Monday, March 07, 2005

The Neoconservatives: What Went Wrong? 

In the middle of the nineteen-sixties, a time of explosive growth of government activity at home and abroad, a group of intellectuals founded a policy journal called The Public Interest. The articles of the journal were not unique because of the pathos of their involvement or their infallibility but because of the fineness of their perceptions, the precision of their analysis and the cogency of their argument. It was a journal dedicated from the very start to figuring out how things—government, the economy, education, the family—worked in the then-emerging post-industrial age.

The writers and editors who were associated with The Public Interest, many of whom were formerly associated with left or liberal politics, came to be known as “neoconservatives” in light of their criticisms of certain aspects of the welfare state and the adversarial culture. Neoconservatives at first resisted the idea that they were conservatives at all. From the perspective of the early neoconservatives, they were simply offering a friendly corrective to liberalism. Gradually, however, they came to accept that they had left the main path of liberals to become critics of it, and their criticism did in fact bear a family resemblance to the traditional conversative critiques of Burke, Tocqueville and Henry Adams.

This initial resistance and eventual surrender to the neoconservative label deserves a bit more explanation. The reason why the intellectuals around The Public Interest and similar publications resisted being associated with conservatism is that they associated it with anti-intellectualism. While acknowledging that conservatism had a long tradition and played an often useful in the United States, they did not believe that it exercised any more than a marginal influence in the world of ideas. Conservatism was blend of the politics of habit, a mood of fear and anxiety, regional prejudice and the class interest of capitalists rather than a thoughtful approach to politics. The intellectual current in America, from this perspective, was entirely liberal, and since The Public Interest was an intellectual journal it had to also be a liberal journal.

Let me take this a step further. The resistance to conservatism was not just a result of the perceived absence of a conservative intellectual tradition or movement. It had deep roots in the liberal critique of conservatism’s frank appeal to prejudice over reason. Conservatism, its occasional historical usefulness aside, was profoundly disturbing to the neoconservatives-to-be because seemed to them to rest ultimately on a fear that the free use of man’s intelligence would undermine society. In her article “The Prophets of the New Conservatism” which appeared in a magazine edited by future neoconservative Norman Podhoretz, historian Getrude Himmelfarb complained that the poet Peter Viereck’s book Conservatism Revisited propounded a conservatism based upon “moral absolutes of the spirit” which he admitted were non-existent, and then identified these with established traditions rather than abstract moral law. In short, the deep problem with conservatism was that it was attached to prejudice as prejudice, to tradition as tradition, while the duty of an intellectual was the pursuit of truth. Conservatism struck the budding neoconservatives as cynical and hostile to free inquiry and rationalism, and ultimately to democracy.

Enter the New Class
The neoconservative attachment to liberalism, however, was shaken by the social upheaveals of the 1960s and the coincident failure of liberal social welfare policies. These twin phenomenon seemed to confirm the traditional conservative sense that society was indeed brittle, and that well-intentioned reforms could endanger the structure of society. Proto-neoconservative analysis showed that the reductive planning and unreflective embrace of social engineering could have disastrous unintended consequences results because it failed to take into true complexity of human nature. To the neoconservatives surprise, liberal intellectuals seemed to be able to offer little in the way of a corrective to the apparent dissolution of social authority and welfare failures. Indeed, the liberals remained stubbornly attached to their program of social change despite the neoconservative analysis showing how things had gone badly wrong.

It was this resistance to neoconservative analysis that led to the discovery of what the neoconservatives called the New Class. Modern liberalism was no longer an intellectual tradition that sought the application of unvarnished truth to social problems. It had hardened into the ideology of a new class in American society, and the ideology was strongly adversarial to existing social institutions in a way that was very photographic negative of the cynical conservatism the neoconservatives had resisted. If reason argued against accelerated social change, so much for reason.

The phenomenon of the New Class required some explanation—how had the intellectual tradition hardened into an adversarial ideology—and the neoconservatives offered at least two. The first was structural. Intellectuals are interested in novel ideas and when messy reality is compared with a new idea, reality always comes up short. The argument for social change is thus always more appealing than the argument against.

