Endgame: Conservatives after the Cold War

10 posts

niccolo and donkey Roland Ferdinand Broseph mlad

The article appeared in 2004, so some of the references might already sound dated, but it still sheds light on many overlooked aspects of neoconservative ideology (yes, it exists) and American imperialism. I recall Niccolo and a few others frequently expressing befuddlement at the reckless mentality of American foreign policy. I think he might want to take a good look at this.


In 2000 I spent the better part of a late summer interviewing William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol. I was writing an article on the defections to the Left of several younger right-wing intellectuals and wanted to hear what the movement's founding fathers thought of their wayward sons. Over the course of our conversations, however, it became clear that Buckley and Kristol were less interested in these ex-conservatives than they were in the sorry state of the conservative movement and the uncertain fate of the United States as a global imperial power.

The end of communism and the triumph of the free market, they suggested, were mixed blessings. Although these developments were victories for the conservative movement, they had rendered the United States ill-equipped for the post–Cold War era. Americans now possessed the most powerful empire in history. At the same time, they were possessed by one of the most anti-political ideologies in history: the free market. According to its aggressive idealists, the free market is a harmonious order, promising an international civil society of voluntary exchange, requiring little more from the state than the occasional enforcement of laws and contracts. For Buckley and Kristol, this was too bloodless a notion upon which to found a national order, much less a global empire. It did not provide the gravitas and élan that the exercise of American power required at home and abroad. It promoted self-interest over the national interest, not the most promising base from which to launch an empire. What's more, the right-wingers in charge of the Republican Party didn't seem to realize this.

"The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market," Buckley told me, "is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." Conservatism, Kristol complained, "is so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the Left." Kristol confessed to a deep yearning for an American empire: "What's the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role? It's unheard of in human history. The most powerful nation always had an imperial role." But, he continued, previous empires were not "capitalist democracies with a strong emphasis on economic growth and economic prosperity." Because of its commitment to the free market, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. " It's too bad," Kristol lamented. "I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. Not what we're doing now but to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world—Africa in particular—where an authority willing to use troops can make a very good difference, a healthy difference." But with public discussion dominated by accountants—"there's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what? Prescriptions for elderly people? Who gives a damn? I think it's disgusting that . . . presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people. Future historians will find this very hard to believe. It's not Athens. It's not Rome. It's not anything." Kristol thought it unlikely that the United States would take its rightful place as the successor to empires past.

Since 9/11 I've had many opportunities to recall these conversations. September 11, we have been told, has restored to America's woozy civic culture a sense of depth and seriousness, of things "larger than ourselves." It has forced Americans to look beyond their borders, to understand at last the dangers that confront a world power. It has given the United States a coherent national purpose and a focus for imperial rule. A country that seemed for a time unwilling to face up to its international responsibilities is now prepared once again to bear any burden, pay any price, for freedom. This changed attitude, the argument goes, is good for the world. It presses the United States to create a stable and just international order. It is also good, spiritually, for the United States. It forces us to think about something more than peace and prosperity, reminding us that freedom is a fighting faith rather than a cushy perch.

Like any historical moment, today's imperial political culture has multiple dimensions. It is the product, in part, of a surprise attack on civilians, an increasing need for security, and the political economy of oil. But while these factors play a considerable role in determining U.S. policy, they do not explain entirely the politics and ideology of the imperial moment itself. To understand that dimension, we must examine the impact on American conservatives of the end of the Cold War—of the failure of communism and the ascendancy of the free market. For neoconservatives, who had thrilled to the crusade against communism, all that was left of Ronald Reagan's legacy after the Cold War was a sunny entrepreneurialism and market joie de vivre, which found a welcome home in Bill Clinton's America. While neocons are not opposed to capitalism, they do not believe it is the highest achievement of civilization. Like their predecessors—from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot, Samuel Coleridge to Martin Heidegger, Henry Adams to Michael Oakeshott—today's conservatives prize mystery and vitality and are uncomfortable with rationalism and technology. Such romantic sensibilities are uneasy about the market but friendly to politics, particularly at moments when politics is consumed with questions of war. It is only natural, then, that the neocons, enthralled by the epic grandeur of Rome, the ethos of the pagan warrior rather than the comfortable bourgeois, would take up the call of empire with a vengeance, seeking to create a world that is about something more than money and markets.

But this envisioned imperium may not resolve the challenges confronting the United States. Already the American empire is coming up against daunting obstacles in the Middle East and Central Asia, suggesting how elusive the reigning idea of the new imperialists—that the United States can govern events and make history—truly is. Domestically, the renewal that many hoped 9/11 would produce is proving difficult to achieve, the victim of a free-market ideology that shows no sign of abating. While it is still too soon to make any definitive assessment, there are already many signs that 9/11 will not—and perhaps cannot—bring about the transformation that the neocons have long desired.

* * *

Immediately following 9/11, intellectuals, politicians, and pundits—not those of the radical Left, as is often claimed, but mainstream liberals and conservatives—seized upon the terrorist strikes as a deliverance from the miasma Buckley and Kristol had been criticizing. The World Trade Center was still on fire and the bodies entombed there still being recovered when Frank Rich announced in The New York Times that "this week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decadelong dream." What was that dream? The dream of prosperity, of surmounting life's obstacles with money. During the 1990s, David Brooks wrote in Newsweek, we "renovated our kitchens, refurbished our home entertainment systems, invested in patio furniture, Jacuzzis and gas grills." This ethos had terrible domestic consequences. It encouraged "self-indulgent behaviour," wrote Francis Fukuyama in The Financial Times, and a "preoccupation with one's own petty affairs." It also had international repercussions. According to the Bush administration official Lewis Libby, the cult of peace and prosperity found its purest expression in Bill Clinton's weak and distracted foreign policy, which made "it easier for someone like Osama bin Laden to rise up and say credibly, ‘The Americans don't have the stomach to defend themselves. They won't take casualties to defend their interests. They are morally weak.'"

But after that day in September, the domestic scene was transformed. America was now "more mobilized, more conscious and therefore more alive," wrote Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times Magazine. As a result, wrote Brooks in The Weekly Standard, "commercial life seems less important than public life. . . . When life or death fighting is going on, it's hard to think of Bill Gates or Jack Welch as particularly heroic." Writers repeatedly welcomed the galvanizing moral electricity now coursing through the body politic, restoring trust in government, a culture of patriotism and connection, a new bipartisan consensus, the end of irony and the culture wars. According to a reporter at USA Today, President Bush was especially keen on the promise of 9/11, offering himself and his generation as exhibit A in the project of domestic renewal: "Bush has told advisors that he believes confronting the enemy is a chance for him and his fellow baby boomers to refocus their lives and prove they have the same kind of valor and commitment their fathers showed in WWII."

