Plato Rules Okay! By William Bowles

21 October 2003

An article on Information Clearing House Noble Lies and Perpetual War[1] by Danny Postel on Leo Strauss, who is according to Postel, the ‘leo-con’ father of the ‘neo-cons’ connects well to a piece available here by Israel Shamir[2] on Edward Said, who was also a university professor but of an altogether different kind.

“Whoever controls universities, controls the media; who controls media, controls government. Or, in Biblical terms, Leo Strauss begat Wolfowitz, Wolfowitz begat Iraqi War. Milton Friedman begat IMF, IMF begat world poverty. Bernard Lewis begat Samuel Huntington, Samuel Huntington begat the War on Islam. Bernard-Henri Levy begat Andre Sacharov, and the Soviet Union was privatised by Marc Rich and Vladimir Gusinsky.”

I have to confess that I’m avowedly Dionysian, so just the mention of Leo Strauss has me running for an idyllic clearing in the woods somewhere, hopefully with some nymphs to gambol with. Postel interviewed an academic critic of Strauss, Shadia Drury, professor of political theory at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, who has spent a good deal of time unpacking the words and thoughts of Strauss and in doing so, his alleged role in the shaping of the neo-con mindset. And there’s no getting around the fact that Strauss’s Platonic vision – of the ‘noble’ lie and the great unwashed – appears to underpin the ideology of the ‘neo-cons’.

I wonder however, how many people, after reading Postel’s interview with Drury are any the wiser? I don’t want to appear ‘anti-intellectual’ but part of the process of separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ is the use of language. The academic method is one of rigorous definition of the meaning of words, words that are generally speaking, not part of day-to-day speech. The interview is packed with references to books, most of which none of us have ever read or are ever likely to, each forming part of the puzzle, namely Strauss’s vision of the world and how he asserts, it works.

The core of the Straussian vision of the world is based on the idea that there are the rulers and the ruled – not a new idea by any means – and that this is a ‘natural state’ of affairs. Most of us are just too venal to be trusted with the responsibilities of governing.

Where Drury’s analysis works is when she translates her academia into language the rest of us can understand, and it’s a pity that Drury doesn’t take that one extra step and actually turn her analysis into articles ‘for the rest of us’. Drury puts it this way:

“So, we must surmise that Strauss shares the insights of the wise Plato…that justice is merely the interest of the stronger; that those in power make the rules in their own interests and call it justice.”

She goes on to say:

“A second fundamental belief of Strauss’s ancients has to do with their insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two reasons – to spare the people’s feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals.

“The people will not be happy to learn that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise few over the vulgar many.”

Nothing new here, so what makes the ‘neo-cons’ so different from virtually all the rulers of the past and indeed, the present? Drury’s core point is the following:

“The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule of the wise”

In other words rule by lies. I think what is important here however, is not that the ‘neo-cons’ are Platonists but that all rulers are Platonists. I find it difficult find any time in history when our leaders haven’t lied to us about almost everything they do and most importantly, lied to us over the reasons why they do things.

Where I think Drury’s analysis of Strauss’s impact on how the current power elite rule misses the point is when she says:

“For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire – wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.

“Nowhere is this state of affairs more advanced than in America”

Those who rule in America, rule to defend the above, albeit that it’s a lie in the sense that it’s the rich and powerful who have become the beasts. Moreover, I don’t see any evidence that the ‘neo-cons’ are particular fans of the hair shirt approach to living, far from it. The ‘neo-cons’ are not the modern equivalent of the aesthetes of Plato’s times.

Where I think Drury scores a direct hit is on the idea advanced by Bush and co of perpetual war:

“[Strauss was] convinced that liberal economics would turn life into entertainment and destroy politics…politics [understood] as a conflict between mutually hostile groups willing to fight each other to the death. In short, they all thought that man’s humanity depended on his willingness to rush naked into battle and headlong to his death. Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and “creature comforts.” Life can be politicised once more, and man’s humanity can be restored.”

But I really think that Drury is way off the mark when she says:

“I think that the neo-conservatives are for the most part genuine in wanting to spread the American commercial model of liberal democracy around the globe. They are convinced that it is the best thing, not just for America, but for the world. Naturally, there is a tension between these “idealists” and the more hard-headed realists within the administration.”

I’ve just been sent a book to review called “The People as Enemy” by John Spritzler on the real reasons behind WWII, the so-called good war, that I’ll review here shortly. What links the book and Strauss together, is the lie. The lie that there is an enemy ‘out there’ that wants to destroy ‘our’ way of life. I think the point worth making and I’ve made it before, is that whether or not the ‘neo-cons’ rationalise their vision of the world through some Platonic ‘ideal’, there’s nothing new about the Project for the New American Century. There’s nothing new about projecting American economic power through the barrel of a gun or a barrage of propaganda.

From the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, the last couple of centuries has been marked by a battle between labour and capital, between the haves and the have-nots, masked by the words of our rulers as the struggle between ‘freedom’ and ‘authoritarianism’ or whatever’s current. Or if you like, to use the Platonic analogy, “Lies are thus necessary to protect the superior few from the persecution of the vulgar many.”

Short of a revolution, removing Wolfowitz and co might reflect the fact that ‘Plato unbound’ is a step too far but if so, this would reflect the fact that in relying too much on the thoughts of a long dead philosopher, the ‘neo-cons’ have come to believe their own propaganda. And there is a smug complacency about their view of the world, that like Nixon, holed up in the White House, stoned out of his skull on various and sundry pills, he
thought nobody was looking. Indeed, so assured was he that nobody was looking, he felt it necessary to record everything he said for posterity to satisfy his own vanity. Such is the vanity induced by power, that unlimited power would seem induce unlimited vanity.

And here, to return approximately to Plato’s time once more, we have the Achiles Heel of the ‘neo-con’ agenda that also reveals the bankruptcy of the Platonic ‘ideal’ upon which the American agenda apparently rests. The idea that there is some kind of ‘natural’ order of things, that naturally of course, the rich and powerful happen to be those most suited to be rich and powerful and rule the rest of us, the ‘great unwashed’.

If we have learnt anything from the past century or so, and I think we have, it’s that the ‘natural order’ of things is anything but. What scares the rulers more than anything else is the knowledge that we have pierced the veil they have drawn over our lives and in fits and starts, challenged the ‘natural order’. That Wolfowitz, Perle and co have in actuality, feet of clay and what could be better proof of this than the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.



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