The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism
Pic by Gage Skidmore

The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism

Matt McManus
Matt McManus
9 min read

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about was that postmodern theorists seemed indifferent to the entire possibility of truth, dismissing it as an outdated and even dangerous idea.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.

Matt McManus

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey.