Right-Wing Thinkers Go Left!
by Corey Robin
ACCORDING TO POPULAR MYTH it was Winston Churchill who said, "any man under
thirty who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over thirty who is
not a conservative has no brains." He didn't say it, but his imprimatur
turned a clever quip of uncertain provenance into an axiom of political
biography: Radicalism is a privilege of youth, conservatism a
responsibility of age, and every thinking person eventually surrenders the
first for the second. From Max Eastman to Eugene Genovese, Whittaker
Chambers to Ronald Radosh, intellectuals migrate from left to right almost
as if obeying a law of nature.
Or do they? After all, John Stuart Mill published his feminist classic The
Subjection of Women when he was sixty-three. In the last ten years of his
life, Diderot blasted France as the reincarnation of imperial Rome and
hailed the American Revolution as a repudiation of European tyranny. And
when George Bernard Shaw addressed the question of politics and aging, he
suggested just the opposite of what Churchill is supposed to have said.
"The most distinguished persons," Shaw wrote in 1903, "become more
revolutionary as they grow older."
SINCE THE end of the Cold War, several prominent conservatives have
followed Shaw's prescription and turned left. Michael Lind, once a top
editor at Irving Kristol's The National Interest, has denounced his
previous allies for prosecuting a "class war against wage-earning
Americans"; their market-driven theories, he writes, are "unconvincing,"
their economic policies "appalling." Arianna Huffington, erstwhile
confederate of Newt Gingrich, now inveighs against a United States where
the great majority is "left choking on the dust of Wall Street's galloping
bulls." Glenn Loury, an economist and former neoconservative darling,
sports the signature emblem of left membership: He has become one of Norman
Podhoretz's ex-friends. But today's most flamboyant expatriates are an
Englishman, John Gray, and a Jewish migr from Transylvania, Edward Luttwak.
In the 1970s, John Gray was a rising star of the British New Right. An
Oxford-trained political philosopher, he penned prose poems to the free
market, crisscrossed the Atlantic to fuel up on the high-octane
libertarianism of American right-wing think tanks, and, says a longtime
friend, enthralled his comrades late into the night with visions of the
coming "anarcho-capitalist" utopia. But after the Berlin Wall collapsed,
Gray defected. First he criticized the Cold War triumphalism of Francis
Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis and counseled against scrapping
Britain's National Health Service. And then in 1998, from his newly
established position as professor of European thought at the London School
of Economics (LSE), he handed down False Dawn, a ferocious denunciation of
economic globalization. Assailing the "shock troops of the free market,"
Gray warned that global capitalism could "come to rival" the former Soviet
Union "in the suffering that it inflicts." Now he is a regular contributor
to The Guardian and New Statesman, Britain's principal left venues. So
profound is his conversion that no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher has
reportedly wondered, "Whatever became of John Gray? He used to be one of us."
And what of Edward Luttwak? He was one of Ronald Reagan's premier court
intellectuals, a brilliant military hawk who mercilessly criticized liberal
defense policies and provided the philosophical rationale for the American
military buildup of the 1980s. Liberal critics called him Crazy Eddie, but
cutting a figure that was part Dr. Strangelove and part Dr. Zhivago,
Luttwak effortlessly parried their arguments, pressing the Cold War toward
its conclusion. Today, he is disillusioned by victory. He finds the United
States a capitalist nightmare, "a grim warning" to leaders seeking to
unleash free-market forces in their own countries. Deploying the same
acerbic wit he once lofted against liberal peaceniks, he mocks the
"Napoleonic pretensions" of American business leaders, challenges the
conventional wisdom that capitalism and democracy are inevitable bedfellows
("free markets and less free societies go hand in hand"), and decries the
savage inequalities produced by "turbo-capitalism." He excoriates European
center-leftists like British prime minister Tony Blair for abandoning their
socialist roots and for their unwillingness "to risk any innovative action"
on behalf of "ordinary workers." With their "disdain for the poor and other
losers" and "contempt for the broad masses of working people," Luttwak
writes, Clintonesque New Democrats and European Third Wayers "can yield
only right-wing policies."
