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Nervous Liberals

The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics

by Peter Steinfels
Simon and Schuster, 335 pp., $11.95

I

A genuine conservatism expresses a sense of crisis and imminent or actual loss. Its tone is perfectly caught in the opening lines of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, where Hooker explains his purpose in writing: “Though for no other cause, yet for this, that posterity may know that we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream….” And, more stridently, in the gothic prose of Edmund Burke: “But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold…” etc.

Our own neoconservatives express a neo-sense of crisis and loss. Though they sometimes write in the gothic mode, they cannot approach Burke’s wholeheartedness. For they themselves stand in the ranks of the economists and calculators. They are committed to the arrangements and processes that cause the transformations they bewail. As Peter Steinfels writes in his excellent study of neoconservative thought, they live with a “basic dilemma”: “The institutions they wish to conserve are to no small extent the institutions that have made the task of conservation so necessary and so difficult.”

What is the nature of the “crisis” that American neoconservatives have been complaining about? Among the writers Steinfels considers, the crisis is differently described and with very different degrees of analytical rigor. I can only suggest a rough and quick summary. Steinfels provides a careful analysis, skeptical, but always true, I think, to the best of their arguments. The crisis is first of all a collapse of authority in governments, armies, universities, corporations, and churches. Old patterns of trust and deference have broken down. Political leaders, military officers, factory foremen cannot command obedience; professors cannot command respect. Alongside this is a radical loosening of social bonds in communities, neighborhoods, and families—perhaps best summed up in the common metaphor of “splitting.” Once only Protestant sects and radical political movements split. Now families split, couples split, individuals split. Splitting is the ordinary and casual way of breaking up and taking one’s leave, and leave-taking is one of the more remarkable freedoms of contemporary society.

Finally, there is a deep erosion of traditional values, not only deference and respect, but moderation, restraint, civility, work. All this makes for a pervasive sense of disintegration. It creates a world—so we are told—of liberal decadence, of rootless, mobile, ambitious men and women, free (mostly) from legal and social constraint, free too from any kind of stable intimacy, pursuing happiness, demanding instant satisfaction: a world of graceless hedonists.

This picture obviously depends upon implicit comparisons with some older and different social order and, as Steinfels makes clear, the precise historical reference points are rarely given. So the picture is crudely drawn, a disturbing combination of insight and hysteria. As expressed in the writings of Irving Kristol, Robert Nisbet, Aaron Wildavsky, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Moynihan, S.M. Lipset, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Bell—professors or former professors all—it has to my mind an initial implausibility. It relies too heavily on the experience of the late Sixties and hardly at all on the experience of the late Seventies. The authority of presidents, in the aftermath of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Watergate, may still be precarious, and understandably so, but the authority of professors seems fully restored. That probably has more to do with the economy than with our own virtue or pedagogical success. Still, students have never in the past twenty years been as deferential as they are today. Conservatives are supposed to dwell happily in the past; the present is torment for them. Our neoconservatives dwell miserably in the past, reliving every undergraduate outrage; the present might be a relief.

But let us accept their vision, or at least take it seriously. That is Steinfels’s strategy, and it is surely right. These neoconservatives are eminent scholars and intellectuals; they are widely read (because they have interesting things to say); they have ready access to foundations and government agencies. Though they differ among themselves in ways I mostly won’t be able to explain in this review, they constitute a common and increasingly influential current of opinion. Steinfels claims that they have created at last that “serious and intelligent conservatism that America has lacked, and whose absence has been roundly lamented by the American Left.” Though the adjectives are right, the claim is dubious, for these writers, on Steinfels’s own reading, have not resolved the basic dilemma of conservative thought; nor are they genuinely committed to the world that is passing away. Still, their argument is worth pursuing. Even if we don’t experience the contemporary crisis with the intensity conveyed in their essays and books, we do after all have intimations of its reality.

It is odd, however, to represent that reality as the decline of liberal civilization. I would suggest instead that what we are living with today is the crisis of liberal triumph. Capitalism, the free market, governmental laissez-faire in religion and culture, the pursuit of happiness: all these make powerfully for hedonism and social disintegration. Or, in different words, they open the way for individual men and women to seek satisfaction wherever they can find it; they clear away the ancient barriers of political repression, economic scarcity, and social deference. But the effects of all this are revealed only gradually over decades, even centuries. Today, we are beginning to sense their full significance.

