George Bush's Philosophers

The author was Elliott Abrams roomate at Harvard when Abrams was a leader in the Young People's Socialist League in the late 60's. See Steven Kelman's memoir, "When Push Comes to Shove".

//www.dissentmagazine.org/ George Bush's Philosophers

by Benjamin Ross

The politics of George W. Bush, unlike earlier American conservatisms, is animated by ideas and not merely by interests. That is, at least, what Bush's friends assert, and what his foes usually concede. But is it so?

The ideas in question are well known, so much so that I need not enumerate them here. I will rather examine, as a whole, a school of thought and two groups of thinkers who adhere to it. The school is called neoconservative, its ideas match current policies, and its adherents often implement those policies. The question at hand is this: What is the direction of causation? Are the policies consequences of the ideas? Or were the ideas fabricated to justify the policies? The question is answerable only in the mean—any assemblage of humankind will include some knaves, some sincere fools, and various mixtures of wisdom with knavery and foolishness—but it is still worth asking.

My method will be to look at historical origins. I will compare two groups that came together in the neoconservative movement of the late 1990s: the Straussians and the Shachtmanites. The thinkers they followed were obscure during their common lifetime, but the importance of both has grown in retrospect. Leo Strauss (1899–1973) taught philosophy at the University of Chicago. Max Shachtman (1904–1972) led a grouplet that evolved from Trotskyism to right-wing social democracy. Both left legacies of oral teaching and discipleship that far outweigh their writings.

Today, what remains of the once wide divide between these two schools of thought is little more than a division of labor. Some Straussians (Paul Wolfowitz comes to mind) direct armies; others (such as Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics) retain a focus on philosophical issues. Shachtmanites such as the National Endowment for Democracy's Carl Gershman and the American Enterprise Institute's scholar in residence Joshua Muravchick specialize, as bureaucrats or writers, in intellectual forms of combat.

The two schools began with very different doctrines. I don't mean to set Shachtman's leftist activism against Strauss's philosophical conservativism. Strauss's students dropped their teacher's avoidance of worldly involvement early on, and the Shachtmanites could not help but change their minds along the way from revolutionary Marxism to Reaganism. One must compare the elements of Shachtman's thought that survived the migration to the right with the Straussianism of Strauss's followers. Even so, sharp contrasts remain. Consider these:

• Straussian politics focuses on ideas; Shachtmanite politics expresses interests. • Straussians seek to preserve hierarchies; Shachtmanites to level them. • For Straussians, history is made by heroes; for Shachtmanites, by social forces. • Straussians prefer the creative elite to the dull masses. Shachtmanites help sturdy masses conquer an effete elite.

The two groups did share a rejection of "relativism," but the fixed principles for which they rejected it were very different. Straussians embraced natural law. The Shachtmanites, who early in their evolution abandoned Marx's historical relativism, proclaimed democracy as the universal value.

Today's neoconservatism rises above these concerns. Each group has identified its own fixed principle with the military strength of the United States, ignoring whatever aspects of its doctrine get in the way. The intellectual maneuvers that this convergence effected were executed with a remarkable lack of effort. Agonizing reappraisals were rare, confessions of error infrequent, earnest efforts at theoretical reconstruction few. Common ambition and instinctive affinity made rethinking superfluous.

To be sure, both Straussians and Shachtmanites had long advocated an activist American foreign policy. This was a precondition to the confluence of the two schools, but it does not suffice to explain their fusion. Each grouping, in its earlier incarnation, had been found indigestible by political near-neighbors—too self-centered, overly focused on esoteric doctrines. Combining two such groups should have been doubly difficult, but instead all obstacles vanished.

Indeed, the two schools jettisoned attitudes they shared as easily as they did those that separated them. Both had stressed obligations and institutions that mediate between the individual and the state. Their views were far from identical—Straussians emphasized the obligation of noblesse oblige while the Shachtmanites' paradigmatic institution, even after the abandonment of Marxism, was the trade union—but they joined in rejecting the libertarian view of human beings as individuals whose social relationships consist of contracts freely entered into. All criticism of laissez-faire economics has, of course, been dropped from the new neoconservative synthesis, which greets attacks on trade unionism and efforts to shred the social safety net with deafening silence—when it does not actively join in.

If ideas did not bring Straussians and Shachtmanites together, what did? Anne Norton's recently published Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire offers some guidance. Norton writes of the Straussians as a student of philosophy, who enjoyed a close personal acquaintance without being part of the inner circle. My own relation to the Shachtmanites as an activist undergraduate in the late sixties was analogous, and I found behavioral and cultural similarities almost leaping out of Norton's pages. Ideological differences seemed irrelevant.