The second was psychological and political. The intellectuals suffered from status anxiety in a world that seemed to unjustly reward more pragmatic activities, and thus sought to create a society in which their activities would be more highly valued. They sought to increase their power and status by creating a large public sector and undermining competing sources of social authority.

Of course, intellectual in many ages have felt alienated, and this has not always resulted in an adversarial culture. Why had the New Class gone down this particular path? One explanation may be the lack of alternatives. In nineteenth century Britain, the project of imperialism had had engaged the intellectuals. Earlier in the twentieth century, the problems of the Great Depression and World War had served to satisfy the intellectual impulse. Without such outward projects, the intellectuals had turned inward. Like the intellectuals who mounted a campaign against Athenian democracy after the failures of Athenian Empire, the New Class sought to accumulate power and status through restructuring their domestic political and social arrangements.

The neoconservatives styled themselves counter-intellectuals, bringing the culture of critique to bear on the culture of critique. There’s was not a rejection of the intellectual tradition but a deepening of it, a self-reflective version that acknowledged the limitations of the intellectual’s ability accomplish social reform.

Meet Leo Strauss
If the discovery of the New Class accomplished the divorce of intellectualism from liberalism for the neoconservatives, it was not enough to land them squarely in camp of the conservatives. Before this could be accomplished, the neoconservatives had to find a conservatism which was neither anti-intellectual nor cynically attached to tradition. This is where Leo Strauss comes in.

Leo Strauss was a political theorist born in Germany at the turn of the century who had settled in the United States in the nineteen thirties. He had offered more than a dozen books, most of which were commentaries on what would become to be known as “Great Books”—such as the works of Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon, Machiavelli and Hobbes. His books defended a notion of timeless truths rooted in an unchanging human nature. His was not a defense of tradition per se but a defense of natural right which, as it turned out, happened to confirm many of the habits and social institutions that had been supported by prejudice. Strauss marshaled free inquiry and democracy in defense of the nation-state, the family and Western civilization. The neoconservatives recognized in Strauss an intellectual conservatism they could live with.

(I offer here an aside on foreign policy: the neoconservatives also found that the adversarial class had adopted a position which, if not outrightly sympathetic to communism, was soft-headed about how communists needed to be dealt with. Unlike some commentators, I do not think the essence of neoconservatism was anti-communism--although they were certainly against the anti-anti-communism of the adversarial class--and so I am going to give it short shrift).

Neoconservatives At Last
Armed with the critique of New Class liberalism and the new conservatism of Leo Strauss (as well as anti-anti-anti-communism), the neoconservatives found themselves able to ride alongside the traditional conservatives. Contemporaneously with this phenomenon, the traditional conservatives were joined by Catholic and Protestant religious conservatives. The neoconservatives recognized that all of these were their objective allies in the struggle against the social dissolution wrought by the New Class. What’s more, they had learned from Leo Strauss they what were once perceived as ‘cynicism’ and ‘nihilism’—that is the use of prejudice and religion to support society—were more accurately understood the timeless virtues of tolerance and prudence. Tolerance because it was unduly rigid to expect everyone to accept the same reasons for supporting the underlying truth about the value of traditional social arrangements; prudence because the defense against dissolution was too important to risk on intramural squabbling.

Neoconservatives helped their allies by modifying conservative rhetoric to offer a broader and more inclusive politics, applying their devastating critical style to the opponents of conservatism and supporting conservative positions with findings from the disciplines of social sciences.

The Neoconservative Moment...and Its Passing
For something like a quarter of a century the neoconservatives persisted in this role as counter-intellectuals. If it was sometimes pointed out that the neoconservatives themselves bore a strong family resemblance to the New Class they critiqued, this was also occasionally admitted. The Neoconservative Wing of the New Class, however, sought to increase their status by offering a critique of liberalism and garnered prestige and power through the counter-institutions that became increasingly visible on the right—think tanks, policy groups, and even Republican officials. They found psychological satisfaction in the fact that they were engaged in a great project—saving their society from the dissolution promoted (and sometimes actively sought) by the left.