In their original incarnations, Gray and Luttwak thrilled to two of
conservatism's galvanizing passions, anticommunism and the free market. But
since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have been posing questions about
the market they once would never have dared ask.
Yet for all their disgust with unbridled capitalism, Gray and Luttwak find
it hard to embrace any of the established alternatives: The furthest Gray
will go is to characterize himself as "center-left." Nor is the left too
eager to claim either of them. One reviewer of False Dawn wrote in In These
Times that Gray was merely a standard-bearer for the old regime, driven
less by "a genuine hatred of inequality, injustice or poverty" than by "a
deep fear of political instability." With communism in shambles and the
market omnipotent, the agonistic passion that originally inspired Luttwak
and Gray now finds itself without a home. They are today's most poignant
exiles, lost in a diaspora of their own making.
CONSERVATIVES usually style themselves as chastened skeptics holding the
line against political enthusiasm. Whereas radicals tilt toward the
utopian, conservatives settle for world-weary realism. In the words of
British philosopher Michael Oakeshott: "To be conservative is to prefer the
familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to
mystery, the actual to the possible...the convenient to the perfect." But,
in reality, many conservatives have been temperamentally antagonistic,
politically insurgent, and utterly opposed to established moral
convention. Ever since Edmund Burke, thinkers from Samuel Taylor Coleridge
to Martin Heidegger have sought a more intense, almost ecstatic mode of
experience in the spheres of religion, culture, and even the economy, all
of which, they believe, are repositories of the mysterious and the
ineffable. Indulging in political romanticism, they draw from the
stock-in-trade of the counter-Enlightenment, celebrating the intoxicating
vitality of struggle while denouncing the bloodless norms of reason and
rights. As Isaiah Berlin observed of the French archconservative Joseph de
"His violent preoccupation with blood and death belongs to a world
different...from the slow, mature wisdom of the landed gentry, the deep
peace of the country houses great and small.... The facade of Maistre's
system may be classical, but behind it there is something terrifyingly
modern, and violently opposed to sweetness and light."
The battle in the twentieth century against communism and social democracy
provided the perfect vehicle for these conservative sensibilities. For
figures like John Gray, the Soviet Union and the welfare state were the
ultimate symbols of cold Enlightenment rationalism, and the free market was
the embodiment of the romantic counter-Enlightenment. But revolutionary
romantics ultimately suffer the fate of all romantics: disillusionment. And
so today, with communism in ruins and the free market triumphant, the
dissident spirit that originally inspired Gray now fires an equally
Gray was born in 1948 and grew up outside Newcastle, a port city near the
North Sea in a coal-mining region only fifty miles from Scotland. In a
country where accent is destiny, one still hears faint traces of his
northeastern working-class origins, about which he is slightly defensive.
His father was a carpenter; his entire family voted Labour. Gray arrived at
Oxford in 1968, the annus mirabilis for young leftists throughout Europe.
Sporting the costume of the period"my hair was long, but everybody's hair
was long"he traveled to London to demonstrate against the Vietnam War.
After receiving his degree in philosophy, politics, and economics, Gray
stayed on at Oxford for graduate school, writing a thesis on John Stuart
Mill and John Rawls, both sympathetic to a liberal socialism that Gray
initially found attractive.
But as he muddled through Rawls' A Theory of Justice, Gray grew weary of
the effort to extract socialist policies from liberal formulas. Part of his
malaise was induced by Rawls's congested prose. "It's an almost unreadable
book," he says. Rawls's plodding style seemed to mirror the deeper
political ennui of social democracy. His work, says Gray, was "a
transcendental deduction of the Labour Party in 1963." Like many New
Leftists in the United States, Gray found the business of the welfare state
dull and uninspired, the weak tea of colorless bureaucrats. As he would
later describe it, the welfare state was the product of a "triangular
collusion of employers, unions and government." It was a "colossal
apparatus" extracting resources and energy from an enervated citizenry.
Tepid compromise was the rule of the day; political leaders tried to be all
things to all people. They refused "to admit the reality of conflicts,"
that "one equality, one demand of justice, may compete with another." The
welfare state, in short, was a far cry from the vital working-class
radicalism that had produced it.
