Irving Kristol's New Conservatism Manifesto | The Nation


Irving Kristol's New Conservatism Manifesto

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Kristol is an intellectual himself, so what he is really saying is that when he thinks of himself he thinks of a man who can peddle snake oil to anyone with an I.Q. lower than his. It begins to appear that the main impetus of Two Cheers for Capitalism is nothing more than smugness; what he really wants to do is destroy the influence of those mem-bers of his own class who are giving it a bad name, so that people like himself can exercise that influence instead. Reasonable men are after all the best men:

About the Author

Philip Green
Philip Green is on the editorial board of The Nation. His most recent book is Equality & Democracy (New Press).

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Contrary to what you may have heard from John McCain, there's a long way to go.

For more than a century, bourgeois-liberal society did have one powerful inner check upon its utopian impulses, and that was the "dismal science" of economic theory ... The cornerstone of this theory was the Malthusian hypothesis ... This hypothesis was accepted by most thinking men of the 19th century...

Since Kristol apparently reads no one but "Professor Hayek," it should occasion no sur-prise that he's never read E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class either. There he would have discovered that there were many "thinking men" (it's not clear whether he thinks women think) who didn't accept the Malthusian hypothesis--but no, to be a "thinking man" you have to have been a house philosopher for the bourgeoisie, a rationalizer of privilege. For that matter, not only many Americans but Malthus himself did not think his hypothesis would apply here except in a distant future, and God knows what people in Holland or in Sweden thought about it in the 19th century--certainly Kristol doesn't. "History" has by this paragraph become so hopelessly confused with the history of Kristol's favorite ideas that a handful of English ideologues are now transmuted into the whole of "bourgeois-liberal" society everywhere. The last refuge of the class-conscious intellectual is indeed nothing more than a kind of social solipsism: the world consists of him with his, real ideas, and "ordinary people" with their manipulated ideas, incarnate wisdom-- anything but the ability to think for themselves (one awaits his praise of their natural rhythm).

The ordinary people, in truth, now turn out to be quite inferior to Kristol himself, incarnate wisdom or no:

The transformation of the bourgeois citizen into the bourgeois consumer has dissolved that liberal-individualist framework which held the utopian impulses of modern society under control. One used to be encouraged to control one's appetites; now one is encouraged to satisfy them without delay.

Here we see that Kristol's continuous falsification of the historical past has a unifying theme: simply to legitimize domination. One "used to be encouraged" indeed! "One" was, as in England, "encouraged" at gunpoint, at bayonet point, in workhouses and sanatoriums, and by the institution of prison and even capital punishment for such offenses as vagrancy, vagabondage and idleness. Bourgeois citizens probably made up less than 5 percent of the population of 18th-century England, and thus can hardly be the ancestor of today's bourgeois consumers there; as in most of Europe, the ancestor of today's bourgeois consumer was a peasant or worker who was "encouraged" to do almost nothing, but rather compelled to "thrift" by either circumstances or the brute force exercised by a ruling class. Even in America, Kristol's bourgeois citizen was always in a minority: and at all times here it has also been poverty, powerlessness, and oppressive force as well (as visited, for example, upon strikers) that have enforced the "control" of "appetite" for millions.

Apparently Kristol's only complaint about that domination is that it wasn't successful enough. The ordinary people once so beloved of Kristol are suddenly a ravening wolf battering at his door--why can't they learn to live within their means, just as he presumably lives within his? Kristol may have only two cheers for capitalism but, it turns out, that's more than he has for democracy.

The reason he opposes both reformist "governmental intervention" and radical prescriptions for self-government is that they're both too democratic for him. Ordinary people should stay in their place.

The modern world, and the crisis of modernity we are now experiencing, was created by ideas and by the passions which these ideas unleashed. To surmount this crisis, without destroying the modern world it-self, will require new ideas or new versions of old ideas -- that will regulate these passions and bring them into a more fruitful and harmonious relation with reality.

