August 22, 2003

In Service of the New Fascism

[2/26/06: In reposting this essay, I have made a handful of minor editorial changes -- but 99% of the piece remains as it originally appeared. I make a few references to other articles that I haven't reposted yet, in particular my lengthy essay on foreign policy from the summer of 2003. I will be reposting at least several parts of that essay as I have time, since they remain relevant to some crucial issues that continue to play out today.

When I wrote this article and several related ones almost three years ago, I still thought it might be possible to reach those alleged "libertarians" who support Bush to one degree or another, and who are defenders of his foreign policy in particular. I considered it unlikely that they would alter their views, but I thought it worthwhile at least to try. In the time that has elapsed, I've given up any hope on that score. Nowadays, if these people criticize Bush's foreign policy at all, it is only to say that Bush is not brutal enough, and that he should wage war still more widely. I do not know whether it is ignorance or intellectual dishonesty that makes these "libertarians" cling to the now conclusively discredited Wilsonian delusion of world transformation by means of military force. Whatever factors may be involved in an individual case, it has been indisputably clear for some time that no amount of contrary evidence will cause these people to change their minds.

At one time, libertarianism represented a serious and vital intellectual tradition, one that included thinkers and writers of great significance such as Hayek and von Mises. The faux "libertarians" of today, who are especially and annoyingly numerous among bloggers, have rendered genuine libertarianism unrecognizable. For the moment, libertarianism's reputation has been almost entirely destroyed and deservedly so, if one considers only its loudest contemporary advocates. These phony libertarians have no understanding at all of the principles they claim to be defending, and genuine liberty can find no place in their world view.

Since they have repeatedly demonstrated their unswerving refusal to change their minds even in the face of incontrovertible and overwhelming evidence, they might at least reconsider the manner in which they describe themselves. I would suggest "cheap propagandists" or "fourth-rate hacks" as much more accurate with regard to their approach and methodology. Such terms still fail to capture the depth of their betrayal, but they would be vastly preferable. And at least unsuspecting readers would be warned about the degree of attention that ought to be paid to such people -- which is to say, precisely none at all.]

I have occasionally mentioned that I very frequently challenge myself with regard to the validity of my own views. I think anyone who is seriously concerned with ideas, as I endeavor to be, must do this, at least to some extent. As new evidence accumulates, we need to ask ourselves: do my ideas account for these developments -- or do new events call into question what I had previously thought? Is this recent occurrence explained by ideas I have discussed before, or does this represent some new phenomenon? Do my previously-held views explain this development sufficiently, or do they need to be modified in some way? That's just a sample of some of the questions that come up as I continually examine and re-examine my ideas and theories; there are usually considerably more.

There is no area where this applies more than in the realm of foreign affairs, which necessarily deals with an often nearly unmanageable number of factors. The complexity of this subject is demonstrated in part by my lengthy essay on foreign policy -- and as world events continue to unfold, I constantly reexamine what I said in that essay, to see if I need to make alterations or changes in my views. My foreign policy series was titled, "I Accuse: To Those Who Pave the Way for the New Fascism." In significant part, I was addressing those self-identified libertarians who, in the name of the self-defense of the United States, are, in my view, making the triumph of what some have called the "New Fascism" much more likely. And in the first part of that essay, I was particularly harsh in dealing with those people I dubbed "Bush's hagiographers."

I have asked myself on a number of occasions if my criticisms were too severe, and perhaps undeserved. My questioning has now been answered to a great extent -- and I therefore need to thank Irving Kristol, often regarded as the "godfather" of neoconservativism. In an article entitled "The Neoconservative Persuasion", Kristol spells out the nature of neoconservatism with admirable honesty and clarity -- and all I can say to those libertarians who continue to praise Bush for his understanding and defense of the uniquely American values of individual liberty and freedom is this: if you don't believe me, perhaps you will believe Kristol. And if you still aren't convinced, you at least ought to pay very careful attention to what he has to say, since this is the program which, as Kristol himself indicates, Bush has completely adopted, and with which Bush is enormously comfortable.

