So, I’ve been reading Neoconservatism: The Death Of An Idea by Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook, a book I mentioned in an earlier post. I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book and so far, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Perhaps my expectations were wrong, I don’t know, but the book contains a surprising number of strident libertarian rants against post-New Deal liberalism, which barely even tie into the ostensible main point of the book (hint: it is a critique of neoconservatism). Does that seem strange to you? It’s not called Liberalism: The Death of An Idea, and yet the authors devote considerable time to making the case for laissez-faire economics. I guess this is supposed to be in service of saying that neoconservatives do not share the conservative movement’s commitment to smaller government, a point made well enough, but including a bunch of this sort of rhetoric simply seems unnecessary and unwise. I have no problem with books written from a different perspective than my own, but these aren’t even reasoned arguments so much as glibertarian talking points of the most shallow and perfunctory sort, mere assertions unbacked by argument or evidence. At times, it reads more like a pamphlet instead of scholarly analysis. There’s a word for including a bunch of tangential rants in your book: it’s called unprofessionalism. It’s not like there aren’t blogs for this sort of thing. (And, by the way, who do these guys think are going to buy this book? I bet 75% at least are left-leaners who mostly know neoconservatism as Bush’s warmongering philosophy. Boy, are they in for a surprise…)

On the other hand, the writers managed to create some incredibly powerful chapters at the same time. I don’t think there’s a better explication of the life and thoughts of Leo Strauss anywhere else, in terms of clarity, thoroughness, and impartiality. (Incidentally, the book has two writers, one of whom is a poli-sci professor and one of whom is a Randist scholar, which I didn’t know until I read the dust jacket. It’s plainly clear who was responsible for which chapters.) I feel I have a pretty good understanding now of Strauss and how his theories jumpstarted the neoconservative movement. My understanding of Strauss’s thought is that individuality is corrosive to society because it encourages selfishness and greed, and leads invariably to ennui and nihilism. At the same time, Strauss takes a specific interpretation of Plato not only to mean that philosophers should rule over everyone else, but that true knowledge is something that most people cannot handle, so it’s important to keep the masses sated with religion, both civic and actual God stuff, so that they don’t succumb to nihilism, as Western society has been ever since the Enlightenment shattered the philosopher-king paradigm and made knowledge available to the masses. The turbulence of the 60’s and 70’s is interpreted as a breakdown in this natural order. It’s funny: I don’t really blame Strauss for the influence of his ideas. By all accounts, he was a good man and a good scholar who was reacting to some really terrible times in America. But that reaction feels like the sort of theory that should have weakened with time, not be strengthened by it. I think it’s no coincidence that virtually all the high-ranking neocons are men who came of age during the 1960s, and who had hard-left backgrounds that were friendly to some fairly radical social engineering. That’s the only background that seems to fit this “movement”. I must say I’ve never encountered a prominent political philosophy with so specific an appeal.

That’s the way I understand it. I have to say that writing this out convinces me even more that not only is this philosophy deeply cynical and creepy, but it’s practically built to appeal to the vanity and blind spots of intellectuals. Of course intellectuals want to rule the world and don’t want to be held accountable for it. Saying that only intellectuals (which I’ll use instead of philosophers, there is a difference but probably not to the people we’re talking about) can be trusted to grasp all that heavy shit, man and still function and lead is further self-flattery. It’s frankly baseless. Liberal democracy has its flaws, but I defy anyone to say that Western society was better off before the Enlightenment than it is now. What’s more, so many of these assumptions are frankly just dated. The stuff about religion is just wrong: I like it, it helps me, but I’ve known plenty of people who were perfectly functional who had no faith. Europe, of course, is largely secular and yet somehow avoids the trap of despair and nihilism. I suppose the neoconservative rejoinder would be that Europe’s mediocrity is proof of their theory, which brings me to point number two: do we really need to worry about nihilism so much? I get that cerebral types frequently worry that life is a big nothing, but this is quite a bit of projection. Ordinary people manage to get by just fine. As the Springsteen lyric goes, they always find some reason to believe.

So much of this belief system seems not only to be an artifact of the 50’s and 60’s, but also a good example of why the public is so anti-intellectual. I think this trend is generally bad and has a lot of negative side effects, but it’s not like it’s unjustified. Almost all the terrible shit of the 20th Century was brought to us courtesy of intellectuals: fascism and communism both started out as intellectual movements rather than grassroots movements, they co-opted the elites and imposed order from the top down. Most people in Germany didn’t want Nazi rule until it was established, and Lenin started the Russian Civil War after he lost the election he arrogantly called, certain of his victory. Eventually the people in those countries accepted those respective movements when there was no choice, some willingly and some not. But where did they originate? Not with the people.  To be fair, there have been plenty of awful grassroots movements too, but none of a totalitarian nature that I know of. If I had to guess, I’d say most people are suspicious of intellectuals because they feel that intellectuals let their reason trump judgment and emotion, and that they look down their noses at ordinary people. These are, of course, stereotypes. In many cases, they are unfair. The more I read about neoconservatism, the more it validates these very stereotypes. And neoconservatism indeed skirts the line with being a totalitarian ideology. Milder than the others, perhaps, but one that views the people as sheep to be guided by propaganda, and one that believes deeply in extending its power domestically and globally. My hunch is that it won’t last another decade or two, after the neocons of the Wolfowitz/Kristol/Perle/Feith axis die off (I fear we’re stuck with David Brooks for some time to come), but they can do quite a bit of damage until then.

Also, this. Because a poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and the king won’t be satisfied till he rules everything. The tragedy of neoconservatism.

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  1. […] nearly done with the book on neoconservatism that I previously described here and here. It’s going quickly now because I’m in the foreign policy section, and as a person who […]

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