by Chuck Grimes
What is neoconservatism? This question came up on a Left e-mail list
recently and I had just finished reading Shadia Drury's, Leo Strauss
and the American Right, St. Martins Press, NY, 1997. Below is a brief
summary of Drury's observations, with emphasis on William Kristol who
founded The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative political newsletter.
While the points covered in Drury's book and those added here are not
exhaustive they give some account of neoconservative thought and its
influence on domestic politics on the US.
There is a lot missing on the list, particularly in foreign policy and
the apparently intransigent and paradoxical support of Israel's brutal
occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. Also there is no mention
of the recent wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, nor the bizarre justifications
for jeopardizing many of the civil and human rights in the Patriot Act.
These latter developments occurred after Shadia Drury wrote her book
and therefore were not covered.
I make no claim that this hodge podge of neoconservative ideas makes
enough rational sense to constitute a definition. After all we are dealing
with a hall of mirrors. But it might be that the inability to define
it, is part of what constitutes its power. In a sense the mystification
of the irrational, as the rational, takes away the power of a rational
critique, while at the same proposing itself as pre-eminently rational.
So, maybe the best critique is an admittedly prejudiced description.
Neoconservatives basically separate a liberal political tradition of
Locke and the Enlightenment from its embedding in the historical evolution
of democratic institutions. The former is then battered and destroyed
by means of the latter.
Liberalism in this context means a combination of secularism and cultural
relativism. In particular, liberalism means religious tolerance, equality
before law, and public tolerance for a multi-cultural society. For neoconservatives
while the state remains democratic in its formal aspect as a legalistic
republic, there is an imposed interest in state enforcement of theoretically
dominant cultural values and religious traditions. This separation of
a liberal tradition from concepts of democracy opens neoconservative
doctrine to the Christian fundamentalists, giving the whole, the flavor
of a theocratic state. And of course it allows for a thorough going attack
on any form of counter-cultural expression---or political opposition
for that matter. There are only friends and enemies.
In terms of a political coalition, the separation between the development
of democratic institutions and political liberalism makes for the wedding
of the old east coast business conservatives with their new found allies,
the old southern segregationists. What made the Trent Lott affair so
important and intense was that Lott's toast to Strom Thurman threatened
to dissemble Lott's obscurantist facade of family values and so-called
Christian traditionalism to reveal his naked racist and bigot core. By
association Lott implicated his neoconservative allies in the same game.
Can't have that.
Neoconservatives also create a separation between nationalism and patriotism.
Patriotism means public displays of support, adulation, and expressions
of loyalty toward various reactionary political figures like Bush Jr.
or Reagan, but they oppose nationalism in the abstract sense of love
of country---which might include figures like Lincoln or FDR---both of
whom had an obvious nationalist spirit. This separation leads to the
idea for example that it is patriotic to cut down old growth redwoods
for the lumber industry and for jobs. Where as the nationalism base of
the environmental movement to preserve national forests is somehow unpatriotic
and a form of treason.
Politically the separation of patriotism from nationalism allows for
dismantling whole swathes of national and historical traditions linked
with liberalism and multi-culturalism under a banner of a Populism patriotism.
The domestic world can be neatly divided between the patriots and the
traitors, friends and enemies, where patriots are of course the neoconservatives,
reactionary Christian bigots, and their capitalist supporters while the
traitors are predominately the liberal intellectual elites who support
government regulation, central planning, and controlled development.
Intimately related to these tactical separations is another political
ploy in which neoconservatives claim to represent a Populist base against
an established liberal intellectual elite.
According to neoconservatives, since the 60s, it seems the US public
has been subject to a top-down revolution of liberalism that violates
all manner of the people's common sense, in particular various ideas
about equality and justice. Here the examples are of course the various
civil rights movements and their attending policies of affirmative action
for disadvantaged minorities, women, and disabilities. It should be noted
this idea is a complete reversal of historical developments where the
civil rights movements were in fact grassroots organizations from the
bottom and rose to become popular demands for legislative and legal reforms.
Nevertheless, in the neoconservative mind, they represent common sense
and therefore the broadest reach of the public polity. For example it
is common sense that not all people are equal. It is also common sense
that poor people are lazy, not very bright, and not particularly deserving
of social and economic support since they live off society rather than
contribute to it. Therefore it is common sense that the socio-economic
hierarchy reflects a natural order of merit. This is a favorite theme
for capital since it naturalizes capital's own imposed hierarchy of exploitation.
On the other hand, it is also common sense that liberal claims to enforce
equality and indeed manufacture that equality where it is completely
missing are doomed to failure because such enforced policies are unnatural
and against common sense.
By linking such claims to a Populist cause to restore common sense to
government and public policy, the neoconservatives pit their view of
democracy against their view of liberalism. Here democracy is conceived
as Populism and common sense, while liberalism is conceived as the imposition
of equality where there is none and tolerance for moral lassitude where
there shouldn't be any.
Thus liberalism is essentially a form of amoral injustice imposed from
above by elite intellectuals. This nicely combines a Populist anti-intellectualism
with a popular will toward common sense, and claimed popular support
for hidebound moral codes, while at the same time it justifies the hierarchical
order of society as a natural phenomenon. This inversion essentially
co-opts the liberal concept of equality of opportunity---in order to
say that the meritorious have already succeeded, and therefore further
impositions of equality of opportunity only degrades an already successful
social hierarchy based on merit. In effect, the artificial imposition
of equality of opportunity leads to inequality in that it denies those
who have succeeded on their merits, their full social and economic reward
for that merit.
Another distinction which follows a similar inside out logic is the
separation between the scope of government in its regulation of private
lives and the reach of government regulation of capital through public
institutions. While government scope can never be too broad to further
promote moral rigor among the citizenry, government must stop short its
regulatory reach into the natural orders of capital and economic competition.
So while government should have an entirely unlimited prurient interest
regulating the sex life of its citizens, it has no interest and should
be completely limited in its investigations and regulation of the egregious
public frauds of Enron, Arthur Anderson, Merrill Lynch, CityCorp, et
To make it simple, everything in western political history that I thought
was a good idea and a great development, turns out was a bad idea and
a terrible development.
Here is an interesting example, where I would have loved to have been
in on a conversation and been thrilled to listen to those involved---turns
out for neoconservative Irving Kristol it was a nightmare:
``...He (Irving Kristol) tells of an incident at a dinner party where
he no sooner settled down with his plate of food in the middle of a couch,
when Hannah Arendt sat on his left, Mary McCarthy on his right, and Diana
Trilling (Lionel Trilling's wife) directly opposite. He recalls sinking
into a `terrified paralysis of body and mind.' For nearly an hour, he
could not swallow a bite nor could he follow the conversation about Freud,
the libido, and other scandalous subjects. He could only pray that his
wife Bea (Gertrude Himmelfarb) would come to his rescue. But she was
busy eating and laughing at the other end of the room, totally oblivious
to his plight.'' (S.Drury, Leo Strauss and the American Right, 167p)
What can I say. If it were me, I would have gulped enough wine to get
the courage to horn in and make an ass out of myself, in a great hazy
illusion that I was communicating with my own luminaries (sans Trilling).
Hopefully with a motherly indulgence for a kid my age they would have
tolerated me with bemused glances---perhaps toying with my libido for
its heightening effects on a conservation with an admiring adolescent.
Chuck Grimes got interested in radical politics in the 1960's in Berkeley
as a graduate student. During the 1970s he worked to develop disabled
student support services at UCB. He is currently working in wheelchair
repair and talking politics to the customers who are mostly from the
poorest sections of Oakland, California.