Monday, October 6, 2014

Waltzing With the Straussians

If you'd asked me three months ago, who was Leo Strauss, I'd have answered, “Didn't he write polkas or operas?  Or was he a ne’er-do-well brother or cousin of Johann or Richard?”

Email correspondents of mine have engaged in a lengthy discussion centering on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.N. speech of September 29th and whether or not he was either a “Straussian” or a tool of the “Straussians.” The statement by Netanyahu that precipitated the discussion was, concerning the depredations of ISIS –  “It’s not militants. It’s not Islam. It’s militant Islam.” – in which he makes a contentious distinction between Islam and jihadist violence in the name of Islam. Readers know my position well enough: Islam is what Islam does – what ISIS is doing – and has been doing for fourteen centuries.

However, not being familiar with Leo Strauss, I investigated him and discovered some unsettling information. I had expected to find that he was associated with the Frankfurt School, a Marxist intellectual clique that emigrated to the U.S. from Nazi Germany in 1933. This was not the case. Shadia Drury, a Strauss scholar, wrote in an encyclopedia entry:

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a German-Jewish émigré political philosopher and historian of political thought, who wrote some fifteen books and eighty articles on the history of political thought from Socrates to Nietzsche….

Strauss was born in Kirchhain, Hessen, Germany. He studied at the Universities of Marburg and Hamburg where he came into contact with Edmund Husserl and the young Martin Heidegger. He left Germany in 1932 and eventually settled in the USA where from 1949 to 1968 he was professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He amassed a sizeable following of devoted students, who have played a significant role in US academic life and government.

And what did Strauss write? What did he advocate? What influence did his devotees and disciples exert on academic life and government? Apparently, he was a political Platonist.

Drury, in the encyclopedia entry, explains that:

Strauss thought that ancient philosophers understood this very well and that modern philosophers were seriously misguided in thinking that rational self- interest was a sufficient ground of social life. In Strauss' view, the modern faith in reason is at the heart of the 'crisis of the West'. Reason has destroyed faith and in so doing has opened the door to barbarism. Ancient philosophers understood that reason and philosophy have a corrosive effect on the 'city', as Strauss called the state. By the same token, Strauss was committed to philosophy and had no intention of denouncing it out of hand. He therefore argued that philosophy must be kept hidden or secret, not simply to permit philosophers to avoid persecution, but for the sake of the people and for the wellbeing of the city.

Drury continued:

Strauss' discovery of esotericism led him to advance unusual interpretations of classic texts. For example, Strauss argued that Plato wrote dialogues in order to conceal his true thinking. And contrary to popular belief, Strauss denied that Socrates was Plato's mouthpiece. He thought that in the Republic Thrasymachus, not Socrates, was Plato's true spokesman. According to Strauss, the argument made by Socrates was simply Plato's exoteric teaching. In arguing that justice leads to happiness, Socrates was displaying his sophistic skill--that is to say, his ability to make the weaker argument appear the better.

Strauss thought that the Socratic argument in favor of justice could not succeed. He was certain that Plato was wise enough to realize that Thrasymachus was right--that justice is a function of power, and that in acting justly one serves the interest of others and not oneself. Strauss surmised that Socrates must have taken Thrasymachus aside and explained to him that his views were true, but too dangerous to express publicly. In this way, Socrates managed to silence Thrasymachus without refuting him. For Strauss, the truth is a luxury meant only for the few who hunger for the reality behind the necessary myths and illusions of the city.

In short, as Drury discusses, Strauss implicitly in some places in his writing, and in others explicitly, endorsed the notion that the elite few – meaning philosophers and select intellectuals – have the task to rule the “masses” by instilling in them a religious/nationalist mantra, and to act as interpreters of the “shadows” in the caves of their consciousnesses. The elite will also manipulate the shadows for the greater good. Lying to and deceiving the public were justified, because reason and morality, according to Strauss, were incapable of sustaining a state of stability in society. Drury explicates Strauss’s position:

According to Strauss, the fundamental issue that divides ancient and modern thinkers is the relative importance of reason and revelation in human life. Modem philosophers such as HOBBES and LOCKE, exalt reason and believe that a political order can be founded on purely rational and secular principles. But Strauss believed that this modern liberal project was doomed to failure. He thought that reason cannot provide the requisite support for moral and political life; what is needed is belief in a transcendent God who punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous….

