Saturday, April 30, 2005

Virtue v. Freedom 

We are tardy in commending to your attention our learned colleague Billmon's review of Leo Strauss and the American Right, by Shadia Drury. If you are unfamiliar with the philosophical underpinnings (not to mention the moral and logical contradictions) of the modern neoconservative movement, this is a good place to start:
What strikes me most about the Straussians – and by extension, the neocons – is that they’ve pushed the traditional liberal/conservative dichotomy of American politics back about 150 years, and moved it roughly 4,000 miles to the east, to the far side of the Rhine River. Their grand existential struggle isn’t with the likes of Teddy Kennedy or even Franklin D. Roosevelt, it’s with the liberalism of Voltaire, John Locke and John Stuart Mill – not to mention the author of the Declaration of the Independence.

Strauss, in other words, wasn’t a neo anything. He was a conservative in the original European sense – fond of hierarchy, tradition and religious orthodoxy; deeply suspicious of newfangled ideas like egalitarianism, rationalism and a political theory based on enlightened self interest and the social contract. Nor was he impressed by Mill’s utilitarian adding machine – constantly calculating the greatest good for the greatest number.

To the Straussians, rationality does not provide an adequate basis for a stable social order. To the contrary, the Age of Enlightenment has ushered in the crisis of modernity, in which nihilism – the moral vacuum left behind by the death of God – inevitably leads to decadence, decline and, ultimately, genocide . . . .

What gives Straussian thought its special flavor – a bitter blend of hypocrisy and cynicism – is the fact that Strauss himself didn’t believe in the eternal “truths” he championed. He was a nihilist, in other words – but one who believed only the philosophical elite could be trusted to indulge in such a dangerous vice. In exchange for this privilege, the elite has a special obligation to uphold the “noble lies” the ignorant masses must live by if society is to survive . . . .

One of the Straussians’ most important innovations has been to reconcile their brand of elite conservatism with Southern fried demagogic populism ala Huey Long and George Wallace. That’s a pretty radical concession for a movement with its mind (or at least its heart) planted firmly in the fifth century BC. But it's solved the traditional dilemma of old-style conservatives in America: How to win power in a society that has no landed gentry, no nobility, no established church – none of Europe’s archaic feudal institutions and loyalties.

The rationale – or rationalization – for the populist ploy is that the common folk are a hell of a lot less liberal (again, using the Enlightenment definition of the word) than what the Straussians like to call America’s “parchment regime” – that is, the ideas and principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The masses want their opium, in other words, and with the right guidance, will happily sweep away the liberal elites who have been denying it to them.

This, in turn, will set the stage for a golden (or at least silver) age of religious orthodoxy, patriarchal values and a hierarchical corporate capitalism stripped of its original libertarian feistiness – all of it supervised by a moral nanny state freed from the confines of all that “parchment” . . . .

The real threat, however, isn’t that the neocons are fascists, but that their cynicism and egoism could open the door to something more like the genuine article.
(Thanks to our esteemed colleague Moe Blues of Bad Attitudes for the tip.)

UPDATE: Digby has more on the natural affinities between neoconservatives and neoconfederates.

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