Lilla on the Neocons

Mark Lilla wrote, back in 2004, one of the most entertaining passages ever written on neoconservatism.

Traditional American conservatism was anti-intellectual; neoconservatism is counter-intellectual. That is the source of its genius and influence. Unlike traditional conservatives who used simply to complain about left-leaning writers, professors, judges, bureaucrats, and journalists, the neoconservatives long ago understood that the only way to resist a cultural elite is to replace it with another. So they have, by creating their own parallel universe, mainly in Washington but with satellites in universities, and by attracting ambitious young people who share their views. Some have edited conservative student newspapers or studied with politically engaged Straussians; others joined the conservative Federalist Society in law school. All hope to make the “long march through the institutions.” Their intellectual life, such as it is, is conceived wholly as the making of strategies for retaking cultural and political territory. That is obviously easier when Republicans are in the ascendancy, but they are not dependent on elections. There are always jobs to be found editing magazines or writing speeches or working for foundations; the neoconservative world is, paradoxically, a benevolent welfare state in which loyal citizens are always cared for.

There is clearly something to this. But of course the same is true, caterwauling aside, about reasonably bright, well-connected Americans of almost any political stripe. That is one of the nice things about living in an affluent society. It’s true, Maoists and Konkinite anarcho-libertarians have a somewhat harder time surviving on the foundation circuit, but those in the latter category can at least support themselves by stealing hubcaps or building meth labs without compromising their principles. For all the neoconservatives grasping at the foundation-financed teat Lilla has in mind, I can assure you that there are more than enough non-neocons to maintain rough parity. The study I’m waiting to read, and Steve Teles may have written it, will detail the many imperfections and inadequacies of the conservative counter-establishment. Somehow, though, most who write on the subject choose instead to attribute great powers to it, perhaps in the hopes of shaking the trees.

More recently, Lilla published “The Pleasures of Reaction” in The New Republic, revisiting a number of themes form his earlier work. He begins with the observation that we need to reintroduce “reaction” as a psychological and political category, and I think he’s exactly right.

But valences can switch: reaction is not a preserve of the right. Lamennais moved from apocalyptic legitimism to apocalyptic socialism, and the European anti-globalization movement, with its environmental doomsaying and wild-eyed attacks on “neo-liberalism,” shows that left-wing reaction is alive and well.

Lilla is, to his credit, the kind of person who makes “centrism” interesting. He’s also enough of an insider to make subtle and important distinctions.

Either he can withdraw from contemporary society into bittersweet nostalgia for life before the cataclysm, while disdaining those who refuse to recognize what has happened (think Chateaubriand and The New Criterion). Or he can nurse eschatological dreams of a counter-revolution that will reset the clock, and work to bring it about through cadre recruitment, solidarity, purges, cynical alliances, and the instrumentalization of ideas (think Charles Maurras and Commentary).

And to his credit, Lilla is fair-minded enough to see that the neoconservative overreaction didn’t arise in a vacuum.

What it doesn’t quite capture is the psychological processes by which the Clinton years served to confirm, rather than puncture, the older neocon dreamwork. Whatever one thought of the Oslo accords, the Somalian misadventure, the dawdling and then the intervention in Kosovo, the sanctions in Iraq, or the failure at Camp David, they were about what they were about—they were not pieces of a grand strategy. For neocons in the 1990s, this muddling through smacked of Carterism, or worse.

His ungenerous final assessment parallels Berkowitz’s essay.

They knew how everything connected but not how anything worked — the Army, the United Nations, the Sunni-Shiite quarrel, the balance of power, human culture in the face of occupation and humiliation. And what they used to know about the unintended consequences of political action they seem to have willfully forgotten. Reactionaries are like that—because in the end, contrary to Heilbrunn’s title, they really don’t care whether they are right. What they care most about is reconfirming their picture of the world.

The difference is that Berkowitz finds something redeeming in neoconservative idealism, and he believes that the virtues of the older neoconservative temperament can make a comeback, a comeback captured in part by David Frum’s excellent Comeback.

So is it true? I certainly think so. As conservatives regroup, it is neoconservatives who are taking the lead in framing a new, more relevant conservatism. And we’re now taking a generation removed from the psychology of reaction. It is a generation that, arguably, represents the aspirations of those who created the so-called neoconservative welfare state. To be sure, there is mediocrity to be found, but there is also a coterie of women and men very well-versed in policy detail (not just apocalyptic fantasies and the framing of polemics) and eager to effect incremental change. Neoconservative meliorism is, in my view, more vital and necessary than evil. But its revival depends on jettisoning some of the reflexes and bad habits of a movement that’s come to embrace the role of an embattled and sometimes truculent minority. The defensive crouch is a decidedly unattractive stance, and one that all but guarantees bitterness and defeat. Taking a page from Berkowitz, neoconservatives need to acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong.

Which is why, on a slightly tangential note, I’m disappointed by the notion that Francis Fukuyama, for example, is no longer a neoconservative. That is ultimately up to Fukuyama, of course, but I should hope other neoconservatives will continue to claim him, if only because his second thoughts fit comfortably within the neoconservative tradition, ambiguous and unkempt as it is.