Adam Ash

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Friday, February 24, 2006

This guy says the neoconservatives are the new hippies

1. Neoconservatives: The new hippies -- by Danny Kampf

Being someone of a liberal persuasion, it might come as a surprise that I not only sympathize with neoconservatives, I genuinely agree with much of what they have to say. Unlike traditional conservatism, neoconservative philosophy amounts to more than just “Leave us alone.” It inherently rejects both “Fortress America” isolationism and Kissingerian realism in favor of an activist foreign policy of promoting human rights and propagating democracy.

What liberal could disagree with that?

It’s no coincidence that the two ideologies overlap. Both are grounded in Wilsonian idealism. Moreover, neoconservatism wasn’t initially the product of the right-wing intellectuals, who have since become its standard bearers. Strangely enough, the original neoconservatives were radical leftists.

To be specific, they were Trotskyites.

For those of you unfamiliar with Leon Trotsky, he was one of the chief architects of the Russian Revolution. He was an idealist and a militant. Before the revolution, while he was in prison, Trotsky cultivated his famous theory of permanent revolution: a concept which would later provide the impetus for Soviet imperialism.

An independent thinker (he was originally a leader of the opposition Mensheviks), Trotsky was single handedly responsible for crafting the Red Army into a machine whose purpose was to forcibly spread his idealistic brand of Marxism across the world. Substitute “Marxism” with “democracy” and the leap from Trotskyism to neoconservatism appears remarkably diminutive.

Small as the gap may have been, neoconservatives certainly didn’t make the jump to democracy overnight. It took years of audacious brutality and cynical ideological manipulation by the Stalinist Regime before they were finally disenchanted with communism.

Left in a political vacuum, they eventually gravitated towards realpolitik. This resulted in what Francis Fukuyama calls a “realistic Wilsonianism.” The philosophy essentially boils down to this: the United States is a benign hegemon with the unique ability to create a democratic world order that respects human dignity. Hegemonic as it may be, however, the early neoconservatives believed it was imperative for the United States to act prudently, by avoiding war when possible and cautiously exercising force when not.

As a liberal, I’d say I agree with that doctrine almost in its entirety. But if that’s the case, why is it that I almost always find myself at odds with the policies of the first neoconservative administration ever: the Bush Administration?

Well, the sad fact of the matter is that neoconservatism has become a grotesque caricature of its once great former self. Gone are the days of academic nuance, realpolitik and judicious analysis of international relations. All that remains is its idealism and a throwback to its morphed Trotskyite heritage: the insufferable notion that democracy in and of itself (much like Marxism) has the power to single-handedly cure all the world’s ails.

Neoconservatism for kids – that’s what the Bush Administration is responsible for. They have cheapened their philosophy in order to produce an easily digestible version for the masses. This is more than a little reminiscent of the reductivist logic promulgated by the hippie movement in the ‘60s (when neoconservatism was at its nadir). Replace “All you need is love” with “All you need is democracy” and you essentially have what can only be described as “the new hippies.”

The biggest difference is that, unlike the hippies, the neoconservatives are actually in control of our formal institutions of power. Moreover, they have returned to the Trotskyite militarism of their deep past. What could possibly be scarier than blind idealism coupled with an aggressively militarized foreign policy?

I share President Bush’s idealism. I, too, want to see a democratized world order. In this, I believe that even the neoconservatives of today share far more than they’re willing to admit with their liberal counterparts. But the methods by which the Bush Administration is pursuing its goals are haphazard, ill-informed and overly simplistic.

What a shame it is to have another great political philosophy destroyed by yet another generation of hippies – only this time in jacket and tie.

(Danny Kampf is a sophomore in political science whose interests lie in trying to divorce himself from ideology in favor of pragmatic solutions. His two biggest influences are Fareed Zakaria and Andrew Sullivan. He is the quintessential self-hating liberal.)

