The Conservative Critique of Capitalism: A Brief Florilegium (With Introduction)

The Conservative Critique of Capitalism: A Brief Florilegium (With Introduction) January 24, 2012

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.'”

Wendell Berry

“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 …”

Roger Scruton

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.

Roger Scruton

Phillip Blond, leader of the British “Red Tory” movement

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  • Ryan

    Allow me to add some more quotes for good measure:

    The fate of Civilization is involved. For it is not as if the resistance of the Church to liberal ideas was harmless. The Church is such a tremendous power that its enmity to the forces which bring society into existence would be enough to break our whole culture into fragments. In the last decades we have witnessed with horror its terrible transformation into an enemy of society. For the Church, Catholic as well as Protestant, is not the least of the factors responsible for the prevalence of destructive ideals in the world today…

    The Church knows that it cannot win unless it can seal the fount from which its opponent continues to draw inspiration. As long as rationalism and the spiritual freedom of the individual are maintained in economic life, the Church will never succeed in fettering thought and shepherding the intellect in the desired direction. To do this it would first have to obtain supremacy over all human activity. Therefore it cannot rest content to live as a free Church in a free state [the very slogan of Cavour, the great Masonic enemy of the Church and Blessed Pius IX – CAF]; it must seek to dominate that state. The Papacy of Rome and the Protestant national churches both fight for such dominion as would enable them to order all things temporal according to their ideals. The Church can tolerate no other spiritual power. Every independent spiritual power is a menace to it, a menace which increases in strength as the rationalization of life progresses.

    His zeal in destroying social ties knows no limits. The motive force behind the purity and power of this complete negation is ecstatic inspiration and enthusiastic hope of a new world. Hence his passionate attack upon everything that exists. Everything may be destroyed because God in His omnipotence will rebuild the future order. No need to scrutinize whether anything can be carried over from the old to the new order, because this new order will arise without human aid. It demands therefore from its adherents no system of ethics, no particular conduct in any positive direction. Faith and faith alone, hope, expectation—that is all he needs. He need contribute nothing to the reconstruction of the future, this God Himself has provided for. The clearest modern parallel to the attitude of complete negation of primitive Christianity is Bolshevism. The Bolshevists, too, wish to destroy everything that exists because they regard it as hopelessly bad. But they have in mind ideas, indefinite and contradictory though they may be, of the future social order. They demand not only that their followers shall destroy all that is, but also that they pursue a definite line of conduct leading towards the future Kingdom of which they have dreamt. Jesus teaching in this respect, on the other hand, is merely negation.

    – Ludwig Von Mises in his work Socialism

    RON PAUL 2012!!!!!!!!!!

    • Mark Gordon

      I rest my case. Catholics take note that Mises was an implacable enemy of the Christian faith and the Catholic Church. Mises’ vision of Promethean capitalism stands in direct opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ, who he considered a prophet of negation.

  • Well done Mark; a very insightful presentation. As a somewhat traditional conservative, I found myself nodding in agreement along the entire post. The ‘whirlwind’ and ‘destruction’ you describe is unnecessarily dehumanizing. Creative destruction is a reality but its also serious business like death and new life. Also, you point out well that we put the cart before the horse in idolizing an amoral system of economic prowess over the cultural need of a shared banquet.

  • I agree with much of this, but what I’m hard-pressed to understand, is who exactly you’re arguing with. Who is contending that society should be “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”?

    As has been stated here before, the main argument in American politics is not whether our society should “emphasize social use to the exclusion of personal rights”, or “emphasize personal rights to the exclusion of social use”. The Democrats are not arguing the former, nor Republicans the latter. Rather, the ongoing argument, for the most part, is where exactly to draw the line between the two.

    You might lean towards the left of the precise middle between these two extremes, and I might lean towards the right; but neither of us, I think, incurs the condemnation expressed by Bishop Sheen of the two extremes.

    • Mark Gordon

      I’m not arguing with anyone, Agellius. Do you always expect an argument?

      • Oh. But doesn’t, “I rest my case” usually follow upon an argument? : )

        • Mark Gordon

          So true, but I’m making an argument, which is somewhat different than arguing with someone. And of course I’ve learned never to argue with you! 🙂

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Very interesting Mark. One thing that I find very appealing (among several things) in the work of Zizek is that his attack on capitalism is strikingly similar to the argument you make. In particular, he points out the ability of capitalism to “ingest” all manner of ideas and movements and turn them to its own ends. Though I have not seen it, I wonder if he does not regard modern China, a communist/capitalist state, as the apotheosis of capitalism’s ability to absorb and subdue competing ideologies.

  • Rodak

    I would think that the Chinese “communist/capitalist state” is indicative of China’s ability to absorb and subdue dangerous antagonists — e.g. the Mongols.

    • Mark Gordon

      Yeah, there is that. The Middle Kingdom is always more Chinese than communist, capitalist, or anything else.

  • Mark writes, “So true, but I’m making an argument, which is somewhat different than arguing with someone.”

    OK then, I’ll rephrase my question: Do you contend that there is any serious, widespread movement in this country to either govern our society “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”; or to “emphasize personal rights to the exclusion of social use”? If so, can you name names and give examples? Or do you agree that in the main, the dispute between “left” and “right” is basically just an argument over where to draw the line between the two extremes ennumerated by Bishop Sheen?

    On another tack, I agree that modern “capitalism” (though it’s not pure capitalism) tends to dilute traditions and cultures, and I find that deplorable. But on the other hand, there’s no question that it has raised the material standard of living of the countries that have become “developed” or are well on the way thereto, measured in terms of, for example, average lifespan compared with their respective predevelopment periods. So my question is, how far can we dilute “capitalism” for the sake of saving traditions and cultures, without also diluting its material benefits?