The foundation of any liberal society,” Bell has written, “is the willingness of all groups to compromise private ends for the public interest.” Surely that is wrong; at least, it is not what leading liberal theorists have told us. The root conviction of liberal thought is that the uninhibited pursuit of private ends (subject only to minimal legal controls) will produce the greatest good of the greatest number, and hence that every restraint on that pursuit is presumptively wrong. Individuals and groups compromise with one another, striking bargains, trying to increase or “maximize” private interest. But they don’t compromise for the sake of the public interest, because the public interest—until it was resurrected as The Public Interest—was not thought to be anything more than the sum of private interests. From this maximizing game, however, large numbers of men and women, the majority of men and virtually all women, were once excluded. They were too poor, too weak, too frightened. It is this exclusion, I suspect, which figures in neoconservative writing as the moderation and civility of times gone by. And what is called hedonism is in reality the end of that exclusion as a result, largely, of economic expansion, mass affluence, and a “liberating” politics which does little more than exploit the deepest meanings of laissez-faire.

Hedonism certainly isn’t new. One has only to think of America in the gilded age or in the 1920s. Nor is it newly cut loose, as neoconservative writers frequently suggest, from the Protestant ethic. If one wants to understand the consumption habits of earlier Americans, one would probably do better to read Veblen than Max Weber. But it is true, and important, that hedonism as a way of life is newly available outside the upper classes. More people pursue happiness, and they pursue it more aggressively, than ever before. Workers, blacks, women, homosexuals: everyone is running. Everyone’s entitled. It makes for a lot of jostling, but isn’t this the fulfillment of the liberal dream? No one reading Hobbes and Locke, and foreseeing the economic expansion of the years since they wrote, would be surprised. And yet how much we miss those old social gospel Christians, populist reformers, socialist agitators, who forgot themselves and pursued other people’s happiness! And how much our neoconservative colleagues miss all those men and women who never realized that they had a right to run!

What is true in the economy is also true in politics. “The effective operation of a democratic political system,” writes Samuel Huntington, “…requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups. In the past, every democracy has had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not participated in politics.” This marginality, “inherently undemocratic,” is nonetheless one of the conditions of democratic success—or at least of governmental effectiveness. The argument might be put more baldly. In the past, government was able to respond effectively to the demands of the powerful and the well-organized, but it is threatened (and authority and civilization with it) when demand is universalized, when everyone gets into the political act. Yet liberal democracy tends toward universality of exactly that sort. What is to be done?

A similar story can be told about religious life. Laissez-faire in religion works wonderfully when it is a matter of creating a structure within which well-established creeds, with well-disciplined adherents, coexist. But as the established religions slowly fade away (in an atmosphere of radical disestablishment, hostile to institutional pretensions), they are replaced by a proliferation of sects and cults, and the stability of the general structure is strained. All sorts of people want to be saved, right now, and as there are many paths to the house of the Lord, so there are many hawkers selling maps. Contemporary sectarianism is simply the latest product of the market. Its leaders combine charisma and hustle, and one can read in their activities all the signs of entrepreneurial energy and, sometimes at least, of consumer satisfaction. Watching the Hare Krishna people on the streets of New York or Cambridge, I probably have feelings very similar to those of a seventeenth-century Puritan minister (the neoconservatives probably feel like Anglicans) listening to a Ranter or a Fifth-Monarchy man. But I still value religious freedom—as do the neoconservatives. And so again: what is to be done?

II

In an impressive sentence, Irving Kristol has written that bourgeois society lived for years off “the accumulated capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy”—capital it did not, as Steinfels emphasizes, effectively renew. The point can be generalized. Liberalism more largely, for all its achievements, or as a kind of necessary constraint on those achievements, has been parasitic not only on older values but also and more importantly on older institutions and communities. And these latter it has progressively undermined. For liberalism is above all a doctrine of liberation. It sets individuals loose from religious and ethnic communities, from guilds, parishes, neighborhoods. It abolishes all sorts of controls and agencies of control: ecclesiastical courts, cultural censorship, sumptuary laws, restraints on mobility, group pressure, family bonds. It creates free men and women, tied together only by their contracts—and ruled, when contracts fail, by a distant and powerful state. It generates a radical individualism and then a radical competition among self-seeking individuals.

