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C. Bradley Thompson, a political science professor at Clemson University, has recently teamed up with Yaron Brook to write Neoconservatism: An Obiturary for an Idea, a classical-liberal critique of the neoconservative movement. The book systematically examines the economic, political, and cultural underpinnings of neoconservatism, exploring its relationship to the philosophy of Leo Strauss and its influential and menacing ideas about warfare. I put six questions to Thompson about the book:
1. At the core of your book is the notion that neoconservatism is dead. But consider that Politico recently published an analysis of Obama’s Middle East policies in which ten of eleven persons quoted were neocons (the eleventh was a Palestinian). The Washington Post’s editorial page is rapidly becoming a neocon fortress. Is it really time to talk about the “death” of neoconservatism?
The short answer is both “no” and “yes.” The neocons still dominate the conservative think-tank world, and they are a major presence in the media. They play a major role in defining the ideas of the conservative intellectual movement and the policies of the Republican Party. On one level, they are far from irrelevant and must be taken seriously.
Why then an obituary? The title plays off the title of one of Irving Kristol’s most important essays, “Socialism: An Obituary for an Idea,” which was as much prognostic as it was diagnostic. Professional obituarists also often write the biographical parts of a death notice long before their subjects die. Our book, then, should be read as prolegomena to any future obituary. We also hope our obituary for neoconservatism serves, paradoxically, as the murder weapon as well. Readers might imagine Charlotte Corday writing and publishing Marat’s obituary as she traveled to Paris.
2. What do the neocons mean by “governing philosophy,” and how does this affect the way they engage in politics in America?
Identifying and deciphering what the neocons mean by this notion of a “governing philosophy” is, I think, one of the most important and original contributions of our book, and it’s the key to understanding their public-policy advice to the Republican Party.
The neocons explicitly reject the suggestion that neoconservatism is a systematic political philosophy grounded in absolute and certain moral principles. Instead, they describe it euphemistically as a “mood,” a “style,” or a “mode of thinking.” They don’t want the broader conservative movement limited by the straightjacket of permanent first principles. Not surprisingly, then, neoconservatism is an amalgam of several different ideologies. Daniel Bell once described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture,” which sums up rather nicely the content of their philosophy of governance.
But there’s more. The neocons’ “philosophy of governance” means three things. First, it’s a technique that teaches rulers or potential rulers how to think about politics rather than what to think. It’s about developing pragmatic tactics for getting, keeping, and using power in certain ways. It’s about knowing how to improvise, modify, and adapt one’s principles to changing circumstances. Machiavellian prudence must always trump principle.
Second, the neocons’ idea of a “governing philosophy” is also a conceit, which says that properly educated statesmen will have the necessary practical wisdom to balance competing social claims and to establish a golden mean for all public policy questions. The neocons place a great deal of emphasis on the “art” of statecraft, which assumes that wise statesmen can channel human action in certain socially-desired directions by tinkering with the incentive mechanisms of America’s political, economic, and social institutions. In defending the welfare state, for instance, Norman Podhoretz once wrote that wise neoconservative statesmen could identify “the precise point at which the incentive to work” would be “undermined by the availability of welfare benefits.”
Finally, connected to the neocons’ notion of a governing philosophy is their advice to Republicans to “think politically,” which means learning how to dissimulate and compromise their principles in order to acquire and keep power. It means compromising with the secular Left when necessary (particularly when liberals make moral arguments in defense of the welfare state) and with the religious Right when necessary (particularly when religious conservatives can be rallied to challenge the cultural hegemony of the nihilistic Left).
3. Irving Kristol’s argument for capitalism is, you conclude, remarkably luke-warm. Where do neocons part company with advocates of a pure market economy?
Kristol’s argument for capitalism is at best lukewarm and at worst shows a profound anti-capitalist bias. Like many traditional conservatives, Kristol and the neocons defend capitalism simply on the pragmatic grounds that it’s more productive and efficient than any other political system. Thus Kristol famously gave capitalism “two cheers” rather than three. He withheld his third cheer because he found capitalism to be morally deficient. And there’s the rub. If capitalism can’t be defended morally then it can’t and shouldn’t be defended.
On a philosophical level, Kristol rejected capitalism and a free society because he rejected its underlying moral philosophy of rational self-interestedness and individual rights. He argued that a secular capitalist society that frees its citizens to pursue their self-interest is one that leads ultimately to an untrammeled individualism, an amiable philistinism, an easygoing nihilism, a vulgar commercialism, and a spiritual emptiness. In fact, long after he’d become a neocon, this former Trotskyist was still praising the superiority of the “socialist ideal” over the moral ideal of capitalism. Kristol never stopped praising the superiority of utopian socialism over capitalism because it is “community-oriented,” he said, rather than “individual-oriented.” He always held a watered-down version of Marx’s principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Not surprisingly, then, Kristol and the other neocons were and are advocates of what they call a “conservative welfare state,” which means they accept the ends of liberal-socialism while using faux market choices and mechanisms as the means to deliver on their promises. They insist that individuals have a moral right to welfare, but they would let its recipients choose their own “private” Social Security accounts and their own “private” health-care providers from a list of government-prescribed providers. In other words, they support regulated choice.
4. You link the neoconservatives closely to the writings of Leo Strauss, and particularly to his book Natural Right and History, which you say “may very well be one of the most profound and deadly philosophic assaults on America ever written.” What do you mean by this?
I should say first that one of the important discoveries revealed for the first time in our book is the revelation that Irving Kristol first read and reviewed Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing in 1952. It was Strauss who first turned Kristol toward Platonic political philosophy, which is the most important prism through which to view neoconservative thought. Kristol’s Straussian moment represents, I argue, the intellectual birth of neoconservatism.
