Dilbert is giving a presentation to his Pointy-Haired Boss and his boss’s boss.
DILBERT: In order to make an informed decision, you would need to know as much as I do. This is impossible. So by mutually implied agreement, I will now feed you a set of lies which will point you to the right answer. [points to the whiteboard] If we don’t upgrade our servers, a herd of trolls will attack headquarters.
BOSS’S BOSS: [alarmed] NO TROLLS!
That’s pretty much how government is supposed to work according to the late political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss, except without the “mutual agreement” part, and the ones in power are the ones telling the lies to the peons, instead of the other way round.
And the trolls are Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
You hear a lot about “neoconservatives” in the news and the blogosphere, but not that much about what it means to be a “neoconservative.” Apparently one big component of what it means is that you’re a follower of Leo Strauss.
Strauss taught at the University of Chicago until his death in 1973, and since the Reagan era, students of Strauss have been a force to be reckoned with in Republican administrations. You’ve heard of the influence of Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol perhaps, sometimes spoken of as architects of the Iraq War? If you’re not too young you may remember one prominent Straussian, Allan Bloom, made a big splash in the publishing world back in the late 80s with his book critiquing modern education, The Closing of the American Mind.
Strauss was a classicist and he didn’t write directly about politics; he wrote about classical authors like Plato. One thing he believed is that they were never saying what they seemed to be saying; they concealed their true meanings, which were not something that the vulgar rabble could or should understand. To him reading the classics became a process of deep interpretation; imagine a Freud who instead of finding sex and death behind every stray word and phrase, found Machivaellian politics, with a nod and a wink towards those who were wily enough to understand.
The views which he projected onto ancient philosophers and tacitly approved, included the idea of the natural inequality of man, an inequality which makes it right and necessary for superior men to rule over inferior men (and over all women, of course). But because the rabble cannot be trusted to allow the superior man to rule them directly (they’re too stupid for that), they must be manipulated into it, and there must be no plain speaking amongst the superior men lest the inferior rabble twig to what’s going on and revolt.
There is a third type of man Strauss sees in the ancient worldview, the “gentleman.” He isn’t one of the few wise who see truth, but he’s superior to the vulgar rabble in that he can devote himself to higher ideals. He is a useful tool of the wise in controlling the rabble. The gentleman is sincerely religous — unlike the wise, who know the truth — that there is no God and there is no rational basis for morality. Religion, to the wise, is vital — a vital lie, an opiate for the people who need an opiate to keep them in line. It’s like an inside-out Marxism; it retains the profoundly, deeply cynical analysis of hierarchical civilization, but approves of it.
The more you read about Strauss, the more you recognize his influence in recent politics.
How could so people nakedly advocate for a government that benefits the hyper-rich and increases inequality? Because they believe that is right; it is natural; it is reality. Equality to them is vulgarity. Humans are not truly human, are not truly themselves unless they have an order of dominance, at least a covert one.
Why bring us into war by deceit? Because war is good for us — it empowers the gentlemen over the rabble. Deceit is also good for us — it is the best way for the wise to operate on the rabble.
Why bang the gong of a simplistic, intolerant religious sentiment? Because that too is a means by which the wise bring the rabble into line with the aid of the gentlemen.
Why destroy government transparency at every turn? Because secrecy is the wise man’s stock-in-trade.
Why is conspiracy theory so rampant and disturbingly increasing in credibility? Because a large fraction of the people actually in power hold to a philosophy which could have easily been dreamed up in a paranoiac’s fantasies.
A couple notes remain…
First… Why would Strauss be like this? Was he some kind of inherently evil, psychopathic dude? Well, here’s a hint. Strauss was a Jew born in Germany towards the beginning of the 20th century. He left Germany in 1934, when Nazism was ramping up, and never returned.
Nazism was at least on the face of it a democratic movement. Nazis were (at least at first) popularly elected, and they had (or at least made it seem as if they had) great popular support. Imagine yourself as a young man, head deep in the classics, watching the world go mad around you… reading Plato, reading about an ideal world where the people in control act with virtue, and keep things in order, and smart people like yourself have great power instead of being in danger of destruction by the vulgar, hateful, in this case anti-Semitic mob… That’d start to sound pretty good wouldn’t it? And the idea that the rabble are bestial and should not be allowed control would sound good too, wouldn’t it? I mean, it seems insane to me to think of Nazism as a triumph of democracy, but the idea had more plausibility than you’d think, I suspect.
And even today you’ve got an immense number of people who believe in the basic premise human inequality, that the “sheeple” can’t be trusted to run anything or make wise decisions. Go hang out with Mensa members or in the comments section of Reddit or its spiritual ancestor kuro5hin, or their adolescent cousins Digg and Slashdot (respectively); you’ll find plenty of people who accept Strauss’s basic premise of fundamental human inequality. It’s not that uncommon. Pair it with a catalyzing fear of the People such as the Nazis would have engendered, and you can imagine going down that path.
That brings me to the second additional note… Straussian belief that the masses had to be manipulated for their own good by the wise elite was nothing new even to American politics. In the early part of the 20th century, “propaganda” was not a dirty word. People in power spoke quite openly (at least to each other) of the need to “manufacture consent” for necessary policies, and agencies were ready to help make that happen. It’s only with World War II that “propaganda” became a dirty word, because it was used by the Nazis. After that the term “public relations” became the usual term.
One of the first big explicit practicioners of propaganda was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who sold his services to corporations (e.g. to sell bacon, or to get women to start smoking cigarettes), as well as the government. In his 1928 book Propaganda, he wrote:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind. (Quoted in wikipedia)
So it’s not like Leo Strauss was an innovator here. The clever few manipulating the hapless many was flourishing in America long before he even left Germany. Strauss is distinctive because he gave it a Classical, esoteric, and covertly nihilist spin.
The Straight Dope on Strauss
Interview with Shadia Drury, responsible for bringing Strauss’s ideas and their influence into the open.
The Canadian prime minister is a Straussian.
Sourcewatch on Edward Bernays.