2. No more heroes
Leo Strauss, father of neoconservatism, is not the fascist thinker of left-wing caricature. But neither is he a figure with whom democrats can feel comfortable. He believed in virtue rather than liberalism
By Edward Skidelsky

"Mark you this, you proud men of action," wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine. "You are nothing but the unconscious henchmen of intellectuals, who, often in the humblest seclusion, have meticulously plotted your every deed." Heine was thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but the same charge has more recently been levelled against Leo Strauss, a former professor of political science at the University of Chicago who died in 1973. Just as Rousseau was blamed for the French revolution, so Strauss has been identified as the ghostly mastermind of current US foreign policy. Through a web of disciples and disciples of disciples, this shy scholar is alleged to have suborned the most powerful democracy in the world.

This allegation has some basis in fact. The last 30 years have indeed seen an influx of "Straussians" into Republican administrations, think tanks and policy journals. Paul Wolfowitz studied under both Strauss and his protégé Allan Bloom. Irving Kristol, pioneer of neoconservatism and father of the editor and publicist William Kristol, counts Strauss as a formative influence. But is this really a cause for alarm? In the 1960s, many British economic advisers were students of Keynes. His influence may have been harmful, but it was hardly sinister. Why should the influence of Strauss be viewed any differently?

The answer lies partly in the peculiar nature of Strauss's work. Strauss was not a public intellectual after the fashion of Keynes. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, he remained a philosopher in the classic Germanic mould, with a strong overlay of Talmudic scholasticism. His work is subtle, laboured and recondite. Most of it takes the form of commentaries on the great political texts. His own thought emerges only indirectly, in hints and asides. Above all, Strauss was a teacher. He cultivated a large number of disciples—the word is in his case apposite—who went on to cultivate disciples of their own. Straussians see themselves as guardians of wisdom. Mainstream political scientists see them as a self-regarding clique or cult. This is one reason why so many Straussians have left academia and entered public life.

Suspicion is heightened by the fact that Strauss regarded the work of the great political philosophers as written in a covert or "esoteric" manner. Following Nietzsche, he viewed the truth as something dangerous, as subversive of the ancestral traditions that bind humans together. The wisest philosophers therefore conceal their insights, both for their own protection and out of regard for the political communities in which they live. To be more precise, they reveal their insights in a manner intelligible only to the wise few, while presenting the appearance of orthodoxy to the vulgar many. Could Strauss himself have been an "esoteric" thinker? And could he have imparted his elitist attitude to the truth to his political disciples?

This is the view of Shadia B Drury, research chair in social justice at the University of Regina, Canada, and one of Strauss's most dogged critics. Strauss's allegiance to democracy belongs, she claims, to the merely public or "exoteric" aspect of his thought. In reality, Strauss hated democracy. Like Plato, he yearned for a tyranny of the wise; like Nietzsche, he rejoiced in hierarchy and war. But he also realised that such goals could not be openly avowed. He therefore sought to advance them covertly, by exploiting traditional national and religious loyalties. This is the role of the so-called "gentlemen." These decent but stupid characters function, according to Drury's reading of Strauss, as a smokescreen for the rule of a nihilistic philosophical elite. Only with their aid can the "natural order of domination and subordination" be restored. Strauss, in short, is a "profoundly tribal and fascistic thinker," a confrère of Heidegger and of Carl Schmitt. His influence on the American right is a scandal.

The course of US foreign policy since 9/11 has confirmed Drury in her suspicions. The tactical use of lies; the alliance with the religious right; the limitless "war on terror"—all this seems in accord with Strauss's secret teaching. Even President Bush looks uncannily like a Straussian "gentleman." Drury's diagnosis has become a commonplace of left-wing criticism. Journalists and academics repeat it without qualification. "Neoconservatives," wrote the Cambridge historian Richard Drayton in the Guardian, "… learned from Strauss that a strong and wise minority of humans had to rule over the weak majority through deception and fear." The fact that Strauss and most of his followers were Jewish sometimes lends these accusations an antisemitic flavour. In certain circles, Straussians have become the new Elders of Zion.

