Why 'neoconservative' became a dirty word: Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and George W Bush. Credit: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty

July 21, 2021   5 mins

In post-liberal circles, “neoconservatism” has always been something of a dirty word: the evil sidekick to free-market “neoliberalism” and a devastating ingredient in a political worldview that has wreaked havoc at home and abroad in recent decades. John Gray labelled neoconservatism a “crackpot creed” and has accused neoconservatives of viewing history as a “the march towards a universal system of government”. In his recent book, Postliberal Politics, Adrian Pabst explicitly links the rejection of “free-market fundamentalism and the neoconservative foreign policy of permanent war” with the rise of post-liberalism.

But before “neoconservative” became a byword for the utopian, interventionist, nation-building foreign policy that was fatally discredited by the Iraq war, it described an entirely reasonable generation of American intellectuals who became disenchanted with the liberal domestic policies and the cultural changes of the Sixties. And their thinking, unlikely though it may seem, bears uncanny similarities with post-liberalism today. In fact, whether the post-liberals realise it or not, this group of writers, editors and thinkers from both the Left and the Right — Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Burnham, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, among others — are the closest thing they have to intellectual predecessors.

Consider a few parallels. First, neoconservatism and post-liberalism both emerged as critiques of their era’s dominant liberal ideology in politics, culture and economics. Indeed, many neoconservatives started political life on the Left. In his 1979 essay “Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed — Perhaps the Only — ‘Neoconservative’”, Kristol, a former Trotskyist, wrote that the neoconservatives were “provoked by disillusionment with contemporary liberalism”.

Similarly, the sociologist Nathan Glazer’s neoconservatism took form after observing the intolerance of campus radicals. A left-liberal at Berkeley, he became concerned in the mid-Sixties about threats to free speech and free expression on campus. By the end of the decade, he had fallen out not just with the activist Left but mainstream liberals too. Writing in The Atlantic at the time, he delivered a prophetic warning:

“The students who sat in, threw out the deans, and fought with the police have, after all, been taught by American academics such as C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, and many, many others. All these explained how the world operated, and we failed to answer effectively. Or we had forgotten the answers. We have to start remembering and start answering.”

Glazer’s rightwards journey was typical. Peter Steinfels, a critic of the neoconservatives whose book on the movement provoked Kristol into writing his “Confessions” essay, explained that the neocons actually “set out to defend liberalism from the radicals’ attack”. But as they did, they were faced with a question: “Why had a liberal society produced a wave of political criticism which they perceived (in many cases quite accurately) as so illiberal and destructive? Having begun as defenders of liberalism, they too ended, to some degree as critics of it.”

Not all of today’s post-liberals started life on the Left, but their critique of liberalism often follows a similar path. It looks at the ways in which liberalism has failed, and asks how it birthed an illiberal strain on both the Left and the Right. Its exponents, as a result, often end up with a more profound critique of liberalism that they went looking for.

Pabst, for what it’s worth, argues that “genuine post-liberalism draws on the best liberal traditions but corrects liberal errors and excesses”. The same could be said of traditional neoconservatism. Daniel Bell described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture”. Kristol claimed that neoconservatives were “not libertarian in the sense, say, that Milton Friedman and Friedrich A. Von Hayek are” and had no problem with “a state that takes a degree of responsibility for helping to shape the preferences that the people exercise in a free market.” Kristol did, however, go on to embrace Ronald Reagan’s free-market economic agenda, much to the dismay of Moynihan, a New York Democrat who confirmed his break with the liberal Left and confirmed his neoconservative credentials when he accepted a job in the Nixon administration; he later wrote how he watched his neoconservative friends siding with Reagan “with a combination of incredulity, horror and complicity”.

But even the most market-friendly neoconservatives had their concerns with capitalism, viewing it merely as a means to an end. Kristol described the neoconservatives’ relationship with business as “loose and uneasy, though not necessarily unfriendly” and argued that economic growth was important “not out of any enthusiasm for the material goods of this world, but because they see economic growth as indispensable for social and political stability”.

There is a similar range of economic views among today’s post-liberals: some are on the Left, some are on the Right. Pabst’s Left-leaning flavour of post-liberalism emphasises “economic justice”, “social solidarity” and “ecological balance”. Right-leaning post-liberals argue that excessive economic freedom has shifted resources and power away from communities and families. What both sides share, then, is a suspicion of top-down central planning of the socialist Left and the reflexive libertarianism of many on the free-market Right.

Neoconservatism and post-liberalism are also both moods or instincts, rather than fully-formed programmes for government. Kristol called the former a “persuasion” rather than a movement. The latter is similarly disorganised, representing a loose collection of beliefs and a shared impulse as opposed to a group that meets up, agrees a manifesto or seeks office.

Both also have a complicated relationship with populism, on the one hand seeing the rise of populist movements as a symptom of liberalism’s failures, and on the other embracing some of populism’s critiques of the status quo. Responding to the criticism that there was “a populist temper to the neoconservative impulse”, Kristol acknowledged that “any ideology that gives politics a priority over economics is bound to have a populist hue”. It was the job of neoconservatism, he wrote, “to explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong”.

Though many post-liberals will balk at the populist label, I suspect they have assigned themselves a similar role. If they are serious about a political project that takes on what the American historian and author of The New Class War Michael Lind calls a technocratic neoliberal elite, it’s hard to see how post-liberalism won’t have the same “populist temper” as neoconservatism.

Another important parallel is their shared respect for the institutions that sit between the state and the individual. As UnHerd‘s Peter Franklin wrote in 2019, he was drawn to post-liberalism’s “respect for human dignity” that “distinguishes [it] from populism”, is “incompatible with collectivist ideas that instrumentalise the individual in service to some group identity; and also at odds with atomistic individualism”.

Such a claim would no doubt leave Kristol and co. nodding vigorously. Writing 50 years earlier, Kristol described family and religion as “indispensable pillars of a decent society” and confessed that neoconservatives “have a special fondness for all of those intermediate institutions of a liberal society which reconcile the need for community for the desire for liberty”.

These neoconservative/post-liberal parallels are more than just a niche, extremely wonky parlour game. They are an antidote to an amnesia that infects a lot of post-liberal writing. Franklin, for example, calls post-liberalism “a genuinely new kind of politics” that “is tantalisingly close to breaking through”. But the many echoes of neoconservatism refute these claims of novelty and suggest that the post-liberals are the inheritors of a richer intellectual than many of them seem to realise.

Given that “neoconservative” is little more than an insult these days, I suspect most post-liberals will resist this comparison. But that would be a mistake. Half a century ago, some of the West’s sharpest minds assembled an incisive critique of post-war liberalism. Today, post-liberals are trying to do the same thing to post-Cold War neoliberalism. They would be foolish not to learn from those in whose footsteps they are following.

Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow