July 01, 2003

Philosophy & the neocons

There is a bit of discussion happening around the bloggosphere about the political philosophy behind, and informing, the polices and practices of the neocons. It is Leo Strauss who has been identified as the philosopher in question, though some think otherwise. But the general line of criticism has been, as Josh Cherniss puts it, that "Strauss was the mastermind behind the ideology, and policies, of the American neo-cons currently having such a strong impact on US foreign policy."

Philosophy makes it appearance in the public life as a conspiracy on the side of imperial political power in the guise of conservatism. How ironic, given its Socratic heritage. But it is very Platonic-----philosophy speaks on behalf of an educated ruling class.

Australian conservatism has been intellectually thin, and it has been more a lived ethos than an articulated philosophy. I 've always thought that there is a real tension (if not a contradiction) in Australian conservatism between its commitment to traditional values, the free market, and limited but strong government. The pressures of the free-market economy put more and more strain on the traditional family behind the white picket fence and traditional values. For instance, the market and its consumerist ethos tends to be a morally disruptive force (eg. sexuality). The fostering or sustaining traditional morality, as it is interpreted by many Australian conservatives, often involves violating, or at least bending, limitations on government intervention (eg., using the Commonwealth to get rid of the euthanasia laws in the Northern Territory.) And the strong state (national security state) fighting an eternal war against world terrorism stomps all over individual liberty.

This is roughly the traditionalist/libertarian tradition of conservatism with its focus on the tension between order/authority and freedom. So where does Strauss fit in? There is no doubt that Strauss, as a conservative, accepted inequality, the rule of elites, keeping the subordinated clases firmly in their place, and allowing them an education appropriate to their station in the hierarchy. There is a very good post on the conservative Strauss by Curtiss over at Hector Rottweiller Jr's Weblog. Once again you see the Platonic underpinnings (Plato's Republic) of Strauss's conservatism. Curtiss spells out the aristocracy within democracy that is generally only implied by contemporary conservatives.

Now Strauss is a difficult guy to read in terms of getting at his ideas. Ted Hinchman over at Diachronic Agency captures the experience well:

"I did read more than a hundred pages of Strauss yesterday ("What Is Political Philosophy?" and the early chapters of Natural Right and History).... But it was enough to make it clear that I wasn't going to find an argument for his way of doing political philosophy apart from coming to appreciate the force of how he interprets its history. I was hoping for a more direct argument. And of course I now have a glimmer into why Strauss does not think he can give one. I confess I don't take well to this sort of indirection. When I said that I "do not love reading" Strauss, I meant that I do not like his tone of scholarly condescension."

I had always read Strauss as a conservative critic of modernity; as someone who rebelled against modernity. He questioned its amorality--personified for him by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche--and its promotion of individualism and materialism over communal and cultural responsibility. Modernity stood for a debilitating disorder and its fatal flaw of amoral individualism was concealed in the rationalistic optimism of the Enlightenment project. The ramifications of this flaw were made manifest by the twin scourges of National Socialism and Leninism.

A Straussian reading of Australia, for instance, would highlight its Benthamite utilitarianism. It would interpret Australian modernity as hedonism, atheism, and materialism, and deeply dedicated to the pursuit of comfortable self-preservation. However glorious the Federation may have been in 1901, or honourable the Anzac tradition the Australian nation was essentially organized on this founding utilitarian principle. Sooner or latter its would abandon its pre-modern baggage in favor of a descent into the life of self-interestedness. That was the lowest common denominator and so political life was organized on the ethos of a gang of robbers. (eg., a gang of John Elliots, Allan Bond and Chrsitopher Skase). If we put it in Nietzschean and Heideggerian terms the cancer in modernity is the terror of nothingness and meaninglessness of such a life.

Like Carl Schmitt, Strauss was an acute critic of liberalism. He set himself the task to diagnose the malady that lay incubating within liberal democracy itself, and to find the appropriate therapy. Consequently, this reading of Strauss and conservatism makes good sense to me.

The more standard American reading of Strauss is the anti-democratic one from democratic-egalitarian liberals who link Strauss to the American Right. But see here. Joseph Cherniss has a good round up, and guide, to the material on Strauss here.

What interests me as a disillusioned modernist, who accepts the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary philosophy, is Strauss' understanding of what should be the practice of philosophy in the modern public forum. What role does Strauss envision for political philosophy in modernity. As Charles R. Kesler puts it we have two choices:

"Is political philosophy... a politic presentation of philosophy, basically a way of shielding philosophers' radical questioning from the disapproval of the many, of society? Or is political philosophy meant also and emphatically to offer philosophical guidance for political life?"

Which way do we go? What are the implications? Does posing this question offer insight into our current political practices?

We need to spell out the question asked by Kesler a bit more.

Should philosophy speak openly about the terror of nothingness and meaninglessness of such a life? Or speak openly about a utilitarian life that is lived according to the lowest common denominator of utility? One based on worshipping the golden calf as the Happy Tutor puts it? Should we have the courage to welcome this terrible truth of living a life in a legitimate regime that protects us from the worst excesses of a gang of robbers, and then to speak openly about it?