Strauss's defenders dismiss these allegations with scorn. "It's a product of fevered minds," said Wolfowitz in a 2003 interview with Vanity Fair, "who seem incapable of understanding that September 11th changed a lot of things… I mean, I took two terrific courses from Strauss as a graduate student. One was on Montesquieu… and one was on Plato's Laws. The idea that this has anything to do with US foreign policy is just laughable." Nor, adds Douglas Murray in his recent defence of neoconservatism, was Strauss a crypto-fascist. His allegiance to democracy was sincere; his only caveat was that "we are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of liberal democracy." Strauss, who fought for Germany in the first world war, had the example of the Weimar republic ever before his eyes. He knew democracy's fatal tendency to softness and indecision; he wanted to bolster it with the sterner wisdom of the pre-democratic past. Churchill, not Hitler, was his hero.

Two strikingly different interpretations; which one is true? Many passages in Strauss seem to favour the more benign reading. But then, were Strauss an esoteric writer, that is precisely what we should expect. Once we admit the principle of esotericism, of course, we can attribute to a thinker almost anything we please. So it seems more reputable to take Strauss at his word. If we do, we soon discover Drury's interpretation to be a lurid caricature. This is a shame because, like any good caricature, it contains important elements of truth. Strauss is an unsettling figure. His writing is brilliant in detail yet curiously opaque in its overall design. It is full of unresolved tensions and dark hints. And some of these hints have been realised, indirectly, in current American policy.

Strauss's central theme is excellence, both moral and intellectual. Excellence is the supreme end of political life. The classical philosophers judged regimes according to their ability to foster excellence. The best regime is the one in which the best men rule. It is government by the wise. But because they constitute a small and unpopular minority, the wise must, for practical purposes, work in collaboration with the "gentlemen," or enlightened aristocracy. Gentlemen are the "political reflection" of the wise; they share their elevation of spirit and add to it wealth, savoir-faire and a "noble contempt for precision." Only a government of gentlemen can win the consent of the vulgar while at the same time remaining open to the influence of the wise.

The ancient philosophers described the best regime as one embodying "natural right." By this they meant that it is grounded not merely in custom or convention, but in the natural order of things. The idea of natural right reappears in the work of the founders of modern liberalism. But it is not quite the same idea. Whereas the ancients viewed human nature in the light of its end or perfection, the moderns, inspired by the new science of mechanics, sought out its lowest common impulse. This they discovered in the will to live, or the fear of violent death. The regime most truly in accordance with nature is, then, that which best satisfies its citizens' desire for security. It is a regime consisting of a strong secular state with a monopoly on the use of force, whose citizens enjoy rights guaranteed by law and, in some versions, a share in government. It is the regime with which we are all familiar today.

But what about the ancient concern with excellence? How does that fare in the modern liberal state? Strauss's answer is gloomy. Liberalism shifts the accent from the question "is it good?" to the question "is it within my right?" This latter question tends over time to occlude or absorb the former, so that in the end all moral problems are reduced to problems of law. Liberal theory is concerned not with virtue, but with the construction of institutions that will secure citizens their rights even in the absence of virtue. Nor is it concerned with truth. In its eyes, all opinions are of equal value, provided they do not disturb the peace. Ultimately, liberalism degenerates into relativism, a standpoint from which different moral and religious convictions appear as mere items on a menu. There is an inevitable if ironic progression from the original meaning of liberalism to the derogatory sense it has acquired in America today.

Liberalism expresses the mundanity of the modern age, its mistrust of heroes and ideals. In Strauss's words, it deliberately "lowers the goal" of political life to increase the chances of its attainment. But liberalism's neglect of excellence is in the long run self-destructive. No regime, not even a liberal one, is mechanically self-perpetuating. Each rests ultimately upon the wisdom and courage of its leaders. In neglecting this, liberalism jeopardises its own survival. Liberalism suffers a further, specific disadvantage in comparison with its totalitarian rivals: it extends to them a tolerance which they do not reciprocate. The collapse of the Weimar republic was confirmation for Strauss of this shortcoming. Churchill demonstrated that only the residually heroic element in liberal democracy could save it from destruction.

