I will begin my considerations of Mr. Continetti’s essay with this telling sentence:
It was Kristol’s role as a political entrepreneur, as an activist and organizer as well as a commentator, which provided most of the fodder for magazine profiles.
The idea , concept of ‘political entrepreneur’ is one of the touchstones of Neo-Liberalism’s Market Deification, that reduces the moral/civic actor into part of the machinery of Capital. Label it an anti-human perspective!
If writers did not focus on his career, they focused on his personality: his wit, detachment, realism, modesty, ironic sensibility, equanimity, directness, consistency, and cheerfulness. Charles Krauthammer has called him the right’s “Cool Hand Luke.” Conservatives, …
The un-mourned Mr. Krauthammer reduces Mr. Kristol to a character in a Hollywood movie! One would think that Mr. Krauthammer would have been averse to using anything Hollywood produced?
The recent launch of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s IrvingKristol.org and the forthcoming publication by Mosaic Books of the posthumous essay collection On Jews and Judaism present us with such an opportunity. Reading these materials, along with Kristol’s five previous collections, it soon becomes clear that it is not quite true to write, as Esquire did so many decades ago, that Irving Kristol achieved notoriety mainly for his role in “advancing other people’s ideas.”
Mr. Kristol was, in fact, a popularizer for the ideas and politics of Leo Strauss. If the reader continues to explore Mr. Continetti’s essay that is readily apparent, yet this sentence seems to be a bit out of order,that would make it more effectictive: ‘These ideas reveal Kristol to be a sort of theologian—a writer whose deep interest in religious matters informed his cultural and political criticism’
Indeed, sifting through the materials, one is struck by the similarities between the political climate of the 1970s and the political climate of today. We, too, are experiencing a lack of economic growth, a preoccupation with income inequality, an apocalyptic environmentalism, an intellectually exhausted left, and an intellectually confused right. As we think through the multiplying challenges confronting America and begin to formulate responses — and perhaps even tentative solutions — to them, it is worth recalling the teachings of Irving Kristol.
In above paragraph Mr. Continetti appears to be not just a ‘reader ‘ of the ’70’s’, but of the Age of The the Pandemic, and of the slow-motion collapse of what is left of Neo-Liberalism! ‘The teaching of Irvin Kristol’ : as if he were a Prophet,’ with Continetti acting as …
The reader has reached the point at which Continetti now comments on the importance of religion in Kristol’s World View. The heading for this next section is ‘Christianity, Judaism, and Gnosticism‘. For an exposition and clarification, the reader need only look to The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt by Gopal Balakrishnan Chapter 16 ‘The Leviathan Myth’ for the particulars of the ‘debate’ between Schmitt and Strauss about the importance of Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ and the central question of the place of religion in political thought.
These two screen shots, just small samples of this chapter. These two may be out of order, but are, none the less, instructive. That can lead the reader to see that Kristol was a ‘student’ of Strauss. Read also ‘The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy’ by Murry Friedman pages 40 – 41 for more on the power of Strauss’ writing/thinking on Kristol”s intellectual/political development.
Mr. Continetty begins by describing a key part of Kristol’s development:
The traditional understanding of Judeo-Christian religion plays a leading role in what a post-modernist might call the Kristol meta-narrative: the intellectual history of capitalism and its degeneration that is the basis for his interpretation of politics. It was in 1979, at a conference of theologians organized by Michael Novak at the American Enterprise Institute, that Kristol described most plainly the religious lens through which he viewed modernity. His talk was later condensed into an essay, “Christianity,Judaism, and Socialism.” The full text of the discussion, including a partial transcript of the question-and-answer period, was published later that year in Novak’s Capitalism and Socialism. It, too, begins with a version of
the epigraph from Péguy, translated, more bluntly, as “Politics begins in
mysticism, and mysticism always ends in politics.”
Mr. Continetti on Kristol’s binary of Orthodox/Gnostic.
Kristol began with an anecdote. He said that a recent conversation
with a friend, a prominent rabbi, had reminded him of the distinction
between the “prophetic” tradition in Judaism and the “rabbinic” one.
The former are the rebels against the law, the critics of society’s failure to
live to the highest and strictest ethical standards; the latter are the followers of the law. The two tendencies, Kristol went on, are present in all of
the world’s major religions. “I assume the tension between the prophetic
and the rabbinic—or the orthodox and the gnostic—to be eternal.”
To a gnostic, the world is a very bad place. Horrible things happen to
innocent creatures. There is no satisfactory explanation for the problem
of evil. Society is unequal. It does not live up to our high expectations.