Internationally, 9/11 forced the United States to reengage with the world, to assume the burden of empire without embarrassment or confusion. Whereas George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had fumbled in the dark, the mission of the United States was now clear: to defend civilization against barbarism, freedom against terror. As Condoleezza Rice told The New Yorker, "I think the difficulty has passed in defining a role. I think September 11th was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen. Events are in much sharper relief." An America thought to be lulled by the charms of the market was now recalled to a consciousness of a world beyond its borders and was willing to sustain casualties on behalf of a U.S.-led global order. As Joseph Nye, a top Clinton defense aide and subsequent dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, concluded, "Americans are unlikely to slip back into the complacency that marked the first decade after the Cold War."

To understand why so many have embraced the political opportunities allegedly created by 9/11, we must return to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when American elites first realized that the United States could no longer define its mission in terms of the Soviet Union. While the end of the Cold War unleashed a wave of triumphalism, it also provoked among American elites an anxious uncertainty about U.S. foreign policy. How should the United States now define its role in the world, many asked. When should it intervene in foreign conflicts? How big a military should it field? Underlying these questions was a deep uneasiness about the size and purpose of American power. The United States seemed to be suffering from a surfeit of power, which made it difficult for elites to formulate any coherent principles for its use. As Richard Cheney, the first President Bush's secretary of defense, acknowledged in February 1992, "We've gained so much strategic depth that the threats to our security, now relatively distant, are harder to define." Almost a decade later, the United States would still seem, to its leaders, a floundering giant. As Condoleezza Rice noted during the 2000 presidential campaign, "The United States has found it exceedingly difficult to define its ‘national interest' in the absence of Soviet power." So uncertain about the national interest did political elites become that Nye would eventually throw up his hands in defeat, declaring the national interest to be whatever "citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is"—an abdication simply unthinkable during the Cold War reign of the Wise Men.

When Clinton assumed office, he and his advisers took stock of this unparalleled situation—in which the United States possessed so much power that it faced, in the words of Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, no "credible near-term threat to [its] existence"—and concluded that the primary concerns of American foreign policy were no longer military but economic. After summarily rehearsing the various possible military dangers to the United States, President Clinton declared in a 1993 address, "We still face, overarching everything else, this amorphous but profound challenge in the way humankind conducts its commerce." The great imperative was to organize a global economy where citizens of the world could trade across borders. For that to happen, the United States and other nations would have to get their own economic houses in order. The primary goal of U.S. foreign policy was thus, according to Lake, the "enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies."

Clinton's assessment of the challenges facing the United States was partially inspired by political calculation. He had just won an election against a sitting president who had not only led the United States through its victory in the Cold War but had also engineered a stunning rout of the Iraqi military. A southern governor with no foreign-policy experience—and a draft dodger to boot—Clinton concluded that his victory over Bush meant that questions of war and peace no longer resonated with American voters as they might have in an earlier age. But Clinton's vision also reflected a conviction, common in the 1990s, that globalization had undermined the efficacy of military power and traditional empires. Force was no longer the sole, or most effective, instrument of national will. "Soft power"—the cultural capital that made the United States so admired around the world—was as important to national preeminence as military power. In what may be a first for a U.S. official, Nye invoked a Marxist intellectual, the Italian Antonio Gramsci, to argue that the United States would only maintain its hegemony if it persuaded—rather than forced—others to follow its example. "If I can get you to want to do what I want," wrote Nye, "then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want to do."

For conservatives, who yearned for and then celebrated socialism's demise, Clinton's promotion of free trade and free markets was anathema. Though conservatives are reputed to favor wealth and prosperity, law and order, stability and routine—all the comforts of bourgeois life—they hated Clinton for his pursuit of these very virtues. His quest for affluence, they argued, produced a society that lost its sense of social depth and political meaning. "In that age of peace and prosperity," David Brooks would write, "the top sitcom was Seinfeld, a show about nothing." Robert Kaplan emitted barb after barb in The Coming Anarchy about the "healthy, well-fed" denizens of "bourgeois society," too consumed with their own comfort and pleasure to lend a hand—or shoulder a gun—to make the world a safer place. "Material possessions," he concluded, "encourage docility" and a "lack of imagination." In an influential manifesto published in 2000, Donald and Frederick Kagan could barely contain their hostility for "the happy international situation that emerged in 1991," which was "characterized by the spread of democracy, free trade, and peace" and was "so congenial to America" with its love of "domestic comfort."

Clinton's vision of a benign international order, conservatives argued, betrayed a discomfort with the murky world of power and violent conflict, of tragedy and rupture. "The striking thing about the 1990s zeitgeist," complained Brooks, "was the presumption of harmony. The era was shaped by the idea that there were no fundamental conflicts anymore." Conservatives thrive on a world of mysterious evil and unfathomable hatred, where good is always on the defensive and time is a precious commodity in the race against corruption and decline. Coping with such a world requires pagan courage and barbaric virtù, qualities conservatives embrace over the more prosaic goods of peace and prosperity. It is no accident that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was a student of Allan Bloom (in fact, Wolfowitz makes a cameo appearance in Ravelstein, Saul Bellow's novel about Bloom); Bloom, like many other influential neoconservatives, was a follower of the political theorist Leo Strauss, whose quiet odes to classical virtue and harmonious order veiled his Nietzschean vision of torturous conflict and violent struggle.

But there was another reason for the neocons' dissatisfaction with Clinton's foreign policy. Clinton, they claimed, was reactive and haphazard rather than proactive and forceful. He did not realize that the United States could shape rather than respond to events. Breaking again with the usual stereotype of conservatives as non-ideological muddlers, Wolfowitz, Libby, Kaplan, Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney, Kenneth Adelman, and the Kagan and Kristol father-son teams called for a more ideologically coherent projection of U.S. power. They insisted that the United States ought, as Cheney said during the first Bush administration, "to shape the future, to determine the outcome of history," or, as the Kagans would later put it, "to intervene decisively in every critical region" of the world, "whether or not a visible threat exists there." What these conservatives longed for was an America that was genuinely imperial—not just because it would make the United States safer or the world better but because they wanted to see the United States make the world, to create history.

