The Politics of Cultural Despair

“...ours is the age of the political organization of cultural hatreds and personal resentments.”

In a recent piece for the Niskanen Center website, Laura K. Field investigates what she calls the “highbrow conspiracism” of pro-Trump intellectuals. Field classifies the current crop of pro-Trump intellectuals into three distinct groups that have different emphases on policy and ideological issues, but share a broad agreement that Trump represents an important moment of resistance to liberal political and cultural dominance. She points out that all of these groups are united by a shared indulgence in conspiratorial thought:

My impression is that many of the New Right intellectuals share a fundamentally conspiratorial view of the left — a view that is often deeply cynical and/or detached from reality. Which is to say that most all of these thinkers — from Yoram Hazony to Patrick Deneen to Bill Barr to Michael Anton — are in basic agreement that liberals and leftists are all, intentionally, charting a general course of political revolution and/or general destruction.

Field marshals a lot of evidence for this claim and makes a strong argument; I highly recommend the piece. The central observation is important: the conspiratorial sensibility on the modern right is not limited to vulgar fantasies like QAnon but forms a central part of the consciousness of its socially more secure and bourgeois, intellectual cadre as well.

Field’s piece immediately brought to mind Fritz Stern’s book The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology, a look at three German critics of liberalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. All were part of the broader “conservative revolution” movement that rejected and attacked modernity: “[C]ombining cultural criticism with extreme nationalism, these ideologists maintained that the character of modern liberal society was alien to the spirit and tradition of their peoples.”

The ideologists of the conservative revolution superimposed a vision of national redemption upon their dissatisfaction with liberal culture and with the loss of authoritative faith. They posed as the true champions of nationalism, and berated the socialists for their internationalism, and the liberals for their pacifism and their indifference to national greatness. At the very least they demanded greater national authority and cohesion, and usually they were partisans of imperialism or national aggrandizement as well. Often their longing for national heroism led them to worship violence, which in turn they justified by arguments drawn from social Darwinism or racism.

Stern goes on:

They railed against the spiritual emptiness of life in an urban, commercial civilization, and lamented the decline of intellect and virtue in a mass society. They attacked the press as corrupt, the political parties as the agents of national dissension, and the new rulers as ineffectual mediocrities. The bleaker their picture of the present, the more attractive seemed the past, and they indulged in nostalgic recollections of the uncorrupted life of earlier rural communities, when men were peasants and kings true rulers. Most of them thought that this world had been destroyed by evil hands; consequently they firmly believed in a conspiratorial view of history and society.

Obvious parallels aside, I think the very formulation—”the politics of cultural despair” is a very accurate description of a mode that’s becoming dominant on the right and it helps us to conceptualize a certain combination of conspiracism, belief in pervading social and political decadence and corruption, and the embrace of or sympathy with outbursts of violence. The sense one gets from many members of the intellectual right and seemingly among their public is that as a society we have reached a point where the social maladies of liberal society are intractable and only some kind extraordinary expedient can effectively combat them. There is a kind of giving up on the conventional institutions of American life and a belief that only desperate gambits like electing a disruptive leaders like Trump or preventing the electoral college vote from being counted will be effective measures to carry out Right wing politics. Extremist violence or some imagined dictatorial seizure of power, when not explicitly endorsed, is rationalized as a consequence of the state of society and politics. This is all combined with a kind of morbid fixation on the perceived cultural depredations of liberalism: an obsession with the presence of cultural products that are believed to contaminate or corrupt a more healthy sexual or racial order that existed in the past. In this imaginary world, sinister forces lurk behind every facet of liberal society: the most apparently milquetoast and moderate liberals are actually in the thrall of hardcore revolutionary Marxist ideology.

It’s tempting to silo this mood of cultural pessimism on the right, which is its more natural home I think, but it finds certain echoes in sections of the left that view themselves as defeated and dispirited in the wake of Bernie Sanders' primary loss and view every apparent liberal adoption of a left-wing sounding programs as an example of trickery or co-option. This sentiment also views the political parties and leadership as little more than sinister conspiracies and not actually responsive to normal political pressures: their betrayals are written in advance and its apparent accessions are really only betrayals in disguise. In the minds of some, the promise of the new left to provide not just a better material life but a meaningful political existence for young people seems to be fading. Policy victories sometimes only seem to exacerbate this feeling rather than relieve it: there is a sense that these are not “clean” victories won through honest means but dirty compromises with a corrupt establishment.

This is not new, but seems like a feature of the whole era. Back in 2017, political commentator Will Rahn observed, “One of the most arresting aspects of the start of the Trump era is that nearly everyone, regardless of their political persuasion, seems convinced that their side is losing…everyone gets the sense that we've somehow already lost, that some past battle has already decided the long war's outcome in our opponents' favor.”

The politics of cultural despair is not based on ideological precepts but is primarily a matter of disposition—a mood, an aesthetic sensibility—a reaction to the state of the world. It provides a dramatic backdrop to inaction or to a kind of pseudo-action, a politics histrionic display or violent lashing out. It allows heroic airs and irresponsibility to co-exist: the world cannot really be changed and so that justifies any action. Stern describes one of the writers in his book tone as “kind of whiny heroism.” Surely that could easily describe any number of prominent intellectuals on both the right and left, who feel themselves constantly beset by enemies. As Field perceptively notes in her piece, “conspiracism…has the allure of the radical and of the forbidden”—conspiracism, like its cousin despair, is attractive—it makes one feel special. It is romanticism without the romance. As such, the politics of cultural despair has temptations for people in all social conditions. But as equally tempting as it is to just launch missiles of cultural criticism at what itself is a series of cultural attitudes, I have to admit this all probably cannot deal with the substantial core of the issue. It probably does little good to just censure the indulgence in despair as a form of personal inauthenticity. Kierkegaard, in the Sickness unto Death, observes, “despair can be affected…Yet this very affectation is despair.” And this form of despair, after all, is not just an individual pathos, but here is becoming a form political consciousness that will require political remedies.

In a way, too, the preoccupation with despair is itself a form despair: an indulgence in gloom that feeds on itself. The practice of cultural criticism itself might be such a form of despair. Fritz Stern, writing of America in the 1960s, observed, “No culture has ever been more solicitous of itself than ours, and in the constant pulse-taking of our cultural health many ills are discovered and often wrongly diagnosed.” Maybe the basics are too often neglected in favor of grandiose dreams. As Hegel wrote, “Seek food and clothing first, and then the kingdom of God shall be added unto you.” And with that, I’m going to get dressed and eat my breakfast now.