Wednesday, February 22, 2006

on neoconservatism

In the recent NY Times Magazine, Francis Fukuyama, in another one of his thoughtfully-written pieces renounces neoconservatism. Not that this is a surprise: there was Fukuyama's very public spat with Charles Krauthammer over the Iraq war, Fukuyama's resignation from the the editorial board of The National Interest and and the launch of The American Interest, and his increasing criticism of the Iraq war.

Some interesting points he makes:
If there was a single overarching theme to the domestic social policy critiques issued by those who wrote for the neoconservative journal The Public Interest, founded by Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell in 1965, it was the limits of social engineering. Writers like Glazer, Moynihan and, later, Glenn Loury argued that ambitious efforts to seek social justice often left societies worse off than before because they either required massive state intervention that disrupted pre-existing social relations (for example, forced busing) or else produced unanticipated consequences (like an increase in single-parent families as a result of welfare). A major theme running through James Q. Wilson's extensive writings on crime was the idea that you could not lower crime rates by trying to solve deep underlying problems like poverty and racism; effective policies needed to focus on shorter-term measures that went after symptoms of social distress (like subway graffiti or panhandling) rather than root causes.

How, then, did a group with such a pedigree come to decide that the "root cause" of terrorism lay in the Middle East's lack of democracy, that the United States had both the wisdom and the ability to fix this problem and that democracy would come quickly and painlessly to Iraq? Neoconservatives would not have taken this turn but for the peculiar way that the cold war ended.

He then goes on to offer the following interpretation of his famous book The End of History and the Last Man:

Many people have also interpreted my book "The End of History and the Last Man" (1992) as a neoconservative tract, one that argued in favor of the view that there is a universal hunger for liberty in all people that will inevitably lead them to liberal democracy, and that we are living in the midst of an accelerating, transnational movement in favor of that liberal democracy. This is a misreading of the argument. "The End of History" is in the end an argument about modernization. What is initially universal is not the desire for liberal democracy but rather the desire to live in a modern — that is, technologically advanced and prosperous — society, which, if satisfied, tends to drive demands for political participation. Liberal democracy is one of the byproducts of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time.

"The End of History," in other words, presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism. In the formulation of the scholar Ken Jowitt, the neoconservative position articulated by people like Kristol and Kagan was, by contrast, Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.

This is indeed strange for me. It is more than 8 years since I read his book but what impressed me most was his philosophical argument about the inevitability of liberal democracy (or at least a form of it), through Hegel via Alexander Kojeve. It turns out though that liberal democracy is a by-product, not the driving force. Could I have read the book wrong? Or was I just carried away by my first true brush with philosophy? (I remember being impressed by the sheer elegance of it all, to explain the entire edifice of human civilization by just three human characteristics: Need, Reason and Thymos).

ASIDE: Fukuyama mentions a book (there's also a documentary) I read recently, Arguing the World. I recommend the book highly. Here's something from the great Daniel Bell (The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism) says in one of his interviews (a little soppy but I don't know why, it moved me a little):

Optimism is a philosophy, pessimism is a character trait. It’s hard to talk about visions. If you have a creed, if you have a belief system, the vision flows out of that. I don’t have a particular belief system. To the extent that my optimism overcomes my pessimism, I would say it’s a recurrent belief in the idea of utopia. What is against utopia? Against utopia is arcadia. The dream of a golden past.

The history of the Jews has never really been a golden past, the history of the intellectuals has never been a golden past. So arcadia may be a false hope, it’s a nostalgia. Utopia’s always an openness, a possibility. I believe in utopia as a kind of aim, a vision, while also mindful of the risks. Utopia represents ideals, and how can you live without some sense of ideals? It’s a necessary way of living. I remain, still, purely a utopian.
ASIDE II: I also highly recommend Mark Lilla's two wonderful essays on the work of the philosopher Leo Strauss here and here.

ASIDE III: Fukuyama's essay on The End of History that appeared in the National Interest can be read here. The full version of his criticism of Charles Krauthammer The Neoconservative Movement can be read here.

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