attention. Ethnic diversity is *proven* to cause social fragmentation by Robert Putnam’s famous study, followed by a half dozen others.

  29. ukcj4 says

    I enjoyed the article, and I think I agree with the basic conclusion that there is a rising “postmodern” identity movement on the right, or at least an identity movement on the right that seems to unwittingly be postmodern. But I also disagree with much in the article especially any link of this movement to Prager (you can’t get much less postmodern) or even call it “conservative” in any sense. Perhaps the Postmodern Identity Right or something like that. Individuals in the movement may want to link themselves to Peterson and Prager, but neither of those gentlemen would claim the movement I don’t even if they may be strange bedfellows when it comes to certain political issues like (in the case of Prager, anyway) immigration.

Leave a Reply