Debunking the postmodern musings of Professor Matthew McManus (Part 2): Unravelling a mystery: What is postmodern conservatism?
By J.R. Werbics
Before I go any further in explaining the deficiencies, inaccuracies and false narratives found in Professor Matthew McManus’s work, The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, I believe McManus and I can agree on two things.
One: We live in a postmodern world.1
Beyond these two facts, it is doubtful that McManus and I will agree upon anything else. In fact, I am sure he will completely dispute my claim that the real motive for exploring and then defining postmodern conservatism, as he does, is to discredit and disparage both.
As stated in Part I of this article, McManus takes the issue of “cancel culture” to new, inspired heights. Beginning in earnest with Brexit in the United Kingdom and then the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, progressives have mobilized themselves into what they call “The Resistance.”4 And no tool has been more used in these past four years than what many call “de-platforming.”5
McManus is not interested in calling out and shaming people on Twitter or other social media sites. Nor is he interested in taking down websites or having users banned. His weapon of choice is pseudo-intellectualism at its finest. By creating a false definition of postmodern conservatism, McManus puts forth a deliberate misreading of the historical influence of postmodernism in the West, and on political conservatism in general.
This is no mistake. Nor can it be attributed to poor editing. McManus’s book is intended to be the next step taken by “cancel culture” as it delegitimizes entire areas of academic and intellectual thought. But this is not about burning or banning a book, this is about re-valuing the historical importance of any subject that does not mesh with today’s understood and limited definition of progressive truth, and then removing it from the educational system forever.
The importance of understanding what is actually happening in today’s Western societies cannot be understated. I agree with Noah Carl, who writes that both conservatives and liberals should oppose the new censoriousness.6 In fact, I would go one step further and argue that everyone who is not a progressive should fight this new form of authoritarianism. Radical progressives like McManus are the new social justice warriors in the trenches, and his work The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism is intended to show other progressives where the next battleground will be fought.
So how does one embark on this intellectual journey?
To get to the point where one can form some conclusion or understanding about what McManus attempts to explain, it is first necessary to examine his limited understanding of postmodernism.
In attempting to define postmodern conservatism, McManus drops the reader down a rabbit hole every bit as disorienting as Alice found hers. In trying to unravel the intricate web of connections McManus says underpin the foundational ideas and concepts of postmodernism, he overlaps years of academic research and fields of discipline that have never embraced or experienced postmodern influence.
For example, I found his assertion that even Wittgenstein was a postmodern thinker more than a little unsettling. As someone who remembers reading Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown books in my youth, I find fault with this inclusion in the postmodern narrative. Simply put, Wittgenstein was an analytical philosopher, not a postmodernist.
For a proper understanding of the history of postmodernism, it is best to look at works such as Cynical Theories: How the University Made Everything about Race, Gender and…or the work of Stephan Hicks and his work Tracing Postmodernism from its Roots. Each of these books allows the reader to embrace a simple, structured, straightforward, insightful and understandable historical path of the academics responsible for introducing postmodernism to the Western world.7
Furthermore, these works contrast strikingly with McManus’s effort to establish a postmodern link that runs from the time of the Enlightenment up to the 1960s and beyond. In many respects, these past academics and intellectual philosophers incorporated by McManus into his personal understanding of postmodernism have little or no real link to postmodernism. This distorted and historical definition McManus has manufactured serves a distinct purpose—to link certain controversial thinkers of the past with thinkers of today in an effort to tarnish them by association.
However, there is some truth in how McManus lays out his interpretation of postmodernism, postmodern culture and postmodern conservatism. And there is some linkage to previous intellectuals, as he claims. For example, postmodernism was prevalent in the 1940s, but mostly artistically.8 But it is his inability to properly relay the relevant postmodern ideas, concepts and influence postmodernism had on diverse fields such as the humanities and social sciences—including psychoanalysis, linguistics, philosophy, history and sociology—that make it all but impossible to believe in his intellectual foundation for his concept of postmodern conservatism.
McManus’s Mythical Ouroborus: Neoliberalism and Postmodern Culture
McManus’s flowing prose and “grand intellect” style of writing certainly brings an air of authority to his work. However, words and phrases like “my reservations about the breadth of its critical insights notwithstanding,”9 or “I am largely sceptical,”10 or “while his analysis is brilliant, the concrete ramifications…. are under-analyzed,”11 and others like them do little to hide the fundamental flaws.
