Thursday, November 02, 2006

How neoconservative moralism works.

The neoconservative t-shirt parade has the usual range of references to muscularity, virility and cool toughness. It invites a celebration of genocidal violence (see left), while, for instance, indulging the usual hypocritical moral fervour about freedom and the UN's paralysis in the face of genocidal dictatorships. Imperial garb promoting imperious garbage is in itself insignificant, but it points to a real problem with the standard critiques of neoconservatism.

For instance, it is typical of commentators, especially those familiar with IR theory, to posit a spurious and superficial binary opposition of 'idealists' versus 'realists'. In the former camp, inevitably, are the neoconservatives. I can't be sure about dating this, but it is a relatively recent invention, this, perhaps as recent as the war on Iraq. The neoconservative movement has always been a realpolitik movement dedicated to expanding American power at the cost of almost anything: alliances, principles, money, lives, whatever. People like Podhoretz and Rostow were always first concerned with America's relative decline in the world, (which many neoconservatives associated with a moral lapse, a culture of liberality brought about by welfare programmes that led to familial degeneration and atomisation). From Kirkpatrick's embrace of South Africa to Daniel Pipes and Laurie Mylroie's demands that America support Iraq (in 1987) to Midge Decter's recent assurance to television audiences that the US was in Iraq to get the oil for itself and its allies, the stance has always been a positive affirmation of America's right to pursue self-interest: the fact that thisis suffused with moralism is neither here nor there. It isn't a stance adequately summarised as 'idealist' any more than antiwar positions are correctly described as 'realist' (very few antiwar activists are likely to be animated by a bleak Hobbesian account of power, what Bruce Cummings calls 'the Clint Eastwood theory of international affairs).

Similarly, it would be refreshing if people could make up their minds what the problem with neoconservatism really is. The alleged Trotskyist roots of it are exaggerated and misleadingly delineated, as are the putative Straussian roots. But say both are serious intellectual roots of neoconservatism, what is the implication? That neoconservatism is both secretively elitist and manipulative, and possessed of a zealous revolutionary democratic fervour ('exporting democracy' etc); that it is composed of both evil machinations and good intentions liable to go badly wrong. There could hardly be two thinkers more different in politics, style, influence and intellectual lineage than these. Yet they are both to blame for neoconservative effusions. Such incoherence results directly from the reductive attempt to trace an ideological original sin. There is only one thing that neconservatives agree on, which is that American Empire is a good thing, (even if we must avoid calling it that), and that the violent pursuit of 'self-interest' (that of capital accumulation) is no crime. There isn't a manifesto or a programme, and the paucity of all attempts to outline one are indicative of the fact that it is entirely a composite of groups allied to US state and capitalist power. Indeed, given the strategies deployed to legitimise imperialist interventions, the question might be posed as to what the difference is between liberal imperialists and the neo-conservative movement. This guy, a smugly conservative professor of law, makes some important points in this regard: in what sense, he wonders, are the liberal calls for intervention into Sudan with military force actually different from neoconservative calls for the same or for intervention into Iraq? The answer is that there isn't a great deal of difference at the level of ideology, even if one group professes to start from conservative principles and the other from left-wing ones. The material difference is perhaps that neoconservatives function as an afferent conduit, providing policy ideas and ideological formulae to those in power (right-wing nationalists like Donald Rumsfeld, glowingly biographied by Midge Decter recently), while liberal imperialists are an efferent conduit for these ideological formulae to reach those outside power centres.