September 11 has given the neocons an opportunity to articulate, without embarrassment, this vision of imperial American power, which they have been quietly harboring for years. "People are now coming out of the closet on the word ‘empire,'" Charles Krauthammer accurately observes. Unlike empires past, conservatives claim, this one will be guided by a benign goal: worldwide improvement. Because of America's sense of fair play and benevolent purpose, this new empire will not generate the backlash previous empires have generated. As a Wall Street Journal writer says, "We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wants to join." In the words of Rice, "Theoretically, the realists would predict that when you have a great power like the United States it would not be long before you had other great powers rising to challenge it. And I think what you're seeing is that there's at least a predilection this time to move to productive and cooperative relations with the United States, rather than to try to balance the United States." Imperial America will no longer have to "wait upon events while dangers gather," as President Bush put it in his 2002 State of the Union Address. It will now "shape the environment," anticipate threats, planning its empire not in terms of months or years, but in decades, perhaps centuries. The goal here is what Cheney first outlined in the early 1990s: to ensure, through prediction and preemption, that no regional powers ever attain preeminence in their local theaters, and that no other power ever arises to challenge the United States.

For conservatives, this is a heady time, a moment when their ambivalence about the free market—not about capitalism per se, which they refuse to challenge, but about the culture of capitalism, the elevation of buying and selling above political virtues like heroism and struggle—may finally be resolved. No longer hamstrung by the numbing politics of affluence, they believe they can count on the public to respond to the calls of sacrifice and destiny. With danger and security the watchwords of the day, the American state will be newly sanctified, without having to open the floodgates to economic redistribution and social welfare. The American empire, they hope, will allow America to have its market without being deadened by it.

* * *

Though it is too soon to make any definitive assessment of the domestic and international situation of the United States post-9/11, mounting evidence suggests that the American empire is encountering more than a few obstacles, at home and abroad. A 1997 Pentagon report identifies "a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States," suggesting that additional U.S. military expeditions will only increase the likelihood of such attacks. This heightened vulnerability to terrorism, not just on American soil but on U.S. military bases around the world—portends a future that can only be more dangerous for Americans, here and elsewhere.

But with terrorism classified by the current administration as a symptom of unfathomable evil or antimodernist hostility to Western values, it does not register as a reaction to imperial power. After the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which did not immediately produce the opposition in the Muslim world that had been widely anticipated, the Administration came to believe, according to a former high-level intelligence official, that it did not need to worry about any violent backlash its power: "They went against the established experts on the Middle East who said it [the bombing of Afghanistan] would lead to fundamental insurrections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Not so, and anyone who now preaches any approach of solving problems with diplomacy is scoffed at. They're on a roll." Even though it took Osama bin Laden some ten years after the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to exact his revenge against the United States, the failure of anti-American violence to materialize within three months was taken as proof that such a backlash was no longer a threat—a point reinforced in a December 2001 presentation at the White House by the historian Bernard Lewis. According to one White House staff member, Lewis said, "In that part of the world, nothing matters more than resolute will and force," which means, according to a New Yorker report, that "the United States needn't proceed gingerly for fear of inflaming the ‘Arab street,' as long as it is prepared to be strong."

Violence against the United States might not prove to be a problem, at least not in the short term; after all, other empires have weathered it for a time. What makes it such a destabilizing factor over the long haul is that despite all the talk of the United States being prepared to accept casualties in the war on terrorism, at moments when that war has seemed to blunder or miscarry, naysayers in the media and even the Democratic Party—not to mention in Western Europe—have managed to raise serious questions about the viability of the Bush administration's imperial project. After a mere few weeks of bombing in October 2001 had failed to dislodge the Taliban, for example, critics started murmuring their fears that the war in Afghanistan would be a reprise of the Vietnam quagmire. Likewise, as soon as it became apparent that the war in Iraq was settling into a nasty, brutish, and long campaign and that the United States had become an occupying power, Democrats began to probe the edges of acceptable criticism of the war. With the 2004 presidential campaign now in full swing, willingness to voice that criticism has become a litmus test among the candidates. Moreover,the gathering of nations to oppose the imperial hegemon, which Rice and others declared unlikely before the Iraq war, now seems quite possible.

Though none of these critics has yet to challenge the full-throttle militarism of Bush's policies, their periodic appearance, particularly in times of trouble or defeat, suggests that the administration's vision is politically compelling only so long as it is successful. And this is as it must be. Because the centerpiece of the neoconservatives' promise is that the United States can govern events—that it can determine the outcome of history—their vision cannot sustain the suggestion that events lie beyond their control. Indeed, as soon as violence in the Middle East began to escalate in March 2002, even the administration's defenders began jumping ship, suggesting that any invasion of Iraq would have to be postponed indefinitely. As one of Reagan's high-level national security aides put it, "The supreme irony is that the greatest power the world has ever known has proven incapable of managing a regional crisis."

Ironically, insofar as the Bush administration avoids those conflicts in which it might fail, such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it is forced to forgo the very logic of imperialism that it seeks to avow. The ideology of empire, premised as it is on the ability of the United States to control events, cannot accommodate failure, but by avoiding failure, the imperialists are forced to acknowledge that they cannot control events. As former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger has observed, in a discussion of the crisis in the Middle East, Bush realizes "that simply to insert himself into this mess without any possibility of achieving any success is, in and of itself, dangerous because it would demonstrate that, in fact, we don't have any ability right now to control or affect events." This Catch-22 is no mere problem of logic or consistency; it betrays the essential fragility of the imperial position itself.

That fragility also reflects the hollowness of the neocons' imperial vision. Though the neocons see imperialism as the cultural and political counterpart to the free market, they have not yet come to terms with how the conservative opposition to government spending renders the United States unlikely to make the necessary investments in nation-building that imperialism requires. It has been only two years since the United States promised the people of Afghanistan that it would never abandon them, and already it's clear that the Bush administration has done just that. Outside of Kabul, warlords rule the country, women's rights are nonexistent, heroin production is up, roads and other forms of infrastructure have not been built, and the Taliban has publicly announced its intention to drive an increasingly cash-strapped United States from the field. According to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, "It is like I am seeing the same movie twice and no one is trying to fix the problem. What was promised to the Afghans with the collapse of the Taliban was a new life of hope and change. But what was delivered? Nothing. Everyone is back in business."

On the domestic front, there is little evidence to suggest that the political and cultural renewal imagined by most commentators has taken place, or will take place. September 11 may have temporarily increased popular trust in government and interest in public affairs, but it has not displaced the free-market ideology that makes government action an instant source of suspicion among Republicans and conservative Democrats. When politicians have proposed government intervention in national security–related sectors of the economy, free-marketeers have been surprisingly effective at stymieing them. In March of 2002, for example, 62 senators, including 19 Democrats, rejected higher fuel-efficiency standards in the automobile industry, which would have reduced dependence upon Persian Gulf oil. Missouri Republican Christopher Bond declared on the Senate floor, "I don't want to tell a mom in my home state that she should not get an SUV because Congress decided that would be a bad choice." Even more telling was just how vulnerable proponents of higher standards were to these arguments. John McCain, for one, was instantly put on the defensive, promising that "no American will be forced to drive any different automobile," as if that would have been an inconceivable imposition in this new era of wartime sacrifice and solidarity.

