Friday, November 6, 2009

Seceding from the last men - Strauss's fascination with nuclear war - part 2

        

           In Liberalism Ancient and Modern Strauss predominantly endorses an American fight against the Soviet Union, the ultimate dictatorship, and the last men.  He seems to unite with the political scientists or the liberals in this regard (“the best friend of liberal democracy,” once again).  But his book, and especially chapter 7, is no defense of liberalism. See here.   Instead it speaks of the crisis of democracy and advocates only strength and ferocity rather than vapidity and “acquiescence” against the Soviet enemy.  Thus, it suggests that a strong authoritarian executive might remedy that decadence and make the US fierce against the Soviet Union.  Recall his 1963 advice to Republican leader and would be President Charles Percy: to take out Cuba just as brutally as  the Soviets re-conquered Hungary.  See Strauss's Vision of a Great Anti-Modern Tyrant here.

              That is the theme that Strauss and the post-World War II Carl Schmitt both emphasize.  Authoritarian rule – not democratic or constitutional rights, for example freedom of conscience – leads to strength against the USSR.  In On Tyranny (1948), Strauss’s opposition to the Soviet Union leads many sympathetic readers, for instance Tim Fuller (see APSA 2007 here), to believe that he studied ancient tyranny in Xenophon’s Hiero only to defeat the modern universal tyranny. But this dialogue contributes nothing to such a defeat and actually indicates how the tyrant might preserve himself.   In Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958) at p. 291 and 293, Strauss emphasizes that the Hiero “was the classic defense of tyranny by a wise man."  The later book gives out on the surface the somewhat disguised, though still rather plain meaning of the earlier book.

         But discussing Dore Schary’s defense of tolerance as an antidote to conformity in chapter 10, Strauss recurs to Schmitt.  For such toleration to work, Strauss suggests, individuality (which he doesn’t like) must not grow. If it does, it will lead as in Hobbes, to the bloody war of all against all.  That is the starting point of Schmitt, and  for Strauss’s reflections in 1932 on Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political.  It is part of Strauss’s admiration for Nietzsche, for “natural” growth and the strong – “exploitation is nature” as Nietzsche  says in a bad moment in Natural Right and History.  It is part of Strauss’s celebration of “liberal” education as reading the great men, the great philosophers and hating “mass society” and the crisis of the ignorant, the gutter, the last men.    As this citation will show, it does not seem that Strauss ever “became Strauss” in the sense of abandoning this thought in Schmitt.  Rather, it is Strauss’s reactionary starting point:

            “One may well find it paradoxical that a society dedicated to the free development of each individual in his individuality should be threatened by a particularly petty kind of conformism but the paradox disappears on reflection.  It is merely a shallow hope to expect that the uninhibited ‘growth’ of each individual to its greatest height will not lead to serious and bloody conflict.  The growth must be kept within certain limits; everyone may grow to any height and in any direction provided his growth does not prevent the growth of anybody else to any height and in any direction.” (p. 263)

           There would be no Nietzsches, no Platos, no Schmitts, no Heideggers, no Strausses,  according to Strauss, if Schary’s liberal or decent idea was achieved.   Once again, for Nietzsche as Strauss took him,  “exploitation is nature”; ancient and especially modern egalitarianism leads to the last men.   In such a circumstance, Strauss practices exoteric writing.  He can be, as long as he does not quite appear to be, what he is.  But as a matter of self-destructive probite, Strauss also liked to burst out, to say what he really meant, to astonish his fellow German Jews in Paris and even his would-be amour Hannah Arendt with the ferocity and paradoxicality of his convictions (even a Nietschean or Heideggerian Jew can’t – just can’t – be a supporter of the German National Revolution…; surely a great scholar can’t, just can’t be for nuclear war and a return to the stone age…).  Whatever the outbursts, Strauss’s being – an exiled German Jew – makes it stunningly easy, at first and even second glance,  to deny the reality of his political opinions.

