To stand “athwart history, yelling Stop.” Thus did William F. Buckley, Jr., announce in 1955 the mission of National Review and the fusionist coalition it assembled. “History” here implies statist-progressivist ideology at home, and the Marxist ideology of History abroad, as it appeared in the threat of global Communism. But it was ultimately only the need to challenge Communism that glued together this otherwise motley crew of libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of history it supposedly ushered in, the seeds were sown for the dissolution of the American Right as it had been constituted for the preceding half-century. This process of unraveling has appeared most starkly in the division between fusionists and populists since the rise of Trump.
The Unraveling of 20th-Century Conservatism
The unraveling of the old conservative coalition is still ongoing. Its consequences are perhaps nowhere more visible than in the present intra-Right debates over American support for Ukraine. We have, on the right of the Right, those like Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who, in a recent appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, lamented the bipartisan obsession with democracy abroad to the neglect of the welfare of Americans. To his fellow Republicans, he gives a stark choice: “you can either be the party of Ukraine and the globalists, or you can be the party of East Palestine and the working people of America.”
Some in the lower house are of the same mind. Eleven Freedom Caucus members, led by Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), have recently introduced the “Ukraine Fatigue Resolution,” urging the United States to “end its military and financial aid to Ukraine, and [. . .] all combatants to reach a peace agreement.” The resolution gives a staggering list of every piece of equipment and every cent (over $110 billion) we’ve donated so far to Ukraine, far more than every other country, and notes how this has depleted our stockpiles, weakened our readiness, and increased civilian casualties.
For the rest of the Right, we may let stand Mike Pence’s address at the University of Texas on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion. The former vice president, trying to look presidential in anticipation of a 2024 run, proclaimed: “There can be no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for apologists for Putin. There can only be room for champions of freedom.”
To those of us wondering why these are the only choices, and skeptical of the reductio ad Putinum, Pence did acknowledge that “this is not America’s war,” and proceeded to give a more generous justification for supporting Ukraine than we’re accustomed to hearing from anyone with a mouthpiece these days: “if we falter in our commitment to providing the support to the people of Ukraine to defend their freedom, our sons and daughters may soon be called upon to defend ours. If we surrender to the siren song of those in this country who argue that America has no interest in freedom’s cause, history teaches we may soon send our own into harm’s way to defend our freedom and the freedom of nations in our alliance.”
Ultimately, then, it is a question of our duties to NATO in the event Russia aspires beyond Ukraine. That it is still in America’s interest to be part of NATO is, of course, an article of faith. The appeal to “freedom’s cause” is indeed meant to quiet any common-sense questions about our interests. Moral crusades, by definition, need no justification in interest: fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus—let justice be done, though the world perish.
The question, then, is why and how so many Americans today—our Republican elites above all—are so certain of this supposed identity between the “cause of freedom” and the American interest. For a hint, I ask you to consider Jay Nordlinger’s sentimental celebration of the Ukrainian “stand for freedom” at National Review. Nordlinger, like almost every other American intellectual on the Left or Right who has written in support of Ukraine, apparently sees no need for rational argumentation or serious consideration of American interests. He is indeed content to denounce rock musician Roger Waters for his speech at the United Nations in early February in favor of peace as indistinguishable from the useful idiots who spoke in support of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Let us leave aside everything an English celebrity speaking on behalf of Russia reveals about the ridiculousness of the U.N. as an institution and the strangeness of our global situation more broadly. The comparison itself is crucial for understanding foreign policy disputes on the Right. The glaring difficulty with it, which “conservatives” of a certain age and orientation universally fail to notice (I mean you, boomercons), and which should be obvious to all, is simple: the Cold War is over, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and so the threat of International Communism is no more. This does not mean Russia is incapable of posing certain geopolitical threats to American interests. It does mean Russia is no longer America’s ideological enemy.
Why the Proxy War with Russia?
