The poverty of neoconservative philosophy (rethinking liberalism)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Neoconservatives, a group which included formerly liberal academics and their younger Reaganite allies, have had a great deal of influence on American foreign policy, especially during the lamentable George W. Bush administration. They envisioned a world in which American dominance would be unquestioned, and opposing regimes would be overthrown and replaced with democratic regimes, as the Bush administration attempted in Iraq.

They tried to portray themselves as the adults in the room, but their program proved impractical, unpopular, and built more on fantasy than reason. There was no economic or any real strategic rationale for the military adventures they championed, and the notion that you can impose democracy by force proved as fanciful as it sounded. Yet they retain influence in conservative foreign policy circles.

How did that happen?

Part of the story is about intellectual apprenticeship to a scholar not greatly celebrated in his lifetime, and whose influence may have as much to do with what people thought he meant as with what he actually said and wrote.

The intellectual roots of the movement were sown by Leo Strauss, one of the less coherent political theorists of the 20th century, famously referred to by M.F. Burnyeat as the "Sphinx without a Secret,"  after an Oscar Wilde story in which the subject is a woman who wants to appear mysterious, but has no secrets worth concealing.

Leo Strauss
Strauss is a peculiar figure in political thought. He wrote nothing I know of about modern public policy, and although his works are widely available in the United Kingdom, he seems to have no great following there or in continental Europe. Although he died in 1973, his influence wasn't celebrated or defended much until his former students began to influence high-level American foreign policy in the 1980s.

Catherine and Michael Zuckert, in The Truth about Leo Strauss, considered one of the more balance books about the man, noted that:
Many scholars found his books nearly unreadable, and many others considered them so drastically misguided in their substantive readings of the history of philosophy that he was often dismissed by fellow scholars as an eccentric or, worse, as a willful and distortive interpreter of the philosophic tradition.
Burnyeat's takedown, Sphinx Without a Secret, published in 1985, was not the work of a political pundit, but of a respected scholar with a great reputation for his studies of the ancient philosophers Strauss taught about. He portrayed an almost cult-like intellectual surrender as part of Strauss's teaching technique.
Strauss asks—or commands—his students to start by accepting that any inclination they may have to disagree with Hobbes (Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides), any opinion contrary to his, is mistaken. They must suspend their own judgment, suspend even “modern thought as such,” until they understand their author “as he understood himself.” It is all too clear that this illusory goal will not be achieved by the end of the term. Abandon self all ye who enter here. The question is, to whom is the surrender made: to the text or to the teacher?
This may explain why his followers were his students, not people who had simply read his books and agreed with them. Reading is an interpretive skill, and critical reading is a particularly valuable one. Pleasing the teacher is a social skill, and coming under his spell is a personal transformation.

While liberalism starts with attempts to describe human nature -- "man in the state of nature" -- and derive from that knowledge what sort of government and society is best suited to mankind, Strauss was more interested in the question of whether the just society was possible (apparently, it isn't.)

The best we could do, he said, was for the philosopher to educate the gentleman in how best to manage society.

 From Sphinx Without a Secret:

The leading characters in Strauss’s writing are “the gentlemen”and “the philosopher.” “The gentlemen” come, preferably, from patrician urban backgrounds and have money without having to work too hard for it: they are not the wealthy as such, then, but those who have “had an opportunity to be brought up in the proper manner.”[12] Strauss is scornful of mass education.[13] “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.”[14] Such “gentlemen”are idealistic, devoted to virtuous ends, and sympathetic to philosophy.[15] They are thus ready to be taken in hand by“the philosopher,” who will teach them the great lesson they need to learn before they join the governing elite.The name of this lesson is “the limits of politics.” Its content is that a just society is so improbable that one can do nothing to bring it about. In the 1960s this became: a just society is impossible.[16] In either case the moral is that “the gentlemen” should rule conservatively, knowing that “the apparently just alternative to aristocracy open or disguised will be permanent revolution, i.e., permanent chaos in which life will be not only poor and short but brutish as well.”[17]So who is “the philosopher,” and how does he know that this is the right lesson for “the gentlemen”? He is a wise man, who does not want to rule because his sights are set on higher things.[18] 
Strauss might be called the Saint Simone of conservatism, in that his popularity among the elite seems to have had a lot to do with convincing them that society should be run by people like them, for its own good.

Strauss believed what Plato had posited in The Laws: A society must be based on central truths. It's all very well to question those truths in your own mind, but if you publicly do so, you would, in The Laws, be brought before the Nocturnal Council, who would try to persuade you that you were wrong. If they did not succeed, they would try to convince you to keep your doubts to yourself, and if you insisted on publicly questioning the central truths, they would have you killed.

And the central truth, for Strauss's followers, was "American Exceptionalism," a phrase borrowed from American Marxists, which they redefined to suit themselves. You can hear the echoes of this belief in their claims that President Obama does not believe in American Exceptionalism.

The phrase was originally a term American Marxists used to explain the fact that while Marxism had gained many converts in Europe and parts of Asia, American workers wanted nothing to do with it. They argued that America lacked the class structure that enabled European workers to identify with Marx's thoughts.

Neoconservatives have taken American exceptionalism to mean America is exceptional, and belief in its greatness became the central truth around which the society was built. That is not necessarily a Straussian view, but one might call it the view of "vulgar Straussians," much as Stalinist came to be viewed by the more refined Marxists of the New Left as "vulgar Marxists."

Strauss repudiated John Locke, whose ideas are by most scholars considered the basis for the philosophy that produced the American Constitution. Strauss regarded Locke as a bridge to modern historicism and nihilism, which he felt led to totalitarian regimes.

The word "totalitarian" was invented by liberals to describe the Fascist regime in Italy, and enthusiastically picked up by the Fascists, who followed Benito Mussolini's dictum, "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

How that differed from Herrod's Judea, other than the fact that the term had not yet been invented, remains a mystery.

Now, it seems strange to anyone who's read Locke that Strauss would think badly of him, since Locke based his philosophy on natural law (now often called human rights,) which at least for one school of Straussians is the central belief on which America was founded. But Locke argued that the social contract that is the basis for any government is formed to protect those rights. Strauss felt that modernism lowered its sights compared to the ancients, having as its goal survival, while the ancients sought truth and justice.

Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, considered Locke one of the three greatest men ever to have lived. Clearly, there would appear to have been quite a gulf between the beliefs of the founding fathers and those of Leo Strauss.

Strauss left the University of Chicago in 1969 and died in 1973, so one might think his influence should be waning, if not a thing of the past. But he influenced William Kristol, editor of the influential conservative journal The Weekly Standard, and John Podhoretz, editor of another conservative journal, Commentary. They, in turn, have influenced a couple generations of conservatives. And while Strauss wrote little about contemporary American politics, those men have written of little else.

Strauss may have died, but he left behind him Straussians to spread his ideas.

The Straussian understanding of the American project has therefore become thoroughly entrenched in the mindset of many on the right. The problem is, this understanding of America is very much at odds with the basic ideas of liberal democracy as understood by the framers of the Constitution.

The notion of a central dogma all must believe is very much at odds with the freedom of speech and belief enshrined in the First Amendment. We have no nocturnal council, we have instead the flexibility of a republic that can change as minds change, and the freedom to argue for change.

Now, a philosophy that is as top-down as that of Leo Strauss and his followers might believe we can overthrow opposing regimes and be welcomed as liberators, and they will elect a regime friendly to us. But in practice, any sovereign nation allowed to choose its own government will choose one that reflects the ideas and interests of its people. In Iraq, for example, that was a regime more friendly to Iran than to the United States.

Part of the problem is that neoconservatism is not an economic philosophy, except by association with the supply-siders who were part of the same Republican administrations. They really had no ideas about how their foreign adventures would pay for themselves, and in fact, were not concerned with this. They wanted to spread the influence of American exceptionalism, however defined.

The problem is, past empires have been built on an economic basis which modern global finance undermines. You can bring peace to a region and get your nation's companies a chance to exploit foreign markets, but their stateless income will seek the lowest tax regime, not the nation that made that income possible, as we explored in this post. This means that there is no cycle (virtuous or vicious, depending on your point of view) to support empirical power.

As a result, it appears the new world order will be built by trading blocs, more like modern versions of the Hanseatic League than like any past empire.

Neoconservatives have accused President Obama of "leading from behind," because he's tried to form alliances to solve international conflicts rather than going it along or as a leader of a barely-willing coalition. But his technique seems like a better match to the reality of the modern world system of security. Aggressive nations that assert their individual power tend to generate a backlash against themselves, as China seems to be doing in southeast Asia.

But the failure of neoconservatives in formulating foreign policy that produces desirable results does not seem to keep politicians on the right from listening to them.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 

Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy