A British NeoCon moment?

David Cameron’s “fight back” speech, which I listened to on the way in to the office yesterday, reminded me of the American neoconservative response to the counterculture movement and the urban riots of the 1960s and 70s. Following this up, I had another quick look at Irving Kristol’s Neoconservatism. The Autobiography of an Idea. There are parallels. See for example Kristol’s ‘On Conservatism and Capitalism’ (1975):

The … idea of liberty … implied the right to do bad as well as the right to do good, that liberty could be abused as well as used – in short, that a distinction had to be made between liberty and “license”. The making of this distinction was the task of our cultural and religious institutions which infused the idea of liberty with positive substance, with “values”, with an ethos. The basic belief was that a life led according to these values would maximise personal liberty in a context of social and political stability, would ensure – insofar as this is humanly possible – that the exercise of everyone’s personal liberty would add up to a decent and good society. The practical virtues implied by the “bourgeois” values were not very exciting: thrift, industry, self-reliance, self-discipline, a moderate degree of public-spiritedness, and so forth. On the other hand, they had the immense advantage of being rather easily attainable by everyone. You didn’t have to be a saint or a hero to be a good bourgeois citizen.

It did not take long for the culture emerging out of bourgeois society to become bored with, and hostile to, a life and a social order based on such prosaic bourgeois values. Artists and intellectuals quickly made it apparent that “alienation” was their destiny, and that the mission of this culture was to be antibourgeois. But so long as religion was a powerful force among ordinary men and women, the disaffection of the intellectuals was of only marginal significance. It is the decline of religious belief … – together with the rise of mass higher education, which popularized the culture’s animus to bourgeois capitalism – that has been of decisive importance.

Of course Cameron did not talk about the decline of religious discipline. As Alistair Campbell put it, British politicians tend not to ‘do religion’. But Cameron did talk about what Kristol identified above as the ‘practical virtues’ of good citizenship. And to be certain, Kristol did not call for a religious revival. He says later in this essay that ‘religion is now ineffectual’. He also attacked businessmen who find ‘the bourgeois ethos embarrassingly old fashioned’ (Cameron to his credit did recall the irresponsibility of the banking sector). Businessmen, according to Kristol, can never properly understand capitalist society because they ‘had never taken culture seriously’. Adam Smith and his followers, Kristol goes on,

could not have been more wrong. What rules to world is ideas, because ideas define the way reality is perceived; and, in the absence of religion, it is out of culture – pictures, poems, songs, philosophy – that these ideas are born.

So what was Kristol’s idea? He leaves us without an answer in this essay:

…until conservatism can give its own moral and intellectual substance to its idea of liberty, the “liberal” subversion of our liberal institutions will proceed without hindrance.

Now, this is a foreign policy blog and in that respect it’s worth noting that American neocons turned to foreign policy as one way of promoting a kind of patriotism that they thought would arrest America’s moral decline and fill the vacuum that Kristol had identified. A faith in the nation as a force for good in the world, and a commitment to serve the nation in the pursuit of an activist foreign policy, was considered one way of defending and promoting the kind of morality that could hold American society together. Irving Kristol again was good at linking the demoralization of American society and what he saw as the amoral (and therefore immoral) foreign policies of the liberal left and the realist right (see his ‘American Intellectuals and Foreign Policy’ in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea). But it was his son William Kristol (with Robert Kagan) who best articulated the role foreign policy could play in rebuilding American society. ‘The remoralization of America at home’ they wrote,

requires the remoralization of American foreign policy. … A true “conservatism of the heart” ought to emphasize both personal and national responsibility, relish the opportunity for national engagement, embrace the possibility of national greatness, and restore a sense of the heroic. (Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs 1996.)

It was from this intellectual foundation of course that the Bush administration’s commitment to regime change, democracy promotion and war in Iraq emerged. It would be a mistake, however, to put Cameron’s conservatism in this mould and an even bigger mistake to put his lead on Libya in this context. His Libyan policy is very different to Bush’s Iraq policy and looking forward there is little sense in which Cameron would (or could) adopt a ‘national greatness’ conservatism as a response to what he sees as moral decline at home. The UK is not the US in this regard. Part of the American neocon frustration in the 1970s was that they believed the US had the military power to act in a moralistic way on its own; foreign policy elites just did not have the intellectual or moral courage to do so. Clearly the UK does not have that power. But there is something else. The British no longer see the military and military adventurism as a way of instilling the virtues of a healthy liberal society. Cameron recognises this, which is why his idea of national service is a non-military programme. The British military, with their longstanding commitment to a professional army, as well as the British economy would not have it any other way. Opinion polling data from last year does suggest support for the non-military form of service.

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About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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One Response to A British NeoCon moment?

  1. Ian Fegan says:

    Read this post with interest, very thought provoking. Keep up the good work!

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