In his Introduction to Natural Right and History, Strauss seems to defend America and the principles of the Declaration of Independence from the philosophic tsunami of European historicism, relativism, and nihilism that crashed onto American shores in the early twentieth century. This is surely how many of his more vulgar readers have interpreted the political purpose of his thought, and on one level Strauss really was trying to shore up America’s philosophic ramparts.
Careful readers of Natural Right and History soon realize, however, that Strauss was a subtle critic of the philosophic principles that founded the United States. He brings into doubt the principles on which Enlightenment liberalism and America were founded, and he shows them to be woefully deficient. Strauss, it becomes clear to the alert reader, was a trenchant critic of the principles and institutions that are most uniquely American (e.g., natural rights, individualism, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism) precisely because they are all ultimately grounded on a moral philosophy of rational self-interestedness. Strauss believed that such principles ultimately lead to nihilism by untying man from the “eternal order.” In other words, he believed that liberal-capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. For Strauss, the very idea of a right to “the pursuit of happiness” necessarily leads to the liberation of all deviant desires.
5. Leo Strauss’s 1933 letter to Karl Löwith, in which he acknowledged his adherence to “fascist, authoritarian, imperial” principles has drawn a lot of attention lately. Strauss adherents treat it as a sort of aberration. Are they right to push back in this way?
Strauss’s letter to Löwith is an aberration only to the extent that he actually revealed his true political inclinations in such a direct, unambiguous manner. Strauss labored throughout his academic career to keep his most personal political opinions hidden behind layers of exoteric, textual exegesis, so the Löwith letter provides an important window into Strauss’s deepest political views. Recent attempts by some of Strauss’s students to evade the meaning and import of the Löwith letter are, to put it diplomatically, disappointing and not worthy of those who prefer the truth to partisanship.
Still, the letter is brief and its meaning must be reconstructed by establishing the broader context in which Strauss wrote. One of the most important things we do in our book is to put Strauss’s apparent flirtation with fascism in its historical and philosophical context. The key to understanding Strauss’s interest in fascism is the contempt for liberal capitalism that he shares with philosophic fascists such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt and with political fascists such as Mussolini. More importantly, Strauss also shared some of the fascists’ positive political principles: he preferred a community-oriented to an individual-oriented public ethos; he called for a return to a closed society and a duty-based ethics; he promoted an “organic” view of the political community; he considered sacrifice as the ultimate moral-political virtue; he supported a paternalistic, corporatist State that controlled both the economic and spiritual realms; and, like the Italian fascists, he was a proponent of Plato’s best city in speech.
One of the interesting facts that we reveal for the first time in Neoconservatism is that Strauss actually read and seems to have been influenced by Mussolini’s essay on the “Doctrine of Fascism.” This much seems clear: Strauss’s deepest philosophic and political commitments in 1933 were closer to those of Mussolini than they were to those of Jefferson. It’s important to note, however, that Strauss was pitting the principles of fascism in the Löwith letter against those of Nazism.
In later years, Strauss did become a defender of liberal democracy, particularly in light of the communist threat to the West. His early fascism and his later defense of liberal democracy are not necessarily in tension, however. Strauss’s Platonic prudence suggested that he could be a friend to either political regime, or any other for that matter, when the times called for it so as to defend the Socratic or philosopher’s way of life as the paramount value.
6. You suggest that a willingness to prepare for and wage wars lies right at the heart of neoconservatism. Has this affected American foreign policy in the last decade?
Yaron Brook and I are the first scholars to argue that neoconservative foreign policy is actually a special branch of its domestic policy. In sum, our argument is this: the neocons support a foreign policy of benevolent hegemony and perpetual war in order to serve the moral and political goals associated with what David Brooks calls “national-greatness conservatism.”
The single greatest threat to America, according to many neocons, is not communism or radical Islam but nihilism, and they see nihilism as the inevitable outcome of Enlightenment liberalism and America’s founding principles. The real problem with liberal-capitalist society for Strauss, Kristol, and Brooks is that individuals do not sacrifice themselves to anything higher than themselves and their petty self-interest. What America needs, therefore, is a two-step antidote for its cultural malaise: the inculcation of public virtue and the promotion of nationalism. The neocons seek to restore a public philosophy that promotes sacrifice as the great moral ideal and patriotism as the great political ideal.
The American people need something greater than themselves to live for. They need to learn the virtue of sacrifice, which means war. War–perpetual war–is the ultimate means by which the neocons can fight creeping nihilism and promote sacrifice and nationalistic patriotism. An aggressive, proactive foreign policy therefore serves a greater purpose–to raise ordinary Americans above their daily, selfish concerns. Nation building also provides neoconservative statesmen with a grand theatre on which to practice their statesmanlike virtues.
Eight months before three passenger jets slammed into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, murdering several thousand innocent people, the neoconservative Michael Ledeen published a book extolling Machiavellian virtue and its relevance for today. Ledeen there projected his great hope for America: that it might “get lucky” and be awakened and renewed morally by a devastating attack similar to that of Pearl Harbor. Well, it would seem that America got “lucky” from Ledeen’s perspective. In the end, this is what neoconservatism is all about and it’s why we’ve written its obituary in the hopes of killing it.
More from Scott Horton:
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
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Average number of sitcom laughs an American hears during a prime-time season:
Nielsen Media Research (N.Y.C.)/Jim Drake, Night Court (Tarzana, Calif.)/Harper's research
Czech and German deer still do not cross the Iron Curtain.
British economists correlated the happiness of a country’s population with its genetic resemblance to Danes.
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