“The worst possible political arrangement”
Irving Kristol on Capitalism
How did you spend your Christmas Holidays? I spent mine becoming a Straussian. No, I didn’t get a coveted gig at the American Enterprise Institute, in charge of leaks, though my mustache has certainly taken on a Gaffney-esque anti-gravity. I was visiting with Family in Vermont and had a bit of an accident on the ski-slopes, confining me to a country-house bedroom with a buncha used books stacked higher than a corned beef sandwich. Among the books were the recently Counterpunch-endorsed memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev (alternately chilling, humanist and entertaining–worth hunting down) some old Len Deighton books and what excited me the most, a series of writings by the controversial political philosopher Leo Strauss. On the delicately obscure but fascinating skill of pedagogy, he’s up there with the Post-Structuralists and coming to surprising similar conclusions. That he was also a Zionist and in favor of religion is essentially a sidetrack, comparable with Slavoj Zizek’s forays into Christian theology.
I also watched a bunch of pulpy, nonsensical CIA/KGB movies incredibly convoluted B-grade cartoons, in which intentionally or not, they characters are satires of their national character. Even Hitchcock made some pretty strange Cold War B-movies, such as the underrated Topaz. An imaginary setting of mine takes place in which the CIA, in order to discredit the trade union-left, which is being helped by the KGB, funds revolutionaries who are more effective at actually improving life in the United States while the KGB stooges are so timid that they are labeled CIA agents, meanwhile in Moscow, the KGB, for finances and in order to discredit “democracy” funds a dissident movement that like its Western Obverse, actually helps conditions on the ground while the CIA stooges are so timid that they are labeled tools of the Kremlin. Thus a proper understanding of the Neoconservatives, and the Straussians, must come with a proper understanding of dialectical materialism, of which t! he Straussians dabble in, to say the least.
In an apocryphal tale retold recently in the “culture-jamming” Canadian journal Adbusters, Strauss’s philosophy developed out of him being rebuffed by “the beautiful Hannah Arendt” who told him that a political system like his would have “no place for a Jew like him.” Typically of the liberal anti-communists of the time, Arendt was a true believer, like Max Horkheimer that as bad as Western Capitalist Liberalism happened to be, the alternatives were worse, explicating this view in her “Origins of Totalitarianism.” Strauss’s differences with Arendt were rooted in his skepticism over the very possibility of a liberal order. In many ways, this can be compared with Slavoj Zizek’s important book Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism.
What Zizek, Strauss and even the new Imperial Apologist Michael Ignatieff, who once quipped that “liberal democracy is a contradiction of human nature,” is a Germanic, even Talmudic skepticism towards positivist political order. From Rome to Weimar, “the dialectic of enlightenment” so to speak, produced its mythological other. By confining a critique to a “totalitarian” other, one does not recognize totalitarianism’s very western–and sometimes even defensible–qualities. Let us honestly ask where people have more control over their political lives, in “totalitarian” Cuba or even Belarus, where, despite poverty, there are avenues for popular participation, or the United States where “democracy” masks (or used to mask) a process where corporate control and reactionary attitudes towards the general population has been the name of the game at least since Kennedy was prettier than Nixon on TV. “Liberal Democracy” is reduced to a choice between cultural conservatives and cultural liberals, while people in other democracies like Great Britain or Canada are genuinely relieved that their corrupt ruling parties are at least not social phillistines. The Straussian critique of modernity is indeed similar to Adorno and Horkheimer’s.
The Arendt “liberal anti-communist” critique of “totalitarianism” is generally rootless, providing genuinely vivid pictures of life under the squallidness of Stalinism or other types of dictatorship, but without any context as to what material basis led these governments to consolidate their power in such a method, let alone even a passing glimpse of economics. While “post-Marxists” and Marxists alike emphasize the economic, the Straussians have been perhaps alone (outside of Stalinism perhaps) at grasping the public need for “character” in their leadership. While anarchists dismiss this, social democrats and liberals look at focus groups and most radicals won’t allow themselves to admit that charismatic leadership may not be such a bad thing, some theorists outside of the Straussian tradition have called for a new glimpse at the concept of the heroic leader, at the Straussian concept of “character.” Just because Peggy Noonan had a hammer doesn’t mean character is a nail! . Heroism is as human as farting.
Radicals who dismiss this gladly look up to the Jewish-Arab couple Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, for example, or the late Rachel Corrie and Edward Said in terms of the Palestine Solidarity Movement. We may even admire Castro, or the man who beat the US-coup, Hugo Chavez. Certainly many of us look up to Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky or even, in spite of our knowledge of his centrism, Howard Dean. Canadians, even those who were strong critics of his “war measures act” that allowed Patriot Act style abuses, still look back fondly on the Trudeau era, especially in terms of Geopolitics. The Israeli Left often follows the lead of Uri Avnery and his Gush Shalom comrades. Yet we still quote Bob Dylan–“don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.”