            Following Schary, Strauss also here seemingly indicts the “white Protestant” who is to incarnate the last men and is a bigot:

            “There may be a permanent or stable majority in the United States, the majority is ‘white Protestant’.  As a consequence, there is a social hierarchy at the bottom of which are the Negroes (or colored people in general) and barely above them are the Jews.  There is then a prejudice which is both constitutional and unconstitutional against Negroes and Jews.  If I understand Mr. Schary correctly, the conformism against which he has directed his attack [note the careful words: it is his attack, not Strauss’s] has the unavowed intention either to transform all Americans into white Protestants [for Strauss, these are the last men]  or else to deny those Americans who are not white Protestants full equality of opportunity. (p, 264)

This sounds as if Strauss might side with blacks and Jews (he is clearly against persecution of jews).  Yet recall the 1932 endorsement of the kings against the prophets and his 1933 and 1934 support for the “National Revolution” in Germany (as his friend Jacob Klein points out in apologizing for his previous, mistaken hope in Nazism – that it would abolish secularization - there was a lot of anti-semitism in Nazism from the start; unlike Strauss in 1934, Klein now rightly thinks that the core of National Socialism is anti-semitism).  Strauss’s mention of the status order is but exoteric.  As I have emphasized in Sotomayor, Brown v. Board of Education, the social science of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, and Leo Strauss here, Strauss chose politically to side with the segregationist James Kilpatrick.  He opposed the civil rights movement in America.  As he says in the preface to Liberalism Ancient and Modern proximately and historically:  a conservative is one who defends the Vietnam War and opposes civil liberties {including  the civil rights movement”).  He did recognize the prejudices, but did not recommend integration even of Jews into the last men.  Instead, he sought, as he goes on to say at p. 368 discussing the contribution of a Mr. Cohen to the colloquium, , the secession of Jews and possibly Christians from this state:

            “Yet I cannot but agree with his concluding sentence: ‘What more has Israel to offer the world than eternal patience?’ This sentence calls for a long commentary.  One sentence must here suffice: what is called here ‘eternal patience’ is that fortitude in suffering now despised as `ghetto mentality’ by shallow people who have surrendered wholeheartedly to the modern world or who lack the intelligence to consider that a secession from this world might again become necessary for Jews and even for Christians.

            He here repeats the preoccupation of the end of On Tyranny: that a nihilist – now broadened to include Jews and Christians -  might revolt against the last men and that a nuclear war returning man to a primitive state would nonetheless be superior to becoming part of secularism.  In this chapter of Liberalism Ancient and Modern, the sentiment is fierce and heavy with meaning even if perhaps not quite as developed as in On Tyranny.    Note: he warns the reader  that there is much more to be said here.  Perhaps he refers to the ideas in the “Restatement” which I just invoked.  In any case, he then, in the one charged sentence - the one he has warned the careful reader to take in – affirms the suffering of the ghetto and a revolt against modern world. He echoes the May 19, 1933 letter to Loewith: “As long as a spark of Roman spirit glimmers in the world, there is no reason to crawl to any cross even the cross of liberalism.  And better than any cross the ghetto.”  The fortitude in suffering of the ghetto is a merit for Strauss.  It is superior in dignity, he thinks, to the last men.  But toward the culture of the modern world, the nihilist seeks to destroy.  See Leo Strauss: the courage to destroy here. 

           In the first essay, pp. 5-6, Strauss also set up this theme of nuclear catastrophe.  There he is more elliptical, though he still hints at this goal:  

           “Someone might say that this notion of liberal education [about human greatness] is merely political, that it dogmatically assumes the goodness of modern democracy.  Can we not turn our backs on modern society?  Can we not return to nature, to the life of preliterate tribes?  Are we not crushed, nauseated, degraded by the mass of printed material, the graveyards of so many beautiful and majestic forests?  It is not sufficient to say that this is mere romanticism, that we today cannot return to nature: may not coming generations, after a man-wrought cataclysm, be compelled to live in illiterate tribes?  Will our thoughts concerning thermonuclear wars not be affected by such prospects?  Certain it is that the horrors of mass culture (which include guided tours of  integer nature [sic]) render intelligible the longing for a return to nature.“ (pp. 5-6)

             The emphasis here is on nuclear war.  It is a little unclear that the majestic forests for which he admirably longs will survive a nuclear exchange – but leave too much meditation aside.  The last sentence is a non sequitur.  It indicates, however, that the evils of mass culture inspire a longing to “return to nature,” i.e. to suffer nuclear catastrophe imagining that history will cycle through anew. It is also unclear why Strauss’s Nietzschean determinism about history – that it will again cycle through to the last men is intellectually attractive to him.  As usual, he offers no argument.  But that determinism echoes a crude economic determinist Marxism (perhaps he believed in that sort of thing in some way…).

             His next sentences on illiterate societies do not follow and are intended to distract careless readers from taking in the point (p. 6). The contrast with preliterate societies seems to favor the preservation of liberal education, the study of the greatest books and the greatest men.   It is in the last essay and in On Tyranny that he says more directly what he means.

                In the first chapter of Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, however, Strauss stresses the importance of liberal education: reading the “greatest authors,” a phrase he repeats over and over.  It has once again,  nothing to do with individuality (which in chapter 10 he criticizes in Schary).    This thought, however,  might be linked to rule of the outstanding man in Aristotle’s Politics book 3 and 5 or to the rule of the philosopher which he invokes at Liberalism Ancient and Modern,  p. 7. 

                But surely the members of a primitive regime cannot study such works.  So someone might say, Strauss  can’t really have preferred the primitive state of man to mass society, the society of the last men.  In the “Restatement” to On Tyranny, however, he asks once again: don’t we enjoy the spring (primitive man) even if we know that history will cycle through once again to the winter (the last men)?  See here.  In Liberalism Ancient and Modern,  commenting on another author (so perhaps also on the surface),  he does mention the madness of a nuclear war.  But what he says once he varies; esoteric writers mean only the rare or unusual or occasional (otherwise, they wouldn’t confirm most readers in their sleepiness). Yet it is not certain even from Liberalism Ancient and Modern, and, if one follows this advice on reading repetitions for variance in Persecution, the "Restatement" to On Tyranny, that Strauss opposes such war compared to the “crisis of democracy.”   Arguably, he endorses it.

               Ch. 5 focuses on “Notes on Lucretius” who is said to be a precursor or at least near to modern liberalism in the preface.  Yet  at p. 135, Strauss speaks of earthquakes and other natural catastrophes which “offer the most massive proof of the possibility of the death of the world.”  Such “fear for the world,” Lucretius says, gives rise to belief in the gods.  But Lucretius can step away from this, according to Strauss:

                “His courage is not in need of support by belief in social progress between now and the death of the world or by other beliefs.” (p. 135)

                  But social progress to achieve equal liberty and equal basic rights is a central idea of all forms of modern liberalism: the end of colonialism, the freeing of slaves, the liberation of women, the organization of workers, the equality of gays and lesbians with others, and so forth.  Strauss is warning at the end of the middle chapter of Liberalism Ancient and Modern that Lucretius is not a liberal.  But he is not just an atheist.  He stares catastrophe – “the death of the world” – in the face, calmly.  The parallel is to Leo Strauss facing nuclear war and return to preliterate life, the “spring of mankind” in the “Restatement” in On Tyranny, calmly.  That cataclysmic, anti-liberal, anti-modern, in fact anti-world and frightening message is the hidden meaning of Liberalism Ancient and Modern.

               Some 20 years ago, I was having dinner at the American Political Science Assocation with Ben Barber and several other theorists.  Ben said: you know there are 4 Straussians who have gone into the Pentagon and have their finger on the nuclear trigger.  Pretty funny stuff about would-be or one-time political theorists.  It was perhaps the final year of H.W. Bush.  The Straussians were, one might say, always burrowing.  We all laughed. But “better dead than red” is one of the messages which Strauss helped disseminate. (Perhaps Strauss meant better dead than modern.)   Dr. Strangelove is never far in America.  It was perhaps laughter with a frightened edge. 

