Somewhere things got tense. Beneath the smooth surface of the common smile awaits the judge of the next inquisition tribunal. Since society is also the collective behavioural consequence of agreeableness, precaution prevails — to an extent that it has become increasingly difficult to converse. The enemy now lurks in every conversation, while increasingly radicalized no-go zones are expanding, speckled with minefields, triggering the conditioned reflexes of distrust and hostility. Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the indignation-baiting Breitbart News Network, which has become an indispensable component of U.S. political discourse, once transformed into a catchy soundbite what had been lingering on in Western political thought for at least a century: Politics is downstream from culture. The fragmentation of the media sphere and the plummeting of publishing costs, of which Breitbart itself is a symptom, have changed the game. These days, the multiform blanket of ideology is covering every inch of common places. Every small news item becomes immediately integrated into a self-contained and comprehensive worldview, constructed entirely out of personalized media feeds. While such idiosyncratic visions of the world appear self-evident and rational to their holders, they remains cryptic to anyone else. Commentators have called the frictions caused by such widely diverging ideologies culture wars. But what does that mean, really?
Ideology as historical precedent
On a structural level, ideology is systematic hearsay about cause-and-effect patterns. Overall, it is a collection of stories and historical precedents that determine whether we understand our current political reality as civilized or not. Some cause-and-effect patterns have a higher value than others, and determine individual and social reality. These days, with Westerners in an amplified state of identity crisis, they are asking themselves important questions about their past and identity: is their historical project valid? Is their current economic system functional, and has it ever been? And what about communism and national-socialism, capitalism’s most obvious and historically overdetermined alternatives? Were they merely murderous enterprises?
In the past, narratives and their constituent stories painting the political status quo in a lenient way had long served as a social fabric spun out of the crude yet stability-generating reductive brutality of the extended 20th-century state, with its mass childhood programming of high school history books and Hollywood blockbusters. That cognitive sphere called “the West” has always been leaky: loosely plastered together out of various nationalisms and regionalisms in the first place, it needs to reaffirm itself against perpetual challenge — be it in recent history against sophisticated Warsaw Pact information warfare, or more generally against the remnants of resentment-laden, defeated alternative civilizations upon and against which it was built. The latter tend to survive in the wise tales of bitter old men.
In the past, finding and compiling these tales has been the privilege of historians and (mainly) men and women “of culture,” often with a university education, access to libraries, and the luxury of hours for reading. In certain European capitals, for example, amongst the cultured classes, it used to be common to introduce trusted friends, sotto voce, to one‘s own carefully assembled “revisionist” library. While these classes always had a rather limited reach, perhaps, these days, it is no coincidence that they are in the process of liquidation.
In contrast, the internet, with its minimal publishing costs and far-reaching freedom of speech, changed everything. All of a sudden, obscure, revolting and previously marginalized pamphlets become weaponized as compact meme-truth, “redpills” in internet lingo, capable of spreading rapidly and thus poisoning the information foundation of historical narratives. Kissinger is on trial and he is not alone. Whether it is reinvestigating Stalinist terror, or the introduction of “nuance” into WWII narratives (which has been made illegal in many Western countries), the floodgates of revision have been opened. We are reminded that individuals cannot access history in its pure form but only as mediated through fallible historiography. It is by definition always as constrained by sources and intellectual capacity as it is tainted by ideology, corruption, and (as those with university and media experience know it well) a good dose of secular cowardice. At this point, we are certain to hear the “Petersonians” protesting: “It cannot all be relative, you postmodernists!”
Against a collapse of meaning: the case of Jordan Peterson
In a way, the success of Jordan Peterson speaks for itself. The popular Canadian psychologist and cultural commentator inveighs against the legacy of postmodernism’s most radical onslaughts of critique. These postmodernists have been fantastically effective: a university mass phenomenon turned veritable social malaise. A culture of critique suspicious of all meaning and challenging the very idea of certainties has ended up generating vast numbers of zealous thought- and speech-policing humanities graduates forming a decentralized and amorphous Politburo. Increasingly propped up by the threat of legal sanctions, it continues to force-feed the latest constructivist fads into general discourse while demanding the quota-based Lebanization1 of Western society. This vocal Trotskyist-constructivist caricature at the heart of postmodern philosophy, which may well be fueled by an ongoing post-MDMA/Adderall hangover and unproductive lifestyle-turned-spiritual system, appears to reflect a particular phase of intellectual development. It indicates the moment when the old naive vision of the world collapsed while a new one had not yet been built. Its sudden violent rejection of existing structures is not informed and tactical, but an overcompensating, angry disillusionment. Students are regularly disheartened when, against their naive vision of the world, they discover the violence, intricacy and maximum cynicism against which existing structures have often developed. However, they do not yet distinguish between what is functional and what is not. In their scandalized and naive in toto rejection of the Western tradition, they risk throwing away the wheat with the chaff.
It is fatal, then, that this partial understanding of the world lingers on without a healthy contribution of sobering institutional practice outside of universities, which could turn a structurally overdetermined vision of the world into one of small victories and incremental possibilities. The current backlash against this type of zealous “postmodernism” seems justified. Jordan Peterson is right when he warns against the total collapse of meaning at the center of such activism. In his careful and eloquent discourse, he also manages to depolarize discourse and tactfully disarm the steadily brewing overreaction of the increasing number of those the politburo deems enemies of progress.
History as caricature
Peterson‘s intellectual weak point, however, is to also only offer a partial vision in his anecdotal reading of history defined through clearly distributed roles. It’s always the Gulag, the Nazi camps and Maoist terror, but never Dresden, Hiroshima, and Fallujah. It’s Pol Pot but not Sukarno. It’s early Solzhenitsyn but not his late works — On n’en parle pas. Briefly, it does not stand a chance against a critical reading of history that takes into account that the Western civilization has not only been remarkable in its military prowess but also remarkable in the sophistication, decentralization, subtlety, and success of its propaganda. Readers outside of the West usually know this Western myopia all too well.
Nuremberg dixit: it is remarkable that Peterson, effectively using Jungian psychology to generate evidence for meaning and morality devoid of cultural specificity and relativity, unconsciously appears to be violating his own principles. At times, it seems Peterson is defending not concrete historical facts themselves but rather their meaning-generating narrative to serve the stabilizing necessity of the Jungian heroic myth. However, we are reminded that in the genre of dialectic of myth-as-psychological-necessity is, of course, Leo Strauss‘ noble lies, and his clique of zealous students which would later become known as the neoconservatives, who played a role in wrecking the world after 9-11 to create the vain project of a New American Century. The utilitarian usage of “truth” becomes pathological and dictatorial so quickly and obviously that it seems strenuous to mention. Peterson knows this himself when he says that supreme authority can only be instantiated by a person or a historical form and cannot become the person or the historical form itself.
Similarly, history becomes oppressive and tyrannical when imposed under the threat of punishment, even if a one-sided narrative of it creates some social value and positive meaning. While Peterson’s contribution is important in asserting that the existence of virtue is not relative to culture, he often neglects the specificity and controversies that surround (f)actual historical debates.
Calibrating a middle ground
A healthy aversion against excess postmodernism must therefore not be a call to end the current crowd-sourced and critical mass-revisionist project. Realistically, any attempt to quell it is costly and bound to spiral into despotism. There even exists an ideological consensus about this: as Angela Nagle mentions in her study of the online cultural wars in the contemporary United States, Kill All Normies, the project of the anti-postmodernist new right is at least as iconoclastic and, despite claims to the contrary, intellectually anti-traditional, as postmodernism itself. It pursues the legacy of the May 1968 generation’s slogan — “it is forbidden to forbid” — that continues to hold deep sway over contemporary sensibilities. Such slogans can only be obliterated with severe and costly censorship and a serious restriction of the freedom of speech. This process has already begun, and Westerners are currently witnessing it in the form of increasingly arbitrary content policing of the big platform providers and the various policies of censorship-as-empathy.
It is worth remembering that “postmodernism,” or its simplified derivative, the speech-policing and “safe-spacing” university mob, is only a perverse excrescence of a healthy introduction of nuance into history, from which the West stands to learn more than to lose. In a mature civilization, historiography is bound to move beyond its polarized mindset in which history is no more than a histrionic children’s tale and a mobilization tool for the warfare to come, instead of the detailed, ambiguous, and difficult account of individual efforts and tragedy that it really is. This process is necessarily psychologically violent and destabilizing. An implosion of worldviews must precede the final extraction and reconstruction of realistic and rarer-than-expected virtue out of history. Idols, and sometimes their statues, will fall in this process.
But if the West does not reject the possibility of historical progress, it must neither turn back to the noble lie as safety imperative, nor isolate itself in the phantasmagoria of technologically subsidized newsfeed psychosis. The best way to aspire to that lost yet still bold cause called reconciliation in the current climate is trans-partisan, dispassionate investigation, and a fact-based discussion of what the historical precedents and patterns that model our assumptions are. It is time to put the cards on the table again for everyone to see.
The conditions for such an enterprise have never been better. Never before have we experienced such a multiplicity of complex thought, with so much independence from traditional gatekeepers. They even, at least more than ever, approximate the idea of a rational public sphere — an old idea by philosopher Jürgen Habermas, long ridiculed for its naivety.
Such an ideal may seem overly credulous and outdated to many a cynical observer. It is certainly less sexy than calling for secession and fantasizing about the civil war to come from the safety of one’s city loft. It meanwhile seems to be the only way to generate a consensus about how to move on and venture beyond the staleness, vanity, and increasing dogmatic impenetrability of radicalizing and costly ideological exchanges. And, really, what could be more subversive than that?
Nicolas Hausdorf is a German editor, analyst, and essayist based in Melbourne. His essay “Superstructural Berlin,” an experimental sociology and pulp theory of Germany’s capital (with illustrations by Alexander Goller) has been published by Zero Books. He tweets at @dcntrrr.
 In post-civil war Lebanon, a system of quota-based system of political representation was installed, in which ethno-religious communities had to be proportionally represented in political institutions.