How can the levelling tendency of the modern age be counteracted? How can greatness be restored? Unlike many European conservatives, Strauss did not look to the hereditary nobility, a class non-existent in America. His was an aristocracy of spirit, not of rank. Hence the vital importance he attached to education. "Liberal education," he wrote, "is the counterpoison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but 'specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.'… Liberal education is the necessary endeavour to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness."

This brief summary makes it clear, I hope, that Strauss was not the "profoundly tribal and fascistic thinker" described by Drury. But neither is he a figure with whom liberal democrats can feel entirely comfortable. His support for them is at best pragmatic and provisional; it amounts to little more than the recognition that "at present democracy is the only practicable alternative to various forms of tyranny." Nowhere does Strauss acknowledge freedom or equality as intrinsic goods. Their value, for him, is instrumental; they create a space in which excellence can flourish. "We cannot forget… that by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence. No one prevents us from cultivating our garden or from setting up outposts which may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving to it its tone." Strauss, in short, is an unashamed elitist, in the best tradition of the German professoriat. This in itself is enough to mark him as a fascist in the eyes of some commentators.

Modern neoconservatism has moved a long way from Strauss. It has shed his cultural pessimism, his elitism, his old world scepticism. "Many neoconservatives," wrote Irving Kristol in 1979, "find him [Strauss] somewhat too wary of modernity." Strauss was opposed to all grandiose schemes of political redemption. He was a conservative, not a neoconservative; he revered prudence as "the god of this lower world" and praised the classics for realising that "evil cannot be eradicated and therefore … one's expectations from politics must be moderate." The attempt to impose democracy across the globe would have struck him as folly.

But even if it has departed from Strauss, contemporary neoconservatism nonetheless grows out of a typically Straussian anxiety. As we saw, Strauss viewed the cultivation of virtue as the end of politics. But virtue implies sacrifice, and sacrifice implies an ideal. The trouble with liberalism is that it tends to relativise all ideals, to reduce them to mere opinions. Sacrifice becomes impossible, and politics in the true sense gives way to economic management. As a result, human beings sink into a purely private existence—a condition described by Alexandre Kojève, a French philosopher and friend of Strauss's, as "the animalisation of man." New sources of idealism are urgently needed to counteract this rot. "Liberal democracies," as the Straussians Kenneth Deutsch and Walter Soffer put it, "need to learn standards of excellence that exert an 'upward pull' against the demands of physical gratification."

Strauss's own response to this predicament was, as we have seen, to cultivate pockets of wisdom in the interstices of mass society, hoping that they would, over time, impart their "tone" to the republic as a whole. But his solution was too subtle, too elitist for modern tastes. His neoconservative descendants realised that the goal of awakening civic virtue could more easily be achieved by transforming liberal democracy itself into a fighting faith, into an object of worldwide struggle and sacrifice. They sought to pull outwards, not upwards. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave them their chance. Many became fierce champions of the same liberal democracy that Strauss himself had viewed with such scepticism.

But the problem with the neoconservative version of liberalism is that it is not really liberal at all. Classical Anglo-American liberalism was emphatically not a "fighting faith." It was sceptical of all extreme faiths, religious and political. And although it fought when it had to, against aggressors such as Napoleon and Hitler, its preferred means of promulgation were trade, enlightenment and international law. The new liberalism is quite different. It is no longer cosmopolitan, but nationalist; no longer pacific, but warlike; no longer sceptical, but zealous. Its model is Israel, that artefact of political and military will. What this new liberalism offers is not peace or prosperity, but redemption from the banality of commercial civilisation. Writing recently in the Telegraph, the Conservative researcher Danny Kruger—initially a supporter of the Iraq war, now a sceptic—found his former motives well expressed in a passage from Evelyn Waugh's Unconditional Surrender: "Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships to recompense for having been selfish and lazy."

