Calling Irving Kristol! Where Research and Blogging Converge

January 9, 2013, 8:21 am

Would Irving Kristol still think the GOP a party of ideas?

I skimmed Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (Norton, 2009)* when it first came out. I settled in yesterday to read it, cover to cover, and it’s really a marvelous book. I think it would have been a good idea if Romney, Rove, et. al. had read it too, prior to developing a Presidential campaign strategy that revolved around the glorification of unfettered wealth.

Two thirds of the way through, I encountered a gem about Irving Kristol’s conversion to conservatism and his efforts to develop a capitalist ethic that could move mass politics to the right in the 1970s. What is remarkable about it is how it anticipates the error of articulating the wealthy are makers and the workers as takers, when workers/makers wealthy/takers is a far more common-sense description of how the majority of American voters relate to their position in the economy.

Kristol, who died in 2009, was a Trotskyist, then a Cold War liberal, but always an intellectual with a clear sense of the role of ideas in public discourse. In his conversion to conservatism, Kristol left his devotion to Marx behind, but did not jettison his clear understanding of socialist utopia’s appeal to the masses. (Sidebar: he was also married to historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, a prolific and well-respected historian of Victorian England. Years ago, it was rumored, threatened to sue a young historian who had her author’s picture taken with her dachshund, also named Gertrude Himmelfarb and identified as such in the caption to the author photo. I would offer you evidence of this, but the book was recalled and re-jacketed (Anyone who has a copy should take a picture with an iPhone and send it to me.)

In any case: By the 1970s Kristol was the so-called “godfather” of the neoconservative movement, and was using his formidable intellect on behalf of the resurgent conservative movement which Phillips-Fein describes in intelligent, accessible prose. He was housed at the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute. He was also earning $4,000 a pop from companies like Kennicott Copper (about $20,000 in 2012 dollars), speaking to executives about how business might make an impact on the electorate.  As Phillips-Fein writes,

Kristol believed that businessmen had such difficulty acting politically because the system of capitalism itself gave them nothing transcendent to defend.  ”Who on earth wants to live in a society in which all — or even a majority — of one’s fellow citizens are fully engaged in the hot pursuit of money, the single minded pursuit of self-interest?” he asked. “Who wants to live in a society in which selfishness and self-seeking are celebrated as primary virtues?” To secure their economic position, businessmen needed to give their support to other social institutions — the family, the church — that could preserve moral and social values and that had the emotional weight to command true allegiance. The survival of capitalism depended on the capitalists themselves rejecting “selfishness,” Kristol argued — a line that may have seemed likely to alienate businessmen. But at least some listened.

Businessmen listened, but as any teacher or department chair could attest, they listened to part of the message and eventually scrapped the rest.

Fast forward to 2012: it appears that, as Kristol predicted, you can’t run “naked capitalist President” on a ticket with “family values Vice-President” without showing how the two work together as a cogent and complete ethical vision; nor can you be truly persuasive in a downwardly mobile society when you spew a bunch of capitalist hooey to voters whose lives and their futures are being degraded by actual capitalist practices (predatory lending, financial bleeding of corporations for executive bonuses and investor profits, theft of pension funds and mass unemployment as corporate managers drive companies towards intentional bankruptcies.)


*In paperback reprint, Phillips-Fein’s book now has a new subtitle, “The Businessman’s Crusade Against the New Deal.” Why? Enquiring minds want to know. Change it back, Norton. The first subtitle describes the book better. I gave up the New Deal years ago, and would never have connected this volume to my current research under that title.

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