If we are to doctor the poisons within our culture that make us sick, should we then stand tough and strong against those in political life Australian modernity who delude themselves about our situation? If philosophy is to cure the sickness in our way of life, should we ruthlessly expose the way neo-liberal politicans and economists currently wrap themselves in the progressive myths of the free market and the utopian dreams of globalization.

An enlightened life is a naked life. It is difficult to live such a life since it does mean stripping the cobweb of illusions of woven by the enlighteners.

Or, instead of plain speaking, should we have concealment? Should we follow the pro-war politicians and bureaucrats in wearing masks, telling consoling lies and writing in a sort of code to disguise the real meaning of the text. An elitist practice that speaks to those who know, and who have the knowledge and the skill to be able to penetrate into the heart of the argument. Should philosophical writing be a sword in the stone, a childproof medicine bottle designed to keep out the unworthy and unenlightened----ie., the middle and working classes?

What the latter pathway implies is a championing of tradition against modernity. It also implies staying silent about the myths and illusions about the war on terrorism that are woven by the political spin doctors, to afford us security, a sense of purpose and national belonging within which decent lives in the free market can be constructed. It says that we should not undermine these (including the idols of the market place) because we would have a debilitating moral vacuum---a destructive nihilism. Undermining idols it is said leads to an emptiness that is then filled by peddlers of dogmas and illusions that are far more toxic than the national security and market myths a critical philosophy undermines.

As the Iraqi war indicated, it is the media that refuses to bring into question the conventions on which civil order and the morality of society depend. It is the media that tells consoling lies. It is the media that speaks in the name of "moral clarity"----an us and them scenario that identified the real enemies and struck at their centre of gravity. Whilst the media told lies to people about the nature of political reality the policy/political elite recognized the truth and kept it to itself.

As William Pfaff observes such a doctrine as currently practiced as sound political practice is on that accepts:

"Machiavelli was right. There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must restrict free inquiry and exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order. This is obviously a bleak and anti-utopian philosophy that goes against practically everything Americans want to believe. It contradicts the conventional wisdom of modern democratic society."

However, this is a Humean/Burkean conservative view. It is one of resisting liberal and radical calls for "transparency" in social life precisely because they understand that society cannot withstand a too systematic or energetic analysis of its sometimes fragile foundations.

This Burkean/Humean stand of conservatism is not Strauss. He stood against relativism and historicism in the name of natural right:---ie the claim that certain moral truths are grounded in nature, such as the principle that "all men are created equal."

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 1, 2003 01:45 PM | TrackBack

At the exoteric, i.e. merely textual level, Strauss claims to be for natural rights and against historicism and positivist social science. But I'm not so sure that's true at the esoteric level. IIRC, Stanley Rosen writes in Hermeneutics as Politics that a substantial critique of Strauss would make excavate the tacit assumption in Strauss' work that we have an immediate and unambiguous access to the category of the natural. I took that as a hint rather than a critique.

Rosen also relates that Strauss would inveigh against religion by fuming, "Philosophers are paid not to believe!" At other times, he might affect bemusement towards the topic: "Believe--how I wonder what that word means!"It's a cute story, but a telling one.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung on July 9, 2003 01:38 PM

The world according to Garth! Class order is for the Hindus and look where it got them. In order for democracy to spread it must be done voluntary, If you force it on others they will die before they accept it. Lead by example and let the world see democracy work in this country. The current administration has it WRONG, they will weaken this country to spread it's imperialism to others.

Posted by: c.terk on September 6, 2003 05:13 AM

Learn about antiestablishmentarianism psychos and more at giveRAMP!

Posted by: antiestablishmentarianism psycho on September 18, 2004 10:35 AM

We also need to look at Bruno Bauer, to see the Hegelian Philosophy put into action and the result of. We must not Forget about Rothschild. He was also a Bauer when Hesse-cassel Prince gave the name Rothschild. Bauer/Rothschild. I wonder if PERHAPS this was yet another Rothschild Financed Movement to disrupt and takeover the German Banking System. One can only Wonder.
So I guess one could say that our International Banking system is Hegelian.
Makes Sense to Me now why Banks are the Way they Are =)

Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), philosopher, historian, and theologian. His career falls into two main phases, divided by the revolutions of 1848. In the 1840's, the period known as the Vormärz or the prelude to the German revolutionary events of March 1848, Bauer was a leader of the Left-Hegelian movement, developing a republican interpretation of Hegel, which combined ethical and aesthetic motifs. His theory of infinite self-consciousness, derived from Hegel's account of subjective spirit, stressed rational autonomy and historical progress. Investigating the textual sources of Christianity, Bauer described religion as a form of alienation, which, because of the deficiencies of earthly life, projected irrational, transcendent powers over the self, while sanctioning particularistic sectarian and material interests.
for the Full Bio, and alot of other Philos:

Posted by: AckSyn JAckSyn on September 11, 2005 12:31 PM
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