Even within and around the military, the ethos of patriotism and shared destiny has given way to the logic of the market. The government's desire not to spend too much money and thereby raise taxes has forced American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq to spend their own money on such items as night-vision goggles, desert-camouflage boots, baby wipes, radios and communications equipment, and rucksacks. Military recruiters admit that they still entice enlistees not with the call of patriotism but with the promise of economic opportunity. As one recruiter puts it, "It's just business as usual. We don't push the ‘Help our country' routine." When patriots burst into a recruiting office and say, "I want to fight," another recruiter explains, "I've got to calm them down. We're not all about fighting and bombing. We're about jobs. We're about education." Recruiters confess that they continue to target immigrants and people of color, on the assumption that these constituencies' lack of opportunity will drive them to the military. The Pentagon publicly acknowledges that it hopes to increase the number of Latino recruits in the military from the current 10 percent to 22 percent. Recruiters in Southern California have even slipped across the border, promising instant citizenship to poor Mexicans willing to take up arms on behalf of the United States. According to one San Diego recruiter, "It's more or less common practice that some recruiters go to Tijuana to distribute pamphlets, or in some cases they look for someone to help distribute information on the Mexican side."

The fact that the war has not yet imposed the sort of sacrifices on the population that normally accompany national crusades has provoked occasional bouts of concern among politicians and cultural elites. "The danger, over the long term," writes the Times's R.W. Apple, "is loss of interest. With much of the war to be conducted out of plain sight by commandos, diplomats and intelligence agents, will a nation that has spent decades in easy self-indulgence stay focused?" A former aide to LBJ says, "People are going to have to get involved in this. So far it's a government effort, as it should be, but people aren't engaged." Without consecrating the cause in blood, Americans will not have their commitment tested, their resolve deepened.

* * *

We thus face a dangerous situation. On the one hand we have neoconservative elites whose vision of American power is recklessly utopian, who seem increasingly disconnected from any coherent conception of the national interest. On the other hand we have a domestic population that shows little interest in this far-flung empire. The political order projected by Bush and his supporters in the media and academia is just that: a projection, which can only last so long as the United States is able to put down, with minimum casualties, challenges to its power. If this assessment is correct, we may well be entering one of those famed Machiavellian moments discussed by J.G.A. Pocock a quarter century ago, when a republic opts for the frisson of empire, and is forced to confront the fragility and finitude of all political forms, including its own.

We may also be seeing, and I suggest this only tentatively, the slow decomposition of America's ruling class. Ever since the end of the Cold War—some might even say since Vietnam—there has been a growing disconnect between the culture and ideology of American business elites and that of political warriors like Wolfowitz and other neocons. Whereas the Cold War saw the creation of a semi-coherent class of Wise Men who brought together, however jaggedly, the worlds of business and politics—men like Dean Acheson, the Dulles brothers, and Averell Harriman—the Reagan years and beyond have witnessed something altogether different. On the one hand, we have a younger generation of corporate magnates who, though ruthless in their efforts to secure benefits from the state, have none of the respect or passion for government that their older counterparts had. These new CEOs respond to their counterparts in Tokyo, London, and other global cities. So long as the state provides them with what they need and does not interfere unduly with their operations, they leave it to the apparatchiks. As one Silicon Valley executive said to Thomas Friedman, when asked how often he talks about Iraq, Russia, or foreign wars, "Not more than once a year. We don't even care about Washington. Money is extracted by Silicon Valley and then wasted by Washington. I want to talk about people who create wealth and jobs. I don't want to talk about unhealthy and unproductive people. If I don't care about the wealth destroyers in my own country, why should I care about the wealth destroyers in another country?"

On the other hand, we have a new class of political elites who have little contact with the business community, whose primary experiences outside of government have been in either academia, journalism, think tanks, or some other part of the culture industry. As corporate elites set their sights upon an increasingly global economy, the neocons have been given, it seems, the run of the farm. They traffic in ideas and see the world as a vast landscape of intellectual projection. Unconstrained by even the most interested of interests, they are free to advance their cause, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed, according to press reports, most corporate elites in the United States and elsewhere, even in the oil industry, have been either uninterested in or firmly opposed to the Bush administration's expedition in Iraq. Like their corporate counterparts, the neocons view the world as their stage, but unlike their corporate counterparts, they are designing that stage for an altogether more theatrical, other-worldly drama. Their endgame, if they have one, is an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil, civilization and barbarism—categories of pagan conflict diametrically opposed to the world-without-borders vision of America's free-trading, globalizing elite.



How much longer will America be "an attractive empire everyone wants to join"?

Niccolo and Donkey

Thanks Drieu , I will reply to this one tomorrow. I've had a few glasses of wine so I am handicapped at the moment.

Niccolo and Donkey

I'm still making my way through this as there's a lot to chew on.


Here's moar, elaborating on the conservative's fascination with war, violence, struggle, and conflict as salutary remedies to material comfort and degeneracy, as well as the distaste for "legalism" and moderation. I think this guy nails it.

"I enjoy wars. Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office."
—Harold Macmillan

Despite the support among self-identified conservative voters and politicians for the death penalty, torture, and war, intellectuals on the right often deny any affinity between conservatism and violence.1 Pragmatic and adaptive, disposed rather than committed, such a sensibility—and it is a sensibility, the conservative insists, not an ideology—is not interested in violence. His endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he’d like it to be. The historical record of conservatism—not only as a political practice, which is not my primary concern here, but as a theoretical tradition—suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, the conservative has been enlivened by it. I don’t mean in a personal sense, though many a conservative, like Harold Macmillan quoted above or Winston Churchill quoted below, has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. My concern is with ideas and argument rather than character or psychology. Violence, the conservative intellectual has maintained, is one of the experiences in life that makes us feel the most alive, and violence is an activity that makes life, well, lively. 3 Such arguments can be made nimbly—“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” as George Santayana once put it 4 —or laboriously, as in the case of Treitschke:

To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace . . . . However, it is not worth the trouble to discuss this matter further; the living God will see to it that war constantly returns as a dreadful medicine for the human race. 5

Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: war is life, peace is death.

This belief can be traced back to Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. There Burke develops a view of the self desperately in need of negative stimuli of the sort provided by pain and danger, which Burke associates with the sublime. The sublime is most readily found in two political forms: hierarchy and violence.

“When it has run its career,” Burke says, pleasure “sets us down very nearly where it found us.” Any kind of pleasure “quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference.” 7 Quieter enjoyments, less intense than pleasure, are equally soporific. They generate complacency; we “give ourselves over to indolence and inaction.” 8 So many doors of the psyche open onto this space of inertial gloom we might well conclude that it lurks not at the edge, but at the center of the human condition. Here, in this dark courtyard of the self, all action ceases, creating an ideal environment for “melancholy, dejection, despair, and self-murder.” 10 Even love, the most outward of raptures, carries the self back to a state of internal dissolution. 11 Suicide, it seems, is the inevitable fate awaiting anyone who takes pleasure in the world as it is.

Perhaps it is this lethal ennui, lurking just beneath the surface of conservative discourse, that explains the failure of the conservative politician to follow the lead of the conservative theorist. Far from embracing the cause of quiet enjoyments and secure attachments, the conservative politician has consistently opted for an activism of the not-yet and the will-be. Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address was a paean to the power of dreams: not small dreams but big, heroic dreams, of progress and betterment, and not dreams for their own sake, but dreams as a necessary and vital prod to action. Three months later, in an address before Congress, Reagan drove the point home with a quote from Carl Sandburg: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” And nothing happening, or too few things happening, or things not happening quickly enough, is what the conservative in politics dislikes. Reagan could scarcely contain his impatience with the dithering of politicians: “The old and comfortable way is to shave a little here and add a little there. Well, that’s not acceptable anymore.” Old and comfortable was the indictment, no “half-measures” the verdict. 13

Reagan was hardly the first conservative to act for the sake of the invisible and the ideal as against the material and the real. In his acceptance speech to the 1964 Republican National Convention, Barry Goldwater could find no more potent charge to level at the welfare state than that it had made a great nation “becalmed.” Thanks to the New Deal, the United States had lost its “brisk pace” and was now “plodding along.” Calm, slow, and plodding are usually welcomed by the conservative theorist as signs of present bliss. But to the conservative politician, they are evils. He must declare war, rallying his armies against the listless and the languid with talk of “causes,” “struggle,” “enthusiasm,” and “devotion.” 14

That crusading zeal is not peculiar to American conservatism. It is found in Europe as well, even in England, the land that made moderation the moniker of conservatism. “Whoever won a battle,” scoffed Margaret Thatcher, “under the banner ‘I stand for Consensus’?” 15 And then there is Winston Churchill, traveling to Cuba in 1895 to report on the Spanish war against Cuban independence.16 Ruminating on the disappointments of his generation—latecomers to the Empire, they were deprived of the opportunity for imperial conquest (as opposed to administration)—he arrived in Havana. This is what he had to say (looking back on the experience in 1930):

The minds of this generation, exhausted, brutalized, mutilated and bored by War, may not understand the delicious yet tremulous sensations with which a young British Officer bred in the long peace approached for the first time an actual theatre of operations.

When first in the dim light of early morning I saw the shores of Cuba rise and define themselves from dark-blue horizons, I felt as if I sailed with Long John Silver and first gazed on Treasure Island. Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones. 17​

Whatever the relationship between theory and practice in the conservative tradition, it is clear from The Sublime and the Beautiful that if the self is to survive and flourish it must be aroused by an experience more vital and bracing than pleasure or enjoyment. Pleasure and enjoyment act like beauty, “relaxing the solids of the whole system.” 18 That system, however, must be made taut and tense. The mind must be quickened, the body exerted. Otherwise, the system will soften and atrophy, and ultimately die. What most arouses this heightened state of being is the confrontation with non-being. Life and health are pleasurable and enjoyable, and that is what is wrong with them: “they make no such impression” on the self because “we were not made to acquiesce in life and health.” Pain and danger, by contrast, are “emissaries” of death, the “king of terrors.” They are sources of the sublime, “the strongest”—most powerful, most affecting—“emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” 19 Pain and danger, in other words, are generative experiences of the self.

Pain and danger are generative because they have the contradictory effect of minimizing and maximizing our sense of self. When sensing pain or danger, our mind “is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” The “motions” of our soul “are suspended,” as harm and the fears it arouses “rush in upon the mind.” In the face of these fears, “the mind is hurried out of itself.” When we experience the sublime, we feel ourselves evacuated, overwhelmed by an external object of tremendous power and threat. Everything that gave us a sense of internal being and vitality ceases to exist. The external is all, we are nothing. God is a good example, and the ultimate expression, of the sublime: “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.” 20

Paradoxically, we also feel our existence to an extent we never have felt it before. Seized by terror, our “attention” is roused and our “faculties” are “driven forward, as it were, on their guard.” We are pulled out of ourselves. We are cognizant of the immediate terrain and our presence upon it. Before, we barely noticed ourselves or our surroundings. Now we spill out of ourselves, inhabiting not only our bodies and minds but the space around us. We feel “a sort of swelling”—a sense that we are greater, our perimeter extends further—that “is extremely grateful to the human mind.” But this “swelling,” Burke reminds us, “is never more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects.” 21

Burke’s intimations about the perils of long-established rule reflect a surprising strain within conservatism: a persistent, if unacknowledged, discomfort with power that has ripened and matured, authority that has grown comfortable and secure. Beginning with Burke himself, conservatives have expressed a deep unease about ruling classes so assured of their place in the sun that they lose their capacity to rule: their will to power dissipates; the muscles and intelligence of their command attenuate. Burke believed that the Old Regime was beautiful. For that reason, it was also “sluggish, inert, and timid.” It cannot defend itself “from the invasions of ability,” with ability standing in for the new men of power that the Revolution brings forth. The moneyed interest, also allied with the Revolution, is stronger than the landed interest because it is “more ready for any adventure” and “more disposed to new enterprises of any kind.” 29 The Old Regime is beautiful, static, weak; the Revolution is ugly, dynamic, strong. “It is a dreadful truth,” Burke admits in the second of his Letters on a Regicide Peace , “but it is a truth that cannot be concealed; in ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views, the Jacobins are our superiors.” 30

