Monday, March 27, 2006

Neocons as anti-pluralists

I just read Andrew Sullivan's blog. I don't do that usually, really. But reading through some of the posts, I thought he sounded rather reasonable. Especially this post here, which I think is right on. That's why I've gone on and on about international legitimacy and philosophical pragmatism.

But I want to comment on another post by Sullivan - on Fukuyama and Hegel - because it occurs to me that there's an important element of the American tradition that is overlooked in neocon thinking which is also deeply anti-American. Read this first, and I'll meet you on the other side:

Gary Rosen fingers a critical turn in Francis Fukuyama's thought: against Fukyama's previously neo-Hegelian idea of an inevitable global unfolding of human liberty on the American model:

What's missing from this, as a reader of the old Fukuyama would know, is the Hegelian twist that gave his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man its peculiar intensity and breadth. Liberal democracy, in that telling, was not only about the desire for pleasure and physical well-being but also about a second, more elevated drive: the individual's "struggle for recognition," the spirited - and often political - assertion of personal dignity and worth. About this deeply felt human need, Fukuyama is now silent. Yet in today's Middle East, nothing is so striking as the dearth of channels for its expression.

Sure. And I tend to agree that democracy in the Middle East would help drain the swamp that gives us hordes of mosquito-type terrorists. But a key premise of conservatism, it seems to me, is that history has no direction, that it can go any which way, and has. That's why Fukuyama's last book, which was as much Nietzschean as Hegelian, was in places most unconservative. What true-believing neocons had was a true secular belief - in the principles of America, and their inevitable triumph in every part of the world. Perhaps that belief is still worth having, if only to cheer ourselves up. But it surely must now be a deeply chastened belief; and the process of chastening is not a capitulation to the isolationist left. Far from it. It is a belated recognition of the deeper wisdom of the skeptical, culture-focused Right. I think that's what Frank is aiming for: not an abandonment of America's ideals and involvement with the world; but a far more prudent, chastened and subtle engagement.

Now, I don't care to engage the Hegelianism of Fukuyama or Sullivan's concern about what is really truly conservative and what is not. Neither are terribly philosophical assessments either.

What interests me here is that, first, it's not an easy thing to figure out precisely what "the principles of America" are. Sure, we can be really general about this and chant mantras like "freedom," "democracy," "personal dignity," etc. But the meaningful content of those terms is hotly disputed by those who actually think about them. I seriously doubt that the president, for instance, is part of that club. And, after all, who doesn't like those notions in the abstract?

Furthermore, neocons inextricably link a particular kind of economic liberalization with such notions as "freedom," etc. This is a 20th-century historical product, in my view. It became easy to take freedom or liberty as cognitively coextensive with a free market economy when the alternative was, rhetorically and politically, Soviet-style communism. The two were lumped together and contemporary US opinion has inherited that lumpy mass. In current policy, we see the outcome. Liberty is not equated with human rights or economic equality - more progressive values, for instance - but with economic freedoms. And we know that free markets are a myth and economic freedoms always come with a priori winners and losers where winning just means fitting into preset economic forms and modes of behavior, and cashing out.

More seriously, however, I think the US has lost its way in thinking through the meaning of these values in both theory and practice. We use them like, well, mantras, as if intoning them long enough makes them into some sort of concrete reality. The inverse is increasingly true.

Second, what is of greater interest, and why I cited Sullivan at all above, is the utter neglect of pluralism as an American ideal. I don't mean Sullivan necessarily - I don't know him well enough to say that or not. I mean neocon ideology: "What true-believing neocons had was a true secular belief - in the principles of America, and their inevitable triumph in every part of the world."

There's a rather glaring problem here: the evangelical nature of neoconservatism where The Good News is a particularly-framed set of American principles posing as universal truisms. Thusly, one lays claim to "the end of history." Apart from the question of not having gotten that right, and not even being able to figure out how to make American society better, the claim lacks a respect for the American experience of pluralism.

By pluralism here I mean it fairly broadly - moral/value pluralism, political pluralism, cultural pluralism. Take a look at a quote by a genuine pluralist:
[a social practice] is to be judged good when it contributes positively to free intercourse, to unhampered exchange of ideas, to mutual respect and friendship and love - in short, to those modes of behaving which make life richer and more worth living for everybody concerned; and conversely, any custom or institution which impedes progress toward these goals is to be judged bad." It should contribute to "the development and qualitative enhancement of associated living." - Dewey
Subjugation and subordination is the inverse process. Neocons are good at S&S in the name of noble ideals through political and economic means that belie the content of those ideals. They are the Dow Chemicals of the decent life.

A pluralistic perspective is an acceptance that there are diverse comprehensive views and diverse individual answers about how best to live, which values are truly important, what goals are to be sought, how conflicts are to be resolved, and so on. The traditional liberal virtue of toleration has as its object the pluralism that comprises our moral, social, and political world - heterogeneity, diversity, difference. Pluralism here is not to be confused with multiculturalism, which became a kind of dogma about essential differences. Cultural and individual moral identities shift, meld, break apart, sift, reevaluate, converge and diverge. A pluralistic perspective celebrates the latter as the basis for social and political solidarity, which means also that forms of political and economic organization must necessarily be democratic from the get-go. This sounds like it contains a contradiction - solidarity out of difference and conflict - but not unless one imagines that there are such things as final answers, absolutes, and ends of history.

This is a large part of what neocons miss. They have a definitive answer, of course - a particular brand of liberal democracy - that is based in a moribund notion of liberal democracy as a kind of historical accomplishment. Democracy, by its nature, leaves open the possibility of endless history, even if now and then we come up with pretty good ways of organizing ourselves into political life. This is a powerful part of the "American tradition," which is selectively bred out of existence by neoconservatism. Think Jefferson, Lincoln, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, James, Du Bois, Dewey, King, Baldwin,.... And we have guys who look to Trotsky and Strauss as their main intellectual influences? For whatever they're worth otherwise (I'm not a fan of Strauss), they're not the place to go for lessons in pluralism.

The stretch, then, is in the finality and absolutism that neocons append to their form of spreading the good news about the end of history, even if Fukuyama no longer believes his own news. At its heart, neoconservatism contains this fundamental contradiction. In politics, it plays out as a form of pedantic exceptionalism, which appears to most other people as subjugation. There's much ado about the failure of the Bush administration's "idealism." But the problem is that the form of idealism is wrong, and perhaps not even idealistic in the first place.

We're better off thinking again through the lens of this 1939 text:
If there is one conclusion to which human experience unmistakably points it is that democratic ends demand democratic methods for their realization. Authoritarian methods now offer themselves to us in new guises. They come to us claiming to serve the ultimate ends of freedom and equity in a classless society. Or they recommend adoption of a totalitarian regime in order to fight totalitarianism. In whatever form they offer themselves, they owe their seductive power to their claim to serve ideal ends. Our first defense is to realize that democracy can be served only by the slow day by day adoption and contagious diffusion in every phase of our common life of methods that are identical with the ends to be reached and that recourse to monistic, wholesale, absolutistic procedures is a betrayal of human freedom no matter in what guise it presents itself. An American democracy can serve the world only as it demonstrates in the conduct of its own life the efficacy of plural, partial, and experimental methods in securing and maintaining an ever-increasing release of the powers of human nature, in service of freedom which is cooperative and a cooperation which is voluntary. - Dewey, Freedom and Culture

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