The collapse of sacred order in Europe during the World Wars left many of Europe’s surviving Jewish intellectuals to stake their theory and practice on the future of the United States and Israel. Communism, of course, opened its arms to secular Jews from the outset, but fascism tormented the Jews with the ultimate in gentile oppression: not even renouncing the Jewish faith could save them. So even Jewish intellectuals who flirted, or more, with communist ideology could recognize that secularism alone could not necessarily preserve social order. (Not incidentally, this is to assume that the Nazi regime was so radically transgressive, right down to its foundations, that it did not count as a social order. It had to be thought of as an anti-order.) It’s from this perspective that we can see why Jewish thinkers as a group wound up in an ambiguous position when it comes to understanding the relation between sacred order and social order. Where a Leon Kass came to admit that the supremely moral and bourgeois generation of his parents, in its merely secular grounding, was too weak to withstand the destabilizing questions posed by the counterculture and the destructive answers of the anticulture, an Irving Kristol, by contrast, sought to pile up the evidence and draw out the logic that would show even secular Jews (or gentiles) why their bourgeois morality could and should be defended against the radicalism and nihilism of the ’60s and ’70s.

Looming behind both Kass and Kristol are three titanic figures — Leo Strauss, Philip Rieff, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Strauss, a man whom Rieff would call an “ex-Jew,” remarked upon Tocqueville about as sparingly as did Rieff himself. But Jewish intellectuals driven to admit that the fate of America, not Europe, had to concern them most — and both Rieff and Strauss did this — had to make two momentous decisions about democracy in America. First, either Tocqueville’s insights and prophecies were still accurate in late 20th-century America, or they were not; second, if they were accurate, what was to be done to preserve the American order?

Straussians in basic agreement with Kristol answer yes to the first question. Though no great critics of Plato, pro-Tocquevillian Straussians must concede that Tocqueville’s vision of democratic despotism significantly qualifies or steps beyond Plato’s judgment that democracy must degenerate into tyranny because democratic souls are unable to save themselves from succumbing to the tyranny of desire. In short, Plato teaches that social order is ultimately untenable in democracies because too many democratic individuals slip too far into a love of transgression that comes to rule their souls. For Tocqueville, quite differently, only in aristocratic ages do individuals really allow debauchery and decadence to rule their lives. Democratic individuals are too busy, too equal, too distracted, too conflicted, and not wealthy enough by far to become de Sades. Not great transgression but great quietude will destroy democratic social order; rather than a fury of bad behavior, the democratic individual will slip into a fugue of comfort, surrounding himself in bourgeois self-satisfaction with handpicked friends and family. In Tocqueville’s dystopia, history will die whispering, not banging. Soft despotism will appear to perfect democratic social order; but it will sap the springs of true human greatness in such a way that democratic social order will fade or euthanize itself, to be replaced by something like the “oriental despotism” of China or Egypt, an anti-order of servitude, ignorance, forgetfulness, and anonymity. Our recognizably human character will be smudged away.

Rieff takes a different view. He is clear that Tocqueville — who showed clearly enough that America will forever be without the “officer class” required to authoritatively maintain sacred and social order — is wrong about the way we live today. Rather than enclosing ourselves in solipsistic and quietly gratifying boutique relationships, we create complex strategic distances between ourselves and our supposed intimates. Where Tocqueville’s American readily reposes in committed relationships, Rieff’s American hops from relationship to relationship, alternating between ‘therapies’ of commitment and decommitment that reveal all commitments to be at bottom merely temporarily useful performances. Where Tocqueville’s American is ever more gentle in his mores, Rieff’s American revels in the primacy of possibility unleashed by charismatic transgression. Instead of quietude, Rieff prophesies a new barbarism, truly barbaric because we will lose the ability even to recognize ourselves as barbarians. But Rieff goes on to note that even democratic barbarism pulls us downward into an equality of boredom. Where Nietzsche can’t quite accept the possibility that the aristocratic barbarism of the “blond beast” has been historically foreclosed, Rieff suggests that democratization spells the end of barbarism as a force for creative destruction. Barbaric democrats will bore themselves, and one another, to death. Perhaps Tocqueville’s and Rieff’s dystopias converge after all: but you’d only know it reading from Rieff to Tocqueville, and not the other way around. And Rieff pulls no punches in prophesizing the bloody lengths to which barbaric democrats will go in a final, fatal effort not to be bored.

In sum, Rieff teaches that the greatest danger to American social order is the democratization of transgression. Tocqueville teaches that the greatest danger is the triumph of quietude. We can’t fully understand neoconservatism unless it’s situated within the tension between Rieff’s and Tocqueville’s American dystopias. Rieff and the neocons both railed against America’s cultural decline in the late 20th century. But because the neocons are more Tocquevillian than Rieff, they feared cultural collapse because they thought it would lead to the kind of quietude that reconciles democratic individuals to despotism. And to the extent that neocons are students of Strauss, they recognize that despotism is the worst of regimes because despots seek to destroy the possibility of philosophy. (A global despotism, as Strauss warned in his exchange with Kojeve, would aspire to eliminate philosophy forever from the whole face of the Earth.) Suddenly the difference between Jewish philosophers who make the preservation of the Jewish faith central — like Rieff — and Jewish philosophers who don’t — like Strauss — becomes essential. Rieff sees the preservation of social order as a task which requires, but is fundamentally beyond the competence of, politics. So does Strauss — but Rieff turns to Moses while Strauss turns to Plato. America, of course, puts Rieff and Strauss in a compromised position: neither Hobbesian nor Platonic rule are viable in a natural-born democracy. In consequence, Rieff’s sociology of the sacred shifts away from politics in a way that Strauss’s philosophy does not. Rieff is unafraid to politicize the culture war — there being, in his judgment, no other way to resist the colonization of the law by the anticulture. But Straussians who turn to Tocqueville to try to understand the best way to preserve philosophy in democratic times conclude that the American people must be focused on productivity in economic life and political participation in significant long-term projects. Otherwise, they will slip into quietude, despotism will come to rule, and all will be lost.

Or so I would like to preface the remarks which touched off these thoughts — Dan McCarthy’s recent appraisal of Irving Kristol and his legacy :

Irving Kristol was an intelligent, reasonably decent man whose hysteria about the counterculture led him to champion policies that have crippled the dollar and given the country no-win wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. [ . . . ] Neoconservatism has become a set of attitudes that might be summed up as, “somewhere, shaggy kids might be having sex or smoking dope—so let’s cut interest rates and invade Iraq!”

Articles by James Poulos

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