    • Mark Gordon

      I understand that you would like to bait me into arguing with you, but my “argument” (or case) is that there is a conservative critique of capitalism that stands apart from critiques from the left. That critique asserts that capitalism is a revolutionary force that commodifies human persons, sunders communities and destroys traditional ways of life. The conservatives I quoted make that case, and Ryan’s quote from the prophet of anarcho-capitalism, von Mises, validates it.

      As for your two questions, I think that if you focus your gaze on the narrow, artificial continuum stretching from center-right to center-left, as represented by the American Republican and Democratic parties, then it is difficult to see the broad movement of the culture under the influence of capitalism. But if you scale your view to 30,000 feet, which is the vantage point from which the Church looks at these things, you can see that both parties are entirely devoted to and dependent upon the consumer civilization that capitalism has created in the West. That devotion is expressed in distinct forms of libertinism – one pelvic, the other economic – but both are based on the same premises. Up close it may appear that the American political continuum is in a constant state of flux, with lines being moved here and there, but from 30,000 feet nothing really changes. Put another way, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference – real difference – between Barak Obama and Mitt Romney. They are both products and manifestations of late-stage capitalism.

      Regarding the material benefits of capitalism, it is true that capitalism is an amazing generator of material wealth. Even Marx recognized that fact. For him the movement to socialism was only possible because of the incredible store of wealth created by the capitalist system (which is also why he didn’t believe that an agrarian society could move directly to socialism without capitalist development). So, everyone recognizes the material success of capitalism. The question is: At what cost?

      • Rodak

        @ Mark Gordon —

        At what cost? indeed. But having decided that the cost is too high, what would be the realistic alternative? The alternatives for the individual are easy to see; but for society-at-large, not so much. Isn’t it the case that all of the charities, schools, and hospitals run by the Church are supported by the trickle-down surplus wealth of greedy capitalist Catholics?

    • Agellus, let me relate a current example to unveil what is being considered. Last week a story ran on Al Jazeera network of suicides of workers in a Chinese manufacuting center. As they investigated we were shown a very modern city/center in which hundreds of thousands were draw to relatively high paying technical work. The workers lived in clean dormitory like facilities with perhaps 8 or so to each room. None knew each other. They were disconnected from family and general interpersonal relationships. They didn’t even know each others names. They were well fed and had free time each evening to shop or attend a movie, but as you can imagine they were completely disassociated from the life they knew within a family and community. In all of this there were lines waiting to take new jobs. (This group was making Apple products btw).

      The facility management seemed to have the best of intentions evidencing pride in their wages and modern facilities. But they were perplexed as to the emotional stress and duress that was resulting from a decultured population. I use this example because its unfamiliar to our own sensibilities, and that strangeness illustrates what Mark is alluding to. Now consider the history of our own industrial revolution, with its dislocations from rural to urban, etc. The dehumanization of work to repetative rote tasks performed a thousand times each day. The reversal of family roles, the separation of parents from children and on and on. We’re past the turmoil and disruptions of sweat shops and now we’ve entered a phase in which social contracts are meaningless. Young people commit to costly technical and specialized training to serve a role that might be easily transferred overseas in a heartbeat.

      We see corporate favoritism and welfare in many areas including the demand for public service and sacrifice while extracting tax exemptions from competing communities which are forced to shift burdens towards those unable to bargain. This is a dance of cultural/economic darwinism. Is it necessary? In fact no, This post-critique may not have specific answers but it is a welcomed critique, at least to me. More than anything its a fresh perspective where anyone (even a conservative) can get unhypnotized from capitalism for a few brief moments.

      • Tausign:

        I too consider the post a welcome critique. The more Mark has explained his intent, the more I appreciate it.

        I agree that modern industrial capitalism (understanding that it’s not “pure” capitalism) can be toxic to culture, and thereby has resulted in misery to millions, though they may not understand the reasons therefor. Though at the same time, as has been acknowledged, it has greatly reduced misery of other kinds, such as hunger and disease. In other words, it provides great material benefits while often being harmful to human dignity and happiness.

        It would be great if we could have the best of both worlds. I do hope (as I’m sure most would agree) that we would proceed with caution in any attempt to reform “capitalism”, so that in trying to restore dignity and happiness we don’t end up decreasing wealth, thereby increasing material misery.

  • “I understand that you would like to bait me into arguing with you,…”

    You’re not pretending that in writing this post, you neither intended nor foresaw any arguments arising out of it, are you? : )

    In any event, I’m making a simple point. I’m indifferent to whether or not you call it baiting. The point is, that it seems to me that in critiquing “pure” or “extreme” capitalism, you are tilting at windmills, since in reality no one advocates it, nor would it be tolerated by the American electorate.

    I get your point that from 30,000 feet (good illustration by the way), “left” and “right” in this country are just two cogs in the same machine. However you are the one who introduced Bishop Sheen’s dichotomy between left and right, expressed as communists emphasizing the collective at the expense of the individual, and capitalists doing the opposite. That is what led me to point out that no one actually advocates what Sheen (and you by quoting him) condemns capitalists for advocating.

    I also agree that there is a terrible cost to capitalism, as I said before. It provides great material wealth at great cultural cost. We have no quarrel there, as much as you seem to want to create one — just kidding.

  • Reblogged this on Christian Democracy and America's Future and commented:
    Conservative, in the sense of being pre-Enlightenment.