              There is a chain of command, however.   But anyone with their finger on the nuclear trigger is dangerous.  W. for example.  That fact made  Cheney, with over time a coterie of Straussian advisors and assistants and publicists (from Wolfowitz to Schulsky to Kristol to Cambone to Libby),  whispering in Bush’s ear threatening.   What separates us from disaster is not so much; the politics of being the world’s most warlike, armed and belligerent nation – just as a matter of imperial privilege, assumed in various silly statements about “powerful pacifists (David Lake here) or “benevolent hegemons” (William Kristol)  – makes our existence (I mean, humanity’s) fragile. Remember the nuclear weapons, so-called bunker-busters, with a radioactive yield according to scientists greater than Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which Bush had as “an option” to drop on Natanz, 50 km. or so from Teheran.  The threatened resignation of the head of the joint chiefs of staff was needed to get Bush to eliminate nuclear bunker-busters from the immeidate “military options” with regard to Iran. Now sometimes people whom one wouldn’t expect like Ronald Reagan manage, out of some understanding and decency, to strike out on novel paths to reduce the threat of nuclear war (it is the only admirable thing in Reagan’s Presidency I can recall): to negotiate with Gorbachov and prepare the way for perestroika and the vanishing of a kind of dictatorship (now the Putin regime, with US enmity, has also been fierce; Obama has wisely removed the Bush-planted missiles in Poland and Czechoslovakia). 

         Yet perhaps it is worth mentioning the students of Strauss or of his students who have moved into the Pentagon and played a role with the regard to formulating policy.  Abe Shulsky is a student of the master and wrote a piece with Gary Schmitt on intelligence (“by which we do not mean nous”).  Mirroring the epilogue to the Storing book (Gary was Storing’s student), it talked about the qualitative different nature of Soviet tyranny and the need to infer enmity – some might think, however, giving wide scope to paranoia; recall Wolfowitz and plan B, arming against a vast overestimate of what the Soviets were producing - compared to a CIA director who just wanted to collect quantitative intelligence, and viewed US/Soviet rivalry along a continuum.  But even though Strauss's writing is charged with fear and belligerence toward the Soviets, Shulsky’s and Schmitt’s point is still fortunately, as an interpretation of Strauss,  exoteric.  If Shulsky had taken in the hidden message of the “Restatement” to On Tyranny – nuclear war is not extinction but a return to the human “spring,” there is no hint of it.  

         A third is Steven Cambone, a student of Harry Jaffa’s at Claremont who wrote a dissertation on "manly eloquence" and the Declaration of Independence  ("Noble Sentiments and Manly Eloquence: The First Continental Congress and the Decision for American Independence" - h/t Peter Minowitz) and was an assistant secretary of defense under Bush.  Cambone  coined the term “lawfare”: the use of law in the political wars, the “advantage of the stronger” in Thrasymachus/Melian ambassador/Strauss-neocon lingo.  Given the perversion of law in the War and Injustice Departments – Rove’s firing of the Federal Attorneys and framing up of Democrats like former Governor Siegelman of Alabama and the Democratic activist/lawyer Paul Minor in Mississippi  – as well as the doctrine of “state secrets” which the Obama administration is sadly confirming and making into a bipartisan regime (this is Jack Balkin’s useful way of looking at it: a National Surveillance State), and the like, Cambone was a major player in  tyranny (“executive power”), an ugly Schmittian [Carl, not Gary]. 

          But whether this aspect of Strauss – really, a nuclear cataclysm isn’t so bad, Jews and Christians and nihilists might all secede from the last man and the modern age, the worst we have to face is death – these are just Strauss’s quasi-hidden thoughts straight up – crossed Cambone’s mind I have no evidence.  The fourth, Wolfowitz,  was a student of Allen Bloom (depicted as Paul Gorman in Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, his revealing and rather charming novel about Bloom’s being  and reactionary politics, but whether Bloom fully got that Strauss had been sympathetic to fascism and Nazism, let alone entertained ideas of nuclear war being a good thing there is no evidence (Bloom had very reactionary opinions, but also seems to me to make arguments less than any other Struassian; even Strauss is a philosopher compared to Bloom). 