Joseph de Maistre was less tactful than Burke in his condemnations of the Old Regime, perhaps because he took its failings more personally. Long before the Revolution, he claims, the leadership of the Old Regime had been confused and bewildered. Naturally, the ruling classes were unable to comprehend, much less resist, the onslaught unleashed against them. Impotence, physical and cognitive, was—and remains—the Old Regime’s great sin. The aristocracy cannot understand; it cannot act. Some portion of the nobility may be well meaning, but they cannot see their projects through. They are foppish and foolish. They have virtue but not virtú . The aristocracy “fails ridiculously in everything it undertakes.” The clergy has been corrupted by wealth and luxury. The monarchy consistently has shown that it lacks the will “to punish” that is the hallmark of every real sovereign. 31 Faced with such decadence, the inevitable outgrowth of centuries in power, Maistre concludes it is a good thing the counterrevolution has not yet triumphed (he is writing in 1797). The Old Regime needs several more years in the wilderness if it is to shed the corrupting influences of its once beautiful life:

The restoration of the throne would mean a sudden relaxation of the driving force of the state. The black magic working at the moment would disappear like mist before the sun. Kindness, clemency, justice, all the gentle and peaceful virtues, would suddenly reappear and would bring with them a general meekness of character, a certain cheerfulness entirely opposed to the rigours of the revolutionary regime. 32

A century later, a similar case will be made by Georges Sorel against the belle époque . Sorel is not usually seen as an emblematic figure of the right—then again, even Burke’s conservatism remains a subject of dispute 33 —and, indeed, his greatest work, Reflections on Violence , is often thought of as a contribution, albeit minor, to the Marxist tradition. Yet Sorel’s beginnings are conservative and his endings proto-fascist, and even in his Marxist phase his primary worry is decadence and vitality rather than exploitation and justice.

The criticisms he lodges against the French ruling classes at the end of the nineteenth century are not dissimilar to those made by Burke and Maistre at the end of the eighteenth. He even makes the comparison explicit: the French bourgeoisie, Sorel writes, “has become almost as stupid as the nobility of the eighteenth century.” They are “an ultra-civilized aristocracy that demands to be left in peace.” Once, the bourgeoisie was a race of warriors. “Bold captains,” they were “creators of new industries” and “discovers of unknown lands.” They “directed gigantic enterprises,” inspired by that “conquering, insatiable and pitiless spirit” that laid railroads, subdued continents, and made a world economy. Today, they are timid and cowardly, refusing to take the most elemental steps to defend their own interests against unions, socialists, and the left. Rather than unleash violence against striking workers, they surrender to the workers’ threat of violence. They lack the ardor, the fire in the belly, of their ancestors. It is difficult not to conclude that “the bourgeoisie is condemned to death and that its disappearance is only a matter of time.” 34

Carl Schmitt formalized Sorel’s contempt for the weaknesses of the ruling classes into an entire theory of politics. According to Schmitt, the bourgeois was as he was—risk-averse, selfish, uninterested in bravery or violent death, desirous of peace and security—because capitalism was his calling and liberalism his faith. Neither provided him with a good reason for dying for the state. In fact, both gave him good reasons, indeed an entire vocabulary, not to die for the state. Interest, freedom, profit, rights, property, individualism, and other such words had created one of the most self-absorbed ruling classes in history, a class that enjoyed privilege but did not feel itself obliged to defend that privilege. After all, the premise of liberal democracy was the separation of politics from economics and culture. One could pursue profit, at someone else’s expense, and think freely, no matter how subversive the thoughts, without disrupting the balance of power. The bourgeoisie, however, were confronting an enemy that very much understood the connections between ideas, money, and power, that economic arrangements and intellectual arguments were the stuff of political combat. Marxists got the friend-enemy distinction, which is constitutive of politics; the bourgeoisie did not. 35 The spirit of Hegel used to reside in Berlin; it has long since “wandered to Moscow.” 36

Sorel identified one exception to this rule of capitalist decadence: the robber barons of the United States. In the Carnegies and the Goulds of American industry, Sorel thought he saw “the indomitable energy, the audacity based on an accurate appreciation of strength, the cold calculation of interests, which are the qualities of great generals and great capitalists.” Unlike the pampered bourgeoisie of France and Britain, the millionaires of Pittsburgh and Pittston “lead to the end of their lives a galley-slave existence without ever thinking of leading a nobleman’s life, as the Rothschilds do.” 37

Throughout the 1830s, as the abolitionists began pressing their cause, John C. Calhoun drove himself into a rage over the easy living and willed cluelessness of his comrades on the plantation. They had grown lazy, fat, and complacent, so roundly enjoying the privileges of their position that they could not see the coming catastrophe. Or, if they could, the Southern planters couldn’t do anything to fend it off , their political and ideological muscles having atrophied long ago. 41 Barry Goldwater likewise expressed contempt for the Republican Establishment. 42 And throughout the 1990s—to jump ahead by another three decades—one could hear their heirs on the right direct the same venom against the American capitalist at the masters of the universe on Wall Street and the geeky entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. 43 If the ruling class is to be vigorous and robust, the conservative has concluded, its members must be tested, exercised, and challenged.

Not just their bodies, but also their minds, even their souls. Echoing Milton—“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race . . . . That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary” 44 —Burke believes that adversity and difficulty, the confrontation with affliction and suffering, make for stronger, more virtuous beings.

The great virtues turn principally on dangers, punishments, and troubles, and are exercised rather in preventing mischiefs, than in dispensing favours; and are therefore not lovely, though highly venerable. The subordinate turn on reliefs, gratifications, and indulgences; and are therefore more lovely, though inferior in dignity. Those persons who creep into the hearts of most people, who are chosen as the companions of their softer hours, and their reliefs from care and anxiety, are never persons of shining qualities, nor strong virtues. 45​

Perhaps we see here the origins of the conservative preference for warfare over the welfare state, but that is another topic for another day. But where Milton and other like-minded republicans believe that impurity and corruption await the complacent and the comfortable, Burke espies the more terrifying specter of dissipation, degeneration, and death. If the powerful are to remain powerful, if they are to remain alive at all, their power, indeed the credibility of their own existence, must be continuously challenged, threatened, and defended.