Laws are unjust or ignored; institutions are archaic and corrupt. Human
beings fail to realize their potential. These unsatisfactory conditions of
life provoke a revolt. “The gnostic . . .tends to say that the proper and
truly authentic human response to a world of multiplicity, division,
conflict, suffering, and death is some kind of indignant metaphysical
rebellion, a rebellion that will liberate us from the prison of this world.”
The two tendencies, Kristol went on, are present in all of
the world’s major religions. “I assume the tension between the prophetic
and the rabbinic—or the orthodox and the gnostic—to be eternal.” This is representative of Kristol as theologen. The reader will see, that the ‘orthodox’ and the ‘gonstic rebels’ ,will reappear in the political realm, as political actors and antagonists.
“These gnostic movements tend to be antinomian—that is, they tend to be
hostile to all existing laws, and to all existing institutions,” Kristol said.
“They tend to engender a millenarian temper—that is, to insist that this
hell in which we live, this ‘unfair’ world, can be radically corrected.”
Should this transmogrification, from Theology made to measure, to his politics surprise? The reader can make the connection, from a self-serving version of ‘theology’ to Kristol’s politics! Kristol self-presentation is that of the representative, of the steady hand of ‘orthodoxy’, while those on the definable political/moral outside, are the ‘gnostic rebels’.
Continetti continues his narration of Kristol’s Theology/History made to measure. this is conformation of the screen-shots I posted from The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt by Gopal Balakrishnan Chapter 16 ‘The Leviathan Myth’ for the particulars of the ‘debate’ between Schmitt and Strauss about the importance of Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ and the central question of the place of religion in political thought.
Christianity, Kristol said, emerged out of a gnostic rebellion against
Judaism. Christians rejected the Mosaic law and embraced Jesus as the
messiah. But for Christianity to become successful, for it to last, for it
to spread beyond the Eastern Mediterranean, the Church fathers had
to manage the transition from gnostic movement to orthodox faith.
“They had to convert it into a doctrine for the daily living of people, into
something by which an institution could spiritually govern the people.”
This they were able to do, in part, Kristol noted, by appropriating the
Hebrew Bible as the “Old Testament.”
The Church fathers, he said,needed the Old Testament for certain key statements that are not found in the New Testament, or at least are not found there in an emphatic way, such as that when God created the world, he saw
that “it was good.” That is an Old Testament doctrine. It became
a Christian doctrine, and it is crucial to any orthodoxy, since
gnosticism says that no one knows who created the world—a
demiurge or whatever—but that the world is certainly bad.
Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, in Kristol’s telling, held for centuries until the beginning of modernity. Like most scholars, he identified those
beginnings in the Renaissance rediscovery of the ancients, and in the
Reformation discovery of the individual conscience. As it developed,
Kristol said, the early modern civilization of the West was “shot through
with gnostic elements.”
The concept of original sin vanished from elite and then popular
discourse. Science and technology became endowed with extraordinary
capabilities: Tasked with the mastery of nature for the relief of man’s
estate, the reputation of natural science expanded until it subsumed theology and philosophy and threatened the stature of religion itself. The
individual human life seemed to lack cosmic direction. Human beings
became confused as to their ultimate purpose.
A telling quotation from the remainder of this section of Continetti’s Kristol apologetic :
Meanwhile, there arose a class of social scientists that believed the individual and society could be manipulated with the ease and skill with
which natural scientists reshaped the physical world. The social scientists
sought to perfect humanity in the same way that engineers perfected
bridges and roads and aqueducts. “What, specifically, were (and are) the
teachings of this new philosophical-spiritual impulse?” Kristol asked in
a 1991 essay, “The Future of American Jewry.” His answer:
They can be summed up in one phrase: “Man makes himself.”
That is to say, the universe is bereft of transcendental meaning, it
has no inherent teleology, and it is within the power of humanity
to comprehend natural phenomena and to control and manipulate them so as to improve the human estate.
These are gnostic ideas; these are utopian ideas. “[T]he modern world, in its modes of thinking, has become so utopian that we do not even know when we are utopian or to what degree we are utopian,” Kristol told the
theologians back in 1979.