              Yet Strauss was very ill and frail and less interested in students when Wolfowitz [and Gary Schmitt]  came to Chicago.  Wolfowitz worked primarily with Albert Wohlstetter, the former Trotskyist and mathematician who was avid to defeat the Soviets, but also designed the failsafe character of missiles (that the command to explode the missile has be reiterated or the missile will abort) which has probably saved us so far from inadvertent nuclear war (See Alex Abell,  Soldiers of Reason).   Thrasymachus – Wolfie was the originator in a 1992 memo rejected by the first Bush of the Condi Rice 2003 National Security Strategy of the United States.  The US has the biggest weapons and will prevent any one else from becoming a danger to us the way the Russians were.   Unipolarity – we will beat you into line.    “Justice,” for Wolfowitz, is the advantage of the stronger.  Wolfie did manufacture lies about Iraq (as did Schulsky who worked on Iraq and Iran for Cheney) and launch American aggression.  But there is no evidence, I think, that he is an intentional nihilist, or that the thought that moved Strauss – explode the last men, bring it all down – has ever troubled Wolfowitz.  Still he has done  enough harm as an  actual reactionary – aggressing and torturing – that  bringing it all down unintionally – nuking Natanz and watching what unfolds in the Middle East and the world – was not beyond Wolfowitz or the others.

          I mentioned Gary Schmitt as the coauthor of Schulsky’s piece on intelligence.  I interviewed Schmitt when he came to give a lecture on China at the Korbel School of International Studies.  Gary put me on to the Iran-Contra Minority Report written for Dick Cheney, then House Minority leader, by Mike Malbin, a student of Strauss and primarily of  Walter Berns (got a Ph.D. at Buffalo), who as a young man, worked for Cheney.  Malbin relies on Schmitt’s 5 articles on executive power, all mirroring but amplifying an article by Storing on executive power which discusses Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and FDR’s concentration camps for Japanese-Americans (the talk radio mantra of every neocon about Guantanamo, torture, and tyranny).   Storing thought the separation of powers would eventually right itself.  But it need not.  Enough of a Carl Schmittian emphasis on the “state of the exception” a la Harvey Mansfield and there need be no return.  The Obama administration has so far made state secrets and a number of other pieces of Bush criminality once again a matter of a new regime.  He has done so in order to prevent the investigations and legal hearings of perhaps all the Cabinet aside from Colin Powell, and many lower officials from occurring – the only thing that would restore the rule of law.   What is left of American justice hangs by a thread.

         Gary Schmitt had gone as an assistant professor, along with Jeffrey Tulis to the University of Virginia with Storing to create a Center for the Study of the Presidency.  Storing had died of a heart attack playing handball at 49, and the department replaced him with James Caesar and denied promotion to his two junior colleagues.  It is too bad; Schmitt had published 5 articles and was a serious and interesting scholar.  As an academic, he would have done some good and vastly less harm in the world.   But Schmitt lived down the road from Carnes Lord, another student of Strauss who was in the State Department in the Reagan administration.  He put Schmitt in contact with Shulsky, who at the time worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan; Schmitt went to work for Scoop Jackson (both were hawkish Democrats, wanting to strike out at the Soviets).  Though a reactionary, Strauss’s politics were non-partisan (see here on Goldwin and the Center for Public Affairs through which Strauss sought to gain political influence).    They gradually peregrinated into the intelligence apparatus.  Schmitt has been in such circles for many years, was one of the three principals of the Project for a New American Century (along with William Kristol and Robert Kagan) and is now – as is Wolfowitz – at the American Enterprise Institute.  He wrote an article with Kristol defending spying on Americans, but, unusually among political Struassians, said to me with some vehemence that he was against torture.  I don’t know if he has written about it.  He too is a primary belligerent and urger of executive tyranny, but I doubt that he has spent time fantasizing – as Strauss plainly did – about the possibilities of nuclear war, and whether really it would be a bad thing…

