America’s Coming Dictatorship: The theory and practice of oligarchical “conservatism”
by Justin Raimondo
The Iraq war and the inquiry into its origins has provoked interest in a number of subjects formerly considered obscure, the discussion of which was once limited to the rarified aeries of academia and specialty journals. Some examples are neoconservatism, just war theory, and, most surprisingly, the theories of Leo Strauss, the philosophical avatar of a cynical Machiavellianism that promotes the idea of the “noble lie.” As the disaster in Iraq unfolded, subjects once considered abstruse were introduced into the pages of the popular press, so that, at one point, we were treated to a long explanation of the doctrines of Strauss in the pages of the New York Times.
As Jeet Heer put it in the Boston Globe,
“Odd as this may sound, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss, a controversial philosopher who died in 1973. Although generally unknown to the wider population, Strauss has been one of the two or three most important intellectual influences on the conservative worldview now ascendant in George W. Bush’s Washington. Eager to get the lowdown on White House thinking, editors at the New York Times and Le Monde have had journalists pore over Strauss’s work and trace his disciples’ affiliations. The New Yorker has even found a contingent of Straussians doing intelligence work for the Pentagon.”
This sudden interest was due to the unusual number of Straussians who had found their way into close proximity to the centers of power in Washington – an extraordinary number of Strauss’s students (or students of his leading followers) were employed in and around the Bush administration, particularly at key points in the national security bureaucracy, as William Pfaff pointed out, including then- “Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol.”
One can easily see how the concept of the “noble lie” fits neatly into the neoconservative scheme of things, and the run-up to the Iraq war is surely a textbook example of the Straussian method in action: an enlightened elite deceives the public into an action that must be taken, after all, for their own good. In this case, we were lied into invading and occupying Iraq, for reasons that had nothing to do with “weapons of mass destruction” and Saddam’s alleged links to al Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, both of which the promulgators knew to be lies, and yet reiterated ceaselessly.
Since we are now permanently at war, the ideal atmosphere for a Straussian (or any authoritarian) to theorize in, this is the time for the War Party to come out in the open with its theory of government, which, in normal times, is dressed up as “peace through strength,” and now comes out of the closet as “peace through dictatorship.” Aside from rationalizing a regime based on lies, the Straussian method, and philosophy, is useful in other ways. The prominent Straussian Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, demonstrates his usefulness as a promoter of the regime’s authority, and specifically the supremacy of the executive branch of government in wartime. Mansfield makes “The Case for the Strong Executive” in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, and it is an argument that constitutes a vital part of the intellectual blueprint for the dictatorship I wrote about the other day.
Mansfield starts out with a paean to the incorrect and unfortunately near-universal conception of the Constitution as a “flexible” document, and the resulting reference to “the living Constitution” is one of those cliches that no one ever thinks to challenge – except when it’s too late. When the tanks are already rolling through the streets, that is …
Look: there is nothing “flexible” about the Constitution. It means precisely what it says, and its language is not in any way obscure or complex. Furthermore, I would note that every time someone is about to take away our liberties, or in some way circumvent the plain intent of the Founders, they inevitably preface it with odes to the Constitution’s “flexibility.” Balderdash! The Founders meant what they said, and said what they meant in plain and simple English, language that even a Harvard professor can understand. Yet, examining Mansfield’s case for an executive dictatorship – and that is surely the intent of his piece – we see at work the old Straussian method of “reinterpreting” an author’s clear intent to mean its exact opposite.
Now it would seem that the Founders, being revolutionaries, and even libertarians of a sort (except for Hamilton), were intent on setting up a republic of freemen, that is, a form of government that was constitutionally limited and certainly had nothing to do with the royalism against which they had recently rebelled. Ah, but a Straussian can find “hidden” meanings that the rest of us are blind to, and Mansfield detects a built-in contradiction, a deliberate tension between “one-man rule” and the republican spirit that imbues the Constitution with – yes, an authoritarian streak:
“Now the rule of law has two defects, each of which suggests the need for one-man rule. The first is that law is always imperfect by being universal, thus an average solution even in the best case, that is inferior to the living intelligence of a wise man on the spot, who can judge particular circumstances. This defect is discussed by Aristotle in the well-known passage in his ‘Politics’ where he considers ‘whether it is more advantageous to be ruled by the best man or the best laws.’
“The other defect is that the law does not know how to make itself obeyed. …There must be police, and the rulers over the police must use energy (Alexander Hamilton’s term) in addition to reason. It is a delusion to believe that governments can have energy without ever resorting to the use of force.
“The best source of energy turns out to be the same as the best source of reason – one man. One man, or, to use Machiavelli’s expression, uno solo, will be the greatest source of energy if he regards it as necessary to maintaining his own rule. Such a person will have the greatest incentive to be watchful, and to be both cruel and merciful in correct contrast and proportion. We are talking about Machiavelli’s prince, the man whom in apparently unguarded moments he called a tyrant.”
Read it here.