It is, of course, a lot easier to regulate those "passions" on Kristol's income than on the income of most ill-controlled ordinary people. But there is a side-benefit to this part of his argument. We now learn that the passion for equality which supposedly only manifests itself in radical intellectuals who are always trying to mislead ordinary people (a viewpoint Kristol expresses at length in another well-known essay from this collection, "About Equality"), is really much more widespread than Kristol is willing to admit when he's denouncing his left-wing peers as "elitists." What else is the passion for consumer affluence, the insistence on living like your economic betters under a pile of debt, but a sublimated or perverted form of a passion for a good deal more of equality of life chances than now exists in most capitalist societies? No, Kristol is no Populist; he's defending the same privileges that conservatives always defend: theirs.

As for the "ideas" that will resuscitate our failing world, who are they to come from, and what are they to be? We know the answer to the first question already--they will come from intellectuals, from people like Kristol: and they will be imposed, somehow or other, on "ordinary people." What is wickedly domineering when allegedly done by radical intellectuals is but respectful of human dignity when done by conservative intellectuals who revere traditions, especially their own.

It would not be fair to ask Kristol what those ideas will look like, since that is not his task, but in the very last sentence of the essay he does give us one clue to the direction, or rather the implicit political tendency, of his thought:

Only such a reformation (of modern utopianism) can bring us back to that condition of sanity, to that confident acceptance of reality, which found expression in Lord Macaulay's tart rejoinder to Francis Bacon: "An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia."

At last: the mountain of neoconservative wisdom, of social science in The Public Interest brings forth this mouse of Victorian romanticism. Now, as it happens, Middlesex is the kind of crowded suburb in which many of what Kristol thinks of as the amenities of life are notably absent, and in which only airplanes have an acre to live on. Elsewhere in capitalist societies, the mortgage and tax burdens on individual small holdings mount under speculative pressures; and most available land (especially in the United States) is more and more owned by agribusiness, industry, the military and automobiles. Two hundred years too late, the preindustrial utopias of Rousseau and Blake, with their peasants meeting under oak trees and Jerusalems in the Midlands, are resurrected as "new ideas." But Kristol knows what he is doing. As long as capitalism, whether declining or somehow rejuvenated, remains in the saddle in industrial societies, then for most people leading a less privileged way of life than Kristol's, Macaulay's vision must remain the only kind of utopia that Kristol admires: a dream. But meanwhile he, we can be sure, has his substantial "acre" securely tucked away somewhere.

On only one point, finally, is Kristol consistent: he is always class-conscious. The younger, radical Irving Kristol whom he has autobiographically described in a recent New York Times Magazine essay, would have scornfully recognized the Kristol of today as an "all-rightnik." Kristol is still much too bright not to know an all-rightnik when he sees one, if only in the mirror, so he has conceived a subtle disguise: he will wear the mask of tragedy, mourning the time "when virtue loses all her loveliness."

But the result is only flummery. Eulogies to unidentifiable "ordinary people" aside, it is impossible to detect any real concern for the fate of other human beings in these es-says, nor is any actual reason given why the decline of capitalism and the gradual creep of egalitarianism should not be considered a blessing rather than a curse. (In "About Equality" Kristol argues that the search for equality is against nature, since a true understanding is that we are naturally subjected to the "tyranny of the bell-shaped curve." But that is uninformed nonsense, such as Kristol often dispenses in his essays: rewards could be distributed along a bell-shaped curve, and yet the difference from the most to the least be a tiny fraction of what it is now in industrial societies.) In the end his "tragic" vision seems to contain nothing larger than the fear that the passion of "ordinary people" to share in society's rewards and powers to the same extent he does will be uncontrollable; and that men like himself and his friends and epigones at Commentary and The Public Interest and other such places-- "experts" by their own assessment, ideological publicists by anyone else's--will be brought down from their present positions of eminence after years devoted to "making it." That is why his cultural critique of capitalism remains steadfastly unpolitical, why he remains uninterested in the real view from the contemporary Left, in workplace democracy, in the dispersion of economic power under democratic community control. That, we see, is what distinguishes Kristol's vision most of all from Marx's: not the world-weary cynicism he parades; not his nostalgia without a dialectic; not his picture of a world inevitably ruled by the ideas of a few rather than the productive actions of many; but rather his immersion in fancily outfitted, yet plain and simple self-interest.

As Marx himself constantly reminds us, the assertion of self-interest is always understandable, and rarely if ever to be condemned out of hand: people have to live the way they live. But to dress up the defense of a besieged class privilege with such an unmerited pretense of scholarship and moral concern as one finds in these essays, is neither lovely, nor virtuous.

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