If this interpretation is correct, then neoconservatism is indeed an esoteric movement, although not in Drury's sense. Like so many other forms of imperialism, its secret focus is domestic. Its ostensible mission of spreading freedom around the globe is in reality an instrument for the kindling of public spirit at home. Such a conjecture can never, of course, be proved. But the Bush administration's patriotic and martial tone, and its apparent indifference to the fate of nations touched by its democratising zeal, speaks strongly in its favour. Indeed, there is good reason to suppose that neoconservatives would shudder at the success of their enterprise, for the global victory of liberal democracy would mark, in Kojèvean terms, the end of history and the final animalisation of man. Luckily for them, there is little chance of that.

Other continuities between Strauss and his neoconservative successors lie in the vaguer terrain of style and culture. Strauss's students inherited from their master the sense of belonging to a persecuted spiritual elite. They cultivated an arch and secretive manner, full of private allusions and Kabbalistic symbolism. Homoeroticism (of the Socratic variety) was introduced by Allan Bloom, author of the bestselling The Closing of the American Mind. It is unsurprising that the products of such an education should, like the Cambridge Apostles before them, be attracted to the world of security and espionage. Anatol Lieven is correct to see the influence of Strauss as reinforcing the "tendency in the American security elites as a whole to see themselves as a version of Plato's Guardians, a closed, all-knowing, elect group, guiding, protecting (like guard dogs) and when necessary deceiving an ignorant and flaccid populace for its own good, in order to protect it from ruthless enemies."

But Strauss's most important bequest to neoconservatism was his revival of moral language. He wrote robust, classical English, full of epithets such as "honourable," "noble," "mercenary" and "vulgar." One word he did not use was "evil." No doubt he considered it unsuited to the secular discourse of politics. But that has not stopped his successors. The routine attribution of evil to political enemies is one of the less pleasant traits of today's neoconservatism.

This unembarrassed use of moral language is in conscious defiance of the prevailing trend towards more "non-judgemental" modes of speech. Strauss himself was a passionate opponent of value-free social science. It is simply not possible, he claimed, to describe social phenomena in non-ethical terms, for social phenomena, unlike their physical counterparts, are ethical to their core. "What would become of political science if it were not permitted to deal with phenomena like narrow party spirit, boss rule, pressure groups, statesmanship, corruption, even moral corruption… with phenomena which are, as it were, constituted by value judgements?" Irving Kristol and his colleagues on the now defunct Public Interest magazine applied this principle in their work on the American poor. Where academic sociologists talked about systems and structures, they made free use of the Victorian language of idleness and intemperance. In international relations, neoconservatives spurned the technical language of game theory, in which "agents" pursue "strategies," in favour of the classical rhetoric of freedom, tyranny and patriotism.

The issue is not just theoretical. Our reluctance to use moral language has its ultimate source not in any philosophical doctrine but in the dark cloud of guilt hanging over the west ever since 1918. "Value-neutralism" dignifies what is, in effect, a crisis of confidence. Having once been wrong, we doubt our right to call anyone else wrong; condemning ourselves, we hesitate to condemn others. Neoconservatism repudiates this psychic burden. It offers us what Douglas Murray calls "moral clarity"—the exhilarating certainty that there is good and evil, and that we are on the side of good. It is no coincidence that many of its most forceful advocates have been Jews, a people who, at least until recently, have had uniquely little to feel guilty about.

But the neoconservative cure is, alas, worse than the disease. For the sad fact is that historical guilt is now all that remains of the political conscience of the west. In unburdening ourselves of it, we are in danger of unburdening ourselves of any inhibition whatsoever. The Victorians were restrained in their imperial zeal by a long tradition of prudent statesmanship, as well as by a Christian sense of the corrupting effects of power. Strauss himself, if not a believer, had a sincere respect for religious faith. He understood the sacred awe before the limits of human power that the Bible calls "fear of God" and the Greeks expressed in the concept of dike, or cosmic justice. What restraints now remain? What is to prevent Strauss's heirs, inheritors of a vulgarised version of their master's teaching and confronted by no internal or external obstacles, from inflicting their fierce love upon the whole of humanity?


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