The Weakness Of Capital is the next section of Mr. Cotinetti’s apologetic, in which Kristol engages in a wan evaluation/critique of Capitalism. And its ally, the concomitant evolution of ‘bourgeois values’ . some evocative quotations:
Capitalism was vulnerable to the attack. As a social system, it made only
two promises: the gradual improvement of the material conditions of life
through economic growth, and the maximum feasible amount of individual liberty. These were not lofty goals
The contours of all prior civilizations—their virtues, their values,
and their codes of behavior—had been shaped by political or religious or cultural elites. All of these civilizations permitted some level
of business, some degree of commerce, but not to the point where free
enterprise became an independent center of power and the driving force
behind public and private life
Under the capitalist dispensation, religious orthodoxy tempered the…
pursuit of individual self-interest and regulated the satisfaction of material appetites. Biblical faith had the same relation to capitalism as the
Hebrew Bible had to the New Testament: It was the moral ground that
anchored gnostic impulses to reality. The so-called “bourgeois values,”
Kristol said, maintained the balance between capitalist prosperity and
religious tradition. They told human beings how to live.
But such an inner emigration included only a portion of the
anti-capitalist rebels. Escapism could not satisfy the do-gooders, the
world-improvers, the lifter-uppers, and the power-hungry. “Rebellion
was an alternative route, as the emergence of various socialist philosophies and movements early in the 19th century demonstrated.”
The socialist rebellion against bourgeois capitalism lasted until the
collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was, in some sense, a two-front
war. What the theoreticians of capitalism had not anticipated, Kristol
said, was that the free market would slowly erode the very foundation
of orthodoxy on which it rested. The new capitalist testament began to
consume the old religious one.
…Kristol said in a 1989 talk. “But, of course, values are not created; values are inherited.” He continued:
‘There is no such thing as a rationalist religion that gives you an authoritative moral code. If there were, you would have heard of it. There are no rationalist ten commandments. Morality is derived from certain fundamental dogmatic truths, and I emphasize
that word dogmatic. It is the function of a religion, in a society
such as ours, to provide the dogmatic basis for those truths.’
But the old dogmas were vanishing from the world. Men and women
began to be more concerned with the here and now, with what could be
gained and lost in this life, not in the next.
The purpose of politics becomes the maximum gratification of
desires and appetites, and the successful politician is one who
panders most skillfully to this “revolution of rising expectations,”
a revolution which affluent capitalism itself generates and before
which the politics of bourgeois democracy prostrates itself.
The quest for the immediate gratification of the population’s desires
results in a more intrusive state, for it is assumed that collective action
and bureaucratic coercion can accomplish the goals that mere individuals cannot. The question is: Will the state succeed?
It will not, of course; unreasonable demands are by definition insatiable. But it is true that the nondemocratic state will have the power
to curb and repress these demands, where it cannot satisfy them,
whereas the bourgeois-democratic state can rely only on the selfdiscipline of the individual, which affluent capitalism itself subverts.
Human beings chose either to create the perfect community here
on Earth—through anarchic protests, small experiments in communal
living, or totalitarian states—or to escape into self-examination, introspection, self-absorption, and a search for authenticity. Neither of these
options proved satisfactory. Communes collapsed, fascism and communism imploded, and the exploration of self was self-defeating because,
as Kristol wrote in “The Adversary Culture of the Intellectuals” (also in
1979), “[t]he deeper one explores into the self, without any transcendental
frame of reference, the clearer it becomes that nothing is there.”
So, injured and beleaguered, capitalism has soldiered on, because of
the wealth it produces but also because of the heritage—waning, yet
lingering—of Biblical religion.
The above quotation marks the end of ‘The Weakness of Capitalism’ and introduces ‘Socialism,Egalitarianism,Nihilism’. Capitalist Apologetics/Rationalizations/Cheerleading as the reader might expect from AEI propagandists :
This “The Adversary Culture of the Intellectuals” , of Kristol’s invention in 1979. The ‘prescient’ Kristol missed by a decade the Reform Movement named ‘Glasnost’ ,’Perestroika’ in the Soviet Union. Chronicled by:
The death of the socialist idea, and later the collapse of communism,
did not make life any easier for the defenders of orthodox religion, the
bourgeois ethos, and capitalism.
“[I]f the death of socialism is not simply to mean a general disintegration into political pseudo-socialist forms whose only common element
is a repudiation, in the name of ‘equality,’ of individual liberty as a prime
political value,” Kristol wrote in his 1976 essay “Socialism: An Obituary
for an Idea,” then proponents of liberal capitalism would have to combat egalitarianism, deal prudentially with the rise of corporations, and
somehow deal with the decline in traditional religion. A glance at today’s headlines is enough to confirm that these challenges remain.
Kristol was immune to egalitarian impulses, voiced then and now
in calls to address rising income inequality. “I do not like equality,” he
told the theologians at AEI in 1979.