Reason has destroyed faith and in so doing has opened the door to barbarism. Ancient philosophers understood that reason and philosophy have a corrosive effect on the 'city', as Strauss called the state.

On the contrary, reason did not destroy faith. In the West, it was eventually confined to personal beliefs and banished from secular politics.  

(Also, on the contrary, I’m certain that Thomas Hobbes, who endorsed supreme state power over everyone and everything, never exalted reason in any realm. The state was all, the individual nothing. See The Leviathan for further details, and a neoconservative’s discussion of it here.)

And, speaking of neoconservatives and their obsession with religion as the sole foundation of society and government, Jim Lobe of AlterNet, in May 2003, more succinctly and directly explained Straussian politics in his blog entry, “Leo Strauss' Philosophy of Deception”:

Strauss is a popular figure among the neoconservatives. Adherents of his ideas include prominent figures both within and outside the administration. They include 'Weekly Standard' editor William Kristol; his father and indeed the godfather of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol; the new Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Stephen Cambone, a number of senior fellows at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) (home to former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and Lynne Cheney), and Gary Schmitt, the director of the influential Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which is chaired by Kristol the Younger.

It's hardly surprising then why Strauss is so popular in an administration [George W. Bush’s] obsessed with secrecy, especially when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Not only did Strauss have few qualms about using deception in politics, he saw it as a necessity. While professing deep respect for American democracy, Strauss believed that societies should be hierarchical – divided between an elite who should lead, and the masses who should follow. But unlike fellow elitists like Plato, he was less concerned with the moral character of these leaders. According to Shadia Drury, who teaches politics at the University of Calgary, Strauss believed that "those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior."

One must wonder why Strauss considered Hobbes’s concept of the perfect polity – a state with absolute power – to be an antithesis to his own conception of the workable polity. Lobe notes later on in his column:

Like Thomas Hobbes, Strauss believed that the inherently aggressive nature of human beings could only be restrained by a powerful nationalistic state. "Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed," he once wrote. "Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people."

Not surprisingly, Strauss' attitude toward foreign policy was distinctly Machiavellian. "Strauss thinks that a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat," Drury wrote in her book. "Following Machiavelli, he maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to be manufactured (emphases added)."

"Perpetual war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians believe in," says Drury.

Offhand, one movie that dramatizes that policy, Wag the Dog, in which an incumbent U.S. president, on the eve of a national election, is caught in a sex scandal and to distract the electorate from it, a fictive war is dreamed up by a “spin doctor” with the help of a Hollywood producer. On television, both British and American versions of “The House of Cards” dramatize the pursuit of power by the principle characters by posing as advocates for “social justice” and other “manufactured” causes.

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is an exemplary demonstration of that policy in literature, in which an absolutist government keeps its populace in check and in thrall with constant warfare, aside from lies by policy about every aspect of the populace’s condition. In contemporary political commentary, see Daniel Greenfield’s excellent essay, “The Empire of Progressive Poverty” for a discussion of the mechanisms of reducing a wealthy country into an impoverished one, with a populace dependent on the state.  Greenfield notes, and might agree that it is a Straussian tactic, that:

Global Warming rhetoric is still couched in the usual social justice rhetoric, aimed at the poorer kleptocracies who are eager to join the line for a handout, but its logic is poverty driven. It is not out to create wealth, but to eliminate it, on the grounds that cheaply available food or electricity is an immoral activity that damages the planet.

The Empire of Poverty is chiefly concerned with the impoverishing of the West, to maintain the manufactured scarcities of its water empire it has gone beyond taxation to entirely shutting down or crippling entire branches of human activity….

The Empire of Poverty is rising on the skeleton of the West, it is eating out its abundance and preparing to lock down power, food, transportation, medical services and countless other elements of the commercial life of the formerly free world.

Concerning the “right” of the “superior” to lord it over the “inferior” by any means possible, including falsehoods and manipulation, Jim Lobe lifts the veil of “transparency” from Straussian politics:

This dichotomy requires "perpetual deception" between the rulers and the ruled, according to Drury. Robert Locke, another Strauss analyst says, “The people are told what they need to know and no more." While the elite few are capable of absorbing the absence of any moral truth, Strauss thought, the masses could not cope. If exposed to the absence of absolute truth, they would quickly fall into nihilism or anarchy, according to Drury, author of 'Leo Strauss and the American Right' (St. Martin's 1999)….

