Neoconservatives vs. paleoconservatives

From reading the title of this post, you may wonder if you traveled back in time to 2003, 2005, or at the latest 2008. Fair enough. But my last post reminded me of another essay by Patrick Deneen that I read recently, and I wanted to note something from it.

Deneen recently wrote a long essay about the legacy of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind after 25 years, a work that really stirred the pot in the 1980s. Check out the essay for more.

The reason that I wanted to note the essay is that it gave the best quick explanation of the underlying philosophy of neoconservatism that I’ve seen. I had heard of Leo Strauss from reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog regularly years ago but had not gotten a sense of where he fit in with intellectual history, probably because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Anyway, I found this section near the end of Deneen’s essay helpful:

In fact, Bloom’s critique of the “multicultural” left is identical to and drawn from the critique of the “multicultural” right advanced by his teacher, Leo Strauss. In his seminal work Natural Right and History, Strauss identified Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution as one of the lamentable responses to the “Crisis of Modern Natural Right,” a crisis that arose as a reaction against the social contractarianism of “modern natural right.” Burke’s argument against the revolutionary impulses of social contractarianism constituted a form of conservative “historicism”—that is, in Strauss’s view, the rejection of claims of natural right in favor of a preference for the vagaries of History. While today’s Straussians concentrate their criticisms largely on left historicism (i.e., progressivism), Strauss was just as willing to focus his criticisms on right historicism, that is, the traditionalism of Burke and his progeny.

Ironically, because the left in the 1980s adopted the language (if not the substance) of multiculturalism, Bloom was able to turn those Straussian critiques of Burke against those on the left—though of course they were no Burkeans, even if they used some Burkean language. For this reason, Bloom was assumed by almost everyone to be a “conservative,” a label that he not only explicitly rejected, but a worldview that he philosophically and personally abhorred.

Bloom’s argument became a major touchstone in the development of “neoconservatism,” a label that became associated with many fellow students of Strauss but which, ironically, explicitly rested on rejection of the claims of culture, tradition, and custom—the main impulses of Burkean conservatism. Bloom continuously invoked the natural-rights teachings of the Declaration and Constitution as necessary correctives to the purported dangers of left multiculturalism: rather than endorsing the supposed inheritance of various cultures, he commended the universalistic claims of liberal democracy, which ought to trump any identification with particular culture and creed. The citizen who emerged from the State of Nature, shorn of any specific cultural, religious, or ancestral limitation, was the political analogue for the philosopher who emerged from the Cave. Not everyone could become a philosopher, Bloom insisted, but everyone could be a liberal citizen, and ought rightly to be liberated from the limitations of place and culture—if for no other reason, to make them more tolerant of the radical philosophers in their midst.

Bloom’s was thus not only an early salvo in the culture wars, but an incipient articulation of the neoconservative impulse toward universalistic expansion. Burke’s willingness to acknowledge the basic legitimacy of most cultures—his “multiculturalism”—led him, in the main, to oppose most forms of imperialism. The rejection of multiculturalism, and the valorization of a monolithic liberal project, has inclined historically to a tendency toward expansionism and even imperialism, and neoconservatism is only the latest iteration of this tendency. While many of the claims about Strauss’s influence on the Iraq invasion and the neoconservative insistence upon spreading democracy throughout the world were confused, there was in fact a direct lineage from Bloom’s arguments against the multicultural left and rise of the neo-liberal or neoconservative imperialistic impulse. Bloom explicitly rejected the cautiousness and prudence endorsed by conservatism as a hindrance to philosophy, and thus rejected it as a political matter as a hindrance to the possibility of perfectibility:

Conservatives want young people to know that this tawdry old world cannot respond to their demands for perfection. … But … man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection. …. Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are.


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