Under the banner of equality, the professional and political classes use
the state to manage a greater portion of national income, distributing the
resources—spreading the wealth—as they see fit. It is no accident, Kristol
might say, that the loudest calls for addressing income inequality come
from members of those professions—public-sector unions, academic
economists, liberal journalists, attorneys—that would benefit most in
status, power, and wealth from an America where government controls a
larger portion of GDP. As he put it in 1976:
One of the means by which egalitarians rally support for the furtherance
of their class prerogatives is demonization of large corporations. Corporate
capitalism, for Kristol, presented a danger not because of economic inequality or environmental pollution but because of the possibility that
“the large corporation will be thoroughly integrated into the public sector,
and lose its private character altogether.” By criticizing the “externalities”
of corporate capitalism—“air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution,
traffic pollution, health pollution, or what have you”—liberals are able
to transfer more power and decision-making from the private sector to
the public one. “The transformation of American capitalism that this
would represent—a radical departure from the quasi-bourgeois ‘mixed
economy’ to a system that could be fairly described as kind of ‘state capitalism’—does constitute a huge potential threat to the individual liberties
Americans have traditionally enjoyed.”
Returning to his theme of the religious conflict between orthodoxy
and Gnosticism that underlies political argument, Kristol suggested that
the deeper impulses animating the liberal or progressive left are not ultimately political. The roots of egalitarianism, he taught, went back to
the religious thinness of capitalist civilization:
“Unappeasable indignation”—the phrase captures well the personality
of the activist left. It was Kristol’s insight that this indignation was a response to the failure of secular liberal society to provide to its members a
comprehensive and compelling theory of distributive justice. “I think it
is becoming clear that religion, and a moral philosophy associated with
religion, is far more important politically than the philosophy of liberal individualism admits,” Kristol wrote in his 1973 essay “Capitalism,
Socialism, and Nihilism.”
In this last quotation, from Continetti’s essay, the reader again confronts the sine qua non of Kristol’s Political Theology. Touching again the importance of the Schmitt/Strauss/Hobbes religious/political marriage of moral imperative.
Into the spiritual vacuum created by advanced liberal capitalism step
the forces of the left, seeking to reassert control over the market and prevent it from determining society’s shape. Society is to be shaped instead
by the left. The egalitarians seek redistribution to effect social justice.
The environmentalists seek control over business and natural resources
in their quest to stop climate change. Public-health bureaucrats tell us
what to eat, what not to smoke, which drugs we can and cannot take.
The censors have returned, policing speech and attitudes in the same
way authorities once policed entertainment and pornography.
The above paragraph is crowded with the ‘Gnostic Rebels’, in political form. Named ominously ‘the forces of the left’ . The reader is in very familiar territory of political hysteria. This opportunity cannot be wasted by Continetti. Where does Kristol begin and where might Continetti begin, a vexing question. Yet the ends of propaganda must be served. The cast of ‘Gnostic Rebels’, dubbed ‘clerisy ‘ is almost as crowded as a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic, to frame it in a complementary hyperbole.
The trial lawyers, journalists, Silicon Valley executives, Wall Street
bankers, foundation officers, social workers, bureaucrats, Hollywood
types, university administrators, public employees, and college professors ascendant in the 1970s and today constitute more than a “New
Class.” They are a new clerisy.
Growth,Virtue, and the Welfare State
If what Kristol called the “problematics” of liberal capitalist democracies remain the same today as in the 1970s—increasing secularization, a rise in the number of Americans with no religious affiliation, family fragmentation, a popular culture that is hostile to the bourgeois ethos, rampant consumerism and materialism, an empowered and triumphalist class of liberal aristocrats, minuscule economic growth, a weak
and inadequately defended capitalism—then the response to these problematics may also be the same. It is impossible, of course, to know precisely what Irving Kristol might think of the presidency of Barack Obama, the economics of Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty, the culture of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. But his writings offer some guidance
about how to approach today’s problems in American politics, economics, and culture. And the solutions to which they point are as likely to unsettle the libertarian right as the progressive left.
Name this a Crowd Scene from some ‘Pathe Newsreel’ from the 30’s : except for its contemporary Politicians, Economists and Pop Stars. Subject to the jejune conjectures of Continetti.
Growth acts as a balm for democratic politics. It legitimizes capitalist exchange. “It was only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously,” Kristol wrote in his 2003 essay “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” “that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and durability.”