One of the more arresting—though I hope by now intelligible—features of conservative discourse is the fascination, indeed appreciation, one finds for the conservative’s enemies, particularly for their use of violence against him and his allies. Maistre’s most rapturous comments in his Considerations on France are reserved for the Jacobins, whose brutal will and penchant for violence—their “black magic”—he plainly envies. Thanks to their efforts, France has been purified and restored to its rightful pride of place among the family of nations. They have rallied the people against foreign invaders, a “prodigy” that “only the infernal genius of Robespierre could accomplish.” Unlike the monarchy, the Revolution has the will to punish. 46

From the perspective of the Burkean sublime, however, Maistre’s argument only goes so far. The Revolution rejuvenates the Old Regime by forcing it from power and purifying the people through violence. It delivers a clarifying shock to the system. But Maistre never contemplates, or at least never discusses, the revivifying effect that wresting power back from the Revolution might have on the leaders of the Old Regime. And indeed, once he gets around to describing how he thinks the counterrevolution will occur, the final battle turns out to be a stunningly anticlimactic affair, with scarcely a shot fired at all. “How Will the Counter-Revolution Happen if it Comes?” Maistre asks. “Four or five persons, perhaps, will give France a king.” Not exactly the stuff of a virile, transformed ruling class, battling its way back to power. 47 Maistre never contemplated the restorative possibilities of hand-to-hand combat between the Old Regime and the Revolution; for this one must turn to Sorel. And while Sorel’s allegiances in the war between the rulers and the ruled of the late nineteenth century are more ambiguous than Maistre’s, his account of the effect of the violence of the ruled upon the rulers is not.

The French bourgeoisie has lost its fighting spirit, Sorel claims, but that spirit is alive and well among the workers. Their battlefield is the workplace, their weapon is the general strike, and their aim is the overthrow of the state. It is the last that most impresses Sorel, for the desire to overthrow the state signals just how unconcerned the workers are about “the material profits of conquest.” Not only do they not seek higher wages and other improvements in their well-being; instead they have set their sights on the most improbable of goals—overthrowing the state by a general strike. It is that improbability, the distance between means and ends, that makes the violence of the proletariat so glorious. The proletarians are like Homeric warriors, absorbed in the grandeur of the battle and indifferent to the aims of the war: Who really has ever overthrown a state by a general strike? Theirs is a violence for its own sake, without concern for costs, benefits, and the calculations in between. 48 As Ernst Jünger wrote a generation later, it “is not what we fight for but how we fight.” 49

But what grips Sorel is not the proletariat but the rejuvenating effects it might have on the bourgeoisie. Can the violence of the general strike “give back to the bourgeoisie an ardour which is extinguished?” Certainly the vigor of the proletariat might reawaken the bourgeoisie to its own interests and the threats its withdrawal from politics has posed to those interests. More tantalizing to Sorel, however, is the possibility that the violence of workers will “restore to [the bourgeoisie] the warlike qualities it formerly possessed,” forcing the “capitalist class to remain ardent in the industrial struggle.” Through the struggle against the proletariat, in other words, the bourgeoisie may recover its ferocity and ardor. And ardor is everything. From ardor alone, that splendid indifference to reason and self-interest, an entire civilization, drowning in materialism and complacency, will be reawakened. A ruling class, threatened by violence from the ruled, roused to its own taste for violence—that is the promise of the civil war in France. 50

For the conservative, no matter how modulated or moderate, a renewed vigor has always been the promise of civil war. For between the easy cases of a Catholic reactionary like Maistre and a protofascist like Sorel stands the more difficult but ultimately more revealing example of Alexis de Tocqueville. His drift from the moderation of the July Monarchy to the revanchism of 1848 demonstrates how easily and inexorably the Burkean conservative will swing from the beautiful to the sublime, how the music of prudence and moderation gives way to the march of violence and vitriol. 51

Publicly presenting himself as the consummate realist, discriminating and judicious, with little patience for enthusiasm of any sort, Tocqueville was actually a closet romantic. He confessed to his brother that he shared their father’s “devouring impatience,” his “need for lively and recurring sensations.” Reason, he said, “has always been for me like a cage,” behind which he would “gnash [his] teeth.” He longed for “the sight of combat.” Looking back on the French Revolution, which he missed (he was born in 1805), he lamented the end of the Terror, claiming that “men thus crushed can not only no longer attain great virtues, but they seem to have become almost incapable of great crimes.” Even Napoleon, scourge of conservatives, moderates, and liberals everywhere, earned Tocqueville’s admiration as the “most extraordinary being who has appeared in the world for many centuries.” Who, by contrast, could find inspiration in the parliamentary politics of the July Monarchy, that “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup”?

Yet once he set upon a career in politics, it was into that little bourgeois pot of soup that Tocqueville jumped. Predictably, it was not to his taste. Tocqueville may have mouthed the words of moderation, compromise, and the rule of law, but they did not move him. Without the threat of revolutionary violence, politics was simply not the grand drama he imagined it had been between 1789 and 1815. “Our fathers observed such extraordinary things that compared with them all of our works seem commonplace.” The politics of moderation and compromise produced moderation and compromise; it did not produce politics, at least not as Tocqueville understood the term. During the 1830s and 1840s, “what was most wanting . . . was political life itself.” There was “no battlefield for contending parties to meet upon.” Politics had been “deprived” of “all originality, of all reality, and therefore of all genuine passions.”

Then came 1848. Tocqueville didn’t support the Revolution. Indeed, he was among its most vociferous opponents. He voted for the full suspension of civil liberties, which he happily announced was done “with even more energy than had been done under the Monarchy.” He welcomed talk of a dictatorship—to protect the very regime he had spent the better part of two decades disparaging. And he loved it all: the violence, the counterviolence, the battle. Defending moderation against radicalism, Tocqueville was given a chance to use radical means for moderate ends, and it is not entirely clear which of the two most stirred him.

Let me say, then, that when I came to search carefully into the depths of my own heart, I discovered, with some surprise, a certain sense of relief, a sort of gladness mingled with all the griefs and fears to which the Revolution had given rise. I suffered from this terrible event for my country, but clearly not for myself; on the contrary, I seemed to breathe more freely than before the catastrophe. I had always felt myself stifled in the atmosphere of the parliamentary world which had just been destroyed: I had found it full of disappointments, both where others and where I myself was concerned.​

A self-styled poet of the tentative, the subtle, and the complex, Tocqueville burned with enthusiasm upon waking up to a world divided into two camps. Timid parliaments sowed a gray confusion; civil war forced upon the nation a bracing clarity of black and white. “There was no field left for uncertainty of mind: on this side lay the salvation of the country; on that, its destruction . . . . The road seemed dangerous, it is true, but my mind is so constructed that it is less afraid of danger than of doubt.” For this member of the ruling class, sublimity welling up from the violence of the lower orders offered an opportunity to escape the stifling beauty of life on the bourgeois Parnassus.