The heresy of Strauss, which has relieved much attention in liberal organs is actually the most interesting–and arguably realistic aspect of his philosophy–that is his skepticism of Liberalism, his concentration on strong leadership and his endorsement of the “noble lie.” Unpacking these concepts, we find either activities that we Radicals proudly engage in, or more importantly, some things in which we should actually pay attention. The most important–and one that should be familiar to Counterpunchers–is the skepticism towards liberalism, if not liberal democracy. While liberals claim to be great fans of ambiguity, seeing “both sides of everything,” this in fact paralyzes them into something, well, totalitarian. Liberals willingly capitulate to their rivals, and in power, often replace economic freedom with bourgeois cultural liberalism–a good thing to be sure, but often a salve meant to quiet proletarian discontent = gay marriage and marijauna decriminalization are great for Canada but won’t do jackshit for the First Nations people.
While some critiqued American Liberals for defending Bill Clinton even if he had “no one left to lie to,” hell, even if he was a coke-snorting rapist, it was inarguable that the issue was that of a reactionary attempt to prevent the country from even being governed by normal bourgeois standards–and arguably had much to do with Clinton’s open attitude towards Arafat and China. It is this writer’s contention that bourgeois democracy has been overthrown in the United States. And liberals were among its assassins, not in Florida but in Waco and Ruby Ridge. Justin Raimundo has written that the most effective Antiwar opposition has come from “don’t tread on me” conservatives, not the left, and he is partially right. The real left, socialists, anarchists, quakers, what have you, had plenty of principled opposition to the war. The liberals opposed it for political reasons–and may well have developed along the way a truly radical critique of American power–but it is doubtful that Al Franken would have marched against a Clinton war.
Then there is the controversial concentration on character, critiqued by liberals in the oft-repeated and nonsensical phrase that Nixon was a virtuous man who ended up pissing on the American dream while Clinton was a roustabout who was a great president. The opposite is not true either. Nixon started the EPA, which Clinton gutted. They both were arguably bigger war criminals then even George W. Bush, but we sure as hell love telling the “noble lie” that Bush is a horrible creature with horns ready to gut the American dream because the more we say that, the more Bush pulls back and sends Pro-Palestinian James Baker overseas. In reality, as Gore Vidal trenchantly pointed out, American politics doesn’t pay well enough to attract truly fine minds. Nixon was brilliant but mentally ill and easily pliable, Bush seems similar without the brilliance. It does not seem so coincidental that many of Strauss’s neo-platonic critiques of liberalism seem like passages from Vidal’s masterpiece Julian.
In reality, character is important. I am not a Deaniac, and I think that he has a sense of bufoonery to him, but his “angry outsider” character is almost as brilliant as his “Dr. Dean” persona in Vermont. Clinton became president in 1992 not for reasons of “character” or because of a righteous progressive onslaught, though the latter was part of the reasoning. He won like most liberals, by outhawking Bush Sr. on Palestine, like JFK outhawked Nixon on Cuba. Dean, on the other hand, does not pretend to be anything he’s not, he pretends to be what he is, but magnified, like RFK or Khrushchev, cozying up to Cesar Chavez/Artists/Greens while freely admitting that while he would like to, that there is no way that he will in any way shape or form be a progressive, telling a left wing writer that “the fact that I am the most progressive guy in the race is pathetic.”
The good thing about Dean using this “character” is that unlike how Reagan (and Noonan, Buchanan and other speechwriters) were able to use this character to tell ignoble lies, albeit also enabling him to get away with referring to Gorbachev as someone “returning to Leninism,” Dean has a base that will hold him to his public persona, both in its–to again use Straussian terms–“exoteric” and “esoteric” manifestations. While Dick Gephardt and arguably even Wesley Clark are more “progressive” in their economic persona, they don’t have the umph or the genuine-seeming aversion to war that Dean seems to have, one is a Neocon Dream and the other is an unstable War Criminal. Dean can come in and promise to e a centrist and budget ballancer which will enable him, like Reagan leaving Lebanon, to change these policies, under the right circumstances, without a peep from his base, which realistically would benefit from Keynesianism more than budget balancing.
Finally, there is the ultimate “booga booga,” the “noble lie.” Anyone who denies that politics sometimes involves noble lies is an ignoble liar. Bush’s psychedelic contradictions of propaganda were not true noble lies, they were shoddy and ugly propaganda cooked up by the only writers willing to work on White House salaries, unstable neocons like Frum and Christian Evangelicals. Paul Wolfowitz is not a problem because he is a “Straussian,” like Albert Wohlseltier. Wohlsetier, Wolfowitz and Bill Bennett are problems because they are the very antithesis of noble liars, their lies so thin that Bush himself probably wishes he would have just told America that he wants to break Opec. On the other hand, a truly noble lie is a lie told in order to maintain something that can honestly be described as noble, like a Palestinian State, Re-regulation of corporations and other controversial issues.
JORDY CUMMINGS lives in Canada and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org