In Thatcherism, Gray caught a glimpse of revolutionary eternity. "There
was a revolutionary, indeed a Bolshevik, aspect to the Thatcherite project
at the start which I thought was both exciting and necessary," he says.
Thatcher assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party at just about the
time of Gray's conversion to capitalism. She promised to liberate Britain
from the stifling routine of social democracy, and the free market from the
chains of state planning. Though no egalitarian, Thatcher stoked the
ambitions of middle- and working-class voters who saw the free market as a
vehicle of upward mobility.
Her most impressive moment came in 1980, after her first year in power,
when her policies seemed to be pushing the economy toward disaster. Having
denounced her predecessor Edward Heath for executing his notorious
"U-turn," when he capitulated to left-wing pressure after vowing a rollback
of social democracy, Thatcher faced pressure from moderates within her own
partythe Tory "Wets"to reverse course. Instead of retreating, she defiantly
faced down her temporizing critics, memorably declaring, "You turn if you
want to. The lady's not for turning." Conservatives were instantly smitten.
Norman Barry, another Thatcherite and until recently a close friend of
Gray's, recalls, "I had thought she was just an election winner who wasn't
Labour. But when she lifted exchange controls, I thought, 'This babe knows
market economics.' So then I thought, 'Yeah!' And then she began
other things. And then she wouldn't do a U-turn, I thought, 'This is for
Many Thatcherites thought of themselves as free-market revolutionaries, and
Gray brought to their cause a romantic panache not often associated with
neoclassical economics. In 1974, he began reading the work of Friedrich
Hayek, the Austrian-born economist and fierce critic of state planning. Ten
years later, Gray published Hayek on Liberty, which the master himself
described as "the first survey of my work which not only fully understands
but is able to carry on my ideas beyond the point at which I left off." The
Hayek that Gray depicted was no antiseptic defender of property rights and
low taxes. He was an exotic explorer of the subterranean, quasi-rational
currents of human life, a Viennese voice that had more in common with
Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein than with Milton Friedman or Robert
Nozick. If Hayek on Liberty was an impassioned ode to the market, Gray was
its yearning Byron.
Whereas many conservatives saw in Hayek the logical fulfillment of a calm,
quintessentially British tradition of political economy extending back to
Adam Smith, Gray detected an "uncompromising modernity" in Hayek's vision
of the free market. Intellectual ferment, political extremism, and social
decay characterized fin-de-si'cle Vienna, the milieu in which Hayek was
born. Out of this whirlwind came psychoanalysis, fascism, and modern
economics. Each challenged old orders of knowledge and politics. In
economic theory, wrote Gray, Hayek followed in the footsteps of the
late-nineteenth-century Austrian school, claiming that "economic value, the
value of an asset or resource, is conferred on it by the preferences or
valuations of individuals and not by any of its objective properties."
While classical economists from David Ricardo to Karl Marx believed there
had to be something real, most important, physical labor, behind the
mysterious veil of prices, Hayek argued that it was only the eccentric
preferences of particular human beings that gave value to goods in the
world. An almost hyperactive subjectivity, comparable to Freud's anarchic
id, haunted Gray's Hayek, reflecting Vienna's "experience of an apparently
inexorable drift to dissolution."
Against philosophers who elevated theoretical reason to the highest form of
knowledge, Hayek, wrote Gray, believed that rational understanding was only
the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it lay a murky stratum of thoughts "rarely
expressible in theoretical or technical terms," and it was the free
market's particular genius to harness these premonitions to everyday
Entrepreneurs were the sublime mediums of such "tacit knowledge,"
channeling its deep truths to other market actors. They were romantic
heroes possessed by flashes of almost poetic vision. "Entrepreneurial
insight or perception," explained Gray, was a matter not of book learning
but of "serendipity and flair." It was "a creative activity insusceptible
of formulation in hard and fast rules." Lying "beyond our powers of
conscious control," the "entrepreneurial perception" appeared only
infrequently, striking suddenly and without warning. When it did appear, it
reordered the universe.
The market, in short, provided a refuge for self-expression and creativity,
a sanctuary for the rapturous counter-Enlightenment. Unimaginative writers
were content to argue that markets "allocate scarce resources most
efficiently" or that the market "allows for the motive of self-interest."
But such defenses missed a more elemental truth: Markets allowed for the
expression of a "whole variety of human motives, in all of their complexity
and mixtures." The market supplied a theater for dramatic self-disclosure,
a stage on which individuals could project their most irrepressible visions
and strenuous desires.
All love affairs come to an end, but Gray's breakup with the market has
been particularly venomous. He now denounces it as the scourge of modern
civilization. In the United States, he writes, the free market has
"generated a long economic boom from which the majority of Americans has
hardly benefited." Americans suffer from "levels of inequality" that
"resemble those of Latin American countries." The middle class enjoys the
dubious charms of "assetless economic insecurity that afflicted the
nineteenth-century proletariat." The United States stands perilously close
to massive social disruption, which has been held at bay only "by a policy
of mass incarceration" of African Americans and other people of color. "The
prophet of today's America," Gray claims, "is not Jefferson or Madison....
It is Jeremy Bentham", the man who dreamed of a society "reconstructed on
the model of an ideal prison."
Even more appalling, writes Gray, global elites have sought to make
American capitalism the model for the world. Even though market regimes
vary by culture and country, the high priests of globalization impose a
one-size-fits-all American model, with its minimal welfare state, weak
business and environmental regulations, and low taxes. "According to the
'Washington consensus,'" writes Gray, "the manifold economic cultures and
systems that the world has always contained will be redundant. They will
be merged into a single universal free market" based on the "world's last
great Enlightenment regime, the United States."
When Gray first uttered these heresies, many of his conservative friends
were shocked. Like Gray, Norman Barry is a political theorist who has
written on Hayek. A professor at the University of Buckingham, the only
wholly private university in Britain, he was the best man at Gray's second
wedding but now rarely speaks with him. Barry cannot shake the suspicion
that Gray's political turn was motivated by pure opportunism. "I believe in
a proposition of neoclassical economics: Everybody's a utility maximizer,"
he explains. "It might have been a good career move to detach himself from
libertarianism. I am speculating but not wildly. Libertarians don't get
the best positions in universities." When Gray was only a fellow at a small
Oxford college, claims Barry, "he used to say, 'Well, the way the world
works I wouldn't get a chair.'... You don't get professorships at LSE if
you're a free-market fanatic." The only continuity in Gray's position that
Barry recognizes is his penchant for "philosophical promiscuity." Gray,
says Barry, "was always flitting from person to person, philosopher to
philosopher.... He couldn't form a steady relationship with any thinker. He
tried a bit of Popper. Tried Hayek. Of course, he later dumped Hayek. Other
writers he would try and dump."
Gray claims that he changed his mind for two reasons. During the late
1980s, he says, he began to suspect that political thinking on the right
had stiffened into stale ideology, not unlike the dull Rawlsianism he fled
so long ago. Gray had once thought of Thatcherism as tactically flexible
and politically savvy, a movement sensitive to popular moods, its leader a
Machiavellian virtuoso of political change. But he now believed that the
movement had lost its artistry; supple thought had degenerated into rote
incantation. Gray says, "What was striking about Bolshevism was that Lenin
was so extraordinarily flexible. Then it hardened into Trotskyism. And
similarly Thatcherism began to harden.... It was a habit of thought that I
found deeply repugnant."
The collapse of the Soviet Union also forced Gray to question his
free-market faith. Until 1989, Gray says, it made sense to think of the
state as "the principal enemy of well-being," which was the attitude within
"the admittedly hothouse atmosphere of the right-wing think thanks." But
after the Soviet empire fell, the former Yugoslavia spiraled into genocidal
civil war, and Western free-marketeers applied shock therapy to formerly
communist countries with disastrous results, Gray came to think that the
state was a necessary evil, perhaps even a positive good. It was the only
force that could prevent societies from sliding into total chaos, extreme
inequality, and poverty.
