May 17, 2018


The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism (Matt McManus, 5/17/18, Quillette)

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 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.

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.

The entirety of Anglo-American philosophy (and the basis of our anti-Intellectualism) consists of the rejection of the idea that truth can be reached by the exercise of Reason. The dispute between conservatives and radicals is simply over what this insight means for how we should arrange our culture. The conservative chooses the Christian faith as the most aesthetically sound basis, not least because it imposes the morality everyone claims to aspire to.  The more radical proposition--shared by Right and Left--is that there can be no common culture at that point.    

Posted by at May 17, 2018 4:38 AM