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Giles Fraser: What’s right with the neo-cons

23 September 2009

RIP Irving Kristol, the god­father of neo-conservatism, who died in a nursing home in Virginia last Friday. Arguably the philosophy that was associated with his name died months before, when Barack Obama took office. Since then, it has been open season against neo-conservatism, blaming it for everything from the disastrous war in Iraq to the United States’ go-it-alone belliger­ence and the failure of the world’s banks.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss neo-cons as nothing more than overly nationalistic and militaristic policy wonks, who care little about any­thing other than the US. Perhaps they became that. But neo-conservatism originated in a moral vision of the world far nobler and — dare I say it — far more progressive than is often recognised by liberals.

It is no coincidence that many neo-cons, such as Kristol himself, began as Trotskyites — international Marx­ists who believed that Stalin betrayed Marxist ideals by concen­trating the revolution in the Soviet Union.

It was this internationalism that distinguished the neo-cons from sim­le small-town conservatives. The neo-cons wanted to change the world and to export the American revolu­tion. But this revolution was not rooted in the public ownership of the means of production, but in the neo-con holy trinity of democracy, the market, and God. For the neo-cons, this was another way of saying free­dom, prosperity, and moral values, all mutually reinforcing each other.

It is not that intellectuals such as Kristol were uncritical of the market. His Two Cheers for Capitalism (Basic Books, 1978) credited the market with the promotion of freedom and the creation of wealth, but acknow­ledged that it had a shadow side, re­sponsible for a surge in value relativ­ism and its progeny, cultural nihilism — thus the need for God.

Interestingly, this important cri­tique is one that is generally absent from the friends of the market on the Left, such as New Labour, who are much more uncritical of this spiritual shadow.

The neo-conservatives failed be­cause they lost sight of their Trot­skyite inheritance, and were seduced by a right-wing version of the Stalinist belief that the revolution must be located in one country. They lost sight of the genuinely inter­national, and thought that it was all about the extension of Americana to the world.

Thus they came to be regarded as latter-day Crusaders, forcing through a clash of civilisations. Better inter­nationalists would have been more respectful of difference, recog­nising that what works in one coun­try may not work in the same way in another.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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