Monday, September 21, 2009

Irving Kristol , 1920-2009

Irving Kristol, one of the founders of neoconservatism, has died. Neoconservatism, with its free-market focus on economic growth, dislike of big government, obsession with traditional morality and uncompromising approach to foreign affairs was, of course, the predominant political force in the US throughout the Dubya years and, although happily the neocons have been thrown out of power, they are still doggedly pursuing their agenda, notably in the current health debate. It is important, then, that their message continues to be discredited.

Writing on the neocons’ policy of cutting taxes in order to stimulate economic growth, Kristol wrote:

The cost of this emphasis on economic growth has been an attitude toward public finance that is far less risk averse than is the case among more traditional conservatives. Neocons would prefer not to have large budget deficits, but it is in the nature of democracy--because it seems to be in the nature of human nature--that political demagogy will frequently result in economic recklessness, so that one sometimes must shoulder budgetary deficits as the cost (temporary, one hopes) of pursuing economic growth.

One wonders, in the current financial climate, how great a public debt Kristol would consider acceptable. But at least it’s temporary – they ‘hope’... Is ‘hope’ really a sound basis for establishing an economic platform? Kristol seeks to further justify himself by suggesting:

It is a basic assumption of neoconservatism that, as a consequence of the spread of affluence among all classes, a property-owning and tax-paying population will, in time, become less vulnerable to egalitarian illusions and demagogic appeals and more sensible about the fundamentals of economic reckoning.

An assumption based on what, exactly? This is precisely the sort of wishy-washy, flimsy thinking they criticise liberals for. They believe it, so it must be true. Except the reality of the current financial situation pretty much shows that it isn’t. Trickle down economics just don’t trickle down the way it's supposed to.

But it’s on issues of morality that the neocons really get excited. They remind me of the presbyterian killjoys of my Scottish childhood, forever looking for evidence of somebody enjoying themselves so they can stamp it out. Kristol wrote:

The steady decline in our democratic culture, sinking to new levels of vulgarity, does unite neocons with traditional conservatives--though not with those libertarian conservatives who are conservative in economics but unmindful of the culture. The upshot is a quite unexpected alliance between neocons, who include a fair proportion of secular intellectuals, and religious traditionalists. They are united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government's attention. And since the Republican party now has a substantial base among the religious, this gives neocons a certain influence and even power. Because religious conservatism is so feeble in Europe, the neoconservative potential there is correspondingly weak.

The sheer hypocrisy of this position is remarkable. Kristol seeks to suggest that neocons are more accepting of the growth of the state than traditional conservatives, but to a large extent this seems to be limited to a prissy determination to use big government to enforce a moral straitjacket on its feckless populace. Neocons call for smaller government and less regulation, but only in areas of economics or business or health; intervention in the moral life of the people is not only acceptable but essential. This invocation of a partnership between ‘secular intellectuals’ and the religious right is a deeply worrying one and, even now, with their access to the levers of power greatly diminished, it should be regarded with dismay.

On the subject of foreign policy, Kristol tried to suggest that there is ‘no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience.’ These ‘attitudes’ can be summed up as ‘patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions’, ‘world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny’, and ‘statesmen should … have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies’. I’m sure there is a semantic difference between ‘beliefs’ and the ‘attitudes’ Kristol explains here, but I can’t see it. Patriotism may be a useful tool, but its over-zealous application has done much to tarnish the reputation of the US across the world, which is a deplorable state of affairs. In the entrenchment after 9/11, a jingoistic and militaristic response to every perceived threat became the norm.

And, equally worryingly, foreign and homeland policy became inextricably interwoven. For example, the neocon thinktank, the Project for the New American Century, which was uncomfortably close to the government of George W. Bush, observed that the aim was to ‘maintain American security and advance American interests in the new century.’ Note how the two things are conflated. It was a useful simplification. In this dumbed-down way the neocons created an enemy which had to be defeated. They turned a complex global problem into a straightforward, but spurious ‘us versus them’. And in so doing they alienated not only those states which were already hostile to the US, but a great many states whose natural sympathies ought to lie with them. They did a great deal of harm to the US, and the world is a better place today for the simple reason of their exclusion from power. Long may that continue.


Kenny D said...

Hey Tom, I think you made some great ponits here when it came to Neocons. As a Political Science major in college (Mercer '09) I had the opportunity to spend time with all the main political parties found in America (or at least the ones that matter) and I must say that every political dogma has some amount of high-thinking "wouldn't-it-be-nice-if" rose-coloured glasses towards their own particular form of imposed slavery (read: government). You express the Neocons well here:

"An assumption based on what, exactly? This is precisely the sort of wishy-washy, flimsy thinking they criticise liberals for. They believe it, so it must be true. Except the reality of the current financial situation pretty much shows that it isn’t. Trickle down economics just don’t trickle down the way it's supposed to."

I enjoyed your write up, and I can't wait for another one of your book reviews, I enjoy them immensely.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Kenny, thanks for commenting, glad the post struck a chord with you.

Re the book reviews, more to follow. I've been slowed down recently by having to re-read various McCarthy novels, but I'm just finishing an excellent Doris Lessing and All the Living by CE Morgan, plus I'm wading through my least favourite author's Michael K and I still have a review outstanding of Crime and Punishment (though I don't know where to begin with that one). Reviews of these will appear shortly.

Thanks again for writing.