Summer School 2006. Matt Sharpe, Geoff Boucher

11 Theses on Postmodern Conservatism

  1. The main defect of all hitherto-existing conservatism - both Anglo-American and continental - is its inability to deal with social change. Hence it happened that, faced with the emergence of Fordist modes of social regulation, organised labour and universal suffrage, that elements of the political right in Europe and elsewhere submitted to the lure of bargaining with fascism. The new forms of postmodern political conservatism emerging in Australia, the United States and elsewhere by contrast embrace and actively promote far-reaching economic, legal, political and social reform associated with post-Fordist regimes of flexible accumulation. Postmodern-conservatism is to post-Fordism as fascism is to Fordism. Fascism is a reactionary modernist revolution designed to combine economic and political transformation in line with the new mode of social regulation with a nostalgic-organicist cultural form. The crucial point about fascism is that it is a pro-capitalist response to the crisis of capitalism in the transition from one mode of social regulation to another. Under the slogan of “national renewal,” fascism promotes the concentration and centralisation of national capital through clientalist policies and massive state subsidisation of Department I (production of means of production) and armaments production. Corporatist political policies are combined with draconian labour laws and racist preference schemes to generate a reactionary parody of the welfare state. Where racist nationalism fails as social cement, this is buttressed by traditional morality and religious institutions, necessitating the contradictory programme of a national revolution that includes a traditional revival. Postmodern conservatism is a reactionary postmodern revolution designed to combine economic and political transformation in line with the new mode of social regulation, with a post-traditional invention of cultural form. Postmodern-conservatism responds to the inability of national governments and the national bourgeoisie to restructure capital in line with a new international division of labour, by means of a radical programme of deregulation, labour repression and cultural re-conditioning. Postmodern conservatism promotes the formation of multinational capital based in its national territory through economic deregulation (thereby unleashing global forces of concentration and centralisation within the hitherto relatively protected national economy). The shrinking regulatory influence of the nation state is counter-balanced by its increased repressive political role - where it polices the national territory to ensure optimal investment conditions for globally mobile capital - and its expanded cultural role as the guardian of “public morality.” The decline in political-economic power of the nation state implies the diminution of nationalist as an ideological force; this is compensated for by an increased role for religion as social cement.
  2. The appearance is that postmodern conservatism - with its advocacy of Postmodern-liberal economic deregulation and unbridled free-market mechanisms, embrace of democratic populism and pragmatic approach to cultural forms - is the opposite of fascist corporatism. But this relies on a formalistic approach that tries to test the closeness of resemblance between movements. We ask a different question: what is the socio-political role of contemporary social forces with respect to international restructuring? European fascism generally took the form of an armed insurgency of the middle classes against the labour movement. Nor did the national bourgeoisie willingly cede power to the anti-democratic forces that threatened the traditional “parties of order.” Only the gravity of the crisis led to the famous rapprochement between fascism and big business, and the acceptance of a military dictatorship as the cost of preventing “Bolshevism.” The very strata most affected by Fordist restructuring - the rural labourers, landed aristocracy, traditional middle classes and the urban unemployed - became the shock troops of that social process. The social basis of postmodern conservatism has shifted: now unskilled and semi-skilled labourers are disproportionately represented, the agrarian class fractions have disappeared, and a mass of self-employed tradespersons and shopkeepers have drifted towards postmodern conservative ideologies. Nor is an armed insurgency against organised labour necessary: the protracted crisis of Fordism can be resolved without civil war; postmodern conservatism can proceed uninterrupted to the second phase of “national renewal” (post-Fordist restructuring and ideological scapegoating for the resulting dislocation) while preparing for the third phase (a resumption of inter-imperialist rivalries with massive rearmament). The “parties of order” of the contemporary political scene (social democratic and conservative) have been profoundly shaken by the impact of international restructuring, creating an opening for the postmodern conservative mobilisation of a political alliance between extra-parliamentary movements and the reactionary wing of the conservative parties. “Bolshevism” does not threaten and parliamentary democracy is susceptible to media manipulation: the programme of postmodern conservatism is hence not one of military dictatorship needing to lean on a semi-autonomous party apparatus that doubles the “official” organs of state (executive, bureaucracy, judiciary, police). It is rather a “guided democracy,” in the Brazilian-style. And once again, the primary constituency of the movement are the very social strata most affected by post-Fordist restructuring.
