(My first post since it was announced that USIH won the 2010 Cliopatria Award for best group blog!)
At risk of opening up a discussion of another vague, contradictory, often polemical and even more often misunderstood political label, I’m going to move the discussion from neoliberalism to neoconservatism. How should intellectual historians frame neoconservatism? (This post is lacking in that I have yet to read Justin Vaïsse’s much-discussed new book, Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement—I’ll get to it!)
Leo Ribuffo always gives the best advice on all things conservative history, in a grumpy senior scholar sort of way. For a classic Ribuffo statement on the field of conservative history, check out the paper he gave at last year’s OAH: “Seventeen Suggestions for Studying the Right Now that Studying the Right is Trendy.” One of his suggestions is that we take Lionel Trilling’s famous statement that there are no conservative ideas in America, only irritable gestures, and “bury it in a deep hole with nuclear waste.” Point taken. Of course, anyone who has read George Nash‘s 1976 bible, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, hardly needs this bit of advice. But there are several other nuggets of wisdom in the Ribuffo essay. I highly recommend it, crankiness and all.
Another panel at last year’s OAH offered suggestions on the field. (Wow, how often do I remember not one but two panels from an academic conference that took place nearly a year ago? Other than the USIH annual conference, of course, where all the panels are memorable!) The panel, on rethinking conservative intellectual history, featured, among others, Jennifer Burns, whose biography of Ayn Rand: The Goddess of the Market, is one of the best books in intellectual history of the last five years. To that extent, surprisingly, the panel hardly offered any sage advice. The basic point I gathered: we should go beyond Nash—we should go beyond a narrow definition of intellectuals in studying conservative intellectual history. Beverly Gage, for instance, suggested that we consider the texts of political figures like J. Edgar Hoover as intellectual texts (she just happens to be writing a book on Hoover). This is good advice. But did we need this advice? (For video links to this OAH panel, featuring Burns, Gage, and Angus Burgin, click here.)
Certainly Eliot Weinberger does not need such advice, based on his brilliant and hilarious review of George Bush’s presidential memoir, the number one selling book in America, Decision Points. Weinberger treats Decision Points as a postmodern text, arguing that were Foucault still alive, he would have considered it one of the quintessential demonstrations of that philosophical question, “What is an author?” (Weinberger also reads Turning Points as a country and western song: “one minute they’re raising hell and the next they’re jerking tears.”)
Lately I’ve been diving into the work of one of the most important neoconservative thinkers, Gertrude Himmelfarb (aka Bea Kristol, wife of neoconservative “godfather” Irving, mother of Republican house intellectual Bill). As an intellectual historian, her example serves as one model for how to think about conservative intellectual history. Himmelfarb is a firm adherent of that paleoconservative Richard Weaver’s mantra that “ideas have consequences.” In other words, her theory of intellectual history is explicitly non-materialist, or, at least, non-Marxist, in the sense that ideas do not take a back seat to economic forces. Ideas, for Himmelfarb, quite often shape material reality. In her view, this is a properly conservative approach to intellectual history, even though, on its face, it is also a properly postmodern approach to intellectual history.
What ideas have consequences in Himmelfarb’s work? Most prominently, she contends, in The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values and elsewhere, that what the Victorians referred to as “virtue,” or morality, shaped the culture of nineteenth century Britain (and America) to a greater degree than did the political economy. In this, Himmelfarb thinks she proves wrong one of the more popular passages from The Communist Manifesto, about how the bourgeoisie has “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties…[and] the family its sentimental veil…” Marx and Engels were wrong since Victorian virtues, for example, made the traditional family stronger than ever in nineteenth century Britain, at the height of rapid industrialization. For Himmelfarb, this goes to her larger point that capitalism is not to blame for our contemporary pathologies: crime, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, pornography—the usual litany (see Charles Murray for a complete run-down). Older ideas about work and thrift kept people in line in spite of the “all that is solid melts into air” vertigo experience of capitalism or modernity. Rather than capitalism, Himmelfarb argues, the cultural and moral shift that took place during the sixties is to blame for our current pathological society. Duh, it’s the sixties! Always the sixties!
Himmelfarb’s dissonant interpretation raises three questions for me:
1) Must intellectual history be all ideas or all material? All text or all context? One or the other?
It seems to me that the new intellectual history as practiced by those who write for this blog, and as practiced by most of those who regularly attend the USIH conference, seeks to situate ideas in cultural context without necessarily reducing those ideas to some opaque reflection of “reality.” In other words, it’s not a question of either-or.
2) Even if Himmelfarb is correct in her assertion that major cultural changes did not obliterate Victorian values until the 1960s—dubious, but OK—why does this prove Marx wrong? Is there a statute of limitations on the “all that is solid melts into air” theory of dissolution?
A new book by Daniel Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, which I predict will be the most talked about work of intellectual history since Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, implies that Marx’s thesis is a pretty good explanation for our postmodern condition. As Robert Westbrook writes in an excellent review, Rodgers “hints, much like Marx and Engels, that at the bottom of things lay the powerfully destabilizing impact of capitalism.”
3) Why do neoconservatives always blame the Sixties?
This is one of the major currents of intellectual history that I am exploring at length in researching and writing my book on the culture wars. There are several reasons for this, most of which I won’t get into here for reasons of time and space (this is already far too long for a blog post!) A major reason, though, is the neoconservative distaste for antinomianism. This is made clear in a new biography of Norman Podhoretz, who, as editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995, was equally if not more important than Kristol in delineating the neoconservative mind. Podhoretz had a longstanding yet latent (in terms of outspokenness) distaste for antinomianism and sexual liberation, revealed as early as 1958, when he wrote a scathing Partisan Review essay on the Beats, titled, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Anti-antinomianism became foundational to his distaste for the sixties.
Of course, not all of the neoconservatives rooted the origins of cultural demise in the sixties. Robert Bork, in Slouching Towards Gomorrah (don’t you love that title!) argued that the sixties enshrined the radical individualism of the Declaration of Independence. Allan Bloom went much further back. For him, it was all downhill after Plato. But the larger point: the sixties formed the neoconservative view on American culture. Thus, if neoliberalism is, as I argued a few weeks ago, the spirit of the sixties, neoconservatism is the spirit of the anti-sixties.