Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Selection: “Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea” (plus Transformers and Camaros) Book Selection: Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea by C. Bradley Thompson (with Yaron Brook)

Here’s a good July 4th question: Is anyone in this country besides me actually a conservative?  And mind you, I ask this as a pro-gay, pro-drug-legalization, atheist anarchist who lives in New York City. 

Yet I sometimes think I’m the only one taking the entire “markets and morality” combo at all seriously.  More tomorrow on neocons and morals – and one last look back at last year’s infamous C-SPAN2 panel – but today I’m mainly worried about neocons’ failure to defend markets and limited government. 

C. Bradley Thompson, an Objectivist, argues that the neocon failure on this front is not, as might be assumed by some of us with vague neocon sympathies, a mere oversight but is instead, much as the neocons’ craziest critics often fear, an inevitable side effect of a conscious fascist streak in the philosophy, one that really does trace back to influential philosopher Leo Strauss (lead author Thompson has a co-author on this 2010 book, his fellow Objectivist Yaron Brook, but I’m going to assume Brook was mainly responsible for the handful of jarring and unnecessary digressions about the evils of altruism and will mainly address the far more substantive and interesting historical stuff about Strauss and his students here).

The book goes into far more convincing and depressing detail than I’d known was possible about how/why a sort of moderate socialism and Machiavellian lack of principles (by anyone’s standards, not just Objectivists’) really are the conscious goal of the Strauss-influenced neocons, not just a bad habit of William Kristol and David Brooks.  I hadn’t realized how explicit the neocons had been from the get-go (roughly the 60s) about saying the welfare state now is traditional (or rather, inevitable – the future even if not the past) and thus that Edmund Burke-style talk should be used to defend it and in the process rein it in just slightly – exactly what Brooks does when he praises Obama.

I’ve often said the biggest danger of traditionalism is not that truly ancient ways will be rigidly enforced but that crap that isn’t even all that old gets treated (by people with short-term historical memories) as if it’s ancient and revered (“There was no art before the noble institution that is the NEA!” etc.).  But I hadn’t realized the degree to which that was the conscious plan of (some of) the neocons.

Now, I’ve been as quick as anyone over the past decade to point out how vague the term “neocon” can be, how unhealthy it is to treat a broad movement as a conspiracy, and how strange it is to blame Strauss, who died decades ago, for faulty intelligence during the lead-up to the war in Iraq (not to mention how unfair it is to assume that Irving Kristol would take the same positions today that he felt were necessary during the heyday of the Great Society).  But Thompson argues that even when you strip away all those things, there is still a (moderately) fascistic element to Straussian-neoconservative thinking – and that it isn’t so surprising if you take a good look at Strauss.

Before he was a U.S.-dwelling influence on the likes of Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, and Edward Banfield (about all of whom, more tomorrow), Strauss was a young intellectual in Weimar Germany who (though Jewish and obviously not hoping to trot himself off to a death camp) shared the deep pessimism of that time and place about the ability of liberal democracy to command the sorts of deep loyalty that totalitarianism ostensibly did (it was as natural for him to worry about that, really, as it was for Siegel and Shuster, around the same time, to dream of an American, democratic Superman strong enough to beat the purported fascist supermen). 

The disgusting Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt – who believed life is
inherently political and that politics should be characterized by the creation of enemies to combat – even received friendly correspondence from Strauss (excerpted in this book), urging him to be more profoundly fascist, though that was at a time before the war, when intellectuals all across the political spectrum still thought that Mussolini had mastered some sort of energetic, unifying social principle that faltering, shallow capitalism would do well to emulate.


Of course, just because one can trace small historical and causal connections does not mean, say, that Tim Pawlenty is secretly a Nazi (indeed, the left, with its fondness for Continental philosophy, has been far more enamored of Schmitt for decades than has almost anyone on the right).  Thompson does not contend that Strauss was a Nazi. 

Indeed, the ambiguity of Strauss’s actual policy positions leads Thompson to write this (unintentionally?) funny sentence: “How, for instance, should we understand [Strauss’s] support for fascism in 1937 with his later support (twice) for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and his support for Richard Nixon in 1972?”  But Strauss seems to have been, as it were, cowed by fascism into thinking that only something with similar centralizing, statist, passion-evoking, martial, and moralistic overtones could keep the intellectually lazy and hedonistic masses from getting out of control. 