But there is a deeper reason for Gray's turn: By itself, the market could
not sustain his affections. Without the Soviet Union and the welfare state
as diverting symbols of Enlightenment rationalism, Gray could no longer
believe in the market as he once had. The market, he now had to admit,
sponsors a "cult of reason and efficiency." It "snaps the threads of memory
and scatters local knowledge." He used to think that the free market arose
spontaneously and that state control of the economy was unnatural. But
watching Jeffrey Sachs and the International Monetary Fund in Russia, he
could not help but see the free market as "a product of artifice, design
and political coercion." It had to be created, often with the aid of
ruthless state power. Today, he argues that Thatcher built the free market
by crushing trade unions, hollowing out the Conservative Party, and
disabling Parliament. She "set British society on a forced march into late
modernity." Gray believes that "Marxism-Leninism and free-market economic
rationalism have much in common." Both, he writes, "exhibit scant sympathy
for the casualties of economic progress." There is only one difference:
Communism is dead.
In an unguarded moment, Norman Barry confesses that he simply cannot fathom
Gray's shift. "Maybe I just misunderstood him," he says, "but I thought
that he did believe deeply. Nobody could have read that amount of stuff
without believing some of it, anyway. I wonder whether he ever did." Gray
did believe, but his belief was different from Barry's. Barry loves the
market because it operates according to "the iron laws of economics." As he
puts it, these may "take a little longer than Newtonian laws. If I drop
this disk, it's down in a second. If I introduce rent control, it would
take maybe six months to create homelessness." But, he adds, "it's just as
decisive." By contrast, Gray once believed in capitalism precisely because
he sought an escape from the laws of Newton. Having realized that the
market inhibits passionate self-expression, Gray has been forced to
acknowledge the truth of Irving Kristol's dictum: "Capitalism is the least
romantic conception of a public order that the human mind has ever conceived."
BY THE TIME Edward Luttwak was in his early forties, he had outrun Nazis,
escaped communists, and been shot at by leftist guerrillas in Central
America. But to this day, he remembers his childhood move from Palermo to
Milan as the most "traumatic" event of his life. Born in 1942 into a
wealthy Jewish family in Romania, Luttwak grew up in southern Transylvania,
which was briefly occupied by the Nazis in 1944. When he was five years
old, his family fled an imminent communist takeover and settled in Palermo.
It was winter, Luttwak recalls, and "Paris and London were shivering. There
was a fuel shortage. Milano was shivering. Things were pretty bleak." But
in Palermo "the opera was in full swing." It was "the land of oranges and
lemons," he says, where people could swim and ski almost year-round. Five
years later, Luttwak's family moved again, this time to Milan, the
industrial center of Italy. "Stuffy and fog-ridden," Milan made Luttwak
miserable. "There was nowhere to play. The parks were a disgrace. I lost
all my friends from Palermo. I found myself...amid a bunch of very
bourgeois kids." The good life on the Mediterranean had come to an end,
done in by grim capitalists to the north.
For most of his adult life, Luttwak waged a militant struggle against
communism. Inspired by a strategic military vision that connected the
Gallic Wars to the civil wars of Central America, he worked closely with
the U.S. Defense Department as a consultant, advising everyone from junior
officers to the top brass. But Luttwak was more than a cold warrior. He was
a warrior, or at least a fervent theorist of "the art of war." Whereas
generals thought victory depended on aping management styles from IBM,
Luttwak made the case for ancient battlefield tactics and forgotten
maneuvers from the Roman Empire. Luttwak urged the military to look to
Hadrian, not Henry Ford, for guidance. It was an arduous struggle, with
officers more often acting like organization men than soldiers. Once again,
Luttwak found his preferred way of life threatened by the culture of
Luttwak first gained notoriety in Britain, where he settled after receiving
his undergraduate degree in economics at the London School of Economics. In
1968, he published Coup d'tat: A Practical Handbook. The
twenty-six-year-old author dazzled his readers with this audacious how-to
guide, prompting a delighted John Le Carr to write, "Mr. Luttwak has
composed an unholy gastronomic guide to political poison. Those brave
enough to look into his kitchen will never eat quite as peacefully again."