           Francis Fukuyama also worked with Wohlstetter and Strauss (a bit) and went into Rand and “defense” intelligence.  At Rand, Fukuyma made a big hit with his “end of history” thesis copied from Kojeve (in his initial article, he admitted that he had never read a word of Hegel, though following Kojeve, he claimed to be taking up Hegel’s view).  Fukuyma has the most relentlessly enthusiastic and superficial interpretation of the surface of Strauss of any of the political Straussians (or of his academic defenders like the Zuckerts).  But he is often thoughtful about policy.  For instance, he got off the boat about that “noble effort,” the war in Iraq (he had signed the September 20, 2001 Straussian/Project for a New American Century call to invade Iraq and overturn Saddam) when, sitting at a dinner attended by a wildly cheering group of neocons about the war in Iraq 3 years in, he realized that they lived in a shadow world and that the boat was already underwater.  That he then criticized the war – and was greeted with some fury by his former allies – is commendable.  One must be grateful for every person who finally does look a little at reality (he has not to my knowledge ever criticized torture however, and was still on a biopolitics advisory board under Bush – so the degree that he has moved away from his previous sympathies is fairly limited).  But Fukuyama. too, does not consider nuclear war as a good way of bringing down “the last men.”

            It is interesting that Ben’s witticism should lead to such shivery reflections on whether among all the bad and tyrannical and destructive things the neocons have been responsible for, this little nest of Straussians actually considered getting us into nuclear war to head off the last men. These are 5 significant figures in the murderousness and wreck of American foreign policy and the economy.  Yet my friend Robert Howse, an eccentric Straussian (many students of Strauss have the charming eccentricities of all of us scholars) points out that all this war and martial invocation – the political Straussians are pretty much in love with dropping bombs at a great distance on others; fighting is for other people – will nonetheless lead, a la Fukuyama and Kojeve – to the rule of markets and democracy, in the title of Fukuyama’s book, “the last man” (even the title alluding to political philosophy  he doesn’t get right; the last men in Nietzsche huddle together and blink like beetles; a last man would have noone to rub up against, would have to take account of his loneliness and mortality, and thus couldn’t be one of…the last men). But of course Strauss himself was inhumanly consistent – blow up the last men and start over again: a new “spring”…

             That one can and perhaps must speculate about how near, in their harms, the political Straussians in the Pentagon have brought us, in the post-Cold War era, to nuclear war, and with what intention, is frightening.  Strauss intended reactionary and even nihilist influence on politics; in the neocons, beyond the grave (he died in 1973), he has had it.  The collapse of the United States, militarily and economically – the situation Obama inherited – was very unlikely as a way for the empire to sink.  It has been a swift denouement.  Osama Bin Laden could not have done this, but the neocons, significantly impelled by Leo Strauss, have.  They have provided an ideological atmosphere through policy advisors, pundits and talking heads which enable and further the madness of Dick Cheney (Malbin was a young man when he worked for Cheney; if you think he said, that I led him, you are mistaken).  But the words in Cheney/s mouth “prerogative” (Robert Goldwin) or executive power (Gary Schmitt, Malbin) – and the intent a la Wolfowitz on expansion in the Middle East all come from Straussians.  There has been quite an interaction over 35 years.      The political fantasies of Leo Strauss, a Nietzschean, Heideggerian and Platonist of his own stamp, have had quite a fearsome and criminal – though not yet quite cataclysmic - effect in actual American circumstances.

          Let us consider again AZ's nomination of Strauss's sentence on toleration in chapter 10. Read in the context of the rest of the essay, the whole of Liberalism Ancient and Modern and Strauss’s intended reactionary influence, his seeming endorsement of the praise in Dore Schary’s writing of a good consequence of separation of church and state, the diminution of conformity,  vanishes.   Strauss is sublime.  There is no other American  writer (let alone among comparatively sober and at least decent political theorists) who has views remotely like these  (In Germany there is perhaps Schmitt, his student Moeller, and Moeller’s successor, also a Straussian bibliophile, Heinrich Meier)  There is also certainly not such a view in another teacher who cared as much both about the material and his students.  Strauss was a relentless and innovative scholar.  Still,  politically, Strauss was a determined anti-modern who saw in fascism and the National Revolution, and, in the United States, even potentially in nuclear catastrophe, a hope against the lapsed society of the prophets: the America of the last men.

 

 

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