Neoconservatism is a topic that has received a fair amount of commentary during the course of the past six years, and seems likely to receive still more, as a lame-duck administration continues to wallow in lameness, the war continues to drag, and the host organism of the neoconservative movement, the Republican Party, hurtles toward the abyss of 2008. Neoconservatism is a topic warranting serious reflection, for while the media and the average American might well content themselves with the knowledge that some neoconservatives promoted a foreign policy that resulted in a Mesopotamian quagmire, the tendency is not one that will be slinking off to die on one of history's ash-heaps anytime soon.
In light of these considerations, it seemed preferable - instead of offering a quick response to a thoughtful comment - to elaborate upon the nature and origins of neoconservatism.
It has been argued that neoconservatism is the survival of the consensus liberalism that preceded the radicalization of the Democratic Party. Were the relationship of neoconservatism to this consensus liberalism controverted or ambiguous, it would be necessary to undertake a painstaking, tedious analysis of the respective political and economic doctrines, to unearth information about the social formations or groups from which prominent liberals and neoconservatives emerged, and to attempt to trace the lineage of institutions and interests that the neoconservatives have come to represent. Fortunately, none of this is necessary, strictly speaking, inasmuch as most neoconservatives openly avow their intellectual origins in the liberalism which preceded the great unraveling of the Sixties; in order to understand neoconservatism, in addition to grasping the causes of neoconservative alienation from the Democratic Party, it is only necessary to understand something of that older liberal consensus.
That older liberal consensus might be categorized as the American technocracy, a creed of a caste of managers and professionals whose knowledge of the intricacies of modern political economy, finance, and governance imparted a heightened awareness of the imperatives and possibilities of rational administration, and, in a sense, entitled them to exercise power. Through rational administration, the application of the methods of science to the resolution of political, social, and economic problems, all citizens, possessed of equal rights, would be empowered to participate on equal terms in the luminous future of the Democracy. In other words, in order to identify the specific difference of this liberalism, it is not sufficient to retrace the course of intellectual history; it is necessary to identify the difference of the institutions they inhabited; it is imperative that the specific difference of managerialism, as analyzed by James Burnham, and later, by Samuel Francis, be grasped. Sketching the lineaments of Burnham's theory, Francis writes:
Although in a narrow sense Burnham's theory sought to explain the civilizational impact of the "separation of ownership and control" in the corporate economy and the rise of large corporations directed by professional managers rather than by traditional individual owners and partnerships, in a broader sense his theory applies to political and social, as well as economic, organization. The characteristic feature of twentieth-century history has been the vast expansion in the size, scale of transactions, and complexity and technicality of functions that political, social, and economic organizations exhibit. This expansion, which Pitrim Sorokin also noted under the label "colossalism", was itself made possible by the growth of mass population and by the development of technologies that could sustain the colossal scale of organization. Just as business firms expanded far beyond the point at which they could be operated, directed, and controlled effectively by individual owners and their families, who generally lacked the technical skills to manage them, so the state also underwent a transformation in scale that removed it from the control of traditional elites, citizens, and their legal representatives. Just as in the mass corporations a new elite of professional managers emerged that replaced the traditional entrepreneurial or bourgeois elite of businessmen, so in the state also a new elite of professionally trained managers or bureaucrats developed that challenged and generally became dominant over the older political elites of aristocrats and amateur politicians who occupied the formal offices of government.
Continuing with an elaboration of the consequences of this development, Francis continues:
Traditional social relationships, especially the inheritance of leadership and property through family and community bonds, became irrelevant in the large corporation, controlled by managerial "meritocracies" and not by the owners of property. The units of the economy - corporations and mass unions - themselves became closely integrated with the mass state and dependent on the state for legal privileges, subsidization, and the regulation of aggregate demand through fiscal and monetary policy.
There is, all of this is to say, a tremendous difference, and that one of quality, and not mere degree, between the older order of smaller businesses, entrepreneurs, and local production and distribution, and the order of managerial capitalism (though there is a certain continuity of logic, which nonetheless required an alteration of social and legal forms in order to be realized - but that is a topic for another occasion); just as there is such a difference between, say, the Republic as outlined in the Constitution and the semi-unitary state, replete with standing civil-service bureaucracies, under which we now live.
And so we come back, full circle, to the neoconservatives, who, once more, avow without reservation that it is from this managerial liberalism that they have come. And to it they return. The error of neoconservatism is essentially to conflate the two, knowingly or inadvertently, as if to presuppose a continuity of the forms, institutions, animating ethoses, legal frameworks, and sociologies of the respective orders. This error presupposes that the narrative of American history expresses the progressive, teleological unfolding of an immanent logic; hence, all of the talk about the Constitution containing a superior economic idea, as well as the susceptibility of neoconservatives to Hegelian talk of The End of History, or, more recently, the universality of the longing for democracy and capitalism. The idea is quite silly, really: all of that controversy between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, between agrarians and industrialists, free-traders (in those days, the agrarians, about which more anon) and tariff-men, supporters and opponents of the Bank; the legal - and thus inescapably political - elaboration and emergence of new corporate forms, particularly in the post-bellum period; the emergence of the railroads (an undertaking of a mixed, corporatist economy if ever there was one) and national, mass markets; the expansion of the control of banks over the agricultural economy through the expansion of credit, precipitating both agricultural consolidation and Populism - all of this neoconservatives actually do discuss, and yet in its detail it betrays the uniqueness and contingency of the social formations they wish to portray as inevitable.