According to Drury, Strauss had a "huge contempt" for secular democracy. Nazism, he believed, was a nihilistic reaction to the irreligious and liberal nature of the Weimar Republic. Among other neoconservatives, Irving Kristol has long argued for a much greater role for religion in the public sphere, even suggesting that the Founding Fathers of the American Republic made a major mistake by insisting on the separation of church and state. And why? Because Strauss viewed religion as absolutely essential in order to impose moral law on the masses who otherwise would be out of control.

At the same time, he stressed that religion was for the masses alone; the rulers need not be bound by it. Indeed, it would be absurd if they were, since the truths proclaimed by religion were "a pious fraud." As Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine points out, "Neoconservatives are pro-religion even though they themselves may not be believers."

Lobe concludes his and Drury’s evaluation of the Straussians, vis-à-vis the relationship between their relationship as a ruling elite with the masses.

"They really have no use for liberalism and democracy, but they're conquering the world in the name of liberalism and democracy," Drury says.

Shadia Drury has an interesting video on YouTube, in which she answers questions about observable manifestations of Straussian politics. I don’t agree with some of her premises, but it is an otherwise clear explanation of how the Straussians work behind the scenes and oft times in public. The system she describes is clearly fascist in nature, given the government-business “partnership” in politics and public affairs.

 Another reservation about the Straussians and Leo Strauss is that they reflect the collapse of philosophy and one instance among many of the abandonment of reason. There is much truth in the Straussian theory, but it smacks also of a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories usually allege that a cabal of evil geniuses is manipulating people, things, and events. It’s interesting how a description the secretive Straussians meshes neatly with the description of, say, Rosicrucianism.  

Rosicrucianism is a philosophical secret society said to have been founded in late medieval Germany by Christian Rosenkreuz.  It holds a doctrine or theology "built on esoteric truths of the ancient past", which, "concealed from the average man, provide insight into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm."

If Straussians go by the collective name of “neoconservatives” who alone know “nature” and have all the answers and look to God for guidance and possess the power to fiddle with the public’s perceptions, then the Rosicrucian shoes fit.  Shadia Drury, in her September 2003 paper, “Saving America: Leo Strauss and the neoconservatives,” observed:

The trouble with the Straussians is that they are compulsive liars. But it is not altogether their fault. Strauss was very pre-occupied with secrecy because he was convinced that the truth is too harsh for any society to bear; and that the truth-bearers are likely to be persecuted by society - specially a liberal society - because liberal democracy is about as far as one can get from the truth as Strauss understood it.

Strauss's disciples have inherited a superiority complex as well as a persecution complex. They are convinced that they are the superior few who know the truth and are entitled to rule. But they are afraid to speak the truth openly, lest they are persecuted by the vulgar many who do not wish to be ruled by them. This explains why they are eager to misrepresent the nature of Strauss's thought. They are afraid to reveal that Strauss was a critic of liberalism and democracy, lest he be regarded as an enemy of America. So, they wrap him in the American flag and pretend that he is a champion of liberal democracy for political reasons - their own quest for power. The result is that they run roughshod over truth as well as democracy….

But Strauss's American disciples continue to complain that they are oppressed, beleaguered, and ostracized by the liberal academy, and the equally liberal media. But surely, these are crocodile tears.

The Straussians are the most powerful, the most organized, and the best-funded scholars in Canada and the United States. They are the unequalled masters of right-wing think tanks, foundations, and corporate funding. And now they have the ear of the powerful in the White House. Nothing could have pleased Strauss more; for he believed that intellectuals have an important role to play in politics.

As far as the ear of the current occupant of the White House goes, it is strictly, exclusively, and transparently receptive to Marxist theory and  practice as codified by Saul Alinsky. All the Straussians can do at the moment is react, and not define and steer policy from behind the Oval Office throne. But if a Republican claims that throne in 2016, the Straussians-cum-neoconservatives will be back in business after also claiming that they duped the electorate into electing him.

If my name is on some Straussian’s dance card, come 2016, I think I’ll leave the ballroom to duck out for a smoke.

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