If you attacked this academic work headlong in the traditional way, you would soon find that the intellectual framework in which postmodern conservatism is set can only be described as a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma in a maze that has no solution. It is therefore almost impossible to challenge McManus’s intellectual foundation of postmodern conservatism; his numerous narratives make it necessary to take him at his academic word.
There is, however, ample evidence within his work that shows his understanding of what postmodernism is and how it properly relates to concepts like neoliberalism and postmodern culture. It is here our discussion begins, and where we meet his ouroborus,12 with the head being neoliberalism and the tail McManus’s concept of postmodern culture.
It is necessary to explore the historical background McManus sets his theory within. History can have numerous narrative strands but among these are facts. And as someone once said, you can have your own opinion, but you cannot have your own facts. Ignoring McManus’s version of these two basic concepts of neoliberalism and postmodern culture, which are according to McManus, both intricately linked to one another, one can then focus on other postmodern philosophers, theorists, and expert academics in related fields.
By reading and comparing the work of others to McManus’s perspective, it is more than possible to undercut his pseudo-intellectualism and understand if there is any real influence on conservatism today in the way he says it does.
Perhaps the best place to start is with his belief that Foucault, Derrada, and Lyotard have no influence in his foundational theory of postmodern conservatism.13 Clearly, there is a link between one of these historical figures and today’s conservatism and populist revolution.
Postmodernism as expressed within the work of Foucault is uniquely suited to, if not a foundational pillar of, the rise of populism here in the 21st century. As Professor Rockhill points out in Foucault the Faux Radical, “Glucksmann’s virulent anti-communism, much like Foucault’s, merged with an inchoate plebian populism and a metaphysics of the marginalized.”14
The populist revolutions that in recent years that have swept through Westminster in the United Kingdom, in Rome, Italy, with the 5 Star Movement, and in America beginning with the Tea Party and crystalizing with Trump’s election, have all been specifically driven by those who have been marginalized in one way or another. However, for McManus, populism and those who are labeled as populists are ill defined. As stated earlier, it is almost impossible to tell from his book. At some points, they are called postmodernists, while at others these same people are neoliberals.
With this clear break in understanding and misreading of today’s political turmoil, we now must question other problematic passages, thoughts and concepts in McManus’s definition of a postmodern conservative. The first question that can now be asked is what exactly is the relationship between neoliberalism and a postmodern culture?
The following passage sums up this conundrum the best. McManus writes:
…there have generally been very few conservative authors who have been willing to analyse post-modernism at all on its own terms. My suspicion is this is largely because interpreting it as such might lead to the conclusion that the capitalist social, economic, and technological transformations of neoliberalism played a substantial role in leading to the emergence of postmodernism.15
And so with one sentence McManus levels his great intellect at a problem that does not exist—unless you realize that at some point you must tell your reader what you are actually trying to achieve…which is to link neoliberalism (a capitalistic economy) with a small group of fools who are right-leaning conservative intellectuals (a postmodern culture) to the advent and invention of postmodernism itself.
Ironically, with this novel and unique analytical argument that puts the cart before the horse, McManus has also inadvertently solved the great mystery of which came first, the chicken or the egg. His answer? It is the egg! Unless of course, it is the chicken.
The Nexus of Neoliberalism, Postmodern Culture, and Postmodern conservatism
With this esoteric foundation in place, McManus then attempts to link it to his personal understanding of postmodern conservatism, and those who, to his mind, exhibit signs of being a postmodern conservative. Now, it is difficult to know specifically where this postmodern culture exists just from reading The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism.
For much of the book, it feels like you are in the middle of a thought experiment akin to what John Rawls put forth in his theory of justice as fairness.16 Is McManus describing the political environment in Canada or maybe the United Kingdom? Is it Hungary? What about Poland? It is almost impossible to know. But there is definitely a feeling that the country he is talking about is America.
Which brings into question his understanding of American political culture.
If one reads all his work on this subject, one comes away with the feeling that much of what McManus knows about American politics over the last 80 years is gleaned from watching, listening, and reading American pop culture that saturates, overwhelms, and dominates our own cultural industries here in Canada. As someone who lived and worked in America for years, I find it hard to see any real concrete experience or knowledge of the political discourse that happens in America every day.
The most problematic of his many propositions in regard to American conservatism is that he does not take into consideration that America has been a liberal country for centuries. Not once does he mention the seminal work The Liberal Tradition in America by Louis Hartz.17 This work more than any other showed the world what forms the foundations of political thought in America – the idea of exceptionalism rooted in the Lockian tradition, a perspective that runs through all debates.18
It is this liberal foundation that American conservatism contrasts itself against. In fact, Hayek himself agreed with this. In America, Hayek added, the classical liberal is a tactical conservative or even traditionalist, because the country has a classically liberal founding. Reverence for its constitutional framers coincides with respect for the free individual.19 And it is therefore difficult to see American conservatives embracing postmodernism, an essentially continental European philosophical perspective.
