Without some effort and attention to detail, the average citizen is often confounded by the use of labels, particularly when they are applied to ideas in the political realm. In a small series of posts, I hope to shed some light on the usages and accuracies of the modern affectation with the prefixes neo and post. Labels provide us with the means to identify and clarify things, but they can also be employed to perpetuate a mystification. We can take pride in a label as well as have prejudice toward one. In a world of fast everything, correct labelling might seem naive and/or pointless. Indeed, there appears to be a premium to the attribute of non-stickiness when it comes to one’s ideological disposition.
It is commonplace today to bandy about the use of neo and post for almost all manner of ideas and beliefs. Often lost in the embrace of new labelling is the character and composition of that thing which came before. There is no guarantee that when one puts on the prefix, neo or post, that the person has any depth of knowledge or appreciation of the foundational ideas that constituted the structure of the thing.
There is a common acceptance of the unfolding of political ideologies within the Western world these past couple of centuries that goes something like this: the first modern, and radical, ism was the rise of liberalism toward the end of the 18th century exemplified by the founding of the American Republic, the revolutionary attempt to destroy the French ancien regime, and the expansion of political rights and enfranchisement in England. Such upheavals generated an antithetical response in the birth of modern conservatism. As much as liberalism, political and economic, sought to advance the interests of individuals against the dominant social relations of the time, conservatives of the day, best represented by the likes of Edmund Burke, fought hard to protect the cherished time-tested institutions of monarchy, aristocracy, and church. Henceforth the problem of change would be framed within the labels of reform and status quo, with the former sub-dividing itself in the 19th century between those advocates who believed in a gradual change to existing conditions via democratic and political means, and those championing a revolutionary break with the present situation. Liberalism would have to contend with not only the conservative element who at best agreed to glacial change in societal conditions, but additionally on its left flank, with an alternative solution to change proposed by those of the socialist persuasion.
In the clash of ideologies for dominance within the European and North American experiences of the 19th and 20th centuries, I think it is fair to say that liberalism, despite its various adjectives of classic, business, and welfare, succeeded magnificently. And this is nowhere more true than in the United States of America!
Liberalism served as the mainstream of American political thinking for nearly a century…. Deeply embedded at the bedrock level of American political thinking, it clings to life.¹
It is also worth noting that liberalism as presented by the Liberal Party of Canada, has had a monumental role in the fashioning of Canadian politics and the culture overall. This party has so dominated Canadian federal politics since the late 1890’s first under W. Laurier to presently under Justin Trudeau, that it has often considered itself ‘the natural ruling party’ for Canada.
At what point did this dominant ideological ism begin to lose its hegemonic control over America [and Canada for that matter]. The prevailing orthodoxy of political experts is that the tumultuous decade of the 1960’s with its countercultural expressions of anti-establishment thinking- everything against “the man” – combined with grandiose plans to extend the reaches of governmental involvement in the everyday lives of its citizenry through social welfare programming began the eclipse. The disillusionment amongst liberal intellectuals began with a questioning of not the ideals of LB Johnson’s “Great Society” project, [or PE Trudeau’s “Just Society” Canadian version] but with the means by which these would be made practicable in the world. The American so-called “godfather of neo-conservatism” Irving Kristol said it best,
A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.
And so it began! The use of the label neo, meaning new, was affixed to these dissenting liberals but attached perhaps confusingly to the noun conservative. Neoconservative was first coined by the American Socialist, Michael Harrington in 1973 as an epithet but instead of rejection by Kristol and company, there was acceptance of the designation. Indeed, latter-day neo-cons now wear the label with pride. During the 1970s the emphasis shifted from practical questions about social policy and the means to implement it,
the legitimate question to ask about any program, is, will it work. [I. Kristol]
and more toward values and ideas with the intent to embed them as an integral part of American conservatism within its natural home of the Republican Party. Like-minded individuals such as Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan joined Kristol in promoting the merits of what Kristol himself called “a neoconservative persuasion”. From the pages of the magazine he co-founded and edited, “The Public Interest“, Kristol for 37 years consistently gave to anyone who cared to read him a neoconservative view. The message was afforded additional outlets for expression when “The National Interest”, a foreign affairs journal, was launched in 1985 with Kristol as its editor. Furthermore, his son, William Kristol, founded and edited “The Weekly Standard” starting in September 1995.
And what does such a neoconservative view consist of? I. Kristol provided us the opportunity to adjudge for ourselves with his book, NeoConservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea published in 1995 as well as a much shorter account in “the Neoconservative Persuasion” article published in The Weekly Standard on August 25, 2003.
The short version of the values and ideas of neoconservatism are as follows [in no particular order of importance]:
- favours democracy
- supports bourgeois capitalism and the virtues of supply-side economics
- favours big government a la FDR: New Deal welfarism
- hostile to religion in politics and government
- forward-looking attitude [greatness is ahead of us] and takes philosophical ideas and ideologies very seriously [particularly opposed to anti-Stalinist communism]
- interventionist in foreign affairs
While it would be accurate to state that neoconservatism has never been the single ideology of any political party, and indeed, no politician has actually run for office as a neoconservative, it has nonetheless touched, sometimes deeply, persons of influence and importance in the American Republican party like Ronald Regan and George W. Bush. Its greatest presence has for some years now been primarily, but definitely not exclusively, centred in the field of international relations. Here its advocates push for a more openly assertive declaration of American exceptionalism and hegemonic dominance in global affairs. Preservation and expansion of America’s national interests in a 21st century newer Pax Americana is something to be proud of and not shunned or denied. Such a posture means standing up always and everywhere against one’s enemies, maintaining close relations with strategic friends like Israel, and taking the hard stance against the expansion of nuclear powers and the rise of military capabilities of everyone else.
There is an increasing body of critique being written, see for instance https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/end-pax-americana, that pax americana is already fading not unlike its predecessor pax britannica, which even if true, is the subject matter for a different blog. Here in this first blog of the series on Neo and Post, I want to reiterate that the neocon message, particularly as it pertains to international relations, remains a force to be reckoned with.
In the next post I will try and illuminate the application of neo onto the most dominant ideological persuasion of our time, liberalism. Please stay tuned.
NOTE: I have decided to create a bibliography for anyone interested in further reading on the subjects in each blog. It can be viewed at http://wp.me/p71C9z-3M
- Dolbeare, K.M. & Medical, L.J., American Ideologies Today. Shaping the new politics of the 1990s, 2nd ed., p.61