Partnership of convenience

Neoconservatism and the difficult defense of capitalism against the Left and the Right

Seminar Paper, 2006

20 Pages, Grade: Honors (Bestnote)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Defining neoconservatism: origins of an intellectual ideology

3. Variants of capitalism and neoconservative philosophy
3.1. The liberal attack: Defending capitalism against the counterculture
3.2. The losing battle: Saving capitalism from libertarian encroachment

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper attempts to undertake a seemingly trivial task: to outline the relationship between two sets of ideas, neoconservatism and capitalism. There are a number of factors, however, that add complexity to the analysis. First of all “conventional wisdom” has gradually tainted an objective and sober appraisal of neoconservatism. Against the backdrop of the steady rise of neoconservatism since the late 1960s and its increasingly visible influence on government policies and the political culture in America, criticism arose not only in the liberal camp but also in conservative (or “paleoconservative”) circles. Precisely because the figureheads of the emerging neoconservative movement were outspoken and controversial – Norman Podhoretz was notorious for ferociously lashing out against opponents and allies alike – they scandalized their political adversaries as well as those parts of the public that were willing to listen. It is no surprise then that the debate on neoconservatism became highly emotionalized, thereby clouding its fundamental tenets and contributing to a “semantic quicksand that swallows all meaningful distinctions in American politics.”[1] Almost everyone seemed to have an opinion on the topic. As a consequence, it has become somewhat of a challenge to separate myth from fact.

On a direct level, then, neoconservatives themselves bear responsibility for the confusion. A serious attempt was never made on their part to provide an exhaustive definition of their ideology and its foundations. This is partly due to the fact that the neoconservative thrust was strongly personality-driven. Hence Irving Kristol is dubbed the “godfather” of the movement to this day. Whenever strong personalities fight a common cause, however, consensus remains elusive. This puts into question the concept of a “movement” proper. It also virtually precludes agreement on a topic such as capitalism. Although neoconservatives share views on the desirability of a market economy, they are divided by more than nuances in regards to its concrete form. These internal differences escape conventional wisdom, however. Instead, critics have found it expedient to portray neoconservatives as the apologetics of a free market capitalism gone wild.[2] It is therefore usually assumed that neoconservatism and capitalism mesh by default.

While adding complexity, the factors just mentioned also provide the justification for a thorough examination of the neoconservative-capitalist nexus. In order to do so, we shall begin with a brief synopsis of the salient features of neoconservative thinking. This is essential for the subsequent discussion of the neoconservative perspective on different aspects of capitalism. The chronological focus will be mainly on the 1960s and 1970s during which neoconservative ideology and radical leftist counterculture simultaneously emerged. This parallelism was critical in shaping the intellectual development of neoconservatives. Some references will also be made to the 1980s which provided an environment strikingly different from the two preceding decades.

2. Defining neoconservatism: origins of an intellectual ideology

Neoconservatism did not emerge from a vacuum. Its origins are deeply rooted in the intellectual climate of the post-war period. In fact, the essential characteristic of neoconservatism lies in its reactionary nature, whereas reaction is to be understood in its literal sense. Neoconservatism was not an innovation per se, it was a direct response to an existing set of ideas. Blumenthal notes that “conservatism requires liberalism for its meaning.”[3] Accordingly, denunciation is its favourite mode of expression.[4] In the wake of the New Deal, a virtually undisputed liberal consensus had been firmly established in the United States to the extent that some declared the end of ideology.[5] Sceptics criticized that this broad based consensus had spawned a liberal establishment, or “ideological ruling class” that dominated the political discourse, riding on the coattails of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. This “New Class,” which was “half analytic concept, half polemical device”[6] served as a diffuse collective term for such equally fuzzy expressions as the “university-government-media”[7] complex and conjured up conspiracy theories. The concern raised by critics of the New Class was that its existence was contingent on the expansion of government. By putting forward demands such as a shift in public expenditures towards welfare and more equality, the New Class overburdened the government.[8] The resulting crisis of authority undermined the legitimacy of the governing institutions, thereby threatening the stability of the social fabric. Hence critics called for a reassertion of authority and for the insulation of the government from excessive demands by the New Class. The crisis had cultural roots, not institutional ones. It was nihilism, the perceived lack of values and norms, that troubled the nascent neoconservative movement.