In 1970, Luttwak published an equally mischievous piece in Esquire, "A
Scenario for a Military Coup d'tat in the United States." Two years later,
he moved to the United States to write a dissertation in political science
and classical history at Johns Hopkins, conducting extensive research using
original Latin, German, French, English, and Italian sources. The result
was the widely praised The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. While in
graduate school, Luttwak began to work as a consultant to various branches
of the U.S. armed services, ultimately making recommendations on everything
from how NATO should conduct tactical maneuvers to what kind of rifle
soldiers in the El Salvadoran military should carry.
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, Luttwak was at the top of his
game. A fellow at Georgetown's Center for Strategic and International
Studies and a frequent contributor to Commentary, he argued that the United
States should accelerate the high-tech arms race, forcing the Soviet Union
into a contest it could not win. Reagan's closest advisers eagerly welcomed
Luttwak to their inner circle. Just after Reagan's election, Luttwak
attended a dinner party in Bethesda, along with Jeane Kirkpatrick, Fred
Ikl, and other luminaries of the Republican defense establishment. Richard
Allen, who would become Reagan's first national security adviser, worked
the crowd, pretending to dispense positions in the administration as if
they were party favors. As The Washington Post reported, Luttwak declined,
explaining over chocolate T"a Maria pie, "I don't believe scribblers like
myself should be involved in politics. It's like caviar. Very nice, but
only in small quantities." When pressed by Allen, he joked, "I only want to
be vice-consul in Florence." Allen responded, "Don't you mean proconsul?"
The prep-school gladiator bonhomie evaporated before the end of Reagan's
first term. Luttwak may have been an invaluable asset when pushing for more
defense spending, but he made enemies with his loud, and ever more
sarcastic, criticisms of Pentagon mismanagement. In 1984, he published The
Pentagon and the Art of War, where, among other things, he depicted Defense
Secretary Caspar Weinberger as more of a slick used-car salesman than a
genuine statesman. Military politicos struck back, dropping Luttwak from a
roster of pro bono Pentagon consultants (he continued to do contract work
elsewhere in the defense establishment). In 1986, Weinberger explained to
the Los Angeles Times that Luttwak "just lost consulting positions from
total incompetence, that's all."
But it was more than Luttwak's criticisms of Weinberger in The Pentagon and
the Art of War that got him in trouble with the Defense Department. His
real mistake was to go after the military's conduct during the Vietnam War.
Luttwak downplayed the armed forces' favorite explanations for their defeat
in Vietnam, weak-willed politicians, the treasonous press, a defeatist
public. He argued instead that America's warrior elite had simply lost the
taste for blood. During the Vietnam War, he wrote, "desk-bound officers"
were always "far from combat." Their penchant for "outright luxury" had a
devastating effect on troop morale. Although Julius Caesar "retained both
concubines and catamites in his rearward headquarters, ate off gold plate,
and drank his Samian wine from jeweled goblets," when he was on the front
lines with his soldiers he "ate only what they ate, and slept as they did,
under a tent if the troops had tents, or merely wrapped in a blanket if
they did not." By contrast, American officers refused "to share in the
hardships and deadly risks of war."
Pointy-headed bureaucrats also sapped the military's strength, according to
Luttwak. Always looking to cut costs, Pentagon officials insisted that
weapons, machinery, and research-and-development programs be standardized.
But this only made the military vulnerable to enemy attack. Standardized
weapons systems were easily overcome; having overwhelmed one, an enemy
could overwhelm them all. When it came to the military, Luttwak concluded,
"we need more 'fraud, waste, and mismanagement.'"
Top generals were obsessed with efficiency partially because they learned
the methods of business management instead of the art of war. For every
officer with a degree in military history, there were a hundred more "whose
greatest personal accomplishment is a graduate degree in business
administration, management or economics." "Why should fighter pilots
receive a full-scale university education," Luttwak asked in The Washington
Quarterly, "instead of being taught how to hunt and kill with their machines?"
