Drawing on his past as a Trotskyite, Irving Kristol states his case for capitalism–but cautiously.
Before he became a neoconservative, a label whose invention he attributes to Michael Harrington, Irving Kristol was a Trotskyite, a regular of Alcove No. 1 in the vast lunch-room of City College in the late 1930s. There his fellow debaters — Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Seymour Melman, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset — educated Kristol and one another in daily intellectual combat. This suggests that Kristol above all belongs to that interesting breed, the New York intellectual community, whose members love a good fight and spare no effort to stir one up.
This collection, like its 1978 predecessor, Two Cheers for Democracy, allows its author to pronounce upon economics, politics, public morality and “Religion and the Jews” — four meditations on Jewish humor, religion and psychoanalysis, Albert Einstein, and religion and socialism variously dated 1949, 1951, 1950 and, presumably, the present. In “Pornography, Obscenity and the Case for Censorship,” Kristol takes typical pains to be dogmatic: “And lest there be any misunderstanding as to what I am saying, I will put it as bluntly as possible: If you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship.” Really? Then there’s “Machiavelli and the Profanation of Politics” in which, in the course of an intriguing survey of Machiavelli’s shifting reputation over the centuries, Kristol quite unnecessarily asserts, “The scholarship on Machiavelli and his times has been voluminous, technically superb, and almost invariably misleading.”
This verdict exemplifies the almost casual claim to omniscience that is a second badge of membership in the New York intellectual community. A proper Commentary or New York Review of Books critique will make plain its author’s certainty that he or she knows more about the topic than anyone else and certainly could have written a better book than the miserable wretch under dissection. New York intellectuals prefer essays to books, possibly because the strain of prolonged brilliance is too much to be borne even by them. Finally, it doesn’t hurt in this community to be Jewish.
What, then, is the neoconservative ethos that threads through these mostly topical commentaries? In “Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed–Perhaps the Only ‘Neocon-servative,'” Kristol offers a convenient eight-point guide. Neoconservatism begins as an adverse reaction to the excesses of contemporary liberalism. In emotional style it is “antiromantic in substance and temperament.” Its philosophical roots are classical, ”ad-miring of Aristotle, respectful of Locke, distrustful of Rousseau.” To ward bourgeois society, neoconservatives harbor a “detached attachment.” For, “in the spirit of Tocqueville, neoconservatives do not think that liberal-democratic capitalism is the best of all imaginable worlds — only the best under the circumstances, of all possible worlds.” Propositions 5, 6 and 7 are, respectively, faith in a “predominantly market economy,” stress on the necessity of economic growth “not out of any enthusiasm for the material goods of this world, but because they seek economic growth as indispensable for social and political stability,” and advocacy of a frugal welfare state “that takes a degree of re-sponsibility for helping to shape the preferences that people exercise in a free market — to ‘elevate’ them if you will ” Finally, “Neoconservatives look upon family and religion as indispensable pillars of a decent society.”
Kristol spends a good many pages excoriating liberals, social democrats and socialists for their actual or asserted opposition to the neoconservatie creed. According to his caricature, liberals are either indifferent or hostile to bourgeois virtues. For them, everything goes: pornography, abortion, sexual deviation, destructive egalitarianism, feverish affirmation of minority and women rights, misplaced confidence in bureaucratic remedies and contempt for their fellow citizens. In foreign policy, liberals are heirs to decaying Wilsonian idealism. They delude themselves into toleration of a United Nations which has become little more than a forum for anti-American rhetoric, into murky Carter crusades for human rights, softness toward the Soviet Union and inability to identify and pursue American self-interest. These outcries are repetitious, tiresomely contentious and unenlightening. The tone is often peevish, the generalizations sketchily backed by evidence and the apparent intent gratification of Kristol’s admirers in the business com-munity.
However, Kristol deserves the attention of his critics when he shifts from attacking enemies to admonishing friends. In this mode, he frequently separates himself from other neoconservatives and Reagan policies. Although a self-described hawk, he lines up with George Kennan, Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy in opposing first use of nuclear weapons rather than with the more warlike Commentary coterie. In his emphasis on the connection between decent welfare benefits and social stability, he echoes the concerned Toryism of Benjamin Disraeli and Harold Macmillan rather than the bloody-mindedness of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Kristol is equally independent on the theme of business morality. The well-known Chicago view, promulgated by Milton Friedman, is that profit, not ethics, is the appropriate objective of corporate conduct. Kristol disagrees, arguing that if corporate executives do no more than grudgingly obey the law, they invite precisely the intrusive, bureaucratic meddling in which E.P.A’s and OSHA’s lawyers specialize. In their own interest, corporate types should strive for safety on the job and high quality products.
At bottom, Kristol likes American capitalism only slightly more than do his cherished adversaries. As he observes in the volume’s best essay, “Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Smith could concentrate in The Wealth of Nations on man in rational pursuit of self-interest because he relied on church, family and a tutelary government to inculcate individual and civic virtue. But, as Kristol’s sometime Public Interest co-editor Daniel Bell speculated in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, the thrust of mature capitalism is toward the sabotage of the very bourgeois qualities on which, in the not too long run, the viability of capitalism depends. Post-industrial capitalism (Bell’s term) daily subjects consumers to demands that they buy, enjoy, indulge themselves, and so pass through the gates of consumer heaven. By the age of 10, a well-brought-up American child has gazed upon 75,000 thirty-second TV commercials. Hedonism unavoidably clashes with thrift and the work ethic, not to mention the self denial of traditional Judaism and Christianity.
The more successfully advertisers make us spend the more anemic becomes the American savings rate. As for the work ethic, only a mug toils a jot harder or more carefully than absolutely necessary to collect a paycheck in a society that exalts leisure far more than hard work. In the American lexicon, “workaholic” is a term of disparagement.
Perhaps because he is aware of this irony, the prescriptive Kristol writes far more tentatively than the proscriptive Kristol: there isn’t much of a program in these pages for the restoration of mislaid bourgeois values and public virtue among our politicians. Aside from the essay on censorship, Kristol is hortatory rather than programmatic. He utters an occasional good word for Ronald Reagan, especially on foreign policy, but I sensed no confidence that Reagan was the heavenly messenger of neoconservatism.
In sum, at their worst these polemics are diatribes against the world supposedly made by liberals and those to the left of them. At their best, they convey much thoughtful, somber insight into the origins and consequences of capitalist materialism. As a polemicist, in other words, Kristol is as nasty as ever to low intellectual and moral types like members of The Nation family. He is lovably true to the persona we have enjoyed hating over the decades. However, when the man forgets just who his friends and enemies are, he echoes opinions amazingly like those familiar to this journal’s readers. Buried beneath his vulpine neoconservative intellectual garments beats — perhaps faintly and certainly irregularly — a startlingly enlightened heart. I hope that Irving Kristol will forgive my saying these unexpectedly cheerful words.