Succinctly stated, the neoconservative narrative, and the ideological apologetic, thus conflates a sort of subsidiarist economy with a corporatist one, and as Michael Novak demonstrates, appeals to the virtues and resonant evocations of the former in order to legitimate the latter. Neoconservatism, as the heir of consensus liberalism, the liberalism which could confidently, if anachronistically, proclaim that there was nothing of conservatism in the American story, and that conservatism was naught but a series of irritable mental gestures, supports concentration in that it supports big business - which by nature straddles public and private spheres - and has, to be specific, embraced the New Deal and its legacy. This is precisely what we see of neoconservatism today, what with its support for globalization, mass immigration, and the managerial state.
This leads into the specific issues that our commenter had with my initial piece on neoconservatism. It is certainly true that neoconservatives tend to find any policy that even hints of 'protection' for domestic production and labour horrifying; but to note this is not to settle the question. "Protection" is one of those categories of political economy that only acquires meaning within a definite context; rather than carrying a univocal meaning, its meaning is relative to the interests of the class or classes requesting the favour of the government. To be accorded protection is to be accorded legal and fiscal measures favourable to one's interests and ambitions, and our narrow use of the term for policies that Pat Buchanan would favour obscures much more than it illuminates; it is obtuse and obfuscatory, inasmuch as it conceals from view the political processes which alone make our 'free trade' possible. The more rooted (relative to successors) economic elite of, say, the Great Barbecue of the last third of the nineteenth century demanded 'protectionist' measures in the form of tariffs and the like, as that period was characterized by the emergence of large-scale industrialization, and by a massive consolidation of productive enterprises. With the emergence of managerialism, with its separation of (nominal) ownership (stock-trading, etc.) from actual control, the dominant economic elites shift, and with the shift, the interests embodied in the system shift; the interests are no longer primarily those of proprietors, but those of professionals seeking ever-wider fields for the exercise of the skills "only they possess", which exercise entails not the administration of a stable piece of property, but the movement of capital, the manipulation of economic assets, hard or soft, the elaboration of new forms of trade and new trade relationships, and even the movement of "human capital" (love that dehumanizing, instrumentalizing terminology!), all in the pursuit of efficiency, "improvement", expansion - which is to say, a higher rate of return, a greater exchange value.
In such circumstances, structural changes themselves render obsolete - relative to the interests of technocrats, that is - old-fashioned protectionist measures; but they do not render obsolete the necessary legal and political structuring of political economy. Protection now becomes the stabilization and expansion of the opportunities of the managerial class, whence the removal of old political restraints, and the enactment of new ones, which enable, facilitate, and secure 'free trade'. The new restraints limit the possibilities of republican deliberation, while simultaneously freeing the managers to ply their trade and, often enough, securing them with subsidies, Ex-Im guarantees, cozy arrangements with unsavory regimes, legal and administrative changes that increase leverage over now disfavoured groups (Labour, suppliers to certain mega-corporations, citizens at large through mass immigration), and measures that favour large producers over smaller outfits. Neoconservatives may often inveigh against "corporate welfare" of the direct transfer type; but it is not necessary for them to support this in order to support the advancement and security of the interests of a concrete social group, in this case one unquestionably elite.
Finally, while neoconservatives have often articulated more nuanced understandings of democratic capitalism - and Irving Kristol is a paramount example of this, about which I might write next week - the very structural logic of managerial capitalism, particularly in its globalist phase, is incontrovertibly consumerist; and while most neoconservatives may rightly condemn the excesses and dissolution consumerism entails, they are in the contradictory position of advocating the private cultivation of virtues that the system they defend, whether with two cheers or as the End of History, not only undermines, but often subverts with vices that are the opposite numbers of those virtues. So frugality and self-discipline are made to war with "go forth and shop" consumerist crapulence. Neoconservatism cannot fully escape this tendency, for it is invested in the defense of a system which not only makes it possible, but requires it to a significant extent if it is to be sustained and perpetuated. Francis, characterizing a passage from Novak's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, writes:
The preferred instrument of progress for neoconservatives is the managerial corporation and "democratic capitalism," which, in neoconservative Michael Novak's view, engenders a "continuous revolution' resulting in increasing levels of material affluence and cultural "openness" in place of the confining institutions and values of traditional and bourgeois society.
Even allowing for some degree of interpretive bias, there remains much talk of dynamism and growth in neoconservatism, as well as much talk about openness; the most charitable conclusion one can draw is that neoconservatism is divided against itself, a direct consequence of the attempt to incorporate the legacy of the Enlightenment into a Christian framework (or vice versa; you choose), as it is the former that bequeathed to us the ideological, rationalizing temper and the conception of man as a being whose desires are not only potentially infinite, but to be harnessed as the great anthropological engine of material progress. Both of these are, as they say, features, and not bugs, of the system of democratic capitalism.