Kristol’s conservatism: swansong of the West?

Irving Kristol’s neoconservative legacy was to lay the foundation for the super-patriot identity politics of George W Bush.

Guy Rundle

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The death of Irving Kristol, doyen of American neoconservatives, a year or so after the death of William F Buckley, rules a line across one era of the American intellectual right. Together, Buckley the establishment man, but also a Catholic, and Kristol the Jewish urban intellectual, were the one-two of American conservatism, jab ’em with traditional society, then wham, finish ’em off with a deregulated economy and a strong state.

Though the term ‘neoconservative’, or ‘neocon’, came to most people’s attention during the Dubya era, their imperial purple was undoubtedly the Reagan years, when they overturned a whole bunch of 60s and 70s ideas – many of them pushed by Richard Nixon as much as Jimmy Carter – of détente, global citizenship, social investment, in favour of a state that pulled back its involvement in the domestic economy, shifted state spending to the military, and asserted the state’s role in setting or shaping moral values.

This emphasis, which put the right at the centre of American political-intellectual life, after five decades of dominance by the left, was novel because it ran deeply counter to the dominant American conservative value, which was individual states’ rights. For what was known in the 1950s as the ‘Old Right’, based largely around Southerners in the Democratic Party, American conservatism was a valiant last stand against a polity entirely restructured by New Deal liberalism at home and UN-internationalism abroad.

William F Buckley had already begun to restructure that conservatism with the mid-1950s launch of the National Review, re-centring conservatism on deeper values. His view was that ‘conservatism versus liberalism’ was an emerging struggle between a religious basis for life and secularism, and that states’ rights flowed from this religious source. Thus, if we are all fallen, and the wealth of tradition stretches beyond our knowledge, then we tamper with ‘inherited’ institutions at our peril. Buckley therefore opposed the civil rights movement and much more besides.

But Buckley’s refashioned conservatism was still in two minds about its attitude to state power. It believed that communism represented the major global challenge – its tyranny springing from its atheism, which was its originating fault – but that fact did not, in itself, license an unending commitment to a strong state. Whatever the current struggle, conservatives should cling to notions of scepticism and prudence as political virtues, argued Buckley.

That sort of wavering could never seal the deal, and it was the alliance of Buckley-style conservatism with an overwhelmingly urban-Jewish, European intellectual tradition represented by Kristol that pulled the whole package together. This essentially New York tradition had arisen right back in the mass immigration of the nineteenth century, when East European and Russian pogroms had scattered whole communities of Jews, the urban overwhelmingly socialist and Marxist and the rural having some real experience of the true nature of ‘traditional Christianity’. The 1917 October Revolution converted many of these immigrant intellectual communities to Leninism and then Stalinism. These communities were also among the first to adopt the dissident notions of Trotskyism.

By the time that the Second World War supplied a fresh influx of European intellectuals to America, a whole subculture had been created. Magazines like the Partisan Review and universities such as the New School and Brandeis (established because Ivy League schools still ran a quota system on admitting Jews), supplied a whole new intelligentsia for American life.

The debates in the Partisan Review and another magazine, Politics, took the movement through Trotskyism and out the other side. So while Trotsky had called the USSR a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ – that is, something to be criticised, but defended against the capitalist world in the last instance – by the time the Cold War arrived the ‘New York’ movement was defining its humanism against communism, the latter deemed to be the supreme threat to the dominance of reason and humanity.

For a generation they would continue to be based within the Democratic Party, with their domestic politics taking the form of New Deal liberalism. But under the influence of postwar arrivals such as philosopher Leo Strauss, based largely in Chicago, they would come to see ‘liberalism’ as the root cause of what they regarded as the cultural disaster of the 1960s social revolutions, the celebration of license, id over ego, play over work, eros over agape.

For Kristol and others this was the crossover moment, when they began to invest their humanism in a relatively pessimistic assessment of human nature rather than an optimistic one. The discipline of a leaner, crueller market was required because people left to their own devices would abandon internalised ‘protestant’ values. But, contrary to liberals and libertarians, a strong federal state was required to retain collective purpose when the market corroded other values, such as trust and public interest.

That synthesis put the ‘neocons’ in the leadership role – the ‘paleoconservatives’ such as Buckley and Pat Buchanan, who had made alliances with libertarians, were willing to follow their lead. Reaganism was the political result, a stunning capture of a country teetering on the edge of a massive loss of industry to the developing world. In 1984 and 1988, Reagan and then George HW Bush persuaded whole states whose economy and way of life was being demolished by deregulatory policies – Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania – to vote for the folks growing the rust-belt.

On the surface that was achieved by the shock-and-awe tactics of people such as Lee Atwater, creator of the infamous ‘Willie Horton’ ad that sank Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. But the intellectual depth, the analysis that made such strategic insights possible, came from the neocons – and it came to them, in turn, from their mixed heritage of Marxism and the Platonism of Strauss and people like Allan Bloom. A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, a 1960s US joke went; Kristol adapted it to ‘a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality’ to explain both the movement’s transition and its appeal.