The ultimate source of the military's dysfunction was its embrace of
American corporate culture and business values. Like Robert McNamara, whom
President Kennedy transferred to the Pentagon from Ford Motor Company, most
defense secretaries were in thrall to "corporate-style goals." They sought
the least risky, most cost-effective means to a given end. They preferred
gray suits, eschewing "personal eccentricities in dress, speech, manner,
and style because any unusual trait may irritate a customer or a banker in
the casual encounters common in business." Officers were merely "managers
in uniform," Luttwak told Forbes. But, he noted, "what is good for business
is not good for deadly conflict." Although "safely conservative dress and
inoffensively conventional style" might work in an office, they could be
deadly on the battlefield; they squelched bold initiatives and
idiosyncratic genius. Intimating that capitalism had colonized, indeed
destroyed, spheres of society that were not strictly economic, Luttwak came
perilously close to identifying himself with leading voices from the
Marxist tradition, Jrgen Habermas, Georg Lukcs, even Marx himself.
While the Soviet Union still existed, Luttwak was able to channel his
contempt for managerial and corporate values into proposals for military
reform. The struggle against Bolshevism fully captured his imagination,
speaking to principles of individualism, independence, and personal dignity
that he had learned as a child of Jewish atheists. Luttwak's parents taught
him, he says, that "you wanted your shoulders out walking down the street.
The master of your fate. Not to walk hunched, afraid that God will punish
you if you eat a ham sandwich." He continues: "There was a certain contempt
about piety. Piety was not seen as compatible with dignity." Dignity, he
goes on, "is what we were defending in the Cold War. It was ideological. It
was very fitting for me to be in the United States, to become an American,
because the Americans were and are the ideological people. They were
perfectly cast to be enlisted in an ideological struggle."
But now that the battle against communism has been won, Luttwak has lost
interest in most military matters; he no longer sees any compelling
ideological reason to care about strategy and tactics. "Security problems
and such have become peripheral, for all countries and for people, for
myself as well. I don't engage my existence in something that is
peripheral.... There was a compelling imperative to be involved. There
Luttwak does occasionally muster energy for a specific project. During one
of our interviews, he speaks by phone with a State Department official
about doing consulting work for the war against the Colombian guerrillas.
But when I ask him if the Colombian government is worth defending, he is
uncharacteristically hesitant, finally confessing, "I don't know if
anything is worth defending, but I think the guerrillas are worth
fighting." I ask him why, and he responds that the guerrillas are aligned
with drug traffickers who "do everything from taking people's places in
restaurants in Medelln on a Saturday night, people are waiting to take
seats and these guys come in and they grab their tables, everything from
that to murder."
Military struggle may no longer hold any ideological allure for Luttwak,
but his disaffection affords him the time and intellectual space to
confront the enemy he has been shadowboxing his entire life: capitalism
itself. "The market," he says, "invades every sphere of life," producing a
"hellish society." In the same way that market values once threatened
national security, they now threaten the economic and spiritual well-being
of society. "An optimal production system is a completely inhuman
production system," he explains, "because...you are constantly changing the
number of people you employ, you're moving them around, you're doing
different things, and that is not compatible with somebody being able to
organize an existence for himself."
Although Luttwak writes in his 1999 book Turbo-Capitalism, "I deeply
believe...in the virtues of capitalism," his opposition to the spread of
market values is so acute that it puts him on the far end of today's
political spectrum, a position that Luttwak congenitally enjoys. "Edward is
a very perverse guy, intellectually and in many other ways," says former
Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, one of Luttwak's early champions during
the 1970s. "He's a contrarian. He enjoys confounding expectations. But I
frankly don't even know how serious he is in this latest incarnation."
Luttwak insists that he is quite serious. He calls for socialized medicine.
He advocates a strong welfare state, claiming, "If I had my druthers, I
would prohibit any form of domestic charity." Charity is a "cop-out," he
says: It takes dignity away from the poor.
