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 al.

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.      


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