Politics in Practice

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“Truth is Not Truth”

Matthew Allan McManus is a Visiting Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of TEC de Monterrey, Mexico, and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. Read the chapter “Who are the Post-Modern Conservatives” online free until 23rd October 2019.

When I was born a popular theory was that history had ended. This was of course the thesis of a popular article and book by Francis Fukuyama, who had declared that with the fall of the Soviet Union liberal democracy was now the only ideological game in town.  From here on in, the great struggles which had characterized history—between Enlightenment and traditionalism, fascism and liberalism, capitalism and communism—were over. Liberal democratic and capitalist regimes would eventually emerge across the globe, bringing about a pacified but often meaningless world order.  The big political disputes would be over marginal tax rates and whether to cut this or that social program, our personal lives would be taken up by debates over the meaning of Marvel post-credit scenes, and any aspirations for significance would only be met through building hotel chains and failing casinos with the family name garishly plastered across them.

This partially utopian, partially nightmarish theory was first put to the test on September 11th 2001, when I was 12 years old.  Even in Canada we recognized that the stately international order we’d been brought up in—always a conceit of you lived outside a developed country anyways—was profoundly shaken. A few years later came the Great Recession of 2008, which brought about a crisis of faith in capitalism few would have predicted in 1989.  Terms like Marxism and social democracy, which many claimed had been buried by neoliberalism, suddenly came back into vogue.  There was widespread anger everywhere as younger generations accused their elders of selling the future for cheap credit and readily available consumer goods. At the time I was just wrapping up my undergraduate work at Carleton University in Canada, and a future which had once looked open seemed like it was closing shut.  For many who did not have the opportunity to flee into graduate school like I did, this sense of anomie never truly faded. Instead it calcified into strong feelings of resentment and outrage. It may have taken a seer of Cassandra’s ability to predict what had happened, but retrospectively the illusion that things could go on as they had forever turned out to be just that.

These resentments eventually boiled up to shatter claims we had entered post-history. I looked at how the stability of the neoliberal order which had been gaining traction since the 1970s was actually dependent on a willingness to tolerate or ignore deepening inequalities and the dissolution of traditional communities.  As jobs became increasingly precarious, real incomes fell, and traditions became commodified and overturned the promise was it was a necessary price to pay for continued economic growth. When that promise was broken in 2008 the fragile contract between neoliberalism and the body politic fractured. Governments which were increasingly beholden to corporate and financial interests faced a population that was angry and wanting change. Unfortunately rather than attacking the roots of these problems, social movements for change were co-opted by reactionaries who directed the anger away from the powerful and towards the weak. The real sources of inequality, precarity, and political disempowerment, they believed, were all the groups in society who did not belong, along with their elitist allies in the media, academia and arts community. If the people would only place their faith in powerful leaders and elevate them to the highest offices in the land, they would rid society of these groups and marginalize their allies. This would bring back an era of prosperity and order for those who had once been masters of their domain: nostalgic romanticization of a time that never have existed, but captured a desire for when men were men and the world seemed simpler.

The attraction of these nostalgic mythologies lay in how they bucked the trend towards confusion and change characteristic of post-modern culture. Post-modernism has usually been understood as the purview of French intellectuals and North American radicals, who were all determined to somehow undermine the foundations of Western civilization. What more probing commentators recognized was how this loss of faith in the “grand narratives” in the past wasn’t just an academic matter. It was increasingly affecting everyone.  This was particularly true of narratives about identity. Individuals who framed their identity along traditionalist lines—as the patriarchal head of household, a member of an inherently good “Western civilization” —saw these identities and values increasingly questioned and destabilized by everyone from women’s groups to popular culture.  This contributed to the emancipation of a huge number of groups previously held back by traditional prejudices and irrationalism. Everyone from the women’s movement to LGBTQ agitation gained from the space opened by post-modern culture to question long held idolatries. But it also left many people feeling uncertain about their place in the world, who they were, and why the identities and values they cherished were suddenly out of date and even mocked.

When combined with all the economic and political instabilities characteristic of neoliberalism, these created the conditions for the rise of post-modern conservatives. These post-modern conservatives were influenced by hyper-modern pundits and technologies which endless propagated right wing stories about the dangers of immigrants, feminists, intellectuals, and Alec Baldwin.  These media presented a narrative of decline and fall, where a good and honest nation and people were being undermined from without and within. In the more extreme cases, this was even given an extremely dark twist. The most radical post-modern conservatives became willing to even resurrect the racist and sexist irrationalism of the past and mobilize it for another stab at real power and influence.  Coalescing into political movements, they eventually managed to seize power in many countries across the globe: Hungary, Poland, Italy, the United Kingdom, arguably Brazil, and most famously the United States.  The last case was especially glaring, as a trust fund child turned reality TV star came to occupy the highest office in the world while continuously blurring the very idea of truth and honesty. It isn’t clear that post-modern conservatism’s rise can’t be stopped. A coordinated progressive movement demanding greater equality and democracy could stem the tide. But post-modern conservatism is currently ascendant and remaking the globe in its nostalgic hyper-modern image. 

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