Thursday, March 03, 2005

Varities of anti-liberalism

A couple months back the BBC broadcast an amazing documentary, called "The Power of Nightmares." The documentary argues, in essence, that both Al Qaeda and the neocons represent hypercontemporary reactions to the failure of the liberal dream of modernity (a failure I document here). Both of these are movements that see liberal modernity as a form of self-defeating decadence, that must be actively combatted by a return to unquestioned verities. What chiefly distinguishes the two movements, according to the documentary, is that whereas the Islamists actually believed in the religious ideals they espouse in public, the neocons believed that religion was merely a "necessary illusion," something that "we" need the masses to believe in order to maintain order, but that "we" intellectuals in private can recognize as bunk. In short, these are twin movements, with the neocons merely a more cynical flavor.

Although film has a distasteful conspiratorial tone, its basic story is fundamentally correct on a number of important fronts. First, the fact that it describes Al Qaeda as a product of the failure of liberal ideals (rather than some mere atavism, or some primordial expression of eeeeevil) is a crucial point. Second, I believe the movie is fundamentally accurate in depicting the neocons as manipulative cynics, peddlers of stories they know to be myths, but which they believe will improve the moral character of their believers.

It also contains lots of surprising anecdotes. For example, did you know that Leo Strauss loved the show "Gunsmoke"?

If I would add one thing, it is simply that the ultimate irony of the neocons is that although they see themselves as the secret antithesis of the decadent liberalism of an earlier era of American politics, they in fact replicate many of the features of that now-discredited liberalism. Notably, the neocons' belief that foreign military excursions would be able to overcome the fundamental weaknesses of American society ("relativism, liberalism, lack of self-confidence, lack of belief in itself") is an echo, almost a plagiarism, of that apotheosis of liberal foreign policy, Walt Rostow. In a 1957 essay, "The National Style," Rostow wrote that Americans needed a mission to improve the world, or else we would be left arguing amongst ourselves about "narrower and narrower issues," and merely pursuing consumerism.

Like his neocon heirs, Rostow called for a foreign policy would that compel the "U.S. to sustain a performance at home which reaches deeply into our domestic arrangements and which requires widespread... assumption of responsibility and sacrifice for public purposes by our people." For Rostow, of course, the content of this domestic rearrangement would be Great Society liberalism, whereas for the neocons it is some kind of religiously-tinged free-market utopianism. But despite the differences in the content of their utopain visions, the neocons and the modernization theory liberals have shared (or more accurately, the neocons stole) the idea of galvanizing the country around a set of foreign policy goals and ideals that would liberate the country from its self-indulgent flabbiness.


zachawry said...

I have a hard time seeing the sense behind this statement

First, the fact that it describes Al Qaeda as a product of the failure of liberal ideals

when Al Qaeda sprang up in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, which notably lack liberal ideals.

Sam said...

I think Islamism is best analyzed as a sequel to Marxism. Nils seems right that it is hard to understand it as mere atavism, and one reason this is so is that the chief language of resistance to "liberalism" (ie American imperialism) in many places was Marxism, often fused with nationalism. What happened, roughly, is that the Marxism dropped out leaving only nationalism, for which religion came to provide crucial support. You can't explain the *ideological centrality* of religion any other way. The sad result has been a choice in many places between thugs (often American-supported) and theocrats (as the sole available language in many places in which to frame ideals like national autonomy and cultural variation).

purpleprose said...

Yes, I'm with Sam on this one. I'd elaborate the point by saying that for much of the middle of the twentieth century, there was a battle between liberal and marxist models of authoritarian high modernism. In much of the Middle East (Iran is the locus classicus of this dynamic), rapacious authoritarian liberalism ruthlessly suppressed socialist alternatives. At the same time, the liberals never delivered on their positive promises of a better life for the people of these countries. Thus with socialism/communism crushed and liberal-authoritarianism not delivering the goods, Islamism filled the void.