Sunday, April 10, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (5): Neoconservative Fascism?

In his recent essay for Cato Unbound, Brad Thompson explains neoconservatism as shaped by the ideas of Leo Strauss as adopted by Irving Kristol. Provocatively, Thompson concludes that this Straussian neoconservatism promotes a "soft, American-style fascism," which combines what Strauss called "the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus," thus combining the idealism of Platonic philosophy and the realism of Machiavellian politics.

Thompson sees this neoconservative political philosophy most fully expressed in what David Brooks--in a series of articles for The Weekly Standard--has called "national-greatness conservatism."

The moral purpose of national-greatness conservatism, according to David Brooks, is to energize the American spirit; to fire the imagination with something majestic; to advance a "unifying American creed"; and to inspire Americans to look beyond their narrow self-interest to some larger national mission--to some mystically Hegelian "national destiny." the new American citizen must be animated by "nationalist virtues" such as "duty, loyalty, honesty, discretion, and self-sacrifice." The neocons' basic moral political principle is clear and simple: the subordination and sacrifice of the individual to the nation-state.

Politically, Brooks's new nationalism would use the federal government to pursue great "nationalistic public projects" and to build grand monuments in order to unify the nation spiritually and to prevent America's "slide" into what he calls "nihilistic mediocrity." It is important that the American people conform, swear allegiance to, and obey some grand central purpose defined for them by the federal government. The ideal American man, he argues, should negate and forgo his individual values and interests and merge his "self" into some mystical union with the collective soul.

Thompson recognizes that his charge of "fascism" is inflammatory. He qualifies this charge somewhat: "This is a serious charge and not one I take lightly. The neocons are not fascists, but I do argue they share some common features with fascism."

At the very least, I would agree with Thompson that there is a troubling tendency to statism in the Straussian neoconservative slogan that "statecraft is soulcraft." What would it mean for the state to use its coercive powers to craft the human soul?

I agree with Douglas Rasmusssen, in his response to Thompson's essay, who argues that when the Straussians assume that the polis shapes the moral character of citizens, they fail to distinguish the polis as society from the polis as state. Human beings are naturally social animals, and thus their moral lives are shaped by all of those natural and voluntary associations of civil society. But this character-forming activity can be carried out by the spontaneous order of society--families, churches, schools, and all kinds of social and economic associations--without the need for the state to impose coercively any comprehensive conception of the best way of life.

In The Social Animal, Brooks sends contradictory messages on this issue. In most of the book, he shows how evolutionary psychology and the cognitive sciences explain the social and moral order of human life as arising from the spontaneous order of civil society. So, for example, in the chapter on "Morality" (Chapter 18), he explains the evolutionary emergence of morality without any need to call in the state to exercise "soulcraft." But, then, in Chapter 20 ("The Soft Side"), he lays out his argument for "national greatness," which he presents as grounded in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton--the tradition of "limited but energetic government"--and here he insists: "Aristotle wrote that legislators habituate citizens. Whether they mean to or not, legislators encourage certain ways of living and discourage other ways. Statecraft is inevitably soulcraft" (323).

This Chapter 20 does not fit into the rest of the book. First, the narrative flow of the book breaks down. After only a couple of pages describing Harold's career as a policy analyst, Brooks launches off on a long statement of his argument for "national greatness," which he attributes to Harold, who becomes a mannequin on which Brooks can hang his ideas.

Moreover, this chapter breaks away from the rest of the book in that Brooks cites no research from cognitive or evolutionary science to support his claims. He does refer to the general theme of the book about human beings as social animals.

Harold believed that the cognitive revolution had the potential to upend these individualistic political philosophies, and the policy approaches that grew from them. The cognitive revolution demonstrated that human beings emerge out of relationships. The health of a society is determined by the health of those relationships, not by the extent to which it maximizes individual choice. (320)

But if these "relationships" refer to the social networks of civil society, then it's not clear how this supports the idea that "soulcraft" comes from "statecraft."

Furthermore, Brooks rejects statism when he rejects the tradition of socialism. "The nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers who had called themselves socialists weren't really socialists. They were statists. They valued the state over society" (321).

This suggests that Brooks values society over the state, and this would be supported by evolutionary and cognitive science. But, then, elsewhere in this chapter, he suggests that the state has to shape the soul when society has failed to do so.

With his soft-side approach, Harold put his faith in programs that reshaped the internal models in people's minds. If you felt, as Harold did, that in some low-income communities achievement values were not being transmitted from one generation to another, then you had no choice but to try to instill them. That meant you had to be somewhat paternalistic. If parents were not instilling these achievement values, then churches and charity groups should try. If these institutions were overwhelmed, then government should try to step in to help people achieve the three things they need to enter the middle class: marriage, a high-school degree, and a job. (330-31)

So where all the institutions of civil society--families, churches, charity groups, and so on--have failed to instill the proper values, the government will take over and "reshape the internal models in people's minds." And yet Brooks gives us no reasons to think that government bureaucrats have the virtue and the knowledge to succeed where civil society has failed. And he gives us no reason to believe that such governmental efforts at "soulcraft" will not become despotic.