Those terrified by (and/or attracted to) the specter of incipient decadence are usually the first to dream of a dominating hand from above that will prevent chaos (be it the hand of the overvalued state or an imaginary god). 

I’ve been convinced since I was a teenager that human beings are indeed a dangerous and ignorant rabble, but luckily (for you) I’ve also been convinced just about as long that no moral or political creed dependent upon keeping secrets in the hands of an elite priesthood can – or should – survive.  The Platonic idea at the heart of Straussianism – and it’s not completely absurd – is that intellectuals are charged with feeding the masses ideas, borrowed from religion and nationalism, that will both entrance and inspire them, staving off social disintegration.

What today’s Straussian neocons – I think primarily of the unfailingly big-government-loving Brooks – fail to realize is that in an era of decentralization and transparency (the kind created by the Web and omnipresent cell phone cameras, not the kind decreed by Obama or regulatory authorities), the idea that neocons can or should wisely and paternalistically steer an otherwise rudderless culture is every bit as absurd as the idea that unrepentant socialist intellectuals should still be working hard to come up with a great five-year plan for the economy. 

We’re done with all that, and your wars and government-subsidized anti-divorce counseling worked out as badly as their solar panel subsidies and welfare checks.

I don’t know if much has been written about the following recent development, but as someone who still has substantial neocon sympathies (there’s a reason Strauss’s Natural Right and History was the first book reviewed on this blog, five years ago), I’ve found it a bit embarrassing this year to watch the neocons try to condemn Obama’s wars in terms that will rally hawks and doves alike – only to about-face every other day or so to urge continuing and intensifying those wars, once the topic turns from current political expediency to the long haul. 

Thompson would likely argue that this self-serving mushiness is perfectly in keeping with the neocons’ Machiavellian streak: If politics is mostly metaphors and steering of the ignorant masses, you say what you have to in the current context to nudge things in a long-term beneficial direction, not coincidentally maintaining your own faction’s popularity while you’re at it. 

This is not as damning as arguing, as some of the more rabid liberal – and even libertarian – critics of neocons might, that Strauss’s concept of the “noble lie” leads directly to knowingly misrepresenting intel on WMDs.  But it means there’s a self-serving shifty mushiness in much neocon rhetoric, even as it purports to be very principled and foundational – I’m looking at sweaty, shifty, beady-eyed Times columnist Brooks again.


I’m not entirely dismissing the necessity of rhetoric, metaphor, or even opportunistic use of current hot topics to influence more long-term battles (even anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard and his cronies started painting themselves as “secular Catholics” when they got cozier with the right, whatever the hell that was all about).  You might even accuse me of being a meta-Straussian, in that my master plan during the past decade was really to steer the neocons themselves (in a libertarian direction).  I watch the watchmen, it turns out (or rather, I hoped that many influential writers and policymakers sympathetic to views resembling mine would do so). 

It certainly seemed a more promising plan than the “liberaltarian” one of sowing seeds on the barren ground of Obamaphilic leftism (and still does).  But, like many (more or less) on the right, I underestimated how deep the neocon attachment to big-government projects (foreign and domestic) really was and concede that the depth of that attachment – and bizarre contingent factors such as the rise of Ron Paul and the Tea Party – make it more strategically wise, now, to encourage, as it were, open rebellion instead of patient gradualism.  And we have run out of money, which is key (treating that as decisive certainly makes sense for someone who always hoped we’d all agree to stick to econ as the most important issue).

I don’t want to alienate all my neocon friends, though.  Unlike the vile Carl Schmitt, I assume other people are actually capable of being rationally and peacefully persuaded – of changing their minds, and doing so (this is important) even without being defeated, humiliated, and forced to repudiate their own philosophical/factional history.  Today’s “big-government conservative” might be tomorrow’s reluctant Ron Paul fan.  (I hope he will be.)  Today’s disillusioned Obama voter might even be tomorrow’s Bill Clinton-praising budget hawk.  (I hope he will be.)  There is no shame in growing wiser and a great deal of shame in stubbornly fighting to the death, despite its nihilistic attraction.