What made liberalism endurable for all these years was the fact that the individualism it generated was always imperfect, tempered by older restraints and loyalties, by stable patterns of local, ethnic, religious, or class relationships. An untempered liberalism would be unendurable. That is the crisis the neoconservatives evoke: the triumph of liberalism over its historical restraints. And that is a triumph they both endorse and lament. A small illustration: Kristol writes angrily that in the contemporary world, “to see something on television is to feel entitled to it.” “He nowise hints,” Steinfels comments, “that this is exactly the reaction that someone has intended, in fact spent considerable sums of money to create.” Free men and women, without strong roots in indigenous cultures, are open to that sort of “creativity,” and liberalism by itself offers no protection against it. Do the neoconservatives propose to protect us? Though Kristol has urged the censorship of pornography—one more product of the free market—he has not, so far as I know, urged the censorship of advertising. Still, he is uneasy with the consequences of freedom.

Neoconservatives are nervous liberals, and what they are nervous about is liberalism. They despair of liberation, but they are liberals still, with whatever longing for older values. They remind me of a sentence about Machiavelli hastily scrawled in an undergraduate’s blue book: “Machiavelli stood with one foot in the Middle Ages, while with the other he saluted the rising star of the Renaissance.” That is the way I think of Irving Kristol. He stands with one foot firmly planted in the market, while with the other he salutes the fading values of an organic society. It is an awkward position.

It is also, intellectually and politically, a puzzling position. In recent years, the main tendency of neoconservative writing has been a critique of state intervention in the economy and of expanded welfare programs of the Great Society sort. In magazine articles, foundation studies, and Wall Street Journal editorials, we are repeatedly shown public officials struggling to respond to the cacophony of demand generated by mass democracy, struggling to do (badly) for men and women what they once did (better) for themselves and one another. Like Prince Kropotkin, the neoconservatives dislike the state (unlike the Prince, not the police) and they believe in mutual aid. They value those old communities—ethnic groups, churches, neighborhoods, and families—within which mutual aid once worked. Or supposedly worked: once again, I don’t know the historical reference of the argument. In any case, the basic dilemma remains. For they are committed at the same time to the market economy whose deepest trends undercut community and make state intervention necessary. To put the argument most simply: the market requires labor mobility, while mutual aid depends upon local rootedness. The more people move about, the more they live among strangers, the more they depend upon officials.

Today, that dependency is genuine and pervasive. Capitalism forces men and women to fight for the welfare state. It generates what is indeed a very high level of demand for protection against market vicissitudes and against entrepreneurial risk-taking and for services once provided locally or not at all. It is a common argument among neoconservatives that this demand “overloads” the welfare system, which cannot provide the protection and services people have come to expect. Trapped by the necessities of electoral and pressure group politics, political leaders promise more and more social goods. In office, inevitably, they fail to deliver; popular respect for government declines; the crisis deepens. Perhaps this view expresses some ultimate truth about the welfare system. With Steinfels, I am inclined to doubt that it expresses any immediate truth. It justifies, as he says, a politics that holds too quickly and without sufficient reason that minimal decency in, say, health and housing is simply beyond the reach of our (discredited) officials.

But it is not a part of Steinfels’s project to pursue such disagreements in detail. He is concerned with exposition and analysis. Suppose, then, that the overload argument is right. The long-term effect of liberalism (and capitalism and democracy) is that too many people want too much too quickly. What follows? It isn’t possible to drive individuals and groups back into an older condition of passivity, deference, and marginality. I sometimes detect a hankering after the days of the “respectable poor” among the neoconservatives, but the repression that would be necessary to bring those days back is not a part of their programs. These are liberals still, however nervous. Indeed, it is not clear that there is a clear or coherent program either for interdicting overload or for coping with it.

At this point, articles in The Public Interest, a journal whose editors boast of their hardheadedness, turn preachy. “Less marginality on the part of some groups,” writes Huntington, “needs to be replaced by more self-restraint on the part of all groups.” Yes, indeed. But what is going to persuade all those individual and collective selves to set limits on their demands? What sets of beliefs, what political movements, operating within what sorts of institutional structures? Unless answers are provided for questions like these, answers that give some bite to the crucial phrase in Huntington’s sentence—“on the part of all groups”—neoconservatism is likely to collapse, as Steinfels writes, into “the legitimating and lubricating ideology of an oligarchic America…where great inequalities are rationalized by straitened circumstances….”

