War and Democracy by Paul Gottfried, Arktos, 2012.
War and Democracy is a collection of 25 of paleoconservative thinker Paul Gottfried’s essays, originally published in The American Conservative, Taki’s Magazine, Modern Age, lewrockwell.com, and similar outlets. Almost all of them come from the last 15 years. Many of them are book reviews in which Gottfried gives rein to his own views on various matters. While arguments against neoconservative views on democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention make up a good chunk of the material, the collection could equally well have been titled after the essay, “Bourgeois Radical.” For War and Democracy is a forthrightly reactionary take on history and politics, a deeply conservative critique of contemporary culture and political economy.
As a virtue libertarian, I have a great deal of sympathy with the argument that a free society requires a certain cultural context marked by individual responsibility, strong families, and a “mannered society” (44). But it is jarring to find from one who so clearly admires 19th century classical liberalism such statements as, “I believe that Israel should remain predominantly Jewish and that the U.S. and Europe should remain predominantly Euro-American – and I support whatever is necessary to achieve these objectives” (76). (“Whatever is necessary”!) Gottfried argues further that “feminist attitudes toward childbearing and the modern democratic state’s affinity for mass immigration have clouded the future of free markets” (113). This claim sits uneasily with the fact that mass immigration was a far more marked feature of the 19th century world that Gottfried so lionizes. Britain and the United States did not even have passports before 1914. What kind of draconian state intrusions would be necessary to halt immigration and significantly increase childbearing? Gottfried never tries to answer this question.
Admittedly, Gottfried’s views on race are not as noxious as those of some other paleoconservatives. In “The Patron Saint of White Guilt,” an attack on what he would consider the cult of Martin Luther King, Jr., he acknowledges that Jim Crow was unjust, that the civil rights revolution “began with a just cause,” and that “there is much about King’s life that should command our respect, and particularly his personal courage” (124). But the rest of the essay is vituperation on King’s personal life and the civil rights movement’s excesses. Yet surely King’s plagiarisms and infidelities are somewhere higher in the moral hierarchy than Thomas Jefferson’s enslavements and rapes. Jefferson’s flaws do not mean we should not celebrate the Declaration of Independence he wrote. In the same way, the civil rights movement represented a critical turning point in American history, resulting in the extension of basic freedoms and respect to many who had long been unjustly denied them. King’s words and efforts to that end deserve more than respect, but honor.
Still, there is much sense to be found in this book. In “The Managerial President,” Gottfried persuasively argues that the problem with the executive branch is not so much an imperial presidency so much as an imperial bureaucracy. The federal administration is now so large and independent of political control that the President is almost a mere figurehead atop a vast ziggurat. As a result, partisan swings in presidential control matter little for policy. With what has happened to civil liberties and war under the Obama Presidency, this essay seems prescient.
In “Mussolini in the Mideast” and “Don’t Blame Fascism,” Gottfried does a capable job exploding contemporary misappropriation of the term “fascism,” as in “Islamofascism” and “liberal fascism.” Yet one also gets the disturbing sense that Gottfried admires something in early Italian and Austrian fascism, that he seeks to rescue the term from complete opprobrium. Carl Schiller comes up as a neutral or mildly positive reference here and there in this book. Moreover, if “Islamofascism” is historically nonsensical, what are we to make of Gottfried’s unfortunate use of the term “cultural Marxism” to refer to social progressivism? Marxist thought and practice have never been particularly friendly to the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities, except to the extent that Marxists saw promoting such rights in Western societies as a way to embarrass and undermine them, a strategy implicitly conceding a remarkably conservative sociology that Gottfried might actually share.
In summary, Gottfried’s work will appeal to those who share his loathing for egalitarianism on all fronts and his temptation to reach for Nietzsche and Eliade to explain how Western civilization’s universalist values carry the seeds of its own destruction (8). There is little in Gottfried’s work to inspire hope. In his own words, “[E]xcept for a certain disparity in power and economic resources, I believe the U.S. is moving along the same trajectory as Western and Central Europe, away from a bourgeois or older Western civilization, toward some form of post-Christian, postmodern culture presided over by a vast administrative apparatus” (11).
Those of us who are classical liberals in the American tradition first and foremost, however, may well find much to admire in Gottfried’s critiques of neoconservative foreign policy while rejecting the deep pessimism and support for reinforcing social hierarchies that he evinces throughout his work.