A pro-growth agenda shares elements of a social agenda that protects and promotes bourgeois values. “The reason cultural nihilism will not prevail,” Kristol said in 1992, “is that a bourgeois, property-owning democracy tends to breed its own antibodies. These antibodies immunize it, in large degree, against the lunacies of its intellectuals and artists.”
Manfred Max-Neef and his ‘Development Model’ ,that replaces the untenable ‘Growth Model’ ,that Continetti and his employers embrace as ineluctable, has in the face of the Environmental crisis, in the present, defines how we live today, has rendered that ‘Growth Model’ to be toxic, to all biological life on the planet Earth! Yet this quote from Kristol leaves little doubt about … ‘These antibodies immunize it, in large degree, against the lunacies of its intellectuals and artists.”. The Gnostic Rebels make their return!
Kristol’s vehicle for measures to promote bourgeois flourishing was
what he called the “conservative welfare state.” Not only did he say it was
fruitless to believe that the welfare state could be overturned; he also said
that a welfare state was, in principle, compatible with conservative politics.
How? “The demand for a ‘welfare state’ is, on the part of the majority
of the people, a demand for a greater minimum of political community,
for more ‘social justice’ (i.e., distributive justice) than capitalism, in its
pristine, individualistic form, can provide,” he wrote in 1976. “It is not
at all a demand for ‘socialism’ or anything like it.”
He went on:
‘Nor is it really a demand for intrusive government by a powerful and ubiquitous bureaucracy—though that is how socialists
and neo-socialists prefer to interpret it. Practically all of the truly
popular and widespread support for a “welfare state” would be
satisfied by a mixture of voluntary and compulsory insurance
schemes—old-age insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, medical insurance—that are reasonably (if not
perfectly) compatible with a liberal capitalist society.’
It is the idea of a conservative welfare state that most discomfits the right,
for the idea suggests that there really is no turning back the political
clock. The theoretical principles of the founding fathers can be recovered, laws can be passed and interpreted according to the original text
of the Constitution, but it is folly, the advocates of a conservative welfare
state say, to believe that the government of the United States of America
can or should be reduced to the size it was 50 or 100 or 200 years ago.
The above almost takes the reader’s breath away : The Conservative Welfare State! yet reserved for the Middle Class? In the World View of Continetti’s version of Kristol, the Working Class and the Poor do not exist?
Above all, a conservative welfare state would be future oriented. “It
must be committed to shaping the future with at least as much energy as to preserving a traditional attachment to the past.” It would build on human motivations, rather than try to change them “through the practical exercise of our unadulterated compassion, our universal benevolence, our gentle paternalistic authority.” And it would not be
hostile to religion. “The plain truth is that if we are ever going to cope
with the deficit, and the social programs that inflate it,” Kristol wrote in
a 1993 column, “we are going to have to begin with a very different view
of human nature and human responsibility in relation to such issues as
criminality, sexuality, welfare dependency, even medical insurance.” We
are going to have to begin, in other words, with a religious view.
Kristol advocates, in the above quoted paragraph, for a Welfare State based on ‘a religious view’ . What to name it but Theocracy!
The Limits of Politics:
Kristol’s metaphor for wishful political thinking, it is interesting to
note, was a religious one:
‘Too many conservatives today, like the Catholic church of the
16th Century, view the difficulties of the reformation we are living through as an opportunity to restore the status quo ante. They are wrong, as the Catholic Church was wrong. There is no more chance today of returning to a society of “free enterprise” and
enfeebled government than there was, in the 16th Century, of returning to a Rome-centered Christendom. The world and the people in it have changed. One may regret this fact—nostalgia is always permissible. But the politics of nostalgia is always
With the temptation of nostalgia on the one hand and the danger of utopianism on the other, students of Kristol’s work today must nonetheless participate vigorously in the ongoing clash between orthodoxy and Gnosticism, between the bourgeoisie and the liberal aristocracy. It is an uphill fight, but not necessarily hopeless. As new entrants join the battle, they can draw not only on the professional history and the
personality of Irving Kristol. They can draw also on his words, on his
theological and political ideas.
I will end my comments here, except to say that it is readily apparent to write that Kristol was a political romantic, in thrall of his own particular expression of Utopianism, that advocates for a Theocratic Welfare State, reserved for a Middle Class in need of rescue, from the predations of an amorphous army of ‘Gnostic Rebels’. In sum, Left-Wing zealots, expressed by Kristol as ‘the lunacies of its intellectuals and artists.”
What is absent from Continetti’s long apologetical essay, on Irving Kristol, is the political/moral nihilism of Neo-Conservatism , expressed as unsalkable bellicosity that produced 37 million Refugees: