More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy (rethinking liberalism)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thinking further on my earlier post on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy, it seems to me that I should explore further Leo Strauss's idea that totalitarian is a result of the modern nihilism found in Thomas Hobbes's work. Strauss claimed that what is opposed to this is the effort to build the just society.

First of all, we should note that Marxists are all about building a "just" society, by their own standards. They are great believers in the idea that a just society can be achieved by overthrowing capitalism and building a communist society. The fact that they in practice failed to build a just society reveals defects in their thinking. For Strauss, Marxism represented the negation of any need for the political and economic institutions of society. This is what is known as political nihilism.

James Madison
And it's true that Marx made the error of thinking that institutions that cause great harm in society, such as private property and religion, could be eliminated and the harm they caused would stop. He then imagined that the state would wither away, not realizing that when you take away major organizing institutions in society, the gap will be filled by the remaining institutions In this case, the state filled the gap, which is what has happened wherever Marxism has been tried.

But Marx was not the last Marxist. Lenin stressed the need for a vanguard of intellectuals to push for the revolution and head up the revolutionary government. Totalitarianism could not have come from political nihilism, which denied the need for the state, but only from people who firmly believed that they needed to be in control. To claim that Stalin was a political nihilist who didn't believe in the need for political or economic institutions is utter nonsense. Stalin clearly, based on his actions, believed in a strong, centralized state, firmly in control of the economy, the political life, and even the beliefs of its citizens.

Anyone actually wanting to practice political nihilism in a Stalinist state would have been killed. Marx may have preached a sort of political nihilism, but the lacunae in his own philosophy meant that in practice, all Marxist rulers have been firm believers in a powerful central state.

And what of the fascists? Did they believe in abolishing the political, economic, and social institutions of society?

Hardly. They were big believers in the ideology of nationalism, a strong central state, and strong cooperation between the state and industry. They were authoritarian not because they believed political institutions should be abolished, but because they believed in, as Benito Mussolini put it, in "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."
In short, Marxists were totalitarian in practice because they were not believers in the basic tenets of political nihilism.

But were they moral nihilists, a more familiar sort of nihilist?

Strauss deemed Hobbes a nihilist because his philosophy was based on "mere preservation." Hobbes, after all, said that we needed a ruler to enforce laws, so that we would not meet a violent death.

But in saying the ruler has value because he (and the ruler Hobbes had in mind was his pupil, Charles II) does a job of work for the citizen, he was laying the groundwork for democracy. After all, what if the ruler sucks at his job? Shouldn't you be able to fire him? And why should the ruler pass the job on to his first born son? Shouldn't the citizens be able to hire the rulers they want?

Hobbes had invented a new basis for the legitimacy of rulers, which was needed because the 30-Years War and the Reformation had destroyed traditional bases for the legitimacy of rulers. But this new basis for the legitimacy of rulers didn't really support the outcome he wanted, which was the absolute monarchy of his friend and pupil.
Was he a moral nihilist? It's a bit hard for me to see him that way. He believed that the injustice of violent death, of theft and banditry, could only be avoided by having a ruler with the authority to enforce the laws we want enforced. In fact, he wanted a society more just than the chaos of the 30-Years War would permit. He had seen what the breakdown of political and social institutions could do, and charted a path away from that.

In Strauss's eyes, this focus on the material matter of remaining alive made Hobbes a nihilist. Since he was arguing in favor of political institutions, he cannot have been a political nihilist, so he must have been indicting Hobbes as a moral nihilist.

If we were to accept that Hobbes was a moral nihilist, should we also accept that this was the sort of modernist approach to ethics that led to the totalitarian philosophies of fascist and Marxist states?

This seems dubious. Marx clearly was motivated by an effort to build a just society, the same goal Strauss admired; he just disagreed with what constitutes a just society. Lenin agreed with Strauss that society would inevitably be ruled by a small group of the "best" people, he just disagreed with Strauss about the nature of the group that should rule.

Were fascists moral nihilists? I believe that rather, they had a perverted sense of justice. Keep in mind, worse things are done in the name of justice than have ever been contemplated in the name of crime. Mussolini even referred to fascism as a religion.

The Holocaust, the Inquisition, and the killing fields of Cambodia were not carried out be people who believed in the evil of what they were doing. They were carried out by people with a deep conviction in the justice of purifying the world of bad people. They were following the tenets of their beliefs in building a just world to the logical conclusion. People without such an ideology, such a central myth, people merely concerned with the preservation of their own lives, would not have acted in these ways.

Which may explain why the Nocturnal Council in Plato's The Laws bears more than a passing resemblance to the Inquisition. Plato considered central truths, that is, a central myth of society, to be necessary for building a just society, and a body to enforce that belief to be essential. But when it was put into practice, this notion produced a system that was notoriously unjust.

This makes it rather odd that Strauss would place such emphasis on belief in a central myth as being necessary for building a just society. Straussians tend to call that central myth "American Exceptionalism," by which they appear to mean something different than the Marxists who coined the term. Those Marxists claimed that America didn't have the kind of stratified class structure that made Marxism attractive to European workers.

Neoconservatives seem to mean it more in the sense of John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity" which referred to "A City Upon a Hill," indicating the notion that America is a model of what the world should be. This is really a claim of national greatness, not so very different, in fact, from the claims of national greatness  made by fascists in Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

Certainly I prefer Winthrop's vision of Christian love and charity to Hitler's vision of a triumphant Aryan race. But it is not the central idea of America. Winthrop wrote his sermon in 1630 for a Puritan audience. Most American settlers were not Puritan. Many were Anglican, or Baptist, or Methodist, or Quaker, or Catholic or Jewish. To say that the Puritan project was the project of America is to vastly overstate their importance. Many of my ancestors were Quaker, and became so after one of them was kicked out of the Puritan church for giving aid and comfort to Quakers. Being the descendant of those who where kicked out of the church Winthrop belonged to for being too inclusive in their associations makes me skeptical of the notion that a Puritan in 1630 defined the essence of America.

The essential nature of the American experiment has much more to do with the thought of John Locke than John Winthrop.Winthrop did not believe in religious tolerance or democracy. He presided over the trial of Anne Hutchinson, who did not agree with the Puritan credo that it took both faith and good works to get into heaven. Like many modern-day Christians, she believed that faith alone was enough. For this she was labeled a heretic and banished from the colony, and Winthrop called her an "American Jezebel."

Nor was Winthrop an admirer of democracy, saying:
"If we should change from a mixed aristocracy to mere democracy, first we should have no warrant in scripture for it: for there was no such government in Israel ... A democracy is, amongst civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government.  [To allow it would be] a manifest breach of the 5th Commandment."
To my Catholic and Lutheran readers I should explain that Winthrop was using the Calvinist system for numbering the commandments, so he was referring to "honor they father and mother," not "thou shall not kill."

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Bill of Rights, thought very highly of John Locke and did not approve of the intolerance of the Puritans.

James Madison, who had as much to do with the framing of the Constitution as anyone, argued in Federalist Paper #10 that religion was one of the major sources of faction in a country, and this tendency to faction could only be controlled in a large and diverse republic. Madison was also a major supporter of the Bill of Rights, in which the rule against the establisment of religion ensures that no one can be punished for not believing what people like John Winthrop might think they should.

The vision of America that Jefferson and Madison proposed was one that varies greatly with the vision neoconservatives insist on. The open society they wanted did not rely on perverse readings of ancient texts, but on easily understood concepts embodied in the constitution. Straussian readings tend to seek the hidden meaning of texts, but Jefferson and Madison and the other founding fathers were doing their best to make their meaning clear and persuasive. I don't think they would have seen the point of hiding their meaning, and I suspect any hidden meaning found is one made up by the reader.

In practice, the neoconservative notion of American exceptionalism amounts to an assertion of national greatness. In policy terms, the neoconservative idea seems to be that America can lick any man in the house, and should fight anyone who looks at us funny. Their American exceptionalism amounts to nothing more than Amerika über alles, hardly a slogan for a democratic country.

More on rethinking liberalism
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