It would require an even lengthier article than this to address all the points raised in Kristol's essay, so I will confine myself here to what I consider the major points he makes. Toward the beginning of Kristol's piece, there is an historical tidbit which is indicative of the serious problems to come. In discussing the history of neoconservativism, Kristol notes that it had "its origin among disillusioned liberal intellectuals in the 1970s" (emphasis added). If that isn't clear enough in its implications, Kristol then goes on to say the following:
Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the "American grain." It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked. Of course, those worthies are in no way overlooked by a large, probably the largest, segment of the Republican party, with the result that most Republican politicians know nothing and could not care less about neoconservatism. Nevertheless, they cannot be blind to the fact that neoconservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters. Nor has it passed official notice that it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies.
A great deal could be said about this paragraph alone, so let's just consider a few aspects of it. Note Kristol's designation of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt as "20th-century heroes." This ought to strike anyone who considers himself a conservative at all as altogether remarkable -- if by "conservative" one means anything like free markets and unfettered individual rights. Keep in mind that Theodore Roosevelt's reputation for "trust-busting," for example, had very little to do with re-establishing anything like unregulated, more competitive capitalism: rather, what Roosevelt engaged in was the process of big government regulation of business -- but for the benefit of certain already vested business interests, a phenomenon I have discussed at some length. These were some of the early beginnings of the New Fascism: the alliance between certain business interests and government, with business nominally left in private hands but subject to significant government control. (In fact, this process began in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the history of the railroads was one of the very earliest examples of government intervention in the economy on a massive scale -- again, to the benefit of certain business interests and to the detriment of genuine competition.)

Everyone knows that FDR was largely responsible for the creation of the welfare state in the United States (although even he was building to a large extent on what Hoover had done before him, another historical fact often overlooked) -- the welfare state which is now engulfing us all. I do not think it necessary to comment further on the striking fact that any type of conservative (in the old, free market sense) would view him as a "hero." (We'll get to why Reagan appears on this list of "heroes" in a moment.)

But what are the "neoconservative policies" that "have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters"? Kristol obligingly tells us, once again with admirable clarity, in what I find to be a truly stunning admission (emphasis added throughout the following excerpts):
This leads to the issue of the role of the state. Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on "the road to serfdom." Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. Because they tend to be more interested in history than economics or sociology, they know that the 19th-century idea, so neatly propounded by Herbert Spencer in his "The Man Versus the State," was a historical eccentricity. People have always preferred strong government to weak government, although they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government. Neocons feel at home in today's America to a degree that more traditional conservatives do not. Though they find much to be critical about, they tend to seek intellectual guidance in the democratic wisdom of Tocqueville, rather than in the Tory nostalgia of, say, Russell Kirk.
I do not see how this could possibly be clearer. As just one indication of the remarkable degree of intellectual irresponsibility and sloppiness in this piece, note the unanswered questions in this single paragraph. Why is "the growth of the state" "natural, indeed inevitable"? No answer. Why do the neocons "know" that Herbert Spencer's idea was "a historical eccentricity"? No answer. What are Kristol's reasons and justifications for contending that "[p]eople have always preferred strong government to weak government"? No answer. What exactly constitutes an "overly intrusive government"? No answer.

I must remind you that Irving Kristol is regarded as a "serious thinker." This is what passes for "serious thinking" today.

Now we come to the passage which explains the inclusion of Reagan in Kristol's pantheon of heroes -- and please keep in mind that one of Reagan's signal achievements was providing the Religious Right the opportunity to rise to a position of great political influence in the early 1980s, an achievement whose deleterious effects we continue to feel today (and which Bush does nothing to ameliorate, but only worsens):
But it is only to a degree that neocons are comfortable in modern America. 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.
Note carefully that list of issues which the neoconservatives "regard as proper candidates for the government's attention" -- and then consider the extent to which individual rights and personal freedom will necessarily be trampled. What should also be noted is Kristol's admission of a theme which I have discussed in a number of previous posts: what the neoconservatives propose -- and what they want -- is not just any kind of big government. They want a big government explicitly grounded on religious views -- in short, they want a theocracy. If you didn't believe me when I said it, perhaps you'll believe it now.