This perspective holds true within much of the writing of Peter Lawler.20 McManus’s suggestion that men such as De Maistr,21 Michael Oakeshott, and Robert Bork had greater influence on the conservative mind over the years than men like William F. Buckley,22 Joe Sorban,23 and Rush Limbaugh is spurious at best. The fact that McManus sees no need to mention Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, or Adam Smith is somewhat perplexing.
It could easily be argued that postmodernism in general has not been a significant force in either American political discourse or academia in general, outside of two academic thinkers: Richard Rorty24 and Peter Lawler. To better understand who is causing waves in conservative circles and making an impact on conservative thought today, one could read The New Intellectuals of the American Right25 and learn about thinkers like Carl Schmitt, James Burnham, Michel Houellebecq, and Christopher Lasch.
Certainly, Michael Oakeshott has had an impact upon conservative philosophy and ideas. In particular his ability to see that being a conservative was never a matter of strict doctrine. It was always, to use Michael Oakeshott’s description, more of a disposition than a dogma. That flexibility has allowed parties of the moderate right to adapt better to global changes than parties of the moderate left.26
Now, with this American political landscape properly described, when McManus begins to specifically call out certain political actors as postmodern conservatives in today’s world, we are once again confronted with his refusal to see the world as it properly is. Furthermore, his claim that Donald Trump had a vast grassroots organization is completely false. It was the rise of the Tea Party after the Great Economic Collapse of 2008, and their subsequent use of the internet to organize around the country, and in every county, that set the foundation for Trump’s win in 2016.
McManus mentions Jurgen Habermas27 more than once in this work, yet, his theories as to how the Theory of Communitive Action plays out in a digital world are not properly fleshed out, nor how it unleashes the many power dynamics found in the work of Foucault. Had he taken the time to properly understand what these two men were writing about, McManus would have seen, as The Trump campaign did in 2016,28that the way to power and the presidency was through targeted advertising in the digital estate.29
Now we are at the point where we can start to form some kind of informed opinion around the interesting intellectual narratives about who or what postmodern conservatism is all about. How best to describe the book The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism? How about this…it is bone-crushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached, and blasted.30
Now, this should lead one to the conclusion that what we are dealing with is something novel to serious academic writing and thought. Interestingly enough, or should I say somewhat ironically, McManus has provided us with a thoroughly authentic postmodern book. It is the intellectual vehicle with which he has chosen to show us what postmodernism conservatism is, even if he himself did not see this as he was writing it.
This work and its many narratives jump around not only in time, but across events and even areas of intellectual investigation. It is a jigsaw puzzle made of small pieces of a much bigger picture, each piece of which is a small image in itself. This grand picture that McManus attempts to show us is made not with pictures but theories, ideas, concepts, philosophies, subjects, people, and events.
And there is the genius of it all, because he never shows or tells you what the big picture is, even in the last chapters of the book. The other problem in the way McManus connects the various pieces of his own postmodern world is that some pieces change definitions along the way, and yet they retain their same spot in the puzzle as they did before. It is here where it becomes possible to refute his silly little pseudo-intellectual musings.
Without actually forming a straight line through any specific narrative, but rather placing incongruent things next to each other on the page in paragraphs, then backing it up with footnotes (but conveniently leaving out page numbers), McManus reveals how far off the radical progressive mind is to the true nature of postmodernism.
I had to ask myself repeatedly if I was reading a serious academic work from a university professor educated in Canada, or if I had somehow lost my way and accidently hit the wrong browser button and loaded Infinite Jest31 onto my screen.
For those who are unaware of David Foster Wallace and his postmodern writing, I suggest you read that work after attempting to read The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism. In fact, the process that McManus has instilled for himself, with excerpts being published prior to the work itself, mimics exactly the path Wallace took writing and publishing Infinite Jest!
Yet unlike Infinite Jest, or another masterpiece of postmodernism called Gravity’s Rainbow, McManus purports to have written a serious work with one simple goal: to undermine an intellectual tradition in academia and certain fields of academic study along with it. Given all the problems with the book, one would think that this work would in no way be considered a legitimate scholarly work.
Unfortunately, it is. In the postmodern environment we live in, legitimacy is no longer conferred as it once was. Today, legitimacy does not emanate from content, but rather from the credentials of those who wrote it and published it. As someone with a PhD and a teacher to boot, Professor McManus is considered an expert in his field. And as such, he and his ideas must be listened to.