The obvious question on the occasion of Kristol’s death is ‘what the hell happened?’. Politically, Reaganism began to fall apart as soon as the Cold War ended – with one group of paleoconservatives based around former Reagan director of communications Pat Buchanan coming out against the 1991 Gulf War, harking back to the old realpolitik basis of conservatism. Where, Buchanan and others asked, was the American interest in who ran Kuwait? It was not as if their oil would not come to market all the same.

For a new generation of neocons however, this was a jumping-off point. In the absence of global communism, neoconservatism had a chance to define itself as a set of positive values, to be exported to the world. Bush Senior and then Bill Clinton had expelled these people from the White House, giving them the luxury of crafting a self-contained ideology in political exile. With the addition of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, the modernising energy rooted in its Marxism was joined by an ethnic and cultural particularism alien to it. Neonconservatism thus defined itself as both a universal approach to human governance, and a particular form of political-cultural life, namely an American one. The contradictions of this were never shaken out; and they are the reason for the chaotic pointlessness of a war like that in Afghanistan today.

By the time neoconservatism returned to power, with George W Bush’s election in 2000, it was a cartoon version of the earlier movement, as occult and conspiratorial as a Dan Brown novel. Having parted with paleoconservatism, and its remnant traditions of realpolitik and isolationism, it was free to express a desire to export a conservative ‘revolution’ around the world, a return to the form, if not the content, of its warped Trotskyist roots – and one of the reasons why latter-day Trotskyists such as Christopher Hitchens found it so easy to join the blurred crusade. The neocons 1.0 had been secular Americanist Jews, initially with little interest in Zionism (the US Jewish population had been by far the least Zionist of the diaspora until the 1960s). The neocons 2.0 elevated Israel and Zionism to a symbol and keystone of modernity and the West. When heritage enthusiast Mohamed Atta put those planes into the World Trade Center, the whole mix became turbocharged.

By that time, both Kristol and Buckley were on the fringes of the movement they had created. Buckley had never been hugely enthusiastic about the 2003 Iraq invasion, and would ultimately come out against it in National Review, the only columnist permitted to do so. The paleocons had decamped to a new magazine The American Conservative, and the National Review had become a parody of itself. In the wake of 9/11, joke-figures like Ann Coulter (‘We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity’) came to the fore. Creatures of the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite, they fed the raw need that the neocons had established – the use of a supercharged patriotism, a jingoistic exceptionalism, to substitute for the slow and remorseless decline of American power, and the dropping quality of American daily life for millions of people.

No less than black politics, or the queer movement, super-patriotism had become a form of identity politics for the white working class and middle class. The existence as super-patriotism stripped neoconservatism of all the attributes – depth, reasoning, secularism – that had allowed it to take a position of political command. As countless memoirs now make clear, the Bush Junior White House during the 9/11-Iraq-Afghanistan years was so utterly tangled up in its own fantasies and delusions that it could not begin to steer clearly. The unnamed official who remarked ‘we’re an empire and we make our own reality’ effectively provided the antithesis of Kristol’s remark about being mugged by reality.

The intellectual culture of neoconservatism was now dust. It’s no coincidence that Kristol’s son Bill introduced Sarah Palin to the national stage. The discourse of magazines such as Encounter and Kristol’s The Public Interest had been replaced by tomes such as Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, which argued that the enthusiasm for natural fabrics and the Whole Foods store chain were a continuation of Mussolini’s project by other means. It was only this decline that made it possible for a vacuum to be created, one that would even make conceivable the election of a black Chicago community organiser.

Mixed are the fortunes of political war – war being the way in which Leo Strauss’s lifelong friend, the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, suggested politics should always be defined. Conservatism in the US has intellectually collapsed into squalor, burnt-out in part by the supercharged nature of neoconservatism, its politics on steroids. European conservatism continues to cease to exist, with clowns like Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy achieving nothing, the British conservatives now moving socially to the centre-left in many respects, and the continental European vacuum increasingly occupied by a far-right or nationalist parties.

One area where the neocons did survive was in British New Labour, where both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were influenced by Kristol’s widow, Gertrude Himmelfarb, who called for the explicit state re-imposition of Victorian values, and turned the party of Methodism and Marx into purveyors of a war-making surveillance state, in turn about to be dumped comprehensively by the voters.

All of which raises the question: was neoconservatism the salvation of the right, giving it dominance for a generation, or the swansong of the West, its final supercharged hysterical claim of supremacy, against the cities crowding the horizon to the East? Was Irving Kristol its authentic expression – or was it Dubya, the alcoholic saved by American Jesus projecting his redemption on to the world?

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Previously on spiked

After the death of William F Buckley Jr, Guy Rundle examined the lingering death of American conservatism. Helen Searls thought that the GOP ain’t so grand anymore. Brendan O’Neill saw Donald Rumsfeld more as a political buffoon than military hardman. Frank Furedi dispelled myths around ‘the Israel lobby’. Or read more at spiked issue USA.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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