Why, then, are we fighting a proxy war with Russia? Ideology itself seems, when it is not concealing interests, to dictate them. By ideology I mean a set of political ideas that tends toward moralistic utopianism—toward unrealistically promoting the desire to “immanentize the eschaton” or at least toward ignoring certain fundamental features of human nature and politics. Libertarianism and neoliberalism are in this way as ideological as Communism insofar as they see man as homo economicus—a rational utility maximizer oblivious to any form of transcendence. Libertarians, and the neoliberal global capitalistic order they support, are thus not friendly to the political as such, or to any morality that is not calculating bourgeois morality. Man, for the libertarian, is not a political animal. He is an acquisitive animal. The best society is therefore a borderless global society that maximizes economic freedom and productivity. It is then not really a political society at all. But a global marketplace of atomized individuals and the multinational corporations who are served by the needs they create in these individuals.
This is why libertarians tend to be lovers of NAFTA and unrestricted immigration: they have no taste for citizen morality. The fall of the Soviet Union then was not a blow to ideological utopianism as such. It cleared the way for the global spread of ideological neoliberalism.
This victory of ideological neoliberalism or capitalism has gone hand in hand with the ascent of an ideological foreign policy—neoconservatism. For the neocons, the advent of the unipolar world is largely a cause for celebration. It means History has decided in favor of liberal democracies that protect human rights—with America their shining city on a hill—as the final and only legitimate form of government. This is flattering for us Americans to hear; and it is not without a certain kind of patriotism. But it comes along with the assumption, convenient for multinational corporations and our military-industrial complex, that it’s in the American interest to protect human rights abroad.
Thus we see the beginning of humanitarian interventionism under Clinton in Somalia and Bosnia, and its apex (or nadir) in Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Assaults on freedom anywhere in the world become by some occult understanding attacks on our freedom in America. So democracy must be promoted with missionary zeal. It is morally imperative that we be moved when we see photos of Iraqis voting with their purple, ink-stained fingers—or Ukrainians suffering under Russian aggression.
There is a case for the realism of this kind of nation-building. Liberal democratic societies are more peaceful and stable. Since the desire for freedom is universal, only once democracy is everywhere will we be ourselves at peace, free from the dangerous envy and resentment that arises most commonly in oppressive regimes. But the utopianism here could not be more obvious.
Kant notwithstanding, how is it realistic to believe that peace is ever forthcoming? How is it rational to expect peoples with vastly different histories and profoundly different beliefs and mores to have the same taste and aptitude for self-government? If neoliberals abstract from the political, neoconservatives abstract from the particular (even as the latter promote the profits of the former). If Global Communism has been replaced by Global Capitalism—with the latter being more productive but equally homogenizing—Liberal Democratic Man has replaced the New Soviet Man.
A New Utopianism
Here, then, is a great irony. Two utopian ideologies can be said to have sprung from the anti-utopian intention of National Review at its founding. And together, these ideologies may be just as great a threat to human freedom as communism ever was. What began as a prudent anti-utopian coalition intent on disproving the communist conception of “History” as eventuating in the dictatorship of the proletariat and the withering away of the state, has itself, through its success, culminated in a vast utopian project.
One can point to what seem like good things that have come from this project. If you’ve ever spoken for even five minutes with a libertarian, you likely know a bit about how many people around the world capitalism has “lifted out of poverty.” There is truth to this claim. But we should not be shy about looking at the price to be paid for thus creating and spreading the wealth around. (Indeed, Obama and the libertarians are not so far apart.) Are workers in the Third World better off in sweatshops making some cash than in traditional, agricultural communities? Are Americans better off with more Walmarts but fewer manufacturing jobs? Is our capacity to purchase stuff the best measure of well-being?
At a certain point, which we seem to have passed, the unfettered free market is more destructive than productive—even if “productivity” still rises. The destruction that capitalism at such a scale wreaks on particularity and morals arguably outweighs the benefits it produces. And when it insinuates itself, as it does now, into so many aspects of our lives through social media and smartphones—we are in what Shoshanna Zuboff has dubbed “the age of surveillance capitalism”—it becomes capable of denying us the freedom of speech our Constitution guarantees us.
Facebook and Twitter get a pass from libertarians like David French because they are de jure private companies—even when they are de facto public utilities. They are to be given the freedom to self-regulate because of an ideological commitment to the “free market”—despite the fact that each of us is their digital serf, whose information they harvest, and despite their obvious political bias and willingness to be used, as the Twitter files revealed, as a political tool.
Which is to say that any realistic, prudential glance at the risks of an alliance between Big Tech and the state can see the likelihood of corruption and the necessity of regulation—or at least some kind of enforceable transparency. It shows us the possibility of a technological tyranny hitherto unimaginable in scope—where the state and corporations work symbiotically as parts of a single plutocracy.