Finally, of course, we come to the neoconservative view concerning foreign policy, although Kristol notes that "there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience." One might well wonder what on earth Kristol means by "a set of attitudes derived from historical experience" and how precisely they differ from a "set of neoconservative beliefs." Despite Kristol's welcome openness in this article, it appears that intellectual precision should only be carried so far -- a suspicion confirmed by Kristol's listing of what these "attitudes" are:
These attitudes can be summarized in the following "theses" (as a Marxist would say): First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.
Once again, the number of unanswered questions is almost limitless. Just how should "private and public institutions" "encourage" patriotism? Why exactly is world tyranny so awful -- when the logical conclusion, and ultimate meaning, of those policies Kristol himself endorses would lead to a tyranny here in the United States? (I am certain that Kristol himself would rush to deny this, but I urge you to consider the necessary outcome of the big government that Kristol supports -- remembering that Kristol views it as "inevitable.") One can only conclude that a domestic tyranny limited to one country is acceptable, but a broader form of tyranny is not. In other words, Kristol only wants home-grown despots telling us how to live, and what we may and may not do. And how exactly do we "distinguish friends from enemies"? Not much help is provided here by Kristol, except to note the utterly unexceptional fact that the Soviet Union was an enemy. To put the matter bluntly: Kristol's "attitudes" are nothing more than platitudes. The words are awfully similar, so perhaps he just confused them.

Kristol goes on:
Finally, for a great power, the "national interest" is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal.
It's almost impossible to tell what this means in terms of specific answers to specific questions of foreign policy, and where and under precisely what circumstances the United States ought to become involved beyond its own borders. But this passage does accomplish one important objective: it attempts to define the self-interest of the United States in terms that are so broad that they could justify foreign intervention virtually anywhere, at any time. In the realm of foreign affairs -- where questions of legitimate self-defense necessarily depend in significant part upon a nation's borders -- it is an enormous equivocation to speak of a nation's "identity" as "ideological." What on earth does that mean? That we ought to engage with any country that attacks the "ideas" which we supposedly represent in any form at all? Kristol says we will feel "obliged" to defend other democratic nations under attack "if possible" -- but again he gives no indication at all as to how we are to determine just when it is possible. He continues:
Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States vis-à-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. This superiority was planned by no one, and even today there are many Americans who are in denial. To a large extent, it all happened as a result of our bad luck. During the 50 years after World War II, while Europe was at peace and the Soviet Union largely relied on surrogates to do its fighting, the United States was involved in a whole series of wars: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War. The result was that our military spending expanded more or less in line with our economic growth, while Europe's democracies cut back their military spending in favor of social welfare programs. The Soviet Union spent profusely but wastefully, so that its military collapsed along with its economy.
The lie contained at the heart of this paragraph is probably the worst and most shameful in the entire article (and the article contains a number of stupendous lies, so this is no mean achievement). To term our involvement in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War "bad luck" is an intellectual crime for which capital punishment would be too good, and too swift. In this context, "bad luck" has only one possible meaning: that we had no choice but to become involved in these conflicts, that the conflicts were "forced" on us against our will, and that we were merely passive observers in world affairs who became embroiled in one conflict after another, in an unceasing train of war, altogether against our better judgment.

This is a vicious and reprehensible rewriting of history. If I thought Kristol were capable of experiencing the emotion, I would say he ought to be ashamed of himself. Every single one of those wars was one that the United States deliberately and intentionally chose to become involved in after a long period of deliberation. I will be offering some excerpts from Barbara Tuchman's masterful history of the Vietnam War (in her book, The March of Folly) in the near future -- but I would have thought everyone knew that our involvement in Vietnam was the result of an intentional and very deliberate process of decision-making over a very long period of time. It was utterly mistaken and based on what ought to have been obviously dubious premises at almost every single step, but it was hardly a course of action foisted on us when we were simply minding our own business. And the same is true with regard to every other war in Kristol's list.