Among neoconservative writers, Daniel Bell comes closest to dealing with these questions—though he deals with them in a way that raises doubts about his own conservatism. In fact, he has kept his intellectual distance; it is Steinfels who makes the connection, arguing for the primacy within the corpus of Bell’s work of his attack on modern culture and mass hedonism. Certainly, Bell is as worried as his friends on The Public Interest are about the loss of civitas, “that spontaneous willingness…to forgo the temptations of private enrichment at the expense of the public weal,” and he is as loathe as they are to tell us when it was that such temptations were actually forgone.

Almost alone among neoconservatives, however, Bell is prepared to recognize that civitas depends upon a pervasive sense of equity and that equity in America today requires greater equality and a more effective welfare state. When Bell calls himself “a socialist in economics,” he is marking a difference between his own work and that of his friends which is worth stressing. Steinfels points out that Bell’s socialism is rarely reflected in his writing on economic institutions; it is programmatically thin; and it is accompanied by reiterated expressions of hostility toward egalitarian radicals. But his argument for “the public house-hold” does at least suggest some way of reincorporating liberal values in new communal structures. The alternative is to make a politics out of nervousness itself, a crackling, defensive, angry, unfocused politics—as much of neoconservatism is.

III

Equality is a specter that haunts the neoconservative mind, and Steinfels writes about the haunting with great insight in what is probably the strongest chapter of his book. Like him, I have some difficulty identifying the object which the specter is supposed to represent. Is it the New Left, long gone, or the civil rights movement, or the black and feminist campaigns for affirmative action? All these taken together have hardly carried us very far (any distance at all?) toward that “equality of outcomes” which Nisbet, Kristol, Glazer, Bell too, regard as the clear and present danger of contemporary political life. These writers put themselves forward as defenders of meritocracy (Bell, characteristically, of a “just meritocracy,” within which those on top cannot “convert their authority positions into large, discrepant, material and social advantages over others,” a qualification for which he should probably be denounced in Commentary). But if their goal is “a career open to merit,” then surely they must sense that real progress has been made in that direction in the past several decades, and not through their efforts. The advance has largely been forced by the egalitarians they attack. And most of them, the mainstream of blacks and women certainly, would be more than happy with a genuine meritocracy.

But would the neoconservatives be happy with that? Who are the meritocrats anyway but rootless, ambitious men and women, cut loose from traditional communities, upwardly bound, focused on the state? And isn’t it these people, unsure of their present position and their final destination, full of status anxieties, envious of older elites and established wealth, who—according to neoconservative polemics—carry in their hearts and minds the germs of a radical egalitarianism? Here again is the neoconservative dilemma. As these writers yearn for lost communities, so they yearn for lost hierarchies and stable establishments. How else can authority regain its luster except by being embodied in a class of men (and women too, if necessary) confident of their place, trained for power and public service, secure against competitors? But meritocracy undermines all such classes. Whether it is happiness that is being pursued, or position and office, the scramble that results leaves no one secure or confident. All the neoconservatives are meritocrats in practice as well as in theory. They have earned their places in academic and political life. But they are uneasy with their fellows. This uneasiness is expressed in the virtually incoherent doctrine of the “new class.”

Steinfels devotes three chapters to this strange argument which figures so largely in neoconservative (and also in neo-Marxist) thought. The subject is important because it is in writing about the “new class” that neoconservatives give us the clearest sense of who they think they are and who they think their enemies are. Unfortunately for social analysis, both they and their enemies seem to belong to the “new class”—which is therefore described, alternately, with warm affection and deep hostility. The political universe of neoconservatism is narrow: it consists of students, professionals, technocrats, bureaucrats, and intellectuals. The old bourgeoisie is gone, along with liberal civilization; the workers are summoned up only when it is necessary to remind them of the importance of wage restraint. Politics, as Steinfels writes, is a “war for the new class.” He might have added, it is a civil war.

Most simply, the “new class” consists of men and women with technical or intellectual skills who sell their services and hold jobs—contrasted with an older middle and upper class of men and women with capital who own businesses and an older working class of men and women who have only their labor power to sell. The “new class” is in fact not new, but it has expanded at an extraordinary pace in recent decades and is still growing. Because its members are job-holders, Marxist writers have wondered whether they might not be proletarianized, assimilated into the ranks of the skilled workers. Because they control, manage, and advise other people, conservative writers view them as potential (if currently unreliable) recruits for a new Establishment. Since the “new class” is fairly heterogeneous in character, both these views may be right; or neither. The term does not yet evoke a shared social identity or political position. In neoconservative argument it is used with remarkable freedom, and can be used freely because it isn’t connected with any developed political sociology.