Sometime in the nineties, however, this neoconservatism suffered from two setbacks. The first was that many neoconservatives began to suspect that the culture was not quite (or no longer) as brittle as it had seemed. America had withered the storm of the social upheavals of the sixties and remained largely intact, if radically altered. Several indicators of societal breakdown—most notably crime—reversed, in direct contrast to neoconservative predictions. Other indicators seemed not as serious in hindsight. American culture had shown a surprising ability to absorb feminism, sexual liberation and gay rights. Even the breakdown of the family no longer seemed as deleterious as the neoconservatives had feared. America had been radically transformed in the last quarter of twentieth the century but it had not crumbled.

Perhaps a more cheerful way to look at this would be to say that the neoconservatives and their allies had triumphed in their struggle to temper the worst elements of the adversarial culture. They had “tamed” (to use a word popular with neoconservative theorists) its radicalism. They had, in short, accomplished the conservative task of preserving the culture while adapting it to new circumstances. Of course, the work of taming the adversarial culture had to be continued indefinitely, but Western civilization was no longer on Orange Alert.

The second was the neoconservative triumph over liberal policy. The neoconservative projects of welfare reform and other revisions to the programs of the Great Society were essentially accomplished during the neoconservative moment. Not even the liberals clamored for great projects of social engineering. Democratic President Bill Clinton declared that the era of big government had come to an end.

(Perhaps a a third setback was the loss of the Cold War enemy but, again, this was more generally felt on the right and not particular to the neoconservatives.)

Why describe these accomplishments as setbacks? While they were arguably political victories—or rather, certainly in the case of policy reform and perhaps in the case of taming the adversary culture—they left the neoconservative intellectuals without psychologically satisfying cause. The objects of the neoconservative critique had in various ways entered into the dustbin of history. The dislocation was something like the reverse of the British colonial aristocracy after the dissolution of the Empire—they were a band with highly developed skills but without a forum for their display or a market for their sale.

National Greatness Conservatism
Several prominent neoconservatives began to lobby for a new form of conservatism, what they termed National Greatness Conservatism. The idea was the America needed a new national project after the Cold War. To many, this looked like nothing more than a way for neoconservatives to pursue their class interests or perhaps a bit of psychological projection. This program was cut-short by the events of September 11 and subsequent the War Against Terrorism.

The Adversarial Culture Against the World
In a recent column noting that The Public Interest will soon be publishing it’s last issue, columnist David Brooks noted that the core neoconservative insight was this: “Human beings, or governments, are not black boxes engaged in a competition of interests. What matters most is the character of the individual, the character of the community and the character of government.”

He then goes on to pretend as if the complexity he notes didn’t exist at all by saying: “When designing policies, it's most important to get them to complement, not undermine, people's permanent moral aspirations - the longing for freedom, faith and family happiness.” Here Brooks is just replacing the reduction of life to the "competition of interests" with the reduction of life to a few nice sounding "aspirations"--as if important policy questions could be solved by merely asking "does this complement our permanent moral aspiration of the longing for freedom"? This is not the voice of the neoconservative counter-intellectual policy skeptic but the woolly-headed New Class liberal who seeks to set people free of their chains. In the space of three sentences Brooks goes from the neoconservatism of the last century to the neoconservatism of this century.

Faced with a terrorist threat from aborad, the neoconservatives have given in to the New Class temptation toward critique of existing social structures in favor of ideal social structures and applied this to the realm of international politics. What is surprising is that they seem to have forgotten the insights that led to the neoconservative critique of New Class ideology in the first place. Out are the concerns for moderating change, precise sociological analysis and cogent argument. In is talk of universal human aspiration for improvement.

What happened? One explanation might be found in the neoconservative analysis of the psychological and political sources of the New Class attachment to the adversarial culture. Like their New Class forebearers (and the British imperialists before them), neoconservatives needed a project. For the Neo-New Class, power and status are now sought through the expansion and management of empire rather than a large public sector at home. The War on Terror is the Great Society for the Neo-New Class.

I suspect it also might be generational. Many of the original neoconservatives are dead. Others are very old indeed. The newer generation lacks the education of watching their best and brightest minds waste their talents and energies on impossible and dangerously idealistic projects.

Unfortunately for America, it seems that the next generation of counter-intellectuals is likely to get this education from the Bush Administration’s adventures abroad.