The legitimate interest Ukrainians have in not being dominated by Russians aside, ultimately they’re fighting for the debased freedom of living under an international plutocracy that is only nominally and rhetorically on the side of freedom. The effectual truth of this regime is not a world of self-governing republics, but an agglomeration of multinational corporate interests that uses the slogans of freedom and progress to conceal the ruthlessness of a homogenizing greed with a deep interest in cultivating pliant consumers. Interest and ideology coincide for our global ruling class. While the rest of us are left with increasingly neo-feudal conditions: crumbling infrastructure, stultifying digital immersion, social immobility, and the more or less forceful crushing of peasant revolts.
To support the war in Ukraine, however much one may be motivated by noble sympathy for the love of freedom, is ultimately to feed and strengthen this global neoliberal amoeba. Whatever one might say about Russia’s excesses in the current war, they have not been motivated by a globalist utopian ideology. However destabilizing the war has been and could become, Russia is not today a threat to American freedom. The threat today comes from our own ruling class—from those most passionately and vocally in support of sending money and arms to Ukraine. To stand athwart History yelling stop today is thus to oppose not Soviet Communism, but American neoliberalism or global capitalism.
Accordingly, the division between Left and Right today and for the foreseeable future is no longer fundamentally based in the opposition between two economic systems. For most practical purposes, what we have been accustomed to calling the Right has won in the contest between capitalism and communism, or between the free market and the planned economy. The pressing question today is rather nationalism or globalism, prudent self-government for the sake of one’s fellow citizens (and with their consent), or techno-therapeutic plutocracy in the name of progress (and without the consent of the governed).
The battle between this new Right and this new Left has just begun. Many good people—especially those affiliated with the Claremont Institute and New Founding—have begun the constructive task in earnest by working toward electing populist candidates, building parallel institutions, and making it possible for Americans to live their lives without supporting the neoliberal global blob and its values. The destructive task will be trickier, given the interconnectedness of global economies and the sheer size and power of our political bureaucracies and our multinational corporations. But it is not in principle impossible to reverse elements of globalization in various ways and to various degrees. Brexit is already a good start—providing a model for how to choose against History and demonstrating that bureaucracy does not obviate the need for the consent of the people.
We might recall as well that before the advent of globalization and international human rights, for centuries the foreign policy of the West was conducted under the Law of Nations—which allowed a far greater scope for prudence, and never denied the primacy of national sovereignty. Perhaps then one day it may be possible to begin reconstructing our international order with the help of this unduly neglected body of international legal thought, which developed in tandem with the doctrine of natural rights on which we were founded.
In the meantime, however, we need a comprehensive but practical understanding of the workings of our neoliberal order. The nexus of NGOs, multinational corporations, and international institutions—their legal basis, and their place in the economy. From there one can attempt prudently to adjust means to ends. First, of course, we need the power to do so. And sending more money to Ukraine can only put it further from our reach.
Americanism Is Not Globalism
A few final words to those patriotic conservatives who will accuse me of advocating anti-Americanism, socialism, or Putin apologetics. This is not an attack on capitalism as such; it is an indictment of its ideological abuse. Nor is it evidence of a hatred for America; it is a critique of what America has become under the stewardship of a corrupt ruling class.
It is a call, above all, to look clearly at the meaning and provenance of some of our most cherished beliefs in light of the present situation. The fight for capitalism and human rights abroad made some sense when international communism was our enemy. But neither “capitalism” nor “human rights” appear in our Constitution—which was ordained and established “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
The “general Welfare” is not that of the world, but that of “ourselves and our Posterity”—that of American citizens. Global capitalism does not care about the American citizen; it wants consumers wherever it can get them. That it is more productive than communism does not make it the gospel truth, nor does it mean that it is necessarily and in all ways conducive to the general welfare or to the blessings of liberty.
Capitalism is not the end, and nothing in principle prevents it from being destructive of the end. The processes of capitalism cannot in themselves guarantee meaningful liberty to citizens. Ultimately, only we ourselves can defend our own liberty. This does not mean we must resort to violent revolution. It does mean that when we look at the events unfolding around us, we should never stop asking cui bono?