  3. Far from being proponents of small capital, niche markets, consumer lifestyles and industrial participation - the post-Fordist utopia of social-democratic pipe dreams - postmodern conservatism exhibits the correlation between monopolistic concentration of capital and authoritarian decision-making in political and corporate structures. Economic deregulation at the national level only means that the accumulation of capital proceeds unrestrained at the global level, to the advantage of the multinational corporations. The resulting new international division of labour distributes class strata according to the degree of political repression that obtains in each national territory, so that semi-skilled process work gravitates to the military dictatorships and guided democracies of the newly industrialising countries, while depoliticised service work can be located in the industrialised countries, under conditions of “flexible working hours” and contracted labour. Flexible accumulation and horizontal integration within corporate structures do not favour democratic management and industrial participation; instead, they militate towards the accumulation of management prerogatives at the centre of the corporate network and towards the secretive generation of technological rents through control of research and development. The corporate model is then applied throughout the social formation, resulting in a dialectics of decentralised operational responsibilities and centralised decision-making power.
  4. Postmodern conservatism is living proof of the falsity of the fond Hayekian thesis that liberal economic rights directly guarantee social and civil liberties against the coercive powers of the state. Emblematic of this is the first week of November 2005 in Australia, where “deregulated” labour market laws promoted as guaranteeing freedom of contract were rushed through Australian parliament in the same week as anti-terrorism laws which significantly threaten the liberal rule of law, founded on the principles of habeus corpus and sans crimen sans lege, the presumption of the citizen’s innocence until proven guilt, and the ex delecti nature of law-finding and punishment. We would hence agree with Douglas Hay et al in Albion’s Fatal Tree against all those who argue, fondly or foully, that in any advanced liberal economy, the private law of contracts has unquestionable primacy over public and criminal law. Postmodern conservatism rather increasingly “bears fruit” for the Albion thesis that, as liberal economics proceeds and accelerates, it generates the “superstructural” demand for a government that is punitively expansive at the same time as it aspires to “smallness” in the economic sphere. The ideological cement binding and concealing the in-principle contradictory demands of an atomising neo-liberal mode of economic regulation and the new moralizing punitiveness in public law is a rhetoric of “responsibility.” Given this rhetoric and the understanding for which it stands, any attempt to undermine the more and more strict liability of offenders by recourse to mitigating circumstances, including the abject economic circumstances of the underprivileged, can be instantly refigured as a weak or “elitist” assault on “responsibility” concocted by relativistic elites.
  5. The postmodern conservatives, in responding to the liberal “bias” of Western judiciary at the end of the twentieth century, present themselves as the near-positivistic defenders of the “original intentions” of those who framed the constitutional documents of the West against “judicial radicalism.” In reality, what postmodern conservative legal argument makes apparent is the difference between “law” and “order,” in this phrase so dear to the media pundits. If law under liberalism was both ratio and voluntas, and aspired to the primacy of general parliamentary norms, the legal form emerging as dominant today is one where the scope and efficacy of the law as calculable ratio is increasingly suspended in the name of what the German neoconservative Carl Schmitt called the “superior,” “existential” value of public order as an end in itself. As the “swarming” of police and prerogative powers attest, particularly in the English-speaking world, the legal form corresponding to the new conservatism is a kind of uncanny double of postmodern jurisprudence: a species of law framed in terms of “undecidable” general principles such as “national security,” “law and order” and the “national way of life.” As such, it gives markedly increased prerogative and decisionistic powers to police, judges, and the executive branch.
  6. The liberal conservatism of a Burke of Oakeshott in Britain, or a Kirk in the United States, favoured the primacy of the legislature and/in the constitutional separation of powers, based on the Humean political maxim that “every man should be supposed a knave” when the distribution of power is at issue. Postmodern conservatives, boostered nearly daily by populist representations of parliamentary and international bodies like the UN in the commercial media as “weak,” “irrelevant” and “ineffectual,” increasingly advocate and legislate for the reassertion of the executive branch. The invocation of a potentially nearly-endless war on terrorism justifies for postmodern conservatism recurrent invocations of the executive’s “federative” and prerogative powers, and the stymieing of parliament’s adversarial and review committees by recourse to the “national security card.” In Australia, the well-known sequence of causes celebres calling into question executive and ministerial responsibility and the corresponding politicisation of the bureaucracy, from the children overboard to the Rau and Alvarez affair stand as signs of this emerging trend. More troubling examples from the United States could be detailed, involving the increasingly open justification of the suspension of international law, human and civil rights, including the open advocacy of torture.
