Pro-war soi-disant radicals have had one good thing to say about the neo-conservative tendency, which is that for its own sordid reasons, it has been prepared to take on and conquer theocrats and dictators. There is indeed one good thing to say about the neo-cons, though this isn’t it. Instead, the economic policies of neo-conservatism, a deeply peculiar strand on the American right, comprise a standing refutation of the neo-liberal prudential consensus that prevailed throughout the nineties.
Remember that number? The centrist-Democrat neoliberalism of welfare reform, balanced budgets and free trade? Ralph Nader was oh-so-wrong to talk about the republicrats and other fictional amorphous beasts, though it is true that the differences between the main candidates were not measurable on the scale of social justice. The zealots guarding the flame of the Reaganite inheritance couldn’t give a damn about balanced budgets. The formula of tax cuts for the rich and more spending on military industry is a grossly inefficient means of stimulation. But could anyone doubt that under a regime of retrenchment, American growth, currently stuttering, would be plunged into deep recession? Imagine an America saddled with anything approaching the Stability and Growth Pact, curse of Euroland. Meanwhile, the next trade summit hoves into view at Cancun. Without doubt, the US will push for asymmetric liberalisation to favour its own interests. Yet who will be able to keep a straight face in the vicinity of Bush’s steel protectionism?
The neo-conservatives wearily accept that democracy needs its bread and circuses, and the pacifier of rising prosperity, carefully distributed to bolster the social order. They agree along with simple great-power enthusiasts that US supremacy must be established irrevocably, but for their own reasons. Their doctrine states that the United States is a world republic of values -– the republican values of the bill of rights and constitution -– and so has a national interest in ending any system incompatible with these self-proclaimed values. This is not the same as democratic imperialism: only certain kinds of democracy are acceptable, and non-democracies that defer to pro-capitalist republicanism (Singapore, for example) are perfectly tolerable. Autocracies that breed terrorists are another matter. It is an understandable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless, to see Neo-Conservativism as Woodrow-Wilsonism reborn, or as a kind of radical rightwing Jacobinism. On the contrary, there is scant interest in the rights of small nations, universal jurisprudence, or national self-determination.
Still, inimical world-systems must be extirpated. This is why Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupies a cherished place in the neo-conservative pantheon (the neo-con cult of FDR is a fascinating indication of how odd their sect is on the right) [see Irving Kristol on this subject here]. In contrast, Nixon’s ping-pong with China receives a decidedly cool revue. While the folks are sated back home, the supreme mission must be paid for: therefore a distorted war-Keynesianism comes into play - shades of FDR again. If the politics can be swung, the neo-cons will not hesitate to soak up unemployment in military recruitment for the armies of occupation. Meanwhile, the Bush regime insists on Victorian housekeeping for everyone else, in order to give America unimpeded access to global surplus capital. Ironically, it is the self-denying ordinance of ‘old Europe’ that is sustaining the current herding of investors into US debt.
Neo-conservatism has performed the priceless service of subverting the triumphal progress of neoliberal technocracy: the stubborn revenge of history over historical inevitability. Just when we thought that the spiky helmets had been banished forever, here they are again, marching all over the Capitol. How painfully outmoded seems the Hardt-Negri hypothesis, of a dematerialised, global empire of capital – the contracts on which corporate power depends, are always enforced by the actual arm of the Republic. When militarism fails (as fail it must as it overreaches) the left has the chance to be ready with its own future, amidst the ruins of neo-liberalism. So let’s hear one ironic cheer for the Neo-Conservatives!