The only thing that arouses Luttwak's ire more than untrammeled capitalism
is its elite enthusiasts, the intellectuals, politicians, policy makers,
and businessmen who claim that "just because the market is always more
efficient, the market should always rule." Alan Greenspan earns Luttwak's
special contempt: "Alan Greenspan is a Spencerian. That makes him an
economic fascist." Spencerians like Greenspan believe that "the harshest
economic pressures" will "stimulate some people to...economically heroic
deeds. They will become great entrepreneurs or whatever else, and as for
the ones who fail, let them fail." Luttwak's other b'te noire is "Chainsaw
Al" Dunlap, the peripatetic CEO who reaps unimaginable returns for
corporate shareholders by firing substantial numbers of employees from
companies. "Chainsaw does it," says Luttwak, referring to Dunlap's
downsizing measures, "because he's simpleminded, harsh, and cruel." It's
just "economic sadism." Against Greenspan and Dunlap, Luttwak affirms, "I
believe that one ought to have only as much market efficiency as one needs,
because everything that we value in human life is within the realm of
inefficiency, love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits,
comfortable old shoes."
THE DEFECTIONS of Luttwak and Gray suggest just how unkind the end of the
Cold War has been to the conservative movement. It is increasingly clear
that the fragile coalition of libertarians, traditionalists, and
free-market enthusiasts once held together by the glue of anticommunism
will no longer stick. The end of the Soviet Union "deprived us of an
enemy," says Irving Kristol, the intellectual godfather of neoconservatism.
"In politics, being deprived of an enemy is a very serious matter. You tend
to get relaxed and dispirited. Turn inward." Notorious for his
self-confidence, Kristol now confesses to a sad bewilderment in the
post-communist world. "That's one of the reasons I really am not writing
much these days," he says. "I don't know the answers."
One might think the triumph of the free market would thrill right-wing
intellectuals. But even the most revered conservative patriarchs worry that
the market alone cannot sustain the flagging energies of the movement.
After all, Reagan and Thatcher summoned conservatives to a political
crusade, but the free-market ideology they unleashed is suspicious of all
political faiths. The market's logic glorifies private initiative,
individual action, the brilliance of the unplanned and random. Against that
backdrop, it is difficult to think about politics at all, much less
political transformation. William F. Buckley Jr. says, "The trouble with
the emphasis in conservatism on the market is that it becomes rather
boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your
life to it is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like
sex." Kristol adds, "American conservatism lacks for political imagination.
It's so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking
that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to
say, a property of the left." He goes on, "If you read Marx, you'd learn
what a political imagination could do."
But if conservatives are struggling to find a vision, can the
ex-conservatives do much better? Unlike Kristol, who fled the left and
launched the neoconservative movement, Luttwak and Gray have not formulated
coherent alternatives, philosophical or political, to their former creeds.
As Luttwak puts it: "Instead of proposing a whole counter-ideology, what I
simply propose is society consciously saying that certain things should be
protected from the market and kept out of the market." This, despite the
fact that Luttwak remains temperamentally enamored, in his way, of the
revolutionary impulse. "I prefer 'The Marseillaise' to the Mass," he says,
"Mayakovski to the cross of St. George." He adds, "Revolutions are
wonderful. People enjoying themselves. I was in Paris in 1968.... There was
a wonderful feeling of possibility." But though Luttwak may long for a
transformative politics, it remains beyond his reach, an object of
nostalgia not just for him but for most intellectuals.
Except, it turns out, for William F. Buckley Jr., the original bad boy of
the American right. At the end of our interview, I ask Buckley to imagine a
younger version of himself, an aspiring political enfant terrible
graduating from college in 2000, bringing to today's political world the
same insurgent spirit that Buckley brought to his. What kind of politics
would this youthful Buckley embrace? "I'd be a socialist," he replies. "A
Mike Harrington socialist." He pauses. "I'd even say a communist."
Can he really imagine a young communist Bill Buckley? He concedes that it's
difficult. The original Bill Buckley had the benefit of the Soviet Union as
an enemy; without its equivalent, his doppelgnger would confront a more
complicated task. "This new Buckley would have to point to other things,"
he says. Buckley runs down a laundry list of left causes, global poverty,
death from AIDS. But even he seems suddenly overwhelmed by the project of
(in typical Buckleyese) "conjoining all of that into an arresting
afflatus." Daunted by the challenge of thinking outside the free market,
Buckley pauses, then finally says, "I'll leave that to you."
---- Corey Robin is an assistant professor of political science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. His articles have appeared in The American Prospect, Newsday, Social Research, and American Political Science Review. He is currently writing a book titled Fear: Biography of an Idea.
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