I, for one, do not thoroughly adhere to this outlook that simplifies postmodernism down to a few loose narratives you can choose to believe or not. Even in a work of postmodern fiction, there must still be a believability or truthfulness to a work. Though written by a professor, the work will not be considered a legitimate narrative by discerning readers if the contents do not accurately stand up to intensive academic scrutiny.
This all reminds me of lyrics from an Eminem song: Will the real postmodernist please stand up, please stand up, please stand up!32 And so it is time to answer the question of whether McManus has offered up a radical critique, creating a new postmodern perspective. For radical critiques are designed to do that – to disrupt the dominate discourse and challenge the routine absorption and redirection so that people will think more fundamentally about existing political, social, and economic institutions and practices.33
Let’s now deconstruct the concept of the post-modern conservative and see if it can be judged an accurate interpretation of today’s reality, one based on some form of truth.
Is former President Donald J. Trump the best known postmodern conservative in the world, as McManus claims? Unfortunately for McManus, I must say he is not. Trump is best described as a leader of the far right in America, as Professor Cas Mudde has described over these past four years and at great academic length.34 And it is from this point of inflection and proclamation that the idea of a postmodern conservative as Trump is described by McManus in The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism begins its great unravelling.
The book’s whole premise, as McManus defines it, falls apart when he attempts to weaponize the idea of a postmodern conservative. His early essays that were published prior to the book itself show an attempt at real insight as to what others have written about postmodernism, which makes these articles informative and plausible. But that insight is lost as McManus leads us through the postmodern narrative found in The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism.
Throughout the entire book, McManus proposes a unique perspective that tilts toward Marxist thinking. This capitalist realism and its subsequent oppression is everywhere, according to him, and caused by capitalistic markets. Much of his writing views capitalism as a major factor and defining characteristic in the rise of neoliberalism. For him, neoliberalism is found everywhere in society—within government, politics, markets, entertainment, events, and even in personal identity.
With neoliberalism embedded within every aspect of society, McManus’s definition of postmodern culture slowly takes shape. But as he attempts to expresses this blending of neoliberalism and postmodern culture, with its signature properties being time and space, he exposes his readers to a world that exists nowhere expect in the jigsaw puzzle he has created in his own mind. He struggles and fails to accurately explain to his readers how his defined dualism of neoliberalism and postmodern culture co-exist in reality. If anything, his answer that combines the conceptualization of time as eternity, history, or evolution, and our individual experience of time as temporality, transcendental intuition, or duration fails to inspire.35
In this postmodern puzzle of time, Plato and Aristotle co-exist with Hegel and Heidegger in the same space! This puzzle piece is the cornerstone of trying to understand McManus’s definition of postmodern culture. By creating the impression that there really is no future, and that all of time is compressed into a single space, he can then easily draw a straight line from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Heidegger, and from them to the most famous of all postmodern conservatives, Donald J. Trump.
It is pure postmodern storytelling at its finest.
In the end, all that can be said about The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism and its usefulness as a true academic or intellectual endeavour is that at its best the definition that McManus attributes to the moniker “post-modern conservative” is fictional, and, at its worst, nothing but farce.
It is clear that McManus is the quintessential poster boy for every disturbing detail of what is wrong with the post-secondary educational system in this country. The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism is a damning indictment of what education under a progressive regime looks like. From disjointed ideas to poor and, in many instances, convoluted research about postmodern ideas, McManus should be a worry to every professor who has educated him. Or are they?
As I have stated before, this work was created to discredit certain academic theories, ideologies, and departments. Two Canadian professors, David Hardwick and Leslie Marsh, are the senior editors for Palgrave Publishing, the company that published McManus’s book. While this work fails to convince anyone that his definition of postmodernism or Western conservatism is constructed as he says it is, the work does excels and accomplish the goal of showing others that an academic take-down of your enemies at the intellectual level is the next battleground for progressives.
Also, when looked upon in a more macro setting, I believe McManus is the end result when there is a complete lack of diversity in ideas and faculty within the university. When one cabal, group, or ideology takes over an institution, quality is always sacrificed for quantity. The end result is a Professor McManus.
How far has our university system fallen when compared to what John Henry Newman proclaimed as the principles and virtues of university life in The Idea of a University36: 1) the nature of knowledge; 2) the role of religious belief in higher education; and 3) a defense of liberal education for university students. All are nonexistent today. Today, we create academic foot soldiers whose education is not really of any importance to those who run these educational institutions; they will only be used as cannon fodder in any future ideological battle.