But if the neocons cannot, even at this juncture, see the Machiavellian-pragmatic wisdom in pushing forward toward liberty with the aid of the profoundly American, popular, traditionalist, and freedom-loving Tea Party, they really have become more enamored of power and order than of the Americans they claim to represent.  I think it is interesting, whatever you think of Palin, that William Kristol has praised her while Brooks has condemned her as an anti-intellectual cancer.  Even if you have grave doubts about Palin, I think this makes Kristol slightly more libertarian – and quicker on the uptake – than Brooks, who does not trust those pitchfork-wielding yahoos. 

If you really want to shape the age and link elite, time-honored wisdom to popular sentiment, neocons, now is the become libertarians, maybe even admitting in the process that you were wrong about some things.  Failure to admit that – and to admit that no matter how smart you are you aren’t really in control of this civilization – would be almost Soviet of you.


Lest I still sound too much like I’m buying into neocon/fascist equivalency, I recommend Ira Stoll’s picky but smart criticism of the Thompson book.  And this piece (pointed out by my friend Abe Greenwald at Commentary), in which neocon-in-good-standing Max Boot criticizes Nicholas Kristof for holding up the military as a model for society, is surely a reminder that there’s more to neoconservatism than closet authoritarianism. 

(Ironically, I read the Thompson book while traveling to and from an event where the guest of honor was Donald Rumsfeld, so the lines here are blurry, and refusing to admit ambiguity is usually the first sign of intellectual sloppiness.)

As usual, I would just like to see every faction adhere more rigidly to property rights, regardless of its other concerns.  In the meantime, alas, paleos concede various anti-capitalist arguments, neolibs and neocons accept many pro-welfare-state arguments, theocons concede anti-materialism arguments, “liberaltarians” flirt with dangerous redistribution/social justice arguments, moderates are obviously lame, liberals eventually concede most leftist arguments, and Objectivists typically reject anarchism for unconvincing and oddly “pragmatic” reasons.

Is it any wonder I sometimes feel alone?  But I no more expect perfection than the Straussian pragmatists do.  I keep doing what I can.


And now what I can do is go see the gung-ho and freedom-loving Transformers: Dark of the Moon again – and as if I didn’t have enough reasons to love it, Bumblebee, the robot friendliest with our human protagonist, takes the form of a special 2012 Camaro that looks a lot like the 1967 Camaro Super Sport my parents have in their garage and have owned for over forty years now.  No wonder I feel at home watching the film. 

I should recommend it to Dad.  He was in the Navy back when they got the car.  And he and Mom still live in the red, white, and blue suburban house that I grew up in, with a white picket fence and an American flag out front.  (Did I mention earlier being the real conservative here?  It’s true, you know.  In a just world, neocons and theocons would come to me for my blessing.  In time, perhaps they will.)

And if going to an IMAX 3D robot movie sounds shallow and hedonistic of me, remember, neocons, most of the populace cares so little about what you (and I) say about politics and philosophy that they haven’t even taken the trouble to rename this annual interior design conference.  Think about that, and don’t assume they need your help.


Tim Watson said...

Hmm - I don't know, I've seen some pretty bad stuff from *some* folks who call themselves "paleoconservatives." So who's better, the new ones or the old ones?

Todd Seavey said...

You know, my July 5 follow-up entry ( arguably touches on someone who's bad via both philosophies at the same time -- power and unfreedom for the elites, solidarity and unfreedom for the working class -- not to mention just plain bad in general.

But even at the risk of jumping the gun historically, I think it's time to just argue for unapologetic libertarianism, just for clarity's sake, and to assume history will treat all the different factions of other political philosophies as mere variations on the theme of "circa-twentieth-century big government." I _hope_ average students a century hence will barely see any reason to remember the differences between Nazis and Communists and that likewise only academics will need to know the hairsplitting distinctions between people who craved authoritarian government at the national level vs. those who craved authoritarian government at the local level, since both will seem alien to the free people of that future time. Fingers crossed.