The Conservative Critique of Capitalism: A Brief Florilegium
by Mark Gordon
It is commonly thought that criticism of capitalism has its exclusive provenance on the Left, but in fact there is a long tradition of conservative unease with capitalism. Now, by “conservative,” I obviously do not mean that weird and contradictory stew comprised of obscure Austrian economic theories, the “objectivist” ethics of Ayn Rand, Wilsonian idealism, American messianism, and Dominionist/Dispensationalist theology. That’s the “conservatism” of radio disk jockeys like Rush and Glenn, of the Tea Party, and The Sage of Austin, Rick Perry. By “conservative,” I mean what Russell Kirk meant when he wrote that “a conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time.”
Contrast Kirk’s definition of “conservative” with the claim of contemporary “conservative” Michael Ledeen, who trumpets the revolutionary “menace” of democratic capitalism, American-style: “Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our own society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law. Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity, which menaces their traditions (whatever they may be) and shames them for their inability to keep pace. Seeing America undo traditional societies, they fear us, for they do not wish to be undone. Of all the myths that cloud our understanding, and therefore paralyze our will and action, the most pernicious is that only the Left has a legitimate claim to the revolutionary tradition.” (From War Against the Terror Masters)
What Catholic “conservatives” (I mean political conservatism, not theological orthodoxy) seem not to understand is that the revolutionary spirit Ledeen describes doesn’t spare religion or traditional morality. It is capitalism – or at least the Anglo-American variant of the thing – that has bequeathed to us a mass consumer society in which everything from toothpaste and automobiles to marriage and the unborn are rendered mere objects of “choice.” The dictatorship of relativism that Benedict XVI has warned us about is fueled by the revolutionary logic of the creative destruction at the heart of capitalism. If not checked, this logic would scour history of any slower, deeper, more meaningful, less materially efficient force, including the Church. It is this logic that the developing world – including the deeply religious societies of the Middle East – is desperately trying to resist, with varying degrees of success. And it is this logic that Catholics are called to resist, as well. Not by becoming socialists, but by embracing the whole teaching of the Church.
Consider this interesting quote by columnist George Will. Writing about the 1980 presidential race, Will suggested a fundamental schizophrenia in the marriage of convenience between cultural and economic conservatives: ”The Republican platform of 1980 stresses two themes that are not as harmonious as Republicans suppose. One is cultural conservatism. The other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former. Capitalism undermines traditional social structures and values. Republicans see no connection between the cultural phenomena they deplore and the capitalist culture they promise to intensify.”
They still don’t.
“The Industrial Revolution seems to have been a response of mankind to the challenge of a swelling population: ‘Capitalism gave the world what it needed,’ Ludwig von Mises writes sturdily in his Human Action, ‘a higher standard of living for a steadily increasing number of people.’ But it turned the world inside out. Personal loyalties gave way to financial relationships. The wealthy man ceased to be magistrate and patron; he ceased to be neighbour to the poor man; he became a mass-man, very often, with no purpose in life by aggrandizement. He ceased to be conservative because because he did not understand conservative norms, which cannot be instilled by mere logic – a man must be steeped in them. The poor man ceased to feel that he had a decent place in the community; he became a social atom, starved for most emotions except envy and ennui, severed from true family-life and reduced to mere household-life, his old landmarks buried, his old faiths dissipated. Industrialism was a harder knock to conservativism than the books of the French egalitarians. To complete the rout of traditionalists, in America an impression began to arise that the new industrial and acquisitive interests are the conservative interest, that conservativism is simply a political argument in defense of large accumulations of private property, that expansion, centralization, and accumulation are the tenets of conservatives. From this confusion, from the popular belief that Hamilton was the founder of American conservatvism, the forces of tradition in the United States have never fully escaped.”
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
“We live, as we must sooner or later recognize, in an era of sentimental economics and, consequently, of sentimental politics. Sentimental communism holds in effect that everybody and everything should suffer for the good of “the many” who, though miserable in the present, will be happy in the future for exactly the same reasons that they are miserable in the present. Sentimental capitalism is not so different from sentimental communism as the corporate and political powers claim. Sentimental capitalism holds in effect that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the “free market” and the great corporations, which will bring unprecedented security and happiness to “the many” — in, of course, the future.
These forms of political economy may be described as sentimental because they depend absolutely upon a political faith for which there is no justification, and because they issue a cold check on the virtue of political and/or economic rulers. They seek, that is, to preserve the gullibility of the people by appealing to a fund of political virtue that does not exist.
Communism and ‘free-market’ capitalism both are modern versions of oligarchy. In their propaganda, both justify violent means by good ends, which always are put beyond reach by the violence of the means. The trick is to define the end vaguely “the greatest good of the greatest number” or “the benefit of the many” — and keep it at a distance.
The fraudulence of these oligarchic forms of economy is in their principle of displacing whatever good they recognize (as well as their debts) from the present to the future. Their success depends upon persuading people, first, that whatever they have now is no good, and, second, that the promised good is certain to be achieved in the future. This obviously contradicts the principle — common, I believe, to all the religious traditions — that if ever we are going to do good to one another, then the time to do it is now; we are to receive no reward for promising to do it in the future. And both communism and capitalism have found such principles to be a great embarrassment. If you are presently occupied in destroying every good thing in sight in order to do good in the future, it is inconvenient to have people saying things like ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ or ‘Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.’ Communists and capitalists alike, ‘liberal” capitalists and ‘conservative’ capitalists alike, have needed to replace religion with some form of determinism, so that they can say to their victims, “I’m doing this because I can’t do otherwise. It is not my fault. It is inevitable.’”
“If by capitalism is meant, not diffused ownership of property, but monopolistic capitalism in which capital bids for labor on a market, and concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, then from an economic point of view alone, the Church is just as much opposed to capitalism as it is to communism. Communism emphasizes social use to the exclusion of personal rights, and capitalism emphasizes personal rights to the exclusion of social use. The Church says both are wrong. It therefore refuses to maintain capitalism as an alternative to the economic side of communism…. Capitalistic economy is godless; communism makes economics God….”
Bishop Fulton Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West
“There is something wrong with a society that is governed entirely by the imperatives of business, which recognises no restraint on trade apart from the market, and which makes business and enterprise into its primary values. When Marx and Engels composed the Communist manifesto they did not condemn capitalism for its economic power. They condemned it for its human cost. ‘It has left no other nexus between man and man,’ they wrote, ‘than callous cash payment. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour … in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade.’ Exaggerated, of course. But not without truth. Even if we dismiss Marx’s alternative as naive in its ends and wicked in its means, we should not dismiss the moral insight from which it derives – namely, that the free market left to itself is both a creative and a destructive force …”
The true conservative is the person who recognizes that his life is derived from and dependent on society. As members of society we only become the people we are through society’s power over us. No citizen is possessed of a natural right that transcends his obligation to be ruled.
Phillip Blond, leader of the British “Red Tory” movement