  7. Populist “anti-elitism” directed at “chattering,” “politically correct,” “inner-suburban,” “café-latte,” “chardonnay-drinking elites,” is the predominant suturing trope of postmodern conservative ideology. This anti-elitism, despite its outraged pretensions, is not genuinely democratic. It rather serves to promote and cement the replacement of a broadly social democratic hegemony in the media and public service with a new coalition of elites combining individuals trained in neoliberal economics and/or “independent thinkers” associated with corporate-funded think tanks and in the commercial media. It functions more than this to conceal the increasing monopolisation, particularly of the print and television media, exemplified by Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns over 30% of UK media and controls 70% of the newspaper market in Australia. No less than the New Left it reviles, the postmodern “culture warriors” assume the primacy of culture in political life. Unlike the New Left, but in line with the general climate of anxiety generic to postmodern conservatism, culture is then figured as a unilaterally or pre-emptively declared war against the social democratic “elites,” “green-shirts” and “femo-Nazis.” The stakes in this battle are not political or public in the classical or liberal sense. They are private and/or bio-political, turning around the family and issues of life and death, which in modern liberalism were left to the private realm (e.g., religious belief, sexuality and gender roles, marriage and kinship systems, abortion). Just as in war, the ordinary rules of civilisation must be suspended in the name of necessity, so the querulous rhetoric of these commentators and shock-jocks increasingly violate anything like what older conservatives would have called “civility,” as they resort to partial truths, frantic ad hominem declarations and deliberate misrepresentations of the intentions of the “enemy.”
  8. Like fascism, postmodern conservatism thrives on civic privatism, the depoliticised pursuit of private enjoyment through consumer lifestyles and/or re-invented traditional familial relations. To maintain a pseudo-democratic form of executive Caesarism by means of media manipulation, the postmodern conservatives require a new mode of ideological interpellation, one that recruits persons as private individuals not as democratic citizens. To this end, the education system is demoted as the leading ideological apparatus, becoming a corporate service providing vocational training. The mass media and reactionary churches are promoted to leading ideological apparatuses and integrated into the commissarial system of political spin-doctors and ideological shock jocks, who transmit the announcements from the regime “directly” to the people. Although this is compatible with capitalism, it is not compatible with the critical subjectivity of modernity. Thus postmodern conservatism gives the lie to the optimistic predictions of the proponents of the Third Way, that a new, reflexive subjectivity would be the only result of a second stage of modernity. Despite the postmodern conservatives’ “culture war” opposition to a one-dimensional version of postmodern culture - their hostility is directed towards the dissident postmodernists who critique commodity aesthetics, not towards the ludic postmodernists who celebrate commodified kitsch- their post-traditional hodge-podge of traditional revivals with mediatised pulp meets Fredric Jameson’s definition of postmodern culture as the “cultural logic of late capitalism.”
  9. The vocal pretence of postmodern conservative commentators that they are defenders of Western culture is a sham, that can only be maintained by turning its back on both the tragic and humanistic heritage of the Greeks, each of which preach moderation, the solemn wisdom of Ecclesiastes, not to mention the “good news” of the New Testament, which aligns virtue not with Caesar but with God. The postmodern conservatives in fact share with the Catholic counter-revolutionaries the Hobbesian-Augustinian understanding of humans as dangerous and dynamic animals. As such, no less than the postmodernists they compete in reviling, they promote a constructivist understanding of politics for which “society does not exist,” and must be constantly held together, artificially if necessary, by the promotion of salutary forms of myth.
  10. The spirit informing the laws under postmodern conservatism is increasingly not fear of more or less clear and present enemies, which Montesquieu associated with despotism. One step further, it is anxiety before the naturally near-invisible danger of terrorism and, domestically, the ill-intentions of similarly-amorphous “elites.” Citizens are constantly served notice, even by traffic- or weather-signal like colour codes, that there is a constant danger of terrorist attack. Yet, at the same time, they are told that - and for their own good - they cannot know what or where this “shadowy and obscene” threat lurks. What Leo Strauss called the “inventiveness of enemies” hence justifies the sovereign inventiveness of the executive branch. In place of the civic trust that could and did inform the liberal rule of law, the continuing program of anti-terrorist legislation is hence doubled by calls for citizens to be “alert but not alarmed” to the possible ill-intentions of their neighbour, which might be lurking somewhere beneath their appearance of good faith. The scope of these changes, and the “political economy of visibility” that they are increasingly instituting, should not be underestimated. Liberalism, whether conservative or social democratic, argues that the actions of the government should take place in the constant bright light of public and free media scrutiny, and that the government should be blind to the private lives of its citizens. By contrast, as the Bush administration’s open justification of extra-congressional surveillance only exemplifies as an extreme case, the emergent paradigm is one where the paternalistic state acts wholly behind closed doors, and it is the citizens’ private lives that are increasingly laid open to governmental scrutiny.
  11. Political philosophy - unless it decks itself out in the paternalistic garb of an arcanum dominationis - can only interpret these changes in the world.