He also gives us no reason to believe that this really is in the tradition of Hamilton. He writes:

Hamilton, Lincoln, and Roosevelt had been able to assume a level of social and moral capital. They took it for granted that citizens lived in tight communities defined by well-understood norms, a moral consensus, and restrictive customs. Today's leaders could not make that assumption. The moral and social capital present during those years had eroded, and needed to be rebuilt. (334)

So, in other words, the "limited but energetic government" advocated by Hamilton was not designed to craft "social and moral capital." Rather, a Hamiltonian government had to assume that civil society would do the job of shaping moral character. That's why the Constitution of the United States says nothing about the powers of government for shaping the moral and religious values of the nation.

Brooks makes much of a quotation from Daniel Patrick Moynihan about the relationship between politics and culture: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

In developing this thought, Brooks cites with approval Lawrence Harrison's book The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (2006). But Harrison's book does not argue for changing culture through statist coercion. Harrison explains that culture is shaped "chiefly through child rearing practices, religious practice, the education system, the media, and peer relationships" (6). He distinguishes between "progress-prone" cultures and "progress-resistant" cultures. "Progress-prone" cultures are those that have the moral values, economic practices, and political institutions of a liberal bourgeois society. He recognizes that political leaders can help to move a "progress-resistant" culture towards a "progress-prone" culture. Contrary to Brooks, however, he does not say that this comes from mobilizing citizens through governmental programs for "national greatness." Rather, Harrison argues, political leaders promote progressive cultures by opening their countries to social, economic, and political freedom. So, for example, he recommends that political leaders should "pursue open economic policies," "encourage and facilitate home ownership," and "regularize property ownership." Political leaders foster progressive cultures by protecting the individual freedom that allows a civil society to cultivate the bourgeois virtues of a classical liberal regime.

The human soul is best crafted not by the coercive commands of the state but by the spontaneous orders of a free society as shaped by genetic and cultural evolution.


Greg R. Lawson said...

But what happens if and when we allow the social institutions to atrophy too much? Who if anyone can fill this void and what are the consequences of failure? Does the state then have a role almost by default if not by design? Perhaps the state can reinvigorate the institutions? Isn't that what a "national greatness conservatism" could, if not should, do?

Larry Arnhart said...

Who do you propose as best qualified to exercise the coercive powers of the state for crafting our souls?

Barack Obama? Sarah Palin? Donald Trump?

Troy Camplin said...

What if the social institutions have atrophied precisely because the government has taken over their territory?

Greg R. Lawson said...

The "who" is certainly a problem and one with no easy solution (if there is even a solution) so I concede that this is a problem of a high order. However, that does not necessarily invalidate the need to consider, not necessarily embrace, the implications of the state playing a more active role in this arena.

As for the state taking over the institution's roles, that is very much something that has happened under the highly secularized vision of progressivism. A less secularized vision would seem potentially capable of opening the door for institutions to recapture some of what is lost.

Simply saying the institutions can reinvigorate themselves spontaneously after a prolonged period of assault seems unlikely. They may need a careful nudge.

As to whether this would be a permanent state of affairs, I think quite evidently it would not be.

History may be linear to many human eyes (which are distinctly limited). History may also seem a ceaseless oscillation back and forth between order and chaos, faith and skepticism. The "Truth" is that there are no final answers for man as man until he becomes a God in this world (which seems unlikely whether one has faith in a transcendent deity or not) or passes into the ethereal afterworld.

Therefore we are not looking for a permanent answer, we are looking for a corrective that moves the pendulum back towards a better order. Needless to say, that order will again decline and necessitate new reforms and renewals in its own good time.

Anonymous said...

‘Liberal’ thinkers should realize from the outset that fervent ‘belief’ in evolution at the group level, and especially any idea that group selection obviates supposedly unnecesssary or non-existent harsh aspects of natural selection, actually starts them at once on a course that heads straight towards Fascist ideology….

W.D. Hamilton

(page 385, Defenders of the Truth)

spelunker said...


I have always felt that the exercise of personal liberty and the liberty of self government is an endeavor not all cultures or peoples are able to do well. The exercise of self government through the democratic form can devolve into the tyranny…as so many astute political observers have warned us of throughout history. Such insights are not just theoretical speculations, we have contemporaneous examples: For example, the collapse of the USSR into Putin’s Russia. Cynics aside, I don’t think that any serious observer would call Russia an example of a people exercising the liberty self government, at least as seen through Madisonian lenses. Maybe, as shorthand, Russia can be called a “mobacracy”. The point is that self government, in a manner recognizable to us, may never take firm root in Russia. And the problem is not at the level of Darwinian natural sociability, of course Russian people, as humans, posses these capacities universal to all humans: i.e. natural sociability. Nor is the problem at the level of “spontaneous order”, which by definition at the level of the community entrenches some of the basic institutions of basic human ordering. The problem appears to exist at the level of the far flung polis where values arising from social expectations and reciprocity are transcended.

At the level of the corporate whole, The Straussian exhortation that state-craft is sole- craft is becomes relevant. What afflicts Russia is the complete failure of the Russian people and their leaders with the exercise of liberty, both at the level of the individual and at the level of the polis. It seems obvious to me, that the responsibilities the are incumbent on those that exercise self government in the manner of Madisonian Republicanism are enormous compared to the unfortunate people that labor under a tyrannical government.

It is nothing new to the readers of this blog that sole-craft refers to what should be the “Spirit of the Laws”; the ennobling purpose and end of law to shape the character of a people who would exercise self-government. There is simply nothing fascistic about this….