Still Steinfels argues persuasively that neoconservative thought is best understood as an ideology for the “new class.” It is certainly true that neoconservative writers believe that the “new class” needs an ideology. Its members are arrivistes, but they have not arrived by making money, and so they have not been disciplined by the free-for-all of the market. They have no stake in the country, but only in their own persons. They lack understanding and regard for capital. They are as unsure of their own authority as they are of the authority of their predecessors. “Relative to other segments of society,” writes Steinfels, “the ‘new class’ is thin-skinned about legitimacy, high-strung, liable to a ‘case of the nerves.”’

Moynihan adds that its members are not aggressive enough in defense of their own interests and of the system within which those interests are pursued. “I would suggest,” he told a group of Harvard alumni in 1976, “that a liberal culture does indeed succeed in breeding aggression out of its privileged classes and that after a period in which this enriches the culture, it begins to deplete it.” Considering Moynihan himself, a prototypical member of the new class, and his associates in several recent administrations, I don’t quite see where the problem of insufficient aggression lies.

The real danger, according to other neoconservative writers such as Kristol and Robert Nisbet, is that the “new class” will provide political and social support for a kind of statist egalitarianism. Egged on by radical intellectuals, its members will rally to a “new politics” of leveling, the crucial effect of which will be to enhance the power of the federal bureaucracy, manned by themselves. In other words, they will pursue their own interests (aggressively?). And so they have to be initiated into the complexities of American pluralism. Above all, they have to be taught (through the efforts of foundations like the American Enterprise Institute) to accommodate themselves to the traditional centers of economic power. What the “new class” requires is an ideology that justifies classes. It is difficult to doubt, however, that the political practice that goes along with this ideology will be technocratic, elitist, and dirigiste in character. The restoration of the bourgeois or of the pre-bourgeois state is not on the neoconservative agenda. What is on the agenda, as Steinfels describes it, is the rule of “policy professionals”—where “professional” means a liberal bureaucrat who is pessimistic about liberation but respects the liberties of the market, who admires local communities and secondary associations but dislikes participatory politics, and who has the strength of mind to enjoy the privileges of his position. And then civility is a creed for the rest of us: teaching a proper respect for our meritocratic betters.

IV

Steinfels obviously thinks civility is more than that. He is a sympathetic critic of neoconservatism—genuinely sympathetic and very much a critic. A highly intelligent Catholic radical, he chooses in this book not to press, indeed barely to put forward, his own position. But he clearly doesn’t believe that the alternative to the nervous liberalism of the neoconservatives is a brash and buoyant liberalism. His own view of the present crisis overlaps with theirs; he understands the dangers of

the widespread distrust of institutions among all classes, the dissolution of religious values and the proliferation of cults…the anomie and hostility of many inner-city youth, the drift and hedonism of much popular culture, the abandonment of the vulnerable to bureaucratic dependency, the casual amorality of the business world, the retreat from civic consciousness and responsibility….

But he insists that none of these can be dealt with unless one is prepared to examine the “faultlines” of liberal capitalism. This the neoconservatives don’t do (Bell, again, is a partial exception). Hence, their concern for “moral culture”—their great strength, according to Steinfels—is vitiated. They argue rightly for the “supporting communities, disciplined thinking and speech, self-restraint, and accepted conventions” that a healthy moral culture requires. But they do not tell us, and they cannot, how moral health is ever to be regained, for they have not yet looked unblinkingly at the processes through which it was (or is being) lost.

There is a positive argument that follows from this sort of criticism. Steinfels does not make it, and so I can’t tell what form it would take in his hands. This book leaves one waiting for the next. The argument might go something like this. If the old “supporting communities” are in decline or gone forever, then it is necessary to reform them or build new ones. If there are to be new (or renewed) communities, they must have committed members. If marginality and deference are gone too, these members must also be participants, responsible for shaping and sustaining their own institutions.

Participation requires a democratic and egalitarian politics—and that is also the only setting, in the modern world, for mutual aid and self-restraint. “The spirit of a commercial people,” John Stuart Mill wrote almost a century and a half ago, “will be, we are persuaded, essentially mean and slavish, wherever public spirit is not cultivated by an extensive participation of the people in the business of government in detail….” The argument is as true today as it was when Mill wrote, and far more pressing. Neoconservatism represents the search for an alternative argument, alert to the meanness and slavishness, defensive about commerce, hostile to participation. The search is powerfully motivated and often eloquently expressed, but I do not see how it can succeed.

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