Francis Fukuyama is perhaps the most thoughtful of recent writers to pursue this conservative line of argument about violence. Unlike Maistre, however, or Tocqueville and Sorel—all of whom wrote in the midst of battle, when the outcome was unclear—Fukuyama writes from the vantage of victory. It is 1992, and the capitalist classes have beaten their socialist opponents in the long civil war of the short twentieth century. It is not a pretty sight, at least not for Fukuyama. For the revolutionary was one of the few thymotic men of the twentieth century. Thymotic man is like Sorel’s worker: he who risks his life for the sake of an improbable principle, who is unconcerned with his own material interests and cares only for honor, glory, and the values for which he fights. After a strange but brief homage to the Bloods and the Crips as thymotic men, Fukuyama looks back fondly to men of purpose and power like Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, “striving for something purer and higher” and possessed of “greater than usual hardness, vision, ruthlessness, and intelligence.” By virtue of their refusal to accommodate themselves to the reality of their times, they were the “most free and therefore the most human of beings.” But somehow or other, these men and their successors lost the civil war of the twentieth century, almost inexplicably, to the forces of “Economic Man.”

For Economic Man is “the true bourgeois .” Such a man would never be “willing to walk in front of a tank or confront a line of soldiers” for any cause, even his own. Yet Economic Man is the victor, and far from rejuvenating or restoring him to his primal powers, the war seems only to have made him more bourgeois. Conservative that he is, Fukuyama can only chafe at the triumph of Economic Man and “the life of rational consumption” he has brought about, a life that is “in the end, boring .” 52

We can see a similar phenomenon at play in the war on terror. Though many view the Bush administration and neoconservatism as departures from proper conservatism—the most recent statement of this thesis being Sam Tanenhaus’s The Death of Conservatism 58 — the neocon project of imperial adventurism traces the Burkean arc of violence from beginning to end. I have already discussed, how the neoconservatives saw 9/11 and the war on terror as a chance to escape from the decadent and deadening peace and prosperity of the Clinton years, which they believed had weakened American society. Oozing in comfort, Americans—and more important their leaders—had supposedly lost the will, the desire and ability, to govern the world. Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly it seemed as if they could. That dream, of course, now lies in tatters, but one of its more idiosyncratic aspects is worth noting, for it presents a wrinkle in the long saga of conservative violence.

According to many conservatives, and not just the neocons, one of the recent sources of American decadence, traceable back to the Warren Court and the rights revolutions of the 1960s, is the liberal obsession with the rule of law. This obsession, in the eyes of the conservative, takes many forms: the insistence on due process in criminal procedure; a partiality to litigation over legislation; an emphasis on diplomacy and international law over war; attempts to restrain executive power through judicial and legislative oversight. However unrelated these symptoms may seem, conservatives see in them a single disease: a culture of rules and laws slowly disabling and devitalizing the blond beast of prey that is American power. These are signs of a Nietzschean unhealthiness, and 9/11 was the inevitable result.

If another 9/11 is to be prevented, that culture of rights and rules must to be repudiated and reversed. As the reporting of Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer makes clear, the war on terror—with its push for torture, for overturning the Geneva Conventions, for refusing the restrictions of international law, for illegal surveillance, and for seeing terrorism through the lens of war rather than of crime and punishment—reflects as much, if not more, these conservative sensibilities and sensitivities as it does the actual facts of 9/11 and the need to prevent another attack. 59 “She’s soft—too soft,” says now-retired Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin about the United States, pre- and post-9/11. The way to make her hard is not merely to undertake difficult and strenuous military action but also to violate the rules—and the culture of rules—that made her soft in the first place. The United States must learn how to “live on the edge,” says former NSA director Michael Hayden. “There’s nothing we won’t do, nothing we won’t try,” former CIA director George Tenet helpfully adds. 60

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence—which was the great fear of the neocons—lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows—the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity—must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.
niccolo and donkey Broseph Bronze Age Pervert Thomas777 Ferdinand popfop Roland mlad

I know there is a lot of resistance to acknowledging that neoconservatives have anything at all in common with previous generations of conservatives, but I think this guys makes a strong case otherwise. If you think his choice of representative conservatives is somewhat questionable (though I doubt people here would deny names like Maistre or Treitschke or Schmitt or Jünger), I can assure you that the same tendencies appear in people considered "authentic conservatives" like Spengler, Evola, et al. Evola wrote an entire book on the metaphysics of war. Here is Spengler:

You can even find the similar grumbling about middle-class "softness" from WNs like William Pierce:

Needless to say, it wouldn't be hard to find similar quotes from our pal Adolf Hitler.

So yeah, this seems to be a recurring element of the right-wing psyche, and not only the far right, whether one likes it or not. That there might be individual exceptions here and there doesn't do much to negate this.
Abe de Ville

Drieu, I think you're right as regards neocons, but the reason that it seems like a deviation is that the American 'old right' is actually closer to European classical liberalism. Political viewpoints are all mixed up here given the different history. So we have liberal views being considered as conservative due to their association with the Enlightenment era thought that informed the foundation of the USA. This is merely one confused result of the American revolution. There are probably many others you could think of.

As for its results, I think the neoconservative project was unsuccessful because it was the project of policy wonks, academics, and so on largely in the Beltway and other centers of power. The common man was never behind this project, indeed in many cases he either didn't understand it or was not even aware of it. I'm not saying that the elitism per se of the project was a bad thing. But in the modern context you have to have some kind of populist mobilization for any project of the sort to work out. And neocons lacked the infrastructure to really 'market' their ideas to the American public, since the media in this country were generally quite hostile to their ideas and commitments. I also do not believe that the average American boob has much enthusiasm about European old right ideas which involve self-sacrifice, valor, virtue and so on. Whatever the case may be. though, it just didn't work out and this is largely due to the fact that it never extended well beyond the policy centers.

And there are other problems with the vision itself. I have a hard time viewing America as an ideal example of empire. In a sense we don't have any positive ideal to export. America has no culture anymore, and it is not "an attractive empire that everyone would want to join", basically. Americans are soft, so they're not really feared. Americans are dishonorable, selfish, and degenerate, so they don't command respect. What else is there then - mammon worship, feminism, hollyweird garbage 'culture', and buying votes of slum dwellers for fun and profit and using the bought underclass to terrorize the productive people? Personally I'd rather see global Shari'ah than what America has to offer the world, and I'm far from an Islamophile.


Neoconservatism is nothing more than aggressive managerialism; seeing any kind of right-wing vitality in this aggression is wishful thinking. What neocons want to do is neutralize threats to the managerial state (i.e. post-war American democracy), hence why their targets -- Islam, Orthodox Christian Europe, autocracies of all kinds -- are hostile to global democracy. If neoconservatism were simply the spirit of military adventurism, we would see invasions of Africa, Latin America, and other more 'fun' places. Surely manufacturing a rationale for such neo-colonial escapades would be no more difficult than what led up to the Iraq War, which we can all admit was rather boring.