Writing in the latest number of National Affairs, Eric Cohen ably memorializes the “moral realism” of the late Irving Kristol, greatest of the neoconservatives. Cohen’s focus for most of the essay is Kristol’s searching examination of capitalism, which featured prominently through his entire career as a writer and editor. Never let it be said that Kristol was an uncritical promoter of the capitalist form of political economy. Cohen quotes at length from a speech in 1991, when capitalism was at its very zenith of prestige:
In a sense, it is all Adam Smith’s fault. That amiable, decent genius simply could not imagine a world in which traditional moral certainties could be effectively challenged and repudiated. Bourgeois society is his legacy, for good and ill. For good, in that it has produced through the market economy a world prosperous beyond all previous imaginings — even socialist imaginings. For ill, in that this world, with every passing decade, has become ever more spiritually impoverished. That war on poverty is the great unfinished task before us. The collapse of socialism, along with the vindication of a market economy, offers us a wonderful opportunity to think seriously about such an enterprise. Only such an enterprise can ensure a capitalist future.
Cohen recapitulates this point repeatedly, and with increasing insistence: “in the end, as Kristol argued, our destiny will depend far more on our cultural and spiritual lives than on our regulatory and tax policies.” “Building a family requires precisely the virtues and spiritual purpose that the capitalist order fails to nourish, while the future of the capitalist order — and, more significantly, the future of a morally decent, democratic, and prosperous modern civilization — requires flourishing families.” “Perhaps the most important work before us — which Kristol, a Jew in largely Christian America, could not do — is to reform and re-invigorate Christian political theology, for it is on this that the spiritual vitality and moral-political sanity of American civilization likely now depends, both for better and for worse.”
Well worth a read.
UPDATE: By the strange twists of memory, the mystic chords even, I am reminded of this fine essay by Cohen, which had a dramatic effect on me almost ten years ago.