But Kristol's intellectual legerdemain accomplishes one objective, and it is a significant one: it absolves us of all responsibility for our past decisions in the foreign policy sphere. In effect, Kristol's analysis entirely negates the element of moral judgment when it comes to issues of war and peace, at least so far as the conduct of the United States is concerned. Wars, endless bombing raids, huge troop deployments, massive domestic taxation, a military draft (during the long period we had one), endless foreign entanglements, and large-scale death -- it's all just "bad luck." It just happened. It's not enough that Kristol engages in intellectual suicide before our eyes: he also wishes to prevent anyone else from engaging in critical analysis of historical events, in an attempt to ascertain if there just might be any lessons to be learned from such a study. And Kristol thus hopes that this intellectual paralysis will continue in the present, and into the future. Why, we can't question the means or methods by which we are now fighting the war on terror. It just happened. It's just our "bad luck." Whatever we do now or in the future, there are no judgments to be made about any of it.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, this is Kristol's next paragraph:
Suddenly, after two decades during which "imperial decline" and "imperial overstretch" were the academic and journalistic watchwords, the United States emerged as uniquely powerful. The "magic" of compound interest over half a century had its effect on our military budget, as did the cumulative scientific and technological research of our armed forces. With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.
The key is in that last sentence: whatever happens now, it is inevitable. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, is to question any of it. Thus do the neoconservatives hope to obtain carte blanche for whatever they may advocate in the realm of foreign affairs.

And here is the conclusion of Kristol's article:
The older, traditional elements in the Republican party have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs, just as they cannot reconcile economic conservatism with social and cultural conservatism. But by one of those accidents historians ponder, our current president and his administration turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment, although it is clear they did not anticipate this role any more than their party as a whole did. As a result, neoconservatism began enjoying a second life, at a time when its obituaries were still being published.
I want to emphasize once more the major theme of my foreign policy series -- the point which those libertarians who continue to support the particular means adopted by the Bush Administration in the war on terror will not acknowledge, address or come to terms with. There exists a necessary interdependence and a necessary reinforcement mechanism between a domestic policy of massive government intervention in the economy, including high rates of taxation, a huge regulatory mechanism, and the intricate linkages between "private" business and government, on the one hand, and a foreign policy of aggressive intervention overseas, followed by lengthy periods of foreign occupation, on the other. These are not discrete phenomena: they are the necessary mirror images of each other, reflecting the same fundamental premises and the same unavoidable outcomes.

In the end, Kristol has performed a valuable service. He has ripped the mask off of the New Fascism, and revealed its true face: an unquestioning acceptance, even an adoration, of big government; a reliance on, and a willing alliance with, a set of beliefs founded in religious conviction -- together with a willingness to use the power of government to enforce conduct in accordance with those beliefs; and an eagerness to embrace dominance of the entire world -- but only on the neoconservatives' terms. And no judgments or analysis of any of this is desirable, or even possible. It's all "inevitable," and none of it could be helped. Since that is the case in Kristol's view, you may as well accept and enjoy it.

Thus do the neoconservatives bring us the New Fascism and, at the same time, annihilate the intellect, the realm of moral judgment, and the ability to evaluate alternative courses of action. Indeed, according to Kristol, there aren't any alternative courses of action. Such an "achievement" is monstrousness of a very high order. So I say once again to those libertarians who support, to whatever degree, the program of the New Fascists: Kristol has told you, in absolutely unmistakable terms, exactly what the nature of this program is. If you still wish to embrace it, the choice is certainly yours.

But if you do, please don't continue to insist that you are on the side of freedom, liberty, or a love for mankind. You aren't. Kristol has made absolutely clear what it is that you are supporting, and no one should pretend otherwise any longer.