The resemblance is, first of all, organizational. Both groups started far from the mainstream, engaging in activism that was tightly linked with their intellectual activity. Each began as an intellectual brotherhood of sorts. (I say brotherhood intentionally—the atmosphere was distinctly male.) Each possessed an esoteric doctrine of political philosophy. In introducing its doctrine to the world of political power, each evolved into a tightly bound patronage network, offering the skills of young believers to patrons in exchange for jobs, influence, and advancement.

This was accomplished through informal networks, with little organizational structure. The Straussians have never had any more formal structure than a Web site. The Shachtmanites retained for a while the leftist habit of forming "front groups" decorated with illustrious names, but there was no rear behind the front. After winning control of the former Socialist Party in 1973, they allowed the renamed Social Democrats USA to wither into little more than an excuse for occasional reunions of old comrades.

As time went by, doctrine faded in importance. The power and influence of the networks came more to be ends in themselves and less means for the propagation of beliefs. Those who would not follow this evolution were hived off. Left Straussians disappeared early on. Shachtmanites loyal to labor lingered on the scene, everyday political opponents who retained a vestigial usefulness when hawkish foreign policy initiatives needed a bipartisan veneer.

Along with this common organizational pattern comes a similarity of intellectual style. Even at the groups' origins, in very different environments, with altogether incompatible intellectual outlooks, the resemblance is strong. Norton's depictions of academic Straussians echo Irving Howe's description of Shachtman's Trotskyist followers in the 1930s.

Here is Norton: Strauss read and taught as political theorists have done from time immemorial. He would read a passage in a text and ask: "What does it mean?" "Why is this said?" . . . In the shul and the madrasa, in seminaries and Bible study groups, sacred texts are still studied in this way.

Compare the above to Howe, writing in his memoir, A Margin of Hope: The training we received in the movement was narrow—a training in the explication rather than examination of texts, in games of debate rather than play of mind. It was not very different, I suppose, from the training yeshiva students or Jesuit novices have been given over the centuries.

Norton again: The student armed with the sacred text believes himself armed to take on all comers. The student who believes all knowledge rests in the canon is exempted from reading anything else, and loudly presents his laziness as the inevitable entitlement of cultural superiority.

Howe: Clever enough in responding to familiar cues, we had little capacity for turning back on our own premises. Against opponents sharing Marxist premises, we could argue well, but against those who did not we were sometimes bewildered. We had a keen sense of intellectual honor, but only a feeble appetite for intellectual risk. And finally, Norton:

Ambitious students were unleashed. They learned the pleasures of a common endeavor and the pleasures of contest. They learned to like the taste of their professors' blood. They learned, quickly enough, to be something more than students. They learned that when they succeeded most fully they would not be praised. They would be fought as rivals, they would be resented.

And Howe: In the course of these fights, all energies were mobilized. The movement came to resemble a medieval convocation of theologians locked into months of debate on a proper interpretation of doctrine. People have been burned for less, but we could not burn, nor did many of us want to; so we hurled documents, speeches, polemics against one another.

These common patterns go far to explain the ease with which the disciples of Strauss and Shachtman came together and their joint success in approaching the corridors of power. How some of these habits prepare for political combat is obvious enough. Other correspondences point, perhaps, to psychological commonalities more complex than I can fathom.

What of the question that began this inquiry? What does this history tell us about current events?

Many things unite today's neoconservatives. They share a facility with argument, a taste for debate, an appetite for influence, a talent for networking, a desire for gainful employment, and perhaps some hard-to-pin-down psychological predispositions as well. What they lack in common is an animating ideal. The arrival of two philosophical brotherhoods, the Straussians and Shachtmanites, at the same end point owes much to their resemblance as brotherhoods and very little to their widely disparate philosophies.

Although neoconservatism has had an immense influence on the tone of contemporary conservatism, its substantive effect on the actions of government has been much smaller. The claim that the behavior of the Bush administration derives from neocon principles does not stand up, because principles are not what gathered the neocons themselves together. Their purposes are not to be found in philosophies, but in politics.

The ideas of George W. Bush's Republicanism accommodate prevailing interests and justify the accumulation of power; they do not inspire policy. The interests at stake at home—the enrichment of the wealthy and the protection of the privileged—are easy to identify. The wellsprings of what is done abroad are harder to sort out, a topic for another day and another author. But philosophy is not the place to look. Who searches for the intellectual roots of George W. Bush searches in vain.

Benjamin Ross is a community activist who writes frequently for Dissent.

This article is from Dissent Magazine

Michael Pugliese

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