Sunday, May 26, 2019
Is There A Postmodern Conservatism, My Comment On An Essay By Matt McManus
First this: the essay
Then from that this:
Conclusion: Oakeshott and Postmodern Conservatism
In his 1996 book, The Illusions of Postmodernism, the Marxist literary theorist wrote:
...Postmodernism then, is wary of History but enthusiastic on the whole about history. To historicize is a positive move and History only stands in its way. If postmodern theory really does believe that historicizing is ipso facto radical, then it is certainly mistaken. It assumes that historicizing belongs largely on the Left, which is by no means the case. You do not need to tell the Edmund Burkes, Michael Oakeshotts and Hans-Georg Gadamers of this world that events can only be understood in their historical contexts. For a whole lineage of liberal or right-wing thinkers, a sensitive attunement to historical context, to the cultural moldings of the self, to the subliminal voice of tradition and the force of the local or idiosyncratic, has been a way of discrediting what they take to be the anemic ahistorical rationality of the radicals. Burke’s appeal to prescription, venerable custom and immemorial heritage is in this sense much the same as contemporary pragmatisms’ appeal to our received social practices, even if the former is thinking of the House of Lords and the latter of baseball and free enterprise. For both schools of thought, history—which comes down to something like “the way we happen to do things and have done so for rather a long time”—is a form of rationality in itself, immeasurably superior to such jejune notions as universal freedom and justice....
Eagleton’s observation about the odd coincidence of postmodern theorizing with a certain kind of conservatism was largely ignored, despite its galvanizing implications. Perhaps the reason was that the Oakeshottian conservatism invoked by Eagleton itself seemed like a relic of the past by that point. By the 1990s, Oakeshott himself was considered something of an oddity amongst right-wing intellectuals. He was clearly immensely learned and intelligent, but his anti-rationalism and emphasis on a politics of “faith” and emotional attachment to tradition seemed like superstition in accordance with the spirit of the age. Economically minded neoliberals like F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman were more to the taste of conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who was often eager to give her reforms a rationalistic quality. Oakeshott might have seemed a venerable artifact from an earlier era, doomed to fade out with the century he witnessed almost in full.
History has arguably disproven this conceit. Oakeshott’s thinking now seems not so much a phantom of the past as an anticipation of conservatism’s postmodern future. In particular, he argued that the basis of conservatism is not ultimately in some form of rationalism. This is because traditionalist reason provides us with a greater sense of affective satisfaction than rationalism, which can only ever destroy the meaningful attachments in our lives with its insistent skepticism and lust to know the world purely as it is. Traditionalist reason provides us with a sense of historical constancy and identity which may not in fact exist, but is reflected in our practices and commitments. This includes our commitment to groups like the “nation.” These may be highly arbitrary, but they are nonetheless how we frame our sense of who we are and what we owe to those like us. This provides a greater sense of meaning than rationalism, which for Oakeshott was an almost inhuman way of looking at things.
This position of course echoes the writings of many postmodern theorists, who were similarly keen to emphasize the impotence of reason relative to history and traditions. Perhaps the most prominent point of comparison is with the writings of Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard. Both these authors stressed that the project of trying to formulate a universal moral reason had failed. Instead, we must analyze the historically contingent ways different societies and traditions understood personal and political morality, without trying to interrogate them based on some conceited rationalistic standard applicable in all places at all times. Oakeshott would not have agreed with the radical political implications they drew from these epistemic and moral positions, but his philosophical thinking largely accorded with theirs.
More importantly, Oakeshott anticipated the positions of many postmodern conservatives today. For instance, postmodern conservatives are reticent to trust rationalistic arguments made by cosmopolitan “elites” who stress that we have moral obligations to all individuals, regardless of where they come from. Instead, politicians like Donald Trump and Victor Orban stress that they are “nationalists” who believe that our primary moral obligations will always be to those who look and act like us. Of course, a rationalist might counter that these factors are highly arbitrary. It is purely an accident that one is born an American or Hungarian, as it is purely accidental that refugees from Latin America or Syria were born into unstable countries where they faced serious risk of violence.
Nonetheless, these factors matter to postmodern conservatives for reasons that would have been familiar to Oakeshott. The insistence that we concern ourselves with individuals with whom we have little in common is implicitly an insistence that maintaining traditional practices, and the sense of identity and meaning they provide, is at best a secondary concern next to our universal obligations. This rationalistic emphasis that we accept the “unfamiliar” into our communities, along with the skeptical injunction that we examine why we attach so much moral significance to arbitrary factors like who belongs to what nation, destabilize the postmodern conservative worldview. For this reason, postmodern conservatives are committed to combatting such positions wherever possible.
Intriguing, meaty essay, I enjoyed it.
I’ll restrict myself to a question and an observation. I do so as an interested layman in these matters, without academic or professional expertise.
My question is: do I correctly assume that the reasoning expanding utilitarianism to its “radical edge” manifest in, say, for one example, the 19th century advocacy of universal suffrage is essentially that it increases utility, namely a greater happiness for a greater number?
My observation is that I’m at sea with your claim of significant connection between on on hand post modern theory and on the other Oakeshott’s conservatism, (“cultural conservatism”) arguing for embedded reasoning as against a kind ahistorical rationalism aka a “politics of skepticism.”
I argue your attempt significantly to link the two betrays an instance of the logical fallacy of composition, here elevating something somewhat descriptively comparable between the two into their binding commonality, that binding evident in the very nomenclature you use, namely, “postmodern conservatism.”
It’s reasonable to contrast economic libertarians like Friedman and Hayek with cultural conservatives like Burke and Oakeshott and to contrast technocratic, history-skeptics with post modern theorists. But where does the connection between cultural conservatism and postmodernism go beyond this comparison?
Postmodernism, in a main iteration, there are others, is a specific analysis of culture and events shaped by forces rooted in power —though the analysis of what comprises power and how it works out varies with different groups of theorists—perpetually and dynamically impinging on and determining human life and events.
The comparison you draw is post modernism’s insistence that human events and change are historically located as do the conservative thinkers you quote Eagleton to list. But I argue your comparison starts and stops with this observation. The line of thought running from Burke to Oakeshott is an incrementalist claim, going slow, privileging our organic link to our past manifest in our habits and traditions, fearing unintended consequences, skeptical—speaking of a politics of skepticism—of technocratic expertise conferring/imposing solutions from on high. In fact Eagleton characterizes this line of thought well, (edited to make the point):
...You do not need to tell the Edmund Burkes, Michael Oakeshotts and Hans-Georg Gadamers of this world that events can only be understood in their historical contexts...a sensitive attunement to historical context, to the cultural moldings of the self, to the subliminal voice of tradition and the force of the local or idiosyncratic...
But, contra you, this, cultural conservatism, has nothing to do with an analysis of determinative forces rooted in power, be it the power of ownership of the means of production, or the power of hegemonic race, class and gender, or to do with any notion of culture as superstructure, all of which in different iterations and emphases are hallmarks of varieties of post modern theory.
So your fallacy of composition, in a nutshell, resides in taking some descriptive similarity in the insistence on historical embeddedness and mistakenly elevating that similarity into a prescriptive conflation of post modernism and conservatism, again the evidence of that conflation is your own terminology, “postmodern conservatism” when in toto they are radically distinct from each other.