The death of the neo-cons  

Posted by Big Gav in

Crikey has an interesting article from Guy Rundle noting the passing of Irving Kristol - and that of neoconservatism (its also a good little history lesson, and much briefer than "The power of nightmares") - Rundle: The death of the neo-cons.

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 paleo-conservatives 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 41 and then 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" the modernising energy rooted in 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 Afghanistan to this day.

By the time neoconservatism returned to power, with the Supreme Court coup of 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 Jacobin spirit, of exporting revolution to the world, a return to the form, if not the content, of its 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 Mohammed Atta put those planes into the WTC, the whole mix became turbocharged.

By that time, both Kristol and Buckley were on the outer 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 paleo-cons had decamped to a new magazine The American Conservative, and National Review had become a parody of itself. In the wake of 911, joke-figures like Ann Coulter ("we should invade the Muslim world, kill its leaders and Christianise it") 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 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 latter term now transferred to the working class itself -- in 2008, a publicity campaign by John Edwards addressed to "the American middle class" featured a picture of a man operating a factory lathe.). The process stripped it 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 43 White House during the WTC-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 it.

The intellectual culture of neocnservatism was now dust. It's no coincidence, as an old Trot like Irving would once have said, that his 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 that a vacuum could be created, such as would make the election of a black Chicago community organiser even conceivable.

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, clowns like Berlusconi and 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 genuine neo-fascism.

One area where the neocons did survive was in British new Labour, where both Blair and 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 Dubya, the alcoholic saved by American Jesus, projecting his redemption onto the world?

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