Irrationalism, The Political Right and Collective Identities

Many on the Left maintain that, in contrast to conservatives, we must have greater respect for difference. Conservatives are seen as supporting a universalistic and moralizing vision of the world, backed up by the power of capital, the ideological heft of liberalism, and the martial strength of Western hegemons like the United States and the United Kingdom.  These forces operate to quash difference at home and crush it abroad, spreading markets through the power of globalization and world institutions while destroying different systems of economic organization, and promoting a universal liberal individualism as the only viable ideology.

All of this helps explain the attraction of post-modernism to the Left. With its rejection of objective truth and morals and all the grand narratives they hold up, to its interest in demonstrating the equal validity of other ways of knowing and expressing, post-modernism must have seemed like a breath of fresh air.  But the ground has shifted. Conservative movements have been able to assimilate the lessons of post-modernism and synthesize them with older reactionary philosophies. In many ways conservatives have been more successful in this respect than the Left ever was, in part because post-modern conservatives have never been concerned about enthusiastically embracing the paradoxical consequences of their positions.

To understand how this can be so, we must look back to older and more particularistic forms of conservatism.  These precedents demonstrate that post-modern conservatism didn’t emerge in an intellectual and cultural vacuum. Perhaps its most important predecessor is Edmund Burke. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France Burke famously condemned the French Revolutionaries, those innovators with “a selfish temper and confined views.” He was deeply hostile not just to their political views, but to the haughty rationalism which seemed to underpin them.  Burke criticized the belief that society could be transformed from the ground up according to some pretentious scheme which claimed to be based on a fully rational philosophy. In a populist vein, Burke railed against the “solitude of metaphysical abstraction” that led to dangerous and violent radicalism.  For instance, he believed that the abstract rights of man coveted by the Revolutionaries could never be achieved except by destroying the venerable institutions which worked to counter the impulses of those who thought they knew better than their ancestors.

Burke never quite slipped into endorsing the outright irrationalism we see today amongst post-modern conservatives. But he laid the groundwork for irrationalism’s assimilation into later branches of conservatism. He was deeply skeptical that there was an objective truth and set of morals which could be discovered or constructed through the power of human reason and applied to all societies at all times. One can see his influence on conservatives throughout the ages. For instance, in “Rationalism and Politics” Michael Oakeshott famously argued that modern people must choose between a nihilistic commitment to a rationalist politics, or embrace the irrational but far more satisfying commitment to one’s culture and society based on a habit of “affection and behavior” rather than self-reflection and calculation. Burke’s irrationalism also colours the work of conservative legalists like Robert Bork, who in Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges famously denounced Leftists for having little respect for “particularity-respect for difference, circumstance, history, and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies,” and Antonin Scalia who claimed that the goal of American law was to express “skepticism that evolving standards of decency always meant progress and that societies always mature as opposed to rot.”

These intellectual precedents demonstrate why the shift to post-modern positions was not, despite its long association with the Left, an unparalleled leap for conservatives. The ground had long been laid in the veneration of irrationalism and the consequent focus on culture and society over reason and objectivity.

Contemporary Post-Modern Conservatism

Post-modern conservatism echoes many of the same points as its irrationalist predecessors, but exacerbates their most extreme tendencies. It is also backed up by the tremendous power of modern technology and capital.

Ironically, post-modern conservatism, as it manifests on radio, in blogs, and websites, is often superficially hostile towards what it takes as the tenets of post-modernism and “cultural Marxism” (whatever the latter means). It is dismissive of historical accounts of racism and genocide by Western powers. It disdains social context. And most obviously, post-modern conservatism is paranoid about any criticisms of Western civilization and its values.  But these surface conflicts belie the deeper unity between post-modernism and post-modern conservatism. The most intense political conflicts are almost always between two groups who operate within similar ideological frameworks. Post-modern conservatism is post-modern because it disdains belief in objective truth and mores, whether offered by science or social science, and locates meaning in a reactionary identity and its values.  This is expressed in post-modern conservatism’s approach to politics. Since there is no objective truth to be found, there are no firm criteria for mediating between or evaluating the truth of different value systems and policies. Facts can be countered by appeal to alternative facts.  Critics can be dismissed as fake news. What matters for post-modern conservatives is remaining faithful to a conservative identity.

Post-modern conservatism is ascendant across the Anglo-Saxon world, as manifested in the election of the Pynchonesque Donald Trump, and the Brexit decision of the United Kingdom. It has worryingly bubbled to the surface in the civilizational nationalism of Marine Le-Pen, the xenophobic political-theology of Geert Wilders, and the Crusader mentality of the Law and Justice Party of Poland. Each of these movements and parties has abandoned the conservative universalism and turned inward. Post-modern conservative movements and parties have adopted the rhetoric and symbolism of a reactionary identity.  Sometimes they link with like minded conservatives in states belonging to “Western Civilization,” sometimes they keep things at the level of a crude nationalism.  In each case, post-modern conservative movements and parties rely on alienation and resentment, rather than facts and argument, to push an agenda critical of globalization, integration, and universalistic movements.  The old universalistic conservative stalwarts, embodied by figures dead-William Buckley- and living – Nicolas Sarkozy- are being rudely swept aside for their conformity and alleged support for a globalizing order. They are being replaced by figures who are relativistic, dismissive or even ignorant of the idea of truth, and consequently all the more aggressive in using the technologies that facilitated their rise to push a transparently ideological agenda. To the extent post-modern conservatives have achieved political success, whether through seizing power or advancing policies, they have changed both the substance and form of politics.