If all that was not disturbing enough, if I were a parent of a student, I would have serious concerns about his teaching abilities.
In closing, McManus can also be defined and pigeonholed into the current debate surrounding the issue that preoccupies many: freedom of speech. His blinkered approach to understanding his ideological rivals can be understood when each is curtailed and oppressed. More regarding this issue of free speech will be developed and investigated further in the next part of this exposé, where the problems that Canadian conservatives have in regard to relevancy in this postmodern era are explored.
Coming Next: Debunking the Postmodern Musings of Professor Matthew McManus (Part 3): Can a Grassroots Populist Movement Save Canadian conservatism?
J.R. Werbics is a filmmaker, author, and member of the Canadian Philosophical Association
4 “The Resistance (American Political Movement).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 June 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Resistance_(American_political_movement). The Resistance (American political movement) - Wikipedia
5 “Deplatforming.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 June 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deplatforming#:~:text=Deplatforming%2C%20also%20known%20as%20no,regarded%20as%20unacceptable%20or%20offensive. Deplatforming - Wikipedia
6 Oldbuck, Jonathan, et al. “Cancel Culture Is Real - and It's Getting Worse - The Post.” UnHerd, 12 Apr. 2021, unherd.com/thepost/cancel-culture-is-real-and-its-getting-worse/. Cancel culture is real — and it's getting worse - The Post (unherd.com)
7 Pluckrose, Helen, and James A. Lindsay. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity-and Why This Harms Everybody. Pitchstone Publishing, 2020. Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and ... - Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay - Google Books
8 Pluckrose, Helen, and James A. Lindsay. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity-and Why This Harms Everybody. Pitchstone Publishing, 2020. Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and ... - Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay - Google Books
9 McManus. The Rise of Post-Modern conservatism. McMillan Pallgrave, 2020. p.42
10 McManus. p.52
11 McManus. p.83
14 Rockhill, Gabriel. “Foucault: The Faux Radical.” The Philosophical Salon, 14 May 2021, thephilosophicalsalon.com/foucault-the-faux-radical/. Foucault: The Faux Radical - The Philosophical Salon
15 McManus. p.42
18 Lewis, John D. “The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution. By Louis Hartz. (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co.1955. Pp. Ix, 309. $4.75.): American Political Science Review.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 2 Sept. 2013, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-political-science-review/article/abs/liberal-tradition-in-america-an-interpretation-of-american-political-thought-since-the-revolution-by-louis-hartz-new-york-harcourt-brace-and-co1955-pp-ix-309-475/802B702D46E3A69F80DB323770544CF4. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution. By Louis Hartz. (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co.1955. Pp. ix, 309. $4.75.) | American Political Science Review | Cambridge Core
24 Ramberg, Bjørn. “Richard Rorty.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 16 June 2007, plato.stanford.edu/entries/rorty/. Richard Rorty (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
25 Nick Burns, et al. The New Intellectuals of the American Right, 7 Apr. 2020, www.newstatesman.com/world/north-america/2020/04/new-intellectuals-american-right. The new intellectuals of the American right (newstatesman.com)
27 Bohman, James, and William Rehg. “Jürgen Habermas.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 4 Aug. 2014, plato.stanford.edu/entries/habermas/. Jürgen Habermas (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
28 Ecarma, Caleb. “Trump's 2016 Digital-Ad Mastermind Is Now Working to Defeat Him.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 28 Apr. 2020, www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/04/trump-facebook-mastermind-james-barnes-working-against-him. Trump’s 2016 Digital-Ad Mastermind Is Now Working to Defeat Him | Vanity Fair
29 Werbics, J. The Thoughts of a Peasant Philosopher, Vol. I. Politics Anniversary Edition, 2014. p.140
30 The New York Times, The New York Times, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/18/reviews/pynchon-rainbow.html?_r=4. One of the Longest, Most Difficult, Most Ambitious Novels in Years (nytimes.com)
32 Smf, et al. “‘The Real Slim Shady’ by Eminem.” Song Meanings and Facts, 10 Oct. 2019, www.songmeaningsandfacts.com/the-real-slim-shady-by-eminem/. “The Real Slim Shady” by Eminem - Song Meanings and Facts
33 “Why Liberalism Failed.” Google Books, Google, books.google.ca/books?id=4kbVAQAACAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. Why Liberalism Failed - Patrick J. Deneen - Google Books, page xi.
35 The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, Palgrave MacMillan, 2020, p.214