It is important to note that the voices of caution at the time were affiliated with the Left themselves, either as socialists or Marxists. By the time the New Class and counterculture emerged in the 1960s, this small group of critical thinkers was utterly disillusioned with liberalism. They became conservatives “not by inheritance, but by conversion.”[9] This consequential step bears witness to a sense of alienation that is a recurrent theme in neoconservative self-consciousness. While studying at City College New York, a number of future neoconservative figureheads (among them Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, and Seymour Martin Lipset) identified with Trotskyism. According to Kristol, “the neoconservatives are the political intellectuals, and that’s what the Trotskyists were.”[10] This statement captures the essence of neoconservative self-perception. Trotsky was a renegade who stood up against the towering figure of Stalin and the communist mainstream. Being removed from any sort of political influence granted the Trotskyists a kind of intellectual freedom.[11] Neoconservatives defined their raison d’être in identical terms: underdogs in a hostile liberal environment they fought against the establishment from a position of intellectual sovereignty. Naturally, resistance against the prevailing consensus forced them to the margins of the political spectrum. This sense of alienation and the resort to an outsider position is also reflected in neoconservative rhetoric. While Podhoretz was “breaking ranks” with his past in a book with the same title, Elliott Abrams described the neoconservative state of mind as follows: “We have a feeling of swimming against the tide. You feel isolated, embattled.”[12] The default mode of neoconservatism, then, is a “permanent identity crisis.”[13]

The solution neoconservatives provided to overcome the problems associated with the rising New Class were deeply rooted in Straussian philosophy. It speaks in favour of a return to a form of truth and virtue that is prior to history and therefore has absolute value. Virtue is understood as a “harmonious balance within the society, achieved by a higher morality promoted by the state.”[14] The regime type is not relevant, as long as it fosters virtue. This implies that equality has a low priority in the neoconservative framework. For Strauss, virtue was fatally undermined by Machiavelli and then Hobbes “whose realistic depiction of the mechanics of power stripped it of a loftier justification.”[15] They thereby cleared the way for liberalism, which in turn disassociated rights from duties and mandated the state to safeguard those rights. It was this unmeritocratic element of liberalism that most bothered neoconservatives. Kristol rejected the idea that society must provide entitlements and advocated a return to virtue instead.[16] By underpinning their critique of the counterculture with a solid philosophical foundation, neoconservatives made a statement against prevailing nihilistic tendencies while emphasizing their own intellectualism.

Neoconservatives were not content with purely academic thought experiments, however. Their philosophy needed to be practical in order to have an impact on American political culture. Richard Weaver provided an appropriate motto with his notion that “ideas have consequences.”[17] So while the intellectual emphasis was put on ideology, this always happened in view of some practical goal. The underlying assumption was that ideology represents the fertile ground from which solid policies grow. Blumenthal notes that “neoconservatives thrive on ideological combat.”[18] In order to effectively wage this combat, neoconservatives relied on the “knowledge industry,” i.e. thinks tanks and publications such as The Public Interest and The National Interest, both founded by Kristol, or Commentary, edited by Podhoretz. The latter described the effect of his magazine as “affecting the ideological atmosphere.”[19] By the same token, Kristol considered The National Interest a weapon in the “war for ideology.”[20] In an era that had supposedly witnessed the end of ideology, such channels were indispensable for propelling a new phase of intellectual competition. For neoconservatives ideology was as much a matter of conviction as a means to enter the circles of power. They realized that the political debate had to be transformed before they would be given a chance to make their voices heard. Kristol rationalized that “there is no question that as politics become more ideological, intellectuals become more significant.”[21]


[1] T. V. McAllister. (2003). Reagan and the Transformation of American Conservatism. In W. E. Brownlee & H. D. Graham (Eds.), The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies. Kansas: University Press, p. 40.

[2] The late Milton Friedman’s sympathetic view of neoconservatism certainly contributed to the popularity of this assumption.

[3] S. Blumenthal. (1986). The Rise of the Counterculture: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power. New York: Times Books, p. 6.

[4] Ibid., p. 131.

[5] Cf. L. Hartz. (1991; original 1955). The Liberal Tradition in America. Orlando: Harcourt.

[6] P. Steinfels. (1979). The Neoconservatives. New York: Touchstone, p. 57.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 58.

[9] G. Dorrien. (1993). The Neoconservative Mind. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 7.

[10] Ibid., p. 68.

[11] Blumenthal, p. 124.

[12] Ibid., p. 163.

[13] Steinfels, p. 17.

[14] Blumenthal, p 151.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Cf. R. M. Weaver. (1984; original 1948). Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: University Press.

[18] Blumenthal, p. 158.

[19] Ibid., p. 133.

[20] Ibid., p. 159.

[21] Ibid., p. 149.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Partnership of convenience
Neoconservatism and the difficult defense of capitalism against the Left and the Right
Yale University
Honors (Bestnote)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
451 KB
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M.A. Simon M. Ingold (Author), 2006, Partnership of convenience, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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